Cats -Dave Freer
“Like herding cats” (we approve of people who don’t herd).
I grew up on “The cat that walked by himself (and all places are alike to him – well not really, but that the cat’s story and he’s sticking to it.) We’re cat people and dog people – three cats and three dogs we moved through quarantine from South Africa to Australia, and it cost around $26K which, although I managed to raise 11K from selling SAVE THE DRAGONS for it, came close to bankrupting us. There were good reason – from the animals points of view to not re-homing them (they were all in some way ‘problem’ animals – problems we’d dealt with, problems finding people and situations suitable for would be difficult.) I take responsibility seriously, and we’re in a two way bargain. They give me their unquestioning love and trust, and I in turn try to deserve that.
Well, with the dogs anyway. With the cats it’s a lot more complicated. It may be the same thing but they’re not letting on…
Because they’re cats. Quite what goes on in the head of a fluff-ball kitty – with claws, teeth and spitting fury when necessary (or sometimes when they just feel like it) is mystery to science, and they’re working on keeping it that way. There is a theory that says if we ever succeed in translating cat-to-human, most of it comes down to ‘give me Tuna or die, puny human.’ Or “sniff. The quality of staff these degenerate days, really. I had to wait for you to open that door. Ten whole microseconds it was! I will shred living-room for your temerity. Can’t get good help anymore.” Or “Sit still. I am sleeping.”
Still there are definite catlike (and doglike… and sheeplike) attributes to some humans – particularly in the ‘cat that walked by himself’ sense – which is to say substantive resistance to running with the pack, just on principle. Catlike people are, I feel, naturally contrary, even when being sheeplike would seem a better deal. We do not ‘belong’ easily and there is always a streak of wildness in us. Yes, a cat will seem to be fitting in (or at least have fitted you to pattern of service) for years… and then…
I’ve used my attempt at understanding a cat’s point of view – having been in feline service for most of my life (including having been one cat’s adopted kitten. She used to wash my hair every night) to write several stories from cat point of view. The latest of these (based on a couple of shorts I wrote years ago) is TOM – a novel based on the idea of a curmudgeonly old magician having failed to find or keep a solitary human famulus (a combination of servant and assistant. A step down from an apprentice – and you thought that was the bottom. Learn. There is always lower down and worse off).
This was always going to be a hard path. Cats have no natural skills at service, unlike dogs, and definitely think it worth escaping from, or avoiding, while still being fed. Humans are domesticated and trained, not the other way around. Tom is very unimpressed by the arrangement.
Tom woke. Not instantly, alert and ready to run, as he usually did. A feral kitten that didn’t, was soon dead. Instead Tom awoke… clumsily. In bits, as it were, but knowing that something was very, very wrong. He did what any cat would do under the circumstances – he sprang to his feet, in one single bound, claws out, ears back, hissing defiance, ready to flee.
Well, that was what he set out to do. What he actually did was to go from lying down to falling over in many separate disasters, starting with his front legs betraying him and him landing with his chin on the floor. He failed to stick his claws out. His ears refused to do what they should, his hiss was more of ‘squark’, fit for a bird! His hind legs were just too big and clumsy…
Only his tail felt right. And it felt ‘right’ by being dead straight up, with the hair on it fluffed, as it did when things were really, really, bad.
It happened to be true, too. Twisting awkwardly and peering at it, Tom could see his tail, tabby, fluffed and straight. That part of him was right and what it should be. The rest of him was not. His fur had fallen out. And his body was just obscenely wrong. “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” he yowled.
That sounded wrong too.
A human mouth was just terrible to howl out of. No better than a human body for springing and fleeing.
He still did his panicky, angry best.
It didn’t help him get out of the stone-walled room. He head-butted the wooden door, but that didn’t help, it just hurt his head. The noise he was making had just about the same effect. So, after a few minutes, he did what any sensible cat would do: lay down and thought about it, while giving himself a wash. His tongue couldn’t reach the bits of him that badly needed that washing. What a stupid, useless body this was. He came up with no other answers right then, but a great many questions.
A while later the door opened. Tom spun to his feet… well, he fell over trying to do that, rediscovering that he was not a cat any more.
It was the scrawny old human, in his dirty star-and-moon spangled robe. He spoke… but what he said was not ‘Scat!’ or ‘Damned cat!’ or even ‘I’ll kill yer, yer little fleabag!’ . As Tom wasn’t sure what he meant, he decided on trying a cautious mew, while keeping a sharp eye out for the first chance to escape.
All that happened was that the human made the same noises again. And Tom gave him the same reply. The human shook his head and muttered to himself. Then he scratched his beard, and raised his stick. Tom did his best to retreat. He knew what sticks meant, even if he had no idea what the human meant. The stone-walled corner of the room limited his ability to flee. But the old human merely touched him with his stick, while rattling off a string of words…
And then he said: “I have work for you to do, idle boy. Stop lying around, dress yourself and get down to the kitchen!”
Amazing! The old human had just touched him with that stick and now the human spoke perfect cat…And then it came to Tom that there weren’t even words in cat for ‘dress yourself.’ He tried to meow plaintively, in shock at this new horror. It came out as “Mwhaat’s happened to me?” which was not what he set out to say, even if it was what he wanted to know.
He got an answer. “I need a new famulus. You’re it.”
Tom knew he shouldn’t have understood what a ‘famulus’ was. But he did, even if the idea of him, a cat, being an attendant, a servant… was nearly as horrifying as finding himself in this body. “Let me go! I’m a cat,” he protested, despite the fact that having looked at himself, he obviously wasn’t.
The old human snorted. “You’re a boy, now. I left your tail on though. That’ll stop you running off. They’ll kill you out there if they see it. Now, get on with it, boy. I want my supper, and there’s pots needing to be scrubbed.” And with that he turned and walked out of the room.
No matter what the human said, Tom was desperate to escape. Even though his mind was still whirling with all this newness and horror, that idea was still his uppermost thought. He looked at the doorway, at the retreating back of the human, as the door swung closed. The latch clicked. Tom stared at it in horror. To a cat that was confinement. And then it came to him slowly… It wasn’t to a human. He’d seen them open doors.
Ah yes. A cat with thumbs.
Cry Havoc, and let loose the… well, can-openers.
Tom learns to be a human, while of course, remaining at least a little a tom cat. I had a lot of fun with this book – it’s a gentle satire making a jest of many of fantasy’s tropes and political correctnesses. A cat would make less sense of those than we do.
Of course any self-respecting curmudgeonly magician has suitable supply of fiendish foes, an unreliable magic carpet (requires a jump start from the tower-top) and has appropriate accoutrements for a cat to cope with – a raven-familiar, an evil haunted skull of the late housekeeper, a vicious and ambulatory cheese, magically changing architecture, and demonically possessed chamber pot. To add to Tom’s complications there’s a missing and cursed princess and the wickedest witch in the West.
But a cat will remain a cat, even if he has been transformed into a boy. Independent, sometimes loyal, sometimes fierce. Thinking human ways strange, and that humans had beeter change to fit in with him. Oh, and rather cute, but don’t mention it to him. It would affront his dignity.