Excerpt

The Cat

Janice Obuchowski

January 22, 2018 
"The Cat" is a story by Janice Obuchowski that originally appeared in The Gettysburg Review. Janice Obuchowski received special mention in the 2017 Pushcart Prize anthology. She is the fiction editor for New England Review.

For almost two years, I’ve lived at the edge of the bucolic, where the land begins to shift into something untamed, in a tiny neighborhood in the woodsy outskirts of a New England college town. There’s a gas station, a church, a tiny brick library, and one exquisitely quaint inn. When I first arrived, for a visiting professorship, a colleague explained that if in town is New York, then outside town—where I live—is Brooklyn. We laughed at this. Brooklyn if Brooklyn were essentially the woods with a modicum of the suburban, if Brooklyn were populated by sheep farmers and art historians, if it were bordered by woods and, to the east, mountains.

Running down from one mountain is a sinuous, rough river that winds past my apartment, which is on the second floor of what once was, the locals tell me, the old general store. When the weather holds, I sit on my back porch and watch the water—wide and shallow and eddying around large rocks—create its constant cascade. On its far side, the land slopes down, greenery turning to small boulders. On my side, where houses have slivers of backyards, there runs a low concrete wall cracked and patched with moss.

Part of me wishes I could endlessly watch this river, could breathe in the quiet of the surrounding woods, which seems to offer its own watchful stance. The beauty here is dense, disordered, unruly. I almost find it claustrophobic—an encroaching pressure, a constant assertion of some other presence. There’s something too in this constant mix of the highfalutin and the feral: it invites thought of the spectral. All experience feels as if on the cusp of some other experience.

Also, acutely, living here is not what I want, because it is purgatory—a job, if a job I’m hugely lucky to have, that runs only two years, that I took in service of the next job I will take, which also likely will be impermanent. This is, of course, a life of my own making. If I wrote more—and better—maybe I could already be settled. Regardless, I’ve moved four times in the last decade and always while casting my thoughts forward to some future in which I have tenure and live within the comforts of suburban sprawl, in which I have a house with a large yard, a family and a slobbering dog, in which I have ease and space and security. This constant imagining renders my current life always interstitial, empty.

I am tired of thinking so much.

*

Soon after I moved, a poet who also teaches at the college and lives nearby invited me to meet her at the inn’s pub for a drink. As we sat surrounded by low light and dark wood and dark green walls, a moose head above the fireplace’s mantle, she told me of the Blue Lady, a ghost who haunts the inn. No one knew her past—who she was, where she came from—but she would sit in the far back corner of the inn’s dining room, which overlooks a patio. Or, in one of the inn’s upstairs bedrooms, she would sit in an armchair by a window. The poet said people who’ve stayed at the inn have caught, in low light, a blue nimbus in the dim. This when the dining room had been empty and the dark should’ve been even. Or, upstairs, they’ve glanced in the mirror above the bureau and seen in the reflection that same subdued aura—the shade of gas light. In the stories, the woman was drawn and still, her eyes directed always toward the window, as if what preoccupied her was far in the distance.

Occasionally I go to the pub to grade. I sit in the warm dark, order a glass of wine, and go through a stack of papers. I drink slowly, grade slowly, and feel conscious of myself as alone. In fact, during the winter months, when everything is shadowed by four o’clock, the pub fills in the early evening, and the space is thick with conversation. People stamp their boots as they walk in, their cheeks ruddy from the cold. All sorts come—men with beards down to their bellies sit at the bar and order oysters and beer. Those cheerful after a day skiing, still in their snow pants, their turtlenecks, eat burgers and fries. The crackling fire is luxurious, smoky. It casts dappled shadows everywhere. There is no chance for the Blue Lady to sit, pensive, and stare out to the chilled white. We make no room for her.

But when I return home to my apartment—spacious if thinly constructed—and I’m surrounded by my large old drafty windows, I reimagine her. On nights the wind rattles the window glass, and cold air picks up inside, gusting and then stilling as if defeated, I think of the Blue Lady flying in and then flitting out again into the night, tossed by winds, careening about, looking for excitement.

Walk far enough in any direction off the main road and the houses thin out, and the woods take over. Wandering the paths in the woods, I’ve found two small, abandoned quarries—craters with pits of sand that, in spring, hold shallow, still ponds. Someone told me they’d been limestone quarries and that feral cats often live in them. I’ve yet to see anything there except tall grass and low brush reclaiming the sand. Still: I imagined these cats light eyed as they prowled the woods, stalking mice through the trees. So when, last April, I came out of my apartment and saw a small gray-brown cat with a chipmunk half in its mouth, I thought it was a feral quarry cat come to hunt along the river.

I was on my way to class. The cat swiveled its head and stared with spring-green eyes at me. It spat out the chipmunk and sat swishing its tail as the chipmunk, in a drunken lilt, scurried into a crevice in the crumbling concrete wall. ‘‘Cat,’’ I said, not sure what else to say.

 

I could keep this cat, I thought, make it my pet. . . But I also thought of litter boxes, which seemed anathema to me, and this cat jumping on my counters, how my apartment would smell permanently of cat pee. And wasn’t it right now bringing fleas and filth into my home, while I was without recourse to handle it?”

 

When I got back that evening, my downstairs neighbor, Anna, was pacing the sidewalk, talking scornfully into her phone—likely about her divorce—and smoking. Had she not been on the phone, I might’ve asked her about feral quarry cats. Our conversations are a mix of no information or too much. She’s told me she wants to volunteer for the local fire department. I’ve told her the book I’m writing is going nowhere. We discuss the plum tree growing in our shared backyard.

I’d only met her—and her then husband—a few months before. I’d been washing dishes when the air seemed to crack and then something crashed outside. I’d hurried downstairs to find a huge tree limb, under the weight of new snow, had fallen just beside my car. My neighbor had also come out. She lit a cigarette, and we assessed the situation. No, we couldn’t lift the tree limb; no, there was no damage to the car; yes, this was very good luck overall. Snow was everywhere, gray in the evening light. I couldn’t place Anna’s accent. She said she’d get her husband, a Vermont farm boy, big and strong, and he came out to good-naturedly lug aside the limb. She kissed her husband’s cheek, and we stood in the cold and talked a little. Below me, I learned, in essentially the same space I occupied by myself, lived Anna’s children, aged twelve and four, Anna—originally from Romania—her husband, her mother, who spoke no English, and an epileptic German shepherd who I mustn’t pet lest he get overexcited. I told them I taught writing and suggested we go get brunch one Sunday at the inn, which we all agreed to and then never did. A few months later, her husband was gone. I believe Anna kicked him out. She now had a new boyfriend who occasionally came around.

I went upstairs. It wasn’t warm enough to be out on the porch, but I stayed in my coat and watched the river—sluggish with chunks of ice slow to thaw even though it was spring. The branches fanning out along the river’s edges were stark, empty. The chilled air smelled of cigarette smoke. I wondered if I’d saved that chipmunk from being eaten, and, if I had, if I’d deprived that cat of essential sustenance.

*

A week later, I pulled into the gravel driveway at the side of my apartment. It was dark, and as I was grabbing a bag of groceries from the back seat, the cat emerged, crying, from the shadows of the river wall. Its eyes were neon, a green-white shine. I dropped the grocery bag then reached down to pick up what had tumbled out—blueberry yogurt, a bottle of wine, brown rice—and the cat began winding between my feet, its fur brushing my calves. ‘‘Cat,’’ I said. ‘‘You scared me.’’ The cat leapt into the car. ‘‘Out, out,’’ I said. ‘‘We can’t have this.’’ It meowed—a complaint, a protestation—but did jump out. I thought of lice, of fleas. It resumed twining through my ankles. I stepped over it to get to my small side porch—my door separate from the downstairs front entrance—but then put down the groceries to sit on the porch’s top step. The cat joined me, sitting on the step below and leaning into my feet. I ran my hand over its head, flattening its ears. I knew nothing of cats. I’d grown up with dogs, who were my heart. It’d been a decade plus of grad school and then adjuncting, a quiet, exhausting hustle, but once I didn’t have to move every few years, a dog it would be—one who’d bound across the grass, chasing endless tennis balls. My childhood had revolved around our golden retriever, Max, whose favorite game had been to race to the far corners of our lawn, almost tumbling over himself to snatch the tennis ball from the grass. Then he wouldn’t give it back right away, instead prancing in my mother’s tiger lilies or flopping briefly in the shade of a weeping willow before rushing once more to the patio, where we’d begin the game of getting him to drop the ball so we could do this all again. My mother has told me that when I was young, I’d play this game with Max for hours, that she’d watch me from the family-room window. It made her think, she’d said, how love is a kind of constant patience.

The cat was sprawled on the porch step rubbing its face against my shoes. I sat listening to the river until my fingers went numb with cold. ‘‘Okay!’’ I said, as if talking to bored students. ‘‘I’m going to go in now.’’ I stood, and the cat again began to cry, but as I opened the door, it stopped mewling and lounged silently, its ears a small twitch as it stared toward the concrete wall. I hoped it would go away.

Spring progressed from a constant chill—the lingering sense that ice and snow could, at any moment, reappear—to a lacy branching of green, to white flowers in the woods and glossy dark ivy running beneath last fall’s rotting leaves. Finishing the semester strong preoccupied me—appearing poised among my students and colleagues. I was over prepping, practically memorizing my lecture notes and spending hours typing up feedback for my students’ creative and analytical work. I was writing very little of my own. This was always the problem, but I thought I’d make real progress during the summer. I’m irrationally hopeful about summers. I’ll write so many pages, working with such diligence, once I have time.

The cat started appearing every few days. I’d get home, and it would emerge from the bushes or from the neighbor’s garage. It might leap down from its sunbathing on the concrete wall. Always it would start meowing, thin and heartbreaking, and make a beeline for my side porch’s steps. I’d sit with it awhile.

Early on I thought to feed it. ‘‘Wait right here,’’ I said and trotted upstairs to open a can of tuna. But when I set the fish, in a Tupperware container, before the cat, it only sniffed. ‘‘Better than chipmunk,’’ I said. Eventually, it ate a few tiny bites—pink tongue, tiny sharp teeth—then flopped at my side and nudged my elbow until I scratched its ears.

I left the tuna out, imagining the cat just wanted space or privacy to eat. But the next day, the tuna was still there, sun warmed and stinking of oceanic rot. I didn’t offer the cat more food after that, even though it was thin and, many days, smelled like dirt and excrement. I did buy a big, old-fashioned hairbrush with wide bristles. This way I could scratch the cat’s ears and sides without having to touch it. And, if the cat was flopped on its side, then it wouldn’t try to crawl on my lap. Still, after the cat sessions, I’d go inside and obsessively wash my hands. I also always threw my clothes in the hamper. I kept meaning to buy a flea collar and then forgetting.

My side porch faces a small house—these neighbors and I are separated by a small patch of land. At the river wall, this couple had set up a rock garden—largely river boulders—that at center has small steps leading to a raised patio of slate tiling. When the weather is decent, they put out matching sky-blue Adirondack chairs. I’d see them coming and going, this husband and wife, but most often I’d notice the husband, Michael, out on his river deck, smoking. He has a thick beard and short-cropped dark hair, and I was seeing him more because I was sitting more often on my stoop, petting the cat with the hairbrush and murmuring to it about my day.

One night Michael came out while I was telling the cat that in class, while teaching Stephanie Vaughn’s ‘‘Dog Heaven,’’ I’d become confused about what was my life and what was story. This is never a position you want to be in—much less while standing before a room of college sophomores.

In the story, a woman recalls when she was young, her father in the military, and her family about to move from one base to another. Two days before the family moves, they leave their dog with a mess sergeant. This is to be temporary, just until they can send for him. The major uplift in the writing—a piece laden with death and the imagery of death—is when the dog, Duke, breaks free and runs fourteen miles home.

Teaching that day I kept thinking of the opening image of Duke swimming in a river. The Vermont weather had finally tipped irrevocably toward summer, and people were coming to my river, so I was simultaneously thinking of a woman who’d let her yellow lab wade in up to its belly, panting, grinning, dipping its snout. And then I was thinking of Max, watching his silky sprint into the lawn’s back reaches, his silly rustle into the drooping tangle of willow branches. It all blurred. This as I’d been holding a dry-erase marker and discussing foregrounding action.

As I was telling the cat this, I missed the moment Michael came out—I’d been too caught up in having earlier been too caught up. I stopped talking. The cat tried to climb on my lap. ‘‘Quit it!’’ I said and stood. The cat went down the steps, aggrieved, and slid around the side of the house, disappearing after pawing through some lily of the valley.

Michael’s wife, Kristen, emerged from their house—placid oval face, light eyes, enviably thick brown hair. I realized the obvious: she was pregnant. I went over to properly say hello. My instinct was that we—unlike Anna and I—could become friends. Michael stayed where he was with his cigarette but waved to us.

Twins, she said, and she was due any second. She was a nurse, and the technical aspects of her work went over my head, but she seemed to have a lot of expertise. She liked to read and called out to her husband that I taught writing. We talked about books, and she mentioned she’d seen me out running, and—gesturing down to her belly—suggested maybe in a few months we could go out together. I said that’d be great.

‘‘Is that your cat?’’ she asked. The cat wasn’t around, so this meant she’d seen me with it in the evenings. Not my cat, I told her, but it keeps coming by. ‘‘It eats chipmunks,’’ she said.

We talked about how soothing the river was, how lucky we were to live near it. This is still my thought most days. It’s something—when you feel lost or down—to walk out and face wild, crashing beauty. It exerts some pull on you as it rushes along, all gloss and froth.

The poet who lived down the street was going to Portugal for two weeks and asked if I wouldn’t mind coming by her house to feed her pet bunny. She was going to have a neighbor’s child clean out the cage a few times a week, but she’d feel reassured if an adult could stop in too, and it’d be easy: just set out some lettuce or carrots and refill the bunny’s water. I said of course.

Before she left, I stopped by so she could show me where everything was, and she mentioned that in her shed a feral cat often hid from the elements—she’d catch glimpses of it snuggled into some old cardboard boxes she’d stored in the back, and so she’d been leaving out tins of wet food. Would I mind putting that out too?

‘‘I have a feral cat!’’ I said. ‘‘It likes being brushed, so I sit outside and brush it.’’ I’d settled on my cat being savvier than other feral cats—more capable of pilfering food and attention before returning to its secret lair in the woods. This was why I never saw any of its brethren.

Her home, an old farm cottage, was tucked into the woods, trees looming over it as if a house in a fairytale. She had a skylight in her kitchen, and I could see pine boughs wavering above.

She was opening a bottle of wine. ‘‘I don’t think that’s a feral cat.’’

‘‘It’s always about,’’ I said. ‘‘It runs along the river wall and eats chipmunks. It’s desperate for attention.’’

She asked if I’d named it, and I admitted I hadn’t. ‘‘I call it Cat. I don’t really like cats. But I feel bad for this one.’’

‘‘I’ve named mine Winnifred,’’ she said. ‘‘But I never see it except in tiny glimpses. Feral cats are normally very skittish. That’s why I’m not sure yours is feral.’’

‘‘Who is it, then?’’ I asked. ‘‘Or what is it?’’ I accepted a glass of wine, and we went to sit in her living room, which had a fireplace and lovely wood floors.

‘‘Maybe a stray. Perhaps it ran out an open door and got lost. Or someone left it behind.’’

‘‘I have pictures.’’ I scrolled through my phone, showing her the cat in various states of repose and languor, blissed out from being brushed, sitting on the wooden slats of my side porch. The underside of its chin was white; its whiskers appeared transparent in the sunlight.

The poet laughed. ‘‘That’s definitely an animal used to people.’’ Her bunny, out of its cage, hopped into the living room, a black fluff ball with drooping ears. The breed was a cashmere lop, I’d just learned. The bunny’s nose twitched and twitched. It stared marble eyes at us. ‘‘Pamplemousse,’’ the poet crooned. ‘‘Here, bunny, bunny.’’ The bunny did an about face and returned to the kitchen—hop, hop, hop—and the poet sighed.

We talked about her upcoming trip to Portugal. She was going to write a poem a day—a poem written that fast would be, pragmatically speaking, mostly junk, but she was hoping she could, through the process, learn her thoughts better as she traveled and explored new settings.

I was still mulling over the cat. Was it not wild? This changed things. ‘‘Do you think,’’ I asked, ‘‘I should bring the cat to the humane society? That maybe someone would want to adopt it if it were a stray?’’

‘‘You could adopt it!’’ she said brightly. She poured us more wine. Her screens were in, and the air smelled of pine and crabapple blossoms. I shook my head, explained that I didn’t like cats. ‘‘Well, it certainly seems to have chosen you. It’s something to think about.’’

Then we went on to talk of all the writing we’d get done in the subsequent months, when the days were long and our academic burdens were light.

On a July night thick with yellow light, the water rushing slipshod over rocks kept me company. I was sitting on my porch, noodling about with my novel, really watching the old grist mill across the river catch the sunset, its colors turning super saturated: dirty white sidings, a rust roof, and behind it the trees were shadows with gold-burnished leaves. An older man who often mysteriously came and went from that dilapidated old building emerged from the mill’s basement. At his side was his corgi, tiny ears, long torso, bright eyes. The corgi trotted to the man’s red pickup truck, waiting until the man opened the door to leap in. The truck soon receded down the dirt road, disappearing into the trees.

I needed to finish working on a chapter, but I was thinking of the poet writing a poem a day while abroad and how if I did that, then maybe I could better learn my own thoughts about this place. I was missing something in what I witnessed—that something other the landscape was constantly suggesting.

I brought my laptop inside and went downstairs to see if my cat was about. I scanned the river wall, the rock garden, the tomato plants Michael and Kristen had growing in raised beds. Occasionally the cat would emerge from the vines, its light eyes watching me. Cricket call had just started. I listened for its meowing as it moved through the grass, announcing its loneliness.

Then I noticed something to the side of my porch, next to a bag of potting soil and the hairbrush. I knelt and felt some thickness in my throat. It was a small dead bird, its neck broken, twisted at an unnatural angle such that it looked to be attached and yet still dangling. It was taupe and brown and white—a striation almost like marble—with a tiny patch of white beneath its small beak. The eyes—round like dark seeds—were open and dull, black smoke within glass.

I went inside. I rummaged beneath my sink for a pair of gardening gloves and a plastic trash bag, steeled myself, returned downstairs. I had to close my eyes when I reached for the bird, which was stiff and soft at once. I put it in the bag, marched the bag to the trash, threw away this gift from the cat. Inwardly I told the bird I was sorry.

Back inside I spent time searching through photos of birds on the Vermont Audubon’s website until I discovered the bird was a vesper sparrow—a beautiful name bequeathed because a naturalist believed its song was heartiest in evenings. The other detail I thought captivating: often it could be found dust-bathing in dirt roads, which were everywhere around here. I imagined this bird fluttering low to the ground in a kind of dance, winging up dust, until deciding to arc skyward into blue.

What to do with my own fluttering? My heart, a ragged pulse. Just a dead bird.

Just the cat acting as it ought in the wild.

As I went to bed, I decided the bird would perch on the windowsill of the room the Blue Lady haunted. From now on they would be a pair. This, absurdly, finally settled me for sleep.

A few weeks later, I was walking along Grist Mill Road when the corgi came out at a quick trot to greet me. I stooped to pet it, scratching behind its ears, its fur surprisingly rough. The man came around the side of the mill. He had on work gloves and reading glasses. ‘‘Thank you,’’ he said, ‘‘for being kind to my dog.’’ He told me he’d seen me out running a few times, and I pointed behind me, across the river to my apartment, telling him I lived nearby. ‘‘Welcome,’’ he said. I thanked him. I’d lived here a year, but this welcoming made its own sense. I’d finally become habitual in the landscape.

And it was right around then people started waving to me. I’d go for laborious runs through the sparse neighborhoods, a mix of older houses in some state of disrepair and others renovated into country-living pristineness. The mountain loomed in the east, and I’d raise my hand to the sheep farmer, whose farm I’d pass, the field dotted with pastoral, woolen creatures; the old couple from Philadelphia who live across the street; the mothers out with their toddlers; the wizened thin woman with her pair of collie shepherds; the rangy runner often heading into the woods to run old logging trails. He told me he sometimes saw a bear back there, but it kept to itself.

Sometimes I’d run on roads out where no one lived, and the foliage—the thick tangle of green on either side—became jungle-like in its density. I imagined the trees breathing, me breathing with them. There was constant rustle from within the woods—deer, squirrels, birds. Once, a fox trotted out from beneath a crumbling corner of an old barn. Its eyes were gold, its ears sharp, its fur a bristling orange. It crossed the road and into an orchard. As I passed, it stared from beneath a tree, keeping its sights on me.

Another day, I was kicking up dust, rendering the air diaphanous and thinking of dust baths, of vesper sparrows, when I saw a bloodied bone on the side of the road. It was if I’d conjured another animal’s death: a joint—with torn fur—and the extended bone, wet looking. Blood dripped in a dark splattered path off into the trees. Dust glittered before me, and I inhaled sharply, trying to sprint.

I returned to my apartment, my cheeks flaming, my breath rough, to find Kristen—who’d had her twins two weeks earlier—sitting on the river overlook. The babies were bundled and asleep on blankets laid out beside the Adirondack chairs. The neighbors from Philadelphia, an elderly couple, were also over. They had with them a bottle of white wine, which the husband was uncorking, and plastic cups. His wife was cooing over the babies. Everyone looked up at once and smiled at me. It was so earnest and sweet and unrelated to my thoughts of gore. I went over and accepted a glass, which went to my head, and told them about the bloodied bone. A coyote or a bear, the couple from Philly said. It happens, it happens. Kristen, tending to her babies, had gray-violet pockets beneath her eyes. She said, ‘‘You saw a femur, it sounds like. I bet it’s already gone. Animals clean up after themselves.’’

The next day I forced myself to run the same loop—to check—and saw only very faint blood splatter. Had I not been looking, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. Then the downstairs neighbor’s epileptic German shepherd disappeared. Or, rather, Anna was no longer taking it out for its short, fraught walks. Meanwhile, she had joined the fire department. I saw her come home one day wearing black pants with yellow piping, a light-blue shirt with ironed-on insignias, a black cap like a policeman might wear. Kristen, in a moment of idle gossip, had told me this was Anna’s second divorce, and I wondered how Anna could have so much happening in her life. My instinct was that she acted first, thought later. I couldn’t decide if I admired this. Regardless, I hoped nothing bad had happened to her dog. I hoped her ex-husband had claimed ownership, but I couldn’t ask.

One night I was sitting on the stoop with the cat when Kristen came out in her sneakers and yoga pants, her hair in a ponytail. She told me the twins—in a rare moment—were both asleep, and Michael had suggested she get out and enjoy the summer night. She asked if I wanted to join her on a walk. I said I’d love to and stood. The cat batted a paw at the air, protesting me leaving it, but Kristen came over and scratched its ears, and it scrunched up its face in pleasure. Leaving actually got me out of a bind: as the summer had progressed, the cat had taken to rushing between me and the door when I’d try to go in. So I’d have to do this dance, keeping one foot extended to hold the cat at bay as I slid through the cracked door. When we set off, it stayed on my porch, attentive to our movement. ‘‘Michael told me there’s this sculpture in the woods,’’ she said. We were moving at an easy pace down the sidewalk. A few kids were biking past the library, shouting to one another about where to go next. ‘‘Sculpture?’’

‘‘Past the inn, there’s a path in the woods that skirts the river. He said to go back and look.’’

This street: I knew of two published poets, one professor of political philosophy, and one dean. And I didn’t know most people still. So I figured someone from the college, someone in the art department, was amusing herself, perhaps making something out of the abundant stone around here.

As we walked we talked of how much her life had been upended these last few weeks, how it was exhilarating to feel a love she’d never felt before, but the weariness—a kind of bone-heavy fatigue, as she described it—was also new. She raised her left hand to show me her pinky and ring finger taped together. ‘‘A sprain,’’ she said. ‘‘I’ve never sprained anything in my life. And all I was doing was setting Milo in his crib. I’m still not sure how I managed it.’’ Milo and Pearl: the twins. All of a sudden the care for these babies subsumed everything else in her life. And it was not subtle, this love, it was fierce. I listened. I’d never felt this.

We went past the inn and crossed onto a thin path in the woods. The sky was milky, thin clouds overhead, and we were in that high tangle of green just going sallow: end of summer leaves. They made me anxious, reminding me school was starting soon, that I’d barely accomplished any writing this summer—all I’d imagined for myself had been a bust. The trail was dirt and bounded by rougher forest ground—pine cones and exposed rocks and roots, fallen branches all about. The river, its rough rush, became more present.

‘‘Oh,’’ I breathed, stopping. I pointed. Almost as if it were transparent—a mesh wire figure of a woman: she appeared to be in a long dress, clutching her arms at her elbows, her head raised. She looked there and not. You could come from a certain angle and see only air. Or a bundle of wire. But it was more delicate than that—gothic, gray, sad.

Kristen went up to it and touched the figure’s elbow. She shook her head. ‘‘Michael said to me, ‘You have to see the chicken-wire ghost lady in the woods.’ And I told him that was ridiculous, and he said, ‘Go look.’ ’’ She touched the lady again. ‘‘Unreal.’’ She laughed and then covered her mouth with her bandaged hand.

I couldn’t touch it, didn’t even want to look at it anymore. This place!

I asked Kristen if she thought this figure was the Blue Lady. She’d never heard the story. ‘‘I guess I don’t think they’re the same,’’ she said after I told her about this other ghost. ‘‘But I have no logical reason to say that.’’ The light was going down, a quieting as I thought of it, and then something in Kristen’s features shifted. It was as if her face had sagged, her skin loosened in the milky light. But I thought it was a trick of the evening in the woods, and the creepiness of this ghost woman barely there, adding to her sleep deprivation. I suggested we get back, and she agreed. ‘‘I’m glad I wasn’t alone coming upon that,’’ she said. I felt similarly. We came back out after a stretch to the sidewalk near the inn. People were out for walks. We passed a light blue Victorian home with a white picket fence, an older man out pruning some bushes. It all seemed so normal. And then that skewed too and became strange. The whole world was liminal. When we got home, the cat was nowhere to be seen.

Classes were about to start. The evenings were turning dusky, the sun setting earlier and earlier. I had the cat next to me, its fur too warm against my upper leg, its smell sour. Twice it had tried to climb across my lap, its claws needling my thighs, and I’d pick it up about its middle and set it aside. When I rose to go in, the cat rushed for the door, and this time it slipped through my ankles and darted up the stairs. It stopped, looking down at me, then turned and wandered into my kitchen. I bolted up the steps and found it prowling my pantry, considering the shelving, the washer and drier, the entry to the crumbling sun room.

I could keep this cat, I thought, make it my pet. It wished to be loved more than 20 scant minutes a day. But I also thought of litter boxes, which seemed anathema to me, and this cat jumping on my counters, how my apartment would smell permanently of cat pee. And wasn’t it right now bringing fleas and filth into my home, while I was without recourse to handle it? I didn’t want a cat. I wanted a dog. I wanted a settled successful life with a dog.

‘‘Out!’’ I said. ‘‘This can’t work.’’

I picked it up even as it tried to rush away, clutched it to my chest as it yowled and yowled, and marched it downstairs. I set it on the porch. It tried to dart toward the door to get back in. ‘‘I’m sorry,’’ I said.

The cat stopped coming around. School began, and being busy was relief and anguish—here was work I felt capable of, as opposed to the constant failure that had been my writing summer. Christmas, I told myself. I’d write then. Plus, now, I had to be very diligent about applying for jobs, focused on hoping something came through.

Kristen hired a nanny and returned to work just as the school year started, so I saw her less, but we waved at the beginnings and ends of days. I wanted to ask her if she wanted to go running, but she had such a full life: working as a nurse and then returning home to so much family. Plus, I’d noticed, the lavender beneath her eyes had yet to fade.

I sat outside some nights, but the cat was nowhere. The cat had returned to its tribe in the woods. Or it had never had a tribe but had found some other sucker to rub its tummy.

Then it got cold. The leaves turned gold and fell, and after they fell we had frost—blades of grass encased in rough white. In November, it started to rain—nights the rain gusted I would sit inside listening to the wind pick up, imagining the Blue Lady also sitting by a window, looking out into the dark, perhaps conjuring her own apparitions out of the night air.

Once I heard a cat calling—less a caterwaul and more a sustained lament. I tried peering out my window, but my lights were on, and I could see only blackness. I turned off my lights and pressed my nose to the glass. The empty sidewalk was lined with bare trees glossy from rain. I went downstairs and stood on my porch, my arms wrapped about my sides. I watched for the bushes to shiver with movement, for some shadow to elongate as the cat soft-footed its way to me in the dark. I listened for its cry but heard only the wind shifting the branches, the rain splattering.

With the winter, my river came to a standstill, its rush and crash buried beneath ice. I spent my days in hypothesis. If there were feral quarry cats, then they had instincts about how to burrow under the snow to keep warm, to build themselves cat igloos, to find the fall’s leaves and make from them nests. Or if they were smart as Winnifred was smart, then they found an old shed and took refuge in cardboard boxes, sustained by the tins of wet food left out by nice poets. Maybe the humane society was filled with volunteer angels who scoured the town rescuing animals who couldn’t survive the winter.

There were days my lungs hurt to inhale the cold. I’d be out cleaning off my car, looking at the trees etched in ice, the snow powder-white, the sky a pale pink-blue. As if the summer had been a dream, some nonreality, and here was ineluctable truth.

I’d killed the cat. It had been out shivering in the woods and then had died. Some other animal had eaten it and scattered its picked-clean bones. They sank into the snow and became hollow. The cat was a ghost now, prowling about the woods with the Blue Lady when the Blue Lady deigned to be earthbound before billowing up on some gust of wind. The cat circled the wire sculpture, but that ghost wouldn’t stoop to pet it, guarding its stillness, needing to stay a vanguard in the woods. The ghost vesper sparrow twittered and flapped its wings, shrieking for the cat to go away, go away before it resumed its perch on a windowsill in the inn, rapping its beak against the cold glass for good measure as my cat slunk off into the snow. Even as a ghost it was alone too much of the time.

Downstairs, Anna’s son started throwing tantrums. Seven in the morning was prime screaming time—as if he were a dragon issuing smoke from his nose. Rather than attempt to comfort him, or quiet him, or do anything at all, Anna would slam the door and stalk about in the cold, pacing in front of her apartment in a bright red parka, smoking cigarettes down to the nubs and flinging the butts into snow banks. Once, when I was outside shoveling my driveway, she offered me a sharp look, probably thinking I was judging her. I was. The divorce had clearly unsettled her youngest child, but she had to go fight fires and date new men. Where before I’d found her active, I now found her irresponsible.

Of the 25 jobs I applied to, I was offered one—teaching in Indiana a mixture of composition and creative-writing classes. It was a step down from the job I currently held, but my credentials looked static. I hadn’t published anything new. The job would last three years with the chance for renewal, but already I knew that, come three years from now, I’d be angling for something else. The winter seemed endless, and yet I quailed at having to move again in six months. At Christmas I got no writing done.

One morning, I ran into the nanny and Kristen as they were getting the twins into the minivan for a doctor’s appointment. The nanny was an older woman with no-nonsense short hair and glasses. She rubbed her gloved hands together and exhaled, pluming white breath, then smiled at me so we could agree on the cold. Kristen was snapping the buckle on Milo’s car seat. ‘‘Put socks on one, and the other has wrestled her socks off,’’ she said as the nanny got Pearl settled. ‘‘Get one into a car seat, the other needs his diaper changed.’’ Circles were still dark beneath her eyes. She asked me how my writing was going. I don’t know what possessed me to be truthful, but I told her it had been terrible, that I wanted to throw my novel into the river.

She rummaged in her purse for her car keys, and when she looked up, I saw pity in her light blue eyes—pity she’d been trying to spare me by first averting her gaze.

‘‘I’m moving to Indiana,’’ I said and started to ramble about how I’d miss Vermont.

Finally in April, we again had light into our evenings. I bought a space heater—an impractical purchase—and went out onto my porch with it. I watched the ice in the river fracture—crack and float and gain speed—and hunted for the landscape’s first traces of green. Squirrels ran along the concrete wall. Dog walkers began to appear, heading down the road to traverse paths in the woods. I thought about how in a few weeks I’d be teaching ‘‘Dog Heaven’’ again. My cat, which I had killed, was nowhere.

I leave in a month. I want to go, I don’t want to go. The woods haven’t told me their secrets yet. The ghosts are all going to have to keep themselves company, sit together and make up stories about one another. I’m going to be gone and can’t continue to do it for them.

This week, downstairs, I heard yipping and high-pitched barking and thought Anna must be taking care of someone’s pet. Then, yesterday, I saw Anna’s mother, who pretends never to see me when she’s puttering in her garden, gripping with two hands a leash. A tiny German shepherd puppy was bounding about in the grass, trying to nip at its tail. Anna’s son was sitting on the lawn, banging a plastic shovel against a toy truck. And Anna was smoking some distance from them, under our plum tree. She smiled at me.

Today, out the window, I noticed the nanny had her car’s hatchback open. She was sitting in the shade, fanning herself with her book. Kristen was also home. She’d been home more this last month, and I thought she’d finagled herself some time off. Then I saw light eyes peering from the hatchback.

I hurried downstairs. ‘‘Hi!’’ I called. The nanny waved. ‘‘Did you notice the cat in your car?’’

The nanny set down her book and laughed, a belly chuckle. ‘‘No, I didn’t notice. But I don’t mind. I grew up on farms.’’

I didn’t understand her logic, but that didn’t matter. ‘‘This cat!’’ I said. It stared at me impassively and meowed, scrunching up its face and showing me its teeth. ‘‘I worried about it all winter. I should’ve taken it to the humane society. I wasn’t sure if cats could survive the cold. I haven’t seen it since last fall.’’

She joined me at her car. The cat dimmed its eyes as if demure in the face of so much attention.

‘‘I would pet it with a brush,’’ I said. ‘‘It likes being around people.’’

‘‘Kristen just told me she finds the cat soothing,’’ the nanny said. ‘‘It’s only been out again for a few days. Your downstairs neighbors took it in for the winter.’’

‘‘Really?’’ The cat had been living downstairs all this time? Anna likely saved its life.

‘‘Apparently some family down the street just let it out one day and never thought about it again. Your neighbor took it to the vet, got it all its shots. But they just got that puppy, and the cat and it aren’t getting along. It really wanted out. We just started setting food out for it.’’ She gestured to a small bowl of cat food near Kristen and Michael’s front door.

‘‘Is it eating? Last summer I offered it tuna, and it didn’t seem to want it.’’

The nanny had so many kind lines about her eyes. She was in cargo shorts. She grew up on a farm. ‘‘It’s eating. All of us are taking care of it,’’ she said.

‘‘It never ate the tuna,’’ I said. ‘‘Do you think it would be a good idea to find a family to adopt it?’’

She craned her neck toward the river, a suggestion we walk toward the concrete wall. ‘‘Kristen said it climbed into her lap today and fell asleep.’’ She pointed to a bird darting one limb to another, its wings a flutter over the water. ‘‘Kristen has breast cancer, and whatever comforts her right now is what I want her to have. They’ve just started telling people the last few days, so it’s alright I’m telling you.’’ Her squint said it wasn’t, that telling me was a necessity to keep me from carting off the cat. No, no, no, I wanted to tell her. I’m all talk. I’m trapped in my head. It wasn’t a feral quarry cat. It was a cat ill-treated by people on this street, and then treated much better by Anna. Meanwhile I would’ve let it freeze to death as I thought about ghosts.

‘‘Breast cancer,’’ the nanny said. ‘‘She’ll beat it for sure. And once things have settled more, I think they’ll adopt it.’’

‘‘Yes,’’ I said. I felt like crying. ‘‘I’m sure she’ll beat it. I’ll leave the poor cat be.’’ Kristen was ill. Kristen was ill, and Anna was responsible, and the cat was alive, and it had never been a quarry cat. All these details I accumulated, considered, and meanwhile I didn’t know anything at all about what was really happening around me.

As the nanny and I walked back to the cat, I thought of the opening line of ‘‘Dog Heaven’’: ‘‘Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again.’’ In class I’d discuss how quickly the terms are set—the writing immediately asserts the vivifying act of storytelling.

But what was it that I told myself stories about a dead cat? About my neighbors? About this woods? About my future? I told myself so much, and I was wrong about the world. It was vivid, yes, but a dreamscape—a defense against actuality.

The cat meowed, plaintive, and I reached to scratch its ears. This cat dreaming me up. It closed its eyes and purred, asking I cast aside such thinking, and it offered me solace, if I could accept it—rough and low throated and not what I wanted but what was there.

__________________________________

From Gettysburg Review. Used with permission of Gettysburg Review. Copyright © 2017 by Janice Obuchowski.




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