That Which Does Not Kill Us
I'm fifty-six. I've seen death. I've seen betrayal. I once held a mother as she cried, begging God to kill her child and spare him from the torment he suffered due to OCD. But in all my life, I've never seen someone as sad as the ten-year-old girl I met when I was not much older, the girl whose cat had just hung itself by its leash on the picket fence edging our park. A Calico. She'd taken it for a walk before dinner. She told me she'd used the leash because she didn't want it to get away. But of course it did. By the time she'd found it, the cat was already dead. It must have climbed the fence, and when it jumped down, the leash got caught. I wandered by five minutes later and found her there, on her knees, before the cat.
She was afraid of what her parents would do, so I offered to help. We wrapped it in a towel with daisies. My sister's favorite. I'd also grabbed a shovel and my grandmother's rosary from my home, which I found tucked away in Grandma's bedside table. She'd been staying with us for the past year. My mother said her mind was going. As it turned out, she only had a few months more.
We tried digging a hole in the grass of the park where the cat had died, but either the ground was too hard, or I was too weak. So we went to the field behind the elementary, an area I knew well. I found a soft place at the bottom of a gully and dug the hole. It was much easier than I thought.
I was surprised when she placed the cat in the ground herself. I don't know if I could have done that. I know that when my grandma passed months later, I could barely bring myself to peek into the casket. I set the rosary on top of the cat, then shoveled the dirt over it. We made a cross from two sticks and my shoelace. The girl and I stood there staring at the mound of freshly turned earth. "It seems like there's something more we should do," the girl said. "Isn't there more?"
I thought about the night two weeks before when I prayed for the first time. I'd said ten "Our Fathers" and ten "Hail Mary's," as my grandma had taught me to do, because I had a test in math the next day that I'd forgotten to study for. I prayed for something to happen, and though God didn't answer that night, the next day, the teacher was sick. No test. I'd been a believer ever since. And so I prayed again, even harder than before. I said my ten "Our Fathers" and ten "Hail Mary's" and then added one more for good measure. I talked about how I'd never seen a girl as sad as this, about how I'd never felt feelings like this before. I didn't understand most of the feelings at the time, but the longer I stood there praying with that girl crying beside me, the longer I stood waiting for something to happen, the angrier my voice became, and some of that rage crept into my words. I don't remember what I said. Or perhaps, I didn't even know then. All I know is that when I was done, I turned, only to see the girl's back as she walked away.
Over four decades have passed since then, and I've rarely if ever thought about that girl. To tell the truth, I find it difficult to concentrate on anything anymore. Or even to leave the house. It's all I can do to get up and force myself through the day. I smile. I go through the motions. No one in my family seems to notice. However, a few days ago, the ghost of her cat appeared. It started with a few random sightings. I'd see something move out of the corner of my eye, something jumping down from the sofa, or running around the corner. I knew it was a cat, maybe even a Calico, but I didn't know it was that Calico until I followed it to my bedroom and found the rosary. My grandma's rosary on the hardwood floor. The same chip in the cross near Christ's foot. I asked my wife and kids if they'd seen the cat, but they just stared as if I was crazy.
The next morning after my wife went to breakfast, the cat sat at the foot of my bed, watching me.
"I don't understand," I said. "Why me? Why aren't you haunting the girl?"
The cat turned its head and licked its armpit.
"Why now?" I asked, inching closer. "Why after forty-four years?" This time, the cat yawned, then curled up on the bed near my feet. I suppose I shouldn't have expected an answer.
Grief lays down parallel paths. It's one of the few things I've learned. Forty years ago, there was the cat and my grandma. And now the cat was back. Did this signal another grief, one I was not yet aware of, or one I'd forgotten, maybe even suppressed? You see, one of the other things I've learned is that the things that break us aren't always big. Sometimes, they're so small we don't see them at all, until it's too late. Deaths. Betrayals. Divorces. Those are easy to spot, so at least we can attempt to deal with them. It's the other moments—the small exhalation of disappointment when a friend doesn't return a call, the false promise of the sun on a day strewn with dark arrows, the disgust on your daughter's face when you say the wrong thing, or how your wife turns away to check her cell as you tell her about your promotion. These moments accumulate with a quiet power until they become bigger than the biggest of griefs. That's what the appearance of the ghost cat made me think of now. I'd had more than my share of those things. We all do.
The next morning when the cat appeared, I opened the front door and waited. He hesitated, looking up at me, then out the door at the blue sky beyond, then behind him, as cats do. "If you're not ready yet, that's fine," I told him. He turned away and walked back to my bedroom, where I found him once again curled on the bed. The next day, I tried a different tact, encouraging him to jump up on the back of the armchair in the living room and look out the window. It had the same result. My wife and kids watched me opening the door or standing before the window. They may have even heard me talking to the ghost cat. But if they did, it didn't register. Or at least they didn't say anything.
"You didn't get much of a life," I said to the cat as he licked his paws the following morning on my bed. It was a Saturday, and my wife was out gardening.
The cat looked at me, then looked at its back, as if it might clean that, too.
"I'm talking to you." I said. "Can't you hear me?"
The cat blinked once or twice, then rested its head on its paws. Something about its nonchalance bothered me. The way it didn't seem to care what I did. The way whatever I did didn't make a damn bit of difference.
I kicked it off the bed. It howled, then jumped back on.
I rose and opened the window, the cool air like water over my skin. There was a rapid sound of hammering outside. A small machine-gun in my brain.
"I bet you can't name that bird," I said, pointing out the window to the woodpecker sitting atop the picket fence at the back of our yard.
The cat looked at me and blinked, then rolled on its back and cleaned its belly.
"You don't even see it, do you?" I shouted. "You're here for no reason. Just roaming around this house, licking yourself!"
The cat yawned and gave me a side-look.
"It's a woodpecker," I screamed. "A fucking red-crested pileated woodpecker!"
I punched out the window screen. "Here, let me help you!" I shouted. "It's easy, see!"
The screen fell to the porch with a crash, startling my wife weeding in the yard. She stepped away until it almost looked like she'd fallen backward into a sky scrubbed of clouds. "Hail Mary, full of grace . . ." I muttered beneath my breath.
The cat jumped off the bed and walked out of the bedroom, into the hallway beyond.
"You son-of-a bitch!" I shouted after it, "Get back here!" I stomped down the hall after it. "I'm not through with you yet. Do you hear me?" Patterns of light and dark checkerboarded the hall.
A faint scratching. At first I thought it was the cat, but then it sounded like hundreds, maybe thousands, of little mice in the walls. I steadied myself against the frame at the intersection with the kitchen corridor. There it was—the silhouette of the cat half-stained with sunlight from the kitchen, half in darkness, sitting there, flicking its tail.
"Just tell me where to go," I pleaded. "What to do next?"
And then the cat was gone. More than gone. It was as if it had never been. The scratching from the walls increased in volume, like the promise of everything I'd ever desired rising up about me, a wave washing through the darkening hallway. I sank to the hardwood floor and tried to call out after my wife, but my tongue was like a knife in my throat. The more I yelled, the more it cut, until my mouth filled with blood to match the blood pounding in my ears. So this is what it meant to be alone.
Peter Grandbois is the author of thirteen books, the most recent of which is the Snyder prize-winning, Last Night I Aged a Hundred Years (Ashland Poetry Press 2021). His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over one hundred journals. His plays have been nominated for several New York Innovative Theatre Awards and have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, Los Angeles, and New York. He is the Poetry Editor for Boulevard magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio. You can find him at www.petergrandbois.com. His story, "Sewing," appeared in Issue #34 of The Cafe Irreal as well as in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader, and "Learning Outcomes" appeared in Issue #72.