Moby Cat

''Call me Ishmael." He was the sole survivor of the great white whale, "one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air," in Herman Melville's classic "Moby-Dick."

I am here to tell the story of the great white cat, a miniphantom white-on-white during this year's snows in New England. It may be no coincidence that these are the shores from which Captain Ahab madly pursued Moby-Dick. Remember Gregory Peck in the part?

I'm no Gregory Peck. And I didn't want to harpoon Moby Puss. But from my first sighting of the cat last summer - Thar she prowls! - its visits to our yard have shivered my timbers. I wanted to capture its mystery as the only all-white creature to lurk in our shrubbery and eye the ground-feeding birds. But when I had the camera I didn't see the cat, and when I saw the cat, it was gone as if it knew I was getting the camera.

Quite often a missing cat is advertised on tree signs or via the neighborhood e-mail. But no one advertises for a footloose white one. Scary. This alabaster specter always goes home? Its owner doesn't care? It doesn't have an owner? (It does have a collar.)

Certainly Moby Puss doesn't act owned. It shies away from any Ahab. But it commands its terrain the way Moby-Dick commanded the sea.

It prompts imaginings like Ishmael's aria on white as spookier than black in the famous chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale."

The other day, my small grandchildren called out as they stood at a glass door and Moby Puss sauntered between snow banks and came up to inspect them through the pane.

I ran for the camera.

Things moved faster than the last chapter of Moby-Dick, the third day of the chase, when all but Ishmael are lost to the waves. The cat dismissed the children and padded across the drifts to the fence. It posed on top and then leaped to a sheltering corner.

I followed, shooting wildly. Captain Ahab would have been as dismayed at me as at some of his imperfect crew.

Moby Puss stared at me. You know how it is when you have a feeling someone is looking at you, and someone is?

The cat brushed my leg. As on previous visits it seemed ready to make friends or at least share a snack. I always held back, not wanting to alienate its affections if it had any or to adopt a phantom.

Now I wonder. What if Ahab had unbent a little and petted Moby-Dick when they first met?

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