The Relief of the Cat
Lunch was good as usual. There was fried chicken, fresh from the yard, potatoes, greens, and cornbread. This was a country meal at its most profound, and the boy had grown used to such nourishment during a year’s stay at his aunt’s house. For John to clean his plate was not a dutiful gesture but a natural desire. His aunt was a fine cook, preparing food in much the same way as her mother and grandmother before her. She proceeded to wash the dishes directly after rising from the table, as was her custom.
“John, if you finish your homework this afternoon, I’ll take you to the show tonight,” she said as she dried a plate.
The boy’s face fell at the mention of homework. He feared especially the arithmetic, remembering this weekend’s assignment was unusually lengthy. Normally, it wouldn’t have mattered so much, but at the Pine’s theater this evening was the premier of The Alamo, starring John Wayne, and all his friends would be there. He had looked forward to this night for weeks, eagerly counting down the days.
“Don’t worry, Auntie, I’ll get finished. I don’t have much,” he lied.
His aunt was now preparing herself for work. She was a volunteer at Memorial Hospital. John sat on the bed and watched her as she brushed her hair, briskly, so as not to uncurl her permanent.
“If it’s quiet tonight, I’ll be home by six,” she said as she walked through the front room and out of the door.
John followed her out to the car. “Have a nice afternoon, Auntie, and don’t be late ’cause I’ll be ready to go.”
“Oh, John, don’t forget to feed the dogs and Spooky,” she said as she backed out of the dirt drive.
John watched her disappear down the road and decided to settle himself on the front porch to grapple with his homework. Cold as it was, he preferred the outdoors to the confines of his room. First, history, he thought to himself.
He picked up a book. The history of the United States, the cover said, and he absently flipped the pages until he got to chapter twelve, entitled, “The Storm of Secession.” The love seat rocked back and forth as he read.
Headline—Boston Globe—”Rebel guns fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.” John knew this material pretty well already, having read the chapters on the Civil War early in the semester. He was simply putting off the dreaded arithmetic as long as possible. The exploits of soldiers, frontiersmen, and cowboys took up most of his interest, and his thoughts again turned to the siege of the Alamo.
He saw Chuck amble from the side of the house to the front yard and curl himself up at the foot of a tall pine tree. Chuck was an old yellow dog, perhaps ten, and bore a remarkable resemblance to Disney’s Old Yeller. He was broader in frame, but he shared the amiable disposition of the cinema dog. His head was broad and marked with scars and knots sustained in ancient battles with forgotten foes along Route 5, his domain. Chuck seldom had to fight now, except when a new dog came into the neighborhood. John had only witnessed two such incidents and neither could be considered fights in the strictest sense of the word.
Chuck was John’s constant companion and had long since learned to get along with humans, growing up in a single family with the stable environment that experience provided him. He had a sweetness about him, being sublimely patient with children, stoically obliging those intent upon riding his back or tugging at his ears. He was neutral with cats, and though he probably chased them in his youth, only the gravest provocation would prompt him to do so now. His attitude toward dogs was decidedly more distinct. Chuck, like an old gunfighter, was a rare commodity. Dogs his age were generally arthritic and on the edge of senility, ill-fitted to answer the challenge of an aggressive pup hungry to stake ground. Though some speed was gone and the joints were stiff, the old yellow dog still kept his reputation and territory intact.
Chuck was dozing, curled up, head on forelegs. Then, turning on his back, he stretched all four limbs straight upward, tensed and then relaxed. John, laughing softly, put down his book as Chuck yawned, curling his tongue into a long arc, and sounding a breathless dog sigh. John jumped off the porch and approached Chuck saying, “I’m lazy as you are.” The dog’s thick tail began to wag as he got up to greet the boy. “Man,” said John, as Chuck’s tail hit his leg, “you could knock me down doin’ that.”
John looked across the pasture and saw the other dog his aunt kept on the place, Red, a three-year-old hound. Country people give their pets simple names. Red was born to the hunt, and what he lacked in steadiness of maturity, he made up for with speed and enthusiasm. He was playful and inquisitive, always looking for adventure and occasionally finding it. The sport he was currently enjoying was tormenting the neighbor’s hounds. The neighbor in question, Mr. Leo Brown, kept in excess of a dozen hounds, caged behind his house. Red was bounding back and forth in front of the pen, yelling, barking, and stirring the caged pack into a frenzy.
The boy ran to the pasture fence whistling and shouting, “Red, Red, get over here.” The young dog turned and casually loped toward the boy, oblivious to the scene of havoc left in his wake. “Damn you, dog,” the boy scolded. “Old man Brown is gonna come after you with his shotgun one of these times.”
Red wasn’t the fighting type, lacking in both experience and inclination. He was more adept at running and, finding this an adequate defense, came to rely on it.
Since Red was just a puppy when he came to share a home with Chuck, there was never any rivalry between them. They sometimes roughhoused at Red’s insistence, Chuck acceding in much the same way he would with any other child, but Red knew when Chuck didn’t want to play. Red had, by now, stretched out beside his partner, and John, relishing the picture they made, had long ago decided their relationship was more than one of mutual tolerance.
The boy grudgingly worked on fractions for an hour and a half and suddenly remembered he hadn’t fed the dogs. When mealtime was overdue, Chuck would fetch his empty dish to the nearest human and drop it at the person’s feet. He made this gentle reminder to John with humble expression.
“Oh, I’m sorry boy,” said John. “Let’s go in the backyard, and I’ll get you guys your supper.” Red was already in the backyard in the early stages of his customary mealtime whimper. Their diet varied from processed dog food to scraps, but today it was scraps, which they seemed to prefer anyway. They gobbled their food without pretense, as dogs do, and at that point, Spooky the cat emerged from the garden wilds.
Spooky was as black as Red was red, and if the dogs possessed complimentary dispositions, the cat was naturally standoffish. His color suited a mystical nature—inscrutable as he was invisible at night, save two luminous eyes, cat eyes. They shone yellow-amber and seemed to John to hold innumerable secrets. Spooky displayed all the normal feline qualities, but defied predictability. One moment he could be coldly distant, and the next, playful and attention seeking. He was, however, never one to rub shins and, even hungry, would wait patiently for his supper without lowering himself to such indignity. He loved above all places the garden, sometimes remaining within its confines all day, totally absorbed, roaming through the corn and tomatoes stalking insects. He was ignored by Chuck, but Red would occasionally harass him, more as a diversion than calculated meanness. Red often chased cats, but really didn’t know what to do in the event of cornering one, and the young cat, knowing how to defend himself, rarely went out of his way to avoid Red, or anything else, for that matter. These two even played, from time to time, but cautiously.
As the dogs ate, Spooky sat on his hindquarters a few feet away, intently watching their activity. He arched his back then walked slowly toward them, knowing just how close he could get. He, too, was ready to eat.
“C’mon, Spooky,” John said, beckoning the cat into the house. Spooky ran across the backyard and bounded gracefully up the stone steps. John put a saucer of food down on the kitchen floor, and the cat began to eat. He took small bites, chewing thoroughly. His tail undulated hypnotically, signifying his contentment.
Everyone fed, John returned to the front porch, pleased that most of his homework was behind him. As he walked through the living room, the clock on the mantle chimed four. The dogs, appetites sated, resumed their siestas; Chuck again under his favorite tree and Red in a sunny spot adjacent to the woodpile, just opposite the stretch of pasture fence nearest the road.
“Finally,” John spoke to himself as he closed his notebook. He stood up and rubbed his eyes. The rutted surface of Route 5 stretched before him, and there, in the distance, materialized the figures of four strange dogs, trotting in rude formation toward the house.
Chuck, usually slow moving, sprang to attention, ears up and nostrils flaring with the invaders’ scent. Red would probably have run had not the pack descended on him so quickly. But they were suddenly on him, two of them, lunging at him from two directions.
The boy stood paralyzed as terror welled up inside him. Chuck charged the other two dogs and doing so, transformed himself into the wild creature which answers only the dictates of instinct. John saw years melt off the old dog, and a new taut figure assert itself, upright, enraged, and utterly vicious. The front yard, so long the frame of picnics and Easter egg hunts, was now a battlefield, a maelstrom of whirring shapes and primal fury.
They were just off the porch now, and John knew one or both of his dogs would die this day unless he intervened. But how? Then it came to him. He would have to get off the porch to the side of the house. He would turn the hose on them and from pure shock the attackers would break and run. The garden hose lay just a few feet down the side of the house, tied to the faucet.
Red was down now and overwhelmed. Once off its legs, it becomes impossible for any animal to carry on a fight, and no quarter would be shown today. Chuck was magnificent but wearing down fast. Move now, John thought to himself.
Suddenly, a black missile hurled across the space in front of him, as high as his head, landing squarely on the shoulders of one of Red’s attackers, a big brown dog. Spooky, lurking in the hedge off the porch, had chosen his moment. John, stunned, watched in amazement as the dog bolted in blind panic toward the road, cutting the air with high-pitched shrieks. Spooky held fast to his mount, black cat ears pressed firmly against his head. Furious, he battered the dog’s skull and ears. When he finally jumped off, the dog continued to run.
As an apparent result of the cat’s audacious display, the remaining dogs seemed to lose the initiative, for Red found his feet and Chuck managed to beat off his attackers and run them out of the yard as well. Both of them sustained scratches and welts, but there were no serious wounds. Red immediately settled himself and tended his bruises, but Chuck posted himself near the road and surveyed its visible length, as though reliving the fight, a hundred fights. He soon looked his old self, and when John called to him, he walked over with his familiar expression, so akin to a human smile. Perhaps it was the old dog’s pride.
Spooky sat near a rosebush, cleaning himself as casually as if he had merely been out in the garden with his insects. For him, the incident was forgotten, unimportant, all in a day’s play. He began pawing the nearest branch, transfixed by the movement of the leaves in the late afternoon sunlight.
John spent a few minutes with his pets, looking them over, and satisfied they were all right, went into the house to get ready to see The Alamo. Somehow, he wasn’t as excited as before about the movie. He had already witnessed the valor of sentinels.
This story originally appeared in Phosphene magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Phosphene.