He’s twenty-one years old. He still hunts, patrols the fencelines, and is adept at extracting morsels from rubbish bags. His hearing, although not as good as it once was at recognising commands like, “Get outta there!” or “Get off the table ya mongrel!”, shows no signs of diminished ability to hear a fridge door opening or the rattle of dry cat food poured into a china bowl.
It occurs to me that Ming and I have lived in the Pohangina valley for similar periods — twenty-one years ago he was born and I moved here. Nevertheless, he’s older than me — in cat years he’s probably at least twice my age; however, I like to believe I’m wiser although I get the feeling he knows better.
I, however, drool less; unlike Ming, when I’m happy I don’t leave a zippered trail of saliva spots along the verandah. I suspect he considers this habit of his to be part of the wisdom of old age — if you’re happy, why not show it? Self-consciousness is both an indicator and a burden of immaturity, although one must be careful to distinguish lack of self-consciousness from dignity. All cats I’ve ever met have had a well-developed sense of dignity, the loss of which, however temporarily, is one of the worst disasters that can befall a cat.
Now he sits with his back to me, on the edge of the verandah in the warm evening sun, looking out over the paddock. Perhaps he’s wandering his twenty-one years’ worth of memories; perhaps he’s remembering what it felt like to be lithe and agile, the scourge of small animals and the idol of humans. More likely, he still feels that way and is simply considering whether to stalk the blackbirds tugging at worms in the paddock. Meanwhile, the dogs are going ape at something — a sheep grazing too close to the kennels, perhaps — but Ming couldn’t care less. He knows they’re locked up and harmless. He, on the other hand, is never locked up — locked out, perhaps, although I doubt he acknowledges it — and he’s far from harmless. The gifts he’s deposited next door have, over the years, included rabbits, full-grown rats, and even a weasel.
When I shifted to this house nine years ago he kept his distance. Both cats did, but after several years Tigger (a.k.a. Jimmy) decided I was acceptable enough to be allowed to feed him and we’ve become good friends. If the door’s open and I’m at the kitchen bench it’s not unusual for me to be startled by the bump and rub of a striped head on my calf, or even a pair of paws arriving on my thigh as he stretches up to say, “Hello; feed me; now would be good.” Ming, however, remained aloof. When I called in to collect my mail he’d crouch and glare from his position on the warm bonnet of the car — not infrequently, I add, the recently cleaned bonnet, to which the muddy paw prints added a kind of Jackson Pollock flair sadly unappreciated by its owner.
Just what finally changed his attitude towards me remains unclear, but seems to have coincided with a visit earlier this year by the attractive and otherwise-intelligent-but-cat-gullible Amelie. Seeing Ming prowling next door, she called to him. He feigned deafness but she persisted until he finally chose to exercise his right to be lavished with food and attention. Now, having realised that both benefits are freely available here, and the rubbish generally contains something worth checking out, he’s a frequent visitor.
He turns his head and looks at me, intuiting he’s being written about. It’s another of the infuriating set of qualities with which cats have been gifted — not only do they have an extra eight lives, they also have six, not a mere five, senses. And they know it. But as he looks at me I wonder about his gammy left eye, the iris of which looks inflamed although he seems untroubled by it and it’s not weeping. I hope it’s nothing more than the consequence of a long-healed infection. Perhaps he’s cultivating it, realising the sympathy it engenders among his admirers, or perhaps he likes the fear it strikes into those at whom he chooses to glare — rather like the Eye of Sauron.
He curls up on the verandah, absorbing the warmth from the dark wood, and closes his eyes. The fierceness softens. Twice my age, I think. I trust I’ve lived at least half as well in the last twenty-one years.
Photos (click to enlarge the smaller photos):
1, 3 . Ming.
Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor