“Oh, she’s doing all right,” Servaas says as he delivers his report on his monthly visit to Nellie Pretorius. As elder in the church, it is his duty to drive out to the deserted farm once a month to see the old lady. It is a long drive, and on his return he always stops at Boggel’s Place to rehydrate and tell Boggel the latest. “Fortunately she has old Phineas to help her, but I doubt if she’s going to last much longer.”
“And that cat? Is he still around?”
“Yes, that cat…” Servaas doesn’t like to talk about the cat. The concept that a cat may be waiting for someone to die, is weird enough. To have a tradition linked to it, is completely insane. “Sure. He spends his days on her bed now. Tannie Nellie says he won’t budge…”
The first time Servaas drove out to see Tannie Nellie was a cold winter’s day in the middle of June. He found the aging woman in front of the hearth in her stone-and-thatch cottage on the farm, where they had tea and talked about everything else except her health. When it was time to go, Servaas finally asked her about it.
“Oh, I’m fine thank you.” She wasn’t, it was plain to see. The stroke had caused the left side of her face to slide down even further than the right, and she was obviously short of breath. “As long as the cats roams about outside, I’m not worried.”
What’s the cat got to do with it?
“They wait for you to die. They know when it’s time. When my mother died, her cat was at her side; and when it was my father’s turn, the same thing happened. Mamma told me it would happen. She said cats have something to do with your soul – something about how cats are sensitive about the spiritual world. Maybe they help carry the soul to the other side. Maybe they assist the soul out of the body. Or maybe I’m just a bit daft!” She cackled a hoarse laugh while tapping against the side of her head with her good hand.
Servaas didn’t respond. She was old, somewhat senile and weak. To get into a Biblical argument about how stupid it is to think that a cat … ? No, he decided, as he put down his empty tea cup, best to go now.
Over the months that followed, she deteriorated slowly. She refused to see a doctor because they shouldn’t interfere. “Life is a book, Servaas. When you turn the last page, the story ends. You can’t add pages just because you enjoyed the story. And look at my cat – we don’t want to disappoint him, do we?”
The cat, indeed, did spend more and more time inside the house. When her bedroom became her home in November, the cat followed her and refused to budge.
“He waits until I doze off before going outside. That’s why the window is open. Quick out, quick back.” She tried to laugh, spasmed up in a spell of coughing, and gave a weak smile.
Servaas once tried to convince her to consider an old-age home. It was a mistake.
“You crazy?” Her eyes blazed at him. “This is my farm. My grandparents are here. My parents are here. My two children are here. Why would I leave?”
Servaas knew about the little cemetery near the dam – the one that never held any water. Tannie Nellie said it was the thought that counts, anyway. Her two boys are buried there (what they think were their remains, anyway, she said)– both died n the Helderberg disaster. “The bloody government used that plane to carry stuff for the atom bomb they built. That’s why the Americans blew it up.” It was the only time he ever heard her use foul language. As for the Americans blowing up a South African plane – well, he’s never heard anything so absurd in his entire life. “That is a problem, of course. They had no cats near when they died…”
The month passes quickly, as time does when the year starts running downhill. Servaas wrestles his old pickup over the rutted road leading to Tijgersrust, Tannie Nellie’s farm. According to local lore, the farm got its name because the last leopard in the district was shot there.
It is still plain to see that the farm must have been very successful at some stage. The remains of several cottages dot the area, stone walls remain where the kraals were and the huge shed must have housed the implements. Now only the skeletons of those days remain. The dam-without-water is a mocking tribute to the dreams of a few generations. Dust to dust, Servaas thinks as he opens the gate.
Phineas opens the door even before he can knock.
“Hai, Mister Servaas, come in. It is a sad day. How did you know?”
“Know what, Phineas?”
“Tannie Nellie has just passed away. Thank you for coming.”
Servaas doesn’t stop at Boggel’s Place when he returns to town. He needs time to think. Last night he dreamt about a cat – a big one with spots. The animal was resting on his bed and refused to budge when he drew the sheets over his head. It wasn’t a nightmare; somehow, it was the most natural thing to share his bed with the creature.
Then there was the other thing: when he opened that gate to the farm, he saw Tannie Nellie’s cat resting on the veranda. He hesitated before knocking, thinking the cat seemed exhausted.
He flops down on his old couch. People can be very strange in their beliefs. Now he, Servaas, isn’t going to be intimidated by some silly myth. That’s why he agreed to bring the cat to town. Phineas told him that he was leaving now that Tannie Nellie is gone; there is nothing to keep him on the farm. If Mister Servaas would be so kind? Please. I can’t take the cat home – in my village people keep too many dogs.
He knew Phineas was lying. He had spent more time on that farm than anybody else. He also knew about the leopard and the cats.
Well, he, Servaas Venter, isn’t superstitious. He’s not afraid. That old woman deluded. Deranged. Demented. Or something.
On impulse, he gets up to peek through the window. The cat is wandering around outside, inspecting his new environment.
Outside, Servaas thinks as he opens the fridge. I’ll put out a cushion and some milk outside.