ode to a Cat

Twelve years ago, one of my high school English teachers congratulated me on graduating, and gave me a thoughtful gift that I still appreciate – poems by Neruda. Now its cover is warped and pages are faded, but I’ve nearly memorized my favorite verse from the collection:  ‘Oda al Gato’

For no reason other than cats are awesome, here’s a (translated) excerpt:

“your kind
need not puzzle us, surely –
you, the least of the mysteries
abroad in the world, known to us all, the pawn
of the lowliest householder –
or they think so! –
for each calls himself master,
proprietor, playfellow,
cat’s uncle, colleague,
the pupils of cats
or their cronies.

Not I:
I reckon things otherwise.
I shall never unriddle the cat.
I take note of the other things: life’s archipelagoes,
the sea, the incalculable city,
botanical matters,
the pistil, the pistil’s mutations,
plus-and-minus arithmetic,
volcanoes that funnel the earth
the improbable rind of the crocodile,
the fireman’s unheeded benevolence,
the atavist blue of the clergyman-
but never the cat!
We do not concern him: our reasoning boggles,
and his eyes give their numbers in gold.”

 

When I’m hanging out with my cat (London, seen above) I really feel Neruda’s words. London doesn’t want to be a human, or dinosaur, or anything else. He doesn’t care about wearing pants. He has serious business to attend to, all the time. I don’t know what it is – but it’s serious.

His most beloved way of attention-getting is the head-butt. If there is something he deems I should be paying attention to, head-butts are distributed until I comply.

If I’m sleeping in, and he decides I have better things to do, he plucks the strings on my guitar with his teeth until I’m awake. He has is own bed, and uses it often, but prefers sometimes to stage his dreams on top of mine, pawing his way into a cocoon on my pillow. His bed, my bed, the breakfast bar. Any flat surface will do. Naps are unscheduled and frequent.

Some cats aren’t friendly. They hide under the bed when company arrives, or they haunt their people from high perches, sneering down unlovingly. London is the opposite. He will climb your legs and shoulders at first introduction. He prefers to carefully screen any reading material I pick up before I can settle in with it, swatting at the pages, sprawling across the entire book.

I don’t know what chorus he learned it from, but many afternoons a concert takes place in the bathtub. Merrroooh, Murraww, Meereew, he sings – it bounces off the bare tiles, loudly. When he isn’t singing, sometimes he is annoyed, and then his voice is inexplicably an exact replica of Marge Simpson’s groan – Mrhhrrmmmmmhh.

Sometimes I wonder how his memory works. If he sees a suitcase start filling up with clothes, it becomes abundantly clear that he is Not O.K. with anyone leaving, even if it’s been months since the last time he saw a suitcase. But on a regular basis, he needs a soft reminder that eating my plants is an offense punishable by water bottle squirting.

He used to live with his brother, Paris, but they are now separate. As kittens they got along famously, but they’ve now been apart for a few years. I’m curious what kind of a reunion they might have. Would it be, “Oh, hey bro, good to see you again”…? Or something more like “I’m going to pee right now, on this carpet, so you know that I belong here and you don’t.”

Head-butting is a great attention-getter, and he employs it often. But he can also work below the radar to let humans know where the power really lies.

Coming home a few years ago to my apartment, after a long workday, I found some of my neighbors outside talking with a group of firefighters. Someone had left their gas burner on, and filled the building up with noxiousness. It wasn’t me, of course, because I am Super Responsible.

But… walking inside, and finding my apartment door open, I was shocked. It was coming from my apartment. I hadn’t used the stove in days – how was this possible?

London winked at me from the corner. The knob on the stove had been turned by his little paw, just enough to start up the gas without a flame. In his innocent leaps and bounds across my kitchen appliances, harmlessly searching for a snack, my furry friend had made an invitation to the fire department.

I’ve since forgiven him. What choice do I have? Not only did he maintain my favor, but I continue to shovel his poop from a box of sand whenever he decides its necessary.

When he’s scrunched up into a little cat-ball, quietly looking through the window out upon the wild, vast expanse of the patio, eyes wide open, fixed intently on this, and then that, and then another thing – something must be on his mind. But as Neruda said, I’m not going to be the guy who finally unriddles it.

Leave a Reply