Written by Erin Nust
Art by Lucas Pezeta
The cat followed him everywhere he went: to the little wooden shed at the farthest point of the graveyard, to the barren paths he traversed during his watch, to the gate to bid him farewell at the end of his shift.
Mr. Marsh had been Swiftbay’s graveyard guard for forty years and he enjoyed his job because, unlike any other position in the village, it provided him with some unique clarity, deriving from the peace and quiet of the night. He wasn’t afraid of loneliness like most people were; in fact, he had been alone for the biggest part of his adulthood since his parents died in a sea voyage. Mr. Marsh wasn’t married, he had no friends, and he didn’t go to the traditional coffee shops where all the men of the village wasted their afternoons chatting, arguing, and playing cards; he was a weird old man.
It was a white cat—surprisingly clean for a stray animal—and he had found it curled up on the marble grave of a man called Peter S. Fray. He had all the company he needed when he found the white cat in Fray’s graveyard. Mr. Marsh named the cat Mr. Fray, and it was his partner during the long nights he wandered discreetly in the graveyard, when no one was there like an unwanted ghost. He and Mr. Fray had whole conversations in Mr. Marsh’s mind: they talked about the chaos of life, how impossible making sense out of it is, the inevitability of confusion and distress in attempts to navigate it. The more time he spent with Mr. Fray, the more he started to articulate his thoughts out loud to his animal friend. And the cat looked back at him with a pair of eyes more understanding than he had ever found in a person. Mr. Marsh believed deep down that the cat was a human, trapped in an animal’s body.
The thought had been seeded in Mr. Marsh’s mind, but it didn’t bloom until Eliza Garland’s visit in the graveyard.
Eliza Garland, still a student at the time, had been shocked along with the rest of Swiftbay at the sudden, unlucky death of Peter Fray. Fray was a young teacher in elementary school, and he had been engaged with Eliza. According to the village, they planned to get married and live together in Swiftbay after Eliza’s graduation. Peter’s fatal fall in his bathroom put an abrupt end to their plans. Eliza came back to the village for her fiance’s funeral, and then retreated back to her studies. No one had seen her until her unexpected visit in the graveyard.
When Eliza came, it was October—the chilliest October Mr. Marsh had to face in years. He was wearing his warm jacket that he usually wore in early December when the weather really called for it. Darkness had already devoured the cosy sun of the early evening, and Mr. Marsh was ready to leave his shed and check the field for any maintenance problems. Mr. Fray followed him with his tail upright, meowing every now and then at the jumping crickets and the coos of crows.
Visitors usually came as long as the daylight lasted, especially in winter. People seemed to avoid grim places during the night when their imagination woke up, because they were too afraid of their own selves and their dark thoughts. Mr. Marsh believed. In their secluded village, they had no outlaw activities in the graveyard during the night. This was the reason Mr. Marsh, a sixty-year-old man and not a trained security guard, was accepted to take care of the dead.
His walks in the graveyard were silent, mindful, like he was attending a Sunday’s church, so he wasn’t surprised when he saw the fragile figure of Eliza Garland. She was wearing a long black coat and her blonde hair flew free under the wild gusts of the wind. Mr. Marsh didn’t like moving closer to the visitors of the graveyard. It was sacrilegious to interrupt such a holy moment: the living coming in touch with those who had passed away.
It was then that the cat left Mr. Marsh’s side for the first time since the two of them met. With his tail wiggling, Mr. Fray pranced towards Eliza Garland, who was bending to leave a rose to her fiance. He meowed and made the young woman jump. Mr. Marsh wished to interfere, to grab the cat and leave Eliza alone, but he didn’t. He stood behind a tree and watched the scene unfolding.
Eliza smiled at the white cat, who rubbed his skin against her boots. She took her eyes away from the grave and reluctantly caressed the cat. Mr. Fray meowed in response to the woman’s touch and for some seconds their gazes locked. Eliza’s eyes filled with water, and salty tears landed on the white fur of the cat.
Mr. Marsh closed his tired eyes and crossed himself. When he opened them again the woman left the animal’s gaze and touched Peter’s grave with the tips of her fingers. She walked lightly towards the gate with her head facing the ground. Mr. Marsh had a hard time concentrating for the rest of his nightshift and Mr. Fray wasn’t a good company anymore. After Eliza left, the cat went to the shed and slept there for the rest of the night.
The next night, when Mr. Marsh arrived at the graveyard, there was no sign of Mr. Fray. He hadn’t welcomed him at the gate, nor he was in the shed. He had disappeared.
It was then that the seed in his old mind had bloomed and he laughed at himself with how poetic he tried to be when he named the cat, and how literal his act was.