The Owl In The Pussycat

March 28, 2012 § Leave a comment


Mouchette sits on my chest and her fur is soft as feathers. Soft as the goose down that drifts out of my pillows and comforter, collecting under the bed where the cats creep and hide. Often she has these curls of white goose stuck to her fur; maybe that’s what’s teaching her fur to be so feathery. Her little head looks like an owl’s head, now that she’s plump, with her round yellow eyes and unblinking stare. I’m glad she can’t fly though. She knocks over enough as it is, though it’s my fault for having a night table crowded with pills and glasses. She likes to prowl near my head. Who can fault her?

Smoothing the black and white feathers—I mean fur—of her shoulders and chest, I think about the claim she has on me, the only claim she has made in her short life. She runs from other people; she puts up with Fitzroy in an irritated sisterly way; she trusts me. This is about as much motherhood as I can handle. She seems to know when I’m feeling defeated: that’s when she sits on my chest. That’s when she looks at me, saying look at me! I am your cat, whom you cannot abandon. It’s only lately that she’s allowed me to stroke her chest down between her front legs—each new intimacy stitching her to my heart.

She’s learned that I adore it when she rolls on her back on the rug, legs splayed like a cooked chicken. So now, when she does it and I utter outrageous compliments, she’ll do more, sliding and twisting, tilting her head back to show her white throat that I love to touch with two fingers, feeling the pulse of her life so near. I named her Mouchette because she was such a waif-like cat, thinner than any cat I’d seen, except on the street, thin as licorice whips. Now she’s roly-poly, a little missus, and that bothered me at first but I’ve grown to like it. I imagine her in a tiny cottage, distilling herbs. I imagine her at the market, selecting petit fours:  two pink, two green, two white, one lilac. I imagine her at home with six daughters, wondering who will marry each of them, and will he be good.

And I watch her when Fitzroy, who is neutered, attempts sex: she remains as she was before he climbed on her back, not moving, seemingly unbothered—certainly not as bothered as I am; I ache for him—gazing at me calmly. It’s only when he gets frustrated at his inability and starts obsessively licking her ears that she hisses, swipes at him with her paw, then stalks away. Does she, too, dream of sex, not knowing what it is? If she does, she’ll never tell.

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.



June 4, 2009 § Leave a comment


Mouchette has been here three days. The first night, we kept her locked in the bathroom. Fitzroy knew she was there, of course, and crept up to the door a few times, sniffing and looking through the crack (none of the doors in my apartment really close). Then this cat, who has never given his reflection in the mirror even one glance, no matter how many times I held him up and pointed it out to him, walked over to the long vertical mirror in my bedroom, stood up on his hind paws, his front paws resting on the glass and gazed at himself.

Has he finally realized he’s a cat? Was he checking that his hair looked okay?

The first day, they hissed and spat at each other. They still do that, but with less intensity. He wants to jump on her, in both the wrestle-play and sexual sense, and she, half his size, rebuffs him, her white-tipped paws waving, headlight eyes glowing devil-yellow. This makes him sulk and retreat, sitting humped like a meatloaf*, his white ruff ruffled. Meanwhile, the slink-princess creeps up behind him and nips at his fat tail. 

She can stretch her body to an unnatural length when she needs to, like a cartoon character or a superhero. On her hind legs, she looks like a black felt-tip pen or a licorice twist, sprawled on the table she’s the charred hotdog a child has cooked and abandoned.

She can climb up and around the bookshelves—which contain, as well as books, open boxes of beads, framed photos, little bowls, bells, ceramic hyenas and other thoughtful gifts I’ve received over the years. She can wind her way through the lipsticks, pencils, necklaces, face cream and pill bottles on my bureau; burrow through my basket of important, ignored papers; and squeeze inside a drawer left open a couple of inches. My apartment is to her what all children want, a fabulous, slightly dangerous unmediated test of agility and balance.

She purrs when I stroke her skinny ribs but startles easily and won’t let me pick her up. She stares up at me with her piebald face like an urchin who’s been told not to speak to strangers and won’t, even if her mother is gone for the rest of her life. She comes running whenever I lavish affection on Fitz, demanding to be part of the cuddle, but she’s not used to people: she butts me with her head, then shies away from my lifted hand.

At her latest attempt, Fitz laid a caramel-and-cream paw on her back, bent down and grasped her neck between his jaws. Just like tigers do it on PBS! Oh, Mouchette, aren’t you excited!

 She wasn’t.

* CAT–One hell of a nice animal, frequently mistaken for a meatloaf. – B. Kliban


The Urchin Bride

June 2, 2009 § 1 Comment

ThePrincessBrideI wish it would be like this all summer, mild sunny days, perfect for walking, a little wind now and then, never too hot or too cold, and Charles doing the vacuuming.

We ended up not going out Sunday, because we were too sleepy. He’s sleepy when he visits because he’s away from his job, and his sleepiness infects me, even as I feebly try to tempt him with museums and shows. As usual, all we’ve managed is meals and walks.

Well, not quite. We got another cat from the shelter, a little slinky, black and white 10-month-old female named Mouchette. She looks a little like a weasel and a little like a skunk, but mostly like a Parisian waif who comes out only at night, wrapped in her threadbare black fur to haunt the cafes and bar, sometimes stealing a drink or a bit of bread, sometimes charming her way into a hot dinner. What a girl does to secure that is her own business.

Patricia who rescued her (months ago) delivered her—a house call was necessary to be sure we were proper parents. Fitzroy jumped off the windowsill and hissed at his caged bride and Patricia suggested we take Mouchette into the bathroom, so she could be in a small safe place. My bathroom is very small, so I waited outside as Charles went in with Patricia. She was very impressed because he got in the bathtub to sweet-talk Mouchette, who was cowering near the drain. Once he performed that stunt, the interview was effectively over. Of course, he’s leaving today but no need to mention that. I will take care of them.

Today, it’s been cat chasing cat, meeting to hiss and spit, cat running away. They stalk each other and flirt, then spring away like those little black Scottie dog magnets. Mouchette is more persistent than Fitzroy, because she was raised with other cats and is determined to affirm the social order. He’s aloof but once engaged wants butt-sniffing and body-contact rowdy play while she seems more interested in flaunting, aggravation and creeping.

I got her mostly so that Fitzroy would have a cat life, freeing me to work all day without feeling like I had to entertain him, but for now at least they are entertaining me with their performance of feline courtship rituals, which neutering doesn’t really affect.

They aren’t really neutered, anyway. Not where it counts, in the brain. He’s male; she’s female. Missing a few bits perhaps, but neither of them has any doubts what they are.


For my Cat Jeoffrey

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually – Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is affraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly,
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

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