10. Ceci n’est pas un chat

May 13, 2010

Baby was lying on his back on the carpet, looking like a melted baked Alaska. As Rose stepped over him, she looked down into his golden eyes, which looked to her as if they were asking some eternal question. Rose had yet to figure out the question, so any answers she may have come up with were unlikely, besides she really didn’t think much was going on in Baby’s head, in spite of the questioning depths of his eyes. She reached down and scratched his belly. His feet went up and he started kicking her hands. Except for his bicycling back legs, Baby didn’t move, but his eyes grew wider and wilder. Near his head, was the new green fabric mouse Rose had bought the day before.

Both the cats loved the mouse. Fergus had immediately pounced on it when Rose brought it home and had batted it around the kitchen as if it were a real mouse. Fergus had spent his young cat-hood bringing in small pinecones and other vegetarian approximations of mice. Fergus was a mouser, and even at the venerable age of sixteen, his predatory impulses were formidable though short lived. It wasn’t long before he lost interest in the mouse and turned his attention back to Rose, climbing into her lap to turn around in a circle and settle into sleep.

Baby, however, didn’t lose interest in the toy. He didn’t bat the mouse, strangely; he sat next to it and talked to it. In the middle of the night, Rose woke to hear Baby talking to the mouse. There was something distressed about the sound, as if he were chastising the little cloth mouse for some unconscionable behavior.

Rose lived in a cottage set in the midst of a large lot full of trees, wild flowers and silent places. It had been a home to an endless stream of feral cats, which Rose periodically trapped and had neutered. Some years ago one pregnant cat had slipped by, and Rose had watched and waited, as the skittish mother cat grew big, then thin. One morning when she saw the mother cat lounging in the sun at the front of the house, she ran to the back of the yard where, tucked beneath the overflowing ferns beside the back fence, four kittens coiled around each other—two black and two gray-and-black tabbies, their eyes still closed. She scooped them up and carried them into the house.

She wasn’t able to coax the female cat inside the house, but she was too wild, too frightened. So the kittens had stayed with Rose. Fergus was the last of that litter, his brothers dying the year before from diseases of old age. Weeping, she had buried them next to each other, curled as if asleep in beds of lavender, rose petals and ferns.

Baby, the odd cat out, had also come to her as a kitten, abandoned in a large cardboard box left in the front garden. He had been tiny, an orange tabby so pale in color he looked pink. Some five years younger than Rose’s cats, he was timid and had spent his days hiding from the other cats. But in the past year, Baby had become bolder.

Rose fed the cats, rolled Baby over, gave his belly another scratch, and ran out the door. She regretted that she wouldn’t see them for another nine hours.

Later, when Rose got back to Plutonium from lunch, there was a large cat’s head drawn in Magic Markers on the white board in Classical. The head was huge, almost filling the twenty-four-by-thirty-inch white board that was one of Bob Winston’s many attempts to organize his diffident workers by allowing him to write tasks on the board, which was positioned so that everyone could see it. The board was a public statement of responsibility.

Rose looked at Nate.

“It wasn’t me,” he defended himself. “I came back from break and there it was.”


“Honestly,” he insisted. “I did a little decoration here.” He pointed out the caption under the cat head: Ceci n’est pas un chat. “That’s for Bob.” He folded his arms over his chest. “And I did the eyebrows.” The cat’s head, which was drawn in red marker, had big beetle-y black eyebrows like Groucho Marx. “Anyway, I’m due downstairs,” he said and slithered off.

For some minutes Rose looked at the cat’s head. Something was missing. The head was a big oval with pointed ears and large round eyes that looked like spinning pinwheels, as if the cat had snorted some strange psychedelic drug. It also had orange stripes, but its nose, like the shape of its head, was more Dr. Zeuss-like than feline. Still, it had the parted lips and muzzle of a cat.

No teeth, no fangs.

It must have fangs, thought Rose It was a rat killer after all.

She sorted through the markers till she found a black one and then boldly drew in the down-turning triangles that were to be its fangs. Perfect.

Even more, a statement had to be made. C’est l’assassin de (What was the word for rats? She couldn’t remember.) petits animaux dêgoutants. Little disgusting animals. Close enough. (Her French was way past its prime, but did it matter?) She drew three small rat-like figures with round ears and long stringy bent tails following on the sentence. And then she stood back to admire her handiwork.

Now that was satisfying.

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