Excerpts from On Cats by Doris Lessing:
“After a certain age-and for some of us that can be very young—there are no new people, beasts, dreams, faces, events: it has all happened before, they have appeared before, masked differently, wearing different clothes, another nationality, another colour; but the same, the same, and everything is an echo and a repetition; and there is no grief even that it is not a recurrence of something long out of memory that expresses itself in unbelievable anguish, days of tears, loneliness, knowledge of betrayal and all for a small, thin, dying cat.
I was sick that winter. It was inconvenient because my big room was due to be whitewashed. I was put in the little room at the end of the house….The cat, a bluish-grey Persian, arrived purring on my bed, and settled down to share my sickness, my food, my pillow, my sleep. When I woke in the mornings, my face turned to half-frozen linen; the outside of the fur blanket on the bed was cold; the smell of fresh whitewash from next door was cold and antiseptic; the wind lifting and laying the dust outside the door was cold—but in the crook of my arm, a light purring warmth, the cat, my friend….Through the months of the dry season the only water for the garden was the dirty bathwater. The cat fell into this tub when it was full of hot water. She screamed, was pulled out into a chill wind, washed in permaganate, for the tub was filthy and held leaves and dust as well as soapy water, was dried, and put into my bed to warm. But she sneezed and wheezed and then grew burning hot with fever. She had pneumonia. We dosed her with what there was in the house, but that was before antibiotics, and so she died. For a week she lay in my arms purring, purring, in a rough trembling hoarse little voice that became weaker, then was silent; licked my hand; opened enormous green eyes when I called her name and besought her to live; closed them, died………”
“That was it. Never again. And for years I matched cats in friends’ houses, cats in shops, cats on farms, cats in the street, cats on walls, cats in memory, with that gentle blue grey purring creature which for me was the cat, the Cat, never to be replaced.”
It was only after 25 years that Lessing was able to own another cat.
“My cat was a half-grown black-and-white female of undistinguished origin, guaranteed to be clean and amenable. She was a nice enough beast, but I did not love her; never succumbed; was, in short, protecting myself. I thought her neurotic, overanxious, fussy; but that was unfair, because a town cat’s ife is so unnatural that it never learns the independence a farm cat has. I was bothered because she waited for people to come home—like a dog; must be in the same room and be paid attention—like a dog; must have human attendance when she had kittens. As for her food habits, she won that battle in the first week. She never, not once, ate anything but lightly cooked calves’ liver, and lightly boiled whiting. Where did she get these tastes? I demanded of her ex-owner, who of course did not know. I put down tinned food for her, and scraps from the table; but it wasn’t until we were eating liver that she showed interest. Liver it was to be. And she would not eat liver cooked in anything but butter.”
“The kitten was six weeks old. It was enchanting, a delicate fairy-tale cat, whose Siamese genes showed in the shape of the face, ears, tail, and the subtle lines of its body. Her back was tabby: from above or the back, she was a pretty tabby kitten, in grey and cream. But her front and stomach were a smoky-gold, Siamese cream, with half bars of black at the neck. Her face was pencilled with black-fine dark rings around the eyes, fine dark streaks on her cheeks, a tiny cream-colored nose with a pink tip, outlined in black. From the front, sitting with her slender paws straight, she was an exotically beautiful beast. She sat, a tiny thing, in the middle of a yellow carpet, surrounded by five worshippers, not at all afraid of us. Then she stalked around that floor of the house, inspecting every inch of it, climbed up on to my bed, crept under the fold of a sheet, and was at home.”
“And she was so beautiful—really so very beautiful.
She was the best sitting on the bed looking out. Her two creamy lightly barred front legs were straight down side by side, on two silvery paws. Her ears, lightly fringed with white that looked silver, lifted and moved, back, forward, listening and sensing. Her face turned, slightly, after each new sensation, alert. Her tail moved, in another dimension, as if its tip was catching messages her other organs could not. She sat poised, air-light, looking, hearing, feeling, smelling, breathing, with all of her, fur, whiskers, ears—everything, in delicate vibration. If a fish is the movement of water embodied, given shape, then cat is a diagram and pattern of subtle air.”
“When he was a young cat I would wake to find him awake and then, seeing that I was, he would walk up the bed, lie down on my shoulder, put his paws around my neck, lay his furry cheek against my cheek, and give that deep sigh of content you hear from a child when he is at last lifted up into loving arms. And I heard myself sigh in response. Then he purred and purred, until he was asleep in my arms.
“What luxury a cat is, the moments of shocking and startling pleasure in a day, the feel of the beast, the soft sleekness under your palm, the warmth when you wake on a cold night, the grace and charm even in a quite ordinary workaday puss. Cat walks across your room, and in that lonely stalk you see leopard or even panther, or it turns its head to acknowledge you and the yellow blaze of those eyes tells you what an exotic visitor you have here, in this household friend, the cat who purrs as you stroke, or rub his chin, or scratch his head.”
For more on Doris Lessing, see our post on Cats in 20th Century Literature.