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The Six Remaining Lives of Isosceles the Cat

Third Place winner in our "Black Cats are Good Luck" contest.

Isosceles was an unlucky creature, at least in his first three lives. All black and three-legged, he came to our family covered in fleas—a sad, wet, emaciated kitten mewling at our back door in a summer rainstorm. When we scooped him out of the rain and whisked him to the vet, the vet had been surprised that he could muster up the energy to give such forceful little meows. It would be touch-and-go for a while, the vet warned. Yet somehow, miraculously, Iso pulled through.

We adopted him, of course. By that time, both my kids had fallen completely in love with him. My wife and I didn't know the first thing about taking care of a cat, yet neither of us could stomach the idea of letting him go. Privately, irrationally, in a thought I never voiced aloud, I felt as though he'd chosen us.

The instant we brought Iso back from the vet, he made himself at home. He claimed my favorite armchair as his own, a little pool of darkness amid the wide, worn landscape of the leather cushion. With his illnesses remedied, he quickly became an even louder creature. His full-throated meows echoed through the house. The instant that he wanted to know where someone was, a long, questioning "MAOW?" would sing out in the hallways, waiting for a response. His demands for food were louder still.

It was my son who named him Iso. He was learning the different types of triangles in school and proudly—incorrectly—declared that our cat's three legs made an isosceles triangle. We had planned to name the cat something cutesy and endearing, but Isosceles stuck instead. Iso, fortunately, didn't seem to mind.

Iso was a good cat. He oscillated between serious and goofy, as all cats do, but there were times he seemed to be more perceptive than I expected from a cat. When my daughter came home from a bad day at school and went to hide in her room, Iso banged at her door until she let him in and spent the rest of the day purring forcefully beside her. Another day, when I had pulled a muscle working in the yard, Iso sat himself in the sunshine until his black fur was hot, then curled up next to my injured leg like a hot water bottle. In short, he cared in a way that I never expected a cat to.

When I voiced that thought to my wife one night after dinner, she laughed and said, "Of course he does. He already used up a couple of his nine lives. He knows what it's like to get hurt."

I know my wife meant it as a joke, but I think she was right. Iso had broken a leg badly enough that it had to be amputated. He'd been diseased. He'd been malnourished. Those were three things that, independently, should have done him in. And yet he'd been there, yelling on our porch instead.

In the end, we agreed that it'd been three lives that Iso had used—one for each thing he'd overcome. Conveniently, it also matched the number of stripes Iso had, revealed only when a brilliant ray of sunshine turned his black fur brown. We called them his "tally marks."

Given everything our little guy had been through, we were adamant about giving him the cushiest, safest life possible. He had all the cat trees and toys he could want. He had a cloth banana stuffed with catnip that he'd kick furiously at with his one back leg, and a set of multicolored springs that he chased around the house like a madman. But Iso could never go back outside again. We wouldn't let him. The one leg never impaired him inside the house, but outside, in the suburban wilderness that had hurt him already, we didn't like his chances.

This was why it was so strange that, on the day that I believe Isosceles used up the fourth of his nine lives, he was on the roof.

I was on a ladder, cleaning out the gutters. I hate heights. I've always hated them, ever since I was a kid. Cleaning out the gutters is a task I undertake only once a year, and with great reluctance.

I must have put the ladder down wrong, or else I reached too far and destabilized it. There was that sickening, heart-in-my-throat moment where I felt the ladder tip, its legs too far over one side, hanging precipitously in the air.

And then, the drop.

Actually—that was the weirdest part, the drop. I should have felt it, and for the barest second, I did, but not as though I was ever actually, seriously falling. Instead, the next thing I knew, I was standing on the lawn, watching the ladder tip the rest of the way into the ground.

And there, standing on the edge of the roof, was Isosceles.

I was struck completely dumb. I couldn't rectify my close call with the ladder with Iso being suddenly, inexplicably, on the roof.

"Iso," I heard myself ask. "What are you doing up there?"

Iso tilted his head and meowed. I took him back inside and, although confused, I didn't think much of it. I thought the fall must have disoriented me and I was just happy that I wasn't hurt.

His fifth life, Iso used to save my wife. My wife had brought in some tomatoes from our garden and set to cutting them at the kitchen table. You should never use a dull knife, they say. But life gets in the way of sharpening them.

The knife slipped. My wife screamed.

And then the knife was gone. It was laid on the cutting board, red only from tomato juice. My wife was fine. Iso rubbed his cheek against her leg and purred.

Several months later, as Isosceles lay in a ray of winter sunlight by the door to the back porch, my daughter leaned forward on the couch and squinted. "Do you think he's got more stripes than before?" she asked.

I didn't look up from my book. "Maybe it's just a trick of the light."

"No, I'm serious," she insisted. "Look."

I looked up. Sure enough, in the light that cast his fur a deep chocolate brown, Isosceles now had five stripes. "Huh," I thought.

It wasn't until he used his sixth life to save my daughter that I realized what was going on. My daughter, sore and stiff-limbed from a soccer game the day before, slipped getting out of the shower. She told us that she had one, terrifying moment watching the edge of the sink rush up to meet her when, instead, she found herself lying on her back on the bathroom floor, completely unhurt. Isosceles was licking water from her hair. The door to the bathroom had been shut, and she had, truly, no idea how he'd gotten in.

The next day, Iso had another stripe.

Several years passed without another mishap. Now that I knew Iso's secret, I tried very hard to make sure that he wasn't forced to spend another life saving us from accidents. I upgraded Iso's food as thanks, and I never once displaced him from our favorite chair. That little creature paraded around the house like a king.

Unfortunately, however, I couldn't control everything. The world is a dangerous place, as our Iso well knew, and while I would have loved to keep my children safe at home, wrapped in bubble wrap, I knew they had to have the freedom to grow up.

My two kids were driving together. My daughter had gotten her license the year before, and I trusted her. She was a good driver. She signaled almost ridiculously far before she turned, and she always stopped fully and completely at every stop sign.

The drunk driver did not.

He hit them on the driver's side, right where the front and back doors met. Airbags deployed. The car bent in a U and skittered across the street, rubber screeching in the night. The single, functioning headlight lit the shattered glass on the roadway.

When I got that phone call, my world stopped. To this day, I don't know how I didn't drop the phone. The police called first, then gave the line to my daughter. She was crying on the other end, shaken and apologizing profusely about the totaled car, but that didn't matter to me. She and her brother were completely, miraculously unhurt. Not even a bruise. The officers had never seen anything like it.

"And dad," she said, sniffling, her voice watery with the tears and with laughter that burbled up from nowhere, "you're not going to guess who jumped out of the car."

"Are you serious?" I asked her.

On the other end of the line, I heard a rustle. Then, impossibly loud: "MAOW?"

Isosceles, down to his last life, now rests easily at the house. His black fur is a little grey at the muzzle and it isn't as glossy as it used to be. He doesn't jump as much, and he spends more time sleeping in his cat bed in the sun, eight stripes now clearly visible. He is still spectacularly loud.

I know there won’t be too many more years of this. My daughter is off at college, and my son’s about to leave as well. There will be two fewer pairs of hands to pet Iso when he demands it. The house will echo a bit more whenever he yells.

And yet, I know that this bittersweet peace would not exist without him. Every evening, when he pads up to me on the couch, carefully curling himself up beside me so he can rest his head on my leg, I can’t help but wonder how we got so lucky. Why he chose us, and why he loved us enough to share his nine lives with us.

But, I am so, so glad we chose to share our lives with him as well.

G. M. Paniccia is a virologist and writer based in New York. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellow, and a co-host on the weekly thought experiment podcast "What the IF?". Her work is upcoming in Neon Hemlock Press' Luminescent Machinations: Queer Tales of Monumental Invention, and has previously been published in Alluvian and Grim & Gilded literary magazines. When not sciencing or writing, she spends her time rock climbing, playing capoeira, and obsessing over her ludicrously giant cat, Munchkin.

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