For some reason my cat has taken a strong dislike to me writing letters; more than that, to me sitting at my writing desk and working on anything that has to do with either reading or writing. Since these two occupations take up practically all my time at home – home being the office as much as where I live – that is a lot of disturbance. If it isn’t the demand for something to eat, then it is the indecision over whether to go out or not; this normally begins with a firm wish up in the office, and changes to a not interested when we’ve walked down the stairs together, along the hallway, and I’ve opened the main door. By which I mean, I’ve walked down the stairs, almost tripping over the cat who races past me to get down first, and then sits watching which I walk along the hall and open the door, before begin to clean his backside or some other part of his anatomy, then standing, stretching, and walking in the other direction and away from me. Perhaps he feels that I need the exercise, since I am mostly sitting all day, but I can think of far better methods.
Then there is the tentative paw on my lap while I’m typing, just sneaking across, head under my arm and an attempt to find a place of comfort where my elbows are. It is, as I am sure you appreciate, almost impossible to do anything but read when a cat is sitting or lying on you, and even that is difficult, but here he comes, as determined as ever. Claws out, take a grip to get my attention, and then sit back, look me once over when I refuse, and clean his backside or some other part of his anatomy nonchalantly, as if that was the whole point of the exercise.
Night time is even worse: lying in bed and cat attempts to insert itself between book and nose. Not just once, but several times. Or sit – this is also a favourite for my cat – half an inch behind the book, looking over it or with eyes closed, and by its sheer presence prevent the movements necessary to turn a page. Then there is the finding a place to sleep period: this is usually when I have finished reading after an hour or so, the cat is still on the couch, I turn off the light and adopt sleep position. There is a sudden elephant-like gallop of paws across the wooden floor – carpeting makes no difference to the noise, I’ve tried it – and cat is on the bed, in my face. Usually it begins face to face, which is preferable, but when a decent sleep position needs to be found, for cat, my face makes no difference. Cat is quite happy to turn and face in the opposite direction and begin with the claws on my bedspread. If I was just about asleep, I’m definitely not now: cat’s backside in my face, clawing noises further afield, what could be better when the land of dreams is calling.
Finding the right position to sleep in, for cat, takes about twenty minutes., I have mine in roughly the same number of seconds, but cat has higher standards, and requires more than have of my bedspread too. If he doesn’t get it when we finally have found a comfortable sleeping position at night, he’s certainly managed to find it come morning. It’s amazing how much bed and bedspread a cat needs to get comfortable, and how little I can be happy with after a fight I know I am not going to win. If I am not pushed in the most extreme outside third of the bed come morning, the cat hasn’t won; and cat losing is something of a rarity. It’s easy enough to understand why the Egyptians worshiped them as gods, and also why they sacrificed them to accompany dead kings into the afterlife whenever possible: your king made my life hell during his time on earth, I’m sending a cat to make eternity hell for him. I think this is probably what people thought of as a win-win situation back then. Of course, these were the same people who would sacrifice all the king’s wives and servants so they’d have everything they needed on the other side too – right down to men on horseback as protection against enemies in the afterlife – which is, perhaps, going a little too far for my tastes.
The old man shakes his head and heaves a sigh,
Compares the present day with days gone by
as Lucretius writes, but more than likely from the point of view of someone who says that his youth was a golden era, and everything today is just muck and grime in comparison. I’m quite sure that I wouldn’t want many of the things from the past to still be present today, and I’m hard put to find much from my youth which I’d gladly suffer now. Although: it would be good to be able to travel in the same way as I used to, and there are a few exhibitions I missed, back in the Seventies, which I regret not going to. Aside from that, I don’t think so. Not that I regret taking in this cat. He was hit by a car and left for dead on the side of the road, needed a long and complicated operation to fix his hind leg, and will limp for the rest of his life, but he has a better life now than he did before, of that I am certain.
I think it was probably better for the Egyptians to have prayed to a cat – amongst other things with weird shapes, heads and names – than a sacred cow, not that Egypt didn’t have had too many cows; their climate makes it more suitable for oxen-type cattle, with horns and strength, you’d have thought, cattle which would have had its place in the temples could hardly be expected to pull ploughs across muddy fields freshly flooded with the waters of the Nile. Surprisingly enough, it appears that cattle were not only present in Egypt, but were used for their skin, as meat and for milk, and less in the central areas where farmland would be ploughed. And, something I don’t want to think about too much, they were also worshipped as gods in one form or another. Why not think about it? The cat was so holy that not only was it killed to accompany a king into the after world, it was also mummified. Now, imagine taking a herd of holy cattle, fresh from pasture, and sticking them through the mummification process. I know that the human species has done many strange things in its short history, but mummifying cows? Cats are considerably easier.
I first came across a mummified cat in the Eighties, working in Belfast at the time, I had a chance to visit the museum where they had an exhibition of Egyptian sarcophagi. This was about the time when Tutankhamen was old news, had been seen by everyone one, and was winding down into stuff for future conspiracy shows on the television – which is actually one of those things I do consider the golden era, since I was in London during the big rush to see all things Egyptian and mummified, and missed it completely – but there was an exhibition about three Spanish ships, involved in the Spanish Armada against England, which had sunk off the Irish coast. That is, three had managed to escape the English and sailed to what they believed would be safe harbour in Ireland: then one sank and the crew were mostly rescued by the other two; a second sank and the remaining crew were rescued by the last boat which – guess if you can – also sank. So, some of these men were involved in an aborted, lost war against the English, and then three shipwrecks one after another. No golden era there. So I was there to see that exhibition, but the ticket price included the Egyptian area – and the rest of the museum too – and there I got to see my first wrapped-up cat. Complete with its little ears sticking up, and a real work of art, if that sort of thing falls into your work-of-art categories. Which reminds me of:
When an ant is struck, does it not fight back and bite the hand of the man that struck it?
which has always amused me because, well, an ant. And I am reminded because it came from a series of letters set in clay from the Egyptian region and written about one thousand three hundred years BCE called the Amarna Letters, which was mainly political or diplomatic reports but did include some poetry. There is even a report of a man who pawned a clay pot, to see him over until the next pay cheque I guess. I sometimes wonder why – or how – my memory is full of such things.
Enough to know that the Egyptians held cats in such reverence they not only mummified them for the afterlife, but also had a special cemetery set aside for their mortal remains, those which didn’t get packaged up for the king. Or so you’d think: another myth gets busted. The cemetery – in Bubastis – was near to a temple dedicated to the lion goddess Pakhet, and the cats had all be bought by pilgrims to this shrine, and sacrificed as gifts. So many cats were left over – or their mortal remains, at least – that a cemetery was built and when that didn’t work they were cremated. Some Germans found the cemetery and excavated it, but it was soon overrun by locals, especially the children, who would grab the mummified remains, hurry down to a market, and sell them. Not that all the dead cats made it that far either: a report from the time, about 1888 or so, tells of bits of wrapping, of bones and skulls littering the pathway where the packages hadn’t made it all the way, and that there were so many bodies uncovered – with the appropriate stench and danger to health, that they were gathered up in bulk for destruction, and even, I am reliably told, sent to Europe as fertiliser. That would be a lot of cats.
I sometimes consider, when a certain paw is a little too free with claws on my lap, or when the mewing for even more food is too loud, of informing my cat of the possible future if he doesn’t keep quiet. Somehow, though, I suspect it would be of little use and he, well aware of the position of cats in the past, and his connection to the gods of the afterlife, would merely ignore me, and settle down to clean his backside or some other part of his anatomy well aware that I will suffer almost in silence. Not just suffer in silence, but also, to a certain extent, enjoy the suffering since, far better than humans, a cat is good company: we know what they want as much as they do, and we know that when they’ve got what they want they’re going to sleep on it. What could be more divine? Admittedly, since I am writing more about cats than anything else today, my own has decided to stay on the polite side. No claws or mews for attention, just leaning against my thigh, where he threw his entire weight as I began writing, sleeping peacefully.
Some might say sleeping like a baby, but I’m not too sure I want to go in that direction: I’ve seen enough of them to know that this peaceful sleep, when they lie there so silent and cute, is merely the prelude to a storm. Babies, in my experience, are far more demanding than cats, even if the cat’s demanding, since it does not learn to speak our language, carries on for an entire life, you know exactly what it wants and can cater to it. But at least babies become children, children grow and become adults, and adults move out. Callous? Perhaps.
Strange the way some letters go. I’m not all that sure what I was planning when I first sat down this morning; I did have an idea, but not a set plan. Influenced by my surroundings, you could say, which would usually be events of the past week, or a book that I have been reading, a paper I’ve been writing. Today it seems to have been as s simple as the fact that the cat jumped up on the couch, looked at me blankly for a moment or two, did its washing, and then curled up to sleep. Now, who wouldn’t want to have a life like that? Filled with a sense of security and lacking for nothing. Perhaps I’ll sign up to be a cat in my next life. Except that would mean signing up to be a cat for my next nine lives which is, perhaps, a little bit too much commitment.