Terra firma

March 25, 1997|By Barbara Mallonee

THE BLACK CAT WAITS under the picnic table on the deck, watching for a light in our kitchen window to signal daybreak. In the shelter of our back doorway, a blue dish is full of wet leaves and rainwater. When I open the back door, the black cat bolts.

Everyone has a cat story, I tell my students in an early morning class. I intend humor, but a twinkle catches in my eye like grit or the rub of an errant eyelash, a stray cat less subject for nonchalance than nurture. Since late last summer, the cat has appeared each day at dusk and dawn, braving three resident cats who snarl at each other but sidle off as the black cat warily makes her way back across the lawn.

Seen in silhouette, her tail suggests a tale of woe: Whether cut off by carving knife, ax, or trap, three-quarters of her tail is gone. All fall, neighbors called her ''stumpy;'' on Christmas Eve, I gave her supper and a new name. ''Here, Cricket!'' I call now, on the edge of April, but she ventures only as far as the corner of the deck until I turn my back; then, subtle as shadow, she flows up the steps.

I watch her through the window as I pack my book bag. With no tail for balance, she eats oddly, lifting a mouthful of food out of the dish, dropping it to the floorboards, chewing one piece of kibble at a time before bending down, rocking slightly, to seize another.

I leave for the college before she has finished. As I drive down TC Northern Parkway, odd phrases tumbling about in my head, I realize the grammar of our encounters has to do with place, not person or thing. I am, for this cat, an extension of landscape, a looming feature on the bleak horizon of a day. I come and go like mountains in fog or the old pine in our yard that, with the forsythia, disappears into sheets of rain.

Though I would wish otherwise, I suppose I am territory to the other cats, too, who live in the land of house. While I sleep, they slumber on my stomach or feet. I reach down to pet a personable cat; the cat reaches up to mark terrain, rubbing head, jowls, flanks, tail against my ankles or chin. Pounce, perch, prowl, pad are language for a literature of travel. When I call, my cats come only when I am somewhere they have already planned to me. When I read, they seek my lap. Their purr sounds like sonar.

The stray cat is a vagrant, a wanderer, a pilgrim. I often glimpse her in distant places -- yesterday a quarter of a mile away in our neighborhood wood, a ribbon of timber that runs along Northern Parkway from the Jones Falls up to Pimlico Road. These days, I walk this Mt. Washington wood with a sense of foreboding. After decades of silent stewardship, the Associated Jewish Charities has put a sizable acre section of this woodland up for sale.

Land owned and disowned

Alarmed at the steady loss of woodland to urban development, a band of residents has sought to purchase the property for the community as a land trust. Negotiations flourish, then founder. This woodland, disowned by one group, may not, after all, be owned by the other.

It, too, is vagrant. In whatever residual language we have for land, ''property'' is not a noun for place but for thing. When land comes to be considered commodity, one sees that, in a flash, place can revert to space, to plots or spots for commercial development by those who pass on by.

Pausing beside a talk oak tree, I rub my hand on its weathered bark. Upright, we, of all earth's creatures, most resemble trees, but we have forgotten that to stand fast on the earth is to be inclined to see the large sweep of the sky. The more structures built upon the earth by those who pass on by, the less we know our place upon the land. In our cities, patterns of rapid displacement and replacement have left us practiced at detachment.

The wood is a pool of quiet, even with a steady stream of cars flowing by at the outskirts, but it will be cold and wet tonight, the bare branches rattling in the wind. I fill the blue bowl on the deck with warm milk. Charity, I think, begins not only at home, but with home -- with the honoring of that homing instinct that makes this black cricket of a cat turn up on my doorstep day after day. I do not know her story. She is silent, her golden eyes plaintive. Though she is a needy thing, I doubt any person will ever hold her. Through the dark coils of night, the black cat travels the earth in search of terra firma, a place we yearn to be.

Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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