Tao Tail

The short story written for Wendy Potocki’s

Halloweenpalooza

Tao Tail

By

S.K. Epperson

More annoying to Fiona than all the details involved in moving to a new home was the prospect of having to deal with new neighbors. She realized that as an artist she was something of a curiosity. Most people left their homes more often than she did and few people preferred having all of their grocery and sundry items delivered. Because she was rarely visible she presented a mystery, and neighbors were often curious to see her work and by extension her studio, which maddened Fiona. When she discovered the man next door was an insurance agent she did not show up at his office and ask to view the desk from which he sold policies. Nor did she traipse to the workplace of the banker on the other side to watch daily transactions. Why people felt perfectly welcome to invite themselves over for a look at her art studio was beyond understanding, and yet this is what her new neighbors did, exactly ten days after her arrival.
“We didn’t even realize the house was for sale,” said the insurance agent’s wife. “And all the covered canvases made us curious.” Her smile was hopeful as he said the last, clearly expecting an invitation. In her mouth, she wore what looked like a bite-guard. “We’ve never known a real artist.”

Met lots of fake ones, have you. (Fiona always wanted to say this but never did. She had to live next door to these people after all.)

The banker hurried over when she saw the insurance agent and his wife at Fiona’s door. She introduced herself as Pamela, not Pam, thank you. Her husband was a business executive and traveled a lot, otherwise he would have come to meet her as well. She too was interested in Fiona’s canvases because she had an artist brother who rarely sold anything. Fiona must be doing quite well to afford the house on her own. Was she comfortable telling them how much she sold her paintings for and did she have any shows planned at local galleries?
“I apologize.” Fiona begged to be excused because of a migraine just beginning. The insurance agent, his wife, and Pamela, not Pam, understood. Artists, real ones, were sensitive people after all.
As they filed away down her drive, Fiona heard the insurance agent tell the banker it was incredibly rude of her to ask Fiona how much money she made from her paintings. The banker opened her mouth to reply then saw the fourth neighbor in the circle arrive home in a sleek black car. The bite-guard did double-duty as drool catcher when the mouth of the insurance agent’s wife fell open and hung that way. A tall man with a broad chest covered by a black open-collared shirt emerged from the car. His hair, equally sleek and black, was combed straight back from a tanned, exotic looking face. The insurance agent spoke first, “How are you, Tao?” The new arrival’s dark gaze lifted and he inclined his head to acknowledge his neighbors. He noticed Fiona then, and gave another nod to her alone. Fiona felt her breath catch as their eyes met across the cul-de-sac. She felt instantly better about her new neighbors, one of them, anyway. Then she met Tao’s cat.
She knew the cat belonged to him because on the day of nodding his door opened and the cat ran inside. Like his owner, the cat was long and sleek and Fiona felt compelled to watch each morning as it sat on her deck and bathed itself. Black from tip to toe, the cat possessed just two white hairs, one on its brow and one on its chest. Its eyes were deep green, rather than the usual golden. Like his owner, the cat was not excited about hearing its name called and refused to respond when Fiona spoke to it. She knew what the result of such thorough bathing meant…squishy puddles of cat gak, complete with hairballs. Still she let it stay on her deck, and not simply because she would be able to tell the owner the cat’s location should he start looking. The complete focus of the animal captivated and entranced with the steady sweep of tongue and languid grace of its movements. She wondered if it was possible to catch something so fluid and natural on canvas and so hurried to find a sketchpad. By the time she came back, the cat had finished with its bath and only glanced at her as it slunk away across the lawn. That was fine. She could wait.
The next day the insurance agent’s bulldog came sniffing around the shrubs in front of Fiona’s house. When it hiked its leg, Fiona opened the door and shouted at it. The agent stood in his driveway, talking on his cell phone. He took it away from his ear and yelled at the dog to hurry up he had to go. The dog finished peeing on Fiona’s shrubs. It took two steps, then hunched and started pooping on her lawn. Fiona shouted again. “Hello! Do you mind?”
At that moment, Tao’s black cat came around the hedge, headed for her sunny deck no doubt, and the dog spotted the feline. The pooping stopped and barking began. Rather than run, the black cat arched its spine and puffed itself up to three times its normal size. The dog charged and Fiona was awed to see the cat meet the bulldog head on. There was a flurry of fangs, claws, yowls and then howls as the bulldog rethought and clearly regretted his attack. He yelped and backpedaled away from the fury of the fierce black feline. Fiona couldn’t help smiling. Then she realized the insurance agent had scooped up his dog and was looking it over. He was mad as hell that Tao’s cat had just beat up his bulldog. He strode over to knock on Tao’s door, but of course, Tao wasn’t home. He was never home. The agent then came to speak to Fiona. “You’re my witness. Look what that cat did to Gaius. He’s going to need stitches!”
It was true; Gaius’s poor ugly face was now uglier yet. His lower lip hung by a shred of flesh.
Fiona nodded. “Yes, I saw the cat minding its own business when your dog attacked him…after peeing on my shrubs and pooping on my lawn, which he has done before, judging from the discoloration of the leaves, and there is a leash law and poop pick up policy in the homeowner covenants.” (She wanted to say all of this, but did not. She had to live beside these people, after all.)
“Thank God we’ve got pet insurance,” the insurance agent said and hurried away with the bleeding bulldog in his arms.
The black cat was even more fascinating to Fiona after the incident with the dog. She began leaving open cans of tuna on her deck to try to attract the animal so she could sketch it. She loved to watch it clean itself. The black of its fur was so beautiful in the early light, its form so perfectly silhouetted in gold borrowed by the sun. She tried every way she could think to capture the beauty of the animal, to make it come alive through movement frozen on canvas.
The cat disappeared for a time then and she saw that Tao was finally at home. He spent several days in a row at home without leaving and the cat did not go outside once during that time. Fiona was so accustomed to waking up and seeing it on her deck that she found she missed its calm presence. She nearly went across the cul-de-sac to talk to Tao about the cat, tell him she was working on a new project that featured his pet, but she could not do it. He would think it as stupid as it sounded when she thought it, though as owner of the cat he might understand. The day she nearly made herself go over, he surprised her by coming to her door instead. Up close he was breathtaking, every bit as beautiful as his pet. In fact, he reminded her of a big, black cat and in a flash, she remembered a movie she had once seen about people that turned into panthers. She blinked as he stood before her, wondering if that was why she had not seen his cat for several days, because he was the cat and now he was in human form. He even had one white hair in his left eyebrow.
Tao frowned and said, “Did you hear me? When I called about the letter I received today, he said to ask you. He says you’re his witness.”
Fiona came to her senses, largely because she realized his eyes were dark brown, nearly black, and not green like his cat.
“The man is an idiot.” Fiona did say this. “I saw his unleashed dog attack your cat. Your cat defended itself. The dog needed his lip put back together afterward. End of story.”

Tao chuckled. “Seriously?”

“Yes and the owners have pet insurance, so no doubt he’s covered for catastrophic cat damage.”
More chuckling.
“The real reason he wants to sue is because you make his wife drool like a teething toddler every time she sees you.” (This Fiona did not say, but definitely experienced, feeling a tiny spool in the corner of her own mouth.) Then she remembered his cat. “Is your pet all right? I haven’t seen it in several days. Not injured by the dog I hope?”

“No,” Tao assured her. “The cat’s fine, hanging out at home. I think a mouse got into the house from the garage.”
A mouse. How clever was that feline of his? Battling canines and stalking rodents.
“Your cat enjoys my deck,” Fiona told Tao. “It likes to sun there. What is its name by the way?”
“You’ll laugh,” Tao said.
Fiona smiled. “Only if it’s something like Bluto or Black Bart.”
“It’s Tao Tail.”
She didn’t get it. What was more she thought it unworthy of the magnificent feline. Tao Tail?
“It wasn’t my idea. My ex-wife gave it to me, said it was the last puss—well, you get it—that I was ever getting from her.”
“Oh.” Fiona got it.
“I’ve offended you,” Tao said. “I apologize.”
“No…I…well I did ask its name.”
“I am sorry,” Tao said. “I’ll go. Thanks for telling me about the thing with the dog. I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome.”
Fiona was happy to see him leave. She wasn’t that offended, the crass joke was his ex’s not his, but had she responded lightly then she felt they were coming close to a situation where it was normal for him to ask to come in and ‘see some of her work’ and she was not ready for that, not with him, not with any of them. She desperately needed to see his cat, however.
She refused to call the animal by its full name, shortened it to Tao, which surprisingly, made it look around at her on the next morning it showed up on her deck. Fiona wasn’t dressed yet, wore only a nightshirt and bare legs and her pulse jumped as the animal turned full around to stare at her, its head still, the only movement a tiny flick of the tip of its tail. Fiona found the cat’s stare at her oddly arousing, she felt almost as if the owner were looking at her through his pet. Then her jaw dropped as the owner himself came around the back of her house to her deck. He stopped when he saw her and his eyes lowered to her bare legs. “I apologize,” he said, “I don’t mean to intrude, but animal control is at my home, looking for my cat. The neighbor claims my cat gave his dog rabies.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Fiona stepped aside and opened the French doors on her patio. “The cat can stay in my house until they go away.”
“Are you sure?” Tao asked.
“Yes, yes, hurry.” Fiona beckoned, and Tao swept up his cat and hurriedly released it inside. Fiona closed the door behind her. Tao was very close and she realized her nightshirt was incredibly thin and the morning cool. He smelled wonderful, she noticed, but she said, “You should go before they come looking for you.”
“Of course, thank you.” He departed then and she was alone with the beautiful captivating creature that immediately jumped up on a counter to be at eye level with her.
Such a clever cat.
She spent the day happily sketching and was finally ready to put paint to canvas when her doorbell rang. Fiona looked outside and saw the insurance agent at her door. Doubtlessly come to complain about droopy-lipped Gaius contracting rabies. What a ridiculous notion. The animal in her living room clearly did not have rabies, was not in the least dangerous. Fiona chose not to open the door. She went back to her studio instead and turned on some music to drown out the insistent ringing. She was glad the neighbors did not have her cell number, knew the persistent insurance man would be pestering her with calls and texts if he couldn’t speak with her in person.
Tao came over later and when he rang the bell, Fiona answered right away. She was ready to tell him no, he could not have the beautiful black animal lying in her bed. She was deeply in love with his cat she wanted to tell him, but did not. He asked if he could have his pet and Fiona called to it but it did not come. Then Tao called to the cat and still it did not come. “This is awkward,” she said. “It’s on my bed.”
“If you wouldn’t mind showing me, I’ll just grab the cat and get out of your hair.”
She walked down the hall to her bedroom at the back of the house and stood in the door. “The bed has replaced my deck, I think.”
Tao walked in the room then stopped and turned to her. “I can’t thank you enough. I’m going to take it to my friend’s house tonight until the coast is clear.”
“No,” Fiona said, much too loudly she realized. “Just let it stay here. Please, I’ve become so fond of it. And…I’ve begun a painting.”
“Of my cat?”
“Yes, actually.”
“May I—” He stepped toward the door as she started toward him and the two of them bumped into each other, full length along their bodies. Fiona gasped. He smelled so incredible. How was it possible for anyone to smell so good at the end of the day?
“I’d rather not show it to anyone just yet,” she said to cover her flustered state.
“You’re very sweet,” he said, his voice low. “You know that?” He brushed her nose with a finger.
“I…am not, really, I’m actually more of a termagant, but thank you. I probably won’t open the door again for another few days. The neighbors, you see…”
Tao had captivated her senses and left her babbling. Only then did she notice the cat sitting up on the bed and watching them, its eyes large, tail steadily thumping.
“I’ll go then,” Tao said. “Take care of my baby.”
Fiona froze in rapture as he bent his head and dropped a light kiss on her cheek. Her breath caught and she looked at the now still tail of the cat, feeling almost guilty, as if she were somehow cheating on the magnificent animal.
“I’ll let myself out and leave some food for her on your deck,” Tao said, and then he departed.
Fiona nodded. She blinked. Tao had said her.
She stared at the black cat. Was the animal a female?
Tao Tail.
The only puss— he was ever getting from his ex-wife again.
Of course, it was female.
The deep disappointment Fiona experienced was completely irrational. She admitted it. Still it was there. She felt deliberately deceived, by both Tao and his feline, whose gaze now seemed mocking and even slightly threatening as it stared back at her. The kiss from Tao had obviously made the animal jealous. Fiona moved restlessly around the room then went down the hall to the studio. She could no longer work on the painting, could not even look at it. She discarded most of the drawings. The doorbell rang again and she heard the insurance agent through the door, telling her he had just seen Tao leave her house so he knew she was home. He pounded and rang until she threatened to call the police if he didn’t go away and leave her alone. There was too much drama in this cul-de-sac. She needed peace and quiet and…inspiration.
She stalked across the room and opened the French doors to her deck. She called the cat. The cat did not come. Fiona marched to her bedroom and yelled at the animal to get off her bed and get out of her house. She had a broom and she wasn’t afraid to use it. The cat only looked at her, its tail thumping on the duvet once, twice, before it ignored her to begin a new bath.
Fiona went into the master bath and filled a glass with water, which she brought out and dumped on the cat. The cat hissed at her and leaped off the bed. Fiona followed it down the hall and through the open doors. It stopped as it reached the end of the deck and looked back at her with a baleful glare.
“Keep going,” Fiona said to it. “Get off my deck and out of my yard. I’m not going to compete with you. You can have him, but this deck is mine.”

The cat sat down and licked its wet chest.

“I said get out!” Fiona stomped into the kitchen.
She returned with a broom and walked toward the cat. It hissed, arched its back and emitted a guttural growl. Fiona pushed at the cat with the broom bristles, and quicker than she could react, the animal sprang upon her. Claws sunk into her hands, arms and face, and she felt fangs rip at her cheek, ear and nose as she tried to turn her head away from the attack. Fiona screamed as she tried to pull the cat from her but its claws only dug in deeper and she felt it shredding the skin from her neck and chin as it continued its assault.
She became aware of someone shouting. Then water from a hose hit her in the face and mercifully made the cat’s claws detach. It jumped away from her and darted across the lawn into the shrubs.
Fiona felt blood coursing down her face and arms. The look on the face of the insurance agent frightened her even more than the attack and Fiona lost consciousness and dropped to the deck.
“I tried to tell you it had rabies,” the insurance agent muttered. Then he took out his phone and called 911.
While he waited for the ambulance, the insurance agent decided to step inside and have a quick peek at the canvases in the art studio. He hurried down the hall and looked in rooms until he found the one full of canvases. Minutes later he went back to Fiona’s unconscious form and stared down at her bleeding, disfigured face. What a fraud, he told himself. Every single canvas was blank. Not a tube of paint opened or brush used, only a trashcan full of blank, wadded up pages.
The insurance agent checked her to make sure she was still breathing and saw the black cat come slinking back toward the deck, the hair on its back still fuzzed out. There was tuna in a can on the deck and the insurance agent kicked it at the cat. The cat kept coming.
“Shit,” the man said and scrambled to find the hose again. He picked it up and readied it to spray, but the cat plopped down beside Fiona on the deck and eyed him, like a lioness guarding her kill.
The tail thumped once, twice and then the cat began to lick its paws, all the while remaining aware of the man with the nozzle in his hand. When his fingers moved to compress the trigger, the feline growled deep in its chest and the coiled muscles in its black haunches tensed.
The insurance agent dropped the hose and ran around to the front of the house to wait for the ambulance there.
The cat was gone when he showed two frowning EMTs around to the deck, and after they hauled Fiona away, the insurance agent went to close the French doors. The cat sat on the tile inside the house and slowly stood when it saw him. He hastily grabbed the doors, shut them then called animal control’s number to tell them where they could find the cat. They called him back and said even if the doors were unlocked, they still needed the homeowner’s permission to open them and retrieve the cat. He had no number for Fiona, hadn’t even asked to which hospital they were taking her, so his last recourse was to call the homeowner’s association and find out if they had a contact number for her.
The woman at the HOA had no idea what he was talking about, the owner of the home was an engineer gone to Brazil for six months to help prepare for The Olympics. He had paid all his dues in advance.
The insurance agent congratulated himself for having thwarted an obvious squatter and no longer felt sorry for what happened to Fiona’s face, left in even worse shape than Gaius had been. He called the contact number he had for Tao and left a message, told him where his cat was and what it had done. He told him about Fiona, the empty canvases and the squatting then ended the call with a satisfied smile on his face.

Tao called him from Brazil, reminded him he had sublet the place to a friend and asked her to take care of his cat. The insurance agent already knew all this, so why did he sound so confused?

The agent looked at the home across from Fiona’s. He asked the man on the phone what his address was, and Tao asked him if he was nuts. His address was what it had always been, and he told him the numbers of the house where the agent was standing. The agent then asked Tao who he remembered living across the street from them.

“The artist,” said Tao. “The recluse you’re obsessed with, who never leaves the house. Listen, my friend called yesterday and said you were freaking her out, hanging out on my deck, sneaking into my house and staring at my cat. Said you kept calling yourself by the name you left in the message, Fiona, or something like that. She thinks you’re some nut in a homophobic panic having transgender delusions. Did you ever start your round of shots?”

“What?”

“Your dog mauled you last month, remember? He had rabies, Doug. Did you ever start your shots? I’ve been trying to call my friend all night and she’s not answering. Can you go and knock on my door, ask her to call me?”

“I’m sorry, I feel another migraine coming on,” the insurance agent said then hung up. He heard car doors closing out front and men talking on a radio. He hoped it was finally animal control. He bent to pick up the broken broom. The deep wounds on his hand and arm opened, blood dripped down to stain the wooden deck.
Inside Tao’s house, the black cat growled at him.

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~ by S.K. Epperson on October 30, 2014.

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