Myke Fynke was born in 1948 in a midwestern farmhouse. His father worked day shift in a refrigeration plant. In the evenings and on weekends, his father cultivated 100 acres of cropland and managed a herd of 38 beef cattle. When he was killed by a drunk driver in 1961, Myke was 12 years old and barely knew his father. Myke's mother raised him and two siblings. In doing so, she taught Myke to read when he was 4 years old and he's been reading ever since. At school, he was labeled "Bookworm". In a town where everyone else was baseball crazy, Myke had no interest in sports. Predictably, he had few friends. He quit school during his senior year, principally because he was bored with it. He joined the Marine Corps at the age of 20, served 4 years, attained the rank of sergeant before being honorably discharged. After his service, Myke became an electronics technician. After a couple years of that, Myke took up auto mechanics. He also drove a truck for 10 years and put more than a million miles under his butt. Through it all, he kept reading. Finally, he read too many books and had to go to college. As an undergraduate (double major, history and English) Myke finished second in his class (Summa Cum Laude). Then he went to graduate school and in 1997 took his MA in journalism. After grad school, Myke took a job writing service and repair manuals for heavy mining machinery. He wrote newsletters for a local museum. He taught writing at a junior college. He wrote essays and test questions for college entrance exams. He kept on reading. Today Myke still reads voraciously. He also writes short stories, reviews and essays because he goes crazy if he doesn't write at all. Myke has a big, black, golden-eyed, whip-smart cat, whose name is Sam. They go camping and fishing when they can. Sam chases frogs and birds and lizards and helps Myke read.
THE END OF CLIO’S FIRST YEAR
When I was at graduate school, I lived in a basement apartment. One large window at ground level presented a fine view of the back yard. From the house, the lawn rolled downhill through a grove of ash and walnut and ended 50 yards away at the lip of a rocky, brush-choked ravine.
At 5 o’clock on a dank December evening in 1995, the sun was just down. A warm front had pushed through in mid-afternoon. Now there was no wind. Warm, moist air clotted into fog where it touched the inch of new snow that carpeted the frozen earth. Black, leafless trees stood stark against the white landscape. The black-and-white world lacked enough light to make shadows.
I was making pancakes for supper. Stirring a bowl of batter, I looked out the rear window and appreciated the herd of deer that had come out of the ravine to nibble at our lawn. There were eight of them, the nearest only a couple of yards from the house. Hock-deep in the rising fog, the graceful animals were as black as the trees in the background. To me, the scene resembled something out of Poe or Hawthorne.
Then, for no apparent reason, one of the animals leapt into the air and kicked behind herself like a rodeo bronc. Back on the ground again, the doe stamped a bit while she looked about nervously. When she stood quiet again, she was still poised for flight. Seconds later another deer jumped, kicking and bucking like the first. Then a third animal leaped and, moments later, a fourth.
“Cheez!” said I: I never saw deer act like that b’fore. I wonder what’s got into ‘em?”
That’s when I saw Clio. My half-grown, tortoiseshell cat shot up out of the fog like a little black projectile and sank all of her claws into one of the deer, high-up inside its left rear thigh. That deer jumped and bucked and kicked just as the others had done.
In the instant that deer jumped, Clio sprang clear of the animal and hit the ground, eyes blazing in the dim light from my window. A writhing bundle of springs and hooks and viciousness, she sidled away from her still-stamping victim toward another deer, which she assaulted in the same manner.
With my attention now riveted upon her, it was easy to watch Clio work. I looked on in fascination while she methodically drove those deer down the hill, across the lawn, and back into the ravine, where I suppose it seemed to her they belonged. That done, she stalked the perimeter of the yard, apparently looking for more prowlers. Finding none, she came to the window and plucked at the screen – my cue to open the door.
She came in and strolled serenely to her dishes, where she had a snack and a tiny drink. Then she flopped in my reading chair and took up bathing her feet.
I looked at the clock. It read 5:12. Back in the kitchen, I noticed the calendar on the wall. Clio would be 7 months old in a week.
Our landlady lived upstairs. Her name was Mauree. She was then in her mid-seventies but still spry. She had reigned as head librarian of a large school district for many years, so she was accustomed to a world ordered just as she liked it and even more accustomed to telling others how that should be done. Mauree had a gruff manner and an acerbic tongue because she looked life straight in the eye, but she also had a lively curiosity and a scrumptiously dry wit.
I wanted to hear what Mauree would say about Clio and the deer, so I set my pancake batter aside. Then I walked out the door and around, to the front of the house, where I stepped onto the porch and rang the bell.
Mauree opened the door, said “Good evening” pleasantly, and asked me what was the matter. I told her. She drilled me with her hardest, “you-have-27-books-that-are-10-years-overdue look and said: “Myke, you’re a liar,” and shut the door in my face.
Telling myself I should have known better, I walked back to my basement and went to work on my supper once again. Crisp, lean bacon and buckwheat cakes with butter, real maple syrup, and a quart of ice-cold milk will do for any grudge that follows me home.
Emma lived next door, to our west. She was a retired schoolmarm with something like 45 years behind the chalk. She was older than Mauree, though how much older neither woman would tell and I wasn’t dumb enough to ask. Emma was a gentle soul who had been a champion gardener and a rare beauty in her day. Tall, slender, leggy, with sparkling blue eyes and curly, raven hair, Emma must have driven men wild in the bloom of her youth. Her gardens were still full of flowers, but she’d let the beds go bit by bit as old age and arthritis conspired to thwart her best efforts. Knowing Emma’s story as I did, the flowers and the weeds made a beautifully sad metaphor.
Emma belonged to some crank organization for old women. If I ever knew I’ve forgotten what it was called, but it was not D.A.R. Requirements for membership included having to prove one’s matrilineal ancestry back 500 years or some such nonsense. Emma was secretary of the local chapter. At a recent meeting, members decided that one of Emma’s duties would be to keep a genealogical database of the local chapter’s membership. That, mind you, and poor old Emma had scarcely ever seen a computer and had arthritis in her fingers so bad that she could no longer type more than a few words per annum.
Emma’s back yard was blooming raucously on the first of April, when she knocked on my door to plead for help. She explained about the database and asked me please would I type into the computer while she read to me from her hard-copy membership files. She promised me lunch, and I like lunch – especially when lunch is chicken fried by an old southern belle. So we went to Emma’s basement, where we sat with a computer. Sliding glass doors showed off the carnival of flowers that nodded gaily in the breeze outside, just beyond the flagstone patio.
I typed while Emma read aloud, somewhat as follows (names changed here to protect the guilty): “Mary Henderson Smith: born 1827; died 1928. Mary Bowser Henderson: born 1760; died 1907. Ellen Jones Bowser: born 1727; died 1769. Helen Morrison Jones: born 1627; died 1789. Violet MacIntosh Morrison – “
“Emma!” I interrupted: “Do you realize that Helen Morrison Jones supposedly lived to be 162 years old? And Mary Bowser Henderson, according to your information, was 147 years old when she died? Are you sure those dates are correct?”
Emma stared wide-eyed into the distance, somewhere behind my right shoulder. Her eyes got awfully big and started leaking tears. She sighed, “Ohh, Myke – “
“Fool!” I thought. “That’ll teach you to open your stupid yap. Now you’ve gone and hurt this sweet old lady. Why didn’t you just type and be done with . . . .”
“She’s so brave!” Emma finished.
“What? Who’s so brave?” I asked. “Mary Bowser Henderson? But she’s dead and buried for. . . .”
Emma cut me off. “Not her,” she said dreamily. It’s your little cat. Look out the doors there!”
So I turned and looked outside. Two big deer stood facing one of Emma’s flower beds about halfway down the garden walk. Between the deer and the object of their desires, directly in their way, stood Clio. She was up on her toes, ears flat, back arched, hair on end, lashing her biggest tail back-and-forth like a club, and screeching defiance. Plainly, she threatened those two deer with murder and worse. As we watched, she showed them she was serious.
Every time one of the deer put its head down to browse in Emma’s flowers, Clio sprang into the animal’s face. She hissed, spit, howled, scratched and bit furiously at their lips, noses and eyes. It looked as though she was doing her best to rip their faces off. If the deer moved to another flower bed, Clio was there before them: eyes blazing, killing mad, back arched, growling and howling and spitting curses, she would not let them eat.
The gentle animals had no recourse. In a very short while they gave up and walked away, back down toward the ravine.
Clio stomped down the garden path behind the deer to the lip of the ravine, at which point she abandoned pursuit. Then she came back to the house and flopped down emphatically, just outside the sliding doors, and bathed herself while she watched the flowers. She paid no attention to us staring at her through the glass. It was plain to me that Clio’s beef with the venison was territorial.
Emma saw it differently. She grinned hugely when she exclaimed: “Well! I’ll sleep better tonight knowin’ I won’t be attacked by ferocious, wild deer! Where EVER did you find that little cat?”
I smiled as I answered: “Right across the street at the daycare center. She was 8 weeks old when I brought her home last year, middle o’ May. Ain’t she a pistol?”
“Ain’t she just!” Emma chuckled.
The lunch she served grandly was her rendition of the Southern Classic: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, coleslaw, blackeyed peas cooked with smoky bacon, and beautiful, hot biscuits with honey-butter. Emma brought Clio in the house and seated her at the head of our table in an old highchair. On the tray of the highchair was a saucer piled high with warm, succulent flesh torn from two southern-fried chicken wings that Emma carefully hosed down with a quarter-cup of her delicious, golden, chicken gravy.
Like most cats, Clio was a dainty diner but still: The way she went to work on that particular lunch showed me and Emma that some cats know good cooking when they smell it.
Back home, just before dark, somebody knocked. I opened the door and saw Mauree. She stood on my doorstep and stared at me woodenly while she said, “Myke: I’m sorry I called you a liar. I saw your cat with those deer today. She is quite insane.”
I had a mind to thank her and ask her in for tea, but before I could say a word she turned on her heel and left.
Next day I told Emma about Mauree’s brittle apology. Emma smiled and told me I should be proud. “You’re a privileged creature,” she said. “I’ve been close to Mauree for 40 years and never knew she apologized to anyone for anything.”
Emma left me choking on tears of joy. Next morning I used a cocktail fork to serve Clio, bite-by-bite, a can of chunk-white tuna in water, and I walked on air for days thereafter.