In high school, I had a friend whose family kept a modest farm: a couple of horses, two dobermans and a beagle, a solitary goat I thought looked very depressed and four cats.
He lived on a fenced-in plot of desert in a miserable town called Sky Valley known for only its precarious proximity to the San Andreas Fault. His mother had named the homestead “Rockin’ K Ranch.” The corny name, along with the burnt wood sign hanging on the fence depicting a few empty cowboy boots presumably dancing to the tune spelled out by the surrounding eighth notes, was an endless source of ridicule for my friend, who was perhaps not built to endure the consequences of his mother’s corniness.
More animals came and went on the ‘ranch,’ but none of them were as interesting as the cats. They were not particularly glamorous or unique cats. They were just normal cats, serious, alert and antagonistically indifferent. I do not keep pets myself for many reasons. Allergies, laziness, aversion to weird smells, but I have always liked watching them. But cats do not do odd things. They only do what cats do. It is we who perceive the things they do as odd, mysterious. That’s where all the interest comes from, I think.
Mystery, like many of the intangibles I chase after without knowing it, murmurs in the background of my noisy life, a subtle mewling that can only be heard when everything else quiets down. When I hear it, it tells me to turn onto that wooded road I’ve never before taken, or peek through the gate at a restricted area in an amusement park, or buy that $150 bottle of scotch I can’t afford but should anyway because don’t I deserve a splash of 17-year Macallan on my whisky-parched palate?
Yes, I say. I do deserve it. But that’s not the point.
The point is this. Cats are a Youtube sensation, because they trigger our curiosity quicker than any other animal, and its been going on for years. In the ancient world, they staved off poisonous snakes and diseased pests. And though the Egyptians’ reverence for felines was a matter of innate pragmatism (rooted in the general distaste of death by flesh-eating diseases born of rat infestation and cobras that are all too happy to go gum-deep into your calf), one has to assume that even if cats were not the living barrier against a painful demise, they would still be revered, for they are the familiars that represent our own aptitude for curiosity.
The old idiom goes “curiosity killed the cat.” It has been long detached from its original meaning. It has become a cliche warning to those who would go sticking their whiskers where they don’t belong. “Curiosity” once meant “fretful worrying.” The idiom is a mere rewording of an older, perhaps less bromidic quip: Which of you by worrying can add a day to his life? Which is just plain sound reasoning.
If we take “curiosity killed the cat” at it’s modern day meaning, though, it turns out to be a vicious lie. It mutes the inquisitive nature of our consciousness and muzzles those tiny mewlings in the pits of our stomachs that say, “go ahead and take that road. See where it goes,” or “let’s have a peek behind this fence,” or “get out the nice tumblers, Macallan’s in from across the Pond.”
Those cats on my friend’s “ranch” stirred up something within me. The cat footage watchers on Youtube must feel the same things. These creatures incite a riot of wonderment within us and it makes us want to know the unknown, or even the unknowable. Not such a bad thing, is it?
It turns out curiosity does not kill cats. It saves them from a mundane existence. And even if curiosity did kill the cat, it was going to die anyway. The difference was merely in the approach.
Daniel Algara lives in Spring Hill, Tennessee. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Bellow Literary Journal, Aoife’s Kiss, Kaleidoscope Magazine, The Stray Branch and others.