A Winter’s Tale

By: Kerry Riley

Apparently, forty is a condition which must be approached by degrees — one can not get there directly from eleven.

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2008

I turned forty in 1996, and, while I am reasonably certain that this milestone resonates for anyone capable of even cursory self-reflection, it did so with particular meaning for me. When I was eleven, you see, in 1967, I inadvertently imbued my fourth decade with near mystic significance. In 1967 Canada celebrated its centennial. Being the age I was I thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgic pomposity of it all, wallowing happily in my new-found sense of place in history and the universe. Quite naturally, I began to muse upon other significant anniversaries. Having discarded the bicentennial as lacking in interest, mostly because I was unlikely to attend, my thoughts turned to the millennium. What began as a simple mathematical calculation — that in the year 2000 I would be forty-four — ended in profound revelation. Not only could I not imagine being forty-four, I could not imagine being forty-anything. Although I will admit to my share of childhood faults, a lack of imagination was not one of them. Apparently, forty is a condition which must be approached by degrees — one can not get there directly from eleven.

Of course, if our centennial had occurred at some other time, if I had been five or twenty-five, instead of eleven, everything might have been different. But it didn’t, and I wasn’t, and there I was,– forty — perched on the boundary of terra incognito, about to strike out in search of Oz, through what was once the unimaginable unknown.

While my first reaction to the fact of being forty was one of genuine surprise — just when did this happen? — I abandoned this approach. I gave it up mostly because it was a sentiment in which my friends and acquaintances petulantly refused to share and even the most cherished convictions eventually wither without a little external affirmation. Instead, I took to savouring the ironies of the situation. One had to be careful, of course. Irony can veer precipitously close to tragedy when you’re the source of it, and there is nothing more pathetic than a forty-something gone all weepy over their predicament.

One of the ironies which had lately caught my attention arose from the fact that just at the point in my life when I had accumulated the peculiar and precise mixture of wisdom, introspection, and exhaustion required to render a quiet evening alone not only endurable, but desirable, the actual possibility of me having one had dwindled to nearly zero. The demands of house, garden, business, community, pets, career and four-year-old continuously conspired to devour the waking hours of every day.

“Aha,” you are no doubt thinking, “however labyrinthine the approach, what we no doubt have here is yet another lament for the state of modern womankind!” Actually, it’s about my cat, but all in good time.

Considering the harried state of my existence, doubly compounded by the holiday season, imaged my delight at having found myself, one evening a few days after Christmas, in sole possession of my living room. While humble enough in the harsh light of day, this room comes into its own in the evening. Under the gentle airbrush of a 40-watt bulb, shrouded in late-night gloam, the stone wall looms massive and the rickety Franklin, quaint. The polished cedar logs and beams which make up the walls and roof do actually seem to absorb light and then emit it again — kindling shimmering anti-shadows which evaporate under a direct gaze yet always gather back around to burnish the edges of one’s vision. On this particular evening, the sense of privileged seclusion was enhanced by the twinkle and glow of a Christmas tree. I have always been a fool for a Christmas tree. Furthermore, a rare combination of meteorological conditions and planetary alignment was apparently funneling the CBC radio signal directly to our antenna, flooding my ears with the welcome and much-missed sounds of late-night jazz. Clearly the most fundamental forces of the universe were smiling on me.

Ensconced in all this atmosphere, in my great-grandmother’s ancient rocker, a remnant of holiday wine in one hand, favourite book in the other, encased in the golden glow like Tinkerbell in her orb, I was, within a very short time, joined by my portly tabby Scotty. He was a thoroughly domesticated cat — the daily details of his life so far removed from those of his feral ancestors that if he were to lose all of those appendages which were no longer essential to his survival, there would, in fact, be very little of him left. While the occasional spring day might find him out-of-doors (if the weather was fine and the temperature exactly 20’C) he always came in to perform his toilet. Confronted with the dreary banality of a house mouse, he would fix me with a look that implied I should CALL someone, preferring, himself, to stalk the elusive cheese doodle. His only natural enemy was the vacuum. At the advanced age of twelve years he had attained that serene and indifferent elegance that is the sole domain of elderly felines.

Scotty always knew how to display himself to advantage. This night, he chose to drape his cascades of silver tabby ticking over the broad arm of the nearby sofa. His perfect teardrop profile, its fluid droop unhampered by even a memory of muscle tone, betrayed a lifetime dedicated to the unapologetic pursuit of food and comfort. He was saved, in all of this, from any suggestion of unsightly bulk or tawdry excess, by his toes. Scotty’s corpulence tapered to an end with all the sinuous grace of an Erte print. The bony, aesthetic arch of his immaculately white-stockinged legs and delicate spray of articulated toes, spread in the classic “Ninja kitty” pose, provided the essential counterpoint to his bodily opulence. The overall effect was one of exuberant abundance, leaving one with the impression that he cavorted to the strains of fife music, even when sound asleep.

So, there we were, one frigid evening in December, just two epicurean souls adrift in the universe in our own little bubble of mutual delight, all the ages spread before and behind us. Newly turned forty, my antennae tuned to the elegiac, I was struck by the exquisite coincidence of our situation — how fate, chance, necessity, had conspired through the eons to culminate in this particular moment. Considering the infinite number of points in space and time that had been or would be, and the personalities that had, or would inhabit them, our own conjunction seemed a rare and remarkable thing — perhaps not fraught with the significance with which Napoleon met Wellington, but just as unique and very much our own.

I threw an affectionate glance his way as he dozed dreamily on the sofa, ice-green eyes half-mast, but ears carefully swiveled towards the radio, sifting the melodies from the air, the really satisfying bits acknowledged with a whisker twitch and cockatoo-like ruffle of his carefully spread toes. Basking in the warmth while the cold etched diamonds on the windowpane, replete, every sense engaged and rewarded, centred in surroundings sympathetic to his own peculiar beauty and in the presence of an appreciative witness, he was a creature at the apogee of his existence. He had scaled the summit of catness, had fulfilled his feline destiny, was complete in his being. His only remaining option for progress was evolution to a higher form, if indeed, such a thing exists.

“Does he know?” I wondered, “or is it left to the observer only to recognize the zenith of any individual existence?”

“Does every life contain such a moment, or are they simply happy coincidences, favouring a random few?”

No voice issued from the maw of the universe to answer and, with the wine level slowly sinking in the glass, it was becoming harder and harder to remain focused on the question. One certainty prevailed, however — I felt, in my own life, nowhere close to an epiphany of any sort and, at the age of forty, I envied my cat.

An earlier version of this story was first published in: The Haliburton County Echo, December, 1996.

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