Life Among the Rooftop Pirates

In this Dutch neighborhood, cats are watching our every move and plotting a takeover

Looking up, I notice the plant baskets hanging from the balcony railings have gone and so has the furniture. I can still picture the chair Kitten used to jump on as a mid point to the square Everest from which he surveyed the word with twitching whiskers, fascinated. I would gaze at his small gray and white face, hoping something would catch his attention long enough.

So he wouldn’t jump back down just yet.

The first time I spotted Kitten, I was locked into a staring contest with Periscope, his housemate, an orange tabby whose favorite mode of observation was sticking his neck out through the railings as far as it’d go. One day, there seemed to be an extra pair of tiny ears floating next to him. That was my view.

My neighbors could survey my kingdom at leisure but I could only glimpse theirs from below.

During golden hour, one of us would sit by the window with our legs resting on the edge and Periscope would stare encouragingly at the human whose fingers moved excitedly across a shiny metal rectangle according to a mysterious melody.

The human would have a strange contraption around their head and smile a lot, their upper body animated, like that moment when you go from excited to asleep within a second because you’re still a kitten.

Periscope stared and, sometimes, the human stared back.

The long-haired one never seemed to blink, probably thanks to those small transparent eyeball covers that keep ocular globes extra moist. Cats know about your disposable contact lenses and may have eaten the odd one, which is why litter box gifts sometimes look at you.

Today, Kitten and Periscope moved out.

There were no goodbyes.

Lady Mucky Paws — the stately tuxedo who rules over the square with poise and pluck — has taken to hanging out in the shade instead of roasting her rump by the community trash cans.

This is a kindness to her human subjects.

Dutch summer arrived early and Eau de Hot Garbage didn’t seem to be a popular scent with those who wear clothes, which may have affected court attendance. I notice she isn’t as keen to follow me home this time around even though this household has now procured cat-appropriate snacks, as per Her Majesty’s requirements.

The first time she invited herself in, she swayed and sashayed to the kitchen with no hesitation before planting her regal rump in front of the cupboard under the sink, thus confirming she was indeed queen of everything and expected the vassals to serve her some nibbles, stat.

But for all the cat appreciation in my household, there regrettably isn’t a feline in residence yet and I’m a vegan. Neither fridge nor cupboards offer any acceptable snacking solution. I would prefer not to risk a coconut yoghurt-induced sneeze.

So I went home alone on Friday night, Her Majesty trailing me from a distance, forlorn and defeated. I suspect she has given up on expecting compliance from me. Although I informed her the cupboard was now fully stocked, I did so in English with deferent enthusiasm, which may not have sounded quite like what it does in Dutch.

I must exert some linguistic effort beyond reading government press releases and ingredients lists on foods, Her Majesty demands it.

Until then, I’ll keep crinkling packages.

The rooftop pirates are waiting.

Walking into the kitchen, I spot some fur from the corner of my eye but I’m wearing trousers so it’s not mine.

There is, it seems, someone on the balcony looking at the long-haired human behind the glass. The human is suddenly very excited, all wide eyes and doing that mouth thing with noise. And then they raise their daisy-covered backside while their front disappears into the cupboard under the sink. Whether they purr with pleasure during the stretching process is another question; humans generally don’t.

The white, orange, and black furry patchwork has green eyes dressed in confusion and a wonder of whiskers standing to attention. Today, she isn’t strutting along the fence with someone else’s behind and tail hanging out of her mouth. Today, she has conquered the balcony but she isn’t sure the sense of achievement compares.

It demands reflection.

Now may not be the time to ponder. The human is complete and upright again. They’re holding a long, thin package the same color as the cat-head shaped box of treats that have the power to turn the world’s most advanced killing machine into a cuddly toy with one gentle rattle.

What if balcony hopping paid off after all? On the one paw, you’ve annexed another part of Lady Mucky Paws’s kingdom. On the other paw, she’s known to train her subjects exceedingly well.

But Callisto the calico can’t afford to stick around and find out because the glass creaks and the kingdom is swiftly re-annexed by the long-haired human. They seem terribly pleased with themself, shameless.

Disrespecting one’s territory equates being unworthy of attention, presence, or conversation.

Callisto flies off.

Witloof and Lady Mucky Paws are relaxing on a rooftop opposite the cherry tree, watching their dinner feast.

There’s something particularly delicious about freshly hunted meat with a fruit filling, allegedly. Cherry birds are a delicacy, the season is short, strategy is paramount.

For Witloof, a foodgasm is worth the odd stain on his starched whites. He has spent the last week plotting, albeit with great apprehension. Many house wolves have the muscle power to take on trash birds but cats do not, at least not alone.

Truth be told, this culinary community project started off as a rooftop rumor that sounded big and daring but probably not very feasible.

But it was the kind of thing that could rally the troops behind Her Maj’.

Her agility is waning, her court has shrunk considerably over the past weeks, she’s depressed. The kingdom is empty, all subjects are behind windows, what few creatures walk past hurry on nervously. They don’t stop, they don’t greet Her Majesty, they don’t offer their time or adoration anymore.

Apart from the folks at Yellow Curtains Towers but their catering sucks.

As Lady Mucky Paws already knows, the great 2020 trash bird hunt is in vain. The trash, dear humans, always takes itself out. My litter box is always spotless, isn’t it?

And gulls don’t eat cherries.

The café has been closed for weeks now. Bert raises his bushy eyebrows to the clouds, feeling his black power spots disappear and his fur become whiter and whiter. As long as the café doesn’t re-open, there is no way to check sources but somehow the homicidal bird project is go because ‘crapitalism’ is a still a thing. Until the court jester can tell a turkey from a seagull, Her Majesty will remain misinformed and so will the entire kingdom.

More cats will lose their life.

Reporting is a job Bert takes seriously but when Witloof pushed a fragrant bucket of fresh herrings his way and casually asked questions about what he was working on, Bert casually answered them.

Bert’s partner and kittens ate well and grew stronger for a while.

Living off economy kibble you run out of more often than not is tough. When your job is to fight for truth, you shouldn’t have to scavenge to survive. It’s not remotely personal: Our kingdom, our home, our life is at stake. No truth is absolute, it’s what the majority makes it so you cannot afford to get the facts wrong.

No one can work on an empty stomach though. A nursing mama and her kittens die without food.

Little does Bert know his conflict is about to be solved by a chance meeting with an imposing tabby by the name of Fabio. Or Flavia. They belong to the Connected Ones, cats whose thumbs give them the unique ability to type fast enough not to trigger the computer’s sleep mode. Generally, the Connected Ones come from an affluent home and have a personal pawdicurist on call.

Cats, optimized.

Soon, Bert, too, will enter their world, albeit without growing thumbs. First, he will be thoroughly vetted, fact-checked, and investigated. His fifth and sixth families will come to light, a modest descendance of one single kitten each time. In both cases, Mama was so hungry she had to eat everyone but the strongest so it might survive. One former kitten is a curator at Amsterdam’s Kattenkabinet, the other is a stealthy huntress somewhere.

Survival, Bert knows, depends on the willingness to embrace new ideas and do things you’ve never done before, a form of ‘possibilitarianism’ powered by imagination and, obviously, the internet.

What if curiosity didn’t kill the cat after all?

As I deftly capture another fly with my hand, I check to make sure it hasn’t grown fur. My hand, not the fly, that would be weird. My little paws are just as they’ve always been though; they taste delicious after pistachios.

I must also report that this household has taken to napping. Spiders have been spotted and pounced upon with the kind of gusto that remains alien to me yet increasingly understandable. The line between humanness and catness is getting fuzzy around here, so fuzzy I spotted my downstairs neighbor holding Callisto in his arms and nuzzling her.

Who cozies up to a weapon?

After weeks spent observing the rooftop pirates and meeting regularly with Lady Mucky Paws who once hissed at me so loudly I hear her indignation through the door because I hadn’t held it open for her, I have no doubt cats rule this particular neighborhood. What’s more, I have proof: There’s a pirate flag — white human skull on a black background — flying over the rooftops. It matches Her Majesty’s coat.

To me, the message is clear: Know your place. We let you live among us but never forget that everything belongs to us.

Or else.

Spend enough time in around here and you’ll see signs of feline domination everywhere you look, especially up. Our every move is being watched, tracked, and documented by cats.

There’s a reason the cat food aisle is the one just before the checkouts at the small grocery store around the corner. There’s also a reason I end up staring at the ‘kip’ and ‘kaas’ snacks for longer than necessary one day and have been doing so ever since.

I don’t share my home with any cat yet, I do not eat chicken or cheese.

I’m still a vegan.

Granted, the packet was happy yellow and the cartoon cat’s huge grin was hilarious but I spend some time admiring the ‘kip’ and ‘kaas’ snacks every time I go shopping now, as a kid would. It’s an odd supermarket ritual, like grooving to Billy Joel in front of the dairy case.

I’m lactose intolerant and always have been.

I’m still a vegan. But I stand in front of the dairy case as I wonder at Dutch supermarkets’ refusal to invest in soundtracks encouraging you to linger. You expect music, we provide it, thank you for shopping with us, now please get on with your life because this is emphatically not it.

Unless, of course, you’re a human with a salad spinner brain prone to appreciating random dots at random times and connect them just as randomly while ambulating through the store at leisure.

One day, the staff noticed my bank card was American.

Now I get the nod. No idea what it means.

Every household seems to have at least one living deity in residence, some meet on the rooftops, others are posted behind windows. In this context, I’m well aware that my catlessness isn’t so much an exception as a glaring anomaly. Even the upstairs neighbors caved in recently and opened their home to a kitten.

Technically, our rental contract precludes it. This may simply be a matter of inter-species politics and diplomacy. Invoking imaginary mice could be the secret shorthand that unlocks every home in the kingdom to cats on the understanding that renters spare landlords an expense, and landlords turn a blind eye.

Meanwhile, cats quietly take over everything, one human heart at a time.

Perhaps my household’s feline love deficit is so great we’ve begun transmogrifying into a some cross-species hybrid, our physical appearance largely unchanged but our behaviour and mind transformed. Then again, my name may be a clue. If you keep repeating something over and over and over again, at some point, it becomes a fact.

My name is Kitty and I hope the Portuguese café downtown re-opens soon.

They have sardines in the daintiest cans.

But I’m still a vegan.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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