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Tom Cat and the Bone Lady

by Sue Parman


“Hand signs. I can’t do anything about the telepathy, but I can stop them from passing notes and sending each other signals. Don’t worry, it won’t cost the taxpayers a penny. They’re all friends of mine: two detectives per class for a week, one at the front and one at the back. They’ll show up at 9 a.m. tomorrow in the Cultural Analysis class.”

“Hey! That’s my class!”

I had forgotten about Tom Cat. She turned and looked at me, and I felt the way Tom Cat acted: his body arched, his hair stuck out from his body, and he dug his claws into my skull. I grabbed him but I didn’t let him go. I don’t know who was shaking more, me or the tiny cat with its claws now dug into my Harris Tweed jacket. Vague memories of war protests stirred. Hell No, We Won’t Go! I had said those things once. Had even meant them.

“You stay the hell out of my class, Cecily.” I surprised myself by actually shouting at her. “You and your police state goons. I’m sick of your paranoid fantasies!”

I must have tightened my grip on Tom Cat because he gave a yowl and leaped out of my arms. Mrs. Stirling looked at me with horror. The Case of the Cat Strangler. Cecily’s eyes lighted with triumph as Tom Cat leaped into her arms. Triumph and something else — the fire of sheer murder, revenge, an anger so complete I was surprised her hair didn’t burst into flames. Her teeth clenched — the kind of grin they show in movies when the kindly grandmother is suddenly possessed by the devil. She goose-stepped from the room, slamming the door behind her. The philodendrons trembled.

“Dumb cat,” I finally managed. Mrs. Stirling’s accusing eyes followed me out of the room. The Harris Tweed jacket lived up to its reputation; it had survived the cat’s terror much better than the sweater, and a good deal better than the occupant.

That night the phone rang constantly. When I picked it up, no one answered — or at least, no one human. I thought during one call that I heard the distant sound of a cat mewing plaintively, as if it were desperately unhappy; but that was the call at 3 a.m. so I was probably projecting my own thoughts onto the static. I dreamed the rest of the night about Tom Cat running through the rain from phone booth to phone booth, running out of quarters.

I slept late, skipped breakfast, and backed the car quickly out of the garage.

Normally when I’m running late I don’t pay much attention to anything except getting to the class I’m late for. But for some reason I noticed the slight bump under the back wheel: a small obstruction, then a crunch. I stopped and pulled back into the garage, got out of the car and went around to look. The hair tingled on the back of my neck.

A small, squashed orange lump lay oozing blood in the driveway. The small skull was crushed. I felt dizzy, as if my own head had been under the wheel. “Stupid cat, why didn’t you stay out of the way?” I started to turn back inside but didn’t know who to call. I went back and knelt beside the body.

I could barely see. I kept wiping my hands over my eyes but it didn’t seem to help. Allergies, I thought. I should take shots. Big floppy waves of darkness kept batting at my head. “Dumb cat,” I kept muttering, and then saw something that stopped me cold.

Something gray peeked between the matted orange fur and spreading blood (but so little blood, such a little body). I pushed the matted fur to one side and ran my fingers over the sticky, broken limbs. Duct tape. That’s why it hadn’t been able to run. She had taped its legs together.

I sat down on the cold concrete. The blood was spreading. I couldn’t call the police; they were all her buddies. And Mrs. Stirling would testify that I had tried to strangle the cat. I could see the headlines. Famed Forensic Feline-lover Fells Foe. Seck Sics Sick Academic.

I was moody, prickly, only vaguely helpful to students, mostly invisible in department meetings, had been known to toss Tom Cat out of my office on more than one occasion, whereas Dr. Cecily Seck was the darling of the press and the secretaries, a loud proclaimer of her love for Tom Cat, a star (look at all those press clippings).

A university vice president had once said, “As long as she brings glory to the university, I don’t give a tinker’s damn what she does in her private life. I don’t care if she’s nutty as a fruitcake as long as she brings home the bacon and lays it at my doorstep.” He had been an English teacher before he became a vice president and was known throughout the state for his mixed metaphors.

The blood soaked into my trousers but I didn’t care. I dug my fingers into the concrete, and sneezed until my head felt loose. I wanted to paint my forehead with Tom Cat’s blood and go screaming down the street, like the berserkers who ran naked into war painted only with their clan signs. The Revenge of the Clan of the Cornered Cat. I realized, as I spelled out his name in blood on the cold driveway, that Cecily had a major advantage. The insane always have a major advantage over the sane.

Except I wasn’t feeling all that sane at the moment.

I scraped Tom Cat off the driveway and carried him into the back yard. The kettle I had used to boil lobsters over the firepit was still there. I filled it with water from the garden hose and lighted the firepit. When the water boiled, I threw Tom Cat in, then ran into the house, stripping as I went. I threw the bloody clothes into a plastic trash bag and showered. I called the department and told Mrs. Stirling I was sick and to cancel my Cultural Analysis class. “But you never get sick,” she said, and sounded both petulant and concerned at the same time.

“I’m learning,” was all I could think to say, but she had already hung up the phone.

When I came back to teach two days later, I felt as though I’d been through a month-long drinking binge. My mouth felt covered with orange fur. My heart was beating as fast as a baby kitten’s. My palms were sweating as I felt the small plastic bag in my pocket. Maybe I was going insane; but I wasn’t going fast enough, hadn’t gone far enough. If Cecily went through even a quarter of the moods I’d been through in the past few days, how could she bear to live with herself?

And then I saw them: Mrs. Stirling framed by the philodendron, a tender grandmother doting on the latest grandchild. Only instead of a baby cradled in her arms, she held a small orange kitten. Cecily’s head was bent over hers, like a concerned mother.

“He’s so much better today,” I heard Mrs. Stirling say as I came through the door, pushed by some force outside myself. A robot on cat juice.

“He just needed his vitamins, my little Tommy Kitty, my Baby-Pooh.” Cecily’s voice was full of love and pride.

Tom Cat IX on his unstable throne. Mrs. Stirling must be as crazy as Cecily not to notice the change. No chewed ear, for one thing. But maybe she didn’t want to see. It would raise too many questions. Like my students. Give Us the Answers, sir, but Heaven Forbid We Learn How to Ask Questions.

Mrs. Stirling held the cat up in my direction. “Isn’t he looking better today?” Looking for vindication, the shared madness.

“No! He’ll hurt it!” Cecily snatched back the cat, who meowed loudly. Cecily’s eyes filled with tears. “We’ll never let him hurt my precious Tom Cat!”

I suddenly felt calm. No more hot pounding blood, just a cool icy river surging up from some wellspring of certainty, whether of sanity or madness I no longer cared. Using my puzzled, lost-boy look, I said, “But Cecily, I thought I saw Tom Cat down at the end of the corridor. Are you sure that’s the right cat?”

Cecily froze. Murderer interrupted. A flare of doubt. She turned and bolted for the door, Tom Cat IX digging its tiny claws into her shoulder.

Mrs. Stirling looked after her, uncertain.

“Maybe you’d better help her look,” I suggested timidly.

Mrs. Stirling struggled to her feet and followed Cecily out the door.

As soon as the door closed, I flipped open the Satanic Jewel Box and shook out the bones into an empty plastic freezer bag that I had brought with me.

Station #6. Infants have 406 bones that gradually fuse with age until there are 206 in adults. Once fused, the bones can no longer grow. Unsealed bones are a sign of immaturity, and will reveal themselves during boiling. Boil the bones to estimate the age.

Putting the Jewel Box bones in one pocket, I pulled out the other freezer bag, the one containing the boiled bones of Tom Cat VIII that I had fished out of my lobster kettle. I arranged them carefully on the velvet and slapped the lid down.

My pockets full of bones and bags, I exited the scene of the crime. By the time I reached my office I was raging with guilt and used up half a yellow pad with drawings. Femurs, metatarsals, clavicles, fibulas and tibulas, pitted pubic bones. Figures on a hillside raking the soil and inspecting the rats’ nests for human remains. Forensic Anthropology Recovery Team. FART.

Gradually I calmed down. The world was confused enough. A little more confusion wouldn’t make much difference.

Mrs. Stirling tracked me down an hour later, puzzled and accusatory. There had been no cat. I had made that up to bait Dr. Seck, who had been so upset she had to take Tom Cat home.

“She’s paranoid,” I said curtly, and went back to drawing the bones of cats on my yellow pad.

It isn’t paranoia when someone really is out to get you.

Damon brought me the news a week later. The forensic osteologist hired by the defense had finally gotten a look at the bones in the Satanic Jewel Box.

“It took a dozen requests and a court order, and he only got them the night before. I could tell he was pleased. When he came into court that morning, he looked like the cat’s meow.”

I winced. “You were there at the hearing?”

He shuffled. “I went with Ce... with Dr. Seck.” He went on hastily: “But I think afterwords she was sorry that I was with her. The defense kept her on the stand for over an hour. The worst part, the whole thing was on TV.”

“I’m sorry I missed it,” I said, and then bit my tongue, but he wasn’t listening to me; he was still in the courtroom, and his face was fighting a battle between regret and delight.

Had the learned expert witness taken a thorough look at the bones?

Yes she had; she had dedicated herself tirelessly to their analysis.

Had the learned expert witness come to a conclusion about the bones?

Yes, they were clearly the bones of an infant between three and six weeks old.

Definitely human?

Oh yes, definitely, she was an expert on that.

Would the expert witness care to take another look at the crushed skull, the small pointed teeth, the foramen magnum located so far back on the skull that it could only be a quadruped?

What? But that’s... but wait-

Does the expert witness wish to change her analysis? Perhaps she wishes to conclude that it is the skull of a cow?

“When he said that, I thought she was going to rip out his jugular.” Damon’s eyes were shining. “It took two deputies to hold her down. Man, she was out of her gourd. I mean, totally nuts. Screaming. Spit flying all over the room — the judge kept holding his robes in front of his face while he whacked his gavel. They had to haul her out of the room before the trial could go on.”

I kept my eyes on the yellow pad. I had drawn a small cat curled in a ball. I wrote the word “purr” above it in a thought balloon. “Did she say anything?”

“Mostly cuss words.” Damon got up and stretched, all lanky limbs, as relaxed as a cat. In the doorway he turned around, hesitant. “The funny thing...” he stopped.

“What is it, Damon?” I tore off the sheet from the yellow pad and slipped it into my drawer.

“Well, the funny thing is that she kept screaming your name.” He shrugged. “I guess she really is crazy.”

“Poor woman,” I said, and sneezed.

I had just picked up a cat from the pound.

I had named it Cecily.

Copyright © 2008 by Sue Parman

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