Justin Vicari
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Nine Cats

“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 mouth.

“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 they?”

“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 screamed.

“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 all.”

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 sands.

 

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