A Safe Place to Be
By Carol Emshwiller
28 September 2009
It started with a funny feeling in the bottoms of my feet. Something is going to happen. Perhaps an earthquake. That's what it feels like. But perhaps terrorists on the way. Whatever it is, something's coming.
Why did I (of all people), an old lady, get this warning while everybody else is going on as usual? Have I a special talent nobody else has?
But the cat feels it, too. He's been shaking his paws as if they feel exactly like my feet do. He looks at me as if: Why don't you do something? I tell him, "I will."
It's coming closer. I'm getting out of here before everybody tries to leave at the same time.
Though could it be that I'm just feeling the future in general. Disaster will come to all of us and at my age it can't be that far away. I'll be as dead as most all of humanity already is. Mother . . . Dad . . . Dostoyevsky.
But can I take a chance that this tingly feeling is just because of the normal run of things?
If only I knew when. And also who to tell? I'd like company through all this. Not that a good cat isn't company enough and I do talk things over with him, but a person would be nice, too. I can't think of anybody to tell who would believe me or wouldn't just get in my way as I try to leave in search of safety.
That tingly, rattly vibration is getting worse, rising from the ground, up through my feet and rattling my spine. This morning I could even feel it from my fifth floor apartment. I ran for the central hallway. I stood there for twenty minutes. Then I grabbed Natty, put his leash and harness on him, and ran outside and down the block and huddled under a tree. Again I waited. The cat was shaking as much as I was. A sure sign that I was right. I ran farther but had to stop to catch my breath in a doorway near the park.
Here, in a place where pigeons are always wobbling along, there wasn't a single one. Not one! That scared both of us even more.
I must have looked just how I felt because somebody asked me what was wrong. I said, "Just a dizzy spell is all." I didn't want anybody else to know. I wanted to get out and safely away before any of the others found out something was going to happen.
I check the feelings in my feet again. I feel a rumbling for sure, by now so strong I wonder why everybody doesn't feel it. Well, all the better then, it gives me plenty of time to escape.
A mountain top would be a good place, nothing could fall down on me from up there and water wouldn't reach, but there aren't even any hills around here. I'll head west, though I don't know if there's time, but out in the country will be better than the city. I'll bring all my money and my raincoat.
I go home, eat a big last meal, pack a knapsack with cat food (it'll do for both of us), my vitamins, and go. I bring Natty in the top part of the knapsack. He doesn't mind. He's glad I'm finally doing something.
I ask a taxi driver to take me twenty dollars' worth towards the west. He's nice, he takes me even farther. He doesn't care that I sneaked a cat into his cab. I ask him to come with us. We'd like the company. Especially such a nice man and with a cab to ride in. I told him why I was getting away. I said we should hurry before the roads get too crowded with people trying to escape. He doesn't say so, but I don't think he believes me. He prefers getting back to work.
So I start walking. The taxi drove me a good ways into the suburbs. I never expected to get this far in just one day. Even though I'm still scared, this is all turning out fine. I stand still and check the bottoms of my feet again, and, yes, no doubt about it, danger, though I keep reminding myself that life is just temporary anyway and at my age even more so.
But right now I have to find someplace to spend the night. I don't want to use up any more of my money than I have to. It has to last at least to the Rockies.
I keep walking well into the night. I was hoping to get beyond the little houses and warehouses to farm land, but no such luck. I wanted to sleep in some country place, a forest or a park. Finally I'm too worn out to go on. I drop where I stop. There isn't a bush or a tree in sight, just warehouses, and airplanes keep coming over low. I'm so tired they don't bother me except for waking me up early in the morning. I worried the cat would get scared and run away, but he stayed with me. I keep his leash on most of the time though I don't attach it to anything or hold it. He's too old to run off.
So off we go again (after sharing a cat food breakfast). How come nobody else is trying to escape? Most people are heading into the city as if everything was just as usual. Is this a special talent of mine worthy of study, just as animals predict earthquakes? Should I tell a scientist about it before whatever it is happens so that when it does happen, I'll have predicted it? How does one find a scientist? And it has to be somebody interested in this sort of study. I wouldn't be surprised if I pass a lot of universities along the way. If the danger is as close as it feels, I'll have to hurry and find somebody.
I'm so happy with our progress, I take us to a diner for lunch. Fish for Natty and a hamburger for me.
That night I find a good place, nine feet high, four feet long, three feet wide. What passes for a window. I won't say where though it mustn't be thought that I'm ashamed of it. Actually I don't think I'm ever ashamed of anything of that nature, not even that I'm getting rather dirty and mussed.
By now I'm far enough not to have to worry about a tsunami, but this is tornado country now. Natty and I keep studying the sky.
Wherever I end up, I would like a small tree. That is, if I can't have a large one. Living in the city I haven't had a tree of my own of any sort since I came here long ago. Also I'd like a nice round lichen covered rock that heats up during the day and stays hot all evening. I'd like a place to build a fire and a log beside it to sit on. I'd like a nice bed for Natty.
I buy myself a shopping cart to carry stuff like water bottles. I'm getting ready for crossing places in middle America where the rest stops are far between.
I ask for rides in the parking lots, but if I don't get one I just start walking. And I usually don't get one. I don't blame the people; after all, I'm dirty and raggedy, and my bundles and the shopping cart are bulky and don't fit in anything but trucks. If I saw me humping along with all this junk I'd take me for a crazy person. I wouldn't pick me up either. Even so, now and then I do get a ride. Usually in an old pickup that isn't going far.
I forget how many days it's been, but up to now everything is serene with the world. Of course I'm not getting the news. Maybe a disaster has already happened and I don't know about it, though you'd think people in diners and rest stops would be talking about it. I always read the headlines in the newspapers when I pass by them. (I don't waste money on them.) And you'd think, if the disaster had happened, that my feet would stop sending me all these signals. Natty's, too. Though maybe after one disaster, there might be another right behind it.
Ahead, you can see the road winding up a hill. I dread trying to climb it pushing my cart. But before I get to it, there's a town and I pass one of those little country hospitals. It's right here, handy. I'm going in and have them check my feet. It might be important for them to study me. For omens. Maybe Natty's, too.
I hide my cart behind the bushes near the door.
The lady at the desk asks me if I want a shower first. I did suspect I was pretty smelly by now, but I tell her I'll just get dirty again. "I'm on the road," I say.
"But wouldn't you like to take this opportunity."
I haven't washed since I started on this journey. Just a little bit in the bathrooms at the rest stops.
I know she means the doctor I'm going to see would like it a lot better if I did.
"But what about my cat?"
She lets him come in to the bathroom with me. Then they let him into the doctor's office with me, too. "Since," they say, "he's on a leash."
Everybody is very nice here.
"I want to report my feet. And my cat's feet."
He doesn't believe me about my feet predicting disaster. He doesn't say so, but I can tell.
"Well," he says, "there's plenty of disasters around to predict."
That type of little black mustache he has always intimidates me, but he's quite nice underneath it.
"This is something really, really big. Like a tornado or an earthquake or a gigantic mud slide. Mud as far as the eye can see."
"Where are you living? Are you eating?"
"Oh, yes, and fish, lots of fish. I know it's good for you."
I don't want him to think I'm just an ignorant tramp.
"There's a shelter just down the road if you need help. You can get a free meal there."
"Will they have cat food?"
"Do you have a place to live?"
"But, Doctor, these tingly feelings? They're getting worse. I thought maybe it was important. I thought you'd like to look into it."
"Nothing to worry about. Old people get these odd nerve twinges all the time. Let me give you the address of this place where they'll help you."
I'm worried they might put me away. I'd have to stay here and the disaster might be right in this area and I couldn't escape.
I say I'll go there right away but I won't.
"I'll drive you, if you can wait a bit."
"I don't mind walking."
I have to show him all my money before he finally lets me go. I still have quite a bit. Also I show him my vitamins and my cod liver oil. (Both Natty and I take it.) That impresses him.
At least he doesn't charge me much. But he didn't do anything either, except to tell me I'm fine.
It's going to be too bad . . . I mean the big disaster . . . there are so many nice people in the world like these people at the hospital. It's a shame so many of them will have to die. I'm trying to tell them but they won't listen.
I don't go for the free meal, though that would have been nice. I haven't had any vegetables for a long time. But I'm worried they'll stop me. I know it looks bad, an old lady with a big bundle walking—walking!—across the country. I'll have to try to think of a good reason for doing it. Maybe for some cause or other like breast cancer. Why didn't I think of that before?
By evening I finally come to the hill. The road climbs back and forth. It's still a wide and sweeping four lanes. This is going to be hard. Dangerous, too. A good place for a landslide.
I struggle on. Not a single good place to rest. Everything on a slant.
A silvery sporty car stops next to me. The top down. It's the doctor. Just the sort of car to go with his mustache. What's he doing way out here?
He says he doesn't like how I look. It's twilight. How come he can see me so well?
He's popped the trunk.
"Put your cart in back."
I step off the road on the rocky down side. He can't follow. Not in the car.
But he's out and is opening the passenger door for me. "I'll drive you."
Thank goodness it's almost dark. And it's even darker in the shadows of the boulders where Natty and I hide. Natty's a talkative cat, but he knows not to make a sound.
The doctor calls a few more times. "I can help."
Exactly what I don't want most is help.
Finally he drives off.
What now? Are they going to be chasing me? Capture the crazy woman? Do I have something else to worry about? Why do they care?
I'm going to walk on through the night. It's safer.
Whenever a car goes by, I hide in the ditch. It's not easy, what with my cart and all. At least you can see the cars coming from a long ways off.
We reach the top of the hill. Now the road will be flat again for a nice long while.
Finally, there in the ditch, I just have to stay and sleep.
In the morning I see there's somebody else walking along, way, way, way ahead of me—by about six miles I'd say. Here the road is so straight and flat and there's so few trees you can see for miles. I think the next hillock is probably about twelve miles away.
Hours pass, but I'm catching up. He doesn't stop to rest. I don't either. What if he, too, has funny feelings? And there'll be safety in numbers. For me at least. Maybe if the doctor sees I have somebody . . . especially a man . . . he won't bother me anymore.
I get all shaky with hope. Somebody else, maybe, who knows what I and Natty know. He won't think I'm crazy.
Finally, he sits down. It takes me half an hour to catch up, and then I walk past so as to take a good look first.
We're both elderly. We're both skinny from so much walking. We're both browned by the sun and have chapped lips. We both have big hats. I got mine when I started wondering about crossing the desert.
He stares as I go by. He's wondering about me as much as I'm wondering about him. He has a cart much bigger and sturdier than mine. More like a wheelbarrow, only he's rigged it with a loop around his waist so he can pull it. I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't have a tent. And there's a frying pan tied on top. I'll bet he never hitchhikes. He's got too much stuff.
He's found a nice spot to rest. There's an arroyo and actually a few spindly cottonwoods growing along the banks. Not exactly giving shade. Under the road is a culvert for when the arroyo fills with rainwater. That'll be where he pees.
I turn around and come back.
He looks like a country person . . . farmer or some such . . . though by now I may not look like I'm from the city either.
Before I sit down (not too close), I search the sky. Out here you can see a lot of it.
I say, "So far everything is fine."
He doesn't bother answering. It's clear that it is.
We sit silently but I can't tell if it's a comfortable silence or an uncomfortable one.
Natty's the only one who gives a questioning, "Yeow?"
When the man gets up to go on, I do, too. He didn't ask me to come, but he didn't say not to.
It's evening and this was a good spot to spend the night, but off he goes. He may be trying to get away from us. Some people don't like cats.
Is he going to walk all night? I don't dare ask. If I ask he may tell me not to follow.
We go on and on. Towards morning he comes to a group of spindly trees. I stay about twenty yards behind so as not to be a bother. I collapse just off the road. In the ditch so to speak. At least there's enough runoff for there to be bushes all along the road side. Almost like the edges of the rivers. I don't even have the energy to get us our can of cat food.
I wake up late the next morning. To the sound of traffic—if you can call one car about every ten minutes traffic. My feet are tingling even more than before. Whatever it is is coming closer.
I study the sky. Not a cloud in sight. Not a tree either except for the clump where the man camped. He's gone on ahead. He's already a few miles down the road. Maybe he does mind us following but I'm not going to let him get away.
I and Natty eat our cat food and hurry after him. We're faster than he is, what with that big bundle he has to pull.
It's such a nice morning. All along the roadside the rabbit brush is in bloom. A bright yellow. I hum in spite of whatever disasters might be on the way. You don't have to mope around just because your feet tingle and the world is full of depressing things and something really, really big and horrible is about to happen.
Pretty soon we're almost up to where I want to walk—just a few yards behind the man.
So far he hasn't said a single word.
But here's the doctor's silvery car again. I'm not expecting him. I don't have time to even think of hiding.
The old man stops, turns around and watches.
It really does look as if we're together and as if the old man's waiting for me.
I run up and grab the old man's arm.
The doctor leans out the window to speak to me. Before he can say anything, I say, "I'm walking for breast cancer. I forgot to tell you."
"But I can help. I can help you both."
"He's walking for breast cancer, too."
The two of us and our bundles and Natty wouldn't fit in the doctor's little car, anyway.
"We don't want to get helped."
One nice thing, the old man is letting me hang on to his bony elbow. I wasn't sure he would, seeing as how he's always walking off without me and without a word.
And then he does talk.
"She's with me."
His voice croaks out as if he never uses it . . . and I guess he never does.
"Why don't you people go to our shelter? Get yourself cleaned up? Get a rest? How old are you, anyway? I don't want you having a heart attack out here."
The man says, "Young enough to walk all day."
The doctor grabs my other arm, the one holding my cart. Natty is sitting on top of it in his usual spot. He lashes out and the doctor gets four good scratches all along his hand.
I let go of my cart, I can't help it, and it bounces down into the ditch and tips over. I run down to see if Natty is hurt and so does the old man. The doctor doesn't. He's looking at his scratches. What kind of a doctor is that?
But Natty isn't there. I lift up my cart to see if he's squashed underneath it. Then I see him galloping down the road, his leash dragging. If there was a tree anywhere near he'd be up in it.
I should have known. Cats are fast. They hardly ever get hurt.
I leave my cart in the ditch and run down the road after him. Next thing here's the doctor's car right beside me.
"Get in. I'll help you catch it."
It, he says!
I run into the ditch again. And then beyond, into the brush.
The doctor gives up and drives off.
The old man is waiting for me back beside my cart.
"Cats come back," he says.
Nice of him to say so, but we're not anywhere for a cat to come back to.
How will Natty get along without me? And out here in the middle of nowhere.
This changes everything.
"What we'll do," the old man says, speaking slowly and calmly and in that raspy voice of his. "We'll go on a little bit farther and stop where we think he might have run to, and then we'll stay put until we find him."
He gives me an apple. I haven't had one in a long time, but I can't swallow. I take one bite and give the apple back. I know it's valuable.
That man has all sorts of things I didn't know he had. He gets out a little camping stove and makes me tea. I do feel better after that. At least I have more energy to go looking for Natty.
We go down the road a bit farther, calling out. Nothing here but desert. There won't be anything for Natty to drink. And I worry about that leash dragging behind him. And what about hawks?
Every now and then I step off the road and look around. I look into the shadows. By now Natty's a desert cat and knows that it's cooler under things in the shade.
If there's a disaster I want to face it with Natty, and if I escape it, I don't want to escape without Natty.
Maybe this is the disaster. At least it's my disaster.
When we settle down for the night, I sleep a bit away from the old man in case Natty is afraid of him. I open a can of cat food and leave it near me. I can't eat my share of it. I feel too bad. I also leave a cup of water. I wonder what sort of creature I'll attract that I don't want. Do rattlesnakes like cat food?
Maybe Natty is dead already. There's always coyotes.
The man and I set up a kind of camp, just our bundles and his stove and pan. And branch out from there. It's several yards off the road and behind an old tumbled down wall. Probably the remains of an old stagecoach change-of-horses stop. He hasn't set up his tent. No need. It never rains out here.
He not only has apples but carrots, too. Kind of dried out but still good. But I can't eat.
We wander around calling, kitty, kitty, kitty. We look under every bush. I hope Natty's good at catching lizards. There are a lot of them. Except he's got that leash holding him back.
The doctor drives back and forth twice a day. He must live in the next town from the hospital. He stops now and then and calls out to us that he just wants to help. Once he yells out that at least we're hidden behind that old wall. What does he mean by that?
If he really wanted to help he could bring us some bottles of water. We won't be able to stay here much longer.
But the old man says he'll trot back to that town—and he does mean trot—to bring back some water. He'll use my cart because it's lighter. And we can stay here longer.
After he leaves, I spend the morning in the usual way, calling and looking in the shadows for a dead or dying cat.
And then, that afternoon, it rains. A hard rain. First I think it's the disaster but it isn't. I rush out in it calling kitty, kitty, kitty. I'm sopping but I don't care. Only later do I remember to put out cups and the old man's frying pan to collect water.
Then it stops raining and then suddenly flowers! As far as the eye can see—not mud but flowers.
I walk out in it. It smells wonderful. And here's a whole mass of little luminous blue butterflies. I never knew such a thing could be.
Have I been wrong about the disaster all this time? Is it to be something beautiful instead of something bad? A disaster of flowers?
But then I feel a sharp twinge in my feet as if to remind me I'm wrong and something terrible is out there just waiting to come down on us all.
I search the sky again.
Except now I don't care. I yell, "Come on tsunami! Come flood and fire, tornado and meteorites."
Then I hear the old man coming back. He's whistling. You just can't help it what with all this beauty. He sees me and waves. Calls out, "I have tomatoes and peaches!" It's as if he knew they were things I haven't had since I started on the journey to escape.
But I sit down in the middle of the flowers and start to cry. So many good things and I don't even care.
He sees I won't be able to eat for a while. He puts everything behind our wall and then comes out into the flowers and butterflies—carefully, trying to avoid stepping on flowers—and sits beside me.
After a bit I take a good look at him . . . a better look than before.
He sits hugging one knee. He's wearing shorts. His legs are hairy, stringy, and knobby, but strong looking. His big hat partly hides his face, but I already know he's an ugly man and needs a shave. His teeth stick out and his chin recedes, his nose has a bump in the middle, but all of a sudden he looks beautiful. Like Natty. Natty's not a handsome cat but I've never seen one I like better.
I say, "Thank you."
He nods—a series of nods, as if, "Yes, yes, yes," and then shakes his head the other way as if, "It's not important."
I wonder what his name is.
I think to reach out and touch his knee—to say something nice but here comes the doctor, his silver car is parked right across from our wall.
He walks toward us, tramping on flowers. Scattering butterflies. He has a bandage on his hand where Natty scratched him.
"I thought you'd be gone on by now. Or at least gone for help."
Oh my God, he has Natty's red leather leash. He's slapping it against his thigh. Then he hands it to me. "Here's your leash."
We've been looking and calling ourselves hoarse and he's had Natty all this time. Or at least he knows where he is. I can just see it, the doctor driving down the road and seeing that red leash and tricking Natty some way. Or, more likely, the leash hooked on a prickly blackbrush.
I grab it and start whipping him with it. He's not ready. He falls backwards into flowers and I keep on lashing at him.
Long as I'm winning, the old man stands there watching, but when the doctor gets up and hits me one good slap and knocks me over, the old man grabs him from behind and holds him. He's shorter than the doctor but you can see in his stringy arms, very strong.
I'm thinking: My old man.
The doctor says, "It's—" (It's again) "—at the pound back in Wilkerville. Unless it's dead. They don't keep them very long."
I don't even grab a water bottle. I start running—back down the road.
The doctor yells, "Don't be dumb."
We're maybe only seven or eight miles from town, and days and days of walking and pushing my cart have made me strong, too. I run on and on.
Pretty soon the doctor's car pulls up beside me. Since the top is down, as usual, I see right away the old man is in the car with him. The old man tells me to get in. If he's there, I guess it's all right. Though maybe the doctor will see that we both end up stuck in what might as well be the pound for people. The car's only a two seater. I have to sit on the old man's lap, his arms around me. It's a nice place to be.
But then a huge dark cloud comes towards us right down the road. Like a huge, huge dust devil. And it's full of flowers! And the sound. Here comes the disaster. Finally. I'm actually glad that something's happening at last. I don't have Natty to hug, but I do have the old man's arms around me nice and tight.
The doctor stops the car and starts putting the top up, but at the last minute the disaster veers away, rises, then dissipates in a rain of flowers. Flowers all over us, wet and fragrant.
We're all out of breath though we haven't done anything but just sit here. We look at each other . . . even the doctor. I look into the old man's black eyes. And turn away fast. I'm thinking: that's where all his calmness comes from. Down in there somewhere.
Again, I wonder what his name is.
The doctor drives us—much too fast even for the desert—into town.
At the pound they say, "That skinny old marmalade cat? He was an odd one."
"Well, where is he?"
"He got out. Just today. We don't know how he did it."
I always knew he was smarter than most but now I wish he wasn't. I sit down on the curb.
The old man says it. "Smart cat." Then, "He'll come back." . . . his slow raspy voice. "They always do."
It's a reassuring voice and nice to hear, but it doesn't reassure me.
The old man sees that. "He will!"
The doctor says, "It's a cat, for Heaven's sake. You'll be fine without it."
How dare he? Of course I won't be fine.
I stand up and attack him again. I land two good blows before anybody can do anything.
But he slaps me down.
"The town wants you in the shelter. You're a nuisance and an eyesore. Look at yourselves."
The old man pushes him away and gets punched and falls backwards. That makes me so mad I get up and fight even harder. It doesn't do any good. I'm on the ground again beside my man.
But there's a great yowling and howling and here, off the roof of the pound! comes an orange ball of claws, down on the doctor's head. And a terrible racket. I'd heard cats can do that, but I never actually heard the sound before.
The doctor tries to run away, but you can't run away from a cat on your head.
He's around the block and out of sight but we can still hear Natty.
We look at each other again, and this time I let myself look . . . way down in there.
He nods and then I nod.
He takes my hand. (How strong and calloused both our hands are. Like pieces of sandpaper.)
We sit down and wait for Natty to come back.
"You know there is no safe place," he says.
And I say, "I know it."
"And not all disasters are that bad."
And I say, "I know it."
Pretty soon Natty comes swaggering back.
We walk to our things, me with Natty on my shoulder.
"Let's go on."
"Till we get to a nice green place with a river?"
"And a hill to be on top of?"
"And a cottage."
I wonder what his name is.