The Stray ~ Bill Marsh

The cat, an orange tabby, showed up one cool foggy morning in late spring. By noon
Belle had given it a name, Bianca Rose, on account of the rose-shaped white patch on its scrawny little neck. At first the animal kept to itself at yard’s edge, hunkered down in the lilacs under the goldfinch feeder, which Clay had mounted on a tall iron rod to discourage scavenging squirrels and possums. At one point the cat ventured onto the front porch only to skitter back into the bushes when Clay opened the door shouting Shoo now! and Scat!

“Leave her be,” Belle scolded from the kitchen. “You’ll frighten her to death.” Later
Belle opened a can of Chunk Light tuna and set it out on an old bath towel with a bowl of fresh water. “This should do the trick.” A long hour passed before Bianca Rose finally crept up to the porch in slow careful steps and accepted her offerings.

The next morning Clay rose early to place a call. Thoughts of the stray had niggled at him all night, but now he had a plan. Hanging up he pushed through the screen door saying, “Shelter opens at ten. That old raccoon trap should suffice as a carrier. I’ll drive it in, no problem.”

Belle, still dressed in her nightgown and slippers, was sitting on the porch rocker
studying the orange tabby nestled at her feet. Close up the cat was all bones and bug-infested, rust-colored fur, green eyes like dusty marbles wobbling in their sockets, a torn left ear. “She’s starving, poor thing,” Belle said. “On her own all winter, is my guess.”

Clay, fully prepared to wrestle the trap down from the shed rafters all by himself,
understood now what he was up against. “You know we can’t keep it,” he pleaded.
“Why not?” Belle drew her slender fingers along the cat’s bony spine, a slow serpentine wave.

“You want it mucking up your flower beds?”

“They’ll survive.”

“Those goldfinches won’t come within a mile of the feeder.”

“We move the feeder.”


“Go make yourself busy, dear.”


A week passed and sure enough the orange tabby settled in, occupied the front porch like it had lived there forever. With Belle’s constant feeding it started to look more cat-like—more meat and fat filling out those bones. One day Belle lifted the trusting animal into her lap, brushed out the knots and burrs. As a rule Clay kept a safe distance, his thoughts on the matter quite clear and true as far as he was concerned: Belle could insist on sheltering the cat (for the time being at least), but she could not require him to like it. Nor would he make special allowances, go out of his way, or bend one inch to accommodate. And yet it was Clay who offered later that week to stop by the store and buy cat food. Belle had asked for a twenty-pound bag. Knowing better, Clay bought ten.

Belle called the cat Bianca Rose and bristled whenever Clay referred to it as the animal or that thing. Every evening at sundown she stepped outside and called her name, “Bianca Rose!,” into the deepening dusk, standing there with the porch door wide open letting in warm air and bugs. Sometimes it took a while for the cat to return and Clay, watching his programs in the other room, could only shake his head and sigh. Then Belle’s triumphant cooing—good kitty kitty—and the screen door banging shut behind her. “She’s back home, on the porch, safe and sound,” Belle would say, as if she expected him to find comfort in those words.

“You’re always going on about mice,” Belle argued one night. “With Bianca Rose
around you won’t have to worry so much.”

Clay disagreed. “Plenty of snap traps in the cellar. Besides, with summer nearly here I’m not seeing any mice, are you?”

But the point seemed lost on Belle.

He tried on occasion to get along, made an effort. One gray morning, for instance, the cat pattered up to the side of the house where Clay was working a piece of loose siding with a hammer and a fistful of nails. He bent at the waist and made a sound, a kind of high-pitched whirring, by placing the tip of his tongue behind his two front teeth. A cat-friendly sound, he figured, but it must have come out wrong because the animal jumped back, bushy orange tail snapping high in the air.

That afternoon, setting off for the mailbox, Clay opened the porch door and nearly
tripped. Bianca Rose, roused from her nap on the welcome mat, sprang up and dashed into the yard, glancing back with a sleepy, accusatory look that made Clay madder still. “Belle!” he shouted back into the house. “I bust a knee on account of that thing, you’ll be sorry.” There was no reply, but the next morning he went outside to find the cat curled up inside a beat-up laundry basket stuffed with old flannel work shirts. His shirts. Fuming, Clay stormed into the kitchen where Belle was drawing a wet rag over the counters. “What were you thinking?”

“Go on,” she said. “You haven’t worn them in years.”

“That’s not the point.”

But it was no use, he could tell from the look in her eye.


One night Clay had a dream. In the dream Belle was young again, her hair long like it was now but darker. She sat in a chair by the window looking out, blackened panes behind her reflecting a swirl of familiar faces, as if someone had taken a hedge trimmer to the family photo album and tossed the bits into the air like confetti. Clay woke from the dream with tears in his eyes, heart pounding, and yet for the life of him he could not recall what had upset him so. The boys were there, in the dream’s murky background, vrooming toy trucks back and forth on the
pinewood floor. And the dog—that beagle mix they’d given up the year Dylan got sick, the dog’s name escaping him, but lying there in the dark Clay recalled the way Belle shut down, wouldn’t talk for two days straight when that dog went away.

When Belle stirred the next morning Clay turned toward her hoping to share his dream, but nothing doing. Belle mumbled a gruff “Good morning” then stepped into the bathroom, still irked no doubt by what he’d said the night before. About the cat, of course. Pigheaded, she’d called him, refusing to hear him out. Foolish and short-sighted, was his take on her. There was a time when it would’ve been different, thought Clay, lacing up his boots—a time when that cat would’ve been long gone by now, caged up at the shelter or maybe bagged up with a big rock at the bottom of the pond. The way they used to do it. Quick and painless. No questions asked. No
cute names, no ten-dollar bags of cat chow either.

Outside Clay squinted against the early morning sun, pulled his cap down tight over his eyes. It was late June but today’s heat felt more like mid-July. The trees covered in new leaves gathered in tall bunches against a hazy white sky. What was it his father used to say? A man on a muggy day could better feel the world taking shape around him. From his toolbox in the shed he pulled a screwdriver and a can of oil wrapped in a rusty rag then made his way across the yard to the barn, the troubled side door of which was number one on today’s list. He tightened and oiled the upper hinge and gave it a try. The heavy old door moaned like a calving cow then came to rest where he’d found it, a good three inches off frame. Just then a whole slew of emotions broke loose, only some of which had anything to do with the goddamn door.

Belle was doing dishes, hands swimming in soapy water, when Clay stepped inside. He felt ready now—to speak his mind, make things right—but the stony expression on his wife’s face stopped him cold, set his teeth on edge.

“Brace yourself,” she said. “You’re not going to like this.”


There were four in all, each no bigger than a full-grown chipmunk. Two orange and one gray tabby and a fourth mostly white with orange spots that Belle had already named Sunrise. Hands tingling at his sides, Clay did not catch all of what Belle was saying. Her words, like the boisterous first flies of spring, kept darting away, escaping his grasp. He caught enough to understand that she had theories about the tom, about its size and facial coloring. “Because look,” Belle said, leaning over the whicker basket. “Those two are the spitting image, but the gray one and Sunrise? Go figure.”

“I don’t know,” Clay said, gesturing at the squirmy mass knotted up in his old work
shirts. “Right there, I just don’t know.” He pulled the oily rag from his back pocket and wiped it across his brow. “This isn’t right, Belle, and you know it. That grown one there’s bad enough.”

Belle made slow business of responding, hands braced on hips as she turned and planted herself between Clay and the basket. “You’re thinking too much, getting all worked up. Don’t you have anything better to do? That yard needs a mow. Maybe now’s a good time.”

“Now is not a good time. Now’s a good time to take care of this situation.”


“I could do it myself, no problem.”

Belle took a moment to consider his words then said, “No you couldn’t. And no you
won’t. So stop the crazy talk and go make yourself busy. Besides, how could you? Just look at them.”

How could he? With a potato sack, a foot length of jute twine, and a heavy rock. That’s how. These were Clay’s thoughts as he marched off to the tool shed then back again with a brick in one hand, ball of twine in the other. Belle, who’d been staring lovingly at the kittens, glanced up. “What now?”

“An old pillow case would suffice.”

Belle was silent.

“For the kittens, yes.”


The next day Belle moved the laundry basket—Bianca Rose, kittens and all—to the back porch. For more privacy, she announced.

“Where next?” Clay said. “The bedroom?”

“If you’d prefer,” taunting him.

They didn’t talk all day and that night Clay was trying to read in bed but his thoughts kept getting the best of him. Belle was in the bathroom, humming. “Could you hush please?” he said. “I’m reading.”

“There’s another way to look at this,” Belle said, working her way under the covers, hair loose around her shoulders. In the soft lamplight Belle’s eyes were shiny pools of blue. “Bianca Rose could have gone anywhere to have those kittens. But she didn’t. She came here, Clay. To our house. She chose us.”

Clay snapped the book shut. “Came here because you fed it. Simple as that.”

Belle stretched out with a sigh, looked up at the ceiling. “I’ll find a home for those
kittens, one way or the other. So you don’t have to fret so much about that. And please stop acting like the world’s dumped a load of horseshit on your head. I like having something to care for. Is that too much to ask?”

Clay pretended to read for a moment then said, “Your mothering days are over, Belle. Get used to it.”

He’d been cruel and he knew it, so early the next morning Clay got busy making amends. He dried and put away the dishes without being asked. He pulled the laundry off the line and stood at his wife’s side in the living room folding it. He took it upon himself to place one more call to the shelter, and yes, they would take the kittens at six weeks. But when he gave Belle the good news she surprised him: “I said I’d take care of it, and I will.”

A week later, driving back from the hardware store, Clay spotted Belle on the front porch in spirited conversation with two younger women. He waved and both women waved back but not Belle. He recognized one of the women from Belle’s book circle. After both had driven away, Belle explained that Karen, the familiar one, was head over heels for the orange pair while Mary would take the gray one and Sunrise. Clay had just poured a can of tomato soup into a saucepan. It was Friday, his turn to make dinner. “They’ll be back later this month to pick them
up,” Belle said, sniffing the air.

Clay pulled a spoon from the drawer, started stirring. “You must be pleased.”

“That the kittens are going to good, loving homes? Yes, Clay, I’m pleased. And I called Dr. Henley. He can do the spay next week. We’ll need a ride into town, if not too much trouble.”

“Happy to help,” Clay said. “Any takers on that one?”

Two turns of the spoon before Belle said, “My mothering days may be over, old man, but Bianca Rose stays.”


Tess and Tyler had come and gone by the time the cat disappeared.

The visit had gone well, by Clay’s estimation. Tess and Belle entertained themselves with long walks through the bottom woods gathering flowers and hunting for wild ginseng. Clay kept Tyler busy with truck rides through town and out by the old canal. The young sweethearts, together through high school, were touring colleges in the state, and Clay listened in earnest, sometimes weighed in, as the soft-spoken young man explained the pros and cons of this one and that. It was Tess’s idea to drive into the city one morning to visit her uncle’s grave. They left some fresh flowers and on the way home stopped for lunch at the Roadway Diner north of town. Tess—whose gem-like eyes and high cheek bones reminded Clay so much of Belle at that age it almost hurt—asked for stories about her father and uncle growing up. Happy to oblige, Clay told his favorite about the time Robbie took a spill on some broken glass (five stitches for that one) then chronicled the general mischief the two boys got into down by the railroad tracks. At one point he nudged Belle for a detail, but she just shook her head and stared into her coffee like she
was off somewhere else. The morning after the kids left Clay came downstairs, a fresh to-do list tucked into his front right pocket. He looked for Belle in the kitchen, found her rocking on the front porch.

“She’s gone,” Belle said, the words squeezed from the end of an exhale. “Bianca Rose.”

“Gone? How so?”

“Since yesterday. I don’t know.”

Clay nodded, felt tired all of a sudden, and here it was just seven o’clock. He sat down next to Belle. “Cats do that,” he said, gazing out over the yard. “Come and go like that.” And then wondering if she’d understood his meaning, “She’ll turn up.”

“You think so?”

“I do,” Clay said, then after a pause, “A cat isn’t likely to bond, is the problem. A wonder they stick around at all.”


By late summer a quiet had settled on the house that made Clay forget all about the cat. Heat melted the air, so Clay could not fathom why Belle decided one morning to venture into the attic. He’d come downstairs to find his scrambled eggs getting cold on the kitchen table. As he ate he listened to sounds of shuffling and scraping overhead. Through the racket he called up to her, wanted to know what she was up to, but Belle assured him she was fine. After breakfast he climbed the ladder and poked his head into the stifling heat. Belle was kneeling over an open box, hair tied back in a ponytail. Tiny sweat beads dotted her forehead. Cheeks the color of
sanded cedar. Watching her, Clay got the odd impression that he was responsible somehow for all this exertion.

“I’ll be down in a minute,” she said, waving him off.

Belle descended twenty minutes later holding a lumpy plastic bag in one hand, a black binder with a cracked spine in the other.

“Must be over a hundred degrees up there,” Clay said.

“Tess is writing a paper,” Belle said, catching her breath. “On family. A research paper for her psychology class.”

“First I’ve heard.”

“When I mentioned Dylan’s journal, she got so excited. I figure if she can make good
use….” Belle dropped the bloated bag at Clay’s feet. “Cleared out a few things while I was up there. Nothing you won’t miss. To the dumpster, if you don’t mind.”

It was later that day when Clay found it. The sun had settled behind the barn, bringing some relief from the August swelter. Despite the heat Belle had shooed him outside to keep his boots off the freshly mopped floors, so Clay passed a slow hour clearing wild grapevine off the back fence, tidying up for fall. He didn’t find much really—just a mess of bones, a good portion of skin and meat already picked clean, the rest scattered about under the fence. What gave it away, what made Clay certain it was Bianca Rose and not some random possum or raccoon, was
the tuft of dirty orange clinging to the base of the spine.

Coyotes, he decided, or maybe that scrappy Knoll dog wandering too far from home. While he thought about it—imagining the fierce struggle that must have ensued when one animal happened upon the other—a strange feeling took hold, the base of his own spine tingling as he pulled back the grassy undergrowth to take a closer look. Weeks of exposure had mellowed the scene, which good thing if Belle were to come out later and see for herself. He would have to tell her, of course, but in his mind Clay had already drafted the conversation. That’s the trouble with
strays, he might say in an effort to console her. Seems like a good idea at first, but then they disappoint, every time.

Or something like that. The words sounded fine in his head, but setting off for the house Clay knew full well that Belle would find her own path to consolation, her own way through. You’re not married to someone forty-plus years without knowing how they operate and why. All the same, Clay took his time getting back to the house. He glanced at the list he’d made that morning, made a mental note to scratch off two items. Not bad for a hot day like today. Not bad at all, considering.