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February 26, 2009

Ragmop

I love cats.

It doesn’t make sense, but I do.

I come near to making an utter fool of myself, feeding them, picking them up, cuddling them, smooching them, making itty-bitty-kitty noises as I fondle their whiskers. And what do I get back? Haughtiness, condescension, an unmistakable superiority that comes close to disdain.

I can’t remember a time in my life, from babyhood to through geezerhood, when there hasn’t been a tabby sharing my living space. Suburban home, urban apartment, vacation farm house — even the occasional foxhole in the old steel helmet days — never went kitty-less. And whether it was curled up in my lap or mooching chow at the kitchen door, the cat du jour would leave no doubt as to who was boss.

Nevertheless, cats fascinate me, and I’ve spent so much time watching them there’s very little about them I don’t know.

I think.

My favorite was Ragmop. She was a yellow-white-orangey tan color, and she had large blue-green eyes that persuaded you that there wasn’t a thing in this world or beyond that she didn’t know about. In fact, that’s how and why she became my most reliable ghost-watcher, a very useful household appliance for someone like me — a reluctant paranormal living in St. Augustine, the spookiest of American cities. Still, between you and me, I can’t even bring up her name without feeling as if I’ve overdosed on E. A. Poe and Stephen King.

I can’t remember when she joined our family. She seemed always to have just been around the house, part of the daily background, like an old vase or a porch chair. But after I turned 70, I was spending most of every day alone, writing and painting in my bayside studio, while my wife was busy in her antiques shop downtown. Only Ragmop shared my silence and solitude.

She began earnest service one sunny afternoon, a very un-ghostly time of day, to be sure, when I had just pushed back from the computer and was stretching my legs and yawning. I thought I saw a dark — something — move across the studio just behind my back, just out of sight. I turned to look, but, of course, nothing unusual was there.

So why, then, was Ragmop crouching, her ears lying flat against her head, her eyes like marbles, her jaws wide in a hissing snarl?

I confess to having felt a chill on my spine, a racing of my heart.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. Ragmop settled to the floor, folded her front legs, and returned to her snooze.

What had she seen? Heard? Something beyond my capabilities, certainly.

Something she had given a stern warning.

She wasn’t finished, though.

She repeated the performance a short time later. Partly in a defiant “Get a grip on yourself, man” attitude, partly to make a joke of it, I shared the incidents with one of my neighbors, an old salt who lived in an ivy-covered cottage on his dock north of me. He joked back. “Hell,” he said, “it’s probably Injun Joe. Story goes that Joe was a native chief who, when he was alive in Umpteen B.C., fought like mad keep squatters off this chunka land he said was his and nobody else’s. Dyin’ didn’t stop him. Been scarin’ the daylights outa folks around here ever since.”

I have a lot of Ragmop stories. But the bottom line is this:

All the while we were at the bayside studio together, Ragmop continued to signal the occasional arrivals of an invisible presence. She didn’t always kick up a fuss. Sometimes she’d interrupt a nap by opening her eyes, raising her head, and turning it slowly, warily, as if following the movements of an unwelcome passerby.

You know what?

Without looking up from my work, I’d grump, “Knock it off, Joe. This my place now.”

Like you, I didn’t believe it either. But I have to admit that Ragmop would yawn and go right back to sleep.

Jack

Copyright © 2008 - 2009 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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