© Susan Browne 2019
Shortlisted for Words by Water short story competition in October 2019. The judge’s comment was: “A gripping read, the reader is taken on an undulating wave of emotions with the main character.”
The cat is missing. It’s not here waiting for its breakfast. Bella does love that wretched cat. Just five minutes left until the school run. I step outside, and the frosty air hits me, and I squint in the sunlight. I rattle her bowl and call her name. Inspect the road both ways. No cat. I don’t mention it, and we walk out to the car.
When I get home, I find it curled up in a ball at the edge of the field. ‘Come on, you. Breakfast.’ She doesn’t budge so I take her in my arms to the front door where her food sits. She slumps down, ignoring it. She is listless. Floppy. ‘You can’t be sick, cat.’ I go inside and dial the vet, and the secretary asks if I’d like to bring her in right away. There goes my morning.
‘What’s the cat’s name?’ she asks in a green reception that smells of bleach and bones.
‘Sadness,’ I say.
Fingers hover over a keyboard.
The vet shows me Sadness’ ghostly eye rims and white gums.
‘Severely anaemic. She’s only hanging in there. The kindest thing is to put her down right now,’ she says, matter-of-factly. It’s just a cat, after all.
‘I can’t put her down.’ I feel my head filling up with water as I picture my little girl, getting home from school only to find out her best friend in the world is dead. No warning. No time to prepare.
‘It’s a hard decision. Take your time,’ the vet says. A large dog barks busily out in the waiting room, and Sadness looks at me.
‘I’m going to take her with me. She can die with us at home.’
‘Sure. That’s your choice.’
‘And there’s really nothing more to be done?’
‘We could try some iron and antibiotics, but there really is very little point.’
‘Well, we’ll try anyway. Please.’
I pay and walk out with my severely anaemic cat and useless tablets to my crookedly parked car and drive home.
I allow her into the house, and she heads right under the stairs. I tidy it for her and get out some spare bedding. She’s just a pair of green eyes in the darkness, watching me as I carefully move things around. I get her food and water — an old litter box. Stairs get brushed even though it is only Thursday. I wipe marks off the paintwork.
I collect Bella, feeling wretched.
‘I have some upsetting news for you.’
‘No go-go’s left again?’
‘No. We have go-go’s. It’s Sadness. She is very, very sick.’
I adjust my rear-view mirror. My little girls head has shrunken in like a turtle, back into her body. School uniform all crumpled up around her shoulders — a tense, straight line for a mouth.
When we arrive home, she’s immediately under the stairs. They share a silent commune.
The next thing Bella’s disappeared down to her bedroom and returns after ten minutes with a picture. It has Sadness, hearts, leaves, sunshine, clouds, grass and says in the sky on one of the clouds’ eid ot ecalp ecin a.’ A Nice Place to Die. She sticks the picture up over Sadness’ little sickbay.
‘That’s amazing. Sadness will love it.’ When I check again, some white plastic rosary beads have manifested and are dangling down the bannister over Sadness. Bella is sitting close to her, and they are both very still. My hand rests over my mouth. In that pocket of silence, across the airwaves flows the very purest of love, and I think it might break me open.
I wake myself up in the night, sneezing, and feel the vaporous presence of both a cat and my estranged husband. But in truth I am alone.
It is morning and Sadness lives. She even trots out to the kitchen after me, so I fix her some breakfast and tidy up. Brushing the little spills of cat litter away and giving her fresh water. I imagine that she might survive and something inside me dances.
Hugging a mug of tea, I think about Paudie.
‘Still pushing the important things away and clinging onto deadwood,’ said my father before he died of a massive heart attack on his favourite seat overlooking the marshes.
People say he’s gay, my deadwood-Paudie. I don’t think so. I didn’t hear it from him. Bella tells me that he lives with another man and that she’s met him a few times and that his name is Colm. She told me more things, but my brain removes them like there’s no space for that information.
I did all I could, in the beginning, to prevent the divorce from going through. I was sure he was making a mistake. It was for him, I told myself, not just Bella and me. In the end, even my solicitor seemed to give up on me.
‘You’re scaring him, Claire. I think you’re actually scaring him.’ I think I may have been scaring her too. If she was honest about it.
I am glad that Bella is at school when I try to give the cat those tablets. The whole ordeal almost kills her. She won’t swallow, and I let her go with the fright of those bared fangs. She darts behind the sofa. Writhing and making hideous sounds. I watch, frozen. A puddle of urine seeps out from under her.
‘Oh my God, Sadness. Please don’t die yet,’ I’m crying and sneezing.
Bella is home again, and she can’t find Sadness who was on the blanket under the stairs earlier. Where I lifted her flimsy frame with very little life force left in it. My daughter’s eyes are wild, her hands flapping. She covers her ears and hums, and I get up and hum too and wrap myself around her, making myself into a humming human blanket.
We find a rhythm and rock gently. I kiss her chamomile no-tears hair, and her taut body starts to relax a little.
‘It’s okay. We’ll find her.’
I am worse than worried, though. I switch the torch on my phone and shine it around. Eventually, I discover that Sadness has crawled right inside the bottom step. I gingerly stretch out my hand and make contact with fur. Her body feels quite still.
‘Sadness? Are you alive in there?’
‘Of course she is alive. I can feel her. Let me look.’
‘Wait. Sadness?’ My heart is stopped. Then suddenly a grey tail flicks at us, and I breathe again. ‘She’s alive.’
‘Told you,’ says Bella, her chest puffed out and arms long and skinny at her sides.
‘Come on, homework time. Let’s give her some space.’
Bella sulkily empties her schoolbag. Books, pencils flowing out of their case and some smelly lunch remnants.
Each night I can’t sleep. He is gone seven years now. It’s not as though it’s a new thing. But how can you leave just as your first baby is born? He never answered that for me. It remains one of those mind-benders that goes off like the eternal boomerang into space and never turns around.
I walk down at three to see those green eyes. She blinks. I curl up on the cold tiles and rest my head down on the blanket, exhausted. Sadness walks over to me and places her forehead against the crown of my head. I bathe in an unexpected rush of affection.
Upstairs again I’m on my phone looking up how to help a cat that is dying. I discover a world of things, such as music for cats. I download some and put it playing softly under the stairs. It is a haunting, whirling sound with background purring noises on it. I am very glad I can’t hear it from my bed.
Sunday morning, Bella asks me to go to Mass. She is as still and quiet as ever she has been in there. At the end, she asks to light three candles. I watch her praying. Father Matt comes over, and I find myself telling him about the cat. He is old and sympathetic, which makes me feel a mixture of sorrow and mortification.
‘Thank you. Thank you,’ I say.
We drive home, and she checks Sadness, who is asleep. She looks peaceful. ‘Thank you,’ I whisper again. To saints and angels. To the cat. Anyone at all.
After a snack, Bella runs outside. I see her spinning on the grass, arms outstretched, looking up at the vast white sky. A small, blonde sorceress whipping up a spell.
It’s just gone eleven at night when I hear strange yowling coming from below. I take myself down to the bottom of the stairs where a cat called Sadness is truly dying. I am terrified. She thrashes around, claws outstretched. Then stops breathing, and I think that’s it.
After some time, there is another gasp. Her tail stands on end. She hurtles blindly into the wall. Death ravages her.
‘Rest now. Easy girl,’ I tell her. She stills again. I hold my breath. After some minutes, I want to reach out and touch her. But I’m frightened she will suddenly lunge at me, thinking I am Death. My hand floats in mid-air, idiotically.
I consider the large shoebox and wonder how I might fit her in there if she is left lying long and straight as she is. I need to curl her up. After half an hour of pacing and checking, I get her in there. One step ahead of rigor mortis.
He hasn’t come this close for seven years. As far as his feet have gone are about five paces onto the driveway. In all that time. My mother’s people’s land. He answered the text in less than a minute: ‘I’ll be there soon.’
He’s in the garden, digging a grave for Sadness. It’s where I found her a few days ago, her sunspot. He makes easy work of it. He is powerful and muscular, and I resent that he looks better than ever before. Deadwood clinger.
Bella and I watch. She has the shoebox coffin in her hands, with pictures drawn onto it and Sadness in big ornate writing. She doesn’t want to put her cat down there into that damp, dark hole. He helps her to lower it into the earth.
I look from one to the other, voraciously finding him in her and her in him. We take turns throwing soil onto the box and then he fills it in using the shovel.
Then we stand, three of us beside Sadness’s resting place. From afar, you’d think we were all together — husband, wife, daughter. Six shoes in the morning dew, burying our beloved cat. I wish someone could take a photo or paint us this way. I want to keep it even if it’s just a lie.
A little girl folds into my body, her back facing me. I lean forward over her, and we merge for a few moments. Like seven years ago, she is a part of me.
My gaze turns over the land and to the car parked on the road, and I see a bearded man’s profile in the passenger seat. I look at Paudie’s shoes and the way he carries himself. Then a boomerang in outer space crashes into something hard and breaks into tiny pieces.
Sun comes out from behind a cloud. It’s over.
‘Will ye have breakfast? Tea?’ I pause, my mouth opening and closing.
‘We’re good, thanks. Better be off. Bye so, Bella. Bye.’
I hoped he would refuse. I’m not ready yet.
A pile of earth sits on top of the grave. Ready to sink down over time.