Desdemona


Dixie and her friend Jimmy struggled up the steep bank of the ravine. In one arm she carried a large black cat with an orange spot on its nose. “I’m going to call her Desdemona,” she panted, scrambling up onto the sidewalk.

Jimmy scrambled up beside her. “That’s a strange name,” he said.

“My mother told me about a beautiful cat she once had named that.” Dixie stroked the cat as it nestled comfortably in her arm. “Maybe she’ll feel more like letting me keep her if we call her Desdemona.”

“Maybe,” Jimmy said. Then he frowned and added, “I didn’t think that they allowed pets in your condo.”

“Well, not dogs, but a few people have cats.”

“She may belong to someone,” Jimmy said, warning his friend to not become too attached to the cat. “She doesn’t look starved.”

“Bobby Feltz told me that she sleeps in an abandoned shed and eats mice and squirrels in the ravine.”

“Maybe,” Jimmy said. “Maybe not.”

“Oh, oh. They’re out on the porch.” Dixie stopped abruptly as they approached a large Victorian house. Several elderly people sat in rocking chairs on the large front porch. “I hate going past here.”

“They don’t bother me,” Jimmy said. “My grandpa’s in a rest home.”

“Oh.” Dixie didn’t know what to say to that.

They were in front of the home now, and one man had come down the front walk and stood leaning on a cane, watching them. “You there,” he said. His voice was hoarse and raspy, but commanding.

Jimmy stopped. “What do you want?” he asked.

“I want to see that cat,” the old man said, pointing at Desdemona. “Bring it up onto the porch. The ladies want to see it too.”

Jimmy turned toward the house, and Dixie followed reluctantly.

“What’s your name?” Jimmy asked as they climbed the wooden stairs.

“Colonel Stayner.” The old man turned to the women. “Ladies,” he said, “look what these fine young people have brought for you to see. Children, this is Miss Bessie.” Dixie and Jimmy nodded, but Miss Bessie only looked at her hands. Dixie thought that the old lady’s face was the saddest face that she’d ever seen. “This is Mrs. Jones,” Colonel Stayner went on, nodding toward a lady who was staring into space. She looks grumpy and cross, Dixie thought. “And this is Sarah.” Sarah smiled kindly at them. “Look at this nice cat,” the colonel said.

Miss Bessie lifted her head very slowly and looked at the cat in Dixie’s arms. She slowly raised her hands toward Desdemona.

“Let her hold the cat,” the colonel rasped.

Dixie reluctantly placed the cat in the lap of the sad old woman, and the cat promptly curled up and began to purr. Miss Bessie slowly stroked the cat with her wrinkled hand.

“What a lovely cat,” said the lady introduced only as Sarah. “What’s her name?”

“Desdemona,” Dixie answered.

“Desdemona,” Sarah repeated. “That’s a beautiful name, but what made you think of it?”

“My mother had a cat named Desdemona, so I named her that.”

Sarah smiled. “What a thoughtful girl you are,” she said.

“I want to hold the cat!”

Dixie was startled by Mrs. Jones’s loud voice.

“After Miss Bessie,” the colonel said kindly.

“After Bessie, after Bessie!” Mrs. Jones shrilled. “She gets everything first.”

A moment later the colonel picked the cat up off Miss Bessie’s lap and put it on Mrs. Jones’s lap. Desdemona settled comfortably again.

“She’s a real people cat,” the colonel said.

Dixie nodded. Desdemona seemed to love all the attention given her by the old people.

Finally the colonel picked Desdemona up quickly from Mrs. Jones’s lap. She grabbed at the cat but missed, and the colonel put her back in Dixie’s arms.

“Please may I pet her a minute before you go?” Sarah asked. When Dixie stepped closer to the old lady, she stroked the gleaming black fur with her tiny hand. “Desdemona,” she said slowly. “You can call her Desi for short.”

“Yeah,” Dixie said. It really wasn’t a bad idea.

“We have to go now—it’s dinnertime,” Jimmy said.

“You young people come again,” the colonel commanded.

“And bring Desi,” Sarah said.

The children clomped down the steps. They didn’t say anything until they were well past the old house.

“Were they really so bad?” Jimmy finally asked.

“Well, Sarah and the colonel seemed pretty normal, but Mrs. Jones kind of gave me the creeps.”

When Dixie reached home, her mother asked, “Where did you get that cat?”

“In the ravine. She doesn’t belong to anyone—I checked. Her name is Desdemona. Isn’t she beautiful?” Dixie set Desdemona down on the floor, and the cat walked calmly around, her tail high and regal. She rubbed against Mother’s legs.

Mother smiled. “My Desdemona was pussy-willow gray.”

“May I keep her, Mom—please?”

“Even if she doesn’t belong to anyone else—she’ll still need shots and things, and that all costs money.”

“I could pay at least part of it out of my own money,” Dixie pleaded.

“Well, Dixie, I guess you can keep the cat if no owner shows up, but she’ll have to have a box and be confined in the apartment all day while I’m at work and you’re at school. She may not like that.”

In school the next day, Dixie kept thinking about Desi’s being alone in the apartment all day. “A people cat,” the colonel had said, and it was true. Desi liked everybody. And she liked lots of attention.

When Dixie unlocked the door to her apartment that afternoon, Desi streaked past her and down the steps, raced across the lawn and up the trunk of a sycamore tree, and sat on a branch, swishing her tail wildly back and forth.

“Come on, Desi,” Dixie called. “Come here.”

Finally the cat ran down the tree trunk, across the lawn, up the steps, and into the apartment. Dixie followed and gathered Desdemona into her arms. “Was it awful being in here alone all day? It was nice to have you to come home to, but you must have been lonely.”

“A people cat.” The colonel’s voice echoed in Dixie’s mind, and she remembered Miss Bessie’s scrawny hands raised toward the cat. “What a thoughtful girl you are,” Sarah had said. And Mrs. Jones: “I want the cat!”

Dixie hadn’t realized that old people loved animals too. Still holding Desi, Dixie headed for the rest home. The colonel and Sarah waved as she approached.

“It’s the girl with the cat,” Sarah said to Miss Bessie, who raised her head slightly.

Dixie climbed the steps and put Desi into Mrs. Jones’s lap. Mrs. Jones still looked off across the lawn, but her hand came down gently on Desi’s warm back. Desi purred loudly.

“You came back,” the colonel stated. “Mrs. Jones will keep the cat forever if you don’t take it from her. She’s selfish.”

Mrs. Jones stopped stroking the cat and turned her face slowly toward Dixie. “Bessie’s turn,” she said, putting the cat in Miss Bessie’s lap, where Desie again purred contentedly.

Almost before she thought, Dixie asked, “Could you keep her here?”

Miss Bessie stopped petting the cat and raised her head, her face brightening a little.

“She’s your cat,” the colonel said.

“I just found her. And I have to leave her alone all day. She’d be happier here.”

The colonel limped toward the door and called, “Mrs. Samson!”

A large woman in a white uniform came quickly and stood in the doorway.

“This fine young lady wants to give us this beautiful cat named Desdemona,” he said.

Mrs. Samson regarded Desdemona curled up in Miss Bessie’s lap. “We had a cat here once several years ago. This one looks like a civilized sort. Why not?”

Sarah smiled her sweet smile. “Thank you, Mrs. Samson,” she said. Then she turned to Dixie. “You are the nicest girl I’ve met in some time. Come by often and see Desi—and us.”

“I will,” Dixie said.

Walking home, she kept picturing the happiness on the old people’s faces when Mrs. Samson had said that the cat could stay. Miss Bessie had even smiled slightly. Tomorrow, Dixie thought, maybe Jimmy will go with me to visit them all.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Virginia Sargent