(Many moons ago, two very dear friends of mine moved to the country. I won’t tell you where from, or where to… but I will say this: they were named Garth and Bonita, and that’s as much as you need to know. Except, maybe, that this is a true story told to me in person by both of them one slightly drunken evening. And just possibly, I borrowed the story and rewrote it and sent it back to them for fun. Oh, and then, just possibly, it earned an Honourable Mention in some kind of writing competition. And very possibly I may have performed it live at a Brisbane Writers’ Convention, complete with a cigar between my teeth…
With apologies to Papa Hemingway.)
The City Man And The Cat
It was a cat. He knew that with a stone-cold certainty. It was the kind of certainty that only a man could know. It was a man’s certainty.
“It was a cat,” he said. The cigar was bitter in his mouth.
“Are you certain it was a cat?” she asked.
“I’m sure.” He was sure.
“Because that’s a really big chicken for something as small as a cat to take. Mean, too. The chicken, I mean.” The woman did not share his man’s certainty that it was a cat.
He knew she meant the big, old rooster. The woman was right. It had been a big chicken, and very mean. King of the barnyard. Strutting cock of the walk. None of that had helped when it met the cat. “It was a big cat,” he muttered, straightening.
“What?” she asked. There was blood on her hands, he saw. Blood and feathers were on her clothing.
“Big,” he said. “Feral. The cats out here are feral. And they are very big.”
“Whatever,” she said. He could see she was confused. It did not matter to him. “Should we bury what’s left?”
“Let me talk with him first.” He wanted to speak with the bird. It was a magnificent bird. Chicken was not the proper name for such a bird, he thought. “Pollo magnifico,” he whispered, sadly admiring the sheen of its plumage. “It was a shame you had to die.”
“Excuse me?” The woman did not understand. That was proper, he knew. There were things no woman could truly understand. It was in the nature of women. Just as it was in the nature of the man to speak to the magnificent dead bird. “Were you talking to a dead chicken just then?”
“Go inside, woman,” he ordered roughly. “Leave us together here.”
“Okay. But I think maybe you’re getting a little weird about this, you know. It was only a chicken.” She turned away. Then she was gone.
Now he was alone in the darkness. Alone with the fine, dead bird. Alone, with the big cat somewhere beyond the faint light from the house. He could feel the presence of the cat. They had interrupted its meal, and the man knew the cat was waiting. It was waiting for the chance to take the bird.
“Pollo magnifico,” whispered the man. “We shall not let this beast take you, eh?”
The bird did not reply. It was dead. The man was certain that it was dead.
The whisky burned his throat with a cooling fire. He was a city man, but he knew of cats. His cojones hung low and loose in his pastel shorts. He had abandoned underpants when he and the woman abandoned the city. No true man of the country needed underpants, he felt. He wanted to be a man of the country. He wanted to be a strong, tanned man, with slow words, able to roll a cigarette with one hand. He wanted to complain of drought when he drank with the other men of the country. He wanted to marry his cousin and raise children with too many fingers. In the country, he no longer wore underpants.
“Pollo magnifico,” he addressed the dead bird respectfully. “You have been amongst these creatures much longer than I. How shall we deal with our enemy, Don Gatto?” The bird did not reply. It was still dead. His certainty of this had not changed.
Looking about him, the man of the city saw a milk crate. “Look at this milk crate,” he marvelled, showing it to the dead bird. “It is strong. It is sturdy. With such a milk crate, a true man of the country might capture a feral cat. Even the largest, most fierce feral cat.” He balanced the milk crate on its edge. The dead bird fit underneath easily. He propped the milk crate with a stick. Then he tied a string to the stick. Then he waited.
The cigar burnt to a stub. Whisky and tobacco made a foul taste in the back of his mouth. The stubble on his cheeks itched. Men of the country had stubble. He knew that. Men of the country did not scratch their faces, and so he did not scratch his face.
Then the cat was there. It was a big cat. It was even bigger than he imagined it would be. As though it owned the yard and all about it, the cat came from the night. It went to the dead bird, as the man had known it would.
“The murderer returns to the scene of the crime,” he muttered. The cat looked at him. It saw him in the darkness. He knew it saw him with its predator’s eyes. The eyes gleamed green in the dark. In his pastel shorts, the man’s cojones lifted and tingled when the green eyes glared at him.
Then the cat turned away. It dismissed him from its thoughts. He was not as important as the dead chicken. The cat wanted the dead chicken. It was not interested in the man of the city.
With a yank, the man of the city took the stick from under the milk crate. The crate crashed down. The dead chicken was still inside. The big cat was inside the crate too. It cried out in anger, yowling at the man of the city and laying back its ears as he approached.
“So, Don Gatto,” he said. His strong, white teeth bit through the stump of a new cigar. The flame of his lighter cast shadows upon his face. “So, I am less important than a dead chicken, am I?” Lightly, he kicked the milk crate. The cat inside hissed, and lashed at his foot with its keen claws. “Ai!” cried the man of the city. Blood sprang from his ankle where the claws had raked. “Bastardo!”
The cat in the crate was not dead. He was certain of that. The pain in his ankle helped him to be sure that the cat was not dead. No dead cat could create such a wound, he reasoned. And yet, the magnificent bird was dead. Where was the justice in this? Gritting his teeth, the man of the city examined the wound in his ankle. Blood trickled into his Reeboks. There was only one possible answer.
“For this night’s work, Don Gatto — for this, you die!”
The cat in the crate glared with its green predator’s eyes.
“Woman!” cried the man of the city. “Fetch my gun!”
“I’ve got a name, you know.” Her voice was peevish. He had awoken her from sleep. “What fucking gun are you talking about? We don’t have a gun. You hate guns.”
The woman was right. The man of the city hung his head in shame. He had no gun. All true men of the country owned guns. Many guns. They loved their guns. With their guns, they shot pigs, and foxes, and feral cats. They shot road signs. They shot birds. They shot their wives. Their children. Their neighbours. Sometimes they shot themselves. The man of the city had no gun. He did not love guns. Because he did not love guns, he could not now shoot the feral cat like a true man of the country.
“Don Gatto,” he said at last. “I am sorry.”
“Are you still talking to the dead chicken? When are you going to come inside?” The shrill voice of the woman irritated him.
“Be silent, woman! This is man’s business,” he shouted. In the milk crate, the cat yowled in rage. The woman did not understand. The man knew the cat understood. It agreed with him. Hunters, killers alike, the man and the cat understood one another.
Suddenly, he was truly sorry. What had the cat known? The killing of chickens was no more than the nature of the cat. Yet the magnificent chicken was dead, and the man of the city bled from the ankle. “Please understand, Don Gatto,” said the man quietly. ” I know that the killing of chickens is in your nature. Who of us can go against his nature?”
In the crate, the cat did not reply.
The man sighed. He found the leg of an old table. It was made of wood, and fit comfortably into his hand.
“So it is in the nature of a man to club furry creatures to death, Don Gatto. Especially when the man has no gun, and the furry creature has killed his magnificent chicken.”
Then he lifted the milk crate, and clubbed the cat to death. He clubbed it with long, smooth strokes, ending in a satisfying smack. The cat yowled again, but there was no escape. He clubbed it until it was difficult to see that it had ever been a cat. He did not cease clubbing it until he could no longer tell where the cat ended and the chicken began.
The cat was dead. He was certain of that. It was a man’s certainty, deep down in his cojones. There was blood on his hands and his face. It was the blood of the cat. It was good to have the blood of his enemy upon his hands, he thought. Dead, the cat no longer commanded his respect. He had triumphed. The cat had lost. The predatory green of its eyes was gone. Unzipping his pastel shorts, he urinated upon the dead cat in the manner of a hunting animal that marks its kill.
Now he had become a true man of the country. Tomorrow, he would go out and buy a very large gun. And perhaps a ute, and a pair of ugly, brutal dogs to shout at.
Later, when the cat and the chicken had been burnt in the same magnificent funeral pyre, he went to bed. The woman was there. Without a sound, he slipped into the bed beside her, but she awoke anyway. Perhaps she had always been awake. Perhaps she had been waiting for him.
“You smell,” she murmured angrily.
“I am a man of the country,” he answered, turning away.
“You smell like petrol. And those stupid cigars. And cheap whisky. Did you wash up?”
Be silent, woman, thought the man of the country, but he did not speak. He stared into the darkness, searching for the green eyes of a predator.
“Hey — you know those books of yours?” When he still did not answer, she went on. “You know — all those stupid Hemingway books you’ve been reading. Bullfights and stuff. The Old Man And The Sea. Big-game hunting and stupid wars. Farewell To Arms. Well, I tore them up. And then I flushed them down the toilet. Tomorrow, I’m going to town and we’re going to get you a video player. You’ve been getting really strange, out here on your own.”
Perhaps it was for the best, he mused. He had begun to miss his underpants, in any case.