The Cat in the Tree
— fiction by Jim Heskett

That cat, again. My mouth sips coffee, and my body wears a bathrobe and house shoes as my eyes stare out the sliding glass door to my backyard. The pecan tree’s reach extends from the back fence to the side fence. That’s probably how she (or he; could be a he) got up there. The fence. From there, she (fine, let’s call the cat a she) would have jumped from the edge to one of the branches, and then used her grappling hooks to ascend the trunk or the crisscrossing web of leafy twigs. My hands should have trimmed that tree long ago.

In November in Oklahoma, the air is crisp and cold and Saturday mornings are best suited to coffee drinking and yard-staring. Not tree climbing. Already once this week, my legs have scaled the tree and my arms extracted this cat, and I have zero desire to do so again. My body would rather be in bed, chasing more sleep. The outside world holds no appeal for me today.

We used to have a cat, back in college. That little monster– Jezebel– had long calico fur and pale green eyes. Whenever Jezebel felt gracious, she would allow me a staring contest, which I always won. Eventually. That game was the only part of pet ownership that I enjoyed. Jezebel escaped one day when a careless friend left the front door open. The cat never came back.

The creature (intruder) perched in the tree in my backyard has shiny black hair and eerie yellow eyes.  Against that midnight fur, the eyes glow, even from this distance. I don’t like this beast. Give the thing forty pounds and it’s a puma. She stares at me from her nook; those wanton eyes form a taut invisible cord, connected to my own. Neither of us has moved in at least a minute, and I can’t remember if cats’ vision is motion-based. The thing may be staring at where it thinks my body is, and not actually at me.
My lips suck my teeth and my teeth chew on my lower lip: this means I’m deliberating. My neck feels like pulled taffy, probably because my body hasn’t participated in my physical therapy exercises for several days. My finger presses that certain spot on the right side; the one that temporarily alleviates the pain.

After setting down my coffee, my hands open the sliding glass door and a soup of cold and moist air greets my body. My legs walk around the side of the house to the shed, and my hands retrieve the ladder. The icy aluminum of the ladder stings my gloveless fingers. My hands have to choke up to keep the top-heavy device from toppling my body to the ground.

My arms place the ladder against the tree, and just like last time, the cat has chosen a roost just out of reach, at the intersection of two branches. My feet climb slowly so as not to spook her. Each clanging step bows the ladder and rattles the tree, which is just slim enough to wobble slightly under my body’s weight. Shaking leaves. At the top of the ladder, one hand wraps around the sturdy trunk and my right foot seeks a branch just beyond the top of the ladder. My body lurches higher, and now the cat is within arm’s reach. I pretend that my rock-climbing experience has prepared me for such an awkward position, but I haven’t been climbing since college, and (full disclosure) I was never any good at it back then.

Tapered yellow eyes glower back at my own, and she is unaffected by my advances. Unaffected, that is, until my free hand grasps the cat by the scruff of her neck. At that point, she
comes alive and swipes at my forearm, and the straight razors attached to her paws pierce the sleeve of my terrycloth robe. My eyes wince, more from surprise than pain, but my resolve holds steady. 

Mrrrrrrrr. The cat doesn’t like transport via neck scruff, and lets my ears know with her rumbling mewl. My hand pulls the cat to my chest, quickly releases the scruff and then my arm slips underneath her. She’s a bundle of kinetic energy cradled in the crook of my arm. The mewl recedes into a discourteous purr. My elevated foot lowers to the ladder, and my arm releases its grip on the trunk.

Three steps down, the cat wriggles then leaps from my protection, fifteen feet to the ground. She escapes under the brush at my fence line. After all that, she jumped anyway. Just like a cat not to trust rescue.

My legs return the ladder to the shed and then return my body to the comforts of my house. The coffee has grown cold. My hands open the junk drawer in the kitchen and locate the antibiotic ointment. My left hand pulls back the right sleeve of my robe, exposing the arcing red line of the cat’s parting gift. My fingers smear the ointment across the tear on my skin, which leaves it shiny but mutes the burn. As soon as my hand lowers the terrycloth sleeve, the robe absorbs half the medicine.

It’s instantly cold.

My hands pour out my coffee, and place the cup in the sink. Since I’ve now entered cleaning mode, my hands take the coffee grinds from the pot, and throw them into the staging compost bucket, which sits on the kitchen counter. Almost out of coffee now. My body should go to the store, but my hands are not yet ready to hold a steering wheel again. I’ll ask Frank if he can go for me, next time we meet over the fence.

Now that my body has already experienced outside this morning, I decide to take the compost out. My legs walk the bucket to the bin and my hands dump the contents into the pile of grass, orange rinds, banana peels, and remaining mush of ingredients. This only recently became my job. I don’t even know what I’ll do with the amorphous blob once the bin fills.

My legs walk halfway to the house before a rustle in the trees precedes several pecan husks falling to the ground. My eyes look upwards. The cat. Again. I’m not surprised that the cat has returned; I am surprised how quickly this happened. Last time was three days apart. If these were contractions, I would be bracing myself for an imminent arrival.

My legs return the bucket inside, and the cat’s eyes follow me the entire way, like that painting whose name I can’t quite remember. Back to the ladder, and the ladder against the tree, and my body up the ladder to its zenith.

“Hey there.”

The voice, from behind me. My next-door neighbor Frank. He stands in his own backyard, coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other. His robe has spilled open, exposing the formidable white gut that hangs over his boxer shorts.

“Hey, Frank.”

“Whatcha doing up there?”

My finger points at the cat, and Frank ducks and squints, but shakes his head. “I don’t get it. You lose a frisbee up there or something?”

“No, it’s a cat. Keeps climbing up this tree.”

“Cat climbed up your tree, eh? Well, why don’t you just let it climb down on its own?”

It’s not a bad question. “I’m not sure if they can climb down once they get up. I think I read that somewhere.”

Frank walks to the fence line, and leans against it. He hangs each hand over. His coffee and newspaper are now on my property. “Are you doing okay?”

I don’t want to have this conversation while my body is halfway up a pecan tree. “I’m fine, but thanks for asking.”

“It’s just that… me and Martha were talking about you yesterday, and we know that ever since… if you need help with anything, you be sure and tell us, okay? We just want you to know that you can always come to us if you need any help.”

My neck hurts again. “Absolutely, Frank, I appreciate it. But I’m fine, really. I just want to get off this ladder without breaking my back.”

“Is your front door open? I could come through and hold the ladder for you. I’m not sure if you should be up there, with your neck like that. Might be safer if you had someone helping you.”

I’ve explained myself twice already, now leave me alone. “Nope, that’s not necessary. I think I can handle this, I’d just like to get to it.” I intended to ask Frank about the coffee, but now I don’t want to. 

“Loud and clear, neighbor. Don’t be a stranger, now.” Frank nods and raises his coffee at me; a goodbye salute. Once he’s back inside his own house, I return my attention to the motionless cat. Same spot, same expression. Repeat the process: one arm around the trunk, one foot on a higher branch to gain some leverage. However, when my hand grabs the cat by the scruff, she does not hiss or mewl, she instead focuses those peculiar yellow eyes on mine. She allows my hand to place her in the crook of my arm with no violence during this iteration.

Foot under foot back down to the ground, and the cat waits until we’re only three steps to the bottom before leaping from my arms and absconding into the brush. I consider leaving the ladder in place, since it seems destined to see more action today. My legs return it to the shed anyway.

Back inside, my hands shut the blinds in front of the back door. The room darkens. I debate drinking more coffee vs. taking a nap, but decide to do neither. Frank has inspired me to read the newspaper. My hands retrieve it from my front yard, and my eyes stop to survey the neighbor’s houses in the cul-de-sac. No kids play in front yards. No garage doors are raised. Most of the houses still have the Saturday edition in their driveways.

My body takes up its position at the dinner table. There’s an empty chair across from me.
My legs walk into the living room instead to read the paper. Four people were shot dead in New York. A bomb in Israel killed twenty. A Pharmaceutical company is under investigation for possibly-illegal patents on medications. My eyes don’t want to see any of this. A determined finger smears newsprint across the page, the finger blackening as it collects words and letters in an inky smudge . My thoughts keep wandering to the empty chair. And seatbelts. I often think about seatbelts.

Saturdays are usually like this, and Sundays can be worse.

My hands fold the paper with the intention of placing it in the recycle bin, but then I wonder if it should also go in the compost. I have no idea. I know some paper things can’t be
recycled… if they have food grease on them, for instance. For safety’s sake, my hands will put it in the compost. I don’t want to be wrong.

When my legs enter the kitchen, and my hands pull back the blinds, my body flinches. On my back porch, seated and still: the cat. Black fur, yellow eyes, looking up at me though the glass. My legs fold underneath my body as I sit opposite the persistent intruder, and the cat’s gaze follows the action. Never changing her stare. Her exhalations create foggy circles against the glass. I wonder if she’s aware of the frigidity of the outside world.

The cat lowers her lids, like a slow-motion blink. She does this several times, each time narrowing her eyes to slits for longer periods. After the fourth or fifth round, my eyes follow suit. When they shut, the world darkens. When they open, the cat has maintained the visual bridge. My arm reaches to the handle, and my hand opens the sliding glass door. The wet cold soup of the outside meets the dry heat of my kitchen.

“What do you want?”

The cat does not answer. She lowers herself to the ground. Now her front paws disappear underneath her, and her shoulders form two bumps on the otherwise smooth hill of her back. She’s tiny. My eyes had not seen that before. Also, a piece of her left ear is missing. Not just missing, but torn away and crusted at the edges: a fresh wound. Cats are violent creatures.

My finger presses the spot on my neck that alleviates the whiplash. The pain subsides. The cat inches forward, slinking like a worm. Her front half is inside my house. Inside my house. She yawns, as if nothing is happening; it’s any normal Saturday. She rises, stretches, and comes all the way inside the house.

My hands slide the door closed behind her.

Jim Heskett is based in Colorado, where he ponders the human condition against the brilliant backdrop of mountains. Also, he writes fiction, blogs, makes music, and it all ends up at