The Handmaid's Tale's MARGARET ATWOOD writes a heartfelt piece to cats
My Moggy Mania! The Handmaid’s Tale author MARGARET ATWOOD writes an evocative and heartfelt homage to the cats in her life since childhood — revealing how their wicked cunning and high comedy made them her purrfect literary companion
I was a cat-deprived young child.
I longed for a kitten, but was denied one: we spent two-thirds of every year in the north woods of Canada, so if we took the cat with us it would run away and get lost and be eaten by wolves; but if we did not take it with us, who would look after it?
These objections were unanswerable.
I bided my time.
Meanwhile I fantasised.
My drawings as a six-year-old are festooned with flying cats, and my first book — a volume of poems put together with folded sheets and a construction-paper cover — was called Rhyming Cats, and had an illustration of a cat playing with a ball.
Margaret Atwood’s evocative and heartfelt homage to the cats in her life since childhood — and discover how their wicked cunning and high comedy made them her purrfect literary companions
This cat looked like a sausage with ears and whiskers, but it was early days in my design career.
Then our months spent in the woods became fewer and I saw an opening: a cat belonging to one of my friends had kittens. Could I, would they, can’t I, why not? I wore them down.
My father was never entirely easy about having an indoor cat — he was born at the beginning of the 20th century on a small backwoods farm, so for him cats belonged in the barn, their job was to catch rats and mice, and unwanted kittens were drowned in a sack — but he conceded that this particular cat was unusually agreeable and intelligent, for a cat.
This cat’s name was Percolator. (A pun of sorts. I expect you noticed.) Her nickname was Perky, and she lived up to it, being alert and energetic.
She slept in the dolls’ bed in my room — never much used for dolls — or else on top of me, and I loved her dearly.
In those days we didn’t yet know that we should not let cats outside due to their devastating effect on wild bird populations, so Perky went in and out at night through my ground-floor bedroom window, and brought me nocturnal presents.
The presents were things she had caught. If mice, they were usually dead, but several birds were not, and had to be pursued around the room, captured and rescued via shoebox hospital.
If the interventions were successful the birds would be released in the morning; if not, there would be burials.
Once there was a rabbit, which did not have any bite marks on it as such, and gave me and Perky a lively chase before being inserted into the shoebox.
Unfortunately, it died anyway, probably of shock. (Grabbed by a monster. Incarcerated by an alien. You can see how upsetting that would have been.)
In the summers, when we went to the north woods, our next-door neighbour, Rhea, kindly fed Perky, who seemed to be able to fend quite well for herself outside.
There was an abandoned orchard nearby and a cemetery within reach, so she had ample hunting grounds.
All went well until the day of Rhea’s garden party. The women in their flowered dresses and sunhats were seated around a large low table, on which there was a platter of stuffed dates rolled in powdered sugar. Oblong, moist.
Perky, to show gratitude, brought a gift — a dead mole, well-licked and smoothed, also oblong and moist — and laid it on the platter. And someone almost ate it!
Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy Waterford and Elisabeth Moss as June Osborne in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian future series where a woman is forced to live as a concubine under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship
Then, when I was almost 12, I had a baby sister.
This event spelled doom for Perky. One day when I came home from school she was not there.
She’d been caught licking milk from the baby’s mouth, and, fearful that she would sit on the baby’s head and smother her, my parents had ‘given her away’.
I expect this had meant a trip to the Humane Society and a swift death, but I never knew.
Nowadays there would be a family consultation and much empathetic explaining, no doubt, though the cat would have been done away with anyway.
As it was, this was a tragedy, a thunderbolt from Zeus; and like a thunderbolt from Zeus, there was no sense in questioning it.
Did I resent this disappearance of my first cat? I did.
Have I ever forgotten it? As you can see, I haven’t.
How could I have been so heartlessly severed from my animal daemon in this way? But so it was.
Other cats followed, though much later: hard to have a cat when you are living in residences, rooming houses and rented apartments that said ‘NO PETS’.
But after a while along came Patience, who got stuck all over with burrs and then rolled on the afghan I had just painstakingly knitted; and Ruby, the tough, formidable senior we inherited when we moved to a farm, and who used to go for walks with us like a dog.
Then, suddenly, I had a small child of my own, and she, too, was afflicted with longing for a cat.
The inevitable was staved off for a short period: there was already a mouse in the household.
It cannot be said to have been very friendly: it went round and round on its exercise wheel, bit fingers and emitted foul smells.
But then the mouse died. It was being shown off to two visiting boys, and a skit from Monty Python ensued.
‘This mouse is dead!’
‘No it isn’t, it’s sleeping.’
‘Look! Dead!’ (Pokes mouse.)
Was there trauma? There was not. The mouse was given a formal burial in the back yard, complete with songs, and was known to have gone to heaven because squeaking was heard high above. (Chimney swifts, I expect.)
The grave was then re-opened and, behold, no mouse was in it! (Dirt from the covering sod had concealed it.)
Two minutes later: ‘Now that the mouse is dead, can I have a kitten?’
A neighbour had some, and was more than happy to part with two, ‘so they will have someone to play with’.
Naming rights were given to the five-year-old. One kitten was grey and fluffy, and was named Fluffy.
The other was short-haired and black, and was named Blackie.
Not sophisticated names, to be sure — no Oedipus, no Octopus, no Platypus, no Catatonic — but descriptive.
These kittens were remarkably patient, and allowed themselves to be stuffed into dolls’ dresses and wheeled around in a toy buggy. (I had done the same to Perky, so who was I to tut-tut?)
The rule was that they should not be allowed outside in these costumes, as they might get caught on branches and strangle on their bonnet strings.
But occasionally they would escape, and passers-by would be treated to the sight of one of them in a pinafore and flouncy hat, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.
Fluffy was obliging, Blackie was a con artist.
He used to sneak over to one of the neighbours and mew piteously, pretending to be lost.
They would let him in and feed him. It took them a while to figure out that he lived a mere two doors down.
When, shortly after that, we moved to a different address, it did not take him long to try out the new neighbours, but with an added touch: he would stick his paw inside his collar and demand to be rescued.
Author Margaret Atwood in Tallinn, Estonia, in June 2015
Fluffy, meanwhile, was working the sidewalk beat, lolling around voluptuously, inviting pedestrians to rub her belly, and attracting treats.
Ring of doorbell. Total stranger: ‘Please tell Fluffy I’m so sorry I forgot her smoked salmon today, but I’ll bring it tomorrow.’
Children grow up and go away, and parents inherit the cats. This happens faster than you’d think. In no time at all I had two familiars.
Fluffy claimed the stairway, and would contest this space with Blackie when he was going up or down; but Blackie owned my study, and would help me write, as cats do, by climbing onto the keyboard, messing up loose papers or twanging the elastic bands around manuscripts.
Neither of them were hunters. Squirrels would bounce off Blackie as he lay dozing, enticing him to chase them, but he would merely blink.
Mice would appear in the kitchen — they’d come up a drainpipe before we got that fixed — and Blackie and Fluffy would just stare at them. (‘Blackie! Fluffy! Do your thing!’ Looks of disdain: what were they, peasants?)
Though they were not devoid of defensive skills. I once saw the two of them watch an approaching and evil-intentioned raccoon — stock-still, tails twitching slightly — until the very last minute, when they flew at the intruder’s nose, all claws unsheathed.
It was like something out of a John Keegan warfare strategy book: Keep together! Hold the line! Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes! No retreat! Attaaack!
There must have been confrontations with other cats, as well. In nature the territory for a male cat is a square mile. No wonder there are cat fights in cities.
Blackie probably lost most of his fights: he was a wily Ulysses, not a brawny Achilles. Once he came home with a claw stuck into his nose. (‘Blackie! What have you been up to?’ Heart-rending mew.)
Torn ears and missing patches of fur and skin had to be doctored.
Writers and their cats — it’s a theme. There have been books of photos dedicated to it.
There are also writers and their dogs, writers and their birds (parrots and ravens feature) and perhaps (I’m guessing) writers and their snakes.
But I’d bet that the cats predominate. They interview well, projecting a mysterious aura while giving away exactly nothing.
They hold still for the camera; they do not splash around in mud puddles and then jump all over the journalist; they do not pant and drool.
Like all proper Romantics they are independent-minded, and Byronic in their contempt for authority. They are always well-groomed. Are they Influences? Are they Muses? Yes and no, depending how you count.
They certainly get into stories and poems, or at least they have gotten into mine. Not always ‘my’ cats, however: sometimes the cats of others.
One cat — true story — belonged to a friend of mine. It was kidnapped by a vengeful ex and imprisoned in a locking-lid metal garbage can.
(Happy-ending rescue after a frantic search and some ‘help me’ meowing.) A wish-fulfilment piece of mine called Our Cat Enters Heaven features Blackie in disguise, and informs us that God is a large cat.
Or such would be the form in which he or she would surely appear to a cat.
This story was one of many iterations of my period of mourning after Blackie died. That is the downside to having a cat: cats die, most usually before you do.
I’m not sure why I was so flattened after the death of this particular cat, but I was.
The event occurred while we were away. My sister had been doing cat care, and Blackie had developed a kidney disease.
Yes, it could be treated, said the vet, but Blackie would have to be given a needle twice a day and have a urine sample collected.
What were the odds on that? Zero. One needle, and Blackie would not have waited around for the second.
He’d have been off to the shrubbery at first chance. As for the urine sample: ‘Blackie, pee in the bottle.’ Look of total contempt. End of story.
And it was the end of the story. My sister phoned long distance, in tearful distress. ‘Blackie’s d-d-dead!’
Dystopian: Elisabeth Moss in the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale
Me: ‘Oh no! What did you…’
She: ‘I wrapped him in red silk and put him in the f-f-freezer, so you could b-b-bury him yourself when you get back!’
She was living in a house with several roommates, and I had a vision of one of them pawing through the freezer in search of hamburger and coming across an initially promising packet. Unwrapping of freezer paper. What’s this? The Mummy Walks! Eeeking, dropping of frozen cat, flight . . .
But that never happened.
We concealed Blackie’s death from our daughter for several weeks — she was at university doing exams, it would be upsetting for her — then we got hell for it. ‘How could you do this to me? Next time you have to tell me immediately!’
We came to realise that what she was really afraid of was that one of us would develop a terminal illness, expire and possibly be stowed in the freezer, and she wouldn’t be informed until it was too late.
A parent who has behaved so duplicitously in the matter of a dead cat can surely not be trusted.
I wrote several commemorative poems. I also re-wrote Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur, substituting cats.
Blackie is the dying king, Sir Cativere is his trusty friend, the three queens on the barge bearing King Blackie to the mouse-filled island orchard of Avilion caterwaul in grief (‘And on the mere the mewing died away . . . ’).
Yes, I know, it was crazed. But strangely therapeutic.
Fluffy followed Blackie shortly after, but in a different way.
She developed cat dementia; she could not remember where she was, and would roam the house at night emitting ghostly yowls.
But more time has passed.
After a long period of abstinence, during which I told myself that I should not have cats again as I myself was getting a bit older and might trip on them going down the stairs, I have put myself on a list for two Siberian kittens. (Yes, like many cat people I have always had a slight allergy; but this kind of cat is supposed to be low on the allergen scale.)
These will be indoor cats and trained to walk on a leash, or so I fondly believe.
Perhaps I will erect a catio, so they can sunbathe while watching wildlife safely.
I will have cat hammocks. I will have scratching posts. I will not allow myself to be distressed by shredded upholstery.
If I’m going to be a mad old lady with a witchy reputation, I may as well equip myself with a couple of trusted familiars.
Company as one flies through the air on one’s broom, wouldn’t you say?
On Cats: An Anthology, introduced by Margaret Atwood, is published by Notting Hill Editions, available for £14.99.
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