Choosing a Cat

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No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood KolischChoosing 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?

o0o

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.

o0o

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.

o0o

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.

–UKL

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

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Choosing a Cat — 34 Comments

  1. A great way to discipline cats is a spray bottle of water. It doesn’t hurt them, it doesn’t scare the ones who have been hurt before, but if definitely deters them!

  2. I am currently owned by three cats, and older male and two five-year-old female sisters, which we got as kittens. One of the sisters is a siamese-tabby shorthair, the other has identical markings but has long, luxurious hair (we’re talking 2-3 inches, possibly longer).

    When they were kittens, the shorthair became terrified of the spray bottle, so scared that even now all I have to do is hold it in my hand and she stops shredding the curtains.

    The long-haired cat actually liked getting sprayed. Either that or she didn’t notice. You could spray her until she was almost dripping, and she would put her tail in the air, sway her backside, and walk s l o w l y away. The she would spend the next hour grooming, and become even fluffier than before. We tried mixing in a little bit of vinegar into the spray water, and it didn’t seem to make a difference. Except that she smelled like vinegar.

    I hope your new cat stays a while, it’s nice to have them around.

  3. Congratulations that your household is again complete — because, in my experience, no household is complete without fur friends.

    I hope that Pard grows into his full potential as a Pard’ner. I hope that he will not only learn to negotiate the spaces between your bannisters but also the spaces within your heart.

    I don’t know what I would do without my own Tom, who (at 20 lbs — every bit deserved!) because his love is unreserved (as long as I give him the food he likes whenever he wants it and recognize that he is, though only a lion’s cousin, King of my own Jungle). I only know that having a living, non-human being who can sense that I am having a bad day — or a good one — and seems able to sense the response I need either way changes my life every day.

    I’ve had cats that didn’t choose me (I grew up in a household of pets, so the knowledge that animals can prefer one person over another — in some strange way — has only served give me an increased respect for their opinions), and I’ve had moments of jealousy. I’ve also had cats who weren’t, well, the brightest crayons in the box.

    It sounds like Pard is not only fitting in but is making that special confidence that cats are exempt from the laws of sin clear to your life. I only hope that he will not only share that confidence but will also share a part of how that special secret works!

  4. I’m sorry there are no pictures. Everybody at Xmas had at least a cellphone camera and I begged them to take pictures of Pard and I know some of them did but none of them ever sent me any. Well, we are writers, aren’t we? The right word is worth ten thousand pictures, innit? Shorthair Tuxedo, small, neat, and compact — Bright black back and bright white belly, white nose, chin, and shirtfront, four white paws, black tail up in the air at all times (sometimes up so far it recurves over on his back and he gets called a Spitz Cat), lots of white whiskers, alexandrite eyes. Very loud purr. — Ursula

  5. We had no notion of keeping a cat when Microkitty (otherwise, and mainly, Little Cat) came to us. She first hopped on my lap while I was out on the porch smoking, while we were renting a room in a house of nine people. I resisted until she was found one day stranded up a tree, and an exceedingly kind and fearless frat boy climbed up via a rolling trash can to retrieve her. I still tried to pretend that I would give her to the local no-kill shelter, until my then-boyfriend-now-husband (who had never had a pet of any sort, but who was wise in the management of me) decided she needed to stay with us.

    She was one who had been pregnant from her first heat, and we were never able to tell what had happened to the kittens. From her behavior, she wasn’t concerned either. She had disappeared for some time, then returned to demand our attention. She is three feet from me now, devouring kibble with the additional treat of an egg to maintain her lovely plush double-coat, and I can’t imagine life without her.

    I shudder at the thought of losing her, though the cruelest actuarial tables give me another ten years with her. But I know that, when she goes, I will know her replacement at the shelter — always assuming that I make it to the shelter before another cat decides it belongs with me.

    This piece is beautiful, and I can’t thank you enough for it. It expresses both my beliefs and my fears. I’m sorry that these thanks come at the end of my comment, but I felt I needed to tell my story before they would make any sense. Thank you.

  6. Years ago, I went to choose my very first cat at the SPCA. It was my fourteenth birthday present from my mother. I wandered from cage to cage – didn’t want a kitten, they were too much work. Wasn’t taken by the preening tuxedo boy, lovely though he was.

    I sat down on a bench with a pretty tortie & white who climbed into my lap and asked me to love her. But she wasn’t The Cat, either.

    I was sitting beside a set of shelves, used as cat beds / feeding / play stations. A little paw laid itself on my shoulder. I ignored it. The paw returned, applied claws, then retracted again. I looked up, and a ginger girl – short legged, young, unfortunately named Gilmour – was waiting for me. She walked down my shoulder, paused with her front paws on my leg and rear paws on my arm, yarped a request for the tortie to vacate my lap. The tortie opened an eye, sighed, and jumped off. My ginger girl curled up, fixed me with her amber eyes, and *purred*.

    “Mum? I think I have a cat.”

  7. our black scrap, fully grown, is tiny, and first came to us as a half wild snarl and hiss with claws and cloudy eyes. Her favorite place to sleep is on a sleeping hip, over a sleeping heart or chin on a wrist. She lids the beat of blood and the thud of a heart, we think. We think of her as a little alien that lives her own strange intense fascinating condensed life with us. We are forever calling one another to come and see her sleep, or roll over and leap to her feet, or hide n a box and swat anyone walking by or stalk a moth or stare at a vacant corner as if mezmerised. We are forever yelling out that we can’t come because the cat is sleeping (on us).

  8. Pard sounds lovely and wonderful. One of the best cats I ever had was an elegant tuxedo gentleman named Zorro who always looked impeccable. And one of the most disreputable tuxedos was his brother, Achilles, whose fur suit looked as though he been on a three-day bender. There’s just something about the tuxedo moggies.

  9. Over on “Pickles” (the cartoon strip) that problem is described as “cat on lap issues.” As in, “Sorry I can’t help unload the dishwasher, I have cat on lap issues.”
    Our current tuxedo labors under the name Squeaker, bestowed on him by my daughter because he was so small that he could not mew, but only squeak. Now he weighs maybe 15 pounds, a huge hulking beast.

  10. Brings tears t my eyes for some unfathomable reason, other than the sheer love of it all and so beautifully written. Cats are the soul of a house. I like this.

  11. I chose a cat once. It was after the death of my first cat, and the house was too damn quiet, as you’ve described. So I decided to get another cat.

    And I found one.

    I find it slightly dispiriting how all the cats at the pound seem so over-eager for attention, so fawning for the slightest bit of interaction with those of us passing though and checking them out. The cat I found was the antithesis of that.

    He didn’t make noise or beg for attention. He regarded you, quietly and with great poise, from the front of his cage. It was obvious he was very self-possessed, and he gave an impression, later proved to be very true, of great feline intelligence.

    I didn’t think through the implications of that at all.

    He was a black oriental short-hair, and he had a joy of destruction and killing found only in the villains of Hollywood movies. My friend Kurt said he was pure, concentrated evil.

    Domino’s been gone for a while now, and I still miss him.

  12. In 1991 I was very ill, lost my job, and was moving from Illinois to Eugene, OR. I had three cats, seven kittens, two dogs, and a bird. I was destitute, and had to divest myself of some cats. The no-kill shelter took the three kittens which were not gray. I gave one adult female to some friends who had an eye for her; she was eight, a leftover from my last litter of kittens.

    At ten o’clock one Friday night I was at the public phone outside the local Walmart (which then closed at nine), calling my cousin in downstate Illinois to ask her to take in the other leftover eight-year-old “kitten”, and two of the gray kittens. She agreed to do that.

    While we were finalizing details, a tiny kitten came trotting towards me along the front sidewalk of Walmart, meowing as she came. Tail in the air, she was saying, “I have FOUND you! I have FOUND you!” Her words were quite clear. She reached me, and stropped my leg. I picked her up, and told my cousin of the remarkable occurrence. She said to bring her along; she would take her, too.

    I could not leave her there. She would have been killed by a car or a dog. I stopped at the police station on my way home to report that I had found a kitten, and much to my surprise, they confiscated her, and put her in a cell.

    Saturday I took the cat and two kittens to my cousin, and Sunday I came home. Monday morning I went to the local vet clinic which handled strays, to redeem the kitten, as that was her death day. I paid eight of my last 20 dollars in the world to bail her out of jail, and took her home. She moved to Oregon with me a couple of weeks later.

    The mother cat, her remaining two kittens, and the six she presented me with when we got to Oregon were all taken from me, but with the assistance of some kind strangers, I managed to hang on to that kitten. She died in July, 2010, at the ripe old age of 19 years, 11 days. Her name was Honey Love.

  13. Thank you for the beautiful glimpse into the heart of your life, Ursula. I too teared up at the love, both for cats & The Cat. And at some of the comments, even more so.

    After her cranky beast of a female cat died, I waited a few months, listening to my mother talk about how quiet the house was, she missed having a cat, but didn’t want to do anything about it. Finally I dragged her to our local Humane Society in Seattle, which is much as you describe yours, bless them.

    She now co-habits with her own extra-large Tuxedo cat, Antonio, who was given up to the shelter for the sin of eating the household canary (well, what on earth did they expect?) He rules her house with great good humor and velvet paws.

    Our own two loves are sisters, and we do all the silly things, from saying “I can’t right now, I’m being held down by this cat” to buying an expensive laser pen to amuse us — er, them. The continuing purrplexity is the fact that Sophie looks at the hand and disdainfully ignores the laser dot, demanding instead the feathered fishing pole, while Maggie knows the laser dot comes from the hand but will chase the dot for ever and for always, regardless.

    Furthermore, there’s this:

    The Cat’s Song

    Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
    My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
    the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing
    milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.

    Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
    I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
    to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
    Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

    You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
    says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
    Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
    Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?

    Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
    My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
    My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
    walking round and round your bed and into your face.

    Come I will teach you to dance as naturally
    as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
    I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
    Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word

    of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg
    and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.

    ~ Marge Piercy

  14. Dear UKL,

    May I ask you an offtopic question, though still animal-related? I’ve noticed that you use an otter’s image in your books—I’de be interested to know why. What connects you to this animal?

    I was pleased to notice that, since I became to like otters very much recently, after I learned how beautiful and smart they are, what careful and devoted parents they are (though unfortunate lovers, esp. females)—and how cruelly people have treated them.

    Not to mention holding paws during rafting. : )

    With kind regards,
    Kate.

  15. I just had a cat pass away — he was nearly 16 years old, plenty aged for a feline. I still have 3 cats, but am nervously expecting a fourth to complete the set to show up on my doorstep.

  16. Thank you for this wonderful story of Pard finding his new humans. I had a tuxedo cat once and he was a marvelous, outstanding cat. He was named Samekind by my then 3 year old niece, after her favorite blanket. He loved to walk down halls just in front of his humans, rubbing inside each ankle as it advanced, giving us an odd, slow gait we named the Samekind Shuffle. He loved to have toys thrown, and would wake me up on Saturday bringing one by one every toy in the house, walking up my sleeping body, and dropping it neatly on my face. May your Pard bring you as much joy as my Samekind did me.

    I now have nine: a rescue litter of seven plus mom, and one older cat Grace. They’re an endless delight. They all are inside-only cats, which I’ve found affords them healthy, happy, and long lives. I have two at my right hand and one on the left here with me sleeping while I type.

    Congratulations on acquiring Pard. He seems a marvelous fellow. I know he’s quite a lucky one, as well.

  17. As always, your words go straight to my heart.
    It is true, how can you ever choose one? We’ve had left-by-the-door cats, the type that’s absolutely ONLY staying for the night and a bit of food untill we find her a place (and there she is, 4 years later, purring away on our bed); gifted kittens, by best friends who know that this is just what both of you need right now even you’re still red-eyed from crying over the lost of another one and vowed never to have one again, and these unasked for arrivals have always seemed the perfectly natural way for the furry rascals to enter our lives.

    And somehow, each of these turns into a perfect part of the household,like they were meant to be THE ONE.

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  19. The quote Ms Le Guin refers to is by Jean Cocteau (and is my second favourite cat quote)

    ‘I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.’

    My favourite cat quote is by Christopher Smart
    “For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.” (For I will consider my cat Jeffrey.

    Currently my husband and I are owned by a huge fluffy tabby and white female called Trixie (she came with the name). All the cats in my life have found me. They know.

  20. Thank you for this wonderful story of Pard finding his new humans. I had a tuxedo cat once and he was a marvelous, outstanding cat. He was named Samekind by my then 3 year old niece, after her favorite blanket. He loved to walk down halls just in front of his humans, rubbing inside each ankle as it advanced, giving us an odd, slow gait we named the Samekind Shuffle. He loved to have toys thrown, and would wake me up on Saturday bringing one by one every toy in the house, walking up my sleeping body, and dropping it neatly on my face. May your Pard bring you as much joy as my Samekind did me.

  21. Great story, pleasure to read.
    I once had a cat who looked exactly like Pard. I named him Penguin. He didn’t mind 🙂

  22. Your story resonated – my cat of 14 years died of cancer 2 years ago despite my anxious efforts to keep him around, and I still miss him terribly. He was as friendly and outgoing as a dog, but mischievous as only a cat can be. My other cat, now 13, is shy and loyal, and has blossomed now that she knows she has all the attention. She too drags her stick toy up and down the stairs with a clatter and an unearthly call that I have to warn house guests about, it sounds so much like the proverbial ghost. She then deposits the rest of her toys at my feet with a pleased look of accomplishment. Enjoy Pard – may he enliven and enrich your home for many years to come.

  23. A cat by itself is a creature of beauty. A cat with a loud purr is a creature that becomes part and parcel of its human. That purr somehow grows into you and when you lose it, through death or other catastrophe (pun intended), you’re never whole again until you get another. All cats are special, but some cats are more special than others.

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