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The Big Ice

Feline Fancy
by Sharon Lee

The rain stopped.

Agnes Pelletier sat up in the feather bed she and Jakey had shared for forty-two years before his dying, startled wide awake by the absence of sound.

It'd been raining steady, the last three days, the mercury sitting just above 32. The air was too warm to freeze the water as it fell, according to the weather fella on the radio. So they had rain instead of a regular Maine January snowstorm. Some towns, there'd been floods. Up on the Interstate, the radio told her, cars and trucks slid off a roadway sheeted in ice, for the rain froze where it struck.

Down on the Wimsy Neck Road, at Pelletier's farm, Agnes slipped and damn' near broke her leg walking down the drive to the mailbox day before yesterday. Yesterday, there'd been a special announcement on the radio: The Post Office had canceled rural route delivery, due to conditions. Agnes had already decided not to risk another walk to the mailbox. Fine time to take a fall, she'd told herself; the way that rain's coming down, you'd be froze flat to the drive in a second.

But the rain had stopped; and there was a rosy glow showing around the edges of the shuttered window. Agnes pushed back the quilts and eased out of the feather bed. Sunshine! Now, there was a welcome difference.

#

In the kitchen, she added wood to the stove, then hauled on a pair of heavy work boots and laced them up. She squinted at the mercury reading as she zipped Jakey's old barncoat over her sweaters. Thirty-two and windless -- she could do without the watch cap. She pulled on the mittens she'd knitted for herself and went over to unlatch the door.

She hesitated on the sill, looking up at the big old oaks that shaded the dooryard, their January-bare branches glittering like they'd been dipped in diamonds. They stretched tall against the bright blue sky, and Agnes felt a little dizzy, seeing something as familiar as the trees made strange and discomfortable.

She moved her eyes, squinting against the bright. Everything -- trees, truck, dooryard and barn -- was covered in ice. Thick, shiny ice that the sun struck spark from, like a hammer against steel. There wasn't a sound to be heard in all the bright, frozen world. Agnes wondered if the birds were frozen tight to their trees.

She took hold of the doorpost and eased down the ice-encased steps, skidding off the bottom and scrabbling to keep her feet when she struck the yard. Slowly, half-skating in her work boots, she went across to the bird feeder. Froze solid: she could see the seeds through the ice, double-sized, like she was looking through a magnification glass. She had a couple whacks at it with her mittened fist, holding onto the slick pole with her other hand, but the ice didn't so much as take a nick.

"Damn," she said, and her own voice spooked her, too loud in the brilliant silence.

Careful, careful as she could and then some, she turned and skated across the dooryard, heading for the truck.

She was doing all right 'til her forward foot slid a little too quick, the bad knee gave and she sat down sudden on ice hard as stone, feeling the jolt from her tailbone to her head.

It was a comedy skit, then, with her trying to get upright with nothing close by to hang on to and her boots everywhichway on the slick. Finally, she gave it up and scooted the last couple feet to the truck on her can, the beginning of a breeze tickling her ear. She reached up for the door latch and didn't quite connect, reason being she was staring at tires fully encased; the ice sheathing the rubber growing right into the ice surface of the drive. Three, four inches of ice.

"Need the axe for that work," Agnes muttered, and her own voice wasn't quite so spooky now, what with the breeze moving around and pinging off the frozen branches. Not quite a natural sound, that ping, but better than silence.

She put her attention on the matter, got a hand on the latch and hauled herself upright, shoulder popping and knees complaining. When she was pretty sure her feet were going to stay where she'd put them, she let go the latch. The mitten stuck to the ice and mites of wool pulled loose, but the knit held without raveling.

The breeze had picked up to a near-wind, burning her ears on the way by, which made her regretful of the watch cap. Just over her head, the oak groaned and she heard that ping again, which she thought might be the ice, cracking.

The truck was in solid: Axe work, sure enough. She figured to hack out a couple sections of ice, expose some metal, and let the sun do the rest of the work. There was plenty food put by, between the freezer and the pantry; plenty wood for the stove. A drive into town wasn't an urgency, but she didn't like being without the means to travel, if travel was called for.

The wind snarled, sudden and winterly; the oak over her head moaned.

Out in the back wood, some damn fool fired a gun. Agnes jumped, skidded, threw herself flat against the truck and managed not to fall. Following the shot was a sound like a barrel-load of jelly glasses being smashed, and a thud.

"Tree," Agnes gasped into the cold, while the wind chewed the tips of her ears. "Tree down." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to settle out the tightness in her chest. She opened her eyes again and looked over to the barn, which was where the axe would be, hung up on its peg, just like Jakey'd always done it.

It was then she saw the cat.

They'd always had cats -- barn cats, that was. Working cats, not your tuna-fed layabout the pedigree for which cost more than Jakey had paid for the farm, back in '48. There were fewer cats now -- maybe two, maybe three, since Jakey died and she'd sold off the animals. Still, where there was a barn, there were mice. And where there were mice, there were cats.

This cat -- Agnes had seen this cat around the barn. It had stared at her, like cats stared, about as friendly as you'd expect. A big gray it was, shaggy as a pony, with a back as wide as both Agnes' hands put side-by-side. Strong, upright ears lined in long gray fur, a white muzzle and white feet the size of snowshoes, with fur growing out between the toes. A barn cat, like all the others.

Except barn cats didn't march purposeful across the drive, round golden eyes focused, she would swear it, on her face.

"Brow-wow," the cat announced, as soon as it saw it was seen. "Brow-wow."

Calling to her, Agnes thought, and the next instant told herself not to be an old fool.

The wind slapped her face with a gust and she shivered where she stood braced against the truck. "Best fetch that axe and get on with business," she said and slid a step away, letting go of her support with caution. Her tail hurt where she'd sat down sudden, and her knee did, too. She hesitated, wondering if she might leave the axe work for later, if it was worthwhile trying to work the latch loose. If she could get the door wide, get the key in the ignition, she could try rocking the truck...

"Brow-wow!" the cat shouted. "Move!"

Move Agnes did, from sheer surprise. The ice turned her start into a skid, which she fought down to a slide, then to a skate, heading, by no intention of her own, toward the cat, or the barn or --

Behind her, a cannon went off.

Agnes stumbled, pitched forward, flung her arms out to break the fall and felt the shock in every joint when she hit. The world slid sideways, roaring. Then came a smash, a shatter and -- silence.

Belly down on the ice, Agnes took stock. Nothing broke, she decided, though much was considerably shook up. After a minute, she undertook to gain her knees, and then her feet. Twigs tumbled off her back and she dared a look to the rear.

Overburdened with ice, one of the biggest limbs of the oak she'd been standing under had let loose. The truck was stove in; windshield shattered, the glitter of glass lost among the hard shine of the ice. If she'd've stayed where she'd been....

She turned back the way she'd been going, careful. The big gray cat was sitting on the ice, bushy tail wrapped around white toes, ears perked forward, green-gold eyes intent on her face.

Agnes stared back. Cats could be talky, when the mood took them. She couldn't recall ever hearing one speak out in plain English before, but that didn't count for nothing. She'd been a twice-a-week regular customer at Halley's Variety for close to ten years before she heard old Ben Halley launch a sentence. If barn cats didn't break out into English as a regular event, it likely just meant they had nothing to say.

Agnes glanced back over her shoulder, wincing at the size of the branch across the truck. Her head would've been stove in along with the cab, if the cat hadn't decided it was time to speak out. She looked away from the wreckage; the cat was still sitting on the drive, staring at her.

"Appreciate the warning," she said, nodding politely. The cat stared at her a second longer, then looked aside, and yawned.

Out of the woods came a volley of shots -- onetwothreefourfivesix! trees dying between one breath and the next. Agnes shuddered and slid a foot forward, intending to get into the house and stay there, tending her bruises by the woodstove until --

Another cannon spoke, which was the oak at the front corner of the yard dropping a branch the size of a tanker truck. Encased in ice, the branch fell, hit the power line leading into the house -- and kept on going. The wire held for a second against the added weight, ice scattering as it stretched...and gave way of a sudden at its weakest point, ripping loose from the power box on the side of the house.

Live wire went down across the drive, tangled in oak branch, and spitting like a mad cat.

Agnes changed her course, moving away from those wires. Electric could run through ice, same as through wire. She knew that. Jakey'd worked for the power company a couple years when the farm didn't bring in enough to satisfy the bank. Jakey'd told her all about wires and how electric was nobody's friend.

Agnes skittered back, aiming to put distance between herself and a nasty shock. A stealthy movement down low drew her eye, which was the cat, belly to the ice, bushy tail straight behind, all its attention on the spitting, jerking wire.

Barn cats don't have much fear, especially not a hearty, Maine-bred cat with furry feet as big as dinner plates. The cat drew in on itself as Agnes watched, setting up for the spring --

She swooped, got a handful of neck fur and an arm around solid animal, teetered and went flat on her can again, both arms full of fighting, twenty-pound cat, which commenced to screech, claws deep into Jakey's old barn coat.

"Stow it, you fool!" Agnes gasped. "That thing'll kill you!"

The cat went quiet. The claws withdrew. Arms around the cat's middle, Agnes scooted them backward along the ice, away from the wire, toward the barn.

Her back hit the wooden entry ramp and she let the cat go, following its dash into the barn at a more sedate crawl.

She collapsed just inside the shelter of the roof, glad of a wooden floor and relief from a wind determined to turn nasty.

Outside, she heard more shots -- more trees breaking under the weight of the ice. Sooner or later, a tree would take down the main line on the road, or a power pole itself would let go. At which point, she figured it would be safe to go back across the ice to the house. Meanwhile, she'd be lucky if her ears weren't frostbit and her tailbone sprained.

"Brow-wow?" The cat, very soft.

Agnes turned her head and squinted into the dimness of the barn. The cat was sitting about three feet further in, pushing a paw against what looked to be a mound of straw.

"Brow-wow," the cat said again, and it was grief Agnes heard in its voice, no question.

Sure of what she'd see, still she had to get up on her feet, walk over and look. It was only respectful, to go and look, and to pay proper condolence.

The dead one was orange and white, not quite as big as the gray that was using its paw to gently push at the dead one's shoulder, as if it couldn't quite believe what its senses must surely tell it.

But you didn't believe, she knew, not at first. She remembered finding Jakey face down in the mud between the barn and the house. She'd shaken him, yelling his name, took in that he was sick, ran inside and called the Rescue, telling herself it looked bad, but it wasn't death -- not dead. Not Jakey.

She swallowed, throat tight, and sat down on the floor by the cat.

"We wear out and we go," she said, which was how she'd finally settled the matter to her satisfaction, months after Jakey's dying. "Those of us who've done our best, we get to go easy. The ones left behind, we're lonely. But we go on. Life goes on, until it ends."

"Lone-ly?" The cat's big eyes were on her face.

"Lonely," Agnes agreed, and then did something she knew better than, meaning only to offer comfort to an equal independence, who right now sat in a pain she understood: She put out a mittened hand to stroke the cat's head.

The cat ducked, shied and bolted into the depths of the barn, disappearing, like barn cats knew how to do.

Agnes sighed, took another look at the dead cat, then went back to her post at the door. The town would be by in a while to clear the road, is what she figured. Trees down all over and more falling. Conditions like this, there was bound to be accidents. Rescue had to get through, and it was the town's part to keep the way clear.

So, she sat at the door, waiting for the town plow, or a road crew, or a wire team, and maybe she drowsed, already used to the sound of cannon and gunfire in the nearby woods.

What woke her was an unexpected weight on her outstretched leg. Inspection proved that to be the barn cat's not inconsiderable head. The cat opened its eyes when she shifted her leg.

"Lone-ly," it explained and Agnes sighed.

"I know," she said seriously and the cat blinked its green-gold eyes, nuzzling its chin down on her knee -- and was upright in the next second, ears to the fore.

Agnes heard it, too, deep in her gut: the ground-shaking rumble of heavy machinery.

"Plow's coming," she told the cat, and hauled herself to her feet.

She took the ramp slow and careful and went a ways down the drive, wary of the wire, though it wasn't spitting anymore. The wind was a steady push against her face, carrying the racket of trees breaking. She gauged the progress of the town plow by the rumble in her chest, and her hand come up to flag 'er down the instant the blade cleared the drive.

The plow rolled on another eight feet, braking, which is no small thing for a piece of machinery the size of your town snowplow. When it was stopped, the driver climbed down and walked back.

"Keep back from that wire!" he called up to her.

"I plan to," Agnes answered.

He hit the end of the drive, braked sudden enough to skid, caught himself and stood there, hands in the pockets of his jacket, taking in the damage. Fella maybe her own age, watch cap pulled snug over his ears and a salt-pepper beard keeping the south portion of his face warm.

He studied on the tangle of busted limb and wire, looked over at the truck, then at the barn.

"Fine lookin' cat," he said. Agnes nodded, but he'd already put his attention back on that wire.

"Jakey Pelletier's place, ain't it?" he asked, after he'd studied the situation to his own satisfaction.

"Was," Agnes said. "Jakey passed summer before last."

"Jakey? No. I heard that. I did hear that." He shook his head. "He left right close to the time I lost my wife. Cancer." Another headshake. "I'm Tom Oullette -- me and Jakey worked the lines together couple years, before I come on with the town. Good man. Solid."

Agnes swallowed, recalling for no good reason the orange cat, laying cold and quiet in the barn. "All of that," she said, but not loud, due to her throat closing up.

"Listen," Tom Oullette called up to her, "I need to get back on the job -- things are this bad and worse all over. I'll call in to the town, tell 'em about the wire. You need anything? Want a lift out? Elementary school's setting up as a shelter."

"I'm fine," Agnes told him. "Plenty wood. Pantry's

stocked. Freezer --" she looked at the down wire. "Freezer's in trouble, I guess."

"Radio?" he asked her. "Batteries?"

"All set."

"You'll do," he allowed, his grin a sudden flash of white in his beard. "Best thing's for you and the cat to get inside. Load up the stove and put the kettle on. That wire -- main line's down, all the way back to the four corners. You don't want to touch that wire, but it's safe enough to get on over to the steps. Once you're inside, you'll be fine. I'll put in that call to central first thing I'm back in the truck."

"I appreciate that," she said, and smiled. "Thanks."

"That's all right," said Tom Oullette. "Go on inside, now. No sense standing out in the wind."

He turned and half-walked, half-skated back to his plow truck. Agnes saw him climb into the cab before she turned herself and skated, all her bones and bruises complaining, over to the steps.

It was a scramble to stay on the step and get the door open, but she finally managed it, and without a tumble, too. Boots firmly on kitchen floor linoleum, she looked out once more across the yard.

And saw the cat, sitting in the middle of all that ice, tail 'round its toes, eyes on her face.

"Well," Agnes said, pushing the door wider, "what're you waiting for? Come in, if you want to come in. There's room."

The cat blinked its green-gold eyes. Slowly, taking its own good time, it got up on four feet, stretched its middle talltallTALL and strolled across the ice. When it reached the steps, it neatly jumped over them, landing on the linoleum with a solid thump.

It stayed where it was for a second or two, taking stock, Agnes thought, then stropped itself once against her leg and moved deeper into the kitchen, bushy tail held high.

Agnes smiled, and shut the door.


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