Fiction from Lynn Mundell
The grey cat smells of smoke. Is smoke, in the way he materializes one day after a window is left open. Half-starved, he slinks under armchairs, sofa, hutch. Do you own a cat, her newest lover asks, sneezing four times quickly. No, she says, truthfully, raking the man’s back like a scratching post.
The newest lover flees one night, wearing only her grandmother’s quilt, taking her favorite umbrella, a gift from another man. The cat stays. He leaves her a small mouse missing its feet. She screams, high and long, a horror movie actress. The cat pops out from behind her desk to strut, occasionally swatting the mouse with his pincushion paws. His bushy tail caresses and blankets her naked calves, bringing goosebumps.
Alone at night, lonely, she breathes into her departed lover’s college sweatshirt. He was soap and stuffy rooms. The cat leaps onto her bed, arrives already purring. He kneads her hip like a little masseuse. His long fur is curiously human to the touch. Hello, you, she says. In the morning, the cat is gone. His shed fur has nearly obscured the Harvard crest on the shirt that is now faintly gamey.
Three more lovers come and go. The cat leaves each a gift: regurgitated grass, a snarl of dirty yarn, feces.
She does not name the cat. Nothing suits him. And, without a name, there will be nothing to mourn when he too leaves.
When there’s a new man, she trims and files her nails, lines her eyelids with an upward sweep. She beguiles with absinthe and her sharp, clean teeth. You’re really wild, one says, as a good-bye.
She loses weight, until she is lean and lithe. Resumes smoking, an old, teenaged affectation. She starts love affairs so skillfully, but they all evaporate, the same way her perfect smoke rings break up over her head. The cat cavorts across her long living room, chases his tail, pouncing on sunlight. The sound of her own laugh is a surprise. Daily, the cat attacks the postman until the mail is left neatly stacked outside. She awakens one night to find the cat bunched around her head, like a Russian fur hat. Being loved by an animal is not enough, she tells the dark.
The cat gets into a fight, limping one morning with a torn ear and scratched nose. She gives him a bowl of half and half, then she laps up her coffee bitter and black.
The cat starts to hunt and eat more. There’s the sound of crunched cat food at odd hours. She finds a dead mole, bloodied bird wings, and once a small, mauled rabbit. She takes to wearing her shoes indoors. The cat grows not fat but big. She cuts off his too-tight flea collar. He hisses and bats at a potential lover like a prize fighter, feinting. Is that a Maine Coon cat, he asks, then excuses himself over half-drunk tea. The cat jumps onto her lap and hangs down to her knees. Later, she’ll discover four silver dollar bruises where he landed.
She finds dead mice daily, always in the same place, next to her kitchen chair, regular as an online food delivery. In bed she reads while the cat’s tongue lavishly bathes her bare arms and legs. He crawls up her body and nips her neck, then soothes the light sting with his cool tongue.
And still the cat stays. She strokes him from head to tail, over and over, a talisman. He closes his eyes, drools, as she chuckles. He could scratch her, but he never does.
Finally, his name comes to her: Octavio. When she looks it up, it means wonderful, charismatic, and enigmatic man. She calls Octavio softly and almost immediately the cat appears from behind a corner, swaggering toward her.
One night she swims out of sleep to feel a warm, large body alongside her own. At first she thinks it’s the latest lover, but then remembers he was a one-night stand. With a cry of fear, she jumps from the bed and to the front door. Out on the street, barefoot, she stops. With the full moon as her light, she observes the tall figure waiting for her at the open bedroom window, his golden eyes and darkly furred face. When he growls low and deep in his throat, her limbs twitch in response, for they are the same—wild creatures destined to be neither owner nor pet.
Lynn Mundell‘s writing has appeared in The Sun, Booth, Portland Review, Permafrost, SmokeLong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Tin House online, and elsewhere. Her story “The Old Days,” originally published in Five Points, is included in the W.W. Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. She is co-editor of 100 Word Story and its anthology Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19). Learn more about her at http://lynnmundell.com/.