The Naming of Cats

Gaston Torre/Flickr
Gaston Torre/Flickr

T. S. Eliot writes that a cat should have three names, but I am having trouble finding just one for the new black cat, the latest addition to my household. He came meowing to the window one evening in late October when the food bowl there was empty, clearly asking to be fed, like the others. But I was reluctant. “You should go home,” I scolded him. He appeared to be from next door, one of two kittens brought there in June by their mother from her secret lair once they were big enough to be out in the world. I had seen it happen—the small tabby, carrying her litter of three black kittens, one by one, from the empty buildings across the lane to quarters closer to her food source at my neighbors’ house. She had carried them through the bars of the gate and up the stairs onto the lawn. She trod on them a number of times, but, undaunted, simply got a better grip, held her head higher, and went on, stashing them among the miscellaneous items in my neighbors’ garage. One of the kittens, my neighbor told me, had since disappeared. This young cat must be one of the other two, I thought.

But my neighbor said no, this black cat wasn’t one of hers. He came around to her house at dinnertime, but was skittish, and waited until the others had finished. If he came too close, the others cuffed him. She shrugged, as if asking, “What can you do?”

Homeless he was then, not welcomed at the big house and trying his luck now with me. I filled the bowl on the window ledge when he came around again. “But that’s it,” I said. “That’s all I’m doing for you.” He meowed raucously, his voice as harsh as a crow’s. A warning? A lament? “Raven?” I asked. Is that your name? I decided it wasn’t.

He got along fine with the other young cat at my house, the one my dogs had picked up on a walk. I liked to watch the two play, one orange, one black. One Charlie, the other … Stanley? Spencer? Larry? Lucky? Radar? It wasn’t just that I couldn’t decide, it was that I couldn’t even narrow in. My guesses were all so scattershot. Maybe, I thought, I wasn’t meant to know. But I kept guessing. Jake? Freddy? I turned to my visiting son. “Jake or Freddy?”

He vetoed both. “Give the cat a cat name,” he said. But I couldn’t think of any. A horse might be Blaze or Star or Misty, but a black cat? I couldn’t even call him Mittens. Bagheera? Pluto? My son shook his head. I googled cat names and discovered that Charlie is near the top of favorite cat names, according to several lists. But I already had a Charlie. “So give me a Spanish name,” I said to my son, but he couldn’t come up with any. I googled that too: Leo, Apollo, Rayo. Luigi. Luigi? I already had a Louie.

So one day it’s Raphael, like our previous black cat, the next, Livingston, the black cat before Rafi. Could this cat be another Rasputin, the black cat I had as a child? No matter how many names I tried, I didn’t seem to hit on the right one.

Well, he wasn’t my cat, just a hapless neighbor, like the man who sat on a piece of cardboard day after day in front of the grocery store, but luckier than the man because the cat invariably found a patch of sun, and then moved across the patio with the rays, whereas no sun falls anywhere near the store entrance.

I don’t presume to call that man by his name, so why this cat? Besides, according to Eliot, a cat’s real name is one only the cat knows. And the black cat’s not saying. Not even opening my door to him and offering him a seat by the fire, which I did back in November, within a week of promising him he’d never gain entrance, will get his secret from him. I don’t even try anymore.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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