We know all those dog stories -- the faithful canine standing guard over his master's body, refusing to eat, resisting all efforts to pull him away. Such fealty is not for cats. The master of the house may topple to the kitchen floor clutching at his heart, but the family cat will walk over his prostrate form to gobble a saucer of milk. And all the while he is watching over his shoulder in case some predator is lurking round the corner. That's why cats survive.
My favourite cat survivor story comes from my neighbours, the Gordons, next door. Next door? Their home, on the rim of the Humber Valley is actually several hundred yards from our own. They look out, as we do, on a small forest of pointed Christmas trees -- white cedars that clothe the slopes leading down to the river. Here, the Humber Valley stretches off to the north, a misty, evergreen realm, the home of wild coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and small herds of deer who follow the river and use the valley as protection. Sometimes they venture up the slopes to gnaw at the bark of newly planted birch and poplar trees on my front lawn. I forgive them, for the sight of a delicate little doe and her two speckled fawns is worth the grief.
It was in this environment that the next-door cat performed his vanishing act. He was, in many ways, a crazy, mixed-up cat. He had two names, which suggests the two distinct sides of his personality, a not-unknown quality in cats. Lying on the living room couch, slobbering away and purring loudly, he was a feline Dr. Jekyll. Creeping through the undergrowth below the house and pouncing savagely on small mice, voles, and even chipmunks, he was Mr. Hyde -- the terror of the neighbourhood.
He was already a survivor when our neighbour's daughter, Julie, found him abandoned in a ditch, a lost kitten mewing hungrily for room service. Julie, who was stabling her horse in a nearby barn, turned the kitten over to an accommodating mother cat, who licked him down furiously and looked after him as well as she did her own tribe. There, the cat bonded with Julie's horse, Sydney, snuggling up to him for warmth and putting his nose against Sydney's, almost as if he was kissing him. Later on, the memory of that would help the cat to survive.
The kitten eventually grew to adulthood and moved into Julie's parents' home. She called him Killer, a name that reflects his hobby of ripping the hides off small furry animals. But when the family moved to their new house near us on the rim of the Humber Valley, her mother balked at the prospect of having to shout "Here Killer, Killer!" across the fields. She discarded the outdoor name and opted for an indoor name: "Pousse-Pousse." That too presented a problem. In our area, if you shout "Here Pousse-Pousse" out the door, half a dozen assorted felines turn up, expecting a handout. Everybody I know calls their cat "Puss" more often than not. The cats don't know the difference because they think "Puss" and "Pousse-Pousse" are synonyms for lunch.
Inside the house, the killer cat turned into a bit of a wimp. When he wasn't creeping through the forest, he was stretched out on the living room sofa, yawning in his sleep. No hint of a killer instinct there. When he had nothing else to do, he padded down the hall and into the bathroom, sat in the empty bathtub, or even curled up and went to sleep. Cats, as we all know, seek out confined spaces. It gives them a false sense of security. Later, in this memoir, you will encounter Ruby, my tabby, who likes to curl up in a wooden salad bowl that seems to have been especially designed for her; and also Spooky, who snoozes in my in-basket, a move that plays havoc with my personal papers. Any cardboard...