“Longings of a Vanished Cat” by Jon Steinhagen

Today, Lise Quintana and Kolleen Carney explore “Longings of a Vanished Cat,” by Jon Steinhagen, submitted for Issue #10, Alice in Wonderland.

She calls me Cheshire-Puss. I like that.

What has she done with the baby? There she stands on the mossy path, unencumbered by bawling babe, crisp and clean and blue and white.

I am visible. I am not often visible. What personal lapse has caused this visibility? Perhaps I want her to see me. Not perhaps. I do. I want her to see my long claws, my sharp teeth. My grin.

*   *   *

– Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

So polite. From where do those golden manners originate, and why, in strange surroundings such as these, are they still employed? Hers is a timid little voice, to be sure, but it is clear and certain, a childhood voice tinged with a foretaste of girlhood, a dainty crystal dinner bell that needs but a delicate shake to indicate a meal may be served.

There she stands, waiting, patiently, for me to respond. She wants to know which way she ought to go, eh? Her reason for asking puzzles me: is she lost or curious? Certainly she must be lost, disoriented, wandering blind – this is not her world – but asking which way she ought to go? Why ask that particular question unless she plans on staying? Why not ask “How do I get out of here?” I would welcome her staying. I would welcome her constant coolness, crispness, blue- and-white-and-blonde-ness. Why else would I have followed her from the Duchess’s?

*   *   *

Plump little legs in bone-white stockings. Black shoes, polished like glass. I am almost spurred to quit my perch on the tree bough and rub myself up against her, yet I note traces of black fur on her starched pinafore. From a dog? No, a dog would leave erratic, clumpy traces of itself and plenty of slobber. The demure hints of the fur in question are concentrated to a small, compact area of where her lap would be if she were sitting now instead of looking up at me.

Yes, a cat – I daresay a kitten – has been asleep on her lap sometime recently. I experience a pang of jealousy, reacting to it in amazement and discomfiture. I followed her, yes, but out of intrigue, not out of…

*   *   *

Curiouser and curiouser. But I apply myself to her question of which way she ought to go from here. I give the only answer I know: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

*   *   *

I don’t much care where – so long as I get somewhere. I had interrupted her, tossing out, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you…” before she finished her thought with a devastating second half:   So long as I get somewhere.

*   *   *

What she really means is So long as I know where to go next, I’ll wager. How typical. And how disappointing. I had hoped – what? That she would be the lingering kind, free and easy of

temperament, comfortable with conversing with animals? And that’s another thing – how does she not blink an eye when being addressed by me? Her face, doll-like, earnestly seeking my enjoinders. Trusting. I have a good idea of where she’s from, and I know the animals there are unable to speak. Oh, they may be spoken to, naturally, but to have one pipe up in response is another thing entirely. And yet my new mistress addresses me as if I’m an old friend – a sibling, perhaps, or at least a favorite cousin. Cheshire-Puss. Oh yes, my grin grows wider, as I shake off the disappointment I experienced at her last statement. In some ways, I understand her desire to get on. She wants to go somewhere, meaning she is already tired of her current situation (a pleasant chat) and seeks the next, and from there the next, and the next, and the next, and so on until she’s come to her final situation and sits, old and tired, as shrunken and dirt-yellow as a drudge’s sponge.

But that is a scenario lodged in the distant future, and I discard it. She may never see her senescence. She could be struck down, tomorrow, by an omnibus.

*   *   *

So long as I get somewhere.

*   *   *

“Oh, you’re sure to do that if you only walk long enough,” I say, and I speak the truth. I speak nothing but the truth. I do not, by nature, deceive, but if I did I would certainly never dream of deceiving her. I want to tell her,

O My Sweet Child, why is it so important to you?
If you are always moving forward, how will you know when to stop? Can you not see that you are, at present, somewhere?
Here, with me?
I have followed you.
I have abandoned the warmth of the Duchess’s hearth.
I have given up an atmosphere heavy with heat and pepper, rent by infant screams and sneezes.
I have fled from the hail of saucepans and ladles flung by the surly cook. Goodbye, pointy-chinned Duchess!
Farewell, ineffectual reptile footman!

I have materialized here on this sturdy bough in this shady tree.
I have always been waiting for you,
you in your dress the color of a May sky,
your golden hair the texture of a silken shawl,
smelling of fresh buttered biscuits and tea.
Yes, you are sure to get somewhere if you only walk long enough,
but you need walk no further.
I am here.
Waiting and willing to complete your picture, to leave a fresh clump of fur on your lap.
Here I am.
Grinning.

*   *   *

What sort of people live about here?

*   *   *

She wants to visit, does she? Oh, very well. I will tell her what she’s in for. “In that direction lives a Hatter,” I say, indicating the path on my right, “and in that direction lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

Is there a tinge of jealously feigned indifference in my reply to her? I sense she wants nothing further to do with me beyond the asking of directions. Am I nothing more than a furry signpost to her? Why has she not patted her stockinged knees and called to me? Why no Here Kitty Kitty? I like that. I do not hear it often. I do not hear it at all. Herekittykittykittykittykitty. Would I respond to that brand of fatuity? From someone else; certainly not. But her? Perhaps. Perhaps I would leave the rough comfort of this bough for the soft, warm hazards of her lap.

I fool myself. There is no perhaps about it. I would. But dare I risk my independence, my come-and-go-as-I-please-iness? My vanishing act? And for what? A few moments of a smooth, small hand caressing the length of me, crown to tail, over and over again? A dish of milk? A fish head for supper? A deep pillow by the hearth? A place at her feet?

*   *   *

But I don’t want to go among mad

*   *   *

She has some sense at least, but I must tell her the truth again: “Oh, you can’t help that; we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” Even this revelation does nothing to change the serene, earnest look on her face.

*   *   *

How do you know I’m mad?

*   *   *

The truth is sobering, but she must be told: “You must be or you wouldn’t have come here.” Of course, she mayn’t have come here of her own volition. Certainly her presence in my world is an accident. She’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, gone some place she shouldn’t have, sought a dark cavern, examined a mysterious crevasse. I know all too well this lure to the forbidden, the dangerous, the new, the unexplored, the desirable. I know what it is to not be content to leave well enough alone, to remain on the embattled hearth, to have one’s eardrums shattered by the wails of an annoying encumbrance, to inhale an irritating seasoning. Yes, her decision to remain in my world is a certain sign of madness. I ought to show her the way out.

*   *   *

If only I knew.

*   *   *

And how do you know that you’re mad?

*   *   *

I am taken aback by that question. Could it be she cares about me, about my opinion of myself? I flatten my ears and flirt with the notion of telling her a non-truth.

But I cannot.

Her child’s hands, her sweet smell, that inviting pinafore (damn the traces of kitten!)…how shall I answer her question? “To begin with, a dog’s not mad. You grant that?” While I don’t know that for certain, I feel fairly safe in the reasoning that it’s not a lie.

*   *   *

– I suppose so.

*   *   *

No argument from her? I won’t be deprived of my explanation: “Well, then, you see a dog growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.”

*   *   *

I call it purring, not

*   *   *

Egad. She’s offered me a different way to see myself; that is to say, what is this “purring” of which she speaks? That is to say, why don’t I know this word? That is to say, to say that is…

Purring. To purr. Did purr. Will purr. Purr-fect. The word feels velvety, it feels correct, it feels warm and content. Again I am nearly compelled to leave my perch and leap into her arms – and purr!

But that would frighten her. It would certainly frighten me. I do not leap. I come and go, mysteriously, whimsically, that is to say, on a whim, on a limb. I hold to my arboreal roost.

Curse her, I think, she is making me forget myself. “Call it what you like,” I reply, rather testily. I need to change the subject. I need to steer it away from anything personal. I need to remember myself. I do not form attachments. “Do you play croquet with the Queen today?” Oh, innocuous chump of a cat – could nothing more clever spring to your Cheshire mind? It’s her, the little one I’ve been fancying without knowing it, she who has turned my elegant brains into day-old porridge. I can do little more, now, than make small talk about royalty.

*   *   *

I should like it very much, but I haven’t been invited

*   *   *

I wonder if she’s interested in the event because she’s fond of croquet or because she wishes to hobnob with the Queen. And I find I don’t really care. Sport or society, let her lust for whichever she likes, my interest evaporates with rapidity, much as I should have done long before now. There – I have forced myself to be indifferent to this banal stranger, and my success is nigh.

*   *   *

Then why O why do I say: “You’ll see me there.”

*   *   *

In my mortification of matching conventional with conventional, I vanish.

*   *   *

But I remain, invisible to her, on the bough. Why did I say I will see her there? I have no desire to attend the croquet match, where half the court will be racing about and shouting and dodging the headman’s axe. Ah – it seems I retain the desire, still, to follow this young one, this petticoated lap on legs. She does not see me now, of course, her empty hands useless at her sides.

*   *   *

Her empty hands, in need of filling.

*   *   *

I reappear, startling her: “Bye-the-bye, what became of the baby? I’d nearly forgotten to ask.”

Had I nearly forgotten? Yes, that was the truth; I had. But was my reappearance informed by my sudden concern over that squawking, mewling babe in arms, the back of which I had been glad to see? Or had I really remembered to inquire after it only as an excuse to attempt one more exchange with the object of my curiouserity?

*   *   *

It turned into a

*   *   *

Ah, she wounds me: so matter-of-fact, so peremptory, so prompt, so final. She does not ask me why I ask. She does not ask why I care. She does not say herekittykittykitty. It turned into a pig. Indeed. Who doesn’t? I sigh to myself and say: “I thought it would.”

*   *   *

Again I vanish.

*   *   *

I watch as she trots off in the direction of the March Hare’s and think “I’ll be damned if another animal will have the chance to curry her favor.” I am surprised to find I’ve dug my claws into the bough, and while it shouldn’t matter in the least because I’m invisible, it does. I wish to leave that tree and follow her but the intensity of my yearnings for that little girl and the fierce restraint from springing into her arms has attached me, deeply, into the pulpy solidity of the wood. I must relax. I must erase all thoughts of blue-and-white lapdom. Herekittykittykittykitty.

*   *   *

I follow her and reappear.

*   *   *

“Did you say ‘pig,’ or ‘fig’?” Is my ardor obvious by these sudden reappearances? I’m beyond caring about appearances or disappearances; however, it’s clear from her answer that she is finished with me, finished without even beginning, so to speak; she is moving forward, as she wanted, going somewhere. Her reply is curt and discouraging.

*   *   *

I said ‘pig,’ and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy!”

*   *   *

And I see it all. I see what life with her would be like, if not At First then At Last. And I comply. I say, “All right.” With great control and concentration, I slowly vanish, going from solid to smoky in a lazy, lingering fashion. And while I’m vanishing, while she looks up at me, I predict the reality that she is too young to see. I see her as she grows, as her knees grow past the hem of her dress, as her hem struggles to catch up to her feet, as her shoes become boots, as her ripening figure becomes corseted and cinched up by strings, as her neck turns from alabaster and then to marble and then to mottled and then to sand, as her palm becomes coarse, her hand knobbed and bony, her corn-gold hair spidery and steely, her eyes duller, her mouth more slack, her joys fewer and her hunger less hungry. I see it beginning already, just as slowly and surely as I, myself, am slowly and surely vanishing before her very eyes: I acknowledge the change her appearance in my world has made, how she will forevermore be wary of deep wells, yawning tunnels, forbidden places, how she will no longer run across sun drenched meadows with the speed that the freedom of abandon lends.

I am instantly ashamed at myself for thinking so far in advance, for projecting the clichés of Time onto one so young, so blue and white, so curiouser. I have done her a disservice. I have predicted her End so close to her Beginning. I should wait, I should wait and see. I might be surprised. I hope to be surprised.

But it is too late now: I have thought too much, I have over-Cheshired my brief moment with her, and I continue to complete my vanishing act:

first my flesh,
then my markings,
next my eyes,
and last
my grin.

My grin lingers, unsupported, a crescent moon that illuminates nothing but reflects the brilliance it receives. And I have indeed been dazzled by this girl, this stranger, this anomaly, this accident, this temptation, this promise, this home.

*   *   *

And I note, with a pang of longing, that she has remained in her place, watching me vanish, neither a smile nor a frown on her face, just watching me go, indifferent now that I’ve obeyed her command, waiting, politely, until every bit of me is gone so she may go about her business, down a different path, another dark hole, following the next the dream and the next and the next and the next.

*   *   *

And my grin is gone.