by Joyce Goldenstern
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped. For he can tread to all the measures upon the music. For he can swim for life. For he can creep.
—Christopher Smart, “Jubilate Agno”
My mother did not live without compassion, but she could turn it off like a faucet in winter. My mother did not live without empathy, but she often stood a stone-faced judge. The mangy cat invited her contempt. The flea-bitten cat invited her scorn. The bony cat with scabs disgusted her. When the mangy, flea-bitten, bony cat with scabs returned home after months of roaming the fields, my mother did not welcome it or try to heal it but captured it and drove it miles and miles away in her old station wagon and told us so as we stood by, awed by her indignant energy and urgent rejection, learning and witnessing how easily affection could turn to irrational disdain, visceral hatred. My mother had never studied physics and so did not know about echolocation nor magnetism emitted from solar bodies and so did not know that sensitive and detecting whiskers could guide the ugly cat back home.
But the cat came back the very next day,
The cat came back, we thought he was a goner
But the cat came back; it just couldn’t stay away.
The cat came back, whining and yelping as diseased as ever. threatening my mother with her own helplessness, she who lived a worried life alone in spite of a husband and children in the midst of cornfields.
Bony cat, sit on my mother’s lap, solicit her mercy. Flea-infected cat, deserve our pity. Guide her and us to a balanced world, where scapegoats are unnecessary.
Mother, I must be honest. You were wrong to teach us a cat has no soul. Let us attend mass together, be it for just once a year: the mass of pet blessings. The day the cat returned, my mother pulled her hair and sang:
Oh, Lord, the cat’s in the cupboard, the cat’s in the sink
The cat’s got my tongue, and I can’t even think.
It is true all pets are adopted, but I thought of the grey cat with the red collar and red bell, the one we called Stormy, as our firstborn: We brought her home as a kitten, when Frankie and I first set up housekeeping together. Miss Cookie came to us later, as a deserted cat (no longer kitten), looking to be adopted. She jumped on the window sill one drizzly evening and stared in at us with brave green eyes. Frankie and I invited her in but resisted her efforts to supplant Stormy. Her interloper antics amused us, but I did not realize until she died how my resistance had failed, how fully she had worked her way into my heart. She often stood on the edge of the room watching the three of us: Stormy, Frankie, me, reminding me again of an orphan abandoned on a rainy night, outside, looking in, an ill-treated orphan, whose claws had once been pulled out to protect someone’s furniture.
And yet by the time Miss Cookie jumped on our sill to become ours she had fully cured her paws, licking them well, and using them then with great dexterity. She assessed and drew closer. She showed us her shades of cinnamon and coco and her milk white stockings and her able white paws. Stormy with her short legs could only watch in amazement as Cookie leapt a perfect arc, landing atop the wardrobe to surveil then the three of us from above.
It was not true that Diana kept cats because she did not have or want a man. It was not true that Diana kept cats because she could not bear a child. She never wanted a human child. She often dreamt of human babies hidden away in drawers, starving because she forgot to feed them, and she carried the residue of these nightmares with her during the daylight hours when she practiced archery. The cats fended for themselves (sometimes even attended to her, retrieving the rabbits and squirrels she hunted), frolicked with opossums at twilight and at dawn. They tormented and then ate flies, fish, crabs, worms, snakes, mice, frogs, moles, birds, rats, and shrews, and yet later curled up on her lap by the fire, reading her eyes with deceptive innocence in their own.
Diana told the tale of the man who married a cat. This feline wife took the form of a woman, but on her wedding night she hunted mice. In the morning, the husband found blood on the sheets and pillowcase and on her lips and was afraid to kiss them – and in this way the cat-wife schemed to preserve her independence.
The rest of the family called me Vinnie and marked me the practical one, and in time, marked me the spinster with puss and posies. After my dearest beau deserted me (though he had called my lips sweet), and it was clear I would not rest my head in his dear lap again, they assigned me caretaker of details and I found a vocation in housekeeping and stoking the hearth and planting the garden. I took care of the cats and I tended to the members of my family. When Father and Mother died and Brother married, I protected my cherished sister who had a way with words, but seldom spoke them, and I protected the family name from those jealous of family successes or ignorant of the compensations of spinster solitude. Some said my protection displayed too fiercely, and some gossiped that my protection enabled my sister to become too withdrawn from worldly concerns. However, it was that very secluded sister who drowned the kittens when the multiplication of cats threatened our wellbeing, and it was that very secluded sister who unlocked the shotgun from the case and marched determinedly with Henry, the hired man, to the barn to execute a solution to overpopulation. For you must understand the problematic reproduction of cats whose fertilized ova (one for every male that walks by) allow litters of five or more with different fathers and whose cycles of heat can occur all year long, whose gestation periods are short at two months, whose maturation at five months . . .Well, you can do the math, assuming you know the multiplication tables. Even the ancient Egyptians, who deified cats and called them Mau, had to face the fecundity issue to some extent, though the rats who ate their grain multiplied slightly faster than the cats who held them in check, the issue being a theological dilemma, solved ingeniously by rites of sacrifice and of mummification and the dispensing of relics (shrunken mummified kittens on a stick). I myself, though practical, did not have the hardness of heart that my sister could demonstrate in the face of incurable illness, infestations, or necessity. Besides she favored the sparrows, while I loved my pusses, the size of the babies I never nursed and whose eyes tracked my own when I cradled them.
I held my hands over my ears. My heart broke with each shot or each imagined gurgle. I sat inconsolable, waiting to hear Em’s soft steps as she returned from the barn or the river.
The worm measured a foot long, thick as a man’s thumb, wiggling as Miss Cookie trotted away with it, hanging limp, evenly from both corners of her mouth, like a sad moustache, and the gloom of this moustache, contrasted with her happy, hurried gait. Little did my little tortoiseshell know that without the worms she loved to hunt, the natural world would grind to a halt. Dig, tunnel, burrow. In the end, My Dear, the worms shall have us all, though we are vertebrate and they are not. How shall our backbone triumph over the slippery worm? How shall our backbone help us prevail? The worms will crawl in; they’ll crawl out — they’ll find the passage through our snout, not to mention then the passage through the knobs of our spine and through our heart.
Death can be a borderland, my Cookie Cat: All night I held vigil next to the clothes-basket where you slept, your tiny liver failing, but in the morning, needing to stretch my legs, needing to move, I walked to the garage to fetch the shovel with which to dig a hole in the garden.
My father did not live without respecting the last rites before burial. But one morning he forgot them. My father, having been an orphan and a soldier, knew how to bury the dead. But we were late for work. A darling black kitten simply appeared one day and lightened the mood in a house heavy with complicated emotions. We basked in the grace of the little fellow’s brief presence, one might even rhyme and say his effervescence.
My father did not run over the kitten. My father did not live without care and consideration. He opened the garage door and slowly backed out the truck. The sparkle of the revolving wheel attracted the kitten’s eye, and he jumped to catch the movement and the sunlight reflecting from the rim. The wheel threw him back but did not crush him. Only his breath was gone. I did not think death, but my father knew immediately. Even now my father’s instinctive reaction haunts me. He stiffly picked the dead animal up by the scruff of the neck and rushed it up front to the garbage can. We then got in the truck and drove to work without speaking. My father lived a life of restraint. He never told the traumas that defined him. Unlike my mother, he did not pull his hair and wail:
Oh Lord, I feel like a feather in the air,
I feel like I never prayed a prayer.
Cora was a graduate student who found it puzzling that the ancient Egyptians called all cats Mauand did not give them personal names. On the other hand, these same Egyptians called their pet dogsBlackie, Reliable, Brave One,and Useless, not just IwIw,the assigned generic name, which sought to imitate the dog’s bark. On a sunny afternoon, the archaeologist deciphered the canine personal names tooled into the leather collars she discovered in the tombs of mummified Canis lupus familiaris buried next to the tombs of human dwarfs. Some religions do not allow us to say the name of God. With a cat, perhaps we should utter only Mauto preserve the animal’s regal dignity, to preserve the Idea of Cat (the Platonic Cat, not the individual pet) and keep her separate from us, and perhaps we should promise never to take her singular name in vain. One day words will vanish from human consciousness as they have already vanished from feline consciousness. Cora had heard that in ancient times the cat could speak but now lives by telepathy and disdains words, at least most words—all of them but Mau, which means only Mau—a recursive meaning the cat can countenance, a circularity the cat admires as it admires the circularity of its own tail as it wraps it around its own torso, curled in repose, and yawns a wide yawn, wide enough to expose its throat and very sharp incisors, wide enough to swallow the round sun. Or, in its frenzy, it admires circularity by forming a ring, a ring around the rosie, as one yellow cat grabs in its mouth the tail of another yellow cat, and other yellow cats do the same, all around the palm tree or, perhaps, all around the rose tree, running faster and faster, a veritable whirl of yellow circles until all fall down and only silence and a puddle of yellow afterward remains — the Maudisappearing (as all words and all creatures must), a melted memory.
Cora and her colleagues discuss these matters with great intellectual rigor and solemnity over breakfast as they eat pancakes smeared with butter.
Being a biped, I walk the earth. Being a biped, I walk the garden path, passing the spot where you, a quadruped, are buried. The essence of Felidae infuses the sole of my feet. I refuse to shave my eyebrows as the Egyptians once did, though I mourn you. I refuse to drown kittens, mummify them to give as gifts, like shadow puppets on sticks, as the Egyptians once did. A feline ghost guards the tunnel of darkness and silence. She blows a stinging wind over the sand; she blows a gentle wind over your grave where I have planted white pansies whose color duplicates the color of your long stockings. A feline ghost guards the door from yesterday to today, but my sorrow stops time. Since the Ages cannot go forward, they repeat a cycle. The cat sphinx Aker had two heads. With one he swallowed the sun each evening, so brightness hid in his dark belly. With the other head he regurgitated the sun each morning, thus scattering brightness on our dear earth. Though the worm has sucked you hollow, may the telepathy of cats harken your resurrection, my esteemed fellow mammal. Schrödinger’s cat had two simultaneous states, life and death, a paradox from which I try to garner comfort. The Prophet knows my ache, for he loved his cat Muezza and bestowed upon her seven lives. Would that I could so bestow another life unto you, Dear Cookie. Would that I could guide you with dew on your paws over the portals of time. May the magnetic impulses of the universe signal your whiskers and draw you back, though it be a very long journey, fraught with uncertainty.
No eyes have ever followed my every movement without judgment and with such great regard and love as your emerald eyes once did. I sing of your devotion and honor the species whence you came (and mention in passing some human beings—a mother, a father, a spouse, an academic, and some spinsters—with whom those of your species deigned to cohabitate). I recite this wayward elegy.
About Joyce Goldenstern
Joyce Goldenstern, a Chicago resident, enjoys writing stories and adapting folktales. Lately she has found herself drawn to nature documentaries whose animals populate her imagination and inspire her to lyricism.