“Cat on a Mat” (story)
by Cecilia Combs
12th grader at Clearview Regional High School, Mullica Hill
English teacher: Michael Porter
Honorable mention award: $50
Cat on a Mat
Deuteronomy did not know what had prompted his humans to build the “Catio,” but he did know it was a stunning place to sun. To lay out on the soft and fuzzy welcome mat, to feel the breeze ruffle his well-groomed fur, to feel that pure sunlight washing over him…. The birds cajoled and mocked by turns, which made his tail twitch in anticipation. There was a fountain by the edge of the Catio. The frogs living on its edge croaked louder to compete with the fountain’s effervescence. Deuteronomy’s whiskers danced, swaying in the breeze that shook the blossoms from the bridal trees.
However, his humans did not seem to be as pleased as he was with the Catio. Especially Willow, the youngest of his humans. She would sit with him on the Catio, but her posture slumped more every day. Even her cuddling lacked enthusiasm.
Willow’s eyes tracked the few other humans who wandered outside. They shone with the intensity of a hunter-stricken lame. If she’d been fortunate enough to have a tail, it would have twitched. Her unease may have had something to do with the strange markings now covering human faces. Perhaps they’d finally tried to compensate for their lack of whiskers.
It could also be that she was missing her extended tribe. He had remembered her litter of humans who’d trample through the house (and sometimes on his tail). When he and the humans were young, he’d run from their noise and roughness. But as their limbs had grown, so had their intelligence. Now they adored him with appropriate ardor and therefore were tolerable. The ones who visited Willow the most frequently were even enjoyable company.
As Willow and Deuteronomy spent their days in the Catio, the scene changed. The blossoms whirled to the ground. There, they coated the daffodils and tiger lilies like lace encrusted dew. The green leaves that had replaced them were also usurped by leaves of red and gold, then overtaken by bronze. And then, by nothing. The leaves clumped on the sidewalk and blew past the Catio door in gusts of wind as unwelcome as they were cold. Once the birds and squirrels retreated to where the leaves went, all that remained was ice and frost. Deuteronomy tired of the Catio and spent his days dozing with Willow in her bedroom. Still no extended tribe, still strange coverings.
But the nights were easier now. None of the humans ever left into that yawning darkness, or even into the yawning brightness of day. Sometimes Deuteronomy missed the quiet they’d gift as penance for their absence. All in all, though, his loneliness ebbed and then evaporated as there was always a hand to feed him.
One day, Deuteronomy saw Willow sitting on the Catio wrapped in nothing but a thin blanket. Clouds swollen with hail and thunder crouched on the black horizon. He pressed his nose into her arm, and her goosebumps pressed into his skin. She was shaking as if she really was a willow tree: a willow tree trapped in a windstorm that was powered by its own growing misery. Whatever was happening to the humans, it tolled on the girl. He pressed into her side, hoping his warmth could counteract her iciness. Her choking, crying, coughing finally ceased in response to his concerned mewling. She buried her face into his fur and fell silent.
And then! The weather cleared again, and the rascal wildlife returned. Deuteronomy was watching a gopher when Willow gasped. She’d been rubbing her arm, but she stopped and stood. The screen door’s hinges squealed as she yanked it open and plunged outside. As the wooden door slammed into the frame, wood shavings fluttered to Deuteronomy’s mat.
Deuteronomy pricked up his ears at the rumble of two familiar voices. Figures and faces ambled into vision, and the voices matched with identities. It was Willow’s friends. They’d given up on trying to facilitate whiskers. Their usual human mouths stretched in visible grins over their weird, flat, but normal human teeth. Willow ran out to them, catching each other up in hugs. Fingers clenched into thin shirts, wrinkles of fabric as distinctive as smile lines.
Their chatter filled the air as they plopped down on Deuteronomy’s mat. The rocking chairs sat empty. Apparently even the small separation of separate seating was sacrilegious to these humans. Willow leaned her head into the crook of one friend’s neck, and his hand braided and unbraided her hair. The other human’s head stretched across his lap, and her hand wrapped in Willow’s.
Deuteronomy stalked over to the group and curled between the humans. His throat vibrated with a purr as Willow reached down to take him into her arms. She showed him the world outside the Catio.
To him, it had not changed. But to her—well. Her laughing, her loud human purring, buzzed around his ears like a daring butterfly. To her, it was better. The fireflies danced for them. As the golden hour trundled off center stage and the sun set, dusk arrived to sing. As the sky darkened, the humans did a variety of human things—card games, ice cream eating, silly secret telling. Deuteronomy did one of his favorite cat things as well. He settled into Willow’s embrace and purred.
So what he didn’t understand was why the humans put up the Catio. He didn’t understand half the rituals they insisted on performing. Who cared that he didn’t know what was up with the fake whiskers, or why each human teen’s arm hung stiffly at their side? He was in Willow’s arms, and summer freshness wafted through the screened-in Catio and into their souls. This was all that mattered.
Linda L. Hellstrom, Founder
Caroline Godfrey, Co-Chair
Karen Gruenberg, Co-Chair
Elizabeth K. Parker
Diane Naughton Washburne