By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, April 6, 1946.
“What’s that?” interrupted Jimmie Frise.
“It’s a cat,” I informed him.
“I thought you disliked cats,” said Jim.
“I certainly do,” I stated. “Of all the creepy, sly, cruel…”
“Well, what’s a cat doing in your house?” demanded Jim.
“It’s not in the house,” I assured him. “It’s out in the side alley.” We listened. A cat meowed.
“That’s in the house!” insisted Jim.
“No, it’s out in the side drive,” I said easily. “No cat would ever get into this house. Nobody’d let it in. Cats know I hate them. I don’t think a cat has ever been in my house.”
“It’s a lifelong prejudice, eh?” said Jim.
“Maybe there’s some psychological mixup in my feeling about cats,” I mused. “But ever since I can remember, I’ve had a creepy feeling about cats. I have no sympathy for them at all. No feeling, except one of deep repugnance. Lots of my friends and relatives have cats. But I’m so uncomfortable with a cat in the room, everybody I know always sends the cat out when I’m expected.”
“What a fussy old pot you are!” scoffed Jim.
“Look,” I demanded, “can I help how I feel about things? Am I responsible for what I feel? This feeling was born in me.”
“Haven’t you any free will?” inquired Jim. “Do you just go through life wearing all the hates and prejudices you were born with? Don’t you feel free to figure things out for yourself?”
“Some things, Jim,” I submitted, “are too deep in people’s natures to be extracted by mere thinking.” The cat meowed again.
“Darn that cat!” I said, getting up nervously, and rapping warningly on the window over the side drive.
“Mmmmm,” observed Jim, “you ARE a cat hater.”
“There may be some psychological basis for it,” I offered. “They tell me that when I was a small baby, we owned a white cat – a beautiful gorgeous snow-white tomcat. It was very fond of me and I was immensely fond of it, so they say. It used to sleep in my carriage, and when I began to walk, I used to carry the cat all over, sort of bent in the belly the way a baby carries a cat; and I used to hold it by the tail and otherwise abuse it. But it never protested. We were inseparable companions, so the story goes. Then one day, somebody poisoned my beautiful white cat. I was only about two years old and I don’t remember any of this. But it seems I found my lovely white cat stiff and dead at the foot of the garden. Nobody knows how long I tried to get the cat to wake up and play. At any rate, I came staggering into the kitchen carrying the stiff white cat in my arms. Doubtless there was a scene! Doubtless my mother screamed. Doubtless they snatched my poor white cat from me…”
“Nobody will ever know,” agreed Jimmie, “what happens to the mind, ideas and prejudices of a little child before he is able to think.”
“I have the feeling,” I declared, that the incident of my white cat has something to do with my lifelong abhorrence of cats. I bet half the blind prejudices in this world are based on some queer, incomprehensible happening in a child’s life, before he had the power to understand.”
The Boogie-Man Stories
“Maybe,” suggested Jimmie, “our hostility to Russians and their hostility to us – maybe our feeling about all foreigners, maybe the queer, insurmountable prejudice we feel against people of another color than ours…”
“Possibly all,” I agreed, “based on boogie-man stories we were told as little, scared children. The Russians tell boogie-man stories. So do we. So do all nations on earth. The quickest way to scare a little child into obedience is to tell him a boogie-man story.”
“To create a real good boogie-man,” I submitted, “you have to make him different in all respects from the people around the neighborhood. Thus, when we grow up, it never occurs to us that, perhaps, our worst enemies are people we see every day. We always suspect a foreigner.”
“The Russians,” agreed Jim,” probably have better boogie-men than any of us. For remember, all Russians 20 to 30 years of age now, were told stories in childhood about the fierce boogie-men all around them. They were hemmed in with boogie-men. It was the terrible British, German, American and French boogie-men who were trying to starve them to death, in 1926 to 1930. Remember? When a little Russian kid cried for more food, how did the mother explain it? Why, she told the little baby about the terrible boogie-men all over the world, who would have no truck or trade with Russia. Our prime minister, in those days Mr. Bennett, said: ‘No truck or trade with Russia.’ So did everybody else. All the world. We were busy, in those days, trying to cure Russia of her wicked ways. So when a Russian mother told the story of Jack and the Bean Stalk to her babies, she didn’t say:
‘Fee, fie, fo, fum,
I smell the blood
of an Englishmun!’
“She had the terrible giant say:
‘Fee, fie, fo, fum,
No truck or trade
“Jim,” I submitted, “you may have something there. When we grow up, we never look for boogie-men at home. We always look for them abroad. What we’ve got to do is look for boogie-men both at home and abroad.”
“Or else,” suggested Jim, “stop telling children boogie-men stories.”
“Ah, you can’t do that, Jim,” I sighed.
“You’ve got all the tired mothers of the world against you there. Children are unmanageable little brats. When the mother’s patience has reached its limits, there is nothing for her to do but scare the kids with a boogie-man story. It’s the same with the governing class in all nations. When they can’t manage the people any longer, they tell them boogie-man stories and scare them into behaving.”
“Meee-Ow!” said the cat.
“Hist!” hissed Jim.
“Meee-OW!” said the cat.
“By golly, Jim!” I cried, leaping up. “That cat IS in the house!”
“I told you so,” said Jim.
My hair began to prickle and stand on end.
“Listen!” I commanded. And in a moment in the silence, we both heard the long drawn “meeow” of a cat, right under our feet.
“It’s in the cellar!” I shouted, “Come on, get it out of there!”
We raced down cellar and I switched on the lights. Immediately, I saw what had happened. The coal men had left the cellar window open when they delivered the last ton.
“The window, Jim,” I pointed.
“Where’s the cat?” Jim asked.
“It probably went out when it heard me coming,” I said.
But it hadn’t. From under the work bench came a soft, meek, creepy, pewly-mewly little mew.
“Yahhh!” I shouted, seizing a furnace shovel.
“Mew!” said the cat, in that sweety, Itty-bitty style.
“Scat!” I roared, clattering the shovel on the concrete.
But the cat did not move. “Meeeee-ew?” it said, with that sneaky questioning tone a cat can adopt.
A Whole Batch
Jim was down peering under the work bench.
“Saaaayyy!” gloated Jimmie. “You’ve got a whole batch of cats. She’s made a nest here, in the basket…”
“Awfft!” I protested vehemently.
“Come and see them,” pleaded Jim. “Aw, look, the tiny darlings, they haven’t got their eyes open…”
“Get them out of there,” I cried. “Chuck them out the window, the way they came in…”
“What!” roared Jim. “Do you mean to say you’d throw these baby kittens out into the cold world… a mother, honoring your house by selecting it for her nest for these tiny innocent…?”
“Yah, some alley cat!” I grated, standing well back where I couldn’t see them. “Some alley cat, sneaking in my cellar window…”
Jim reached into the shadows and brought out, on the palm of his hand, a little fuzzy ball, not as big as an egg. I looked away. I looked back. The fuzzy ball lay perfectly still on Jim’s hand. Then I slowly stirred. It cuddled down into Jim’s cupped palm.
“Put it back!” I commanded. “I’ll take the basket out…”
“Now, just a minute,” asserted Jim firmly. “After all, these are somebody’s kittens. This is somebody’s cat. You’ve got no right to treat somebody’s cat…”
“Why don’t they look after their darn cat?” I demanded angrily.
“Maybe she was caught unawares,” pleaded Jim. “Maybe she is a young cat and these are her first babies and she didn’t know what to do when the magic hour came to her. Maybe she was locked out of her own home by accident. Maybe the family was at the movies. She had to find a nest and maybe she had to find it terribly soon. So she went frantically up and down the street, in all the side drives, hunting for a dry, warm place…”
I went over and looked stiffly down.
“And by heaven’s grace,” Jim continued, “she found your cellar window open, and she came in, breathing prayers of gratitude, and found this basket, with old clothes in it…”
I could make out the curled figure of the cat. Her head was turned down, as though she were murmuring to a baby. She looked up at me, with wide, surprised topaz eyes that caught the cellar light. She opened her mouth in a soundless “meow.”
“How many are there?” I demanded grimly.
Jim, with soothing sounds, pawed in around the cat. “Six,” he said.
“Let me see them,” I requested coldly.
Jim lifted the mother cat out on to the floor, and revealed a solid fluffy mass, about the size of a handful of feathers. As I watched, the mass slowly pulsated and seemed to move. Tiny paws and miniature legs reached out and shoved. I suppose everybody should see a cat when it is newborn. I knelt down.
The mother came and rubbed against my leg. Her tail, sticking straight up, almost brushed my chin.
“Scat!” I said, recoiling.
“Well, what are you going to do?” inquired Jim pleasantly,
“Will you take them, Jim?” I retorted. “You like cats.”
“We’ve got two cats already,” said Jim. “And Rusty.”
Rusty, who had been asleep upstairs, came down. He examined the cat and the kittens with discreet interest.
“I tell you what I’ll do,” I said, very practically. “I’ll take them around the neighborhood, in the basket. I’ll ask everybody around here, and somebody will surely know whose cat she is. And I will then present the rightful owner with his property.”
“And suppose you don’t find them?” asked Jim. “After all, cats stray far and wide.”
“Then,” I said, “in that case, I’ll do what sensible people have been doing from time Immemorial. I’ll drown the kittens in a pail of water and turn the cat out to find her way home.”
“I guess that’s practical,” agreed Jimmie. “Everybody drowns kittens. The best of people. Not cat haters. Cat lovers. They drown surplus kittens.”
“Okay, before it gets dark,” I said, “let’s go round the block.”
The cat got back in the basket and I carried her and her invisible babies upstairs while we got our coats on. Then we went out and started our calls. I asked all the kids of the neighborhood if they recognized the cat. Or course, they all wanted to see the kittens, and I had to keep taking the mother out and putting her back, while dozens of kids pleaded for me to give them one of the kittens. I had to explain that a kitten has to have its mother for a few weeks.
Several of the kids gave us wrong steers, and we called at houses completely round the block once. But nobody recognized the cat. And everybody thought the family scene was just adorable. One lady wanted to adopt the whole family on the spot.
“Give her the basket!” muttered Jim, urgently.
But I did not. After all, this cat was somebody’s property. It was my duty find the rightful owner. And anyway, the more you looked into that basket, the queerer you felt. After all these years…
When we had made one complete round of the block, I decided I had done my duty. We went back to my house and down into the cellar.
“Drown the Weakest First”
“Ah, well….” sighed Jimmie, philosophically. And he got a pall under the laundry tubs and I heard him running it full. I set the basket on the stairs and the mother got out and looked at me with that surprised topaz gaze. She rubbed against my leg. I gave her a cautious, slow stroke of my hand. Gosh, how soft! Not mushy. Soft!
I could hear her bubbling. Not purring.
Jim came back and set the pail before me. He picked up the basket, sorted over the kittens and picked one out.
“First the worst,” he said. “Second the same. Drown the weakest one first.”
In my hand, I could feel its tiny little spickles of claws tickling. It wobbled, it half stood up on Its front legs, then collapsed. Its eyes were tiny bluish bulges under its skin.
“Go ahead,” said Jim, picking out another one, and holding it ready in his palm.
The kitten on my hand started turning round and round, as if seeking something. Its little legs and paws pushed and strained. It fell on its ear, against my thumb. It was softer than anything I had ever felt.
“I wish…” I said a little hoarsely, “I wish it was white.”
“That’s the weakest one,” explained Jim. “It’s a poor specimen, just a runt. I say you drown the weakest first, eh?”
The mother cat, seeing the pail of water, got up on her hind legs and curled a tiny, pink tongue down into the water and lapped. I never saw anything so dainty as that wisp of tongue flicking…
“I could advertise,” I submitted. “I could advertise, and the owner would pay for the ad…”
“It would be a lot of trouble,” declared Jim.
“Well, anyway,” I concluded, putting the weakest kitten back in the ball of fur in the basket, “if I keep them a few weeks, just until they are old enough to give away, all I’d have to do would be to go over and stand in front of the school at 3.30, and it wouldn’t be two minutes before all six of them would have a good home…”
“How about taking them back,” asked Jim, “to that lady around the block who wanted to adopt the whole basketful?”
“Yeah,” I said, “and have her drown all but the one she wanted to keep!”
“Well, then,” said Jim, “in that case, you’d better go and get the mother a saucer of warm milk…”
Which we did.
And then Jim and I went back upstairs and continued our debate on the effects of boogie-men on the childhood of the world.
Editor’s Notes: This story may have upset a few people looking at it with modern eyes, but it was common in the past to kill unwanted kittens or puppies. There was no spaying or neutering, and no other way to control the population. I mentioned in a previous post that people did not worry about controlling pets (dogs and cats would be let loose outside to run wild). So drowning puppies or kittens was not considered a big deal, just practical.
Greg would mention the story of his cat when he was a toddler in the future as well, so I suspect it is true.
This is another example where I have the colour image, and you can see how much more expressive it is compared to the microfilmed copy at the end.
There were three lines where they discussed boogie-men in other countries that I have removed due to racist references that added nothing to the story. My thoughts about racism and stereotypes in Greg and Jim’s work are indicated here.