Sara was a great cat. She was gray with a white front left paw and another white patch across her chest that ended just under her chin. Her coat was soft and warm and always clean. I brushed her often but she did most of the work. She was always bathing herself and seemed to take pride in her shiny coat. But Sara's most impressive feature was her smile. Most cat's faces look like they're smiling if you look at them from the right angle. But Sara's smile could be seen from any angle and she seemed to know it. She had a perfect smile. She would point her chin at me to accentuate her smile when she wanted a snack or a scratch on the head and it really did appear that she was smiling in a very human sense. When a cat communicates to you in the language of a smile it's hard not to give them what they want.
Sara also had a wonderful meow. She didn't meow at me when she wanted something but rather as a response when I spoke to her. She did it with amazing consistency and it was a little unnerving at first. I'd say, "Sara, do you want to go outside?" And if she wanted out she would meow back. "Do you want a bit of milk?" And her sweet meow came back if she wanted some milk. One time I was watching baseball on television and shouted, "That was not a strike!" And she said nothing until I added, "Was it?" And her response was a quick but firm meow. And she was right.
I knew Sara was getting sick when she didn't want to go outside as often as she used to. When I noticed she was eating less I took her to the vet. "Well," the vet said, "she's not a young cat anymore. She's had a good long life. Many cats aren't so lucky. Be thankful for the time you've had with her but be prepared, I think she's going to go soon."
Over the next few weeks Sara started to eat even less and rarely wanted outside. She still meowed when I talked to her but her voice sounded tired. I tried not to talk to her because I didn't want to tire her out but this only seemed to make her sad. One night she laid down in front of the sliding glass door that looks out onto the back garden. "You want to go outside in the morning and sit in the grass?" I asked. She tried to meow but just couldn't do it. I sat down next to her and scratched behind her ear. She purred and tried to look up at me. Her breathing was getting shallow and I laid down on my side next to her. Her breaths were fewer and fewer. And then there was one last breath and no more. It seemed like an accident. It seemed like it wasn't really supposed to happen. But she was gone. I stayed next to her and cried for a very long time.
I knew immediately that Sara should be buried in her favorite spot in the backyard. I called it Sara's Sunny Spot because when the weather was nice she would curl up in the same spot every afternoon. She seemed to know just where the sun would be. Her spot had a view of the sliding glass door so she would always know when I put food in her bowl. There were flowers near her spot and she loved to chase the honey bees they attracted. The grass grew thick in her spot and before laying down she would circle around a few times pressing the blades of tall green grass into a circular bed. Off to the side an ancient oak grew and its branches provided shade for Sara on the hot days of summer.
I wrapped Sara in the old blue towel she used to love to sit on. I went to the closet and got a small cardboard box that was just the right size for her. I placed her carefully in the box and put the box on the counter in the pantry. I wandered around the empty house. I saw the mail sitting on the table and without thinking I said aloud, "What's this?" and waited for Sara to meow. The silence that followed was like a punch to the stomach. I walked past her food bowl. There was still a little food in her bowl but I didn't want to throw it out yet. I picked up her brush and held it my hands for a long while before returning it to its place on the side table.
The next morning I went to the pantry and got Sara. I took the box with Sara inside to the back garden. I grabbed a shovel and went to Sara's Sunny Spot. I traced a rectangle in the grass and started digging. The ground was moist and easy to dig. When I got about two feet deep the shovel hit something solid. I used the shovel to scoop away the loose dirt at the bottom of the hole. I was surprised to see a large block of finished wood at the bottom of the hole. It appeared to be oak. I dug a little wider and the wood kept going until I got to an edge. I continue digging along the edge and I got to a corner. I continued up the edge from the corner and to my astonishment I came to a doorknob. Someone had buried an old oak door in the backyard! I thought it quite strange but continued to dig. Before long I stood before a rectangular hole two feet deep, three feet wide and seven feet long. Once I had removed just about all the dirt from the door I noticed something very strange; when I struck the door with the shovel it sounded hollow. I immediately jumped out of the hole for fear of the old oak door giving way and dropping me an unknown depth. I went around to the side of the door that had the hinges and dug out that entire edge. I went around to the side with the doorknob. I reached down into the hole and turned the doorknob and pulled. I couldn't lift the door. I got down on my knees but the door wouldn't budge. I laid down with my stomach on the freshly piled dirt and pulled the doorknob. The old oak door gave a sudden jerk and it was free. I swung the door on its hinges and flung it open. The door had been lying flat two feet deep in the ground and was now propped open on its hinges at a 45 degree angle. And I could not believe what I saw. The door had been covering a set of wooden stairs. Thick oak stairs. I took the shovel and gave the top step a good smack. It seemed quite solid. It looked wet and showed a lot of wear but it seemed sturdy. I pushed the shovel hard into the ground about a foot outside the hole. I tested the top step with all my weight, carefully holding the handle of the shovel. I could see a flat muddy surface at the foot of the stairs. The step seemed solid so I let go of the shovel. I stood on the top step, a step that moments before had been beneath an old oak door buried two feet deep in the back garden under Sara's Sunny Spot. I stood on the top step for quite a while, not sure if I should keep going. The muddy floor beneath the stairway didn't look like too far to fall if the rest of the steps were less sturdy, so I took another step down into stairway. I took a third step but then remembered Sara in her box outside the hole. I didn't want to leave her alone so I climbed back up the three steps and jumped the last two feet out of the hole. I picked up the box and stepped back down onto the stairway. The stairs were as solid as if they'd been hewn earlier that day and soon I was at the bottom of the staircase. I stepped off the last of the thick oak stairs and onto the muddy floor of the hole. The smell of wet earth was strong in the air. The walls of the hole were flat and straight, both behind the stairs and in front of them. I quickly realized as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness that I was in a long corridor. The corridor continue on for as long as I could see behind the stairway. I looked in the other direction and the muddy corridor seemed identical in that direction. And then I froze in terror. Standing just a dozen feet in front of me in the darkness was a man. He stood at the border of the darkness of the corridor and the light from the doorway above the stairs. His hair was long and unkempt and his clothes were caked with mud and filth. He wore workman's overalls and a flannel shirt, but both were so covered with mud that I could hardly see them at all. He was facing away from me, away from the staircase. He gave no indication that he was aware of my presence at the foot of the stairs but just stared ahead into the depths of the muddy corridor. I held the box with Sara in it close to my chest. I reached behind me with my foot but before I could find the bottom stair the man spoke. "Is that the cat?"
I knew he was talking to me but I could make no answer. He angled his head halfway to his shoulder but continued to face away from me. "Is that the cat?" he repeated. Still I could not answer and the blood rushing through my body was loud in my ears. He waited patiently for a reply but at last spoke again. "I am The Gravedigger," he said. "Leave the cat and go."
"I am The Gravedigger," he repeated. "Leave the cat and go."
"I'll take her with me," I somehow managed to blurt out.
"No. Leave the cat and go."
I couldn't tell if his hair was gray or yellow. I stared at him and tried in vain to understand what was going on. "You can't have her. This is my cat."
"I am The Gravedigger," he said once more. "Leave the cat and go."
I turned and began to run up the stairs. But something was wrong. Just moments before the stairs were solid and strong, but now they were rotten to the core and crumbled beneath my weight. My foot went crashing through the first step and came to rest on the muddy floor of the corridor. This knocked me off balance and I fell forward into the stairs. The stairs were soft with rot and I was soon on the muddy floor swimming in a thick liquid of rotten wood. I was on my hands and knees in the pile of rotten stairs trying to stand. But somehow in the fall I had let go of the box! I searched frantically for the box containing Sara but it was nowhere to be found. I was lost and I had lost Sara. I looked up to see the door closing above me and I was alone in the darkness of the muddy corridor. Sara! I have lost you! Sara, don't be scared! Sara!
I woke up slowly with the smell of wet earth strong in my nose and lungs. But I was in bed! I looked around the house. The mail was still on the table. Sara's brush was on the side table where I had left it. I went to the pantry and there was the box. I opened it and the old blue towel was still wrapped around Sara. I looked out into the back garden and the grass was untouched. No pile of fresh dirt and Sara's Sunny Spot was undisturbed. A honey bee circled around the flowers in no particular hurry.
I suddenly remembered how I had scolded Sara when I first saw her chasing the honey bees in the garden. I thought she might be hurt if she was stung and I knew it was my job to protect her from dangers she did not understand. One day Sara wanted to go out to the back garden. I opened the door for her and watched her stride confidently out to her spot. I watched her circle around a few times pressing the grass into a little bed. But then she jumped up and swatted at a honey bee that was flitting about from flower to flower. She caught the bee between her front paws but then let it go. The bee went from a yellow flower to a white flower. Then she caught it again. And she let it go again. She was having great fun! The next time she caught it and let it go the bee flew high out of her reach and didn't come back. Sara went back to her little bed in the grass and slept.
I went to the pantry and got Sara. I grabbed the shovel on my way out and headed to her spot in the garden. I started digging fast. I didn't try to make a rectangular opening in the ground this time, I was just going straight down to see if there was anything two feet deep. I got two feet down and hit something solid. I widened the hole and could see the familiar finished oak. I quickly dug to the edges all around and widened the side with the hinges. I was exhausted and soaked with sweat. My arms felt like jello and I was shaking. I opened the door and found the thick oak stairs again. I picked up Sara's box and told her not to be afraid.
I slammed the shovel hard into the ground. I held the handle of the shovel tightly as I stepped down onto the first step. It was solid as a rock and showed no signs of decay. I carefully tested the next step. I made my way down to the floor of the muddy corridor. The smell of wet earth was heavy in the air. I looked for the man in the filthy clothes but did not see him. I walked behind the staircase and looked down the corridor in that direction but I could see nothing. I went around to the front of the stairs and started to walk toward that end of the corridor but suddenly stopped. There he was just as before; the man in the filthy clothes facing away from me. He gave no indication that he knew I was there. I stood there holding Sara for a few minutes without moving or saying anything. The man just stood there with his back to me staring down the muddy corridor that lead away from the stairs. I backed up a bit and thought of heading up the stairs before the man could say anything. But it was too late. "Is that the cat?" he asked. He didn't seem to remember our encounter from yesterday and I wondered if I should try to say something different this time. "Is that the cat?" he asked again after a few moments of silence.
"This is my cat Sara," I said.
"The cat has no name," said the man in the filthy clothes.
"Yes, well I call her Sara. She is my cat and-"
"I am The Gravedigger," he said. "Leave the cat and go."
"This cat is mine, you can't have her. Sara has been a great friend to me for many years. I have come-"
"I am The Gravedigger. Leave the cat and go."
Without thinking I burst into a sprint down the corridor away from the man in the filthy clothes. I ran around the stairs and down the muddy corridor as fast as I could. The sunlight coming down the staircase only lit the muddy corridor for about twenty feet and I was soon in utter darkness, running. I ran for several minutes until I could not run any longer and collapsed on the floor of the muddy corridor. I held still and listened for the sound of the man in the filthy clothes coming after me in the darkness. But there was no sound and the filthy man did not come. The darkness was absolute. I had run far enough that I could not see even a hint of the light from the staircase. The smell of wet earth began to sicken me. The silent blackness of the muddy corridor closed in on me with great strength. I stood up and began walking back toward the stairs. I walked and walked in the pitch black corridor. How far had I run? It seemed after a while that I had walked far enough that I should be able to see the stairway light. I decided that since I had been running in panic earlier and was now walking calmly, it might only seem that the stairway should be near. I decided to keep walking. I walked on for what seemed like an hour but I did not come to the stairs. Something was wrong. There was no way I could have run that far. Is it possible that I somehow walked past the stairs and didn't see them? No, in this a darkness I couldn't possibly miss the light from the door above the stairs. Wait! When I collapsed in the exhaustion of running maybe I got turned around. Maybe I began walking in the same direction I had just been running. That had to be it! I only ran for a few minutes but I had walked for over an hour. I would surely have come to the stairs by now if I had changed direction. I turned around in the blackness of the muddy corridor and headed back in the direction from which I had just come. I walked slowly in the pitch black without a sign of the stairway light for one hour, then two. Then three hours. I kept walking. I felt a fear creep into my mind that I may never find my way out. I began to panic. I shouted, "Hello? Are you still there?" There was no reply. "Gravedigger!" I shouted. "Gravedigger!" But there was no answer. And then suddenly a horror worse than the fear of my own death overtook me; where was Sara? How could I have lost her? I was holding the box when I began running. I thought I still had her when I fell to the floor in exhaustion. Did I leave her there? How could I have? I wouldn't have forgotten her. I couldn't have. I wanted desperately to find her but I had no idea in which direction to go. I sank to the floor of the muddy corridor in anguish. Sara! I have lost you. I have failed you in life and I have failed you in death. Sara! Sara, I am so sorry. I cried and screamed in the darkness and prayed for death to relieve me.
My eyes slowly opened and the smell of wet earth choked me. It was thick in my nose and lungs as I coughed and stretched. My muscles ached and I was drenched with sweat. But where was I? I looked around and I was in bed in my room. I ran to the living room. Mail. Sara's brush. I ran to the pantry. Sara in her box. I ran to the sliding glass door. Sara's Sunny Spot showed no signs of digging.
I sat in the living room stunned and confused. I looked at the mail. I picked up the first envelope and it was the bill from the vet visit a few weeks earlier. I thought about the first time I had taken Sara to the vet. She was so small and scared we could barely get her out of her carrier. When Sara was finally set down on the examining table the vet said, "My, what a pretty girl! Aren't you lucky to have such a pretty girl!"
I had been sitting at the kitchen table with the rope. I sat and practiced the knot for hours. A soft but persistent knock on the front door roused me from my stupor and I got up to answer it. Standing on the welcome mat outside the front door was little Sara Elpis from around the corner.
"Hullo!" she said when I opened the door. She had a cardboard box with her and there were three kittens inside. Two were black and white and the third was a small gray kitten with a white front left paw and a little patch of white across her chest that ended just under her chin. "Wouldn't you like to have a kitty cat today?" she asked. Her question was posed as if she'd offered to give me a million dollars.
"Well, no. I'm not really looking for a cat right now," I said.
"Oh," she said and seemed genuinely surprised.
"I didn't even know you guys had a cat," I said. "And now you've got four!"
She thought for a moment and said, "Well, we don't really have a cat. My big sisser found a cat that was preggent." She stopped and looked at me and decided that, yes, it needed explaining. "That means she was gonna have kitties."
"Oh, I see."
"So my big sisser brought the cat home to have the kitties and then the cat had the kitties and now we have the kitties but my Daddy don't want the kitties so now I'm looking for a home for the kitties."
"I see," I said and tried to think of a polite way to ask her to leave.
"Do you know what the pound is?" she asked.
I took a long breath. "Yes, I believe I do."
"Well, if we don't find a home for the kitties then my Daddy is gonna take the kitties to the pound and I don't want the kitties to go to the pound 'cause at the pound they kill the kitties that no one wants and what if no one wants these kitties?"
I looked into the box and said to little Sara Elpis, "Oh, I think someone will adopt these kittens from the pound. They're very cute and people love cute kittens. Someone will adopt them. Won't they?" But when I said Won't they? I didn't say it to little Sara Elpis. I said it to the kittens. And when I said Won't they? to the kittens in the cardboard box the little gray kitten stood up on her back legs and leaned on the box with her front paws. She pointed her chin at me and meowed.
"She answered you!" squealed little Sara Elpis. "That one likes you!"
"Oh, I think that was a coincidence," I said.
"Nooooo no," said little Sara Elpis. "That kitty wanna live with you."
I looked down at the little gray kitten in the cardboard box. "Do you want to come live with me?"
The little gray kitten pointed her chin at me and meowed loudly.
"That wasn't no coin-din-din!" said little Sara Elpis. "That was your new kitty!"
"Wait a second," I said. "Maybe she'll just meow at anything." I looked at the little gray kitten and said, "What's the capitol of Rhode Island?" The little gray kitten just looked at me. "How many quarts in a gallon?" And the little gray kitten just looked at me. "Do you want to come live with me?" The little gray kitten gave a sudden snap of her head and pointed her chin at me and let out an exuberant meow.
"Here is your new kitty!" said little Sara Elpis handing the gray kitten to me. Before I could say another word she had picked up the cardboard box with the two remaining kittens and was headed down the steps and off the front porch.
"Youuuu're welcome!" said little Sara Elpis as she walked away.
Sixteen years later I put the vet bill back in its envelope. I went to the pantry and got Sara. I grabbed the shovel on my way to the back yard. I dug slowly but steadily and soon had the door uncovered with a big round pile of fresh dirt to the side. I opened the door and found the stairs just as I knew they would be. I plunged the shovel into the pile of dirt and held on as I tested the first step. I grabbed Sara and headed down, but three steps into the stairway I turned around and headed back up. I reached out of the hole from the top step and grabbed the shovel.
When I got to the floor of the muddy corridor I looked for the man in the filthy clothes. I didn't see him so I walked behind the staircase and then back around in front of the stairs. I still didn't see him. I looked up the stairs and I could see through the branches of the old oak tree that the sky had a few white puffy clouds moving to the East. I looked back into the corridor and the man with the filthy clothes was standing at the edge of darkness, just out of reach of the light coming down from the stairs. He stared into the black depths of the muddy corridor with his back to me. "Is that the cat?" he asked. Again, he did not seem to remember our previous encounters.
"Yes. This is the cat," I said.
"I am The-"
"This is the cat and I am The Gravedigger," I said.
The man in the filthy clothes remained montionless. "That is the cat?" he asked.
"Yes, this is the cat," I said.
"And you are The-"
"Yes, this is the cat and I am The Gravedigger," I said again. "In my left hand I hold the cat and in my right hand I hold the shovel. You have nothing in your hands. You cannot dig a grave for this cat."
"But..." the man in the filthy clothes had no answer.
"I am The Gravedigger and I have come to bury this cat," I said. "Be gone and I will get to work."
The man in the filthy clothes stood silent for a long moment and then slowly walked into the darkness of the muddy corridor. I could still hear his footsteps long after I could no longer see him and I knew that the muddy corridor goes on forever.
I set Sara down and walked over to the place where the man in the filthy clothes always stood; the border between light and darkness. I began to dig. The floor of the muddy corridor was moist and easy to dig. I piled the muddy clay to the side and soon had dug a rectangular hole that would fit the box. I picked up the box containing Sara and held it to my chest for as long as I could bear. I placed the box in the hole and covered it with the dirt I had just piled. When the hole was full I smoothed over the little mound with the back of the shovel and stared down at Sara's grave.
I told Sara that I loved her. I told her how much she meant to me and how much I appreciated her trust. I told her that she was a great friend and I told her that she saved my life. I told her that I would always remember her and tell people what a wonderful cat she was. And I thanked her for spending her life with me.
When I couldn't say any more I just stood there for a while, not wanting to go. I looked down the muddy corridor as far as I could see but there was nothing. I took the shovel and headed to the stairs. I put my foot on the first step and it was solid as a rock. As I raised my foot to the second step I heard something behind me. Something soft and warm. It was Sara's purr! I turned around and there she was sitting halfway between me and her grave. Her coat was shiny and clean and she was so beautiful I wanted to cry. She purred loudly through her perfect smile. "Come Sara!" I said. "Come! Let's get out of here." But Sara just sat there purring happily and smiling. She pointed at me with her chin and gave a friendly meow. She stood up and turned around, heading into the blackness of the muddy corridor. I could hear her footsteps long after I could no longer see her and I knew that the muddy corridor goes on forever.
I was confused and amazed. I was grateful to see Sara one last time but I knew that if I went after her I would never find my way out again. I climbed the stairs as slowly as I could. I got to the top of the stairs and closed the old oak door. I buried the door and smoothed over the fresh dirt with the back of the shovel. I sat down to rest in the tall green grass. A honey bee buzzed around the flowers nearby. It went from a white flower to a yellow flower and then back to another white flower. Then it flew high out of reach and didn't come back.