from the editor's desk

From Our Archive: ‘Cat by Moonlight’ by Ann Dombroski

by Ann Dombroski

Editor’s Note: This story we’ve brought you from the archive is from our 1995 spring edition 40.3. Ann Dombroski has since returned to Westerly to publish another interesting piece, ‘Siem Reap’, in issue 62.2.

As part of a special subscription offer, a copy of 62.2 will be free with any new subscription purchase if you use the code SUBANDAHALF18. This is a great opportunity to support the arts and also give you the most value, expanding your literary content from 12 months’ worth to 18 for free! Take advantage of this offer before May 20th here!

Charlie came in while Carol was showering and turned on the light. ‘What are you showering in the dark for?’ He slid back the shower door. He began to compare the costs and quality of the brushbox flooring at Mitre 10 and Swadlings. While he talked he pushed up the sleeve of his jumper and put his hand in to touch her waist. Carol liked his hand but didn’t want to hear any more, wanting instead to let her thoughts unravel in quiet steamy darkness. Now cold air curled around the bathroom door and into the shower recess, and with it came the smell of earth from the kitchen.

‘Is something wrong?’ Charlie wiped his arm on a towel. He looked at her intently.

She shook her head. ‘I’m just talked out, that’s all.’ Charlie nodded, shut the shower screen and went out, leaving the light on and the door ajar. She turned up the hot water.

Later they ate Turkish pizza, sitting in the doorway of the gutted kitchen, looking in at the exposed joists and bearers while Charlie pointed out which ones had to be replaced. The old tap looked strange sticking out over nothing. Where the sink cupboard had been, the wall was peeling and mouldy. Really they would have been better off getting a carpenter in to do the lot in a day. But Charlie liked to get his hands dirty. He had told her how much he’d enjoyed ripping up the floorboards. He was up again now, measuring the nearest joist. He frowned and scratched his hip with the stub of a pencil. ‘You’re going great guns,’ Carol said and put down her piece of pizza, tired of take-away, and just plain tired.

Afterwards while she was lying down on their bed, browsing through a volume of Emily Dickinson’s verse, Charlie came in and started fooling around with his tape. He measured her shoulder to her elbow and her hip to her knee.

‘What are you doing, you nut?’ She pushed him with her foot.

‘Measuring you. In case I ever have to put you back together.’

She had to smile. Charlie switched the TV on in the lounge room and called out to her about the programmes he was watching. Carol didn’t answer but he kept right on talking. In fact Charlie didn’t really quit talking until his head hit the pillow. The last thing he said was, ‘I’m sore all over,’ and then he was out to it.

At first it was a relief to be lying in the cool quiet dark, her thoughts floating, but gradually she felt more and more alert.

When she shifted onto her back, her eyes sprang open and scanned the darkness. During the ultrasound yesterday, she had been lying on her back in the dim room with the scanner inside her and a pad and pencil in her hands, writing the measurements as the doctor said them, and she had thought, ‘This is the last time.’

Lately she worried about the drugs the doctor gave her. The papers she had to sign. Now worry thoughts tunnelled around her head. ‘The Brain has Corridors,’ Emily Dickinson wrote – and she wasn’t wrong.

Charlie moaned and rolled backwards in his sleep. His shoulder felt heavy against her. She squeezed his arm, whispered, ‘I can’t sleep.’ Charlie patted her thigh and rolled away from her, saying, ‘Think about somewhere nice.’

She tried that; but everything was cast in a sinister shadow.

Tomorrow she would be a wreck at work.

She flung back the covers and made her way naked through the silent house. At the kitchen doorway she came to a halt. Moonlight poured through the curtainless window, illuminating the grid of bearers and joists before her. Cautiously she stepped down onto the nearest joist. Like the balance beam at highschool, she thought, only this old wood felt rough and splintered underfoot. She winced as her heel came down on a protruding nail. Then one more careful step brought her to the middle of the room and directly into the moonlight. Her body dipped in silver. She wondered that moonlight wasn’t cool, as sunlight was warm.

Slowly she side-stepped along the bearer until she was opposite the bathroom doorway. It felt dangerous, this crossing at night. With her foot she tested the joist; it wobbled and she edged along to the next joist. After four slow steps, she was hugging the wall and the door architrave, pulling herself up sideways onto the doorstep.

The bathroom was awash with moonlight. She had a surreal feeling, as if she were walking into a dream. The bathtub shone seductively. She had a desire to lie down in it and bathe in moonlight.

From the toilet window she could see into their tiny garden. Splashed with the silver light of the moon, every leaf was clear. The tall white arum lilies looked as cool and elegant as sixties’ brides. Charlie had picked a bunch of them yesterday and put them in a vase for her to come home to. He didn’t know of their association with death.

She pulled away from the window. In her mind she still had the image of that pad of paper with the two columns of dimensions she had pencilled under the headings left ovary and right ovary. Now she wished she’d asked if the dimensions had been ideal.

After the smooth cold tiles of the bathroom, the timber joists felt rough beneath her feet as she slowly picked her way back across the kitchen. By the window, which was tall with six panes, three aside, she stopped, balanced on the middle bearer. Moonlight fell liquidly down her left side. Near her hip the tap jutted out over nothing. Below her, the earth was a dark musty pit. And she stopped there – midway across.

Directly outside the window, was the paling fence that divided the two terraces. Charlie had nailed a shelf to the fence for her to put plants on. She could see every leaf of the fishbone fern. One upright frond moved slightly, a mere shiver up its ladder of leaves. Behind the pots, moving behind the palings, a shadow passed.

The shadow of what? Carol went closer to the window, pressed her cheek against the cold pane to see down the laneway between the wall and the fence. She heard a scratching sound on wood but nothing moved. She edged backwards along the bearer, turned and stepped along the steadiest joist, arms out for balance, and then once across, stood a moment listening, before she walked on through the loungeroom and started down the hall. She stopped at her study, deciding on the spare bed, and having felt under the blankets to check that the bed had sheets, she climbed in. Her legs stretched out between the cool cotton sheets of the single bed. From the next room carne the sound of Charlie’s breathing, a comforting rhythm in the heart of the house.

There was a buzzing past her ear. A blowfly bumbling about, hitting the walls. The room was small and she could hear the fly’s progress around the room. ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – .’

Moonlight pressed on her eyelids and opening her eyes she saw a shaft of silver light slanting into the room. It looked biblical as if it might herald an angel. She got up to close the curtains but stopped when she saw the cat. The neighbour’s cat, poised perfectly still on the paling fence, its brown and black back steeped in moonlight. This cat liked to walk along the fence between the two terraces, even crawling through the thorny bougainvillea. Charlie always chased it away. He hated cats; they killed native birds and lizards. She knew that, but she liked having this cat around. She was always finding it in some strange pose in the garden, still and unblinking, like an Egyptian statue.

The cat watched her from the fence and Carol admired its stillness. By the light of the moon, she could see the ragged silhouette of its fur, the grainy texture of the palings and the rough peeling bricks of the wall behind. Above this, moonlight lay like a sheet on the neighbours’ iron roof. If she could paint, she would paint this still moonlit image with its mysterious clarity. She would call the painting ‘Cat by Moonlight’. It was something Henri Rousseau might paint.

Carol raised the window. ‘You and me, cat,’ she said to it. There was comfort in something else being awake. She opened the window wider and leaned out. The outside air felt cool like water on her chest. The cat crouched into itself, watching her through round eyes. Then Carol saw the heavy weight of its belly. The cat was pregnant. Carol stared at the cat and the cat stared back. A minute passed. Carol shivered, feeling cold now. She thought about unwanted kittens and feral cats hunting sugar gliders, and withdrawing her head, closed the window, drew the curtains and got back into bed. She heard the cat make its way along the fence, its claws scrabbling on the wood.

The Chinese herbalist whom Carol had been seeing, said once, ‘Some women come to me, they can’t have a baby; the other women they don’t want their baby’ and she had laughed, seeing humour in this where Carol couldn’t.

Carol turned onto her back. The blowfly had gone, but her head was like a TV that wouldn’t stop. All those pages of risks and statistics, that she had read and reread. She pictured a tiny broom sweeping the floor of her mind, sweeping out all those thoughts, and after a time her mind slowed and she got that rocking feeling she often had when drifting into sleep, as though she were lying in the bottom of a rowboat on a quiet river. It was a lovely sensation, this gentle rocking.

The sheet suddenly lifted back. ‘I woke up and thought I’d lost you,’ Charlie said, climbing in. She moved back against the wall to accommodate him and his cold bum hit her lap. ‘There was this sadness,’ Charlie said and he sounded truly forlorn.

Carol curled into him, and ran her hand across the hair on his chest. She kissed his shoulder, pressing her nose to his skin. Charlie didn’t sweat much; his smell was faint and attractive. Her hand stroked the fur pad on his belly and she thought of the cat, only its fur would be thick and sleek.

‘I feel like someone’s hit me all over with a wooden stick,’ Charlie moaned and then she could hear the air catching at the back of his mouth and she realised he was asleep and they were back where they’d started only now in a single bed. Except – except there was this image of the cat, a pregnant cat by moonlight, and she was slowly, carefully, painting its moonlit back and its swollen belly with a fine soft paintbrush on paper, and somehow she was lying in the bottom of the rowboat again, gently rocking, and the sun was pouring into the boat, warming her, while the boat drifted and rocked and the painting painted itself and there was nothing to worry her – nothing to stop her drifting now.

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