A Cat Named Possibility
My name is Kurt and I am eight summers old. I am tall and charismatic. Charismatic means you have a lot of energy and you break many things. My daddy prefers to call me Crazy for short, but Mommy always reminds him not to call me Crazy, only Charismatic. I have a cat called Possibility and a brother who is a tree. No one knows about my brother, because he is dead. Being dead means that you have relocated to heaven. Relocated means that you have moved. I know this because my daddy works in the relocation business. My mother is an Optimist; this means she believes in sending out a positive vibe. You gotta be thinking positive, she keeps telling everybody. We are all responsible for our own well-being, she says, so we gotta think positive. Sometimes she thinks positive for so long, she needs to hide in the dark of the cleaning closet to cry out all the water that is stuck inside her head. When I told her about my dead brother not being really dead, only relocated into the tree in our neighbor’s backyard, she took a deep breath, blinked a strand of hair out of her eye, and said she liked that I was thinking positive. She then disappeared into the closet for a long time, even longer than dinnertime. When my daddy came home, he wanted to know why she was in the closet again and then he said the kid is Crazy.
I can talk to my brother in two ways. One, through telepathy. Telepathy means you know what the other is thinking without even closing your eyes. So I am thinking, Hey, Freddy old egg fart, you stink like yesterday’s vomit, for example. And then I wait, and then I hear it inside my head like a voice coming out of a radio: Kurt, you big hairy nipple, you’re about as smart as a dog turd and as cute as an elephant’s asshole.
Oh yeah? I say. Well, you are a silly girl with pink ribbons in your hair. We can go on like this for as long as it takes to really get into the groove of things. At the end we use the words that grown-ups say a lot that we are not allowed to. Fuck. Damn. Shit. Dick. Jesus. I like these words because they make me laugh in my stomach and then I feel like everything is going to be okay, even though people are killing other people, and very nice kids in other countries don’t even have food, and there seems to not be enough of that stuff money around.
I want a bike really bad, and it makes me very sad that I don’t have it. This sad feeling makes me sit around more than usual, and sometimes it makes me kick things. I kicked Possibility once because she pooped on the harmonica that my grandfather gave me before he relocated to hell. Hell is a place just around the corner from heaven, only in hell people wail a lot. They wail because they regret having been bad to their daughters; that’s what my mom says. The second way I talk to Freddy is to ask him a question straight out. He will wave the second branch to the right, the one with the bump on it and the little branches at the end that make it look just like a hand. If he waves then he is saying YES. If he is not waving, he is saying NO. I have to ask him yes or no questions, like: Do I look stupid in this red hat Mommy is forcing me to wear? YES. Do you think I should take it off? YES. Are you an idiot? YES. Hahahahaha!
Our neighbors are old people that travel a lot. Traveling is different from relocating because when you move you don’t come back, but when you travel you come back, only with a sunburn. My mother wants me to wear a red hat to protect my head from the sun, but I tell her to think positive. She then says that I am way too Charismatic.
My problems start one morning when the old people next door stand right by my brother with a saw between them. “Light in the kitchen,” says the old biddy to my mother. “It will be awfully nice to finally have some morning sun in the kitchen, after all these years.” My heart relocates to my stomach, and for a moment I cannot speak. You are in deep trouble, I think to Freddy, and he shakes his branch nervously.
I don’t know if you were ever eight years old, but let me tell you, it is like being a grown-up but without the height to prove it. “Are you really going to cut down the tree?” I ask the man.
He wants me to call him Uncle Tommy, but I always just call him Tommy because I just don’t feel like calling him uncle. “That I will, Kurt my boy. You wanna help?” Tommy snorts and shakes some dust off the saw. I look at the tree, and then I look at Tommy, and then back at the tree.
“It is much bigger than you,” I say. “Smaller people always have to listen to the people that are bigger than they are.”
Tommy smiles then, ruffles my hair, and nods. “That’s true, my boy. Thank goodness this isn’t a person then, but only a big old tree.”
There are always several possible actions to any kind of situation. It is up to you to choose the positive approach. This my mother says a lot when I kick things. You are allowed to feel as angry as you like, but you are not allowed to do as you like when you feel angry. Tears are burning behind my eyes now, and my legs are twitching, and I am starting to feel very angry. I look up to her then, and see that she is staring at me in that way she has when she knows I am going to cry. Being grown-up means you know when to say something and when to keep a secret. That my dead brother Freddy relocated into the neighbor’s birch is one of those things that a grown-up doesn’t tell another grown-up. There are things that belong in The-Sort-Of-Thing-One-Keeps-To-Oneself Category. A Category is like a box, only it exists in your mind. Another thing that goes into The-Sort-Of-Thing-One-Keeps-To-Oneself Category is touching one’s penis. You are allowed to touch your own penis, my mother says, but only when you are alone. This-Sort-Of-Thing-One-Keeps-To-Oneself.
“Oh, Kurtie,” she sighs then, and bends down so her eyes are on the same level as mine. “Let’s go inside and make blueberry pancakes.” She pulls at my arm, but I refuse to move. I have the strength inside me to not move for anybody if I don’t want to, even if offered blueberry pancakes.
Tommy is walking around measuring the ground and looking up at the sky a lot. Freddy is talking nonstop in my head about me having to make sure the idiot doesn’t come too close to him with that saw. I tell him that I would never let anybody murder him. Who does he think I am, a girl?
My mother stands up and tries to push me and then drag me away from that spot under the tree back into our house. I refuse to move. “Mom,” I plead. “M-ah-ah-ah-m.”
I know she knows Freddy is in the tree. For his birthday last year, she went and put flowers into the folds of the stem when she thought no one was watching. She bites her lips, closes her eyes, and then rubs the root of her nose a few times before looking down at me again. “When exactly are you cutting down the tree,” she asks Tommy, who just then measures a long line of rope and places it neatly in a ring on the ground.
“Well,” he answers after finishing up, “getting a couple of strong arms to help; they’ll be here in around an hour.” Now the biddy comes out of the house again holding on to some papers and heading straight for Mommy.
“Lydia, what do you say to French doors?”
“Will you take a look? Sliding doors save space, don’t they? But French doors are just lovely. So atmospheric. We’re building a terrace, nothing big, just a little one for the morning coffee.” The biddy looks like she has eaten all her Saturday candy in under a minute. There is something wild in her eyes as she reaches the drawings over my head.
“You can’t cut down the tree!” I shout and rip the papers out of her hand. “You can’t! You can’t! You can’t! Tell her, Mommy, tell her!” I throw the papers on the ground, kick them hard, and scream louder than I have ever screamed.
Tommy stares at me as if I should be put in an orphanage; so does the biddy. Mommy grabs my shoulders and takes a deep breath.
“He loves this tree. I am so sorry. But he really loves this tree.” She bends down and picks the papers from the ground, brushes the dirt off as good as possible. Mrs. Karlson takes the papers, but she is not smiling. I feel my mommy reaching out for me, and so I jump to the side, and then run up to the tree and climb the first two branches.
“What the hell!” shouts Tommy. “Come down this minute, boy!”
“Monkeyboo,” Mommy coos, “I know how much this tree means to you, sweetheart, but it is not our tree, I am afraid.”
“It is Freddy,” I wail. I hug the white stem, press my face into the hard bark, and promise that I will never, ever let go.
Tommy and Mommy are talking in Low Voices. Mommy keeps glancing up at me. They don’t think I can hear what they are saying, but I hear it alright.
“When his brother died … how to put this … he thinks Freddy is in the tree.”
“What do you mean he is in the tree?” Tommy looks up at the tree as if Freddy was sitting in there.
“Kurt says Freddy’s soul moved into the tree.”
“You should not let your son believe such nonsense.”
“He is only eight; he is only eight years old.”
“This tree is going. Rosie is very excited about her terrace.”
Rosie looks away and mutters something about a poor boy. “But we do need to take that tree down, don’t we, Tommy? Didn’t you say it is sick? Spots on the bark?”
“Could you at least wait for a few days? That way I could get him used to the idea.”
“I’ve got the guys coming. It isn’t easy to get the guys all together like that.” Tommy throws a hammer into his toolbox and coughs.
“Kurt, honey, won’t you come down?”
“I won’t,” I say, and hold on even tighter to Freddy.
I can see over our house. I can see Walter, the old shepherd dog living next door on the other side, and Possibility, my cat, eating out of the dog’s bowl. A little green car stops in front of the house opposite. Aastha, the Hindi girl, and Peter, her long-haired boyfriend, get out and walk in our direction.
“Neighborhood council?” Peter jokes, but Aastha sees me straightaway.
“Taking down the tree,” says Tommy. “Building a terrace.”
“Letting the sun in,” Peter says and smiles.
Aastha and Peter are Hippies. A hippie is someone who doesn’t like to brush their hair and who likes to play more than they like to work, just like a kid, but taller.
“How are you doing, Kurt?” sings Aastha, which means Faith but in the Hindi language. I know this because she told me. Faith means you really, really, really believe something because your heart has told you.
“I am Very Well,” I say, because I am not only Charismatic, I am also Polite.
“You need some help with that?” asks Peter. “I’ve got a degree in forestry. Well, almost.”
“Only help I need right now is for someone to get that kid out of my tree,” snaps Tommy.
“You don’t want to come down?” Faith stands right under me. When I don’t say anything, she continues, “You like it up there, huh?”
“I do like a good view of the world,” I answer, but I sigh, because I really would like to tell Faith about Freddy. I almost did once, the time she told me about her name, but then I remembered it was The-Sort-Of-Thing-One-Keeps-To-Oneself.
“KURT!” My daddy comes through the bushes and has The Deep Wrinkle between his eyebrows. “Kurt, get down this minute.”
“No,” I shout back. “I am NEVER coming down!”
“Hey, Tommy! Rosie. Apologies. Kid’s Crazy. Finally getting that terrace built?” My daddy walks and stands next to Rosie, looking at her papers.
“Nice! Sliding doors or French doors?”
“Johnny,” my mommy says quietly, “Johnny, could I have a word?”
“Why don’t you want to get down, Kurt?” asks Faith.
“The kid thinks Freddy is in there,” scolds Tommy.
“Freddy, your … brother Freddy?” Faith looks at Peter, and then back up at me.
“He relocated,” I say and try to sound okay.
“Freddy … relocated into this tree … when he died?” Faith bites her lips and looks just like Mommy when she is about to cry.
“Uh-huh.” I nod and it feels strange to talk about The-Sort-Of-Thing-One-Keeps-To-Oneself.
“Wow,” says Peter and strokes his ponytail. “Wow.”
“Kurt, if you don’t come down NOW, I’ll get a ladder and carry you,” says Daddy. He slaps Tommy on the shoulders the way people do when they want to apologize for something.
“You can’t cut down this tree,” says Faith. She looks everyone in the eyes. “Kurt’s brother is in there.”
“For heaven’s sake!” shrieks Tommy.
“Don’t you have a heart?” asks Faith.
“Get off my property.”
“We Hindus believe in reincarnation,” says Faith, crossing her arms over her chest. “If I were you, Mr. Ruthger, I’d be careful not to murder Freddy.”
“Maybe we should wait,” stammers Rosie. “A day or two.”
“Wait? Goddammit, why? I won’t call the job off after the guys left their work early to help out just because a crazy kid has decided a ghost lives in my tree!”
“I am getting a ladder,” says Daddy. “This has been going on for far too long, hasn’t it, Lydia?”
Mommy is biting her fingers. “Is there no way we can come to some sort of agreement? If we put our minds together and think positive…”
“Agreement? You go back to your garden, woman, and let me do as I like in mine! That’s the only thing I’ll agree on.” Tommy is very red in the face. I fear he has gotten a sunburn.
“There is nothing sacred to you people,” Faith says.
“Fucking immigrants!” shouts Tommy.
“I just want to drink my coffee on a terrace in the morning sun! Is that so bad? Does that make me evil?” Rosie is folding her papers over and over.
I sometimes thought, when I wished the whole world would go away, on those days when I got angry and kicked things and wished I had a magic wand that could just erase anything that I didn’t like, that I might spare Faith. Faith and Possibility and Mommy. I would spare them because they were the only really kind people I knew, and of course one of them was a fat orange cat. I realize now that I was right in sparing them, because here they came toward me. Possibility comes out of nowhere, jumps straight up into the birch, strokes her body against my arm, and then climbs higher and merges with the upper branches.
Faith is bigger than Possibility, but she doesn’t have the claws, so it takes longer for her to reach the place I’m sitting. “Hello, Kurt,” she greets me. “Is it okay for me to sit here?” I nod, because Freddy doesn’t seem to have anything against it.
Mommy stands holding the palm of her hand on the stem, reaching out the other toward me. “We have to talk, sweetheart,” she says. “Come down. Please.” I shake my head. “Haven’t climbed a tree in a while,” she puffs, holding on to Freddy with both arms and pulling herself up. “I love the Hindu religion,” Mommy says as she climbs past Aastha. I put my head against Freddy and try to hear him speak, but he is quiet. “Monkeyboo, precious.” My mother leans onto the branch where I am sitting. “You know Freddy is not only in this tree, right? He is everywhere, the spirit of him, and most of all, he is on our hearts.” She grins and talks in that voice she uses when she is being Optimistic.
“You mean he is just dead,” I say. Mommy nods and blinks her tears back. “But he isn’t,” I say. “He is in this tree.”
A ladder is coming through the fence with my daddy underneath it. “What the fuck?” he curses when he sees Mommy and Aastha in the tree with me. “Lydia, what the hell are you doing? You have to stop letting the boy do whatever he pleases!”
“Why are you being so harsh?” Mommy says. “He needs a little more time, that’s all!”
“Time? It’s been five years! Who needs more time? You or the boy?”
And so everyone starts shouting. I hold on to Freddy. “Freddy, you old egg fart,” I try, but Freddy is not answering. I even close my eyes, press my forehead as hard as I can against the stem. I rub by face so hard against the rough bark it hurts. But I don’t scream. I don’t scream because it doesn’t hurt at all in comparison to the pain in my stomach. “Freddy,” I plead. “Freddy, you coward girl,” I beg, but there is only silence. I listen to the silence. The silence behind the voices, behind the shouts, behind all the wild, angry things around us. I know my daddy is very upset with me. I know he will grab me and carry me back to my room, and he’ll talk at me while I look at The Wrinkle between his eyebrows dance like a snake.
“No need to call the police, Tommy.” My daddy looks like an old tired wolf. “Lydia will come down now.”
At this point a van pulls up by the curb and three bearded men get out. “Alrighty,” says the one in the checked shirt, “what’s going on here, then?”
The men move up and stand in a neat line by the fence. I am pretending I don’t speak their language; here up in the tree, we speak with our minds only. I look down at my mommy and at Faith. Both are shouting. I look up at Possibility lying leisurely and calmly in the top branches. It is strange being inside myself. I stand up quietly so no one will notice; they are all looking only at each other anyway. I am inside myself, moving my limbs, grabbing at the best places, and pushing with my legs. I want to get all the way up, all the way to the top. “Can’t you make them stop?” I ask Freddy. “Can’t you do something?”
When I get all the way up, the branches bend under my weight. But I know I am safe because Freddy is holding me up.
“Freddy,” I say. “We got to talk.”
“I don’t feel like it,” he mutters finally.
“What about relocating to another tree?”
“What if they cut down that tree? What then?” he says.
“What about relocating to a bottle? Then I could carry you around all the time!”
“You grow stupider by the day, eh, Kurt?”
“What about Possibility?”
We both look at the orange cat, who looks down at us in turn.
“I would if I could,” Freddy whispers. Possibility yowls, jumps from the tree, and disappears behind the house. “But I don’t exactly know how to relocate.”
I can see our entire neighborhood, the supermarket to the left and the big garage to the right where the busses sleep at night. I see the graffiti at the train station and the motorway behind the station. I see the motorway all the way into the horizon. Horizon means as long as you can see. You can never see further than the horizon. Mommy says we should look at the horizon a lot, because then we might see a solution that we haven’t thought about before.
“Freddy, you see a lot of stuff from up here, right?” I say.
“That’s why I like it,” he answers.
“You see into Tommy’s house pretty good from here.”
“Last time they traveled they murdered every plant in the house,” Freddy spits angrily. “They leave without thinking about watering. And Tommy snores, so there is no quiet at night.”
I look down at Mom and Dad, at Aastha, who has climbed down and is standing arguing with Peter, and At Tommy and his gang of three friends, smoking cigarettes and making fun of me.
“Hey!” I shout. “If I can prove that Freddy is in the tree, will you promise to not murder him?”
It is silent for about one minute. Then one of Tommy’s friends asks, “What did the boy say?”
The guy in the checked shirt answers, “He’s going to prove that the bro is in the tree.”
“Jesus,” says the third guy and takes off his beanie.
“Will you promise?” I shout.
“This needs to stop now,” my daddy says. “We’re going to have a serious talk, Kurt. You and me. Very serious.”
“Promise?” I shout again.
“Kid, say what you have to say,” says Tommy. “In two minutes, I’m starting this chainsaw. I’m starting it with you in the tree or not.”
“Freddy says you never water your plants when you travel.”
“Kid’s stubborn, I’ll give him that,” says Tommy.
“You touch your penis a lot when Rosie is in the bathtub.” I realize as I speak that this must be in the This-Sort-Of-Thing-One-Keeps-To-Oneself Category.
“Kurt!” Mommy scolds.
Everyone laughs but Rosie.
“Time is up, buddy,” snorts Tommy, back turned to Rosie as he starts the chainsaw.
“Kurt, come down NOW,” pleads my mommy. “Please, please, please.”
I see a red fire truck speeding down the road. The noise of the chainsaw is deafening. Tommy takes a heavy step toward the stem of the tree and starts cutting, wild-eyed. Mommy jumps at him and pulls at his arms. Daddy runs over and forces him away from the tree.
“My son is still up in that tree! What are you?”
Tommy howls like a mad cat as he and Daddy fight. The bearded guys hurry over to part the two men. Aastha puts a hand onto the wound on the tree. Rosie buries her face in her hands. Mommy screams for me to come down, this is no a joke. Tommy won’t let go of the chainsaw.
The red fire truck stops by the house, and three firemen shake their heads as they exit the truck. “What is going on here?” one of them asks, hooking his arms at his sides.
“Tommy wants to build a terrace, but the kid thinks his dead brother lives in the tree.” The hippie sums it up.
“Like in a tree house?” continues the fireman.
“Like as a spiritual essence,” answers Peter, and the fireman nods in understanding.
The three firemen turn toward each other for Moral Support. Moral Support means you look straight into someone’s eyes while raising your eyebrows and holding your breath for a second or two.
“Fred,” I whisper. “Fred? Are you really in the tree or are you just dead?”
I listen to the silence. There is no rustling anywhere, no voice in my head, no nothing but the figures down below barking and arguing and waving their hands. There are words shooting up at me like gunshots. Reality. Right now. Kid is crazy.
I know about loonies. I know about people making stuff up inside their heads because they feel lonely if they don’t. That’s what my mom says when my aunt Margaret thinks she is married to Prince Harry. Maybe loonies is just another word for lonelies, I muse. A realization hits me. Having a realization hit you means that one part of your brain understands something the other part doesn’t.
Without Fred I’d feel very, very lonely.
When a realization hits you, a part of your stomach gets ice cold and a freezing shiver spreads through your body. I can see Mother talking with the firemen. I can see she will spend a long time in the cleaning closet tonight, even longer than bedtime. I hear my daddy shout: “Please, it’s my kid in the tree, you bastard!”
I feel gravity drag at my feet, and suddenly I am standing back down on earth.
“You can cut the tree down now,” I say, and I don’t even have to shout. My voice is like a stone falling down a well. Everyone hears me.
“Oh, Kurt!” Mommy cries, running up to me.
“Thank heavens,” sighs the guy with the beanie and puts it back onto his balding head.
“The kid’s out of the tree,” shouts the hippie to the firemen.
“Are you sure, Kurtie?” asks Aastha gently. “What about…Fred?”
“Fred is dead,” I say and look at Daddy until he turns away.
There is a collective inhalation of breath. I push Mommy away and start walking to my house. I kick a lantern as hard as I can. I’m tired of being Charismatic. I’m tired of talking to a tree more than to other kids. From now on, I’m going to be Normal and Just-Like-Everyone-Else. Being Like-Everyone-Else means putting your hands deep in your pockets and never being the first one to put your hand up in class. It means laughing when kids fall down, it means knowing there’s no Santa Claus, no angels, no dead brothers in trees. I lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling. Cloth parrots dangle from the wire hooks of a mobile owned first by Freddy and then by me. I force all my hate at it. Stupid birds.
“Kurtie?” a whisper at the door. “Monkeyboo?” Mommy peeps inside.
“Go away,” I mutter.
“Let me talk to him.”
Daddy forces his way past Mommy. I turn toward the wall and pretend I am a fish at the bottom of the ocean. The bottom of the ocean is a nice place because it is still, and very big, and very dark, almost black, and there are whales singing.
I can’t feel my daddy watching me because I am walking through the waters, and it takes great effort until I start swimming, and then it is fun to just swim around and look for things I like.
Instead of talking my daddy lies beside me. He doesn’t say anything, not even that I am crazy.
“What are you thinking about?” he asks.
“Whales,” I say.
“What sort of whales?”
Outside the window there is the terrible sound of the chainsaw revving up.
And that is when he starts. He sobs under his breath, but I feel his sadness surge through him like a current. Its pull is so strong. I can’t keep swimming at the bottom of the ocean. So I float to the surface with it and turn toward Dad. He has spit coming out of his mouth and his eyes are closed. My pillow is wet from all his tears.
“It’s just that …” he starts, and I lose him to a wave of crying so loud and awful that I’m glad no one else is there. Suddenly, there’s a sound outside like a singing whale landing on a house. Dad stops crying and we sit up and look out the window. We turn to each other for Moral Support and look out again. The great birch has crashed straight into Tommy and Rosie’s house. The house is practically divided in two. Practically means the second floor is a wreck. but the first floor is still intact. Tommy’s friends stand along the path of the tree’s planned fall and scratch their beards.
“Are you kidding me?” Tommy shouts. “Are you kidding?”
The firemen go over to their truck and turn on their signal. Mommy comes rushing into the room and pushes her face between ours.
“How on earth did it happen?” she whispers. “The guys couldn’t do a thing; they had to let go of their ropes or they’d have been pulled along!” There’s a strange echo of excitement in her voice. “Tommy cut the trunk so the tree tipped left! But look! It fell to the right!”
Daddy opens his mouth to speak, but closes it again without uttering a word. A realization hits us. When a realization hits it means a part of your brain understands something your body has known all along.
“Fred,” Daddy whispers.
Mommy puts one arm around Daddy and the other around me. We sit like that for a long time.
It is not until dinnertime that we realize Possibility is missing. “Where is that darn animal?” Daddy asks between spoonfuls of cornflakes.
“Poss? Kisskisskiss?” Mommy coos. “He’s never late for dinner, that cat.” She gets up, opens the kitchen door, and peeks out into the darkness.
“There he is!” I shout, because there indeed he is. Possibility stands on his hind legs with his left paw angled across an orange-furred chest. He looks wobbly as Grandfather did on Christmas Eve after drinking all the toddy.
“Come inside Poss, it’s getting cold,” Mommy says. She steps back. “What’s wrong? Can’t you move? Look, the cat can’t move!” She hovers above him, fussing.
Over her shoulder, I see Possibility wave his left paw frantically while squinting up at me as if trying to catch my gaze. That’s when I get it.
“You old Monkeyfart, you did it!” I shout.
Dad looks at me, then at Mom, then back at me. At first, I think he’s going to call me Crazy. But then he says, “Kurt, don’t talk like that to your brother.”
Caroline Brucker is a screenwriter and short story writer from Stockholm, Sweden, who now lives in Vienna, Austria, after years spent in the US and UK. A survivor of a strict Catholic school run by wart-faced nuns and a chronic disease that left her paralyzed for years, she now enjoys writing about other people who face moments of change and spiritual crisis. A short film she scripted, The Confession, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Her picture book, Moritz, was published by the clothing company H&M as part of their UNICEF “All for Children” Initiative. (Bio added for layout reference. Updated biography anticipated.)