Ashleigh Young writes about a cat she loves deeply and knows not at all.
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Original illustrations by Ceri Giddens
Jerry is getting that look. It’s the look of Death thinking about him. Not thinking deeply, yet – just contemplating, taking the measure of him. He’s 13 or so now, and is bonier about the back, saggier in the belly. He sleeps more, dribbles more, makes a racket when eating. As he has grown older he has also begun to live with more drama. To enter the house, he bursts through the cat door like someone punching a hole in the wall, and announces himself with an unholy scream. If it has been raining and he has, unbelievably, got wet, the screaming will get weird and wrong, like someone using an instrument in a way it shouldn’t be used, and it escalates until he is answered. Ageing has deepened Jerry’s conviction that the world exists for him alone, and that if something has not gone well for him, someone else must pay. In this way he is like a terrible sort of person who knows they will be forgiven again and again.
Is it ever interesting when someone talks about their cat? Or is it like when people tell you their dreams? I think if you live with a cat who you love, you can’t find any other cat truly interesting. I’ve read essays about people’s cats, and those essays were good, but I never cared about those cats, even when the writing had that special pathos, the “cat essay” pathos, the feeling of a late afternoon in autumn, or of the end of the school holidays – the knowledge that soon it will be over. The cat essay is already an elegy. The problem is, after eight years together, I only care about Jerry. I only care about his life, his eventual death.
I see him everywhere. He is a pile of sheets waiting to be washed. A garden sack full of weeds. A flash of brightness when the sun angles a certain way over the driveway. White sneakers through the pebbled glass of the front door. I think all of these ghosts of Jerry are my brain trying and failing, over and over, to possess him, to keep him. He cannot be possessed. On his first trip to Wellington from the Waikanae SPCA, where he’d been living after being dropped off as a flea-ridden stray, he began to savagely tear apart the box he was in, his tiny head erupting from the cardboard as we sped down the motorway.
Sometimes I ask Jerry, “What are you doing?” Or, in the morning, “What are you going to do today?” It’s a stupid question, because Jerry exists outside of doing. There he is, asleep in the garden like a puffball fungus. Or he’s attacking the wood basket with a sudden passing fury. Jerry is nearly always apparently doing nothing, and the few things he does do also result in nothing. Sometimes when he’s doing something that seems especially meaningless, like going in and out of the vacuum cleaner cupboard repeatedly, I imagine I see a flicker of human-like lostness in his eyes, a realisation that he doesn’t know what the hell he is doing. But that’s human projection. I once saw him staring at a lemon on a tree and when I came back an hour later he was still staring at the lemon. If Jerry is doing anything, it is at a level we can never know.
The concept of “nothing”, too, is different for Jerry. The blank page, the edge of the universe, unproductivity – personally I fear these things, but each day, in his sleeping, his staring, his goings back and forth over the same ground, Jerry embraces nothing, reveals its richnesses and eternal tiny variations. That’s one of the reasons he is a comfort. When I hug him I seem to touch freedom itself, in this being no bigger than a mid-sized watering can, who doesn’t fear nothing. I guess the one exception is when he wants something: food. Then he becomes very focused on the horror of nothing. He cannot accept that the present moment, the huge, all-encompassing now, could receive his cries and not give him everything he wants.
There was a cat who came to live with my family when we lived in Te Kūiti. He was friendly in the way of wanting to please us. We already had a cat and a dog, so we chased him away, but he kept coming back, his tail quivering suggestively, so we let him stay and called him Wilbur. One day a woman and her two boys came up the driveway in their car. “That’s Widget,” they said. “Widget, Widget.” They lived just down the hill from us, and the mother said ever since she had become pregnant again, Widget had been flighty. They took him with them, but the next day he was back. The family tried once more, but eventually let him go. So he became Wilbur for good. Wilbur flew with my dad in a Cessna to the South Island when he and my mum moved. Would Wilbur have stayed with his first family, if he had known that he would live out his last years in Blenheim? My mother had the letter W carved into a river stone to put over his grave. W for both of his lives – the ones that we knew about.
Who was Jerry before? Who were his people and who did he run away from, or who left him behind? Not knowing who somebody was before you loved them is almost unbearable – if only we could have met at the beginning, you think, then I would know everything. I once heard him meowing forlornly in his sleep, and woke him up. “Were you having a bad dream?” I asked. Probably he’d just been dreaming that he was trying to tear open a bag of biscuits, but I liked to imagine deeper complexities, some moment in his past that he was reliving, some formative heartbreak, a family driving away. But, obviously, even when a cat is in your life you still only ever know a little about them. I once saw an Instagram story of Jerry shrieking with wild delight as he ran along a fence towards someone. Another time, as he followed me down the street, a young couple said to him, “Hey Jeff.” At one flat, my landlord told me he’d opened his wardrobe to find Jerry sleeping on a pile of clothes in there. I saw, then, that in his way of owning everything and everyone, Jerry has a sort of landlord energy. But he also has renter energy, dog energy, poet energy, bus driver energy. He is many frames per second. The only way I can really conceive of his death is to imagine that he will continue to flicker rapidly through worlds. He will have worm energy, bird energy, tree energy, northerly wind energy.
I read somewhere that cats think humans are just bigger cats. Maybe Jerry does think we’re all the same. When he dangles his arms over the garden wall like an old man at the RSA, or sits in a washing basket as if about to set sail, he sometimes looks into my eyes as if he thinks I know what he’s saying, as if I’m sharing in the delight of whatever it is. There’s an aspect of this that is heartbreaking: he thinks we know each other, and I know we’ll never know each other.
But then, it’s probably not that complicated to know somebody. With all the talk of whether cats can ever love us, we overthink it. We overthink love. Outside, some distance from the house, Jerry will throw himself to the ground to roll around on dirt and stones and leaves, making Marge Simpson-ish sounds as if annoyed I’m not doing the same. It’s like I need to be shown how great it is out here, how incredible that we’re here at the same time today, with all of these things – endless dirt and stones and leaves for the taking, a dog going past to be puffed up at. I think then all he’s saying is, Look at this. Look at everything. You need to see how good it is. Then he gets up and wanders off.
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