Jim Powell

The one day of the week you don’t set the alarm you wake early anyway, hearing her in the kitchen stirring sugar and milk into her coffee. You pull on your hang-around-the-house clothes, making sure none of the cats have crept underfoot. You’ve called your house Tigerville since Cleo (the young feral you and she saved from February’s ice storm) bit and drew blood, and your arm swelled to three times normal, sending you to emergency. Since then things seem to happen outside your will—catch-as-catch-can, come-as-you-are. It isn’t the cats’ fault, or hers. Only new animals, another human presence, your house a community now. For the first time one you do not rule.

You trudge downstairs carefully, fearing a fatal fall. The stairs seem steeper, the tread slipperier than before she moved in for a new year’s beginning together. All she asked for was her own room where she could meditate and write.

She’s already opened the living room drapes to April’s budding trees and the grass’s vague greening. You inhale the coffee she’s brewed then sniff the oily smell of her ritual lamp behind the closed door of her workspace, once an unused guest room. You catch a hint of her last night’s bath, the sweet scent you now sleep with. But she meditates in the mornings, so you quietly pour a cup—the sugar bowl now always full!—and scan the boring headlines of the newspaper she’s brought in. The silence here in Tigerville makes you wonder what she’s thinking.

You look around for the three cats, but only puffs of fur betray them. She’s let them outside into the warm morning to reclaim their wild domain. You sip the coffee, look toward the alley where a redbud and yellow forsythia brighten the garage. Nature blooms without worrying over frost. You step onto the deck, listen for traffic’s hum then remember that Saturday’s near silence should offer comfort, not concern. She’s hung baskets of flowers around the house, only yesterday placed pots of herbs that flavor the air. You breathe in the complicated aroma. Surrounded by so much beauty, why this unease? You scan the sky for weather, dramatic storm preferred, but find only white wisps of clouds. The day might drive you crazy with its calm. You sip the pungent coffee, stronger than you used to make for yourself.

Two squirrels playing tag leap from the neighbor’s old maple to attack the garage roof with chirps and claws. From some distance a bird twitters, though the hawks of last summer—not seen this year—perhaps still warn intruders off. You were once a hawk yourself, hungry and intent, the authentic self you often preach to her.

One of her cats, Desdemona, creeps over the roof’s ridge, black body sinuous. The squirrels scamper into the redbud’s spindly branches. Surely Ophelia will appear next. Young Cleopatra must be lounging near the puddles in the neighbor’s yard. Her older cats’ predatory personalities showed to him clearly within a week of their arrival with her. Then Cleo’s bite demonstrated her sense of play. Their suspicion of you—the masculine—is no surprise, but today in warmer weather the squirrels prove more engaging prey. The cats ignore you.

You sip and watch her puzzling over words at her desk, leaning back in the chair she chose for its uncomfortable uprightness. You wonder at her focus, her distance. She is near, but her self-absorption equals power. You don’t want to interrupt—even to speak softly would seem a complaint. And you aren’t really complaining, are you? You finish the strong sweet coffee and listen for movement in the house, but no sound relieves your isolation.

Ophelia pads from the maple onto the garage roof and Mona, creeping, glances back, nodding in conspiracy. The two squirrels in the redbud chatter. No cat can catch a squirrel unless it lets her. The cats sneak closer, spacing themselves, Ophelia down near the gutter, Mona slithering up, so they cover the squirrels’ branch on both sides, though not upward. Squirrels have the sense to avoid traps. You stand, cornered by their drama. You shake your head, wishing the cats could somehow win.

But Ophelia leaps and Mona pounces into the tree, and the squirrels skitter higher then jump back onto the roof’s ridge then into the maple. The cats pursue, but stop short at the roof’s edge. They pose as if victorious—territory defended?—as the squirrels rattle branches in a vine-covered oak a backyard farther down the alley.

The cats puff their chests, descend via the redbud onto the ground then amble up the stairs onto the deck. The screen door clatters and the air moves as she comes up behind you.

“What’s going on?” she asks. “Exciting kitty action here in Tigerville?” She kneels and the two older cats trot to her. She looks up and smiles, and you find yourself nodding like a fool.

“Squirrels gone wild.” You point toward the trees. “Life in the jungle.” You bend beside her and pet the cats. Cleopatra jumps onto the deck, lands with a thud by a pot of catnip then marches to the group. You reach out and she slips under your hand, fur still winter-thick. Ophelia and Desdemona meow greetings. They’ve taken to the little wild one like elder sisters.

She stands and you follow, inhaling the warmth she gives off. She nods at your coffee and takes the empty cup from your hand. She sets it on the glass table messy with pollen and seed pods. She puts her arms around you and you feel a moment of lust at her softness. The cats rub against your ankles, mewing, ready to be fed. This is what she’s made you. Whatever this is.

Jim Powell holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and teaches creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI). He directed the Writers’ Center of Indianapolis (now Indiana Writers Center) for twenty years, during which, ironically, he stopped writing. Since receiving a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis in 2011, he has written over sixty stories, with work published in Bartleby Snopes and forthcoming in Punchnel’s, Crack the Spine, From the Edge of the Prairie, and Fiction Southeast.