Attempting to duplicate Jean Stafford’s depictions of domestic animals, the interactions of a clowder of domestic cats in a confined space (i.e. a loft in Ridgewood, Queens) were observed and recorded.
There are three: a small seven-year-old formerly feral female with sharp Abyssinian features and a tabby’s ticking; white muzzle, dark grey nose leather, ruddy undernotes visible in the light. The second is a 14-year-old silver tabby tomcat (mottled pink pads, nose leather). Found in a Tampa, Florida housing court as a kitten, for years he’s been the dominant male. As he ages, however, an interloper – a pedigree brown mackerel Maine Coon, is challenging his status. This wooly creature was likely the runt of his litter. Unlike a typical Maine Coon this young male’s legs seem foreshortened and stumpy, giving him little swiping length or jumping ability, despite his bulk. Their names are: The Dirl, The Boy and The Smoke-oi.
Two pair-bonded human beings take care of the three: a ruddy female and her bristly grey male.
A cry for food:
The clowder clusters around a space heater.
A cold room, an abandoned industrial workshop carved into a crude live-work space; which means the landlord is under no obligation to heat the space. The gas is off. Snow is falling outside. There is an art studio in the basement below, and an open space containing a kitchenette and approximately 400 square feet of space above. Cats aren’t allowed below. There are furniture pieces above: a bed, bookcases, folding chairs, a table, racks of clothing and a desk.
A hot ceramic sliver has been wheeled up next to the bed.
The two males are draped over their female caretaker. She is lying prone, parallel to the space heater, puffing menthol cigarettes and clacking at a keyboard. The Boy (silver tabby) lays across her feet, at the corner of the bed, closer to the heater. From his spot he can observe the room, but chooses not to, burrowing into his tummy fluff to preserve heat. Smoke-oi sits behind him, grooming, bobbing his head, rasping dried food particles from his drooping whiskers. He will shake himself occasionally to re-puff his ruff. At times he seems more fur than cat; like a little lion.
The Dirl is nowhere to be found.
At the approach of her male caretaker, she emerges from beneath the bed. Glossy and svelte, she has been licking herself. Her hiding nook was beside the heater, out of sight, as good a vantage point as the Boy’s. If he’s a sentinel, she’s an assassin. But not now: Dirl dips her head, squishing her body against the floor, elongating her torso and flattening her claws until like a pair of starfish. She arches up, making direct contact, quivers and croaks.
She wants food-
-Hops onto the counter. Creaking the crackly cries characteristic of her Abyssinian ancestors she chirps, demands and implores. The dry food she prefers is gone but she can’t know this. She perches on the side of the sink, weaving her head, insisting on direct eye contact, teetering on the threshold of verbal communication but… not… quite… getting… there. Stopping just short.
Then she hops off the counter, banks left and streaks over caretaker’s feet. The Boy lumbers into her path. She careens into him, intentionally, spitting like a serpent. He shrieks in protest, curling back. He pulls her down with him. She hits the floor thudding but springs back, claws tapping the Boy’s flank. He makes a strangled howl and trots away, claws clicking on the hardwood floor, pausing to nose at the leftovers in his bowl.
This squabbling sounds horrid but usually no one is hurt. A floppy ear or scratched eye here or there. Nothing too, too serious.
Dirl follows her female caretaker into the bathroom. She stares at female grooming rituals; doesn’t mimic them, just watches closely in a way her two male companions would never do. She won’t ever step in the litter either, just perches over it and reaches in to scrape and cover it.
Female overnight visitors remark on the Dirl’s constant presence; she perches near by, but won’t ever let herself be touched.
When she dreams she twitches fiercely.
A ritual becomes noxious:
The clowder lives on the ground floor of a duplex loft, the basement below grade, connected by a wobbly spiral staircase. Cat claws, canvas and caustic chemicals do not mix so cats are forbidden from the basement below. To compensate they have eight windows to peer from, plus a door and an air-conditioner vent to sniff air samples from.
The cat clowder lives on ritual, exploration and patrol.
They require fresh water, warmth, food, affection, a space to explore, and occasional waste management. Information about the outside world comes in trickles, consisting of smells, sights and sounds. By opening their mouths and pulling back their fangs the cats take deep scent samples of the air outside.
There are things to smell beyond the perimeter.
Besides foot traffic, the taco truck, supermarket and Ecuadorian breakfast cart selling steamed buns, rice and hunks of sausage, a family of alley cats engaged in an aggressive scent-marking campaign.
A white kitten perches for hours on top of the air-conditioner intake. One after another a one-eyed ginger tomcat, a brindled queen and her half dozen kittens urinate on the clowder’s stoop and front door.
Just inside the door, are a chair and ottoman (there’s nowhere else to put them). The Boy and Smoke-oi spend hours guarding the door. Even when it is cold. The loft is divided in two by a large bookcase. The bed and kitchenette are on one side, the front door, desk and staircase on the other. The side closest to the door has become the male territory; the more comfortable side containing the bed and heaters, female territory.
As the outside cats dot the perimeter with urine, the inside cats’ behavior deteriorated.
The Maine Coon is an even-tempered sleepy creature but his silver superior began squirting the inside perimeter with own urine. This spurred his caretakers into action. Nightly slop buckets of soapy warm water took care of intruding odors. But the Boy came to recognize what an excellent queue urination could be.
One morning, after his usual barrage of face prods and meowling failed to roust his caretakers, he released a stream of pungent urine onto the bed. And continues to do so whenever he wants to be fed, and his caretakers aren’t moving fast enough… Or the food wasn’t what he was expecting….
Not long after he learned to thwart the bricolage cat baffle blocking access to the spiral staircase. Sometimes the caretakers will here the tinkle of cat-claw footfalls coiling down the staircase but mostly the Boy will just meowl for help because he can’t climb back over the baffle.
His eyes are the size of a seal’s, and if his caretakers play peek-a-boo, he’ll yelp and scamper over to make sure everything is okay.
The Maine Coon:
When the caretakers shout at one another as they often do, the clowder disappears. The Dirl clambers into a cabinet. The Boy under a clothing rack and the Smoke-oi seems to vanish into thin air. He flattens himself out like a cockroach. The Maine Coon really is an odd creature. His cry is more a whine than howl and though stumpy he has more toes than he should, and when everyone else is asleep he drifts around the room, riding thermals and snapping at dangling spiders.