As a race, humans have a panache and flair for spinning out words in wonderful ways. From the shortest stories to the longest epics, from fact to fiction and back again, the tales we tell do a lot of telling of their own.
Our tales tell about our ideals, our daydreams, our beliefs. They tell of our needs and wonts. They speak of our goals and our wants. They also whisper of our fears and woes and nightmares.
From Geoffrey of Monmouth, who turned vague references into the foundation of all that we “know” about Camelot, King Arthur, and chivalry, to Edgar Allan Poe who made us cringe and tremble over pendulums and birds, we share stories because, well, that’s just who we are.
Clowders of cats tell all of those same sorts of stories. At times, they’re very vocal about it, echoing our own oral tradition. More subtly, as with our own best craft smiths, they tell tales with their tails. Okay, not exactly tales (except the oft-repeated one about how everybody neglected to feed them).
Knowing what is going on with a cat – understanding their needs and wonts, learning about their fears and woes and nightmares, familiarizing ourselves with their joys – largely means understanding what is going on with their hind ends. Oftentimes, we can learn far more from their backsides than from their front sides (Caveat: Never eschew the front – much is to be learned from ear position, head tilts, and eyes. Besides, so cute!)
Take, for example, one Rashida Rosenberg, whose elegantly swooshy tail speaks soft, silky volumes of relaxation and repose. Sweetly beckoning, Rashida’s tale reflects the type of attention she prefers to receive…along with her wish for acres of fish mush (all the cats share that dream, even all the leopards).
Meanwhile, go through some doors, cross the lobby, and right there on the desk is another tale in the telling. This tale is about one great Grecca Rosenberg, whose tail tells a different story depending on the moment. It is also as volubly expressive as the cat it belongs to…almost.
Grecca’s tail tells us of curiosity and command [Grecca’s tail could double as a staff sergeant.]. Its primary aim is to help convince passersby that she is in desperate need of a meal, or at least a snack, even when it is known on good authority that she has just demolished the better part of 2 dinner portions.
Yet, the tales from Grecca’s tail aren’t limited to the gustatory. It also sings of joy to see every single person within her eye’s view. Although, admittedly, that particular tail was unsure what to do when taken on an unexpected human’s-eye-view tour of the lobby. What to do in a familiar environment when seen from such a strange perspective?! Ultimately, Grecca and her tail were forgiving upon return to her favorite perch where, in comfort, the story could be continued.
Whether the tail is Grecca’s, Rashida’s, or one of their fellow felines’, and whether the tale is told by a tail that swoops in long form with ease or one that is barely a footnote, it is important to take notice, to be attentive. Speed reading and quick scans don’t do tails justice.
When trying to understand what cats communicate with their tails, you can be guided by both Lewis Carroll, who said, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me,” and Ogden Nash, whose poem Fleas consists of exactly four syllables. Both situations – swooshes and flicks – give us insight into a cats mood. Their tails provide fully detailed commentary on their preferences and needs. It is up to us to hear and heed with our eyes.
The key to unlocking the mystery of cats’ tails’ tales, is to understand first and foremost that, no matter how uptailed or long-tailed the cat, the story being told is never a tall tale. Cats’ tails always speak the complete truth. They couldn’t hide it if they wanted to. They won’t ever tell you about the fish that got away (What fish ever got away from the cat that really wanted it anyway?). They won’t embellish (Tails are self-sufficiently ornamental.).
In the way of tale-telling, cats have an advantage over us. Their tail language is both succinct and graceful, at once engaging and illuminating, and often both short and sweet. Cats’ tails tell all the tales that aren’t the cats’ personal secrets.
Those, they’ll never tell.
And that’s no fish story (but this is: The Fish Story Song)