by Frank Thomas Smith
Tiger Tiger burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
"Hey, there's a cat under the car," Constanza exclaimed, and ran to look closer. She had just turned nine, dark hair, dark eyes, a cute nose in a pretty face.
The car, a 1991 Ford Falcon, the last such model made in Argentina, was standing in a crowded Buenos Aires supermarket parking lot. It had long since been fazed out in the rest of the world, but Argentina had fallen in love with it so it persisted here, manufactured anew, for three decades longer. It had been especially favored by the military dictatorship goons to kidnap and "disappear" people. It was in excellent condition. It was Constanza's father's car; her mother drove a new Ford Ka because she liked its postmodern lines.
"Be careful, Connie," María Elena called after her.
"It's only a cat, dear," Juan Carlos said, "not a tiger,"
"Bright of you to notice, darling, but you'll also have noticed that it's a stray cat," María Elena retorted. "It could have some disease, for God's sake."
"Yes," her husband mumbled, "or a flea."
When they got to the Falcon, Constanza was already kneeling in front of it with her hand extended as far as she could reach under the bumper calling, "Here, kitty, kitty." María Elena and Juan Carlos squatted and looked under. The cat was hunched beneath the car with its head between raised shoulder blades. It ignored Constanza's snapping fingers and stared at the adults.
"Don't get too close, Connie," María Elena warned. "If it's friendly it will come out on its own."
"It's only scared," Juan Carlos said.
"All the more reason to be careful."
The cat stretched sensually and crept out from under the car, past Constanza and directly to Juan Carlos. It purred and rubbed against his leg. "Well, look at that," he said, smiling.
"Isn't she bea-u-tiful!" Constanza cried.
Juan Carlos removed his glasses and took a handkerchief from his hip pocket and cleaned them. He placed them back on his nose and looked down at the cat, still brushing against his leg. "Why yes, but how do you know it's a she?"
"It's Mafalda come back to life, that's how." She crawled over to her father's leg and petted the cat.
"You're getting your jeans filthy, Connie," María Elena remonstrated. "And Mafalda was a dog."
Constanza didn't know what to say to that, so her father came to the rescue. "Maybe Mafalda got tired of being a dog," he said.
"Wow, I bet you're right, Papá."
"Oh, for God's sake," María Elena sighed. "Now I've heard everything. Well, let's go." Her tone was clear: No stray cats, their recently deceased dog's reincarnation or not.
"Can we take her home, Pa?" Constanza pleaded.
"Absolutely not," María Elena said. "We already agreed not to get another pet, didn't we?"
"Let's go Juan Carlos -- please."
Juan Carlos picked up the cat and carried it cradled in his left arm while petting it with his right hand to the other end of the parking lot, where he set it down on a patch of grass under an anaemic looking tree. "Better luck next time, Mafa," he said as he gave it one last scratch under the chin. The cat looked up at him and he saw something unsettlingly familiar in its eyes. He walked quickly back to his waiting family, zigzagging between cars so the cat would lose his trail if it tried to follow. His wife and daughter were already seated inside, Constanza pouting in the back and María Elena in the front with her chin jutting forward at the same angle as her breasts.
Juan Carlos opened the driver's side door, turned on the air conditioning to Full and reached out his left hand to close the door. An orange streak flashed across the bottom of his sight and when he looked down the cat was reposing in his lap with its head against his stomach, and he remembered -
an island in Greece, Skopolos, years ago. They lay naked on a bed in a whitewashed room with a soft sea breeze brushing the woman's orange hair splayed across his chest. Her breathing was soft and slow in sleep. Marité, the woman he had loved then and, somehow, had never stopped loving.
María Elena was Marité's sister, but their genes were very different. Marité had been dead for twelve years, killed in a train crash in India while on one of her frequent world-wandering junkets. Juan Carlos hadn't accompanied her on that one because he had broken his leg in a skiing fall in Patagonia and neither of them could see him dragging a hip to ankle casted leg around sweltering India.
"It is Mafalda, Mamá, I know it is - isn't it, Papá?"
"I don't think so, Connie."
"But Pa -- why?"
"Well, the color of the hair is different. Mafalda was black, and this cat is orange"
"And she was a dog, for God's sake," María Elena said, asserting the obvious once again.
"Yes," Juan Carlos agreed, stroking the animal's head. "But we'll take her home anyway."
"Oh, Pa!" Constanza leaned forward from the back seat and kissed him loudly on the cheek from behind.
"And we can call her Ma..." He choked on the sound of his own voice, then cleared his throat. "We can call her Mafalda, if you like."
María Elena, intuitive as wives are, twisted abruptly towards him under the constraint of her seat belt. Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth but no words came. They looked at each other for a few moments until Juan Carlos, knowing that she knew what he was thinking, turned on the ignition and headed the Falcon towards home, driving all the way with the orange cat purring contentedly on his lap.