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The Cat That Walked by Himself

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Only once did the old gray cat interrupt his vigil -- stand and stretch, arch and puff the back. One paw prettily in front of another along the fence top, the gaze of cold fire once more fixed on the mourning dove nest.

No hunger fuels this watch; this cat, like all others, hunts because he can. John Updike once wrote of an old lady who fed a herd of feral cats, and her rationale was to preserve the lives of nearby songbirds. The cats, fed or unfed, would have hunted the birds. Cats, if they were people, would be NRA members. Except that cats-if-they-were-people would never join anything.

I hold that most of humanity are ailurophiles or ailurophobes, love cats or hate them. Ernest Hemingway and James Jones, yea. William Faulkner and William Styron, nay. Some have claimed that there is something sissified about liking cats.

Yet as you age, I fully concede it is possible to change. Cats are perfect pets when you get older. They don't need a lot of love at a time when you don't have plenty to give, and they are easy to love when your temper grows narrow and vile.

Of course, aging is the two-sided mirror between us and cats, they of one-seventh our expectancy. Marge Piercy notes there is both a sadness and a comfort to living with old cats and writes, "How foolish to imagine animals don't comprehend death. Old cats study it like a recalcitrant mouse."

We would know more about older cats, but they don't like us to know too much about them -- and so we don't. Cat-owners love their pets, only they don't know nearly as much about them. Cats hate our stupid stares. You only wish you could make anything in your life as private as cats make everything in theirs.

Intrusive as we are -- cell phones, anyone? -- we resent this privacy and fill in the gaps with dollops of slander. Cartoon cats -- Sylvester, Tom, Fritz -- are drawn as dumb, greedy, horny (with the possible exception of Felix). And my guess is that the reason cats get the fuzzy side of our opinions is that they simply refuse to seek the good side.

Watch a cat enter a room. First of all, it'll sense which person in the room likes it the least and will immediately begin to bother that very person. Then it will sit back on its haunches and its tail will loop out and curl around its front paws. The look that sweeps the room says, "I never try to justify my existence. Or be a good citizen. I know I'm beautiful and delightful, and I consider that a significant contribution to the general good. And you? Dogs may look at you with worship and mammoth uncertainty, but not me. Not me. You'll never own a cat; that's for dogs. And you'll never get eight cats in a harness to pull a sled through snow."

Cats are egotistical, irresponsible and not inclined to work. You never see a cat run an appreciable distance without some immediate purpose and never to retrieve a stick someone else has thrown.

And relax? No one relaxes like a cat. He deposits his body like syrup over a pancake and rests in every fiber and nerve. Cats give inertia a good name, and every time I see one sleeping, I am put in passionate mind of curling up on the nearest semi-static surface for the next hour or two. Great harm has been caused by the idea that work is virtuous, and cats seems to instinctively know this.

Another thing: Who among us has not harbored a secret admiration for grace under fire, for the preservation of dignity while crocodiles are nipping at your hams? Look up yonder, at the tortoise-shell cat in the high branch of the chinaberry tree. He's either too old or too young to get down, so he's very stranded. Yet look how calmly he waits; who wears shackles more gracefully?

Or here comes that old orange tom, paddling deliberately over the summer sidewalk. Yikes! A dive-bombing attack launched by a pair of mockingbirds from the telephone wire. Yikes! The old tom won't run, won't snarl. Just keeps padding Š

Finally, there is the intangible, the mystical. Contact with cats is contact with something larger than our lives. Someone wrote that God made cats so that man might have the pleasure of fondling the tiger. And ancient Egyptians believed that humans were guided into the afterlife by cats. They have the aesthetic; they have the secret.

Sexuality? Is there any call for Halle Berry to don a canine costume and play Dogwoman?

A black-and-white ambles to a mulberry and without hurry or look springs and catches the tree 4 feet up and is there. I don't own a cat. Neither does anyone own this cat. Or any other. That makes him one very cool cat.

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