The cat sat on the mat. Admittedly it was only an outside straw doormat, but it was a mat, nonetheless. And it was hers.
Where had the cat come from? The little girl and her mother who rented the house where the mat was were not sure, although they wondered; the little girl especially so. It was unquestionably significant that the cat's first appearance had coincided with the demolition of a building across the road, a small wooden cottage in which two old sisters had lived for some sixty years. Sometimes the mother had observed either of the two hovering at the front gate, looking about vaguely not as if for someone (that is, anyone), to talk to, but as if she were simply reminding herself that an outside world, drab though its surface composure might be, still existed. At other times the mother had glimpsed one of them pottering about in the garden, not (strictly speaking) working, for the two were nearly ninety years old and beyond strenuous manual labour, but apparently gathering something or other from their private jungle of a garden. For a half-hidden blur of colour would move slowly along, then halt and glide down and up again, and so drift on a bit further to repeat the same manoeuvres.
The two sisters owned the block of land adjacent to their cottage and this they had over the years turned into and maintained as Garden. No doubt at first, the mother surmised, it had been a prim, tame nicety of a place dotted and cluttered with respectable flowers. Over the years, however, the garden had, like a civilised being abandoned on an island, lost the restraint that had been imposed on it by the demands of normality and had let loose its submerged tendency to run wild. Had the sisters, harbouring a vague leaning toward savagery, deliberately allowed this to happen, or had they merely lost the physical ability to constrain the garden within the bounds of order? Perhaps both tendencies had simultaneously emerged. The mother wondered.
Whatever the reasons, over the years the garden had thrived and struggled beyond the constraints of modest beauty to become a dense tangle of greenery, its vines interknitting like knotted wool held in arthritic hands, its tendrils convoluting round the trunks of gumtrees like circular scribbling. The more delicate flowers had died away, leaving the odd lily poised furtively among a Dionysian riot of growth that a wild cat would have felt at home in. A wild cat, yes. But the cat on the mat? Again the mother wondered.
Sometimes the two old sisters had told tales to the mother, not as others might have done, with far-away looks and haunting tones, but with an earthy simplicity and factual brevity free of either nostalgia or dream. Occasionally the mother, poised delicately between boredom and dim curiosity, had wandered with folded arms across the road for a brief chat with either or both the sisters. "Hello, how are you today?" she would ask with an almost forced and slightly less than patronising brightness. And the sisters, if together, would always ask after the mother's young daughter.
"How's your little girl?" one would inquire, as the other, perhaps wielding a pair of garden shears or a bunch of lavender, looked on in mild suspense. The mother would usually tell them that, all things considered, her little girl was well.
On a certain afternoon as the mother was returning home from shopping, at the corner of her vision she had caught sight of something slowly waving above the old sisters' front gate. It was one of the sisters tentatively gesturing to her with a bunch of sage and parsley. The mother, having no chores requiring immediate attention, made her way over to retrieve the herbs just as the other sister emerged holding a tea-cosy in one hand. The mother tried to begin a polite discussion about the weather, but the sisters seemed strangely untalkative, as though their minds were musing elsewhere, and they both kept glancing across the road to the house which the mother rented. It was a squarish, old bluestone house, built high off the ground, with outside window shutters, an iron roof and a back porch, but no surrounding verandah. Its garden was quite large, the front being mostly lawn, with a couple of small Banksias flanking the path that curved like a snake from the front gate to the door. Apart from this oddly curving path, it was quite inconspicuous.
"We've seen many come and go there, many come and go," one sister had quavered melodiously, looking over to the house and back to the mother as the other sister with murmuring agreement had looked groundward, nodding vacantly in slow remembrance. The mother had been surprised to hear that some fifty years ago the house had been a combined maternity home, hospital and clinic. As well, it had apparently boasted a large cellar, but as the mother had never located a cellar, she supposed either that it had been boarded up, or that the sisters had over the years grown to imagine that the house in fact possessed one. The mother wandered home with her shopping and bunch of herbs and wandered off again to fetch her daughter from school.
The little girl liked the two old sisters, but was occasionally almost afraid of them, in the way that the very young can at times irrationally fear the very old. But in a few times of contented self-forgetfulness the little girl had ventured across to visit the sisters in the garden and had once or twice returned to her mother in modest triumph, wielding a plastic bread-bag filled with an assortment of herbs and lavender.
In due time, of course, one of the sisters had died, and not long after, only a few months ago in fact, the remaining sister, having no surviving relatives and recovering from a bout of illness, had been unceremoniously bundled off to one of the many retirement homes of that suburb. Both sisters had wanted the garden to be left as a small park, a place of quiet retreat for any who might dare venture among such an unruly profusion of plant-life for such an obscure purpose. Thus the sisters had petitioned the council to maintain the block of garden as a park and had reinforced their request by duly modifying their wills.
The myth of progress, however, had dictated a more economically viable response to their plea, and not long before the cat's appearance the old cottage (to the tune of tractors, drills and hammerings) had with an equal lack of ceremony been metamorphosed into piles of wood and tin and smashed ceramic pieces. Like a phoenix risen from the ashes, the cat had arrived just as the fireplace of the old sisters' cottage was being bulldozed into rubble. Putting the proverbial two and two together, the mother had consequently drawn the sensible conclusion that the cat, with the feline characteristic of minimal effort, had migrated across the road to potentially friendly shores. Yet there was no way of verifying this theory because neither the mother nor her daughter had ever seen a cat either at the sisters' house or prowling about in the garden. But here it was now, apparently come to stay.
"It" was a "she," and what one might call a "pretty" cat, smallish, fine-boned, long, grey-white fur, mysterious as all cats are; dignified, aloof, yet somehow not haughtily so; eternally poised, one might say, between refined elegance and domesticity. She was always clean and quiet, though the mother never saw her washing herself. She never meowed for food or milk, though the mother never fed her and supposed, therefore, that one of the neighbours did. And she was always somewhere in the garden, often among the dense bushes, searching, it seemed; or waiting. Almost unknowingly, then, the mother had half-adopted the cat; 'half' in that although she allowed her to sleep on the mat, she chose not to allow her to come inside. Her daughter, you see, was prone to attacks of asthma which close contact with animal fur sometimes triggered. And so the cat stayed out in the garden and on warm evenings when the main door was left open would sit on the mat and stare in through the screen-door, not daring to hope she might be let in, but trancelike and almost content. She did not intrude into the everyday affairs of the mother and daughter. She had, it was plain to see, her own life, sparse and lone though it might have seemed to some; it was hers.
At first the cat had approached the mat with a unique blend of caution, curiosity and vague superiority. But in time she discovered that if she sat on the mat long enough it became warm and almost comforting. So she sporadically rubbed and warmed and warmed and rubbed the mat, impregnating it with dense clumps of her fur. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, she kneaded the mat and purred. At other times she would rock herself faintly, her eyes gently narrowing to gum-leaf slits of green fire when at night she stared through the fly-wire at the little girl and her mother as they watched TV, or while the mother read or sewed as the little girl scribbled coloured streaks and circles of crayon onto paper.
"Mummy, look," the little girl would cry excitedly, "there's the cat sitting on the mat again!"
"Puss," the mother would half call, glancing upward or aside, "Puss." (It was the only word she ever spoke to the cat).
Later at night on the mat the cat would hear the clanking of plates and the running of bath-water and the calling of the mother and the running steps of the little girl. On the mat it was silent and still, peaceful and dark (save for the occasional screech of a car and the dim sheen of the street-lights). And sometimes, just before she went to bed, the little girl held up her crayon drawings to the screen door for the cat to see, and the patterns and swirls would be subjected to a serene, feline appraisal that remained beyond interest and disdain.
"Don't go too near," the mother would call, grabbing her hand over the phone receiver to interrupt a conversation, "remember your asthma!" The cat would remain unperturbed as the little girl ran away to bed. She had her mat and, apparently needing little else, was content to remain quietly chained to it in a passive, undemanding bond of empathy. The mat, however, being the kind of mat it was, was not conveniently located for the kind of relationship the cat had chosen to have with it. When evening visitors wanted to come and go the cat (if on the mat) was in the way, and so of course it had to move. There was something sad and dignified about the way it would slowly and ungrudgingly move out of the way. And whereas other (less independent) cats circled and fussed and almost tripped their owners, when the mother and daughter returned from somewhere at night, this cat would stay curled up on the wall, staring unseeingly to the place where the old sisters' cottage had been, at the dull facade of the new townhouses beneath the eerie orange street-light. Later, once the visitors had gone, the cat would come slow and stately up the pathway and ritually knead and curl herself onto the mat once more.
When the colder days came the little girl loved to put on her old boots, wrap a woollen scarf about her neck and go poking and fossicking in the garden. She often played along the back border of the garden, where above the galvanised iron fence smoke from a neighbour's incinerator curled up indolently like smudged, grey writing, and bare branches of trees, damp and rigid, timed the wind like horizontal pendulums of old wooden clocks. Having heard from her mother the old sisters' tale of the cellar, the little girl would look for its door under the rubbish bins and all around the large pots of hydrangeas. The cat would sit watching her from a garden table and the two would glance to each other now and then, each within her solitary concerns, so that the little girl came to regard the cat as a kindred spirit.
The cat seemed to know (indeed, what cat doesn't?) and would stare sphinx-like with half-closed eyes and a look akin to divine indifference as the little girl searched and searched in vain. The little girl became obsessed with finding the old cellar. What had they kept in there? Why had there been a cellar under a maternity home? What was in there now? Sealed jars and bottles and cobwebbed darkness; things that had never seen the light of day, perhaps? Mystery abounded, receding and proclaiming itself like a wave as the cat wandered to and fro in the garden. And as the little girl played in the garden the cat would watch with a meditative feline watchfulness. But inevitably would come a muffled tap on the window, then the mother's frown and gesturing to a silent stream of words seen reluctantly by her daughter outside.
Once inside, the little girl looked for the cellar with the same preoccupied drive. She searched for it everywhere, behind drawers and cupboards - the same ones over and over again - as though she believed the cellar might be magic, and therefore not always there. And she would lever up the edges of carpets (gently, so as not to offend the mother) and peer beneath.
One day, halting momentarily in her searching, the little girl looked out of her bedroom window and there was the cat on the driveway, gently nosing a snail. The little girl tapped on the window, smiling and pressing her hands flat against the glass, and the cat looked up without surprise before quickly turning aside to meander down the driveway toward distant concerns. On another morning, as mother and daughter were drying dishes in the kitchen, the little girl spotted an exhaust vent above the stove and her eyes lit up with cautious wonder.
"Mummy, maybe the cellar was up in the ceiling," she suggested, to which the mother responded with an indulgent smile.
And the cold days settled in as the winter advanced and the rain began to fall. Where did the cat go when it rained? Did it squeeze through the crack where the door refused to shut properly and find in the old tin garden-shed a warm space among the rusting rolls of fly-wire and lengths of timber, or near the dusty bottles and old possum-cages? The mother, having theorised that it did something of either sort, neglected, however, to go so far as to validate her hypothesis at a suitably wet time. But always when the rain stopped the cat would appear looking clean and dry.
One still evening the mother opened the door and there was the cat, alone on her mat again. The mat by now was looking decidedly the worse for wear, being coated with fur, unravelling toward the centre, and fading to a shade of grey reminiscent of the old sisters' pinned and bunned hair. Each day it became a little smaller and began to take on a look of dejected weariness. The rain, shall we say, threw a dampener on the cat's long-term prospects for it, for being fibrous (as well as of a cheap variety of door-mat), it soaked up the rain and afterward took a good few days, even if sunny, to dry out. The weather accordingly succeeded in gradually rotting and weakening the fibre such that the mat began to fray.
At the same time the little girl's asthma flared up, causing the mother grave concern. The little girl spent many a day rugged up in bed, her eyes feverishly roaming the room when she was awake, seeking out the cellar door with restless longing. And her thoughts turned over and over to the cat and her mat, then back to the cellar once more. The mother, meanwhile, calmly decided that the cat had to go, for what else, she reasoned carefully, could have caused her daughter's asthma to flare up again? Thinking to herself, *I had best discourage the cat further*, the mother accordingly allowed the mat to rot and fray and thus disintegrate under the ruthless onslaught of the elements in their familiar forms of sun, wind and rain. Thus the mat frayed and dampened and dampened and frayed in a tireless rhythm of macabre metamorphosis.
Yet at the same time the mother wanted the cat to stay, because she had fostered a dark intrigue and had became almost fascinated by the ruthless fraying of the mat and by the way the cat had maintained a loyalty toward it, regardless of its worn and sorry state.
All the while the cat maintained a silence and a shadowy reserve, and this, like an unspoken challenge of deceptively mild defiance, provoked and nourished the mother's determination not to buy a new mat or discard the old. As the winter wore away the mat relentlessly soaked and shredded to become a frail, loose tangle which dried to resemble the brittle, dying tendrils of an neglected garden. Each day the mat became smaller and frailer and greyer, but the cat would come and sit on it, even though it held only her two front paws. Spring drew near, then arrived. The Banksias bloomed, the bulbs poked up from their long, deep sleep, and magpies came to nest in the gumtrees of a vacant lot next door. The little girl's asthma almost disappeared, and with it blew away in a dark wind the last shreds and fibres of the mat.
And the cat walked out into the night and died.
c.1998 S. Jaide Vardrewan
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