Tuesday 5 April 2022

Short Story - The Mystery of a Vanishing Cat by Sunil Sharma

 


The Mystery of a Vanishing Cat - by Sunil Sharma

 

It was a gift to Rani by her artist uncle on her ninth birthday.

A slim book titled: The Mystery of a Vanishing Cat.

“What does it mean? Does cat vanish?”

“Find it out yourself.” Uncle said, smiling.

“You have written it?”
“Yes. Illustrated it also, dear.”

“Your maternal uncle is a reputed artist, Rani. You are lucky to have this signed copy.”

Rani beamed. Recovering from the Omicron, the book provided relief and new pathways out of loneliness, pain and confinement.

“This cat is the friend of all the kids who are sick or alone or without siblings. Treat her with respect.”
“Oh! Sure, Uncle!”

“Never treat the animals---and other God’s creatures---as lesser beings. They will never betray you, like humans. They are assets for us.” The uncle said.

She nodded.

“This cat is smart and intelligent. She understands the language of love.”

The cat became her constant companion. It was indeed a smart cat who could easily vanish at the sight of a hostile person and pop back into the book and talk to the reader, once the malevolent force was gone.

This trait of the principal character of the story came to be handy soon. When dad returned from the official trip, she vanished into the book.

“Queenie, do not be afraid. Dad is gruff but kind. Only thing, he hates pets.”

But Queenie would not listen. She refused to pop out from the book into the immediate world of her devoted reader, as long as the head of the household was around. Once he left for office, the cat popped out and played with the girl in her small bed room in suburban Mumbai.

Once dad came home early---only to find a cat meowing and prancing in the room of Rani.

“How come a pet in this house?” demanded angry dad. “How you allowed this, woman?”

“There is no cat here!” declared mother, scared by the tone of her man.

“I glanced at Ran’s room and saw a cross-eyed cat with a thick tail and whisker. Rani was holding the disgusting creature in her arms! You do not pay attention, woman. Neglecting your motherly duties, as usual, while I overwork in the office.”

Mother pulled a sad face. Almost on the brink of tears.

Rani came out of bed and stood at the threshold. “Dad, please! No cats here. Check.”

Dad searched but found nothing---no trace. How come!

“Was I imagining things? I clearly saw the fat cat winking at me and lo and presto! It vanished! The window has bars and a screen. She cannot slip out from there. Not in the apartment.”
“You must be dreaming dad! No cat here---anywhere.” And Rani smiled innocently at the bald and bearded man looking puzzled. “I know you hate pets!”

Daddy shrugged his shoulders and went inside the hall.

“He hates everybody!” said mother in a low voice.

Rani smiled. “Do not worry, Ma. He is nice. Only worried about saving his job. Covid-19, he was saying on phone, had made bosses end the jobs of many people in the office.”

“I know. It does not give a license to hate the whole world.”

“Maybe, Queenie would change him. She will teach him the value of selfless love of a pet,” predicted Rani.

“Yes. This bitter man needs the urgent company of a pet,” observed mother. “Maybe, a pet will also teach him the value of peace and harmony in a family.”

“And respect and love for women.”

“You are far ahead of your years, dear Rani. My only consolation in a masculine house. My only reason to stay here with this toxic man.”

“For me, you are the reason to find happiness. He always blames me for being a girl, not a boy!”

“Do not worry, child. You are precious to me, us, as a girl only. Ignore that man.”

Rani smiled and hugged the frail woman.

Then the duo saw the cat reappear inside the room. They quietly went inside Ran’s room and shut the door, while daddy watched a loud TV.

“Thanks, dear Queenie for saving the day!” remarked Rani and hugged the cat that had popped out from the illustration of the book into the room, on her silent feet.

Queenie meowed and said, “Beware of hate! It kills.”

“How?” asked Rani.

“I was killed in the medieval Europe. Hunted down. Burnt alive. Then the plagues started and wiped our entire towns. Hatred destroyed humankind in a particular region of the dark world! Horrible killings of my species by the bipedal predators. Meow!”

Rani cried at the pain in the voice of Queenie---and the sadness of her expressive eyes.

“Do not cry, child. Your maternal uncle, my author, created me as a story-book character to comfort lonely souls in indifferent universe or homes.”

“Is it?”

“Yes. Books can reach any place. I am there inside the covers. Feel me, I will be there. Call or connect with me any time and I will pop up in your world. Materialize in the blank space before you as a reader and become real.”

“And vanish before the cynics come a-catching the felines,” observed mother famous for her doodling. “Vanish into the kingdom of imagination and creativity, as a mere inert character.”

“Yes, right Ma,” replied Queenie, “Only a believing heart can see the actual me. The real me. And then I become part of their lives forever.’

“Yeah! That is wonderful!” exclaimed mother.

The cat meowed.

Outside, the harsh wind of monsoon knocked on the closed window. Dark clouds floated in a grey-dark sky, threatening rain.

A car backfired.

The street noise filtered in via crevices.

“Queenie?”

“Yes, Rani.”
“Can you convert my dad? Make him love you and…”

“…us,” hoped mother in a soft voice, as the TV screamed in the hall.
“Yes. I can, provided he approaches me with a child’s pure heart…”

.

At that precise moment, the door flew open and a red-eyed dad entered the semi-dark room, shouting, “Eureka! Found the missing cat. I turned on the TV volume and tiptoed here to eavesdrop on scheming girls. A ploy. Ha! Heard the voices inside. I was right. I am never wrong, by the way. Heard the unmistakable shrill voice of a cat. Ha! Here is the cursed cat I saw! Hated cats all my life, now present in my house!”

And he plunged forward to catch the cat but it leaped inside the covers of the pop-up book---and vanished.

Rani and Ma were speechless with the terror of this sudden discovery by the lord of the house…and trembled before the angry man.

“There!” he shouted. “That is her home. Home of the stealthy intruder. My tormentor! Phew! Will catch and kill her, the she-demon!”

And he seized the book and tore it in half, laughing like mad, eyes glazed, thin face twisted in hate.

Rani screamed: “Dad. Please! Spare the cat, my pal. Please, Dad. It is cruelty to the God’s gentle creatures. Do not be that heartless towards an adorable being.”

Dad was demented with rage. “STOP whining, you fool! Both of you deceived me, mother and daughter. I will not tolerate this deception in my house, this, this…disobedience. Understood?”

As he tore the book further, the cat inside the covers cried in deep death agony at this act of sheer vandalism by an adult and senior executive of a pharma company experimenting with pain-alleviating drugs.

The cat cried and gasped.

Dad laughed, pleased.

At that moment, Rani saw him grow horns and fangs and a twisted tail of a devil shown in pictures.

“Cat! In my house! No way,” he hissed.

Mother screamed at this savagery and bit into the hands of the common tyrant, “Spare that, you, the monster! You have no feelings at all for anybody here. You are a real devil, not the innocent and trusting cat!”

Dad laughed uproariously at this helpless rage of a weak woman. “Stop me, if you can.”
Mother cried in despair, wringing hands.

He shouted, “You are useless and a weakling. Like your elder brother. Worthless artist! Of no value to society.”

“Do not bring my brother into this,” shouted back mother. “Spare my family. Do not slander them.”

“Why not? Useless siblings. Why did he gift this to Rani, this book of an imaginary cat, this useless book? Throw it in the gutter.”

“Story books are great teachers…”

“Hush, woman! Stories! Imagination! For idle minds only. Instead, teach your always-dreaming daughter to focus on science or commerce, not these worthless stories. Ha!”

And he left fuming. Rani fainted, while the cat’s cries faded away from that wretched room of a two-room unhappy house of a three-member family.

.

The same evening, the “cat fever” visited the man who had tried to strangulate the cat Queenie, favouraite of the kids and adults alike, the world over. The book was a recent sensation after a celeb had tweeted about it and film and TV heads were in talks with the obscure author-illustrator about its rights. There were offers of translations from 40 languages as well.

More deals.

Interviews.

You tube coverage.

Articles on the book and its creator in academic journals.

Maternal uncle, living in penury so far, was the toast of the country. A country of more than one billion souls and with hardly a hundred or so artists working for the children’s books.

“Cat fever”, wrote the furious uncle, is the strange illness that visits the animal-haters of every type, especially cats and call them as satanic, as they did in the dark-age Europe…and paid a heavy price for this wanton act of caticide (massacre of cats).

“What is that?” queried mother on WhatsApp. “Cat fever? Never heard about it.”

“You will come to know soon.” He wrote back.

.

Three days and three nights!

That is the time it took for the cat fever to subside.

Dad had gone mad, shouting in fevered state and disturbed sleep, “Rat! Rats! They are nibbling my toes. Nibbling food everywhere. Running over me all the time. Overrunning the house and town. SAVE me! Where are Queenie and her sisters?”

Even the best doctor uncles could not understand this illness.

“Queenie will save her.” Said the maternal uncle and creator. “Once the ill patient calls out her name, thrice! And undergoes a change of heart, as a repentant.”

Dad, although unconscious, bed-ridden, in fear did that on the third night, as predicted.

It was dark. Rain was pounding. Thunder was heard in the background---and lightening spliced the sky.

“Save me from the mighty invasion of the huge hungry rats! Queenie, Queenie, Queenie! Save me, please!” he pleaded in delirium, as both the “girls” prayed to a kind cat god and goddess…and to Queenie, friend and benefactor of humankind, much misunderstood, maligned and scorned across the ages, thus truly exposing the darkness of a human heart through such myths and slandering.

.

Strangely enough, the delirium and hot shivers and nightmares vanished magically.

Dad recovered and grew quiet and withdrawn.

Magic happened then.

Same evening of his full and complete recovery, dad coughed and shyly entered Rani’s room, his hands at the back.

“How are you Dad now?”
“I am good. Thank you, darling.”

He called out: “Come here, dear wife!”

Mother, incredulous, rushed in.

Dad showed the story-book to them both.

The duo gasped.

The bearded man had pieced together the slim book with neat strips of cello tape and every page looked alright.

“Sorry! Please forgive me, my dear daughter and my wife. Two beloved women of my life, my centre!”

Rani leapt up; an emotional mother cried at this sight.

“Queenie! Please appear now.” Pleaded dad. “Come back in our lives. We miss you!”

“Meow! Meow! Here I come, my human family!”

And queenie popped up and out from the book---into the waiting circle of new and steady fans, while thunder and lightning too subsided in the sky.

Since then, Queenie continues to delight dad and his family.

Surprisingly, dad has also opened up a Cat Club for the cynics of the city! Men who do not like pets, strays or any animal or bird.

Men who love themselves only.

The Club offers them a chance to discover love in most unlikely places.

It is going viral.

The logo is interesting!
It shows a Queenie with a crown and a diamond necklace around its neck.

A regal but friendly thing.

Sometimes, some adults say, Queenie winks at them, looking out from that logo of the Club that is attracting more fans by the day due to the mysterious powers of a cat that appears and disappears at will.

 


 

Sunil Sharma is Toronto-based senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 23 published books: Seven collections of poetry; four of short fiction; one novel; a critical study of the novel, and, nine joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award---2012. His poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015.

 

 

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