A Jungle of Small Bushes

July 30, 2009 § Leave a comment


Mouchette is spread across the top of the couch like an oil spill: shiny and undulant. When I stroke her, she elongates in that peculiar way cats have, as if they’ve read all the werewolf novels and are practicing their bone-liquifying tricks. Her little black and white patchwork head tilts up, nose poking at my hand, and I feel overwhelming love for this little oddity, who’s affectionate but never needy, unlike Fitzroy who checks in like a neurotic lover several times a day.

But I can’t help loving Fitz more because he stares at me in reproof if I don’t. Because he makes that Prrup noise when he jumps. Because he thanks me for meals. Because he loves being brushed and endures being cradled (white paws pushing at my crooning lips, face turned away with that mom-don’t-embarrass-me expression, but still purring) and rouses me when I sink into depressive torpor. He seems to know exactly when I’m thinking that life is just too much to bother with. He jumps on the bed and makes a racket, a very specific angry-anxious meow, repeated as necessary. I have no choice but to get up, make tea and find something useful to do, like changing the kitty litter or working.

Mouchette slinks in my room when I’m on the bed reading, waits for permission to ascend, then uses my bent legs as a tunnel, going through and back again in a way that reminds me of being a child, riding my bike through the flesh-colored porte-cochere of our house in New Jersey.* The fit is tighter for Mouchette than it was for me on my bike but that’s what makes it fun, her hard little skull getting its pleasure from squeezing through the crook of my knees, her body following like a greased licorice stick. I watch her and feel deliciously idle and female, girl-talking as she makes the circuit, admiring her sleek shininess. Fitz watches balefully from the floor, waiting to bite one or both of us.

For weeks, the only sounds Mouchette made were when Fitzroy attacked her. She’d scream or squeal or make a low, plaintive growling noise. I thought she was the silent type, human-wise. But lately she’s been practicing her meows. I’ll hear her and yell at Fitz to stop beating up his sister, only to go in the other room and find her sitting by herself on the arm of the couch, squeaking like a nest of baby mice (and believe me, I know just what a nest of baby mice sounds like). “What is that supposed to mean?” I ask and she just looks at me with those big, innocent yellow eyes. Soon she’ll have all the basic cat tricks down. Only yesterday as I walked past her, sprawled on the top of the couch, she swiped at me with her paw, claws extended, for no reason but that she could. She looked so languidly pleased after.

Now she’s in the other room, playing with her new Perrier bottle cap. Fitz has a catnip mouse the sweet young pet store guy threw in as a freebie. No other catnip toy has interested him much, but this mouse, a featureless lump with a tail, the very epitome of why-would-I-spend-good-money-on-that-crap has him completely charmed. He’s running in circles, flipping it into the air, carrying it around in his mouth.  I’m a sucker for the way cats look when they’re carrying something in their mouths, especially when it’s neither dead nor alive. They don’t look officious or manic the way dogs do. They look sexy, like French movie stars with cigarettes hanging from their lower lip.

* No Jersey jokes please.  I grew up in a green and verdant land. So did Frank Sinatra, Philip Roth, Savion Glover and Meryl Streep. My mother-in-law knew Meryl when she was a teenager, working a summer job. Yogi Berra lived a few blocks away from my family. There were fireflies, ice cream,  good sidewalks and woods for the cats to have their secret rituals far from human eyes.

Nursery Rhyme

There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile
He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

  • A cat is a lion in a jungle of small bushes.
    Indian Proverb
  • Those that dislike cats will be carried to the cemetery in the rain.
    Dutch Proverb


June 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

yelloweyesThe little one is more at home now. She trots like a puppy, pokes her pointed head into my hand, sleeks her weasel body down low under my caress. Her fur is softer and shinier; she’s eating well. Her belly is taut and warm. Her motor thrums.

It makes Fitzroy angry. He stalks off to lie on the floor at a distance. I can’t blame him. It’s when he seems to forget the new regime and comes to me in the old way, eyes soft with cat-love and I receive him with delight, stroke the white feathery triangle under his chin and tell him he’s the most beautiful of cats, my best-beloved, that she eagerly arrives, purr already louder than his, to demand more than her share.

She’s a classic younger sister. The pair reminds me of my nieces. (I could say, my sister and myself, but I was a child then and saw things differently.) He certainly abuses her enough to fuel any kind of sibling war, pounding after her and heaving his bulk upon her scrap of a body, attempting impossible mating. It’s not clear if she knows what he’s after. It’s easy to see now that feminist attempts to either separate or conflate sex and aggression are hopeless.

She yowls and wails. She hisses like a snake. She steals his windowsill, his food, his place in my heart. No, not the last. But I can understand that he’d see it that way. I can understand how it might make itself true, if he continues to chill. I worry that I should have stopped at one, kept up that unbalanced romance, at the price of his loneliness.

Since I got him to ease my own loneliness, which had moved far into the red zone, to the place where sanity begins to melt like a soft metal, I couldn’t ignore his. The danger of anthropomorphism has always seemed to me less than the danger of using an animal as an object, paying no attention to obvious signs of distress.

He’s not lonely now, just angry. Dissatisfied in a different way. When she wreathes around my hand, having successfully evicted him from my bed, he hunches over the dry food bowl, crunching the chicken-lamb-rice-dried beet pulp morsels.

All his body language is different. His tail smacks the floor; he walks away when I caress him. I never see him perched on the top of the couch—in plain sight, in the middle of things, Cat to my Woman. Now he’s a just a cat. There are millions of them.

When I came home the other night and he was amorous in the old way, rubbing his cheeks against me and gently biting my chin, and she was nowhere in sight and didn’t appear, which is unusual, and this went on for awhile, I wondered if he’d killed her. Then I wondered how I’d feel if he had.

My passion surged darkly. I’d forgive him. He’s my firstborn.

Philip was shocked when I told him this. But Philip was too squeamish to read Sophie’s Choice. And in truth I’d be very disturbed if Fitzroy killed Mouchette. It’s out of character. He hasn’t hurt her. All he wants is to be dominant.

But she’s a wildling.


Pink Brains

April 17, 2009 § 2 Comments

My cat is a complete wuss. My niece, Ramona, came to visit yesterday and he hid in the closet. I opened a can of food for him and he crept out—but as soon as he saw the back of her head on the couch, he fled back to the safety of my dirty laundry and old shoes. Ramona’s a strong young woman but she has a kindly nature and wasn’t even wearing her signature belt of cat skulls.

I named him Fitzroy, after the bastard son of Henry VIII, because he’s my 8th cat (Herman’s Hermits, anyone?), and because, in the vampire series Blood Ties, by Tanya Huff, Fitzroy is the name of the vampire romance writer who happens, in fact, to be King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son. It was a picture of his teeth that inspired that, but now I’m thinking more of the romance writer part of the character. My Fitz hasn’t shown much talent or discipline. But he certainly likes to be romanced.

Sometimes I call him other things. Today it’s Pink Brains. This was inspired partly by a Frederick Seidel poem*, and partly by the Glass Cat in the Oz series. When Dorothy first meets the Glass Cat, she says:

Dear me, I hadn’t noticed you before. Are you glass, or what?”

“I’m glass, and transparent, too, which is more than can be said of some folks,” answered the cat. “Also I have some lovely pink brains; you can see ’em work.”**

I’ve seen Fitz’s brains work. He’s patiently destroying my windowscreen inch by inch so he can have the pleasure of plunging to his death. He waits by mouse holes, and grows frustrated when they remain indoors. He sniffs them beneath the refrigerator and since he can’t fit under there he tries to find a way in through the fridge. Yes, I too mistook his intent for a while. But it became clear to me after he’d refused every kind of meat and dairy I have, when he seemed too interested in pushing down through the leeks and apples, looking for a trapdoor.

I don’t spoil him, letting him in the fridge. I observe.

But there is hope—

“Iain McGregor and colleagues from the University of Sydney, Australia, found that rats would stop reacting to the smell of a cat that they had been exposed to repeatedly. Yet when they sniffed a new cat, the rats bolted back into their burrows and became extra vigilant. Dissecting the rats’ brains showed that the part that responds to cat pheromones became less active the more familiar they became with each cat. However, the brains of rats presented with the odour of a new cat became more active, confirming that the rodents reacted differently to the smells of individual cats” —New Scientist, 24 September 2008

The rats learned the risks of each feline one by one. So maybe the mice will start experimenting soon. See if they can get past Pink Brains. I hope not. If they run rings around him, I’ll have to get out the mousetraps again and Mouse-Loser will spend his nights in a cage, gnashing his teeth, while I hope to remember to disarm the traps every morning. How likely is that? 

On the way to finding the article about rats and cats, I found this one, in an earlier issue of New Scientist (July 27, 2007)

Oscar, a stray kitten adopted by staff members at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence about two years ago, lives in the home’s end-stage dementia unit.

I thought this was an end-stage dementia home for cats, but apparently not.

But unlike the unit’s other resident cat, Oscar is not particularly affectionate. “The truth of the matter is, this cat is extremely unfriendly for the most part,” says Dosa. “He shows very little interest unless you bribe him. The only time he seems to become friendly, or the only time he seems to spend time with people, is when they are about to die.”

He will curl up on the bed with someone who has just a few hours left to live, expressing no interest in other patients. “It may be half a day, sometimes two, three, four hours, but he’s always there when the patient dies,” says Dosa, who has written an article about Oscar in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Oscar has been observed to do this at least 25 times. But rather than view his presence as frightening, staff have come to value the knowledge that a certain patient may be near death, and Oscar has provided companionship to those who would otherwise have passed away alone. “We really are able to key into some of his insights and be able to let family know that patients might be nearing the end,” says Dosa. “Invariably, he’s right – much more so than we are.”

I can see how Oscar’s prescience might be helpful to the staff. But as for providing companionship, I’m not so sure. Given the personality of this particular cat, it’s much more likely that’s he’s waiting until the moment of death so he can eat the soul of the departed. 

*  * * * *

Here’s a poem by Frederick Seidel, about youth and age and how we kill ourselves. When I read it now, there are cats superimposed: a young cat like mine, and an old one like Oscar (Oscar isn’t really old, but he takes that part).


* A Fresh Stick of Chewing Gum


A pink stick of gum unwrapped from the foil,

That you hold between your fingers on the way home from dance class,

And you look at its pink.  But you know what.

I like your brain.  Your pink.  It’s sweet.


My brain is the wrinkles of the ocean on a ball of tar

Instead of being sweet pink like yours.

It could be the nicotine.  It could be the Johnnie Walker Black.

Mine thought too many cigarettes for too many years.


My brain is the size of the largest living thing, mais oui, a blue whale,

Blue instead of pink like yours.

It’s what I’ve done

To make it huge that made it huge.


The violent sweetness in the air is the pink rain

Which continues achingly almost to fall.

This is the closest it has come.

This can’t go on.


Twenty-six years old is not childhood.

You are not trying to stop smoking.

You smoke and drink

And still it is pink.


The answer is you can drink and smoke 

Too much at twenty-six,

And stink of cigarettes,

And stand outside on the sidewalk outside the bar to have a cigarette,


As the law now requires, and it is paradise,

And be the most beautiful girl in the world,

And be moral,

And vibrate into blank.


— from Oooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel


 **The Patchwork Girl of Oz

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