Parable of the Lady and the Cat
is a legend that for one hour once a year, at midnight on the eve of
our Savior's birth, the beasts are given human voice to speak . . . .
a shy sophomore at Oberlin College, I had a crush on a
freshman named Susan. We were both assigned to the dining
hall at Harkness (she lived at that dorm; I walked there from Noah
often arranged to sit at Sue's table. She was somewhat more
sophisticated than I; among other things, she had traveled to
Europe. She was a Unitarian, I a Methodist;
she was a humanities student, I a bookish physics major. But
she was attractive and fun to talk to, and she sometimes seemed to
enjoy talking to me.
morning, I was eating breakfast alone in the Dascomb cafeteria.
Sue came in with her tray, saw someone she knew, and asked if she
could join me. Later a friend congratulated me about my
update: At last word, Susan is a retired school psychologist
living on the east side of Sacramento, California. She has a 31-year-old
forward to a pandemic-delayed 50th reunion, Susan wrote to her
classmates: Currently still a smalltime musician, playing
recorders. Also a bicyclist love the American River Bike
Trail, and a walker/hiker/admirer of trees. A gardener,
too. Active in learning more Spanish, reading literary fiction,
enjoying wine and good food and the companionship of friends. I
live alone with a fine cat.
back to that Harkness dining hall in November of 1966.
conversation was the usual college stuff, griping about the food
service or contrasting the academic life to the real world that we
would encounter after graduation.
wanted to become closer to Sue, but I was shy.
dorm held an open house on November 19. I hung out in her room
for an hour or so that Saturday evening, just talking.
the Thanksgiving break, as the winter closed in and the Christmas
decorations came out, I wrote the following blank verse about my
one gets into the rhythm of iambic pentameter and quasi-Elizabethan
vocabulary, the words seem to flow automatically. I was
particularly pleased with the "trajectory" passage.)
showed the Parable to no one, but as it turned out, writing it gave
me the audacity I needed. On November 28, our first Monday back
from the break, I asked Sue out. Two days later, she
accepted. We attended a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore
at Hall Auditorium on December 10.
that was our only date; later that month she found an actual
boyfriend, and I moved on to other dinner partners at Harkness.
The cat had spoken, and whether as a consequence or not, everything
did in fact change.
the bitter snow was driven hard
winter's cold and merciless northern wind,
strove to freeze some lonely wanderer
had no choice except to make his way
night through midst the blinding blizzard,
'gainst the cold by nothing, save
a frayed old cloak, which might as well been made
of cheesecloth, for the meager warmth it gave.
inside there was warmth and blessed light.
the house that was the lady's home
cheery fire upon the hearth was laid,
candles set in ev'ry window glowed;
since it was the Yuletide season gay,
tree adorned with ornaments did stand
all who chanced to enter might admire.
the room the lady had arranged
baubles, sparkling in the cheerful light.
The house was warm, secure, and beautiful,
and fair and pleasing both to sense and sight.
Small marvel, then, the cat that there did dwell
dwelt as in heaven, where all is happiness
and everything is good and leads to joy.
lady of the house was young and fair.
quite enjoyed the company the cat
keep her in the house they shared,
she enjoyed it when the cat rubbed soft
her legs, and purred, as if to say:
presence, lady, is what makes this house
heaven, for these ornaments are yours,
fire is kindled by your hands alone,
if you will, it can forever burn,
warming you and me. . . . "
But ever if the cat that long did purr,
that earnestly did rub against her legs,
she'd be offended; this the cat felt sure.
if perhaps the lady tried to walk
trip and stumble, as the too-fond cat,
showing his affection, became entangled
her feet and sent her crashing down
ludicrous ignominy. But this
never be, for never could the cat
anything to hurt the lady so.
he had rubbed against her legs four times
purred for three, he then would walk away:
because of independent spirit
independence which to cats some have
seeing how they walk aloof --
not from pride, I think, but loneliness),
not because the lady's charming presence
him not (for sure it pleased him well),
rather since he feared, "I'll not please you
if time and time again I rub against your legs,
as 'twere the only thing that I can do."
fairness to the cat, let it be known
really many talents he did have,
not the greatest of them all was purring.
instance, when he crouched before a hole,
soon a rodent out to jump,
with a practiced mind he waited there,
mind well-stocked with all the formulae
calculate trajectories of mice
estimate the thrust required to launch
in flight exactly with the speed
was required to intercept the prize.
the lady was in no way interested.
pleased her not, she shrank back on her bench,
when at her feet the cat, triumphant, laid
a new-caught mouse. -- And could the cat speak French?
every evening, when the darkness came
cold outside, within the house it still
warm and comfortable, and those within
for a time, secure from all the evils
raged without: the screaming winter wind,
cold, the blinding snow -- the Outside World.
in the house, the lady built a fire
the hearth to warm and cheer the room.
she would sit before the fire to sew,
read, or dream; perchance to talk with friends;
did she notice at her feet
dozing cat, contentedly asleep,
to share this peaceful room of warmth
her whose presence made it seem a heaven.
time to time he stirred, awaking soon,
looked about, and saw the lady there,
in her chair before the fire
reading. He gazed up at her face;
eyes reflected all the fireplace light,
the wavering flames cast light and shadow
red and orange upon her lovely cheeks.
she noticed that the cat at her
gazing, and she smiled; as best he could
cat returned her smile, and then returned
dreaming that such favors never end.
turned once more to dreams of catnip mice
needed not be caught, to dreams of warmth,
dreams of never-ending smiles from her
whose chair he fondly dreaming lay.
so it might have long continued thus,
cat and lady both quite reasonably
their lives quite reasonably happy,
God, one day, not given to the cat
audacity to speak.