I live in a house with five cats.
None of which are mine.
Four of which are nobody’s. They were all left by I’m-an-adult girls who abandoned them for someone else to care for.
Three of these belong to my own daughter, Lila.
When Lila had what I thought would be a stable address, I started making my plans to deliver her responsibilities to her. But then she moved. Just out of reach for a midday cat delivery.
These cats form a ring of old, ragged hags that out-witch Hamlet’s three any day of the week. At least those dark ladies spoke to one another.
Lila’s cats, on the other hand, come into each other’s company always with knives drawn ready to rumble.
And they’re all related.
It’s a wonder.
Mother Rachel, mother to Wolverine and aunt to Lopsided Gabby, truly believes she is the force that runs the universe. We are all required to fall prostrate whenever she enters or leaves the room. And she is mightily aware of our failings in that, and many other, areas.
When I slept on a low-set bed, she took to running across the room and jumping on me with her claws out. Just for the fun of it.
Eventually I took to getting up in the middle of the night, after one of these attacks, picking her up, and throwing her across the room.
She stopped her midnight raids.
Now she delights in sharing my exercise time with me, thinking that arms coming down to the floor do so in order to pet her, and legs stretched out are there for her to curl around.
Wolverine, who I believe has some problem with eyesight because she can appear to not recognize me in certain light, spent years avoiding all contact with me. Her Human was in the house, perhaps, or perhaps she just wanted to be the perfect recluse. Then one night, during an Obama/Clinton set-to, she stretched out very gingerly on one of my legs. When I adjusted my position, she hopped off and scuttered for cover.
Gradually, she learned to stay on my leg, going along with any of my body shifts. Then, she even learned to sit by me, letting me pet her.
And her attachment to me has grown from there.
Then there’s Crooked Gabby. Who should have died years ago. One night, she came in the house clearly having experienced something that she should not have, and crawled under a chair. I thought that was that. That in the morning, I would need to call my son down and have him remove her carcass.
But, no, day after day a little life could be observed from beyond the chair hem. A little motion of a tail, perhaps. Perhaps a bit of a claw would poke out. I hesitated taking her to the vet because I knew the probable outcome.
So I waited. She was just taking her time dying.
But eventually, out she dragged herself. Barely able to walk she made it over to the water dish.
Days went by. Years went by. Lopsided Gabby went from walking like a paraplegic without a wheelchair, to just listing violently to one side. Then it was only her head that tilted. Twisted. As though it was her neck that got the brunt of whatever happened to her.
And while her body, miraculously, healed on its own, her brain never settled down again. She is ever alert for whatever monster might be on her tail. And her aggressiveness toward her aunt and cousin never diminishes.
But Bent Gabby had her own way of dealing with the familial tensions. She distanced herself. When I slept up on the top floor, she slept with me. At my feet. BUT NO PETTING!
When I moved back down into the ground floor, not approving of the change of temperature, she settled into the first floor, the livingroom/kitchen/sunroom floor. It was her domain.
The other two hung out with me in my vast room.
But then came the two boys. One, Tiberius, was almost immediately abandoned when his Human moved in, then moved out a bit later. The other, Demon, was beyond a doubt aptly named.
Tiberius is the one with the wrong name. If anyone remembers an old TV show, Dobie Gillis, Tiberius is really one of the characters from that show: Maynard G. Krebs. Maynard, who grew up to be Gilligan, was a beyond laid-back hippie. Let’s just say that were Maynard a real person and alive today, he would live in Colorado.
This is Tiberius. His reaction to walking into the coven of Lila’s cats, all extraordinarily put out by his very essence, is, What? What’s the matter? Don’t you like me?
On warm days, I open a window so the cats can pass in and out without my tending to them. Tiberius goes out. I close the window. He attempts to get back in.
By jumping into the window. Not being able to figure out what happened, he just decides that this is his way of asking to come in.
Even after I show him the door. And how it opens. All he has to do is ask. He has never learned to ask.
Last, and most certainly least, is Demon. Who is aptly named because I firmly believe that he was once a feral cat. When first around the house, he would do something and if anyone or anything moved during that something he was doing, he would scream, hiss, and flee. And attack.
He loved attacking.
And while I enjoy the freedom of having an entire floor of a house to myself, there is the major drawback of it having no real door to close off any invaders. The stairs twist around in such a way that there is privacy of a sort.
Just no barrier against cats who want to come visit.
When I asked that those two let’s-stir-up-trouble cats be kept in their respective Human’s rooms, or even share the suite of rooms that one of the Humans lives in, I was informed that the cats were to have the freedom of the house.
That meant I had the freedom to have all-out, holding-nothing-back cat fights in my room all throughout the night. Screaming, screeching, sometimes even bloody fights.
As the boys grew braver and made their raids onto my floor in broad daylight, I took real action.
I brought down my biggest wooden spoon. It’s over a foot long, with a hefty handle. When cat things got going, so did I. I didn’t care who got the brunt of the spoon. Because whichever one did, I got their attention.
Soon, I could back off from a direct strike to giving a good whack to something wooden in the room so that the sound got their attention. Which it did.
Then all I had to do was rise up with spoon in hand and all dispersed.
When I noticed that they all, to a cat, were paying me attention I began to attach words to my spoon-raising. I instructed them that this was not how we were going to behave on this floor.
And, oddly, I found that as I lectured them, they would turn and listen to me.
It’s not like I never spoke to any of the cats. I would coo at them if I were petting any one of them. I would compliment them, at times straining to think of something to say other than “not my cat; you’re not my cat.”
One day, completely frustrated by the cycle of incursion and retaliation, when I sat down for noon prayers, I spoke them aloud. Apparently, the sound of my voice mesmerized the cats. Not speaking to any one of them in particular. Not attempting to point out the futility of their behavior, they were nevertheless rapt.
I learned as I watched one snuggle into its place in preparation to attack another, crouching with trembling excitement, that I could interrupt its focus by speaking to it. I would strike up a conversation with the would-be assassin.
It never failed.
So I have taken to reading them poetry.
Like love, I find the concept of peace inscrutable. (Although I find that I can offer an “explanation” of love as a formalized means of saying, yes. It’s a key of some mystical sort.)
It seems to me that aggression comes from “I want to.” Just that. I feel like hitting someone so I do.
Peace, on the other hand, always seems to come from some sort of training. Some imposition that one puts on one’s urge to strike out.
Perhaps listening is the key. Except that aggression is too broad, too popular a course to reduce to a state of passivity in order for it to be able to listen.
How do we manage to get the attention of those who know and cherish the thrill of devastating someone else? The thrill of victory is not just something limited to sports.
We need a means of creating a big enough voice to get the attention of our bent and broken world. It means speaking together, aloud. And having something of worth to say.
But even in that little need, there will be dissension. Slowly wagging tails and bared fangs.
We’ve stopped listening.
All of us.
As a whole.
We’ve stopped listening not only to each other, but to the world as a whole. And beyond that even to God.
Perhaps it’s a matter of finding the right poetry to read out loud.
So this morning, I opened a poetry book to a poem. I was taken aback by its brevity. But, what the heck, I thought, I’ll read it.
A Larger Loneliness
by Eli Bosnick
One lone tree
is drinking God’s silence.
I thought I would have to read more. I thought that this poem was going to be inadequate. And yet, when I looked around, Broken Gabby was on the top level of the cat tree, looking down, looking alert. Wolverine was on one end of the couch. Her mother, Rachel, was on the other.
A miracle in the happening.
But the biggest surprise of all was Demon. He had made his way all the way across my room and onto my (still unmade) bed. This is the most coveted place in the room. Even Tiberius has relinquished his rights to be there. He tried, God knows. He tried. But he eventually handed over the place in the sun on my quilt to the ladies.
But here was Demon. Snuggled into the tousled bedding. Snoozing away. Feeling safe where he was.
I hesitated to shoo him from the bed to make it, as I do all the others. He seemed so at rest.
So I held off.
I kept checking to see if he had scampered off, to see if I could get on with my day in my normal order.
But no. Hour after hour, he laid there.
Finally, when I went upstairs to make a Welsh rarebit to put over broccoli, he followed me.
It was late in the day, but I could finally make my bed.
It was nice to give that little respite to the wild cat.
Anything in the name of peace, don’t you think?