The little party wandered slowly along the rows of the hillside garden, pausing in the warm afternoon Northern California sun to examine one vegetable vine or plant after another, chatting amiably together in low voices about fertilizers and slug repellents and the various ways to control aphids and blackfly and other common predators. Five people – two men, a woman carrying a baby, and a boy of twelve or thirteen. Weaving in and out of their feet, a pair of old tortoiseshell cats kept pace with them, their curiosity piqued by the rare advent of a cluster of strangers invading their patch.
The older man took the lead in the group, drawing them down one packed earthen path after another, pointing out the blossoms on the pumpkin and squash plants, the baby cucumbers and the lush rows of chard and beet greens, pausing to delve amidst the luxuriant foliage of the climbing pole bean vines to select one or two slender specimens and handing them to his visitors to try – crunching the brittle pods in their teeth, tasting the sweet juices of the fresh raw beans.
The leader was somewhere in his late seventies, of medium height and thickset body mass, and wore a plaid flannel shirt under a denim bibbed overall. On his feet were heavy leather work boots. On his balding head, wisps of white hair blew about in the breeze rising up from the distant river. His hands were thick-fingered and broad – the hands of a workman – and as he spoke his eyes twinkled with pleasure, for this patch of earth and greenery was his pride and joy, and he was delighted to show it off to his appreciative young neighbours from down the steep hill road.
He had met them only a week before when the husband of the couple had stopped by to ask if he might have permission to take a pickup load or two of topsoil from beside the forest track at the upper edge of the old man’s property. He and his wife were renting the modest, single-storied house at the sharp turn of the road a quarter of a mile downhill, and he wanted some good soil to spread over their predominantly clay front yard to create some flower beds for his young wife to plant flowers and shrubs in. The old man was happy to oblige (‘Take as many loads as you like!’), and over the next weekend he had watched as the man and his lanky son made several trips in their well-used Chevrolet pickup up to the track above his property, returning minutes later with heaped loads of dark, loamy, redwood forest topsoil.
That Sunday afternoon, coming back from a trip to the store, the old man had stopped by when he saw the little family working together in their front yard. Pulling his battered Dodge across the end of their drive, he had climbed out and ambled over for a chat.
The husband had created separate raised beds by nailing redwood planks on edge into rectangles that bordered the driveway, the house front and the pathway to the front door. Now he and the boy were adding the new topsoil to the rectangular beds, carrying wheelbarrow loads up from the diminishing pile beside the drive and forking it into the claggy earth beneath to create a mixture of the two that would support and nourish the roots of new plants and bushes. At one side, one of the beds had been completed, and beside it the wife knelt in jeans and shirt, working fertilizer into the new soil, then depositing seeds in carefully spaced depressions, covering them over and watering them in with a garden watering can. On the little porch nearby, strapped into a baby seat, the bonneted baby sat, waving a rattle and gurgling happily as she watched the activity going on before her.
The old man admired the little family’s concerted struggle to bring colour and life to the bare ochre ground before their house, and he told them as much. He was sure, he said, that in a few weeks they’d be amazed at the transformation all their efforts would make.
The attractive young wife, who had a mane of shoulder-length auburn hair tied back with a bandanna, turned with a homey smile to regard him closely, holding one hand over her green eyes to shade them from the sun.
‘Are you a gardener yourself then?’ she asked.
He smiled and nodded.
‘I guess you could say that. Since Arlene died – that’s my wife, she died four years ago – it’s become my greatest joy in life. Arlene used to be the one who kept the garden while I worked. I was a millwright for Simpson’s up in Smith River for years, until I retired eight years ago. When Arlene went I took over the garden and tried to keep it up as well as she used to. I think I have. Leastways I hope so. And I think she’d be proud of me.’
The wife rose to her feet, brushing the soil from her hands and stepping forward.
‘I’m sure she would be. I’d love to see your garden, Mr. Cahill.’ They knew his name from seeing it on the mailbox standing alone on the road beside the drive up to his house. ‘If you wouldn’t mind? I’m trying to learn about gardening, and you might be able to give me some pointers.’
‘Why, I’d be tickled to show it to you,’ he’d replied, and they’d made an appointment to come up the following afternoon.
Accordingly, the next day they had arrived at the appointed time – all of them crammed onto the single seat of the pickup – and had been effusively welcomed inside the single-story, shadowy Cahill house tucked behind its screened front porch. There they had taken seats at an oilcloth-covered kitchen table before a long window overlooking the Smith River meandering through the second growth redwoods along the canyon a mile or so below, to enjoy tall glasses of sweet iced sun tea and slices of delicious store-bought coffee cake. After which, the tour of the garden behind the house had commenced.
It had taken a full half an hour, and now it was drawing to a close as they approached the last and perhaps most majestic display in the garden – a tall stand of sweet pea vines at one side of the back porch, growing up a frame of straight saplings gathered together and tied at the top with twine. From ground to tip the frame was ablaze with hundreds of multi-coloured blossoms.
The old man stood back smiling as his visitors gaped at it.
‘Go on, take a sniff,’ he urged them.
And they did so, burying their noses in the blossoms, drinking in the sweet honeyed smell, cooing their appreciation. Digging into an overall pocket, the old man produced a pair of garden scissors, which he passed to the wife.
‘Go ahead and cut a bunch or two, if you want. There’s more there than I can ever use.’
The wife turned to him with a delighted smile. ‘Really?’
‘Sure. Take as many as you can use. They’ll just go to waste if you don’t.’
‘I will, then,’ she said, smiling with gratitude and passing the baby to her husband. ‘I’ll put them in a vase on our kitchen table. Thank you so much!’
Mr Cahill reached down to pick up the largest of the cats. Holding it in his arms, he stroked its back idly as he watched the young woman selecting and clipping the stems. The great furry creature purred contentedly under his hand. Beside him, the boy knelt to pet the second cat, which writhed with pleasure against his ankles.
Minutes later the family prepared for their short drive home. In the pickup bed were boxes of new potatoes and freshly-cut squashes and beans – gifts from the old man – together with the fat bunches of sweet pea blossoms, the stems held together with thick rubber bands. As they turned down the gravel drive towards the road, the old man raised a hand high in a farewell wave and everyone in the pickup waved back.
Over the following months, every time they passed one another on the road, the family and Mr Cahill would wave and smile – good neighbours with every intention of developing their friendship further when time allowed. At the same time the young plants and shrubs in the family’s rectangular beds grew and flowered and brought the hoped-for touch of colour and life to the family’s drab front yard. Delighted, they wanted to thank the old man for his contribution, but they never got the chance.
One afternoon in the late autumn the boy returned home from school to find his mother sitting subdued at the kitchen table. Before her was a half-full cup of black coffee. In an ashtray, a filter cigarette sent a spiral of smoke into the air. Across the room in the playpen, the baby gurgled happily on its back.
But the boy could see that all was not well from the distracted look on his mother’s face. Pulling out the chair opposite, he slid into it.
‘You all right, Ma?’
The woman’s gaze seemed to come back to him from somewhere far away. Then she blinked and stirred herself, reaching for her cigarette.
‘Yes, I’m fine. Just had some bad news, that’s all. Marge told me. From down the road? She only just left.’
‘What bad news?’
The woman took a drag on the cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray. Then she sighed and sat back.
‘Old Mr. Cahill was found dead today up at his house. Heart attack, they think.’
The boy frowned. ‘That’s very sad. He was a nice man. Nice to us.’
‘He sure was.’
The boy leaned forward. ‘Who found him? He didn’t have any relatives, did he? No children?’
‘No. He told us that when we visited, remember? After his wife died he was all alone in the world. Except for his cats.’ She shuddered.
‘Who was it that found him then?’ the boy asked.
She sighed. ‘The people down at the store hadn’t seen him for over a week. They got worried because he always called in every two or three days. When he didn’t turn up for so long they drove up and knocked on his door. His old Dodge was in the carport, and when he didn’t answer, they thought something might be wrong and called the Sheriff’s office.’
‘The Sheriff found him?’
The woman nodded.
‘Two deputies. They had to break in. He’d died in his sleep, it looks like – over a week ago.’ She shook herself. ‘It must’ve been awful.’
‘Why awful?’ the boy said. ‘At least he didn’t suffer.’
The woman looked up.
‘That wasn’t the worst.’
‘What d’you mean?’ the boy asked.
‘The cats were locked up in the house with him. For over a week. They had nothing to eat, no food left in their bowls.’
‘Did they have water?’
‘Oh yes. They got water from the toilet bowl. The lid had been left up.’
The boy frowned, beginning to suspect. ‘So how did they survive, then? What’d they eat?’
The woman sat forward, tracing with the tip of her index finger the flowered pattern of the oilcloth.
‘Apparently they ate him. Part of him anyway. His face and neck.’
The boy grimaced.
‘The cats did?’
‘Yes.’ She looked up at him again. ‘But you mustn’t blame them, Will. They had to eat something. They were starving. That was all they could find.’
The boy sat back, swallowing thickly. It was an image supremely horrible to contemplate, and he pitied the poor deputy who’d made the discovery.
‘What’ll happen to the cats now, d’you think?’ he asked finally.
‘They’ll be taken care of.’ The stepmother sipped her coffee. ‘Given away or taken to the animal pound. Someone will take them. And why not? No one will know what they did. It wasn’t their fault, anyway.’
Which was true enough.
But for the boy, for the rest of his life the image of poor Mr. Cahill lying dead in his bed in his silent shadowy house up the hill with half his face eaten away by his beloved pets was something he would never be able to forget.
By William Roberts