“I see you’ve found them,” the old woman said,
“my precious cats!”
Margaret had come about the room for rent, she
had always liked the quaint houses in this neighborhood; the
old woman had ushered her into a Victorian parlor, where the
curtains were so heavy the light hardly came through at all.
The furniture was upholstered in velvet, with tassels hanging
down. A faint gauze of dust, like spider webs fleeting through
a breeze, rose over everything. When she saw them peering
back at her, just at eye level, Margaret lost her balance
and collapsed into one of the armchairs, her hand over her
“Well — aren’t they precious?” the old woman
asked, beaming at the far wall with almost maternal pride.
“They aren’t real,” Margaret stammered, “are
“Of course they’re real. Those are all the dear
cats I’ve ever lived with, my whole life.”
Margaret squinted in the poor light. She saw
clearly now that her first impression had not been mistaken:
it was a wall mounted with a row of stuffed heads, the heads
of cats, their eyes open and glassy, their fur glistening,
their noses glowing an unearthly pink. Each head projected
from a buckle-shaped wooden plaque. There were eight.
“After all, men mount deer’s heads as trophies,
and other animals, don’t they?” the old woman asked, with
a slightly harsh edge. “Oh, I didn’t hunt these cats! Far
from it. They all died of natural causes, after leading long
and healthy lives, right here in this house, in this very
parlor. . .”
Margaret stared at the old woman, unsure of what
to say. “You must have loved them a great deal. . .”
“That very chair you’re sitting in,” the old
woman pointed, “they often liked to lounge right there and
nap all afternoon —”
Margaret stood up quickly. “They did?”
“Yes,” the old woman waved her hand, “cats seem
to like that chair in particular. At least, mine did.”
Some of the heads, Margaret noticed, seemed to
be smiling. One had sharp teeth that were slightly visible
at the sides of its furry mouth. Perhaps she could try to
make the best of this situation: in the newspaper ad the price
of rent for the old woman’s spare room had been so affordable,
well within Margaret’s budget. “I’ve heard of this kind of
thing, it’s called taxidermy, isn’t it? But don’t they usually
stuff, I mean, don’t they usually use the whole body?”
The old woman snorted. “The whole body! Why,
so they can stay sitting up for eternity on their poor tired
haunches, or look like they’re about to pounce on a mouse?
No, not my cats, my cats were creatures of the head and face.
Sedate, polite, infinitely bright. Yes, in the end it’s their
heads I wanted.” The old woman went up to the first cat —
its head the orange color of a lion’s mane — and stroked it
under the chin. “That’s right, that’s what we always liked.
Margaret wondered if the preserved fur still
felt soft like a living cat, or if it was somehow stiff, shellacked.
The old woman smiled in her reverie, muttering, “Always the
heads for us. Only the heads. Bodies are bad, dirty things.
They only get you into trouble. You’ll see that, some day
you’ll see. . .”
Embarrassed to watch this display of affection
Margaret cleared her throat, and the old woman, hunching her
shoulders, turned to look at her over her bifocals. “But how
rude of me! I haven’t introduced you to them yet! This is
Bruno, my first cat, the cat I had when I was just a girl.”
With a sweep of her hand she indicated the orange head she
had just been stroking. “Bruno used to sleep in my bed every
night. I had big picture books of the Knights of the Round
Table, and the handsomest knight, underneath his helmet, always
had Bruno’s face — as far as you could tell me in those days!
Yes, it was sad when Bruno died, I cried and cried, but to
make me feel better my father — may he be happy in heaven,
looking down on us! — gave me his head as a present, just
as handsome as ever! And that’s how the whole wall started.
Margaret thought of her own father, a Merchant
Marine who was seldom home. He would send her leis from Hawaii,
postcards, and once a little African statuette, but never
a stuffed and mounted head. The old woman moved down the line,
introducing each one in turn, like the kings of some ancient
dynasty: Frederick, Bartholomew, Alexander, Lawrence, Norman,
Gregory, Saul. After the last one, she looked at Margaret
and gave a broad smile. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to see
that room now!”
“Well,” Margaret began to back away, “I’m not
sure —” Then something warm darted against her leg, and she
looked down. Staring up at her was a little face: a set of
long whiskers, pointy ears, shiny eyes, twitching nose. Margaret
“There now,” the old woman sighed, “you’ve met
Rex. He’ll probably be my last cat. Of course, I’ve said that
before, ‘He’ll be my last cat,’ and look, I’ve survived them
Margaret had slumped back into the chair, and
without hesitation Rex had hopped up onto her lap with a bound.
He was gently pawing her dress as she stifled another scream,
her knuckles in her mouth.
“Well, go on,” the old woman urged Margaret,
“pet him, stroke him — he loves it!”
“I really don’t think I can,” Margaret mumbled,
“live here. . . with you. . .” But she knew she had to live
somewhere, and even as she said the words her long fingers
moved over Rex’s tensed spine, she felt the buttons of his
back shift and arch under her nails. Then, barely breathing,
silent as a cemetery, he lay his head across Margaret’s lap
like a small lamb and closed his eyes very tight.
“There, that’s right, dear, you’re doing just
fine. . . Remember — the head, always the head. . . That’s
right, dear.” Margaret looked up to the empty space of white
plaster waiting on the wall, and saw — staring there for an
eternity that stretched out dusty and Egyptian — not Rex’s
but her own face, her chin sticking out at that proud and
noble angle, her body buried somewhere behind her in the sweeping