The Gray Cat and the Green House at the Corner (Part II)
“I will tell you a story now,” the old man said “a story, about a boy. A story, about a cat.”
“When I was a young and skinny boy, about ten years old, I desperately wanted a pet more than anything,” the old man told me “I really wanted a dog, but my parents could never afford one, and we never had the space for one. But one day, on the way home from school, I found a cat. It was a black and white cat, under-fed, ribs visible through its skin. It followed me. Whenever I walked, it walked, whenever I stopped, it stopped. It even let me pick it up, just like that, even though I had never met it before. So I brought it home. I looked after it. I fed it.”
“That must have been nice for you,” I said “every child should have a pet.”
“Yes, yes, it was wonderful having that cat,” he said “it was a loyal, handsome, male cat. I called him, Hugo. Since he was a stray, I don’t know what breed he was, but I imagine it was a mix of different breeds, but mainly tabby. He had piercing, large green eyes, long legs, with a rough, short, fur coat of gray and black. His tail was striped, like a tigers. Black ring, gray ring, black ring, gray ring.”
The man paused for a second, and I noticed that his eyes were wet.
“Hugo wasn’t a typical pet cat, no, no, no, not to me. Every weekend, I gave him a shower, so that his fur wouldn’t get dirty, did I tell you that? He was always running around outside, getting dirty. He would walk with me to school, then he would run off, and do whatever he liked until school was out, and he’d be there, waiting for me to run out of the front gate,” the old man laughed at the fond memory “he would always be so angry at me, after I gave him his shower, that I thought he would run away. But he never did. He always came back.” “What was he like?” I asked “His personality, I mean.”
“Ahh, yes,” the old man said “they say that animals don’t have the personality of humans, but I think that’s wrong, I’d say that humans don’t have the personality of animals. Hugo was a playful, charismatic and adventurous cat, always getting into mischief. He loved to play with his favorite ball of yarn, and he loved climbing trees, especially that one there,” he pointed out towards an old oak tree “of course, it wasn’t as big, back then. We fed him scraps from the table, and canned sardines, but when we could afford it, we gave him fresh fish. I remember that was the reason for me, getting my first job, just so I could buy him all the fish he wanted. He loved that fish, more than anything. My mother said it was a dreadful waste of money.”
“Yes,” he said sadly, “he was.”
“What else happened?”
“Well, to give him the shower was hard, because back then our home was built entirely out of wood, the roads were unpaved and there was no running water indoors. Our only faucet was outside and the amount coming out was not very much. Luckily, we had a well that provided the neighborhood with water. I would fetch the water from the well, with a rope, attached to a bucket. I would gently lower it down, and get the water. When I first got Hugo, before I started giving him baths, he would come with me to get the water, and would walk around the outside of the well, peering down into the water below. But once I started giving him the showers, he learnt not to come with me and to hide inside. He would hide inside the house, or perhaps outside or under the house. I never knew where he would be, as he changed his hiding place often, so I could not catch him easily. I would have to leave the water on the back step and go looking for him, crawling under the house, walking the streets. Then I would have to catch him. Some days I could sneak up on him and quickly grab him but others I had to chase him around, and try to make him move toward the house. When I get him, I had to quickly wash him, before he scratched me too much,” he laughed at that “I would quickly splash half the water on him, to get his fur wet, then rub the shampoo into his fur with one hand, while my other was busy holding him down., then I’d have to let go to grab the bucket again and quickly try to splash the water onto him as he ran away, to rinse him. Then he’d go off and sulk for a while, licking himself dry. I always gave him fresh fish after his baths, so that he would be happier.” The man smiled fondly at his happy memories of his youth.
“He must have been nice and soft after his baths,” I said, looking around the room for any signs of cats.
“Oh, he was,” the old man replied “not that it lasted very long; he’d go and get dirty, almost straight away. But, oh, there was nothing nicer, than the smell of a freshly shampooed cat.”
I smiled at him and thought about the cat that I had been seeing. From his description, it sounded just like Hugo. I had to find out more.
“What did the cat sound like?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Was he loud, or quiet? High-pitched squeaks, or low purrs?”
“Oh, well Hugo was a very vocal cat; he would make many different meowing sounds. He was a kind of cat who liked to talk, his meowing, being the way he communicated with us. He was very active and agile and would mew constantly whilst running around the garden, chasing after butterflies and climbing after birds.”
“You said he had a ball of yarn before,” I said, wanting to see what kind of toys I could try and lure the other cat in with, “did Hugo have any other toys that he liked?”
“The ball of yarn was definitely his favorite, there was no doubt about that,” he said “we kept it inside my mother’s ancient sewing machine. When my mother was sewing, he would just wait underneath, sitting on her feet, until the ball would drop. Then he’d jump up and try to catch it, rolling around with it, kicking it with his feet and biting on it. Sometimes, he’d get caught up in the yarn, and he’d hiss and hiss until I came to free him. No other cat that I ever saw did that. Another one of his toys was a broomstick, that I would hit on the floor and make him chase after. He liked the sound it made as I dragged it along the floor, I think.” He laughed again, as he came upon a particularly entertaining memory, “sometimes, he would get a hold on the end of the stick, and wouldn’t let go, and I would drag him around the floor, oh he loved that so much. I loved that so much.”
“It must have been handy, to have a cat,” I commented “especially when there were mice around.”
“There were never any mice around, not when Hugo was here,” he told me “he was particularly good at catching them. He would be playing one moment, and then suddenly he would stop. He would sit very still and listen. He listened for the tiny sound of a mouse. He followed the sound, until he could see his prey. Then he would wiggle his bottom and pounce on the mouse. After killing it, he would bring it to us, looking all proud of him.”
“He sounds like a playful cat.”
“Yes, but his playfulness, got him into trouble too. We had neighbors that were fishermen, and sometime Hugo would steal and bring us the fisherman’s catch, sometimes a fish as big as him. He struggled hard to carry it and to keep it from falling out. He would always look so pleased with himself, and wouldn’t start eating it until we had seen it. Whenever this happened, I would go over to the neighbor’s and pay for the fish myself.”
“He was very naughty but also nice,” I said. “Yes, very nice,” the old man said softly.
“What happened to him?”
The old man suddenly looked very glum and upset. “He just…died one day,” he said sadly “I don’t know what happened, maybe he was poisoned, maybe he was sick, maybe he was old, but whatever it was, it just happened, all of a sudden. I cried, I’m not afraid to admit it. Torrents of tears, because of the loss of Hugo. I wanted to give him a grand funeral, with all the pomp and circumstance that a King will have. I made him a make-shift coffin, out of a few sheets of plywood. Then I wrapped him in his favorite blanket, and laid him inside the coffin. I picked different types of flowers, the ones that were growing outside in the garden at the time, roses, lilies and orchids. My mother always liked how Hugo would creep through them. I filled the coffin with the flowers, and placed his ball of yarn in with him. I sung church hymns and songs, as my mother and father watched. My tears kept on pouring, even my mother was crying with me and I swear that I saw a single tear in the corner of my father’s eye. I buried him in the backyard, digging the small hole myself. I can’t remember what prayers I said for him.”
The story had brought tears to my eyes as I listened.
“After Hugo was buried, I was so sad, and could barely even think about him, or I would burst into tears. It took me a while to snap free from that sorry state, because I just missed Hugo so, so much. Hugo was a special cat, I loved him and he made me happy. Nobody will take his place. From that moment on, I chose not to have a pet again,” he finished, a slight tone of bitterness in his voice.
“Maybe I can change your mind,” I said to him.
“No, nothing will ever change my mind,” he said bitterly “Hugo was a one of a kind cat, and it would be mean to find another, knowing that I will never love it, as much as I loved Hugo. I loved him so much, and he loved me. We grew together, look at me now. I even look like him. But he’s gone, and I’m still here, so please, leave me now. Leave me in peace, so I can mourn my dead cat.”
“Please, trust me,” I said “I think you’ll want to see this.”
I got up from the chair and went outside. He followed me. I ducked down and crawled underneath the house, through the panel that the cat had disappeared through. I called out softly, “Hugo, Hugo.” The cat came up to me instantly, purring happily, rubbing its head against my cheek. I took him in my arms and crawled back out. I held him up to the old man. The old man gently took the cat out of my arms and looked at him.
“He looks exactly the same…” he whispered gently.
The old man took the cat inside and put it in the sink. He washed its fur quickly, shampooing the cat with one hand while holding it down with the other, finally rinsing it off. He took the cat in his arms again and raised to it his nose.
“He smells the same…” he whispered.
“This cat has been coming here for years. It knows you,” I said.
“How can that possibly be?” the old man asked “unless…Hugo?”
“It must be,” I said “Hugo’s spirit lives on, inside this cat.”
Tears were flooding from my eyes, as well as the man’s. The cat was purring happily in his arms, rubbing his head against the man. The old man gently placed the cat on the ground and left the room for a minute. When he returned, he was carrying a ball of yarn. He threw it to the cat, which chased it instantly.
“Oh my god…” the man said, softly, “It really is him.”
Suddenly, the cat started hissing.
It was caught in the yarn.