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Melissa Wiley

Is This Your Cat?

Of this alone I'm certain: I pulled a blade of grass out the anus of a feral cat when I was four years old. I compressed its spine into a seahorse tail as I watched the blade grow long. Grass that otherwise may have grown too tall from an aperture I'd rather not have known. Grass I wish to God someone else had plucked then left alone.

For years I tried to forget it. I developed an allergy to cats so I would no more breathe their oxygen. But the memory keeps coming back. I pulled a blade of grass from where it should have not grown from a cat as black as volcanic rock. Whether I caused the cat to live or die I hazard no inference.

I had taken something from the cat regardless. I stole its blade of grass, the first of what might have become a blanket of knives grown verdant. I asked the cat whether it would grow more, some I promised not to pluck. But it only mewed by way of response, as nonplussed as the sun inflicting blindness.

Why have I confessed this now? Why have I made anyone but myself stare into the anus of a cat as dark as this and looking so igneous? Because my anus is apt to grow grass of its own, I know without having felt any there yet. Because you need to know this too if you are to keep reading on.

George Eliot wrote, "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."

But I died of that roar a long time ago, Ms. Eliot, whom I love. Silence proved too thin a shield. It protected me not at all. But then my hymen broke before the doctor sliced my caul, which no one kept as a talisman.

Of this I'm only slightly less than certain: God spoke to me in the bathroom not long after I had done playing with cats forevermore. I had hidden in the hamper, because someone might come looking for me and I would rather not be known. And while my mother paced the house searching for her daughter lost, I heard a knock at my sternum, among the dirty underwear. Someone dwelling deep within my ribs then spoke, an oracle I didn't consult, saying only, "Listen to the voice inside you," as if I had an option. As if auguring that it would speak again and say something important.

But I have heard it only the once, and I can't have much living left—I must be more than halfway through by now. God spoke to me for nothing then, having nothing further to communicate. And so I have interpreted these few words to mean, "Listen to nothing but this voice, which says nothing at all, it seems." Meaning there is no need to heed anyone else, whatever they may dictate. Meaning too there's nothing wrong with some silence, correct? Even if it lasts until the end of all my days. Even if on its other side, within the anus rather than without it, the grass does roar now and then.

The world, however, is a chatty place, even if I ignore its colloquies. And I too must speak sometimes, if only not to seem rude or eccentric.

Inside the coffee shop where I visit once or twice a week, the barista asked me how I was. Not having an easy answer, not a "fine" or "fairly well," I only coughed instead. Then said we could dispense with formalities, could we not? That a smile of the eyes, a flicker of colorless light within our pupils' wells, should suffice for once.

But I sounded cross, even to myself, and wanted to retract my speech as soon as I had let it out. "I'm trying, though, not to kill myself," I also wanted to shout, by way of defense if for nothing else. This when I'm normally a fount of pleasantries sincerely meant. "But why? Why are you trying not to kill yourself? Why not simply living instead?" I would only provoke the barista to ask, should I have answered the truth. "Because I've made love to too few men, which is a death in itself."

Instead, he said he hated palaver as well but that it was the best that he could manage on so little sleep. "Me too," I said, fully rested, adding I'd get by on grunting if I only could. And so I grunted loud as a bear in heat, which amounted to more of a growl, one that made some patrons turn their heads and whip their ponytails. When the barista looked away toward a gewgaw of a plastic owl, begging me for silence with some sibilance. So I only grunted the more on my way out.

Then I walked with my coffee along the beach, in a summer with air so mild I had yet to break a sweat. To have any excuse to say to the barista, "My, how hot it is," and speak some truth for once.

I walked along a stretch of sidewalk smothered with young, hard sand, past a statue of feet with its ankles laced like a boot. Gray flaps of plaster meant for skin tapered into shoestrings as yet unknotted into bows. I watched teenagers clamber up the big toe when a man wearing a bandanna shouted at me from a distance, "You've got a strong and ladylike walk there, sister." I hardly knew what he meant, except that I had two legs with their ankles unlaced and was moving them forward apace. Because I am neither sure-footed nor ladylike, anyone would confirm. Because God no longer speaks to me unless I'm hiding in a hamper, buried in clothes with stains.

God should have his freedom, though. He should be free to kill himself, just like you or me. To flee the cats and the grass that grows from them and makes your eardrums quake. To have some silence for himself after grunting at the barista and making his way down the beach. To sigh his last and make no more pleasantries.

But a leaf of grass should no more grow out the anus of a cat than God should speak to me, hiding atop a tumulus of dirty laundry. He should know better than to knock here on this chest cavity, saying I need listen only to this voice that will never speak. But this is what happens in an unsanitary world, I think. Where God washes no clothes and largely leaves the hampers be.

Medieval hospitals made no separation between body and spirit. Typically they housed themselves in the nave of a Catholic church, which are none too clean. When some 19th-century woman wanted to change the linens, an ecclesiastical furor arose at the laundry bill. Countless people died early deaths as a direct result. Denied the luxury of topping themselves.

Why should someone to whom God has spoken from deep inside her ribs in the shape of a skep for honeybees want to end her life, sweet as it sometimes can be? Because I have only one impulse, and that is to say yes to the question that arises.

This I confessed last evening to a man sitting beside me on the train, after I gave a stumbling drunk some change then laughed when he stepped on my foot by way of thanks. Why hand a dollar to someone who will only take it to the liquor store? he asked, looking full into my face. To look into the eyes of he who smiled when I told him I had little choice, I thought but did not say, after telling him I said only yes to the question that comes with each new breath. He who asked me no further questions but who now knows their answer. He whom I'll never see again but easily could have kissed.

And when you ask yourself if you want to die—maybe before life gets any worse?—you say yes to that as well. You who has so long listened to none besides yourself.

My father once propped his rifle slack against a freezer glutted with toes, testicles, and snouts he got at the abattoir for cheap. So that my mother might drop them into a kidney stew if we ever grew sufficiently hungry. If we ever wanted to gnaw on some bone for a change, he sallied with a snort. But we never did become quite ravenous enough, so the toes and snouts contracted into blush prisms of ice, freezer burn swelling the nostrils and the fissures between the toes, while the testicles only contracted into smaller sperm minnows.

And while God hid inside the hamper, talking to no one but himself, a flail tomcat phallus engendered kittens with claws like tigers in the barn. A butterscotch tabby soon slashed a scar across my cheek that has never left it. Ablating a slice of skin just below my right eye after I'd pulled a certain blade of grass from a certain other cat's anus. But at least I was well fed. The scar I hardly notice.

And if I ate some shaved snouts here and there, in a stew needlessly thick, it wouldn't matter regardless. Because you are not what you eat. You are only what you refuse to swallow without biting it. The barrel of a gun for instance. The space through which the bullet flies, careening into a void so crowded, so you can no longer hear the moaning of the grass.

You're a woman alright, with a strong and ladylike walk as it may and may not be, but getting short on protein. Your bedroom window faces a convenience store sign advertising discount cigarettes. It casts a scarlet aureole always around your blinds, so when you sleep it's never quite dark enough, nothing close to the color of rock with magma in it. By way of reminder that love and death are the same color, you think. That everything real runs red beneath the surface.

The handles of the rifle and broom were the very same width. One cold, the other no temperature at all, I felt with deprivation. The rifle left the freezer's side only when my dad took aim at the pigeons. When the melody of the gunshots undulated across the roof of the barn with a rusting weather vane at its median. Sounding endless refrains of unmet desire, for what I couldn't fathom. But there was a ululation to it, I could hear even then. A fillip of the tongue in between explosions. Up and down, up and down they went, so that I wanted to keep living just to hear the rhythm. So I too might surrender to the gunshot and feel its fire within. Because death is, at bottom, an exciting thing. Always has been.

When I was older and wiser, when I turned eight or nine or ten, I wrote sideways on a piece of poster board, "Don't shoot the birds, Daddy!!!" with a pigeon with eyelashes curled like apostrophes within a bleeding heart I drew anatomically correct. Because I wanted hearts holding pigeons wearing mascara too to resemble freezer-burned sperm sacs. Because internal organs are not equally proportioned, any anatomy book will illustrate for you. And it's reality we're concerned with. Life and death, yes, but mostly the latter, agreed? The death of false symmetry, where one side matches another. Looks only half a thing.

And because I had only red marker that smeared, the whole poster bled, not just the heart detached from a body emptied of who knows whose ribs. Everything leaching vital fluids, the pigeon and the polemic with it. A smear smelling like gasoline just for intoxication. And with my hand and wrist stained just as red, because I never could write a word without writing on my skin.

But you can't shoot anything at close range without the blood splattering and staining your shirt and collar. And you can't, no matter how you try, draw a decent heart. Because ventricles and vena cavas are oddly shaped, and you're not convinced one heart really resembles another. Not sure how much accuracy matters in the end, because he never did stop shooting pigeons. Just tore the poster down when he got tired of it.

Because every ventricle is a different shade of blue, and each cava leads another direction from the rest, with only their drumbeat the same rhythm. A pulsation that makes red blood run blue when deprived of oxygen. So that when you peer down at your wrists' vascular filigree, it looks frozen.

But when the blood breaks from the skin, it is red and red alone. So that fifteen years later, long after you tried to save the pigeons but they just kept dropping, you wipe red wine from your lips it stains anyway while the lead singer croons. He sings about his cheating wife in a song called "After Midnight" because that's when she came home. Too far past bedtime not to have been in another bedroom. They had to work things through, he told you in between sets, but you're not convinced they should have done. Her hair is graying, her shoulders hunched, and you're not sure she's worth the effort. Sometimes things need to stop at good song material, you as good as hint, adding that the song of his you like best is "Whiskey and a Gun." That you can sublimate your wrongs into all the lyrics you want then do something different.

You sit closer to the stage next week, laughing so loud you almost bark when he says he has to drain the lizard then vanishes behind the curtain. Because you like lizards in a bathtub, staring from the faucet. And this is where you think you're headed, a co-ed bath, while your husband yawns on the next bar stool, wanting to make his exit. "Going Commando" is the last song, the refrain "Let my people go," which might as be about the pigeons or all the testicles you have never swallowed. Because his hair looks curly as a bed of soap bubbles and he has taken off his underwear and thrown it in the hamper, he's as good as sung to you. Because better to dirty the bath water together. Because you couldn't save the pigeons, but you still can save yourself.

Ten months ago, your mother was lowered in her casket wearing the pastel tweed suit she bought for your wedding, still with the sheen of an Easter egg at its hem and you personally thought too pale a shade. But your father following four months later, you begin to hope while the lizard is still draining itself of Pabst in a cataract in the toilet, just may convince the songwriter to take away your pain with the lizard you'd wash clean in a claw-foot tub if he'd only allow it. It's not a cheating wife, but it's as close as you can come without needing your own shotgun. And when he again takes the stage, he purls your name into the microphone. Like it's nine decadent syllables when it's actually only three short ones. Asking you to pass the tip jar, pretty woman.

You're wearing knee socks with flowering vines climbing up your calves like tapered urns beneath a skirt your mom bought for your senior year of high school, three years before your last growth spurt, when you shot four inches up. And you're standing under Wayne Newton's high-gloss headshot, when a man in a football jersey grabs your hand and spins you wide toward a hanging horseshoe and an ice cube slaps your cheek with the mole on it—some college girls with no long socks threw it from behind the jukebox. You slip but make a quick recovery, laughing like you'd planned it. The lead singer twitches his eyebrows but sees you smile and purrs, "Hey, look at those socks!" but only eyes your cleavage.

A few ice cubes more and you'd start to skate, you are all but certain.

But this is no skating rink. Just a bar with a scalloped stage blaring songs about suicide you're not supposed to take to heart but do anyway, because yours is oddly shaped. Shapeless as a testicle you may have eaten in a stew when you were too young to know the difference.

Next week is colder, so you don't wear knee socks. Just jeans and a V-neck sweater pointing like an arrow between your breasts. Within the hour, the sweater is stained with a trickle of vomit in the bathroom without any soap left. You puke through the last two sets while watching ants assemble on the floor of your stall. There's too much acid in your stomach from too many aspirin swallowed the night before, when you meant to die a puff of spent spores in a yellow nightgown with purple-tulip pockets. You'd plucked your eyebrows and worn a lacquer of lilac lip gloss to bed, to look passably pretty when you didn't wake next morning at seven. With no more chance of turning triple axels once enough ice had landed near Wayne Newton's head. Mounting a leap of pure desire beneath the grill-cloth speakers into the lead singer's arms.

Only you can't hear the music above the tinnitus while you unload more bile into a toilet you sometimes miss, painting it yellow as a crayon sun's corona. Missing your chance to look up from your wine glass amid your favorite song and say you'd pull the trigger too, there from your folding chair if you had to. To remind this man you hardly know you're bracing yourself for the great red splash to come sometime soon. That together you could be as crimson as twin heart halves could be, however uneven.

Your husband wanted to call an ambulance or at least your sister, but you just spouted shrill causeries on favorite authors. No hospital and no sister, you pleaded, just a permanent drilling in your ears you're not going to mention because no one else can hear it. This time you won't laugh at the lizard, but you'll cry to "Whiskey and a Gun." Because you don't have either one.

When you walk back to your table, after the lead singer's guitar is sealed inside its case of leather, he sits across from you and says he's done playing that song for good. People have begun to sing along, and he wants to sing without a chorus. He has also lost his cat, he grouses, black as rock from a volcano about to blow up, who kept him company while his wife slept with other fellas. You nod and say you understand, though you really don't. Though the bile is lurching high inside your throat, so you have to swallow and keep silent, just nod and nod some more. So you can't say yes when he asks if you have seen a black cat liking to hide deep among the vegetables, with eyes like tiny headlights among the asparagus arrows. So you only grunt instead, which he mistakes for no. Sounding more like a roar on silence's other side while your ears ring on.

I am still alive, with very little to do other than wait for the grass to grow. Out my rear end, if it has to. And there is only one question left to ask I want to know the answer to: Did the cat mistake me for God? Thinking I was the one who had planted the blade and so only I could pull it out? Thinking I was better than I was, a deity no doubt? Because only God would probe the anus of an animal that grows its own jungle.

Whatever the cat thought, I am nearly certain of this: If the cat answered yes, then the cat was correct. Because only God would be so cruel. Only God would pull the only blade of grass from a cat as black as lava cooled. Because only I would say yes when asked, "Is this your cat?" And only God would stay silent.

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