Cats Claw – Hayley Siegel ‘20

As is the case with most third wives, Maja was first a mistress, then a tabloid bride, and finally the widow of Dr. Adam P. Von Heimel. Von Heimel, an obscure Austrian aristocrat and heir to a large champagne empire, had emmigrated from Klagenfurt to Hollywood in 1929, nearly two decades before his death, to produce critically acclaimed art house films. Despite having garnered a number of lifetime achievement awards, after several box-office failures in the early 40s, Von Heimel had been compelled to announce his early retirement, a loss to the industry that, though bemoaned by the papers, came as no surprise to anyone who was anyone in Hollywood. Little had been heard of Von Heimel or his wife during the subsequent decade, until rather unexpectedly, the Los Angeles Times had reported that at the healthy age of ninety-one Dr. Von Heimel was dead, having drowned while sunbathing nude with Maja and their cat Ferdinand in the pool on his estate in Carmel. 

A photograph accompanying the obituary featured his liver-spotted, wrinkled body about to be transported from the premises by a helicopter. Limbs splayed, almost Christ-like, as he lay in the arms of three houseguests including an Andoran Prince, former golf champion Howard Long, and the mayor of Los Angeles himself. Of course, the clincher was that Von Heimel had chosen to leave his entire estate and fortune to Maja with a small sum provided for the family’s long time confident and butler Jones.

Naturally, if Maja were to die, Jones would be a very rich man on the stipulation that he cared for Ferdinand. And if Jones died, everything was left in trust for Ferdinand. This last tidbit came as a blow to several of the doctor’s grandchildren, but no one could have internalized the family’s loss more acutely than his two adult nieces, Isabelle and Yvette Rothberg, who lived with their mother in Monaco and had yet to meet their uncle. In fact, they would never have known of his death had Maja not considered it terribly rude to leave the girls with nothing to console themselves; amidst the tragedy she had gathered the presence of mind to have Jones inform her husband’s “poor favorites” of his death in a letter which included news of their disinheritance sent expressly to their summer chalet in Montreux.

This small act of selflessness had apparently reinvigorated Maja’s spirits. Outwardly she seemed to bear the tragedy of her husband’s passing remarkably well despite the circumstances, for no sooner had she read her husband’s will then she decided to spend a weekend recovering from the shock in southern France, maintaining that a change of scenery was preferable to perpetuating her grief by sitting Shiva in a heat wave. Still, in her absence, Hollywood talked. She had married him for the money people said, but perhaps this had only been a half-truth and conceived many years ago at that, and if she could have spoken to her accusers, she would have argued on the stand that though she had been selfish, she had learned to be a good lover, teaching herself by the moonlight to crave her husband’s mind and later his depth of sincerity, and she knew that he had married her for equally shallow and damning reasons foremost amongst which was her beauty. She was happy in sporadic stretches of minutes and miserable for hours on end, and contrary to the public accounts of her unflappable optimism, upon her return to California, Maja was diagnosed with chronic depression. She was prescribed rest and a daily dosage of Cat’s Claw pills to help with the pains in her joints.

She had never been prone to the dolorous tantrums of loss that often afflicted women of her age, but now she could sense a change within herself. In her early years of marriage, she had still considered herself a warm-blooded woman. A former Ziegfeld girl, she had quaffed her greying hair every morning and worn silk negligees beneath her purple velour kimono. She had always been a social fixture, known to call anyone she met “darling” with a sweeping gesture of her long cigarette and for certain persons, she had reserved the most sacred epithet of “dearest”, which she would whisper into in the nape of their necks as if they were the fixation of her girlish fantasy. In short, Maja was the sort of active woman to whom the mere prospect of existence without vigor and excitement seemed inexcusable. But now, to the few souls who knew her well, it appeared as if the collagen had been sucked from her bones, leaving her to grieve in a hollow shell. She could no longer look at herself in the mirror, afraid to confront the reality that she was finally evolving towards what she had always known would be her nasty, brutish, end- a bitter old woman.

At least, as Jones reminded her, she was not alone. Throughout the whole affair, no one had made any mention of the cat. It was, an oversight that was rather ignorant and yet so elegantly revealed of mankind’s limited mental capacity… at least it did according to in Ferdinand’s opinion. Ferdinand, a rational creature of habit, had vowed to himself that he would remain unaffected by the rampant emotionalism and smarmy hysterics accompanying dead bodies that he so despised. In the days following the funeral, as he sat in the doctor’s favorite leather armchair licking his ginger loins, he could only laugh at the display of human folly unfolding before him quite effortlessly as if contrived for his amusement alone.              Every morning a smattering of people, all famous something or others, milled about his property aimlessly in a heaving, blubbering cloud of tissues and wilted carnations, constantly fidgeting or posing themselves in attractive locales as suggested by the photographers who came and snapped their lenses for the editorial spreads. Ferdinand found it ironic that, when prompted, no one among these mourners could name a single film of Von Heimel’s. And no one came to see Maja. All the better Ferdinand thought. After all, while he had been rather attached to the doctor out of necessity, he’d never held a particularly high opinion of the woman; in his view, Maja was nothing but a haggard old tart whose perverse animal instincts had lead to her prey upon the weak if not the innocent.      She’d never loved him- the doctor that is- and Ferdinand knew this truth, and perhaps she was afraid of him for that. As a young kitten, he had often envisioned himself as Switzerland, unfairly crushed between Maja’s militant desire for control over the doctor’s waning attraction and the doctor’s plodding efforts to divert her attention elsewhere with lavish gifts and words of appeasement. They had each cloyingly vied for Ferdinand’s affection as if he were a child, using him as a means of provoking jealousy and resentment in the other. Maja complained that the doctor looked at other women and on his part he complained that he wouldn’t do so if she were a real wife. She would scoff and ask him exactly what he meant and he would retreat, shaking his head. Whenever they were alone, Ferdinand’s role had been that of an inanimate rag doll whose arms were constantly being torn at the seams between two sticky hands, his head forced to hang precariously beneath the weight of grammar school insults and fists aimed like poison- tipped spears, his tail trampled upon by their angry heels that stalked from rooms. These recurrences had annoyed him, but perhaps it was the Von Heimels’ utter lack of interest in anything but the betterment of themselves at the expense of each other that had rendered them all the more hypocritical and insufferable as housemates. If anyone had asked him, Ferdinand would have said that Jones was the only was the only human worth tolerating.

On Saturday afternoons when Maja attended her therapy sessions, the two would go out to the bath house to smoke. Jones would initiate their weekly session with a “How goes it now, old chap?” in his thick drawl. Ferdinand would always pause at length before answering, sparing himself a few seconds to measure out how much information Jones really needed to know about his daily activities.

“Very well. And you?” he’d ask.

They’d discuss politics for a while, and then perhaps make a few sporting bets, nothing too deep. Jones could be a little dry, and so Ferdinand had taken to keeping fastidious mental notes on which topics Jones seemed to enjoy most to keep him occupied for an hour or two.

Sometimes he’d drop a few hints.

“I’m afraid. She’s getting a little frail now. Rather looks her age, don’t you think?” he asked one afternoon, shielding his eyes from the sun with his tail to watch Maja’s chauffeured convertible swing into the gravel driveway.

“Oh. I suppose, poor thing, she’s still processing everything. I mean, I wouldn’t know where to begin with all that money thrown at me.”

“Hmm. Yes, extremely overwhelming.” Ferdinand made no effort to conceal his sarcasm though he hardly had reason to. Alone, he couldn’t help but ruminate on the multitude of possibilities as to how he’d spend the moneyif he were Jones. Of course, he knew that he could never articulate such desires out loud without sounding preposterous, but then again, he considered himself fortunate that he could so easily pursue even the slightest hint of self-interest with the butler who was somewhat unimaginative when it came to such matters. In fact, to Ferdinand, it was precisely this overall obtuseness of mind that made Jones so endearing and attractive as a companion, and besides, he had been with the Von Heimels for over a decade. This meant that he was surprisingly well esteemed by Maja and therefore conveniently malleable in dire situations.

Two months after the funeral, Ferdinand decided that Maja’s therapy sessions and night terrors were becoming a detriment to his own agenda, and so he contrived a scheme for the preservation of his sanity. On the first dismal Saturday of September, he spoke with Jones.

“Poor Maja. I can hardly see how one wouldn’t be depressed in this climate.”              “No worries, my dear boy. It’ll pass. Looks like sun.” The butler smiled and pointed stupidly with his umbrella at a cloud shaped like a rabbit.

Ferdinand recovered quickly. “No, no. I was speaking more generally. I think she’s been living in this morbid house too long. Perhaps it’s time she move on, get out a little more, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Oh. Yes, yes, most definitely. What a thoughtful observation.” Jones tipped his hat to Ferdinand.

And thus, on Jones’ suggestion, Maja agreed that some upright east-coast air and Atlantic tap water were essential to curing one’s self of the toxins associated with posttraumatic-stress disorder. Never one to be outdone by her former self, Maja decided to sell the luxurious Carmel home in order to properly divorce all associations with her husband, and instead purchased a five-bedroom penthouse across from Central Park for herself, Jones, and Ferdinand. The apartment, though a little cramped for Ferdinand’s liking, was altogether a salvageable investment, according to Jones, if decorated properly.

Furnished in an art nouveau style, its twelve foot walls were covered in silken navy wallpaper, while the floor was a checkerboard of inlaid Mahogany and ivory. By the main entrance hung a massive gold-leaf and crystal chandelier, dust- covered and greying, purchased at an auction of royal furniture in Norway. The large bay windows overlooking the park were shrouded in chartreuse drapes, so dark that they smothered any natural light or signs of humanity that may have diminished the somber appearance of the space. As a daily ritual, Maja hobbled about in this semi-darkness placing and replacing her husband’s books and papers and photographs on shelves and in drawers and beneath beds.

Nothing eventful passed within the walls of the apartment during Maja’s first month in New York. No one called, no one visited, and certainly no one sent letters. Only Jones left occasionally to buy groceries or fresh flowers that inevitably wilted within the week in darkness. Ferdinand had rather given up on the whole situation, choosing to quarantine himself in the unused guest bathroom whenever possible while he contemplated what would become of them in a year. Occasionally he spoke to Jones.

Time had become rather stagnant until one morning, Jones found Maja lying on the floor of her bedroom, fast asleep. Later that night, he described the ordeal to Ferdinand saying at length, “I don’t know, old chap. I think she’s lonely.”

“Oh undoubtedly. We shouldn’t intrude.” Ferdinand paused, thinking. “But I do know that she was rather fond of her nieces.”

Ferdinand, on his part, had been doing some light reading for the past year, studying the basic structure of the Von Heimel family tree, and he prided himself on recently having formulated a complete mental chart of who disliked whom, who was rich and who was poor, etc. It was only a matter of time before they found out.

Jones nodded in agreement. “What a splendid idea. I’ll ask her if she wants me to write to them.”

Maja agreed to extend an invitation, an apology really, but a curt response arrived by late October from Yvette, saying only their mother, Katrina, was well and that their family was rather occupied at the moment as Isabelle was to be married to a Russian steel magnate, Serge Zaretsky, by December. Maja read the letter over and over, and still at midnight she had stood by her front door in her kimono and nightgown patiently awaiting their arrival. She even insisted that a feast be laid out in case they were hungry: glistening Belgian waffles adorned with crystalline syrup and cream, fresh, sugared blueberries and pomegranates in porcelain bowls, steaming baguettes, an assortment of exotic jams and marmalades, and a gleaming heap of cured bacon stacked high on a bronze platter. Jones brewed fresh coffee from a French press and set the table with the silverware from Vienna. But Maja insisted that they couldn’t eat because she was alone and it would be rude to touch anything before her guests arrived. Instead, she sat at the table stroking Ferdinand and played cards by herself on her empty plate. By the morning, her pill box labeled Cat’s Claw, lay empty beside her vacant chair.

Ferdinand pushed the door open with his paws and padded softly into Maja’s bedroom. The lights were dimmed to a sickly faded pink and the moth-eaten curtains were firmly drawn. The dressing table, chairs, and writing desk had been overturned at jarring angles creating a minefield of strange and craggy peaks like a graveyard. And there in center Maja lay face down on the large bed atop the undisturbed blankets in a crumpled fetal position, covered only by her kimono. A glass of cold water shook from the veins in her hands. She heard him and cooed, “Come here, baby.”

He slithered across the carpet, belly first, his eyes adjusting to the darkness.

“I’ll stay here, thanks.”

Maja was too far lost to consider the fact that her cat had spoken to her, or perhaps in her warped view of reality his speaking to her was no more a quirk than her having committed a murder. Her eyes flickered towards half-closed semicircles, drinking in one last disintegrating picture of the empty wasteland that was human existence without love or comfort or even pity.

She spoke very softly in a echo as if she had already departed from the world and her voice were being filtered through another dimension of ghosts and shadows of people who had once breathed. But she wasn’t dead.

“I have no guilt any more. I can accept what I have done. It’s your turn now.”  Ferdinand cocked his head, his ears pricked back tightening every muscle in his back, his claws extended. Then he pounced.