Cats have nine lives so it’s said. Lying awake last night, reflecting on my own life, I came to the conclusion that it is humans who may live several lives and on leaving one, they shut the door on it as they turn to another.
If you Google the question of cats’ nine lives, you’ll see many people have commented on it. Most quote the old proverb which goes further than the statement with which I began. It runs, “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for three he stays.” Interpretations of this are various; most regard it as a comment on the hardiness of cats and their ability to survive against the odds but also that old age makes cats more loving. Some point out the saying was well-known in Shakespeare’s time and that he refers to it in Romeo and Juliet, when Tybalt asks Mercutio what he wants with him. Mercutio replies, “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”
We know that cats were revered and protected in ancient Egypt and associated with several influential goddesses, most notably Bastet who, originally a lion-goddess, was later depicted with a cat’s head and became very popular. Nine too was a sacred, magical number in ancient cultures so the origin of the proverb may be very old. One piece of information I found particularly delightful is from Ancient Egypt On-Line which reports that a very popular painting, often found in tombs, shows a cat sitting under or next to the chair of the woman of the house as though to protect her. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the comment of Thomas Fuller, an eighteenth century writer who published his collection of “proverbs…and witty sayings” in 1732, and who wrote in it: ”A cat has nine lives and a woman has nine cats’ lives.”
Maybe women share this characteristic with cats, by neatly dividing up their lives into sections: childhood and adolescence; achieving independence; marriage and children; seeking independence again and re-establishing a career; retirement and finding that a child’s dream of doing what you want is possible after all, if you work at it. Well, I have only listed six here, but I ‘m sure that you might arrange your life in different sections, maybe more or maybe less. I think of these times in my life as separate “lives” because they all involved a change of direction, often moving and starting over. I found my concentration shifted to deal with those new circumstances and I gave, perhaps, too little thought to the existence I left behind. Only close family relatives and dear friends have woven their way through a number, or all my lives. I wrote the following poem for one of my sisters when we were on the verge of taking one of those turns into a different life.
A Stench of Foxes
For my sister
Do you remember how, when we were little,
The sharp paint-flakes fell from the rusty
Railings in the park?
How we ran from the open hill,
Its mud scars beaded with a soft sea-rain,
Our raincoats flapping sharply
As did the heavy, dark leaves
Of the laurels and rhododendrons,
Which overhung the lower paths,
Dripping rain as dark as blood?
The foxes drew us there, and there we ran,
Headlong down those walks,
Where an unsteady wind blew rain
And a pungent smell in our faces.
Crouching by the flimsy cage, we watched
Their staring red-rimmed eyes
And flowing, twisting bodies.
That perpetual motion and the snarl
Of sharp teeth seemed a desperate denial
Of the wire, and we sniffed with
Exultation, the solid stench of defiance.
It was the nearest view we got
Of blood in the streets,
The closest we came to feeling
The hot breath of a fanatic
At our neck,
Though bombs burst,
Ships sailed and night
By night, fires stained the cloudy skies—
But always several miles away.
Now, in my reveries, the foxes turn
And turn again,
Nosing their cages for a weakened wire.
Conjured by dreams, I watch
Their foxy feet run freely,
Moonlit, down the rhododendron
Paths. Jaunty in ordered parkland
They cavort and run and run, ’til running
They find the heavy railings rusted out.
They snuff the town, the human dirt,
The unknown trails they might explore.
Here on the brink—what will they choose?
The bushy vaults and empty night;
Or coupled certainty; a shared confinement?
But wakened, I will never know…
It’s too late now to see,
If they will set a limit to their running.