Choosing a Cat (Annals of Pard: I)
by Ursula K. Le Guin
I have never chosen a cat before. I have been chosen by the cat, or by people who offered us a cat. Or a kitten was weeping up in a tree on Euclid Avenue and needed to be rescued and grew up into a fourteen-pound grey tiger tom who populated our neighborhood in Berkeley for blocks around with grey tiger kittens. Or pretty golden Mrs Tabby, probably after an affair with her handsome golden brother, presented us with several golden kittens, and we kept Laurel and Hardy. Or when Willie died, we asked Dr Morgan to let us know if anybody left a kitten at the veterinary door the way people do, and she said it wasn’t likely because it was long past kitten season, but next morning there was a six-month-old in a tuxedo on her doorstep, and she called us up, and so Zorro came home with us for thirteen years.
After Zorro died, last spring, there had to be the emptiness.
Finally it began to be time that the house had a soul again (some Frenchman said that the cat is the soul of the house, and we agree). But no cat had chosen us or been offered to us or appeared weeping in a tree. So I asked my daughter if she’d come to the Humane Society with me and help me choose a cat.
A middle-aged, sedate, homebody cat, suitable for owners in their eighties. Male, for no reason but that the cats I have loved most dearly were males. Black, I hoped, as I like black cats and had read that they are the least popular choice for adoption.
But I wasn’t particular about details. I was nervous about going. I dreaded it in fact.
How can you choose a cat? And what about the ones I couldn’t choose?
The Humane Society’s Portland office is an amazing place. It is immense, and I saw only the lobby and the cat wing — rooms and rooms and rooms of cats. There’s always somebody, staff and volunteers, at hand if you want them. Everything is organised with such simple efficiency that it all seems easygoing and friendly — low-stress. When you are one of the huge number of people coming daily to bring in or adopt animals, when you see the endless incoming and outgoing of animals and glimpse the tremendous, endless work involved in receiving and treating and keeping them, the achievement of that easy-going atmosphere seems almost incredible and totally admirable.
The human-animal interface is a very troubled one these days, and in one sense the Humane Society shows that trouble at its most acute. Yet in everything I saw there, I also saw the best of what human beings can do when they put their heart and mind to it.
Well, so, we found our way in to the cat wing, and looked about a bit, and it turned out that at the moment there were very few middle-aged cats for adoption. The ones that were there mostly came from one place, which I’d read about recently in the newspaper: a woman with ninety cats who was sure she loved them all and was looking after them and they were all fine and… you know the story, a sad one. The Humane Society had taken about sixty of them. The nice aide whom we began to follow around told us that they weren’t in as bad shape as most animals in those situations, and were fairly well socialised, but they weren’t in very good shape either, and would need special care for quite a while to come. That sounded a bit beyond me.
Aside from them, most of the cats there were kittens. Kittening was very late this year, she said. Just like tomatoing, I thought.
In one room of six or eight kittens, Caroline noticed an agitated nylon play-tube which seemed to contain at least two active animals, one black and one white. Eventually one small cat emerged, very black-and-white and pleased with himself. Our guide told us he was older than most of them — a year old. So we asked to see him. We went to the interview room and she came in with the little fellow in the tuxedo.
He seemed very small for a year old; seven pounds, she said. His tail stood straight up in the air, and he purred most amazingly, and talked a good deal in a rather high voice, and often fell over in a playful/appeasement position. He was clearly, and naturally, anxious. He clung a little to the aide, till she left us alone with him. He wasn’t really shy, didn’t mind being picked up and handled and petted, though he wouldn’t settle on a lap. His eyes were bright, his coat sleek and soft, the black tail stood straight up, and the black spot on his left hind leg was terminally cute.
The aide came back, and I said, “O.K.”
She and my daughter were both a little surprised. Maybe I was too.
“You don’t want to look at any others?” she asked.
No, I didn’t. Send him back, look at other cats, make a choice of one, maybe not him? I couldn’t. Fate or the Lord of the Animals or whatever had presented me with a cat, again. O.K.
His previous owner had conscientiously filled out the Humane Society questionnaire. Her answers were useful and heart-breaking. Reading between some of the lines, I learned that he lived his first year with his mother and one sibling in a household where there were children under three, children from three to nine, and children from nine through fourteen, but no men.
The reason why all three cats were given up for adoption was stark: “Could not afford to keep.”
He had been only four days at the Humane Society. They had neutered him right away and he was recovering fast; he was in excellent health, had been well fed, well treated, a sociable, friendly, playful, cheerful little pet. I do not like to think of the tears in that family.
He has been with us a month today. As his first owner warned, he is somewhat shy of men. But not very. And not afraid of children, though sensibly watchful. We lived thirteen years with shy, wary Zorro, who feared many things — including my daughter Caroline, because once she stayed in our house with two big, unruly dogs, and for ten years he never forgave her. But this fellow is not timid. In fact he is perhaps too fearless. He grew up as an inside-outside cat. Here, he won’t go outside till the weather gets warm. But then he must. I can only hope he knows what to be afraid of, out there.
Like many young cats, he goes wild as a buck once or twice a day, flying about the room about three feet off the ground, knocking things off and over, getting into all kinds of trouble. Shouts of disapproval are ineffective, little swats on the butt are slightly effective, and he understands, and remembers, what No! and a preventing hand in front of his nose means. But I found to my distress that sometimes a threateningly raised hand will cause him to cringe and crouch like a beaten dog. I don’t know what that comes from, but I can’t stand it. So shout and swat and No! is all I can do.
Vonda sent me a whole bucket full of Superballs, wonderful for solo soccer games and working off excess energy. He’s good at all varieties of String Game. When he wins at String-on-a-Stick, he walks off with the string and the stick and likes to carry the whole thing downstairs, clatter rattle bump. He is quite good at Paws Beneath the Door, but hasn’t yet got the point of Paws Between the Banisters — because there were no banisters in the house he grew up in. That was clear, the first few days, when he tried to navigate our stairs, a landform entirely new to him. The learning process was extremely funny, and dangerous to us ancients, who are unsteady enough on stairs without a confused cat suddenly appearing belly up on the next stair down or darting madly crossways right in front of your foot. But he mastered all that, and now races up and down far ahead of us, barely touching the stairs at all, as to the manor born.
They warned us at the Humane Society that there was a feline cold going around, probably from the rescued cats, and he probably had it; there’s nothing they can do about it, any more than a kindergarten can. So he brought it home, and was a very snuffly little body for two weeks. Not a totally bad start, since he wanted to cuddle and sleep a lot, and we could get to know one another quietly. I didn’t worry much about him, because he had no fever and never for a moment lost his appetite. He had to snort to breathe while he ate, but he ate, and ate… Kibbles. Oh! Kibbles! Oh, joy! Oh gourmet delight, oh tuna and sushi and chicken liver and caviar all in one! I guess kibbles is all he ever had to eat. So Kibbles is Food. And he loves Food. He just loves it. He certainly won’t bother us with his finicky, demanding tastes. But it may take strong willpower (ours) to prevent globularity in this cat. We will try.
He is pretty, but his only unusual beauty is his eyes, and you have to look closely to realise it. Right around the large dark pupil they are green, and around that, reddish-yellow. I had seen that magical change in a semiprecious stone: he has eyes of chrysoberyl. Wikipedia tells us that chrysoberyl or alexandrite is a trichroic gem. It shows emerald green, red, or orange yellow depending on the angle of the light.
While he had the cold and we were lying around together I tried out names. Alexander was too imperial, Chrysoberyl far too majestic. Pico was one that seemed to fit him, or Paco. But the one he kept looking around at when I said it was Pard. It started out as Gattopardo (the Leopard, Lampedusa’s Prince Fabrizio). That was too long for anybody his size, and got cut down to Pardo, and then turned into Pard, as in pardner.
Hey, Little Pard. I hope you choose to stay around a while.
9 January 2012
City of the Plain, by Ursula K. Le Guin
A poem from The Wild Girls, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Play the Podcast of “City of the Plain.”
PM Press Outspoken Authors #06, May 1, 2011