The Trouble (Annals of Pard: V)
by Ursula K. Le Guin
I’ve never had a cat before who directly challenged me. I don’t look for much obedience from a cat; the relationship isn’t based on rank or a dominance hierarchy as with dogs, and cats have no guilt and very little shame. I expect a cat to steal food left out on the counter knowing perfectly well that that he’ll be swotted if caught. Greed, and possibly the joy of theft, overrides the slight fear. Stupid human me to leave food out on the counter. I expect a cat who has been scolded or swotted for getting up on the dining table to get up on the dining table and leave little footprints all over it, because he sees no reason to refrain from doing so, when I’m not in the room. When found later, the evidence of the little footprints will have passed the statute of limitations. To make any sense to a cat, retaliation for wrongdoing must be immediate. The cat knows that as well as I do, which is why I expect him to do wrong while I’m not in the room, and don’t expect him to do wrong while I am.
To do wrong under my very eyes strains our relationship. It demands scolding, swotting, shouting, flight, pursuit, commotion. It is a challenge, a deliberate invitation to trouble. And this is where Pard is different from the many and various cats who have companioned me. They were all like me — they wanted to avoid trouble.
Pard wants to make it.
He isn’t a troublesome cat. His hygiene is impeccable. He is gentle. He never steals food. (To be sure, this is only because he doesn’t recognise anything but certain brands of kibbled catfood and crunchy cat-treats as food. I can leave the pork cutlets on the counter while he’s waiting hungrily for his quarter-cup of dinner kibbles, and he won’t even get up to sniff them. I could put a piece of bacon on top of the kibbles and he would eat them and leave it. I could lay a filet of sole down on him and he would shake it off with contempt and go away.)
He challenges me by doing what he’s forbidden to do. And I guess there really aren’t a lot of things he’s forbidden, besides jumping up on the mantel and knocking off the kachinas.
He isn’t allowed to get on the dining table, but there’s nothing to do there but leave footprints. The mantel, which is a really big jump even for Pard, is the only unprotected display place left in the house for small ornamental things; all the others have found safe havens unreachable even by airborne cats. So jumping up onto the mantel has become his goal, his challenge.
But only if I am in the room.
He’ll spend all day in the living room and never look at the fireplace, until I come in. A while after we’ve both been there, Pard begins to glance at the mantelpiece. His eyes get rounder and blacker. He wanders carelessly about on a chair-arm (allowed) or side-table (allowed) near the fireplace. He stands up on his hind legs to sniff a lampshade or the top of the firescreen very thoroughly with enormous interest, always a little closer to the mantelpiece. Till, usually when I’m not looking but not quite not looking, he’s airborne, and up on the mantel knocking something off. Then scolding, shouting, flight, pursuit, etc. — Trouble! Mission accomplished.
Recently, there is an added element: the squirt bottle. As soon as he looks at the mantel I pick up the squirt bottle. The first couple of times, when he made ready to jump onto the mantel and I squirted him, he was totally taken aback. He didn’t even associate the squirt with the bottle. He does now. But it merely adds a new flavor, a new spice, to the Trouble. It doesn’t keep him off the mantel.
I gave in a couple of days ago and moved all the little kachinas to a haven, leaving only the two big ones and some outstanding rocks. But this morning, while I was doing Downward Dog with my back turned, Pard jumped up onto the mantel and knocked off the lump of Tibetan turquoise, taking a chip out of it when it hit the hearth.
The ensuing Trouble was pretty intense, although I never could get anywhere near close enough to swot him. He knew I was mad. He has been terribly polite ever since, and inclined to fall over and wave his paws in an innocently endearing manner. He’ll go on that way till we’re all in the living room this evening and the need for Trouble arises in him again.
This little cat so deeply shaped by human expectation, the tamest cat I ever had, has a flame of absolute, wilful wildness.
I’m sure some of it’s the boredom factor — a young cat with old people, an indoors cat… But Pard doesn’t have to be an indoor cat. He chooses to.
The catflap is opened for him all through daylight, at his request or at our suggestion. Sometimes he goes out onto the deck, looks down into the garden, birdwatches for a few minutes, and comes back. Or he may go out and turn right around and come back. Or he may say oh, no, thanks, it’s very large out there, and quite cold this time of year, so I think I’ll stand here halfway out the catflap for a while and then back back in. What he doesn’t do is stay out. When the weather warms up and we’re outside too, he will, but not enthusiastically. He’ll go out and go down and eat some of the kind of grass that makes him throw up and come back indoors and throw it up on the rug. That isn’t Trouble-making, it’s just Cat-being.
There is no moral to this story, and no conclusion. Wish me luck with the squirt bottle.