The Cat

For background on this story and how it came about, you may want to read yesterday’s post first. Short version: the story was inspired by this image, which is the wallpaper on my phone’s lock screen:

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The Cat

I walk with fire on either side of me.

Out of the fire skeletons grope and reach, their black bones smudged pencil sketches on the mist.

I press my hands deeper into my pockets, breaking a seam, the crack tiny and violent.

The path before me is divided by a river of granite, brutalised and shattered by an angry earth.

It is autumn. The world is hurt.

I kick through the fire, the damp embers etched with blackened veins. The leaves cling wetly to my boots, splitting like skin too long underwater.

Up ahead the path rises to nudge through the mist. I know that once I cross the rise, I will see what I have been trying to avoid for four and a half years. So I stand still in the fire and press deeper and the next snap is like a wee bone breaking.

My back jeans pocket vibrates and I know immediately it is Simon, calling from another world. It is 8am here and 8pm with him. He will be working in the garden, where everywhere there will be green waiting to be born. I can see him, in his black gumboots with the red stripe around the top and his old black sweatshirt with the earnest daubs of green paint, remnants of a weekend when we were both thirty and the fence was as new as us.

I can see him, phone at his ear, the other hand on his hip, staring at another fence, wondering if it, too, might need a new coat. As he listens to the foreign ring tone – one long ring, not two short ones – he will move the hand on his hip to swipe at his nose when it itches. He will leave a smear of new soil on his face. It will still be there in the morning.

There will be nothing dead to cling to him.

I reach into my jeans pocket and swipe without seeing. I have to do it twice before I get it right and the vibrating stops. Isn’t it wonderful, I think. To cut communication with a single blind swipe.

I lift a clump of leaves and smudge the fire through my fingers. It is firmer, more complicated than it had looked on the ground. Small twigs and stones and fibres had been holding the mulch of it together before my hand came to break it. My fingers are left cold and gritty. Leaf limbs cling. I do not put my hand back in my pocket.

Simon’s attempt to reach me forces me forward again. He will try again and I will not be able to swipe him silent a second time. He will want a progress report. I want at least to be able to tell him that I have reached the top of the rise.

A branch stretches across the path, blocking my passage. I crouch to pass under it and stumble, and a sharp stone greets my knee, and I cry out. The forest snatches away the sound. It cares only for its own silence.

I straighten up, breathing hard. I catch movement over to my right and I turn slowly, not out of fear but because this place has sucked the quickness out of me. The stone that hurt me grinds beneath me.

I almost don’t see it as it crouches close to a tree. It is utterly still. Its eyes are giant. It is a cat, and for a moment it does not make sense. Then it moves to shake the damp earth from its paws and I crouch down to beckon it, my gritty hand held out empty. My lips kiss together. Kiss, kiss, kiss. Here, puss, puss, puss. Then, remembering: minou, minou, minou.

The cat is suspended, tormented by its choice. Every muscle, every sinew, is preparing for flight. It sniffs, twice. I look down to the ground, avoiding its eyes. The grass whispers and the cat is closer. I can hear its shivering. I stare at the stones, looking for the one that wounded me.

The air shifts and the small body is within arm’s reach, taut and throbbing and brave. I glance up at whorls and swirls of grey and black. I reach out a finger and whisper it along a perfect curve. We are terrified together.

I risk two more fingers, and the cat risks an exhale, shifting on its paws. I imagine I can hear its heart, frantic and perfect.

I stretch out my open hand. My back pocket vibrates and there is an explosion of grey, a betrayed streak that pistons through the fire to the green beyond and is gone.

I stare after it as my phone stops, then starts again.

“Hello.”

“Hello? You OK?

“I’m fine. I’m almost there. Please don’t keep ringing me. I’m not a baby.”

“Sorry? Not a very good line. What did you say?”

“I said, stop treating me like a baby.”

“You’ve seen the baby? What…”

“Simon, you don’t have to…”

“Was it another dream? Shall I call Dr Moore? I…”

I swipe again, and he is lost. I picture him staring at the phone like he’s trying to make sense of it, the smear of spring soil a living thing on his skin. I turn the phone to silent, put it back in my pocket, and start up the rise.

The trees work harder here, spearing into the sky, severe on their milky background. There is less green, less red. My legs start to burn. My armpits itch, and I breathe hard through my nose. The smell of wet and decay fills me up. I look back to see how far I have climbed and there is nothing for what seems like forever.

I reach the top of the rise.

When you have dreamed of something for years, something you once knew well and loved and then left, it starts to become something else. When you see it again, the distance between what you dreamed and what is in front of you can be vast. The church is smaller than I remember, and less pretty. It crouches in the landscape, its stone walls a pocked skin against the cold. The white wooden door has a new black latch.

I take my hands from my pockets and clasp them in front of me like a timid boxer. My fingernails, bitten and unevenly filed, taunt my raw skin. I start down the other side of the rise, my boots clasping on the slippery carpet of leaves and slick stone. My thighs and buttocks clench.

When, halfway down, I reach the church gate, it is partway open, offering an ambiguous welcome.

I do not look at the gravestones as I pass, tipsy grey sentinels in broken ranks, their unread epitaphs slowly becoming unreadable. The path is cracked and eaten by moss. I pass around the side of the church and across a swamp of grass to the far right corner of the church yard. There is only one tree in the corner. A sapling when we planted it, it is now taller than me. Dotted around the trunk’s base are remnants of fruit: tight and shiny globes pecked half away, barely-there piles of once-ripe flesh, broken down and broken down and now part of the earth; part of the leaves and the dirt and the rain.

The tree looks young and strong. I lay my cold hands on it, on the smooth and knotted bark. I bow my head and I tell you silently that I have come back, just as I promised. I have come back to tell you that even though I am thousands of miles and countless hours away, even though it was years ago and you were never really mine, even though you let go before I was able to see and love your face, even though your Daddy tells me and perhaps I agree that it is time to try again, you are as close as my heartbeat and my breath and this bark and this tree and this place of fire and mist and remembering. And I will never let you go.

I open my eyes and the whirls and knots of the tree’s bark shift and resolve and shift once more. I can hear the growing.

I take the small pack from my back and prop it against the tree, raising one knee, my wounded knee, to support it as I open the zip. I place the pink posy at the foot of the tree, on a bed of fire. I say your name, once.

As I straighten up, I see the cat, trembling its wild face around the side of the church.

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