Prose Header

MoJo the Mighty

by Edna C. Horning

Part 1 appears in this issue.


Like Neva, Mason was an only child, and although he had grown up on a farm, his parents were not, strictly speaking, farmers. When they married, his father, age 49, had been the county auditor, and his mother, age 36, a home economics teacher, and through the years they employed hired hands to till their acreage, now lying fallow for a decade, for the corn, tomatoes, wheat, and soy beans that supplemented their salaries.

Now that he and Elise had inherited this mortgage-free largesse (although the farmhouse was expensive to heat), Mason ditched the headaches of school administration, of budgets and hiring and firing, to reunite with science and math, his true loves, and got a teaching job practically for the asking due to the local dearth of instructors qualified in those subjects. He and Neva drove in together every morning.

As for Elise, released from the need for supplementary income, she filled the liberated hours with her painting and drawing. She repurposed an old tool shed into an atelier, small but adequate, that could be heated in winter and cooled in summer, and top-drawer galleries in Cleveland and Columbus began accepting and soliciting her exhibits.

Days became weeks and weeks months as their idyll unfolded, banishing initial fears and doubts about the wisdom of making such a major change in their lives.

Even so, Neva had not forgotten MoJo and had declined offers for a replacement. But more than once her parents had spied her standing motionless at the edge of the property squinting into the dying sun. Did she see something? Hear something? If so, she wasn’t sharing.

* * *

Fourteen months after the move, the family welcomed their second autumn in Ohio. Fall had ever been Elise’s favorite season, even edging out spring, and on that October afternoon of cerulean perfection, she took up her brush to paint the glorious red, silver, and sugar maples planted in decades past between the house and barn by her husband’s ancestors.

Because there was no rain in the forecast, she set up her easel, table, and canvas chair on a level space outside. So eager was she to begin that she made only a few basic sketches on the canvas before squeezing onto the palette the earth tones she liked best, ambers and umbers and maroons and dark forest greens.

Not five minutes into her project, she was startled by a scratching noise from behind and whirled around to see that a cat had jumped onto her chair. Its emaciated, derelict appearance and a tear in its right ear were at odds with its contented purring. Ribs were visible underneath fur that was dirtier and more matted than usual for the naturally fastidious, self-grooming habits of cats. It made eye contact with Elise and continued its rhythmic humming.

“You look like you could use a meal, big fella,” she said sweetly, and the animal meowed in response. Leaving her art, Elise walked toward the house to fetch food and water, only to have the animal accompany her without hesitation, gliding alongside so closely she could feel it gently brushing her ankles.

From the pantry she opened a can of salmon, shook the contents onto a plate, and set it before him. Before starting to eat, the cat looked up briefly, and it was then Elise noticed the small, diamond-shaped blemish visible against its paler nose.

Interesting coincidence, she thought. MoJo had had one exactly like it. And, she noted further, this cat also was male. And not neutered. And, underneath the dust, a creamy yellow.

* * *

“You can’t be serious. Please tell me you aren’t serious, or I’m married to a fruitcake.”

Neva flicked her gaze back and forth between her querulous parents while she sat on the raised stone hearth hugging, kissing and rocking the newcomer. He had made himself quite at home since his arrival, his wanderlust apparently at an end. Exactly as MoJo had done, he allowed Neva to brush his coat without the faintest resistance, and at bedtime he snuggled under her covers on cue. Exactly like MoJo.

“Of course it’s MoJo,” Elise replied with maddening aplomb. “Just look at him.”

“Looks mean absolutely zip. Think about it. There must be scores like him in this area alone. Amarillo is twelve hundred miles away.”

“It’s been over fourteen months,” she countered. “He could have covered the distance in that time. Let’s see,” she murmured, frowning slightly as she did the math in her head, “twelve hundred divided by fourteen is, what, seventy-five, no, eighty-five miles per—”

“Elise, you still don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?”

“When Mom died,” he explained, “MoJo luxuriated, you will recall, at the most expensive pet hotel in all of New Mexico, possibly the entire Southwest, during our absence.”

“So?” Elise said, as yet uncomprehending.

“So, you ask? So?” The last skein of Mason’s self-control unraveled, and he shouted, “So, Goddammit, how could he know where we were in the first place?!

Mother and daughter simultaneously emitted shocked, sucking gasps. Neither had ever heard that particular vulgarity fall from his lips, in their presence at any rate, and a stunned silence prevailed until Neva, who recovered first, spoke.

“Daddy, where’s that scientific objectivity you’re forever pushing?” she said in hopes of breaking the tension. “There’s a way to settle this, you know.”

Both adults twisted their heads to look at her.

“Do one of those DNA tests,” she advised. “Don’t you remember? The Vinsons in Albuquerque adopted Sunshine the same day we got MoJo. The other littermate died. Ask them for a sample.”

* * *

The DNA lab came highly recommended but cautioned customers that it could be as much as six to eight weeks before results were received. So when theirs arrived a mere twenty-one days later, it took the family by surprise.

“Must be their slow season,” Neva speculated.

Three procedures had been necessary, one for each animal and a third to compare the two, and payment in full had been required up front. Mason had given in to Neva and Elise to put to rest the utter absurdity of their notion. It was money well spent to stymie their being blown hither and yon by the fickle winds of wishful thinking.

Or it would have been well spent if only the tests had not verified that MoJo Stricker and Sunshine Vinson were, indeed, full and true siblings of the blood, their surnames notwithstanding. Same daddy. Same mama. All cat. No scat.

Though Neva was ecstatic, eventually a spot of worry began to alloy her mood.

“What’s wrong with Daddy?” she asked her mother. “Ever since we got those results, he goes around looking like he’s seen a ghost, or something.”

Elise smiled. “Actually, that’s not a bad comparison because, in a manner of speaking, he has. Seen a ghost, I mean. And I think he feels ganged-up on.”

“Why? Have we said or done anything to gang up on him?”

“No, we haven’t, but reality has. So be kind. He’s in a fragile condition.”

* * *

Young, skinny nutritionists with blindingly white teeth and full heads of hair admonish desperate, middle-aged dieters not to eat after 7:00 pm. Screw ’em. It was midnight, Mason couldn’t sleep, and the ample leftovers of a lovely Smithfield ham were cooing his name.

He was keen not to rouse the troops and had eased into the kitchen as quietly as possible; no cinch, considering how much the wide wooden floorboards in the old, one-story farmhouse creaked at the merest pressure.

With only the dim stove light for illumination, he removed Kaiser rolls from the bread box and mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, tomato, sliced cheese and milk from the refrigerator and placed them on the table. Lastly, he lifted the platter of ham from the top shelf.

While constructing his sandwich, Mason moodily pondered recent events. Elise and Neva had of late become extraordinarily solicitous of his comfort, happiness and general well-being, and he was spooked. What the hell were they up to?

When he watched football on TV, Neva insisted on fixing his favorite snacks, plumping his back pillows, and leaping to answer the phone so that he did not have to.

And as for Elise, she had evidently decided to give Salome from Dance of the Seven Veils a run for her money and was buying sexy lingerie at that shop in the mall everyone cracked randy jokes about. God only knew what outlandish scheme her brain was plotting. If God existed. Which Mason doubted.

Maybe it was because he often lay awake voicing every permutation he could think of, no matter how labored or farfetched, to discredit the lab’s findings until Elise would gently admonish, “Sweetheart, there comes a point where denial veers into paranoia. That way madness lies.” Then, decked in her newest, sheerest nightie and generously spritzed with “Shameless” by Etienna, she would switch off the lamp and shamelessly wriggle closer.

But this particular night the see-through negligee and siren scent got her nowhere, and her restless, preoccupied husband continued to gaze upward into the darkness until he decamped altogether.

So here he sulked. Underneath the sugar bowl were the stapled pages of an essay Neva had written for English class. Proud of the bright red A at the top, she had brought it home that afternoon for her parents to read. Elise had done so immediately and then had left it for Mason.

With his sandwich in one hand, he began flipping through the pages with the other. It was all about MoJo, his remarkable talents, how much Neva loved him, how devastated she’d been when he disappeared, how he had turned up again. That much Mason already knew, so it was the conclusion that interested him most. She had written:

Because I’ve always wanted to be a scientist like my father, I try to think like one. But now I have a problem. While the DNA tests say one thing, my science classes teach that only the five senses can transfer information to the mind, which they also teach actually is nothing more than the brain.

So how did MoJo find us? Did he see, hear, smell, taste or touch us? Is MoJo’s tale just an interesting story to tell as entertainment around a campfire soon to be pushed aside by more important matters? It certainly qualifies as “an interesting story” — no argument there — but is it anything more? Does it have value, meaning and purpose beyond mere entertainment? My heart overflows with joy to have MoJo back, but my head still doesn’t understand it.

Mason read it over twice and ate unhurriedly until the drowsiness so elusive earlier began to overtake him. From polite habit, he raised a hand to cover his yawning mouth and stopped mid-gesture. No need. He was alone.

Or so he thought. His efforts at stealth had not been entirely successful. MoJo floated in, slow and silent as a cloud, and with unblinking disdain proceeded to scrutinize Mason from head to toe, his green-gold eyes drilling holes in him as he downed his last few bites. Mason stared back, and the seconds ticked away until finally he groused, “So what is it now?”

In a seamless vault, MoJo sprang onto the counter and curled up in the sink. Mason rose wearily and opened the tap to barely a trickle. He watched the cat quench his thirst and then said aloud, “My head doesn’t understand it, either, you arrogant little bastard.”

Copyright © 2020 by Edna C. Horning

Proceed to Challenge 854...

Home Page