The cat had never been spry. Not in all the years she had lived with the family had she been spry. The kids had long since learned to leave the cat alone. They didn't even try to pet her anymore—especially near her hindquarters—because, even though she had no front claws, the cat was a biter and a scratcher. Every now and again one of the kids would wake up to find the cat snuggled up and snoring next to them in bed. They'd have to climb gingerly around her to get out or else the cat would turn into a snarling flurry of pure fur fury.
The cat had shown up one snowy November evening. The family was eating mushroom-broccoli quiche for dinner. Or, more correctly, the family was not eating mushroom-broccoli quiche for dinner. Well, the father was eating it. He always ate it, whatever it was. The mother would have been eating it had she not been telling the children (she always called them children because, after all, they were not a herd of goats) to eat it regardless of what they thought of the smell. And the kids, they were, well, they were prodding it.
Just as the mother warmed herself up for a round of "you-don't- always-get-what-you-want-and-sometimes-you-just-have-to-try-new-things-because-I-am-your-mother-and-I-said-so-and-what-about-the-starving-children-in-Africa?" they all heard the sound. The kids stopped their prodding. The mother closed her mouth. The father swallowed.
It definitely wasn't a meowing sound. If it had been, the family would have recognized it and opened the door immediately. It wasn't a purring either. The wind would have drown out purring. In later years, after the cat died, the family decided the noise could only be described as a demand—if a demand could be wordless and completely other-worldly and animalistic.
At the sound the family all rushed to the back door and jostled it open. (It was a sticky and temperamental door, especially in wet weather.) As soon as the knob turned and the latch freed itself from the frame, the wind pushed the door open and the family discovered they had opened the wrong door.
So the family rushed to the front door and also jostled it open. (It refused to be bested by the back door. Especially in wet weather.) Again, they found nothing. But the noise—the demand—was louder. So the boy, the quintessential middle child who was always running ahead, walked out into the snow and peered into the juniper bushes that lined the front of the house. He was still holding his fork and began to prod the bushes—apparently prodding the quiche had not been enough for him.
That was how he found the cat. Or, more correctly, how the cat found him. He peered and prodded and the cat bit and scratched. Undeterred, the boy announced his discovery and the quick thinking oldest sister brought out their dinner to see if it would lure the cat closer. The father suggested it was the eggs. The mother insisted it was the mushrooms and broccoli (such a combination!). But the kids knew it was near-starvation that brought the cat out of the bushes to wolf down the quiche and they gave up a sigh of relief and a high five as their "what-about-the-starving-children-in-Africa?" dinner disappeared.
The cat stayed in the bushes for another week or so. The kids conjectured that she had been there for a week before she made any noise. The had all agreed that something had been watching them from those bushes for at least a week. Maybe even a month. The youngest, a girl who was prone to dramatics, said she remembered the eyes from her nightmares. The family took that with a grain of salt.
It was the next snowstorm that drove the cat indoors. It was the day after Thanksgiving and the wind was whipping snow in and out of the bushes as the kids took the cat her dinner. The moment the door opened the cat hurried inside. Or, more correctly, tried to hurry inside. Because, of course, the cat was not spry. Something in her hips or legs didn't move like other cats. There was no feline fluidity or elegance to her gait. Her movements were heavy and awkward and as the family watched her entrance the cat snarled as if to say, "I'll kill you if you ever mention this again. I know where you sleep."
Indoors was cozy enough. The family had been putting up Christmas decorations all day and there were boxes laying about. The cat, slowly, gracelessly, inspected it all. She sniffed the stockings that had yet to be hung. She pawed at the garland. She sneered at the wreath. But it was the artificial Christmas tree that caught her eye. She walked around it in ungainly circles, her eyes scanning it up and down. She lifted a single front paw and batted a branch. She sniffed it and then she scorned it. Turning her head, lifting her tail, the cat lumbered away and fell asleep in the tree's coffin-like box.
The cat repeated this process every year. It was the same inspection of the Christmas tree. The same laborious trip around and around it and the same scorn in her eyes as she curled up in the box. In fact, the cat was so repetitive in its ritual that the family took it for granted. And it was because they took it for granted that Christmas changed that year.
The mother had always longed for a real tree. Christmas, no matter how well coordinated and planned, always felt wrong with a plastic one. The synthetic nature of the thing seemed to infect everything. That year, since the children were old enough to avoid knocking it over, the mother decided to buy a real Christmas tree.
It was a warm-ish Christmas Eve afternoon and the smell of hot chocolate and cinnamon buns wafted across the grocery store parking lot (the mother had been picking up a few last minute doodads). It was intoxicating. In a haze of tis-the-season glee the mother selected a decadent, eight foot balsam fir. Sipping cocoa and planning the location of each ornament, the mother watched the men saw the stump and tie the tree to her station wagon. This was a Christmas tree to remember and it would make a Christmas to remember.
After driving the thing home, muscling it off the top of her car, lugging it inside, and wrestling it into the stand the mother began decorating the tree. The family had already decorated their puny plastic tree and as the mother removed the decorations she looked at it in scorn. How had they lived with such a thing all these years? She hummed as she went and slowed down only when she discovered the real tree was too tall to fit the star on top. The mother went to the kitchen and grabbed her kitchen shears. Surely, she reasoned, if they could cut up a chicken they could snip off the top of a tree. She angled a chair as close as she could to the tree and reached up. As she began to gnaw away at the top of tree it began to shift in its stand, but, no matter, the mother succeeded and placed the star on top. The tree wasn't as stable as it had been before she mangled its top but it still looked good. When the father and the kids returned home from sledding, they oohed and aahed over the tree so much that the mother agreed, just this once, to let them eat dinner in front of it.
Perhaps it was because of the surprise of the tree that no one stopped to think of the cat. Perhaps it was the excitement of opening new Christmas Eve jammies and reading aloud the Christmas story that no one realized the cat had not eaten her dinner. Perhaps it was the visions of sugarplums and ipods that danced in their heads that made the family completely forget the cat. Whatever it was, no one remembered the cat and no one remembered the cat's feelings about coniferous plants.
The cat, who was admittedly getting on in years, had been asleep in the laundry room. It was quieter down there in the basement and she liked the baskets of clothes sitting around the dryer. It warm and nobody but the mother, who was adept at ignoring the cat, ever came in. Not to mention it was where her litter box was and convenience was of paramount importance to the cat.
Most days cat usually awoke when the house settled down for the night. The older she got, the more set her in ways she got and the less often she was awake when the family was. It simply wasn't her prerogative and if she had learned anything in her old age, besides the importance of convenience, it was to follow her prerogative.
As she heaved her haunches out of the laundry basket the cat smelled something. Something musky. Something woody. Something . . . Her nose twitched and her eyes closed. Her back seemed to straighten and firm up. Opening her eyes the cat carefully, deliberately, and almost nimbly worked her way up the stairs, through the kitchen, and into the front room. There, sparkling and winking in front of her, was the source of the smell.
The tree was indeed spectacular. The mother had chosen well and the star covered any disfigurement her hacking had caused. The gold of the garland combined with gumdrop colored lights and classic glass bulb ornaments gave the tree a heavenly glow. Surrounded by presents with perfectly coordinated wrapping paper and bows, the tree was the ideal of every Christmas card and cheesy holiday album.
The cat began to circle the tree. Slowly she made one round of the tree taking in its height and depth. She made another round, working her way closer to the tree, taking in its scent. She made a third round and batted it. The branch sprang back toward her paw, sending a shiver of excitement down her aged and crooked spine. The cat backed away and settled, sphinx-like, on the floor and stared at the tree.
It was when the sun was just beginning to come up that the cat made her decision. She reached her front paws forward, pushed her hindquarters back and stretched—purring in anticipation. She stood on all fours and licked her lips and cheeks, never taking her eyes off the tree. She leaned back into her haunches and sprang, running like she had in her kitten years. As she neared the tree the cat, aiming for the star, leapt.
The sound that woke the family was most definitely a crash. But there was something else too, something that reminded them of that November night, years before, when the cat had come to them. But this time the sound wasn't a demand or a snarl. It was something like a meow, but more. Like a meow that was also a triumph and a laugh and a "see ya later." And it was that sound the family remembered when they found the cat pinned under the tree. It was that sound they remembered when they buried her in the yard that day, under the juniper bushes, not a single one of them shedding a tear—except for the youngest, who was still prone to dramatics. And, well, the family took her with a grain of salt.
What I liked best: Uhmm, this is one of those really quirky stories that is so unexpected and weird that I actually like it. I like the writing. The omniscient POV works here. I like the anonymity of the family and the cat. I like the little parenthetical asides. It's sort of warped at the end and it's not really what you'd expect for a Christmas story, but it works for me.
Magazine ready? I'm gonna' say yes. :)