Cleetus

by Mary King


I had saved up a bit of a nest egg from my one and only best-selling novel and had recently purchased my first home. This little house came complete with sagging floors, slanting doorways, and a 250-year history. Not to mention a bargain-basement price. It was a case of love at first sight.

When everything in my new home had been arranged to my satisfaction, I decided to resume work on my current novel, which I had put away during the move. I had arrived at a particularly difficult point in the plot. The heroine of the tale had just committed a murder, and I had to come up with a plausible reason for her having done so. If you think that’s simple, just try it some time. I burned the midnight oil for two nights in a row and still nothing.

On the third night of this nonsense, I decided to take a walk to clear my head. It must have been about 11:00, a lovely beginning-of-summer night. As I walked through the downtown area, I paused from time to time to peer into the shop windows. There were several stores full of all sorts of antiques, real and otherwise. In the bookstore window, a black and white cat slept right smack in the middle of the book display.

I had just come back into my yard when I saw her. She was standing by the corner of the house, about twenty feet from me. I couldn’t tell much about her since it was so dark, except that she was wearing some sort of long dress — possibly a nightgown, I thought. But what was she doing outside my house at this hour, of all the silly things?

I whispered a cautious hello. When she turned her head to look at me, the moonlight caught her face for just a moment and I saw that she was well past middle age. Weirder and weirder. Was this the local witch woman out to gather herbs for her latest potion? I realized that I needed to curb my imagination and get some sleep.

I turned my attention to getting my key into the lock and when I looked back she had disappeared as though she had never been there at all. I shrugged and went into the house. Probably just someone who liked to walk at night, much like myself.

Later that night, I woke suddenly. As I lay there trying to coax a few more hours of sleep from my now-active mind, I heard what sounded like a voice calling. I tried to make out the words but it just sounded like, “ee-eeeee.” A bird? Probably not at 3 a.m. What, then? I continued to listen but the sound had stopped, and I drifted back into an uneasy sleep until the alarm went off at 7:00.

Then I sat at the computer. Think. Why did the lovely Eleanor commit murder most foul? A deep, dark family secret? Or was there a money motive, greed perhaps, that always played well. Or maybe temporary insanity. A split personality? A bad hair day?

That night I heard the voice again. Voice? Yes, definitely a voice, not a late-night bird. A voice calling... something. I strained to hear the words. Not “ee-eeeee” as I had thought originally. A name, maybe. Edie? No, more like... Sweetie? I still couldn’t tell.

I decided that it was time to discover the voice’s source and make it shut up. In a nice way, of course, not wanting to antagonize any of my new neighbors. But, come to think of it, if it was waking me up, then other people must be annoyed by it, too.

So the very next night when the voice started up again at 3:00 a.m., I crept out of bed and over to the window. Gradually, one of the shadows in the yard resolved itself into what could only be a human form. A woman, to be exact. Standing there. Just standing. And then, that call again.

Enough is enough, I thought. Throwing on my robe, I went down to the yard to say a neighborly hello and, while I was there, to find out what the hell.

She turned her head and looked at me, except that she wasn’t so much looking at me as through me. Almost as though she were unaware of my presence. She took a step forward, turning her head slowly from side to side. One step, another step, all the time looking from one side of the yard to the other. What was she searching for?

“Hello,” I whispered.

This time she looked at me. I’m sure of it. And when she did, I got the shock of my life: she was crying. I said the only thing I could think of. “Can I help you?” Hardly brilliant but under the circs, it would have to do.

“Gone,” she said. “Not ever coming back.”

There was something about the way she said it that made my heart hurt. It was maybe the saddest voice I had ever heard. I wanted to help but I truly didn’t know how.

“Who?” I whispered. “Who’s gone?”

She just looked at me, tears running down her face. She said nothing.

“Look,” I said, “Wait right here. I’ll just run upstairs and call someone for you.” Exactly who I was planning to call was something I hadn’t figured out yet. As I turned to go, I heard a rustling sound, sort of like autumn leaves when the wind moves them. I turned back quickly, but not quickly enough. She was gone.

The next morning I cornered my next door neighbor, Peter. He is what you might call an old-timer, knows everybody and everything going on in town. If anyone could explain my night visitor, I knew that he could.

When I had finished telling my story, Peter gave me a long, thoughtful look. “Well, young lady, you should be very flattered.” he said. “Miss Maisie doesn’t visit just anyone, you know.”

I was dumbstruck, but only for a moment. “Who is Miss Maisie?” I said. “Tell me everything!”

“Well,” he said, “Miss Maisie was born and raised right here in this town. Never married, always seemed to prefer her own company. Always got along with her neighbors on the occasions that she saw them at the market or such, but aside from that, she pretty much kept to herself. Except for that one summer.

“The summer of ’38, it was. That summer, days so hot there wasn’t a breath of air stirring. Record-breaking heat. That summer, you couldn’t stay indoors, you’d die for lack of air if you did. So Miss Maisie came out a little more than she normally would. She’d often sit in her yard with her sewing or a book and just watch the birds. Seemed like that kind of peaceful life was as much as she ever wanted. Nodding to passing neighbors who nodded to her and kept on going. She was happy, I guess.

“But, you know, sometimes I think a person can be missing out on something in their life and not even know it until it comes right up and smacks them in the face. Or, in this case, jumps into their laps. Because that’s just what happened one hot summer day.

“Now, I wasn’t there to see it, but the way I heard it was that Miss Maisie was sitting in her yard with her book open before her, maybe dozing just a little in the sun, when suddenly there’s this little orange cat sharing her chair with her.

“Now, Miss Maisie had never kept pets, so this was a kind of new experience for her, and I think maybe she enjoyed it. Cats do have a way about them, some of them anyway. They can be charming when they have a mind to. And that day, I believe Miss Maisie did something she had never done before: she fell in love.”

“With a cat?!” I exclaimed. Peter’s frown silenced me.

“Well,” he continued, “At any rate, the first thing that happened was that she gave that cat a good dinner. Probably some of whatever she was having herself. And I suppose she watched him eat and felt good that she was taking care of him. And, of course, that cat would then climb back into her lap and purr. I told you cats can be charming when they want to.

“So every day after that, that little orange cat would make it a point to come visiting, mostly at breakfast and suppertime and he’d always be fed and petted. Sometimes after he ate, Miss Maisie would play with him in the yard. Did I mention that she knitted him little cat toys? Well, she did. And she’d toss them for him and he’d fetch them, almost like a little dog. Smart little guy.

“It became a familiar sight to see the two of them in the yard, each step Miss Maisie taking, the cat taking with her. Like a shadow to her, he was. And she’d talk to him all the time and when she did, didn’t that cat look right back at her with those yellow lion eyes of his just like a person would.

“Then it seems that Miss Maisie found out that the cat was actually owned by some people a few blocks away. How she found out, I don’t know, but I heard that the owner objected to the fact that his cat was never at home, found out where the cat was staying, and went to have it out with Miss Maisie.

“And Miss Maisie had a few choice words for the cat’s owner, too. She read him the riot act for not taking better care of his cat, leaving it out in all kinds of weather, and not feeding it adequately. She said that anyone who treated an animal like that didn’t deserve to have a cat, and she only hoped that he didn’t have any children!”

I had a sudden thought. “Did this cat have a name?”

“Cleetus,” Peter replied. “But Miss Maisie called him Cleetie.

“Anyway, shortly after the confrontation, Miss Maisie heard that the cat’s owner was moving to New York City. She was unhappy but she thought that maybe the owner could be persuaded to leave the cat with her, since in her opinion, the cat would be much happier with her. But, to make a long story short, that didn’t happen and one morning when she went downstairs with the cat’s breakfast, he wasn’t there. She walked by his house and found it abandoned. The family had moved away the night before.”

“Poor Miss Maisie,” I said.

“Oh, it was pretty sad for her, alright. People said that she cried for days and still went to her door with dishes of food hoping that they might have left the cat behind and that he’d turn up. He didn’t, though. And even when enough time had passed so that you’d have to accept that he wasn’t coming back, she would still go out in the yard and watch for him, sometimes even calling out for him.”

One thing still puzzled me. “Okay, so you’re telling me that this Miss Maisie is still out there looking for a cat that, if it were alive today, would be over 70 years old. Even if I could accept that without also believing that the woman is totally insane, why on earth is she searching in my yard? Why not her own?”

Peter looked at me for a long moment. “Well,” he said, “it’s because strictly speaking, your yard is her yard. Miss Maisie lived in that house until she died in 1950.”

Have you ever felt like your head was going to explode? I realized right then that I needed a break from Miss Maisie, as sad as she was.

I began to occupy myself with mundane everyday activities such as buying fans, installing air conditioning, and when the mood struck me, working on my novel. Do I need to mention that I still hadn’t come up with a motive for the lovely Eleanor to commit murder?

During this time, I would often hear Miss Maisie’s voice in the yard at night, calling for Cleetus. I never went downstairs anymore. There was nothing I could do.

* * *

On the fourth of July, I and the rest of the town went down to the harbor to watch the pyrotechnics. Returning home, I realized that nightfall hadn’t done a blessed thing to put a damper on the day’s heat. The wind made shadows dance across my lawn as I approached my house. Suddenly something that wasn’t a shadow darted past me. I jumped back, thinking of raccoons, skunks, and the other assorted wildlife that you wouldn’t care to run into at night.

Then I saw her. Miss Maisie. Standing at the corner of the house, just as she had been at our first meeting. As I watched, the darting shape that had passed me on the lawn gave one great leap and landed in Miss Maisie’s outstretched arms. When the moonlight touched them, I saw that she was holding a small orange cat. And she was smiling.

A few nights later, as I was getting ready for bed, I heard creaking noises from the attic. Not the usual house-settling noises, but more like someone walking, pacing maybe. I cautiously opened the attic door. What I saw then probably should have astonished me but for some reason, it didn’t. Not even a little bit. There was Miss Maisie standing by the far window, holding her little friend, Cleetus. Each wore the contented look of someone who has finally come home.

So that’s pretty much the whole story. I can’t explain what happened but I promise you that it did happen.

Oh, and before I forget, I finally was able to come up with a murder motive for the lovely Eleanor. Once I put my mind to it, it was simplicity itself. You see, the motive was a stolen family heirloom. A cat. Or rather, a golden statue of a cat. Hidden for ages in an old abandoned well and only Eleanor knew that...

But I won’t go on. It would spoil the surprise ending and after all, the book will be out in time for the Christmas rush.


Copyright © 2009 by Mary King

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