Friday, June 24, 2016

Patricia Nell Warren's "GENTLE BEING"

Patricia Nell Warren declares convincingly that she got this story from a Montana Métis who heard it from Cree relatives living far to the north.  It is not the usual “my-cat-is-so-clever” story and hit me dead center because of two things.  

One was from increased familiarity with the far north country that comes from commenting on the Twitter tweets of Paul Seesequasis who posts old photos from the northern country of Cree/Blackfeet on up into the Arctic world of the Inuit.  There was a brief exchange not long ago when several different tribesmen offered the names for domestic cats in their languages.  It turned out they were all variations on the English word (I GUESS it’s English!) “puss.”  The name came with the animal.

Namibian wild cat

Cats evolved in northern Africa which accounts for their love of warmth and their dislike of being wet.  Just the same they are enormously adaptable, esp. if there are humans in their lives to take up the slack.  But there were none domesticated in North America until ships brought them over from Europe.  Even then the prairies had no domestic cats until the wagons began to travel west, carrying family pets and pest-eliminators.  

There’s a wonderful short story somewhere about a widowed and solitary pioneer woman on the prairie who made her living by raising kittens and geraniums, both much treasured.  There’s also another one about a woman in these circumstances who was brought a live chicken to eat — live because there was no refrigeration.  The cowboy who brought the chicken stopped by a year later and discovered that she hadn’t eaten the chicken because it made a pretty good pet!  And it cleaned her garden of beetles and worms.

In Warren’s story, called “The Gentle Being”, the tale came as trade as though it were an object, in exchange for several lesser stories.  But the cat herself came as a gift.  A whaling ship off Point Barrow was caught in the ice and finally crushed with no survivors.  Except a cat.  The Inuit people, who came to see whether there were anything worth salvaging in what wreckage came to the surface, were surprised by a little Being coming towards them.  It had “little round paws” and was a bit like a lynx but without ear tufts.  “It’s pelt was painted with white and red and black, in the same way that the northern Crees painted their faces sometimes.”

Whaling Ship

The cat rubbed against their mukluks and cried out to them.  Until then they had thought — since it was strange — that it might be dangerous.  But strange things can go both ways and the difference might be one of Holy Power.  So they picked it up, causing it to purr, snuggle and close its eyes with bliss.  She became part of the treasure of that little group of people.  They fed her bits and since their food was almost exclusively meat, the cat was pleased and thrived.  When the weather warmed enough for small rodents and ground birds to be about, the “Gentle Being” caught and ate them and occasionally brought the humans an example of her success.  They pretended to be grateful because meat-gifts were also part of their culture.  

The cat came into heat but this is one of the few accounts of a female cat calling for a lover that didn’t bring a tomcat out of nowhere.  When white traders came on ships, the People hid the cat for fear of it being claimed back into the ship world.  No other cat ever left a ship.

Then Warren adds an element from contemporary news, the recognition that cats know when someone is ill or suffering and will go to sit by them, often by the ailing part of them.  People interpreted this as potentially healing and asked to have the cat present at healing ceremonies, which brought many practical gifts to the people, like flints and needles.  Even today nursing homes say that their cats will begin to sleep alongside old people who are slipping over the edge of the world.

The cat herself lived another ten years.  By then she couldn’t trot along the trail with them so a woman would take the cat into her hood as though she were a baby.  We’ve all seen the photos of little faces peering over the mother’s shoulder.  I’ve never seen a face that was a cat.

Warren tells us that when the Gentle Being died, they carefully skinned and tanned “that wonderful soft many-painted pelt with the greatest care.  From it they sewed a Medicine Bag, in which to keep all of their most precious healing things — teas, crystals, feathers, whatever was needed.

Crackers and Squibs

Squibs and Crackers, my two cats, were fourteen before they became too miserable for me to force them to go on.  I did not skin them and make a Medicine Bag.  Warren’s version of contents sounds a little more California that the Blackfeet Bundles I know.  But’s that’s okay.  We each draw on the world we know. 

Once Bob bought a domestic cat hide, raw, at a fur sale.  I handled it after it had been tanned but Bob said it was nothing like it had been when it was still raw — it had gone flat and -- well -- dead, without the active musculature under the skin to make the fur rise and fall, fluff and shrink.  So much of a cat is its jeweled eyes but they were gone.

Without Squibs and Crackers, the house was immediately claimed by Finnegan and his Bunny, a strange little blue female who has attached to Finnegan so tightly that he sometimes gets impatient with the crowding and pestering and bites her throat and kicks her stomach until she gives him space.  Finnegan is a skinny, long-legged, gray-striped tom with an arrowhead face and a coat so flat and short it’s like velveteen more than fur.  These are cats from this spring and I will likely be dead before they die.  They are climbing cats and love the tallest bookshelves which gets the tops dusted at last.  They are feral.  If I moved away, they would quickly adapt and I have no intention of letting them become too dependent or attached.

Bunny hugging Finnegan

The terms of life are often harsh, even insupportable, but we all do the best we can.  If another little life comes along to walk and sleep beside us, we should be grateful.  This is what the Inuit once knew very well — probably still do.

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