You awake to someone knocking on your door. They aren’t hammering, but nor is it timid, just a solid steady knock. It’s as if the knocker knows that eventually someone will wake to the noise, and has chosen to exercise a certain degree of patience in order to convey a trace of decorum. Difficult to do in the middle of the night. You lie there, wondering if you will soon wakeup again, this time to silence. Then overwhelmingly, you are scared. One does not go visiting unannounced at three in the morning without reason, especially in the country. After a few seconds more you slide your toes to the floor, whisper to the window. The roof of the deck blocks your view of the door, but you can see the worn gravel driveway, empty except for your car. You’re shaking, your ears are hot. Reach for the phone. It’s just as you’re about to dial that he speaks, calling out through the wood of the front door. It isn’t English, but you hear sincerity, necessity, what must, somewhere in the world be a call for help. He’s repeating the plea as you slip down the stairs. It’s his voice, more specifically his register. You read register. You know tone. It’s something you learn alone in a crowd, in a town, in a staffroom. It’s something you perfect teaching children.
You go to the window first, crawling on the floor and poking your eyes over the most shadowed part of the sill. He’s leaning on the doorframe as though one of his legs cannot bear weight. The screen door presses against his back. Blood runs black from his nose in the moonlight. It’s dripped onto the front of his t-shirt and jeans. His right eye is swollen, his hair damp, matted, his arms bruised. His head, like his body, rests against the frame, sinks into it as into slumber. You slip to the door. He collapses through onto the floor as you open it, his sprawled body your shadow in the framed rectangle of moonlight.
The next two days you call in sick to work. Principle Delayney is genuinely concerned, you can hear it in his tone. Your first sick day in over two decades. His muffled phone voice drops as he asks if it’s serious. Not serious, you tell him, still, would he mind arranging the substitute for your kindergartners, you just don’t feel well enough to have another conversation right now. You don’t bother to affect your voice: you don’t fake sick. You don’t fake anything.
What you remember most of him that first night is the brush of his pulse against your fingertips, and the scent of his neck as you knelt close, listening for his breath. He held you in the realizing of those sensations, and he held you, softly, limply, as you half-carried, half-dragged him to the couch. He was taller than you, and even though thin, scrawny even, you struggled under his weight. Not a proper bed, but something. You knew you wouldn’t be able to carry him up the stairs. You placed towels under his head, cleaned the blood from his face and throat, ran a damp cloth through his hair feeling the bumps on his skull. Nothing impacted. You removed his shoes, his socks, touched his swollen ankle. Nothing broken. You got a glass of water and placed it on the table by his head. You went to bed. Locked the door and lay awake. Every hour you got up to check on him. Watched for the rise and fall. You waited for him to wake, listened for him to move. Nothing said.
What you remember most from those first two days is that they blurred seamlessly into the next two, and the two after that. The bruises on his eye, his ankle and his arms turned from purple to yellow and then began to disappear. You found his torn duffle of clothes stashed in a corner of the barn. You washed them, you hung them on the line. He spoke Spanish.
You went back to work a different person. People looked at you differently, they smiled, they spoke, and you wondered if all this time it had been you pushing them away, not the other way around. A student, five years old, asked you why you were happy. Then they were all asking you, as though these children read joy in your voice as you read to them, and eagerness in your step as you walked with them out to the yard. You loved him.
What you remember most from those first two weeks is fear fused with zealous joy. You knew what the parents of your pupils already called you. You knew what your neighbours whispered each time you passed. Never leaving your parents home, living there alone after they died, hardly a visitor. This was Southwold County, big sky Ontario, corn rolling for miles around. People talked on front porches, and in front of flagged mailboxes. People talked over beer, and over the grocery counter in town. Old beliefs died hard, and died slowly. The threat that someone would see him, the fear that someone already knew he was there constantly lodged in your throat. You tensed each time he approached a front facing window, froze each time he stepped outside. He read this off you without language, smiled at you, made you smile without words. He understood, and he understood the why, knew your fear intimately as only one who shares it does. He smiled, and you smiled, and the two of you would move inward to where no one could bear witness. In shadows you laughed, knuckles brushed palms, hands clasped. You fell in to him, breath in the heat of his neck, soft bite, tender tongue under his jaw, the prickle of beard against your cheek. You wore his scent in those shadows, his hands under your shirt, pressure and pull on your back, slip of lips and glide of heat enveloping you. There were never words. An unspoken transition, coiled spring unwound and unwound and unwound into bliss.
What you remember most from those two months is the way he was with Felix. The way he spoke to Felix in Spanish, as though Felix might understand. Felix, as a general rule did not like men; if ever a man was on the property, he’d disappear to the barn where he slept. For some reason though, Felix made an exception of him, limping across the back lawn towards him from the barn, tail swaying. He would kneel and extend the back of his hand to Felix, who would sniff it, and proceed to curve around it and twist affectionately through his legs. Whispering something in Spanish he would scoop Felix off the ground into his arms. Felix had never let you pick him up. Despite their mutual affection, Felix continued to refuse to enter the house; he never had, always skittish close to doors, refusing to cross thresholds. You rescued him as a kitten, ear half-torn off, side scratched, tail bleeding.
Everyday you wake to coffee, the radio on, him jiving through the kitchen in nothing but briefs, bright white against his skin. You spend the days half-naked in the garden, placing the seeds in even rows and pulling weeds from the soil. Crouched, he is tying a tomato plant to a support. You walk over and wrap your arms around him from behind, slippery sweat, salt in your mouth, heat. You know evenings by the softness of cotton. Sitting out on the back deck with glasses of wine, Felix curled in his lap, your hand lightly turns circles on the back of his t-shirt. The green of the day is cast bronze over the fields you lease to the neighbouring farmer. The geometric skeletons of hydro towers stretch long curves in the sky. He touches your cheek, kisses you gently. He speaks and you swear you understand him. You speak, and he nods and smiles. For two months he barely leaves your side. And then, one morning, he is gone.
You wake to a meow, startled, as it’s not a sound you’ve woken up to before. You don’t know which you notice first, Felix looking up at you from the floor by your bed, or his absence. It’s just after five, the curtains glow pink, and any fascination you have with Felix’s presence inside quickly shifts to concern. You step out of bed, check the bathroom, cautiously go downstairs, call out, tear through the house, stand on the porch and shout his name, run to the barn, then all the way to the edge of the farm. You’re a silhouette chasing crop lines against dawn. He is nowhere. You call to him. He is gone.
Felix is on the steps when you return. It’s a humid morning, your shirt sticks to your back, and your shoes are damp with dew, blades of grass cling to them. You don’t notice Felix when you approach, but he runs up to you and begins rubbing his head against your ankles as you walk. You ignore him, go inside, put the coffee on. You climb the stairs to your bedroom, open the closet door. Felix follows you the whole way. His clothes are still there, dangling on wire hangers, empty two-dimensional reincarnations. He didn’t take his clothes. They smell like him. Felix pushes against your leg. You look down, catching lemon-cut eyes, and are struck by recognition.
Felix holds your gaze. Then, he walks to the bed, leaps up on it, and paws the pillow on his side a few times. You look at Felix, he looks at you. He kneads the pillow with his forepaws, then, seems to change his mind and walks towards the bedside table. On it rests a photo of him. He stands beside a shovel jammed into the earth. The sun enflames his hair, one side of his face is shadowed. He isn’t looking at the camera, eyes downcast, he seems almost shy. His smile, in the instant of closure, is not directed at you. Felix noses the edge of the frame, looks at you, and leaps off the nightstand. His back paw catches the picture, knocks the frame to the floor. The glass shatters.
You consider the vet, but no, this is not something a vet will comprehend, nor will a doctor. You know that the only thing they’ll admit is you, a seventy-two hour hold. They’ll take him away, Felix, him, they’ll take your life. Slit lemon eyes staring at you. You know it’s absurd. You speak to him using the little Spanish you know, the few words of affection you’ve learned from him. He speaks back at you, arcs from the bed to the floor and swoops your legs. You understand him.
Gravel crunches in the driveway and a car engine turns off. You look out the window, frozen. Your sister steps out of a blue sedan, dusty from the late summer roads. Afternoon blue fisheyes behind her, light breeze, dry heat. You want her to turn around and go away. You aren’t prepared. Don’t know how to tell her. She knocks on the door, it echoes through the cool, shaded kitchen. She knocks again. You move towards the door. The doorknob is sweaty in your palm; the light catches you off guard. She hugs you, says she’s relieved, glad to see you, asks if you’re all right. One of the neighbours called her, she claims. You ask what it was they said, hating your chatty neighbours for their front facing porches and beer stained banter. She says they told her you pull a cat in a red wagon down the road and back every day. She says she told them straight back that there was nothing wrong with that, she was sure there was a reasonable explanation. There is, you tell her, but she cuts you off. The real reason she came is to meet your Spanish gentleman. You told her about him when you last spoke on the phone, that period of bliss and invincibility. He was from a big family and wanted to meet her, and while you weren’t prepared to arrange that, you had told her about him, or at least mentioned that you had a friend living with you. Her tone had shifted up when she heard that, accelerated into intonations of interrogation. You withheld.
Surprise, she says. She knew you’d never have let her come if she mentioned the possibility of visiting. In her presence your face fades and she reads the fall with such sincere sympathy that you cannot restrain tears. You sit and truth falls from your lips like stones, which she collects as fiction. When you finish speaking you cannot decide if it’s grief or fear in her eyes, moon-cut by the reflection of a window. Felix saunters in through the cat flap on the garden door. He looks at her, lemon gleam, holds it too long, until she breaks. If he was living here, she asks, precisely articulating every word, where are his clothes? Did he take them when he left? You need her to believe you, so for now you ignore that she’s assumed he’s left you. Yes, you have his clothes, you tell her. You’ll show her if she wants. She follows you up the back stairs to the landing where sunlight tilts across the pine floor.
In your bedroom you swing open the closet door. His clothes hang limply. For a moment you can smell him and remember curves of vertebrae through cotton. The flannel collars flap emptily as you brush the shoulders, hangers gently clatter and one squeaks against the curtain rod. Now your sister is the one crying. What the fuck is wrong with you, she yells. You stare at her, surprised. Her voice is shrieky, she’s shaking. Felix walks in, tail raised and swaying every step. She shouts to get the cat away from her. You turn and address him in Spanish, gesturing him out the door. He looks at you lemon and turns his tail. What was that! she screams. You turn and follow Felix out the door. Growing up they had often provoked you; she had sided with them then as well.
Dusk is Venus and purple. You step out into the garden, walk across towards the shed. Pausing by the door, you call out in Spanish: Mrkrgnao! Then you turn the key, and pull out the red steel wagon. He leaps into it, hardly a rattle. There are crickets and the sandy turn of the wagon’s wheels along the driveway. Your bedroom light beams like a lighthouse, solitary into a sky of black leaves and early stars. Still heat. You turn onto the road; it is dark, empty, stretching out of vision into night. From behind you, you hear a purr.