for Rachelle & Bug
I was drinking beer in the sun of the living room and my cat was stretched out so long across the far side of the couch. Sam was sitting on the loveseat, cutting rhubarb stalks into a big glass mixing bowl using a pair of shearing scissors. Sugar had been fanned out all over the coffee table.
I started talking just to hear the sound of my own voice. I said that I wanted to be buried with my cat, like a Pharaoh. I wanted to take my cat to heaven with me.
Sam sliced through the rhubarb like she was on safari. She told me I didn’t believe in heaven, which was true, and she said she didn’t picture me going to heaven, anyway, AND she definitely didn’t picture my cat going to heaven, either.
I carefully balanced my beer on my forehead and asked her where exactly I was going then, and she pretended to think for a moment while a half chopped stalk of rhubarb bled down her slender wrist.
She said, “A swamp. Like a dank, miserable swamp.”
I laughed and finished my beer. Sam set her shearing scissors down onto the sweetness of the coffee table.
I said, “Samantha, no swamp could keep me and this little prince down,” and I gestured toward my cat, lying there deep in his simple, fat dreams.
I said, “Samantha, tell me what you want to drink. We have so much of this day ahead of us and I know you’re thirsty.”
She said, “Bombay.”
I buried my face into her neck and said, “Tell me not to drive to the store. Tell me to never drive anywhere ever again.”
But she did and I did. Time moved mechanical in its calendar boxes and our lives carried on for a little longer, weeks or maybe years. Eventually, through no fault of my own, I spent an ill-advised November night sleeping in a graveyard next to an Episcopalian church. I got a cough that developed into a tiny reaper in my chest and I carried it around like a secret I wanted so badly to tell everyone, but no one wanted to hear it.
I leaned hard into my own ragged cough until I awoke in the swamp I’d been promised. My cat was there, too. He lived in a wicker basket I carried around on my hunched back. All day long he just rode around, purring in his sleep, safe in his little palace. We didn’t keep a home. We moved quietly through the bog of the afterlife.
I’d arrived in the clothes I’d died in and I kept those stitched together as best I could. I made an axe by combining a broken witch-tree branch, spider loops, and a giant curved tooth I found deep inside the lightning struck bark of a downed tree. At first the whole thing would fall apart every time I tried to swing it, but eventually I got the hang of it. You just had to keep a steady wrist.
There was strange quiet music in the distance and I could never quite tell if it was real or if I was dreaming in death. There were abandoned rowboats all throughout the marsh and some far off trees looked like people if you squinted hard enough.
It was raining if the sun was out and we traveled through the swamp looking for mud fish to eat. There was purple moss that could be ground down into a seasoning, it was growing on the bellies of giant, endlessly sleeping alligators and it made the fish taste tolerable. It tasted of ghost pepper. The dark red moss was poison and the neon green moss made you have bad dreams while you were still awake. This was the pace of the afterlife - seasoning dirty fish and sleep. That’s all there was.
Once, we bumped up to an edge of the swamp, a place where the trees thinned and the foul water almost reached my waist. It was impossible to go any further. I could see through the fog, and it was so far off it barely seemed tangible, but there was a distant shore beyond the gloom. Far away from the end of the marsh was a green sloping hill, lit by slow cloud slash rhythms of sunlight, and on the hill I could see a flock of sheep, their wet wool the color of rain-soaked hay. My cat roused from his basket and together we watched the herd of sheep crest the hill and disappear from our strained sight. And eventually, the fog thickened again and the hill was lost to us. And eventually, we had to turn from the edge and wander back into swamp. Whatever the far shore was, it wasn’t for us.
At night the rain would relent and three crescent moons would fade into the sky. I’d make a fire and tell my cat ghost stories, some I remembered and some I thought up, and he’d snuggle in and I’d scratch his head and there was so much time to pass.
I figured that if I’d actually lived long enough, I’d have eventually tumbled down into my own bad brain and botched whatever life I’d made for myself, only to end up writing a series of unpublishable novels about baseball while sundowning in some graveled upstate trailer park. I figured this.
My cat figured he’d have fathered a whole army of lion-pawed kittens and that he’d have taken down a few school districts worth of fish in his time. He figured this.
I thought about Sam. It was the only time anything felt like anything. We’d walk an extra portion of time just to burn past the hurt of it. We walked so long. We walked so long. We walked so long. We were brothers and we walked.
One late afternoon, we came upon a clearing in the bog. In the center of the clearing was a small wooden shack, the first semi-hospitable structure I’d seen. Above the doorway to the shack someone had used big swipes of red paint to spell out the words: NO KILL SHELTER.
I walked slowly towards the shack, and my cat jostled around quietly in his basket as I placed my hand onto the door, carefully pushing it open. We were not afraid.
Inside, the shack was much bigger than it had appeared. The sunlight refused to enter its gloom, but there was a faint red glow from within. I let the door of the shack close behind me and I gently set my cat’s basket-house onto the floor.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see a clock in the center of the shack. It was a tall grandfather clock, and although the pendulum in its body remained still, I could see the time moving normally inside its dusty face. On top of the clock was a fat red candle, burning steadily, producing small rivers of wax.
I felt compelled to sit and rest, so I lowered myself onto the floor of the shack and sat cross-legged, staring into the dreamy red din of the candle the whole time.
Affixed below the candle, at the very top of the clock, was a little wooden sign written in cursive. It spelled my name, and then there was an ampersand, and then it spelled out the word, “Fettuccine.” And, of course, that was my cat’s name.
The candle bled and bled, getting dimmer now, with the light trying to stay strong while it danced to some ending. My cat climbed out of his basket and settled down on my lap. We sat there and watched the weeping wax together and the time went by. Too long. Soft rain started drumming outside and then faded into nothing. The wax bled down onto the clock’s face until it covered up all the possible time. We were together.
Eventually, the red light got impossibly low, and my cat was half-sleeping, safe in my lap. I started singing, before I even knew what I was doing, maybe I was praying. I couldn’t tell because I’d gotten so incredibly tired. But, I wanted to stay with him for just a bit longer. As long as I could.
I was mumble-singing, “Little prince, little prince. Goodnight, my sweet prince. Little prince, little prince. Goodnight, my sweet prince.”
And the light did leave us, as we knew it would, and we were left together in the warm darkness. He was still with me and I was still with him. The sound of his purring was thunderous, ancient, and only for me.
After he died, Samantha cried with an intensity that was deemed medically impossible.
After he died, Samantha had to put his cat down because it refused to eat.
After he died, Samantha burned through a hard decade in a bad blink.
After he died, Samantha married a dentist with kind eyes.
After he died, Samantha’s dreams came true in a way that split her own history in half.
After he died, Samantha lived so long and bright that she forgot where she’d sent him.
Matthew Bookin [b. 1985] lives in Buffalo, NY. He wrote HONEST DAYS (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018) and is a co-founding editor of PEACH MAG.