One cat, burned also

Her name was Vikki. She was 54-years-old. She lived alone in a little place three houses down. Her house was so reticent and mossy and shouldered by brooding fir and cedar trees that you never noticed it from the street. She had two cats. She never married. Had no children. One brother who lived far away. Parents deceased. Was a bookkeeper in a factory but when the factory closed she lost her job and never got another and never really came out of her house again.

We neighbours were discreet or cold or ignorant or distracted or busy or shy or polite or whatever word fits the naked fact that we didn’t know her or talk to her or particularly care or notice anything more than the fact her recycling bin was filled every week with wine bottles. Kids in the neighbourhood skipped her house when they went door-to-door for Halloween candy or selling cookies or magazines to raise money for school.

Then a week ago her house burned to the ground with her inside. The flames rose 20 feet high and the long fingers of the brooding trees caught fire too. Fire fighters sprinted and shouted and ambulances and fire engines and cop cars roared up and down the street and children wept and the adjacent houses were evacuated. The young woman in the house next to ours ran by me weeping with her two children cradled in her arms like footballs. A young police officer came to my door and I woke my children and they packed their backpacks and I packed a box of photographs and passports and important papers ... but then, the young police officer came by again and said the fire was under control though the house was a total loss.

The young woman next door and her two children called and said they would stay the night at her mother’s and could I feed the dog?

The next day, I talked to the fire marshal who said they found Vikki’s body in her bed.

She had a real good chance to get out but she didn’t move, he said. One cat burned to death also. The fire probably started from a cigarette butt in the trash. We found a lot of cigarette butts in and around the house.

The roof fell in finally. I can’t figure out why the cat didn’t leave. Or why Vikki didn’t leave. Her bedroom was between the front door and the back door and there would have been so much smoke she must have awakened and had a good chance to get out. But she didn’t move. The cat was in the bed also.

I told him the other cat had come by our house that morning and my youngest son gave it a cup of milk. He used my favourite coffee cup, which I was ready to roar at him for. But he washed the cup out carefully himself, and the way he looked at me when he handed me the cup was the coolest, wildest prayer I have heard in a year, so I didn’t say anything, for once, which was a good prayer too.  

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland in Oregon, and the author of Leaping, a collection of essays.



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