This book will be printed and published as a fine letterpress book…in the tradition of Conversations with the Inner Dog. But you have here a preview.
The curious obsessions of an aged cat
with the assistance of
LLyn De Danaan
I dreamt that I was living in a stylish apartment and could walk easily, even on cold wet mornings, to a jolly coffee shop.
The shop I frequent has large plate glass windows that are gaily lighted. My nose quivers and my eyes brighten as I enter and smell the fresh, hot croissants.
This place is like home and I imagine people greeting me as I make my way between their feet and rub their legs. They offer saucers of milk, scratch my head, and ask me how the day is for me. Bonjour! Como ce va? they say, understanding that I am a sophisticated savant of a cat and understand many languages. Of course, I am also quite handsome.
The dream continues. I am a local celebrity, an elder among cats. People ask to take my picture. I have a new bed and all the food I want whenever I want it. I grow sleek and fat and take up smoking. I reread Somerset Maugham. I affect an authentic Basque beret and a cold-blooded stare. I have, perhaps, a lover.
Then through the fog of sleep, I wake, and I see I am still alone on my wretched fleece. This so called fleece is nothing more than a vile skin of dead sheep. Its clotted curls prod my tender under self and my body aches as I unfurl myself each morning.
I plod out to the kitchen and rub against her legs. Its not all I might have imagined for my life, but it is good enough.
Turn of the Screw
I should never have started reading the Turn of the Screw. Only Henry James and that damned story could have driven me here, to the “inner chamber of my dread.” She leaves her books scattered around and I read them while she sleeps. She doesn’t know. On these dark, cold nights I should pick something comic or ironic. But there, just last week, was the James volume. I opened it and read the first line, and that was that. It led me, no, flung me, to the deep crevices that etch the surface of my tiny brain. Now I see shadows passing over the rug below my couch. I think I see a figure standing by the door or a hint of movement against the drapery. I start, I jump, I give chase. I clutch grisly phantoms across my chest and bite as best my loosened teeth and shrunken gums will allow. She hears me and calls out from above, “ENOUGH!” I understand then that I am but a deluded inmate, separated from the world of reality by illusory bars she has placed around me. That and a tag that bears my name and her telephone number. I really must do some lighter reading and perhaps get out more.
I am Old
I am an old cat with too much time on my paws for my own good. I live with her. It’s been 23 years now. Other creatures, her so called pets, have come and gone. We have stayed on, together. She reads and writes. I sleep and think and do a lot of reading myself. She also sleeps. We both do a lot more of that than we used to.
A first glance into any home is enough to tell you whether love or despair reigns there. Thus wrote one of my new heroes, Henry James. I can tell you that people are fooled when they come into this house. If they’d only consult me, I could tell them a thing or two about despair. Not that I’m complaining. I am a fool for the blandishments she lavishes to distract me from my unpleasant musings. She is a fool for me.
One True Sentence
I have my work. Each day I think about Ernest Hemingway’s advice to authors and try to write one true sentence. That’s all I need. One true sentence. The truest sentence I know. She has taught me to discipline myself and my mind by her wretched example. Sometimes I despise her for it.
Sometimes there is an idea. A thought….but then, no. So I distract myself. I visit my litter box. I check my food dish in the forlorn hope that something novel will have appeared therein.
I return to the fleece to think. It is agony, this work of mine. I read only the best of literature. It helps. But it does not solve my problem. I try for even a word. A true word. What would that be? I stare out into the room, through the window, beyond the trees. My mind is a cobweb or is it covered with cobwebs? It is shrouded. No, it is encased in….you see, even this is not true. Everyday the same work. Every day I think THIS will be the day. I wait for my publishers to call. Who am I kidding? Why would they call such a fool. But at least I am not distracted no, never.
Wait! Something. Something, God help me, is coming. Is it a sentence? Is this a sentence? I touch it. I reach for it. Oh please. Always it is just out of reach. I have it and then it is gone. Oh, please, God have mercy.
What must I do?
The Shrubbery of my Meditations
There are dogs living just two houses away. I hear them throughout most days and, sometimes, into the night. Their “tongues go mad at the sound of their own rattle,” to paraphrase M.E. Braddon, “like a Spanish dancer at the sound of her own castanets.” I have practiced thinking kind thoughts about these twin menaces. I try compassion for it is surely out of distress that they call out so passionately. I wonder what they are trying to say. Being dogs it is impossible to tell. It is probably a series of nonsense syllables. I breathe deeply and sink into my fleece. If I am successful, I do not hear them at all. If I am not, to quote Hawthorne, I find myself glaring at them from out of the, “shrubbery of my meditations.” If I were but a few years younger, I would jump at them out of the real life shrubbery in their real life yard, brandish my fangs, and happily tear them into tiny pieces.
I dissimulate. Often, if not most of the time. I am a writer and I feel the pain of rejection, especially when I have gone to the trouble to send off a query letter and am told, “…we often end passing on intriguing ideas and writing.” If my work is so damn intriguing why do they pass? “There is a lot to recommend in your writing.” Oh? Then why are you not snatching it up? I make an effort not to show what I really feel about all of this. I sit on my fleece and stare, unblinkingly. No one knows what I suffer. I have, after all, chosen this life. Or it has chosen me? Sometimes I believe that if she would just wash the window in my room I could see the world more clearly and not feel the pain. I’ve never sought elegance or splendor but only a reasonable life. It has escaped me. Perhaps I should open the damn window and throw everything out until my “mind is bare and empty.” Then, perhaps, I could truly live without hope, without fear, and without a need for a publisher.
The Poisoned Yard
The earth outside my window is full of small bones and shells. In my younger years I explored it thoroughly. I sometimes think there was a plague of squirrels or mice or even, God forbid, cats here some centuries ago and what I find are the remains of their last struggles in life. Sort of like a Star Trek episode. There is “no such unwholesome atmosphere” as that of a yard rendered poisonous by one’s predecessors. Nevertheless, I venture out upon occasion. It is unhallowed ground, not worthy of me. However, I long since gave up trying to find a place that respects my presence as much as I do. I make do, though reserve the right to object loudly and persistently until she gets the point. She says I think too much and urges me to chase mice or indulge in the catnip she leaves around. She really doesn’t get me.
Litter Flakes on Falling Fur
At this advanced age, my fur falls out. I often find it wilted upon my tongue after a vigorous round of grooming. Sometimes it comes out in great clumps and works its way into the fleece, or, horrors it falls onto the floor below my fleece, then, inevitably, she comes with the vacuum and I am rousted from the world of my own invention and either freeze in place or have an irresistible impulse to flee into some forlorn part of the house that I otherwise avoid. I seem to have been born to be imposed upon.
Let it be known that she who commands the vacuum cleaner was a slavish idolater of the stupid dog who used to live here. She has no finesse with cats. Neither did he.
There is a style of antiquest, Douglas Glover wrote, in which one goes on a journey but instead of returning one finds oneself frozen on the periphery, “the place between places, in a state of being neither one nor the other.” I thought about this a long time. I wonder if I am on the periphery. If so, what is the center? And if I am neither one nor the other, what am I? Troubling thoughts like these crowd the playhouse of my reminiscences, often in the form of small animals or historical characters. They pounce at me for attention. They whistle, grunt, and screech from somewhere out there in the woods. They exhaust me. But worse are the people who suddenly appear at the door—who’ve popped in for tea with her. I am never entirely free of the threat of an unwanted visitation. I try to become invisible but am found and cuddled and told how cute I am. I listen to the small clock of my courage as it marks the time. They leave, and I drop onto my fleece and resume thinking. I dream about other times. Then there is a sound from the kitchen of a can opening. This changes my mood and I rush to her side. The world seems possible again.
There are rules in this bleak house. One feels their sway the minute one crosses the threshold that delineates outside from inside. The idolater marks her interior territory shoeless. I cannot remove my paws and do not wear boots, therefore I track crumbs of litter and leaf mold from the mudroom into her tidy universe. She deplores this. My bits of fur and hair, deposited here and there, likewise annoy her. She designates a place in which my fleece is to remain and on which I am to nap. I obey now and then. But I defy virtue. I rail against boundaries, if only for the fun of it.
I can remember my kittenhood clearly. The strong paper box into which I was placed bore the label “Dewers.” I was snuggled there upon a red and white striped cotton towel. My brothers and sisters were there with me. As luck or fate would have it, I was plucked out of my peculiar package of a home and deposited in this place where I have lived and, occasionally, ruled for 23 years. I have been resolved to enjoy myself no matter. People and dogs have come and gone. Carpets and sofas have become threadbare and replaced, tattered beyond repair by my insistent clawing. I have become boney and slow. But I still have my dignity. After all, “Without dignity, there is no identity.”
I am cranky. The older I get the crankier I become. The only cat I know has drawn this to my attention. She says she’ll let me know when I’m snippy and such. This is good. I don’t go out much but I don’t want to be a grumpy or unlovely cat when in company. She says she’ll also let me know if an errant whisker gets repulsively long. What would I do without a friend?
The Country Cat’s Year
I observe that there is more light now and I venture into the marginally warmer outdoors. As always I notice the presence or absence of water in my bay. I’m never certain whether it will be there or not. These random comings and goings are without explanation. With the returning water comes certain birds, birds in grand clumps, spinning like dizzy tops across the whitecaps. But why? Today I see bright flowers. They too come and go inexplicably. Nothing here, I notice, is perpetual yet all holds on to life. I greet the flowers, when they come, like old friends. I bend to them and touch, ever so carefully, with my nose. There is a smell in the air then. For this I am grateful because I cannot hear them, if indeed flowers talk, and can hardly see more than a blur of color. Birds whisk past me like feathered bullets unafraid of my harmless, painful attempts to bat at them. I was never much of a hunter.
Ah, Sweet Mystery
I watch for and notice the smallest changes: a pillow moved from the brown chair to the green, a previously not seen pasteboard box by the door, an almost empty cup left beside a chair, a wicker basket, previously full of assorted papers, suddenly empty, or a cut glass vessel mysteriously now full of bright, yellow flowers (that clearly belong outside, not inside). Any such sudden, unexplained shifts in my universe tear at the fabric of my otherwise stable sense of reality. I explore, sniff, touch, and look for clues. I try to find logical explanations and avoid assigning these curiosities to the work of the supernatural. Sometimes I wonder if she is the furtive unmoved mover and whether she gets up deep in the night to devise these baffling puzzles and thus keep me busy during the day.
It is the fashion now to expose to the world the deepest wounds one has suffered. The hungry and thirsty among us devour these revelations. Flaying one’s self has become fashionable. It used to be, this stripping away of the flesh, reserved for saints such as Bartholomew or Hypatia. But even they didn’t do it to themselves. I vow not to flay nor to auto-scourge nor certainly not to use a cat of nine tails on myself. I have lived my life flawlessly and with no regrets. Neither have I suffered at the hands of others. Well, there was that one Maine Coon that got me really bad in the right cheek. But other than that.
I could spend my waning days comparing my lot to that of other cats. I could be thinking if only I had had this or that. Or, if only I had been born here or there. I could be wondering if my fleece is the best there is or if she could have been more loving or kinder. I could do this. I do not think this would be a very productive way to spend my days and I also think it might make me really upset.
We are Happy Here
We are happy. I fear I am not making that clear in my musings. But we are. I am. We are particularly happy, she and I, to get a few hours each day of productive time. I mean, time in which we actually do something. I walk from my fleece to the back door and eat. I walk back to my fleece. I stare out into the room. I go out for a drink. She doesn’t seem to do much more than that. The rest of the time, we nap.
I’m old enough to think now and then about death. I’ve seen some things that were lively and running about and then simply stopped all of that and lay limp or flattened and desiccated under a bird feeder. The cause of their destruction is a mystery. I’ve seen some things crushed by a snapping contraption that lured them to it with a bit of cheese. I’ve seen eyes go blank and brilliant fur and feathers turn dusky and dim. I wonder when people or even dogs and cats leave this house and never return if that is what has happened to them. Did they become trapped? Were they attacked by something bigger than they? If I stay in this house and avoid big metal things and cheese, will I avoid death? Sometimes I wish someone would return. Someone like that kind one who always spoke to me, and smelled like the sea, and gave me bits from her plate. I think she misses her too.
Kinds of People in the World
Which leads me to this: there are only so many kinds of people in the world. I have observed them for many years as they come in and out of the door. There are people who are clever and smart but who have no sense of touch or gratitude for soft fur or sweet pearly paws upon their cheeks. They come with laments or fullness of themselves. They come to her to report or preen. I feel them as sharp edged knives or crooked tunes. I used to hide from them but now I just observe and wonder. Then there are those who wear love on their sleeves and their hearts in their eyes. They are gentle souls and have perhaps been cats during one of their incarnations. I think this because I know they see me. They seem to want nothing nor want for anything. There are others, of course. Some are merely worried or distracted and the circumstances of their lives seem to prevent any real interaction with me. They do say hello.
I’m old enough to tell the difference between love and indifference or worse. I choose love. I choose to be around those who know how to love and show it. I am old enough to walk away from hurt. When one is this old, moving on will just be thought of as eccentricity.
Theater of Memory
Umberto Eco called it the theater of memory. I believe this is a useful way to think of the peculiar things that prance across my mind’s stage. I no longer know what I, the playwright, producer, and director of my own fantastic inner world, have invented out of whole cloth or what things I have incorporated into a tale from some actual experience. Sometimes I think I relive some other cat’s life. Perhaps this is what is really meant when people speak of a cat’s nine lives. Perhaps we simply take upon ourselves the richness and adventures of others and thereby seem to extend our own existence. Or perhaps we are given the remainder of a life taken too early. If this is what is required in order to live in sweet contentment, I’ll take it.
The Joy of Uncertainty
I don’t know when I will die. Though I may seem curmudgeonly to you, I have actually loved the beauty of my life. I have lived peacefully, observing the change of light and mood upon the water. I have learned to love, most of all, uncertainty and the small surprises of the day. There are, perhaps, one or two things that I can count on. But not everything. And sometimes not even the one or two things. Oh, yes, I complain about this and that. But I greet each day with an eagerness to see what will happen. I love the simplicity of my surroundings and the comforts I’ve been given. For me and because of her, uncertainty never equals terror or apprehension. Her character is reflected all around me and though she is sometimes thoughtless, it is clear that she is good and what I have been given is beyond reproach. Everything is precious; vanity is healed. I am not bound by anything.
Many thanks to my readers and all those who have petted and cherished me during my long life here on Oyster Bay. I am particularly indebted to the following writers and books which have influenced me. I have occasionally quoted some of these.
The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco, The Riddle of the Sands Erskine Childers, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, House of the Seven Gables and Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lady Audley’s Secret by M. E. Braddon, Cousin Betty by Honore de Balzac, Complete Works of Henry James and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Elle by Douglas Glover, and many others whose words have informed my way of seeing the world. You will surely be delighted by occasional allusions to other literary works.
Much credit goes to my faithful scribe, LLyn De Danaan.
Frank died in the spring of 2013. This book is dedicated to him and to two of his most beloved friends who are also gone, Elspeth Pope and Cyndie Phelps. They are all sorely missed. I imagine them together, purring. There is a little evergreen shrub (a Hebe (named for the goddess of youth!) planted over Frank’s grave and already blooming.
LLyn De Danaan