I don’t remember when Ruski first came into the house. I remember sitting in a chair by the fireplace with the front door open and he saw me from fifty feet away and ran up, giving the special little squeaks I never heard from another cat, and jumped into my lap, nuzzling and purring and putting his little paws up to my face, telling me he wanted to be my cat.
But I didn’t hear him.
There were three kittens born at the Stone House. The mother was a small black-and-white cat. Obviously the big white cat was the father. One kitten was an albino. The other two were predominantly white, except for their tails and paws, which were brown to black. The big gray male looked after the kittens as if they were his own. He was gray like Ruski, except for a white chest and stomach. I named him Horatio. He was a noble, manly cat, and had a strong, sweet nature.
Ruski hated the little cats. He was the cute little cat. They were interlopers. The one time I slapped Ruski was for attacking one of the kittens, and I have seen the mother drive him out of the barn when the kittens were there. And Ruski was terrified of Horatio. One evening on the back porch Horatio walked over to Ruski (he wasn’t Ruski then. I didn’t yet know he was a Russian Blue, I called him Smokey.) He walked over in a casual but determined manner and lit into Smoke, who ran under the table.
I have observed that in cat fights the aggressor is almost always the winner. If a cat is getting the worst of a fight he doesn’t hesitate to run, whereas a dog may fight to his stupid death. As my old jiujitsu instructor said, “If your trick no work, better run.”
June 3, 1982. Perhaps I should do one of those sprightly ‘fixing up my country house” books. . . . First Year in the Garden . . . a chapter on the White Cat who got his ass bit by a dog, and the gray cat . . . such a handsome animal. Smokey we call him, after Colonel Smokey, the narc in Maurice Helbrant’s Narcotic Agent, bound with Junkie in the Ace edition . . . well, Smokey is getting to be a real nuisance, fawning all over me and putting his face up to mine, rubbing his head against my hand and following me around when I am trying to shoot. It’s almost spooky. I am looking to find a good home for Smokey.
A Nazi initiation into the upper reaches of the SS was to gouge out the eye of a pet cat and cuddling it for a month. This exercise was designed to eliminate all traces of pity-poison and mold a full Ubermensch. There is a sound magical postulate involved: the practitioner achieves superhuman status be performing some atrocious, revolting, subhuman act. In Morocco, magic men gain power by eating their own excrement.
But dig out Ruski’s eyes? Stack bribes to the radioactive sky. What does it profit a man? I could not occupy a body that could dig out Ruski’s eyes. So who gained the whole world? I didn’t. Any bargain involving exchange of qualitative values like animal love for quantitative advantage is not only dishonorable, as wrong as a man can get, it is also foolish. Because you get nothing. You have sold your you.
“Well, how does that beautiful young red-haired body grab you?” Yes, He will always find a sucker like Faust, to sell his soul for a strap-on. You want adolescent sex, you have to pay for it in adolescent fear, shame, confusion. In order to enjoy something you have to be there. You can’t just sweep in from desert, dearie.
I remember the one time I ever slapped Ruski for attacking one of the kittens. The way he looked at me, the shock and hurt, was identical with the look I got from my amigo Kiki. I was sleepy and petulant. He came in and started pushing at me, and I finally slapped him. In both cases I had to make amends. Ruski disappeared but I knew where he was. I went out to the barn and found him and brought him back. Kiki sat there with a tear in the corner of his eye. I apologized and finally he came around.
Fifteen years ago I dreamt I had caught a white cat on a hook and line. For some reason I was about to reject the creature and throw it back, but it rubbed against me, mewling piteously.
Reading over these notes, which were simply a journal of my year at the Stone House, I am absolutely appalled. So often, looking over my past life, I exclaim: “My God, who is this?” Seen from here I appear as a most unsightly cartoon of someone who is awful enough to begin with . . . simpering, complacent, callous . . . “Got his ass bit by a dog.” “Leaving one feeling vaguely guilty” . . . “like an Arab boy who knows he is being naughty” . . .snippy old English queen voice . . . “I am looking to find a good home for Smokey.”
I don’t think anyone could write a completely honest autobiography. I am sure no one could bear to read it: My Past Was an Evil River.
There are crucial moments in any relationship, turning points. I had been away for ten days at Naropa. During my absence Bill Rich went out every day to feed the cats.
I have returned. Late afternoon on the back porch. I see Ruski and he moves away. Then he rolls on his side, tentative, not quite sure. I scoop him up and sit down on the edge of the porch. There is a clear moment when he recognizes me and begins squeaking and purring and nuzzling. In that moment I finally know he is my cat, and decide to take him when I leave the Stone House.
Since I adopted Ruski, the cat dreams are vivid and frequent. Often I dream that Ruski has jumped onto my bed. Of course this sometimes happens, and Fletch is a constant visitor, jumping up on the bed and cuddling against me, purring so loud I can’t sleep.
The Land of the Dead . . . A reek of boiling sewage, coal gas and burning plastics . . .oil patches . . . roller coasters and Ferris wheels overgrown with rank weeds and vines. I can’t find Ruski. I am calling his name . . . “Ruski! Ruski! Ruski!”
A deep feeling of sadness and foreboding.
“I shouldn’t have brought him out here!”
I wake up with tears streaming down my face.
Notes from early 1985: my connection with Ruski is a basic factor in my life. Whenever I travel, someone Ruski knows and trusts must come and live in the house to look after him and call the vet if anything goes wrong. I will cover any expense.
When Ruski was in the hospital with pneumonia I called every few hours. I remember once there was a long pause and the doctor came on to say, “I’m sorry, Mr. Burroughs” . . . the grief and desolation that closed around me. But he was only apologizing for the long wait . . . “Ruski is doing fine . . . temperature down . . .I think he is going to make it.” And my elation the following morning. “Down to almost normal. Another day and he can come home.”
August 9, 1984, Thursday. My relationship with my cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance. When a barn cat finds a human patron who will elevate him to a house cat, he tends to overdo it in the only way he knows; by purring and nuzzling and rubbing and rolling on his back to call attention to himself. Now I find this extremely touching and ask how I could ever have found it a nuisance. All relationships are predicated on exchange, and every service has its price. When a cat is sure of his position, as Ruski is now, he becomes less demonstrative, which is as it should be.
James was downtown at Seventh and Massachusetts when he heard a cat mewing very loudly as if in pain. He went over to see what was wrong and the little black cat leapt into his arms. He brought it back to the house and when I started to open a tin of cat food the little beast jumped up onto the sideboard and rushed at the can. He ate himself out of shape, shit the litter box full, then shit on the rug. I have named him Fletch. He is all flash and glitter and charm, gluttony transmuted by innocence and beauty. Fletch, the little black foundling, is an exquisite, delicate animal with glistening black fur, a sleek black head like an otter’s, slender and sinuous, with green eyes.
I kept Fletch in the house for five days lest he run away, and when we let him out he scuttled forty feet up a tree. The scene has a touch of Rousseau’s Carnival Evening . . . a smoky moon, teenagers eating spun sugar, lights across the midway, a blast of circus music and Fletch is forty feet up and won’t come down. Shall I call the fire department? Then Ruski goes up the tree and brings Fletch down.
A year later Ruski’s son by Calico Jane is stuck up the same tree. It is getting dark. I can see him up there with my flashlight, but he won’t come down, so I all Wayne Propst, who is coming with a ladder. I go out and shine my light up the tree and see Fletch’s red collar. And Fletch brings the little cat down.
An English cat hater of the upper classes confided to me that he had trained a dog to break a cat’s back in one shake. And I remember he caught sight of a cat at a party and snarled out through the long yellow horse teeth that crowded out his mouth, “Nasty stinking little beast!” I was impressed by his class at the time and knew nothing of cats. Now I would get up from my chair and say, “Pawdon me, old thing, if I toddle along, but there’s a nasty stinking big beast here.”
I will take this occasion to denounce and excoriate the vile English practice of riding to the hounds. So the sodden huntsmen can watch a beautiful, delicate fox torn to pieces by their stinking dogs. Heartened by this loutish spectacle, they repair to the manor house to get drunker than thy already are, no better than their filthy, fawning, shit-eating, carrion-rolling, baby-killing beasts.
Warning to all young couples who are expecting a blessed event: Get rid of that family dog. . . .
This cat book is an allegory, in which the writer’s past life is presented to him in a cat charade. Not that the cats are puppets. Far from it. They are living, breathing creatures, and when any other being is contacted, it is sad: because you see the limitations, the pain and fear and the final death. That is what contact means. That is what I see when I touch a cat and find that tears are flowing down my face.
April 2, 1985. Ruski is on the desk by the north window. I pet him. Her squeaks and nuzzles me and goes to sleep. I feel his sad, lost voice in my throat, stirring, aching. When you feel grief like that, tears streaming down your face, it is always a portent, a warning – danger ahead.
May 1, 1985. A feeling of deep sadness is always a warning to be heeded. It may refer to events which will happen in weeks, months, even years. In this case exactly one month.
Yesterday I walked up to the house on Nineteenth Street, depression and pain dragging every step. Ruski has not been to the house this morning.
I received Ruski’s desperate call for help, the sad, frightened voice I first heard a month ago.
MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY
I know where he is. I call the Humane Society.
“No. We have no cat of that description”
“Are you sure?”
“Wait, let me check again . . . (Cries of frightened animals.)
“Well, yes, we do have a cat of that description.”
“I’ll e right there.”
“Well, you have to go to the city clerk with your certificate for rabies vaccination and pay a ten-dollar pick-up fee.”
All this is accomplished in half an hour with the aid of David Ohle. We arrive at the animal shelter. The place is a death camp, haunted by the plaintive, despairing cries of lost cats waiting to be put to sleep.
“That is one scared cat!” the girl says as she leads me to the “Holding,” as it is called. Frozen with fear, Ruski cowers with another terrified cat on a steel shelf. She unlocks the door. I reach in and gently lift my cat into his box.
After seventy-two hours in Holding, the animals are put up for adoption. The animals know. Animals always know death when they see it. Better put your best paw forward. It’s your last chance, Kitty.
What chance would Ruski have, a full-grown, unneutered cat paralyzed with fear? One scared cat.
“Oh, Daddy, I want that one!” Little boy points to Ruski.
“Well, we wouldn’t advise . . . he’s not very responsive.”
“Guess we’ll pass on that one, Punky.”
Ruski gives a meow of despair as they walk on.
I question the underlying assumption that one does a cat a favor by killing him . . . oh, sorry . . . I mean “putting him to sleep.” Turn to backward countries that don’t have Humane Societies for a simple alternative. In Tangier stray cats fend for themselves. I remember an eccentric old English lady in Tangier. Every morning she went to the fish market and filled a bag with cheap fish and made the rounds of vacant lots and other locales where stray cats congregated. I have seen as many as thirty cats rush up at her approach.
Well, why not? The money now spent on caging and killing cats could maintain actual shelters with food dispensers. Of course the cats would have to be neutered and vaccinated for rabies.
That night, for the first time in three years, Ruski jumped onto my bed purring and chittering, nuzzled against me and went to sleep thanking me for saving him.
Next day I called Animal Control. “My cat was picked up and taken to the shelter and I want to know the circumstances.”
“The circumstances are that it’s illegal to let your cat run free.”
“No, I mean how did my cat happen to be picked up?”
It seems he was caught in an animal trap, about two hundred yards from the back line of my property. Probably he had been shut in the box trap all night. No wonder he was a scared cat.
At the time I didn’t know about animal traps. I didn’t know that cats could be picked up. Close. Very close. Suppose I had been away. Suppose . . . I don’t want to. It hurts. Now all my cats wear rabies tags.
The cry I heard through Ruski was not only his signal of distress. It was a sad, plaintive voice of lost spirits, the grief that comes from knowing you are the last of your kind. There can be no witness to this grief. No witnesses remain. It must have happened many times in the past. It is happening now. Endangered species. Not just those that actually exist, or existed at one time and died, but all the creatures that might have existed.
A hope, a chance. The chance lost. The hope dying. A cry following the only one who could hear it when he is already too far away to hear, an aching wrenching sadness. This is a grief without witness. “You are the last. Last human crying.” The cry is very old. Very few can hear it. Very painful. The chance was there for an enchanted moment. The chance was lost. Wrong turn, Wrong time. Too soon. Too late. To invoke all-out magic is to risk the terrible price of failure. To know that chance was lost because you failed. This grief can kill.
Life, such as it is, goes on. Dillon’s is still open from seven a.m. to twelve midnight, seven days a week.
I am the cat who walks alone. To me all supermarkets are alike.
I am drinking Dillon’s fresh-squeezed orange juice and eating farm-fresh eggs out of an egg cup I bought in Amsterdam. Wimpy rolls, nuzzling my feet, purring I love you I love you I love you. He loves me.
Meeeowww. “Hello Bill.”
The distance from there to here is the measure of what I have learned from cats.
All you cat lovers, remember all the millions of cats mewling through the world’s rooms lay all their hopes and trust in you, as the little mother cat at the Stone House laid her head in my hand, as Calico Jane put her babies in my suitcase, as Fletch jumped into James’ arms and Ruski rushed towards me chittering with joy.
We are the cats inside. We are the cats who cannot walk alone, and for us there is only one place.
The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs, 1986