Miss Rose lived in a white clapboard house set in a rambling garden where Tabby-Ginger hunted each day. Roses grew in tumbling hedges along her borders, guarding the gate of her frail white picket fence like thorned harpies, their long claws and green hair crowned with red petals. Of all the souls who visited there, Tabby-Ginger was more frequent, not because he was best liked or made welcome, but because he enjoyed the shade of her well established hedge. Whenever Miss Rose saw his ginger tail drift out into the sunlit furrow between the lawn and the hedge, she threw rocks. Miss Rose disapproved of interlopers in her garden; even girl scouts, neighbors and relatives were unwelcome. As for Tabby-Ginger, he did not mind her rocks. They mostly missed, so he mostly came to sleep away the day.
Miss Rose led a solitary life, a life without children, dogs or friends which suited Tabby-Ginger very well. He too enjoyed solitude, doing what he could to avoid worldly chaos. The cat and the old lady were a well matched pair, both unsocial, cantankerous and always opinionated on the subject of what was and was not proper. And so it was a strange thing to be woken one night by the sound of Miss Rose’s bare feet crunching through the browning summer grass, her body swaying in her pioneer night gown, its long lace edged sleeves and ankle length hem glowing with moonlight. It was a strange thing indeed to see the solidly rational old woman twisting and turning, eyes closed, hands outstretched, cupping for starlight just as a beggar cups his hands for much needed bread.
Rising to a sitting position, Tabby-Ginger shook out his dusty sun burnt fur, washed his front paws, and watched the distressing spectacle unfold. It would be wise to move to another garden with a different hedge, he thought. After all, one needs a respectable yard, free of commotion, in which to sleep. And yet unseemly as it all was, he remained transfixed by Miss Rose’s flowering madness. Never in her stone throwing sanity had she been so fascinating; unhinged, she was almost…yet being but a cat, the word escaped him. Miss Rose lifted her hands to the sky, her fingers plucking starlight from the air. Her silver hair, so long it ran in a river down her back, was lit with the light of a million galaxies that gleamed in the silver of each strand. In that moment Tabby-Ginger found the word he felt running through him. He understood the feeling and its meaning. It lived in the iridescent blues of torn butterfly wings, in the jewel-like-faceted eyes of a half killed dragonfly. Miss Rose was…beautiful. The cat remained mesmerized as the full consciousness of beauty swept through his feline soul. And yet even in the midst of his awakening a baser part of his brain asked, whatever will the neighbors think?
Tabby Ginger watched star-beams (those rarely seen silvered celestial fingers of light) kiss her hair, fill her cupped palms, and creep down her moon-bright arms to gather like an immaculate heart at her breast. Miss Rose drooped under her brilliant burden, her arms too filled with light sought, light caught, light held to stand the burden: her swaying soon became so unbalanced by the weight of her catch that she fell slowly, softly to the grass. Concerned, Tabby-Ginger walked towards her on callused old paws that made no sound. He needed to sit with her, to understand the magic that made his heart lift and then collapse under the weight of its magnificence. So he rested in vigil over the woman who threw stones and tended roses while he remembered.
He’d not always been a skulking no-man’s-cat. Once, he’d had a home and a garden all his own. It was filled with lilies and iris, daffodils and forget-me-nots. There were fewer thorns in those long ago days when he’d been sought after, searched out, and chosen from the box. A dozen brothers and sisters had mewed and bounced, hissed and swatted around him and yet from among the frolicking rabble Miss Lilac had chosen him. He never knew Miss Lilac’s Christian name. The Sunday cake lady called her Mrs. Joseph this and Mrs. Joseph that but Joseph wasn’t soft or feminine so he called her by the scent she loved best. Like Miss Rose, Miss Lilac was old and solitary and tended flowers. From her flowers she made perfumes to sell. For herself she made lilac. The scent of spring proceeded her through the darkest months, the snow months, the cold months when Tabby-Ginger’s coat grew thick and daylight hardly shown. Miss Lilac was an elder, an old one, a silvered lady so ancient in her methods that she could make lace even in her blindness, her needled fingers twisting the long white threads into patterns as intricate and gossamer as any spider’s web. This was her magic, her body swaying-star catching-magic, done with needles that spun whole worlds out of thread.
A cloud crossed the moon pulling Tabby-Ginger from his thoughts. In the sudden darkness Miss Rose glowed brighter, her starlight pooling across her chest. Is there beauty in every human being? Tabby-Ginger wondered, still struck by the woman before him. A young cat would run; a timid cat would hide. He thought. Only a mad old cat like me would stay to watch.
God Cake and Lace Magic
In the long ago years when he was fresh and new to this world, Tabby-Ginger knew a woman who arrived at Miss Lilac’s home each Sunday bringing God cake (that baked good made especially for those who forgot to go to church) and thread, (spun from the cradle of murdered caterpillars dropped, before wings could spread, into boiling water.) The God cake was set by without ceremony, but the thread was caressed and celebrated, gone over and described in such detail that even Miss Lilac could see its color through the touch of her fingers. The thread was so soft that it was the only thing Tabby-Ginger wanted to sleep on. But sleeping on it made Miss Lilac angry so Tabby-Ginger slept on her instead. During the day he would hunt through the flower garden, sleep under the full shade of the lilac, or wander into the house to beg milk. Miss Lilac had little but she always had milk enough to fill a saucer. Then, finding his place on a pile of scavenged magazines in the kindling box, he would watch Miss Lilac weave webs of caterpillar thread into table clothes, lady’s lace collars, and bedspreads sparkling with stars as big as a grown man’s hand. It was magic, Miss Lilac magic, but Tabby-Ginger didn’t know that then.
Looking down now on Miss Rose, he could see beauty’s hand decorating his life in hindsight. There had always been a beauty in his existence, yet before this night he’d never been aware enough to see it. Now, awake to her presence, Beauty spread her colorful palette across the remembered canvas of his life. He recalled the beauty in his mother’s whiskers, the sparkle of her large green eyes, the pink glittering touch of her loving tongue. He saw the beauty in Miss Lilac, in the twist of silver hair held high with pins to the top of her head. There was beauty in a warming fire, in sunlight poured through lace curtains, in intricate shadows cast across hand hewn wood floors, and in milk set out in a chipped china saucer. That was such a long ago time, he thought feeling his heart grow heavy. For where beauty’s power can lift a soul to exaltation, it will-in that same moment-weigh the heart with its absence. Every memory that formed in the old cat’s mind was transformed, made majestic, beautiful, before fading into the bittersweet emptiness of loss. What is this feeling? Tabby-Ginger breathed a sigh, his heart so heavy it was want to break. Before him Miss Rose lay unmoving, as still as death.
Going to the Gone
Miss Lilac died in the winter. Having outlived her husband and all her twelve children, she had no one to light a fire or keep her warm. It was a kind death, a falling to sleep and never rising death, a good mother’s death…still…the silence of it…the loneliness…had been terrible. Tabby-Ginger did what he could to warm her, fluffing out his coat, bushing out his tail, spreading his body over hers but he was only one cat, and being one cat his efforts were not enough. And so she passed away while he tried to warm here. What have you found in the secret place where I cannot follow? He needed to know. Will I go with you? But Miss Lilac was no more than a husk wrapped in a worn counterpane and could not tell him.
Tabby-Ginger knew many things. He listened and he watched and he read the world as easily as the katydid read the weather. For a katydid knows more of sheet lightning, more of the long thirst called drought than the newspaper man could ever guess at. Tabby-Giger knew Miss Lilac had left for the place called gone; he knew this in the same way he knew the lady who delivered Sunday God Cake bought the lacework for less than its value. Tabby-Ginger knew this because he slept on books and magazines, newspapers and letters. Being a cat, he liked to be where humans were, to know what humans knew, and he knew that he’d seen lace stars the size of a grown man’s hands pictured on the newspaper. He understood what the blind woman could not see. And he understood that death, no matter how it came, was final.
But what comes after the last breath, after the stillness? Is death a beginning or an end? The questions persisted, but the answer eluded him. Every cat knows the well crunched vole never stirs but how can that rule apply to humans? Miss Lilac had not stirred, had gone to the gone, leaving him a no-man’s-cat which never felt right.
With Miss Lilac, he’d known comfort, kindness, and home. Without her everything had changed. A no-man’s-cat is friendless, homeless and hungry. His fur loses its luster and the cold of the homeless is so terrible that some winters it seemed wiser to give up than to go on hunting, seeking and surviving. Remembering the cold of winter made his coat bristle, his whiskers twitch. How many more winters could he survive? The question frightened him. Maybe that was why he watched over Miss Rose, counted her shallow breaths, and checked for the signs of stillness that led to the stillness that does not pass.
The Way Home
The last of the day’s heat drifted from the earth while the starlight chilled the garden with an otherworldly cold. Miss Rose lay in the grass; the starlight fading from her to light the walkway, silver the lawn, and frost the flowers. It touched the earth with its monochromatic tones, leaving the pale bloomless world looking hollowed and shrunken. Moment by moment Miss rose did not stir. Has she gone to the gone? Tabby-Ginger worried, rising to his feet to pace before her. She is still…too still… With a sudden panic Tabby-Ginger called her name, his deep feline voice breaking up the silence. “Meee…Rowwww…” He rubbed his nose against her nose and batted her chin with his paw. Though he was not hers and she was not his they had shared the beauty of the garden…the sparkle of spring dew on new buds…the light breath of a butterfly’s wing stirring the scented summer air. Besides, hadn’t she thrown rocks, and hadn’t he dutifully run?
No she cannot have gone to the gone, he thought, jumping onto her chest. Gently he caressed her with Eskimo kisses, nose to nose, whisker to cheek. Then, fluffing out his fur, and bushing out his tail, he warmed her with his ragged self and purred life back into her. When the stray cloud uncovered the moon, then cat and woman were fused in one pool of chillingly bright light.
“Mee…roww…” Tabby-Ginger called. “Mee…roww…” he called again, his broken teeth nipping at her chin. Then a movement, a breath indrawn, stronger than the last. Do not go the gone… Tabby-Ginger cried. Miss Rose opened her eyes.
Tabby-Ginger watched wonder and confusion dawn and fade to loss and sadness. Had the starlight been a dream dreamt on sleepwalking feet? Tabby-Ginger saw the question in her eyes and knew the magic of the night was fading in her memory. Humans, ever rational, demote magic through uncertainty; all the worlds wonder cast away in their ceaseless search for reason. Still, an indisputable knowing passed between cat and woman as holding him to her chest she sat up.
One surveyed the other with the respectful gaze of enemies made acquiescent by proximity. Without words each knew that their stalwart, well organized souls, were bound by the inexplicable events of the night. Miss Rose understood the sparkle of care in the old cat’s eyes and the cat saw the loneliness and confusion that shimmered in the woman’s pale blue gaze. Their memory of gathered starlight, whether dreamed up illusion, or miraculously reality, bound them.
When Miss Rose straightened her gown and rose from the lawn, Tabby-Ginger proceeded her in the same way he’d once proceeded Miss Lilac toward the house and up onto the porch; settling himself with proprietary ownership at the door. Miss Rose stared at Tabby-Ginger, her expression questioning whether her house needed a cat. But after the momentary hesitation she allowed him to enter.
For Tabby-Ginger, this was no small victory. This was a gain in earth, a movement of the ginger cat’s Maginot’s Line, his domain repositioned from the distant hedge and sunlit rose beds to the warmth of a homey house where no rain or snow could ever find him. Entering the kitchen, Tabby-Ginger spotted a pile of newspapers in the kindling box near the cook stove. Making himself a bed, he let his eyes close with feline contentment and purred the soft purr of the well housed cat. This is right. This is good. He thought. I will make this house my home.
Comfort led to sleep, and sleep led to dreams in which Miss Lilac spun a world, his world out of thread; her silvered lacework spread out from the place called gone to where he lay, luring him with its soft comforting warmth all silky, smooth, and inviting. The dream called his old bones to home, while his gentle knowing answered, soon…soon…I will rest with you soon. But the dream was broken by light footsteps and the sight of Miss Rose holding a saucer of milk.