One mean winter, in the middle of the day, a middle-aged cat and her one and only offspring reclined on a pile of about six copies of The Paris Review.
This was not altogether a literary choice; the professor had forgotten to open certain curtains when he'd run off—late as usual—leaving but a shard of sunlight for their afternoon doze.
In this sunlight, the two reclined, counting time off in alternating beats of tail-tips and paw-licks.
Outside the room, the house; a whitewashed wood-frame, in a college town of other whitewashed wood-frames, each with a cat or chocolate lab lying together in the afternoon light—all lulled to sleep by the collective silence of so many pleasant homes, a veritable white-noise of nap-time.
Now the older cat rose and stretched herself. She took her time, enjoying how well her body de-kinked itself; how smoothly she went from slumber to ready-set-go. Poor Professor, she thought, he was roughly her age, once you did the math, but lately it seemed to take him for-never to get up and about. This was life. Unfair.
She looked down at her daughter. Unfair. Slow to wake. Slow. The delivery had been complicated. None of the others had survived. Each kitten pulled from her, lifeless. This, the last one; alive, but without oxygen long enough to keep her a kitten forever.
The professor named it "Mittens" because of its white paws.
Honest-to-god, for the head of the English Department at a small but borderline Ivy League college, the professor sometimes disappointed her. She preferred, and referred to, her daughter as "Jeanette," after Jeanette McDonald. Silly, pretty, sweet Jeannette. "You can't turn a B-movie actress into what she's not." She would often advise herself. "You have to accept things the way they are." She was a realistic animal.
Not that she hadn't tried for an exceptional litter. She'd held out. Lord knows she'd held out. When the pussy-tingles tingled, hadn't she dragged her drop-squatting, lust-filled self those nine long blocks past every Tom, Dick and handsome Larry, (wonderful cats all—but dumb as dander) ... slowly, slowly to the Department of Applied Mathematics looking for... Pi. Skinny, dull-coated ... but ever so clever, Pi.
Very, very careful planning on her part; all to give birth to someone exceptional. Someone she could talk to. Someone with opinions. A reader. A thinker. Like herself.
Jeannette rolled over and started purring. She looked up at her mother with perfectly round brown eyes. A calm, seemingly thoughtful glance, then suddenly—ZAP! She exploded (a cat-bomb) straight up in the air, and without landing, flew off the magazines and was gone behind the couch.
Mercy-Mercy, her long-suffering mother, turned towards the bookcase for solace. Eyeing her prey, she jumped high, and with a practiced nail, pulled down the book she'd been reading yesterday.
Now, I may have turned a few people off; away from any further consideration of this character's woes. A reading cat? A thinking cat? The Paris Review. Of course American Domestics can't read The Paris Review. And Mercy-Mercy, being an American Domestic, would easily fall within that range of limitation. Americans can't read The Paris Review and I am not silly enough to imply original genius on the cat's part. We most of us only learn the patterns we're taught from the important characters in our lives and are lucky just to maintain or improve them.
However, it should be pointed out that the professor was the important character in Mercy's life, and the professor's grandmother was French, and the professor himself had, in his youth, slept on two nights with three French women, and had seen An American in Paris seventeen times. In a way, it was his private love of the young Leslie Caron that actually kept his subscription going.
And he read the damn thing. I'm not saying he didn't; busy as he was. But I am making a point here that often it is other, secret, private, or unexplainable things that keep us going.
Which brings me back to Mercy and her reading habits. No one ever saw her do this except Jeannette Eternal-Kitten-Brain. And me.
Absolutely no reason to believe me.
But think, those of you who've loved (or hated) a cat... at some point a cat will look at you, then away. Or back, when you've turned your head. A second will occur, growing into a moment, forming into a thought, a doubt, a huh? ... that this cat knows something. This thing that mostly sleeps, eats fish-feet and has a small brain, is thinking something big, is knowing something important. Right there in front of you. Calling upon Nefertiti, or the long bright past—right back to the beginning. If you've had a cat, you know I am telling the truth; stating a fact.
So don't get picky when I mention Mercy just jumped up to claw down To the Lighthouse. She reads it for comfort, if you can believe that. And the professor, being harried, and overwhelmed, what with life taking his wife to a quieter place this last October, won't even wonder why his books keep falling out of the case.
Mercy counts on that.
Heidi DeCoo is a 1st Grade teacher in New York City.