The early morning scents of autumn wafted through the porch screen and lifted me with their heady, fragrant bouquet, derived from the trees and grasses and flowers placed throughout the property. I inhaled the delicate sweetness. I sipped coffee from a fragile china cup, took a great breath, and released it. The pancakes and the bacon lay untouched. Crystal had always insisted on pancakes and bacon for breakfast so the cook had suggested it, said it seemed appropriate. But I had no appetite. Gazing out at the vast green space which comprised my front yard, I saw an old, familiar friend, headed my way.
Tentatively at first, then with more purposeful strides, Cleo, a large shorthair cat with the markings of a border collie, padded up the steps of my front porch and halted abruptly at the very top. She sat and stared balefully at me, as if to say, “What, don’t I get a hug?”
“Come here, Cleo,” I coaxed, holding my arms wide. She proceeded to lick her paw and then wash her ears, com-pletely ignoring my invitation. A char-acteristic cat maneuver. At length, she deigned to approach me and I extended a piece of cold bacon for her perusal. She sniffed the rasher a second, then batted it with her paw, knocking it to the floor of the porch, whereupon she turned away and paid no attention to either the bacon or me. I smiled, understanding the temperament of cats. Particularly this cat.
Naturally, I began to think of Crystal, who was Cleo’s owner. My daughter had died exactly one year ago today, and I knew in my heart that Cleo would return for the…commemoration? The cat sprang up onto the round, glass-topped table at which I sat and crept closer, her green eyes luminous and unblinking.
“That’s a good cat,” I murmured, scratching Cleo’s ears. I could hear the deep thrum of her purring. I patted her head and she reached out and gently nipped my finger, rubbed her brow against my knuckles. She mewed plaintively. “I know,” I said softly. “I miss her, too.” I had wondered where Cleo had disappeared to on the very day that we laid my daughter to rest. Cleo has imply vanished, her cat food untouched. I was distracted at the time, of course, what with Crystal’s passing and all, but after the shock of her death began to subside, I became concerned for Cleo. She was part of our family.
If she didn’t want to socialize, then perhaps that was her way of grieving for her mis-tress. So I began leaving food and water out for her, just in case she remained in the area. All I accomplished, as far as I knew, was to attract every feral cat in Madison County. I was content with that, to erect a kind of living shrine to Crystal. She adored cats. Cleo sat on her haunches and blithely stared at me. “Are you back for good this time?” I asked her. She blinked languidly, made no reply. “Well, you know you’re always welcome,” I went on, feeling silly not at all for conversing with a cat.
Crystal had lived here with me, on the estate, where she’d been born. I remem- bered looking into Crystal’s clear blue eyes and seeing there the pain she brought home with her from her work. She had stopped socializing, ceased talking with her friends; she never received any phone calls or e-mails unless they were about work.
I tried to reach her, but she became increasingly remote, spent much of her free time working extra shifts. I tried but couldn’t dissuade her. “No, Mom, I’m alright,” she’d said again and again. Crystal was a Registered Nurse and she treated Covid patients at the medical center. According to the authorities, she died of an opioid overdose, prompted by fatigue and “a sense of overwhelming hopelessness and depression.” But I know the virus killed her, just as surely as if she had herself
been infected. Crystal was just 34 years old.
I took the cat in my arms and held her tight, the way I wanted to hold my daughter; and tears seeped from my eyes and disappeared into Cleo’s beautiful black and white fur. Together, we grieved again.
Bill Tope is a retired public assistance caseworker living in Illinois with his mean little cat Baby. He has been published several score times, in both poetry and fiction. He has been published in Cathedral of Insanity, Wordgathering, Down in the Dirt mag, and others.