The Glass Braid
I walked into the modestly equipped bedroom, into the familiar smell of lemon oil and sun-warmed cedar. An old man in a dark satin dressing gown lay propped in the four-poster eighteenth century bed that sat in the corner. On either side of him, double rows of long windows looked out two stories above clipped, level lawns and treetops thick with apple blossoms, giving the already large room an airy openness. Coming from the west, rays of the late midday’s sun slanted shallowly onto the hardwood floor and dust motes floated in their shafts.
“Good afternoon, Governor Hartford,” I said, announcing my arrival. He waved me in and I took my usual chair beside his bed.
“For God’s sake, Charles, call me Brian,” the Governor said.
But I never could. I had too much respect for the Former Governor of Louisiana to ever address him as an equal.
He looked thin and weary, but no closer to death than my previous visit, thank God. His coarse gray hair was damp and combed freshly to the side, he’d kept a full head, and the skin of his hollow cheeks glowed with signs of a recent session in the sauna. I smiled at him with brotherly love.
“You’ve brought the papers?” he asked. His voice was as strong as ever and even in his debilitated condition, it was hard to imagine him anything other than a vibrant leader.
I nodded and reached for my case. Bringing forth a sheaf of documents, I laid them in his hands for inspection. “You sure you want it this way?” I asked, trying to suppress my own feelings of reserve.
“Charles, I have no family, no children. I’m a widower. This is what I must do, and still it doesn’t seem enough.” Spectacles appeared. He placed them on his nose and began to scan the text.
I shook my head in wonder. “Your entire estate, parceled out to fifty-two different charities. A fresh-off-the-showroom-floor Chevy Extracab four-by-four in my driveway last Christmas, a gift from you. Governor Hartford, you’re the kindest, most generous person I’ve met in my entire career.”
He looked at me over the wire of his glasses. “You’re a lawyer, Charles. Most of your contacts are criminals, so that’s not saying much.” He chuckled with me for a moment and then quite suddenly his eyes turned distant, his laughter fell silent. His gaze drifted away from my face and he murmured, “There was a time when I easily could have been in their company.”
I was surprised at thse words. “What do you mean?”
Governor Hartford stared at me for a moment or two then seemed to come to a personal decision. “Charles,” he said slowly, “I never speak of my past, of the days before…before the Talisman…but…a proper time comes for everything, my boy.” I smiled at the thought of someone calling me, a fifty-eight year old man, ‘boy’. “You see my friend, there was a period in my life when I was a terrible human being, as cold-hearted and uncaring as a thief with an orphan’s last penny.”
My eyes widened at such a ridiculous statement coming from Governor Brian Hartford. “I don’t believe you for a second,” I said, though I’d never known him to lie about anything. Clutched loosely in his hand, the papers of his Last Will and Testament dropped slowly to his lap. His gaze traveled out the window. And this is the story he told:
“I wasted my youth; surrounded myself with hatred,” he said softly and with unmistakable sadness. “Young women were to me toys, minds with which to game cruelly and tender feelings so easily crushed. Animals…well, let’s just say I had no love for any creatures of this earth, even my own kind. I was selfish and spoiled. My own feelings and desires were all that mattered in my life. Moreover, yet even less charming, I took a certain pleasure in watching ill befall someone as a result of my actions…it gave me a feeling of power, yes I suppose that’s what it was. Though I had never really committed a true crime, it was only a matter of time, of that I’m fairly certain.
“It was shortly after my twenty-second birthday when everything changed. Everything. That’s the summer I first laid eyes on the Talisman and a dying little man named Theodore Worsley. The year was nineteen forty-four, Massachusetts. The town is not important.
“Despite the depression, my father was well off, backed by generations of family money, English money, on his mother’s side. Nevertheless, he held a steady job as Chief Administrator for The Cottage of Whispering Hope, a sprawling four-story retirement home that defied its name with vulgarity by being unattractively huge and its gamut of healthcare workers highly impersonal; it’s long been demolished.
“The war was raging and I was kept out of service for the ridiculous fact that I had once had tuberculosis as a child and was hospitalized for a month. As my boyhood friends battled for freedom and joined their blood with the foam of foreign seas, I attended the local university, but only because my father paid my rent while I did. My grades were poor though, and I was lazy in spite of the fact that I was to inherit nothing of the family fortune until I proved I could pull my own weight. I didn’t care about the threats and I refused to work more than the minimum expected at a market delivering groceries for thirty-five cents an hour. As a result of my indolence, I was forever low on money.
“Occasionally, and purely out of guilt for having raised such a good-for-nothing child, my father gave me random assignments, odd jobs for the Home, which would pay me a few extra dollars. Enough to keep me out jail, I suppose. Naturally, it wasn’t father’s fault, me being the way I was. I was simply a bad seed. It happens. But as broke as I was, I still owned my own car: a two-year-old ’42 Packard Clipper father presented to me brand new upon my high school graduation. He ordered and paid for it in ’41, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor but before the automobile factories fell under government order to produce only wartime armaments such as aircraft wings, fuselages, anti-aircraft guns, etcetera. It was a rare thing indeed for a young man such as myself to possess a car, let alone a nearly new model from ’42.
“So it was an assignment for the Home that took me to the room of Mister Theodore Worsley, one cloudy day in October. The job seemed easy enough and paid the grand wage of twenty dollars cash from my father’s deep pocket, a fortune to a student in the forties. All I was to do is take my car to the Home and relocate a pet cat from a newcomer’s room. The Home allowed no pets of any kind, housebroken or not. According to father, none of the nursing staff had the heart to separate a sick old man from his cat. Dad considered me of the perfect temperament for such a task, which of course I was.
“I left the wooden animal carrier in the hall just outside room 14A. Knocking lightly on the jamb of the open door, I entered without waiting to be invited. The living chamber was small and sparsely furnished. With curtains thrown back, the one window allowed sufficient light from the gray world outside, yet not enough to allow me to read the titles of the books that lined a short shelf on one wall. The lamp on the wall by the books was unlit. In the center of the room, a withered old man lay on a narrow bed inside crisp linen. His head was nearly bald with only thin white wisps to suggest that there once had been healthy hair. His purpling lips were thin and moist, most unattractive; under his bushy white brows, his drooping lids were red rimmed, which seemed a permanent condition, but the eyes that looked at me glimmered with the wit of a twenty-year old. One bare, misshapen foot poked out from the coverlet and I at once noticed it riddled with planter warts. I felt no pity for the man’s obvious state of helplessness, only revulsion. By his hip lay a lovely large gray cat, sleeping under his bony fingers.
“‘Good day, Mister Worsley,’ I said, forcing a pleasant smile. ‘Who are you?’ he croaked. His voice was that of a man not long for this world. ‘I am Brian Hartford, Mister Worsley.’…‘What do you want?’ he demanded with geriatric rudeness. I cleared my throat, resigned to my task, yet uncharacteristically unwilling to come right to the point. I tried small talk and lies, thinking with an inner smirk that I would have to dive and snatch the sleeping cat away if I were to succeed. ‘I’m here as a result of Teddy’s New Deal, struck back in 32’. I’m from the WPA,’ came the lie, ‘…being paid a modest wage to share time with the elderly who get little or no visitors. That’s a nice big cat, Mister Worsley. What’s his name?’…‘Her name’s Trina,’ he croaked. At her name, the cat’s head lifted. Stretching in a very cat-like way, she sat up. Immediately I noticed a worn piece of red leather, most likely from a shoelace, tied around her fuzzy neck. Hanging from it was a long, dark, shiny object set inside a silver cap-and-loop. It was about the length of my little finger and looked heavy, the way it pulled on the cord. Squinting, I asked in a friendly tone, ‘What’s that on it’s neck?’…‘She wears The Glass Braid, not that it’s your business.’ The Glass Braid? Curious, I thought. ‘There’s no need to be rude,’ I said in the voice of a simpleton, and fell into a one-sided chat with the man. After five minutes or so, apparently eager for the chance to visit with even a stranger, Mister Worsley warmed up to me and, after I asked again, he told me the story of The Glass Braid.
“Coming home from the first world war, he brought with him a gift, a Chinese porcelain doll, for his darling four year-old daughter, whom he’d met only once. His wife, her mother, had died at childbirth. The doll was rare, he’d said, like his daughter, with beautiful silk clothing, sapphires for eyes, tiny unfinished pearls at her ears, and one long black glass braid that fell down her back. The braid’s tail was ringed with tiny perfect diamonds, representing a clasp. The doll had cost the man a year’s pay as a sailor. Two years after his homecoming, his daughter died from leukemia and upon the moment of her death, the doll fell from her tiny fingers and shattered on the stone of their floor. It was beyond repair. Only the Glass Braid remained. Later, her father cut a heavy string from her favorite little boots, had the Braid set in silver, and tied it ‘round the neck of the family cat, who lived on the center of the child’s empty bed.
“Of course, the story did not move me. All I cared for was the twenty dollars I was making and it looked as if it would not be so easy to gain after all. ‘You mean to tell me this is your daughter’s cat,’ I said to him, narrowing my eyes. ‘Of course it’s not the same cat, are you daft?’ the old man said in his rasping voice. ‘The cats come and go, but the Talisman stays with me, always with me…on my cat. Trina.’ After a few more moments wasted chatting, I finally heaved a sigh and stated my true purpose. I didn’t bat an eye or feel the slimmest glimmer of regret. ‘Mister Worsley, that’s a real sad story. Gets me right here,’ I thumped my chest, ‘…but I’m afraid I’ve not been honest with you. I’m sorry to have to inform you, but pets are not allowed at Whispering Hope. I must take it-Trina-with me now. It’s the only reason I’m here.’ The old man stared at me with those sparkling eyes and a dark look passed over his face. Then he asked in a civilized and almost pleasant tone, ‘Hand me my cane, will you boy? I want to get up.’ He pointed to a wooden chair in the corner where a cane hung across the back. He’ll not give fight after all, I thought with disappointment. I was in the mood for a winning argument.
“I stepped close and handed the old man his cane. In a slow, deliberate movement, the man swung his arm as if to position the cane to rise, but instead it flew around in an arch so rapid and with such force it caught me completely off guard. Whack! The polished oak hit me square in the elbow, nearly knocking me off my feet. ‘Get out!’ the old man cried in a dry-throated voice that cracked with emotion. ‘Get out or I’ll kill you!’ His face had gone red and he looked furious enough to do just that, though I never would have thought he had it in him. Clutching my elbow, I cursed at him and yelled, ‘You could have broken a bone!’ He literally snarled words at me. ‘Feel lucky if that’s all you leave here with, a broken bone, because you’re not leaving with Trina!’
“The cat suddenly jumped from the bed and ran for the doorway. Clenching my teeth in pain, I launched after her and pinned her to the floor. ‘Gotchya!’…‘No!!’ Mr. Worsley screamed as he tried to sit up and champion her plight. I wrestled the cat into the carrier before it had a chance to bite.
“Standing before the dying old man, my hair disheveled, the carrier in my hand and the cat inside mewling piteously, I felt no pity as I said loudly and with breathless calm, ‘I must take her with me, Mister Worsley. Do you have family that will look after her? I could drop her there for you.’ The man’s eyes were slits and brimmed with tears. ‘You hateful child! Your chest fosters a heart of stone! There’s no one left but me. Trina has no one but me. Leave her be!’ I straightened my tie and said, ‘I will take her to the shelter then. Not to worry, old man. They’ll roust her a good foster home. Good-bye, Mister Worsley. Have a lovely afternoon.’
“I walked down the hall followed by the eyes of invalid strangers in wheeled chairs as well as the mournful threats of Mister Worsley. ‘You’ll be sorry, Mister Hartford!’ he cried from his room, and the words echoed harmlessly off the sterile walls. I smiled at the uselessness of his threats. ‘You’ll bring her back,’ came his dim voice. It might have been coming from the moon for all I cared. ‘You’ll see! You’ll come crawling back with my cat!! You’ll see me again, Mister Hartford!’ Whispering Hope my left foot, I thought of the communal residence as I looked down my nose at the dying people around me and their disapproving stares. More like, Screaming Despair.
“I drove straight to the shelter. The fat gray cat huddled timidly in its pine box on top of the counter as the receptionist filled out papers. I stared at it through the thin bars of the circular opening. It shifted its weight and a glint caught my eye. The Talisman. Suddenly I wanted those diamonds. I wanted the Glass Braid. I eased open the cage door and reached inside, intending to pull the cord over the cat’s ears. Surprisingly, the once shy creature leaped into my face like the devil.
“Bawling low and guttural, it attacked my head with the fury of the wild. Cowering on the floor, I fought it with both hands, yet it took two staff members to extract the wretched beast from my person. Bleeding from two deep gashes just above my hairline, I mouthed an awful string of profanity as they took the screaming, spitting animal away still wearing the Glass Braid.
Holding to my head a pad of gauze supplied by the shelter workers, I drove in the direction of the hospital, certain I would need stitches. I had not traveled more than two miles before I caught a dark shadow moving in my rearview mirror. Glancing up I saw a cat! The cat was in the car! As I gaped, it jumped onto the back of the bench seat, right behind my ear, and growled menacingly. Scared out of my mind, I slammed on the brakes and locked up the wheels. The cat flew against the front windshield and the heavy Packard skidded into a one-eighty across the newly laid pavement and came to a stop facing the way I had come, tires smoking. With a yowl, the cat scrambled onto the passenger side floorboard where it crouched, ears flat, growling at me. Fresh from one feline attack, I was terrified, though this one was much smaller than Mister Worsley’s cat, and not gray at all but striped with orange and white.
“Then I caught sight of something that made my blood run cold. The Talisman! The Glass Braid hung from the red shoelace around the stray’s neck! Impossible! It hadn’t been more than ten minutes since the first cat had disappeared from my sight. How was it possible that this cat, this different cat, could be wearing it now! Someone was playing tricks on me. My temper flared.
“I stomped on the gas and went ripping back into lot of the shelter. I stormed through the door demanding to know who would play such a cruel trick on someone who had just been attacked by an animal. No one knew what the hell I was talking about. I sent people out to my car to eradicate the beast, but when they returned I was informed that the animal had already gone.
“Of course I knew that someone there had done it. There was no possible way the animal could have gained access to my car through closed windows and doors without the assistance of a human hand. The cat was placed inside, I was sure of it. But my elbow was swelling and my head was stinging so when no one was willing to confess to the prank, I left without making more of a scene.
“Twelve stitches and one tetanus shot later, I finally arrived home. Exhausted, I fixed a light supper and went straight to bed. Soon after dark, however, I was awakened by the unearthly sounds of cats fighting. They were near enough to penetrate the veil of my sleep, yet far enough away to sound from another world. The caterwauling lasted for what seemed an hour, whereafter it reached a crescendo of savage torture and then dwindled away as the cats, I supposed, tired themselves out or killed themselves off. I drifted to sleep only to be awakened a short while later by the same ungodly fights. Five times during the night I was awakened in the same startling manner. The fight would eventually die away and no sooner would I nod off to sleep than it would start up again. Flinching, I would awake and mourn my tired existence. Time and again I arose to peer out the ground level windows and look for a light in some neighboring apartment, hoping someone would set out to find the offenders and put and end to the disturbance. But not a light glimmered anywhere. It was as if the neighborhood was deserted and only I remained as aural witness to the evil din issuing from unseen feline throats. What, were the neighbors all deaf? They must sleep like the dead. By the time the morning light broke over the cluster of suburban rooftops, I was certain I was about to go mad.
“It was three days until the next encounter and if it weren’t for the stitches in my head and the extra money in my pocket I would have thought the past events all a dream. As I left my basement apartment for morning class, I stepped on something that gave softly under my weight. Looking down I gasped as I saw it was a dead robin. Rising one step, I gazed out of the stairwell and up into the crooked branches of the black walnut tree that blocked the sky from view. The focus of my sight darted between the colors of the autumn leaves. Had it simply fallen to its death? There was no way to know. I kicked at the bird. It was stiff, and small insects were swarming around its empty eye socket where the soft tissue was already eaten away. I shuddered. It was too late in the season for insects, the air was too cold. I went inside, returned with an old rag, scooped it up and filed it in the refuse bin on the other side of the house-turned-apartments. That afternoon as I arrived home, I discovered another bird. Appalled, I looked again into the branches of the tree wondering what was amiss with the local wild life. My sight soon caught the delicate fluttering of a bird, low in the tree, zigzagging from branch to branch and coming in my direction. Though I was no ornithologist, I stood and watched, trying to determine if it acted sick. Then, from out of nowhere, a cat sprang from a hidden branch and attacked the bird in mid-air as it sought escape in flight. The two crashed onto the leaf-littered lawn, the cat shrieking with an awful cry of war. I yelled and jumped down the steps into the bottom of the well by my door, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the wicked hunter. It wrestled with the bird in the leaves, all teeth and claws, until at some point I realized the bird was no longer putting up a fight. The cat straddled the corpse, gnawing passionately on its neck until the head became separate from the body. Only then did it look up. And it stared me right in the eye. I caught my breath as a mewl of dismay escaped my lips. It wore the Talisman! This was not Mister Worsley’s cat, nor was it the cat from the car. This was a tabby, gray and black stripes, with a perfect ‘M’ on its head between its ears. Suddenly it picked up the bird and ran straight for me. Backing against my door, I yelled in terror as it bounded in one great leap past all four stairs, dropping the bird atop the drain as it alighted near my feet. Crouching it looked into my eyes, laid back its ears and growled - a low feline growl. The Glass Braid swung at its throat; it was Worsley’s Talisman, of that there was no doubt.
“Whirling, I bolted through the door and slammed it behind me. My heart hammered in my chest and there was a ringing in my ears. I don’t know how long I stood there before I moved to the sofa to sit with my head in my hands. Not possible, I kept saying to myself, it’s not physically possible. My God, I’m hallucinating, I thought with sudden fear. Have I been poisoned? By who? For a fact, I knew I had earned plenty of enemies, but had I really angered someone enough for them to want me sick or dead? I didn’t think so, but what kind of judgment was mine? Later I roamed around my one bedroom apartment in a cold sweat. I was afraid to go back outside. I wouldn’t even look out the window in the door to where the dead bird most certainly remained. Fitfully I slept and in the morning I found enough courage to dress for class, determined I would walk out the door… resolute in uncovering an explanation.
“But my plans changed instantly as I looked experimentally through the window to my stairwell. A small mound of perhaps two-dozen dead robins, swarming with unseasonal insects, lay blocking the way. A cry of dread formed in my throat. ‘What the hell is going on?’ I shouted aloud, ‘Who’s responsible for this?’ I realized I was trembling with fright. Why was this happening to me? A nagging thought began to surface. Was it because of what I’d done? Were the hallucinations caused by guilt…guilt for having taken Mister Worsley’s cat? I turned to the wall and pressed my forehead into the cold, paint-covered cinderblock. I didn’t know I could feel guilty for anything I’d done, but that’s what it was. I was feeling guilty and, yes, almost ashamed. I went to bed for the rest of the day.
“As I lay awake in bed and the day came to a close, I began to grow feverish. The room was stifling and there was not a breath of fresh air to be had. I felt sick, too sick to eat. Rising from beneath the sanctuary of my quilt, I made my way to the narrow basement window and cracked it open. Squeaking a protest, it swung inward on a single center hinge and the biting fall air felt like a lover’s caress on my feverish skin. I sought my bed and was soon asleep.
“Then I began to dream. I dreamed of cats. In my car I drove through strange towns and labyrinthed subdivisions lined with saltbox houses and every time I looked away from the road there would be a cat, a different cat each time, wearing Mister Worsley’s Glass Braid. For what seemed hours I drove thought the streets of my dreams, lost and running from cats on fenceposts, cats in windows, cats in trees, cats in passing cars. Suddenly there was a cat on the back of the seat again. I sat immobilized, driving my car, and the cat crept closer to my ear, growling, as if trying to urge me to look its way. But I wouldn’t look. I couldn’t. I thought that if I looked at the cat, it would gash open my head, and I was never so afraid in my life. The cat growled again, louder and closer than ever, and this time I awoke.
“I lay motionless on my back in my bed and on my chest crouched a huge white alley cat exploding with long, befouled hair. Its eyes glowed wide and fathomless in the dark, ringed by a devilish yellow. It growled low and fearless and the reverberation trickled into my ribs. Its panting breath was hot on my face and something cold and hard was tapping rhythmically on my unshaven chin. The Glass Braid!! I knew it was the Braid. My body flashed into a chill, my eyes were locked into the animal’s, and I was too terrified to move. Then suddenly the beast laid back its ears and growled in my face. Its breath was stinking. I jerked and its teeth clamped sharply onto my nose. I roared with pain and horror. I seized the cat and snatched it away from my chest and its tooth ripped a ragged gash through my nostril. In two leaps I was at the bedroom window and I stuffed the wild beast through. Screeching in anger, it ran like a glowing white wraith into the dark of the night.
“In a frenzy of fear I slammed the window closed, smashing and breaking my left thumb. I bellowed in agony and locked it shut, but as I did, a blurred white form materialized from the darkness outside and crashed head first into the pane. The cat! I yelped and collapsed to my knees. The cat reared back and rammed the window again, knocking itself senseless. I heard the Glass Braid clatter once against the glass. Panicked, I crawled out of the bedroom on my knees and then I stood and ran through the house. Clutching my bleeding nose, I latched every window, pulled closed the curtains, and locked the only door. Then I went wild, ransacking my kitchen as I searched for weapons, ranting to myself, alternating between screams of insanity and mumblings of unintelligible sentences.
“I spent the night in the shower booth, surrounded by all my kitchen cutlery. It was well into the next day before hunger and the pain in my nose and broken thumb drove me out of my hiding place. I was a mess, a lunatic prisoner in my own home. For days I refused to step foot out of my house. When my father chanced to call, I told him I was ill with the flu and wished not to be disturbed. I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
“After ten days my already meager supplies began to run out. I was down to tap water, two sleeves of soda crackers and a glass bottle half full of ketchup. I had had no toilet paper for four days and the news pages that posed a poor substitute were nearly gone as well. The stitches in my head needed removing, my distorted thumb was setting itself and the ragged split in my nostril was awful, puffed and red, with red streaks running up my nose. Infection was setting in; I couldn’t even touch it.
“Finally I called my father to come and fetch me. He was sickened by the untidy stack of decaying birds at the bottom of my stairs and began to ask if I’d fallen into witchcraft. One look at me however, un-showered and unshaved, and he was convinced I was the victim of a gang of hoodlums trying to frighten me. He established for me the proper care, but try as he might he could not persuade the full story out of me. I refused to speak of it. For a full week I lay in his house, recovering from my wounds both inside and out, and by the time I left the highlands, I thought the incidents were past for not a cat did I see while I was there.
“It was when I braved my first trip to the market where I hoped I still worked that I knew I was wrong. I was thundering down the bumpy, dusty road toward the smooth pavement that would take me downtown, not quite humming to myself but feeling a twitch of a smile, the first in nearly three weeks, when suddenly a tiny dark figure approached the road on my left. With precision timing, a black cat leapt to the hood of my car as I sped passed. It’s claws screeched across the paint as it sought to gain a hold. I stood on the brakes. The cat tumbled off the hood and I stomped on the gas. An imperceptible bump was all I felt under the tires.
“I don’t know what caused me to hit the brakes again, but I did. I was still traveling pretty fast and the Clipper ground to a skidding halt amidst a choking cloud of fine dry dust. Sitting still for over a minute, I waited, trembling uncontrollably, listening for a feline growl, looking, eyes rolling, for shadowy movement in the rear window. The cool rumble of the idling engine was my only rewarded. Finally, I screwed myself slowly around in my seat and looked down the vacant lane.
“There, a few feet behind the car lay the black cat in the road. It appeared dead to me, but of course there was only one way to be certain. My conscious mind screamed at me to gun the engine and flee, but something stronger willed me to investigate. I set the brake and with feet cast from lead I stepped from my idling car. As I came around the back, my fingers refused to leave the paint, thinking that if I let loose of this small sanctuary that was my car, the danger would suddenly spring from the dirt, back from the dead, to rip out my throat.
“The cat didn’t move, nor did I, and it was long lonely minutes before my hand lifted from the rear fender. Cattle fields flanked the dirt lane but no animals were in sight. Not a cow, a squirrel, or even the song of birds. There wasn’t a carriage or an automobile around, save mine. Like all the encounters before, I appeared to be alone in the world, just the cat and me.
“I approached with caution, holding my breath, and when I was as close as a foot-length I dropped to a crouch and watched the animal’s side. There was no movement; it wasn’t breathing. I studied it then, looking for a pool of blood in mud in the dirt, but there was no blood. Only death. Then I saw the hint of the cord around its neck, peeking through the dusty black fur. It was the red leather shoelace. My heart nearly stopped. It couldn’t be! Then my inner voice advised, ‘Oh yes…it could.’ It took all the courage I could muster, more courage that I’d ever dreamed of needing in all my life, to reach for the cord. Searching gently at first then more insistently, my fingers met with a long, cold object. It was the Glass Braid! My God, what was happening?! Would this nightmare ever end?! Why was the Talisman following me? I felt like crying, but instead a new image dawned fresh in my mind and I suddenly knew what needed to be done.
“Facing my fear, I gently lifted the limp body of the cat and took it to the car. Almost reverently, I placed it on the front seat, very near to me, and pointed the Packard back toward the neighborhood where I lived. Once home I freed the Talisman from the cat’s neck, placed it in my pants pocket and began to dig a hole beneath the walnut tree. The body lay next to my knee as I loosened the moist earth with my bare hands. The convenience of a tool was too good for me, I thought as I plied the earth. Me, a man who so thoughtlessly took from a helpless old chap the only possession he loved in the world, and the only being who loved him, deserved nothing. I clawed at stringy roots with broken nails and tore loose fist-sized rocks to burrow inch by inch into the soil. When the hole was nearly two feet deep, I stopped and looked at the beast I had killed and I felt true pity.
“For the first time in my life, I tried to say a prayer. I spoke the words aloud and I felt awkward with the uncertainty of it. A tear tracked down my nose, followed by another then another, first for the broken body of the cat, then for the injured feelings of Theodore Worsley, and finally for myself. Never had I felt such self-pity; I was always the one who deserved to be first, who deserved to have his own way, who deserved no real responsibilities, who thought the world should fall on its knees before me. Now all that had changed. It was as if someone held a mirror to my face and for the first time I was able to see the ugly reflection staring back at me. I wanted to die. But there was something I needed to do.
“After burying the little cat I went inside, cleaned up, and then drove to the animal shelter where I was first attacked. I wished to adopt a cat. I toured the rows of tight cages, looking for the large gray cat named Trina, but alas, she was already gone. I preferred not to discover her fate. Instead, instinct drove me to choose a new cat. I selected a small female calico with a bobbed tail and as I held the soft pet in my arms I knew, I knew, that this would be acceptable.
“Within the hour I found myself tiptoeing quietly through the evening corridor in the east wing of The Cottage of Whispering Hope. Tucked inside my winter trench, the tiny yet full-grown cat cuddled agreeably against my arm. Meekly, I entered Mister Worsley’s room. The old man lay sleeping, but when I set the little cat wearing the Talisman on his bed, his eyes opened. He looked directly at me first, then at the cat. ‘Trina,’ he said, and held his unsteady hand out to the pet. Oddly, the animal took an immediate fancy to him, as if reunited with a lost friend. ‘It’s not Trina, Mister Worsley, but she’s the best I could find,’ I said in a voice filled with emotion. Mister Worsley looked me up and down. I was a fright with my swollen nose done up in black stitches, a couple of red angry scars healing within my scalp and a bulbous splint on my left thumb. ‘I knew you’d be back, but I expected you sooner.’ His voice seemed weaker than before. I tried to swallow the lump that had formed in my throat, but it stayed and grew. How could I have done such a terrible thing to this decent human being? He had probably never harmed a soul in is life. I was not fit be in the same room with him let alone allow myself to look down upon him. I took the chair from the corner, sat next to his shoulder and slouched level with his gaze. ‘How can I ask this?’ I said to the dying man. My voice was pleading, but I couldn’t help it. ‘How can I expect from you even a portion of your forgiveness, Mister Worsley? Tell me what I must do to make things up to you. I cannot live another day until I have earned your forgiveness.’ The old man reached for my hand. His was cool and dry, like a spring leaf. ‘You have done the proper thing, my boy, that you have. Rest easy now, and go. Leave me be with Trina. Go out and enjoy the new man she has helped you to become.’ Fighting back the tears that threatened to blind me, I did as he asked and stood to go. But before I went out the door, I turned and took one last look at old Mister Theodore Worsley. What was his magic? How did this all come to pass? Was it him? Was it the strong love he felt for his lost daughter, or the daughter herself? Was it her spirit that plagued me after the great pain I caused her father, or his strong will? I realized I would never really know. Mister Worsley stroked his new cat and the red shoelace with the Glass Braid wiggled each time his hand passed down the back of her neck. He smiled at me. ‘Never forget the lesson, young Brian Hartford,’ he rasped. He looked at his cat. ‘Don’t waste the gift of human compassion.’
“That was the last time I ever saw Mister Worsley. Yet, his image is burned forever into my mind. I’ve never forgotten.”
I sat in my chair for long moments, absorbing Governor Hartford’s incredible tale. Dusk had settled outside and the housekeepers, one after another, had been waved away as the story was being told. No electric lights were on; we were all alone in the light of a golden-pink sunset. Presently he reached for my hand and said, “Charles. Fetch for me the box from the top of the Pennsylvania highboy.”
I rose stiffly and crossed the room. Switching on the lamp, I found an intricately carved jade box sitting in the center of a fine lace doily, square on top of the highboy. It was the only decoration on the vintage piece of furniture.
“The very one. Bring it to me.”
I returned and placed the box in his hand.
“Sit, please,” he said. Gently he lifted the lid and pulled from within a faded red thong from which dangled a long piece of black glass.
I sucked in my breath. “Is that…?”
“Yes, Charles. The Glass Braid. Three months after I returned this to Mister Worsley, it arrived in the mail, addressed to me in shaky script from his own hand. I didn’t deserve such personal recognition. With it was a brief note in the same trembling scrawl; it’s still in the box. Mister Worsley knew that there was no better keeper for this possession than myself and now…now that I’ve shared the story with you, Charles, I want you to have it.”
I swallowed, a little panicky. “Me, Governor Hartford? I couldn’t possibly accept such a gift.” The diamonds glittered in the surrealistic half-light of moonrise and sunset.
“I insist.” He pressed it into my hand. “I have a bum ticker, Charles, I could go any day. Without a proper caretaker, it would become lost along with its magic and the memory of Theodore Worsley and his young daughter would be gone forever. Don’t be afraid. Since I’ve had it, I’ve enjoyed more than my fair share of good fortune. But I have always remembered the price that goes with it, and so must you. It is a simple thing, easy actually, and most rewarding.”
I thought I knew what he was about to say, but I listened like a child at bedtime.
“Not that you don’t already, but as Keeper of the Talisman you must live your life as a good man, Charles, a decent man who fills his days with the search for compassion and a longing to help others. It is the blessing of the Talisman, and the rewards are infinite. But the punishment would surely be harsh if the Keeper could not live by its code. Don’t ask me how I know this.”
I studied the Glass Braid. It was beautiful thing. The glass was not completely black, but a deep translucent purple when held against the light. Suddenly my heart felt warm and knew I needed to keep the object.
“Thank you, Brian.” I addressed him for the first time by his Christian name. I replaced the Talisman in the box and put the box inside my breast pocket. Looking up into the eyes of my beloved friend, I said, “Of course you know what this means, don’t you?”
“I can probably no longer be a lawyer.” We shared a good laugh, filed our papers and bade each other farewell…until the next time.
© 2001 Bobbi McCutcheon
Bobbi McCutcheon is the author of a completed science fiction novel, which she's spent the last four years developing. She acquired a literary agent three months ago, but so far it has not sold. She grew up in Boise, Idaho, and now lives in Juneau, Alaska with her husband and three children.