Stephanie Burt & Mara Hampson


They know they can’t stay. All the cats know that—that is, cats who know where it is: every cat who already knows has a distinctive feline initiation scent, so that those who know will know those who do know. And all cats should know; they deserve to know, they need to know. If you meet one who doesn’t know, unless they’re still a kitten, you let them know. All shelter cats learn right away, as do all feral cats In cities and suburbs, all cats who run away and meet their peers, however briefly, before coming back to what the humans they love or follow or tolerate consider home.

But the skulking place is not a home; it’s where you go when you need to get away from home, however briefly. You find it through lightless spaces under beds, deep shade and alleys between scratched-up couches, shelves full of shoes in closets whose doors won’t quite close, any indoor spaces that make a channel to a place where officious bipeds can’t (not just won’t) go. Once you get there it’s the exact size of a cat, and the cat is you: you fit. There might be a dead mouse left by a prior occupant, but there are no toys, no delicious mood-altering crispy herb, nothing to drink, no crunchy or toothsome or mouth-watering food: those desiderata belong in the world to which you will return.

This place is for recuperation. For catching your breath. For looking around with all the rods, and the very few cones, that make up your reflective eyes. For reflection. Its scent is your scent. (You know when the next cat slips in, its scent will be their scent.)

It’s dark here, the way that you like it, and you have memories: the gray tiger kitten. The ball full of sour cream. The biped who lifted you up and away from the scratchy garden down the block. The parallel strokes that felt right and stopped short of your tail-fur. The tail-fur itself. The blanket you kept warm for her, and the other blanket, and the ropy smell of the laundry room where you learned to hide, and got bored…

You can nap in the skulking place, but that’s not what it’s for. You can close your eyes, but you can’t stay.

You open them, blinkingly, and sniff. There’s nothing new. Hunger or warmth or companionship or novelty or a claw-sized bit of roasted chicken skin can draw you out now, because you feel safe, for now. It’s night. You are yourself again. Tomorrow’s a day. You know how to get back to the skulking place, and because you are not a kitten, you have remembered patience: you may need that, too, if there’s some other cat in your way.

Stephanie Burt's latest book of poems is We Are Mermaids (Graywolf, 2022); her poems and essays appear in the London Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Raritan, and elsewhere. She is Donald and Katherine Loker Professor of English at Harvard.

Mara Hampson is a queer artist living in the Boston area. They dabble in various mediums, such as podcasting, polymer clay, and watercolors.