Kathleen Denizard

I am a former teacher of English and for many years worked in social services addressing the needs of residents in affordable housing. There is pure joy for me in sharing my poetry, in relating the many wonders of life and human experiences as a mature observer of people and nature.

Attic Man

    I have a little house snuggled among the hills of Indigo Valley. It stays cold most of the year where I am, usually April wind shakes through the woods before I can tell the birch from the snow. There is a mean spirit in the air that whips onto the land in late afternoon and settles in shadows of deep purple.

    It suits my mood perfectly. I have craved the valley since I was a young girl spending holidays here with my grandfather. I remember he was a burly man, a Davy Crockett type, strong yet winsome, with flame- colored hair he let droop around a face of rugged good looks. It was easy to accept my inheritance when he passed away. Of course, I am not a true native, but the sense of mountain life in its simplicity touches my heart; the feel of its mystery impresses my soul. I am perpetually in awe of my surroundings and amused by the people who live among such splendor-like my friend, Damien Bates.

    Haven’t I rubbed it into old Mr. Bates that I enjoy early evenings whenever he gripes that winter cheats him of a full day? Rhetorically, my imagination sparks like lightening in the quiet of long nights when memories take me to lost places and dreams seem real.

    On the occasion of his stopping by, I am glad for Mr. Bates’ company. He is a gifted man, his voice lilting and magical, fit for telling tales.

    Just as I am thinking there is nothing quite like a bottle of Chardonnay, great books, and a pleasant fire in the hearth on a blustery eve, Matches leaped from the sofa onto the marble table scudding to a halt where the last half dozen of my Martha Stewart candles flickered in his wake.

    “Get down, naughty cat. What do you want, to set the house on fire?”

    Surprised by my reprimand, Matches hissed through stiff black whiskers like a rattler, arched his back to the ceiling and stared at the window. Whatever turned those sober dark eyes tiger-bright deserved a closer look. When I switched on the lamp by the porch, evening peered at me through a shimmer of light. I inched the door open against a gray landscape; the peaks of the hills were vague, just a faint outline on the horizon. The air was different, heavy and damp, and without a breath of wind forced the pines and oak into bleak silence. Before I could think to slap up the latch, Matches shot past me bumping the door shut. I caught a glimpse of his tail as he hunched inside one of the flower urns. I was mad, mad enough to curse out loud, “Damn cat, come back here!” I wanted to add, “or else” but then, Matches is my precious pet. He did not budge. Matches can stay out all night if he wants to, but I plan to brave the weather from the inside.

    Ramming my shoulder against the door and pushing with my foot did not open the door, neither did twisting the knob every which way. I tried again, shoving, and kicking. I considered the proverbial throw a stone in the window trick, but sliding my hand through spikes of glass was as unappealing as having to repair the broken pane.

    By now I was washed with mist and my hair snarled in a wet mess. Overhead, the light pulsed and dimmed. Probably I hadn’t replaced the bulb in ages. A sigh, and two shivers later, I decided to look for a stone.

  Perhaps it was a lucky stone I found and kneaded through my fingers. A voice called to me from the walkway, and then, the familiar clomp of Damien Bates’ footsteps.

    He wore red, fire-engine red, a hunter’s jacket and cap that defied the fog rolling around his silhouette. The grin on his face stretched his beard ear to ear and creased his forehead in deep wrinkles.

    “Forget to pay your electric bill?”

    “Or, maybe I forgot to change a light bulb.”

    His hand was amazingly warm and stayed clasped over mine in tender greeting before he gripped the door knob. It turned smoothly as Mr. Bates gestured with an open arm inviting me into my own house. “Please join me for a glass of wine and some chit-chat.”

    I gave him a jittery smile and tossed the stone before hurrying over the threshold.

    The foyer spread into the den where Mr. Bates plunked himself next to the hearth in an overstuffed chair, the sort that shouts, Grandfather bought me! But the butter cream walls recently painted compliment the honey-oak floor adding lightness to a clunky display of antique furniture. The stairway leading up to a large attic space is an ornate curve of mahogany where gargoyles are sculpted into the newel post. They cling to the wood with clawed hands and stare down with eyes carved to see in every direction. What have they seen, I wonder, in the years when Grandfather lived here. The attic was once my make-believe place. I climbed the stairs to play and sort through whatever was up there to pique my fantasy. Grandfather’s belongings lay in open boxes: pelted garments and fur lined hats, snowshoes, and hiking gear. I noticed Mr. Bates scan the steps before he remarked, “Lousy night and it was a dang-lousy-short day, don’t you think, Cassandra?”

    A day is twenty-four hours, no matter how you pass the time, no matter what the season.”

    “Well, well, Cassie, you are spilling out attitude all over your words, being logical when I’m crabbing. Why the sour disposition, is something wrong?”

    My breathy reply explained how Matches bolted outside and refuses to return at my calling.

    “I don’t see the point of worrying about that feline. The chances of him not scratching at the door sometime tonight are as weak as a baby’s bones. For once, let’s try to spend an evening without him scampering and meowing.

    I held crystal wine glasses while Mr. Bates offered to uncork the Chardonnay. For an instant his eyes met mine. I felt a power from that gaze, a prickle of heat from electric blue eyes. It made me think he could see right into my mind. The cork released with a pop as quickly as the moment passed. Still being flushed, though, I sat on the braided rug away from the fire. Mr. Bates stepped over and clinked his glass against mine as is the custom. “Let us lift up our glasses against evil forces.” I toasted back to him asking, “Do you have an aversion to all cats in general, or is it just Matches you dislike?”

    “Why, Cass, I believe your animal, like other cats, is just cunning.” His tone scaled down an octave as he emphasized, absolutely cunning.

    There was an ominous rumble overhead when Mr. Bates rocked back into his chair. Rain began to spit across the window, easy at first, then steadily beating like a metronome. After a sudden crack of lightening, Damien Bates raised his eyebrows thoughtfully. I would like to tell you a story. It seems a night for spinning a yarn.”

    I bent forward to pick another canape and sip some wine, then eased down again to listen.

    “In another time, the mountains were taller and the forest denser. Men hunted in the hills and women worked in their homes. There was harmony in this arrangement passed on from generation to generation. And through the years tales were told in the village conceived from a plain folk who knew the power of nature.”

    I taste the water, clear and cold, but not enough to keep a flutter of snowflakes from melting in the ripples of this quiet stream. I let it pour over my soiled hands while the other men pull in the bounty from the week’s trappings. I smell pine, spruce, and some musky trees blending with the scent of freshly killed rabbit. A deer lay on the path, his carcass prepared for the trek home, legs bound, his head crooked slightly. The women and children will be satisfied with our catch.

    Voices chant in the distance, songs from companions, deep and bold and male. I want to join in, but sounds echo back and forth and I cannot reach their source. My feet slog across damp earth and bring me to a place where fallen leaves and logs poke through a carpet of white. I decide to rest under the shelter of their branches. Suddenly, now, the sky thickens. A wind swells into a funnel of violet. Dark, dark it rises. As I look up, the forest splits open in a burst of snow that shocks my eyes.

       I see mothers and sisters. They are waiting for us to come home, going about their daily tasks. I see my mother smoothing wrinkles from a handsome quilt, and I see her sister setting our table with bright linen. It is their daughters I hear, screeching and romping with kittens that won’t be still in their laps. So lovely is their pleasure that gathers all in laughter. Yet there is a force here, terrible, and impending.

    Then I see them. Innocent at first, sleek, lean mountain cats that surround the children and linger in the play yard. Abruptly, the frolic stops. Children’s names are called and not answered. I am paralyzed in the silence as if I know even before I see the jagged teeth, the quick bites, the wounds, before black shadows slink back into the hills.

    There in the valley, the children sleep. Beside them are the hunters and their wives. Lanterns sway in their hands, and, as if in the clutch of destiny are hurled into the night. Flames and smoke billow to the rooftops. I feel the roaring heat. And seeing my village burn, I weep.

    I drank in the sound of his voice, sometimes low and ragged, somehow exotic and mesmerizing like embers in the fireplace touching every corner of the room with light and shade.

    “Fascinating story, Mr. Bates, but that can’t be the end of the tale. What happened to the hunter?” The question caused Mr. Bates to tremble as he checked his watch. “Ah, I’ve got to go.” There was no need for me to protest. Rain clamored onto the roof and banged into the shutters convincing Mr. Bates to delay his departure. He exchanged a frown for a shrug that raised his shoulders almost to his chin. “Well, all right, make coffee, Cassandra.”

    The pot sputtered to full perk as Mr. Bates measured a second teaspoon of sugar into a Dresden China cup. Neither of us spoke for awhile. The intense look of Mr. Bates suggested he welcomed a chance to weave together the final threads of his story before he said another word. In the obvious quiet a wave of excitement gushed over me. I was poised on the edge of my seat anticipating wildly to hear the unravelling of some secret. Finally, he set his cup on the table, then took mine from me and did the same with it.

    Mr. Bates cleared his throat uncomfortably. When he managed to speak, emotion broke from his voice charming me back to the story.

    Snow falls in swirling gusts and smothers my footprints as I trudge across the mountain like a man in a trance. Am I walking in circles? “Down! Keep going down.” It’s a frantic scream in my mind orienting me through an impossible maze of frozen trees. I persuade myself not to run but move steadily on. I realize nothing more than the cold of the forest floor until I come to an open way. The sky thins where a gloomy light from the moon hangs above me. I focus on it edging my steps to the bottom.

    Warmth, the golden glimmer of dawn flows over me. A figure moves near me, slowly. Shape without form begins to solidify, slowly. I can make out every detail- the long coat of weathered suede bordered with fur, the trapper’s belt, fastened high under his breasts. Not so clear is the face, veiled by a flop of crimson hair. The hand I reached for tightens on mine and I am pulled along a pattern of tracks which mark the path to a small, cozy home in the valley.

    The rain slowed to a drizzle in the same calm manner Mr. Bates was concluding his story. His words dragged into murmurs, at times almost inaudible slurs until he fell silent.

    In quiet misery I live in the attic above my rescuer. A changed man now in a space like some bottomless gorge of endless nights, I retreat….and remember.

    Flames like tongues of copper and gold licked around the logs springing points of brilliance everywhere. As Mr. Bates turned near the window, his profile leaped and quivered in the illumination. He looked like one of the gargoyles on the stairs, his eyes leering in mocking distortion. Was he contemplating the weather? I couldn’t tell.

    I heard a whimper and what sounded like scratching. It was a welcome relief to stand in the doorway and have my precious pet scamper toward me. When Damien Bates rolled his eyes on us, Matches hunkered down purring loudly and locked his tail around my leg. He looked as innocent as anything.

    I accompanied Mr. Bates to the walkway and watched him disappear into the trees. The overhead fixture had burned out, but the night was not dark. Streaks of lavender graciously paled the sky to let the moon out. Though my friend and I did not talk about his story tonight, I have a feeling his tale will tumble through my head in thoughts and dreams until morning. And morning is a long time from now.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.