By The Light of the Moon

Fractured-Hearts

By The Light of the Moon has won a first place short story award with Joyous Publishing and can be found in the anthology, Internationally Yours, Prize Winning Stories. It is also in Kathryn’s book, Fractured Hearts. (a volume of short fiction)

I remember lookin’ at Tom sittin’ there lickin’ his paws contentedly and thought about when the monstrous black cat first graced me with his presence. He wasn’t really my pet. Tom wasn’t anybody’s pet. He simply became a fixture in the corners of your life as it suited him, before moving on. I knew this about Tom because one day he just showed up. I opened the squeaky screen door on a muggy July morning to retrieve a fat Sunday paper with the colored comics stickin’ out in a tempting anticipatory manner, and there he was, sprawled across my porch swing meowing crankily.

I asked him who he thought he was, lyin’ there on my porch swing like that, but he only pushed his nose up into the thickly humid Illinois air and squinted his slanty eyes at me. Tom was purring in a most flirtatious manner and was quite receptive to my sensual stroking of his sleek black fur. As if knowing I was a young widow without a soul to care for, he took full advantage of my pampering services.

I didn’t have to say here kitty twice when laying a dish of cream at his feet. After he’d licked the blue china bowl clean, he claimed the porch as his own for the morning. I felt obliged to give him leftover catfish from Friday night dinner at noontime, with some more of the cream. That was the last of it and there was none for my evening coffee, so I moseyed on over to the market later that afternoon where I picked up a few cans of cat food too, just in case Mr. Tom was still around when I returned.

He was. I all but charged him rent on the front porch after that. My flowery pillows on the white painted slats of the porch swing became covered in short black fur. Tom hollowed out a nest in the foliage by the railing, where sometimes he curled up in a ball and hid from the bothersome busyness of the day. Only in the dead of winter did he come inside to claim my rag rug in front of the toasty fire for long cozy naps. Weather permitting, when shadows of night fell to the ground like heavy dew, Tom was gone. Not to be seen again until well past dawn. As long as crickets were chirping in the thick grass out back, or a frog was heard ribbitting down by the river over yonder toward Lilac Lane, he was nowhere near.

One day a woman from Scarlet Drive came by selling raffle tickets door-to-door for her church. “Where’d you get that cat?” she asked.

“I didn’t get him. He got me. Just showed up one day and decided to stay for awhile,” I replied.

“I had me a Tom like that one.” She nodded toward the swing where Tom was perched like a king on the flowered pillows watching her. He did have a knowing look in his sleepy eyes, and was switching and twitching his tail, which was not at all his usual bored demeanor for my guests.

“He went and run off on me one night after a full blown harvest moon so big and yellow you could sort your socks by it. Truth be known he ran off on me every night, but this time he didn’t come back,” she added, staring at him all the while.

“Tom’s been here going on a year now. When’d you lose your cat?” I asked, hoping the time didn’t match at all.

“Oh, it’s been about that long. How’d you know his name was Tom?”

“Well, I didn’t. But he looks like any typical ole’ tomcat to me, so it fit.”

“Ain’t nothin typical about that cat,” she scolded. “Look at him, lying there like he owns the place. That’s one pristine pampered animal for an alley runner. Don’t look like he’s ever met his match in a feline scrape.”

“Yep, he’s a big healthy one for sure,” I agreed. “Did you get your Tom as a kitten?” I asked, wondering if my Tommy had ever been a kitten, he seemed so ageless

“Nope. My Tom showed up looking for a free meal all growed and sassy, and took over my tiny fenced yard as if he ruled it, sleeping in the petunia beds whenever he wished.”

I sighed with relief when she left, and hadn’t bought a raffle ticket, hoping she wouldn’t come back. I’d grown rather fond of Tom and didn’t want to lose him to Scarlet Drive, whether he’d wandered over here from there or not. I decided that my Tommy most likely had a whole slew of homes he’d borrowed until boredom or more pressing feline matters summoned him.

I realized one day he would no longer grace my porch either, lickin’ cream off his chin with a long scratchy pink tongue, or batting flies after a good day’s napping – just prior to his running off to romp down by the river, slinking between thick reeds along the bank, catchin’ any number of interestin’ critters for amusement.

I heard once about cats dancin’ by the light of the moon. My Auntie Jane told me the story when I was just a child. She said as a little girl she followed her calico kitty one day down to the river. The harvest moon was full and bright, and she knew those riverbanks like the back of her hand, so she wasn’t scared at all. When she got to the clearing around the furthest bend it nearly took her breath away, all the cats there meowing long and low to the moon, rolling around in the grass like they was playin’.

And then my Auntie Jane says she must have fallen asleep, ‘cause she remembers hearing fiddle music all of a sudden. Coming from nowhere really, but so loud and sweet it made your soul ache. And before she knew it those silly cats were twisting and turning into lords and ladies, looking so fine in their silky gowns and satiny tuxes, tall and slender, every one of them pretty as a picture. They were elegant and all in tune, partnered up and swirling about.

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Auntie Jane says she must have been dreamin’ there in the dewy grass, exhausted from chasing down her calico pet, ‘cause several of those handsome people were young adults she knew to be deader than doornails. One was Carly Canton, who had drowned that summer at sweet sixteen. Carly’d been a bit of a wild one, with long freckled legs and wavy red hair. As red as Calico’s brightest patches of fur, Auntie Jane had observed, which might have contributed to the dreamin’ and all, she admitted.

Poor Carly was caught by an undertow and everyone believed it was shameful what with her having been drinkin’ that cold frothy beer at her tender age. No excuse just ‘cause it was hotter than blazes, all the adults had said. Never, never drink and swim!

Auntie Jane especially remembered that summer when Carly died, ‘cause the calico cat appeared not two days later. She’d cheered everyone up a little, playing with the dozens and dozens of butterflies flitting about in the fields. Auntie Jane had begged please mama let me keep her until finally her mama had said alright then Jane, just quit a pesterin’ me!

“Billy Mosier was one of them lads in the stylish black tuxes, out there dancin’ like a jitterbug on a tree stump,” Auntie Jane had said. “He’d wrecked his suped up sports car at not quite 19 that very same summer. Wrapped it clear around a big oak tree just outside of town. Billy was a looker, and all the girls mourned his death for quite a while. He had a way about him, what with that dark silky hair fallin’ over his eyes.” Auntie Jane sighed. “He always dressed in black, from his wrangler jeans to his shiny leather jackets and polished boots. ‘Cept in summer. Then he drove the girls wild with his sleeveless T’s, showing all them muscles on his big strong arms.” Auntie Jane laughed when she told me that.

Can you imagine such a dream where all the young people, whose lives were cut short by an untimely death, turn into finicky felines and frolic about under the harvest moon? To think they became human again for one night of romping good fun down by the river! My Auntie Jane was a wonder with her tales of such silliness. She never lacked for imagination, and yet I believed she had her wits about her more so than those that would say otherwise.

Tom came crawlin’ back after the last harvest moon plum tuckered out enough to have been dancin’ all night for sure. Lookin’ like something the cat dragged in, I told him, but he only closed them slanty eyes to my smart-alecky tone. If I didn’t know any better, I’d believe the entire tale Auntie Jane told me, ‘cause that tomcat barely woke up long enough to eat for nearly a week. No more roamin’ the hot Indian summer nights after that either, just rolling on his back in the dewy grass out front, and batting an occasional firefly.

This particular summer my niece Lillian Landis graced Tom and me with her presence. Her mama done had it with Lillian, and I thought a cooling off period might not be such a bad thing. I offered to take the rebellious teen into my home for a spell. My sister, Rosie, was grateful to send her to me so she could make it through a day without tears and trauma. Sis knew I couldn’t keep that child from her evening escapades with all the other teens in town, but I did promise to make the lovely Lillian compromise between cautious conduct and careless carousing.

She was a gorgeous sight, that girl. Missy Lil had attributes to match her name, being a delicate child with smooth lily white skin, glittery green eyes and a fragile sweetness about her despite the rebelliousness of late. One night I prepared to follow Lil out the door and down to the river, where I’d heard them naughty young folk were skinny-dipping and laughin’ up a storm on these hot muggy nights we’d had of late. The river backed up into one big pond by the cliffs and it was there I could see them all clearly in the light of the near full moon. They were lyin’ about real snuggly like and kissin’ between drinkin’ and smokin,’ and jumpin’ into the water to cool off their sweaty skin. Probably more overheated from all that kissin’ than the suffocatin’ weather.

I decided right then and there that my niece would not be returning to the banks of the river where sin was runnin’ near amuck amongst our wild and willful youth. The only thing keeping me from draggin’ her sorry self home right then was the mere fact of rapid waters between us flowin’ steady and strong along the banks of my field and the cliffs of her rompin’ grounds. By the time I would forge my way to the other side, she would surely already be headin’ home.

Oh how I longed to see her lily white face by midnight, which was our agreed upon curfew, but she didn’t appear at that hour, or the next. Finally I called Rosie and the police. They showed up at dawn with Tom, who was dismayed to come home from his prowling about only to find a parcel of strangers on his coveted porch. At noon Rosie and I sat on the swing exhausted from worry. Tom was curled up tight nestled in the foliage beside the porch rail. Nothing was stirring but the bees on the honeysuckle.

A squad car pulled up and my heart near leapt into my throat as the officer approached us. Sure enough our Lillian had been found, her sweet little body all mangled like a crushed flower, fallen over the cliffs by the river. Lots of alcohol was found in her blood after tests determined she had stumbled to her death. Rosie was overtaken with grief and there was nothing I could do to help. My own sadness made me restless as a cat, pouncing on anyone who dared knock at my door for weeks after the funeral.

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I had almost forgotten it was time for that bright harvest moon again, until it slowly began to rise one night, the sky all aglow from its shimmerin’ haze. Tom slinked off with a decidedly perky prance that evening, his sleek black fur nearly standing on end. For what I wondered? I thought about my Auntie Jane and her crazy story of the dancing cats turning into lords and ladies, takin’ on familiar faces of the young and foolish, whirling about in the light of that big yellow sphere, defying their tragic deaths. What nonsense it was, but still, it soothed my aching heart to think that just maybe my Miss Lil could be all footloose and fancy free like that for a full harvest moon, despite the fall that brought her future to a sudden halt.

I snuck down to the river that night, and was able to see every plump ripe blackberry on the bushes along the bank, that moon was so bright. It did take awhile to reach the shore, as I’d near forgotten what a hefty hike it was. Pantin’ up a storm I peeked through the reeds and wondered what them teens from town were doing on the other shore, by the pooled up water near the cliffs. I soon forgot about them entirely, as my eyes beheld a feline fantasy. Every cat imaginable was lying about, swishin’ their tails and lickin’ their paws, as I laid in the cool grass and watched through my bed of reeds. Next I cannot be sure what happened. I suspect I fell asleep from weariness and dreamed the dreams of Auntie Jane long ago. For soon every cat began twisting and twitching about until their bodies slithered into fancy gowned gals and gussied up suitors.

I watched them dance elegantly and became mesmerized by soft melodies on a faraway fiddle. Shadows moved across a voluptuous harvest moon, and kept in motion with the haunting tunes. I dared to believe I saw our Miss Lillian, all titillating in peach taffeta, her emerald eyes set off by the stunning gown. She danced with an alluring young stranger who could have been Billie Mosier, what with his dark tousled hair tumbling over slanty eyes.

I awoke, at just past dawn, with the field before the flowing river clear and void of all movement, cat or ghost either one. Dazed, I stumbled home and slept till well past noon. When I slid open the squeaky screen door to glance about for Mr. Tom, he was nowhere to be seen, but I had to look twice upon the gently rocking swing, for its yellow flowered pillows held another feline now. A dainty white cat lay there all prettily perched upon her back haunches, whining a high-pitched meow at me. I near stared right through her bright green eyes and then quickly went to fetch some cream.

A few weeks later Rosie came by, her first time out since dear Lillian’s death. She asked me who was playin’ queen, lookin’ all pampered on the porch swing. I told my sister I had no idea where that Tom had run off to, or why the fluffy feline now fancied this her home. Rosie asked what was I gonna call the cat, for Tom would never do.

I came and stood beside my sis there at the door and gazed upon the sublime creature that had left her queenly swing every evening to carouse along the river.  I shrugged an indication of not having bothered with a name, and Rosie took it upon herself to call the fluffy feline Snowball. T’wasn’t a chance in hell the rebellious bundle of fur would allow for such a silly name. My choice was more fitting, although I was quite careful not to mention it around my dear sister, who packed up and moved to Florida in order to forget her pain.

My new feline friend and I have snuggled up every morning since then on the white slat swing, where I read the daily paper and my delicate Miss Lily drinks her cream. I’ve seen Tom on several occasions, hangin’ about when the shadows fall sideways and evening dew begins to gather. He sits off aways in the distance beyond the picket gate and waits for Lily to finish grooming her dainty little face with her sticky pink tongue. When finished, she bolts from the chair in a most graceful manner and is off with her tomcat, who has come a callin’ …to roam along the river in search of whatever it is that can only be seen by the light of the moon.

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