Last night I re-read Poe’s “The Black Cat.”
It’s not typical bedtime reading, I agree, but perhaps you’ll give me some grace about that since, after all, I was drinking chamomile tea and lounging on the couch in the bedroom while Karen did her reading. (Lounging back and drinking hot tea is not advised, by the way.)
This story, having been written by the same prose writer and poet who animated the bird that has so obsessed me these past few days, was one of the only stories I read in secondary school that I recall with any accuracy. Most of what I learned at Trinity is blurred, as if Math and English and Social Studies and History were thrown into a blender and came out as a smoothie that was as tasty as when in 8th grade Mike Turnbull offered me his mother’s carrot juice. (I.e. not tasty.) Combine that not-tasty smoothie with the protein add-ons of social cliques, puberty, a wrestling coach with a penchant for groping teenage boys, and a lack of desire for any future not involving surfing and girls — in that order — and “The Black Cat” stands out as a high point in my early years.
Odd high point. Like standing on a mountain under which coal miners toil night and day, some of whom see the canary first as it’s lying on its side.
But high point it was.
And the lines that I read, which stuck with me, which actually made me cry in 8th grade — Cry! Imagine an adolescent boy crying at literature; the picture still startles me — were these:
One day, in cold blood, I tied a strong rope around the cat’s neck, and taking it down into the cellar under the house I hung it from one of the wood beams above my head. I hung it there until it was dead. I hung it there with tears in my eyes. I hung it because I knew it had loved me, because I felt it had given me no reason to hurt it, because I knew that my doing so was a wrong so great, a sin so deadly that it would place my soul forever outside the reach of the love of God!
The specific line that has always stuck with me, the one that I never had to re-read as I did last night and other nights and days, was “I hung it because I knew it had loved me…”
What a tragic and desperate act. And yet what a true account of what someone like Poe’s narrator, like all of us who drink beyond our control — who have warped views of God that make us drink beyond our control — would do in order to gain some foothold in a world where we often feel we cannot access the Divine, which makes us want to run away from or kill that Divinity, which we know is impossible. So instead we kill what we can; we kill what we know loves us and is within arm’s reach. That, we can do. That is in our control.
Please, you say, I actually haven’t had a half cup of coffee yet. I saw your link on Facebook and decided to navigate over here and read this?!
As someone who’s killed his fair share of cats, proverbially speaking — and aren’t you glad I didn’t say “dogs”? No one likes someone who kills dogs. Cats kind of have it coming, do they not? But dogs?! Never. — I can relate to this killer because of his acute desire for God and his accompanying inability to fully access that intercourse. There is an obstacle there that one feels utterly helpless in the face of. One knows that Love is poured onto us yet can never be fully reciprocated.
To get around that obstacle, the only thing in our power to do is to kill the thing we think is the obstacle. As Poe’s narrator knew, what he wanted in truth but could not feel he had was the love of God. The obstacle he felt was the one-sidedness of that love. So “in cold blood,” out of rage over that imbalance, that injustice of the one-sided nature of Love, he kills a creature where there had been a two-sided love. He killed because he had the power to kill that creature. That, he could do. We kill not only what we love but also what loves us. For it is what loves us, that which we find we cannot fully love back, that scares us to death and can drive us mad and, if it does, it is what we must kill. What loves us today during our Earthly course points us to the love of God, a love so powerful that we can only acknowledge it yet never return it in kind. It is this maddening imbalance that causes some of us — some of us who drink and drug and fuck and gamble to the point of believing we’ve lost our souls — to do what for most people is unthinkable: we kill what loves us. And we do it so that we place ourselves outside that Eternal Love. It is not only a consequence; it is also our aim.
That’s the shocking tragedy.
There is always hope, and this hope cannot be manufactured. It exists eternally.
In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a song called Psalm 88. It ends with this line: “… darkness is my closest friend.” But it begins with this one: “O LORD, God of my salvation, / I cry out day and night before you…”
And in that ending and in that beginning is the answer to the unexplainable crime of killing what loves us.
And in that ending and beginning is hope.
And in that song as a whole — with that ending following that beginning — is where the killer may finally find peace.