A potential catastrophe — the kitten strangling to death in the tassels of the afghan — pales beside what happens years after the near-strangulation when Margaret trips over the same now-grown cat.
The cat’s vocal cords were damaged by a respiratory infection in kittenhood. Without her hearing aid, Margaret does not notice the breathy chirrup that passes for his meow. Without her glasses, she cannot see the wraith swirling at her feet.
Margaret falters like a fledgling at the stairhead. She wears a robe chafed so thin it reveals the folds of flesh at her elbows. The belt is cinched near her breasts, which, like south-loving birds who travel in one direction only, migrate lower each year. Her mind tells her hand to reach for the banister. In earlier days this might have saved her. Now the impulse slows to a wavering thrust that prevents her hand from grasping anything but air.
Her mind takes a lazy spin as her body spreads and then contracts. What parades through Margaret’s thoughts are not her dead husband or faraway sons but the three successive felines who turned her from a dog person to a cat person.
Her friend Donna, a Francophile, named the first — Frenchie — and passed him on to Margaret when she moved.
“They don’t take cats,” Donna said, the way she might have said, “They don’t take credit cards.”
“But Timber — ” Margaret began, referring to her German Shepherd.
Donna waved her hand with the assurance of a Parisienne.
Frenchie survived another eighteen years, unburdened by the absurdity of his name, outliving both Timber and Timber’s replacement.
Frenchie had never encountered this particular set of stairs; Margaret and James moved into the house only after the boys were grown and Frenchie was dead. A hundred times each day, Margaret had traveled up and down the stairs when James was sick. Plates and medications went up. Soiled sheets and the letters James wrote came down. The letters ceased when the tumor embraced the optic nerve.
Finally, their son Trevor said, “Let’s move Dad into the guest room and I’ll stay upstairs. It’s easier for me to walk up when I visit than for you to do it every day.”
Trevor the younger, the practical, the dutiful. Was it ever so? All children mold themselves into their expected forms.
After James, Margaret moved back upstairs and didn’t miss having a dog. But she missed the presence of another heart beating within the walls of the house — even a heart the size of a plum.
Having begun life with dogs — who learn the sounds of the syllables with which they are called and reprimanded — Margaret never thought to change the names of the cats who came to her. Buttercup, an abandoned purebred Burmese, arrived from the shelter already in her dotage and lasted only two years.
The cat in question, the third and final, precipitator of the misstep, is, fittingly, all black. He came to her as Blackie, and Blackie he remains.
“I worry about you on those stairs, Ma,” Trevor said.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said.
They never tell you in which direction your life will flash before you — from beginning to end, or in reverse. Halfway down, Margaret is a young mother. James Junior and Trevor are driving her crazy, chasing Frenchie and pulling his tail. When it all becomes too much, Margaret puts herself in a time-out and sits in the bathroom on the closed toilet with Frenchie in her lap.
Backwards must be the direction because now she is marrying James; now, on their first date, she takes matters into her own hands and kisses him; now she moves into the inconceivable time that is like the present when he is not part of her life.
At the age of nine, Margaret fell from a horse. She takes the fall again now, a lithe girl with pale silk hair fanning as she descends, only a few feet, onto soft grass. She is shaken and bruised but without lasting injury. Her golden retriever runs to her across the field.
And before that? The film winds down; your mind cannot hold memories made before you have words.
The spindles of the banister look like trees along the roadside, making strobes of the shadows as she passes. These are straight stairs with no midway landing to catch her. The final resting place will be the hall in front of the door where Trevor will nearly stumble over the body. He will cry out and make a gate of his arm to keep his brother from entering behind him.
Plunging along with Margaret, Blackie squeaks.
Audrey Kalman has been writing professionally for more than 30 years and offers writing and editing services as a consultant. She currently serves as editor of the 4th edition of the “Fault Zone” anthology published by the SF/Peninsula Branch of the California Writers Club. Her 2011 novel Dance of Souls is available on Amazon. She blogs at audreykalman.wordpress.com and is at work on another novel, often with one or two cats on her lap.