by Sheri Allen
No one watched her when she made up cat stories. Her parents were former Beautiful People from Back East, where she was born. Now losing ground in Los Angeles, they were like firecrackers: apt to tear out, anytime, all lit up. Sometimes when they were in the same room, they exploded. Or they were as calm as boxes of fuses, waiting. She was eight. They left her alone a lot, which was fine with her. Her cat-voice, pitched higher than human voices, made up cat-words.
She asked the cats questions. She saw the female cat give birth to three kittens. The male was the father; there were no other cats in their lives. She pretended that the cats understood her, though she didn’t understand them. Her made-up words had more aw and ar in them than English words. But she wanted the cats to answer in English.
She and the black female cat Midnight were in a movie. It was a road movie. Lying flat on her back, she held Midnight above her, pretending her flat chest was a road. The cat was walking on it, the soft pads of its paws bouncing up and down. Midnight always looked serious in the movie. The cat’s face never looked down at her but only to the right and left, into the future.
She watched Midnight hold a paw around the nursing kittens. She watched this a lot. One day, she decided the kittens should look more like her. She placed plastic barrettes hooked with rubber bands around the bottoms of their ears. The barrettes had a naval theme. Her father was in the U.S. Navy a long time ago, when she was one or two years old. These were little anchors. Little helms. Little flags. The kittens shook them off.
She tried to get milk from Midnight, like the kittens did. It didn’t work. She couldn’t even feel the cat’s nipples on her lips. It looked easy and natural when the kittens did it. She just wanted to feel what they felt when the cat’s paw was on them as they drank together in the fur.
The male cat was a Siamese. He was a fraidy cat. One day, she tried to ride him like a pony, but he wouldn’t move. As she was sitting on him, he pissed and shat on a thick rug. Her daddy found out. He yelled, grabbed the cat by the back of the neck, and shoved its nose into its shit.
She never tried to ride a cat again.
When the kittens were small, she spoke to them in a softer version of her cat voice. They slept in her hair. She untangled their claws from her hair and picked them off the bed like lint. But she carefully, gently put them back on the floor, one by one.
Sheri Allen received her M.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, her M.F.A. from the University of Florida, and is now completing her Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati, where she has been nominated for an AWP Intro Award, and recognized with Honorable Mentions for the Academy of American Poets Prize and Jean Chimsky Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets 2010, Boulevard, Birmingham Poetry Review, Image, Subtropics, Poetry Southeast, and The Sagarin Review, and is in the current issue of The Tampa Review. In addition to writing poetry, she has also translated medieval and renaissance-era kabbalistic rabbinic Hebrew poems into contemporary English. Her first full-length poetry manuscript , American Alefbeit, is a collection of narrative poems organized around a series of lyrical poems about Hebrew letters.
What was the origin of “Cat Stories”?
The origin of “Cat Stories” was my real childhood relationship with cats. I don’t want to go into the real story of my parents’ breakup which took place during my years with the animals, but I can tell you that the extended family Back East–great aunts and uncles, cousins my age–used to know me by the kittens I brought them like candy when I visited Baltimore. (The female cat was never fixed; she kept having litters. This was really another time.) And when I needed to find homes for the kittens in L.A., I used to draw pictures of them and put up signs in laundromats and at UCLA with our phone number under the pictures. So they all got homes. I did actually have a secret language I used with them. Not that I can replicate the “cat” language now. But I can still occasionally do the “voice” and it still attracts the non-fraidies on a residential street when I’m out walking.
What was the origin of “Cat Stories”?