By: Danielle Cralle
“You ain’t gonna make it,” she said. Her high-pitched voice reverberated off the tree trunks. Sophie was 10 then. She stood awkwardly on the fat branch high up in the Oak tree as her heart beat so fast it nearly popped out her chest.
Reaching out her hand for the next branch, Sophie felt her kitty cat’s eyes on her, waiting.
She missed by an inch, scraping the wood with her fingernails as she fell from the sky. Before Sophie’s mama could rush out her cat crawled up to her side, shaking her fuzzy blue head as her long, green tail curled up.
“Told ya so.”
Broke her left leg that summer, right underneath that tree. Broke her spirit, too. She ain’t been right since.
Her cat was mean, but Sophie ain’t hate her for it. Wasn’t no point in that. She knew, sure as the sun rising and setting, the dirty blue cat would be there every morning and night. Her presence wasn’t pleasant, but it was comfortable.
Some of us lucky enough to be blessed with the people we need. Rest of us got learn to live hand-in-hand with lack.
The cat was a gift from her father a couple of days before he walked out. It stood as tall as her thigh and she had strange thick tufts of matted blue and navy hair covering slender body. Smack dab in the middle of her face was two big ol’ googley eyes and behind her was a muddy green tail, bout as long as Sophie.
Sophie ain’t hate her, but she did hate them whiskers. Cat’d watch her try anything new – could’ve been reading or riding a bike – and them whiskers would rise up, revealing a mean smile set to a row of mangled teeth.
When them whiskers turned up Sophie knew it wasn’t no use.
Sometimes when them laughs took over her head and she felt like she was bout ta scream she’d close her eyes and fantasize about wrapping her hands around that furry blue neck until her cat turned a bruised purple. Then she’d be free. Free from that high-pitched voice. Free to try things without stopping ‘fore she started. Free from doubt. Free.
Sophie loved to cook, you see. She’d make pies and cakes, coconut cake was her and her mama’s favorite. She could stew chicken and sauté vegetables til everyone in the kitchen groaned with delight.
Cept that damn cat.
When Sophie told her mama and granny she was finna apply to cooking school at Les Bonchron Deux, her cat laughed.
“Girl, you? In France?” she said between snickers. “You ain’t never even left this town, and you finna go to France?”
The cat laughed again as the smile on Sophie’s face faded.
“They don’t want no chicken and dumplins. They don’t want your country buttered biscuits.”
Her cat’s tail thumped the counter as she laughed louder and louder, Sophie felt more foolish by the minute.
Les Bonchron Deux ain’t want her, she thought as the doubt crept in. She wasn’t no chef, just a small town girl who liked to cook for her family, she thought to herself as she went up the spiral staircase to her room. Her cat’s laughter followed her every step of the way.
So instead Sophie took a job as a waitress serving up causal American food to overweight folk who slid in and out the sticky vinyl booths like clockwork.
But she grew bored. Soon enough she started thinkin’ bout having her own catering business.
Figured she made the same amount of money selling her spiced coconut cakes as she did at the restaurant, maybe she could make even more on her own.
But when she’d get home from work and sit down at her computer, her kitty would saunter over to the desk and leap on top of her monitor, swaying her tail in front of the screen. Them whiskers would turn upwards and give way to a cruel, short laugh.
“Girl how you gonna start a business? You never even went to college. Who in they right mind would give you a loan?” she asked one night.
Sophie bit her lip. “Figure I’ll save up for it.”
“And who you selling cakes to? Nobody outside of Jansen County want no spiced coconut cake,” she said, though she’d had two slices today, Sophie seen her lick the frosting off her paws and everything.
She stared at the ground and waited until she heard Kitty close the office door and sighed. Didn’t nobody want no cakes from a country bumpkin, she thought. Specially when there was real chefs out there.
She closed her computer and followed her kitty to the porch to watch the sunset instead.
Sophie was grown now. Wasn’t no more climbing and jumping from trees. Her mama passed last year, her granny left long before that. But that cat was still there, quick to tell Sophie what she couldn’t do. Ready to remind Sophie what she wasn’t.
On her 45th birthday she sat in her kitchen in front of a glass of lemonade and realized she’d been listening to that cat for 40 years with nothing to show for it.
On humid summer evenings Sophie would sit on the porch watching the cotton candy clouds sit atop the pink and orange sky, her cat would sit across from her. The tree Sophie fell from all those years ago stood proud in the background, though it had not sprouted any leaves in years.
One night like every other night Sophie took a sip of her lemonade, letting the tangy sweetness linger. Sophie and her cat sat in silence til the sky turned a bruised purple. She knew it was time.
“I’m starting a French cookin’ class at the college up the road next week,” Sophie said, swirling the ice in her now empty glass. She tried to appear casual, though she was anything but. That cat looked at Sophie like she had one eye.
“Girl, you too old,” that cat said. “When’s the last time you seen the inside of a classroom?” Sophie felt her stomach drop as she watched them whiskers rise up. But she kept on.
“Don’t matter,” Sophie said. “It’s gon be fun.”
“Fun?” that cat said. For the first time ever Sophie saw a frown creep across her ugly little face.
“I suppose.” Sophie took a deep breath and continued carefully.
“And once I’m done with that class Ima take Intro to Asian foods. Figure I’d learn how to make sushi,” Sophie said, smiling.
Sophie studied the cat, who sat in silence as her tail tapped the seat and wrapped around her small body. She stretched her short little paws and flicked her tail across her body.
“How many times I got to tell you, you ain’t no chef,” she said. “You barely a waitress.”
Sophie broke their gaze and stared out into the darkness at the tree, she thought about how that cat was always stopping her before she could even start. She met them big ol eyes and held her gaze steady.
“Well, next week Imma be some kinda chef,” Sophie said.
Them whiskers curled up and that cat laughed a big ol gut bustin’ laugh.
Sophie got up and walked out. She heard her laughing as she climbed the spiral staircase. Heard her laughing as she closed her door, and she kept laughing even as Sophie lay down for bed.
But for the first time it ain’t bother Sophie much.
Over the next week the cat was especially mean to her. When Sophie said she was joining Maddie Wilson’s book club the frown appeared again, and her cat reminded her that she could barely read the magazines on the coffee table, let alone a book. Sophie just rolled her eyes.
A few days after Sophie’s birthday she stood in the kitchen stirring the batter of her spiced coconut cake as her cat paced back and forth. Sophie couldn’t help but watch. She wondered what had changed in her friend.
“I went and joined a dating site,” Sophie said as she watched them whiskers lift up.
“You too frumpy to date any man,” the cat said. Sophie looked down at her blouse, smoothing it out.
Suppose she’s right, Sophie thought. The only man who messaged her was George from the Library. He was chubby and wore the thickest glasses Sophie had ever seen. But he treated her real nice. And loved her coconut cake. Told her it was the best he ever had.
The oven timer rang and Sophie looked back at her cat – but she was gone.
She moped round all week, that cat. Withdrawing to her room, refusing to eat, sleeping nearly the whole day away. Part of Sophie was worried but part of her didn’t care much at all. It was nice not to be at the mercy of them unsolicited opinions.
On Wednesday Sophie woke with a start. She squinted at the clock and realized she was late for her very first cooking class. Her stomach knotted as she rushed to get dressed.
But when her hand jammed into her bag she slowed down. Her keys. Where were they?
Sophie raced down the spiral staircase to the kitchen – no luck there. Her mind went to the patio – she’d watched the sun set last night. Must’ve left them on the table next to her lemonade.
Outside the morning sun covered everything in a haze. To Sophie’s left, sure as day, were them keys. Soon as she grabbed em she felt a lump in her chest, something wasn’t right.
Instead of two chairs there was only one. Sophie stared at the empty space for a moment when suddenly she heard a loud crack in the distance. She whipped her head around and squinted in the direction of the sound.
The tree. Through the sun she spied a blue and green figure thrashing against the Oak tree, hanging almost.
Oh no, she thought as she raced towards the tree. And then she stopped.
Three feet away from her a small body hung from a branch by an old rope, her cat’s ugly little blue face had turned a strange shade of purple, bruised almost. Sophie looked down. Beneath her was the chair, turned on its side.
She was not lifeless, not yet. Her paws gripped the rope around her neck as she kicked and jerked. With her paw she reached out to Sophie, pleading.
Sophie wanted to help her, to rescue her tiny body but something stopped her. Within seconds the cat’s body hung lifelessly in front of her. Sophie sank to her knees, her breath caught in her chest. When she finally inhaled tears welled in her eyes, spilling onto her jeans. She missed her already, couldn’t help that.
Slowly, Sophie stood, and as she did another feeling came over her. Deep down in her belly it felt like her life was finally starting.
Sophie walked over to her, pressed her lips to her cat’s blue fur and kissed that hairy whiskered face. Above her, on one of the empty branches, a small green bud caught her eye. The branch was in bloom. Sophie smiled and then, through her tears, she laughed. Turning, she walked away from the tree and headed to class.
Somehow, she made it on time.