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!


  1. I've read some time ago that cats have very complex social relationships together, and that it is a widespread misunderstanding among people to think of cats as solitary and on their own.
    Anyway we are blessed with three, and I often wonder what and how and to what depths they communicate with each other.
    Beautiful post, beautiful place, I wish you a wonderful year for your art and your love.

  2. Heisann!

    A big new year's hug from me to you!

    Bjørg Nina

  3. Barbara,

    I've heard a little about that too. I am always so fascinated by studies that reveal a little of the social workings of other animals, though, of course, I love the more folkloric observations of this as well.
    I really miss having cats and dogs all around. We always had lots of animals when I was growing up, and I find not being able to have them is one of the big downsides of moving countries.

    Best wishes for 2011 Barbara and Vilt!!

  4. Oooh, lovely snowy wintry Aberdeen! I was a student there (2 degrees worth), and love it in all seasons.

  5. ahhh, see? i was not supposed to miss this post, and so i stumbled upon it backwards :)
    beautiful. the amber light is fantastic. as for all those black cats, it's my belief that they were all out there to tell you thanks. the big guy trying to get in was the spokesman; he didn't mean to scare you off :)
    they know you're helping the community :DDD
    and how could a talking cat possibly be bad luck?? maybe that malachi just didn't want to hear what they would tell him! :D