“The naming of cats is a difficult matter
It’s isn’t just one of your holiday games…”
So said T.S Eliot, and I’m inclined to agree with him. Three names apiece, one of which “THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess” – I have enough trouble remembering my own, what with all of these trailing diminutives; feathery scraps of childhood.
There are many things to love about the felidae. The light behind their eyes, that tapetum lucidum, so as to to see between worlds. The way they will greet, not with the wet manners of a dog, but with a dry nose and tall tail-tip. There is a certain pleasure to be had in noting the pause, the wavering head, as they watch for your approach with open hands and blue-black tone. Even the most docile feline carries the glint of a smile.
Creatures like the crocodile and the hawk were worked into the pyramid walls of ancient Egypt, were known as gods and goddesses under the papyrus light; surrounded by hieroglyphics simple in their elegance and, at times, complex as data encryption.
Horus and Sobek and of course, Bastet – the cat goddess, cast in the half-light as both protector and warrior, associated with the sun (as the daughter of Re/Ra) and the moon, via Artemis and the Greeks. Whatever can be taken from this mythology, it’s certainly a truth that cats are crepescular by nature, at their most active in the pale thresholds before conscious thought, when all lines are blurred as a Nocturne.
A cat who would speak with you at length, speaks through the riddle-dance that is appealing in its vagueness. Easy to lose yourself between the muted lines, to forget what it was you were meaning to ask. This is a preferable state when running from details, responsibilities, predictabilities, but the adult world is seemingly governed by such tedious moments, when only the finest-nib clarity will do. I’ve caught myself laughing (rueful rub of the cheek) at my own frustration with an Access Denied. Encouragement reaps its own rewards.
Who would go so far as to break his own limbs to walk as a cat, when no cat would wish to walk as a man?
“Whatever the Alchemist had turned itself into wasn’t a cat.
Half clothed in mist, it trudged painfully towards them from some lunar distance, supporting itself on a staff made from the leg of a panther… Lost in a maze of ruptured highways – burning with rage and desire down every wrenched, coppery perspective, tottering through constant darkness towards every gleam of daylight, deluded by mirror-images, led astray by the very mathematics that had allowed it to penetrate the Old Changing Way: deceived, dazed and disorientated – it had begun to disintegrate. Where cat and catskin had once run seamlessly together, all was in rags.” – Gabriel King, “The Wild Road.”
Crippled by his own hand, each limb contorted and tortured into the supple lines of the feral way, the Alchemist is infused with the energy of sacrificial victims. To control the Golden Cat – that symbolic focus of all natural life – he would walk the wild roads, tying them up in agonized knots, to gain power over this world and the next. We know the highways as “leylines”, in folk lore; but King – the pseudonym of writing pair Jane Johnson and M. John Harrison – employs a lexicon and syntax reminiscent of the free will carried in all wild things, taking the audience between transitions of wary poise, spitfire instinct and playfulness. On the ghost-roads, the smallest feline casts a long and sabre-toothed shadow.
It was through The Wild Road that I became aware of “narrative voice” as something distinct from my own, or that of authors I admired. The protagonist, Tag, is a Burmilla kitten whose movements leap out from the page in keeping with his thoughts:
“‘Alone”, thought Tag.
He tested this idea until sudden panic swept through him. He ran round and round the lawn until he was tired again. He licked his fur in the sunshine for ten minutes. He couldn’t think what to do. He jumped up onto a windowsill and rubbed both sides of his face on the window pane. “Breakfast!” he demanded. But clearly it would not be feeding him today…
He had a new idea. He would feed himself.
“Eat a bee,” he thought.
He thought: “Eat more than one.”
And he tore off excitedly across the lawn.’ – pg 20
This staccato style would quickly become tiresome in another context. This is a life lived close to the ground, defined by the smallest details: that which only a cat would notice and remark upon. Dappled with feline lore and mythology, the novel is narrated in the singular (Tag) and the plural – the nine lives of the cat – infused with the innocent-arrogance of the species.
“Those families bade us welcome and we went into their homes of our own free will, and stayed on our own terms. They treated us like deities, each cat a god in its own house – gifts and offerings, and prayers for a share in our fertilitiltiy and health, for they were a sickly and superstitious lot.
Before long, they were raising temples, drawing our image on the walls like their ancestors before them. In the new drawings we were guardians of the doors of night, guardians of the realms of the dead. We sat at the frontiers of the shadow kingdom; we watched over the spirits of the dead, to guard them in their long sleep.
The same old fears, the same old hopes.” – pg 172.
Each twisting strand weaves the historical with the modern, passing from Bubastis through London to Tintagel head, along the ghost-roads where nothing is quite what it seems. It hit me between the eyes. Aged eleven, seeking something more than the well-shaped but quaint books that had papered my childhood thus far. They were too obviously human. When Tag chases bubbles around his home, he is “as leggy and unsteady, as easily surprised, as easy to tease, as full of daft energy as every kitten”, progressing from this haven of soft humans and pale light into the wider world; drawn on his quest by a mischievous magpie with an agenda, and a one-eyed black cat with a life layered by papyrus, frost and fire. As even the Majicou knew, through his collective lives as keeper of the roads, the power to move between the primal state and the domestic one comes with a price:
‘”So”, he said, “what am I to tell you, Tag?
That if, as the pretty myth has it, cats are allotted nine lives, I have lived out eight of mine? It would be true to say that. That I am as old as the highways I care for, and which sustain me in return? That cats once got up on their hind legs at night and held not just a parliament but a just parliament with human beings? Ridiculous. No cat has ever wanted to walk like a man. Yet it’s a pity we can’t talk to them, Tag.”‘ – pgs 135-6.
Such a care, to know what you cannot speak of.
Peter .S. Beagle’s story, The Last Unicorn, is a work of art coloured bittersweet with a love transcending shape and time. The scars on the face of a warrior, the marks on a wizard’s hands, map their own stories. Even as the unicorn leaves an inevitable trail along the roads of mankind, so the world of mortality marks her in turn with the necessary lessons of care and regret; a heavier burden for one who had lived pale and distant as the moon.
“The sky spins and drags everything along with it … but you stand still. You never see anything just once. I wish you could be a princess for a little while, or a flower, or a duck. Something that can’t wait.” – Molly Grue.
When changed into a woman by the well-meaning (somewhat undisciplined) magician Schmendrick, to save her from the Red Bull, the wilderness lives on in her eyes, for a time at least; but the grey world heaps dust on the memories of wild beasts and woodlands, and that aching fear for her people which began the quest, begins to fade:
“Now I am two – myself, and this other that you call ‘my lady’. For she is here as truly as I am now, though once she was only a veil over me. She walks in the castle, she sleeps, she dresses herself, she takes her meals, and she thinks her own thoughts. If she has no power to heal, or to quiet, still she has another magic. Men speak to her, saying ‘Lady Amalthea’, and she answers them, or she does not answer. The king is always watching her out of his pale eyes, wondering what she is, and the king’s son wounds himself with loving her and wonders who she is. And every day she searches the sea and the sky, the castle and the courtyard, the keep and the king’s face, for something she cannot always remember. What is it, what is it that she is seeking in this strange place? She knew a moment ago, but she has forgotten.”
She turned her face to Molly Grue, and her eyes were not the unicorn’s eyes. They were lovely still, but in a way that had a name, as a human woman is beautiful. Their depth could be sounded and learned, and their degree of darkness was quite describable. Molly saw fear and loss and bewilderment when she looked into them, and herself; and nothing more.’ – Ch 10.
Yet it is the cat of King Haggard’s castle who knows her for what she is. Bound by his own language to speak through the twisting riddles, of what is and what might be, his truth is never more than an eye-glow.
“How do you know she is a unicorn?” Molly demanded. “And why were you afraid to let her touch you? I saw you. You were afraid of her.”
“I doubt that I will feel like talking for very long,” the cat replied without rancor. “I would not waste time in foolishness if I were you. As to your first question, no cat out of its first fur can ever be deceived by appearances. Unlike human beings, who enjoy them…. You have very little time. Soon she will no longer remember who she is, or why she came to this place, and the Red Bull will no longer roar in the night for her. It may be that she will marry the good prince, who loves her…”‘
“When the wine drinks itself,” he said, “when the skull speaks, when the clock strikes the right time – only then will you find the tunnel that leads to the Red Bull’s lair.” He tucked his paws under his chest and added, “There’s a trick to it, of course.”
“I’ll bet,” Molly said grimly… “oh, cat, wouldn’t it be simpler just to show me the tunnel? You know where it is, don’t you?”
“Of course I know,” answered the cat, with a glinting, curling yawn. “Of course it would be simpler for me to show you. Save a lot of time and trouble.”
His voice was becoming a sleepy drawl, and Molly realized that, like King Haggard himself, he was losing interest. Quickly she asked him, “Tell me one thing, then. What became of the unicorns? Where are they?”
The cat yawned again. “Near and far, far and near,” he murmured. “They are within sight of your lady’s eyes, but almost out of reach of her memory. They are coming closer, and they are going away.” He closed his eyes.
Molly’s breath came like rope, fretting against her harsh throat. “Damn you, why won’t you help me?” she cried. “Why must you always speak in riddles?”
One eye opened slowly, green and gold as sunlight in the woods. The cat said, “I am what I am. I would tell you what you want to know if I could, for you have been kind to me. But I am a cat, and no cat anywhere ever gave anyone a straight answer.”‘
The cat knows what it knows, and will continue to look on our world with a crooked head and a mutable smile. We’re still new to the game, after all.