Colettes cat, p.1
Colette's Cat, p.1Jennifer York
Colette’s Old Cat
Paris had sunk to the lowest point of a tranquil sea, and all of its ambience was filtered, reflected. Somewhere, Picasso was asking for a pencil. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald had one to spare, and was willing to offer it to him…perhaps not. Richard sat, in his expensive suite three floors above those who considered their view of the park and the Avenue Henri-Martin to be very chic indeed. He could not admire his own view. Indeed he did not even see it. A sort of shadow play was ongoing in the back of his cranium; he was turned inward, reviewing it.
He was remembering a story he had heard at a party last week. Where was that party, he wondered. He retained a dim recollection of overheard chandelier sparkle trapped in mirrors, trapped in metallic furniture, trapped in chandelier flutes. The tapestry carpet was dirty…he was trapped in a corner, unable to make a polite excuse, listening to a story about Colette’s old cat. It seemed the speaker, a youngish woman with slicked-brown hair and a large nose, had acquired the animal from a friend of a friend of the reclusive writer. Colette’s cat! The woman was excited. She waited a week, afraid to go out, lest she miss the important phone call that the animal was on its way. At last it arrived, in a bedraggled cardboard box. She released it about her apartment. It had sleek grey fur, (unruffled by the humble mode of transport), and blue eyes. The thing took a turn about her domicile, spent two minutes staring at her in an unimpressed fashion, then flicked its tail and urinated on her Louis-seize armchair.
“I gave him back the very next day,” said the woman, with sass, as though she had crashed a meeting of the League or Nations.
He had received a letter in the mail, from someone he considered a friend. She said the only cure for her sense of malaise was six hours of Rivera sun taken from a private balcony. The woman also requested that staff and visitors wear white clothing and speak in whispers. “Sometimes I reflect on what great fools people are,” she meditated. She also begged for a visit from him. And will I do it, he wondered. He had the sense that it would mean abandoning some significant but private struggle. He could no longer afford the expensive apartment. He could always move to a smaller hotel…tell his friends he preferred the quieter surroundings. He had a vision of himself climbing some cobbled street. It would not be a place he would want to pass many hours. He would leave in the morning and return at dusk. In that neighborhood, people would keep their doors open…he would catch glimpses, as he passed, of a life that shrugs its shoulders and declines importance, of a life that keeps to corners. Summer was coming…it would be hot. Dust would hang in the air, like golden snowfall. His friends, his rich friends, would abandon the cafes and bars, and all their questions about him would be left hanging in the air. He would be largely alone…with the significant struggle.
There was no answer to the question, just at that moment. He knew it; he accepted it and left the hotel, feeling like Dante as he descended in his elevator to the ground floor. In the middle of the journey of life, I found myself in the midst of a dark wood…that was the opening line of the Inferno. Dante was thirty five years old when he wrote those lines…he was forty, but he was a slow learner and did everything late. In his youth, he had walked slow, entranced with sudden, violent thunderstorms that drenched him and caught him unawares, with blades of grass and the ladybugs that loved them, and gardenias, his favorite flower. He guessed it took him a while to look around and realize that all these wonders were in the woods, and there was a lion staring him down.
Swimming through heavy evening air laced with the scent of lavender, he reached his favorite bar.
There was a seat at the end…he was grateful. A small piece of luck, he decided.
The man next to him, dressed in plain clothes, hair dark and slightly tousled, turned to him with a pleasant expression, and started off in a stream of voluble French. Straining, determined to be sociable, he pecked at the man’s words with his small beak of linguistic aptitude, then confessed his ignorance. Only so many things people talk about, anyway. The bar, the night air, Paris…he supposed it was one of these.
The man switched to English.
“I took you for a native,” he said. “So few Americans come here, now.”
“I thought you would see the American around my eyes,” he responded, making a small joke.
His new friend ordered him a cocktail Richard thought only girls drank. He drank it anyway, being broke and grateful for any small act of charity, especially those that started and ended with alcohol.
The stranger seemed sympathetic. He leaned in to listen…he seemed clean and healthy. His life was sitting easy upon his chest. His name was Pierre…this, too, was simple enough. Suddenly he had a desire to appear overly, even hideously, complex. It was in his nature to, out of a fit of perversity, reject even those qualities he most admired in others. Other people had it wrong, mostly…in order to have it right, he must be unique.
In accordance with this view, he started to tell his story.
“I had to get out,” he said. “A nervous fit took me over. It’s as though my life is a river, and I’ve been drifting along on it easily enough, but now I’ve been caught on something. A discarded bit of fishing line was tangled me up, I suppose, or a projecting tree branch. It’s at my back…I can’t see it, but it’s caught me all the same, and I can’t get free.”
This was true enough, and, he decided, sufficiently esoteric and feminine for the man to be impressed and repulsed at the same time, he supposed.
To his surprise, the man seemed to understand completely. He nodded his head quickly several times, as though he expected the conversation to take this precise turn, and had been formulating his response. So French, crowed Richard to himself, so unlike the painted people he knew.
“I used to feel the same way,” said the man. “I was at odds with the world. I hated my wife, my kids, my job…Life was depressing and stale. A friend was taking a holiday to the South… he invited me to stay with him. I went reluctantly. It changed my life.”
He paused for dramatic effect.
“My wife and children stayed in Paris. I went, alone, for a week. My wife nearly refused me this trifle, but, sensing the importance of it, I insisted. Somewhere, in a deep primal place, I knew. I think I knew. We took the train…I brought some books, and my reading glasses. The light was dim, but I insisted on concentrating on the bouncing pages before me.”
“We arrived at night. I concentrated on collecting my suitcase. I was exhausted, but took pains to make cheerful comments. I also took pains at not being distressed that my friend had arranged for a cheap mode of transport…a dusty cab where I was crammed into one corner. Now I made an effort to peer out the window, because I had heard many times of the loveliness of this corner of the world. I saw nothing but the white shoulder of the road, reflected from the headlamps of our car. Beyond…blackness, blackness. I shuddered. Life had become a metaphor…a sad one. We arrived at my friend’s cottage. I had a bedroom to myself. It was a warm night, but I kept the windows closed. Another metaphor.”
“The next day, we started out early. Now I put my books aside. We traveled in my friend’s car to the campground. I stayed mostly to myself. Now I could appreciate the rolling hills with their fringe of treeline, but they filled me with a strange sense of dread. I felt small, so small and insignificant. I decided I was being silly, and made conversation with an elderly dowager, my friend’s mother. However, the travel had made her carsick, and she gaped at me with a horrified expression that was both comical and insufficient distraction from my thoughts.”
“We arrived at our destination. We dined in small groups scattered about a large, open meadow. Our host had prepared sandwiches and coffee
“The day was warm. I removed my coat, and undid my shirt. I moved slowly, behind the others. My feet dragged. I wanted to stop, to tell the others to wait, but they were too far ahead. I could not call out to them, although I could see them. I moved slower and slower. Now my dread of the open plains seemed real enough…still I kept moving, trying to still the rising panic. At last, near collapse, I spotted the caves, and my friends entering into them. I gathered the last of my reserve, and ascended behind them. Inside it was cool. I rested. I heard them calling out to each other, but I could not move. I never saw the paintings.”
“Never saw the paintings!” exclaimed Richard.
“I didn’t need to. As I sat, I reflected myself. What a puny specimen I was! Not a man at all. Poring over books, wheedling, a slave to my wife, always trudging after the others and stilling my complaints. How different sort were the men who lived in these caves! They did real things, only connected with their own survival…made fires and made love. It was all so simple. Without waiting for the others, I trudged back down, once I recovered from the heat. A motivation was taking shape. Now, instead of being exhausted and resentful of the long walk, I seemed to draw strength from the earth. The longer I walked, the longer I could walk. When I reached the party resting in the meadow, I interacted confidently. My friends, returning from the caves, were much surprised that I had left them, and dismayed I had not admired the art. I was impatient to get back. I told them I had to return to Paris.”
“And what did you do?”
“First thing, I told my wife that I wished to live as an honest man with simple employment, for it seemed to me this was the key to everything. She made objections…of course. However, my insistence swayed her. She seemed to sense my ambitions, and, in an implicit way, to grasp the puzzle and its solution. I work in a factory now, not an office. At the end of day, I am too tired to think. However, I am happy. I take a drink, then go home and sleep.”
Here he pointed his finger at Richard.
“You get to those caves,” he told Richard. “I plan to take my children, as soon as they are old enough to understand it.”
Richard frowned a little, smiled a little, and in general was skeptical. His companion finished his beer, and, true to his philosophy, concerned himself with nothing more complicated than a game of darts before saying goodnight and leaving for home. Richard stayed a while longer, slightly drowsy with the heat of the establishment. He brooded. Perhaps it was so, people thought too much.
The next day, trying not to think, he bought a train ticket for Lascaux, where the man said the caves were.
The train was just as hot and uncomfortable. The windows were smeared with dust and smoke; children made noise and insisted on candy and sips of water. Women fanned themselves, while men read their newspapers.
Arriving at the small village outside the site, a sense of excitement overtook him. He seemed to have a sense of the occasion. It was quiet little town. The main street was a Napoleonic arcade, with a fringe of cypress and weeping willow that shielded an old stone street. The larger farmhouses had broken shutters and rusty gates, but most were squat cottages with tile roofs.
He ate at a local tavern, and made arrangements at a small hotel. This was done easily…he spoke to the tavern owner, who directed him down the street. And did I peer into the man’s head, he thought, did I question myself? Not a whit. He asked about transport to the caves…the tavern owner would take him for a small fee. It was a coincidence, he said, because someone else had inquired, and it would be convenient for him. Richard retired for the night.
The next morning, he presented himself at the tavern in the early morning. It became clear who the other traveler was…a young woman, perhaps nineteen, maybe twenty, clutching a sketchbook. She was dressed for a long walk, in trousers and man’s button up shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. In a short burst of exposition it was revealed that she was a student at the University of Paris. They nodded to each other, then forgot each other entirely.
It was a short drive. The tavern owner brought his wife. She made conversation with the guests, pointed to churches half hidden in the distance, talked of the war and her girlhood. The student stared at the woman as though she were speaking a language she could not comprehend. Richard understood only snatches. This made it easier for him to smile and laugh with the woman. Believing herself to have made a conquest, she liked him very much, and they got on very well together.
Reaching their destination, the tavern owner directed them, while the student stood with her hand shading her eyes, concentrating and nodding. Richard stood a little off, waiting for the conclusion to this conversation.
After a moment, she came up to him, and said briefly, “I told him that it’s useless for him to walk with us. We can find it easily enough.”
As if to demonstrate her point, she turned on her heel and took off. Richard hurried to follow her.
“Don’t you think he had better come with us?” He asked, worried. “Have you been there before?”
“He would only be in my way,” she told him, again briefly, again in English.
“He wouldn’t be in my way,” complained Richard, but she had no further comment.
He fell behind the student She climbed ahead, confidently. Soon enough he spotted their destination. The mouth of the cave yawned on a stretch of mesa.
Were they happy, those prehistoric men, he wondered, after a long travel to see that cave? Did it trigger what we would call happiness, the recognition of possibility, or was it the dull consciousness of a dog as it drags its belly towards the shade, with only the limpest of expectations? Like Pierre, he decided. Pierre is a dog seeking shade.
Here are my brightly colored thoughts, he decided all built up like a child’s blocks, and scattered almost in the same instant, was the next thought. The thought after that…incidental, unremarkable.
He moved like an animal, like Pierre the dog, but without pleasure or displeasure. His body didn’t have opinions, it seemed.
The cave is all ready to eat me up, he thought, as they climbed. Is there originality in that, he wondered, automatically. Could I write it down in a story, make a million? He laughed. The joke was on himself. The cave was in on it. The only one not in it was this poor student, wasting away wrinkling her forehead over books, curled over in the half light, looking for meaning. Even now, as they worked separately and together to overcome the formidable scattered boulders that crowded the lip of the mesa, he saw her excitement. She looked alert now, but her alertness reached him as the light from a star…visible but gone cold over the distance between them.
“Do you suppose there are cave bears in there?” He asked. She turned.
“I suppose we will find out,” she replied.
She had a lantern. He had a candle. Dripping walls greeted them, as well as a sharp odor that was as unrecognizable as it was insistent. She talked for a bit. She had read all about the excavation and she knew where people had found the cooking fires and the sleeping areas and where they had gone to make their primitive galleries. He recognized that the ground was slanted, and uneven, so he watched his feet. She stumbled once, however. She was watching eagerly for the petroglyphs.
Within a circle of lantern light, the image of a stag appeared. It cost him a shock, but he quickly recovered. He could not trace the cause of his shock. It was like seeing a spot of blood. Edged in black, the thing was hastily traced, perhaps with the angle of the thumb and an index finger.
“Ohhhhhh,” she said. “Hold the lantern up to it. I’d like to sketch it,” she requested. As he did so she sat cross legged, her sketch book in her lap. She bent her head and p
Nothing, he thought. I feel nothing. I am so happy for you, but I don’t feel anything at all. He looked at the stag again. There was no context to it. He came in and drew a stag, with the sun’s heat still on his skin, he thought. He was excited, perhaps. It was important to the artist, the stag with the golden fur. It stirred something inside of him. He rushed back to the cave to relive the moment, alone or with others.
Richard felt nothing. To be disappointed would be a relief. Would he forever stand, holding a lantern, a witness to the inspiration of others, but not inspired himself?
He heard a noise, a sort of scuffling. He tensed, listening. He heard the same sound again, and it sounded like it was coming closer.
“What’s that?” he asked.
She lifted her head.
“I don’t hear anything.”
She was silent, listening. Her eyes were wide. Then, again, the same sound.
“Wind,” she decided, but he reached down to grab her hand, pulling her suddenly to her feet. She stumbled as he pulled her again, intending to force her forward, out of the cave. She dropped her sketchbook, and lunged heavily forward. He reached to catch her and dropped the lantern. They were plunged into darkness.
Colette's Cat by Jennifer York / History & Fiction have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on18 votes