I was a friend of a friend. But apparently the old man remembered me from my days as Village Chief-Of-Police and one of my small town small time exploits caught his fancy, he talked about me a lot and his family asked me to talk to him about selling his house.
“None of my business” I waved the idea off. “I’d be too embarrassed.” But they persisted, I caved and one bright crisp autumn day I very self-consciously knocked on the door of pretty Cape with a two car garage, old barn and beautiful landscaping and asked him to sit down with me.
He was frail and fading, closer to ninety than eighty and the house too much for him. But he was tough and none of the kids had had any success in talking him into selling and moving into assisted living or living with one of them.
I made my pitch and he leaned far back in his chair in front of the fire until only his two bright glittering eyes could be seen Then he seemed to reach some sort of a decision and leaned forward again, “Chief can I tell you about my cat? I never told anyone about my cat Rogue before.”
I guess the old guy in senile I thought sadly. “So sure why not?”
He nodded then smiled a little boy’s smile off somewhere else in his mind’s eye and I was shocked to see his chest jump as a slow tear ran down one cheek, “I’m not a cat person Chief. Never was. I like dogs, big floppy dogs” he nodded his chin at his long retriever mix Ruffian laying on the floor between them. “It was my wife that liked cats and when she passed away we had an old black and white she loved named Budget. I’d never fed him or took him to the vet or even I think ever petted him and he didn’t like me too much either. But when me and Ruffian were left alone with him we took as good a care of him as we could. Made sure he had the food he liked, and plenty of water and cleaned his litter box just like my wife had done. But he never warmed up to us so to speak, he missed her too much and somehow I think blamed us for her not being there anymore.”
“I certain you did take good care of him.”
“And then he died too” Ed shook his head slowly back and forth, “still missing her right to the end.”
“Yes, cats can he like that” I nodded.
“So then it was just me and Ruffian when one day my youngest granddaughter comes to see me with something wrapped up in an old pink towel. An orange and white kitten that had lost its Mom. She figured I was even lonelier after Budget died and brought it to me. And the fact was that I was even lonelier in the house, I mean I did have my friends and I had my daughter and my granddaughters but I was lonelier in the house because doing for Budget see, was kind of like I was still doing for my wife.”
“But I didn’t want another cat. Besides there’s two things Ruffian won’t abide, one is deer in the flower garden, my wife’s old flower garden, and two is a strange cat and I was certain the dog would snap it’s neck the moment I turned my back. And of course if something like that happened it would hurt my granddaughter’s feelings no end.”
Then Ed sat back in his chair silent again and I got a sense of how difficult it was for him to talk about this. But after a few minutes went by and it didn’t look like the old man was going to say anything more about it I had to know. “So did he?” I stole a glance at the dog, “hurt the kitten.”
“Oh no, he loved that new cat” Ed had a frog in his throat, “I’d left the little thing locked in the spare bedroom when I went out erranding that first day, trying to figure out someone else to give it to but somehow it got out and I found it sleeping on the floor curled up next to that old dog and the dog giving me a mournful look like he was being put upon. But I could see he liked it and as day followed day I could see why because the kitten liked him. In fact that kitten had the personality of liking everything, the dog, his new home, the food he got, the couch he slept on half the day, the window ledge in the parlor he found, his pink baby towel he kept sleeping on every night in front of the fire, he even liked me. And he liked being fussed over too like when my granddaughter came over to visit and would wrap him up in that towel like a baby and coo to him and kiss him, scratch him under the chin. He just liked life that kitten did. He was terrified of moving cars and would run and hide and shake for a while when somebody drove up to the house, but otherwise he liked everything and everything liked him back”
I smiled despite myself.
“But in one way he was a lot of trouble because he also liked to get out and even when he got all growed up me or Ruffian had to watch him like a hawk what with Horribilis maybe lurking nearby.”
“Har-rib-bill-ous?” I asked, “what was that?”
“The worst raccoon in the world” Ed shrugged and banged his pipe out against the inside wall of the fireplace “more than twice as big as any other raccoon. Thirty, forty pounds I guess with long, long, dirty gray fur like you never saw on any other raccoon and he terrorized everything in the yard. Our neighbor’s yards too. And fast. I’ve seen him catch squirrels way up in a tree winding around the truck so quick your eyes couldn’t follow the movement. Then he’d kill ‘em and like as not, not even eat them but maybe just tear the head off or take a single bite and throw the rest down on the ground. Birds, lots of birds and chipmunks, once even a turkey all the same way. Left dead and torn up on the ground.”
“Right in your back yard?”
“Well the yard is pretty big, five acres, with different type trees here and there, a silver maple, shagbark hickory, an old elm, big old black walnuts, even a sassafras and a black cherry. Mostly grass but with those trees here and there if you know what I mean. A pretty yard. And Horribilis wasn’t always there by a long shot. He just passed through from time through terrorizing the wild life first in one yard and then another all up and down the road.
Then he sighed a big sigh and looked down into his empty hands, “my wife was always after me to shoot Horribilis. She didn’t believe in killing anything but she was always worried about Budget and sometimes she’d find a dove’s head or a ripped open rabbit left there for us to find and she’d just break down and cry. So she came to the conclusion that the thing was just too evil a beast to let live and she told me to kill it when she wasn’t there, like off shopping or over at my daughter’s or something. But I couldn’t. First of all because like I said you never knew when it would appear and secondly because the thing was so tricky. It knew what a gun was and I think it watched the yard for a long while before it came in. So it would always know you were laying for it and where you were laying for it and since you never knew when he was watching, I or Ruffian had to watch the cat.”
“Follow him around?”
“No” Ed chuckled, “that was the funny thing because all he wanted to do when he got out was climb one tree. It’s that hybrid Japanese Red Maple right off the back deck. It looked okay when we planted it forty years before but it grew a lot since and turned into a big drab thing and I didn’t like it, thought about cutting it down too. But the cat liked it straight off and wouldn’t climb anything else. I’d open the door in the late afternoon, he’d run for it and I or Ruffian would sit down under it on the ground under it and watch. You couldn’t ever see him up there but you’d hear him all right, claws clicking against the branches as he jumped back and forth trying follow those rascally squirrels. Not that I think he wanted to kill and eat them, I think he just liked them too like he liked everything else. You’d hear the scrape of him landing or maybe a soft thump and a little twig would fall down on you and he’d stay up there in that tree, which I’m sure he was convinced was the nicest tree in the whole world, his tree, until almost dark when he went silent and if you looked up you could see his little face peering down from the fork of a branch while he made little starting movements trying to get up the courage to drop right down straight into your lap. Only he never did. He really, really wanted to but I think he’d sort of say to himself, ‘well that’s a long way down, maybe tomorrow when I’m bigger or braver’ and instead he’d skitter down the trunk and rub against your leg saying ‘thanks for giving me the time in my tree.’ Then I’d pick him up, walk inside and feed him his dinner. Every day.”
“That’s nice Ed.”
“Yes it was. I really loved that cat.”
“What happened to him?” .
The old man’s eyes brimmed with tears in a deep raggedly sigh, “well it was my fault. Somehow he must have gotten between my legs and followed me outside with the trash at night. He liked to follow me and then I must have come inside and unknowingly locked him out. Or at least I think that’s what happened. All I know is I got up in the morning and my granddaughter’s old pink towel that he slept on in front of the fire was empty.”
“And you never saw him again?”
“I looked and looked day after day Chief. I made up posters and put them in every mail box in town, twice. I walked the woods calling him and had Ruffian out there sniffing, I set Have-A-Heart traps with the cat food I always fed him and I caught other cats but never my cat. Whenever I drove around I’d always be looking and I’d go out night after night for months with a flashlight. Sometimes in the middle of the night when I woke up thinking about him. ‘Come on Rogue’ I’ll call, I called him The Rogue, but he was gone. No that I didn’t keep hoping because I knew Horribilis didn’t kill him because I didn’t find his little body laying anywhere on the grounds and Horribilis would have left most of him that monster would have, just to hurt me.”
“And so you never saw the cat again?”
“Oh I did all right. He disappeared in December” Ed made another one of those long ragged sighs, ”just with the first snow on the ground. And by mid-April when I had finally given up looking Horribilis did kill him and left him out for me to find.”
The old man cleared his throat for long time before he could speak again, “my neighbor found him on the grass between our two drives. I could see that he’d been starving for a long time too and I knew what happened and where he’d been right off. Figured out what happened that night. And it was all my fault. Horribilis was there when The Rogue got locked out and the cat ran as fast as he could in the only direction he could towards the fence two hundred feet away by the road. Then along the fence, out the drive and even though he was terrified of cars across the road and into the patch of woods on the far side. But knowing how afraid of the traffic I’d never looked for him out front. He was in the back somewhere, he had to be and I walked for miles and miles, day after day, week after back there looking for sign. That’s where I’d set the traps too. But the whole while he was in sight of home, starving, maybe catching something once in a while, maybe eating something thrown out of cars but mostly just starving, hoping I’d come get him, feed him and put him down on his pink towel in front of the fire, too terrified to cross the road again, maybe seeing Horribilis over there from time to time too. But then one night he knew he was so weak he knew going to die the next day if he didn’t try and he made it over. But half way up the drive Horribilis spotted him and since The Rogue was too weak to run or fight so all he could do was die a few feet from that pink towel, right there on the drive, almost home.”
Now I was crying a little bit too, “Ed that’s a very sad story.”
“Oh it’s not the end of the story” he whispered, “the neighbor saw how upset I was and went and put him in a box intending to bury him but I couldn’t allow that. No, as soon as I had my wits, and I have to admit I was sobbing like a baby, I took him out of that box, brought him in and washed him wall over with warm water and soap, dried him off, wrapped him as in gently as I could in his pink towel and buried him under his tree.”
I nodded, if the old man wanted to say anything else I wasn’t going to interrupt.
“Then figured out how I could kill Horribilis .”
Ed smiled grimly, “the deck in back of my house wasn’t part of the original structure and under it is a basement window. So I took my Iver Johnson twenty-two and crawled through that window and under the deck. It was the one way Horribilis couldn’t see me come outside with a gun. And I did that night after night, day after day until one night he showed up bobbing up an down across the yard in the moonlight and I shot him.”
“I didn’t enjoy killing Horribilis, I didn’t enjoy giving him pain but I did want him to know who was killing him. Realize if he could, that the little cat he’d tortured and killed had a friend. But what I did enjoy was putting things right, the fact that by killing that monster I put the world or at least my yard, back into balance. Back into the sort of place it should have been all along.”
Ed slumped back and the little boy smiled popped up again, “and then I found out that the most wonderful things happen when you put things right.”
“Like what?” I smiled.
“Like that tree it got good looking. A big hemlock further back on the property fell and the late sun was reaching it. In fact the tree glowed at dusk and remembering how I sat under guarding The Rogue while he played up there and wanting to be as close to him as I could I guess, I moved a little table and Adirondack chair out under it and then sat there drinking my coffee most evenings. Which was nice, kind of comforting somehow. Then something really wonderful happened.”
“Well one evening I was enjoying the last of the sun and breeze, just basking in the glow of that tree not thinking of anything in particular and I heard him again. Claws clicking against the branches, the scrape of a landing and soft thumps and just as the last of the light was going a little twig fell down onto me and I knew he was up there trying to gather the courage to jump. And I couldn’t look, I hadn’t the courage to look. And the same thing happens, not every night, but quite a few, especially when that tree really lights up.”
Ed grinned sheepishly, “now I know what you’re thinking. This foolish old man misses that cat so much that he imagines he hears him up there in that tree.”
I shrugged awkwardly afraid to look him in the eye.
“Well I admit I missed him something terrible and I admit I thought my mind was playing tricks. But you know I didn’t care. I might be crazy but I was back out there in the sunset with The Rogue and nothing else mattered. Only…”
“Only what?” I looked at him curiously.
“Only one night my granddaughter sat out there with me. Sitting on my lap not making a sound playing one of those little hand held electronic games set on mute because she knows I can’t stand the beep, beep, beep, beep while I had my eyes closed listening to the sounds of him playing up there.”
“That sounds nice Ed.”
“Oh it was” he nodded, “but then she poked me in the ribs. ‘Grandpa’ she whispered, ‘something’s up there in the tree, I can hear it. What is it?”
Ed shook his head remembering, “so what I think is that there is such a thing as justice. If not in this world then in the next. Because something rewarded that little brave, little, loyal cat for suffering all that he suffered. Gave him back his tree to play in, the best tree in the whole world. At least for a little while. Long enough maybe to make up for all he went through. And that someday, maybe if I’m good enough or brave enough or loyal enough when I’m ready to move on myself I’ll be back at that tree too, sitting under it at dusk, finally have the courage to look up and then he will jump down into my lap and with me holding him in my arms again the two of us can go on our way together.”
Then he pointed a finger, “and so no matter how much sense it makes or how old and crippled I get I ain’t gonna sell this house and leave that tree.”