What’s Black and White and Orange All Over?

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischWhat Is Black and White and Orange All Over?
Annals of Pard VI
Ursula K. Le Guin

I was defrosting the freezer, and Pard of course came down with me to survey and re-investigate the basement, which is big and has much to investigate, what with the Pre-Cambrian furnace, and dark corners and odd angles and crowded shelves and storage boxes and picnic baskets and 10-quart boilers and so on, and many spiders, and many spiderwebs. He often comes up from the basement with gluey cobwebs delicately festooning his whiskers and his ears. This time he conducted a prolonged expedition, and when he finally came back upstairs his white muzzle was spotted all over with a shocking color. I thought he’d shoved his face into something sharp and hurt himself. I panicked and got hold of him, and we investigated, and Charles laughed. “It isn’t blood,” he said.

Pard had indeed stuck his head into something or other. Whatever it was, it wasn’t sharp, but it was very rusty.

I tried to wash his face for him with a dishcloth, and he thought I had gone mad. He was civil, but not cooperative, verging on indignant. I wash my own face, thank you! All I succeeded in doing before he got away was spreading the bright reddish spots into a general orange smear all over his jowls and chin. Now he looked like the wrong end of one of those primates with luridly colorful bits of their anatomy. What made it funny of course was that he didn’t know it, and maybe couldn’t know it — do cats even see red-orange? — and if he had known it, wouldn’t care.

He does look at himself in the mirror. I don’t believe any cats have passed an awareness-of-self-image test, as some apes have — for instance, seeing in the mirror a bit of tape stuck to their face, and lifting a hand directly to it to pick it off. But when Pard catches me looking at him in the mirror he often turns his head from that reflected exchange to meet my actual gaze, which impresses me: surely it signifies an understanding of what the mirror image is? Often he sits on the counter in the bathroom beside a mirror that gives him a full-length self-view, and seems to be studying it with calm approbation.

I doubt that merely finding his face had turned orange would change that.

The rust wore off gradually. He is a cleanly fellow and I’m sure washed his face as often as usual, but no oftener. After a day or two there was still a strong yellow tinge around the region of the whisker-roots. Cat’s whiskers are technically called vibrissae, a pretty Latin word hinting at the vibrancy and vibration and bristling of those amazing clusters of sensitivity, that spring like a fountain out of a cat’s muzzle and above its eyes and tell it so much about its world . . . though evidently they don’t always tell the cat not to stick its face into that particular interesting hole, from which it will emerge bright orange.



What’s Black and White and Orange All Over? — 3 Comments

  1. I am told that there is a standard number of vibrissae — something like 14 facial whiskers on each side of the nose, 10 above each eye. I have never been able to get my cat to hold still long enough to count. Although I did measure the whiskers once, with a ruler. The illusion that they are longer on one side than the other is apparently really an illusion.

  2. In the “Cat Who,,,” books Koko the smart Siamese is supposed to have a total of 60 whiskers which is what makes him smarter than the average cat. I’ve never had a cat sit still long enough to count.

    And what counts as a whisker? An extra long hair? Or does it have to have the extra thickness and length of the normal side whiskers?