A Fastidious Feline Fancies Bach to Bathe By

Sounding more like a fishwife than the nightingale of the south, the mockingbird's early-morning scolding signaled Big Red's arrival. When I opened the back door, the bird flew to a low branch of the holly tree in the courtyard, as Big Red made his escape into the safety of the kitchen.

It's his own fault that he's bedeviled by the bird; his reputation as a hunter puts his feathered friends on alert. And this particular bird seems to have made a quest of watching and following the big red tomcat everywhere - flying overhead, divebombing, and occasionally taking a nip out of Red's ginger-colored fur - all the while keeping up a running commentary.

Big Red doesn't belong to me any more than any cat belongs to anyone, but in the way of cats, he has adopted me. Since I first made his acquaintance, B.R. has attained a certain cachet. I've written essays about him, he has appeared in a movie that was partly filmed in my neighborhood, he's had numerous telephone calls, and even has a small, but select fan club made up of humans.

Now, in addition to his other talents, it appears he's also a classical music afficionado. And there's an audience to prove it. Not long ago, a local church hosted a chamber music concert. On a warm, summer evening the church doors were open, and people came in and took their seats.

The opening notes of Bach's ''Sleepers Awake'' drifted on the quiet air. Looking around, I noticed the pleasant expression on the face of one of the musicians. It was a look that was not only pleasant, but benign. Then the person smiled beatifically. How nice, I thought, to love one's work so.

Then I realized that all the musicians, particularly those who hadn't yet begun to play, were smiling and looking somewhere to their right. There appeared a small flurry among the audience in the front row.

The liquid notes of the cantata rose and seemed to hover, suspended, as Big Red sauntered across the front of the sanctuary. Then slowly but gracefully, he walked up the steps to center stage. When he had everyone's attention, he began a small wash. It was discreet but nevertheless highly effective. By that time, the musicians had stopped smiling and were concentrating on their own work, while Big Red concentrated on his. The audience seemed caught between watching the cat and listening to the music. Bach is a hard act to follow, but Big Red was up to it.

Two ushers made eye contact with one another across the sanctuary. Usher No. 1 moved quietly down the side aisle. Big Red, busy with his ablutions, seemed unaware that he was about to be unseated. The usher approached just as Big Red finished his bath and looked up.

For an instant, the usher hesitated. He and Big Red eyeballed one another. The usher moved forward. Red sat up majestically.

Then, with the elan of a practiced maitre de ballet, the usher swooped Big Red up into his arms and carried him down the center aisle. The second usher, waiting by the door, opened it, and Big Red was ushered out. Even though I was hoping no one would connect him to me, I must admit that I was proud of him. He went quietly and with aplomb. He didn't squirm, wriggle, or fuss to get down, all of which he normally does when you pick him up to hug him. It was as though he understood his fate, accepted it, and went with dignity.

A little traveling music, please. Johann Sebastian Bach will do just fine for an exit; Big Red always goes for baroque.

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