“Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet/ Under sleep, where all the waters meet.”
— T.S. Eliot, “Marina”
It was a perfect day of spring last Saturday. My friend had come to visit from far for a couple of days, and we were about to go into town and drift around. Suddenly, the doorbell rings. It’s the cobbler who sits outside our gate on the pavement. He has spied a cat lying dead under a car parked opposite our house and was wondering… We freeze for a moment, but I know already. It takes us a few more seconds to find out. It’s our little ginger-and-white cat, grown just beyond the kitten stage and pretty beyond measure, lying still on its side with a deep gash on one side of its neck.
The death of an animal is a strange experience — at once more ‘natural’, less disruptive of the order of things, than a human death and more unfathomable. Around animals, there is none of the metaphysics that tries to map the undiscovered country into which human beings disappear. Having lived beyond words all their lives, animals die as simply as they are loved. But the absolutely simple is also the absolutely mysterious.
It is one of those ironies of etymology that anima means ‘soul’ in Latin. Given the soulfulness of dogs, who can think of a creature as remote and inscrutable as a cat possessing a soul? Loving them is often pure projection: their needs form the most perfect screen on which to cast the persistent flicker of our need to be needed. So, when they disappear or die, we are left with a cat-shaped hole filled with the blankness of a peculiar grief, at once aching and alien, resisting yet informing the familiar.
Our cat came to us out of nowhere late one night a few months ago, calling lustily from the garden until we took it in. It seemed to know no fear, though every bit a kitten, and sensed instantly in my father not only an old history of unconditional surrender to its species, but also a new history of loss — a void created by the death of my mother, whose irreplaceability in his life could be redeemed only by something non-human. In the cold, hard winter months that followed, the two of them developed a closeness that was almost shockingly creatural. I was reading The Poetics of Space at the time — Gaston Bachelard’s classic about how the different parts of our homes take on different kinds of meaning and value — and remember stopping at the phrase, “the primitiveness of refuge”, and thinking about my father and the cat. Purely on the basis of the need for food and warmth on the cat’s part, and the need for company on my father’s, the two of them had come to touch some primal core in each other’s being. Love and grief spring from this core, as do hunger, sleep and the fear of pain. The cat’s body soon grew to fit the crook of my father’s arm and the contours of his lap. So he read his book undisturbed for the entire morning every day as the cat slept soundly in one of those two of its favourite places.
Looking at them together, I realized that ‘pets’ — silly word — go back to a very early phase in the evolution of human domesticity, when newly homing hunters and gatherers built their habitats as much for their beasts as for themselves and there was no separation of living, sleeping and feasting spaces within the domus. Our delight in burrowing under a blanket with a hot-water bottle, or in warming ourselves against the body of a great shaggy dog in bed, goes back to something older than ancient that survives the triumph of central heating. Like our attachment to wood, paper or cotton, the leather and fur that we covet in our corrected lives and wardrobes take us back, beyond cruelty or fashion, to a mingling of the human and the bestial; the sanitizing power of modernity cannot exorcize this entirely from our bodies’ memory. Look at how the shelterless sleep in the open, entangled with one another and with rags, refuse, fires, dogs, cats, cows and mosquitoes — a floating community of bodily solace in extremis, both alluring and discomfiting for respectable passers-by.
This timeless huddle of man, woman, child and beast — for which the most sophisticated of human bodies can sometimes long — exists with another, more contrary, experience of the presence of animals in our domestic lives. As we spent more time with our cat, we gradually picked up the rhythms of its needs and feelings — nuances of mewing, changes in eye colour, variations of play, even the ghost of a smile. But animal intelligence and emotions are tricky: they seduce us into anthropomorphic regard, and just when we think we know, we are faced with the unknown.
In the little twitches and tremors of a sleeping cat’s body, the tiny convulsions of its paws, the quivering of its whiskers, the mysteries of sleep, and of dreams that are not our own, are brought close to us, but without the familiarity of the human — therefore doubly strange. Sometimes, I would see it sitting very upright with a look of such impenetrable stillness that I would think of how right the Egyptians were to put the cat at the centre of their mythology and metaphysics. Suddenly, something completely Other, complete and Other, would take fleeting shape in the midst of our home, something we lived with and loved, but could never fathom.
Later that morning, my friend and I did go out as planned. But the lovely ochre light of spring and the wind rustling through the bougainvillaea in the old houses of the city were suffused with a peculiarly tender feeling of loss. There was a diminutive quality to that feeling, making it sharper and more elusive than normal sadness. As if what one felt for a dead kitten had to be physically smaller than what one felt for a dead human being. Is the death of a kitten an event on a different scale, as it were, from the death of an elephant, lion or tiger? What is the relationship between the magnitude of our grief and the size of what we have lost? Can a mosquito be mourned?
Tired and thirsty after wandering around, we stopped for a drink, and suddenly my friend pointed behind me and said, “Look!” I turned round and saw a large poster of Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the wall: Audrey Hepburn with the famous long cigarette-holder and, on one of her delicate shoulders, her little ginger cat, called simply Cat, indispensable to that bittersweet tale of lightness and loss. How apt, I thought, that Cat’s mistress should be called Holly Golightly. To be able to go lightly — a gift.