I sat on the couch one recent morning with Ellory perched beside me. She often joins me when I’m writing to walk over the keyboard, or when I’m reading to chew on the corners of the pages. Both reading and writing are solitary pursuits that don’t lend themselves to company. But people are people, communal creatures that derive some intangible comfort from the rise and fall of a belly nearby, and a cat is perfect company: usually content to sleep or observe, but disruptive enough that I remember where I am.
Ellory is an elegantly pudgy tuxedo cat with expressive ears and bright green eyes. We adopted her one hot Sunday afternoon in the lot behind a pet store in Williamsburg from a foster organization called North Brooklyn Cats. A loose confederation in North Brooklyn, they take tips about stray cats from their neighborhoods, catch them, clean them, pay for surgeries and shots, and adopt them out. They raise money to cover surgeries and medication that go beyond the usual fleas, ticks, and fix and they do home visits before they sanction adoptions. A work friend and her wife adopted their cats from the same group and met us in the little patch of grass to scratch cats under the chin through wire pins.
North Brooklyn Cats adopts most kittens out as pairs so that they can grow up socialized, but we weren’t looking for two cats. My wife walked by the cages one by one and played with the screwball creatures within. She stopped at Ellory’s cage and made her decision. “We’d be willing to adopt her out alone.” The official reason was that she was at the tail end of kittenhood – about ten months – but in hindsight I think she probably didn’t get along well with her roommates. We filled out a form, scheduled our home visit, and then went to stock up on cat supplies. The next morning we got a message from Ellory’s foster mother that the home visit would no longer be necessary and we could pick her up any time. Our friends were well known to some of the other fosters and had vouched for us. That they wield such a peculiar sort of power speaks well to the way the ways in which they’ve invested their time (scratching cats under the chin through wire pins).
Ellory sat on the couch in what we refer to as “the loaf” – on her belly, head upright, with all four paws tucked underneath. I was reading a book and, as her tail bobbed idly, I grabbed it between my pointer and thumb. It remained still for a moment, then flicked itself free and continued as before. A few seconds later I did the same thing with the same result. Through all of this, Ellory remained stoic; her eyes squinted halfway between consciousness and sleep, she purred on and off, and she never once acknowledged what I was doing. My wife watched for a few minutes from the dining room table before commenting on the amusing ritual.
“I wonder if cats have any control over their tails at all.”
I once said something similar to my mother.
“I don’t know Peter, I sometimes think they might have too much control altogether.”
My instinct is to consider a cat’s tail a separate organism entirely, able to have an interaction of which its odd little brain remains blissfully unaware. But maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe it indulges every firing synapse and bizarre feline idiosyncrasy. This way, no that, no this way, now stop. What do these unusual twists and impulses indicate? Complete subconscious, or an extremity obeying every command of the fuzzy little oddball with no filter whatsoever? The former calls into question the tail’s function at all. Is it a sort of radar feeling around for information and running it up the flagpole? Just decoration? The latter is far more interesting and begs a different question. If a cat can act on every mischievous or anxious impulse that dawns, how does it remain so calm? How does Ellory sit, halfway between consciousness and sleep, purring through that chaos? It begins to sound somewhat philosophical.
Too much control or too little – it all blends into the same thing at some point. A distinction without a difference. I sit at a keyboard and labor over sentences. They spill out in great bursts and then fall under the axe during lengthy bouts of agonized stillness. Or I wrench them from emptiness quite slowly, unsure of what I’m saying until the words are there and unsure of whether I agree with it until they’re gone. But the tail just flicks idly; against my face in slow pendulum swings, suddenly at the gentle pinch of fingers, incrementally against a ball of dust or some other such tiny obstacle. Every thought realized immediately. Or on total autopilot. I’m not sure of the difference. Ellory certainly doesn’t care.