Victor, my nineteen-year yellow rescued cat, was meowing at me right before I started writing this blog. I asked him, “What do you want?” He kept meowing. From the other room, Bill, my husband, says, “He wants food.”
Normally that answer would make sense. Victor suffered from food insecurity prior to our rescuing him, and he does get anxious about his next meal. But at the moment of his intense meowing, Victor had just finished his share of my scrambled eggs, and had recently consumed his weight in dry cat food, lapped up his daily half-and-half, and begged Bill out of some of his peanut butter, and the cat couldn’t possibly be hungry. Nonetheless, I offer him some kitty treats, which he gobbles up. From the other room, Bill says, “Don’t spoil that cat.” Okay, like he’s not the one who gave Victor the half-and-half this morning and let him lick the peanut butter off the spoon.
The mystery of Victor’s meow—okay, his yowling—isn’t over yet. Victor finishes his snack, looks at me with his intense black eyes, and yowls again.
Not food then. I check his water, check the litter box, and make sure the kitchen isn’t on fire. He follows, meowing in rising and lowering decibels. Pick him up, brush him, hold him, let him out on the porch, let him in again—I’m pretty much at the end of my litany of What-Does-Victor-Want ideas.
Still, he meows. There’s no question in my mind that he is intently trying to tell me something as he tangles around my feet.
But what exactly?
And there is the crux of the problem in the cat-human relationships. We human don’t speak cat-language.
Cats have learned to understand us humans pretty darn well. Animal behaviorists have determined the average cat understands 35 words in the English language, while an average dog understands 100. Now Trouble, the black cat detective, is going to challenge that because everyone knows cats are smarter than dogs. And, the animal behaviorists do admit cats are much better at understanding the nuances of human communications than dogs are.
So, yes, cats can understand us, at least up to a point. But how many cat words does the average human understand?
Not so many. It’s not that one meow sounds so much like another, as they don’t. Victor, for example, is quite vocal and even has a meow that sounds exactly like he is saying “MaMa.” But what meaning goes with which sound is not something I’ve mastered.
Mallory, our tortoise shell rescue cat, a mere youngster at 13-year-old, doesn’t meow. Which is a nice balance to Victor, the yowling cat. But she communicates very well with her actions. She’s managed to teach me when her behavior means “brush me” or “play with me.” Yet, sometimes she stares at me so intently with somewhat baleful eyes that I know I’ve disappointed her, and I’ve somehow misunderstood.
All of this is groundwork for my real point in writing this blog. When Celeste McHale Fletcher, fabulous person and award-winning author of The Secret of Hummingbird Cake and The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories, read a pre-publication version of Trouble in Tallahassee, she gave me a splendid blurb for the book cover. Her last sentence was: “I’ll never look at my feline the same again.”
Which is so true for me also. After writing Trouble in Tallahassee, in which roughly a third of the story is told in the black cat’s voice, I’ll never look at my cats the same either. I will work much harder to understand what they are trying to communicate to me. After all, I’ve learned a little something about cat communication from writing Trouble in Tallahassee and letting Trouble the cat speak through my keyboard.
Still, letting Trouble speak through my keyboard didn’t come easily. When Carolyn Haines first discussed her concept of the Trouble book series, with each author writing a distinctive book that featured Trouble, the black cat detective, I was pleased she considered me as one of the potential writers. But I was also a bit …well…worried. How did one write from a cat’s point of view? And how exactly could a cat solve crimes and rescue people? I mean, dogs, yes, I could see that having been raised on Lassie, Rin-tin-tin and Lad-a-dog. But a cat?
Carolyn suggested I read her Fear Familiar books, which I did, and that jump started my brain. Cats can do so much more than I’d ever thought about. One thing they cannot do, however, is open doors. And this is something I use in the plotline in Trouble in Tallahassee. But as anyone who owns a cat can tell you, cats knows how to make humans open doors for them. And so Trouble has very little difficulty getting into and out of doors, even though he lacks the opposable thumb necessary to turn a door knob.
But let’s get back to how we humans fail to understand our cats. As any cat owner will admit, cats can clearly understand us—to the point cats often seem clairvoyant. But we let them down when we often fail to understanding the meaning behind their different vocalizations.
This failure of the human to understand cat-language and cat sign language plays a big part in Trouble in Tallahassee. You see, Trouble has figured out things the humans can’t—or won’t—because, after all, he can go places they cannot (inside the back of the refrigerator where there’s an essential clue hidden), he can smell things they cannot (the trail of cologne, or the gas and approaching flame), and Trouble can hide and spy in ways people can’t (as when he hides in the back of the police car to eavesdrop on the detectives). But he can’t tell his people what he has learned. He must push them and lead them and cajole them and trick them in typical cat ways. And for Trouble, in atypical ways as well. Figuring out how Trouble could tell his people what he’s learned proved more difficult to conceptualize in writing the story than figuring out what clues Trouble could discover.
So, yes, after spending a few months writing from a cat’s point of view and imagining out how Trouble could figure out what in the Sam Hill was going on, I—like Celeste—will never look at Victor or Mallory or any cat in quite the same way.
I hereby vow to do my best to understand them.
Which means I have to go spend some time with Victor right now as he is still trying to tell dense-humanoid me something, and his voice is getting more and more intense.
First I better re-check and make sure the kitchen really isn’t on fire.
Ah, and there it is. As I’m walking to the kitchen, Victor does a dance at the front door and meows again, loudly. I open the door, all the while telling him he can’t go out. And there on the front door stoop is my package from Amazon.
Victor sniffs the package, sighs, and soon curls up on the couch and goes to sleep, his job done.
Maybe he thought the package was food.
Claire Hamner Matturro used to be a dog person until she rescued a black kitten from a dumpster, and there was no going back. She’s been a journalist in Alabama, a lawyer in Florida, an organic blueberry farmer in Georgia, and taught at Florida State University College of Law. She spent one snowy winter out west where she was a visiting professor of legal writing at the University Of Oregon. She now lives with her husband and two rescued cats in Florida, where it doesn’t snow. Her books are: Skinny-Dipping (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley and Sweetheart Deal (winner of Romantic Times’ Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups and contributes regularly to the Southern Literary Review.
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