Never touch a stray, she warned, it’s riddled with disease. She said it once, who can recall, when words poured out of her like the Spirit of Elijah. No more. No words left. Such fools we are to forget, to believe we are immortal. And now, it’s arrived.
“Nanny is going to die you know,” Giles said, surreptitiously.
“Shut up!” his sister yelled.
“She can’t even talk anymore.”
“So, that doesn’t mean anything.”
Giles is afraid of death. She knew. At eighty-two, she knew so much and so little. No time to know anymore. She knew Ben loved a girl named Marilyn White, a younger girl who gave him sex, and that was enough. Eudora rocked, listened in to the small voices, the sun fading like a spiritless gem. The once immutable shadows and sounds shifted, arbitrarily. Ben’s crocuses fully bloomed, stirred on the sides of the porch. I have no use for those, she told him, near the end, when loathing replaced romance and she thrived on the starkness of an image.
The stray jumped onto the porch moaning, rawboned.
“I don’t like you cat…shoo!” Giles said.
A quick wind belted the stray, spreading his matted fur.
“Nanny said no strays, remember?” Giles said.
This one is okay, right Nanny?” Rayanne asked.
“She can’t even hear you.”
“She does too, right Nanny? See she nodded.”
“I didn’t see it.”
Rayanne looks just like her Nanny…uncanny the resemblance. Look, look at that, how she purses her mouth when she’s mad… stubborn girl, too.
“Stupid cat,” Giles muttered.
“Ignore him, kitty. Giles is mean.”
Not mean…just sadness turned inward. That’s all. Poor dear…his father abandoned ship, found a better catch, a new family. Caroline wrote poetry to manage the loss…just like her mother, they said.
“That cat probably has rabies you know. You better get away or I’ll tell Mommy.”
“You have rabies and you can’t tell me what to do, right Nanny?”
Ben tried to tell her what to do. No more poetry. It makes you ill, he said. He was a brute. But even he knew enough to stay.
“You have worse germs than a cat,” Rayanne said.
Eudora heard Rayanne’s voice crack and deepen, as if she had matured in one breath. She saw the cat’s tail lift when the small girl patted his head. Sex, that’s what he wants. A tomcat, intact, wants a fix. They all they want the same thing. Ben, too, that’s what he wanted. I’m a kept woman, she told him. I’m your sex slave, shackled by a gold band. I’m worried about you, he said. Stop the writing. It’s not healthy.
“You’re disgusting, Giles. Stop spitting at that cat or I’ll punch you.”
Poetry heals me, she told him.
“He’s like a big rat,” Giles said, his chubby face scrunched.
I need a wife who is accessible to me.
“You’re the rat.” Lily, the eldest, finally spoke, as if she waited for a precise moment to utter her words.
Sweet, sweet Lily our first, and so much like her mother, Caroline. She watches and records.
“That cat will live longer than you. Cats have nine lives you know.”
“If that’s true, then why is he so scared?” Giles asked.
“Maybe he used up eight already,” she offered.
Touché…just like her mother, just like Caroline…clever, clever girl…Caroline…where are you? Damn it. She’s going to miss it, the final act. I’ll never stop writing, she told him…never.
The air stilled. A loud bark echoed in the distance. Giles poised, hands on hips, warrior-like. “That’s not a real dog, you know.”
“Rayanne, isn’t that a dog?” Lily’s voice squeaked.
“I think,” she said, abruptly, and returned to the cat.
The animal sounded again. Three barks in succession.
“Hear that?” Giles taunted.
Lily thundered up the porch stairs, stood next to Rayanne.
“It’s a dog!” Rayanne stuck her tongue out at Giles.
“It’s pretending. That’s what phantom creatures do.”
“There’s no such thing,” Rayanne said.
“Phantoms enter dead bodies.”
“You don’t know that,” Lily added.
“I do too.”
“You’re just trying to scare us, right Rayanne?”
“Yes, he always does that.”
“It’s a dog, right Nanny?”
Giles, quit teasing your sisters, she wanted to say. A dog is a dog is a dog. No phantoms.
“See!” Rayanne countered, “Nanny said no.”
“She did not!” Giles yelled.
“She made that face. I can tell what she means.”
“Okay, I warned you.”
Ben warned…don’t marry me. I’ll ruin your life. It was all passion followed by admiration and then a stoic tolerance.
“He’s coming for you!” Giles picked up a stick and flung it. The barking increased.
His body silenced her; she succumbed to it, voiceless, an unspeakable lust. The kind she later found in words, and he in Marilyn White.
“Look!” Lily pointed towards the edge of the woods. ”It’s moving!”
The cat leapt off the porch and ran to the center of the yard and froze there.
“What’s wrong with the cat? What’s he doing?” Rayanne asked.
“Maybe he’s dying!” Giles said.
Where’s your mother? Fetch your mother, children. Caroline, it’s time.
“No! Animals play dead when they’re scared, right Nanny? The cat’s scared. Maybe it’s a bear! Do you think it’s a bear, Nanny?”
“Yes, I think it’s a bear!” Lily agreed.
The crocuses are late this year, yes…strange.
“It’s coming! Nanny! Help us!”
Just a dog…A dog is a dog…
“What’s wrong with Nanny?”
“Maybe she’s playing dead.”
Caroline, damn you…no time for poetry…no time…here it is now…a living-dying poem for you. Crocuses are late this year… two days later Pastor Paul, drunk, hit Ben with his Ford Grenada, after Mass, sent him flying like debris. Your husband is gone. All you can do is write a poem? All you do. The crocuses waited, bloomed just for Ben–and now for her, just for her. That’s something. That’s fodder, she considered.
“Nanny, come inside!”
Caroline it’s time. Come bear witness; get it down, quick!
The spirits are risen, assembled here; the crocuses, Ben, Daddy, Mommy…all of it…you should see…the lushness.
“Nanny, please…now…it’s getting closer!”
Intoxicating…Caroline, you won’t be sorry. Feast on it.
Elizabeth Brown is a native of Connecticut. Her short fiction is published or forthcoming in BareBack Magazine, Empty Sink Publishing, TreeHouse, Bartleby Snopes, Contraposition, and Sleet Magazine’s spring edition (2014). She studied writing at the University of Connecticut under Wally Lamb and Joan Joffe Hall and is a two time recipient of the 1997 and 1998 Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction. She is currently at work on a dystopian novel.