Often this time of year when the light fades and mornings are very dark, my mind wakes up with songs or ideas already formed. This morning it was Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.”Years ago, when I first awoke to books, my mother was sitting between my sister and me on the loveseat in her bedroom, reading to us.
These were the years we lived in The Old Citadel, a block-long fortress spread across Marion Square, which provided us with echoing courtyards, deep tall windows, and incredibly high ceilings. Built to house and train cadets for almost a century before the new campus was built further up the Charleston neck, its architecture helped cool against intense summer heat, at the same time that it announced the school’s profound defiance of any attack on Southern values. But, of course, for a while, I was too young for such a sophisticated perspective. To me and my sister, the Old Citadel was simply an entire village in and of itself, with friends at either end of the block, slate slidewalks already set for hopscotch, bums loitering in the park at our King Street end, the bells of St. Matthew’s church ringing “Big Ben” style at the hours and quarter hours, and my mother’s voice reading us to bed.
The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat:
They took some honey and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy, O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing!
Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong tree grows;
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced to the light of the moon
They danced to the light of the moon.
I’ve rarely studied owls close up, but there’ve been cats galore in my life. How we acquired the first, I can’t remember, but it was a tiger cat who would jump into the kitchen window well beside my turtle’s bowl. In the evenings, when I watched for my father’s car to turn into the cobblestone parking lot, I would pat the cat who purred. Then one day it disappeared. A thousand things could have happened to it. Maybe like a much later Minnesota cat named Archie, this tiger simply belonged to someone else and either went home or was lifted. But that’s another story.
I was distraught at losing this first cat, my solace in the window well when my parents argued. Walking to school, I began calling for it, day after day, with no results. Finally, after a week or two of disconsolate searching, a tiger kitten, much smaller than the one I’d lost, hurried up to me a block from school. I scooped it up and carried it to Ashley Hall. Let’s say I was in second grade, taught by the lovely Citadel wife with the white pageboy and blue eyes. Her speech could not have been more gentle. She took me and the kitten to the principal’s house across the playing field, nestled in a stand of trees. After that I remember only that my mother who did not drive, but walked from the Old Citadel to Ashley Hall, stood in the doorway, talking to the principal. When I came home that afternoon, the kitten was waiting for me.
Living with cats fulfills life’s promise that there is warmth and kindness and affection in the world. I know, this sounds terribly sentimental. But there it is, My mother who usually scorned sentiment, especially when expressed by my father (instance of that barbed but seductive resistance I recognize now as an adult), my mother in the case of this lost kitten acted the storybook Good Mother. The only element lacking is the mean wizard who would terrorize our lives until the cat came to save us. The wizard was there, hanging like a noxious cloud in the wings. He was compounded of my parents’ alienation from what they’d known in the north, and of the poverty and discrimination in the south. Soon he would flap his terrible wings and drench us with sickening hate. But until that happened, the orange kitten kept me company. And though our bedtime stories from early volumes of the Book House might make us sweat or shiver, they always ended by promising that we would find what we was lost.