Last month, grateful beyond measure that my little feline companion Anise was regaining her weight and personality and health, I posted about the little rituals and behaviors that give what I think are insights into her thoughts and intentions. But like any caretaker in a two-sibling household, I don’t want to appear to favor one cat over the other–although I’m not convinced Ascher would notice if I did. Ascher is a fourteen-pound beast of a cat who doesn’t care about social norms and usually isn’t interested in making new friends. She has never been sick a day in her life–which is for the best, because she is a difficult patient and the vet has asked me to give her a mild sedative before bringing her in for checkups. Her personality is so different from her sister’s that they sometimes seem like different breeds rather than littermates, but although she doesn’t manifest behaviors that follow the same ritual logic as Anise’s poodle song, Ascher is very communicative and has her own way of making her apparently rich inner life visible to me, if only in glimpses.
Ascher is an extremely vocal cat, and I talk to her like a person in part because she will nearly always answer me. I have sometimes said that Ascher has two volumes: flirting and yelling. Flirting is a soft, low trilling or burbling sound she makes to cajole or encourage. Sometimes she murmurs approvingly while you brush her, when you’re plating cat food, or when she wants to make nice with a visiting friend. The rest of the time, she yells–a raspy, unlovely meow that is best transcribed as “RAH!” Yelling is not situational or transactional like flirting: with me, an entity for whom she sees no need for social niceties, Ascher yells at the same volume for food or attention or gratitude. When she still slept in my bed–something she hasn’t done since I moved to a new apartment–and I began to stir awake, she would yell good morning as she reclined comfortably next to my heart.
Obviously, flirting vs. yelling is an oversimplication. Ascher also has a plaintive, high-pitched mew that she mews specifically when she is sad about something that is in my power to change, and confused why I haven’t fixed it yet. (Examples: why are we going to the vet, why have I not paid her enough attention after returning from a trip). She has a rolling, guttural song that is similar to Anise’s poodle song but specifically about hunting; we don’t hear that often, since most vermin fears to tread in a two-cat household, but the other day I went to investigate her singing and found a smashed house centipede at the foot of the stairs. Ascher hisses conversationally: most of my friends’ first impression of Ascher is a fussy little hiss emitted from the shadows when I lift the bedskirt to demonstrate that I do have a second cat. Ascher hisses at her sister when Anise gets on her nerves and at the couch when she accidentally gets a claw stuck in it. It’s not serious and neither Anise nor the couch nor I pay much attention to it.
If Anise is a lawful good cat–a cat who is aware of rules and follows them to the letter if not the spirit–Ascher is a true neutral who has no concept of right and wrong, only her own sovereign being. Ascher doesn’t care that she’s not allowed on the tables or counters; it’s just that she prefers to be under them. If she doesn’t try to impose herself at mealtimes, it’s because she dislikes the sounds of loud laughter and forks scraping on plates. She is averse to most things that would normally get a curious cat into trouble, actually: heights, the outdoors, other animals except her sister and other humans except for a few favorites.
This may sound as if her world is small, but it is full. She appears to possess an imagination, whatever that may mean to a cat. Ascher loves to play with toys and is skillful at making them come to life; I’ve seen her throw a fake mouse over her shoulder and startle away as though it surprised her, then whirl and give it a good kick so she could chase after it. She’s not picky about playthings: she has stolen pens, memory sticks, and safety pins to kick and bite. If she’s not sure whether to play with a plum from a fruit bowl, a pair of earrings I forgot to put away, or a piece of toast on the edge of my gentleman friend’s plate, she will extend a curious, sensitive paw and gently pat the object as if her claw tips and toe pads can sense like human fingertips. But I like to give her firm, bitable toys sewn in shapes that will make me laugh when she parades around with her kills: a pretzel, a little ninja with a bell inside, a catnip-stuffed fishbone that makes her look like the cartoon Heathcliff when she carries it. (The fishbone has become more of a security blanket than a toy; she sometimes sings with it like Anise does to her poodle, but it just ends up wherever Ascher plans to nap.) Ascher gets ideas: she’ll suddenly pause in her grooming, leap up, retrieve an abandoned plaything from under the couch or a crinkly plastic wrapper from the recycle bin, and return to repose with her prize. When she sleeps, she either dozes with one eye open or sleeps so deeply that she murmurs, flutters, and even groans as she dreams.
Beyond her ability to turn nearly anything into a source of amusement, Ascher shows a surprising capacity for change. She has always been a skittish cat, and perhaps always will be; she doesn’t like to be picked up and she gets nervous if you approach her too quickly or loom too high above her. But there are so many little fears she has overcome! She used to freeze in terror when I picked her up to clip her claws, but one day she started kicking a little, and then she actually stole my nail scissors after I set her down and tried to hide them. (I still clip her claws, obviously–she’d Velcro herself to the furniture otherwise–but I admire her resistance.) One day several years ago, she decided to start sitting on laps sometimes. She is very bad at it and can’t quite figure out how to lay down comfortably, and it’s quite painful to have four paws pressed into you with her full weight as she puzzles it out, but it’s flattering all the same. Just a couple of years ago, she decided it was interesting and convenient rather than upsetting when humans lay on the floor, so now she joins my yoga practice and steals pats from my outstretched arms. Just this year she has decided to attend parties. She used hide under the bed for hours if there were more than three known humans in the house; now she allows complete strangers to pet her while she takes up an entire couch cushion.
And the thing about Ascher is that if she feels safe she will fling her full body weight against you and push her velvety head into your hand.
Even more than Anise, who is proficient in human communication, Ascher has always made me wonder how indoor cats perceive their small worlds. Ascher shows no interest in going outside, ever; she is not even afraid of loud street noises, because they are Not In Here. It takes her time to get used to having more space to roam as I have moved into progressively largely apartments. When I lived in second and third floor apartments, I wondered if this cat, who will climb no higher than the back of the couch, understood what she saw through the window. And when she yells at me for attention or trills encouragingly, I wonder if she loves. I’d like to think so. Loving my animal companions is so much a part of my personal comfort and happiness that naturally I’d like to imagine it is part of theirs. But Ascher’s mind is as unknowable as it is walnut-sized, and I can only content myself that she throws herself so zealously into sleeping, playing, and headbutting her preferred humans in our shared life.