The Remakable Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith

The Return of C'mell —Sort Of: A Piece for Cat-Lovers

January 30, 2001

She was a girlygirl and they were true men, the lords of creation, but she pitted her wits against them and she won. That's the C'mell you know, weaving her way through the CS world.

Paul M A Linebarger with cats Melanie and GriseldaBefore that C'mell, my father had a cat, Melanie. Here's a 1956 snapshot of him with her on the left and Griselda on the right. I have messed around in Photoshop Elements to see if I could get any more detail of  Melanie but there is only so much you can do with an all-black image in an old black and white photo.

Melanie was entirely black—hence the name—and very sweet. By the time she came along, I was in my awkward early teens. Being the child of Paul Linebarger did not exactly suit me for the normal life at a suburnban junior high. With Melanie, I could relax, momentarily free of the human perplexities that were always cropping up.

A permanent fixture in the passageway between the living room and the dining room was a dangling string, tied to a piece of elastic, tied to more string, with a wadded-up piece of cellophane (a Pall Mall cigarette box wrapper) attached at the bottom, about a foot off the floor. I would stand there for long stretches, playing with any cat who came by. They also attacked it themselves.

It was an era when spaying cats was not so common, and Melanie's irascible mother Arabella founded quite a dynasty. We saw the miracle of birth a number of times, generally in the upstairs bathroom, and the house gradually filled with cats. I'm not sure what the largest full-time population was, well over half a dozen. I remember my father singing along with his yowling females in heat.

Years later, I was reading a library book when I fell into a reverie about my father's house. Suddenly I realized that the library book had been sprayed by a male cat. (My most Proustian moment.) That scent was a fixture at Daddy's house, with his tom banished to the screened-in back porch whenever a female began her yowling. The male I remember was Erpillar, so my father could say, "That's our cat...Erpillar." He threatened to name a cat "Astrophe" along the same lines, but I don't think he ever followed through. Anyway, Erpillar was adept at dashing between our legs into the house, the moment anyone opened the back door. Hence the dynasty. Before I was born, my father had had a couple of Persians—were they really named Assault and Battery, as I remember hearing?—but these were all regular shorthair cats.

We had a running argument, my father and I, about the relative merits of cats and dogs. "Dogs are fawning creatures," he would say. "Cats are independent, intelligent, subtle..."

I thought dogs were nobler, and it was a great grief to me that no adult in the family had ever believed that I would truly do all the work to take care of one. Furthermore, I was steeped in the Albert Payson Terhune dog stories—my father had given me the whole set and I had read every book many times. Once I could get a dog, as a adult, I did, and it has been over thirty years since I have been without one, two, or three dogs in my household.

I've had cats too, but none for the past few years. As I started this website last summer, cats kept popping into my mind: it took me a while to create the design at the top of the page, which began as a photo of my own all-time favorite cat, Julio, and thinking of my father inevitably meant thinking of cats. In the fall, my husband and I decided to get a cat, and soon the cat that I wanted came to us from a nearby ranch: Moonlight was about eight months old at the time, male, good-natured, cuddly, healthy, part Siamese and basically looking Siamese.

But it immediately became clear that he was lonely. We have two in-your-face dogs, and Moonlight was afraid to come into my office, where Shiva and Sunbeam were usually hanging out with me. The solution? Kelly and I agreed that we would get one of Moonlight's litter mates, a little black female who had already been offered to us. And so we did.

I thought at first that I would name her C'mell, but I didn't want to put that much history on her. We ended up naming her Midnight, which soon morphed into Midnight Star or just Star, because of the white star on her chest. Once she came home, Moonlight was much happier. We all were, with the possible exception of one of the dogs, who was jealous.

Soon it was time to bundle the cats up into a carrier, drive them an hour to the vet's, and leave them there in jail for 24 hours to be spayed and neutered. A large dog was barking incessantly in a cage just below theirs when we left them. They were not happy campers when we picked them up the next day.

Moonlight soon recovered.

Midnight Star didn't. She wouldn't eat much, and she would barely drink.

I tried everything: talked to the veterinary clinic and followed their advice, talked to my friends, hand-fed her droppers of water, with penicillin or Bach flower remedies in them. She got thinner and more listless. She hadn't purred since coming back from the clinic. She had a fever, then it cleared up but she still didn't eat. Kelly and I discussed making the trek over the mountains to the vet's office with her, but they said they'd want to keep her if we came, and I wasn't sure her will to live would survive it.

One night I had a dream, where I was singing the old labor song, "Which side are you on?" Okay...I was on the side of doing what Midnight Star wanted. So I would have to talk with her.

Why hadn't I thought of that before? It had been almost a week of this travail. About ten years before, Kelly had produced a video called Telepathic Communication with Animals, featuring Penelope Smith. Both of us had become more telepathic with our pets as a result of that, but it still didn't really come easily. Much as my father's stories were scattered with telepathy with animals, it was not at all a part of my growing up.

Dutifully, I sat down at my computer. Star was lounging on the window seat—I could just see her if I peered past my printer. I began writing, asking her what she wanted me to know.

"I want you to remember," she said immediately. And just as fast my body flinched.

"Do I have to?" I asked. "Can't we just talk about when you are going to eat?"

"That is not important. Remember."

Turning my attention inward, I smelled smoke. It was a dark night, and I was outside. As I gradually let the images in, Star kept encouraging me.

I felt myself to be a witch, and I was about to be burned at the stake. Star was my familiar and she told me that at the very first moment of feeling the fire, I could use that pain to journey out of my body.

Somehow I knew that she and I had done a lot of journeying, and I trusted her, even as my fear and panic increased. A kind priest came over and begged me to recant and be saved, but I had to be true to my own way of worshipping. I felt sad that he didn't realize the profundity of my sense of worship, my connection with the Divine.

When the flames did come, Star jumped first, as she had told me she would, and then it was my turn. I froze. "Jump, jump now!" Star insisted.

I couldn't.

I couldn't, and then I did.

I jumped into the Unknown, totally away from the pain, fear, smoke, and fire.

Abruptly my awareness shifted back to my office. As I sat at the computer, a little movement caught the corner of my eye. Star had come over. I picked her up and she settled onto my knees. "Oh Star," I said. "You saved me, thank you, you saved me." I was crying as I stroked her gently. She purred. I thought, if this cat knows all that, who am I to boss her about what and when to eat?

Two hours later, she began eating, and she soon recovered. She became much more affectionate with me than she was before.

I've mulled over this episode since then. Not for the first time, I've thought about how my father's expanded sense of cats and other animals infuses his stories. I do think that my own fascination with animals—chiefly dogs, cats, and llamas—and my love for them is part of my heritage from him.

But did he believe, as I have come to, that cats and other animals, here and now and in the flesh, can communicate via pictures and feelings with people? I didn't think so, until I received this email from CS scholar/biographer Alan Elms: "Well, his former grad student and textbook collaborator Ardath Burks told me that at seminar meetings at the Linebarger DC home, Paul would often conduct long and 'very profound' conversations with his one-eyed cat Little Paul -- pausing occasionally to let Little Paul respond telepathically before Paul went ahead with his side of the conversation. Ardath said some students remained 'off balance all the time' in the seminars, and implied that Paul enjoyed keeping them that way through techniques like the cat conversations. So maybe your father didn't truly believe Little Paul was telepathic -- but I suspect he did."

Do I think the scene I experienced with Star literally happened? It might have, it might not have; I did inherit a bit of an imagination. But I'm paying more attention to Star these days when she jumps on my desk and blocks my view of the monitor.

Rosana Hart


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