Article by Ella Maillart:
When you see a cat of the kind you like, does the hollow of your hand feel the imperative desire to touch that warm, supple and secret life? I believe that by such a gesture we direct a tentacle towards the animal world, forgetting what separates us. And that we have always felt the need to send forth such living links in order to escape from our solitude – if such a thing is possible.
No beast was ever driven out of Paradise is what comes to mind when I think about the strange fascination cast on me by my cat, a fair queen with grey speckles. The same thought occurred to me one morning when admiring a foal on the top of a hillock, while it turned its proud head to fill its nostrils with a breeze coming from the great sky. Not yet subdued by man, a free animal that has remained truly itself is still in the Garden of Eden. And the dignity possessed by those perfect creatures fills me with an ever renewed admiration. But have I thus explained anything?
Nervous cats with their spine swelling among high grass, warm cats with a deep soft coat, with the glance of a nocturnal bird of prey, with ears as mounted on swivels, with a nonpareil hand made of tender cushions that can feel, contract with pleasure or arm themselves with dangerous, curved krisses: Astonishing, splendid cats – how can one speak about you without having penetrated your soul?
But all those who love you, aren’t they fanatics who will smile at my arguments? Thinking they know better, will they not silence me in order to speak about the unique animal they live with? As to those who never learned to appreciate you, I leave them to their fate because I would otherwise loose my time. So who will I be writing for? Nobody but me. I shall start by saying how grateful I am to the Cat for the constant joy she gives me when I see her beauty. Because of her charming ways I still feel enthusiastic – a state of mind proper to youth enraptured by the discovery of the world. Let us deal with what moves us and makes us enjoy life.
“To attain Reality, the shortest way is to learn how to love the right way, were it only your cat!”, a great sage told me in India because I had asked him if my selfishness would not prevent my ‘entering the way’, as the saying goes. I had also doubted if I could ever love a human being as much as my queer animal with which I share so many adventures. Do I have a friend who could match her? Just listen to this: Escaping from the tropical heat of Travancore, we were spending the night at Kodai Road Junction, having arrived at dusk by the Trivandrum express. In the waiting room I was the only person with a cat. At dawn she mewed so commandingly that I let her out – she was trained to come back to me within a few minutes. At eight o’clock we were to leave by bus for the hills. Alas! In the empty lots by the station, a pack of mongrel dogs had terrorised her, forcing her to vanish like lightening. I waited and searched, calling for hours, postponing my departure, all in vain. Then, deciding not to spend another night in that asphyxiating climate, I left her basket with an old coolie who had played with her – if still alive, she was bound to return to our last meeting place. Days went by. I begged the bus driver to question the station coolies; nobody knew anything. Six weeks later, a friend who knew my Ti-Puss left me to go down to the plains. At the railway station when the evening train was due, she thought she saw my cat; she called her, imitating my voice. The animal reacted, came nearer, but the train was arriving. The waiting room matron sent me a telegram. When I joined her, that calm woman had managed to tie a string around the neck of my cat. And to my amazement, I heard that every evening and for weeks, the faithful creature had appeared when the Trivandrum express was due. But creeping like a wild cat she growled and scared everybody away. Could I do otherwise but love with all my heart an animal putting such confidence in our friendship? And are there not quite a few like myself, able to love only an animal?
Shall I try to unravel my feelings? As I have said, I am writing but for myself. First of all, let me point out that a cat has the a unique ability to express her momentary state of mind to the utmost, and she does this just as perfectly with one kind of temper than with its contrary. Who else could be in turn the most passionate and the most detached? The most playful and the dreamiest? The most unruffled and the most tormented? The shrewdest actor and the frankest companion? Totally independent or discreetly devoted? And every one of her moods is so intense that we are always convinced and charmed.
Have you observed a bereaved cat? Eyes widened, cheek sunken in, sniffing the smell of the lost one, her sadness the more eloquent because it is dignified and sober? Or a cat that is ill - have you ever seen a more desperate attitude? On the contrary, when each hair of her living fur eagerly catches the message of the sun, when smooth whiskers follow the smile of the velvety mouth, when the mysterious M formed by her brows softens, and her purring grinds a throatful of happiness while her soft paws relax and move rhythmically in the living air – who else could, with such limited means, show happiness more intensely?
A few years ago, instead of writing a book, I used to play with my cat and her kittens. Feeling increasingly guilty, I found the following excuse: “One day I shall write up the life of this animal, and therefore I must to study her!” After that I felt quite happy. And I want to mention three things the cat can teach us: Concentration! Without it, no success, neither at work nor at play, we know that. Now look how the cat does it, she who seems to be always on the move and fascinated by a hundred things. For the last two hours, stone-like, she has been waiting near a mouse-hole, hypnotising the frightened little life hiding there. She hears my voice calling her and dismisses it. She remains motionless. It is no effort to her. And why? She is totally focused on what she does. She is not divided like us human beings – a part of us observing ourselves, or hesitating, thus remaining outside the action. Years ago my cat Frimousse used to spend hours by the lakeside, keeping watch: tiny sardines were being rolled over the flat pebbles by the warm wavelets. She was probably waiting for the setting sun to dazzle the fry excited by the stormy heat of the summer. When released at last and apparently supercharged by the waiting, her flashing movement seized a glistening fish under a hardly wetted paw. Concentration had allowed spontaneous as well as perfect action. I envy that integrality, that ‘power of being’ peculiar to animals. They live in a state of pure experience, where objects are not opposed to them. They cannot clearly isolate the “I” from the “non-I”, since they have not tasted of the forbidden tree. The ‘great all’ is open to them: the earth ripening towards an earthquake, the frame of the ship fated to sink, as well as the angels approaching us invisibly. Their full intuition can function since their being is devoid of the limitations pertaining to the ‘I’. For them, there is only life: the One without a second.
My cat also teaches the beauty of Play – how necessary it is, and that it has to be played seriously, the game of the moment. That game owes nothing to outer circumstances, since it is always alive in the depths of her fast-beating heart. Sitting serene and majestuous, what strikes my cat when all of a sudden she turns into the wildest acrobat? No companion is needed since all means are within her. To begin with and as a warning, the dark pupils open to their utmost limit; pierced by long bristles pointing forward, her little cheek swells. Straining every nerve, she jumps like a flea. She looks for her tail - a dangerous and slippery serpent that must be caught. Then, spying on a shadow – a pretext for becoming frightened - the hair of her spine stands on end like the crest of a dinosaur’s back. She rushes up a curtain as if chased by a rising flame. Then, droll quite unexpectedly, she takes cover under an open newspaper, pretending to be gone; but three whiskers and a curious eye-ball betray her. She also embraces a ball of wool to rip it up with her hind legs, strong and powerful connecting–rods. And as a finale, like a wild beast, she whips the air with a nervous tail before pouncing... on a midge! Then she adopts once more a noble bearing, while her half-smile seems to say “Do you really believe that I, the queen of this place, could a while ago have behaved like an exited wench, mad on being supple, strong and quick as lightening? You must be dreaming.
But what my cat teaches best is how to live in the Present. What has been, or what will be, does not worry her. She meets the fullness of every moment and makes the most of it. Who can do better? If you object that a cat dreams about juicy victims, I shall answer that the actual dream is taking place now – a cat does not dream about a mouse she will be catching next week. Obviously the success of our work or play is linked to the capacity of living completely in the present. This is to be remembered. In this way we are able to act fully and our future – which is nothing but the result of the present – would be the best possible. When the Gospel says that we must take no thought for the morrow, it is certainly pointing to the fact that we live too much in the future.
Like all cat lovers, I have so far talked only about my animal and her perfection. But I also wish to analyse my reactions before long-haired felines. Resembling furry flowers in pastel shades, they belong to a strange world. Their eyes haunt me. Their lives are enigmatic, willed by man to adorn our homes. Blue, grey or cream Persians, opulent living cushions - you belong to an unsettling world, not purely animal but even less human. Do you sometimes wander among ghosts, or do you simply look at them unconcernedly? Above your stubbed nose, your stare seems heavy with thoughts: Are you wondering in the back of your mind about the intermediate world you belong to, your life and heredity determined by breeding? I know of course that you are true cats – you have kept your independent character and will never need to be taken out like dogs that can be trained to become whatever one likes. But although you are cats, I can look coldly at your lion manes, your bulging foreheads, your short paws, and I am unable to appreciate the indistinct lines of your bodies.
For from the beginning, I have given my heart to wild looking short-haired cats. At each of their steps I like to see the shoulder blades roll under a speckled pelage looking too big for their slender frame. I want to admire the flat thigh outlined against the hollow flank and set to move by thin and nervous hamstring. I like a smooth tail expressing all sorts of reactions, asserting the impatience of an indomitable character. I want dark armlets on the silvery fur of thin paws, two dark pencil-strokes across the cheek and the temple, a black circle around the shiny gooseberry eye, a black lip enhanced by the snake-like triangle of a white chin, a fawn-coloured belly with soft and secret nooks, and “breeches” like a cowboy’s.
I especially like the alley-cat’s nervousness and its unpredictable reactions. Perhaps I also need to feel the fear – like the sharp edge of a spice – that my small companion might vanish in order to live quite freely: Her speckles are proof of the drop of wild blood that might cause that decision, cancelling out the links that formed between us through habit. Ah, such a creature owes nothing to breeders: She is entirely in the animal world - she is the pith of it.
© Ella Maillart, Chandolin sur Sierre, 1950