“It is quite possible that an animal has spoken to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention.”
— E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Several years ago, a cream and yellow striped feline visited me in the early morning hours, during Cambridge’s oppressive mid-August swelter.
Charlotte, as I came to call her, introduced herself about five a.m. under my window with a hoarse, insisting cry. I looked outside, she saw me, and when our eyes met, I knew that she wasn’t going anywhere, soon.
I didn’t jump with joy to play surrogate mama to a lost cat so early in the morning. Despite my grogginess, I pulled myself out of bed and went outside to find the creature needing help. There she was, skin and bones, coat dull and shedding, skittish and frightened.
I went back inside, opened a can of food, put it in a bowl, grabbed another bowl, and filled it with water. I returned to the back steps where she was waiting for me. I put the bowls down, and Charlotte gorged the food in under a minute, which I took as my cue to go inside and grab another can. Finished with the first can, she greedily lapped the water, until I came back with more food.
She was too anxious for me to pet her, so I simply sat on the back steps and talked with her. This went on for about thirty minutes, me talking, her eating, drinking water, calming down, looking around and orienting herself, checking me out, until she finished the second bowl. I went inside for a third can, but she was gone when I returned.
The next morning she came back, about the same time. I again met her at the back door with a bowl of water, a bowl of food, and an extra can, certain that she’d eat two. She wasn’t as hungry as the day before, and her attention was as much on me as on the food. I talked to her in soothing tones, and asked if I could pet her. She nervously froze when I put out my hand, so I withdrew it and spoke my reassurances. She finished the first can, and attentively watched me as I opened the second. She again took her time with the second bowl, drank water, walked around, walked close to me, but she couldn’t bring herself to let me touch her. She wanted affection, but her frayed nervous system was all defense. She walked in big circles and small circles, went from bowl to bowl, moved toward me a little at a time.
I finally put my fingertips to her body as she lapped water from the bowl. She didn’t pull back. I touched her dry, dirty coat. She accepted my touch, and her tail’s tip curled a little and shook, like a faint smile. Two strokes. Three. She pulled away. She circled around again, came near me, looked up as I talked to her, let herself get close, then pulled away. It took maybe another half-an-hour before she decided that we were okay, and she finally let me caress her head, stroke by stroke. When I sensed a calm in her, I reached my fingers for her body and she moved close to me. I slowly stroked her, and a delicate purr hummed in her throat. We enjoyed each other’s affections for a while, before she moved on. When she walked away, I saw that her paws were bright red, and she put her feet to the gravel surrounding the yard as if to broken glass.
She didn’t stop by the next day, but she did the day after, announcing her arrival under the window, with the sunrise. She was friendly and calmer. On her third visit, I named her, believing that her sweet, resilient soul deserved my first literary hero’s name. She craved my touch as much as food, and she struggled between a desire for affection and her stomach’s demands. Conflicted she moved back and forth between me and the bowl, purring, rubbing against me, rapidly eating from the bowl, until, apparently, she ate enough to quiet her hunger. Then, after eating most of the first can, while I sat on the stairs, she stepped into my lap, nudged my face with hers, and purred as I stroked her. She stayed in my lap for a few minutes, then returned to her food and water. She looked better than her first visit, but she was thin, filthy, and her coat was in miserable condition. I got a better look at her paws, which were tender with abrasions. She had obviously traveled some rough roads. We spent the morning together, and when she had her fill of affection, company, food and water, she left.
I wanted to bring her in, soon, but there was Leonardo. Leonardo was curious about her, pushing his nose against the balcony screen when she appeared at the back steps, and squawking when I talked with her. He enjoyed being “The King Of Everything,” as I had nicknamed him, and I doubted that he could share — share me, share his toys, share his home and the privileges of his kingdom. He was older when I adopted him, and he quickly settled into his kingship after too many homeless days. I gladly spoiled him, knowing that someone had dumped him, not caring if he lived or died. According to the shelter, he had been homeless for a long time, because it was difficult for the volunteer to trap him and bring him in. I wasn’t certain if bringing in a one-to-two year old female was fair: he wouldn’t be aggressive, he was a gentle creature, but at his age and with his temperament, he was ill-disposed to happily adapt. I called my friends at the no-kill shelter, his home before ours. “You have to have her tested for FIV first,” Joan told me, “you need to catch her and have her tested, do the FIV testing before you allow her in.”
I didn’t know about this FIV protocol for strays, and the information bought me some decision time.
I researched how to lure Charlotte into the cat carrier — I didn’t want to scare her by trying to trap her, but I now knew that I had to get her in for the FIV testing before I could consider letting her into Leonardo’s dominion. This bred in me another anxiety, for I knew that I may have to give Charlotte to the shelter. I felt responsible for her getting the home that she deserved. Though the no-kill shelter vetted applicants, if I gave her to them, I had no way of knowing if her home would be a good one. My nurturing instincts were in overdrive, fretting about Leonardo if I decided to keep her, fretting about Charlotte’s long-term well-being if I gave her to the shelter.
“We have time,” I told myself. But Charlotte’s visits over the next weeks were irregular, and timing proved difficult. Her only predictable behavior was that she preferred visiting between five to five-thirty in the morning. My brain rarely worked that early, as I was on a late night schedule. Catching her meant cajoling a stray into a cat carrier in the early morning hours on the day of her choosing, while triumphing over my morning brain inertia, without notice. Or caffeine.
During the day, I often saw her in the neighborhood. Wandering the streets near the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, near the Graduate School of Design, darting in and out of yards on Irving Terrace. This deeply troubled me, for the neighborhood is deceptively tranquil, with its red brick side walks, old New England homes, flourishing trees, and Harvard owned buildings. Irving Street, the street I lived on, is a residential one-way shortcut to reach the Cambridge Street Mass Pike exit — cars illegally speed up to seventy miles an hour down the quaint, narrow single lane road during morning and evening rush hours. Kirkland Street, right around the corner, is a rambunctious thoroughfare for semis and delivery trucks avoiding Harvard Square’s traffic. Not many in the neighborhood let their cats wander outside for long. To do so is asking for heartbreak.
Seeing Charlotte run from yard to yard made my stomach ache. I had to catch her. Another concern murmured in my thoughts. We were now well into September. Soon the weather would cool. I wanted her safe before the cold arrived. All preparations were in place for what I hoped would be a gentle, safe trapping and cab trip. I hated the idea of trapping her, but I had to for her welfare. Food, carrier, cash. If she showed on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, I would take her into the shelter for testing. Any other day, expect Sunday, I would take her to the vet, pay the bill myself, and figure out what to do from there.
Oddly, Charlotte quit visiting. Mid-October arrived. No Charlotte. I feared finding her body on the street, hit by someone racing to work or dinner, her excoriated paws not fast enough to avert their speed. A few years earlier, a neighbor found her cat Maggie dead in the street near the Science Center, hit by a car. I imagined finding Charlotte in a lump of open, rotting flesh left for dead. I didn’t want that for her, and I didn’t want to remember her that way.
November. December. No Charlotte. I didn’t see her around the neighborhood. I left the window opened even as the temperature dropped, so I could hear her if she announced herself. The first snow came. There were no cries outside my window. Winter was brutal that year. Snow drifts covered my basement apartment windows after a record-breaking Nor’easter. For two months several feet of snow pack covered the tightly shut windows. In my heart, I had buried her.
As the days grew longer, the ice and snow melted. Spring came and the world dissolved into greens and flowers and singing birds. The windows were again open. One morning, late in June, about five in the morning, I heard a familiar if too long absent cry outside my window.
I jumped out of bed, grabbed a bowl of water, a bowl of food, and an extra can. I ran for the backdoor. There was Charlotte. Her coat shined, she was clean, and she had gained weight. She looked up at me, brushed up against my legs, and her tail curled. I put down the food and water, but she refused both. It seemed deliberate. She ignored both bowls, as if to say, “that’s not why I am here.” I sat down on the porch steps. She stepped into my lap, rubbed her face against mine, and melodically purred as I stroked her. I asked her where she had been, told her that I missed her. I looked at her paws, they were pink, soft, and healthy. Even though she didn’t have a collar on, I understood that Charlotte had found her home. I kept offering her food and water, but she wasn’t interested. She had come by to say thanks. She didn’t stay long. She seemed eager to get back to where she had come from, as though she needed to get back home. You may think my imagination has trumped my good sense, be amused at my anthropomorphic indulgence, find my need for sentimental embellishment running roughshod over intelligent narrative decisions.
I think not.
I think I was paying attention. Charlotte visited that day to say hello and thanks. She left, perfectly happy.
I lived on Irving Street for at least another five years. Charlotte never again visited, and I never saw her in the neighborhood.
Many humans suppose that because nonhuman animals don’t have language, they don’t speak, and because they don’t speak, they don’t communicate. In this view, reason and language show our superior intelligence, presumably because of either God’s will or evolution’s privileges. And we’ll continue to live in this privileged position until Jesus returns, or we get the research done that proves otherwise.
I believe that this hubris is wrong, be it a sacred or secular dogma; I also believe that the dogma has it backwards. Language doesn’t give us better communication: I believe language’s most common uses lead us into an intellectual and spiritual deafness that we must unlearn if we are to listen, again. This insight runs through the world’s great mystical teachings. This is why the mystics tell us, “Be still and know.” Meditate. Learn to listen to the whispers in the trees. Listen to the voices that aren’t heard with the ears, but are found in the heart. Life’s deepest communication comes from listening, not from language. Language seems to me something that we’re stuck with because we’re human, a tool as beautiful as it is dangerous, full of metaphorical darkness and light.
There’s a telling moment in the movie “Being There” when Melvyn Douglas says to Peter Sellers’s character, Chauncey Gardiner, “. . . there’s something about you, you don’t play games with words to protect yourself.” Chauncey is a simpleton, but everyone mistakes his simplemindedness for wit, understanding, boldness, and honesty. The story brilliantly and hilariously maintains a difficult premise: a simpleton catapulted into power and privilege through dumb luck and projected interpretations onto nothingness. “Being There” is one of the darkest, funniest comedies ever made. Written by Jerzy Kosinski, Kosinski was a Polish Jew whose family narrowly escaped being sent to the camps during the German occupation. (Itself a fascinating story.) The movie, based on Kosinski’s own novella, is a penetrating critique of the media, language, and interpretation — his insights obviously came from living during Germany’s propaganda fueled genocide. But Kosinski’s critique goes deeper than political satire. He distrusts language’s created realities, he questions our unassailable trust in this flawed tool, and he shows how we fall prey to the beliefs given by our uncritical dependence on language. We may do language, as Toni Morrison writes in her Nobel lecture, but in doing language, language does us.
Chauncey emerges at the story’s end a free man, unperturbed by the world. He doesn’t read. He doesn’t write. He is. He doesn’t do language: therefore, language doesn’t do him. The movie famously ends with a shot of Chauncey walking on water, as a voice tells us, “Life is a state of mind.”
We mistake language for communication, but it too often obscures communication, because it’s slippery. We believe that language is concrete and necessary, think that it reflects permanence and reality, and that’s the illusion, because nothing is permanent, and reality’s a strange and strained construct. There’s a more problematic conceit in everyday language use, though. We use language to hide ourselves from ourselves, and from others. We unconsciously play the mythologies, the stories, the unquestioned traditions, the denials in which we’ve created comfortable niches. Consequently, habits of mind bestowed by language and engrained by life’s inertia deafen us. Unless we work at unlearning, we don’t control language, it controls us, limits us, and keeps us from hearing what we would otherwise hear, if we weren’t domesticated to hear in ways too convenient for our own good, ways that keep us from listening to the world’s infinite voices.
That sunny spring morning in June, Charlotte said thanks to me, without saying a word. And she did it better than many of us who have this thing called language.
The philosopher Wittgenstein wrote, “Words only have meaning in the stream of life.” Words may need the stream of life, but the stream of life doesn’t need words. The stream of life needs us to listen. Then, if we’re paying attention, we can hear speech where we would least expect to, although it’s taken me almost twenty-seven hundred words to convey that point.
Official trailer for “Being There.”