SHORT SYNOPSIS: Gaylord felt imprisoned. He wanted to be a real cat, but held in Harriet and Ned’s apartment stopped him from realizing his dream of roaming free and determining his own life.?When Harriet left a door open one day, he escaped and headed for the streets and alleys. A tenderfoot, he had never hunted or killed to stay alive, so he was terrified. Then, pretty Adele came into his life and they fell in love. An experienced alley cat, she agreed to be his mentor and teach him how to survive. After introducing him to Chubby, the clowder’s senior tom, his life changed forever. He was truly free.
After reading this preface, you will probably call 911 and have me locked away so I won’t hurt myself. I would do that if I had not experienced what I relate in this book.
Cats can talk. Not with meows, clicks and guttural flutters that they use only to get our attention and do not use with each other, but in their own language, a dialect of Egyptian Arabic (EA) that is spoken today by over 50 million people in Egypt. For good measure, cats use some Coptic, especially if a word in EA escapes them. However, purring is for everyone because that’s how mother cats relate to their kittens. Therefore, when they purr for us, it usually means they consider us kittens. (I’m kidding, of course. Purrs most often mean happiness.)
Why EA? Simply put, it is part of their Egyptian heritage, and even though they understand vernacular languages of humans all over the world, among themselves and a select few humans, they speak EA. In fact, I learned that cats talk to EA speakers in Egypt quite often. Nevertheless, it is not widely acknowledged because Egypt does not want a blanket committal to a psychiatric institution for her people.
Five years ago in winter, a cat came into my life. Like many cats, he appeared one evening at my door and made himself heard with meowing, scratching and banging.
When I opened the door, he promptly took residence. I was not shocked; it had happened to me before. I assumed he was lost and needed food and shelter.?I liked him right off. He was chatty but not annoying. Friendly and cuddly, he soon became a lap cat extraordinaire and relished the food I put before him. His litter box routine was impeccable, and he was very clean about himself, washing before and after meals, something I had never seen a cat do before. He was content being indoors, and that was just fine. Since I am gone most of the day teaching, I prefer indoor cats because I know where they are and do not have to worry about them.
Because he was black like pepper, I dubbed him Pfeffer, German for pepper. (Later I learned his street name was Gaylord, but that is ahead of my story.) His eyes were the color of new pennies, and he was large and muscular but not enormous. I noticed scars on his body, so I knew he was a fighter.??He was with me six weeks before he spoke. It was dusk, and I was preparing my dinner. Pfeffer sat on a chair by the table, as unusual, watching me cook, but this time he looked straight at me with what seemed like an expression on his face. I looked askance at him and thought, Cats do not have expressions. They are stolid, showing emotion when they want something, when they are cuddling, or when they are angry.
However, Pfeffer stared at me as if he were examining me.
While stirring my vegetables, I said, “Pfeffer, why are you glowering at me? You seem anxious.” (Because I live alone, I talk to most everything, animate or inanimate, in order to verify that I’m still present.) I smiled at him and continued stirring.
In perfect Egyptian Arabic, I heard: “I didn’t mean to glower, Professor, but I am anxious to talk to you.”
My spoon clattered to the floor when I whirled around and stared at him. I’m losing my mind, I thought immediately. Then, I laughed like a loon.
“Of course,” I said. “One of my ninny grad students has rigged the chair with a speaker and is somewhere talking for poor Pfeffer.”
“No, Professor. I am talking to you. No one is talking for me.” Again, perfect EA.
I laughed even louder and began looking for the speaker. I grabbed Pfeffer, dropped him on the floor and turned the chair upside down.
“Hey, Professor, watch it. I’m not a sack of grain.”
There was a video camera somewhere, I decided. I began examining the walls, the doors, under the table; anywhere I thought they placed a device.
“Get used to it, Professor: I, Pfeffer, as you call me, am talking to you.” With that, he nipped my ankle. “I’ll really bite you if you don’t settle down.”
I became a teeth-chattering idiot. My eyes, I am positive, were ping-pong balls with dots, and I could not have raised spit if my life depended upon it. It was not possible that a cat was speaking to me at all, but especially in EA, a language I have studied for 40 years and with which I still have difficulties. However, this cat staring at me, spoke it perfectly. For some insane reason Ebenezer Scrooge flashed in my mind, and as he wondered when Marley’s ghost appeared, I wondered if I might be hallucinating because of a morsel of undigested food. I stared transfixed with my jaws chattering like a decapitated head.
“Nadam,” he said. It means I regret in EA. “Nadam, Professor, that I shocked you.” His voice was soft and breathy but not like a hiss, and he enunciated precisely.
In EA I said, “You have no idea how shocked I am. In fact, I’m positive I’ve lost my mind.”
He came over and rubbed his body around my leg, which felt nailed to the floor, and scent-marked my shoes. Then, he sat and looked up at me.
“You’re not losing your mind, I assure you. That I can talk is not a big deal for me, but I know most bašar lose it when I do. Bašar are experts at assuming and taking things for granted, and the fact that amai can talk is something you all have convinced yourselves is not possible.”
I recognized amai to be the plural of cats, and bašar the term forhuman being. I started to speak.
“Just listen, Professor. Please let me explain.”
In excellent EA, he explained that all animals communicate, some with words like cats and rabbits and skunks and raccoons and most other small feral creatures that we take for granted, and many other animals communicate with body language.
“Savvy bašar know when we switch our tails fast, we’re not happy.” He laughed, something else I did not know cats could do.
“Even dogs have a language,” he continued, “although it’s a wonder because their brains can’t be much larger than a pebble. You see, Professor, we animals, especially those of us who have lived close with you forever, have been forced to learn and understand your languages wherever we happen to be imprisoned and dependent.”
The word imprisoned did not pass me by, but I chose not to pursue it. Later, you will understand.
“Question is why didn’t we learn to speak your languages. Well, for us amai it was to remain remarkable, uncommon, even unusual, if you will. Bašar think we are aloof, but we are not. We quite simply know that we are the most splendid creatures in the world. To lower ourselves to speak your language would begin a process of possibly being like you are, and that we cannot abide. You are a very cruel species, Professor. You kill each other regularly, and your cruelty and torture of other animals are horrific, including amai in parts of the world.”
I could not argue with him about our treatment of animals; he was spot on.?He explained the connection of EA with their origin. “Most of us use bašar because we believe we are entitled. We were once gods, you know.”
Completely spellbound, I slid to the floor, but stood quickly when I smelled my vegetables burning. I snapped off the burner and slid again to the floor.
“Okay,” I said, feeling certifiably insane, “what do you want with me?”
“I need to tell a story, have it written in a book and published.”
“Yes. About a very important part of my life.”
“Is that what you call it?”
I was amazed. I had gotten comfortable talking to him, no more trembling and feeling lightheaded. I recalled reading in Psychology Today that once you’re comfortable with something you know is impossible, you’re probably completely insane, like getting used to robbing banks or . . . talking to cats.
“Let’s start tomorrow,” he said before he began washing his face. “I’m tired now.” He yawned and smiled again. “What are your plans for after supper?”
“Uh, dunno. TV? Read? Why?”
“Oh, I hope for a lap. I am a cat, after all, and I love to snuggle as we’ve done evenings since I got here. I’m a lap cat. That’s what you’ve said anyway.”
My appetite disappeared, so we went to the living room where I tried to read. He stretched out on my lap, laid his head on my knee and tuned up his purr. Now and then, he looked back at me and smiled. I just knew he was getting a kick out of driving me crazy.
Instead of reading, I sat still and waited to wake up from the nightmare. I knew I was asleep somewhere, and I was in this cat’s dream. I would wake up, he would be on my lap and I would have a good laugh. It did not happen.
At last I accepted that I had a cat that could speak excellent EA and that I was so crazy I’d be eating and drinking out of bowls on the floor very soon.?I will not bore you with more details of that evening because nothing happened that was as overwhelming as having a cat speak to me. I fell into a restless sleep, and woke up around three in the morning with him still on my lap.
Over the course of two months, I listened to his story and translated it into English. Actually, it is a transliteration because the languages are so foreign to each other that direct translation is impossible.
You will find that I used transliterated EA words here and there in the text because Gaylord—his name that he finally revealed to me—wanted readers to get a flavor of his language and appreciate the fact the cats are, in fact, extraordinary creatures like none other. (That Gaylord had self-importance issues will become quite evident in the story.)
As we worked together and shared cuddle-time each evening, Gaylord and I became very close friends. Nevertheless, when he finished his story and left me the job of editing, he departed quickly to his home, which I will describe later. Even though it has been five years since we collaborated and we see each other as often as possible, I miss him terribly. If I had not learned from him that all cats can talk, I could call him unique. He is not one of a kind, but he is exceptional.
I have included a glossary to define EA words used in the text.
Hope you enjoy Gaylord’s memoir.
Professor F.L. Fuller
Adjunct Professor of Egyptian Arabic