Breath is a short story by Rena Robinett. A tale of friendship, family and betrayal and all with a touch of magic. We at Stranger Views can’t stop thinking about this short story and we’re sure it will live with you long after you have read it too.
Standing at the bus stop, I saw Cisca Mellor battle her way toward me through a wind that seemed to want to blow her off the planet. Henna hair whipped around her face across sharp green eyes. Spitting hair out of her mouth, she yelled, “Let’s go to Bali.”
“No. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
She strode through autumn leaves to breathe in my ear, “Come on. I’ve got an idea.”
“The last idea you had, I ended up getting busted in the San Diego Zoo with a hippo’s ass in my face,” I yelled as a gust of wind peppered me with autumn leaves.
“You know that was a fun time!” She laughed, grabbing me by the arm.
The wind tore through my thin jacket and the bus refused to come. I’d bounced another check all I had for dinner was some leftover tuna casserole, the rent was due on Tuesday and this was Wednesday, and did I forget to mention the wind was cold.
Besides, Cisca had a way. The Greeks would’ve given her an island and ran like hell. Perfectly timed she said, “We’ll steal The Cat.”
“No!” I pushed at her and the wind and the bad day I was having. “No. I’m not stealing anything with you again.”
If the damned bus had come, I would have been okay. But it didn’t and by the time I heard the plan, it was too late.
About Cisca; I met Cisca in Bombay. She was strolling through the market in a black sari with a parrot on her shoulder. The Hindi shopkeepers were a row of folded arms and pointed stares, Cisca on parade. I was on my way to Goa for a few months of R&R after a grueling drug run which had taken me from the mountains above Kabul to the hills over Santa Cruz in one mad week. I stood in the blistering sun wearing jeans and a t-shirt wondering if I’d stumbled onto a remake of Casablanca. Cisca strolled right up to me and said, “Hey, you wanna go to Kashmir?”
The next thing I knew we were holed up in Nepal with the Bombay police on our tail, wanted for stealing the Vice-Council’s collection of pornographic Indian statues. I bribed an old taxi driver who I’d done deals with in a former life to get us out of India. We fled to Katmandu and spent two months hanging out with Chinese art dealers until things cooled down. Eventually, we caught a ride out with a spirit-seeking rock star.
Sitting in Katmandu over steaming cups of chai, we shared stories. Cisca’s mother was a Lebanese belly dancer who fell hard for a Cockney Navy boy. When she was five her mother married a Saudi businessman with no time for daughters. Her mother had no time at all and after she died, the Saudi tossed Cisca out on the streets where her Uncle Simon, brother of her disinterested dad, found her hustling tourists with ten year old Arabs. Simon, a professor of archaeology, raised Cisca while traveling around the globe. Old Simon was pretty good at finding ancient treasures and selling them to museums, but he’s not the one who taught Cisca how to steal.
I was a product of one part trailer trash and two parts spoiled California decadence. Like a lot of kids who grew up with nothing, watching other people’s dreams come true, I thought the world owed me. After years of being dragged through the slush towns of Los Angeles while my parents chased the fatted calf, I left the country. I was nineteen. I believed I could go anywhere and do anything. I crashed through Europe with others like myself who wanted to go somewhere and didn’t care how they got there.
After Nepal, we went our separate ways. Cisca continued to pop up in my life. The last time she got me in a mess trying to steal an ocelot from the San Diego Zoo. Mind you, it was a rare white ocelot, but I still got busted, in the cage with my face in the hippo’s ass and my ass facing a crowd of San Diego’s finest.
I got bailed out and some fast-talking lawyers explained how it was all a big misunderstanding. I escaped to Fresno thinking there was no way someone like Cisca would show up in the valley of the bland. I had run out of money, run out of scams, and was slowly running out of the will to pull anything off to get myself out of the hole I was in.
About The Cat. Uncle Simon went on this expedition for Etruscan relics and found a rare collection no one in the archaeology upper crust believed existed. He sold the entire batch to some high-class museums and retired to the Berkeley hills with his books and one piece, which he kept for himself. He kept the sixteen-inch tall, gleaming black onyx 1700-year-old cat, which didn’t look like much to me, but for which a lot of museums would empty large vaults.
Walking back to my faded stucco duplex, Cisca told me her plan. I had to ask what she needed me for. She looked at me sideways, and mentioned the Dobermans. The same reason she’d picked me for the Ocelot scam.
I don’t have pets. I don’t really like animals all that much, but animals listen to me. It’s not a Doolittle thing. We don’t chat about the weather, what’s our sign, or who should win an Oscar. But when I speak to animals–any kind of animal, from a dog to an iguana, whether it’s tame or looking for lunch–they listen and do what I say. I come from a long line of Appalachian kin, so where I got the knack could be some Celtic scholar’s dream thesis. People have noticed my way with animals before, but only Cisca realized it could be used to our advantage. She believed because she saw me in Swat Valley when I’d eyeballed a starved pack of wild dogs into fawning, slobbering puppies. Regardless, I don’t like killer dogs. I’m scared shitless they’ll tear my head off up until the moment my voice makes them lie down. But Cisca believed. She knew I could handle a couple of silly American Dobermans. There was really nothing to worry about, and besides, she’d be right there with me, after all, we’d done harder things than climb an eight-foot brick wall to steal a tiny little black cat. Anyway, where was my sense of adventure? I certainly didn’t want to live out the rest of my days in FRESNO! So, okay, I really did want to go to Bali where the mangoes taste like dripping nectar, sands are warm at midnight, and the air feels is liquid O2.
Once you have a plan, no scam is hard to put together. You just need experience, imagination, and a complete mental block against the possibility of ever getting caught. It takes time, but all these qualities can be acquired, especially after you’ve tried a stint at working for a living.
Speeding across the Bay Bridge in Cisca’s gray sedan toward Simon’s house in Berkeley, we were prepared for the dark night ahead. We were both dressed in loose camouflage pants, black pullovers, and black high-tops, with nylon rope coiled on the back seat. Our pockets were stuffed with pencil flashlights, glass cutters, adhesive tape, Cisca’s Tibetan charms, and a dog whistle which I insisted on just in case.
I hadn’t been to Berkeley since the late sixties. The times have changed and, like the man said, we used up all the fun. Either my eyes were softer then, or life really is harder today. The streets lined with sad-eyed people hanging onto life. Pushing through traffic on Shattuck Avenue, we headed up the high side of Berkeley. Professors here live on book royalties, not teaching salaries, and the motley crowds of University Row are seldom invited. We were about to rob the Mount Olympus of academia. When I first saw the eight foot fence surrounding Uncle Simon’s, I realized “eight foot” doesn’t sound like much when you’re buying rope or doing leg stretches, but when you’re standing in the bushes on the side of a hill looking straight up, the top seems further away than the next mission to Mars. Cisca hurled the hook-tipped rope over the wall and I began an agonizing crawl. My palms burned. I knew what I was doing and the night got darker. Cisca followed. We crouched on the wall waiting for the dogs. I started a low whisper before they could bark. We caught the shadow of them sniffing around the wall. Softly I coaxed, “Here boy. Good dog. Shush, quiet boy.”
Cisca dropped the rope and I slid down to a glimpse of bright fangs. I could taste lunch in my throat. My hands and thighs clenched around the thin nylon. I willed myself to breath out fear and whispered. “Good dog. Nice boys. Lie down, boy. Here, boy. Lie down”. Hitting the ground, I stood facing the dogs before I reached out to pet one of them. He growled, but I gently patted him and he went down. His partner stood, uncertain for a second, then he too folded up. Cisca dropped beside me off the wall. Both dogs twitched, but I continued to pat them and they were still.
We stood on the edge of a large garden. Narrow brick pathways wove through shrubbery and banyan trees hung like dancers over a shimmering Koi pond. In the faint moonlight I could see flecks of silver shift through the water. Pale statues guarded flower branches and kept silent witness to our move across the carpet lawn. The breeze had a gentle smell of jasmine and mint.
I moved along a mosaic path around the pond where a marble lady floated above granite block, her face lit by starlight. Perfect arms stretched out as if she would embrace me in a gentle hug. I stood still and felt a shift in the night. I turned and saw Cisca’s shadow against the wall. In those few seconds while bathed in moonlight beneath the goddess, a word from my childhood came to me. My grandma’s word; fey. From the old English it meant, outlawed; but to the Scots outlaws, it meant “an otherworldly air or attitude.” I could feel that other world in this garden.
Cisca came up behind me and we moved on to the house, a flat, glass-sided treasure box in the center of the garden. Cisca had spent afternoons with her uncle discussing Zen and casing the house. She cut a circle in the sliding door and unhooked the lock. I held my breath as she pulled the door along its steel track. I’d never been in Simon’s house, so I followed Cisca over Persian carpets carefully dodging armchairs. We entered the wood-paneled study through the hallway. Cisca flicked on a pencil light, shifting it around the room until we saw the cat behind glass. The light traced the wall behind a door. A key hung off the corner frame of an icon, Saint George and the dragon. Cisca took the key, smiling. She went to the case and opened it. We had the cat.
The journey back was running quickly through shadows. We passed the sleeping dogs and jump-crawled over the wall. We raced out of darkness down the lighted freeway with the cat tucked between Cisca’s legs. My legs were shaking.
I’m not sure exactly when it began, the doubt. Perhaps it was in the garden with memories of my grandma and whispered ancient warnings of things that matter and things that don’t. Dark weariness had settled in long before Cisca found me at the bus top. I couldn’t help but think about Simon who, after a long life taking care of someone else’s child and looking for other people’s treasures, had settled in to be robbed by his loving niece.
Cisca had tickets to Amsterdam where we’d sell the cat. We planned to leave the next night. Back in Fresno, Cisca fell into a dead sleep on my torn couch with the cat gleaming in her fist. I sat on the edge of my bed. I thought about how long I’d been running and all the names that seem like paradise but end up lonely plane runways and dingy hotel rooms. I thought of Bali, and remembered there were sharks in that blue sea. I thought about Simon’s garden and magic and souls after dying. I wrapped my arms around myself and felt what it was to never have a home. I closed my eyes and saw my grandma’s faded red hair and wrinkled face. I fell asleep curled around myself.
The next morning Cisca was all fast and glowing. She handed me a mug of steaming coffee. “You okay? You look like hell.” The cat lay propped against the edge of the couch and Cisca sat beside it rubbing its head.
“I’m okay. What time’s our flight?”
“Ten o’clock. We’ll hang here until six and then drive back to the coast.”
“When will Simon be home?”
“Tomorrow.” She put her cup down and looked at me. “Why?” Tapping her nails on the edge of the cup she tried to hold my eyes. “He’ll be fine. He’ll go on another dig and find another cat. He’ll be fine, honey.”
If she hadn’t left me staring at the cat to go gas up the car and pick up a few things while I sat thinking about my grandma and Uncle Simon, police in Bombay, and jail in San Diego, if I could have been sure what came after Bali, or that Bali would be magic and not just another island in the middle of the pacific, if Cisca had stayed and talked me out of the garden. If all these things or one had happened I might not have walked out with the cat.
I stuffed it in a paper sack and ran out the door to the bus stop. There was no wind today, only bitter cold. When the bus stopped I pulled myself up the stairs like the old ladies I’d seen drag themselves on the bus day after day weighted down with doing the right thing. Huddled in the last seat on the bus, I was torn apart and put together all at once. Something wild reached out to pull me back to Cisca, but I shivered it off and held on to the cat. I got off the bus at the freeway exit and stuck out my thumb. This was Fresno, so I’d probably never get a ride, so I could go back with the cat, so Cisca would never know, so I’d go to Bali so all would be well. A semi pulled off the side of the road. I ran. A beefy face smiled down at me and joked, “Travelling light, aren’t ya?”
I’d made to the wall with three rides and a walk halfway up the hills. It was afternoon, but Simon had no close neighbors. Edging around looking for a climb, I could hear the dogs following me on the other side, whining. Scrambling through the brush I found a part of the wall that was breaking down. The bricks were old with open cracks. I tucked the cat in my coat pocket, and crawled up. The brick cut my hands. It was inch by inch up eight feet of crumbling stone. I slipped and caught myself, digging my fingers into tiny crevasses. The sun blistered my neck and I couldn’t see the top of the wall. Finally I felt over the lip and pulled myself up with bleeding hands. I threw my legs up and sat until my muscles stopped twitching.
My garden shone in the clear pale sunlight like a dream. I remembered the dogs and whispered to them. I jumped off the wall not caring how I landed. The dogs surrounded me. The garden’s cool grass smelled of bougainvillea and peach.
Stumbling across the terrace I could saw the hole in the glass door. I reached in, but the lock was still open. The carpet of Asian threads wove sunlight across the floor. Uncle Simon sat in a burgundy chair by the door glaring through dust motes. He ran a sturdy brown hand through flat strands of hair and growled, “You brought it back?” I’d almost forgotten the bundle swinging from my torn shirt.
“Yes. You knew?”
“I knew it was Cisca. I’d forgotten about you. That’s why I had the dogs. But the dogs were asleep when I got home and I remembered.”
Blood spotted my shirt. I untied the cat and set it on the table by his chair. He put a protective hand on top of the statue. I could imagine a soft purr wafting through the dusty air. I dropped into the sofa facing him and closed my eyes.
“I didn’t want the cat. I wanted Bali.” The dogs came through the open door and settled at my feet. I patted them. “I’ll have to go somewhere.”
“You could stay here.” The dogs lay over my feet. I was tired. I looked through the door beyond the garden and heard Cisca laughing in the Eastern winds. I heard my grandma’s sigh in the breeze through the doorway and smelled the green scent of another garden lying in the mist below my heartbeat. I smiled and let myself be home.
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