Cats can't smile. This is their fundamental incapacity in relating to humanity.
Home just before dawn and our youngest cat greets me in the driveway. He's about six months old, a handsome Russian blue mix. It's dry and not too cold outside; on such nights I typically leave the sliding door out back open just enough for our cats to come and go at will. They seem to do their part to earn the privilege by keeping other small animals out (or by keeping the life-expectancy of intruding vermin very low), though I once found what I'm sure were raccoon tracks on the carpet. A precocious youngster small enough to squeeze in, perhaps. Or sent in by shameless grifter parents. Raccoons are the Gypsies of our local mammalian realm. We have one who sometimes comes to the backdoor panhandling. I recognize him by the cut on one ear. It happens rarely enough that I just have to watch while he eats whatever scraps I give him with those eerie, pre-human claw-hands. The cats come around to watch too; we all stand there for a bit wearing the same expression of dull fascination. We're not much for excitement around here, but hey, we can't all be lion-tamers, as the man said.
The raccoons and cats run the night in search of prey and maintain an admirable detente at the same time. Raccoons will often gang up on small dogs, possessed of that tragic canine inability to recognize needless peril, who charge in furiously engaging the raccoons in pointless combat or just don't know enough to steer clear. I suspect the raccoons make a point of trapping and killing these unfortunate pets. But with the cats it appears they have an agreement. A cat would never start a fight with such an obviously worthy foe for anything other than necessity. Yes, in this regard cats are realists, dogs are neocons. Forgive me, I'm merely being glib; I like dogs, and would never hold them in such low regard.
Breeding them as watch-dogs has created a certain unreasoning aggression in dogs, and is just another aspect of that fundamental difference between dogs and cats, dependence. Of course, nothing is more noble than the dog's loyalty and service toward us, at least from our point of view, which is, in the end, the only one that matters. Still, cats have been allowed, or haven't yet been stripped of, a degree of independence that gives them a certain dignity. Take barking, for instance; I get the impression that even if they could, cats would disdain barking, on decorum. Of course, no one has ever been dragged from a burning building by a cat.
But you've got to hand it to cats; unlike their near but foreign counterparts, dogs, they seem to have an advanced self-awareness, of of how they appear to the world. Cats, if I didn't know better, keep up appearances. Attendant upon this is, I think, that feline ability to project annoyance. Dogs may do this too, but with them it always involves pointless jumping up and down, barking, and copious salivation, and is indistinguishable from their distinctly canine quick impatience. I have one picture of this feline self-awareness in my mind, the memory of a cat stepping unexpectedly into a puddle, stopping with furrowed brow to shake the water off of his paw, moving on looking back at the puddle with clear indignation; all of this with a delicacy that would have become any human.
But as I was saying, the little cat came out to greet me and accepted my lifting him up, purring happily in anticipation of some wet food. I hold him up for inspection and he dutifully folds his slightly oversized ears back, his eyes narrow and go into an, excuse me, positively Asian slant. Inspection arms. When he sits with his limbs tucked underneath in that bread-box fashion of cats, he resembles something out of a Japanese cartoon, all gentle, soft round sections topped by the head of a miniature panda.
He's a sturdy little guy, with odd forelimbs for a cat, abnormally long from paw to elbow, short from there to shoulder. He has a small jaw but teeth as sharp as needles. With the other cats no matter how carried away they get they will only scratch your skin in play; this one, with his sharp teeth and unrestrained, dog-like enthusiasm, will pierce any ill-advisedly exposed flesh. It's all fair game to him. Part of his charm is his puppyish lack of restraint. But as enthusiastic as he is to be picked up and given a friendly squeeze, he soon wants to be put back down, and will struggle so mightily for it that if you don't relent he will, as he often has, squirt dangerously up and out of your grasp. Once on the ground he flits about with all the sprightly grace of a small bird flying patterns around your feet.
Of course, he's not nearly as sensible as he is charming at this point, and he's still likely to find himself punted several feet by his often distracted benefactor. Normally he satisfies himself by simultaneously prancing out ahead of me and turning back to invite play, often literally falling all over himself in ridiculous accidental contortions. A physical comedy no human could ever match. That's the charm of the kitten; a contradiction of feline grace and enthusiastic clumsiness.
I gave him a little food and a pat on the head and went to sleep. It shows how degenerate I am from watching film and television for all these years, but I remember this now as a cinematic fading out to the view of the bedroom door, fading in to the same view in slightly different light, awakened by an urgent knocking there.
I opened the door and my daughter was crying, holding the young Russian blue in her arms like a baby. He gaped up at me with expressionless eyes, his mouth open. At first I thought he was dead. He had been hit by a car. I grabbed the car keys and slipped into a pair of sandals and we rushed him off to a veterinary center nearby that I hoped was open. In the car the little guy struggled to breath, flailing away in mindless desperation at my daughter with each attempt to comfort him, causing her to sob more miserably than ever, as he suffocated on his own blood, which I could see staining the back of his mouth. Thankfully my daughter did not notice this. We made great time, maybe five minutes to what turned out to be a 24-hour animal hospital. More luck, the place was empty and a vet ran out to greet us with admirable concern, the little cat holding on and fighting, hacking away trying to breathe. Ten minutes later they sent us home with a box.
I let our little friend down, in the end, giving him too much freedom too soon. Not so independent after all. Still, I can't regret it. Watching these animals roam the spacious greenbelt next door, as thoughtlessly content as any God could possibly intend, I simply can't imagine denying it to them. To know that we don't so much own the cats as invite them into our homes as long as they'll have it, in exchange for the charm with which they grace us. Such an exquisite pleasure really, to be as mundane as it is. Cats are always free to spurn our offer of companionship. Some do, and this is admirable too, the manifestation of the cat's resistance to final and utter domestication, winning over a proud level of autonomy. Keeping us humans on notice. We don't merely have a relationship with the cats, we have an arrangement. There is an ennobling lack of the practical, for us, in our relationship with cats. They're just friends.
But being soft in my advancing age, I find profoundly touching the idea that we are blessing them with a distinctly unnatural good fortune; with a plenty and safety from the natural world's predations they have no genetic-historical means of comprehending. Sometimes when I notice one of them languorously indulging in this comfort as if it is a birthright, almost arrogantly, taking it all for granted, I think to myself, lucky cat. But in their inscrutable way, a way which I suspect we would find of a higher consciousness than we imagine them capable, if such a thing could be known, they marvel and cherish these blessings with awe-struck reverence. It is a transcendent experience for them. Maybe a little bit for us as well. For all the absurdity of our relations, cats and dogs are made more by their reliance upon us. We are bringing them a sort of enlightenment. We provide the chance to develop finer, more delicate sensibilities; to know higher, conceptual pleasures. We bring civilization to them, when we bring them to it.
I do wish I had thought, as I sometimes do, to close the slider once I got the little guy inside, so that he might give it a rest for a while and improve his chances of surviving into a safer, experienced maturity. If you think I'm attaching too much significance to his death by writing about it here, if you think I place a little too much importance on our pets, you don't know the half of it. We buried little Alex next to a leopard gecko's headstone. My daughter and I allowed ourselves a laugh at that, even as we buried our little friend with an absurd, decadent level of grief to be given over to an animal.
We already miss the presence of our little brother who died on the verge of his first spring. The day after we lost him, I opened the door with the same caution I had only recently acquired, habitually expecting to see him attempting a flash-breakout before I could detain him, as he often would if he'd been stewing impatiently indoors for awhile. I was somehow still surprised not to see him there, even while glumly noting his absence. I had looked forward to the warm weather on his behalf and shuddered to think of the havoc he was going to wreak on the annual springtime profusion of garden snakes. An animal thriving in its element is neither a means nor an end. Nothing so tawdry as that. It is sublimely without purpose, like all good things.