She was a stranger—but she knew what she wanted
At first I wanted nothing to do with her.
Oh, I could see she was appealing, no question about it. From her green eyes to her gray-striped fur to her neat little feet, she was exactly the sort of kitten you’d want to take home with you if you wanted a cat.
But I didn’t. To begin with, I’m a curmudgeon who lives alone in the house I inherited from my parents, and I work long hours. There’s plenty of room for another being or even two in my house, but I just didn’t want to be bothered.
However, the kitten seemed to take a fancy to me, goodness knows why. Sometimes I’d see her sitting with two or three other cats on the sidewalk in front of the curb, looking out at the street. When I emerged from my front door in the mornings and began to walk down the path, she’d turn, see me, and come running.
I’d shake my head and march determinedly to the curb where my car was parked.
One morning everything changed: I saw a mouse in my house. In fact, it stuck its little head out from under the refrigerator. Women are supposed to scream at the sight of a mouse, so I screamed mightily. The mouse hastily retreated. As I lurched toward the counter to put the kettle on for a cup of tea, I turned toward the fridge so I could get the milk out. The mouse poked its head out again, I screamed again, and once more the mouse, looking terrified, retreated.
“That does it,” I told myself. “I need a cat. And I’ll adopt that little gray cat, if she’ll have me.”
The next time I saw her at the end of the pathway to my front door I looked at her and smiled. She took a step or two toward me, hesitantly.
I knelt on the sidewalk. “Come, pretty girl. Would you like to live with me?”
The cat took a flying leap right into my arms. With some difficulty—I’m not as young as I was—I stood up, thinking about the next thing to do. Obviously, the first action I should take was to find out whether she belonged to one of the houses on my street, so I turned left, planning to knock at every door. As people answered their doors that Saturday morning, their own cats appeared beside them. “No,” the first neighbor said. “I’ve seen her around, but I don’t know where she belongs. My only cat is Minou.”
And so it went, from Minou to Black Pete to Marmalade to Tom Ginger.
The next steps were obvious. I posted a flyer with a photo of the kitten and my email address around the neighborhood. I also put her into a ventilated cardboard box and took her to the vet to be scanned.
“No,” the vet said after she’d scanned the kitten. “She hasn’t been microchipped. Would you like us to check her over?”
“Yes,” I said. If I ended up keeping her, it would be as well to know what I could expect.
She checked out just fine, so after she received several vaccinations I took her home. Two weeks passed with no response at all to my flyer.
“All right,” I said to her one morning. “From now on your name is Lisette and you are welcome to live here with me for always.”
I named her Lisette because with her neat, perfectly groomed appearance she reminded me of a young woman I had once seen in Paris. She’d been standing on the pavement chatting with a group of young people like herself; from her low-heeled loafers to her perfectly tailored jeans, fitted short blazer, and well-brushed hair gathered at the back of her neck by a neat bow, she looked the way all women want to look: perfect.
Lisette had just such an air of chic: low-key but unmistakable. I enjoyed looking at her. Also, unlike what I’d heard about most cats, she was very affectionate. The minute I opened the door in the evenings she jumped into my arms. Once I’d dealt with the cat-related chores of cleaning and changing the cat litter and feeding her, she stayed in the kitchen with me as I washed my hands and prepared my evening meal.
After dinner she would join me on the sofa as we watched mindless movies on television. My job as an editor involved endless reading all day so the last thing I felt like after work was reading. It was different on weekends, of course.
Lisette added a quality previously lacking in my life: companionship. It was a salutary experience to come home in the evenings knowing that someone was waiting for my arrival, someone who loved me. In fact I began to wonder how I’d lived so long without a cat.
However, after a few months the unpleasant aspect of my job made itself felt. Overtime was mandatory when a project deadline loomed. I had no choice but to work. I did take the step of leaving my front-door key with the neighbor to the left of me, Mrs. Higgins, asking her to feed Lisette and let her out to the backyard if I wasn’t home by seven in the evening.
This went on for two months, during which I became increasingly irritable. Lack of sleep always makes me gobble carbohydrates, which meant I was out of shape as well as cross all the time. Then, one evening toward the end of November, the blow fell. Mrs. Higgins telephoned me at work. “Lisette didn’t come back after I let her out this evening. I called and called but she never came. I’m so sorry.”
I managed to gasp some thanks for letting me know, and spent the rest of my time at work in a ferment. What had happened? Did she get out and wander off to a dangerous place? Had a car run her over in the autumn darkness? Had someone snatched her to keep her permanently? Had she been kidnapped—or catnapped—by someone of evil intent?
As soon as the team were told to leave for the day I drove home, heartsick and apprehensive. I decided to drive around all the streets near my house in case I could spot her. Then it occurred to me to simply park in front of my house, grab a flashlight, and search for her street by street. I knew I’d be able to see more if I weren’t paying attention to the traffic.
I searched until midnight but could find no trace of her. To upset to even think about dinner, I went to bed but sleep would not come. It was almost three o’clock when I finally closed my eyes in exhaustion.
Waking up late the next morning, I telephoned the office with the excuse of being “under the weather” with a mysterious ailment. Luckily my supervisor accepted this: my previous excellent record of attendance spoke for itself.
After breakfast and coffee I set off around the neighborhood again, remembering to take my previous flyer with Lisette’s photo with me. The neighbors who answered the door shook their heads when I described my missing pet. I resolved to come back later to talk to people who weren’t home until evening.
My footsteps dragged as I made my way back, contemplating a life without Lisette. Reaching home, I cried at the thought I might never see her again. What was a life without love? She used to snuggle close to me and purr as we watched silly movies. Sometimes she would simply climb into my arms if she felt like a cuddle. In some ways she really behaved more like a dog than a cat.
So life went on, day after loveless day. After a week I decided on another walk around the neighborhood, but this time I would talk to the cats. I would also show them her picture. What did I have to lose? If anyone knew where she was, it would be Minou, Black Pete, Marmalade, or Tom Ginger. There might be other cats around so I could ask them too.
Was I insane to even contemplate such a course of action? Probably. I felt insane with grief. I wanted her back. Life without Lisette stretched grayly before me, hardly worth living.
So that Saturday morning I set off, so desperate to find her that I stopped feeling like a fool and concentrated on my mission.
The first cat I encountered was Minou, a nice-looking elderly white Angora. She was sunning herself on the front porch of the house she lived in. I squatted down and flashed the flyer in front of her. She gazed at it impassively.
“Good morning, Minou,” I began. “Are you quite well, I hope?”
She opened her mouth and said something that sounded like “Jawohl.”
“Oh, German-speaking, I see. Lisette has left me. Have you seen anything of her?”
She gazed impassively at me with bright unwinking blue eyes.
“Oh, all right,” I said, getting up with some difficulty. “Right. If you see her, will you tell her to come home? I miss her.”
I went on with my catwalk. Black Pete came into view, perched on top of a fence. As he was more or less at my waist level this interview would be easier.
I showed him the flyer and explained that Lisette was missing. “Have you seen her about?” I asked. He flicked his tail disdainfully.
“Oh,” I said sarcastically. “Even if you knew, you wouldn’t tell me? Thanks a bunch, mister. Well, if you do happen to see her, will you tell her I want her to come home? Right, I’ll be off.”
Tom Ginger was playing with another cat, one I hadn’t seen before. Both looked at me curiously as I squatted down to their level. I showed the flyer and went through my spiel. “Please, if you see her, tell her to come home!”
They looked at each other as if to say, “Is this human nuts? Why’s she talking to us? We don’t know anything.”
I sighed and stood up again. How many more cats were there in my neighborhood?
I found two more I didn’t know, a tortoiseshell and a Siamese, and went through everything again. They showed some curiosity, gazing at me as if they really understood what I was saying.
By this time I was in despair. The last cat I interviewed, Marmalade, seemed to watch me sympathetically as she listened to me talk. By the time I heaved myself to a standing position once more I was glad there didn’t seem to be any other humans around. If there had been, they’d have seen a gray-haired woman with tears pouring down her face.
Defeated, I returned home from my catwalk to think some more. After lunch and some quiet time reading the newspapers, I thought, “I’ll go out one more time while it’s still light outside. Perhaps I might catch a glimpse of her.”
When I opened the door Lisette was sitting on the doorstep looking up at me. I shouted in joy and relief. “Lisette! You’re back!”
As I opened the door to let her in I saw all the cats I’d interviewed earlier, including the two whose names I didn’t know, clustered at the curb. I waved to them. “Thanks for your help, neighbor-cats!”
In the living room Lisette sat on on the carpet and I sat in the chair. “Where on earth have you been? I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”
Lisette flicked her tail as if to say, “What’s it to you where I am? You’re never home!”
“Well, I-I have to work, you know! Overtime is mandatory, I have no choice.”
She continued to look at me reproachfully. It was as if I could read her mind.
Why don’t you quit?
“Well, I need another couple of years before I…” I stopped, struck by a thought. Did I really need to keep working? I could retire now if I wanted to. True, I’d be a few thousand short in savings, but if it meant keeping Lisette and my sanity, it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
“Look,” I said. “Will you bear with me a couple of weeks while I work out my notice?”
She twitched her tail back and forth thoughtfully. As she uttered no word of protest, I took her silence as affirmation.
I handed in my resignation the next day, which had the happy effect of reducing my workload immediately. The Powers had no intention of allowing me to work on anything important after that.
So now things are very different at our house. To make up the shortfall in my income, I do freelance editing at home or coach high school students in creative writing. I set up my laptop on the dining room table in the mornings and sip a second cup of coffee as I work. Sometimes I lift my eyes to look at Lisette as she does yoga stretches in a patch of sunlight on the window seat opposite me.
I smile at her. She purrs.
Life is good.
Author’s Note: Chapter 9 of Iron and Scarlet will be posted as soon as the rewrite is finished.