by Anis Shivani
Cats know death better than anyone.
It seems that the primary reason they domesticated us, at the same time as humans became domesticated to agriculture and a sedentary life, was to remind us of the sensuous things that keep escaping us. And what is more sensuous than death? What is more luxurious, what is more eventful, what is more poetic? A cat contains the poetry of death—and indeed it is the highest form of poetry, because this poetry comes from silence and ends in silence—like nothing else on earth.
The cat’s every movement and gesture and sound and hesitation and flurry and escape and approach is designed to embody the idea of death.
The idea of death is a furry softness we touch and grope and fondle, thinking we are touching a cat. Squeeze a cat in the belly and hear him utter that half moan, half mewl, half plea, half grump, squeeze him and feel how delicate and fragile he is, how absurdly small despite his usual proclamations to be a tiger in a cat’s little body. He is small and he knows it but most of the time he doesn’t want you to know it, except when you rub him a little too hard, he realizes then you have penetrated the membrane of forgettability, you have raised questions!
A cat does not want to answer questions. This explains why he’s often not around to take them. Or not take them at moments inappropriate for him. Or he takes them on sufferance. Or he takes them as answers in themselves, not bodies he’s accountable for.
A cat has the most fluid sense of accountability, like you should as a writer, a cat is unaccountable and unknowable and unchangeable as you were in your best moments as a child.
Remember when the ocean of gratitude washed over you in the playground, as you ceased for that moment to try to grow into something, a viable man or a viable woman, a bigger, taller, stronger, hardier being? You paused in the stillness of the midmorning sun, unable to calculate, unable to add two plus two, unable to remember your name even; all you knew was that you had shown up in the world just that morning, unmade, unborn, unreal.
A cat is born into the world anew each morning. (This is what you misinterpret as his need for luxury, for conspicuous ease, in fact you misinterpret all his gestures as his need for luxury.)
Each morning he tells you, the writer, he is shocked to be alive. Is any of it real? Is he actually breathing, beside the slant acrostics of the sun, under that revolving fan that throws kooky shadows over the walls, is he actually breathing? In and out, in and out, watch his nose flutter, watch his eyes purr in disbelief, yes he is breathing something of the air we all share. (Air is nothing but the volume of unreality that rises and falls in proportion to the quota of tragedy that has been your lot for the day. You don’t believe that the air is thicker or thinner on any given day? Then you haven’t been around cats long enough, sorry.)
A writer knows that a cat reincarnates more prolifically than a person. A single cat may die and reincarnate twenty or twenty thousand times, reappear in all the different hotspots around the world to put his foot down and throw his scent around and lay out the smartest paths of escape. But here’s the difference from people reincarnating: a cat has no choice but to relive his finest instincts each time, the failure of nerve, unfortunately common to people, not a shortcoming he needs to reappear to correct.
It’s quite possible that cats invented reincarnation.
A cat looks at food and insects and birds and trees and flowers and grass and pillows and newspapers and dogs and bookshelves and drinking fountains and socks and purses as objects in the process of reincarnation, things that have been here before and will be again, things that have always existed, so that it is not possible to conceive of their non-existence. Shouldn’t you, as a writer, be paying at least that much respect to objects around you?
So what does your cat want from you?
He wants you to be as indifferent as he is to solving crossword puzzles.
He does not want you to go out in the rain, because you will get wet and antsy, you will bring in a trail of sodden worldliness, the world drenched in the excess of the weather, the world as weather, the world crying from happiness, he does not want you to remind him that other forms of being overwhelmed besides the one he wants you to know are possible, so he does not want you to go out in the rain.
Actually, nothing is sufficient to explain why a cat does not want you to go out in the rain.
But he does want you to write as though the world had ceased to exist.
He wants you to be alone, a lot more than you have ever managed to be. He means alone in the sense of forgetting how to speak, occasionally, alone in the sense of carving out that big hollow ball of cautious fur where you can lay down away from the tyranny of seconds and minutes and hours.
He wants you to fail, fail at everything you thought was yours for the taking, for only in failing is there the reminder of death which is the only point of life, his and yours.
But he wants you to succeed too, only not in the way you thought you were going to, but in a different way, different not to the world but to you, because you experience success, meaning the world noticing you, as…well, this is the hardest thing to define, so let me have him, the cat, step in for a moment, and take a direct shot at it:
“The world is rain. Or shelter from rain. When you feel the glow of success it’s as if you’re sheltering in the rain. But what I like about you is when you can be in two places at the same time. Or many, many places, too many to count. When you recognize other people you cease being in more than one place at a time. Then I find it hard to speak to you, until you come back to me. And it’s even worse when other people recognize you. Strangers who have never poked at your ribs or puffed in your ears or clawed at your eyes, strangers who think they know you. Do not write for them. I will never recognize you in that familiar way.”
There, good job, cat!
A cat wants you, the writer, to rethink all you thought you knew about love. Love is not a gift, it is not a treasure, it is not a possibility, it is not a heritage. You can only experience love to the extent that you’re determined not to experience it. If you want to be in love, you cannot be in love. A cat knows that better than anyone, because he is a connoisseur of death, and you can see it anytime you look in his eyes.
What exactly do you, dear writer, see in a cat’s eyes?
They are full of emerald beatitude, and the end of the world in a sunny explosion, and layers of truth in the moment of death, of course they are full of all these things, but what else do you see in a cat’s eyes?
A cat wants you to see in his eyes a trail of sadness and laughter that ends because it cannot end, the fluid glass container of grace that takes its own measure, glassy poetry that does not blink, does not pause for the sake of the pause alone.
A cat is, almost, a futurist, but not quite.
A cat moves from one thing to another without the blank aura of questioning. Do not ask the wrong questions. Do not waste time asking questions with no answers. In fact, do not ask any questions. This is the nature of a cat’s curiosity that a writer likes best. It is not about questions and answers, it is about not visibly and transparently moving from one moment to another, not traversing moments in a nuanced, atmospheric, observable way, but just being in one moment at a point in time and then reappearing in another at a different point in time—without transition!
This is the only thing that negates death. Well, not really, but the only attitude, this simultaneous reappearance in infinitely many guises, that plays death’s own game, does not try to cheat it but pays it due homage.
A cat is every moment paying homage to death. A writer should likewise always be paying homage to death. Together cat and writer grow into a languid sunflower that graces the noontime doorway, a rain that desires to idealize every evening as it accompanies the sun on its exit, a middlebrow butterfly that has yet to be called the sum of its parts, a bantering rabbi trying to discover the prayer that will negate all lazy prayers, a child playing in a doll’s house which is the only house that exists after the world has ended, a scholar tripping over a tower of books and laughing about atrophy and disappearance, a fish and a bird and a squirrel twisting this way and that in the sun over the churchly pond which will not abide intemperate moisture and grime.
A cat is not a puzzle to a writer. A writer is not a puzzle to a cat. A cat, when he takes you in his confidence, does so from the only heroism he knows.
Anis Shivani’s recent books are Karachi Raj: A Novel, Soraya: Sonnets, and Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations. His work appears recently in Black Warrior Review, Subtropics, The Journal, Boulevard, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He has previously been published by both AGNI’s print magazine and the blog. His forthcoming novel, A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters Or Less, imagines the evolution of the feline-human relationship at key turning points throughout history—all from the point of view of the most perceptive cat there ever was. See what he’s published in AGNI here.