Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Stories We Tell

In which we read of artists and Frenchwomen, cats who spin and speak, and somewhat of the values of things.

"I have often wondered how people decide if they are "dog people" or if they are "cat people." Even people who love both, who consider themselves "animal people", as I do, still, generally, will admit, if pushed, that they really actually prefer to live with this type of creature rather than that one. There are horse people and bird people, even fish and snake and turtle people.

I do confess I find myself most friendly disposed towards mammals, and stand in the least friendly relations towards reptiles.  My relationship with arachnids and most insects is one of open, armed, and mutual hostility. (I allow for some exceptions: lady bugs, praying mantis, butterflies I count among the friendly nations of bug-dom.) Perhaps, though, we don't choose whether to be cat people or dog people. Perhaps we just are, cat people or dog people or horse people. It's almost like a clan division, or a tribe.

I knew from before the time I could read I was a cat person.
Oh, don't mistake me. Our family had a long parade of beautiful and wonderful dog-beings who shared my childhood and adolescence; I loved them all to distraction. Still, I yearned for a cat, and I cannot tell you why. My father was an all 'round animal person; he was kind and gentle to all and sundry; in return, this grandson of Quaker settlers was universally loved, by creatures of four foot and two, by beings who went about in hair or fur or feathers. Still, we seldom had cats when I was young, and those who did find their way to us were soon resettled in other homes. My mother made no bones about being, loyally, unequivocably and without argument, a dog person.

On of my earliest memories was of a giant, gentle ginger cat. I could not have been more than four years old, but I remember this handsome old feline. It was in the days of my father's student poverty; we lived in a duplex near the University, and this cat, who was my first friend in the word, belonged to the household renting the other side of the duplex. I called him "Friend Cat", and have no memory if he had another, a "proper" name. I recall hours upon sunny hours spent on the front porch, with this relaxed cat -- he was almost as big as I was -- draped over my lap as I rocked him and rocked him in my tiny toddler sized rocking chair. He was there, sunning himself on the porch, ready to greet me, rubbing between my legs, first thing every morning. If I was late getting out, he would sit at the screen door and howl. My parents would laugh, saying, "Friend Cat is here to see if you can come out to play."

I did not take it well when we moved away. I was given a puppy, a beautiful collie pup named Heather, and I loved her as a sister. I was eighteen when she died, and it was exactly like losing a family member, because that's what it was. Even so, with a beautiful, smart collie pup to play with, still I begged and begged for a cat. The begging went on for years.

Christmas of 1967, our little family consisted of Mama and Daddy, myself, beautiful, dignified collie Heather with her acquiline nose and extravagant, silky copper coat, along with Sugar Plum the Merry and Most Undignified Mutt. The antics of those two would fill a volume of its own. I loved them, laughed with them and played with them, brushed and bathed and slept with them. Still, I yearned for a cat; there was just a piece of my soul missing when there was no cat in my life. That Christmas Heather and Sugar Plum gave me a magnificent fairy tale book; it was called "My Big Book of Cat Stories," and here is what they wrote for an inscription. (A note: the handwriting is my father's, but I have no doubt he inscribed it exactly as they dictated.)
"Merry Christmas 1967 from Sugar Plum and Heather. Hoping that a book of cat stories would satisfy your desire for a cat and we won't have to put up with a real, live one."
The book came as a pair with "The Golden Book of Fairy Tales", which was a gift from my mother and father. The books had originally been published in France, but had been translated and reissued in the United States. They were a strange, almost magical pair of books, and I tell you truthfully that they have exerted a strong and mysterious effect on my life. It is not only the stories themselves, but the almost enchanted illustrations by an obscure French artist, Adrienne Segur. As I live and learn, I find that I am not the only person who fell under the spell of these books.

Terry Windling in her Essay , "A Tribute to Adrienne Segur" writes:

Many of us raised in the 1950s and '60s were introduced to fairy tales by a popular book titled The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, which had originally been published in France. The American edition, released in 1957, was beautifully translated by poet Marie Ponsot and contained the sumptuous art of Adrienne Ségur illustrating French fairy tales from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries (by Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, Madame Leprince de Beaumont, and Madame La Comtesse de Ségur), along with tales from the Brothers Grimm and Andersen, and tales from the Russian and Japanese. This large, well–designed volume — featuring Ségur's delicate, intricate pencil drawings in addition to her distinctive, stylized paintings — had a curiously strong effect on many of its young readers. Today, I'm astonished how often I meet writers, artists, scholars, and readers who were deeply influenced by this book, subsequently retaining a passion for fairy tales long beyond the years of childhood.

Certainly it was so with me. These two books I consider to be among the chiefest treasures of my house, not as collectibles, but for the tales and the strange beauty within them. They are full of curious heroines, who need no prince to save them, but rather often, through their own faith and perseverence and bravery, save themselves along with, perhaps, some prince who finds himself  in need of saving. I have given copies of these books to daughters and granddaughters, for they work a strange and beneficial sorcery on those who pick them up. Today, in My Big Book of Cat Stories, I reread the tale "Three Who Spin," and marveled again at the wisdom it contains, and at the effect it has had on my life.

In "a place where the sea was bordered by sand, and the sand was bordered by a very deep forest," where "birds were forever flying back and forth in the sky above it, as if to ask that someone tell them once again the wonderful things that had happened there," a princess was born. But alas, as is the case in many such royal births, she was born under a Doom.

"You must implore heaven to guard her," a good sorceress told the queen,"for if ever she gives her hand in marriage to a king's son, she will fall dead on the spot."

And yet, a small escape route, a tiny loophole might be exploited. The queen was to acquire for the princess, as her dearest companions, three white cats. The cats were to live always in the palace, and to be provided with balls to play with, balls of two kinds. One set was to be made of gold and jewels; another of skeins of linen thread. If the cats preferred the balls of linen, the doom might be avoided; if they preferred the balls of gold, it would come true.

The cats were found, or, rathe, found their way to the palace, and grew up happily with the princess.  Long, long years they lived together and grew, while the balls of jewels and gold lay neglected in the corner. All through the years the queen provided baskets and baskets of linen balls, made from thread spun by her own royal hand. Every night the good old nurse sang to the princess and her cats:  "Sleep child, sleep; silver and gold are only trifling things...."

When the time came for the princess to learn the art of spinnning, her merry cats prevented her, for they liked to leap at the wheel and the thread and the the raw linen. For them it was a wonderful new toy brought by their human ladies to entertain them. At night the princess sang to her cats the song her old nurse had sung: "Sleep child, sleep; silver and gold are only trifling things...."

You've read, I'm sure, enough fairy tales to know that this happy state of affairs could never last. The rite of passage can only be delayed, not put off forever. One day the Doom Foretold arrived; a prince who was handsome and brave and good and kind, gentle and wise arrived at the castle.  The princess knew she would love him forever. Months passed with no word of love spoken between them. Not until the day he was to depart, and the princess declared her love to a suprised prince, who gallantly declared his in turn, and then asked her to be his wife. At that very moment the three white cats, who had played so contentedly for so many years with their balls of purest linen, at that moment they jumped to midst of the golden balls, sending them flying, chasing them hither and thither about the princess' tower room.

The prince fell gravely ill. A resolute princess wrapped herself in a warm cloak and betook herself off to the mountain fastness where lived the old sorceress who had advised her mother. There was one way to save the prince. This is what the sorceress said to her: 
"If, on Christmas night before the clock has struck twelve, you bring me ten thousand skeins of pure white linen thread, woven by no hand but yours, then the prince will live. But remember! No hand but yours may touch either the wheel or the thread."
There were twenty-six nights to complete the work, but the princess was no spinner; she had left the wheel to her cats, and her work was of no quality; she couldn't do it. Still, she sent for the linen, and sat, weeping but determined, at her wheel, at her impossible task.

One thing you learn, in the reading of fairy tales. The impossible is not always all it's cracked up to be.

As it happened, the cats who loved her could not only talk, but could spin as well. After all, had they not spent all those years playing with the linen and the wheel? And they had no hands, but paws. They would complete the task, yet no hand but that of the princess would touch either wheel or thread. So they sat to work. The princess promised them all her casques of jewels if the work was finished on time. Now as any one who lives with cats knows, cats are very fond of finery, and although they would have done the deed for love, yet they were happy to accept the jewels as well.  "Silver and gold are only trifling things."

I am happy to tell you that the impossible task was indeed completed by the clever cats. The prince recovered from his illness. He and the princess were married, she in a gown of purest white linen, decorated with springtime flowers fresh from the fields of her father's kingdom. The Three Who Spun were there as well, on velvet cushions, dazzling in their royal jewels.

I learned so much from this story:

*Everyone needs cats, for they may stave off disaster.
*Trust your cats.
*Seek the advice of old women.
*Do not be afraid to love, no matter the Doom Foretold.
*The impossible can be overcome, if you are brave, pure of heart and generous with your friends.

And certainly not the least of the lessons:        "Silver and gold are but trifling things."

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats and philosophy. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.


Post a Comment