It's an unnerving sight: in this old house, where there is plenty of room for a cat's paw to insinuate itself underneath a door and into the room, one sometimes appears there. What they think they have to gain by this exploration isn't clear to me -- they only do it when they know we're in that room and want a little privacy. I guess they're trying to open it themselves, a skill they've actually mastered when it comes to folding doors, a combination of pushing and pulling that I can find challenging on a bad day but which they picked up pretty quickly.
Or sometimes at dinner, over the table's edge: a single paw in the air, like a periscope. The goal here is less clear -- reaching for something? No. Reconnaissance? Whatever it is, it's a funny thing to see.
Gypsy lives in the basement, now that it's cold outside. The boy cats know she's down there -- why they should care is a mystery, since they are all virgins and have no... um, equipment anyway. But care they do, and want desperately to get down there and annoy her. So they crouch at the basement door and reach underneath it with their paws. Soon they are rewarded with an angry hiss from the other side of the door -- Gypsy doesn't much like the boys anyway, and looks forward to her winter of privacy and mouse patrol. They reach and she hisses, until everybody becomes bored with the game and the boys wander off.
The intimacy of animals and humans in winter is part of having animals in your life. In the winter, they're around more: right on the couch where you want to sit, perpendicular to the place where you want to lie on the bed, batting with one paw at the bubbles in your bathtub, preceding you down the stairs in the morning like a fleet of vergers. That was even more true in the first century than it is now: the stable in which Jesus was born was probably right downstairs from where the people in the crowded inn were staying. Easier to get to the animals to feed them, to keep an eye on them, easier to get milk and eggs when the weather is raw. I guess everyone heard His first cry: the animals, the people upstairs, the sleepy inkeeper and his wife. Maybe his wife helped deliver the baby.
Suddenly the old story seems friendlier: it's not one of being excluded by a mean hotel manager. Suddenly it's poor people stretching their hospitality just a little further than it was already stretched, finding one more corner for a couple who really needed a corner that night.
We haven't gotten our nativity figures out yet, not even the rickety wooden stable in which they all live, which Q made when he was twelve. There's time. Christmas comes gradually in this house. It grows on us -- we use the house as a three-dimensional Advent calendar, putting one thing out every day. And so the animals haven't made their appearance yet.
But the cats are ready. Don't tell me there wasn't one in that stable.
The Friendly Beasts
Jesus, our Brother, strong and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude,
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus, our Brother, strong and good.
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother uphill and down,
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town;
I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.
“I,” said the cow, all white and red,
“I gave Him my manger for His bed,
I gave Him hay to pillow His head;
I,” said the cow, all white and red.
“I,” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm,
He wore my coat on Christmas morn;
I,” said the sheep with curly horn.
“I,” said the dove, from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep that He should not cry,
We cooed Him to sleep, my mate and I;
I,” said the dove, from the rafters high.
"I," said the cat, so fat and sleek,
"I crouched there to guard him, I searched out each creak,
His arms were so tiny, his face was so meek,
"I," said the cat, so soft and sleek."
Thus all the beasts, by some good spell,
In the stable dark were glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel,
The gifts they gave Emmanuel.
-- French carol, 12th century
New verse by Barbara Crafton