by Max Vande Vaarst
She purrs in tune with the engine in her fragile cat-rest, twinned hummings that seem to give lift to our whole vehicle. It feels as though we are gliding atop the arc of our high beams, but we are not gliding. We are driving. Somewhere far from Omaha, somewhere by a river.
She sleeps with closed eyes, but attentive ears. I watch them twitch and flit toward new sounds, cicada calls and horse tail swishes. Fragments of a late night Royals game cut through the hiss of fractured radio, but She ignores them. She is synced to a greater frequency.
There is a small window for naming things, and I have missed it. I did not come to her early in her life. She had lived years before I appeared, birthed whole litters of young, draggled desert mice bleeding through the dust and warred with the canine tribes, all before she chose to lay down before a human. I had no right to tax her with false title, so the pronoun stuck. She the cat, turpentine orange and knotted with dried earth and parasites. She sits balled in the passenger seat, exposed ribs sagging with her breath, paws guarded against her body like iron bars.
We are heading toward the east, we are coming from the west. I’d made a mistake back there, lost a job, lost a girl, lost a chance at a future. I try not to think about it now. Neither do I care to imagine what my parents will say when I return unannounced, another year of opportunity gone to waste. There is a small window for growing up, and I realize that I am missing that too.
We had gotten off the interstate an hour ago, leaving behind the red and white rush of eighteen-wheelers for the kind of solitude only being lost can provide. I was lured in by a road sign, “GRAND ISLAND - 25 MILES,” which made promises of magnificence that Nebraska cannot bear. There are no road signs now, nor any other roads at all. The Royals are down to their final out, and I can feel all the weight of my eyelids. Our car floats to a stop alongside a fallow cornfield, and She yawns herself awake.
There is a heaviness in her eyes as well, which wax like two black moons, eclipsed by faint rings of gold. Those eyes stare into mine, and I can sense them reaching in. It is flawless conversation, pure enough to exist without speech. She claws at a scab on her chin and licks it clean.
“Stay here,” I say. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
I push the door open and step out onto the edge of the blacktop. She follows on soft pads and walks with me into the field, her first act of rebellion. I take a long piss on some stranger’s land.
They’ve built no fences in this place, only miles of open country and sky. She marches ahead of me, gazing out across the land as she once must have surveyed her mesa. The hairs along her spine stand erect and her whiskers quiver in the breeze. She is a cat, and this is unclaimed territory. We both know what that means.
The whirr of an insect’s wings drones by, and She gives them chase into the darkness, her orange form fading with each predatory bound until she is gone from my sight. I give a brief wave – a salute, I think - into the night, but She does not look back. It is her second and final act of rebellion.
I lie down on the dirt, the splinters of last year’s growth pricking at my sides. Above me, pale satellites expose themselves among the stars as they crawl through the dark on electric legs. In two day’s time I’ll be with my parents again, starting over in the town where I began. There will be arguments and job interviews, shiftless mornings and wasted afternoons. I will fail many more times before I find my feet. Yet no matter what comes of my life, I think, I will never be here again.
Half an hour passes before the silence of the cornfield is interrupted by the purring of a cat. She drifts over to me and seats herself beside the curve of my stomach. Between her jaws, She carries the limp remains of a lifeless rodent, which She sets down before me. This is not tribute, but the shared spoils of the road.
As I reach out to scratch the fur of her crown, I feel her face press up against my skin, coarse and aged. Her purr slows to a quiet slumber, and the stars soon dissipate until the dawn.
No one knows why cats purr. Some will say that it is a signal for food, or water, or a cry of pain in a moment of stress or struggle. Some will say they are musicians, plucking an unearthly chord. Some will say it means nothing at all. But I think at last I understand.
Cats purr because they mean to say “I am here.” “I am here, and I am also with you.”
In life the cat's name was Annabelle. She was a petite orange tabby and I found her in the construction yard behind a Native American boarding school. We drove 2,241 miles together listening to college football in my Mazda. She had two kittens in that yard, but I never could catch them. I think they're dead now. The desert is not a good place to be a kitten.
Max Vande Vaarst is a maybe possibly someday up-and-coming writer of imaginative fiction. His work has been featured in Inscape, Jersey Devil Press and Short, Fast & Deadly, among others. He can be reached online at maxvandevaarst.com or by way of the Maxsignal. Please allow 25 minutes to an hour for Maxsignal response.