Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A Clowder of Cats for Christmas

   Since before Christmas we have been making nightly rounds to visit the houses of some cats whose families have gone back to France for the holidays.  This has meant lots of midnight walks in the empty snow filled streets of Aberdeen.  Yesterday, the snow and icicles turned to fog and mist, and we had to walk in the middle of the road, so that sheets of ice would not clamber and rumble down the roofs to land on us, sweeping arm-length icicles along with them.

    Despite how it looks in the pictures (which we took on a damp night of half-melted snow, when the orange city lights bounced back at us from the clouds), the skies have been clear mostly, and it has felt like just us and the moon passing through all the streets of crouching, old granite houses.  On the snowiest nights, when we have to walk in single file, my husband tends to walk in front, his little clouds of breath thrown back over his shoulder like a second scarf.  I have been happiest on nights where it was too cold for slush to come up into the holes in my boots.  The houses here often have big, bay windows in front, so that they look like display cases at this time of year, each filled with its own Christmas tree and decorations.

    On still nights like these, winding our way through the city as it sleeps or celebrates quietly indoors, I feel that we are blessed to be outside in the cold air, passing the warmly lit windows, breathing the wind that blows off the ocean and picks up the coal smoke from all the Christmas fires.

   On Christmas night, not Christmas eve, but the night of the 25th, the lights at the first house we visited were not working.  We had to feel around in the dark to feed the little black cat that lives there, who seemed to be only a pair of lonesome green eyes that night.  As we were playing and talking with her a little, it sounded as if someone was trying to force their way into the house, and we went to investigate with our hearts leaping and ears prickling.  In the end it turned out to be another cat, a giant black cat, who was trying to break into the house.

   After leaving that house we made our way to the next house, where another black cat, the brother of the first cat lives.  He seemed a little on edge that night, so we sat with him a little while.  But after we left there, for whatever reason, the streets seemed full of cats, and all of them completely black.  It was just an odd happening I suppose, but normally we don't really come across any cats on our walks, so it did seem somewhat strange to be surrounded by so many black cats all on one night.

   It put me in mind of some stories that Henry Glassie collected in his book Irish Folktales, which tell of cats and the mysterious meetings they have to choose kings, to conduct trials where they may determine guilt or innocence, and so on.  In one such tale, a Mr. Buckley of Co. Cork describes how, as he was returning home from an unsuccessful day at a market in a far off town, a cat jumped out of a cemetery he passed along the way and said, "Tell Balgeary that Balgury is dead".  The man was dozing in his cart as his horse pulled him home, and so discounted what he had heard.  Upon reaching home, his wife was anxious to have news from the market.  But, as he had had a particularly bad day and not done much talking to anyone, he had no news for her.  Noticing she was getting annoyed by his lack of news, he told her of the only bit of news he had heard, the news from the cat in the graveyard.  As soon as the words were out of his mouth, their cat, which had been sitting by the fire jumped up and said "The Devil fire you! Why didn't you tell me before? I'll be late for the funeral." And then the cat ran out and was never seen again.
    The story is, of course, much better read in full than in the quick description of it that I have given you here.  And I would really recommend the book, which is full of lots of wonderful stories, collected with care.

    The other thing I thought of with seeing all of those black cats that night was the Japanese story of Schippeitaro with its band of dancing, screaming phantom cats.  I think it's possible that the illustrations of this story had more of an impression on me than the actual story itself though.  In fact, one of my favourite things I brought back from Japan is an apron with these ghostly cats dancing across it, though I have a hard time recalling the ending of the story (but perhaps I just don't like the end).

   But I suppose it's getting to the time that I should soon be getting ready to go and look in on the cats and bring them their dinners for tonight.  While writing this entry I reread those stories in the Henry Glassie collection, and I came across a bit of advice that relates to these posts about talking animals and things: "never ask a cat a question.  She might answer back.  And, troth, if she did, it is seven years of cruel luck you will have brought on your shoulders.  Aye, indeed."  - Malachi Horan

   Just like that.  Perhaps I should be more careful with all of my 'ça va?' and  't'as faim?' sorts of queries!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Wells running with wine, trees growing indoors, animals telling stories.

   On Christmas Eve, according to Breton tradition, only man and serpents sleep.  Man, because he is forgetful and ungrateful, and the serpent because no evil can take place on this night, so there's nothing to do.  On this night no ghosts or witches roam the earth, the fires of hell stop burning, and the wells and fountains run with the finest wine during midnight mass.  And also, at midnight animals can speak the language of man.  Cows especially are said to take this night to address all of their issues from the past year, to talk to each other of things they've seen and travels they've made, recount stories they've heard, and to discuss things to come. 


   A few years ago my husband and I came across François-Marie Luzel's Nouvelles Veillées Bretonnes, a book full of folktales from Brittany.  Luzel grew up in Brittany in the early 1800s, and spent many long, winter evenings listening to neighbours and visiting storytellers in the glow of the hearth.  In his books of veillées (evenings of visiting and stories) he strives to keep the stories he later collected as a folklorist in their original context, as much as is possible in written form, by including the conversations that prompted the stories, trying to sort of transcribe the evenings, rather than just the individual tales.  It is in this book that we found the transcriptions of two Christmas Eves, as people sat around their big, oak yule logs talking before going off to midnight mass.
   On one of these evenings someone told the story of Arzur, a man who does not believe the tales he has been told of talking animals, and decides to prove everyone wrong by sneaking into a barn on Christmas Eve and spending the night there.
   So off Arzur goes, and hides himself away in the hayloft.  At first there is nothing out of the ordinary, and he begins to feel quite smug.  But as midnight strikes the cows begin to talk.  They do not seem to have noticed his presence and start discussing the humble birth of Jesus "between a cow and a donkey", then one cow reproaches another for disobeying the farmer on the previous day, and so on.
   By this point Arzur's heart is pounding, he's distraught, he can't believe what he is hearing.  But it gets worse for him, and what he next hears makes his blood run cold.  One cow asks her brother what they will do on the following day, and he responds: "Tomorrow we will have to pull the hearse so that we can bring the body of Arzur to the parish cemetery to be buried -- poor curious, indiscreet, unbelieving and impious Arzur who is even now in this very barn, listening to us".  All of the other cows repeat in a sort of ghastly chorus: "We will draw the body of Arzur to the cemetery!"
   Arzur, dying of fright, and thinking that the cows plan to murder him for having spied on them, jumps up from his hiding place and runs home.  The cows do nothing to stop him going, acting as if he were never there at all.  Shaking with fear, Arzur takes to his bed, and never leaves it again, except to go to the cemetery the following day, his hearse drawn by the very cows that he had heard talking on Christmas Eve.

   When I started thinking about Christmas cards this year, this story came back to me.  It's not that I am afraid of my loved ones missing church.  I have come across other Breton stories about the importance of not skipping out on midnight mass (like the one about a hard-working shoe-maker whose wife warns him to be careful not to lose track of time and miss mass, but he, nevertheless, gets carried away with his work and ends up getting a visit from Ankou, the Breton personification of death).  But what I love about this story is not its religious bent, but rather the portrait it paints of a vivid, mysterious world where miracles happen all the time, though it is better not to test them.

   So, even though I have been working long hours in the cold recently, and coming home tired, hungry, and frozen every evening, I have forced myself on, filling this apartment with printed card after printed card, until all the tabletops were covered, and strings of cards were hung up like prayer flags.  The cards should be flying out into the world on Monday, late I know, but my best wishes for a magical Christmas will be going on ahead of them, and on to you reading this.  May your Christmas be full of wonder and stories around flickering fires!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Of coldness and loss of feeling in toes...

Some visitors managed their way from France, over snow clouds and ice-jammed streets, to be with us these past few days.  Today, at work, people seem strange again, accents sound thicker, as if I had been away to someplace much farther than the local sights.

    Yesterday before planes and goodbyes, we took ourselves a little down the road, out to the ruins of Dunnottar Castle.  No one else was around, so we were free to wander all the dark and empty rooms, using the clouds of our breath to transform stray sun beams into columns of light.  We wound our ways up spiral staircases, wailed ghostly at lost members of our group, listened to the pigeons coo and hum inside the tower they had taken for their own, wrote snowy messages and left giant bird footprints across clear patches of snow.

   The day was full up with the pleasure of exploring a wild and windblown place, and it was surprising to look at the photos later.  With all of the emotion and chatter stripped away, only the bones of the day were left.

The land looked only bare and cold, the buildings only geometric and broken, a collection of surfaces in sun or shadow.  I felt as if I had not been to this place at all.

The bleakness of lost hours seemed to be mirrored back on me from these bits of captured light.  Though still visible, the places I had stood would no longer hold my feet. 

I've never before felt so estranged from photos that I couldn't remember for certain the act of having taken them.

Looking long enough, I start to wonder...

... are they the ghosts or am I?