Our beloved cat Enkidu is dead. He was last seen alive on Monday 16 November, and was found dead at the Jericho boatyard the following day, cause of death unknown. He was four and a half years old. Full tribute over the fold.
T. S. Eliot was of the opinion that the naming of cats was a difficult matter, and that it wasn’t just one of your holiday games. But where Eliot ruminated on the difficulties of selecting appropriate names for cats, the conundrum that nags at me from time to time is a different one. Is it alright to think up a name for a cat in advance of meeting it for the first time, or ought the name to emerge through a complex dialogue with the cat, after it enters your life? With our kittens, we ended up following both pathways. Our black girl-kitten lived namelessly with us for a few days before she quietly disclosed to us – possibly through one of those clicking, whirring noises that she used to make when younger – that she was going to be an Andromache. But we had decided well in advance that if we had a boy-kitten, then he would be an Enkidu, as this struck us as being an excellent name for a cat. And so it proved. Occasionally I’d wonder about the ethics of naming Enkidu in this way. Perhaps we should have asked him what his name was, rather than unilaterally imposing it by decree? But there was nothing to worry about. The name was perfect for him. He was an Enkidu, and he inhabited that distinguished ancient Sumerian name formidably well.
On the face of it, he didn’t seem very much like the not-so-historical Enkidu. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu was the hairy man, the wild man who could make love to Shamhat, priestess of Ishtar, all week long; who travelled with Gilgamesh thousands of miles to kill the monster Humbaba; and who wrestled with and overcame the Bull of Heaven. Our Enkidu, by contrast, was a small, black-and-white neutered tom-cat. He did his own performance of masculinity, true enough [he writes, projecting wildly]. But he did it the way that he did everything else, with his characteristic quizzical irony. He barely noticed anything at all on the day that he was castrated.
Enkidu was an excellent cat. He had a relish for good food (a small tin of ‘duck with garden vegetables in a tomato sauce’ was a favourite dish); there was an occasionally very determined expression (well captured in this photo); and his sheer excitement at bringing down (and bringing in, and only sometimes throwing up) a mouse – and, once, memorably, a surprisingly large rat – was contagious. And things weren’t always easy for him: he broke a bone in his paw when he was less than four months old, and spent three weeks bandaged up and with a large, stupid plastic cone around his neck; and there were later trips to the vet to deal with a nasty infection – and as he recovered on that occasion it was marvellous to watch the afflicted cat remembering how to be Enkidu again, as, one by one, the many quirks of his personality came back to life. His was a terrific art of living. He inspired poetry, and he earned the admiration of all who knew him.
The ancient Sumerian Enkidu first hung out with the wild animals, and only later came to socialise with human beings. Our Enkidu consistently held to a middle path – in some ways the reverse of what Immanuel Kant once called ‘unsocial sociability’ – in which he would pretend to be a lot less sociable than he in fact was. He’d hover on the edge of a party, not wanting anyone to think that he was enjoying himself, but anxious not to miss out on the occasion. And while he could go days at a time ignoring everyone else around him, whether human or cat, he’d crack eventually, and some of my happiest dealings with Enkidu were at around half past four in the morning, when he’d decide that he wanted a chat, and would come and stand on me until I woke up for some early morning conversation.
Our names catch up with us, however, and death comes to all the heroes in the end. Enkidu’s death is the emotional heart of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and long, long before Achilles bewailed the loss of his Patroclus, Gilgamesh wept for his Enkidu. We’re weeping for our Enkidu now. He was last seen on Monday 16 November. We didn’t worry about it too much at the time, for sometimes several days would pass without anybody seeing him – either he’d be out and about, or he’d come in for food at night and be gone before we were up, to hunt in the dawn’s early light. Towards the end of the week, we were getting concerned. Leaflets went out on Sunday – and a neighbour called to say that there had been a dead cat spotted down by the boatyard. He’d been found by the people at College Cruisers on the Tuesday, and when nobody came to collect him, they buried him a few days later. So there he is, under a mound of earth by the St Barnabas churchyard wall, down by the canalside, where he so loved to go (and close to where he once so memorably appeared on television in the derelict Jericho boatyard, the undisputed master of that battlefield – for the boatyard is the most fiercely contested patch of land in Oxford today). It’s a fitting final resting place for a brilliant cat.
When he lamented for his dear friend Enkidu, at the origins of world literature, Gilgamesh declared that, ‘he was my festive robe’. Enkidu was our festive robe, too. And he had a festive robe – it was never quite clear whether it was best described as cowprint, penguin or subfusc. And he liked my festive robe, for one of the best times of the day, for both of us, I think, was when I was returning to get dressed after showering, and Enkidu would stand on the bed and try to clamber up the front of my toweling dressing gown. Like his namesake, Enkidu died before his time, after many adventures, at the height of his youthful powers. He lived his short, happy life to the full. And in the end what was profoundly true of Gilgamesh’s Enkidu was true of ours: he was the most perfect companion, and we will miss him dreadfully.