A few weeks ago we volunteered to have our house haunted. All in all, they’ve done a good job; in fact, I’ve yet to meet a single cowboy or cowgirl in this particular industry. We’ve watched our skirting boards swell and bow, heard something play the descant on the fins behind the fridge, and our Achilles heels have throbbed with a shared prickle and spook whenever we have sat on the sofa to eat dinner off our laps. Even though it’s over now, and I’m sad at the exorcism, we’ve been very pleased: it was exactly what we wanted.
We called our particular spirit Yoki, a contraction of the yōkai, a phylum of Japanese ghosts and demons unique to that country’s folklore. Considering her behaviour when we first gave her the name, it was actually and completely unsuitable. Yōkai are extremely civil-minded and public phenomena; their appearances, and the schedules of their apparition, are meticulously described and depicted in traditional and modern art. Though yōkai are glimpsed in the peripheries from the centre, like any good ghost, they follow a pattern common in Japan’s animist psyche; deeply predictable, traditional, thriving on attention, in an afterlife of municipal service. For all their demonic appearance (some as cats, some as enormous spiders or drowned women, others as parasols, for some reason), yōkai are as pedestrian as uncles or aunts, no matter how infrequently they are glimpsed.
Yoki, in contrast, was as alien as the backs of our knees; she didn’t care a bit for human attention, and had no desire to be glimpsed in the clumsy, theatrical way that most ghosts are glimpsed. She wanted as little to do with us as possible. Considering her behaviour in those early days, I think that she would have happily had us disappear ourselves, cause mice to fall from the chimney in packs of six, and start her own peculiar, opaque life afresh. The word “haunting” isn’t right to describe her existence at all: that implies a lack of volition, a nightly performance, an existence factored only by what might be done to us. Yoki deserves more than this ghost-train mentality; she deserves an exploration of the life she led with us, even if she doesn’t want it.
The vet at the charity centre told us that she was probably no more than nine months old, despite appearances; I mistook the white guard hairs brindling her back to be a sign of age, and her narrow pelvis looked stiff, like the handlebars of a toy motorcycle. She had originally been caught by an inspector after a woman who regularly fed a gloam of strays had reported a small black-and-white cat with a milty wound in her legpit. After spending seven days in a taupe pod in the hostelry, the funding for her upkeep nominally ran out. Without any space in the main centre for at least three days, and with her injuries healing slowly, there was no choice, apparently, but to euthanise her. Unbelievably, if we could bridge that gap, and keep her at home with us for half a week, she would be able to live. We ended up keeping her for nearly a fortnight, and only a few days ago did we take her back. I drove away to work that day with tears in my eyes for an animal that I had hardly known, and could hardly know, despite me spending that fortnight watching her like an exorcist, like an enthusiast. Perhaps the analogy with the supernatural isn’t so misplaced; I’ve always suspected something about the priests who seem to convince demons out of people, who leave the following morning with a grateful family on the doorstep and a cassock in the wash. I’ve always wondered if they aren’t more than a little regretful that dawn has come, and the terrifying, dangerous, interesting conversation with something far more unpredictable than parishioners has come to an end. Exorcism is, after all, a sort of communion; a ritual in which you must be fascinated by your quarry. I was certainly fascinated by Yoki.
Her first action when we got her back to our house was to creep around the walls, as if blocking draughts or laying cabling. Biologists call this behaviour thigmotaxis, and it has been observed in organisms as diverse as moths, rats and prison inmates; some even believe that it could be classed as a distinct behaviour of climbing and spreading plants. In all these species the wall provides a comforting thereness, a support, an orientation, making attack or interference from behind impossible. Even I like to sit with my back to a wall in restaurants, and not only because I’m always terrified that I am displaying the top of my arse to the room. Because of its fundamental role in animal behaviour, thigmotaxis was used as one of the first animal-derived models employed in artificial intelligence: in 1969 Herbert Simon used the metaphor of an ant moving between and along rocks and stones as an example of seemingly-intelligent behaviour arising from primitive interactions. Most of the primordial robots used their perception of borders to triangulate themselves within environments, whether or not they could actually be said to “perceive” those walls or “remember” where they were.
This thigmotaxis reinforces something which I do not think is controversial or overstretched: an animal is inseparable from its domain. This is true both in the sense of an animal’s ideal domain, its “natural habitat”, and any domain whatsoever. I recently spent some time at London Zoo for the first time in many years, and upon arrival we made almost straight for ‘Tiger Territory’, to catch glimpses (ghost-train glimpses) of the Asiatic tigers. Tigers, like lions, elephants, gorillas and maybe some of the larger snakes, are the keystone charges of any zoo; the dramatic brands which most people flock to see, whose income keeps the other animals fed, watered, misted and muddied. The tiger’s enclosure is enormous, full of brackish ponds, gloomy canopy and high grass, and most people were emerging from the viewing points with disappointed faces. I was secretly pleased that the tigers were eluding everybody, and pleased at the zoo itself for providing the animal with so many chances to do so. I am sure that there were many there that day, greasing the glass and jumping at shadows, who would have happily seen the enclosure emptied of every coquettish bit of rough, revealing the tiger cowering, I am almost certain, against a bare wall. There’s something sinister, and pornographic, in this idea, as well as something futile; for what those people would have seen in that hypothetical moment would not have been a tiger. A tiger’s territory is an extension of its body, its iconic stripes in evolutionary symphony with the play of light through branches. In seeking to witness the animal in the open, they would make the animal as it really is disappear entirely.
Of course we can come at this more abstractly and less personally, asserting that every living thing must have its domain (and many inert things, as well). We can again look to the field of artificial intelligence to see this realisation in practice; by all definitions of agent, the template term for any individual which can act independently, an agent can only exist in conjunction with an environment. With no environment, there is nothing to be acted upon, and it is only in those moments of action that a thing garners its agenthood. Perhaps the closest that Yoki came to being domainless was in the plastic cage in which we brought her home. I remember her sitting there on her haunches, neither blinking in the sunshine nor sniffing the air outside the petrol station. The cage was bare of anything with which she could express, and was too small to turn around or scrabble. There is a reason that confinement to small spaces is called ‘dehumanising’; it quite expressly removes the human from the human, converting them only into the dead contents of a container.
Once Yoki had been turned out into our living room, even the lack of “toys”, in the commercial sense, did not diminish that depressurised self-expression, our sense of having turned a nozzle loose. Her frantic orientation in that space, her actions within it, her choice of the walls as divining rods for her further explorations, loaded her personality into being all at once. We were pleased to be able to give her some domain outside the charity centre, and outside the cage, even if she hated it. Without it, she was indefinable, unliving and beyond dead.
Within ten minutes, as we tried to act as ambient as possible, quietly and rhythmically busying ourselves with tea, she had disappeared. We had expected this; it is part of the character of cats, and ghosts, to disappear. It was only when we began to tentatively turn things over, move furniture out, prod at suspicious heaps, that we started to worry. We could not find her anywhere. Before long we were a two-ended typhoon that systematically destroyed, deconsecrated and deleted every hiding place that she might have had in that house. We still could not find her. I had had a window open upstairs while I was working, but I had kept the door shut apart from in those few, overanalysed, transitory moments when I had gone in and out. I was sure that she had not slipped by me, but not sure in the binary sense. Yoki was an unknown system at that point, with unknown powers; she seemingly had the ability to hide in places smaller and more obscure than the underside of bookshelves or the chimney. If we still could not find her, despite assailing the entire house, what else could she be capable of? Neither of us felt a capable denizen of our own domains anymore; in our panic, our thoughts became obsessive, parochial and superstitious. When I squeezed out of the front door to search our darkening neighbourhood for this darkening cat, I refused to blink, convinced that in those yawning microseconds she would drift past me through other, more spiritual dimensions.
It was, in retrospect, one of the most beautiful evenings of the year. There were tens of cats out there that looked just like her, all of them unknown thigmotaxic systems in their domains (saturated in the rosemary, buttressed against walls, installed under cars like bugs), all watching me. I knew that it would be no use; an untamed (or, as in Yoki’s case it seemed, detamed) animal has a flight distance, the distance it will run, relative to the nearest threat; its own personal, unknown variable. If she was scared of all human beings, she would have some way to go before she reached that secret number. It would override any other decision she might make. An animal in terror cannot be reasoned with, or coaxed or cajoled. I began to think that the walls of our house had not provided her with comfort, but had rather acted as a hard limit on her reaching safety. Though we did not know its value, our plan had always been to reduce the number to a known zero, and to begin then the process of exploring other values, other wants; of exploring her entirely.
I came back, we went to bed, and I thought that I had betrayed something quite fundamentally, even if my mistake had been exactly what she had wanted. Both of us, in between the tears, said something in chorus, something that came to define the short time we spent with Yoki. “I just wish,” I whimpered, “that we could make her understand. That we could tell her, in her own way, that we don’t want to hurt her, and that we’re trying to help her, and that whatever reasons she has for running, she has no reason to run from us.”
We went to bed, and I imagined her deconstructed on the tarmac, raped by a pack, mewling at horses in fields until she died of thirst.
The next morning the food bowl that we could not bear to clear away had been licked clean. She was, despite everything, still there, somewhere, in our supposedly-delimited house. With only a very little discussion, we entered into a new, mystic phase of our relationship with her; if not that between the haunted and the haunter, then that between the household and its deity. There is very little conceptual space between the ghost and the goddess, especially in the constant tension between not-seeing and seeing, proof and the lack of evidence. We were scared of her, actually, because every moment of our time at home had become pregnant with the possibility of her emerging in a Second Coming. Gradually, however, we settled into that quotidian sort of spiritualism with her that we have mostly left behind in the West and North; the cohabitation with one’s imagination, in which places are laid for spirits at the table, in which a broom cupboard is a shrine, a window is a doorway. For several days she only made herself known through action, and we were at a loss as to how to guide these actions, to supplicate, to conduct ourselves symbiotically. The offerings we left for her seemed to please her, there was a folk-regularity to our interactions, but still she did not emerge.
In her complete absence, aside from paw-prints on the carpet, the measured manna-turds in the tray, the occasional disturbed cushion, she became a cosmogony, and we her advocates. The house became explicable in terms of her influence, for we were never sure what might have been her doing. We told ourselves that this was a form of ownership, and that it was no different from having a teenage child (at least, that was what our parents told us), and so we descended into halfway, experimental proceedings. Two meals a day were left for her, and each one eaten. We played with her appetite, trying to gauge how full we could make her. We started to forget what she looked like, and began to imagine her instead. In the midst of everything, after evenings spent crafting offerings for her, like children leaving out treats for Father Christmas, or village people leaving out maidens for the dragon, or garlands on the murti, we debated tactics for drawing her out with nothing better than guesswork; perhaps too much food would make her sleep, and leave her contented in her own world instead of ours? Perhaps too little would make her weak, and trap her within her own muscles and down in whatever den she had made. Should we move in with my partner’s Dad for a while, and set up cameras, like researchers? Should we eat shop sandwiches for the foreseeable future, and make the kitchen (which is where we were now sure she must be) into a tabernacle where she could manifest unimpeded? At the time I was reading a book by Heini Heideger, a Swiss biologist who had been the director of several zoos in Basel and Zurich. In his animals, such as they were owned by him, he was interested in proxemics; the influence of space and other entities on an animal’s behaviour. He had me thinking about Yoki’s geography; where could she be hiding? Where was there that gave her room to stretch out and sleep for hours on end? Why did she see the litter tray as a space safe enough to be vulnerable in, despite being exposed in the middle of the living room floor? In Heideger’s words, what was her biochore, her network of familiar, typical spaces that served all of her functions? We fretted about holes in the ceiling, conducted repetitive nonsense-rites for opening and closing the door like an airlock or a tomb. What we could not know was that our inability to find her was nothing to do with her being incorporeal, unreal or supernatural; like everything between humans and other animals, it was a problem of perspective.
This descent into allomorphism, this easy mysticism that human beings are happy to attribute to secretive, shy, usually-carnivorous animals that constitutes most of the canon of nature writing (from the self-critical awe of William Blake to the associative shamanism of J.A. Baker) is only one fork in the maze of motif-making that is unavoidable for those who ally themselves with absent, hallucinatory beings like Yoki. Since the 17th century, at the dawn of the Age of Reason, it has been rather simple for us to consider animals as systems, diagrams and exploitable machines. Descartes talks about animals as empty constructs, a fiendish scheduling of gears, and Hobbes, inspired by the contemporary mania for cunning clockwork automata, wrote in Leviathan of the ‘artificial animal’ and of life as a “motion of limbs” (though his focus was more political than bestial). The view was popular until long after the Behaviourist and Conditionist movements of B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov, though the field of ethology is a little broader-minded these days. However, in those monochrome states of mind that I inhabited in the days after her disappearance, conducting a program of cleaning and feeding as if through some slot or grille, the line between supplicated goddess and satisfied machine is unclear.
There was one thing still anchoring Yoki to her biology; that asymmetrical wound in her legpit. The vet had told us to bathe it in brine twice a day. We wondered if we would smell her, that telltale smell of the sea, before we saw her.
Two days later I caught her snow-cap of a tail disappearing behind the fridge. I was hideously, pathetically relieved, and mystified. How she could possibly spend entire days wedged into a space no wider than a ringbinder? I wondered what she did all day, how she sat or lay, and what she was thinking. What does the djinni do in the bottle? What does the buoy do on the waves all day but blink? What are they waiting for?
Yoki wasn’t waiting for anything. Seeing that tail, I had no reason to believe that she was only a figment, a device or a mechanism; no reason to think that she was only alive, or purposeful, when she knew that she was being watched. I knew that we were not where she derived her being; her existence behind the fridge, in spite of our kindness, was a rebellion against that idea. That sleeve of quiet, safe, web-soft space came to represent who she might really be; her life apart from others. Rather than seeing that cavity as a holster for a tool, a repository for something to be taken and animated, to be hunted or stroked or skinned, I came to see it as the mouth of some vast, uncharted territory interpolated with our own, which we could never learn just by living alongside it, but only through transformation into her. At her scale, and through her eyes, with her system of values, the architecture and furniture of her existence (for, as Heideger points out, we are not alone in possessing such things), through her memories of her life before us, her impression of who we were and what we were doing, as components in her own particular, selfish perspective; these were what sustained her. Many pet owners confuse the animal’s reliance on kibble to live as a reliance on the owners to exist; to do so denies their intrinsic value, as opposed to their instrumentality as “pet”, “companion”, “excuse for exercise”, “lap warmer” and so on and so on.
As such, we had very little to do with the developments of the next few days. Though we moved her food bowl closer to the kitchen door (but not too close; we had debated the specifics of that algorithm), did not wear shoes indoors, crept and murmured, it was some reconfiguration of her world-behind-the-fridge that caused her to slowly, slowly, so fucking slowly, come out into the open.
We had taken to eating dinner on the floor, at her level, and keeping our legs tucked in underneath us. I suppose that we had come to empathise with her, to see ourselves from her perspective, and marveled at how odd and clumsy and threatening legs must look when they extended, wildly, and how she might hear the static on the carpet as a hiss. We kept the lights dimmed, and the television off. It was a self-generated, self-determined sort of religion we conducted with her, an emergent tradition of one. It had come from nowhere and become normal, like taking one’s hat off in church. If you had come into our house in those days, with the bent of an anthropologist, you would have thought we had gone insane; sofa cushions all over the floor, chimney blocked, breakables moved to a higher tidemark. But you would have only been an uninitiate; those who keep animals, like Heideger did, will know; “whether he likes it or not, [man] must play the part thrust upon him in accordance with the ceremonial peculiar to that species.”
Our rites probably had no effect; Yoki summoned herself from behind the fridge, not all at once, but gradually, without the drama that you might associate with a devil in his magic circle or the vampire from his coffin or the godhead from his casket. Any drama was taking place internally; some moment-by-moment weighing of advantage and disadvantage, the attack and retreat of various theories, wants and conjectures, flight and feed, fuzzy values beyond the reach of floating-point numbers slipping in and out of definition more like the mixing of colour than arithmetic. There was hunger to consider, and discomfort, and the desire to explore, and stretch out, thirst. Perhaps she was afraid of spiders. Perhaps she could not see us properly in the low light, and thought that our new low tones sounded just like the ozone in the pipes that she had been living up against. Perhaps, in our stillness, she could not see us anymore, us looming visions who had, rather intentionally, haunted her all week.
Jakob von Uexküll, the German biocyberneticist, wrote extensively about the umwelten of animals, their ‘surround-world’; those shards of objective reality which have a use in their own particular lives. Anything outside this “space-time system” of stimuli and signs might as well not exist; it is so unimportant to the organism as to be intangible. For Yoki it might have been the clock on the wall; for us, it had been the space behind the fridge. Heideger attributes coprophagy in zoo animals to this phenomenon; in the wild, an animal would never be reintroduced to its scat after doing it, for their territory is wide, is cleaned by rain or wind and the floor is soft for burial. In a busy wild animal with a healthy umwelt, droppings are occult things, easily forgotten. In a cage of concrete or shallow dirt however, where it accumulates and disappears only infrequently, what are they to make of it? There are existing categories into which it might fit; dead thing, toy, food.
Uexküll made a rough tie between an animal’s organic complexity and the number of components in these “space-time systems”; the grass tick, he found, had only three stimuli which mattered to its existence, and humans many times more. Cats, and other pet-animals, might sit somewhere in between, though we cannot know entirely; I have already spoken about mechanomorphism, and allomorphism, and our emergence from the both of them in the modern day. Though a lot of people would find it difficult to accept that animals which are under our thrall could be quite as interesting and individual as we think ourselves, they also do not wish to think of them as rhythmic, deterministic machines. We like to believe that our pets are clever enough, and indebted enough, to experience us as individuals, as we do them. Watching Yoki that night, I can’t see any guarantee of this at all. It’s clear that she recognised our movement, stared at our floating eyes devoid of tapetum lucidum, by which she might have categorised us as “not-cats”. We cannot, however, know exactly where the “chopping-points” in her view came; at what junctures she distinguished us as separate objects from those things around us. It is equally likely that she saw as strange protusions of the floor, or as the toes of some larger beast that would not bother her, nor her it. We could have been rendered as long lookup tables of comparative smells, stronger in some places than others. Perhaps we could only ever hope to be defined by those parts of us which mattered to her life; like the ankles, hands and two slippers of Mammy Two Shoes in the older Tom & Jerry cartoons. It was clear, from her gaze and her collision-detection and her topographic behaviour, that she had entered us into her inner cosmology; that she believed in us, to some extent. But we had no rights, or ideas, over how she we had been entered, in how many parts, and into what categories.
I wish I could know what had changed for her when she decided to begin slinking in like a slow leak, first along her beloved-or-hated walls, and then around the skirting of our bookshelves, and then across the terrifying isosceles of open carpet to her food bowl. Our occupation of the room was still unacceptable to her, and she would not eat, no matter what, while we were there. I do not know if there have been tests to see how long an animal will starve itself in the presence of both unacceptable beings and a food source; where exactly that dynamic of hunger and terror intersects. Of course, we didn’t attempt the experiment ourselves. We spent several evenings upstairs, ceding her her umwelt. Eventually she came to tolerate us sitting beside her as she ate, and even turned her skinny back on us, secure in her belief that she would not be interrupted. We were absolute rubes about this; we congratulated ourselves for finding the right arrangement of objects, the right time of day, the right vestments and words and tones and pathics that had caused this to happen. Of course, the permit came from her; something had changed within her, and she would let our stupid ceremonies progress to their next tier.
Tiers within tiers under tiers; now it was not a question of right presence, but instead of right consent. We were always going to touch her; that had always been our goal. I’ve never thought about it in that way until just now, but it was always taken as writ. There was an assumption of friendly, reciprocal symbiosis; we had saved her from death, and so she would, eventually, if we were good, let us tickle her tummy. Of course, we couldn’t just touch her, there and then. Even in our arrogance we know instinctively that any animal cannot just be touched, like a toaster or a steering wheel. Only children or unpleasant adults do such a thing. To touch another being without implicit or explicit permission, an unspoken or spoken reconstruction of the relationship to allow it, would be electrifying, reaving, desolating. It would undo everything done so far.
The first step in getting a cat to consent to your touch is to let it smell your fingers, or your wrist, or your knuckles. I noticed that when I extended an arm to tempt her, I would curl my fingers over into a lax, noncommittal fist, perhaps because pointing seemed too violent, undiplomatic; ignoring the fact that she is a cat, and does not know what pointing is. Regardless of fist or open palm, cats seem to prefer hands over anything else, except perhaps standing legs. Again, I think we can think about their umwelten; a hand is no bigger than a cat’s head, legs nothing more than a warm, responsive wall.
Smell is a mystic sort of interface for humans. We experience it enough for it to be evocative and important, but we are so deficient in its subtleties that, outside our own species, we see it as a sixth sense within the fifth. Sometimes Yoki would just sit and look at our hands, watch us behaving, and at others she would inch forward and sniff all over, desperately, more interested in particular, minute regions of a fingertip than others. We could only gasp with delight, and proudly guess what we had been touching that was so agreeable, so vital to the ceremony. Perhaps it was some chemical in coriander that she liked (we ate a lot of tacos that week), or the dead skin scratched from our legs and ankles after wearing tight socks all day. Perhaps she smelt the food that we had been giving her, or the outdoors, or the taffeta-tattered scent memory of long-dead pets from our childhood; dogs under my partner’s nails, cats under mine.
I was upstairs when Yoki finally touched her. Of course, she didn’t call to me; her voice was spirit-level-steady, and she waited for me to come downstairs of my own accord to find her with one, quivering finger running up and down Yoki’s spine. At a rate that was Goldilocks-perfect, honed through years of interfacing with animals, one finger became two, and two became a hand, and soon it was as if things had never been different. We still do not know if consent was really given, in the way that we mean it; she did not run away, and years of observation told us that butting and bruxxing and purring all meant “more, please, do not stop”; but it was far from unequivocal. That spoilsport umwelt again; perhaps she accepted it as a neutral physic of her new world. Perhaps it was no different to rubbing against a tree or the corner of a door, and there was no gratitude there. Perhaps, even more interestingly, she knew that it was something that we wanted to do, and we were permitted, for her own good, and perhaps for ours as well.
We now could bathe her wound once a day; the smell was much worse than when she had arrived. She never struggled, but seemed unaware of the significance of our actions; she would slide away halfway through a treatment, trailing flecks of J-cloth and smelling of pickles.
There was a brief time, when I was away for a weekend, when the psychic darkness returned, the individualising, stupefying terror, and it overrode her civilisation and her new, discrete umwelt and all our unspoken agreements and she leapt, in blind knowledge, behind the oven. It took Sarah two days to coax her out with a broom, and we had to break off the running board of our ancient kitchen just to get at her, melted in trauma amongst the woodlice. Until then we had given her the run of the kitchen and the living room, knowing that her base behind the fridge provided her with a known and manageable escape. We were by now getting frustrated, however. We knew that she would take time to lose her fear; I have since read of cats hiding for months before emerging. We did not have months; we had a week until she needed to be back in the centre, and her wound was angry and not narrowing. In the end, we changed her umwelt by force; the only violent act we committed against her in her time with us. A clatter of the broom, and she ran into the living room and beneath the sofa; the kitchen door was shut, and she never saw her secret places again. They were winked out of existence as surely as if we had bulldozed them.
Our old accords were quick in returning. After a day or so of desultory hiding, we resumed what we had before. She never gave herself up utterly; the wrong pressure on the floorboards three metres away, the sound of a car door slamming, the electrostasis of us just behind her, would always reconfigure her into that crooked, uncomplicated hillock of an animal as we had received her. But the taboos, one by one, shrivelled and died; first her head, then behind her ears, then the base of her tail, and then finally her white belly, stained with vet’s anaesthetic. Though she had barely been a ghost before, she could certainly never haunt us again; we ranged over her with a forensic intensity that would spoil any horror story. We counted the eczemas on her chin, the textures in her iris, picked the caulk from her eyes. We brushed her everywhere, and she loved us for it; performing what Krieg sniffily calls “motor extravagances”; useless displays of stretching, twisting, turning and self-integration.
One thing that I have rarely seen in other cats was Yoki’s fascination with her own reflection. I remember lifting every one of my childhood pets up into the hallway mirror at my parent’s house, willing them to look, “who’s that there”ing, and each one of them had looked past the reflection, utterly bored and permissive. But Yoki took every reflection, no matter how dim or partial, as a fantastic sign. I could not say that she saw herself but she saw something, another cat, a body outside her own. I’m not immune to those feelings myself; I sometimes, when taking the time to study my own face, or my own body in a mirror, receive a similar, more self-conscious vertigo of the self; the sense that what I am looking at is an object, a thing-in-the-world, quite different from the ideal inside.
Those reflections, whether in the television screen or the makeup mirror or the milk-soaked apparition in our discarded dinner plates, were observed solely from a little eyot of red blanket that we had lain on the floor. In all those days I rarely saw her move from there, and I got the impression that even when we were upstairs asleep she remained aboard. If I was feeling particularly reductive I might say that she reminded me of a robot whose sensors can only detect in monochrome, and which grinds to a halt if its leaves the black line drawn out for it on the white floor. I considered her umwelt again; perhaps in the agony of leaving the kitchen some sort of imprint had occurred, and she was now stuck there. She spent most of her time morbidly kneading the bunched fabric, an example of eccentricity which Heideger would never have tolerated in his zoos, and which we mostly ignored on account of it being adorable. Regardless of her marooning, she was suddenly a normal, tactile presence in our lives, and we in hers; to say that she acted like a completely different cat is no exaggeration. There was little trace of her old personality, though she remained voiceless, her meow only theorised, and physically careful, always curling her tail around her body like somebody who will not put their coat down at a party.
It would have been wonderful to let this continue, once familiarity had set in and a beat was set. But Yoki’s time with us was only migratory; it had lent to her mysticism and our desperation to understand and please her. We thought about keeping her permanently, but we could not guarantee her fifteen or twenty years of absolute security (we could not guarantee ourselves that much) and her wound was not getting any better. We felt in that week that we were approaching some Rubicon of familiarity. Every day she became less tense, less of an animal, less godlike or ghost-like or mechanical, and in their place something reciprocal and rather delicate was coming about between us. The longer we left it, the more intricate and priceless this something became, the more worried I was about the damage it would do to snap it in two.
On the day, we gave her a big breakfast to make her heavy and lazy, and her eyot-blanket was used to line the cage. I’m ever more convinced of Uexküll’s theories when I think about that cage; it had sat in the middle of the living room since the day that she arrived, like Chekov’s Gun, and despite the horror with which it was associated in my mind, I never saw her shrink from it, or indeed give it any sort of association. It was as invisible to her as phone signal, as unimportant to her surround-world as keys and photographs and anything mounted higher than two feet from the floor.
We sat and let her sniff us, and we stroked all of those forbidden places which she now disregarded, and which we disregarded in each other. She liked what she found on our fingers and knuckles, or at least was used to it; she looked over our knees and hands and faces and thought that nothing had changed. We pretended, we simulated, that it had not, for as long as we could. The littoral moment, after which there was no return, was at that point when we had to pick her up; she had never let us do this before, had never offered herself for it. As soon as the hands, which until that point had been her lax, submissive subjects, looped with agency around her middle, that nascent delicacy was trashed. She keened and scrabbled, but the cage was shut and covered, the lock baffling her will. We covered the cage with another blanket and carried her like a reliquary out to the car.
I drove very slowly, quite unlike myself, and annoyed everybody. I turned around to watch her looking up at the passing trees and lampposts and sky above the lip of the door, and we cried as if we were taking her to be killed. Every now and then came a wet, trailing little mewl that we had never heard before, and we launched into last-ditch theories as to what it could signify; was it an automatic alarm, a plea, an attempt at a sort of brokering language? We tried not to let her hear us crying, because we did not want her to worry what we were signifying. Again, for the hundredth time since we had decided to take care of Yoki, we wished more than anything that that skein of specieism did not exist between us; we felt mutually suffocated by cowls preventing us from really communicating with her, kidnapped as we were by our own biology. We wished that she could understand that we would never be able to look after her properly, but that we would always consider her ours, that our entire lives had become configured around her in recent days; not to misunderstand us, that our house was a mess designed for her and that we did not mind; that she was special like other animals had been special, that the vet at the centre would not try to kill her, that the swelling would go down, that there was only a little further to go, that this traffic was not our fault, that somebody would soon come to take her, a family who wanted to be haunted and blessed for good, that that bump in the road was unavoidable, and that one, and not to cry or wet herself and
We argued about her, as quietly we could, from the front seats. We were both upset, but could not make the other understand. Cowls of different thicknesses, different opacities, in unbearable layers about our heads.
Heideger writes that all conduct with an animal is the stuff of mystery; that it involves mitigating, understanding and navigating a both natural-and-unnatural arrangement. There are few animals other than humans that will tolerate the companionship of other species, let alone actively invite it. Heideger was the director of several zoos in Switzerland in the 1930s, and spent much of his life thinking about the animals that he kept against their most natural instincts. He wrote about his worries of repetitive, pathological behaviour, depression, isolation, a lack of stimulation, about misunderstandings that could prove deadly for people or the animals themselves. He worried about mentally-unwell people who would break into his zoos to stab sleeping animals with scissors, or force them into sex. All of his worry, all of his writing, came down to something not unlike detective work, or mediumship, or gambling or scrying or faith; a co-opting of belief, clues, evidence, hunch, rumour, performance, self-knowledge and science into an act of optimistic broadcast. The relationship between animals and humans, he considered, would always be one-sided and less-than-satisfactory, in part because of the animal’s near-silence on such matters, and in part because of humanity’s insistence on proceeding anyway. Indeed, the human visitors to his zoos were treated in his books with a weary sort of reductivism; a sense that understanding them was a separate, infinite challenge, something which he did not have the years or inclination to attempt.
Yoki is still living in her taupe pod at the charity centre, and is doing very well; her wound is healing, and despite the sparseness of her surroundings she still has a domain; her red blanket is curled in one corner, and she has toys and paraphernalia aplenty. Soon she will be well enough to be advertised on the charity’s website for somebody to take her home. In the meantime we have tidied our own house, and thrown away the dirty litter and vacuumed all the corners, but it remains transformed. Despite her slight build and her disappearances, she has illuminated our space like a sonar, and filled the house like insulation. We now know about the places under the countertops and behind the fridges, places that we didn’t know could support life. I still get glimpses of time as she must have known it, particularly during those long days and nights in which she must have thought and dreamed and been alive. I look forward to the day when she can creep along walls again, be afraid for a little while, be worshipped and feared and believed in again, entering into a relationship very similar to those conducted by billions of people with quintillions of animals all across the world everyday; relationsips of joint hallucinations, metaphors, falsifications and misunderstandings.