The Cat Letters
(obediently transcribed by Elisabeth and Ursula Le Guin)
Although incomplete, these letters are of great interest in revealing much concerning the Five Deliberations.
Though practiced openly and constantly by most cats, the actual nature of the Deliberations has remained obscure to most humans. Frederika’s revelation of them by name and her description of the practice to her correspondent Zorro is an epoch in our understanding of feline thought, and should clarify many mysteries of feline behavior.
At the time these letters were written, Zorro was about twelve, and had been in control of two humans in Portland, Oregon, for many years. Orphaned and abandoned as a kitten, he had had little or no teaching from elders of his kind, and had worked out a code of behavior of his own which was not always entirely satisfactory to himself or others. His epistolary friendship with Frederika was a great boon to him.
The growing bond between him and Opal was less intellectual, but of considerable interest also, particularly as regards their discussions of humping and biting.
Frederika, in middle age, was in full control of a single human, in West Hollywood, California. A somewhat troubling element had recently been introduced into her life in the person of Opal, a completely uneducated young cat, whose presence certainly caused Federika to call upon the spirit and practice of the Deliberations more actively than ever. But it is clear that Frederika was an adept, a true sage, ready to teach any who called upon her for teaching — as Zorro did, though Opal unfortunately did not.
There are no pictures currently available of the three correspondents. Zorro always wore tuxedo. Frederika still dresses in subtle and becoming grey; Opal favors a mixture of rather gaudy colors including orange, white, and black.
The opening letters of the correspondence have been lost. It ended, sadly, with Zorro’s death in 2011, only a few weeks after his last letter to Opal.
First Series — December 2010
Zorro to Opal and Frederika
Dear Opal and Frederika,
I wanted to tell you about the mouse I caught. I have let my humans catch the other mice, under the sink in the kitchen, because the mice have an escape hole there, but the humans have this box trap, and all I have to do is stand at the cabinet door and lash my tail and make my eyes into searchlights until they realise that there is a mouse in there and set the trap for it.
The mouse in the attic study was however more accessible to me and after long strategic planning I caught it by knocking over a wastebasket and a few other things in a prolonged, noise-producing, highly satisfying Chase Scene. I then brought it down to the front bedroom, where, naturally, I released it so it could play with me educationally. It played with me a little bit but then cheated and got down into the furnace grate and disappeared, which is unfair. They watched with great interest, I will say that for them, but I doubt they learned much. How can I teach them how to catch mice without traps if the mouse does not cooperate?
I ate the first mouse I ever caught and part of the second one but then decided that they are far more interesting and valuable educationally.
Wishing you asparagus, calves’ liver, and sufficient ham,
Your Friend at a Distance,
Frederika to Zorro
Here in our big pink building we do not have mice. I have searched quite extensively. This is unfortunate, and I suspect foul play on the part of the humans. Opal clearly does not know what a mouse is; she is very young and ignorant; how is she to learn the basics???
There have however been birds on occasion. I remember with fondness the last, a young crow that I dismembered at leisure in the living room. The human living with me at that time was thoughtful enough to let me take all afternoon at it.* It is a pity Opal was not there at that time, it would have been a fine anatomy lesson.
However there have not been birds of late and so I have entered upon the practice of the Five Deliberations. I was in the preliminary phases when Opal arrived, apparently to stay. This was fortuitous, since her youthful abysmal ignorance and silliness have provided me with much opportunity to intensify my practice of the Second Deliberation.**
I have few complaints. For some reason Opal’s food tastes consistently better than my own, but this situation is easily remedied. Less easy to remedy is the Usual Human’s consistent unwillingness to arise for the 4 AM Snack required by all true Practicants; but I have found a particular spot to scratch on the headboard of the bed which usually effects a response.
When this is inefficacious, I have been known to lick the tip of her nose. There is, of course, no personal affection implied, consistent with the Foundational Deliberation.***
On this windy night I send you all due Crunchy Treats, and a dollop of half-and-half,
* (note from Human: this was my last tenant but one, Marianna, who wrote me about it while I was in Spain. She is an ardent vegan. She left the scene in dismay, and made her boyfriend clean it up.)
Opal to Zorro:
Zorro to Frederika:
I am deep in admiration concerning the crow. I had quite given up on birds since they have these stupid front leg sort of things (even worse than the humans’ “arms”) which they use to go up off into the air with. It is abnormal and unjust.
My mouse used the Furnace Vent Routes and is now on the ground floor, behind the stove. I spent most of the day crouching and lashing my tail at his exit route. I am glad that the humans have set their little trap there so that I can go up to the blue chair and go to sleeep, I have certainly earned it.
I should like to know more of the Deliberations.
I have certain Practices. One of them I think resembles your Headboard Scratching, but it is a little more direct; it consists of Head Scratching. When the Female Human is facing the wrong way in bed (lying on her left side) she needs to be rearranged, so I come and scratch the top of her head (quite gently, barely any claw extrusion at all) until she turns over and faces the correct direction (lying on her right side) so that I can lie down beside her pillow with my butt in her face and go to sleep.
Head Scratching is quite effective. Has never failed yet. You might try it.
Zorro to Opal:
Your Distant Friend,
Frederika to Zorro:
Herewith the Five as I have been taught them. I hope that you find them useful.
1. Reserve (The Foundational Deliberation) A host of divergent translations reflect regional and philosophical variations: The Cat that Walks by Himself (Great Britain and former colonies); Self-Sufficiency (North America); Cat Tvam Asi (East Asia); and (among Japanese temple cats) Mu.
3. The Warmth Asana (sometimes expressed as an equation,
x = 1/b2
where x is the ambient temperature and b2 the amount of fur exposed to air). The physical calibrations required to maintain equilibrium can be enormously delicate in a mild climate such as that of my home.
4. Placement (Feng Shui). Finding the right place in which to practice, relative to current conditions (topography, temperature, astrological factors, misguided attempts at reading by humans).
5. Sameness. That things should be always the same goes without saying; maintaining Sameness in a world prone to lamentable irregularities that are out of our control (I need only mention the terrible Cat Carrier) is said to be the highest discipline of them all. In a certain sense the first four Deliberations can be considered preliminary to the Fifth.
I wish a satisfying outcome to your labors with the mouse.
Opal to Zorro:
I like playing with human underwear, do you?
Zorro to Frederika:
I deeply admire your formulation of the Five Deliberations. It is clear that you have acquired true wisdom. As it is said, Adversity is the Mother of Felinity. I wish you, if Perfect Sameness is unattainable, at least a monotonous Regularity perturbed only by the slightest variations, such as the occasional crow.
The mouse has not evidenced itself recently, so I have retired to the attic furnace grate, which is covered by a carpet which spreads the heat out nicely, thus facilitating the Third Deliberation, and is also near the blue chair where the human sits making those misguided attempts to read from which, by judicious exercise of the Fourth Deliberation, I can often save him.
Your Friend, remotely,
Zorro to Opal:
No. I like humping fleece things while going oww, wowww, do you?
Opal to Zorro:
Dear Uncle Zorro,
Right now I am alone in my Private Place because I got mad at Auntie Fredi and said bad things.
She made me mad because she wanted to go on the human’s lap but so did I. This was Not Fair. And then she went up on a piece of furniture that was higher than me and looked down on me all superior the way she does. Her and her Deliberations, phhht. So I went in the middle of the floor and looked away from everybody and made my eyes all greeny and lashed my tail and said grrrr, grrrr, ooowwwwooo.
And then when the human put me in the Private Place I bit her. I am sorry for that part, but sometimes bites come out and have to be bitten.
But now I am feeling better and softer and when the human comes to the door she will bring me a treat because she always does.
What is humping?
Frederika to Zorro:
I forgot to mention a refinement to the Fourth Deliberation with which you are doubtless familiar; it concerns computers and tails. With practice, and constant delicate flicking adjustments, it is possible to cover a surprising number of the keys that the human wants to tap upon. This can often result in being invited, even if somewhat ungently, onto the Lap. That is where I currently reside.
P.S. Of course I do not look down on anyone even when I am superior to them. I am Ignoring; but the ignorant do not recognize this.
Zorro to Opal:
Dear Young Opal,
You must not say phhht to your Aunt Fredi. Saying phhht is excessively kittenish and you are not a kitten any more. Consider, for example, that you have a Private Place, in which you may withdraw, or be withdrawn, to practice both the Foundational and the Great Fifth Deliberations at leisure. Kittens have no Private Places except momentarily inside cartons, drawers, cupboards, etc. and then another kitten or two or six always crowds in, rendering Reserve impossible and destroying all hope of Sameness. You are a fortunate young Cat and should behave as such.
I entirely understand and approve of your philosophy of bites. If I had not lost my lower fangs (when a foolish and trusting youth, I was attacked by a viciously unstable small end-table), my own practice of the custom would be even more effective than it is. I favor the wrist, which bleeds most satisfactorily, do you?
As for humping, I feel perhaps you should consult your Aunt on this subject. It concerns gender, about which I find my ideas not as clear as I should like them to be. I know that gender is what divides us into Toms and Queens, but having begun life ( I am quite certain) as a Tom kitten, I do not seem to be a Tom cat, yet am quite certain that I am not an old Queen. Perhaps fleece blankets and shirts do not have the peculiar fascination for you that they have for me, so I shall say no more about humping at this time.
I wish you excellent, crunchy, utterly undeserved treats.
Zorro to Frederika:
Ah what poetry is in your saying: “I am Ignoring, but the ignorant do not recognise this.” I deeply sympathise with your being required to live with a young and ignorant companion. When I had a companion we were both young and ignorant. I bit him all the time. He never bit back, which was annoying, though I now understand it as showing that he was more advanced in the Foundational Deliberation than I. The good die young. Perhaps to you, an advanced Practicant, biting is on the same low order as saying phhht? I hope not, as I still truly enjoy a good lightning bite every now and then. I was glad to find, however, while I was carrying my mouse around, that my control was as good as ever; the mouse was entirely undamaged. And how did the humans receive this careful, thoughtful presentation, when it got up and ran off? With shrieks and lamentation! I shall never understand them.
May the food of Opal taste ever better to the Aunt of Opal.
And if, as I think may be, you are about to go into the House of Exile, may your time in the Horrible Carrier be brief, and may your mastery of all Five Deliberations make your time there pass like the dream of a winter’s night.
The Second Series of Letters, Jan-Feb 2011
Fredi to Zorro:
There are things I do not understand.
My human is sitting (of which I approve). She has been sitting most of the day (better still). She is working with her tablet that vibrates and emits light and occasionally noises—I know you must know whereof I speak, these tablets seem to accompany most humans—and of course I help her. I keep her lap suitably warm, and when her tension level or my desire to snack rises beyond a certain level, I invoke Sameness distract her and reestablish balance. I am used to her sometimes irritable responses to this and I do not mind them because they always eventually result in my getting what I want.
All of this is well known. The part I do not understand is her consistent failure to understand and appreciate my artistic applications of the Fourth Deliberation tail techniques. Over time I have practiced the artistic tail placements designed to enhance the beauty and usefulness of any work surface, duly adapted to the tablet: Tip Rests on Delete Key; Delicately Brushing Trackpad; and so on.
Today, to honor her for spending such an unusually long time so nicely seated, I invoked the rare and exquisite Full Length Cross Keyboard Adornment. She was utterly unappreciative. Indeed I found myself summarily upon the floor, as if I were a mere kitten. I was quite offended…I wondered whether you had had any similar rebuffs and how you dealt with them.
PS now however I am doing it again and she is letting me, by typing gently around and beneath my tail…perhaps progress can be made after all. Persistence and steadfastness are key.
Zorro to Fredi, February 2011:
Some time ago you wrote me a letter, which I apologise for not replying to sooner, concerning your human’s odd behaviour in relation to your refined application of Fourth Deliberation Tail Technique.
I should shrug (if I had shoulders to shrug with) and dismiss this as typical human lack of appreciation of many applications of the Fourth Deliberation — such as their objection to one’s gracefully sudden Placement between their face and a book or newspaper, their resistance to proper Bed Feng Shui arrangements, etc. — if it did not concern the tail.
I have a great interest in tail management. My tail is one of my best attributes. I carry it rather low, lion style. It is not full and fluffy, of course; I pride myself on my shorthair ancestry. It is very long, very black, very flexible, and I employ it with immense variety and eloquence.
My female has, I am happy to say, a quite admirable admiration of my tail, and distinctly appreciates its rhetorical and ornamental flourishes, as well as some of its subtler Placements, such as the slow draw across the cheek when napping, and the evanescent wrap about the leg when requesting treats.
Obviously, your tail, like mine, is faultless. Therefore I wonder if the problem is with the tablet, rather than with the tail?
The tablet is, I have come to believe, a very evil creature. It is not alive, but it definitely has powers — not crude ones, such as the horrible Vacuum Monster, which destroys one’s self-possession by mere roaring and bellowing as it runs about — but subtle powers, to which the humans become deeply in thrall. It absorbs their energies in a strange way, leading them to ignore even Us.
I have found the wisest course to be total avoidance of the tablet. I do not set paw upon it even when it is shut up like a box. I do not attempt to sit upon the female when the tablet is casting its spell of vibrations, lights, and clicking noises on her. If I want something while she is under the tablet spell, I walk around and around her chair, using the delicate and charming evanescent tail wraps I mentioned above, leaning warmly against her legs, purring ostentatiously, looking up sweetly, etc.
If this does not work, and such is the malign power of the tablet, it often doesn’t, then I unsheath. I begin to scratch alternately at her pants leg (very lightly) and on the wall next to her (rather loudly). I believe you use this latter technique on the headboard of her bed when she is violating Bed Feng Shui? It is quite effective, is it not? After a while she always hisses and gets up and goes downstairs to serve me my Soupy Supper so that I can ignore it for several hours before I eat it in the middle of the night.
You might try this form of Placement in order to obtain your wishes. But I am so sorry your female does not properly appreciate your tail. It is very sad.
Zorro to Opal:
Dear Young Opal,
I don’t know why it is, but you bring out something feral in me and so I have been wanting to ask you if you get violent impulses that overwhelm you so that you just go and do them?
The female human was petting my wonderfully thick, dense, silky, warm fur and I was purring away in full observation of the Third and Fifth Deliberations, when like lightning the desire to bite came upon me, and like lightning I bit.
I have only two fangs ever since the table attacked me, but they are extremely effective fangs. It was a forearm slash. She hissed furiously and swatted my elegant, slender backside quite hard. It was almost a cat reflex — but she can’t unsheath, so it did no harm. I hissed back at her, leapt off the bed, and departed with dignity, while she was still hissing and bleeding. I felt good about the whole thing. Do you ever do anything like this?
I scarcely want to ask Fredi. I am sure she always observes the Deliberations, and I have a feeling that this behavior is, somehow, not quite in accord with any of them.