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Baby at Play by Thomas Eakins,1876, National Gallery of Art
" … we're still managing the odd, awkward, occasional pet and heart-melting purring."

Molly spent her first few days with us cowering in the furthest back corner of the most remote room in the house, the cold and drafty room at the very end of the ductwork. I'd crawl back in there to point my finger at her nose while she eyed me sullenly at first, then suspiciously, occasionally permitting me to touch her head, sometimes even submitting to a seemingly welcome neck scratching which usually ended with her startling out of her budding delight before administering a scratching swipe and trying to take a bite out of the hand that had just been stroking her. She seemed sullen in the shelter before we'd brought her here and after hearing her life story from her caretaker there, I concluded that she'd earned her sour mood in the oldest of old fashioned ways. She could still technically pass for a kitten, though I doubted if she'd ever spent a day or even an odd morning at play. Her feral parents taught her what they could, a strong sense of self combined with powerful defensive survival skills, but between being trapped, neutered, ill and recovering from what I understood to have been two bouts of serious feral diseases, she'd apparently never learned to play.

I know, LearningToPlay seems the most oxymoronic of phrases, for play seems as though it really should be more spontaneous than learned, and needing to learn it seems at best likely to result in some wooden analogue of the genuine McCoy.
One might study the rules of some game, but those never impart the spirit required to actually engage. One plays first to experience that innate joy before ever getting very serious about whatever constitutes the rules of play, which serve as minor enhancements conditioning the fun. No-one ever backed into playing by learning rules. But what of those toddlers who seem to carry no sense of this sort of possibility, those who might well seem to be strivers and survivors, but who do not seem to comprehend frivolity or the concept of care-free? Molly seems, above all, care worn, a cat with a grudge on her shoulders, one distrustful of the very concept of ease. A kitten born into a dog-eat-dog world, disadvantaged but fierce.

She reminded me that I could not wait for her to prove herself trustworthy before extending my trust. I focused upon generously providing, setting her up with a first class feeding station and litter box, refreshing both frequently, with no expectation of acknowledgment or apparent appreciation. She bit me when I tried to feed her a kitty treat. I returned after wicking away the blood to try again, this time gaining a quick nuzzle too near those sharp incisors. She most often rejected my intrusions, seeming to prefer to turn her face toward the cold corner rather than risk a little pleasurable petting. Catnip added nothing to the calculus. It disappeared without a trace. I took to spending nights at her place, imagining that she might better assimilate the rhythm of the place if I stayed over. The first night, she cowered in first one corner than another. The second night, I heard a rattle around two am and woke to find her batting curtain strings, running back and forth, even mounting a side table and high dresser, eyes fiery, a first distant sign of spontaneous play, though she declined every opportunity to engage any more deeply, turning sullen again when I approached her laughing.

I left her door open that night and she'd disappeared by the time I got up and fled to a warmer corner of the place. Maybe she was playing hide and seek, but I thought she was perhaps protecting her sullenness from any degrading silliness. The Muse found her cowering in a deep corner of her sewing room closet, though Molly accepted a head scratch and provided a purr to her in return. She showed up back in her disgruntled corner that evening, with no eating evident, no litter pan used. She by then had gained the full run of the house, but favored her safe chilly corner. I tried string, what we refer to as Kitty Fishing, and found that longed-for spring. She pounced. Then she pounced again. We were using her already fully-assimilated brother Max's string, and somewhere during our string play, he came into the room. Molly retreated to her familiar defensive corner while Max, smaller and slighter than she, stalked up closer for a look-see. A wild dance ensued which went on all night (so far) and continues into the next morning.

The fight looks serious except nobody's wounding anybody. The claws are out and the fangs bared, but every retreat seems to elicit another seemingly fierce assault. Molly retreated to her litter box and Max stood aside, watching her prepare the surface, do her business, then cover the evidence, all without mounting a fresh assault on her inferior position. Once she exited the box, he was back on her tail again, exchanging high grounds, batting and spitting as if immersed in a serious engagement. I watched, thinking myself the umpire before realizing that I had no experience judging this cat play, and so I was probably in the way. They've been at it for twelve hours now, back and forth, kitten feet pounding like wild horses from room to room, standing off each other in turn. Taking turns. Perhaps even learning.

My heartfelt attempts to teach our sullen kitten to play, gratefully seem to have failed. I gained some insight into myself, though. I slept cold and alone for two long nights in pursuit of something only Molly could learn for herself, with some unlikely help from her feisty brother Max. I could extend trust without Molly ever appearing trustworthy. I expect that she never will become trustworthy, but that's hardly an excuse for my not extending trust anyway. I can still take a scratch or bite, or even two, without concluding our play is through. Each encounter provides a fresh opportunity if I genuinely consider this serious business to qualify as play. Neither Molly nor I seem to understand the rules of engagement yet, but we're still managing the odd, awkward, occasional pet and heart-melting purring. We're both LearningToPlay.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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