Cat Tales

Even after forty-three years of marriage, I am still astounded by Sara’s ability to make herself small when she is startled. She pulls her legs up under her, wraps her arms around them, tucks her head down, and hunches her shoulders. I can almost pick her up, squeeze her into a SuperValu tote, and carry her away. It is quite the talent.

We had just settled into the lounge after a dinner of shrimp and andouille sausage gumbo over white rice. It was lovely, if I do say so myself. Sara was in position at her end of the couch with her needlepoint in hand. Lucy was curled beside her sleeping soundly. I cracked open the window behind the couch – it was a lovely warm evening – sat in my spot on the other end of the couch and picked up my book. Matlockwas on the television. A half hour or so passed. Lucy was chasing birds in her dreams, kicking her hind legs in a running motion. Domestic bliss, really.

That’s when Sara shouted, “Jimmy, there’s something in the house!” and made herself small. “I think it’s a rat!”

I was thinking, this is probably not the time to compliment her on her posture, when Gidget popped her head up over the side of the couch. Gidget is one of the cats from next door. I jumped up and chased her around the room until she leaped through the open window and took off for home. I closed the window.

Lucy never woke up.

To be fair, Gidget has become quite fond of Sara. About once a week, Sara takes baked goods to our neighbors. Elly, their little girl, especially likes Sara’s chocolate buns – cupcakes to those of you in the U.S. To return the favor, this past week Gidget brought Sara a mouse as a thank you.

I checked around the lounge in case Gidget had brought another present. All clear. Sara uncurled herself and we settled back down. Lucy rolled over.

That’s when we heard a thump from upstairs.

“Dammit,” I thought, “it’s Cleo.” Cleo is the other cat from next door.

We both jumped up. Lucy finally stirred.

“Shut all the doors down here,” I said. “I’ll open the front door and chase her down here so she can escape.” I ran up the stairs.

Nothing in the hallway. Nothing in the small bedroom. Nothing in the master. Only the guest room remained.

And there she was, under the bed.

“Scat,” I shouted, because that’s what I supposed you should say to cats who are holed up in your house. “Scat!” I repeated, a little more frantically.

Cleo raced past me, out the door and down the hall.

“Go downstairs,” I yelled. “Good cat.”

Cats do not follow directions well. Cleo sped into the small bedroom that I use as my bath and dressing room, leaped across the dresser and onto the window sill, and turned to face me, the double bed between us. She hissed. And bared her fangs. Rather large incisors for such a small cat, I thought. I flashed back to watching a leopard gnawing on an impala carcass a few years ago in South Africa. I can still hear the bones cracking. Such things are best viewed at a respectful distance and now I was a little too close for comfort. If Cleo can leap through an open window, I thought, she can probably leap across this double bed. I backed off.

I would not be described as a “cat person.” I tolerate them and do not judge people who keep them as pets. (Well I do, but I feel badly about it.) I mean, they are fine in their place, as long as their place is not the windowsill in my dressing room.

“You better go get Emma,” I shout downstairs to Sara. Keeping a close eye on Cleo, I back out of the room and close the door.

A few moments later, I see Emma trotting down the lane that runs between our houses. Through the glass doors to the lounge I can see Lucy perched on the chair furthest from the doors. She looks perplexed.

“Oh my god, I am so sorry, Jim,” she says as she reaches our front door. “Where is she?”

“Upstairs in the small bedroom,” I answer. “Top of the stairs, on the right.” I back away from the door – we are social distancing – and Emma rushes past me.

I hear hissing and snarling from upstairs. Cleo also sounds upset.

A few moments later Emma comes down the stairs, holding a bewildered Cleo at arms-length in front of her. Emma is still apologizing. Cleo doesn’t say a word but gives me the stink eye.

“Think nothing of it,” I say as I close the door behind them and run back upstairs to check for mice.

We finally settle back down in our assigned spots, after I open the window on the other side of the room. The one we can see. Perry Masonis about to start.

“So, what’s for dessert?” I ask.

Lucy’s Cove

Lucy started to squeal just as we passed the town burial ground on the Slea Head road. She stopped briefly to do a few crazy circles in the back seat as we went by the petrol station and shop. By the time we got to the distillery, just at the Milltown roundabout, she had her paws up on the window, squealing again with delight. She knew where we were going.

It took all the willpower we had not to squeal along with her.

For the past eight weeks we had been restricted to a radius of two kilometers from our home. Now that restriction was increased to five kilometers. The possibilities were endless. We could go to Smerwick Harbour. Ventry beach. The Burnham road. The Pilgrim’s Way on the other side of the hill. It was like we had been serving five to ten years at hard labor and were suddenly granted parole.

Where to go first?

“Let’s do the harbour walk,” I proffer. “We’ll walk out to the mouth, to Lucy’s cove, and let her run free.”

“Lucy’s cove” is what we call the small, narrow beach that overlooks the mouth of the harbour. Lucy runs giant figure eights on the beach at low tide, ears streaming behind her, kicking up sand. And we watch her and look out at the water trying to spot Fungie, Dingle’s resident dolphin.

“Let’s go,” agreed Sara. We were both a little giddy.

The harbour is like a giant bowl–the town sits at one end and at the other is a narrow opening to Dingle Bay. High hills on either side hem it in, like warm embracing arms to welcome sailors home from a long voyage. We start walking at the car park in town and follow the curve of the harbour all the way to Hussey’s Folly, a stone tower near the passage to the bay. Lucy’s cove is just beyond the folly. Cow and sheep pastures roll down from the main road on our left to the water’s edge on our right. Once we are past the hotel on the edge of town and squeeze through the stile to the first field, I let Lucy off her lead and she runs free, dashing through the tall grass in the pastures and then putting her front paws on the sea wall to watch the birds on the shore.

During our unfortunate incarceration, I had been researching wild edible plants that grow in the Dingle area. I had already made a pesto of Three-Cornered Leeks that grow on the verges of the lanes from mid-March to May: a good handful of leeks, a bit of parsley to temper the leeks, some toasted pine nuts, a splash of sherry vinegar, and decent olive oil. Sara loved it drizzled over Jerry’s rack of lamb and the roasted vegetables that we had for dinner on Easter. I even used the edible blossoms as a garnish on the serving platter.

As we walked along, I point out to Sara some of the edible plants in the pastures and on the sea walls.

“Oh, look at these stinging nettles,” I say. “Folklore says if you eat nettles four times in the month of May, it’s good for the blood. I could make a soup with these.”

“Uh huh,” she mumbles.

“And these are wild parsnips,” pulling a few out of the ground for her to see.

“O’Connor’s in town has very nice parsnips. All cleaned up, with no dirt on them.”

“And this is scurvy grass,” pointing to the white flowers growing on the sea wall.

“Why would I eat something called scurvy grass?” she asks. There is a hint of exasperation in her voice.

“Well, it doesn’t cause scurvy, it’s to prevent it, like,” I respond. “The blossoms would make a nice garnish, don’t you think?”

“Jimmy. I am not eating anything that grows in a cow pasture.”

When Sara says Jimmylike that, I know that there will be no scurvy blossoms scattered over my next rack of lamb.

There are more stiles in the walls that divide the fields. As we squeeze through, I ask, “Do these stiles seem narrower than the last time we were here?”

“That could have something to do with the meals we’ve been eating,” Sara answers.

Lucy runs ahead of us, head to the ground and nose quivering. She’s renewing her acquaintance with the trail.

The tide is low, so the sea-bed is exposed for forty or fifty meters from the sea wall to the water. Two or three figures wander about in wellies, carrying buckets, and collecting shellfish and seaweed.

Just past Hussey’s Folly–a crenellated tower built by a land agent around 1845 to help the unemployed during the Famine–we follow a narrow trail along the cliff’s edge between towering gorse bushes. The trail takes us down to the beach. Lucy knows the way and runs along the path ahead of us down the cliff face.

“Hmm,” I think to myself as we weave through the gorse, “I could make that gorse cordial our friend was telling us about.” I don’t share my thoughts with Sara.

Lucy is trotting along the seawall below us, leaping from stone slab to stone slab, making her way to the sand. She reaches the beach and looks back impatiently, waiting for us to finish our slow descent. At last we join her and she turns and runs down to the water’s edge and then back around us in a wide circle. Over and over she runs. Five times. Ten times. She finally pauses to catch her breath and to smell the bladder wrack and kelp, then takes off again until exhaustion kicks in and she collapses on the sand.

We stand on the shore with the sun on our shoulders and listen to the water lapping at the beach.  Gulls float above us. The wind whistles as it passes through the sea arch across from us. The boats that would normally pass in and out of the harbour, taking tourists to see Fungie or bringing fresh fish back to town, are gone for now. The sun on the water makes it look like there are diamonds dancing on the sea. There are only the soothing sounds of nature.

A few lines from Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” run through my head:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

After a long while, we turn and climb back towards the Folly and those narrow stiles, leaning on our sticks and each other. Lucy follows behind us, a tired puppy. It’s been a good walk.

The Isolating Man

A Short Sketch


 We saw the old man, leaning on a vintage T1 Raleigh bicycle for support, as he came out of the track to the right just as we were nearing the end of our walk. A green milk crate was secured by bungee cords just below the handlebars. He weaved along the side of the road like a bee returning to the hive after gorging on nectar in a field of clover. It was just before noon.

“Let’s hang back,” Sara says. We are practicing our social distancing.

Then he weaved left near the entrance to our house and disappeared.

“Where’d he go?” I ask. “Do you think he’s fallen into the drain?”

As we reached our drive, there he was, backed against our entry wall, holding his bike between us. He was a handsome man with a neatly trimmed white beard, wearing an ancient tweed jacket over a green argyle jumper and sporting a flat cap on his head. His clothes were clean and he seemed fit enough, but his blue eyes looked a bit unfocused.

“I’m against the wall here because I’m isolating, like, so ye can pass by,” he calls to us.

“That’s grand,” I say, “but we’re going in here, so you’re just fine to go ahead with your walk.”

“Do ye live here?” he enquires, astonished.

“We do,” I answer.

“Have I met ye before?” he asks, perplexed now.

“Oh yes, we’ve met several times before.”

“We have?” he exclaims, eyes round with surprise. “Ye see, I’ve a drink taken. I’m isolating, like, so I take a drink and read and watch the telly. Cocooning, so.”

“That’s all right,” I assure him. “I imagine we’ve all had a drink taken in these times.”

“Do ye live here? In Mullenaglemig?”

“Four years now,” I tell him patiently.

I pick up Lucy to carry her across the cattle guard at the end of our drive, keeping a proper distance from him.

“Do ye know how to walk across the cattle…” he pauses for a long second, thinking, “…cattle guard!” he finishes triumphantly.

“I’ve been doing it for four years now so I’m getting handy at it.”

“Four years!” He looks incredulous. “I’ve been here eighty years. In Mullenaglemig, like. Back down the lane there. Have I met ye before? Ye see, I’ve had a drink taken.”

Sara and Lucy are slowly backing down our drive, socially distancing themselves. Lucy looks a bit nervous.

“That’s okay,” I say as I ease towards them. “I’m sure many people are taking a drink.”

“I’m isolating like, so I take a drink and read and watch the telly,” he repeated.

He slowly heaved himself off the wall, grasped the handlebars like a drowning man who has been tossed a life preserver, and started pushing the bike along the lane, wandering from side to side.

“Poor old guy,” I say to Sara when I catch up to her. “I think I’ll call the Gardai and Sean the postman and ask them to keep an eye on him. He has nothing to do but take a drink, read, and watch the telly.”

“Doesn’t that describe us perfectly?” she answers.