If I had imagined even for a moment that eating that parrot would grace me with the ability to speak, I would have done it years ago. I never liked the parrot.
Perhaps to one of its own kind, its noisy cries would have made some kind of sense. But not to us. It annoyed Zlabya, and even more, it annoyed me. The day I ate the parrot was the start of a new life. My own private new year. A day for rejoicing!
The rabbi does not seem to agree. Even though I suspect he didn't really like the parrot either. He didn't choose it; it was a gift from a student years ago. The student has long since left our lives. The parrot might never have left us, if I hadn't taken matters into my own paws. They are remarkably long-lived, parrots. Unless a cat eats them.
So let me be clear: I don't regreat eating the parrot. It was a great idea. The one thing I didn't anticipate was that the rabbi wouldn't permit me to be alone with my mistress now that I am a changed cat.
Lately he's has been insisting that if I can speak, I must study Torah. He will study with me, he says. A Jew should study Torah every day, and since I have been reared in a Jewish household with a Jewish family surely I too am a Jew, if one in a peculiar form.
I want permission to return to my mistress' radiant presence, and if that requires me to be an avowed Jew, I can live with that. But I don't want to study what he wants me to study.
Torah is boring, I say, turning my head to lick my hindquarters. I'm trying to make a point, but the rabbi grabs me with his meaty hand and makes me stop bathing. My fur is ruffled; I take my own time restoring order before I continue.
"I don't need to study Torah," I tell him, and then a stroke of genius occurs to me. I can feel my whiskers tingling as I tell him, "I want to learn kabbalah."
"Absolutely not," he says. "Chumash with Rashi must come first."
If I were human, I would roll my eyes.
"And after chumash with Rashi, mishnah and gemara!" He's warming to his subject now.
"I don't need to know what to do when my ox gores my neighbor's sheep," I tell him. "I'm a cat. I don't keep animals. I don't believe in property."
"There's still merit in learning halakha," the rabbi tells me. "And aggadah, too!"
"I already know plenty of stories." I choose one I have always liked. "Like the one about Rabbi Eliezer and the carob tree that uprooted itself. Even the voice from heaven couldn't sway him, and God rejoiced that his children had outwitted Him."
My master is taken aback. "How do you --"
"Cats know things," I inform him, smugly. It's true; we do. We hear more than people imagine. "Didn't you know, there is a feline Torah, and these are the stories we yowl to one another at night in the alleys of the city."
He narrows his eyes. "A feline Torah."
"How do you know God did not speak to a cat, in the days of old? We have transmitted our Torah through the generations, cats teaching the words to kittens, until this very day."
For a moment he almost falls for it, but he is too suspicious to believe me. "And yet you need me to teach you kabbalah. There are no feline kabbalists?"
"No," I admit, regretfully. "There are not."
At this moment, the rabbi's daughter enters his study. I leap off of his desk and dash to wind myself between her ankles. Purring is the one form of speech I prefer to offer in my old way.
"This cat is a murderer and a liar." The rabbi sounds resigned. "Come, Zlabya. We must go to the market."
"Hey!" I protest. I don't like the market; it is noisy and chaotic. Besides, I can't talk to them there, because I'm not supposed to let other people know I can speak.
"You might as well stay here," the rabbi says darkly.
"Fine," I say. Maybe I will hunt small animals while they are gone. If I catch one, I will eat half of it, and splay a torn hindquarter and some organs across the floor to welcome them home. Artfully, of course. I may be frustrated, but I still have panache.
Another morning. Early light washes the walls of the house. The rabbi is finishing his morning prayers. As he sings the melancholy last lines of "Yigdal," he unwinds the straps of his tefillin. I contemplate batting at the straps, like I used to do when I was a kitten, but in the end it seems like too much work, so I stay on my cushion.
He strokes my head on his way to make tea, which I take as a cue to follow him. "Can we begin learning today?"
"I'm a rabbi," he tells me, putting water on to boil. "It's my job to teach whenever somebody wants to learn."
I am encouraged by this, and rub against his calves to show him so. "I want to study kabbalah," I remind him.
"I thought I told you that was out of the question."
"That was yesterday. It's a new day. New things are possible."
He laughs a little, which gives me hope. But then he says no again. "The sages compare kabbalah to strong wine," he says. "One should not drink wine without first filling one's belly with bread. Before partaking of the secret knowledge of the mystics, one must be well-fed with Torah."
"Cats don't eat bread," I point out. "We eat meat, and the kabbalah has also been compared to meat."
He raises an eyebrow. "You learned this from the other cats?"
"No. From eavesdropping on your lessons." I can tell he's about to lodge another protest, so I cut him off. "At least don't make me do chumash. Rashi is dull. And European. We are Sefardic Jews! Kabbalah was made for us!"
"I suppose we could begin with the Tur," he says grudgingly. "Yaakov ben Asher was Spanish."
"The Tur is hardly kabbalah." I sniff haughtily.
Though learning the Tur -- well, actually, I might not mind that. "Yoreh De'ah would be kind of fun," I admit. "Laws of slaughter and kashrut! I like blood."
He wrinkles his nose. "Don't remind me."
"Killing is in my nature. You cannot ask me to be other than I am."
"If you wish to study Torah, you must transcend your nature."
"But I do not! I wish to study the Zohar."
"You are wasting my time," my rabbi says, growing angry. "Why do you want to learn kabbalah anyway?"
I busy myself with washing my paws, delicately working my tongue between my toe-pads. He snorts and turns away.
I want to study kabbalah because I want Zlabya to love me.
I don't know exactly what is in the Zohar or the Sefer Yetzirah, those revered works of mystical cosmology and theosophy. These are not the texts the rabbi teaches to the pimply boys who come to our house because they want to to agitate for my mistress' hand. If I learn kabbalah, I will know something none of them know.
Besides, I have heard whispers. When my mistress sits with her friends, nibbling the sweet which bears her name (crisp pastry scented with rosewater) and drinking thick dark coffee on a rug atop Nafisa's rooftop terrace, sometimes they talk about kabbalistic love-spells. Mystical incantations to bind souls together.
Farida is usually the instigator of these conversations. She lowers her voice and whispers about gematria and how to link a suitor's name with one's own. Nafisa and Baraka always giggle. My mistress looks scandalized, but she's interested, I can tell.
What if some suitor came along who had the power to bind his soul to hers? Maybe he wouldn't understand that we are family! That I would die of misery if someone took her away from me! What if he were a person who likes dogs, those slavering paragons of obedience, instead of the free-thinking independence of an intelligent cat?
That's why I need to learn kabbalah. So I can seal my mistress' love. If I am fortunate, I have ten years of life ahead of me. I want to ensure that I will spend those years in her arms. If she wishes to marry, let her do it after I am gone. She can turn to her new husband as consolation for the loss of her beloved Majrum.
If I told the rabbi these things, he would laugh, because he doesn't understand. He'd probably tell me I am going about this backwards, that I should turn these yearnings toward God in prayer.
He himself prays three times a day, as is commanded. All of that praise, all those benedictions, and for what? What does it gain him?
Once I perched on the roof before dawn, and as the sun rose I tried talking to God. Not in the ritualized ways the rabbi uses, but as I might speak to another cat. If a cat can look at a king, I reasoned, this cat can talk to the King of Kings.
"Look, God," I said. "You made me for my mistress, and You made her for me. I would bring you everything I kill, I would concede that every inbreath and outbreath that I purr is a variation on Your holy name, if You will only promise me the fidelity of my mistress for ever."
But if God was listening, He did not respond. I waited until what the sages of the mishna would have called the fourth hour of the day, until the sun was overhead and baking the roof hot enough to hurt my footpads, and still there was no answer.
So I do not put my faith in God. I am a cat; I trust in myself. I will do what needs to be done. I will convince my rabbi to teach me kabbalah.
My rabbi will not budge. It is quite unlike him to be so stubborn and unreasonable. Almost cat-like. Were it not so exasperating, I'd be impressed.
"With me you learn things in order," the rabbi tells me. There will be no kabbalah until I can show mastery of the basics, and the time I spend trying to convince him to teach me mysticism is time wasted.
So we start at the beginning and my master teaches me that the world was created by God in seven days, five thousand seven hundred and some odd years ago. He tries to sneak in some Rashi, on the question of why the Torah begins with the creation of the world instead of with the first commandment to the Jews, but that's clearly a tangent, so I sit on his papers and regard him calmly until he throws up his hands and says "You are my most difficult student, I don't know why I bother!"
I preen a little, at that, but I step aside so he can reclaim the pages I've been sitting on. Zlabya brings teacups and the rabbi fetches the pot. I delicately lap at my cup of weak tea.
We don't make it very far. On the third day we reach the story of Noah, which makes me shudder uncontrollably. I twitch so much that the rabbi notices, and puts down the book from which he is reading in order to stroke me from head to tail. I leap into his lap and he pets me for a time until I can purr again, however weakly.
"It's a terrible story," I say.
"It will never happen again," the rabbi promises.
"So much water!" A nice fountain is one thing, but a flood sounds like the worst fate imaginable.
"The rainbow is our sign that we are safe," the rabbi reminds me.
"Pfah! How often do we see rainbows?"
"Rarely, here, but they are more prevalent in other parts of the world." He scratches behind my ears.
But now something else is bothering me. "So every animal on earth is descended from the pairs Noah saved."
"That's what the Torah tells us."
"But then why don't all cats look the same? Or, for that matter, all of every kind of animal?"
His hand stills, and I know I'm annoying him again, but I can't help myself.
"And you expect me to belive that all of those animals put up with one another? Even the ones that are mortal enemies? The lion did not eat the goat, nor the cheetah the gazelle?" And how about the cat and the parrot, I think, though I manage to hold my tongue before those words make matters even worse.
"God must have made them docile," the rabbi says, a bit sharply. He is wishing God had made me more docile.
"If God can do anything, why didn't He simply make creation the way He wanted it the first time around? Why did He have to cause a flood in the first place?"
The rabbi stands, unceremoniously dumping me off of his lap.
"Hey!" I protest.
"Lesson over," he says, and when I see the storm clouds in his expression I don't talk back.
After the night the rabbi and I both dream that awful dream of Zlabya in her grave, he restores me to my mistress' presence. For endless delicious days everything is as it was before. I lounge across her belly, I sleep content on her pillows. As long as I remain silent, she is mine.
The rabbi offers to teach me more Torah, but I would rather laze in the sun, and I refuse. He tries to entice me with the story of Daniel in the lion's den -- "Perhaps Daniel conversed with the lion all night!" -- but I yawn and feign sleep. I am not interested in what the sages say about the angel who prevented the lion from devouring the man, though if there really were cats who learned these things I would like to hear the feline version of the story. Perhaps if cousin Malka and his lion ever visit again, I can ask the lion. If anyone has preserved the story, it would be the lions.
I glare at the young disciples who come to our house to learn with the rabbi. They don't ask to study kabbalah, because they are fools. They want to study texts that are easy, so they can argue aloud at the dinner table. As if their intellectual prowess were impressive! As though I could not talk every one of them into submission, if only I were permitted to display my gifts!
To my great relief, my mistress is unimpressed. They may consider themselves suitors, but as far as she's concerned they're just her father's students, gangly and argumentative. She could never love any of them the way she loves me: I know it deep in my bones. I revel in her attention, the gentle touch of her hand.
But when cats plan, God laughs. Everything changes on the day we receive news of the dictation exam my master will be required to take. From the moment those words enter our lives I know we are in trouble, and when I see him try to take down the words of the French fables I read aloud I know he is doomed.
The solution is obvious: he should cheat on the test. If he were slightly more cat-like, he wouldn't need me to point this out to him. I resist giving him that advice, hoping he'll figure it out on his own. But he doesn't. On the eve of the exam, I finally break down and tell him what to do.
"To lead prayer in Hebrew for Jews who speak Arabic, they want you to write in French," I tell him, "so I say they're nuts!"
In any case, he'll fail if he tries to take the dictation, and I tell him so. When Zlabya comes to tell us that dinner is ready -- couscous with raisins and apricots and bits of succulent lamb -- he heaves a great sigh and walks out of his study in silence. I pad after him, worried despite myself. It goes against my nature to feel such concern for the rabbi, who after all is not my mistress, but I can't seem to help it.
Maybe all of that Torah study has changed me after all.
Is there a God? Until today, I would have scoffed, "who cares?" True, the world is filled with wonders, but I don't see how the existence of fish and labneh prove anything. God doesn't answer prayer, and the Torah seems patently unreal -- allegory and teaching tool at best, no matter what my rabbi says -- so I disregard the Holy One of Blessing. God is insignificant to cats. Even if He does exist, he doesn't matter. Not to me.
But today I uttered the Name. I needed a miracle for my rabbi. I knew only God could save him. I put my faith in the existence of God, and God rewarded me by taking my speech away.
Is it absurd to hope that something good happened in this world to balance the sorrow I feel from the loss of my ability to speak?
The rabbi said that once I had left Eden, I couldn't return. Maybe he's right. Once being unable to speak was merely the way of the world, and now it's a kind of torture. My mistress asks me how the test went, and "meow!" is all I can say in response.
"I worked magic for your father," I try to tell her, but it comes out as "meow! meow! meow!" The disappointment in her eyes is like a thorn in my heart.
When she runs to tell her father that I can't speak anymore, I talk aloud to God. Very quietly, so Zlabya and the rabbi won't hear. They can't understand me anymore, but surely God can.
"Look," I tell Him. "My voice is my offering to You. Let my rabbi remain the rabbi here. He loves this community and if he cannot serve anymore he will be devastated. And besides, if he is miserable my mistress will be miserable, and now that I can't speak, I cannot comfort her." God must see the logic in that.
God does not answer, but I keep going. "I'll remind You of this every day," I tell God, even though God is omniscient and shouldn't need reminding. "I never learned kabbalah, but I called upon Your name. If You won't do this for me, do it for the rabbi, because he's spent his whole life serving You. Even if he doesn't take dictation very well."
That seems a foolish way to end a prayer, but I'm not proficient at this kind of thing, and the words my rabbi uses feel strange in my feline mouth. "Blessed are You, who hears prayer," I say, finally, and curl up in a circle, and prepare myself for sleep.