Magnum Photos
A cat in an English cemetery, 1978; photograph by Josef Koudelka

For me to keep a cat has all the excitement of a forbidden love affair, for my mother belonged to that unhappy race which feels a mysterious fear of cats. If she found herself in a room with the most innocent and ravishing of cats, she would start to her feet and wring her hands, the long supple hands of a pianist, and she would cry, “Take it away! Take it away!” while she shut her eyes so that she need not see the loathsome object. I never reproached my mother even in my own mind for these paroxysms, for I was a soldier’s daughter, and it was well known that the most venerable general of that day, Lord Roberts, suffered from the same malady. He would turn and run if a cat walked toward him on the parade ground; and I quite realized that if Lord Roberts could not control this terror my mother could not be expected to do better. So there was no ill-feeling between us.

Yet not to have a cat inflicted a great hardship on me. Ever since I was a little child I have thought cats the most beautiful and alluring of created beings. It has been in some ways a protection to me. I have never felt jealous of other women because they were more beautiful than I was, for almost any cat was far more beautiful than either me or them. Nor have I ever felt that disillusionment which other wives feel at unromantic moments of domestic life, when, for example, their husbands walk about in short dressing gowns which show the striped legs of pajamas. I know I must accept the second-rate in these matters, since I could never be the mate of a beautiful tomcat who has for permanent wear a shining garment of silky fur molding to a symphony of sliding muscles.

But my belief has left me with an abiding sorrow because I was not born a cat, and I felt very badly used because I could not do the next best thing and keep a cat until my mother died; and that various inconvenient circumstances prevented me from acquiring one till long after that date. Then I felt it was too late. I was like a woman who had wanted children all her life and at last finds herself free to become a mother and then feels panic. I thought I would never be able to rear a cat, I felt sure I would give it the wrong food, I saw a stern vet reproaching me by my cat’s basket and asking me if I had not let my professional duties come between my duty to my cat.

But my son had a cat, and when he went on a holiday he…

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