Creature Comforts and A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold
I was seven years old when my heart was broken for the first time, by a girl named Nona who didn’t want to be my friend anymore because I was “weird.” It was my cat Sabrina who absorbed my tears in her thick black pelt, who purred and licked and butted me with her head over and over again.
When we moved a third time in two years, Murray the hamster hung out with me, happily accepting the cheese puffs I offered.
At eleven, I got an astonishingly bad haircut—short in the back, really short, with long bangs, a haircut that might have looked good on a person with different hair but most definitely did not look good on me. It was my dog Charlie, a gentle black lab, who comforted me. He didn’t care about my hair, not one bit.
At my grandparents’ house, where I spent most weekends and chunks of each summer, Nana’s fat poodle, Diggy, napped next to me in squares of sunshine on carpet as I read stacks of books and nibbled on chocolates and grapes.
When I was sixteen and my parents divorced, I headed to the stable and saddled up Rainbow, my moody mare, who seemed to know that day not to bite, not to buck, but to run, fast and sure, as I clung to her, wishing her speed could truly take me away.
All my life, whenever there has been something to celebrate, someone to mourn, there has been an animal beside me. So when I became a mother, it was a natural thing for me to share this particular sort of relationship with my kids.
My son had a difficult time getting close to other children; he often misinterpreted their actions, and he didn’t always clarify his intentions, leading to conflicts, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings all around.
Enter Vegas, Max’s new ferret companion—a bit of an ankle biter, a wily and stinky tube of a pet. A pet can be a friend; it can also be a social lubricant, as effective for getting the party started among kids as a margarita machine is for adults.
Vegas lived a robust ten years, a good long life for a ferret, and he had adventures great and small—escaping through our dog door, being hunted deep in the night by my husband and me, armed with flashlights; moving away from California in an ugly old RV along with his dog pal Sherman and our family, house sold, stuff gone; a year in Oregon, where his white coat grew lustrous and thick; back to California; through the years of my boy’s childhood and into his adolescence.
There are no friends like our animal friends. They speak to us without words; they lick tears and bound joyfully and comfort us endlessly, endlessly.
My grandmother died on Friday. She was my favorite person, my ardent benefactress and steadfast force of love. She was, like me, an animal lover, becoming, in her mid-eighties, a vegetarian, in spite of her abiding love for deli meats. She adopted a cat—Yoahim—after my grandfather died, and for six years, she cheerfully endured the absolute worst behavior from that cat.
He was endlessly biting her. Each time I visited Nana (usually once a week, often more), she had a new bandage somewhere on her body: her forearm, her calf, her chest. She had the delicate skin of a very old person, and the bites would result in a slow purple leak of blood beneath the surface, blossoming and blooming bruises.
He’d lace himself between her legs as she walked, sometimes stopping just in front of her, laying down, endlessly in the way.
Death by Yoahim, we used to joke. That would be how she would go.
It wasn’t, though Yoahim was with her at the end, as we were, her grandchildren. The cat didn’t want to get too close in her last hours; he watched and waited in the doorway of her bedroom, his pupils dilated, his usually-busy tail very still.
All my life, animals have been a comfort to me. Now that my Nana is gone, I comfort Yoahim. I brought him home to our messy house, to my already-full menagerie. This morning I found him wrapped in my daughter’s arms, his head on her chest. She was sleeping; he was not. When I pushed open her door, he looked up at me, his expression inscrutable.
The comfort I find in my animals, the comfort my Nana found in Yoahim, the companionship Max found in Vegas, the healing Yoahim might be finding in this very moment in the arms of my daughter—that, I think, is where some of us meet and find our best and truest selves: in the care and keeping of an animal friend.
A Boy Called Bat is the gentle, kind story of an autistic boy who finds a fierce love for an orphaned skunk kit. Bat yearns to become the very best skunk caretaker, so that he can be worthy of the kit his mom brings home. Isn’t that all any of us want, really—to be good, to be kind, to live up to the needs of those who need us, human and animal alike?
My Nana was the best caretaker of me that there ever could have been. Now I will take care of her cat, and my kids will, too, because that is love. Love is scooping litterboxes. Love is combing out fleas. Love is pressing your cheek against the warm flank of an orphaned cat, listening to the rumble of its purr. Love, for Bat, is tucking the skunk kit into a tiny sling, feeling the warmth of its tiny nesting body. Love is the care and keeping of animals, the care and keeping of those who need us most, even as we know that one day, we will have to say goodbye.
Elana K. Arnold grew up in Southern California, where she was lucky enough to have her own perfect pet—a gorgeous mare named Rainbow—and a family who let her read as many books as she wanted. She is the author of picture books, middle grade novels, and books for teens. She lives in Huntington Beach, California, with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals. You can find her online at www.elanakarnold.com.