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The Shipwreck Rose: Behemoth

Wed, 03/15/2023 - 18:38
Our new cat, from the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons.
Teddy Rattray

We have a cat. He is of an in-between size, no longer a kitten but not yet grown, and he has luxuriantly long, silky black fur and acid-yellow eyes slanted mischievously like Vivien Leigh’s catlike eyes in “Gone With the Wind.” He’s really quite glamorous. Teddy has named him Maui — a pun, I think, on “Meow” while also being a reference to a certain trickster deity in Polynesian mythology. By night, Maui comes alive, bounces on Teddy’s bed, and chases a white rabbit-fur mouse with his paws, tossing it to and fro and knocking it onto Teddy’s slumbering head. He spends his days sitting on a microfleece blanket underneath Teddy’s bed while Teddy’s at school, ignoring the Turbo Scratcher ball-chase track I shove under the bed in his direction and ignoring the rabbit-fur mouse toy.

In the dog-versus-cat-person culture wars, I’m in the dog camp. A house is not a home without a dog, the bigger the better. More dog mass equals more love and happiness. While I’m not a Cat Person, per se, though, I do grow extremely fond of individual cats, as long as they are especially lovable. Not just any cat will do. The cat has to have personality and, if possible, be unusually large and therefore more charming than the other cats in the cattery.

We have been a bit deficient in the pet department since the kids and I moved from our Accabonac Road home to Edwards Lane. The only pets we’ve had in this house in recent years were some fairground goldfish won at a ring-toss game at the Sag Harbor Fire Department Carnival on Havens Beach — which survived for years and years in a fish tank on our sun porch, providing minimal entertainment and absolutely no hugs or comfort — and our little Sweetpea, who really is smaller than she should be.

In my own childhood we had a menagerie. I don’t know how my parents managed it. We had, at different points, a large, brown chuckwalla belonging to my brother Dan; a tankful of snakes caught in the lunar sandscape of Promised Land (snakes that got loose and slithered creepily to hide in cracks in the bedrooms); a mean goat named Ginger who distinguished herself by charging, horns down, at children we brought over to play; a goose named Peeper who disappeared one day when, my dad said, she flew off to live with the wild Canada geese (and as I type this I realize this was probably a tall tale concocted to save the tender feelings of little me, and that Peeper was probably killed by a neighborhood dog or racoon); a tankful of salt-water fish captured with a haul seine on the beach of Gardiner’s Bay; a rabbit named Radar who lives on in the guiltiest pocket of my consciousness because I frequently forgot to feed him in the morning before school (and it was only three decades later that the rest of the family clued me in to the fact that, no, Radar wasn’t starved because they fed Radar when I didn’t), and a St. Patrick’s Day Parade of dogs and cats of various stripes, characters, and sizes who go marching through my memory wearing funny costumes, tooting horns, and waving from atop floats.

My somewhat critical attitude toward cats — my less than all-embracing affection for all pets, all the time — is a character flaw, I’m aware. You shouldn’t expect the animal to earn your affection; an awkwardly shaped dog, too long in the body and short of the leg, shouldn’t be less worthy of love. The dog shouldn’t have to perform a tap dance. I know. The more humane you are toward animals, the better a human being you are, and on the scale of humanity that stretches from coldhearted loather of pets whose insufficiency of fellow feeling for animals is clear evidence of a personality disorder (Donald Trump) all the way up to enlightened caregiver for all winged and four-legged creation (Mahatma Gandhi), I’m only, as the kids say these days, “mid.”

(Although, have you noticed, some of the people who most loudly declare their kinship for animals can be lacking in warmth toward human beings? Leo Tolstoy, for example, was a campaigner for animal rights who loved horses so much he once wrote a story from the perspective of a gelding named Strider. He was a vegetarian who considered the eating of beefsteaks to be an act of brutality, but I’m pretty sure his wife, Sofia, didn’t consider him the kindest of men.)

Anyway, to return to the medium-size black cat upstairs. . . . It’s cozy to know Maui is there, warm and calm and ignoring us. Perhaps he will grow very large — who knows? Teddy, who is 13, began demanding a kitten a few months ago, and I thought that was sweet, evidence of his good heart, so at the beginning of March we went to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons to fetch one. If a boy wants a cat, a cat he should have. Teddy considered naming him Lumos, Latin for “light,” but Maui stuck, over his sister’s objections. Maui doesn’t mau-mau very often, but is quiet. Saucy and quiet in his lavish fur coat, sitting there sloe-eyed and tapping his highball glass in a booth at the Stork Club, like Lady Olivier.

My favorite literary cat, of course, is Behemoth from Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” Behemoth is a gigantic black tom who walks around Moscow on his hind legs, swilling vodka and brandishing a Browning pistol. The entertainments Behemoth loves best are to light things on fire and play chess. He works for Satan, as the Devil’s jester or familiar, but while he’s severely rude and obnoxious, he can be funny.

The last cat I really loved was Angus, a giant bruiser of a Lower East Side alley mouser — black and gray spots on white, big-boned — whom I inherited when I moved into a college apartment on East 9th Street some 30 years ago. The previous tenants had just left him there. The first night, as I slept in the loft bed, he poked a hole in my right eyelid with his sharp claw, trying to get me up to play. When I graduated, Angus moved home with me to East Hampton and became a country brawler. This was back in the day when you weren’t arrested for letting cats go outdoors. Angus wandered the neighborhood, chasing birds, picking fights with rats, and positively terrorizing the staff at the East Hampton Star office as well as the library for a period in the early 1990s, but he loved me above all others. He only scratched people he didn’t like. I guess I like my cats, like my men, to have a bit of the demon in them.


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