On Cats, p.1Doris Lessing
Rufus the Survivor
The Old Age of El Magnifico
About the Author
About the Publisher
The house being on a hill, hawks, eagles, birds of prey that lay spiralling on air currents over the bush were often at eye level, sometimes below it. You’d look down on sun-glistening brown and black wings, a six-foot spread of them, tilting as the bird banked on a curve. Down in the fields, you could lie very still in a furrow, preferably where the plough had bitten deep as it turned, under a screen of grass and leaves. Legs, too pale against reddish-brown soil in spite of sunburn, had to be scattered with earth, or dug into it. Hundreds of feet up, a dozen birds circled, all eyeing the field for small movement of mouse, birds, or mole. You would choose one, straight overhead perhaps; perhaps for a moment fancy an exchanged glance eye to eye: the cold staring eye of the bird into coldly curious human eye. Under the narrow bulletlike body between great poised wings the claws were held ready. After a half minute, or twenty, the bird plummeted straight on to the tiny creature it had chosen; then up and away it went in a wide steady beat of wings, leaving behind an eddy of red dust and a hot rank smell. The sky was as it had been: a tall blue silent space with its scattered groups of wheeling birds. But up on the hill a hawk might easily zoom in sideways from the air circuit where it had been lying to choose its prey–one of our chickens. Or even fly uphill along one of the roads through the bush, the great spread of wings held cautious against overhang of branch: bird acting, surely, against its nature in speeding thus along an air avenue through trees rather than dropping through air to earth?
Our chickens were, or at least that is how their enemies saw it, an always renewed supply of meat for the hawks, owls, and wild cats for miles around. From sunup till sundown, fowls moved over the exposed crown of the hill, marked for marauders by gleaming black, brown, white feathers, and a continuous clucking, crowing, scratching and strutting.
On the farms in Africa it is the custom to cut the tops off paraffin and petrol tins and fix glistening squares of metal to flash in the sun. To scare the birds off, it is said. But I’ve seen a hawk come in from a tree to take a fat drowsy hen off her hatching eggs, and that with dogs, cats, and people, black and white, all around her. And once, sitting at a domestic spread of tea outside the house, a dozen people were witness to a half-grown kitten being snatched from the shade under a bush by a swooping hawk. During the long hot silence of midday, the sudden squawking or crowing or flustering of feathers might as often mean that a hawk had taken a fowl as that a cock had trod a hen. There were plenty of chickens though. And so many hawks there was no point in shooting them. At any moment, standing on the hill looking at the sky, there was certain to be a circling bird within half a mile. A couple of hundred feet below it, a tiny patch of shadow flitted over trees, over fields. Sitting quiet under a tree I’ve seen creatures freeze, or go to cover when the warning shadow from great wings far above touched them or darkened momentarily the light on grass, leaves. There was never only one bird. Two, three, four birds circled in a bunch. Why just there, you’d wonder? Of course! They were all working, at different levels, the same air spiral. A bit further off, another group. Careful looking–and the sky was full of black specks; or, if the sunlight caught them just so, shining specks, like motes in a shaft of light from a window. In all those miles of blue air, how many hawks? Hundreds? And every one of them able to make the journey to our fowl flock in a few minutes.
So the hawks were not shot. Unless in rage. I remember, when that kitten vanished mewing into the sky in the hawk’s claws, my mother exploded the shotgun after it. Futilely of course.
If the day hours were for hawks, dawn and dusk were for owls. The chickens were shooed into their runs as the sun went down, but the owls sat in their hour on the trees; and a late sleepy owl might take a bird in the very early sunlight as the runs were opened.
Hawks for sunlight; owls for half-light; but for the night, cats, wild cats.
And here there was some point in using a gun. Birds were free to move over thousands of miles of sky. A cat had a lair, a mate, kittens–at least a lair. When one chose our hill to live on, we shot it. Cats came at night to the fowl-runs, found impossibly small gaps in walls or wire. Wild cats mated with our cats, lured peaceful domestic pussies off to dangerous lives in the bush for which, we were convinced, they were not fitted. Wild cats brought into dubious question the status of our comfortable beasts.
One day the black man who worked in the kitchen said he had seen a wild cat in a tree halfway down the hill. My brother was not there; so I took the .22 rifle and went after it. It was high midday: not the time for wild cats. On a half-grown tree, the cat was stretched along a branch, spitting. Its green eyes glared. Wild cats are not pretty creatures. They have ugly yellowy-brown fur, which is rough. And they smell bad. This cat had taken a chicken in the last twelve hours. The earth under the tree was scattered with white feathers and bits of meat that already stank. We hated wild cats, which spat and clawed and hissed and hated us. This was a wild cat. I shot it. It slumped off the branch to my feet, writhed a little among blowing white feathers, and lay still. Usually I would have picked up that carcass by its mangy smelly tail and dropped it into a nearby disused well. But something bothered me about this cat. I bent to look at it. The shape of its head was wrong for a wild cat; and the fur, rough as it was, was too soft for wildcat fur. I had to admit it. This was no wild cat, it was one of ours. We recognized it, that ugly corpse, as Minnie, an enchanting pet from two years before who had disappeared–taken, we thought, by a hawk or an owl. Minnie had been half Persian, a soft caressing creature. This was she, the chicken-eater. And, not far from the tree where she was shot, we found a litter of wild kittens; but these were really wild, and human beings were their enemies: our legs and arms were bitten and scratched in proof of it. So we destroyed them. Or rather, my mother saw that they were destroyed; because some law of the household I did not until much later reflect about made this sort of nasty work hers.
If you think about it a little: there were always cats at the house. No vet nearer than Salisbury, seventy miles off. No ‘doctoring’ of cats that I can remember, certainly not of female cats. Cats mean kittens, plentiful and frequent. Someone had to get rid of unwanted kittens. Perhaps the Africans who worked in the house and kitchen? I can remember how often the words bulala yena sounded. (Kill it!) The wounded and weakly animals and birds of the house and farm: bulala yena!
But there was a shotgun in the house, and a revolver, and it was my mother who used them.
Snakes, for instance, were usually dealt with by her. We always had snakes. This sounds dramatic, and I suppose it was; but they were something we lived with. I was not nearly as afraid of them as I was of spiders–enormous, various and innumerable, that made my life a misery. There were cobras, black mambas, puff-adders and night-adders. And a particularly nasty one called a boomslang whose habit it is to coil around a branch, a verandah post, something off the ground, and spit into the faces of those disturbing it. It is often somewhere at eye level, so people get blinded. But through twenty years of snakes, the only bad thing that happened was when a boomslang spat into my brother’s
But alarms were always being sounded. There’s a snake in the kitchen; or on the verandah; or in the dining-room; everywhere, it seemed. Once I nearly picked a night-adder up, mistaking it for a skein of darning wool. But it feared me first, and its hissing saved us both: I ran; and it got away. Once a snake got into the writing desk which was a nest of paper-stacked pigeon-holes. It took my mother and the servants hours to frighten the creature out so that she could shoot it. Once a snake, a mamba, got under the grain bin in the store hut. She had to lie on her side and shoot the thing from a foot away.
A snake in the woodpile raised an alarm; and I caused the death of a favourite cat by saying I had seen the snake creeping in between two logs. What I had seen was the cat’s tail. My mother shot at something greyish that moved; and out shrieked the cat, its side blown out, all red and raw. It thrashed and yelled among the wood chips, its small bleeding heart showing between fragile broken ribs. It died, while my mother wept and petted it. Meanwhile the cobra was looped around a high log a couple of yards away.
Once a great tumult of shouts and warnings; and there, on a rocky path between hibiscus bushes and Christ’s-thorn, was a cat in combat with a slim dark dancing snake. The snake crept into the yard-wide thorn hedge and stayed there, glittering its eyes at the cat, who could not get near it. The cat stayed there all afternoon, walking around the thorny mass which held the snake, spitting at it, hissing at it, miaowing. But when the dark came, the snake crept away, unharmed.
Flashes of memory, stories without beginnings or ends. What happened to the cat who lay stretched out on my mother’s bed, miaowing with pain, its eyes swollen up from a spitting snake? Or the cat who came crying into the house, her belly dragging to the ground with unused milk? We went to see to her kittens in the old box in the tool-shed, but they were gone; and the servant examined marks in the dust around the box and said, ‘Nyoka’. A snake.
In childhood, people, animals, events appear, are accepted, vanish, with no explanation offered or asked for.
But now, remembering cats, always cats, a hundred incidents involving cats, years and years of cats, I am astounded at the hard work they must have meant. In London now I have two cats; and often enough I say, What nonsense that one should have all this trouble and worry on account of two small animals.
All that work would have been done by my mother. Farm work for the man; housework for the woman, even if the house did involve so very much more work than one associates with housework in a town. It was her work, too, because a nature claims the labour that goes with it. She was humane, sensible, shrewd. She was above all, and in every detail, practical. But more than that: she was one of that part of humankind which understands how things work; and works with them. A grim enough role.
My father understood well enough; he was a countryman. But his attitude came out as protest; when something had to be done, steps had to be taken, a final stand was being made–and my mother was making it. ‘So that’s that! I suppose!’ he’d say, in ironic anger which was also admiring. ‘Nature,’ he’d say, capitulating, ‘is all very well, if it’s kept in its place.’
But my mother, nature her element, indeed her duty and her burden, did not waste time on sentimental philosophy. ‘It’s all very well for you, isn’t it?’ she’d say; humorous, humorous if it killed her; but resentful of course, for it was not my father who drowned the kittens, shot the snake, killed the diseased fowl, or burned sulphur in the white ant nest: my father liked white ants, enjoyed watching them.
Which makes it even harder to understand what led to the frightful weekend when I was left alone with my father and about forty cats.
All I can remember from that time in the way of explanation is the remark: ‘She’s got soft-hearted and can’t bear to drown a kitten.’
It was said with impatience, with irritation and–from me–cold hard anger. At that time I was in combat with my mother, a fight to the death, a fight for survival, and perhaps that had something to do with it, I don’t know. But I now wonder, appalled, what sort of breakdown in her courage had taken place. Or perhaps it was a protest? What inner miseries expressed themselves so? What was she in fact saying during that year when she would not drown kittens, or have put to death the cats who badly needed it? And, finally, why did she go away and leave us two, knowing perfectly well, because she must have known, since it was loudly and frequently threatened, what was going to happen?
A year, less, of my mother’s refusal to act her role as regulator, arbiter, balance between sense and the senseless proliferations of nature, had resulted in the house, the sheds around the house, the bush that surrounded the farmstead, being infested by cats. Cats of all ages; cats tame and wild and the stages in between; cats mangy and sore-eyed and maimed and crippled. Worse, there were half a dozen cats in kitten. There was nothing to prevent us, within a few weeks, from becoming the battleground for a hundred cats.
Something had to be done. My father said it. I said it. The servants said it. My mother tightened her lips, said nothing, but went away. Before she left she said goodbye to her favourite puss, an old tabby who was the mother of them all. She stroked her gently, and cried. That I do remember, my feeling of futility because I could not understand the helplessness of those tears. The moment she had gone, my father said several times, ‘Well, it’s got to be done, hasn’t it?’ Yes, it had; and so he rang up the vet in town. Not at all a simple business this. The telephone was on a line shared by twenty other farmers. One had to wait until the gossiping and the farm news had fallen silent; then ring up the station; then ask for a line to town. They called back when there was a line free. It might take an hour, two hours. It made it much worse, having to wait, watching the cats, wishing the ugly business over. We sat, side by side, on the table in the dining-room, waiting for the telephone to give our particular ring. At last we got the vet, who said the least cruel way to kill grown cats was to chloroform them. There was no chemist’s shop nearer than Sinoia, twenty miles off. We drove to Sinoia, but the chemist’s shop was shut for the weekend. From Sinoia we rang Salisbury and asked a chemist to put a large bottle of chloroform on the train next day. He said he would try. That night we sat out in front of the house under the stars; which is where our evenings were spent unless it rained. We were miserable, angry, guilty. We went to bed very early to make the time pass. Next day was Saturday. We drove to the station, but the chloroform was not on the train. On Sunday a cat gave birth to six kittens. They were all deformed: there was something wrong with each of them. Inbreeding, my father said it was. If so, it is a remarkable thing that less than a year of it could transform a few healthy animals into an army of ragged sick cripples. The servant disposed of the new kittens, and we spent another miserable day. On Monday we drove to the station, met the train, and came back with the chloroform. My mother was to come back on Monday night. We got a large air-tight biscuit tin, put an old sad sick cat into it, with a tampon soaked in chloroform. I do not recommend this method. The vet said it would be instantaneous; but it was not.
In the end, the cats were rounded up and put into a room. My father went into the room with his First World War revolver, more reliable, he said, than a shotgun. The gun sounded again, again, again, again. The cats that were still uncaught had sensed their fate and were raging and screaming all over the bush, with people after them. My father came out of the room at one point, very white, with tight angry lips and wet eyes. He was sick. Then he swore a good deal, then he went back into the room and the shooting continued. At last he came out. The servants went in and carried off the corpses to the disused well.
Some of the cats had escaped–three never came back at all to the murderous household, so they must have gone wild and taken their chances. When my mother returned from her trip, and the neighbour who had brought her had gone, she walked quiet and uncommenting through the house where there was now one cat, her old favourite, asleep on her bed. My mother had not
And I suppose it never did.
I was angry over the holocaust of cats, because of its preventable necessity; but I don’t remember grieving. I was insulated against that because of my anguish over the death of a cat some years before, when I was eleven. I said then over the cold heavy body that was, inexplicably, the feather-light creature of yesterday: Never again. But I had sworn that before, and I knew it. When I was three, my parents said, I was out for a walk with the nurse, in Tehran, and in spite of her protests, had picked up a starving kitten from the street and come home with it. This was my kitten, they said I said, and I fought for it when the household refused to give it shelter. They washed it in permanganate because it was filthy; and thereafter it slept on my bed. I would not let it be taken away from me. But of course it must have been, for the family left Persia, and the cat stayed behind. Or perhaps it died. Perhaps–but how do I know? Anyway, somewhere back there, a very small girl had fought for and won a cat who kept her days and nights company; and then she lost it.
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.
On Cats by Doris Lessing / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes