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For 99, a fine, bossy tomcat, and for Joanne, who allowed him to leave this earth with dignity, allowed him not to suffer
For the cat is cryptic,
And close to strange things
That men cannot see.
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar”
Evening drew down quicker than the old woman liked. She hurried up the wooded hill with her grocery bags; she wanted to be in the house before dark. She didn’t like living alone since her nephew and his wife moved out, and this evening she had lingered too long chatting with a friend at the village market. Around her now there was only silence; nothing stirred on the narrow, shadowed street or in the overgrown yards.
Suddenly she was struck from behind, a hard blow across her shoulders that knocked her sprawling. Pain shocked through her, her hands ground into asphalt where she tried to catch herself; grocery bags flew from her arms, apples bounced away, cans of soup and beans rolled into the gutter. Flailing, trying to right herself, she heard racing footsteps, soft-soled shoes running, and then silence; a dark figure vanished among the dusky trees, blending with the shadows and then gone.
Terrified, she slowly got to her feet, nearly falling again when she put weight on her throbbing leg. She found a tissue in her pocket and wiped at the blood, staring up and down the darkening street and into the neighbors’ yards: tangled trees and bushes, no one there that she could see, no one to threaten her now. And no one to help her. Nervously she studied the unlit houses and empty driveways. Every window was black, folks not home yet from work. A few part-time summer cottages still closed up since winter. She shivered, weak and shaken, cold with shock at the cruel prank.
What else could it be but a prank? She hadn’t been robbed: her purse still hung from her arm, the leather scarred in long scratches where she’d fallen. She’d read about an earlier attack or two, had seen news clips on TV, had thought they were flukes, that such a thing wouldn’t happen again, not in their cozy village. Surely not in this quiet neighborhood, though she was always careful. She wanted to get home. Wanted to be safe inside her own house where she could call the police. Still frightened but growing angry now, she picked up what groceries she could find and hurried uphill toward her own empty house.
Spring fog,” Joe Grey said, shivering, lifting a wet paw and licking irritably at his sleek fur. “May is supposed to be sunny, warm.” Though the gray tomcat knew better, he knew as well as Dulcie that Molena Point weather, this time of year, was always unpredictable. The morning fog, in fact, pleased him well enough; the shielding mist was perfect for the hunt as they prowled the jagged rooftops. Their quarry wasn’t pigeons or roof rats but human prey, their attention on the village streets below, on the narrow, fog-shrouded sidewalks. The cozy shops were still closed this early in the morning, the wares in their windows indistinct behind the shifting mist. Here, the hint of a doorway, the vague outline of a cypress or pine; there the corner of a window ledge, a half-seen pot of flowers. Only an occasional pedestrian passed, bundled up against the chill, wool scarf tucked into a down jacket, a warm cap pulled low; each passed into the damp haze and was gone again, the streets empty once more.
In the pearly light, trotting up and down from peak to peak, Dulcie gleamed rich with dark stripes; but the gray tomcat seemed nearly lost in the gloom. Only his white paws and the white stripe down his nose shone out flashing as he dropped from a gable into a hollow between overlapping roofs. Together they slipped along the edge of the shingles, peering over, scanning one street and then the next, their noses and ears nearly frozen. Their warm breakfast of pancakes and eggs seemed a very long time past.
On the fog-wet streets the tires of an occasional vehicle hushed by, then again silence. They watched a lone woman leave her motel, strolling idly, wrapped in a heavy sweater, looking in the shop windows, watched until she disappeared inside a steamy café; the few tourists who had remained after the weekend, maybe hoping for better weather, would still be abed or drinking coffee beside a warm fire. Or the hardiest ones already off running the beach, smug and righteous in their exertion, sweating despite the chill.
But as the cats prowled the roofs alert for the human predator, their moods were deeply mixed. Their urgency to spot the assailant, to pass his description to the cops and help put an end to this cruelty, ran crosswise to their distaste at having to witness such an attack, the brutal terrorizing of innocent citizens, most of them frail or elderly. What was his purpose? The victims were never robbed. This wanton cruelty was the dark side of humanity that the cats hated—the flip side to the love and kindness with which their own human friends embraced them.
But another sadness filled the cats as well. A distress that had nothing to do with the street prowler, one that no amount of their own effort could change. A mourning filled them for the old yellow tomcat: Misto was failing; his debilitating illness would soon take him.
His pain had begun suddenly, the cancer progressing rapidly. Already this morning, just at dawn, Joe and Dulcie had sat with him as he drifted in and out of sleep; as, off in the kitchen of the Firetti cottage, Mary washed up the breakfast dishes, and Dr. John Firetti was across the garden seeing overnight patients in his veterinary clinic. Quietly the cats had tried to ease Misto, to love him. They had left him only when Misto himself hissed and sent them away. Tucked up among the pillows in the big double bed, the fragile yellow tom wanted simply to nap. Joe and Dulcie had gone, looking back wistfully. They were not as resigned to his fate as was Misto himself. He was weak and tired, yet he seemed quite content, facing these last days of his long and adventurous life.
“You can’t change what is,” he had told them. “You can do nothing about my illness. I’m lucky to be among those I love. I’m happy to end up here, where I was born, after my life’s long journey. This life,” he’d said, “this life is not the end.” He’d yawned and pawed at the pillows. “I have known more lives than this one, and I will know more yet to come.
“But right now,” he’d said, flipping his thin tail, “now I need sleep. Go, my dears,” he’d said, extending a gentle paw. “Come back when I’m rested, when the pain meds have kicked in for the day.”
As Joe and Dulcie turned away, Misto had given Dulcie a secret and conspiratorial smile. Joe, catching his look, continued even now to puzzle over it, though he had asked no question. He’d trotted away beside Dulcie in silence as the old yellow tomcat rolled over and started to snore.
Joe had waited for Dulcie to explain, yet she’d said nothing. What secret was this? What could be so urgent that his lady would keep it from him? While Misto’s malaise left both cats steeped in sadness, Dulcie had shared her deepest conscience, her most private thoughts, only with the old yellow tom.
Earlier that morning before Joe arrived at Misto’s cottage, when Dulcie and the old cat were alone together, he’d given her a deep, steady look. “Life and death hang in balance, now, Dulcie. My life is ending. But you alone guard new lives.”
How could he know that? She had looked at him, shocked, her green eyes wide.
But then she smiled. Of course Misto would know her most private secret. How often did the old cat know what was in another cat’s mind, what lay hidden in the past or even ahead, in the future. How often did Misto divine secrets Dulcie could never dream.
“As the end of my days draws near,” he’d said, “three bright new lives have begun for you, my dear. Oh, yes,” he’d said, twitching a whisker. “Three dear little lives snuggled safe and warm inyour most secret world. And,” Misto had said, studying her, “you have not yet told Joe Grey.”
She had told no one. Except her human housemate, because how could she not tell Wilma, when Dulcie threw up her breakfast every morning?
But yet Misto knew, with those same powers that let him remember ages long past and let him see into the future. “Three kittens, three tiny mites,” he’d said, “snuggled within, secret and warm and happy.” And he had known more than that about her unborn kits; he had said, with a faint and ragged purr, “Three strong babies waiting eagerly to be born, two boy kits, and a calico girl.
“And,” he had told her, “there is an amazement about the calico kitten. She . . .” But he began to yawn, and before he could continue, the old cat had drifted into sleep, as was often the way since his illness. Maybe it was the medication sending him dozing, or maybe he thought he had said enough. Dulcie only knew that now, prowling the roofs in the cold fog, she fidgeted with unanswered questions. What had Misto started to tell her? What about her girl kitten, whatamazement?
And, though she longed to tell Joe Grey about the kittens, still she didn’t know how to tell him. What would Joe say when he learned that new little lives waited within the dark of her sheltering body? Would he want kittens, this tomcat whose very existence was committed to the exciting dangers of tracking human criminals? To the uncertainties of helping the law, of apprehending evil? Would fatherhood hold him back from what he was born to do? Would rallying around helpless babies, while burning to chase after human scum, only make him restless and cross? Joe Grey was not an ordinary tomcat to casually father a litter and then disappear. Would the innate commitment, the very responsibilities of kittens, his kittens, only distress him?
And, she wondered, if she told Joe about the kittens now, would that news make Misto’s impending death seem even more cruel by comparison? As if the inestimable powers of the universe meant to take Misto’s life in exchange for the three new lives soon to be?
She knew that made no sense. But would such an idea strike Joe, as he grieved for their dying friend? Would such thoughts make him turn away from her joyous secret?
Or was the intention of the greater powers not to exchange life for life, but instead to fill the emptiness, once their friend had departed? To bring new happiness into their world through these young, fledgling spirits?
No matter how she pondered the question, she didn’t know how to tell Joe. And she didn’t knowwhen to tell him. Now, as they watched the foggy streets, still she kept her own counsel; though she was amused that Joe hadn’t already guessed, by the look of her.
She liked to think she was still svelte and sleek, that no one would see her condition. But when at home she posed before Wilma’s full-length mirror, looking at herself sideways, she could see the gentle curve of the babies that waited safe beneath her tabby-striped fur.
Well, she was just as fast as ever at the hunt. Or nearly as fast. Maybe it took a little more effort to outrun a rat and take him down; maybe she was a bit slow keeping up with Joe, was too often the last to rise after resting in the grassy fields. So far Joe had said nothing about the changes. He was either being polite or was too occupied with the crimes that had beset the village and with Misto’s illness to think much about a lazy partner.
And, Dulcie worried, what would happen to Misto’s spirit when he’d left them? Would the old cat step into a new life, as he said would happen? Into the bright realm where, he told them, all souls journeyed after this world? Were Misto’s tales of multiple lives true or were his stories of a long and varied past, before this life, only fabrications, the yellow tom’s imaginative fancies?
Yet what he’d told them of those past lives was linked to facts in the present, to photographs of a long-ago child Misto had known, to the cache of hidden money the cats had found, to so much that was very real, that they could do no less than believe him. But now, as the old cat grew thinner and his life faded, now when Misto asked for his son, Pan, they knew he was reaching his last days. The old cat was weak, indeed, if he had forgotten that just a few days earlier, before Misto grew ill, Pan had left the village. That the red tom would already be too far away from Molena Point for anyone to ever find him—Pan and tortoiseshell Kit were off on an adventure of which they had only dreamed; they had set out for a world where perhaps no sensible feline would venture. They wandered, now, on a journey they would not have begun had they guessed that Pan’s father soon would die.
If, when they departed, Misto had already divined his own illness, he didn’t tell Pan. He had wanted them to pursue their journey free and happy, perhaps the greatest adventure, in this world, that any cat could know.
But then later Misto, caught in the haze of pain medication, would forget they were away, traveling, and would ask for Pan. And then, remembering, the old cat would drop his ears, embarrassed. But then he would look at Dulcie and remember she was expecting kittens and the old cat would smile. In illness, his moods and the clarity of his thinking swung alarmingly, frightening Dulcie, and saddening Joe Grey.
Now on the foggy rooftops Joe and Dulcie dropped down from a high peak to a shingled slope, moving on toward Ocean Avenue, toward the village’s main street. Pausing sometimes, they looked idly into the second-floor windows of scattered penthouses where residents had left their shades up. Folks glancing out while showering or brushing their teeth knew there was nobody up on the roofs to see them—only gliding seagulls, and a pair of prowling cats peering in. They had no idea how their morning rituals amused the two feline observers. But at last the pair moved on, watching the streets and listening—and suddenly they leaped to the roof’s edge.
Paws in the roof gutter, they cocked their ears to a sound barely heard. They caught an elusive aroma drifting on the mist. Every sense alert, they stood seeking through the fog, keen to spot the attacker, hoping they might alert some unwary would-be victim.
But it was only a dowdy woman walking her three leashed beagles, only the hush of her footsteps and of their paws and the faint jingling of their collars.
So far neither the cats nor the cops had any clue to the street prowler. He left footprints that the police photographed or picked up electronically or captured in casts, but they had nothing to match them to. They’d detained no suspect, had found no matching footprints from another crime scene, no shoes tossed into a Dumpster, yet the prints at each attack were different.
Even more puzzling to the cats, the attacker left no scent for them to follow. Always some mélange of competing smells got in their way: diesel exhaust, the heavy aroma of fresh bread and cakes from a nearby bakery, the stink of marigolds crushed underfoot, the overlying exhaust of a vanished car in which the guy might have fled. “Maybe,” Joe had said bitterly, “he can levitate like some would-be comic-book hero.”
Whether the assaults exploded out of cruelty or were born of some unknown reason, or were a sick prank with no real purpose at all, no one yet knew. Nor had the attacker left a clue at any scene, no dropped possession, not even trace evidence of hairs or fabric particles, no lost button; the perp seemed as ghostly as if, indeed, he had materialized from some phantom life.