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A Yankee Notebook

September 8, 2014


MONTPELIER – The sun has slipped far enough down the southern sky that here, at the equinox, it shines in through the big gable window and warms the living room floor for several hours before and after noon – just as it was designed to do.  The patch of sunlit carpet moves slowly from west to east and finally dims as the light of the day drops behind the spruces to our west.

Right smack in the middle of the sunlit patch lies what looks like a little heap of shapeless, matted white fur.  Perfectly still, it could be a comfort toy that some child has dropped carelessly.  But mysteriously, no matter how the patch of light moves, the heap of fur moves with it.  That must happen when I’m not watching.  I’m sitting quietly now and staring at it.  Sure enough; a subtle rising and falling of its middle section seems to indicate faint respiration.  It’s apparently alive.

In Egypt they worshiped me –
  I am the Cat.
Because I bend not to the will of man
  They call me a mystery.

Egypt, eh?  So much for the so-called wisdom of the ancients.  The only mystery to me is how this little pile of fur can sustain life when it spends well over ninety percent of its life asleep – on the backs of sofas, in crevices between couch cushions, atop recumbent human beings, or deep under several layers of covers at the foot of a bed.  On infrequent occasions it stretches, yawns toothily, and totters off to eat or perform other vital functions.  It is not recorded, as far as I can determine, whether the ancient Egyptians kept litter boxes.

Leila Usher, who wrote the poem “I Am the Cat,” lived 96 years, from just before the Civil War until just after the Korean, and I’m betting she was what we call a “cat person.”  Her long tenure seems to indicate that she spent a lot of it sitting in the winter sun in a comfortable rocker stroking a purring feline.  She clearly was upset by the warring nature of her fellow human beings, and in this poem contrasts their bloody-minded and slavish impulses with the simple pleasure felt by a cat toying with a mouse.  It’s sort of the same argument used in political ads in which a candidate paints his opponent as a worse choice than he is.  In any case, she has a point.

Like Leila, I’m a cat person myself; but unlike her, I feel a strong ambivalence about it.  I’m also a dog person, but without reservation.  It’s possible to be a dog person with no second thoughts at all.  Hundreds of postings and short videos on the Internet depict dogs as utterly lovable, tail-wagging enthusiasts always ready for the next adventure, the next flung frisbee, the next amazing trick.  My heart aches when, sitting at my desk, I recall the slight pressure on my knee from the muzzle of the sweetest dog that ever lived, telling me it was time for our walk.  This cat sort of does that, too – stands on her hind legs and kneads my thigh with her clawless forefeet, asking to be picked up for a minute or two.  I try to amuse her with the cursor scooting around on the computer screen like a tiny bug; no reaction, not even a raised eyebrow.  After a few minutes she unceremoniously leaps down, scrounges under the desk for crumbs, and leaves the room.  Unless she finds another place to collapse on the way out.   I will give cats this, though (most cats, that is, not this one): They have imagination.  Tiny as they are, and deadly as they may be to songbirds and various small rodents, they often fancy themselves much larger and fiercer.  My old cat Cato, who succumbed finally to a fisher, was named for Inspector Clouseau’s valet; he lay in wait behind or under the coffee table when he heard me coming home from work, and fiercely attacked my feet as I passed on my way to the kitchen.

This current cat, this animated trance (Mark Twain’s sobriquet for a worn-out horse), came to us from the local animal shelter.  Mother signed us up to be foster parents for kittens awaiting adoption or sweating out quarantines, and I knew it was a matter of time before one of them caught, like a flake of gold in a prospector’s pan, and stayed with us.  This one was no kitten, but an older cat being monitored after exposure to feline leukemia.  Somebody’d had to give her up, but we could tell she’d been treated gently.  Nothing seems to frighten her – except the neighbor’s dog looking in through the rear door screen – and she betrays not a scintilla of interest in the wider world beyond that door, unless she hears Mother’s car in the driveway.

She looks as though she’s got some Maine Coon Cat in her; her face and strange fur bespeak that ancestry.  But she’ll never tell us.  Except for her apparently dire need to be close to (meaning sleeping close to or on top of) a human being, she’s affectless and inscrutable.  The kittens’ toys lie ignored beneath the coffee table where Cato once lurked with his straight-up-in-the-air, twitching white tail betraying his location and intentions.  Is there cortical activity between those ears, or is nothing going on?  Or is she hiding something from us because of our mere humanity?

Ah, do [men] know
  That the same immortal hand
That gave them breath, gave breath to me?
  But I alone am free -


Photo by Willem lange