Writers have been working animals into their stories for as long as there have been stories.
When Odysseus returned from Troy the only member of his family to recognize him was his faithful old dog Argos. One of the earliest beast fables, stories where animals speak to each other in human voices, was Chaucer’s tale of a crafty rooster named Chanticleer outwitting a wily fox. James Michener prefaced each section of his big novel Chesapeake with journeys of creatures like blue crabs and Canadian geese. Poet Carl Sandburg employed a cat as a perfect metaphor for sly, silent stealth. “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on”.
Not to put myself anywhere near that parade of literary giants, I’ve trotted out a few critters as well. I provided a yellow dog named Chester for the children of Galveston’s St. Mary’s Orphanage in my novel The Windows of Heaven and a cat named Duke for the loner protagonist Sam in A Place Apart.
If effective writing truly reflects the human experience, then it has to occasionally deal with the reality that the bond between humans and animals is a strong one. And often a therapeutic one.
Let’s say I come home after an exasperating day, one full of what Mr. Shakespeare called the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, one full of nothing going right. I thumb through the mail – four bills and a jury duty summons – and reach for a cold beverage but we’re all out. I plop down in my favorite chair and turn on the evening news. Which is all bad.
And there on the ottoman by my feet is Gracie, the smallest of my wife Karen’s and my trio of elderly cats and the one most devoted to yours truly. Gracie doesn’t care a fig about all those things that have got me in a sour mood. All she cares about, at the moment, is me. And that’s comforting. Okay, to be fair she also cares about the treats that I sometimes feed to her.
Gracie and I are pretty far removed from each other on the biological family tree. But it’s nice to know that, for a few minutes at least, we are kindred spirits. For a little while, it’s Gracie and me against the world.
I am in complete agreement with Henry Beston, who wrote a little book in 1928 that ranks pretty high on my list of all-time favorites. It’s called The Outermost House, and is his memoir of spending a full calendar year in a tiny house the big beach on Cape Cod.
He hit the nail on the head when he said we need “another and a wiser and perhaps a mystical concept of animals.” He maintained that “the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not our brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
Other nations. I like that, and so does Gracie. I read it to her one day, and gave her a treat. Whereupon she purred, blinked, and gave me an appreciated gaze full of love and devotion.