That damned cat! Sat on my chest, in the road, piercing my heart with its smile. Yes, the bloody thing grinned at me! Then it spoke. Yes! Believe it or not. A hazy tale of trauma, trials, sins, trains, stains, and a girl and all of it brought me here. What a trip!
I’d seen that cat before, but where it came from and where it went after that. Anyone’s guess. But let’s wind back and then get back here.
Him, existing on long black nights after washed-out sunsets. Waking to mist rising in the mornings, white and delicate, dissolving to reveal branches of trees stretched like scarecrows out of tattered garments. Skies pale with newness, destined to die long black deaths. Stations and trains, and sordid platforms of scattered early-risers with their sweaty newspapers and cardboard coffees. Mists, creeping off the fields and into the villages and towns. People passing in and out of proximity, blinking in and out of sight. The sun’s brief appearances, drowned in commuters’ comings and goings. Around and around. Burnt-out ends of days. Life being played out with him strung out on the sidelines; a static ghost moving from one carriage, one train to another, platform to platform, station to station. Reality suspended in loose change, Styrofoam cups, stiff sandwiches, stopped-up toilets, endless cigarettes, splashes of tepid water on a face he hardly recognizes, but grudgingly accepts as his.
Sometimes, he sees the cat from a distance, still grinning.
This is a marathon, not a race. He is waiting, not winning.
She couldn’t decide whether she had forgotten what they felt like or if her hands had swollen; grown bigger in the interim between spring and winter, but the gloves felt too tight on her fingers. They seemed to be letting enter the sensation of stinging cold on purpose rather than protecting her from it; stingily inviting pins of ice through the stitching. Traitors. She tugged them off as soon as she entered the warmth of the carriage and stuffed them into her pockets. The coat she stowed on the rack with her hat, sat heavily into her seat, squeezing her hands between her thighs for some modicum of warmth.
The compartment she’d entered smelt of wet socks, confused perfumes and cigarette smoke. She wrinkled her nose at the more-sour odour of man-sweat originating not only from the diverse mass of humanity that filtered on and off at different stops, but more invasively and specifically from the figure slumped across from her. She examined him with some disdain. Filthy blue jeans and thick short boots, limp jacket, yellowed fingers, greasy, lank hair.
The boy’s eyes were closed and there was something both idle and eager in his posture, like a resting buzzard. His fingers were pink and soft around the yellow stains and sadly, raggedly chewed at the edges. The hands lay disused and innocent in his lap, one crossed over the other. Eyelashes reposing anxiously on cheeks, which were pale and smooth with youth, seemed curiously drawn on with a careful hand. The lower part of his face was bruised with uneven scrawny stubble. He had a little tuft of hair, which stuck up at the back of his head—straight up against the sticky seatback. The collar of his shirt was frayed and grimy, she saw with a maternal pang.
She gradually became aware of the body beneath the clothes, carrying a real live heart; pumping red rich blood through the highways of his veins. She could see the thick artery of his neck thumping a rhythm that seemed to sing in an undertone that grafted itself to the noises of the train and other passengers’ chatter. He was handsome beneath the chaos of his appearance.
Suddenly embarrassed at catching herself staring at a stranger thus, she blinked furiously and turned to the window, blushing while the blood returned to her hands.
Enter stage right, and there she was, ripping the gloves from her hands, almost brutally. Every atom of him wanted to stand to attention. Immediately, parts of himself were busy rearranging themselves into new and unfamiliar shapes. He forced his body to remain still; not a gesture to betray him as he watched her surreptitiously from under his lashes. A much-practised art of late, during the waiting.
The girl had studied him clinically before turning her flushed face to the window. He could see her reflection blinking back at itself, her breath making obscure puddles on the glass. He felt the beat of his heart increase helplessly as after a few minutes, suddenly she stood, reached up to the rack and felt around in the pocket of her coat, withdrawing a red-backed book.
God’s thunder! Her odour caught, netted in his nostrils, sending him spiralling. The scent of her smelt like home, so familiar, but from no home he had ever, ever known. With it came a flood of sweet relief that made him dizzy and quite queasy.
And he knew. Knew. Damn. And blast. That cat!
Every ounce of effort was needed to keep to stillness and prevent himself from crying out. He squeezed his throat tight to keep the scent of her there for longer. Forever. And felt the burn from behind his retinas that had captured the image of the beautiful wave of her hair and imprinted it there. She was, at last, here! He must believe it. The relief had made him feel slightly sick, yes, but he savoured it.
At that precise moment, the train gave a lurch; just enough to unsteady the girl, and her hand with the book attached came down hard on his right thigh. He leapt in shock, as did she, and they shared their first, honest glance. The eyes of the other, like a long drink of water, cold and surprising; senses drenched, yet embarrassed to find thirst quenched so quickly and without cost. Oh, God! What?
This is what had been promised?
She swallowed. He cleared his throat as if to speak, but reluctant as she to begin with a sharing of common banalities.
He noticed the silver bangle on her wrist. She noticed his earring; a solid lumpy stud. Distractions.
“I’m s-so s-sorry,” she stuttered as he steadied her by her elbow. So very conventional, as first words go, but words can only hope to go where such emotion lies.
He was not so quick to cover up. His conclusions remained open to the gift of his advantage of foreknowledge. Thanks to that damned cat!
He had been waiting for her for some time. He had lost track.
“Please do not be sorry for that which is beyond the smallest control.” His voice was scratchy in his throat, unused to being solicited.
The boy’s tones were ordinary, if accented unexpectedly, she thought, but seemed quite old and odd in his mouth. She blushed and sat. He couldn’t have been more than 25 or 30. Not a boy. Older than she, or not, perhaps.
She wondered what he would say next. She watched him, chewing on her lower lip. Some things were evidently rolling around like marbles behind his teeth, under his tongue. She decided, quite wickedly, not to utter another syllable until he spat one of those things out.
It was apparent and without doubt that a conversation had begun. It felt at once surreal and natural.
Taking a little pity on him, she shifted her gaze again to the window. Shaking her long hair across her face as she did so.
Her half-hidden face was even more appealing to him. He cleared his throat and spoke, poking at her thought.
“I see I shall have to speak first on this. It is necessary, it seems, to explain what is already evident.”
The girl, for a moment, said nothing. “What? No. It doesn’t matter,” she muttered, choosing ignorance, low and shy, avoiding his eye.
The countryside rushed past as the train gained speed. The roofs and houses fast giving way to stands of bushes and mottled still-green trees, turned apricot in the evening light.
“No, I suppose not,” he sighed, disappointed.
She turned back to him then and smiled, eyes wide to welcome him. They said nothing for a minute or two, again basking.
A conversation was going on that went beyond the confines of simple words, strung together, leaving mouths. He was looking at her, at her very self. And she was looking at him. She was giddy with the fear of it. Tiny prickles of sweat began blossoming at the backs of her legs, her armpits, her upper lip. She took a big quavery breath. And he.
The train chattered on, filling little spaces for them, while they watched each other in this strange and intimate manner. Other people passed their seats, but no one sat with them or disturbed them.
His voice was husky. “What are you reading?” Glancing down to the book in her hand, giving her a chance at normalcy. “Not that that matters, either.”
She laughed. “Everything matters in some moments. But perhaps you are a nihilist.” The words spilled out without motive. A pause, and raised eyebrows on both sides. Simply, “I’m reading Rumi,” she managed.
A shrugging of his shoulders.
“A Persian poet of the 13th century, pure of heart and passion,” she explained while blushing at her own mention of passion.
“Not a nihilist, no. If by that you mean that all values are baseless, pessimist and truth must be reached through objective reasoning; decisions made without emotion or passion in a mood of gloom or self-deception… Well, perhaps I was. I’ve become more an unwitting fatalist now I think. Can outcomes become predetermined and mindfully so? Or something along those lines.”
He ran his damaged fingers over his scalp. “I’m a bit confused. Please excuse me. Rumi. No, I do not yet know of him. But I will. Would you read something to me, out loud, at random?” A wry smile, understanding established.
The girl shifted straighter in her seat, letting the red covers of the book fall open between her fingers of their own accord. She read in a softer more melodic voice, as if reading to herself, quite unselfconscious. “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place…”
Here, she trailed off.
The man smiled a small smile and leaned forward to catch her scent again.
“Nothing is by chance, is it?” he whispered. “At least, I don’t think so. But then as a newly hatched teetering fool of a fatalist, for some months now…or is it weeks? I can’t quite tell.”
Just then the train hurtled through the liquid dark of a tunnel.
He is once again transported back to the road, after the accident. In the dark, before the pain starts, startled by the weight of the orange cat squatting on his chest, staring tunnel-like into his eyes, telling him his life, wreaking his path, vandalizing his soul. He is aware of people around him, panicking, but he is pinned by the cat, and that’s that. Those orbital green eyes speak straight into his heart, like darts, and compel him to follow instructions without question.
Instructions. From a cat? No words, evidently, just the sting of truths and slaps of sound comeuppance.
Go away from this placees, go sit within trains, so patience, so stillness, no destinatiance, so must. So. In this spacees, find so truth and so must wait and so She comes. She, with the scent of familiarcees in auburn hair and eyes so mine. She knows thees. Nothing matters but this.
The cat sits heavier and stares longer, even when the paramedics attend him. Its paws leave dents in his chest, he feels. This is the damned cat he met at his apartment, the one that came and went when it wanted. Or one just like it.
Until he does its bidding he can find no peace. He’s tried. It is nonsense but some time after the hospital, he does just this.
Madness. Compulsion. No further explanation.
Back to their eyes, reflected in the windows, adjusting to the tunnel, the darkness and the ghosts of each other’s face, engraved in backs of skulls.
How strange, they both thought, but neither looked away.
“A recent fatalist?”
“Yes, quite recent. Would you like to hear a story?”
She nodded her assent, but said nothing, feeling under his ordinary words something potent coming. He looked down to his scuffed-up shoes, tucking them suddenly under his seat out of sight. He coughed without covering his mouth, his head turned to the side.
“Actually, it’s not much of a story,” he muttered, “but I will tell you it.” He shifted in his seat as if his very bones had become painful under his skin, then began. His words measured out like grains of salt. “I’ll keep it short. I may not look it, but I am, or was, a professional moneyman, coming from a good and respected family. My path was laid out long before my birth by those wiser and older than me and I questioned nothing in the quest for more of the same. I was fast-tracked in business by my father and his many cronies. I gathered my own contacts and grew my own fortune. Armoured by wealth and security, I have behaved in ways for which I am now ashamed as many young men might under such circumstances. And I never paid. No consequences. Just pride and more pride. Until in one crystallized moment, looking the wrong way on a busy street on a random day, my invincibility was shattered for good. On my way to yet another meeting after a well-lubricated luncheon, a car that failed to indicate and I stepped off the curb in front of it. A simple hit and run and I was left in the gutter, exposed and broken.”
Here, he paused and gave her a level look. “With a large orange cat sitting in the middle of my chest.”
As he spoke, she followed a smile that started in one corner of his mouth and moved slowly across, metamorphosing into his strange stillness again. How can the corners of a mouth be so expressive? He seemed to keep his whole self tucked in those crevasses—a remarkable muscular precision offset by a breathtaking softness contained within a human face.
As he spoke, he was aware of the breath in his throat rising and rising, although his voice stayed level. He was noticing the blue veins under the paleness of her neck, her eyebrows like feathers laid down by careful sparrows, brown and thick; the curve of her lip, lifting to dimple if she smiled. God, he wanted to make her smile. He could not get enough of looking.
The green woollen pullover, swollen with the hills of her chest, the same green of her eyes, doubly beguiling behind azure-frame glasses. His heart was inflating like a wonderful bubble behind the walls of his own chest; rising and rising and oh God!
He gulped and stopped speaking.
“Wait. A cat? What?”
“Yes, with my body flat in the gutter. A cat. A big fat orange cat with large green eyes. I cannot tell you if it was real or a hallucination. But that moment changed my life. That cat.”
“How odd, I met a cat just like that.” She paused. “Once. Sorry. No, excuse me. Were you hurt?”
“Not as much as I should have been. There was some time spent in hospital. After that, the image of the cat persisted. And its voice. I couldn’t… It’s difficult to explain. I did try to regain the momentum of my life, but it was impossible and I knew it. Something had shifted.”
“Had you hit your head? What was important about that cat?”
“Yes, I’d hit my head on the road. I stepped off the curb, as an over-confident, slightly sleazy banker and wound up…”
She leaned forward as his voice went quiet.
“…here.” As his words petered out, he raked his long fingers through his lank hair, making more of it stick up at the back.
“The cat showed up again. I followed it, got on a train and travelled and travelled, and…”
A talking cat? Curiouser and curiouser.
“And I am here. Here. And here we are.”
“To what end?”
“End? I could not, no… I’ll get to that.” Shaking his head, his face pale. “Perhaps not.”
Their conversation continued through a few tunnels and out the other side, getting closer.
She has moved a great lock of hair behind her ear; her hand flutters a bit afterwards as if not sure where to place itself, finally settling on the seat next to her thigh. He watches.
There is a desperate calmness in their closeness. He knows she has not accepted it yet, but she is here. The enormity of it settles into him. Unsettles him. Their knees are nearly touching, separately seeking not to tremble. They smile with some timidity, not speaking. Then start again. He does not even ask her name or offer his own, realizing how little it matters.
“What,” she asks, “would be your dearest wish?”
“It’s an odd one, considering.” His eyes drift to the luggage racks above their heads. “Simply never to have to wear a coat or gloves again. To feel sun on my skin every day of my life. I could wear that sort of armour against all other unthinkable sins.”
“Yes! That’s just it!” she laughs, her eyes widening. “However did you know? All the other intolerable things…”
She squeezes her eyes shut for an instant; a furrow worries her brow like a cloud across the sun. Then it is gone.
He feels warmth. This is good.
“You know things, don’t you?”
He doesn’t wish to put a leaden stone into their conversation, even a pebble. Better to gabble.
He tells her of his Hungarian blood, inherited from his mother. Her wild blood, her gypsy visions; grittily denied by his father. He hardly remembers her.
He tells her of the expectations passed on to him, along with entitlement, guilt, an expensive flat in a good district, professionally decorated and devoid of his own choices. He acquired the credence of a university education with little effort but wore it like a designer suit and tie and buffed-up shoes.
He tells her details of his job and his fancy friends. And strangely, and at last, the intrusive company of a large orange cat, which squatted on his terrace at odd times, staring at him with its enigmatic eyes.
She listens, but adds little. It is not important at this moment. She waits.
He forgets to speak. The train clatters.
“Have you been in love before?” she tries again, astounded at her own audacity.
“In that moment, on that street, yes. I fell. And, I fell in love, and in confusion, and in clarity, and nothing has made ordinary sense since. It is unfathomable, I know.”
He takes a ragged breath. “It just became obvious. The one thing missing; the only hole in the scenario was…erm, I had a whole other reason; a raison d’être, right there, staring at me. I couldn’t move backwards after that.”
He laughs. “Yes, the cat.”
She laughs as well. “What was missing?”
She swallows. She can’t escape his gaze. She finds she does not want to. Her mouth is dry.
“What else did you know at that moment?”
“That the mountains of my days needed to be climbed sideways, lightly, out of step with the rest.”
They do not speak for quite a while. The train moves them forward. So.
He was so pale and thin, she thought.
“Are you quite well?”
He sat up straight, his hands on his knees, and stared straight into her eyes. They were as green as the cat’s, unfathomably familiar. She felt herself shiver and sat back.
Letting out a short breath. “So, where are you going?”
“I’m here,” he simply said, his grey eyes steady.
“Are you sure you haven’t read any Rumi?”
“Very sure.” His voice took on an otherworldly quality. “Death has come and gone. I’m still here, in the place between pages, waiting for the next word, the next chapter.”
“Oh dear.” Flustered, the girl rose quickly, breaking eye contact, breaking the magic of it. “This is my stop.” She grabbed at her things, goosebumps rising in anticipation of the cold outside the compartment. Surely this was the reason. Her fingers felt frozen.
“I get out here. I must. Go.”
A parting seemed impossible to him, but she seemed determined. They could not be as strangers, surely. So, he spoke with simplicity and what was heard in her ears, against all normalcy, resonated, like a pebble dropped, like a bell struck, a key turned.
“Come back tomorrow.”
It was neither a command nor a question.
She smiled at him then. The smile danced between them, their eyes, cheeks and lips establishing something more.
“Life just got better,” he said, the train stopping.
“Shall we shake hands?”
Like a transaction, leaving an impression, the cold of her hands left her.
“I’ll be here,” he said, not standing but sinking back into his seat, as if exhausted yet vibrant.
“As will I,” she said without even thinking. Then not a backward glance, she was gone.
He felt not bereft, but relieved. She had come. And only tomorrow, she would come again, and he would get off the train with her somewhere. It didn’t matter.
It had been a long journey. He needed some hot food, a proper shower, a…
He fails to notice the glint of green caught in the net of shadows of the platform, or the swish of a russet tail as the sun sets. The rhythmic sound of the train moving off, picking up speed, soothes him and he sleeps.
It is twilight when she steps from the train, strangely elated, curiously full. She looks up to the half-dark sky, with its half-white translucent paper moon. The air is so crisp, the evening so lovely, she thinks she might cry. She even forgets to pull on her gloves, her hands quite as warm as the rest of her.
Story copyright © 2019 by Barbara Turney Wieland
Artwork copyright © 2019 by Carol Wellart
Barbara Turney Wieland is a 50+ visual artist and poet who also dabbles in short story. She began writing at 49, unable to put it off any longer. She writes in cafés, in forests, in bed upon waking, on random park benches, and in unguarded moments. Her poems have been published in Narrow Road, Poetry Quarterly, Jazz Cigarette, Isacoustic, and Crannòg, to name a few. She is a member of the Geneva Writers Group. Born in England, she grew up mostly in Australia, but after that in France, then Singapore. Still not sure if the growing up part is finished, she currently lives and works in Switzerland with her family.
Carol Wellart is a Czech artist and painter creating predominantly wildlife themes, nature studies, and literary characters. She’s mostly inspired by the curious shapes and materials from nature, but literature is still the main source. Painting and drawing were always the most important things for her, and visiting the local art school helped her understand new techniques and the “science” of the colour mediums. Carol is the award-winning artist of the Best Book Cover in 2015 in Czechia. Her work has been published in magazines such as Spirituality & Health, International Wolf, and Orion.