C.W. Gusewelle is away this week. His regular column will return. In the meantime, here is one of his favorites.
The black cat, Headlight, decided in kittenhood to pass his life in a state of high alert. Surveying the world, he saw nothing and no one to be trusted. So he dedicated himself to remaining a creature apart.
He would rest only when the others of the household were safely asleep. At all other times, the gold coins of his eyes would shine as wide and round as headlights. If a hand reached out to stroke him, he would dodge it as you’d dodge a blow.
He is a formidable creature. If you had come upon him at large in the woods, you’d have thought perhaps he had escaped from a traveling circus. But his timidity was even greater. If anyone were foolish enough to try to pick him up, he would splay his paws, unsheath his knives and make himself as lovable as a bramble thicket or a roll of concertina wire.
If spoken to, he would withdraw to some other room. His preference, in fact, was not even to be looked at. Those other cats could take all the risks they wanted, but he meant to play it safe.
That was two years ago, and there was a lot he didn’t know. He didn’t yet understand the high probability that the whine of the electric can opener meant that a tin of tuna was about to be shared. Or that shrimp on the night’s menu was another event for general celebration.
He didn’t know — until he slipped through a door left carelessly ajar and spent a rainy night under a bush somewhere, alone — that too much company can be better than none at all. He hadn’t counted on the congeniality of the others under that roof, nearly all of them with histories of the street.
It took a while to understand that every collision with a heavy foot is not deliberately intended and that if you’re a black cat against a black floor in a dark hall, you have some responsibility in traffic.
The changes have been gradual and grudging. We have not courted him. We’ve let him find his own way. First, he began to show an inclination to spend time in a room where people were — though in the farthest corner of it. One day he answered to his name. Another day — after something like a year had passed — he took the awful risk of joining someone in a chair. His own boldness horrified him. His pupils were dilated like a gunfighter’s, and you could tell he regretted it immediately.
From then on, the transformation has been swift.
If he happens to be on a counter when someone passes, he reaches out a claw to catch a shirt or sweater — just to announce, in case anyone is interested, that he is there and available.
Yesterday, as I was standing by a morning window, he came up from behind on silent feet and flung himself against my legs with such force that I had to stumble to regain my balance. (He’s a significant cat: nearly 20 pounds and still eating.)
He may never tolerate being held or carried. Even now, as he’s being stroked, some old memory will come to him and he’ll suddenly cringe and slink away, ashamed of the docile thing he’s become. Basically, I have to say, I think he’s right about the world. It’s a dangerous place. Let your guard down and you never know where the blow will come from. The deepest wounds result from misplaced trust.
But the solitary life — I can say from the experience of one who long ago tried it — is no bargain either. You mean to be a fighter, always on your guard. Then too many things go right and love intrudes, and without quite knowing how it happened, you lose your edge.