Blog: “Open Your Eyes (Little Black Kitten)”

For as long as I can remember, I have had dreams in monochrome. Subtle shades of silver and grey, which linger between the stark realities of black and white (which for so many years ruled the waking moments of anorexia.) To sleep is to find another world, away from the harlequin quilt of everyday life, and somewhat similar to the muted shades of the feline eye. It is like wandering through a moonlit garden, wreathed in silver mist and soft with deep shadows, crosshatched over with the raking fingers of a tree flung out over a black-diamond sky.

As a child, I would linger at the end of every sunlit Mercy Street washed over in dust and silence, garbage and sunlight-gold. Aching eyes of heartbreak envy, for being born into a human body; I would watch the tails of the neighbourhood cats, as they disappeared around corners too narrow for me to follow.

Though on occasion, I would try. Squeezing through the green and gold light of trees, through their sticky sap and whispering cobwebs; under scratchy wooden fence posts and over crumbling brown bricks of some forbidden garden
(barbed wire to the cheek) –

To find a place not quite of my world, one I could never hope to know, much less possess with the paws of the inevitable hunter. Instinct wins out over even the most domesticated feline, in the wild-barred haven of some secret glade, in a dim alleyway formed of tired walls and black- gold bracketing sunlight and shadows. Flickering flies, like the embers of a pagan fire.
A mind full of sudden silence.

Back then, it was easy enough to follow the cats through the clock and back to childhood, to a time more innocent – in the sense of being unaware of the dark places of the world, and within.

She pictures the broken glass
She pictures the steam
She pictures a soul
With no leak at the seam
– Peter Gabriel, “Mercy Street”

The world of Felis silvestris catus.

I have often wondered how an adult cat might explain the ways of the crepuscular life to its kitten-child. Would it sing as a nursery rhyme, the lines of Yeats’ “The Cat and the Moon?”

Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.

The thought returned again, while stuck in the sterility of last week’s waiting room. Time was making his usual slow shuffle about the clock face, muttering to himself with hands deep in his pockets. I flipped through a stack of books left out on the long table, ostensibly for the benefit of their infant target audience, but most likely well-thumbed through by the adults who, with fidgety fingers and frayed nerves, sought the same distractions.

Little Black Kitten
Courtesy of @CuteAnimal_Pics

Almost unbearably cute. I found this image on Twitter, though sadly have no photographer to credit. There’s the all-important hint of pathos around the eyes, the tilt of the head – typical of those small things in the world, who know damn fine that they will have you wrapped around their paw / little finger, soon enough. The image was simply called, “Little Black Kitten.”
This is his story.

Since children are more likely to respond to stories which feature protagonists who are of a similar age / stage of development, I wondered if the same might be said of a kitten.

There are the physical size / spatial awareness aspects to consider. A kitten is small in relation to the world around it. Everything from the vibrations of human feet, to the soft bumbling forms of litter-mates, will be processed by still-developing senses. The world is large, and full of odd shapes and smells. A kitten audience will find themselves reacting on a sensory level to the observations of a protagonist around their own age, based upon similar experiences – this in turn develops an engagement with the narrative, and an understanding of the plot.

“I can see the big yellow sun smiling in the window,” said Little Black Kitten. “The sky is blue around him.”
He lifted his pink nose and took a long sniff.
“I can smell the red flowers,” said Little Black Kitten.

There is the feeling of bewilderment and fear, which can cause a kitten to cry out in the plaintive mew for its mother, who responds with a reassuring burr/chirrup, distinctive from her normal purr. A typical situation might be caused by seeing the sun and the moon for the first time, and feeling afraid of their size and omnipresence:

Little Black Kitten put his paws over his green eyes. He hid his pink nose under his long fluffy tail.
“I do not want to open my eyes. The sun is big and yellow in the window,” said Little Black Kitten. “I am scared of the sun.”

The response of the parent is important, both in text and reality. There is a need, not to overload the kitten with information, but to make it aware of the basic facts / positive and negative aspects of its surroundings, in order for it to appreciate the benefits and the dangers:

“But the moon stays up in the sky, Little Black Kitten,” said Daddy Cat. “Her white light shines in the dark. She will make your green eyes glow, so that you can see. All of your friends who have been asleep in the day, will come out to play.

But you must never go outside into the garden on your own, Little Black Kitten,” said Daddy Cat. “You might become lost…I will be with you.”

The title, “Little Black Kitten,” was taken from the original tweet on which the image was posted. It has a lovely mnemonic rhythm to it when spoken aloud, due to the presence of consonance and assonance in the /t/ /l/ and /i/ phonemes, respectively. The repetition of these sounds can create a “handle” on which the audience can fix when reading aloud, as a way of “staying in touch” with the protagonist. They are also beneficial for teaching an awareness of eye-rhymes found in prose as well as verse; rather like developing an “ear for music”, this can help the audience to understand how some words sound better together than others, creating a natural “flow” of words, when writing for themselves.

Alliteration, assonance and consonance can form mnemonic patterns when used in stories aimed at a young kitten audience. They can help with learning and remembering names, keywords and high frequency words, which a kitten may use in everyday life when speaking or reading alone / aloud.

In Helen Stratton-Would’s book, “Who Stole the Moon?”, alliteration and consonance are used to create both a memorable and rhythmic “flow” in the protagonist’s name and the syntax:

Bertie Brown is a very lucky boy. He has a skylight in his bedroom, which means he can see the sky when he lies in his bed. He can see birds, the clouds and aeroplanes, but most of all he likes to lie and look at the moon.” – pg 1, “Who Stole the Moon?”, Helen Stratton-Would.

While the presence of complex sentences in the narrative can appeal to more advanced readers – thus broadening the target audience – it is best at this early stage of literacy, to make the story accessible to as many young readers as possible. This means relying more on simple and compound sentence structures, to allow kittens to develop their reading at a steady pace and learn to trust their own initiative, while making progressive gains from one book to another:

“When I say pull, said Dad, “I want you to pull!”
Mum pulled and pulled, but the stump didn’t come up.
– pg 9, “The Old Tree Stump,”, Roderick Hunt / Alex Brychta

“Are you sure?” asked Bertie, unsure that something as big as the moon could be hidden by clouds. “Yes,” said the wise owl. “If you lie in your bed tomorrow night and gaze out of your skylight, I am sure you will see the moon.” – pg 31, “Who Stole the Moon?”, Helen Stratton-Would.

Repetition of words that are key to the plot, can help to imprint the essence of a story on the mind of the audience. For example, the verbs “pull/pulled” and “push/pushed” are used frequently in “The Old Tree Stump”, to highlight the actions taken by the characters in removing the old stump, via oppositional force:

Dad called Mum to help.
“I’ll push it. You pull it,” said Dad.
“When I say pull,” said Dad, “I want you to pull!”
Mum pulled and pulled, but the stump didn’t come up.
– pgs 7-9, “The Old Tree Stump”, Roderick Hunt / Alex Brychta

These verbs, when used in conjunction with one another, would give the kitten-audience a basic understanding of how the words and their relevant actions can have an antonymous relationship (e.g. in weight training, with the lifting and lowering of a weight = the flexion and extension of an arm joint.)

Colours and objects are key words in the narrative. With their repetition, the audience can learn to associate one with the other, in their natural state and habitat (e.g. green grass in the garden, yellow sun in the blue sky, etc.) This helps the audience to connect what they are reading about with their own surroundings, as well as increasing awareness of which colour fits its relevant noun (of particular use here would be coloured fonts in the text, to pick out grapheme-phoneme connections.) Such objects can perhaps be used in word-games such as point-and-name.

While turning this story over in my mind, in that waiting room of Old Man time, there was one feature of the narrative which I kept returning to: the reassuring tone. Planting the idea in the mind of the audience, that to face up to fears does not automatically mean going it alone – though it might seem the more difficult path to take, especially when the easier option is to sleep on, unaware. To keep your eyes closed.

I tried this tactic for a long time. It didn’t work. The world doesn’t go away, nor does it stand still; it moves on, regardless of whether we are looking or not, in the natural progression of things. Change must happen for any progress to be made.
Which was how I found myself that day, waiting to pick up the results of a second biopsy. They were clear, by the way. A cyst, and nothing more appalling than perhaps another needle.

Still, had I not gone for (yet another) checkup, I would have lived with that shadow-burden for a while longer, and – had the results been less agreeable – perhaps a worse outcome.

Time resumed his forward march. I can find the lancing gold sunlight again, walking my Mercy Street, where for a while only shadows had lurked.
Now with one Little Black Kitten, for company.

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