by Brooks Riley
We didn’t want a second cat. That said, we got a second cat, succumbing to the desperate pleas of a friend with two litters to give away. By the time we capitulated, she was the only kitten left.
If there were an antonym for ‘runt’, it would have applied to Sperl, as we finally named her (see T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’). She was the biggest kitten of the two litters, a black-and-white, gangly thing with a strange face. Like a mother who loves one child more than another, I did my best to hide my antipathy. Our other cat, after initial outrage, lapsed into a state of chronic resentment behind a mask of indifference.
Sperl was huge, a gentle giant with muscles, not fat. Anthropomorphically speaking, she could have been a Valkyrie (with an operatic voice to match), or a female wrestler. When she was nearly grown, it dawned on me that she had become a great beauty. But something else made me sit up and take notice: It was that presence, so much greater than her body mass. I fell in love.
When she died eight years later (was it gigantism?), it was one of the saddest days of my life. She had brought us so much pleasure, and more: She had taught me a thing or two. In memory of Sperl I have written down the Sperl Commandments, as I learned them from her.
The Sperl Commandments
1. If they don’t like it, don’t do it.
There was almost nothing Sperl did that I didn’t like. She was a considerate cat, unlike others I’ve known. She never used her claws, even when she was kneading my stomach in a show of affection. She knew instinctively what I liked and what I didn’t. If I reprimanded her for something just once, she never did it again.
2. Don’t be forced to do something you don’t want.
Sperl didn’t like to be held. She might curl up on my lap, but if I picked her up, she would struggle to get down, using her muscles to get free, not her claws, not her teeth. Because I was so besotted, I sometimes picked her up anyway, just to hold that great bulk in my arms (I had yet to learn Commandment number 1). Over time, to please me, she would remain still in my arms a bit longer—one second, then four, in the end ten whole seconds–before she began to squirm.
3. Show concern for others..
Sperl looked after the other cat, not that her concern was much appreciated. Once, when we came home late from work, the other cat, furious, flew out the apartment door. Because we were having an intense discussion, we forgot about her. A short time later, we heard Sperl yodeling in the foyer. When I went to check, I found her sitting in front of the full-length mirror beside the front door, looking at her reflection and speaking to it. How adorable! And then it hit me: The other cat was not in the apartment. We had locked her out and forgotten about her. Sperl wasn’t speaking to her reflection in the mirror: She was sounding the alarm and trying to look through the mirror to the cat on the other side.
4. Develop your language skills.
Sperl never meowed. ‘Meow’ can’t do justice to the enormous vocabulary and musical range she had at her disposal. Some of her sounds were imitations of me. If I said ‘ah, ah, ah’ to warn her not to do something, she would answer back with ‘ah, ah, ah’. Her other utterances were definitely syntactic. She could put a question mark on a sound, and I might know what she meant. She often talked to herself, trying out different melodious combinations, like any good composer. When she spoke to us, it was in whole sentences. If only we could have understood it all.
5. Be polite.
In my lap, the other cat was like Putin in the Crimea, hard to shake off. If I wanted her to move, she became a dead weight, or dug her claws into my thighs if I tried to stand up. Sperl, on the other hand, always got up immediately if she sensed I wanted her to go away. She was an affectionate cat, but it was not in her nature to be stubborn or try to get her way at all costs.
6. Be observant
As the new kid on the block, Sperl had a lot to learn. Her mirror neurons picked up some of the other cat’s dubious behaviors, such as disappearing when the doorbell rang, without her ever knowing quite why she had to disappear. Eventually she found her own way, going for the ‘good cat’ role in a ‘good cat-bad cat’ mood dialectic which perfectly reflected the status quo.
7. Beware the camera: It might capture your soul.
The moment Sperl saw a lens, she turned her head or walked away. She didn’t even fall for the cell phone camouflage. Most of my pictures of her were taken while she slept. It was mean of me to take advantage of her like that, (I was still struggling with Commandment number 1) but even asleep, Sperl oozed charisma.
8. Initiate the fun: Bring them the idea.
Working at the computer, I’d hear a contorted yowl from the living room. Soon after, Sperl would show up with a pathetic felt mouse in her maw (hence the guttural glottal stop) and drop it at my feet. I was requested to throw the mouse and I did. Rather than chase it, she ambled off in its direction. Moments later she reappeared and dropped it at my feet again, turning the art of fetch into a slow-motion gif.
9. Don’t abuse your size.
Sperl could have inflicted serious damage on the other cat during their occasional turf wars. But she didn’t. In spite of her size, she deferred to the other cat, granting her the equivocal advantage of ‘age before beauty’.
10. Cultivate a sense of humor.
Like any good performer, Sperl had her routines. One of her favorites was dipping her head and rolling onto her back, then lifting her head off the floor to see if I was watching. If I chanted, “Sperli Sperli Sperli”, she wriggled around on her back and sang.
11. Take time out to meditate.
Sperl rarely slept. She preferred to meditate, Sphinx-like, front paws crossed, the perfect Cleopatra marking on her head reinforcing the impression that she was an ancient deity. In the zone, she was what T.S. Eliot would have called ‘ineffable effable effanineffable’.
12. Don’t force yourself on others.
Sperl understood the word ‘No’. If she wanted to climb in my lap while I was reading, that one word would send her away without a grudge.
13. If someone calls, answer.
Sperl could be anywhere in the house, but if I called her name, she always answered. It went like this:
It worked both ways: She would call me from somewhere in the house, and I would answer. She just wanted to know I was there.
14. If you have something to say, say it.
Sperl was never one to hold back. She tried to tell us things. Sometimes we knew what she wanted to say, most times not. Because she had so much to say, we were transfixed, a couple of tourists trying to understand directions in a foreign language.
15. If you want something from someone, try the gentle approach.
Both cats woke us up in the morning: The other cat employed a whole arsenal of tricks: playing soccer with my shoes, overturning wastebaskets, reaching under the covers to claw our legs, pouncing on our stomachs. Not Sperl. She simply gave us a gentle nudge on the arm with her paw, claws sheathed. Did it work? It made you want to get up, just to please her.