As with a work of art, you never completely understand a cat. This is true of other things, too, but their mystery is seldom haunting, and we feel no desire to possess them. People have rushed into a burning house, risking their lives, to save a painting or a cat.
- Leonard Michaels
Any self-respecting zoologist must be, first and foremost, an observer. In my quest to record the nature and appearance of strange creatures around the world, I have encountered many mysteries. But few have been so compelling as the riddles posed by the Cheshire Cat. What are its origins? How can you have a grin without a cat? This cat is a mystery but how exactly? What is it about it that causes one's mind to dwell on it? Observation becomes nearly impossible when the behaviour of an animal is so unpredictable.
A Cheshire Cat confounds you at every turn. It will tell you many things, in whatever language you understand. Some of its advice will be helpful. The rest will be misdirection, or perhaps subtle digs to insult you for its own amusement. These cats can make themselves invisible at will. They sometimes partially disappear, making themselves a pattern of the landscape. Their exact size seems to shift, one moment the size of a housecat, the next the size of a small car, and upwards from there. Enough of this and you begin to wonder if you are seeing them everywhere. Is that bush smiling at me? Does a soft breeze rustle the leaves of trees or does the cat follow me? I've asked the constellations: have you always had that smirk or are you, again, the cat?
A cat doesn't look at itself when you hold it up to a mirror. It acts as if nothing appeared in the glass. That's because a cat believes it is invisible. A cat has to believe this, because, when stalking, it has to be invisible in the eyes of its prey. To be a cat you must be invisible and very real at the same time. Worshippers believe this of God.
- Leonard Michaels
The Cheshire Cat's name comes from the region it has most often appeared in. Cheshire, a county in North West England, is reknowned for its production of cream and dairy products. Cheshire Cats are drawn to classic English pubs. There are unconfirmed reports that the cat can take the form of a human and enjoy a pint right under our noses, grinning all the while. One answer to the riddle: how can you have a grin without a cat?
There is a story about a Cheshire Cat who takes the form of a many-legged bus in the old forests of Japan. In the story, the cat transports a young girl who is desperately seeking her lost sister. I can not confirm if the story is true, but the presence of disappearing cats in Japan is certain. In all likelihood, Cheshire Cats exist anywhere on earth they might find comfort and amusement. It is simply left to us to observe them. Whether or not we succeed concerns them little.
The Cheshire Cat's most famous feature is its grin. There are many references to it in literature, as early as 1788.
- "He grins like a Cheshire cat; said of any one who shows his teeth and gums in laughing." - A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Second, Corrected and Enlarged Edition (1788)
- "Lo, like a Cheshire cat our court will grin." - Pair of Lyric Epistles (1792)
- "That woman grins like a Cheshire cat." - The Newcomes (1855)
- "this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone." - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
The grin, the disappearing act, the impenetrable mystique of this damned cat. It carries on and on, even into our modern scientific stories. In geometry, a catenary is a curve made by a chain suspended between two points, such as one might find in a suspension bridge. A perfect, geometric grin. "The Cheshire Cat effect" is a condition which causes stationary objects seen in one eye to disappear from view when an object in motion crosses in front of the other. "The Cheshire Cat" is a phenomenon in quantum mechanics in which a particle and its property behave as if they were separated. When a sound disappears but leaves a trace behind, it is called "cheshirization" in linguistics. A merger of galaxy groups in the constellation Ursa Major is nicknamed "Cheshire Cat galaxly group" by astronomers.
Wherever our eye wanders, the cat follows. Wherever our mind wanders, it resurfaces.