A Gremlin in the Tree

AH, Gremlin, so neat and immaculate in your black velvet suit and white vest. And so unrestrained with that spark of sudden joy rapturing your squeak soul and on a moment's turning you soar across my tapestry on the wall ... or fling your shadow across my chairs, tapping claws on the upholstery ... or whirl downstairs from the cyclamen in my bedroom with a snatched blossom in your teeth like a tigress brandishing triumph. I am left pondering how in my little world of ``no'' and ``yes,'' will I ever shackle your tempestuous abandon to tranquil reliabilities. And I keep seeing back to the darling small boy bringing you in his arms, cuddled so gently - a gift to comfort me for the loss of my big cat, quiet and competent in her loyalties.

``Take care of your new daughter,'' he had said, so confident as he left, and I had smiled from my many years with cats. And I had pushed back any faint doubts, as the tiny black face with amazing whiskers stared at me, calculating my strength of character - and then she purred, delighting me in her certainties.

She streaked through my days in a passion of love and complete disregard to all my wise advice and warnings. She could dance on her two black legs, with the snowflake paws, sparring with a ping-pong ball I dangled by her head, and frisk happily round my skirts as I prepared her meals. When I tired of her attentions, she would land in my husband's lap and startle him into fondling so he forgot what he had been thinking about.

But come night, a wanton mischief would seize her, as she laid back her ears into tiny points and spun into a bleak world of disbelief, knocking out all boundaries of trust. Then I would remember her unknown past, a waif wandering the terrors of a strange highway where she had been dumped before some kind soul brought her to the S.P.C.A.

My husband couldn't keep from feeling jilted by her sudden disregard and flinging off from kindness, while I sighed and hoped for maturity when the mists of unknown shadows would have vanished in the bright light of comfort's expectations and trust. But Gil doubted; he sensed no steadiness as he left for work while I would be crawling under a sofa trying to grab her. ``Patience ...,'' I would mutter, and he merely shook his head.

The weeks went by with ups and downs, and the good chairs and my plant were moved into locked rooms. Our other world of friends and music and rehearsals continued and sometimes Gremlin felt snappish when we put her in the basement and slipped out the door for orchestra. She would meow pitifully under the basement door's crack when we returned, though once out, she stayed jauntily unpredictable and flighty. But somehow there seemed to be progress. There were some few moments of quiet like unexpected sparse raisins in a starch pudding.

One night a violin friend came back with us after a grueling struggle with a Shostakovich reading and we served hot sandwiches. Gremlin frisked around our laps, hoping for crumbs, and when Gil escorted our friend to his car, she scampered out as she often had. I went on washing dishes, counting the minutes until bed.

Suddenly Gil appeared looking wild and rumpled, with pine needles on his chest, and said loudly, ``I know I'll just kill myself! I just know it!''

I thought to myself he must be too tired ... a hard week at the office ... and I washed the last glass.

``I can't do it!'' he said - and that seemed more sensible. He stared at me hard, as though somehow it was all my fault. ``The cat's up the spruce by the deck and I tried to set the ladder up. I can't do it in the dark with all those branches so tight together - I'm just scared to get up there.'' He ran his hand distractedly through his hair.

I saw we were in a pickle and I dreaded the dark hours ahead. ``Darling,'' I sighed, ``forget the ladder. It's no use - you'll only make her go up higher. That's the way with cats. Better go to bed and get some sleep. I'll slip out and try to coax her down.''

Gil frowned. ``Nothing can coax that cat! And we can't just leave her out in the cold.'' He checked the thermometer. ``It's 28 - and falling.''

I struggled to be reasonable. ``She's in a fine black fur coat, with no buttons to leak drafts. Even those little white paws are padded. She'll be all right. I'll stay with her for a bit.''

As Gil reluctantly dragged upstairs, I took a flashlight and went out on the deck. The air felt bitter and I shivered as I tried to locate Gremlin. The spruce was thick with matted branches stretching to the house, and I hoped the flash would guide her down one of those trembling paths. Her meow was sounding pitiful and weak, and when I did locate her, all I could catch were the tiny eyes glazed in fear like dimming coals. I talked and she only distractedly clawed to a higher branch.

After an hour I was nearly frozen and she had reached the top, nearly forty feet up, and her meow sounded like a signal from outer space. Gil was right - nothing would lure her.

I finally dragged off to bed and did sleep, but over me hung her tiny meow - so high in the eternities of a black cold night with not one star shining to light her heart. Gil did go out several times to hold vigil, and sometimes he would not even find her nor hear her. When I awoke in the first full light of the new sun, I crept out to the deck and even in the brightness I could catch no sign. I went up to the second floor and stared out a window. Still nothing, and I feared the worst.

I climbed up to the third floor and opened one side of a dormer window - the other was barred by a large stationary fan. I leaned far out over the edge and the spruce stayed blank in stillness. Suddenly, clearly and close, I heard a meow like hope come back. In a minute cut short I glimpsed her wedged on the narrow sill of the other dormer window with the vast empty free-fall stretching out below her.

I daren't risk startling her - she had no room to dodge. Talking softly and easily between my heartbeats, I suddenly stretched out my full length, and grabbing her by the head I snatched her off the sill, round the corner. For one desperate second as she scratched and clawed against the wood, I swung her over the vacant spill of air and then she was in my arms, trembling safe with slit eyes still staring in terror. Suddenly she was purring, nestling against me. And so we trailed downstairs together, and fixing my exhausted husband a steaming mug of coffee with lots of cream, we woke him - she and I together. Like some mirage of sleep, he couldn't quite believe it, Gremlin all comfy-smiling in my arms, and coffee! But there it was, the truth - and suddenly, he said, he was in a whole new world.

And for all my faults I felt in that gleaming moment Gremlin had made me a queen, standing there in my old nightgown and nothing on my feet.

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