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Truyện ngắn Ghost cat của Donna Hill

It was growing so dark that Filmore had to stop reading; but as soon as he put his book down, he began to notice the loneliness again.

His mother had been driving without a word ever since they had turned onto this remote and bumpy road. Jodi was asleep, curled up in back with her stuffed animal friend. There was nothing to see out the window except black trees and shrubs along the roadside thrashing in the wind. To the west, through the trees, he could see that the sun had melted onto the horizon, but to the east the sky looked dark and bruised.

Suddenly his mother said, “That must be the house.” She stopped the car.

Jodi sat up. “Are we here?” Jodi always awoke at once, alert and happy. She did not seem to know what loneliness and sorrow were. Jodi had glossy black curls and eyes like agates. She was little for her six years,

but sturdy and fearless, as even Filmore would admit, but only to himself. To others, sometimes as a compliment, he said she was daft.

“You two wait here while I take a look,” said their mother.

Filmore watched their mother walk along the path between the swaying, overgrown bushes. She looked small, walking alone, not much taller than his sister, in fact. Filmore whispered, “Jodi, don’t you wish Daddy were here with US?”

Jodi was brushing down the apron of her animal friend.

“Remember last summer with Daddy?” Filmore said. “The beach, how broad and clean and dazzling it was? Remember what fun we had in the boat?”

Jodi turned her animal friend about, inspecting her from all sides.

“Here comes mother,” Filmore said. “Let’s not remind her of Daddy.” But he needn’t have warned Jodi. She seemed not to have heard a word.

“This is it,” their mother said. “Help me with the bags, please, Filmore.”

He and Jodi scrambled out of the car.

“Wait, wait!” Jodi called. “I dropped Mrs. Tiggy-winkle! Don’t worry, Mrs. Tiggy-winkle! We’ll never leave you! We love you!”

“What does she care,” Filmore protested. For some reason he was annoyed with his sister. “She’s only a stuffed hedgehog.”

“She is not! She’s a raccoon!”

“Listen, either she’s a hedgehog or she’s not Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!”

“Filmore, please,” their mother said, pushing through the creaking gate.

A stone path led to a cottage perched on a little bluff overlooking the cove. Trees were sighing and moaning over the roof, and shrubs whispered at the door. The wind dropped suddenly as though the house were holding its breath, and Filmore could hear the push of waves up the beach and their scraping retreat over pebbles and shells.

His mother paused at the stoop to search through her bag for the key. Now Filmore could see scaling paint, shutters hanging loose, and windows opaque with dust. “What a dump!” he muttered.

When he saw his mother’s face, he was sorry. His mother had gone back to teaching and labored to keep up their home; no one knew better than Filmore how hard it had been.

“The agent told US we’d have to take it as is,” she said. “That’s how we can afford it.” She found the key, but could hardly shove the door open for sand that had sucked up against it.

“We came for the beach, anyway,” Filmore said. “Who cares about the house! I wouldn’t care if it was haunted!”

“Oh, I love the haunted house!” Jodi cried, bursting into the front room. “Oh, we have a big window with the whole black sky in it! Oh, and a fireplace! And rocking

chairs!” The floor squealed under her feet as she ran around excitedly. “And here’s the kitchen, with a black monster stove!”

Their mother laughed. She had the same dark curly hair, the same eyes as Jodi, and when she laughed, she did not look much older. “It’s charming, really. Just needs a little work. But first we need some sleep.”

They climbed narrow stairs and opened creaking doors to three small rooms with beds under dust covers. The covers pleased their mother and made Jodi laugh. “Ghosts and more ghosts!” she cried.

In his unfamiliar little room above the kitchen, Filmore kept waking in the night to whistles, squeals, and thumps that could have been ghosts in the house, that could have been anything sinister at all.

The next morning, Filmore woke to the melancholy crying of gulls. When he heard Jodi’s light voice below, he pulled his clothes on hurriedly and went down to the kitchen.

“Good morning, dear,” his mother said from the stove, where she was already cooking breakfast. “Did you sleep well?”

“I didn’t sleep at all,” Jodi put in cheerfully. “Neither did Mrs. Tiggy-winkle. We stayed awake all night and listened to the haunted house.”

Filmore did not want to admit his own feelings. “You’re daft!”

“Something is here, you know,” Jodi insisted. “Something besides us!” 

“And I know what it is.” Their mother laughed. “Sand! We’ll get rid of it right now.”

The house was so small that sweeping and dusting upstairs and down did not take long, and still there was time for the beach before lunch.

To Filmore, the beach was even more disappointing than the house. It was narrow and deserted, with low, dispirited waves the color of mud as far as the eye could see. There were no houses in sight, just cliffs and scraggy pine trees at each end of the cove. Edging the sand were patches of weeds and damp brown rags of algae that smelled like vinegar. The stain that marked high tide was littered with broken shells, sticks like bones, and here and there a dead fish. A troupe of sandpipers ran up the beach and back, as though frantic to escape.

Jodi loved everything. She made up a joyful beach song as she built a sand dragon and then she pressed Filmore to go with her while she filled her bucket with shells and treasures.

Stumping along at her heels, Filmore demanded, “Why don’t you ever talk about Daddy? You were his dear rabbit, don’t forget!”

“Look, Filmore!” Jodi cried. “I found a sand dollar!”

After lunch, they drove out for supplies. “It will be fun to see the village and the shops,” their mother said.

The village turned out to be only a few houses scattered along the road, and on the beach, one rowboat upside down beside a shack with a sign for bait. The shops were only Judson’s General Store and Judson’s Gas Station.

A bell jangled as they went into the store. It was dim and cluttered and smelled of dusty bolts of cloth and strong cheese. Behind the counter stood a tall, thin woman who kept her hands in her apron pockets while she looked them over with stern interest.

“Good morning!” their mother said. “I’m Mrs. Coyne. This is my son Filmore and my daughter Jodi. We’ve rented the Hogarth place.”

“Heard you did,” said the storekeeper.

“We need milk and a few groceries. Also lumber and nails, if you have them. We’d like to mend the front stoop. You don’t think the owner would mind, do you?”

“Not likely. He hasn’t seen the place in years. But I’d wait if I were you. See if you like it there, first.”

“Don’t you think we’ll like it?” Filmore asked.

“Been a lot of folks in and out the Hogarth place. City folks, mostly. Like you. They never stay long.”

“Because it’s run-down, or is there something else?” Filmore asked.

His mother interposed. “Do you happen to know if the chimney works?”

“Did once. Likely needs sweeping.”

“Is there someone who might do it for US?”

“Mr. Judson. My husband. He can fix the front stoop, too, if you want. Rehang those shutters. Trim the bushes. You would have to pay, though. The real estate agency won’t. Cost you twenty dollars.”

“That would be just fine!” 

When Mrs. Judson was adding up the prices on a paper bag, Filmore asked, “Why don’t people stay long at Hogarth’s?”

Mrs. Judson was busy checking her figures.

“Because of what’s there besides US,” Jodi said. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Judson?”

Their mother looked at Mrs. Judson with a smile, but Mrs. Judson was busy packing groceries.

“But we like it, Mrs. Tiggy-winkle and I. It sounds so beautiful and sad. Especially the little bell.”

“What little bell?” Filmore asked.

“Didn’t you hear it? It was so sweet last night, going tinkle-clink all around the house.”

Mrs. Judson rang up the money with a loud jangle of her register. “Suit you if Mr. Judson comes tomorrow morning?”

Back in the car, Filmore said, “She wasn’t very friendly.”

“I thought she was,” said their mother. “She tried to help us all she could.”

“She didn’t smile, not once,” Filmore said. “And she wouldn’t tell US anything.”

“That’s because she was nervous,” Jodi said.

“Why would she be nervous?” their mother asked.

“For us. She thinks we might be afraid in the house.”

“But there’s nothing to be afraid of!” said their mother. .

Jodi laughed. “We know that!” 

Early next morning, Mr. Judson arrived in a truck, with toolbox and planks of wood. He too was tall and thin, with the same gaunt face as his wife, but with a tuft of gray beard attached.

All morning while they were on the beach, Filmore could hear Mr. Judson hammering, thumping, and snipping. At noon he came and said, “Chimney’s working. I laid a fire. Got to go, now. The missus will be waiting.”

They walked with him to his truck. “How do you folks like it here?” he asked, lifting his toolbox into the back.

“We love it!” Jodi answered.

“It’s a charming house, really,” their mother said. “I wonder why it hasn’t been sold?”

“Because of whafs here,” Jodi said. “Isn’t that right, Mr. Judson?”

Mr. Judson was searching among his tools. “Must have left my pliers somewhere, Mrs. Coyne.”

“It’s a cat,” Jodi said.

“A cat, Jodi?” their mother asked. “Are you sure? Is there a cat, Mr. Judson?”

“Never saw one here, myself. Leastwise not in years.”

“You mean there used to be a cat?” Filmore asked.

“Mrs. Hogarth, she had one. Hogarth, he moved away when his missus died. Don’t know what became of the cat.”

“Could it be a neighbor’s cat?”

“She has a squeaky little voice,” Jodi said. “Probably hoarse from crying.”

“Haven’t heard tell of any lost cats,” Mr. Judson said. He went around to the cab of his truck.

“Could it be a stray?”

“Oh, she’s not a stray,” Jodi said. “She wears a little rusty bell that goes tinkle-clink when she runs. It’s so sweet.”

Mr. Judson climbed into his truck and turned on the ignition. “If you find my pliers, will you bring them next time?”

As they watched the truck rattle down the road, Filmore asked, “Don’t you think the Judsons act strange? Like they’re hiding something?”

“No, dear,” his mother said. “I think they’re just reticent. That’s how people are in this part of the country.”

That night, Filmore was awakened by someone shaking his toes. “Filmore! I have to tell you something!”

Jodi was leaning against his bed with Mrs. Tiggy- winkle in her arms. Moonlight falling through the window made her eyes like holes in a mask. “Do you hear the cat?” Jodi whispered. “She’s prowling and crying all around the house, now. She wants to come in.”

Filmore held his breath to listen. He did in fact hear a wailing and sighing and rustling of leaves. “That’s the wind.”

“And the cat, too,” Jodi insisted.

“All right, get in my bed, if you’re scared.”

“We’re not scared. But we are cold.” She climbed on the bed and settled the quilt around Mrs. Tiggy-winkle. 

Filmore rolled over and closed his eyes. “Go to sleep. There isn’t any cat. Mr. Judson said so.”

“He did not. He said he never saw a cat, leastwise not in years. But we did.”

Filmore turned back. “You saw it?”

“Yes, on the beach this afternoon. She was watching US through the weeds, a yellow cat with red eyes.”

“Then why haven’t mother and I seen it?”

“Because she’s invisible.”

“You said you saw it!”

“We did! Mrs. Tiggy-winkle and I! Both of us! First we saw her eyes and then we saw her whole self!”

“You don’t even know what invisible means!”

“We do too! It means mostly people can’t see her.”

“It means nobody ever sees her!”

“But she can fix that when she wants to. Anyway, she is prowling and crying right now. She wants somebody to let her in.”

“If she’s invisible, she can let herself in!” Filmore cried, triumphantly.

“That’s not the same,” Jodi said, straightening the quilt.

Filmore turned away. “You make me tired! What did you come bothering me for!”

Jodi sighed and threw off the covers.

“You can stay if you’re nervous,” Filmore muttered.

“We aren’t nervous. But you are! So we’ll stay.”

At breakfast, Jodi said, through a mouthful of blueberry pancakes, “When you have a cat, you’re her

mother and daddy, you know, so you must never leave her, like Mr. Hogarth did. That’s why she’s always crying and prowling and never can rest.”

Their mother looked down at them from her pancake griddle.

“We have to put some food out for her, Mother,” Jodi said.

“If there’s any cat around here, it finds its own food,” Filmore said.

“That’s right, dear. It got along all right before we came.”

“No, she didn’t! She’s skinny all over and her little bones show! Can’t I give her my milk? Please, Mother, please!”

Their mother smiled. “Not your milk, Jodi. We’ll find some scraps.”

Filmore followed Jodi to the kitchen stoop, where she settled the scraps and a pan of water.

“She’s already been here, looking for food,” Jodi said.

“See her paw prints?”

Filmore bent to examine the stoop. “That’s just wet sand. The wind did that. You’re putting this food here for nothing. No cat’s going to eat it.”

“Of course not. She’s a ghost. Ghosts can’t eat.”

“Then why are you putting it here!” Filmore exclaimed, exasperated.

“She doesn’t need to eat it, just to have it. To know we love her.”

On the beach that afternoon, their mother was reading under the umbrella while Jodi sat beside her on the sand,

sorting her beach treasure. Filmore waded for a while, but he felt uneasy by himself and soon came back to flop beside his sister.

The grasses above the beach rattled in the wind. “Is the cat watching US now?” he whispered.

“Oh, not now. The hot sand hurts her feet.”

“I thought you said she was a ghost!”

“But she can hurt, just the same.”

Later, clouds rolled up over the sea and the wind turned cold. Filmore took down the umbrella while his mother folded the beach chair and they ran for the house through pellets of rain.

That evening Filmore forgot the cat in the pleasure of popping corn over a snappy fire. Their mother sat rocking and mending, and Jodi sprawled on the hearth, humming to Mrs. Tiggy-winkle. Firelight threw quivering shadows on the walls. Outside the rain was like handfuls of sand thrown at the windows.

Filmore glanced at his mother. Her face was thoughtful and withdrawn. Whenever he caught her in such a mood, she would quickly smile, as though to insist she was all right. This time, however, she spoke.

“Remember last summer? Our last vacation with Daddy? Remember the day he bought every balloon the man had, and you three went along the beach and gave them away to children? He wanted US to share our happiness. Remember, Jodi, how happy he wanted US to be?” 

“Is it popcorn yet?” Jodi asked. “I don’t hear any more pops.”

When Filmore passed her the popcorn, she said, “Mrs. Tiggy-winkle feels just the same as me. But not the cat. She hurts. Because she was murdered. That’s why she’s a ghost.”

Filmore saw that his mother’s needle had stopped, but she did not look at them.

“When somebody leaves you, they always murder you a little bit. But Mr. Hogarth, he murdered her a lot, until she was dead.”

“If you know so much, how did he do it?” Filmore demanded.

“First he starved her and then he drowned her and then he told her she was bad. That’s why she’s so skinny and wet. She hates to be skinny and wet. She’s outside now, crying at the kitchen door. Can’t you hear her? She wants to come in by the fire.”

“You’re daft!” Filmore exclaimed. “That’s just the wind!”

“Please, Mother, please! Can’t I let her in?”

Their mother gave Filmore a glance that asked for patience. “All right, dear. Let her in.”

Jodi rose with Mrs. Tiggy-winkle and went to the kitchen. Filmore heard the kitchen door open and then the screen. A cold draft blew through the room and dashed at the flames on the hearth.

“Hurry up, please!” their mother called. “You’re cooling off the house.” 

When Jodi came back, Filmore said, “Well, where is the cat?”

“She can’t come in because she knows you don’t love her.”

“But you and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle love her! Isn’t that enough?”

“Can Mrs. Tiggy-winkle have some more popcorn, please?”

When the fire burned low and their mother announced bedtime, Jodi said, “She’s crying again, Mother.”

“Jodi, dear, why do you upset yourself this way? Can’t you just enjoy your vacation with Filmore and me?”

“Yes, but she has to be happy, too! That’s why we came here, you know! Can’t I let her sleep on my bed tonight?”

Their mother sighed.

“You think I just imagine her, don’t you?”

“Of course!” Filmore said. “You are the only one who sees her!”

“I am not! Mrs. Tiggy-winkle sees her, too!”

“And Mrs. Tiggy-winkle isn’t real, either!”

“All right, if I just imagine her, why can’t I have her on my bed?”

Their mother smiled. “I can’t argue with that.”

In his room, Filmore heard the squeal and slap of the screen door and then his sister’s clumpy steps on the stairs. Straining, he thought he also heard soft paws running up beside her and the tinkle of a bell.

“Now she’s got me doing it!” he muttered. 

The rain grew quiet, the wind died, waves gently washed the shore. The next time Filmore opened his eyes, it was nearly daylight. He pulled on his robe and went to his mother’s room.

“What is it, Filmore?” she asked. Like Jodi, she always woke up at once.

“Let’s see if Jodi really has a cat.”

He took her hand as they went down the hall. “You don’t believe there’s a ghost cat, do you?”

His mother stopped in the hall. “Not literally, dear, of course. But Jodi does, so we must try to be understanding. She’s still very little, you know. She isn’t quite sure where reality stops and the stories of her mind begin.”

“But why would she make up this crazy story?”

“We’ll have to see if we can think of why.”

Jodi’s window opened on a huge dark sea and a rosy horizon. The sound of rolling waves was like the breathing of a giant in sleep. Jodi was curled under the quilt, her black hair shining on the pillow and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle under her chin.

“There’s no cat!” Filmore whispered. “She made the whole thing up!” He felt an odd mixture of indignation, relief, and disappointment.

Jodi sat up brightly. “We’re not asleep!”

“Did you and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle have a good night?” their mother asked.

“Yes, and so did the ghost cat. She stayed right here on my bed till she got warm and dry, and then she went away.” 

To Filmore she added, “If you don’t believe me, look at this! She gave me her bell!”

Jodi opened her hand to show him a little rusty bell on a bit of frayed ribbon.

Filmore was going to accuse her of finding the bell on the beach, when he caught his mother’s eye.

“Why did the ghost cat leave you?” their mother asked. “Doesn’t she love you?”

“Yes, but she had to go because she was dead. Just like Daddy, you know.”

Filmore saw his mother’s eyes grow cloudy, but she hid them by hugging Jodi. He went and made a circle with them, turning his face away also.

Muffled by their arms, Jodi said, “That’s why we’re hugging and crying and smiling, right?”

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