Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hawk's Shadow

Some friends of mine who are not cat people but have cat houseguests this spring discovered that one of their gerbils was only half a gerbil yesterday. This was especially distressing to the elementary-school-age owners of the gerbil. My kids were trying to think of a consoling message to send to these kids mourning their pet. But they couldn't really think of anything that would comfort a non-cat-lover much. My daughter tried saying "cats are wicked, wicked creatures," but on reflection, that didn't really seem very comforting. My son tried saying that cats are cute and they don't mean any harm, that gerbils just look like food in a cage to them. That seemed a little better, but still not very comforting to the kids who had to see the bloody remains of their pet.

We've lost a pet to our own cat before--a parakeet--and mourned it while managing not to blame the cat murderer for too long. She was doing what she thought she must. Even our tamest cat will put up a lazy paw for a swipe when a parakeet swoops too low over his head.

When our guinea pigs were little, we guarded them closely and told the cats they weren't "ripe yet." Now that the one remaining is an old guinea pig, we tell the cats that she's too tough to be good eating. The thing is, we still have to tell them every day. And we're not actually under the impression that they listen to us--telling them is just what we do while we guard the little animal that looks like cat food.

Sometimes cat owners have to recite the Kliban poem: "Love to eat them mousies, mousies what I love to eat. Bite they little heads off. Nibble on they tiny feet."

And sometimes they need to feel the relationship of predator to prey. A cat is a glorious predator, and the only thing that keeps us safe is that we're bigger. That's why I like the shift in perspective in this poem, Hawk's Shadow by Louise Gluck:

Embracing in the road
for some reason I no longer remember
and then drawing apart, seeing
a shape ahead--how close was it?
We looked up to where the hawk
hovered with its kill; I watched them
veering toward West Hill, casting
their one shadow in the dirt, the all-inclusive
shape of the predator--
Then they disappeared. And I thought:
one shadow. Like the one we made,
you holding me.

Isn't that unsettling? Sometimes it does seem to be true that you're either predator or prey. And if something you want demands that you not end up as prey, you have to do some method acting to get into the role of the predator.

Look out through the predator's eyes. See how everything in the world is spread out, tantalizing, and just for you? Can you see it?


Andrew said...

The whole predator-prey dynamic was forever muddled for me by a childhood spent with Looney Toons. Daffy Duck would get all his feathers blown off, and his body would be burnt to a crisp and he'd just to a deadpan take into the camera. And in the next scene he'd be back to normal! I think sometimes I still expect this to happen in nature, too.

Jeanne said...

Andrew, you mean to fauna, as well as flora?!