Out of the shadows

Late June afternoon on the porch. A long-settling stillness, the day’s brilliance deepening to amber, shadows slanting across lawns and pavement, a cool pre-dusk breeze riffling trees and wind chimes, carrying the sound of a child calling in the distance. It’s not a child; it’s a little goat from a neighbor’s pen, hidden in a patch of woods. Bleating for its supper, I suspect. Startlingly humanlike voice. A neither-here-nor-there sound, disembodied, suspended in the air like time itself, clinging to these green and gold moments, unwilling to let go…

“Mom, let’s go for a walk,” says my youngest son (aka Cadillac Man).

I grab my shoes.

Walking beside me along our neighborhood street, my boy speaks, as he always does, of music. Songs he is learning, one he wants me to practice with him (it has to be simple for me. He can sing any part he likes in any key he likes; he can play anything he wants on the piano or guitar). I say I’ll try. He speaks of his new job at the funeral home; we reflect on the recent death of a beloved friend who’s the same age I am. Fresh-grated sadness, still surreal.

As we talk I note that no neighbors are out and about this afternoon. We seem quite alone. At one house, pool towels draped over the front railing billow in the breeze. American flags on front porch flagpoles ripple and flap with crisp smacks. A couple of cicadas rattle from high in the trees that frame backyards. Our long shadows stretch out on the pavement before us, where flecks of quartz wink; when my boy and I turn at the road’s end, the shadows disappear.

We pass a row of cypresses where there’s sudden movement in the grass. A black shape materializes, runs after us, crosses right in front of us…

Good thing we aren’t superstitious.

A young black cat, meowing.

“Awww,” says Cadillac Man, as it rubs against his legs. “What a sweet little cat.”

It comes over to me, rubs against my legs, purring madly.

We are devout dog-people. I can’t have a cat. I’m allergic. I learned this at age five or six when my family took in a stray Siamese (Mr. Cat, we called him) that took refuge on the stoop of my childhood home during a storm. Swollen eyes and asthma didn’t stop me, however, from bringing home a black kitten nobody else wanted when I was in college…

“It looks so much like my cat Moriah,” I tell my son. The name came from a magical cat in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, a book I read when I was about twelve.

Cadillac Man bends down, picks up the creature. “I would keep it if you could breathe.” The little cat nestles against him. Animals love my boy. They seem to sense his gentle spirit.

After a moment, the cat twists to get down. Cadillac Man releases it.

“It looks kind of thin. I wonder if it’s hungry…” Do moms always think about this first? Is this our deepest default, this hard-wired compulsion to feed all little living things, to keep them living?

The cat sits looking up at us with big, unblinking, green-yellow eyes. Meow.

And it trots right beside us, like a good dog would, back to our driveway where I feed it some of Dennis the dachshund’s steak-flavored food in an old dish.

“I hope it stays,” says Cadillac Man. “It can be an outside cat.”

I examine the cat as it eats. “It has all its claws.”

“We should name it,” says Cadillac Man.

“Look how rusty its fur is in the sunlight,” I observe. “Black cats aren’t exactly black. It’s a genetic mutation of the tabby pattern. See the faint rings in its tail, there at the tip? So much like Moriah, only she was smaller and didn’t have a tail…” another mutation. She was the last kitten left in the Free Kittens box on campus the day I found her and took her home. Shelters say black cats are the hardest to find homes for; no idea on stats of cats with stumps for tails…

“We aren’t naming it Moriah, Mom.”

“Of course not. She was one of a kind and besides, this one’s a boy.”

Cadillac Man is silent for a moment. The cat has nearly finished his steak dinner. “Well, you know it has to be a musician’s name…”

This is what he does. Since childhood he’s named pet fish after bass singers; his dachshund, after drummer Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.

I can see what’s coming: “Brian, I suppose?”

Cadillac Man smiles. “Not quite. I christen this cat Douglas.

Brian Wilson’s middle name. I was close.

After licking the bowl clean, Douglas follows us up the sidewalk, cutting in front of Cadillac Man to roll over just like Dennis the dachshund does for a belly rub.

“Awww,” says my boy, rubbing the proffered belly. “Listen—he’s purring like a truck!”

Indeed he is.

It’s getting late. We need to go in to wash up and have our own supper, so we stroke Douglas one last time. I make sure to wash my hands well, with extra soap.

We peek out of the windows from time to time. Douglas is lying on the porch, and then he’s gone.

But not really.

He’s curled up under the rocking chair, sound asleep.

When he wakes, I take one of Dennis’ soft blankets out and put it in his chosen sleeping spot. Douglas sits on it at once.

“There,” I tell him. “Now you know that if you need a safe, comfortable place to sleep, you have one. If you’re hungry, I’ll feed you whenever you come around. I’ll leave water out for you. It’s summer, see…”

Douglas purrs as if he understands…and maybe he does, for the next morning he comes to polish off a whole bowl full of food, and he’s waiting in the driveway to greet us on Wednesday night when we return from prayer meeting.

And then he vanishes.

A day passes, and another, and another. No Douglas.

It storms. Thunder, lightning. Rain gushing from the gutters.

I hope he’s all right, wherever he is. If he belongs to someone, I hope he’s back home and happy. We ought to have named him Macavity, the Mystery Cat.

I shake out his blanket, fold it, replace it. I toss yesterday’s water from his new dish and refill it with fresh.

I think of Mr. Cat. Of Moriah. So long ago.

I wonder if it’s absurd to keep leaving fresh water out for a cat that may never return.

But I do it anyway, because I told Douglas I would.

I also told Cadillac Man we could have named him Question Quigley (from Harry Potter) for that tail

The best shot I could get of his face; Douglas kept trying to rub against me while I attempted to take his picture

Asking for a belly rub

For comparison: my cat Moriah, almost forty years ago, with my childhood dog, Bagel

—OH, and P.S. Guess who came for dinner last night?

Memories, like little shadows, return, too.

*******

And so it is that black cats are my favorite, despite their long-maligned history (another reason I feel concerned for Douglas). I wrote another take on them if you’re so inclined: 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of Election Year 2020.

with special thanks to the Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers.
We are our stories.

23 thoughts on “Out of the shadows

  1. That tail is something …. ?????????
    🙂
    I want to note that I just loved these earlier words of yours: “… my boy speaks, as he always does, of music …”
    I had an image in my mind of a comic strip, with a character that only speaks in musical notes (sort of like Seuss’ Gerald McBoing Boing, who speaks in sound) … anyway, that’s where your story took me before I met the cat.
    Kevin

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  2. What a lovely story- lucky Douglas! It reminds me of a picture book I read to my class this spring about a cat with two homes. It sounds like Douglas may be a frequent visitor as an outdoor cat:) Your walk with your son told so much about the two of you- envy you this time (missing my grown boys as Covid is keeping us apart in three separate countries).

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    • We will see how Douglas’s story unfolds! Fun to think of it in relation to that picture book. I’ve written about my old Mr. Cat several times with young students and often think how he’d be a good subject for a picture book. I do treasure these times with my son – never know where life will lead and so I try to remain mindful of savoring now. I can well imagine how much you miss your boys; I hope time together will not be long in coming again.

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  3. I love how Cadillac Man wanted to go for a walk with mom! It reminded me of Joshua except it’s not walking, it’s taking a ride on the golfcart. I cherish those one on one times, especially when he requests it.
    We’ve had several stray dogs visit over the years. We feed them and love them, and off they go.
    We had a black and white dog come for the day, and the kids quickly named him, Oreo. He came with a collar, and they decided to write his new name on the collar with black marker. Oreo left as quickly as he came, and a few days later I saw a picture online of Oreo on the town community page that he was looking for his owner. I could even see where the kids wrote his name. It wasn’t even his real name!
    Oreo, Pickles, and Pepper are the names of the dogs that have come and gone. 😆 No cats have visited.

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    • Precious story of Oreo and the kids writing his name on the collar…I hope he got safely back to his real home and true identity! “We feed them and love them, and off they go” – a chance to be kind, to put one small thing right in the world, if only for a moment. Years ago an old lost hunting dog took up at our home when our oldest was little – he named the dog “Spicy.” Rumor had it that hunters will sometimes abandon old sick dogs…hard for me to believe or accept. Spicy stayed a while, until he passed away. On a happier note – yes, so many dear similarities between Cadillac Man and Joshua; such blessings.

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  4. I am so happy Douglas came back! I felt worried about him at the end. I think creatures gravitate to you and your family because you radiate kindness and goodness. Douglas is no fool!

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    • He’s the sweetest cat! Not at all fearful. He loves to be petted. My granddaughter stayed with us last week during that rainstorm; she said: “I hope Douglas is somewhere safe and dry!” He came back after that, so he obviously has another place – we will enjoy him whenever he visits. I look for him off and on each day. ‘Cadillac Man’ is very enamored of him. Many thanks for your kind words, Kathleen.

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  5. Fran, refreshing and lovely post! Cadillac Man is a gem!
    I love this apt description of moms–“our deepest default, this hard-wired compulsion to feed”

    The photos are a perfect addition; I love his question mark tail. What a sweet surprise that Douglas came back for dinner after a few days. He definitely has a new home, or a home away from home, at least.

    I enjoyed reading your 13 ways poem too, but I think the link isn’t working. I found it on your blog though. 🙂 https://litbitsandpieces.com/2020/10/24/13-ways-of-looking-at-a-black-cat-crossing-your-path/

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  6. I think animals like Douglas find us when we need them. I, too, am allergic to cats, yet my previous neighbor’s indoor/outdoor felines always found their way to our yard, joining me on the front porch or watching us from the outside sill of our kitchen picture window. When the husband died, we saw even more of them, and took care of their garage feedings and litterbox cleanings while the wife was away. I sobbed when Allie, the black cat, was hit by a car and found by another neighbor on the side of the road, placed in the grass by a caring stranger, and felt an emptiness inside when Grace, the gray cat, was placed in a shelter when the wife moved away, unable to take the cat with her. Wondrous how animals who weren’t even truly mine, couldn’t even let into the house, affected me so. Such stirring memories you provoked for me today, Fran!

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    • Oh my, these are heartrending cat stories, Chris! The creatures do worm their furry way into your heart…there are funny stories about my old cat Moriah that I should write, sometime, as well as poignant ones, having to do with my dad. I am glad Allie and Grace returned to mind along with the memory of how they offered their companionship. Being caretakers at our core, we tend to think the animals come when they need us, and they often do, but I think you’re right, that they really find us when we need them. For all the lore and superstition surrounding black cats in particular, that genetic mutation happens to be connected to disease resistance. A symbol of healing. Sweet little Douglas radiates love, trust, peace – he’s rather doglike -and appeared to walk beside us, just as we were mourning the loss of a loved one. Always thankful for your deep insights, Chris.

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  7. Just imagine. That sweet Douglas somehow KNEW that you were the ones to approach. Guessing there’s a reason for that. Was it the universe bringing you a ray of joy in the middle of reflections on grief? Quite possibly. As for the mother’s instincts of wanting everyone to be comfortable and fed, yes. I do think that’s universal. It’s as reflexive as you grabbing your shoes without a thought when your son proposes a walk. It’s just…what we do.

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    • That sweet cat did seem to be sent. Materializing so mysteriously, with so much love for the sharing, taking a chance on the kindness of strangers..his purring was so loud, even before the feeding. That deep-rooted, caretaking instinct…I even find myself worrying as I drive past a patch of trees being timbered nearby, that birds’ nests and babies might be harmed…:O

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  8. Fran, I finally got a chance to stroll over and what do I find.? – a beautiful story of love, tenderness, mother-to son conversation and a black cat that understands human talk. it is amazing how outdoor cats come a calling when they know they are cared for. We have had several over the years and of course, my children wanted to keep them but my husband is allergic. The beginning of your slice opens with a beautiful prose poem and then moves into action and dialogue. Love this!

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    • Many thanks, Carol. Since writing this, I’ve thought the calling and privilege it is to care for living things that come into our realm. I think about throwing the net, or bubble, of our protective care as wide or as far as we can…surely a poem is brewing…

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