Widley

It was a green summer afternoon the day he returned to the rectory.  The empty old church had been torn down since he was a boy, when it had stood on the hill across from the graveyard.  That hill was a park lawn now, but the graveyard and the rectory remained.  It was almost as if the park and the graveyard were one, park sloping down into headstones with no fence or marking in between.  A private lane ran between the graveyard and the rectory.

James came down through the park with only one suitcase.  He had taken the bus, and his things would be following in a van the next day.  The house was still fully furnished, so he didn’t need very many things.  The old man had left everything to him.

A small object moving across his path caught James’s eye.  He paused.  It was a tiny kitten; dark and light gray striped with white feet and face.  A patch of gray circled one eye.  James watched it teetering along for a moment, then looked around for an owner or mother.

He saw a little girl scampering up the hill.  She clutched an indistinct number of fuzzy bodies to her chest.  Legs and tails hung out as her load threatened to slip free.  She had blonde hair like threads made from tissue paper; the sun shining through it made it look white.

James put his suitcase down and nabbed the kitten, feeling benevolent holding it out to the panting little girl.  “I take it this little rascal’s yours?”

“For now, you want a cat?” the girl asked, as her kittens squirmed and mewed.  James laughed, thinking she was joking.  “There you go,” he thrust the cat out a little further.

“I brought them here to give away,” she said, in all seriousness.  “See?” she jerked an elbow toward a tree down the hill, where an empty cardboard box sat behind the sign Free Kitties.

“Oh.  Sorry, I . . . don’t . . . ” he trailed off as he looked down at the tiny thing.  The girl caught his hesitation, and an expert gleam came into her blue eyes.

“If I can’t get rid of them by the time my dad comes to pick me up, he’s gonna put them in a bag and drown them in the river behind the rectory,” she tossed her head in the general direction, then watched him with her lip trembling slightly.

“Okay,” James drew the kitten back.  It twisted around, latching onto his shirt.

“Thanks, mister!” the girl smiled dazzlingly.  “Only three more to go,” she shifted her armload, then turned around and skipped back toward the tree.  Damn she’s good, James thought, knowing he’d been taken.  A million kittens died in the world every day and he . . . didn’t . . . well.  If he could train it to be a mouser, it would be a bargain, really.  Mice were a problem at the rectory.

“Do you think you can earn your keep?” he inquired as he picked up his suitcase and continued on.  The kitten mewed noncommittally.  “That’s how I did it when I your age, you know,” he told it.  “Me and Widley.  We caught mice for the old man.”

The cat seemed more interested in ruining his shirt.  James fell silent.  He didn’t feel odd talking to the cat; for most of his life animals and shadows were what he talked to . . . besides Widley.  But when he began to think of Widley again there was nothing to say.

They were both orphans: homeless, scrawny, and good for nothing.  They hung around together because there was no one else, and it was not a good world to be alone in.  Widley was boy with entrepreneurial spirit.  He knew of the problem the old man in the rectory had with vermin; it was an old building, older than the church and older than the graveyard, and it was overrun with mice.  Maybe even rats.

Widley could build things.  So one day, with James in tow, he marched up to the front door and knocked.  When the old man came, all fire and condemnation, Widley calmly explained that he could build a better mousetrap.  And not just that, he knew methods.  He knew just what secret baits surpassed cheese and peanut butter.  He would rid the old man of his mice, and James was to be his assistant.

All he wanted in return was a room to sleep in, and dinner scraps spared to eat for him and his assistant.  The old man agreed to the idea.  Anyone else would have run both boys away with a gun or a broomstick, but the old man said yes.

James threaded his way through the headstones.  There were so many of them.  The graveyard was very old.  The kitten dug its claws through the shirt and found flesh, and James tried to pull it away from his chest.  Why did he say yes to that girl?  He didn’t need a mouser; he still knew how to build mousetraps himself.  Widley’s models, but he could build them.

He passed by an interesting headstone.  The name of the man was in the middle, and a line ran in a spiral around it.  Dates and short descriptions of his life’s events dotted the swirl, like bugs caught in a spider’s web.  Born.  Won scholarship.  Graduated.  Married.  Fathered this child and that one.  Promoted at work.  Died.

James wondered who had thought the design up.  It was clever.  Widley would have liked it.  He walked on, and saw Widley’s stone.  It was blank and bare, except for the name: Widley.  No date of birth, nor death.  James sat his suitcase down and knelt before the marker.  His mind went blank.

What did one do at a tombstone?  He looked down at the kitten, and it gazed back at him neutrally.  It occurred to him; “I should give you a name.  Patch?  Rascal?  How did you get so far away from the girl?  Sprinter?”  The cat twisted around and tried to break free.

“Well, you’d better be a good mouser.  That’s all I can say.  I’ll name you Widley.”  He hadn’t meant to say that.  He looked at the stone.  The name did fit.  “C’mon then, Widley old chap.  We’re going home.”

He stood up and carried the cat and suitcase across the lane.  He didn’t stop to study the old man’s headstone.

The rectory stood three stories high.  The front faced the lane, and in back a slope led down to the river.  James stared up at the weathered gray planks, the many windows and ledges that covered the front like pockmarks and wrinkles.  To the right of the long front porch and grand old door was the tower room.  Inside the round walls, he knew, was a circular stairway that led up, up, up to the room with the pointed ceiling above the house.  One window looked over the graveyard, to the church that wasn’t there anymore.

James lowered his eyes, and set the suitcase down by the door.  He fished in his pocket for the key the lawyer had given him, while the cat dug all four sets of claws into his arm and meowed.  “Where’s your spirit?” he muttered when he couldn’t get it to disengage.  “Can’t you smell the loads of mice inside?  They’ve had years to fester in there.  Just waiting for a chap like you to come home.”  The cat would have none of it.

He sighed and unlocked the door.  The smell of must and old age greeted him as he entered the front hall.  It looked the same.  Just exactly the same.


He had filled the cover to a cardboard box with sand, and poured milk in a dish, and shut the kitten in the kitchen for the night.  He lay in bed upstairs, listening to its plaintive mews.  How sound travels in this old house, he thought.  Thin walls.  After an hour the kitten gave up and was silent.  James decided not to feel guilty; he just couldn’t let it up in his bed, after all.  How would it learn to hunt mice at night, that way?  It wouldn’t.

When the kitten was silent James realized that the whole house was silent.  As a boy he had drifted asleep to the scampering and gnawing of mice as they ran through the walls and over floorboards, chewing on chords, building nests.  But there was none of that now.

He had spent almost the whole afternoon watching the river.  He’d known that if he saw the girl and her father heading down through his yard with a bag, he would foolishly bolt out to save each and every one of those last three kittens.  But they hadn’t come.  He told himself he’d figured as much: the girl was playing him like a violin when she made up that story.  She would make a good saleswoman someday.

James thought of Widley again, as he could not sleep.  He would have made a lot of good things someday.  He had the talent, the imagination, the skill, the drive.  He’d gotten the old man to take them in.  They’d gotten more than just dinner scraps to eat; they’d sat at the table with the old man.  They didn’t just sleep in a corner of the house; they got their own rooms, with beds.  The old man bought them clothes.  That one Christmas, toys.  And they did their chores like good little boys, not only the mouse killing, but cleaning and chopping wood and taking the garbage out and other strong, character building work.  Just like other boys did for their parents.  Only they didn’t have to go to school.  Widley had hit the jackpot.


When he went down to the kitchen the next morning, he found two puddles of urine and one pile of feces on the floor.  The bowl was empty, the sandbox untouched.  He wasn’t sure what to do, besides pick the kitten up by the scruff of its neck, shake his finger in its face, and say, “Bad kitty!”  He didn’t like saying “Bad Widley.”  The cat blinked at him, at a loss about his displeasure.  So he got down on the floor and held the cat close by its messes, one by one, saying, “Bad kitty!” as angrily as he could.

Then James cleaned up the mess, poured milk into a bowl and patted the cat on the head before getting himself breakfast.  He thought about Widley as he ate, and he thought about punishment.  The old man believed in teaching lessons.  He believed that strict punishment made one strong and gave one the ability to persevere.  He told them of punishments his father had laid on him, and he punished them like they were his own sons.

The punishments were usual enough: going without dinner, a whipping, a difficult or unpleasant added chore, with no help from anyone else.  Then there was sitting in the corner contemplating a mistake or case of disobedience; only instead of a corner, their introspection took place in the tower room.  Sometimes the old man would make one of them spend the night in the tower.  There was a lock on the door.

James looked down at his pajamas, and thought he’d better change before the van arrived.  He set his empty oatmeal bowl in the sink, rinsing it out and swirling the water around with the spoon.  He climbed the stairs to his room.  It had been his room as a boy.  It was in the front of the house, and out his window he could see down to the front door, across to the tower, and out over the graveyard to the empty park hill.  As he was dressing, he heard a knock on the door, and he went over to the window to look down.

His breath caught in his throat.

Widley stood at the door, a scrawny boy with dark hair and pale, freckled face.  His hand was poised for another knock.  His clothes were tattered and loose, old clothes, the clothes he’d worn before the old man bought him new ones.  Widley looked up as James gasped, and a smile widened his face.  Instead of knocking, he opened his hand in a wave.  Hullo, old chum.

James turned from the window and bolted across the floor, tucking his shirt in.  He galloped down the stairs and arrived at the door panting.  When he flung it open, he saw the van driver.  “Sign,” the man said, thrusting a clipboard and chewed pencil at him.

James signed.


After his things were unloaded and he put them away, James took Widley the cat outside.  He played with it in the backyard, in the woodpile, games of make believe mousing.  Pebbles and twigs were the prey.  James even brought out a blanket and spread it on the ground, bringing it to life with a hand underneath.  The kitten believed in the reality of it all.  When the kitten became sleepy James put it back in the kitchen, curled in the bunched up blanket.

It was late afternoon by then.  He’d taken his time with his things, few though they were, and had done some cleaning around the house while he was at it.  Now he decided to take a walk up and down the river.  He didn’t see anyone else out and about, which was a shame.  It was a beautiful day.  But they were probably all at work.

When he got back to the rectory, Widley was still sleeping.  He made himself dinner, and the kitten woke up to mew for scraps.  He gave it some.  It walked around on the top of the table as he ate, and he only scooted it off halfheartedly a couple times.

He washed his dinner dishes, and the kitten wandered off to the opposite corner of the room.  He dried the dishes and put them away, then turned to see what the cat was up to.  He found Widley purring and flexing its claws in the folds of the blanket, but he also found a mess in the corner.  He repeated the discipline of the morning, taking the kitten by the neck and holding its face close to the mess.  “Bad kitty!” he said.  “Use the box!”  He made Widley stand in the box, but the cat would not remain there-every time he let go it bounced out and darted away.

Finally, grumbling, he cleaned up the mess and poured Widley’s nighttime milk.  He patted it on the head.  “Good night, old chum.  Better not be anything on the floor tomorrow morning.”

He went up to his bedroom and tried to read a book.  The kitten’s cries echoed up the stairs to him, making it hard to concentrate.  How would it learn to be a good mouser cuddled up in bed?  And how would it get to its sandbox?  James hunkered down and read as if tomorrow depended on it.  Then finally Widley was quiet, and he could go to sleep.


James got up the next morning thinking about what he was going to do.  The day before he had noticed some minor repair work that could be done around the rectory.  And there were logs to be split in the woodpile.  And then there was Widley to play with.  No, train.  He thought he might take the kitten down into the cellar, where the mice surely were.  He still hadn’t heard any scuffling or squeaking in the house, and there were no droppings to be seen.  And Widley hadn’t left any dead mice for him to find in the kitchen.  But there had to be some mice somewhere in the old house.  If James was a mouse, that’s where he’d be.

That’s what old Widley had always said . . . you have to think like a mouse to catch a mouse.

He opened up the kitchen door and stopped.  The walls seemed to shrink.  His hands went cold and his mouth dried when he opened it to exclaim in terror and surprise.  Oh Widley . . . .

A mousetrap sat on the floor in front of him, a large mousetrap, one of Widley’s designs.  A motionless gray body hung in its claws, neck snapped, pink tongue lolling out.  Next to the trap was a puddle of urine, and next to that was the words carved into the stone tile floor: bad widley does not use his box.

James faltered, but then knelt down next to the trap, holding a hand out over the small head of the kitten.  When he touched it, it was cold, and the body was stiff.  James stared at it helplessly.  I must have set it.  I must have set it.  I must have. . . .  He was the only one who knew how to build Widley’s old designs.  He didn’t remember setting it.  But he must have.  He wanted to punish the kitten . . . no he didn’t, he didn’t want to, but it had to be done.  How else would it learn?

“Widley,” a moan escaped him.  “Widley . . . .”

He pried open the trap with shaking hands.  The small body was as stiff as stone, rigor mortis all through.  He felt a chill as he held it, a snake of cold all up his arms, into his mind.  He was cold again, in tattered clothes without food in his stomach for days.  Only Widley knew a way they could keep warm and fed; he had an idea.  Follow him and things would work out.  Widley knew.  Widley knew . . . .

James shook his head.  He stared at the mousetrap with smear of blood on its fork.  It was clean but for that; the wood looked brand new.  It had never been used before.  He must have built it.  He didn’t remember.  He must have set it.  He didn’t remember.  He had to punish the cat.  He didn’t know why.

James took the kitten out in the back yard, wrapped up in its blanket.  He looked at the river, but he didn’t go there.  He dug a hole-such a small hole-and covered it up again, now a small mound covering a small body.

He placed a rock at the head, but left it blank.


That day he went about making minor repairs to parts of the rectory.  There were tools for building things in the cellar.  But first he dismantled the mousetrap and threw it, piece by bloody piece, into the river.  He cleaned up the puddle, emptied the clean sand back in the garden, and burned the cardboard box cover.  He swept up the ashes and put it in the old coal bin.

The writing was still there.

In the late afternoon, he walked through the graveyard, winding through the stones, reading the writing.  His eyes and nose were red.  Men didn’t cry, that’s what he’d been told.  But he didn’t feel like a man, he felt like a scrawny, grubby-faced boy who’d just lost his best and only friend.  Again.  There was no one to see him, except for the impassive gray faces of the stones.

He skipped dinner that night, and went straight to bed.  He lay in the silence and the dark for a few minutes, and then he heard the mewing.  Plaintive, alone, tiny.  It wasn’t coming from the kitchen; it came down from the tower.  James covered his head with his pillow, but his thoughts followed him.

Widley had liked building mousetraps.  He told James it was not just a tool, it was a piece of art.  A mechanical sculpture.  Levers and prods, and he built them good.  The old man had not liked his latest design, though.  He hadn’t liked it at all.  James remembered something in his eyes-fear?  Horror?  Disgust?  Nothing needed to die that way, not even filthy vermin.  And why leave the corpse hanging in the wooden spokes like a bug a web?  A trophy?  Why spill the animal’s blood?  A mess.  Why make a mess?  Look how it dribbled down and pooled on the floor.  Cruel, twisted design, what made you think it?  It isn’t natural, it isn’t needed.  This isn’t a mousetrap; it’s an implement of torture.

Widley became sullen, and would not apologize.  James thought they were both overreacting.  He just wanted the old man to stop yelling, and Widley to stop his defiant responses and go clean up the mess his trap had made.

Then the punishment.  The old man did not use the tower punishment in the dead of winter, only on balmy nights.  It was too cold in the winter, not a punishment but a torture.  All he wanted was to give the boys a taste of prison; he saved that for whenever they did something he thought would lead to a life of crime.  Is this what you want?  Do you like a cell?  But that night was a winter night.

There was something in the old man’s eyes.  He had not liked what he saw, when he saw the body of the mouse hanging in Widley’s new trap.


An hour went by, and the mewing didn’t stop.

It was half kitten-like bleat and half human-like whimper.  James couldn’t sleep.  The pillow did nothing.  His thoughts followed him.

He got up, and went downstairs.

There was only one door to the circular staircase, and that was in the kitchen.  He didn’t turn on the light, but as he walked across the slate floor he felt wetness against his bare feet.  The whole floor was under a puddle, a thin shallow puddle.  He still didn’t turn on the light.

All was quiet now.  James opened the tower door.

It fell open smoothly, without a creak.  Cold air snaked down the walls and swirled through the kitchen, a breath of winter.  He looked up, up, up the stairs, in the dark.  He could not see, except with memory.  He reached out for the rail and climbed the stairs.  It did not take as long as he remembered it.

At the top of the stairs was the trap door, with the latch.  A key hung from the ceiling; cobwebs brushed his fingers as he took it.  He pushed the door up, moonlight and cold flooded down.  He hoisted himself up into the room, and shivered.  It was a summer night downstairs.  In the tower room it was the dead of winter.

James looked around the room, his gaze falling on the wooden bench next to the window.  The glass was frosted over, but when James took his sleeve and rubbed a circle, he could see out over the graveyard covered in snow.  Headstones and crosses formed tiny bumps over the smooth white surface.  And on the hill stood the church, steeple pointing upwards to heaven.  The snow glistened under moonlight.  Silent night.

James had been the one who climbed the circular stairs in the morning, first thing in the morning, as soon as the sun rose.  That was when the old man allowed one boy to release the other from the tower.

Widley had sat on the bench by the window, stiff and white, like stone.  Black hair frosted, freckles gone.

James did not know when Widley was buried.  It was not in the winter, the ground was too hard then.  By spring James was gone.  He couldn’t stay . . . he’d seen the old man that morning.  His heart was broken and the life in him was gone, just as it had gone from Widley.  He had always been harder on Widley, because Widley had farther to go.  He had needed to be stronger; he had needed more punishment to make him stronger.

James was nothing to the old man without Widley.  The old man sat in his chair and stared at the wall, and James wondered at times when he had first realized that James was gone.

They were shadows in the world before they came to the old man, and like shadows they departed.  No one marked their passing from the rectory.  The old man must have himself buried Widley in the spring.  And how he had lived all those years after his life was gone, James had no idea.  James had a hard enough time trying to make a life for himself without Widley.  Widley had always been the one with the ideas.

James’s breath smoked from his mouth like a cloud, fading away in the cold air.  His feet were bare and he wore only thin cotton pajamas; summer pajamas.  He felt the ice in his hands, the frost on his hair.  James shut the trap door, sat on the bench, looked out the window, and waited.

the end

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