The boot-faced cat in the barn

Picture by gifted childrens author Wedndy Wahman whose book details you can find here:

Picture by gifted childrens author Wendy Wahman whose book details you can find here:

“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little b******s they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”

Frank words written by Terry Pratchett; one of the funniest men in the world, and tireless, passionate cat lover.

Cats weave their way in and out of Pratchett’s books. perfect pen-portraits. Always stylish, enduringly witty. But his greatest work on cats is not one of his stories, but a kind of stray-cat-manual, a fabulous frank appraisal of these creatures man cannot seem to live without. Called The Unadulterated Cat, it is well worth a read because it is an unvarnished truth. He does not mince his words. Gloriously.

“Boot-faced cats,” he writes, “aren’t born but made, often because they’ve tried to outstare or occasionally rape a speeding car and have been repaired by a vet who just pulled all the bits together and stuck the stitches in where there was room. Most Boot-faced cats are black. Strange but true.”

Adventurers, black cats. I know they are, because mine has clearly set out on an epic exploration; it has been three weeks now since Clive Bond strolled out of the house one Tuesday evening. He has a microchip, yet continues to evade capture. He does not have a boot face, but he’s a bad bold boy, as I once heard a nun comment about a classroom companion.

But how strange that the black cat pads so insistently through the stories man tells.

We had a get rich quick scheme: employ Clive to walk across people’s paths. It’s lucky here, is it there?

But the Slavs: they had a different take on the scruffy black cat. They called it the Ovinnik, and it was a little god; and if you saw it you turned and ran in the opposite direction.

It was easy to spot an Ovinnik. It looked like a large, dishevelled black cat, but you knew something was a little awry because its eyes glowed like coals.

It is something a Russian or Pole would have clocked immediately because the barn, or Ovin, was a highly flammable place. They were two storey affairs, heated by clay furnaces to dry out the kernels, stuffed with grain which was highly flammable. And fires were all too common; condemning a family to hardship because a summer’s labours went up in flames.

The Ovinnik had a few other habits which set it apart form other cats. It could bark like a dog, and laugh like a drain. Unsettling? You have no idea. The Ovinnik was nowhere near as compassionate and pastoral as the Slavic house god, the domovoi. This was one wild and crazy deity.

Commensurately, appeasing him was a matter of bringing him roosters and bliny, the small round pancakes which form part of the meals that end of Europe. Enough roosters and enough bliny, and the precious contents of the barn would not be burnt. But displease the ovinnik and he’d set the barn alight as soon as look at you.

Like all the little Slavic gods, the ovinnik can tell the future. On New Year’s Eve only would the villagers alow the ovinik to touch them, in the dark before the dawn of the future. A warm touch and you would have a great year; a cold touch, and it would be a miserable 365 days.

As we look at man and how he makes sense of his world, the cat is a constant. These pre-Christian tales place him – not at our hearth, like a dog – but in charge of his own destiny, out there in the barn, powerful, glowing-eyed and laughing at us; laughing like a drain.


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49 thoughts on “The boot-faced cat in the barn

  1. I’ve never read Terry Pratchett and I should. We’ve always had cats, until now. Our last black cat was a serious boot face cat. His list of injuries would use up all the paper in the vet’s printer.Totally engrossing post. I shall seek out a warm touch from a black cat on each future New Year’s Eve.

    1. In particular, you might address your attention to Greebo, ‘A one-eyed cat of foul temperament belonging to Nanny Ogg, a character in the popular Discworld Series of novels by Terry Pratchett’. He combines all their worst possible characteristics! 🙂
      I have just discovered a cat lover in the biggest possible way.

  2. All in all, I think this shows that even the cats with antagonistic or sexual urges towards speeding cars are a great deal mentally superior to human beings!

  3. I like cats. We had a lovely Russian Blue years ago before we realized just how allergic I was to them. Now I try to keep my distance, which of course makes them all the more attracted to me. I hope your wandering little black cat makes his way back to you.

  4. Wonder how Slavic ovinniks measured up to Arthurian lions…

    In Welsh legend Arthur’s comrade Cai is supposed to have fought and killed lions in Anglesey. Rather far-fetched you might say, and critics said they couldn’t have been the European lynx as that supposedly died out in Britain long before the Roman period. But the discovery a decade ago of lynx bones in a Yorkshire cave carbon-dated to the post-Roman period have moved the legend closer to reality.

    Could ovinniks be a memory of wild cats, if not lynxes? Both can have dark markings, and both the lynx’s tufty ears and the wild cat’s bushy tail could conceivably be ‘dishevelled’. All cats’ eyes glow in the dark from reflected light, of course, but a problem with lynxes is that, unlike other big cats, they don’t growl or bark, only purr like domestic cats. ‘Purring like a drain’ doesn’t seem right to me.

    Maybe the ovinniks were not to blame for the Slav’s grain stores combusting spontaneously. Given the UK’s recent heatwave it’s not hard to imagine that happening.

    1. I think when something like a Summer’s work and toil goes up in flames the ovinnik is a convenient place to put the blame, Chris. Fate just isn’t solid enough to blame. I love the thought of a social memory of wildcats. I had no idea about the post-Roman British lynx!

    1. A cat is a sure passport to healthy hits, Ruth 🙂 Righ now I’d settle for Clive strolling back in one day. I dream of being able to write that post, but cats are their own masters…

  5. Thanks for the great story. It reminded me of a black cat we once had, aptly named Shadow. She’d be there and then … nowhere to be found. We lost Shadow to illness in 2001 and I still miss her gentle soul.

    I hope that Clive, the bad boy, will soon return home. It’s always a worry when you are unsure about their well being and whereabouts.

    1. Luckily he was chipped, Judy; and predators are few and far between here, as long as the dreaded motor car does not have its way. If something had happened to Clive I suspect we would have been contacted – they scan dead cats here and let owners know. It’s more likely he has found a better hotel…

  6. Upon seeing the title, my thoughts raced round to Clive Bond . . . with the hope that he’d returned from sojourning.

    Maybe the microchip will be his ticket home anon.

    Even with that false start in my thoughts, I enjoyed the rest of this immensely, Kate. Cats rule . . . while laughing at our foibles.

  7. I have just read your posting to Rover; he likes it. It would have been better if you’d talked about long haired tabbies with white paws but hey!! 🙂

  8. Hope your cat comes home soon. Bad as he might be, I’m sure he’s loved. 😉

    Also great to hear from another Pratchett fan. His “Greebo” cat character is hilarious – especially in the book when he takes human form. Just what we don’t need; humans as difficult as cats! 😉

  9. I am allergic to cats but one of my very first apartments I would come home and there would always be three black cats waiting on the step for me. They were lovely and I even housed them on Halloween in fear of them falling into harms way. They truly are in charge of their own destiny.

    1. That HAS to be lucky in some way, Belle. I don’t believe in luck but – three? there’s something wonderful in your future somewhere….and so determined to be with you! I’m having trouble getting one to stick around!

      1. They were really great cats and hope they are still enjoying Aberdeen Street. I would love it if they were the reason for my good luck.

        My in laws cat went missing and six months later it showed up on their doorstep. They always come back.

  10. I love TP too – my kids love The Amazing Morris best. Thanks for this fascinating post, it reminded me instantly of that Just So story.. The cat who walked by himself. It interests me, as you say, that the cat is ever present as a liminal character in folklore – walking between the worlds – it doesn’t surprise me to see it here popping up as a ‘little god.’ Even now, look at all the semi-mythical ‘big cat’ sightings around Britain. Possibly one or two are founded on actual living beasts but there is obviously an ancient echo here: what old wisdom/symbolism is resurfacing I wonder?
    The horrible sounds this Ovinnik makes reminded me of the spine chilling tales of the kaftar, Hyena-like creatures who would lure folk from their house with their strange voice-like calls, only to devour them! And yet the village folk never learnt… hmm….
    Really hope your cat comes back soon, Blessings, Bia

    1. Hi Bia, did you read Calmgrove’s comment? He says evidence has been found that big cats did once tread our shores…who knows? The kaftar – good gracious – Persian were-hyenas? The mind boggles at the sound they might make….

  11. I’m really enjoying these Slavik tales, Kate. I think the Ovinnik sounds like an interesting if unsettling creature, but I think I’d prefer the domovoi. We had a black cat as part of our life for 20 years. He was a wild one…perhaps I didn’t recognize the Ovinnik!

  12. I’d suggest that Clive might be an Ovinnik, but I seem to recall he only wanted to be like Macaulay, but couldn’t bark. I so hope he eventually comes home, Kate.

  13. I think I may have mentioned that a friend gave us a kitten as a wedding shower gift, now forty years ago. Zoe (for life) was a treasure, though a bit odd for she loved kalamata olives and Ben Gay ointment (used for aches and pains). Oh, I’ll start rambling, so, I’ll just say that I wouldn’t give up hope that Clive will return.

    1. Penny, you ramble on whenever you like. The discussion is what makes these posts worth writing.
      We keep an open mind; the weather has been largely and uncharacteristically divine here so there is absolutely no incentive to return. Ho hum 🙂

  14. Kate, I am loving these posts about the little gods! This one is dear to my cat-loving heart. And stories are starting to turn in my brain…

  15. So sorry that Clive is taking an extended vacation. The least he could do is send a postcard 😉 Lovely and interesting post, Kate. I’ve never read Terry Pratchett and I must rectify that. I love cats whether they be big, small, fat, thin, lazy, crazy (and I’ve had some crazy ones … 🙂

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