Joyland

Canada |

An End Fit for Beatrice

by Sarah C. Dillon

edited by Kathryn Mockler

The body becomes confused with character, with mind, with heart. The body moves and is placed, and the heart is compelled to follow. We do this to one another. There are good people and there are not good people. A body may betray this. But a heart is always honest. A cat knows this.

When shooed, kicked, swatted at, a cat doesn’t understand this. It is personal, it is real. When a cat is tortured by a young boy and his friend and it is filmed and uploaded onto a popular website on the internet, a cat doesn’t understand this. And a good person, well, a good person can’t even sit still at the thought.

Emma Howitzen, on the patio at a newly opened fusion restaurant, heard this story. She slumped in her chair, crossed and uncrossed her legs, picked at her plate, stared wearily at the other tables, sighed often. A frown, always a frown on her face and furrows in her brow, she is unfailingly dissatisfied. Emma Howitzen displays all of the markings of one who is restlessly, interminably bored. She might be considered an attractive woman, with her extravagant tallness and her deep set, brooding eyes, indelible pout, thick dark hair. She might have been considered an attractive woman, but her coldness, her impervious demeanour was palpable. Emma Howitzen, the fortress.

It was early February; when things change, have the capacity to change. She heard this story, of the two boys and what they did to that helpless cat. She merely blinked, raised her wine glass to the sun, squinting through the reflection and said the appropriate “oh, how cruel” and “those boys ought to be punished”. A good person, on the exterior, might have covered their face, and even broken out into a sweat. A good person might have teared up a little, might have felt a sickness in their belly, a hunger for revenge. But Emma Howitzen, she heard that story, she said what should be said, and she promptly changed the subject to something less affecting. Something inane and frivolous. Something like how shitty was the service at this restaurant and look at the water spots on my glass. 

What was seen was a woman conducting herself in a slow, off-key state of disregard, systematically detaching herself from the effort of caring. What was not seen was her heart, in the throes of anguish, sloughing off the hard rime from a flash freeze, and caring, vigorously caring.

There was a time, only a few months ago, when things were different. There was colour in her cheeks, there was meaning. There was dancing, even. There was an olive green scarf, there was the smell of old books and sex, there was comfort, there was purring. There was autumn. 

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: I don’t remember, I don’t remember, I don’t remember.

WATER SPOTS ON GLASS: Start paying attention. You have no peripheral vision.

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: Tell me what to do. I don’t remember. 

WATER SPOTS ON GLASS: You are fragile like me, dirty like me. You will find a way. 

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: Okay, October, I am ready for you. Bring your harlequin leaves and your burnished beasts and your salient breath. I’m ready. 

There are good people and there are not good people. On the exterior, Emma Howitzen is not a good person. She is a certifiable mess. But her heart is pure.

*

Mister Bovaird is a good person. So very good. He, too, heard the story of the two boys and that blameless, bewildered cat. Upon hearing that story, he raised his hands in protest. He begged the teller of the story to stop. He wrapped his arms around himself, he groaned and he asked, despairingly, was the cat okay? Was the cat safe? Do you think it will ever trust a human again? Who could do such a despicable thing? 

Walking home one night, he finds an old and wiry tomcat, yowling and licking at an open sore on his gravel and dirt-encrusted hind leg. He bends a little in front of this

cat, bringing his eyes to the same level; they barely peer through his many veiled eyelids. Mister Bovaird, a looming, hopeful hound dog. His hair is oily and hangs in separated wet-white strands across his forehead. He looks like a worn down Fred Astaire. Sandpapered, like he hasn’t slept. Ever. Like a wet towel hanging on sticks. Bone jutting out to hold up a sallow, sunken, past-his-prime lover. Poor thing!, thinks this cat. He must be lonely.

Mister Bovaird, thinking, too, poor thing!, takes this cat up in his thin arms, brings him home, cleans and dresses the wound. He makes up a bed of blankets, feeds him fresh salmon and heavy cream. He leaves the window open for a breeze. Names the cat Frances. Strokes Frances’ strong head until the cat begins to purr and press against him. He then goes to bed. 

HEART OF FRANCES: I am grateful for your benevolence.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: You are my equal.

HEART OF FRANCES: I don’t understand what this is.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: It is called home, if you want it.

Frances. Ears twitching at the rustling outdoors, at the deep sighs of a kind man sleeping. Frances, fed and full and warm for what feels like first time. Not remembering any life before, there lies Frances, with a name. 

In a short time, Frances’ wound will heal. He is small and lithe. He doesn’t know he is older than he is and he will discover q-tips and hunt mice for gifts to Mister Bovaird. Mister Bovaird will come home to a wet, crumpled mouse on his kitchen floor, Frances proud and strong beside it, blinking slowly. Look what I have done for you. Look at this offering.  Mister Bovaird, not wanting to shrink or squirm under the gaze of Frances, smiles earnestly, treats him with fresh salmon, quietly discards the mouse.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: When you look at me like that, is it with love, the way I think it is?

HEART OF FRANCES: Sometimes I just want attention. That isn’t love.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: I understand. I’m glad that we can talk this way.

HEART OF FRANCES: We aren’t talking, but I know what you mean.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: I will take care of you. You are safe.

HEART OF FRANCES: I will take care of you. You are safe.

At night, Frances will lie on his chest and tap at his chin until he is pet. He talks, he chirps. He asks for nothing but Mister Bovaird’s hands on his face. There are moments when they stare into each other’s eyes and feel as though they will never be happy without one another. Frances doesn’t know what to call it. Mister Bovaird thinks it mere devotion.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: Tell me what you know.

HEART OF FRANCES: I know of heartbreak. 

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: Please tell me.

HEART OF FRANCES: It is like a howling dog: a thing of pity, a shake of bad luck.

A missing, a missing, a missing. O, to be howling and woo-ing with them. Wouldn’t

that make it better? A dip in dog water, frothy with the spit and hair of bone-dry thirst, one part you, one part me.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: Where was I before I found you? 

HEART OF FRANCES: Go to sleep now.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: It’s too cold. Come closer.

HEART OF FRANCES: Shhh …

*

Emma Howitzen lives alone. Of course she does. This is her choice. Of course it is. In only a few short years, she has relegated herself to someone resembling a well-to-do hermit. She has friends, if you can call them as much. Relics of her past with fading memories of the woman she used to be. It’s hard though, sitting with a woman who has begun to bite her cheeks until they bleed, who jangles her earrings and cracks her knuckles, who shakes her foot. It makes a person nervous, all of that movement.           

What is seen is a methodically drawn face. But the body—betraying us as it does—is beginning to show signs of weakness, an inability to contain the heart. The heart, if it is pure, will always find a way.

A person, a stranger, even a friend might not notice these cracks, might not notice the panic in her eyes. A cat, always knowing a pure heart, will see this. A cat, given to bouts of curiosity and stalking, will wait. A cat is patient. 

EMPTY APARTMENT: It’s starting to happen. 

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I will fight it. I will go back.

EMPTY APARTMENT: Don’t be scared. It’s very exciting.

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: I take it back. She’s not ready.  I’m not ready.

EMPTY APARTMENT: It’s not up to her anymore. You know you will find a way. 

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: Will it hurt?

EMPTY APARTMENT: At first. But then it will be magic. Pure salt and song.

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: It’s bigger than me. Than her.

EMPTY APARTMENT: Everything is.

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: But I don’t remember. I don’t remember how.

EMPTY APARTMENT: You will. This is what you do.

*

Frances begins to take walks. He feels safe doing this after Mister Bovaird began taking him to the backyard in the spring. The slow process of trust. He would sit and wait for Frances, low to the ground, sniffing, terrified, rushing back to the door in fits of fear that it wouldn’t be open. Not wanting the unknowable life there had been before Mister Bovaird, patient and smiling, with those cerulean eyes. Reliable, reassuring. In time, Frances goes to the yard alone. He twists to his back and sleeps with his russet belly to the sun. He swats at flies and eats grass. He chases and catches more mice, a mole, a bird, once a rabbit.

RABBIT: I had a family.

FRANCES: They will miss you.

RABBIT: To be honest, this is a relief. 

FRANCES: I sensed that. I only take the ones who are ready. 

RABBIT: Please bury me beneath the winterberry.

FRANCES: It would be an honour. You are free to go now.

RABBIT: It was hard, you know. But it was beautiful. 

FRANCES: I know. Go on. 

This gives Frances the notion that life is, in fact, short. Too short for backyards. He begins to take longer walks, and at night, after Mister Bovaird goes to bed. He visits raccoons, playgrounds. He remembers this life, the one he had before he had a person. There was this cooling, end of summer air. He remembers the brawny frame and strong shoulders of his youth, his powerful growl. There was lovemaking and turf wars and comrades lost to speeding cars and rabies. He remembers the organic wildness of his life. So many years of that untamed, selfish life. He had been alone, aging and growing tired of it. Then there were a group of young boys chasing him for no good reason, throwing their empty bottles at him. He remembers the acute sting of a shard of glass gouging into his leg. Then he remembers the tremendous hands of Mister Bovaird, cautiously gathering him up—that sudden knowing, the giving up of himself to this person, and what it meant to really be loved. It humbled Frances, this blue-eyed man. His person. 

On a walk, on a certain night in the Spring, he met a kitten, starving to death, trapped in the high branches of a tree, unable to find a way down. Her dirtied white paws clinging to the bark, stained with dried blood from many attempts at self-rescue. She called out in despairing, terrible cries. No Mister Bovaird to come looking for her. Everyone needs a person. 

STARVING CAT: It wasn’t meant to happen this way. 

FRANCES: How was it meant to be?

STARVING CAT: In October, by a fire, in the arms of the person who loved me. 

FRANCES: Few of us are so lucky. 

STARVING CAT: I’m so tired. 

FRANCES: Where is your person?

STARVING CAT: Lost. She was strong and has the brightest eyes. 

FRANCES: What is your name?

STARVING CAT: Beatrice. 

FRANCES: Beatrice. That’s lovely. 

BEATRICE: What happens now? 

FRANCES: I think you’re supposed to close your eyes.

BEATRICE: Stay with me a little.

FRANCES: I’m here. Shhh … go on. 

Frances stayed. He watched Beatrice, high in the tree, close her eyes.  He watches the slackening of her body, the unclench of her claws in the bark of the branch, the deep, desperate last breath of a body that was not ready. The unfairness of it punched Frances hard in his chest. He can only imagine what this might have done to Beatrice’s person. He turned away and wept, as cats weep. Frances, the gatekeeper, the hooded. 

*

Emma Howitzen has had a full life. And long, too. There has been laughter. There have been a great many years of relentless, aching joy.  All of these things committed to a small place, where they have been forgotten, igloo’d in a trench of grief. Within these walls, the mother of her childhood, in an olive scarf. She cradles in her great arms the trip Emma took alone, bright-eyed at twenty-one. Flocks of sheep and the moss-covered rock of Ireland. Her father, on Christmas Eve, dancing alone in the hallway, eyes closed and smiling, not knowing Emma was watching and loving him so completely. And here is the book that moved her to tears, thrown across the room in a fit of bliss, as though rallied to see for the first time that life was magnificent. The first lover rubs hands with the first love. They try to recall, together, her perfect fingers, her unabashed laughter, those long legs, her hands on their faces and the way she looked at them when they had lain over her, hungry and mad for her. And the most recent of those tucked away: a kitten. A small, purring kitten, sleeping in the crook of Emma’s arm.  When there was nothing else, there was this.

These moments of untold pleasure, of deep, unforgiving fulfillment. They lie stealthy; they have felt the buzzing. They up themselves from their weary wait, sit back on their haunches. They know it is soon, their rediscovering.

FIRST LOVER: Do you think she’ll have missed us? 

FIRST LOVE: Of course she will. We were spectacular.

BOOK THROWN ACROSS ROOM: We were integral! 

FATHER DANCING: Substantial!

FIRST LOVER: Vital!

MOSS COVERED ROCK OF IRELAND: We were all vital. 

FIRST LOVE: It’s been so long. 

*

Mister Bovaird has lived a solitary life. Before he found Frances, he passed his time idly, distracted easily, moved to action rarely. He was polite, a gentleman even. Neighbours found him neighbourly, the children of his siblings found him generous and easy to confide in. He wore suit jackets and low-brimmed hats. He held the door open for strangers and was honest about politics and his distaste for apricots. As a music teacher in his younger years, he was respected by his peers. Women never eyed him cautiously at night. He laughed easily and was always kind to wait staff. He filled out crosswords and took late evening strolls, as older men do. On the whole, Mister Bovaird is and has been nothing short of a stand-up guy. But he was lonely. Unspeakably lonely. It wasn’t until he discovered Frances on the street, with his matted fur and pained eyes, that he felt the true breadth of his loneliness. In Frances’ suffering, he found that he was deeply moved. He would love this animal. After all, everyone needs a person.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: We are the same, you and I. 

Frances with the honest grey brow and beard, Mister Bovaird with the deep caverns at the edges of his eyes; small awards for a man who smiles. They are a handsome pair. 

HEART OF FRANCES: There is love for you. 

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: It’s too late for me now. I am a husk of my youth.

HEART OF FRANCES: You have much to offer. You are kind-hearted.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: I will always be alone. 

HEART OF FRANCES: I am all you need. 

*

It is early October. Emma Howitzen, no longer able to control the inevitable eruption of the source of her long-bound heart, has given up to fits of ennui, wherein she bursts outside and walks briskly in the crisp air, whimpers at the tightness in her throat. And it is on a night like this, not unlike any other, that she meets Frances. She stops to watch this cat, this stranger that reminds her of the last time she felt happy and with purpose. Frances, sensing the necessity of this meeting, presses against her legs. The desired effect is a sort of disarming. People (Frances has noted over the years) crave connection. Emma Howitzen tenses, then eases with the familiarity of kindness, of absolute and unsullied warmth. She crouches down, her eyes searching this old cat. Frances peers back thoughtfully. Emma feels the beginnings of a crumbling, of a fog over her eyes. 

FIRST LOVE: Here it comes.

MOSS COVERED ROCK OF IRELAND: It’s a red-letter day.

FATHER DANCING: It’s happening.

BEATRICE: Quiet.

They stare at one another, Frances and Emma Howitzen, quiet and curious. What might be seen, if a person was looking, is the body of a woman remembering. It is a slow rise of recognition, a softening in the face and then the ruinous ache of regret, of grief. The crumpled up, agonized expression of a woman who remembers everything and who must—if only for a moment—feel it all again for the first time. 

HEART OF FRANCES: Are you sad?

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: I had one of you, once. She filled me up completely. 

HEART OF FRANCES: Tell me what happened.

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: She abandoned me. I think maybe I didn’t love her enough.

HEART OF FRANCES: I am sure she felt your love. We can tell.

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: I searched everywhere.

HEART OF FRANCES: What was her name? 

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: Beatrice.

HEART OF FRANCES: Yes, she loved you. 

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN: No.

HEART OF FRANCES: She did. I could tell, in the end. It’s nobody’s fault. 

HEART OF EMMA HOWITZEN. Oh! I remember! I remember! I remember!

Emma Howitzen covers her face in a shock of tears. There is enchantment in all of this. Frances is pleased, but misses his person, feels that he is needed, is ready to go home, turns quietly and leaves. 

Emma Howitzen, wet-faced and laughing. This is what it feels like: there was the olive green scarf of her mother, and the scent of cumin, too. There was her first lover, and her first love, naked and filled with earthly benediction. There was the crispness of the moss on the rocks in Ireland; there is no other green. And there was her father, dancing alone in the hallway and smiling, smiling, smiling. And there was little, lost Beatrice, purring.

FATHER DANCING: There you are. 

FIRST LOVER: Look at you! You’re glorious!

MOSS COVERED ROCK OF IRELAND: We were waiting. 

FIRST LOVE: Your laughter! 

BEATRICE: Your bright eyes!

*

It is the heart of autumn now. Frances has noticed the untroubled resignation in Mister Bovaird’s demeanor. It’s been a long life, Frances knows, and with a complicated feeling of relief and melancholy, he settles in this night. He knows when to stay. 

There is fresh salmon. There has always been fresh salmon. There are scratches under the chin. There is the slow shuffling to bed of Mister Bovaird’s weakened, aged body. Frances notices the extra effort to stoke the fire once more before exhaling under the covers. Frances takes care to knead his paws against Mister Bovaird’s chest and to butt his head against his hand when the petting begins to slow. He recognizes the changes.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: I think it’s enough now, don’t you?

HEART OF FRANCES: You were never alone. 

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: It wasn’t so bad, was it? Especially after I found you.

HEART OF FRANCES: It was dazzling.

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: I love you, Frances. 

HEART OF FRANCES: Go on, now. I’m here. 

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: What do I do? 

HEART OF FRANCES: You close your eyes. 

HEART OF MISTER BOVAIRD: I’m ready.

Mister Bovaird, fed and full for the first time, laying in front of a fire, rollicking light casting all things orange. Mister Bovaird and the cool wind against the window, the softness of Frances lying against him, nestling under his arm.

Frances feels that familiar deep sigh. He sighs, tired too, and ready. He weeps, as cats weep—in both joy and heartache, in a long, cast-out purr—the only comfort a cat can give a person.

PURRING HEART OF FRANCES: It was you, it was you, it was you. You made it all, you tall, kind beast with those blue eyes and your big hands. 

Closing his eyes, ready, Frances follows Mister Bovaird in an end not-so-remarkable—cloying, even—but fit for Beatrice. Dust floating in a lowing October sun, cast against wood. This is how it feels. Magic. Few of us are so lucky.