Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All
by Evelyn Somers
“For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.”
from Jubilate Agno
Isaac Martin stopped on his way to his dad’s house to pick up the mail. It was his first trip back home to Covington in two months. Winter had slithered away after one last, limp snow, and the grass-tufted tarp of spring was being drawn greenly over the yards in one fluid, fast motion. School would end in three weeks. He had been living in a church homeless shelter in University City, singing in their praise band in exchange for his lodging, and trying to complete his classes remotely, ever since he’d gotten arrested and thrown in jail (first) and kicked off campus (later) for an absurd dorm dispute with a fellow music major, a psycho Maltese percussionist named Den. In the end, the prosecutor said the arrest was ridiculous, and there had been no charges, but Big State U had not welcomed Isaac back. They’d sealed his future with a bogus investigation, and now he was trying to figure out what to do. He felt terrible for losing all his scholarships and ruining his future; though he still didn’t know what he’d done wrong. His sister, Jasmyn, said it was all about money and influence; but it was not just that, and they each knew it. They’d known it since he was nine and Jasmyn was fifteen. Something was right on them, tearing up their family. It wasn’t just him it was after. It was Jasmyn, and his dad. And most tragically, their mother, Adrianna. It had started when she was killed nine years ago. When his dad took to building his barricade and hoarding cats. Sometimes it seemed like only the band teacher, Mr. Wright, was on their side. But whenever Isaac thought this, he remembered St. Tamzin and imagined she was their side, too. Tamzin: a celestial agent of sometimes quixotic benevolence who seemed to reside mainly in and around Covington. Everyone knew about her, and some people called her “St. Tamzin,” though she wasn’t a real saint. No one was quite sure what she was. In fact, most people weren’t sure she existed, but they were afraid to disavow belief and lose her goodwill. Her arch-enemy, from the dawn of time—or, at least, from way, way back—was a she-devil evil bitch-spirit named Mary Black. Mary Black was the “something” that had been tearing up the Martins for years.
The mailbox was an antique cast-iron Victorian postbox that Randall, Isaac’s father, a scrapper by trade, had liberated from a condemned old mansion. The ornate box had a decorative medallion that looked like two lions facing each other, stirring kettle of apple butter. It was mounted on a pressure-treated pine post set out at the end of the driveway. The letter carrier couldn’t get to the Martins’ door because of Randall’s scrap blockade: a barrier of metal bits and appliances that he had picked up and hauled here. Stuff he could have made money off of, if he’d sold it instead of building the blockade. But no one would want the scrap now, and no one tried to steal it, because the cats had coated it with their spray.
Isaac had to juggle his pack and his trombone to get the mail. There was nothing that looked important in the box: a postcard advertisement for high-speed Internet. Then he saw that there was a real postcard stuck to the ad. Isaac had to peel the two cards apart. He gasped when he looked at the second card, the real one. It was addressed to his mother: “Adrianna Martin, Blue House, Pink Elephant Lane, Covington.” No house number. Pink Elephant was an actual road. There was not a blue house there that Isaac could think of, however, and his mother had never to his knowledge lived on Pink Elephant, though she had died there. Who the hell would play such a creepy joke?
But the stranger and creepier thing about the postcard was that his mother’s name and the first address had been crossed out, and above them was written, “No such person anymore.” Then underneath, the new direction, which was to “Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin.” It was the Martins’ street address. There could be no mistake. Yet something about the writing: it was totally readable, but Isaac had not seen writing quite like it anywhere. Just looking at it made his skin prickle. Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin
Mr. Whiskers was his father’s favorite cat.
The picture on the postcard, from the Roman catacombs (cat a combs?), was creepy too: a mountain of skulls in a dank, rock-lined subterranean chamber. The handwritten message, in fine-point marker in the same unusual writing, was on the front, across the photo of the skulls, not on the back, where it should be. It read “To My Darling Mr. Whiskers: ‘What you are now, we once were. What WE are now, YOU will be.’” As if the skulls themselves were speaking. It was signed “Your friend, counselor, and eternal lover,” with eternal darkly underlined.
Isaac read this again with a sensation he’d become very familiar with lately: a sensation that hovered between anger and disbelief. A creepy, anonymous postcard dredging up his mother’s death and threatening the cat? It was the last straw. One of many, since his arrest in February. Jasmyn said that depression was when everything felt like the last straw and your anger never left, just traded places with sadness, back and forth. He had never been depressed before, but she was exactly right. For a girl with only a high school diploma, whose main claim to notice was her breasts, she could startle them all with her wisdom. She’d inherited some of that from their mother, who’d been poor but country smart. The rest had come when she’d gone up on a pillar on the Big State U campus for weeks and become a pillar saint, denying her earthly self so Isaac could receive justice (it hadn’t worked).
He pushed his backpack up on his shoulder and headed for the scrap blockade. Randall had erected the scrap blockade just over onto the county side of their property so the city could not fine them. The blockade guarded the house, such as it was, and the Martins’ possessions, which amounted to nothing. And the cats, numbering a steady fifty. Their census should have waxed and waned: coyotes lurked in the brush, waiting to pick off the old ones. Hawks and owls wheeled above, peering down with accute raptor vision and waiting with infinite patience for the plump kitten that strayed too far from the clowder. Yet no cat was taken. They were not immortal entirely—the old ones died eventually of natural causes, and there were the usual fatal accidents and diseases—but some invisible entity guarded them from predators, at least.
You could cross the scrap line anywhere, but in and around the array of dead dishwashers and piles of old aluminum downspouts and barn roofing were lengths of two-by pried off old houses and barns, nails still poking through, ready to stab a foot. Isaac didn’t chance it. The “gate,” which sat between a heap of guttering to the rear and an overturned washer body in front, was a 1977 blue soft-top Chevy Nova on blocks. He opened the passenger door and got in. There was a terrible, gagging stench. It wasn’t cat pee—it was much worse. He scooted quickly across the seat to the driver’s side to get away from the stench and got out into the piss-smelling yard. That smell, the pee, he could tolerate.
Randall had left several days’ mail on the car’s dash, so Isaac grabbed it as he scooted and added it to the postcards. Before closing the door quickly, to seal in the unbearable odor, he leaned in and gave the horn three quick toots and was immediately swarmed by cats. Tabbies and piebalds and calicos and tortiseshells: they acted starved, though they just wanted attention. Soon more came: a mewling, leg-rubbing sea. When they saw where he was going, they set up a raucous meowing and followed him as he crossed the dirt yard. On the porch, in an old Shop-Vac drum—just the drum, no motor or or hose—a half-grown gray kitten peered over the rim to watch the tide of cats moving toward the porch. Next to the vacuum drum was a white wicker rocker with four cats piled asleep in the seat. They woke and cried drowsily at Isaac. The cats pooled and parted around him at the steps, trained to stay outside. He went up the steps, pushed gently on the front door, and found it unlatched.
Inside, Randall was standing in the middle of the living room eating Wheat Chex. Isaac was accustomed now to community meals at the shelter. He’d forgotten Randall’s solitary art of eating, another habit that had developed after Adrianna died: Gaze into space with a hollow stare. Hum and gulp and commune with the soul of . . . what? He was somewhere else; that was all Isaac knew. Like he was hearing a voice no one could hear but him. Not that they didn’t all sometimes hear voices. It seemed to be congenital among the Martins. Perhaps that was why Tamzin always hovered so near: they needed protection from the bad ones.
The cereal bowl was cracked and chipped. Some milk leaked from the corner of Randall’s mouth, a thick, ivory droplet. Evaporated milk from the food pantry. Randall poured it on the cereal without reconstituting it. Isaac had grown up with this. He used to think it was cream. Randall put it on noodles, too.
“You’re dribbling, Dad,” said Isaac. “And that bowl needs to be thrown away.”
“It’s fine. My dribbling—it’s fine, too. No worse than your trombone spit,” said Randall. He didn’t smile or greet Isaac, even though they hadn’t seen each other in months. He just hummed and finished the Wheat Chex. Then he set the cracked bowl on the coffee table, which was half a door from an old schoolhouse on iron hairpin legs. The knob was still on the door, and Randall used it as a cap holder.
“Why the bone?” he said, nodding at the trombone case.
“I have to practice. And I didn’t want to leave it.”
“Didn’t they kick you out of that place?”
“Yes. No. Not until May. I get to finish the semester. Jasmyn says they won’t risk a lawsuit by expelling me. She says they’ve perfected the art of the legally unimpeachable screw. The lawyer says so, too. Where’s Mr. Whiskers? There’s a postcard for him.”
“Don’t shit me.”
“And something from the vet clinic.”
“It’s his path-ology,” said Randall. “Why do you think I left it in the Nova? I’d rather not know he has cancer.”
Just then, Mr. Whiskers padded into the room, tail thrashing. They’d had him since his kittenhood, when Randall had found him, malnourished and near death, curled up hiding in the engine of an old wreck he was hauling. In the months before she died, Adrianna had fed him formula and brought him back. Later he’d lived mostly outdoors, until Randall had singled him out as a companion when Adrianna died. It was Mr. Whiskers who’d started the outdoor cats pissing on the scrap blockade, and the other cats kept doing it after he moved inside.
He was a truly handsome animal: a gray tuxedo cat, with four white paws, a white “shirtfront,” and a dashing white half-mustache above his mouth. The rest was a deep charcoal. He groomed religiously, and his short, sleek fur was thick and shining. His eyes were full-on green, and he had unusually long white whiskers (the occasion for his name) and eyebrows. His face and nose were long and noble. He wore a perpetual frown and would not tolerate fools or other cats; thus he was the only cat allowed inside. He walked with a sassy strut, and though he had been neutered, his ballsack remained prominent. Nevertheless, he had the dignity of a creature who has traded copulating in the bushes for higher pursuits. His tail and eyes were insanely expressive. The former twitched and switched like a whip; you always knew Mr. Whiskers was feeling deeply when the tail went into action. The eyes were almost human. When he was annoyed, they grew dark and unforgiving. When he was hungry or wanted attention, he stood on his hind legs, paws on your knee supporting him at full stretch, and gazed up into your face, commanding and imploring you. He was like a person in a cat body. In Randall’s estimation, he was the smartest cat ever made.
He was also a biter. Right now, seeing Isaac, he gave a high, wicked meow, flew at Isaac, and bit his ankle.
“Ow!” yelled Isaac and swatted him away.
Isaac had never taken to Mr. Whiskers. For a cat, he was full of dislikes and far too quick to bite, but he had to admit that Mr. Whiskers was very, very smart and loaded with personality. For a cat.
“He looks like he’s gotten thinner, Dad.”
“I been feeding him wet food and lard. He loves his lard. But I knew something was wrong, so Jasmyn took him last week.”
“Do you want me to open this?” said Isaac, pulling out the letter from the clinic.
“In a minute. What’s that postcard?”
Isaac showed him. Randall read it without his cheaters. His eyes were good for a man in his late fifties. For just a second he looked destroyed, and his face crumpled. Isaac wondered if he would cry. He’d never seen Randall cry. “I don’t understand why everything got turned so bad and why—”
“What?” said Isaac.
“Never mind,” said Randall. He took the envelope from Isaac and opened it and skimmed the pathology report. He looked down at Mr. Whiskers, who was lying flat on his side on the rug. “He’s been lying like that lately. I think he has a tumor in his belly.”
He showed the report to Isaac. Isaac read the dread word: Lymphoma. They had the cat’s name misspelled, and all through the report the pathologist referred to “Mr. Whiskey.” Mr. Whiskey presented with lethargy, shifting lameness, and reduced appetite. On physical exam Mr. Whiskey had enlarged peripheral lymph nodes (under the jaw, and by the hamstrings). CBC revealed increased WBC count (36,000 ref. range 5,500-19,500), mature neutrophilia and moderate lymphocytosis. Abdominal ultrasound of Mr. Whiskey shows many enlarged mesenteric lymph nodes throughout abdomen…
Jasmyn had had $4200 saved from her job at the nursing home for a Ford Escape, but she’d used most of it to pay for Isaac’s lawyer, and there were several weeks of lost wages from going up on the pillar to be a saint. And now Mr. Whiskers needed vet care, and she’d end up paying for it. But she didn’t say anything. She took Isaac back to the shelter the following Monday so he could focus on his homework and meet his teachers for lessons and his accompanist to rehearse. Before she dropped him off, they went together to the vet with Mr. Whiskers. Randall would not come. The vet had him down as “Mr. Whiskey” in the chart. “We have pretty good results with steroids. Mr. Whiskey would probably have another six months if we do that. With chemo, you’ll have maybe a year and a half,” said the vet. Steroids were $20 for three months. Chemo would cost more than the lawyer, and the cat would have to come back for treatments every week. It was a no-brainer, but Isaac felt sad. The sadness had traded places with anger. If Randall were there, he might have figured a way to barter for the chemo, but Jasmyn, who possessed many skills, lacked that touch.
“We’ll try the steroids,” said Jasmyn, and they were given a pill bottle. The tech had referenced the pathology report while writing the script; or maybe the vet clinic had him in the system wrong, and the bottle label, like the report, said “Mr. Whiskey.”
When Jasmyn pulled into the church lot to drop Isaac off, he asked if she wanted to come in and see his bunk.
“I don’t think so, Icey. I’m so mad about this every day of my life. You’re so smart and good; you’re just different, and no one gets it. I wish Mom were here.
“Does she ever talk to you?” said Isaac. He’d wondered more than once if Jasmyn had seen her when she went up on the pillar and denied herself.
“Does she talk to you?” Jasmyn asked quickly.
“You’re the one who stood on a pillar for weeks and hardly ate anything. You didn’t hear any voices?”
They’d both forgotten about Mr. Whiskers, in his Pet Taxi in the backseat, but now he mewed demandingly.
Jasmyn said, “I heard things. It’s not what you think up there. I can’t tell you about it.
“I just can’t. It was pretty rough.”
He went back home the next weekend to check on his dad. Mr. Whiskers looked thinner, but that didn’t make him any happier to see Isaac or the trombone. He streaked away when Isaac came in the front door.
But then, a few minutes later, he was hanging outside the living room doorway, waiting to ambush whoever stepped through. Eventually he gave up the ambush and simply strutted in, emitted his spine-tingling apha cat yodel, and bit Isaac’s shoe.
Randall didn’t say much, but he seemed hopeful. The veterinary supply company in the next county that sold him all the vaccine for the cats (in a hauling-for-meds barter, of which Isaac only knew the vague outlines) had given him a case of high-calorie gel. It came in tubes and smelled and looked like sticky fish toothpaste. Mr. Whiskers tried to run away from it, but once you forced him to confront a spoonful of the translucent, tobacco-colored gel, he was mesmerized and compelled by some irresistible quality of the gel to lick, lick, until he cleaned the spoon. Then he worked the stuff around in his mouth like a baby eating a ball of caramel.
“They say it’s a miracle paste,” said Randall. “If he gets fat again, I’ll believe them. It makes him hungrier, anyway. I doubled his lard, and he hasn’t puked it up.”
While Isaac was home, he borrowed Jasmyn’s car and drove out to the high school so Mr. Wright could listen to the pieces he was preparing for juries next week. Mr. Wright looked like he always did. He was balder, and he was growing a spotty beard. He was closer to forty than thirty now, and his wife, Ms. Figueroa, the former assistant band teacher, had just had a baby. First he hugged Isaac. Then he showed him a secondhand tuba in good condition that the band had bought recently. Isaac tried out the tuba. Then Mr. Wright showed him a picture of the baby—a red-haired girl named Veronica. He sang part of the Elvis Costello song about shouting and stealing clothes and the Empress of India. He acted like he always did, which made Isaac want to cry.
“All right, let’s hear you play,” he said, and Isaac got out his trombone and played the two pieces he was preparing, and a third, something he’d been messing around with.
“Wait. What is that? Did you write that?” said Mr. Wright.
“Yes. It’s only a little part. I think it’s going to be a symphony.”
“Man,” said Mr. Wright. “Look at you. Someone knocks you down, and you just get up and compose yourself.”
Isaac looked at him. “Did you really just say that?”
They both started laughing, and they were still laughing when one of the senior clarinets came in with a sack of belated Easter candy and offered them Peeps. Isaac grabbed one and ate it. He felt joy. This was joy. It was like things had always been here, in the band room, where he could imagine that something awful wasn’t eating their family. Isaac whooped and took another Peep and devoured it headfirst, little dot eyes and all, and Mr. Wright, smiling still, delighted to have him back, said, “What did she used to say? Roach-turd eyes?”
Isaac froze in mid chew.
Mr. Wright backpedaled. “I know someone who used to call them that. One of my cousins.”
He was lying. He’d meant Isaac’s mother, and there was no reason he would know what Adrianna used to say about Peeps unless they had spent time together privately, laughed together like he and Mr. Wright had just been doing. His mother was thirty-three when she died, and Jasmyn was fifteen. His dad was a fifty-year-old scrapper who even then was poor and not entirely on the planet. Mr. Wright was twenty-six and single. Isaac realized he had known about his mother and Mr. Wright without knowing. He remembered that Mr. Wright had been nice to him long before he was Isaac’s teacher. He had come to her funeral, and Isaac hadn’t wondered why. He was nine then. He didn’t think about why adults did anything: Mr. Wright had been Jasmyn’s band teacher at the time; it seemed to be reason enough.
Back at the church homeless shelter, he started a list of questions in one of his small notebooks that he used to organize his life and make sense of things. He kept the list with him when he was doing homework and wrote things down as they came to him:
Who sent the postcard to Mr. Whiskers?
Why did Den the psycho Maltese percussionist lie about me?
Was there ever a blue house on Pink Elephant?
Did my mother love Mr. Wright?
He finished his music history paper on the Ukrainian dumy, a kind of oral folk epic that in centuries past was performed by men who were disabled, or who apprenticed out as teenagers from poor families who couldn’t afford to help them. Isaac could relate. He went home again the next weekend. Five days until juries. His notebook was in his trombone case. Home felt different now that he knew he was probably never coming back to stay.
When he went through the Chevy gate and tooted the horn, the pee smell flooded his nostrils and cats swarmed him as they always did. It was feeding time, , and they flew away at a gallop when Randall came out on the porch with the food bucket. He walked around the side of the house to the retaining wall and poured a continuous string of cat chow along the top of the wall. The cats ran to it and lined up and ate; tails high, tails low. Fifty of them. So many that you could hear them crunching and purring from yards away.
His father saw him but didn’t wave. Isaac followed him inside and set his ’bone in the hallway. Mr. Whiskers sashayed toward him with a hint of unsteadiness. He was, in just a week, starting to look more like a Flat Stanley cat. Randall had gone in the kitchen, and he came back with a plate of tuna, biscuit crumbles, and lard. He sat and petted Mr. Whiskers in the hall while the cat ate. His callused scrapper hands were large and clumsy, stroking the cat’s side. Every one of the cat’s ribs showed, where his hands pressed the fur. Randall was talking softly. At first Isaac couldn’t catch what he was saying, it was so soft. But then he got used to the cadence, and his ears picked it up “You are the greatest of all. The greatest cat. Mr. Whiskers, you are the greatest of all. There will never be another cat as great as you.”
How could the father he knew be talking to a cat this way, crooning in its ear? The big hands ran over the thin ribs; and when Mr. Whiskers turned away, leaving the food only half finished, Randall picked him up as if he were made of fine blown glass. Mr. Whiskers put his face up to Randall’s and nuzzled him again and again. Randall crooned and Mr. Whiskers nuzzled. Neither of them acknowledged Isaac’s presence. It was love.
Quietly Isaac unlatched the case and slipped out the notebook and added My dad loves Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All, but he’s going to die to his notes.
Then his juries were over. They went as well as they could, given that he was depressed and technically homeless. He got all A’s. He didn’t think any of them were out of pity. His affiliation with Big State U was ended forever, and the future was muddy and clod-filled as a newly plowed field after a soaking rain. He could go home to Covington, help Randall pick up scrap. He could work at the bottle factory. He could finish his symphony, but what then? Who would perform it? He had no mentor to connect him with composing connections, no program to support him. Maybe he could start giving music lessons; but he wasn’t sure who would take them. He was not good with kids and had trouble talking to people; he made them uncomfortable. He was not antisocial; he just always felt how much he was out of place. He was not Mr. Wright, who everyone loved.
He decided to stay at the church homeless shelter for a while. There was no time limit for how long he could stay, so long as he helped with the music, and it was depressing to go home and see Mr. Whiskers wasting away. Each time, he was thinner, but Randall was in denial, munching cereal or noodles with Pet milk, humming his communion with the unseen whatever, nuzzling the paper-thin cat and saying that he was looking better, when the cat’s eye had begun to weep and he’d taken to pissing wherever he wanted, all over the house. Mr. Whiskers’s white shirtfront was getting dingy, and he slept twenty-three hours a day and then staggered up and picked at the tuna and lard; he wooled the fishy gel around in his mouth and smacked his gums sadly. His eyes were no less human, though, and you could see that he wanted to be himself and was trying to; his tumor-ridden body just wasn’t cooperating with his desire.
One night after Jasmyn took Isaac back to the shelter and he was lying in his bed, he started thinking about Adrianna and Mr. Wright and his father and the affair that must have happened when he was in second or third grade. He sat up and grabbed his notebook and wrote: All the adults I know have hidden pasts and secret selves, even the ones who are dead. Then he realized that he was an adult, too. My secret self is right here, he wrote. Meaning the notebook, but it was in his symphony, too.
Later that week, in Wednesday night worship at the church, they were singing a song that Isaac did not like because the lyrics were so overblown yet dirgelike. Isaac suddenly couldn’t stand to sing anymore. He kept seeing the cat’s human eyes, looking at him, pleading, in silent cat language, “I don’t want to feel like this. I want to strut around and bite you and be king of the cats, the Greatest of All. Please make this stop happening to me.”
He stopped singing. It took a while for people to notice. They kept on, the pastor playing lead guitar, the worshipers, some of them genuine homeless, all singing, and the other vocalists doing the harmonies, so into it that Isaac’s ceasing went unobserved. And now Isaac could hear another voice, inaudible to everyone but him. It gave him a terrible chill and made him think about the creepy postcard addressed to Mr. Whiskers. And about what Jasmyn had said: that she’d heard things on the pillar that she couldn’t talk about.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
I will harm them, yes I will:
I’ll make them suffer, all.
Each little flow’r that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
I’ll ‘viscerate their colors,
and rip their tiny wings.
Who are you? Isaac thought; and in answer he heard, like an intruder in his mind, Ask your friend Mr. Whiskey. Ask your dead mommy. Ask your sister with the big tits. She thinks she figured me out up on that pillar and has me defeated, but she’ll be sorry. Ask Mr. Wright. Ask his sweet little baby Veronica. Ta-ta, Isaac! We’ll meet again, don’t worry.
The next morning he told everyone at the homeless shelter that he had to go home, his father needed him. He called Jasmyn, and she came and picked him up in a 2014 Escape.
“How did you get this?” he asked.
“How else? Dad,” she said. “He made some kind of deal for the down payment, and I can manage the rest.”
“What did he have left to trade?”
“Cats?” said Jasmyn.
They both laughed. But then Isaac had to tell her why he was coming home, and what he’d heard, the shrill singing that had chilled his blood. To her credit, Jasmyn believed him. “It’s Mary Black,” she said.
“I’ve got to warn Mr. Wright to watch his baby.”
But she just changed the subject. This frightened him because she must not understand how serious it was. She turned up the radio and would not say anything until they hit Covington. She took the long way around from the highway, and down Pink Elephant—and there was a blue house. It had been there all along; it was back from the road, amid a snarl of trees.
“Did you ever notice that house?” he said, pointing it out to Jasmyn.
“That’s where Mom died,” she said, and Isaac was silent after that.
They stopped at the back gate of the scrap line—it went all around their property on the county side. Isaac got out and opened it, and Jasmyn drove in, and he pushed it shut and wired it—it was a steel panel of barn roofing fastened on either side with a web of wire. It smelled redolently—the cats had even peed here.
Once the gate was secured and Isaac got back in, she turned to him. “Mary Black can’t get through the scrap line. She can’t hear us now, either. I don’t know why. I don’t think Dad even knows that’s why he built it. Maybe Saint Tamzin was talking to him, the way Mary Black was singing to you. Anyway, don’t tell Mr. Wright the thing about his baby, Icey. I’ve got this. But you can’t tell him.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just don’t. Don’t. Trust me. His baby is okay. You asked me what happened on top of the pillar. Stuff happened. But I can’t tell you. Just trust me. I’ve got this.”
“What are you talking about?” he repeated. “What do you have?”
“Icey, I’ve just got this. Don’t ask me anything else. I can’t help Mr. Whiskers because Mary Black was after Dad, and she knew it would devastate him if the cat got sick and died. And maybe cats don’t count because they don’t have souls or something. But you and I have some protection, as long as we come back here every once in a while. There’s something here, inside the blockade that stops her. As long as we touch the ground here every so often, it seems like we take enough of it with us to keep her away.”
“Mr. Whiskey doesn’t have a soul?”
“I don’t know. He’s a cat.” Jasmyn obviously wasn’t interested in the question; she seemed more concerned about making sure Isaac wouldn’t talk to Mr. Wright. So he said he understood, which he did, up to a point.
But he avoided promising, and she didn’t notice.
Jasmyn was living in a duplex with two roommates and trying to save money, but going up on the pillar had changed her, and sometimes she showed up at Randall’s house for no reason and stayed for as much as a week. Isaac was staying there for the short term, singing for funerals at a hundred dollars a pop and practicing trombone and working on the symphony as much as he could. Mr. Wright had helped him start looking into other schools and said he shouldn’t worry about money yet; just see how things went. He decided to sit out a year and take some classes at the community college. He was delivering for Pizza Casa, using Jasmyn’s old car.
They’d all underestimated how long and valiantly a cat with lymphoma could live, how much of him could waste away and he would still be Mr. Whiskers. Randall built plywood steps to everything: even to the sink so the cat could nose around and lick the dishes if he felt like it (he didn’t). Six months passed, and he was still kicking. Then eight, then ten. Every morning when Isaac got up and came out of his room, Mr. Whiskers carefully climbed down the plywood steps from Randall’s bed and scratched at the bedroom door, and Isaac let him into the hall and he ran downstairs, white hocks flashing. How could he even run? There was nothing left. Then Isaac took him in the kitchen and got an energy drink for himself and plied Mr. Whiskers with bits of bacon, salami, butter, mayonnaise: a fatty smorgasbord. The cat would dig in for a few bites, then lose interest and wobble away. If you’d had x-ray vision, you would know that Mr. Whiskers’s bony pelvic girdle was shaped like a fearsome horned mask with two wide, rounded eyes set low, and a vast forehead below the horns. In the center of this massive forehead of bone were two perforations: a pair of angels or winged demons facing each other, bowed in prayer or secret powow. From behind, when Mr. Whiskers walked disdainfully away from his food, these same large bones of his hips jutted side to side in a way that made him look like a stately ship. He wore his imminent death with dignity; but his eyes still held that plea.
The morning came when Isaac got up and let Mr. Whiskers out and he ran with a staggering trot downstairs and would not touch his food at all. “Did you give him his pill last night?” Isaac asked, after Randall came in from feeding the cats and checking the scrap blockade.
Randall nodded distractedly. Someone had left a message on his cell about a refrigerator, and he was trying to figure out who it was.
“He wouldn’t eat at all, Dad,” said Isaac.
Randall shook his head and wouldn’t talk about it. Soon he went off to get the fridge. Isaac went out on the porch and warmed up his voice. All the cats disliked hearing him sing, and they acted out by sauntering over to the blockade and spraying. Then he heard the clang of the barn sheeting being moved around, and soon Jasmyn, who had worked night shift, drove up. He told her about the cat, and they went in and found him lying on the piano bench, sleeping in a way that was new in the last few days: a sleep of resignation and escape, in which he seemed to be pulling away from everything, but especially the pain of his tumors, which must have turned a corner in intensity.
“Poor Mr. Whiskers,” said Jasmyn. “We don’t let them go through this at the nursing home; we just pump morphine into them,” she told Isaac.
She stayed around while Isaac went and did the lunch shift at the Pizza Casa. When he came back, Randall was home. He was sitting in the front room with Jasmyn.
“We set a date,” Jasmyn told Isaac. “It’s next Wednesday.”
That was four days away. Isaac didn’t ask how Jasmyn had made this happen. “Are you going with him?” he asked his father.
“I can’t. Your sister will take him. She says he’s suffering and that we can’t watch him starve to death.” Randall picked up the cat and carried him out.
“Which do you think she wants more? For him to suffer? Or to die?” Isaac asked his sister. They both knew he meant Mary Black.
“I hope I’m right,” she said. “Because if I’m not, and it’s death . . .”
“Will he go to heaven?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mom won’t recognize him. The last time she saw him, he was a kitten,” said Isaac.
“Icey, it’s not actually like that. But it is kind of. I didn’t understand everything I saw on the pillar.”
She added, “I didn’t see Mom.”
The last day of Mr. Whiskers’ life, he woke and his bones ached, and the tumors in his throat and stomach gave him excruciating pain if he swallowed and made it impossible to eat without everything burning inside him.
But later the pain lessened. He nuzzled Randall, and for the first time in a while, it didn’t hurt when he was picked up and carried. He had always loved being carried. It was still winter, technically, but the day had turned out to be springlike. The boy who sometimes made a racket with the horn went off and came home smelling like pizza, and it woke his appetite for a second, and he ate some ham, and a few bits of salmon. Then the girl came, who smelled like her mother who’d fed him when he was a baby, and he knew what was going to happen. Tamzin, who watched over all the cats and fought the raptors away, and the dogs and coyotes, had whispered the knowledge into him. “Mr. Whiskers, I made you and now I am unmaking you. Seed to cat, to corse to earth.” He was going to the mother. The mother of the girl, but also the Mother of all.
The boy and the girl and Randall, whom he loved with the greatest love of any cat for any man ever, took him outside. He didn’t know why, but he was the greatest of all, and he had been placed in the engine of a car, where Randall had found him. He didn’t remember how he got there. Just that he was hungry and knew he was dying, but the man picked him up and carried him home, and he didn’t die. He was the first of many, many cats, and after the mother died, and the man started building his wall of metal, Tamzin had told him to piss on it. So he’d pissed and pissed, and taught the other cats to piss there, too. The more cats there were, the more they pissed on it. Mr. Whiskers had taught them, and they passed the knowledge from generation to generation, up to twelve generations (cat generations are short).
Outside now, he trotted a bit, listing to one side. He ate a piece of grass and looked into one of the window wells by the side of the house. The day was strange and new. He was weak, but Tamzin helped him explore.
The scrap blockade was a thing of beauty. Only he knew the secret. She could not abide cat piss. Not even the most imperceptible whiff of it, picked up on a shoe or a car tire, while crossing the barrier. They were safe here because the cats had sprayed the barrier, every last inch, and Mary Black would not cross a line of cat piss to hunt a man, though she had gotten to Mr. Whiskers long before, when he was still in the car engine, planting a little seed of death.
It was a long way, but he did his best to saunter to the nearest point. He walked past the pine tree that the woman had planted. Past a mole hill. (Why were the other cats not taking care of these moles?) Past a beetle coming to life in the warmth. He felt the instinct to chase it, but he was too weak.
He was tired when he got to the blockade. But determined.
Then he turned and backed up to it and sprayed with everything that was in him, to remind the others they had a job to do.
All the cats on the property, wherever they were, looked up.
“I’m the greatest of all,” he meowed to them.
The Pet Taxi was on the porch, but he disdained to look at it. He was looking at Randall, the man he loved. Will I know you when I see you again? he asked.
Randall was asking the same thing at the same time.
“What do you think? Of course you will!” called Tamzin (but she was just a spirit, so none of them heard), perceiving Mr. Whiskers’s meow and glancing down for a second from where she’d been swatting away a hawk with its eye on a thin gray cat that was walking, very slowly, back to the house.
Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review and teaches writing and literature. She also serves as a staff writer for Bloom. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, the Millions, Florida Review, Southwest Review, South Dakota Review, Shenandoah, the Collagist, and Potomac Review, among many others. Her work in progress is a novel-in-stories about music, magic, and two warring female divinities.