Burying their son had made Tom and Maureen cautious with their love. The pain of loss had milled them like grain. They sold the horses, gave away the dog, slaughtered the chickens. Said they planned to travel, never went farther than town. They poured their remaining love into their remaining daughter, and then their granddaughter.
Tom shot the occasional ground squirrel in his fields before his son’s death. Afterward it became an obsession. The fact that they slept below the earth only to rise again and again tormented him.
Ground squirrels create life in the dead of winter, give birth in early spring. New burrows are dug in the thawing ground to make room for the young. This is when Tom began to make more and more hashmarks in his notebook.
He stretched out his legs until his ankles cracked. The heels of his boots slid across the boards of the porch. Surveying the lawn and the lower eighty beyond, he fished a small notebook out of his breast pocket. Making use of the waning light, he wrote the date and made several hash marks next to it. The screen door slammed. The porch boards creaked as Maureen shuffled to her chair.
“Up to eighteen.”
She adjusted herself in her seat. Nodded.
“I saw that cat again today.”
“Really?” Maureen perked up.
“Just a glimpse.”
The horizon turned yellow and purple like a bruise.
Tom was in his shop the next morning, unpacking the garden hoses that he had stored for the winter, next to the tractor that sat unrepaired. He saw movement in the corner of his eye, froze and focused, stole a quick glance at the door to make sure it was shut. After a stillness, a shaggy cat stepped silently onto the workbench. The cat found a square of sunshine and sat in it.
It did not cower or flinch, simply stared. Its hair was gray and coarse, bunching unnaturally around its neck, which it began to scratch.
Tom took a step forward. Then another. Not meeting the unflinching focus of the cat’s eyes, he looked instead at the odd shape of the neck hair, began to make out a pattern.
“I’ll be damned,” he said softly, “How long you had that on?”
Moving deliberately, Tom chose a pair of snips with blunted tips. When he placed his gloved hand on its shoulder, the cat lay still on its side, eying him with the acceptance of a fish about to be freed or filleted.
Leaning down, Tom heard breathing that was steady but constricted. He tried to get a finger between the tight bands and the neck, but the cat tensed at the added pressure. Patiently, Tom worked one end of the snips under both bands. He slowly squeezed the handles together. Held up a faded cloth collar with a rusted clasp and a rubber flea collar, dirty and discolored.
Unfettered the cat rose, stretching its body like an accordion. Pawing at its neck, it pushed its head onto the workbench, rear legs extended, then rolled onto its back.
“You’re a boy alright.” Tom observed. The cat stood and began to purr in a soft, broken kind of way, like pebbles being turned in a can. “You’re welcome.” Tom said.
The uneven purr of the cat continued contentedly. Then his ears went straight up, and his head jerked toward the door. When Tom looked back, the cat was gone. Maureen found him standing next to the workbench, holding two cut collars, befuddled.
That evening, sitting on the porch, Tom gestured, “There he is. On the edge of the yard.” Maureen pushed herself up in her chair and Tom hissed at her, “Don’t go scarin’ him.”
“I’m not gonna scare him.” Maureen hissed back. “I’m just trying to see him.”
They watched the cat and the cat watched them. Then calmly, he began walking toward the porch.
“He’s got something in his mouth.” Tom whispered.
The cat paused at the bottom of the steps, one paw in the air. Then it leapt over all three steps, landing squarely on the door mat. The cat dropped what it had been holding, then stepped back and sat on its haunches, regally.
“What is it?” Maureen asked, straining to see.
“Ground squirrel. Two of ‘em.”
“Aren’t you quite the pair?” Maureen swallowed a laugh, scooted forward in her chair. “What’s he doing?”
“Just sittin’ there.”
“Probably resting after that jump.”
The cat began to eat one of the ground squirrels. Shaking it back and forth, then slamming it against the porch to break the bones. Tom pulled the little notebook out of his breast pocket. He made two more hash marks next to the date.
“What should we call him?” Maureen asked, pulling herself up by the railing in one powerful movement.
“That’s not a name.”
“Was good enough for Adam,” Tom said eyeing her. “Besides, he’s not a pet.”
“I guess we could call him The Cat.” Maureen said, rubbing her arms.
Tom circled the two hash marks and wrote a little T.C. next to it. Maureen spied the initials and said, “Or Tom Cat. He is a Tom Cat.”
Maureen leaned on the railing, Tom sat with his fingers interlocked over his belly, watching The Cat eviscerate the carcasses.
“Tom, you’re grinning.”
“Huh, am I?”
“Like you’re runnin’ for mayor.”
“Well,” Tom said, forcing the smile into a scowl, “We ain’t putting a dish out for him.”
The radish shoots in Maureen’s garden grew taller, while the bulbs made progress in the other direction. The carrots tunneled down through soft dirt, a different kind of burrowing than ground squirrels. Much slower. The creek bubbled over, fed by snow melt and rain.
Maureen cut up an old blanket, lined an apple crate with it and put it on the porch. The Cat took to napping there after eating his kill. When he slept, she noticed how haggard his breathing grew. “Is he snoring?”
“His throat probably ain’t healed from growing around them collars.”
One morning, Tom paused while splitting wood. He saw The Cat curled up in the coat he had stripped off. He almost cracked a smile. Another day, The Cat sat on a fence post and watched Maureen as she weeded the garden. When she noticed him, she began giving him a running commentary.
He rubbed against Tom’s legs when Tom was measuring a bit of wood in the shop. Tom plugged up every hole he found, checked the latches on all the windows and doors. The next morning, The Cat jumped onto the workbench, lay on his stomach, head between his paws, eyes level with what Tom was working on.
That evening, after capitulating to the fact that they could not postpone again, Tom and Maureen went to their neighbor Carl’s for dinner.
“And who is this?” Maureen asked, bending to pet the tabby feline purring at the door.
“That beautiful girl is Autumn.” Carl said, helping Maureen out of her coat. “Let’s get you all some drinks.” He spun on his heel, beckoned over his shoulder. While Carl was mixing the drinks, the tabby brushed up against Tom’s legs.
“How long has Autumn been around?” He asked.
“Since the last ice age.” Carl cackled.
Maureen put her hand on Tom’s arm.
“Tom, bourbon on the rocks.” Carl pronounced. “Maureen, glass of red. And, Carl, a martini – cha-CHA-cheers everyone!” They clinked glasses. “Ahh!” Carl smacked his lips.
After dinner, Carl announced, “You have to see my Zen garden.” As they were going out the backdoor, he added, “Don’t let Autumn out. She’s not fixed.”
“Might wanna get ‘er snipped.” Tom said into his third bourbon. “Like I was I’m telling ya, The Cat goes through walls like a ghost.”
Carl, not listening, fussed with the lanterns, and hanging lights by the pond. When they came on, Maureen politely “oohed.” They all admired the brightly colored fish darting through the water. For the first time that evening, Carl did not try to fill the silence.
“Them are some pretty Koi.” Tom offered.
“Paradise Gourami.” Carl corrected him.
The Cat lay in the basket Maureen was using to harvest the garden. He allowed the carrots and zucchinis to be pushed under him. Raising a paw now and then to aid the process. Until his back brushed up against the handle. Maureen’s fingers pressed against him when she lifted the basket, went swinging across the yard.
Things went on like this until their daughter stayed for a visit. The Cat made himself scarce until the final day. Their daughter had set a blanket on the front lawn with toys for her daughter, Emily. Tom, Maureen, and their daughter sat on the porch watching Emily chew, bang, wave, and play. Long shadows stretched through the soft light of evening.
The Cat sauntered onto the blanket, all friendly like. He allowed himself to be stroked, his sides knocked, his hair balled into tiny fists. He pushed his cool nose against her warm cheeks. His sputtering purr rattled all the way to the porch; her giggles sounded like hiccups. It went on long enough that Maureen was able to get her camera. She finished a roll before The Cat left, easy as he came.
Hunters clad in orange vests and camouflage pants drove pickups on old logging roads. They hiked through the state land on the hills behind Tom and Maureen’s place.
“We oughta get him a collar.” Maureen mused, watching The Cat devour its prey on the welcome mat. Tom cocked an eyebrow at her. “An orange one. That way one of those gun-toting ninnies doesn’t accidently shoot him.”
“Doubt he’d suffer a collar again.”
“Hmph.” Maureen crossed her arms.
“What in God’s name is he eating?”
“I don’t know but it stinks like ripe tuna.”
The Cat had been hunched over his dinner, hiding it. Finishing, he straightened and began licking glistening flecks off his paws.
“Looks like glitter.” Maureen offered.
“Yeah, that or…”
“Paradise Gourami scales.” Tom said with a bit of flair, mock holding a martini glass.
To punctuate the observation, The Cat hacked up a slender, white fish bone. Tom and Maureen began laughing. Tom like an outboard that had not been started in years, sputtering at first, then steady and loud. Maureen until she began to snort.
The Cat looked at one then the other, let out a loud meow like a howl, which egged them on. Then he leapt onto the railing, arched his back and gave the wood a sound drubbing. Tom and Maureen sucked in their breath when he sprang over the railing, landed in a pile of leaves. They laughed even harder when The Cat rolled out, promenaded up the steps, batting at leaves stuck in his shaggy hair.
The dams they had built inside themselves were never meant to hold back such a torrent. Maureen shook fiercely with delight. Tom gasped for air as tears ran down his cheeks for the first time since his son died.
Puffs of wood smoke rose from chimneys in the valley. The strong, sweet smell settled unexpectedly in dells. The last of the ground squirrels had entered the torpor of estivation weeks before.
Neither Maureen nor Tom saw The Cat for days. One evening, on a whim, Tom looked under the porch and spied a clump of gray hair. He tore his shirt pulling out the body, still warm, breathing weakly. He called to Maureen, who took The Cat and wrapped him in a bit of blanket from the apple crate. She cradled the limp body, rocking back and forth in her porch chair, Tom pacing.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“I wish I knew.”
“What should we do?”
“Get some milk.”
“Right.” Tom pulled open the door with urgency. He came back carrying the entire gallon and a small dish.
Tom knelt and sloshed milk onto the porch as he overfilled the saucer. Held it in front of The Cat. The Cat’s labored breaths made tiny ripples on the surface, until they did not.
Early the next morning, Tom fashioned a box out of cedar. Maureen lined it with marigolds. They buried The Cat next to the garden, in the hardening ground.
Maureen waited for the car to warm up. She flipped through the pictures that she had had developed while she shopped. When she came to the pictures of Emily on the blanket with The Cat, she put her head on the steering wheel and cried. The first snowflakes of the season dusted the windshield.
After she got home, she rummaged through the totes in the crawlspace until she found the one with frames. She chose one that she had once thought too maudlin, that said Treasured Memories in flowing script. She put her favorite picture of The Cat with Emily in it. Set the frame in the window overlooking the porch.
In another window, several miles away, a tabby cat watches falling snowflakes dissolve on the surface of the pond outside. Her eyes follow the darting shapes flickering below the surface, and she feels a stirring in her swelling belly.
In the new year, when the snow begins to melt, Carl will get stuck in the mud of Tom’s driveway. After pulling him out, Tom will look in the box that Carl has brought. Maureen will wave from the porch as Tom steers the tractor back toward home with a shaggy gray kitten nestled in his coat; until the spring, they must endure the dark of another winter.
Raised on a cattle ranch in Washington state, N.D. Clemons is a graduate of Gonzaga University, has taught in Korea and Cambodia, and lives in Tacoma. The Cat is the first story N.D. Clemons has submitted for publication.
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