She stood beside the bed waiting for the next command, acting out her baker’s apprentice role. Her father sat in the bed, kneading the sheet on his lap into massive quantities of imaginary bread dough to be proofed in a big nonexistent wooden bowl, real sweat rolling down his face. When he indicated it was ready by pulling his hands away and speaking a few unintelligible words of Polish, she lifted the balled up sheet “bread dough” in both hands and took it away, turning to place it on the seat of the reclining chair in the cramped institutional room. He either approved or didn’t see what she’d done, she couldn’t tell, and he barely took a break before he began kneading another sheet into a ball.
She had taken a guess this was what he wanted the first time he’d done this; he was speaking Polish, which she knew in only simple conversational phrases. He waved his hand and in an irritated voice said something that included the word mąka which she knew meant flour. Did he need more flour? Again she took a guess and picked up a bed pillow and carried it over to him, setting it on the bed beside him. He picked it up and poured imaginary flour from it, so she guessed, then put it down and went back to kneading the bed sheet. He wasn’t strong enough to support himself walking, but his muscles were rippling as he vigorously kneaded the sheet.
What was he seeing? She was fairly certain he was not seeing this room with those glassy, feverish eyes. Her father’s eyes were hazel and soft, but these eyes were squinted with effort, then glaring sharp and black with his dilated pupils when he looked at her and gave his order. Probably a medication effect, but who knew? Dementia was a strange thing, the doctors and nurses had said. You never knew what you were going to get, or for how long. It was hard to tell if they were “in there”.
She had had her introduction to this mind play a couple of years ago, the day she had driven him to the hospital, on the last day he’d ever spent in the house she’d grown up in. As her mother sat before her vanity back in the bedroom putting on makeup and brushing her hair, getting ready to leave the house, she had been in the kitchen with her father. This was not at all unusual, but the conversation was. Her father had stopped conversing years ago, speaking one or two words in answer to questions but never sentences, and certainly not initiating talk. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson Syndrome a few years before that day, and the discussion of symptoms and effects had pretty much explained the silent, shuffling, stone-faced father she’d grown up with. Now, with medication for the condition, he talked all the time.
They had a nice, normal exchange, even a laugh or two. Then he walked down the hall to check on her mother and after a short exchange heard him say to her, “That’s a really nice girl out there. Who is she?”
He didn’t know who she was. And in the two years following that day he seemed to be moving steadily backward in his life, discarding memories as he went. She was the youngest child, and he was now back before the time she was born, some time in the late 1950s when her brother was a toddler and her sister in grade school, they had just moved into that house, her mother was still young. Since then her father had forgotten Allen too, and then her sister Ann, though he seemed to hold onto his memory of his wife. Eventually even she slipped away to reappear unexpectedly as he moved through the war years when he’d been a cook and baker in India, the years during the Great Depression when he’d worked in the family bakery, jobbed around as a musician and picked up any odd job he could find.
The bakery had been the family business. His father had brought it in his head from Poland and built a family bakery, not on Main Street, but in a poorer neighborhood where people really needed the bread and would buy from an immigrant. The bakery had done well and her father, first born, had nearly been born in the bakery in the years when his father and mother were just starting out. Then he had worked in the bakery from a young age before and after school.
After the banks had failed in 1929 and so many people were unemployed, hungry and losing their homes, they kept baking bread and just gave it away if people couldn’t pay for it. In 1931, at age 12, her father left sixth grade to make bread and pastries and drive the delivery cart, pulled by a pony that belonged to a neighbor. They lost the bakery in 1936, and her father along with his father and brothers looked for any work they could get until 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the World War broadcast on the radio, like a serialized daily drama, reality for Americans. The brothers enlisted, all were lucky to make it safely back. The family bakery was never resurrected.
When he had begun this wild bakery activity, giving orders in Polish and sweating real sweat, her sister had been in the room and called her to say she was probably the only one who knew what he was doing, and maybe even knew some Polish.
His family had spoken Polish at home, and though they also spoke English he didn’t speak it regularly until he went to school, and spoke both easily all through his life. But on the rare times he spoke now it was only Polish, his sunken soft hazel eyes wandering in confused silence otherwise. If her guess was correct about him marching steadily back in time he’d be a teenager now, or even younger. She’d tried to pull out a few Polish phrases but he didn’t even respond to that. He just kept kneading sheets and sweating, seeming angry.
Wow, she thought, he really hated baking, he wanted to be a musician, and here he’s stuck baking in his hospital bed…until he dies? She looked at his gnarled hands and veiny arms, thin from wasting with this disease, his back hunched from decades of bending over the bench, those dark, piercing eyes that were not his, and wondered what he did see. It wasn’t this room, it wasn’t her. What part of her father’s childhood was he inhabiting now?
The bakery just below street level was dim and hot with the fire to keep the ovens going, stuffy with the rain. The street was at eye level, the cobbles a glistening bumpy pattern. A waft of cool damp air drifting down the steps to the open door cooled his face momentarily, but the sweat still dripped from his nose and chin, ran down his arms from under his shirt. Maybe the heat and rain would make the bread proof faster and he could get out of this place before dawn and hide somewhere to sleep. They treated him like a servant and barely let him eat. He was supposed to be an apprentice, learning the trade, and he had learned it alright. He seemed to have a talent for it that even he had never known. But this couple had stopped baking since he had started, taking care of the shop and traveling around town to sell even more so he had to work even harder, never giving him credit for the increased quality of their breads and pastries, and or course he was unpaid.
He had been glad to get away from his drunken father who roared and swung a meaty punch toward anyone who came near him. His oldest brother wasn’t scared of their father and would take over the smithy. His other brothers had gone off to be soldiers and had no idea if they’d ever return. His sisters stayed with his mother and each vowed to take her with them when they married. His father had told him to go to the baker, who had no children, that would be his trade. That was it, just leave, walk across town and go to live with strangers. As the youngest son, he knew it was taking a trade elsewhere or being a soldier or sailor, and so he went.
He had been glad at first, until in a year they barely let him out of the bakery, no more fun, no more education, he couldn’t even finish schooling and would be trapped, working in their bakery until they gave it to him or died. He didn’t say much about it, didn’t talk to much of anyone, he just seethed and kept it all inside.
He had heard customers talking about people leaving Poland, leaving all the countries in Europe for a new country, full of other opportunities, sailing for months to get there. He hadn’t had much school, but he had seen maps, checked them when his brothers left for the war, checked them again when people mentioned this “America”. He couldn’t even comprehend the distance, a boat, total strangers, and didn’t even think about speaking a different language.
Yes, the heat and moist air would raise this bread to perfection. Yes, he knew his baking, good enough to have his own bakery, which would never happen here. He finished kneading the bread dough, rolled it into the proofing bowl, pulled together his shoes and his coat and cap, walked out the door and squinted his dark eyes into the drizzly night, and headed west, toward where the English coast was on the map, where a ship would take him to that new land, where he could claim the success and the life that would be his.
This story is mostly true. The father is my father, and I was the apprentice baker in his room in the nursing home. We had that conversation, he did seem to move backward in time over the years, and he did make bread of his bed sheets. And he did have those frightening eyes that, for all my father’s distance through Parkinson Syndrome, I never saw at any other time in his life. I also never forgot him sweating in his very real bakery.
I have been working on researching my family history. Years ago when I began I could not find my father’s father anywhere. I barely knew him because he died when I was quite young, but my fiction writer’s mind was putting this story together even then, thirty years ago. That part of the story is fictional.
I resolved to at least draft the short stories I’ve been carrying around in my head all these years, just to see if they actually work and to get into the habit of writing them. I am slowly working on a few, but this one practically wrote itself in the first draft with two rounds of rewrites. I hope I can keep it up.
Her tears, somehow cold as they emerged, mingled with the melting of snow that relentlessly pelted her face as if to add volume to the fountain that poured forth from her swollen eyes. Her face was numb in the blizzard wind that scoured her bare skin in the frigid night, turning the tears and melted snow to ice on her chapped cheeks, constantly scraped by the glassy crystals that swirled around her head like angry bees before finally embedding their sting into her skin. She visualized her face as the smooth pale marble of a statue of some unknown saint in a church courtyard, an eternally sad and enigmatic expression in her colorless, sightless eyes, the carved lids and cheeks slowly gathering snow yet pocked with tiny droplets of blood where each crystalline snowflake had broken through the stiff skin. It had all become so surreal she played with the idea she was actually dead and hallucinating this walk through the woods as some bizarre after-life travel through a tunnel toward “the light”.
But even though she could barely see through frozen lashes, and the pain of snow crystals forced into her eyes when she tried to open them further, she knew there was no light ahead in this tortuous place, no end of the tunnel of trees rising on either side, their canopy above, the views ahead and behind obscured in the blizzard haze, and her other senses dulled by the persistent hiss and scraping and numbing cold of the storm. It was as if she walked in a bubble of her own suffering, made worse by a few falls into the deepening, drifting snow that chilled her to waves of uncontrollable shivering and obscured her footsteps, and the smooth path of what she dragged behind her. She had thought to follow her path back if she felt in danger at any point, despite any consequences, but as if to mock her the storm had worsened quickly as she traveled, its force not even broken by the dense woods, and closed in around her. Though these woods had often been a refuge, the isolation created by her dulled senses and deepening cold had made it unfamiliar and hostile. Fear began to push aside the veil that blinded her senses as she slowly acknowledged the reality of her situation.
She stopped, caught her breath, tried to still her shivering and looked around, trying to focus on objects, rocks, trees, things that were solid and tangible, trying to find a familiar pattern that might identify where she was in the woods. The wind and snow pressed against her, forced into her eyes and nose and mouth, invasive, almost smothering, even when she turned to face behind her, away from the wind. Is this real? Am I freezing to death? Was her life really in danger? What had she done? None of this was what she’d intended. She knew it would be risky at night in winter to begin with, but she knew these woods, even with paths covered in snow because their shape was easy to find as they wound clearly among the tree trunks, free of brush. Animals also trod the same paths, those familiars with whom she felt a kinship as she walked, alone, for that welcome respite of solitude and silence. She had often wanted to simply stay once she’d entered the woods and shed the cacophony of everyday life, feeling the relief, breathing more easily, smiling, feeling graceful and balanced and in time forgetting her own self, simply feeling a member of this woodland community, even in winter.
But that familiarity was not true knowledge. She only knew what she enjoyed and found familiar, not all that was there, and certainly not the woods in a life-threatening blizzard.
I got myself into this. I knew I didn’t really know the woods. I walk everywhere in all weather, but not in the woods. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to handle the weather and finding my way. Was it really worth it to take a shortcut through the woods because I didn’t want to walk all the way around on the streets, even though I was leaving later than I’d intended? Am I going to die in these woods tonight because I had to get this rocker out of someone’s trash pile and get it home before the storm hit?
This short story was a submission for the Winter 2016 Writer’s Weekly 24-hour Short Story Contest. You sign up ahead of time, and on the day and time the countdown begins, always a Saturday, the page on the WW website that includes the topic goes live and entrants get a link in e-mail. I actually won a sub-award, one of 15 door prizes.
I don’t remember the topic exactly and didn’t copy it down, but I do remember that in it the person was dragging something through the woods at night.
You don’t need to use the exact text or even the scene described, just use it as a starting point. The instructions said they liked surprise endings. With my recent experiences outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures and musings on the tenuous nature of life, I thought I’d share this story this Sunday.
Several years ago I was driving home on a Christmas night, traveling along a dark two-lane road in a somewhat rural area that was familiar and fairly close to home. As dusk fell the light dusting of snow around me was tending to violet and the perfectly clear blue sky above me was also shading to violet in the east. As I turned a bend in the road I met with surprise a big bright and creamy full moon that had risen above the uneven line of pine and deciduous trees nearly silhouetted against the sky on the horizon. I smiled at the pure beauty of the scene and as I drove along, the moon seemed to follow me on my left.
I had just driven first my brother back to the nursing home where he was living while recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and then my mother, who was living in personal care in the after effects of lung cancer and congestive heart failure. I had cooked a Christmas dinner at my house, set everything aside to keep warm and gone to pick up each of them. We ate our dinner and I packed a few leftovers for each of them before getting them back in time for dinner medications. Now I was on my way home to pack up the rest of the dinner, wash dishes and clean up my kitchen.
Deep in thought about these two and about my own life since they’d suffered their illnesses, I considered our day then moved to other Christmases, other holidays, other family members, other homes. In my distraction I slowed down with the rises and falls and bends in the road in the growing darkness, but was still aware of that full moon following me out of the corner of my eye.
A small valley opened out on my right, a familiar thing to one who walks the woods and valleys in Western Pennsylvania: a level area filled with young trees, scrub and brambles which had recently enough been the rich bottomland field of a farm, bordered by a narrow stream, and behind that a rather steep tree-covered hill. These small valleys appeared on both sides of the road, and with a little traveling the valley would rise up into a hill that bordered the road, up and down, the road, the landscape, the rhythm was comforting, like rocking slowly in a rocking chair.
But as I passed this little valley I noticed movement. I knew it was probably just a deer as this was the time of day they moved about and that was the perfect area for them to be having an evening meal. Though I hadn’t been facing that direction and didn’t actually see anything directly, the movement hadn’t seemed to be a deer, it had seemed human to me.
That was not a problem, really, the little valley was essentially someone’s back yard and it would not be unusual for them to be walking around there even on Christmas, but something about the figure had also seemed familiar, I had no idea why. Even though I wanted to get back home and clean up my kitchen, I slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. If there’s a possibility, I like to pursue these little ideals that arise, stopping to explore, but I rarely have time to.
I had passed the valley so it was now behind me, but I backed up along the berm of the road to a spot where I could see the valley.
That silent pale yellow moon still shone on my left, risen slightly higher above the horizon than before, shone directly into the little space, lighting the snow cover to a pale silver violet and the tree trunks to varying shades of pale gray against the charcoal-shadowed hill in the background. Everything seemed still, but I detected movement flitting among the trees, thought I saw the glint of moonlight on hair, on an arm, a dress. I opened my car window and shut off my radio and then my car’s engine. If those were people moving down there, they should be crunching in the snow, but I heard no sound in the crisp, clear air.
But I felt such a strong presence. Quietly opening my door and standing up in the bits of snow and gravel at the edge of the grass along the road, I heard only far off sounds, a plane in the sky, a car traveling somewhere, a dog barking. The air was so clear I thought I’d hear sounds from miles away traveling quickly through the cold, windless darkness, leaving little virtual contrails as they moved through the infinity of a cold winter night, but nothing came up from the valley, neither from hooves nor feet.
And if I was reading this and didn’t know the story I’d be yelling, “You idiot! Get back in the car!” No, this isn’t going to turn into a made-for-TV movie—you are safe to read on without fear. I am cautious and always aware, but didn’t feel in any way threatened, in fact I felt safe and welcome.
As I stood there, one hand on my open car door, I thought I recognized one of the figures out of the corner of my eye, and as it is with focusing on subjects in near darkness the figure disappeared when I looked directly at it. But I knew it was my mother, walking quickly and gracefully as she had done when young, laughing soundlessly over her shoulder before disappearing into the darkness. Then I saw one of my aunts, also laughing but in a conversation with someone else, happy for once in her life. And as I stood there I saw other relatives, my brother and sister, aunts and uncles, even ones I’d never known and only seen in photos, just a few seconds each, and all were happy and laughing and moving here and there, the little valley was full of these specters.
Then I realized that each of these were the people I’d been thinking about as I drove along. Had I manifested them? Was I hallucinating? I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet, waiting until I was back home in my warm kitchen in my stocking feet and wearing an apron, washing my dishes and singing along with the radio.
But here they were in this magical little valley and what had made me slow my car, had drawn me out to experience it was the joy in the scene, they were all enjoying themselves, happy and laughing, something that had not always been so in real life. Here they all were together in this little parallel universe.
No, I had been thinking so deeply about them all, remembering where I had memories or simply imagining those who I’d never met. When I create a scene for artwork or writing I visualize it pretty completely and for a while as the goal of my work it is very real to me. In that manner of visualizing, in that dusky time of day when I feel the veil of reality thin and the closeness of those who aren’t with me along with that magical moon and its light among the trees, my thoughts for those brief seconds became real, and I saw them as I wanted them to be, or perhaps as they really were without the worries and weariness of everyday life, happy to be together.
I have a white cotton napkin with a woven pattern of broken stripes like dotted lines in pink, blue, green, yellow and violet. The colors are faded now and it’s spotted with stains I can’t remove, but each of those stains is a memory as bright and clear as the colors once were of a series of special Christmas dinners.
I didn’t use it as a napkin, instead it lined and covered my little bread basket when I hosted my mother and brother for these dinners. Each of them lived in personal care for very different reasons and quite far apart. I was responsible for the welfare of each of them which included not only critical health matters but also social time. Their lives would never be “normal” again, i.e., the life they had lived before their health crises, but I would do as many things as I could to give them “normal” moments. That focused on holidays, and food.
In April 2000, four months after I’d left my day job to become a self-employed commercial artist working at home, a 2:00 a.m. phone call sent me to the trauma unit where my brother lay unconscious after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a fall. A lifelong alcoholic, often homeless, his options at age 43, if he recovered, were to try to make it on his own, which he’d always failed to do, or to move to a group home. I gave myself a crash course at other options, knowing his behavior would make a group home a total fail for him. I set a path of recovery with the help of many social workers, doctors and therapists.
Moving in with our mother after rehab was a possibility, but as I drove with our mother to visit him twice weekly for several months, I noticed her voice change, her strong personality soften, and intuitively knew something was wrong and that move was not a possibility. I moved my brother from the physical rehabilitation facility to a nursing home 50 miles away from me, the only one that would accept a 43-year-old 6’4” former alcoholic with daily grand mal seizures, though he was ambulatory, talking and taking care of himself. I was grateful for their understanding and generosity.
I started working with my mother’s primary care physician to find the source of her changes. An exam and basic tests found nothing and the doctor quickly grew annoyed at my regular phone calls with what I saw were new developments, she saying my mother was fine. I persisted, the doctor said she’d order some x-rays just to confirm what the blood tests had shown, and there on the chest x-ray was the spot on my mother’s left lung. It was almost too small to biopsy, but that biopsy showed it was small cell carcinoma which needed to be removed as quickly as possible. At age 76, a smoker for 55 years with heart disease and mild emphysema, she was still a good candidate for surgery. We planned her surgery and the tests leading up to it, and because she lived alone, me within a mile, I looked for assistance for her care and let the neighbors know.
Her surgery went well, but her heart disease kicked up a fuss as she recovered, causing blood pressure spikes, seizures and a few days later she suffered a stroke. She was not in a coma, but in a state called vascular dementia, awake but not responding to her surroundings. Doctors can’t predict if or how a person will recover from this because the vascular activity can cause brain damage. As it persisted for weeks with my mother on life support I moved her to a critical care hospital. The length of time and lack of change indicated she would likely not recover at all. Orphan’s Court appointed me her legal guardian and I began to organize her home and papers for the eventual decisions, visiting her daily, usually twice, and bringing my brother from his nursing home to visit weekly.
But about six weeks later during a visit she turned to look right at me and, because the tracheostomy tube prevented her from vocalizing, simply mouthed “coffee”. I laughed! Wow, that was some nap, I guess you would need coffee! Yes, she did recover, and ended up going back home after a few months of rehabilitation. But she was weakened and developed pneumonia or congestive heart failure frequently enough that the following autumn an extended stay in the hospital led to a move to a personal care home, which became permanent.
Just a month prior to that I had moved my brother to an assisted living apartment as he entered a program to give him continued physical, occupational and daily living therapy. Both of them kept me busy with doctor appointments and paperwork and hospital stays, and I was still self-employed with a fairly busy business, but holidays became more important than they had ever been.
I love to cook, and they ate nourishing though institutional meals and wanted home cooking. I made plenty of post-parade meals and cookouts on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Fourth of July as we celebrated our mother’s birthday. The personal care home always invited my brother and me to an Easter meal. But Thanksgiving and Christmas, vegetarian though I am, and though there were only three of us, I made a huge amount of food and desserts. I could barely afford it, and both holidays fell during a very busy time for me as both a commercial artist preparing advertising and campaigns for commercial customers and commissioned paintings and gifts for fine art customers, but I never questioned the time or the money.
The two places were at least 50 miles apart and the journey took quite some time on both highways and back roads. I cooked the dinner at my house and in mid-afternoon set everything aside to keep warm, hopped in my car to pick up my brother first as the farthest distance, and then our mother, closer to my home. I sat my mother down with a tiny glass of wine and set the napkin-draped basket of fresh warm biscuits and the butter dish next to her as she remarked on that year’s table setting. My brother mashed the potatoes, I served their favorite broccoli with cheese sauce. They piled their plates and ate as much as they could hold. We exchanged small practical gifts, I packed leftovers for each, then we got back into the car so they could get back in time for evening medications.
There had been much unhappiness through the years, and no small amount around Christmas itself, but together, we created a tradition for just a few years, made from what we could manage to do within physical, social and medical constraints. My mother and brother are both gone now, but every time I see that napkin I remember the basket of warm biscuits, and my mother pulling one open to spread butter in my warm and bright kitchen as the sun set on Christmas Day.
I submitted this story to the Chicken Soup for the Soul people to be included in an anthology of stories about holiday traditions. The book has not been published yet, but we are permitted to share our stories on our personal blogs. I’ll be sure to note if the story was published.
One night not so long ago a young and slender black cat quickly and silently trotted down the sidewalk of the neighborhood where he lived, a long and graceful shadow against the moonlit snow, disappearing completely into the shadows of shrubs and cars and doorsteps when he needed to stop for respite from the wind.
The night was cold, cold, just plain cold as that straight and icy wind surged down the street like a ghostly wave, straight off the frozen river, enveloping him in a blanket that penetrated his fur as his paws crunched on the snow. Reaching a familiar front door he leapt past it onto a windowsill and eagerly looked inside, to see only darkness. As usual his new person wasn’t home and there was no way for him to get inside to where there was at least warmth, if not also some food, unless the young man had forgotten that again too. He didn’t mind living on mice if he at least had a warm and safe place to sleep for a while each day, but he hadn’t found the young man home at all for days.
He leaped down from the windowsill back to the snowy sidewalk. Out of the cover of the sill the sudden blast of a circling gust of wind at his back lifted his fur and filled between each hair with cold so deep he thought he’d freeze in place. Trotting quickly he reached the end of an alley at the corner of the house and quickly turned into the shadow, breaking into a little canter without the wind buffeting him about, hurrying to reach the steps that led up to the deck on the second floor of the house.
Little lights were twined on the railing all the way up the steps and on the railing around the deck, and even a few around the windows. This cheered him for the occupants who had once lived here had always had these lights—perhaps they were back! The rail around the deck was covered in snow and ice and he had often stepped onto it easily, balancing along it with his tail high in the air to look into other windows and the door, hoping to be noticed by the people who lived there. Yellow light streamed from the windows and he hopped lightly onto the sill of the one that looked into the room where the humans ate but a curtain was drawn across, and though he could see shapes moving behind it and hear voices inside, he could not see anything clearly, and they could not see him at all.
He knew the former occupants were not in there. These humans kept the windows covered and had never answered to his meows though he had announced himself loudly in his high-pitched sing-song greeting. They never seemed to notice him at all.
It wasn’t these people with the little dogs that he wanted anyway. He hoped to catch sight of the large black cat who had lived there and the kind woman who lived with her, the woman who had kept a bowl just for him inside the door in that eating room with the bright yellow light, who would let him in no matter when he appeared at the window, tapping his paws, or stood up and drummed at the door, and would fill that bowl to the brim with tasty crunchies. Both she and the black cat would watch him eat but make no move to tell him to leave, and he would stay for a while after his meal, bathing and giving into his drowsiness in the quiet warmth of the room before awakening, washing his face and asking at the door to leave.
He might have stayed but he knew the room and all the other rooms around it belonged to that black lady cat who watched him quietly with her green eyes, who seemed to understand his hunger and his need for these few moments of companionship, though she made it clear without a word or a move that all this was indeed hers, and the human was hers too. He didn’t mind her rules about how long he could stay or what was hers. That she let him in at all was a great honor and he would never overstep his bounds and risk going without these few brief moments of security.
But she no longer lived in this place at the top of the long steps, nor her person, and the little lights had disappeared long ago. The young man on the first floor to whom the woman had entrusted him just before she disappeared had been fun at first, kind of like one of his unneutered feline buddies, but the guy was home less and less, and sometimes he was home but didn’t answer the meows and tapping at the door and window. And he never had crunchies for the cat, much less food for himself.
In desperation, the young cat left the heights of the deck. After a pause at the end of the dark alley he plunged into the wind booming down the street, squinting his eyes and folding back his ears against his head as he turned toward one more place, the place where he’d lived before he started wandering, wandering because those humans had not let him in but had wanted him to stay outdoors around the house to catch the vermin they attracted with their garbage.
There wasn’t much hope he’d find any warmth or food or pets there, but he had to keep moving or he himself would freeze in this frozen city. The night had been growing quite dark as the moon was covered by clouds moving quickly across the sky, and as he hurried down the sidewalk on slender legs blurred by the motion of his rapid trot on freezing paws he began to hear the click of hard icy pellets hitting the snow and shrubs and houses and cars all around him, and speckling the delicate skin of his ears like little bee stings, and landing on his fur.
The windows of that house were dark anyway, as were most along this street, though many had those little lights outside that were still shining brightly. He had found they were actually a little warm if you got close to them but decided that would not be enough to keep him warm. He ducked under the front porch, shook himself from head to tail then arched his back and fluffed out his fur for extra insulation. Tucking himself into a familiar protected spot he lowered himself to the ground, curling all four paws underneath his belly and wrapping his long tail around himself to seal in the warmth and try to thaw his toes. After a few shuffles so that all his paws and legs were comfortable, he tucked his chin into the fur of his chest, and in the shadows he looked like a slightly misshapen fuzzy black ball with ears.
He had no idea what he would do without food or water, or a warm place to sleep on this frigid night. He was exhausted and unwilling to step out into the now thickly falling snow to look…where? What else was there out there that he could possibly eat? Everything was frozen, even in the garbage cans, which he had tried earlier, before the darkness fell. He closed his eyes, gathered all his warmth together and lightly dozed to give himself a break from the cold and hunger.
He felt a familiar feline presence approaching. He had no idea how much time had passed, looking at how much snow had piled around the covering of the porch. Another larger and older black cat entered underneath and quietly crouched a short distance away. It was his friend, Wiccan, a wise and ageless neutered male who had always been a mentor to all the cats on the street, and especially to the slender and wandering young black cat. His presence itself was a comfort.
After a brief and companionable silence while they both closed their eyes and tucked their chins to sense the emotional space the other was inhabiting, Wiccan turned his face in the other cat’s direction, slightly opening his eyes and blinking a consoling message.
Young Pumpkin, you could come to our house. You cannot come in, but my human would give you food and a box to sleep in. It is better than freezing to death in this deep and frozen night. Because you know you will.
Pumpkin waited a moment before answering, turning his head lightly in the direction of Wiccan.
I would take your kindness and be glad for the food and the box, but I don’t want just food and a box anymore, he said, not opening his eyes. I want a home, enough to be willing to die for it. I am tired of wandering, and if this night is my last then that is how it was meant to be.
He paused, then continued with a sentiment he wasn’t even certain he’d intended to share.
I want to find the ladycat Mlle. Daisy and her human. I know we found them once after they disappeared from the top of the steps inside those windows, you took me there.
He turned and tucked his nose into the fur of his narrow chest, breathing his own warmth back into himself, his energy for the moment spent.
Pumpkin, you know they would have taken you in at any time if you had stayed there.
Pumpkin flicked and swiveled his ears, not lifting his nose from his chest.
I wasn’t ready. I was still responsible to another human, insufficient as they were, and they had not released me to join a new family.
Wiccan knew this was true. He also knew a cat had to make his own move sometimes and break the ties with the life that no longer suited him or was literally killing him, especially if he had found the home that was right for him. Pumpkin was a good, honest and gentle cat, deserving of a home and humans who would respect and return his love and loyalty. It was why Wiccan had once led Pumpkin around the corner to the noisy and dangerous street and to the front door of the limestone building where he’d seen the woman entering and leaving, and Mlle. Daisy in her dignified repose in the bay window, watching the street through narrowed green eyes. But Pumpkin was right, he had not been ready, he was still tied to the family that had taken him in as a kitten, and a loyal cat like Pumpkin did not break his ties easily or without the clarity of a mutual decision.
Wiccan tucked his chin. The stillness under the porch within the ethereal whisper of the swirling and falling snow outside had fashioned a dreamlike, timeless space. He swiveled his ears and searched this night for an answer.
Wiccan knew what it would be before he even found it; the nudge of this vision on his consciousness was the reason he’d left the warmth of his home to come to find Pumpkin before the emaciated young cat really did freeze to death in some spot where he’d taken shelter. Though he was weakening from the months of deprivation, Pumpkin’s will and life force were strong. But Wiccan had seen a frozen Canadian night full of howling wind and falling snow take down many a strong-willed being, feline and otherwise. Wiccan took seriously his responsibility to all the felines on this street, and he knew he needed to help Pumpkin through this transition or he would die.
In this quiet, concentrated space, he followed the vision as it unfolded. He saw the new place, Mlle. Daisy curled in her red brocade bed, where the woman now lived with Mlle. Daisy, and with a man who had visited before they moved from the place at the top of the stairs where Pumpkin had just visited, hoping to find them. Wiccan could see they were inside the windows at the very top of the building, in the back, and each window had a gentle beckoning light like a beacon, a point to focus on to find one’s way. It was so strong and clear he felt Pumpkin could see some of these details along with him, in that way that cats share ideas.
So strong, in fact, that Wiccan suddenly stood up and arched his back and shook himself from head to tail, feeling a certain urgency. He walked over to Pumpkin and gently burrowed his nose in the fur behind Pumpkin’s ear and snuffled, a dominant cat’s gentler indication that he would be followed. Wiccan then turned and walked out from under the porch into the falling snow, leaving fresh tracks in the deepening snow on the sidewalk, knowing the young cat would join him.
Pumpkin got up and without the warming stretch and head shake simply followed Wiccan, following faith in the one being in his world who he knew cared for him, and the little flashes of Wiccan’s visions he’d perceived through the accumulating fog in his being. They faded into the falling snow, buffeted by gusts, two shadows in one path, then disappeared, their pawprints filling with new snow almost as soon as they had passed.
They neared the end of the street but did not turn onto the new street. Instead they crossed to the opposite sidewalk just before the corner and entered the back yard of the house at the end. Suddenly in the lee of the buildings the sudden lack of wind actually made the air seem warmer and all was quiet, the wind and street sounds muffled. They crossed that yard and another in a straight line, ducking under the hedges as they passed from one yard to the next. When they reached the third yard Wiccan turned toward the shadows and headed for the set of steps at the back of the building. It was much as Pumpkin had seen in Wiccan’s thoughts, the long, long steps taking turns and angles on their way up, the snow swirling lazily down as the wind swept it over the building then dropped it to fall gently into the darkness behind. That darkness was broken only by two tiny bright lights toward which they were now headed, Wiccan leading the way through the deepening snow, up and up and up the steps.
Pumpkin followed, unsure what would happen, but feeling a surge of warmth and energy, the inner fog dispelling. When they reached the top he vaguely sensed the scent of the woman and Mlle. Daisy. Wiccan walked directly over to the window on the right, and leaped up onto the windowsill, knocking snow down as he settled himself to look inside.
Leaping up on the sill to face Wiccan, Pumpkin also settled himself onto the snow. They could see inside, and though the light in the window was the only light in this room there were clearly lights on inside the rest of the rooms. Wiccan looked at him and Pumpkin felt Wiccan was waiting for him to do something, though still weak, hungry and cold he could not grasp an idea. When he only sat looking at Wiccan, Wiccan turned and looked inside, raised a paw and tapped on the window.
Suddenly Pumpkin shed the torpor he’d slipped into with cold and hunger and lifted a paw and tapped firmly on the window, as he had at the other place, the tap that had always brought the woman and the dignified black cat. He saw shadows moving inside, and tapped again, then sat up and drummed with both front paws, excited, now understanding why Wiccan had brought him here, not just that the woman and Mlle. Daisy were inside, but that this was the night…
Mlle. Daisy appeared first, the glow of the light reflecting on her eyes and shining warmly on her fur as she entered the darkened room. Then two dark human shapes filled the doorway one after the other and both came to the window. He recognized them both and sat up once again, looking into both of their eyes in turn, drumming his paws on the window, trying not to hope, but hoping all the same.
Together, the two humans reached down and slowly lifted the sash, and warm air flowed out through the opening, carrying with it the familiar scents of Mlle. Daisy and the woman and the man and all their things inside this wonderful warm and quiet space. They continued lifting the window until the sash was nearly at its top, and leaned down to look at both cats sitting on the sill.
“Well, it’s Wiccan and wee Pumpkin,” said the woman’s familiar voice. “Whatever are you doing here, knocking on the window on such a terrible night as this?”
Pumpkin looked at her for a long moment, then turned to look at Wiccan.
What should I do? Should I ask?
Wiccan blinked an answer.
No. They are expecting you. Step inside, and meet your destiny.
Pumpkin stood up and lifted a paw over the drift of snow on the sill, delicately stepping on the wooden sill inside, one front paw and then the other. He was halfway in and halfway out. He turned and looked at Wiccan, then brought both hind paws onto the sill inside. Pumpkin turned to look at Wiccan once more and blinked. Wiccan blinked in return. It was done.
“Well, come in wee Pumpkin,” both humans said encouragingly as Mlle. Daisy circled around behind them, out of reach of the chilling wind and falling snow blowing in the open window.
“Little Pumpkin you are freezing!” the woman said as she picked him up in a warm and loving embrace. For all the times he had visited her he had not encouraged her to pick him up; he was completely unused to it as no one had ever really held him with love and affection. He began to shiver as he shared the warmth of her body, and then to purr deeply, giving in to the love.
“Does Wiccan want to come in as well?” they asked. Wiccan looked at them and blinked, took one more look at Pumpkin cuddling in his human’s arms, turned around and jumped down from the sill, walking across to the steps, already visualizing the fireplace in his own home just a short distance away. Behind him the window closed and the humans disappeared, carrying the young cat with them. Briefly Mlle. Daisy appeared at the window next to the light, met his eyes and blinked once as he turned for a last look, then she too was gone from the window. He made his way carefully down the long flight of steps, his night’s mission complete.
About the story and illustrations
Though dramatized, the basis of this story is true, and it involves cats and people I’ve written about on The Creative Cat. Wee Pumpkin, who really had been adopted to kill mice really did visit Mlle. Daisy and her human where they lived in Kingston, Ontario, tapping and then drumming on the window and door to announce his arrival, and was fed his fill from vintage glass dishes as nice as those from which Mlle. Daisy nibbled her morsels. Though his name was Yogurt, he was often referred to by dairy derivatives of that such as Brie and Cream Cheese, by Giuseppe who was concerned when the young cat would visit the apartment and his love Mlle. Daisy with Giuseppe himself so far away. Now and then Wiccan showed up at the window too. The young man downstairs had offered to care for Pumpkin when the lady and Mlle. Daisy moved around the corner, but really did not follow through.
On Christmas Eve 2012, the woman and man, who had moved to a larger place just around the corner initially to the first floor then to the third floor of the limestone building, did hear tapping on the window at the back of their apartment and found Wiccan and Pumpkin looking in. They opened the window and Pumpkin walked inside, but Wiccan turned and left.
Pumpkin lived with them happily ever after with two more moves to new places, adoring his humans and always respectful of the loving and dignified Mlle. Daisy. He was named Theophile for the artist Theophile Steinlen because the slender and angular Theo looked like one of the angular black cats in Steinlen’s illustrations.
The story stayed with me, and I wanted to celebrate the wonderful rescue and homecoming of a loyal and loving cat on the anniversary of the event, and wrote this story in 2013 with one sketchy illustration, above.
I was so happy for Pumpkin, now Theo, in his rescue from near death on the streets, but I also remember that his experience represents thousands of cats every day in all seasons who are abandoned and living in between, trying to support themselves in a hostile world with no support when they’d really rather live with a human. We can do better by the animals we as humans have domesticated and welcomed into our lives. Learn their signs, and welcome them in. Demand that people care for them and not abandon them.
Sadly, Theo died in his sleep in August 2016. I received a message from his person that he just hadn’t awakened from his nap and all signs pointed to an underlying cardiac issue. Nothing could describe the sadness of the loss of a cat who really was as gentle, compassionate and sensitive as he seemed to be. At least he had a few years of a very comfortable life, completely loved. And he will never be forgotten.
I plan to expand the story to its natural length and include a set of illustrations done as linoleum block prints. I would self-produce and self-publish this book, and sell books and prints for the benefit of rescued cats, both those I rescue personally and other cats through donations to rescues and other individuals. You can help me with this by donating toward it or by supporting me through my Patreon page. See information below.
Help me publish my poetry and anthologize my rescue stories
I’m very excited to have finally recorded this after years of thinking about it. It’s really my beginning plan for recording all my books, and this one I’ll expand to include other stories I haven’t yet written about. But to do that I’ll need to purchase a better microphone and a quieter chair! Between that and printing and the time it takes to create these things, so I’ve set up a Patreon page through which patrons can pledge a certain amount each month to support these projects. You can read about it here or visit my Patreon page.
On a dark, misty, not-quite-raining Sunday afternoon just before Christmas, I walked across an uneven, wet parking lot toward Dollar Tree, my mission: three or four pairs of 2.75 or 3.0 reading glasses that I could leave around the house or carry with me as need be since I was recently finding myself unable to read smaller text. I’d probably also pick up some other one-dollar-doodads that I really didn’t need.
It wasn’t cold, just dreary, especially since we had had a very pretty snow a few days before that had mostly melted leaving piles of dirty ice in parking lots and cinders and salt on the streets and caked on cars.
Ahead of me I saw an older woman emerge from the passenger side of a neat, clean silvery sedan parked near the end of the row and close the door, leaving someone, presumably her husband, behind the steering wheel.
She was slender and slight, dressed in an unwrinkled light blue poplin raincoat belted at the waist and had no hat on her short, mousy-gray permed hair. I thought of her leaving a very plain white Protestant church with a wreath on the front door, her husband in a navy blue suit, holding the passenger door for her as she got into the car; she had asked to stop here on the way home for something. She walked quickly with her head down and did not look up at me as I passed her but only glanced sideways without raising her head or turning in my direction, and said nothing.
I admit my outfits can look interesting at times, with my penchant for making and wearing colorful crocheted berets and hats, sometimes adding a scarf over a sweater or two and usually a long skirt with colorful tights and clogs or boots of some fashion. Some people say it looks cute or “funky”, some people just look, and I know that it often looks like I couldn’t decide what to wear or like I’m packing extra clothes, and while I’ve overhead “bag lady” I still get plenty of compliments. But my outfits are generally a reflection of what’s going on inside my head and heart and this is different every day and rarely monochromatic.
Even though the older woman didn’t look like the typical Dollar Tree patron in that area, in fact, she didn’t look like the typical patron of anything in that shopping center, she certainly looked as if she was heading for the door. Reaching the door ahead of her, I opened it and held it for her to pass through.
She stepped up on the sidewalk and hesitated, looking at the door, then glancing at me, as if she wasn’t sure she trusted the situation, as if I might close the door in her face or hit her with it. I smiled when she looked at me and nodded my head, and that seemed enough to encourage her to trust me as I held the door for her. She nodded at me, not making eye contact, and hurried past me into the store with short, quick, silent steps. I entered behind her and let the door close behind me.
Dollar stores are generally a little chaotic, but before Christmas they reach a peak of excess that is generally overwhelming. The merchandise displayed in no particular order turns into areas of color and texture and blocks much of the light from the ceiling fixtures, the scents of candles, perfumes and spices float in from everywhere, and once you add in the musical cards, conversations and Christmas music piped in from above, even the most focused person can become completely disoriented.
Patrons dressed in winter clothing wander up and down the aisles and among the displays of stuff clutching an armload of t-shirts and window cleaner and kitchen utensils and a box of rotini pasta with startled expressions darting about for anything they might have missed and would regret not purchasing when they got home. Maybe it’s a merchandising tactic by the store, but when everything is $1.00 you don’t need to worry about appealing to customers, and shoppers can afford to lose focus and pick up a few things they hadn’t come in for but might use later so it’s worth a cruise around the store.
I lost track of the older woman as she entered the store and turned right past a display of fake red-and-green-and-glitter poinsettias wrapped in sparkling red and green foil. I remembered where the display of reading glasses was, so I headed straight into the store, past the line at the front to the end of the counter where the spinning racks of reading glasses and sunglasses were displayed.
I don’t know what was playing when I came in, but above the din I heard gentle piano chords begin a melody joined by strings, not at all unusual for a holiday tune but when it led into the first words of “Let There Be Peace on Earth”, the Vince Gill version, I smiled. I knew this song, and I really loved its clear message accompanied with a simple melody. Vince Gill’s version is very straightforward and unadorned, not a big resounding production, and I find that very comforting.
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
the peace that was meant to be.
In addition to my interesting clothing I also tend to sing along with anything I know, but it’s often completely unintentional as familiar words and melody flow through my thoughts and I simply begin to hum or sing—not loudly, but people can hear me. Of course, because I knew this song I began to sing along, softly, as I spun the glasses display and tried on one pair after another, purple, silver, flowered, tortoiseshell, looking in the teeny mirror to make sure I wasn’t completely over the top and picking up other packages to see that I could read them.
With God as our father
brothers all are we
let me walk with my brother
in perfect harmony.
I also looked around the store to see how the vision was with the glasses, even though they were meant for reading. A display of greeting cards began on the other side of the glasses display, and I saw an African-American couple who had been pulling out one card after another reading and laughing or discussing. An aisle of figurines of all shapes and colors and subjects opened up beyond the sunglasses display, and there I saw a woman and girl softly speaking Spanish, likely mother and daughter, picking up various figurines and discussing them.
Let peace begin with me,
let this be the moment now.
Now, however, I noticed that the mother and perhaps daughter, too, also seemed to be singing along with the song; their lips moving slightly as they browsed their shelves, and they seemed to be singing in English.
With every step I take
let this be my solemn vow…
I know I was staring at them trying to focus and determine if they really were singing along, and the mother looked up at me with a smile of recognition as her lips and mine moved with the same lyrics. I smiled back; we didn’t know each other, but we certainly had something in common.
…To take each moment
and live each moment
with peace eternally.
We kept singing softly as our glances broke apart, but we kept smiling.
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me.
I turned back to the glasses display, finally on the fourth pair, while the song went into an instrumental section. When the song began again, with the child singing this time, so did I, and so did the African-American couple looking at the cards. I looked at them, they looked at me, we smiled and kept singing softly.
With God as our father
brothers all are we
let me walk with my brother
in perfect harmony.
I was overcome, and as is also typical of me in emotional moments, my eyes brimmed over and tears dropped down my cheeks. I glanced down and pulled a used tissue from my pocket, dabbing at my eyes, but kept singing.
To take each moment
and live each moment
in peace eternally…
Far too emotional to consider browsing the store, I turned to the counter with my glasses to check out. Just then I recognized the older woman’s blue raincoat already in line. I stepped in behind her. She was holding several stuffed toys and humming the last bars of the song.
Let there be peace on earth
and let it begin with me.
That really finished me off. I found another tissue as I began to wonder about this woman who was so uncomfortable in these surroundings.
Because she looked too old to have young children of her own, and she appeared to have the means to buy better toys, I wondered who the stuffed toys were for and why she would go to Dollar Tree to buy them. I imagined a scenario of some single mother she had heard about in church, a neighbor or perhaps an errant daughter with her grandchild; the sermon had nudged her conscience and she was acting as quickly as possible. Perhaps that was the reason for her apparent discomfort, or perhaps she stopped here after church every Sunday but didn’t want anyone to know she was helping someone. I knew my imagination was running away with the facts, but the whole experience had opened a flood of ideas that I could barely follow.
When radio stations pledge to play Christmas music from Thanksgiving to Christmas they really have to lower their standards to keep the selections varied, and while some pop holiday hits have become classics, others are just inane. But then, anything would be inane after that experience. I somewhat like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, but not right then.
The one thing I do know is that there in that discount store, among that mixed group of us—the uncomfortable older woman, the Spanish-speaking mother and daughter, the African-American couple, myself and possibly others—there was peace on earth, at least for those minutes when our hearts met in the simple wish described in the lyrics. And perhaps they each carried it away as a tender memory, just as I did.
After cold rain and the first snow storm of the season, the temperature began precipitously dropping and at night we had a snow shower, then a dark, cold, wet day that reminded me of a day in this story.
The actions in this story occurred in late November, right around Thanksgiving, so I always share it some time during Thanksgiving week. It’s a sweet story I’d carried with me for nearly 20 years and I’m not sure of the exact year, probably 1993 or 1994. It’s included in my series of rescue stories even though the rescue is neither mine nor is the cat one who came to live with me, but I still feel very connected for having witnessed it, and knowing that small kindnesses like this happen every day, everywhere, and need to be noted.
At the end you’ll read more about the story itself and the illustrations. I also have it available for Kindle and various other e-readers, and I also have an audio version that I recorded so you can listen to it too! Please enjoy this act of kindness in any form you please. I’m thankful for all of you as my readers that I have an audience for my creative efforts.
Witness to a Rescue
A little tabby and white kitty had joined the varied clowder that roamed in the back yards, often leave-behinds from renters who moved on without their feline housemates. As the brilliant leaves fell from the trees and brush between our yards I noticed her bright white legs while she hopped uncomfortably about like a bunny on the detritus of summer now sodden and brown with November rains. I saw her again a day or two later when the rain had stopped hours before and the weather was quite nice for early November. She was obviously not accustomed to being outdoors, and far too clean to have been outside for long. I noted the direction she was walking and went outside to introduce myself and assess the situation.
Was she an indoor-outdoor kitty taking a walk on the wild side, was she a leave-behind, was she lost? Why didn’t they come with a little note hanging on their collar? I knew I always risked “rescuing” a cat who belonged to a neighbor so I got to know as many as I could; this little girl was unfamiliar.
But I was too late to catch her. Before I even left my deck I saw her purposefully continue across the neighbor’s yard directly behind mine to the house next door to that, a four-apartment rental. She trotted easily up the steps to the porch at the back of one of the second-floor apartments as if she belonged there and greeted the woman who was sitting on a chair, reading a book. I heard a faint “meow” and saw her rub against the woman’s legs and then jump up onto her lap.
I knew the woman as another cat owner who had lived in that apartment for at least two years. She had a little black and white kitty who always sat in the west-facing windows of her apartment in the afternoon and evening, dozing in the sun. I had spoken with the woman a few times about cats in the neighborhood, inquiring if she had ever seen them or knew who they were, but we had never exchanged our names or our cats’ names. She never minded discussing our neighborhood cats but seemed to want her privacy and anonymity, and I understood her need to be able to step outside on her porch and read a book without being interrupted by a neighbor unless it was absolutely necessary. Finding out information about a lost cat was apparently a necessary conversation.
Was the tabby and white cat her cat? But she had insisted she was a one-cat person, and that her cat never went outdoors. I doubted that this cat was hers unless she had had a big change of heart and decided to keep an indoor-outdoor cat, and if that was the case, I doubted she’d be ignoring the cat’s fervent though wet and muddy greeting.
And she was doing her best to ignore it, putting the book between her face and the cat when the cat got between her face and the book, gently picking the cat up in one hand and placing her on the wooden floor of the porch only to have the cat leap nimbly onto the arm of the chair, then onto her shoulder and walk around behind the woman’s head. When the cat got up onto the woman’s head, trying to keep a footing on her hair, the woman patiently put down the book, picked up the cat with both hands, and set her on the porch once more.
Her black and white kitty was in the window right next to her, watching everything.
I had walked across my yard to the corner where I was a relatively short distance away from the second-floor porch, and things were not so overgrown then. I gave a hearty “hello” as the woman was setting down the cat and the woman looked up at me and waved. I asked if the cat was hers and she said it was not, but that it had been coming to visit her when she sat outside to read. She had no idea where the cat had come from and it had not been around for long; it was the woman who identified the cat as female. I told her the cat had every intention of being adopted into her household, and the woman said the cat was very nice but reiterated she was a one-cat household and was sure the cat belonged to someone, she was too nice not to.
I thanked her for her time and decided just to monitor the cat’s activities and ask a few of the neighbor kids if they knew anything about her.
Over the next couple of weeks I saw the cat a few times, not always heading from the same direction as if she was wandering, and looking a little more tattered each time. I would stop her and offer food and she ate it hungrily but always continued on to the woman’s porch. I remembered that we’d first seen her at the beginning of the month and it seemed someone had likely left her behind when they’d moved, intentionally or not. On warm or sunny weekend days the woman often spent a hour or so outside with her book and the kitty happily, a little desperately, perhaps, laid on the affection, performing metaphorical kitty headstands for the woman. When the woman was not outside the cat would stand on the railing of the porch, long legs straight and tail in the air and look in the window, or stand up and slap her paws against the wooden screen door, or sit on the woman’s chair. The black and white kitty would lie in the window, squinting and impassive.
On yet one more rainy day later in the month as I was working in my kitchen I saw the kitty on the porch and somehow, from that distance, felt her desperation. It was a cold and dark Saturday, slipping back and forth from rain to sleet and even a few wet snowflakes now and then. No little explorations or visits to my yard, I could see her legs were muddy and her fur clumped and wet.
She hopped onto the railing and walked back and forth, meowing, then jumped onto the chair, stood up with her paws on the sill and looked in the window. As a last measure of desperation, she climbed the screen door so she could see in the window of the interior door and clung there at an angle, meowing.
I saw the interior door open and light shone onto the porch. The screen door slowly opened far enough for the woman to come outside, put both hands around the cat’s torso and gently remove her from the screen. The woman opened the screen door and disappeared inside holding the cat. I watched the screen door close behind her, then the brown interior door closed leaving just the yellow square of light.
I had just witnessed a rescue, but who had rescued whom, only time would tell.
About the story and illustrations
This is a true story, from the early 90s, written in 2012. I’ve remembered it all these years because I was so moved by the growing relationship between the woman and the cat. I never did find out where the cat came from, but I don’t think it mattered because she was apparently meant to be with my neighbor. I never got to know the woman any better, respecting her privacy. Better to keep good relations with neighbors in the first place, and people set boundaries for a reason. We spoke often enough that if she had wanted to be more social she had the opportunity. If not for the cat’s insistence on being part of the woman’s life I probably would have taken her in long before that, giving her veterinary care and fostering her to find her a new home, as I did with many cats in similar situations who showed up in my back yard in those days.
I will add that when I watched her peel the cat from the screen and take her indoors, I simply started to cry. I have no idea if she kept the cat or not because she moved soon after, but I think the cat finally convinced her that she belonged with the woman. These sorts of rescues often have a touching or dramatic back story, but that part I can only guess.
But I also had these illustrations in mind all these years as well. This apartment building is still there, still blue, still has a deck with doors at the backs of the apartments and two cats who live there; I think of it every time I look at the building. I’ve always wanted to share this story and the images I’d visualized all those years ago; now I have the opportunity. I’d intended all along, from the time I witnessed this rescue, to write the story and illustrate it, and so I did in May 2012 to celebrate officially moving The Creative Cat to a self-hosted platform so I could offer my work in many more formats.
One of the reasons for my Daily Sketches has been to practice, just practice—sketching my cats in various poses and activities, working in different media and different styles; through this I grew to enjoy working with watercolor pencils, which is the medium I chose to use for these illustrations. The daily sketches are experience in working quickly from life, but I also want the experience of working with a visualized image with no live models, though I’ll admit I did stretch out Jelly Bean to get a better idea what the kitty would look like clinging to the screen. Illustrating one of my stories gives me this experience in working from a visualized image.
I’ve also been learning to design and format e-books for my own sake and professionally—I’m a designer, I had designed books for two publishers years ago, this is another exciting skill to learn and to offer to commercial customers as well as for my own writing. This book is available on Amazon.com, but I’d love to share it with those of you who have electronic readers of any sort. At the end of this article I have links to electronic files for download. So please read the story here and download it if you can, and let me know what you think!
The cover design is for the e-book, and I’ve never been really happy with it. One of these days I’ll actually publish it in a small volume and create the cover I want.
And now for the downloads
I don’t have any e-book devices but I can read them on my computer. I use both Kindle Previewer and Kindle Cloud Reader to read books intended for Kindle, and a program called Calibre to read e-books in other formats.
And for the 2016 anniversary of sharing this story, I finally recorded it. Some day I’ll have to get a real microphone so please pardon a few little blips, but I enjoyed reading it with you listeners in mind. Click here to see the video on YouTube, or watch it below.
Help me publish my stories and anthologize my rescue stories
I’m very excited to have finally recorded this after years of thinking about it. It’s really my beginning plan for recording all my books, and this one I’ll expand to include other stories I haven’t yet written about. But to do that I’ll need to purchase a better microphone and a quieter chair! Between that and printing and the time it takes to create these things, so I’ve set up a Patreon page through which patrons can pledge a certain amount each month to support these projects. You can read about it here or visit my Patreon page.
The morning’s session had gone very well. Leaping aboard her little boat, she clamped her painting onto the easel so she could study it while she washed up and had a little bit of lunch, then she’d get right back to work on it while her thoughts were fresh.
The painting was a large pastel depicting the first tinges of an incoming autumn storm, and though the morning had been hot, the sun cooking her arms and legs and reflecting from the sand up under her hat to dry her face as she stood on the beach, she had felt the first twists of a breeze from the storm, still miles away, coming across the continent to bring autumn from the mountains to the shore. Even the light was changing, dimming just a bit as a thin haze washed onto the blue of the dome overhead like the foam of waves washing onto the beach, the entire palette moving from summery bright blue and warm yellow and white to amber and olive, the ocean darkening to teal.
This was what she wanted to capture in her painting, that moment of change, and that was why the painting had to be so big. She wanted to capture the subtle change across the sky, the dimmer tones inland and brighter tones over the ocean, the first choppy whitecaps, that pathos she had always sensed when autumn crept across the palette of the land, whether in the eastern hills she had known and loved, or the shoreline she studied now. Even the heat on her skin, the flush on her face, and how cold those tiny tendrils of cool breezes had felt on her skin, those had to be in the painting too. She set up her palette of pastels on a table next to the easel, pulling the colors she knew she wanted to the front and arranging them in the way her hands knew best without the need to look down.
It was good to come in when she had, even though only the intense heat had made her stop and come in for cover. She had reached that point where she was in her painting, the point where she had to leave the reality of the physical place for the surreality of the inner place, to interpret her senses and the deeper emotions she felt but could never verbalize, only paint. That was what made her paintings different. Viewers could sense the place, and not just enjoy the view. And this was why she had won the painting contest, and this little painting vacation to visit and paint in the space of her choice without interruption. The chance to be so totally focused on her work was a rarity in her life as an artist, filled with clients and shows and costs of materials and art festivals and getting the car fixed not to mention the commercial design work that actually paid the bills. This week was the chance of a lifetime.
And it was the perfect time of year too as there was no one on the beach to interrupt her focus at this time of year. She stood back from the easel and sat down to focus once more, thinking of the empty beach, devoid of tourists in early October, adding to the sense of desolation—this beach recently filled with colorful, noisy people enjoying their time away at a place they loved, suddenly silent and the storm inching its way across the sky, sly, quiet, no thunder and lightning, just that change in light.
Suddenly she heard a pounding on the door. Startled she looked about and realized she was on her boat. She had thought she was on the beach still, painting. She stood up and noticed the light was odd. Had the storm come up that soon? That pounding and yelling—was someone on her boat? She had been tied to the dock, that wouldn’t be hard to do. But she had fallen asleep–what time was it? She couldn’t see very well—was it night? She fought her way to the door, past her painting, hoping her pastels didn’t land all over the floor, she got to the door and tried to pull it open but it was locked. How to unlock it? That knocking, it was so confusing!
“Are you okay? Hey, Bernadette, please answer!” Pound! Pound! Pound!
Who knew her name here? Who was this? She suddenly didn’t want to open the door at all, and her grasp of where she was seemed to be fading.
Then she saw seemed to snap back to reality and recognized…her studio? At home? In Pennsylvania? What?
And the person at the door, it was Michelle. What was happening?
Then she realized, she wasn’t on the beach at all, there was no boat, she hadn’t won the contest yet. It was a hot summer afternoon and she was working from photos to create this painting for that contest. And she had gone so deeply into place to get the right feeling into the work, and laid down on the floor to think about it and rest her back, and…
This short story was a submission for the Spring 2016 Writer’s Weekly 24-hour Short Story Contest. You sign up ahead of time, and on the day and time the countdown begins, always a Saturday, the page on the WW website that includes the topic goes live and entrants get a link in e-mail.
Here was the topic:
A brisk breeze pushed through the hatchway, cooling her sunburned cheeks. Saltwater lapped at the hull. A mariner’s lullaby. She smiled, pondering her perfect life. No people. No stress. Just the occasional storm, and sojourns to the mainland for provisions. Just as her tired eyes closed, violent knocking and shouting erupted on her starboard side…
You don’t need to use the exact text or even the scene described, just use it as a starting point. I was kind of lost with the context of being on a boat because I’ve never been on a boat on the ocean, really just a riverboat here in Pittsburgh, or a canoe. I remember the word count was between 800 and 900 words.
I spent some of those precious 24 hours thinking how the heck I was going to be believable in writing about being on a boat on the ocean when I didn’t feel I could imagine it clearly enough, and decided I’d focus on being in the ocean or on the beach, which I could imagine. Quickly I leaped to painting, and then to the painting I included here, one of mine from 1993 after my one and only visit to the beach at Chincoteague Island, VA, as my inspiration for why I was on a boat on the ocean. As I wrote, the whole idea of the painting itself, the painting contest and even falling asleep, just fell right into place because I knew I’d easily fall right to sleep after being out in the sun on the beach painting for the morning and then wake up disoriented.
It turned out to be great fun, and I remember that I got down to the last second to submit because I didn’t remember I had to reformat basically without formatting so that no special software was needed to read it. I didn’t win anything, but I liked how it turned out and I’m happy with it nonetheless.
The morning’s brilliant sunshine belied the cool air, but the bumblebee, sluggish at breakfast on the spent seed head, foretold the change to come. The season had been awaiting the moment and the moment was here, and even as the day warmed and the bees efficiently bumbled on their way, grand and beautiful clouds appeared on the horizon, slowly, quietly parading across the sky, their size and numbers more dense each hour until by afternoon the blue overhead was hung with dreamy cotton and the voice of the wind whispered high in the treetops of what was to come. The day grew darker and more quiet until by early evening all was so still and dim that when the first few whispering patters of rain began their sound was clear, though unintelligible, as if speaking a language, like that of the trees, not of this place.
The rain fell quietly all night, lovingly soaking the hardened earth of late summer until, sated, it slept. As the next morning dawned the rain slowed and stopped, the clouds parted and cleared in a reverse of their arrival the day before, leaving the sun to shine brilliantly in the blue dome of morning, but the heat was gone from the earth, once again, for another season.
I composed this story for a weekly writing challenge, “Five Sentence Fiction”. The keyword was “Breakfast”. I took “breakfast” as a time, not an event or a food because in the heat of August I was impatiently waiting for the season to change.
The dusk deepened as she walked up the winding trail through the trees. At the top of the hill, at the edge of a clearing, a cliff with a steep drop to a river gorge created a break in the woods and allowed a view far into the distance, and there this dim dusk among the trees would brighten again to the last light of a summer evening, coloring the sky and clouds overhead in warm shades from coral to cobalt.
She had discovered the lookout while hunting, and visiting this place to watch the sun set and the stars appear had become a comforting routine for her. This time of day, the progression of the sun to the horizon and slipping below it, the gently deepening darkness and the animals preparing for sleep or beginning nocturnal habits, was so much like home that she could forget she was in a new place. Visiting, and frequently, eased the deep sadness that she would likely never see her home again.
Adjusting to the differences had not been so difficult as she had thought. In most ways this place was just more primitive, which they had known and prepared for. They’d all had to rely on a combination of the anthropological history they’d learned and survival skills some of them had picked up by choice, enjoying breaking free of the highly technical rigors of modern life to walk away from it for a while.
Ironic, too, how many of them had learned their survival skills in professional team-building sessions, never knowing they’d end up using the primitive skills as much as the team-building.
Reaching the top, she walked to the edge and stood, her gaze scanning slowly from one side to the other, rolling over the panorama, stopping briefly on recognizable elements in the landscape, their little settlement, a particularly large tree, a small stream, then lifting her gaze to the sky around and above her, looking from the brilliance of the early sunset to the deep blue on the opposite horizon.
The day had been hot; this new climate was challenging. The cool touch of the evening breeze now brushed past her rising from the valley below, ruffling the tall grasses like a playful hand and sifting through the trees beyond, refreshing and relaxing her, the open space soothing as she stretched and breathed deeply the rising dampness of the coming night.
This time of day had always been pensive for her, and finding this spot had given her the place to go to review the day. Nearly a year had passed since they’d landed here, and on the day they’d arrived the evening had been much like this, so much like home that she had felt welcomed, and buoyed with hope that they had done the right thing.
Four seasons had transpired, slipping one to the next much more quickly than they were accustomed to, but they’d still had time to prepare shelter and food and adequate clothing. In that time they’d honestly managed to pull together as a team and build a small community, a fact which, upon reflection, had surprised many members, thinking they were already a tight group. A shared need for survival can either bring people together or put them into competition with each other. This first year had brought out talents, built relationships and formed leaders, though not without hot debate and some raised hackles now and then.
Only three members had been lost to accident. Learning to function in the wilderness none of them were accustomed to, these deaths had been difficult and frightening and brought a big dose of cruel reality to their experience, but they had managed to hold together, grieve together and bury their dead together. There had been a two natural deaths, too, a cancer none of them could do anything about in this primitive place despite all the modern tools and medicines they had packed in preparation, and heart disease left untreated by medication no longer available, a frustrating predicament for people as advanced as they had believed themselves to be.
Only one person seemed to have snapped from the stress of it all, and he had angrily decided to leave the group, packed as many provisions as he could carry, and took off following the river. He was angry because no one was willing to explore beyond a day’s journey and look for civilization in this place, other people, cities, modern conveniences rather than sitting and waiting for death. He was the only truly single person in the group and determined this was his role because he’d leave no one behind.
His outburst had come about after one of the accidents, a horrible fall down a cliff that had left one of the women paralyzed but screaming in pain, and all they found they could do was sedate her and keep vigil until they determined it was time to use the euthanasia drug they had brought with them for instances like this.
It was true, before that accident they had been approaching the whole thing as an adventure, as if it was one of their team-building wilderness sessions that would soon be over with assistance and rescue right over the next ridge if necessary, because of course they would be going back one day. Watching her suffer, a beloved friend, unable to do anything, they had suddenly realized how alone they were, how limited, that one by one they would all die in one way or another and in some future years there might be no trace left of them at all. And as if each of them had come to the same understanding as a group through that incident, also the idea that traveling back home, or even communicating with their home planet, was unlikely to happen, in their lifetimes, if ever.
But they were so few, down to twenty-seven now, and to send anyone off into the wilderness was simply to suffer another loss. Three children had traveled with them, and no doubt there would be more, but it would be ages before there were enough of them to spare a small group to travel and start charting the area beyond their small valley. They were scientists, had been trained for this and had brought their instruments, but plain old survival took more time than they liked to admit. They had decided not to hunt animals because of the risk, but still all of them really needed to search and gather, and cook and preserve food, and make and mend clothing, not to mention the nightly challenge of attempting to communicate with equipment that didn’t work well in this climate and needed maintenance they could barely provide.
She knew that her not-so-long-ago ancestors had lived like this, and while she had known their life was difficult she had never realized just how difficult, how fragile life itself was. Her confidence—no, arrogance—as a scientist had led her to think her race would never have to endure that again. She wondered how her ancestors had ever managed to not only survive but flourish and accomplish things not found anywhere else in the universe with these everyday challenges of just getting enough food to eat.
Though everyone doubted now that anything resembling civilization existed here, they had gladly given their friend what he felt he needed and sent him off, not expecting to see him again but secretly hoping he would somehow find civilization and bring it back to the valley.
He had returned, however, just a short while ago, followed by three, well, were they people like themselves? They looked half animal with an abundance of hair and no spoken language, but they walked upright and wore rudimentary clothing, their hands were strong and dexterous using tools they had made, and they had wordlessly led members of the group around to various plants and shown them what to do with them. Although the learning curve had started quite high, they had quickly discovered the point was valuable foods and medicines beyond the capability of their own scientific equipment brought for the purpose. They did their best to express their gratitude and set up travel and communication between their two living areas, exchanging members to live in each others’ groups.
The sunset colors had reached their peak of brilliance as the sun passed behind strips of dark purple cloud edged in glowing gold, rays of light reaching upward and downward in pink and yellow, trees, rocks and the grass on her outlook glowing with the coral of the deepening evening. She waited until the sun was halfway below the horizon to the west, then turned and looked above the horizon to the east, and there it was, glowing red against the vivid deepening cobalt of the eastern sky. She’d also noticed this the night they’d arrived, like a welcoming beacon, and the clear view of it was one of the reasons she returned frequently to this spot.
It seemed to pulse, signaling perhaps. It was home, the fourth planet from the sun, the planet they’d left a little over two years before, traveling by the craft that had been built for the purpose of interplanetary travel, though their trip had been somewhat extemporaneous. That first night she had wondered if the pulsing red glow was the holocaust they had left behind still burning, the populations of their race killing each other in a misbegotten firestorm they had barely escaped, or to be honest, had simply run from. If so, the place was still burning.
The ship had stood stocked with medical supplies, food and clothing, oxygen, water and all else that would be needed during the someday trip to the third planet with the climate so like their own. It was opportune that they who had designed and built the ship and trained to pilot it were all stationed conveniently close, and by their position had been closer to their government’s plans than others as well. They had guessed that this annihilation was a possibility.
In the last few days when, despite the rhetoric that negotiations were ongoing, these leading scientists could see the missile silos being prepared for use. They passed the word among staff to get families together, pack what they could and get ready to leave if necessary. Was it selfish to save their own and use their training to take the chance on flying out, hoping they weren’t hit by a missile, and getting above the atmosphere before it became too toxic, the air polluted with radiation, carbon monoxide and debris unusable to convert to hydrogen fuel? Or was it reality that they would be the most likely to survive it if they undertook this mission and, because of that, because someone should represent their race in this universe, they should.
So they had followed the mission they had trained for, watching their planet glow with outrage until its atmosphere was so clogged with smoke and debris that they could no longer see it as they silently moved farther and farther away. They traveled without incident and landed safely in the northern hemisphere of the planet, avoiding the huge sheets of ice that blanketed the north and south poles of the planet. From studying this planet they knew the spot they landed would have been a fertile plain surrounded by low mountains and several bodies of water, safe for landing and easy for travel, perhaps rich with food similar enough to their own that they could move right in.
Of course, they had no intention to stay. Each night they signaled home base, never receiving a response which was something they had, somehow, never expected. They had planned to go back as soon as possible, even if only to see the destruction, but as time wore on they could see now that maintenance to the ship, fuel, food…so many things stood in the way that instead of months, it might be years, or generations before anyone could go back. Perhaps none of these travelers would ever know the outcome of that horrible war. How strange to go from the seeming omniscience of constant, instant communication and information to this mocking silence.
She watched as her home planet glowed ever more brightly in the deepening sky, pulsating slightly with the beat of her heart. As it rose above the horizon and the night sky deepened, the little planet was soon surrounded by stars in their familiar constellations.
They had survived almost a year here, had made contact with natives, had built a society and would someday have children of their own no doubt. Soon they planned to begin growing edible native plants rather than gathering what they needed and possibly to attempt to domesticate a few animals that resembled those from home. They’d build small towns and the struggles of power and desire would emerge, and only time would tell if they had also brought with them the potential to destroy this civilization, too, or if they had left that potential behind in the lifeless destruction on that beautiful, glowing red planet.
This story began to build itself far back, when I was still in college and reading Omni magazine, enjoying the futuristic science fiction of the late 70s and early 80s. It was to be my first novel, and I began writing in earnest immediately after graduation, dreaming of continuing on with my Master’s degree.
But life caught up with me and family issues took the time I’d carved out for writing, and I lost touch with the energy to write an entire novel. I carried the beginning draft for years, occasionally rewriting it, then in 2010, when I took the photo of the evening star which I used to illustrate this story, I decided that nothing would stop me from at least writing a short story, and so I did. As with most of my creative writing I let it sit for a while, tortured it with rewrites a few times, let friends read and critique it, and finally deemed it ready for publication, at least on my own blog.