The Language of Cats

Once upon a time there was a gentleman. He was a scientist. There were letters after his name. He spoke a hundred languages from Iroquois to Esperanto. He was the author of several little papers on astral mathematics. He was thirty-five, authoritative, and quiet-spoken. His hobby was playing chess on a three-dimensional board. His job was the most dramatic known to scholarship, and the most hectic. He was hired by the armed forces to break codes and during the war had done brilliant work, going days without sleep. The generals were awed by him because several times, they said, he had literally saved the war by breaking the enemy's master codes. And indeed, that means he saved the world. But for the life of him he couldn't remember to put cigarettes in ashtrays, so all the furniture was scarred with little brown burns. His wife was blond and small and thin and was a very neat housekeeper. He drove her to distraction. He was constantly making messes all over the house, earing in the living room, leaving his socks in the middle of the floor, his shoes on the window sill; and flames, every once in a while, would burst from a waste-paper basket from an unextinguished butt, but luckily their house still stood. He turned his wife into a nagger. She'd shout at him ten times a day until finally he could stand it no longer; he could not, would not argue with her about such trivialities; his mind was filled with formulas and figures and strange words from ancient languages, and besides, he was a gentleman. One day he left her. He packed his bags and moved into a cottage nearby in West Virginia with a Siamese cat. 2 The cat hypnotized him. It was a beautiful blue-point Siamese. It talked a lot; that is, it meowed, meowed, meowed, meowed all the time. He'd sit on his bed and stare at it for hours while it stalked cellophane balls, bounced from bed to dresser, then to the sink, to the floor, and then back again and again to the bed. Every once in a while it would give the air a bat. Suddenly it would stop and sleep. He'd sit and stare at it, the pale gray, gently breathing ball of fur, and his thoughts would ramble over dissatisfactions of his life. Voltaire had once said he despised all the professions which owed their sole existence to the spitefulness of men. Certainly his was such. He had lost all interest in his friends, and women. He found most people shallow and vulgar. Some evenings he made the rounds of the bars as if looking for someone, without the success, ever, of even getting drunk. Books put him to sleep. And finally the cat become the center of his life, his sole companion. One evening as he sat staring at it he developed a peculiar desire. He wanted to communicate with it. He decided to conduct some experiments. So he lined the walls of his garage with a thousand little cages and placed a cat in every cage. Most of the cats he bought, others he just picked up from the streets, and some he even stole from casual friends, so possessed was this scientist by his scheme. On a tape recorder he began collecting all the cat sounds. He recorded their howls of hunger, distinguishing those that wanted tune fish from those that wanted salmon. Some wanted lung, liver, or fowl. And all these sounds he filed systematically in his growing record library. He carefully compared the shriek when a right front foot was being amputated, to that made when a left front leg was being cut. He recorded all the sounds they made when mating, fighting, dying, and giving birth. Then he quit his government job and began to study in earnest the sounds of shrieks and caterwauls he had recorded, and after a while the sounds began to make sense. Then he began to practice, mimicking his records until he mastered the basic vocabulary of the language. Toward the end he practiced purring. He had never experimented on his own cat. He wanted to surprise it. One evening he walked into his apartment, hung his coat in the closet as usual, turned to his cat, and said, "MEOW!" 3 This was the way cats said "Good evening" when meeting. But the cat did not seem surprised. The cat answered "Mrrrrowrow!" which meant, "It's about time!" The cat gave him to understand that it would tutor him in the more complex subtleties of the language, that it was well informed of all his experiment, and that, if he did not pay attention to his lessons, the man would be Mrowwr -- sorry! As the weeks went by, the man discovered to his continual amazement the fantastic intelligence of his Siamese cat. Bit by bit he learned the history of the cats. Thousands of years ago the cats had a tremendous civilization; they had a world government which worked perfectly; they had spaceships and investigated the universe; they had great power plants that utilized an energy which was not atomic; they had no need of radios or television for they used some sort of mental telepathy; and some other wonders. But one thing the cats discovered eventually was that the importance of any experience depended on the intensity with which it was felt. They realized their civilization had grown too complex, so they decided to simplify their lives. Of course they didn't want to just "go back to nature" -- that would have been too much -- so they created a race of robots to take care of them. These robots were an improvement mechanically over anything nature had produced. A couple of their greatest inventions were the "opposable thumb" and the "erect posture". They didn't want to bother about fixing the robots when they broke down so they gave them an elementary intelligence and the power to reproduce. Of course, we are the robots to which the cat referred. And now the scientist understood why cats had always seemed so contemptuous of their masters. The cat explained that the cats were not afraid of death; indeed they led constantly passionate and heroic lives, and when properly prepared, when their time came, they welcomed death. But they did not want an atomic death. And the robots had developed a mean and irrational attitude toward mice.

"It occurred to us to merely wipe the race out, but then we'd have to go all the trouble of making a new one," said the cat (in his own way, of course), "so we decided to try a thing which, frankly, many cats thought would be impossible -- to wit: teaching a robot how to talk cat language so he could transmit our orders to the world!

"We chose you," said the cat in a condescending way, as perhaps our scientists would speak to a monkey whom they had taught to talk, "because of all the robots you seemed most promising and receptive and the foremost authority in your little field."

The cat gave the man a list of rules which he copied on a slip of paper.

The rules were:





"If the world does not obey these rules, we will simply eliminate the race," said the cat, and then closed his eyes and yawned and stretched and promptly went to sleep.

"Wait a minute! Wake up! Please!" pleaded the man timidly, touching the cat on the forehead.

"Let me sleep!" growled the cat. "you have your job. Get going!"

"But I can't just take these rules to people and say some cat told me. Nobody would believe me!"

The cat frowned and said, "Suppose we give you a little demonstration of our power? Then people will believe this isn't just a joke. A week from today I'll have some cats go through Moscow and Washington spraying a gas which will drive everybody insane for twenty four hours. The gas will release all their destructive impulses. They won't hurt each other, but they will destroy everything they can get their hands on, all the buildings, bridges, public works, all the documents, and even all their clothes."

Then the cat yawned again, and went back to sleep.

The man, with the slip of rules in his hand, walked out into the streets to do as he had been told, but first, and and he hardly knew what he was doing, strange mischief lit his eyes as he thought of his neighbors. He opened the thousand cages.

An October breeze hit him in the face, flame colored leaves crunched beneath his feet, the setting sun reddened everything with its final gorgeous rays, the street noises rushed into his ears as in a dream, and a Good Humor bell was tinkling pathetically at the approach of the black night and of winter, or so it seemed to him as he walked, dazed by the tremendous responsibility he had been given, his mind whirling in great circles, desperately finding poetry and beauty in the cracks on the sidewalk, in the stripes on the barbershop poles, in the snatches of young girls' conversations which he heard as he passed by them, in the outrageous odors of garbage cans, in the whole of the city scene which he had never really noticed, had walked through blindly before, his eyes turned inward on his work,but which now he gulped in with gladdened earnestness -- but to escape! to escape his fantastic duty to the world he lost himself in all its beauties; but this new world he saw was seen by others, I'm sure, who were in very different situations, and as it is this strange world he saw which I'm trying to describe, I shall digress a moment: Imagine a child in England, a couple of centuries ago who had stolen a loaf of bread or a handkerchief of a half-crown and whom some stern and stupid judge had sent to prison, to grow into manhood in prison, never knowing the softness of a woman, never knowing a meal given with love, or never tasting candy, never seeing a show, or any of our most common pleasures -- on his release we can easily imagine his awe, delight, and terror, his great yearning to touch each girl he meets, his need for patient love and endless explanations (for he would understand almost nothing of our free world) and that, not finding a person with such patience, he would soon be back in prison -- but all that's beside the point -- the point is that the world of this scientist escaping his responsibility and the world of the young man just rudely vomited from a prison would look the same; and so to understand how this October night appeared through his daze and confusion -- imagine how the world would appear to a person after such a ridiculously lengthy, pointless sentence.

The lights began to twinkle on as the darkness descended.

A cream-colored convertible, in which four drunken high school boys were singing happily and shouting lustily at pedestrians, suddenly swerved off the road and cut the top off fire hydrant, threw two of the boys through a jewelry store window, threw one of them twenty feet into the air so he landed flatly on his back on the pavement, and left the other, the only survivor, moaning miserably with broken ribs against the steering wheel; flames burst from under the hood of the twisted wreck which had stopped abruptly over the broken hydrant; the gushing water drenched the back of the car, but left the flaming front untouched.

An exited crowd began to gather around the catastrophe, hungrily devouring the spectacle.

The scientist, who was on the other side of the street, a witness to the whole accident, saw it as if it were a movie accident, and continued his aimless dreamy meandering; and he was clutching the slip of rules tightly in his fist, though he was not aware of it, so lost was he in the beautiful movements, lights, and noises of the city.

Though he still walked, his mind turned itself inward again and he wondered whom on earth he could take these rules to -- he didn't know the President, and anyone in authority to whom he spoke would certainly laugh.

He pondered the problem for a long time.

He looked out at the world again and discovered to his surprise that he was in front of hid old house.

The lights were on. He had not communicated with his wife since the day he had left. He walked down the narrow path and entered the house without knocking, from habit, as he had always done.

His wife had her hat on.

"You get out of here!" she screamed "I have a date! I don't ever want to see you again!"

The scientist looked around at his old house. Everything was the same. The furniture was even arranged in the same precise, neat way.

The furniture! It was this furniture that had been the cause of their breaking up. She had loved her furniture more than she had loved him.

He picked up a vase. She loved this vase more than she had loved him. He threw it against the wall.


His wife screamed.

Next this antique chair if which she was so fond.


It broke into three pieces.

He threw the lamp out the window.


"Stop it!" screamed his wife. "Are you crazy?"

He went into the kitchen and got a knife, throwing some ashtrays on the floor and tipping over the bookcase on the way, and began to rip the overstuffed chairs.

"Stop it! Stop it!" screamed his wife, now hysterical and weeping.

But the scientist hardly heard her. He was ripping, smashing, tearing, destroying utterly, utterly demolishing, in a frenzy of rage more overpowering than her tears, every piece of furniture in the house.

Then he stopped.

And she stopped crying.

Their eyes met and they fell toward each other, in love more than ever before.

The violent scene had somehow changed them both. The man's eyes were now clear and his brow had lost its heaviness. Her voice was soft and warm.

Then the man remembered the cats, and what they were going to do.

"Look!" said her husband, pressing his foot on the gas, out of Washington for a while. "Let's go on a second honeymoon. Let's take car and go out west to the mountains and just get away from everybody and everything. We'll find some wilderness and live there. Now don't ask any questions. Just do as I say."

She did as he said, and and an hour later they were driving westward out of Washington.

"Darling!" said his wife suddenly. "We'll have to go back!"


"Didn't you have a Siamese cat in you cottage? He'll starve. You can't just leave him locked in there. And if we go back you can pick up some of your clothes. It seems silly to buy new ones when all we have to do is go back to the cottage."

"Look!" said her husband, pressing his foot on the gas, speeding the car perceptibly. "That cat can take care of itself!"

Driving in shifts it took them three and a half days to reach the edge of the mountains, where they bought a rifle, knapsacks, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, and all the paraphernalia they would need to live away from civilization for a while. They began their journey on foot, sweating and groaning under the weight of their knapsacks.

They did not see another human being for a couple of months.

But once, when they were walking a short distance from their camp, they met a wildcat.

The wildcat snarled menacingly.

The man had left his rifle at the camp.

The wildcat was between them and their camp.

So the scientist pushed his wife behind him and began to snarl and meerrroooww.

For several minutes they spoke, and then the wildcat turned and run off.

"Darling, what were you doing? You sounded as if you were actually talking to that wildcat."

And so the man told her the whole story of how he had learned to speak the language of the cats, and that now probably Washington and Moscow were in ruins, and soon the whole human race would be destroyed.

He explained that it had just been too much. The human race was not worth it. And so he had decided to get away from everything and get what little he could out of these last few remaining days.

"I have no idea how or when the cats will destroy us, but they will, for they have powers we could never imagine," and his voice trailed off in sorrow. She took his hand and they walked slowly to their camp.

Now she understood his flashing eyes, and this new energy he'd gotten, his new youthfulness -- his madness was becoming apparent to her -- and she found it strange that, even so, she loved him more now than ever before.

A couple of weeks later they were sitting around their campfire. Snow surrounded them, and while the scientist stared silently at the stars, the woman grew cold, and began to shiver. Finally she got up and began to pace back and forth. "What date is today?"

"I don't know," answered the man absently.

"It must be around Christmas," she said.

The man glanced at her sharply, and then grew thoughtful. A few minutes later he leaped to his feet and shouted. "what is that? I heard sounds!"

His wife listened for a moment, and answered, "I didn't hear anything."

"Listen! There it is again! It's like horses' hooves!"

"But darling. I don't hear anything."

"Well, I'm going out and see who it is!" said her husband determinedly.

And he walked into the blackness.

His wife heard him talking, loudly, as if to someone, but she heard no other voices. She called out to him, "Darling, who's out there? Who are you talking to?"

He shouted back, "Oh, it's all right. It's just Santa Claus, those were his reindeer we heard."

His wife said sadly to herself, "There's no point in telling him there is no Santa Claus."

He came back with a green plant, a cactus, which he had obviously just picked from the snow, and with a grand, old-world bow, handed it to her, saying, "Santa Claus gave this to me to give to you for your Christmas present. He came all the way out here, just so you wouldn't spend Christmas without a present."

She took the plant in her hands and moved nearer to the fire. These bursts of madness frightened her, or was he joking? Or was he being gallant? She looked up at him, staring out across the mountain ranges again, at those faraway stars. How noble and insane he looked. But then terror touched her again, and she said, timidly, "You know, dear, back there at the house -- when you got so angry -- it was very good of you not to hit me."

He looked over at her a moment, a little annoyed, but he was silent, and returned his gaze to the horizon.

"But then," she added, "I needn't have worried. You're such a gentleman."

They returned to civilization shortly after that. Moscow and Washington were not in ruins.

And, much to hid wife surprise, it turned out her husband was not insane -- the lunatic was that Siamese cat. They discovered the cat's corpse at the cottage -- dead from starvation.

For there is a language of the cats, but all Siamese cats are crazy -- always talking about mental telepathy, cosmic powers,fabulous treasures, spaceships, and great civilizations of the past, but it's all just meowing -- they are impotent -- just meows!