Grey Wisdom

I looked across the dark lawn from my porch at the silvery-green eyes peering from under my car.

“You may as well come out, I can see you. Why are you staring at me?”

“Why are you outside during our time?” The sleek grey cat stretched as he strolled out of the shadows. “You should be sleeping.”

“He doesn’t sleep much these days,” the fatter of the pair replied as she waddled out. “The one he calls Goblin told me.”

“Is that any of your business? And why are you talking to my cats, anyway?” It irritates me that these nameless and nosy outsiders are prying into my life.

“We inquire after you because it is in our interest. You leave food out for us, and then we don’t have to chase down our own prey. We like that. But why aren’t you sleeping?”

“It’s October, and that’s a difficult month for me.”

“Why?” The larger shadow crouched, then pounced on something small.

“October is one of the worst months of the year for my office.” As I spoke the first cat twisted to groom himself. “It’s also the anniversary of a lot of unpleasantness: my house was burglarized twice in October, I got divorced in October, Hurricane Wilma was in October…”

“Hallowe’en is in October, too.”

“True, but these days the holiday only stresses me out. I set my expectations too high, the world’s attitude toward the celebration has changed so much that it has lost most of its wonder for me. I end up sad.”

“Your people become sad during your holidays. We know this from living with single people.”

The fatter cat lifted her face from whatever she’d been gnawing. “This is your holiday and you cannot enjoy it. Most do not even celebrate, so you cannot share your anger. This is why you cannot sleep.”

“So then tell me, O wise cats, how I can solve this situation. How can I regain some of the spirit of the holiday and bring joy back into my life?”

Their eyes vanished into blackness as they turned away from me.

“That’s it? No answers? Just wander into the shadows and leave?”

Twin blurs leapt through the streetlight’s circle into the shrubbery and were gone. I picked up my glass and struggled to my feet. Four o’clock, I thought, as I entered the house.

Badfoot was waiting by the door. I decided to pick his brain a bit. “Hey, tell me something. In August I had a conversation with Greywhite on the porch and he didn’t reply in such a direct fashion. Why’re they talking to me now?”

As I walked toward the bedroom, I heard him say: “It’s October now.”

[Originally published 20 October 2006]

Ring of stones

The knock on my door came early, too early to be a delivery. It was one of the college students from next door, obviously distraught, trying to talk to me and holding a phone to her head at the same time.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, I called Animal Control but they said we’re not in their jurisdiction, and Miami Shores says they can’t come until this afternoon, and I don’t want to leave him in our front yard.”

Oh no. “Him? A cat?”

“Yeah, he’d been coming around for a few days, but we hadn’t been feeding him or anything, but he was really sweet and would get up in your lap, and his leg is messed up, and he’s dead and I don’t know what to do.”

“You found him in your yard?”

“When I got up this morning. He was so young. We called him Cheerio.” She wipred her red eyes with the back of her free hand.

I told her I would be there in a minute, and got my shoes and a shovel. This is not how I wanted my day to start.

Cheerio was a young orange and white cat, very clean, with a strong body. Between his affection toward people and his general appearance it was obvious he had been a pet. I hadn’t seen him around before, which is surprising, since most of the neighborhood strays end up on my porch eventually.

There was a bloodless gash on his leg and one foot, and his hips and back were hunched in a way the bones shouldn’t have allowed. A hit and run, I guess. We get a lot of them on my street; there’s no stop sign so people floor it for the two blocks between the four lane roads. Not everything is able to get out of the way.

“I’ll take care of Cheerio for you. Thank you for letting me know.” I picked him up and put him in a cardboard box, and then carried him into my backyard. A tree there will give him a shady place to rest, and to play with the others.

When I’d put the shovel away and washed up, I sat on the porch steps for a while. Miss Fuzzy sat a few feet away, washing herself and watching me.

“Did you know him, Fuzzy? Cheerio?”

She glanced up, then away. “Why do you give us such silly names? No, he was new.”

“I don’t think he suffered, for what little that’s worth.” I watched another car rip down the street. “I wish you didn’t have to live outside, Fuzz. I worry about you.”

“Do you think I want that? No, here I am free.”

“You are full of it, girl. You sit on my porch rail all day. You stare at the door waiting for me to bring you food—”

“I catch my own food. Have you forgotten those tree rats I brought you? And the iguana I gave the kittens?”

I shuddered. “No, I haven’t forgotten. But you still whine for food. And when I leave the front door open you come in, too, so don’t give me that ‘I have my freedom’ crap. You’d live inside if you could.”

Another car whizzed by, bass thumping.

“His family will miss him, Fuzzy. They’ll wonder why he didn’t come home, but tell themselves he’s just off playing somewhere. In a day or two they’ll start to worry more, and maybe go and look for him. But they’ll never know for sure what happened, and not knowing is the worst thing of all.”

I thought about the tree in the backyard, now ringed with stones.

“One of these days, girl, I’m going to come out here to feed you and you’ll be gone, the same way Evil Tom and Colonel Hoppy and Lady Grey just stopped coming around. I’ll never know.”

“They left when my kittens came. That is the way.”

She jumped on the rail and began grooming her tail. “We live and we die, the same as your people. Sometimes we are hungry, sometimes we are not. Sometimes there is pain, sometimes there is not. Sometimes we are alone, sometimes we are not.”

She tucked her feet under her chest and put her head down. I knew our conversation was at an end, so I stood to go back in the house.

“Feeder?” She raised her head again. “It’s good that you kept the young one’s body from the dogs.” I stopped with my hand on the door.

“And it’s good that you gave my children homes, so they will not need to rest under your tree.”

Climbing to the moon

I was sitting on the porch steps, rubbing my eyes and sipping my pre-dawn coffee when Colonel Hoppy jumped onto the tiles a few feet from me. He sat on his haunches and regarded me carefully between licks of his paw.

“Good morning, Hoppy. How are you today?”

He paused to stare at me as Lady Gray walked up the sidewalk. His paw received a few more cursory licks, then he spoke, in his quiet and raspy voice.

“You never speak directly. Why?”

The sleek gray mother chimed in as she sidled past me. “He is right. You ask about our health and happiness, and we know that you are being true, but you do not say what is in your heart. Your people seldom do.”

I took another mouthful of coffee and considered this, listening to the wind in the palm fronds. I hate it when they are right.

I looked away into the indigo dawn as I answered. “I’m not very happy.” A slow gaze burned into my neck. “Okay, I am really fucking sad, okay? Is that better?”

Hoppy kept his usual distance, while Gray rubbed my arm. “Are you sad for the kit?”

I turned to my right, to the spot on my porch where the tiny black and white kitten had surprised me one morning. I know most of the cats by name, or by face at least, but this one was a stranger: very small, and very young. And very loud, too, plaintively crying for food as he danced his figure-eights between my ankles. It was when I bent to stroke him that I saw the huge, festering wounds on his shoulder and neck; he had been attacked by a dog and escaped.

I gathered him up, swaddled him in towels, and brought him to the vet. Although they had little hope, he had improved for over a week, sufficiently so that on his third visit the doctors were amazed to learn that this was the same scraggly moglet I had brought in a week earlier. He was walking around without pain, eating, and was tremendously affectionate. He wasn’t strong enough to jump on the couch, though, so he would reach up and tap my leg until I would pick him up and let him rest in my lap. Sometimes I would recline, and he would walk up my body and lay beside me — a tiny, frail ball.

“I did everything I could for him, Gray, Hoppy, you know that, don’t you? It took him to the doctor, I gave him medication, I cleaned his wounds. And he was getting better! I even named him.”

Hoppy scratched, tilted his orange head, yawned, then replied. “Your names are not our names. We know who we are. When you care enough to name us, we are bound together. It is the way of the naming of things; it is what your people do.”

I sighed. “He liked it when I told him stories, you know. I told him about Max the Giant’s terrible accident and how he survived, and about when bossy HobGoblin was just a kitten and afraid of everything, and about brave BadFoot who had to go to the doctor because of an inconsiderate child. He would curl up and listen to my voice and fall asleep, purring.”

I took another sip of coffee. It was stone cold.

“He died, of course. I woke up on the couch, and he was curled at my feet, not breathing. I didn’t want to believe it. I just kept stroking his fur, hoping I was wrong.”

“Yes, we know. We saw him leave your house in the starlight.”

I wiped my eyes and stared at the sky. “Lady Gray, Colonel Hoppy, what happens to your people when they die? Where do they go?”

Gray walked down the steps and lay on the sidewalk in front of me. “Sometimes we go someplace else, into another life. Sometimes we just go away, and none know what happens next. Sometimes…”

She stopped her soft, high song and looked at me. “You made the kit safe and happy and comfortable. He did not end his time in pain and suffering. He was loved. Do not be sad.”

Hoppy broke in with a low growl. “I did not know this kit, but when I saw him walk from your house into the night sky his ears were up and his tail was high and his dark eyes shone. He will be back when he is ready.”

“He walked into the sky?”

“Yes, that is what kits do when they leave their body. They walk into the sky and climb to the moon.”

Hoppy jumped down from the porch into the tall grass, and Lady Gray rose to her feet, stretching luxuriously. I followed her lead and dragged myself up to go back inside.

“Why the moon?”

Hoppy looked at Gray, who turned back toward me. “So they can watch what happens here, of course. Nightwalkers love stories, and kits love them most of all. That is why this small one came to you when he was hurt. For your love, and for your stories.”

Hoppy sniffed loudly. “No, we go because dogs cannot reach us there. Why do you think they howl so when the moon is full? They are frustrated that they can’t hurt us again.”

As they walked away into the grass, I heard Gray’s soft voice. “Now he has you telling stories, too. The world changes, old tom, the world changes.”


[For Legionnaire Ochito, and for Laura]

Walkers

While I was sitting on the porch in the pre-dawn, listening to the hot Miami winds blow through the fronds, Evil Tom joined me for a snack.

“Good morning, Tom. Happy Hallowe’en. What brings you out in the small hours?”

He lifted his shaggy ginger face from the bowl of food and considered me through rheumy eyes. This is my time, Feeder. It is not yours. Why are you out? He returned to his crunching.

“I’ve been sick again, Evil Tom, and I’ve had too much on my mind to rest properly. With the storm coming I decided to get out of the house and enjoy the wind.”

Without looking up: Are you enjoying it?

“It’s okay, I guess, but it isn’t enough. I almost wish we would get a little hurricane, or even a severe storm. I need something with natural force to shake me out of this funk. I mean, it’s Hallowe’en, why can’t I get something a little more primal?”

Tom lumbered to his feet and began grooming his matted and dirty fur. I drank more coffee. In the darkness down the street something was blown over, and dogs began to bark, one, then another, then another.

“Stupid, noisy dogs.”

Stupid, yes, but still dangerous. That’s when swaggering young toms and kittens die, when they believe that dogs are always stupid.

“Well, yes…”

Wanting the winds and rain to come because you hurt is stupid, Feeder. The Trapped Ones and others say you are like a cat. I say you are nothing like a cat.

“The Trapped Ones? You mean, the cats in my house?”

He turned three times then settled onto the terracotta tiles, regarding me balefully. As you wish. They no longer know the joy of the hunt, or the pleasure of moonlight runs in the company of their kind.

“Yeah, but they don’t know the terror of speeding cars, either, or disease, or… wait, why am I bothering to argue with you?”

We sat in silence for a while as the sky shifted from black to indigo. The sounds of trucks on the highway became more frequent, and occasional night people nodded at me as they passed on the sidewalk.

It is your holiday, Feeder, and you haven’t hunted. You spend your nights in the windowless room that stinks of lightning, and not under the sky. If you were my kit I would tell you to hunt one of the rats nesting in the dead palms behind your home, drinking its terror to fire your heart. I know you will not. He yawned broadly. You are no cat.

There are things that walk on this night, Feeder. You know this better than most, but your people make stories about them without understanding. You wear strange cloth, you shout and make noise. You don’t understand.

I started to interject, but he cut me off.

Be silent. I was sick, Feeder, and near my time, and you gave me food and showed me kindness and kept the Dark Cat from me. For that alone I will tell you this. You no longer see the Walkers, but they are still there. We try to keep them from you, but they are of your kind, not ours.

He rose stiffly to his feet, arched his back, and padded slowly to the end of the porch, then leaped lithely into the black-green grass.

As he faded into the shadows, his words drifted across the lawn. Not all masks are cloth — the Walkers are your own. If you want to live, feed yourself.

October Stories: Grey Wisdom

I looked across the dark lawn from my porch at the silvery-green eyes peering from under my car.

“You may as well come out, I can see you. Why are you staring at me?”

Why are you outside during our time? The sleek grey cat stretched as he strolled out of the shadows. You should be sleeping.

He doesn’t sleep much these days, the fatter of the pair replied as she waddled out. The one he calls Goblin told me.

“Is that any of your business? And why are you talking to my cats, anyway?” It irritates me that these nameless and nosy outsiders are prying into my life.

We inquire after you because it is in our interest. You leave food out for us, and then we don’t have to chase down our own prey. We like that. But why aren’t you sleeping?

“It’s October, and that’s a difficult month for me.”

Why? The larger shadow crouched, then pounced on something small.

“October is one of the worst months of the year for my office.” The first cat twisted to groom himself. “It’s also the anniversary of a lot of unpleasantness: my house was burglarized twice in October, I got divorced in October, Hurricane Wilma was in October…”

Hallowe’en is in October, too.

“True, but these days the holiday only stresses me out. I set my expectations too high, the world’s attitude toward the celebration has changed so much that it has lost most of its wonder for me. I end up sad.”

Your people become sad during your holidays. We know this from living with single people.

The fatter cat lifted her face from whatever she’d been gnawing. This is your holiday and you cannot enjoy it. Most do not even celebrate, so you cannot share your anger. This is why you cannot sleep.

“So then tell me, O wise cats, how I can solve this situation. How can I regain some of the spirit of the holiday and bring joy back into my life?”

Their eyes vanished into blackness as they turned away from me.

“That’s it? No answers? Just wander into the shadows and leave?”

Twin blurs leapt through the streetlight’s circle into the shrubbery and were gone. I picked up my glass and struggled to my feet. Four o’clock, I thought, as I entered the house.

Badfoot was waiting by the door. “Hey, tell me something. In August I had a conversation with Greywhite on the porch and he didn’t reply in such a direct fashion. Why’s that?”

As I walked toward the bedroom, I heard him say: It’s October now.

Sweat

Some ill-defined thing in my dreams startled me awake at 3am today. I knew I’d never get back to sleep, so I made a pot of coffee and headed out to the porch to think through some things. What slight breeze there was came laden with African dust, any exotic traces overwhelmed by conversion to prosaic grime. It only took a few minutes sitting on the steps to become sticky with sweat and tropical humidity.

The neighborhood cats were AWOL, probably making their rounds, with the exception of Greywhite Slashface, a grizzled tom whose recent altercation with some night creature had left him both battle-scarred and slightly more amenable to human company. He hobbled into the yard and stretched out under the broken mulberry tree, looking expectantly in my general direction.

“So what do you think, cat. Is Castro dead, or not?” He turned away in disdain, but I wasn’t sure what to make of that. “I think he’s still alive, but probably not for much longer. I don’t like wishing people death, but I might be able to make an exception for him.”

Greywhite pulled himself up and walked a few feet further away, then slid back down into the dark and damp grass, outside the range of my yellow porch light. “Yeah, you are right. It’s too damned hot for politics. Hell, it’s too damned hot to even write.”

The cat looked toward the house, his eye glinting from the darkness. “Yes, I have air conditioning, true. But my power bill was over $250 for the month. That’s a lot of money, you know. But no, you don’t know, do you?”

I straightened my back and felt my shirt fall hot and wet against my skin. “God, I hate this. It’s almost as bad as the two weeks without power after Wilma last year, sitting in my living room with the windows open praying for the air to move. By the way, did you know there’s a storm coming? Chris, this one’s called. Looks like it won’t hit us directly, just some rough storms, but Cuba may be getting hammered by it.”

The cat skulked through the grass toward the warble of a night bird, but paused to look back at me before disappearing into the darkness.

“Hmm, you think Fidel’s using JFK-era weather control satellites to drench the island, staving off any potential revolutionary activities? Hell, I guess it’s no crazier than some of the tinfoil hat theories I’ve heard the last few days.”

A low growl came from around the corner of the house, near the overgrown bougainvillea.

“Okay, okay. Off the record, background only. You got it.”

The sky lightened to indigo. I swatted a few errant mosquitoes stuck to my arms, collected my coffee cup, and went inside for a shower.

It’s too damned hot to make sense right now, anyway.