Mao, Merlin, and the Unexpected Gift

Wherein I inherit a title, a duty, and cat.


The cat belonged to a friend who passed away just before the season commenced. Don't be sad, he was happy to go. He didn't like anyone very much, and most people didn't like him. He shouted obscenities at pigeons and kicked people who tried to help him. I call him a friend, but he was more of an antagonist. He had a literal save-the-cat moment that helps to redeem his less pleasant characteristics, but his eulogy wouldn't be complete if I didn't acknowledge the truth: he would rather trip you up than give you correct directions.


He never told anyone his real name, but a select few of us were allowed to call him Merlin.


I never knew where he spent most of his time, but I'm pretty sure he chose the vagabond life the same way I did. He wandered because it was in his nature to wander. If he had a home somewhere, or a family, he never told me. Actually, I never thought to ask, and he was patently incurious about me. I believed he was one of the ubiquitous itinerants who roam from city to city, never more than a few steps ahead of the weather or the police.


So it was with some surprise that I looked up from my work in Satan's Coffee Corner to hear my rather simple, yet distinctive name mispronounced by a nattily dressed lawyer. "Hettie King?" He asked.


"Hatter King." I corrected him.


Too late, I realized it was a ruse. Solicitors, debt collectors, the unwanted officials of the great red wheel of bureaucracy use this ploy to get you to confirm your identity when you might not want to. He lifted a cat carrier to eye level, made a kissy-noise at the hissing inmate, and set it on the table. He drew an envelope from the inner pocket of his suit coat and, without a word of explanation, he left.


I recognized the cat immediately. Merlin tried to give her to me the day we first met, after I saw him wade into an oil slick pit of water and lift her out of the hollow rubber tire to which she had been tied. Whenever I was tempted to abandon him to his fate--like the night he got drunk and shoved me into a fight with an ugly customer in Hell's Kitchen, or the day he stole my car - with me in it - and drove us into lake Roto Kohatu--I would remember that first day.


The letter was barely a single paragraph.


It read simply, "I am dead. My title, and all associated duties and responsibilities are now yours. My advice: don't bog yourself down with possessions and relationships; they'll only get in the way." And then, somewhat contradictory, "Take care of the cat if she'll let you."


Merlin,

king of earth.


Immediately the manager bustled over to my table and made shooing motions, flapping her hands and grimacing at the cat on the table as she said something like "no se admiten gatos."


I looked back and forth between woman and cat for a little too long. They both stared back at me as though I was supposed to know something. I drank my too hot coffee too quickly, packed up my things, shouldered my bag, and picked up the cat carrier.


Outside, I set everything down again and sat cross legged with my back to the old stonework fronting the cafe. I opened the carrier and tipped the cat onto the sidewalk. She was a strange combination of feline features. Her legs were too long for a domestic cat, her ears were too big. Her eyes were always squinting, and her lower jaw jutted a little farther out than her upper.


She didn't like being touched, and we both preferred it that way. Over the years I'd seen Merlin talk to her as though she understood, and she seemed to, so I thought I'd try it. "Merlin's dead. Sorry for your loss." She stared at me until I cleared my throat, uncomfortable. "You can stay with me or go your own way. Your choice."


She blinked, which seemed to be all the acknowledgement I would get, so I stood up and walked away. I left the carrier where it was, and soon so did the cat. Merlin called her Mao, so I did, too.

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