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The Parable of the Lady and the Cat
Written November, 1966


There 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 . . . .


Background:  As 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 Hall.)

I 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.

One 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 attractive tablemate.

2022 update:  At last word, Susan is a retired school psychologist living on the east side of Sacramento, California.  She has a 31-year-old son.

Looking 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.”

Now back to that Harkness dining hall in November of 1966.

The 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. 

I wanted to become closer to Sue, but I was shy.

Her dorm held an open house on November 19.  I hung out in her room for an hour or so that Saturday evening, just talking.

Over the Thanksgiving break, as the winter closed in and the Christmas decorations came out, I wrote the following blank verse about my feelings. 

(Once 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.)

I 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.

But 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.


Outside, the bitter snow was driven hard
by winter's cold and merciless northern wind,
which strove to freeze some lonely wanderer
who had no choice except to make his way
that night through midst the blinding blizzard,
protected 'gainst the cold by nothing, save
     a frayed old cloak, which might as well been made
          of cheesecloth, for the meager warmth it gave.

But inside there was warmth and blessed light.
Inside the house that was the lady's home
a cheery fire upon the hearth was laid,
and candles set in ev'ry window glowed;
and since it was the Yuletide season gay,
a tree adorned with ornaments did stand
where all who chanced to enter might admire.
Around the room the lady had arranged
bright 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.

C.M. Cooper

What could a cat want more?  For he was warm,
he had good food, as much as he desired
(though custom told him that he should complain
about his food a little, since all need
some thing to criticize); and then he had,
as well, the tinsel shining on the tree,
the sparkling globes so bright before his eyes,
the ornaments, the candles -- everything
to dazzle him that draws a cat's rapt gaze,
     and sometimes, hypnotizing with its charms,
          leads curious cats into unwonted ways.

The lady of the house was young and fair.
She quite enjoyed the company the cat
did keep her in the house they shared,
and she enjoyed it when the cat rubbed soft
against her legs, and purred, as if to say:
"Your presence, lady, is what makes this house
a heaven, for these ornaments are yours,
this fire is kindled by your hands alone,
and, if you will, it can forever burn,
illuminating, 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.

Or if perhaps the lady tried to walk
she'd trip and stumble, as the too-fond cat,
still showing his affection, became entangled
in her feet and sent her crashing down
in ludicrous ignominy. But this
could never be, for never could the cat
do anything to hurt the lady so.

When he had rubbed against her legs four times
and purred for three, he then would walk away:
not because of independent spirit
(an independence which to cats some have
imputed, seeing how they walk aloof -- 
though not from pride, I think, but loneliness),
and not because the lady's charming presence
pleased him not (for sure it pleased him well),
but 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."

In fairness to the cat, let it be known
that really many talents he did have,
and not the greatest of them all was purring.
For instance, when he crouched before a hole,
expecting soon a rodent out to jump,
'twas with a practiced mind he waited there,
a mind well-stocked with all the formulae
to calculate trajectories of mice
and estimate the thrust required to launch
himself in flight exactly with the speed
that was required to intercept the prize.
But the lady was in no way interested.
It 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?

Yet every evening, when the darkness came
and cold outside, within the house it still
was warm and comfortable, and those within
felt, for a time, secure from all the evils
which raged without:  the screaming winter wind,
the cold, the blinding snow -- the Outside World.

There, in the house, the lady built a fire
upon the hearth to warm and cheer the room.
And she would sit before the fire to sew,
or read, or dream; perchance to talk with friends;
hardly did she notice at her feet
the dozing cat, contentedly asleep,
content to share this peaceful room of warmth
with her whose presence made it seem a heaven. 

From time to time he stirred, awaking soon,
and looked about, and saw the lady there,
sitting in her chair before the fire
and reading.  He gazed up at her face;
her eyes reflected all the fireplace light,
while the wavering flames cast light and shadow
of red and orange upon her lovely cheeks.

Sometimes she noticed that the cat at her
was gazing, and she smiled; as best he could
the cat returned her smile, and then returned
to dreaming that such favors never end.

He turned once more to dreams of catnip mice
that needed not be caught, to dreams of warmth,
to dreams of never-ending smiles from her
before whose chair he fondly dreaming lay.

And so it might have long continued thus,
with cat and lady both quite reasonably
content, their lives quite reasonably happy,
had God, one day, not given to the cat
the audacity to speak.



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