nine lives

POSTCARD#302: Chiang Mai: Long ago in the Swiss mountains, there was a cat who lived in the Buddhist monastery,  Dhammapala. It had no name, just arrived there one day, and stayed. It answered to the name: ‘Cat’, would walk definitively across the carpet; tail pointing in the direction it came from, pad, pad, pad, pad, and sit in the lap of his favourite monk, seated on the cushion there with crossed legs. Not however, during meditation times because the community agreed it was too distracting, other restrictions too but ‘Cat’ accepted all, dozing during the day and prowling in the woods at night.

On this day, I came across him on a small table in the sunshine. ‘Cat’ was often there, looking exactly like he appears in my old illustration of him. The same cat, the identity of Mr. Cat animated in the image – he ‘exists’ even though long gone in the decades since then. It’s as if one of the nine lives is used up being the likeness I see here and others who knew him see too.

It’s not impossible, by the way, that other people who have or used to have a black cat might see the identity of their cat in this image. What they see is ‘Tiddles’ or ‘Cutiepie’ – or as my blogging friend Sunny and her husband tell me, it’s their ‘Daisy’. Sadly, Daisy is elderly now and needs to be looked after, a lesson for all of us that there is an end to it all, and the clear comprehension of those final days are filled with immense peace. This is how it is, everyone, everywhere seems to know of a black cat like Mr. Cat, or the one image of Mr. Cat embodies all the others held in memory.

On this particular day, sitting on the garden table, the eyes look at me… ready to engage but ready to vanish back into the realm from whence he came. Hesitates to see what the next moment will bring, pause, click, screenshot… and I decide to back away, to step out of his space. I hadn’t intended to do that, it just started to happen and I followed through – maybe the deference arose with the thought that Mr. Cat was an extension of the monks’ awareness – those who might have extraordinary powers… all kinds of things.

I see his presence regarding me walking backwards and becoming a smaller and smaller object in his vision until the distance between us swallows up the encounter. His remoteness disturbed by an intrusion of everything seeming to happen at the same time. And for me, the nine-lives metaphor thus transits to include this other meaning; cats appear and disappear becoming cats in the lifetimes of all the other black cats I’ve known in say, more than a half century?

North of Scotland, Grandfather’s farm, a different place and time…. I was a boy and it must have been my first meeting with the cat species. Not the cute and cuddly kind, these were the cats whose presence kept the rats out of the old barn. Don’t go near them I was urged, not friendly creatures. There were eleven of them, my aunt said she knew there were, as we were walking along in the cleared snow path on a moonlit night – she would count them every night. Into the barn and my aunt would ask me to point the beam of the torch I was holding so she could see where to carefully place the large heavy dish of steaming food on a level place in the straw where it couldn’t be knocked over; oat meal cooked with sour milk filled to the brim, mixed with potato peelings, bits of all kinds of leftovers and horrific things, to my mind, being only seven.

The wild cats never came to eat the food while we were there (while I was there, I realize now), and my aunt would ask me if I could see them in the fearsome jagged shadows in the torchlight, long hanging cobwebs from roof beams. We’d stay still and look in all the corners – where are they?

There look!
Can ye no see them child… there!

And there they were, just out of reach, behind a volume of straw. I couldn’t actually see them, in fact I don’t remember ever seeing them anywhere on the farm in daylight. No, these were invisible cats; we could only see their eyes, white, reflected almond shapes in the torchlight. No body forms seen, crouched there in the blackness, waiting for that noisy child to leave. Fascination for me, held by my aunt, asking if I’d noticed that one of the cats had only one eye.

I saw it once, the one-eyed black cat, and I’m not sure if it was black – everything in the realm of the scary barnyard cats was darkness and black. But I saw it one night… my tireless aunt guiding my attention from one pair of luminous, broken-mica eyes, to the pair above that and above that, to the left a bit… now there, can ye see it? (Said in a whisper), and I saw it, one eye separated from its partner, alone in the blackness of no form.

How did it come to have only one eye? A volley of questions and speculations from me, for my aunt to consider… and she just said that if I stopped asking over and over, she’d tell me. A long time ago, that cat used to have two eyes like the others, and it went missing for days and weeks and months maybe, so long that she thought it must be dead. Then it came back one winter’s night for the plate of cooked leftovers, completely thin like a skeleton but otherwise looking as if it had always been there. My aunt noticed, as she watched it from a distance, that one eye had been torn out, so it must have been fighting with another cat. These animals have the determination to survive, no matter what.

All of that swallowed up in passage of the years and decades since then. Now after thirty years in Asia, where cats are never allowed inside the house, I sometimes see a cat-shape out there in the yard in the darkness, glimmer of streetlights. It turns its head and two eyes reflect the lights of the house – not the marginalized, one-eyed warrior cat. Must be one of these invisible cats of innumerable lives reborn in this instant, awareness includes that living being, then it’s gone almost as soon as it arrived.