Woe to the owners of cats. More woe to those who harbor kittens. And most woe to me. I am both.

>Not to put too fine a point on it, my cat is a terrorist--of pigeons and mice, squirrels and bats, of large stinging insects. He would be a terrorist of songbirds as well; but the songbirds have too often seen him breach the security perimeter of the pigeons who roost in the post office nearby. The songbirds stay away from my yard in gaggles and from any yard that can be heard from mine. This is a well-known fact, as well known in my neighborhood as the garbage-collection times: let any maimed animal be washed up on the shores of my street, let a squirrel be run over by a moving van, and my phone will ring. There is an assumption of guilt where my cat is concerned, an assumption well earned. In fact, the only animal smaller than a steer that my cat will not attack is the possum that has taken up a more or less permanent residence on my back porch, the possum that I would dearly like to be rid of. I have seen my cat leap over the back of that possum on his way to forage among the wasps and pigeons, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he did it with a wink. My cat hath lain down with mine enemies. The more woe to me.

My kitten is not yet a terrorist, only desirous of being one. He is practicing by terrorizing me. V-Day for my kitten will come when he finally does succeed in fatally tangling my feet as I feel my way down the stairs in the first light of morning: my kitten is inflamed by one burning vision-- that of his owner lying in a broken heap at the foot of the staircase. More and more, I'm inclined to think that he will see it; he has more persistence than I have coordination.

>My kitten is also trying to terrorize my cat, which is a little like Dennis the Menace taking on the Red Brigades. During the day, this effort consists of a series of acrobatic feints and starts by which the kitten advances on his elder's jugular. My cat tolerates it a while, enraptured undoubtedly with the prospect of pigeon feathers strewn across my patio; then he bats the kitten across the room. In the middle of the night, though, the battle becomes more intense, punctuated by the sort of shrieks that are the true fertile soil of nightmare, that leave a man bolt upright in his bed at 3 a.m. Once I tried leaving them both a plate of fish just before I went upstairs to bed, in the hope that they would spend the night in dreamy contemplation of their long-fanged ancestors working the African streams. My scheme didn't work: by 3:00 a.m. my house was again a dark night of the sole.

>Yet for it all, I am inclined to favor the keeping of cats. Cats tell us what this well-regulated age would constantly have us forget--that there are spirits at work in the world; for if cats are the creation of God, they are the condominiums of demons. Living with them, feeling them dig their claws into us on a crisp winter Saturday--when the world had, moments before, seemed our oyster --we are reminded that nothing is as it seems and that only a claw in the leg in the best of times can be predicted with any accuracy. The lesson may be a harsh one--that spirits are rarely nice; but it's best to learn that early on.

Cats, too, protect us from banality, and in a way that dogs never can. Say "Have a nice day" to a cat; say "Hi, my name is Howard, and I'll be your waiter this evening" as you place its kidney-and- liver paste on the floor; and a cat will look at you as if you just stepped off a spaceship from Mars. The cat never lived that wagged its tail over empty words, and the more power to the species.

>Most of all, cats are proof against cuteness. I can go downstairs at this moment to the sun porch and find my son wrapped in a quilt, the kitten huddled in the crook of his arm, the cat curled by his legs; and my heart can melt all over again as it did when those animals first came into my life, each a ball of fur soft as a kiss. But I have been an owner of cats. I know now what I didn't know then: that for all its seeming gentleness, the kitten is measuring the length of my tread, calculating that one perfect act of feline jiujitsu that will at last send me head over heels into oblivion; that the cat is thinking of the cardinal that, if it has any sense, will never roost in my yard this winter. A keeper of cats, I know now that cuteness is sham and deception; and in a world hell-bent on being cute at every turn, that lesson alone is worth the price of my woe.