“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.
Featured image from www.surfactif.fr