Shape-Shifting and Catness

I genuinely didn’t think I could make it. My whole body began to shut down in protest, I just stood there, staring…Paka wasn’t here now, so I sang the song we share instead…I lifted my gaze…what I saw, I hardly believed! A calico cat just like Paka sitting square in the middle of the road at the top of the hill, looking down at me!

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Come, let me tell you a strange little story about a cat that I know.

For eight hours, I had been hiking my way up and down the sacred Blue Mountains – scrambling over moss covered boulders, crawling under fallen trees alive with invertebrate traffic, and holding hands with the ferns, vines and saplings that promised not to let me fall. Somewhere along the way, I had fallen into the river – the clumsiness of my step disturbing the focused flow of water and forcing me to relinquish, unexpectedly, my small lunchbox. Despite my best, albeit useless attempts to retrieve it, the river had claimed my only meal for the day. Short-cuts turned into lengthy entrapments with one mishap after another – I could have sworn that the bush was intent on keeping me there, urging me to see something, to pay attention, to learn what it wanted to share.

But finally, it released me some twenty minutes further down the mountain than I was supposed to be, my senses over-indulged and my body running on empty. I knew there was food here, but I didn’t have the knowledge to identify it. Slowly, I looked up at the climb ahead of me…twenty minutes up, and I was already at my limit. But with no other choice, I put one foot in front of the other, and up I went.

It happened in the last ascent before coming out onto the highway and the train station. The road suddenly inclines steeply here, the final push up and out. I stopped in the middle of the road, looking up. I genuinely didn’t think I could make it. My whole body began to shut down in protest, I just stood there, staring. Usually when I feel this kind of exhaustion, it is neurological, and I turn to Paka, my cat friend, for support. But Paka wasn’t here now, so I sang the song we share instead – the strange, Gaelic song about the shape-shifting, spatio-temporal defying cat Pangur Ban:

“You must go where I cannot, Pangur Ban, Pangur Ban:
Nil sa saol seo ach ceo, is ni bheimid beo, ach seal beag gearr…”

A calm washed over me, as it always does when I sing instead of speak. The courage to look up at my final challenge crept reluctantly into my chest, and I lifted my gaze. But what I saw, I hardly believed! A calico cat just like Paka sitting square in the middle of the road at the top of the hill, looking down at me! Suddenly, the courage swelled, and I knew I could make it up there, up to Paka. And I did.

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Okay, okay, hold it right there! I know what you are thinking: “Sara – cats are material beings governed by the basic laws of science, Paka could not possibly have been at the top of the hill when you know full well that she is safely sleeping on your bed at home several kilometres away! It’s a random cat…who just happens to look identical to your unusual looking feline friend, and looks at you with a familiarity that cats generally don’t give away to strangers…and behaves in the same strange manner as Paka, engaging in a call-and-response of specific cat-sounds with you”.

It was probably a coincidence, but a mighty finely detailed one. So detailed that it felt strange to leave this cat behind to return home. But in the end, the cat left me. She changed suddenly, and no longer seemed familiar, ducking into the shrubs. This now aloof cat, who had a moment ago been my affectionate cat, now no longer was. Perhaps it was all in my head.

Let me tell you about Pangur Ban. I first discovered Pangur Ban in the enchanting Tomm Moore film The Secret of Kells, with it’s rich Celtic-inspired animation. The song that I sing with Paka is from this movie – sung by Aisling the forest sidhe (spirit/faerie) as she invokes the shape-shifting nature of animals, in this case Pangur Ban. As Aisling’s song unfolds, we watch in awe as Pangur literally shape-shifts into an ethereal spirit capable of traversing time, space and matter. These seemingly magical qualities are, notably, invoked through song and language derived from a Celtic, oral and bardic past.

In my slow, quiet endeavours to reconnect with my own cultural ancestry and heritage, I have been learning bits of Gaelic – both Scottish and Irish, since I come from both – and this song has been amongst my attempts. Every night while stroking Paka before sleep, I sing Aisling’s song to her, and she listens and purrs. If I play the song on my computer, Paka jumps on my lap ready for pats. She knows the melody, the sounds of the language.

But does she know the meaning? Aisling’s Gaelic words remind us that all in this world is mist, or spirit, and that though our physical incarnation changes, our mist is continuous. It remembers. Does my connection – and my desire to strengthen a long broken connection – to my ancestors, culture and heritage communicate itself to Paka through oral traditions of language and song? Does she sense my enchantment, my sense of familiarity and longing for the heritage that nurtures such rich story-telling and belief in the unbelievable, subjective, and unprovable? And through that, did I call to Paka – my support cat – in a time of need, through song, over time and space? And was she able to reciprocate? Part of me wants to believe that her mist, her consciousness, took shape temporarily in the physical being of another cat. But I guess there is no way we will ever know, and few who would ever believe such things!

What I do know is that Paka is more to me than a pet, she is kin. She keeps me sane, she keeps me healthy, and frankly, I love her. There is no one I’d rather spend my time with. Interestingly, Pangur Ban was a real cat long before The Secret of Kells. A beautiful Gaelic poem was written about him (or her?) in the 9th Century by an Irish monk. It tells of the shared, but ultimately solitary lives of both cat and scholar, comparing their pursuits – of either prey or knowledge – as like-practices. Knowledges. The personal resonance for me as an Aspie research student  who relies on a cat for moral support cannot be overstated here.

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Whether or not Paka really shape-shifted or not is beside the point, and ultimately an unimportant detail allowed to be an important treasure to those of us who want to believe in old stories and the unknowable. The point is that heritage is important – our stories, songs, languages and knowledges provide important relational bridges in a more-than-human world. A more-than-human world where the catness of cats is allowed to be unexplainable and mysterious, and connection to culture includes complex relationships with non-human fellows and kinsfolk. Maybe Paka’s shape-shifting was a spiritual thing, maybe it was psychological…it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it meant something personal: I got up the hill.

 

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