“A cat may look at a king,” said Alice. “I’ve read that in some book, but I don’t remember where.”
“Can ye judge a man, (quoth I), by his looking?
What, a cat may look on a king, ye know!” – John Heywood, 1562
“A cat may look at a king.” I’ve always felt a fey attraction towards the saying. It has the sound of a distant conversation – an interesting one, surely, about the worthiness of certain animals – that ends with an obvious explanation: that a cat is fit to be in the presence of royalty. Evocative and remote, it is a gift of thoughts, one linking to the other, until it ends with the vision of a feline silhouette, gazing with disdain at a pair of velvet slippers, an ermine cloak, and a crown of many towers. The cat stares with contempt at the golden circlet, at the jewels that cannot match the unblinking prisms, the faceted, undefined colors that recline in its eyes.
To me this saying has nothing to do with society, with the classes, with equality or the lack of it – the messy feelings of humanity do not enter into it at all. The meaning of the saying is simple: a cat will do any damned thing it pleases.
A few months ago, a couple moved into the recently vacated house next to my parents’. They brought with them two large, loud and curly dogs. And a cat. He is black and white, and is named Sylvester. The first time we noticed him was when we saw him trotting behind his owners and the dogs – the family taking a walk in the late summer twilight.
One of his owners is allergic to cats, so obviously Sylvester does not get the attention he deserves. But all he has to do is go next door, where he is guaranteed attention from a minimum of two people (parents) and a maximum of four people (add Aubrey and Boyfriend, on weekends). Petting must be constant; once it ceases he will stop purring and give the offending party a look of questioning disgust.
Sylvester gives one gentle and genteel head butts, he does not scratch. He circles the sidewalk, searching for a softness in the concrete – for the slightest indentation that will cradle his body comfortably. On finding that spot, he will settle down with a silent sigh of approval.
But he is infatuated with my parents’ house. When the door is open but a sliver, he will slip in like a knife. When no one is at home, he will wait – patient and annoyed – until my parents return, hoping that they will feel sufficiently guilty.
This irresistible house, built in the 1920’s, is full of scents: ghosts of past generations that rise to greet an inquisitive and appreciative cat. Sylvester curls around corners, shadows the hallways, drifts lovingly amongst tables. Motionless as he prowls, he reviews each room, carried by quiet muscles that flow like silk and water. A history of danger reduced into domesticity, he is still capable of finding – and conquering – his own jungles.
Sylvester stalks the property line as he once stalked the Egyptian afterlife; he sleeps in my parents’ garage as he once did on Mohammed’s coat: confident he would remain undisturbed. He scratches my mother’s $800 wicker chair with a ferocity that is now confined and tamed – yet which still is a piercing joy to his feline blood. He does these things because it is his choice, because he once, long ago, dared to look a king into his eyes, and so was granted his inalienable rights.