The “Christmas Cat”

Macabre tale, for Christmas 2016

Drawing by: Silvia Forcina

In one of the various flea Markets that extended the entire length of the street behind where I live, I found, for a good price, a rather crumpled copy of the collection of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal from the year 1849, Vol. LV, which I hastened to buy, not only because I eagerly collect medical and judicial publications of the nineteenth-century, the “golden age” of scientific and criminal macabre, but also because I realized immediately that it relates a strange story that took place in Baltimore, the city where, the very same year of this publication, the great American writer Edgar Allan Poe died, who, moreover, was a native of Boston. What a coincidence!

On January 19, called by neighbors, the police had forced entry upon the address where the elder Mr. Albert Laforgue lived, from which, no one had consciously realized, there were no signs of activity for over a month, and where there could have been none, since he was dead, alone in his chambers that, it was understood, he had not left for ages.

Mr. Laforgue, always a misanthrope, a shy and introverted person, but not obnoxious nor bad, had been seized rather suddenly, it seems, by an extreme form of voluntary isolation, which he had failed to survive. But there is more. The horrid circumstances in which his body was found, in fact, gave rise to speculation nothing short of amazing, but nonetheless confirmed as the only plausible theory.

The elderly man was known in the neighborhood, where everybody remembered him having lived forever, not just for his taciturn character, made more evident by an extraordinary stature, but also for his latest feline companion, a tawny cat of rare beauty and remarkable size, to which the man gave his wife’s name, that woman having perished at least three decades earlier.

The wiry and reserved gentleman had always had a cat, though only one at a time, from what people could recollect of him in the neighborhood, and had always loved the little animals, the only creatures for which he appeared to still have that kind of feeling. But it seems that towards this latter cat in particular, exceptional in all aspects, including intelligence and stubbornness, for unknown reasons, he gradually started developing a strange and completely irrational resentment, likely due to nothing other than some latent disease, like dementia, which, at that time, was certainly less understood and recognizable than today.

Apparently, taken by moments of real hate, he had tried to chase away the cat several times, even attacking her just to get rid of her, but after years of living in the apartment, she reappeared each time, as if by magic, and did what she preferred, despite the master’s anger.

The neighbors often heard crashes and thuds, screams and curses, followed by a  period of calm, then other excesses, noises, calm again, in rhythms and cycles that suggested more the outburst of phobias and delusions, the fruit of some mental illness rather than anything else.

A certain number of those consulted have reported (and here it is both curious and sinister that several people have independently formulated this one particular comparison) that the relation between the two reminded them of an “old married couple,” one of those in which we complain and we are angry all the time, but which, in the end, we are not willing to give up for good.

If he did make “peace” with the cat every time, or if he simply gave up his pursuit of getting rid of her once and for all because of his ailing health, his unsteady legs, shortness of breath caused by pulmonary emphysema from smoking, and a rather lamentable physical and mental clinical picture, is not known.

What it is known for sure is that his opinion of the animal did not change even after the cat miraculously saved his life when a gas leak occurred while he slept. The house was one of the first to be equipped with gas, and Baltimore the first American city with gas street lighting, since 1817. The narrowly missed tragedy was sworn to by witnesses from various sources, as well as several other journals at the time, who reported the strange incident with illustration and statements of firefighters and urban guards… and the beautiful kitty.

After the event, everyone suggested that he should “erect a monument” to the animal, or at least reconcile with her, but this never happened. Perhaps there was no time, but certainly the old man continued, apparently, to hate her, and by the narration of his great-niece, his only remaining relative, he seemed to be obsessed to the point of real fear.

The young woman reports that, when she paid a visit to her great-uncle the previous Christmas, he had barely touched upon any subject other than how much he now hated that animal, which over the years had developed spiteful behaviors, demonstrated an extraordinary intelligence and wickedness, and that had threatened to kill him on countless occasions. She had ruined his life, the damn cat, with her atrocious and perverse jokes. What he meant exactly, no one knows, but all these exaggerated claims were definitely not in accordance at all with the episode of the gas leak, in which, consciously or by accident as it was, she had been decisive, and even less with the behavior of the creature in the presence of the young woman, who had not noticed anything abnormal.

The fact is that the visit may have precipitated what occurred at the turn of the following year. The niece had paid homage to the uncle with a cheerful Christmas decoration, with the obvious purpose of bringing a ray of light into his gray and lonely existence, adding a little “holiday color” and air of joy to those dusty curtains, kept constantly closed against the outside world. It was a novelty, a small fir tree decorated with colorful ribbons, which, in an effort to stimulate the elderly, the good girl made him promise to remove them from the branches to be stored and reused the following year with another tree. The tree was to be disposed of once the holidays were over, since it had no roots.

The old great-uncle, with unexpected diligence, had actually cleared the small fir tree of its beautiful decorations, storing them in a nice box for cigars, gone at least a decade before, which was discovered during the inspection of the apartment; the tree, however, was left in the living room, naked, on the beautiful table where it had been placed in a display of festive cheer, now gone.

It is likely that, in his pathological inertia, the old man always procrastinated, putting off what had to be done, day after day, until the following year. The immediate investigation, in fact, showed ineluctably that he did not pay attention to the facts of his sad existence anymore. In the mailbox, the correspondence of virtually the entire year laid untouched.

Among the few letters of some interest, the one from the niece, a beautiful and rare Christmas greeting card, covered in real gold and silver leaves, where the poor girl apologized for not being able, for the first time, to pay her usual visit at Christmas time due to her husband’s temporary transfer to Canada for work reasons. She promised to remedy that as soon as possible, maybe on his birthday, and sent many hugs and kisses.

On January 19, when the old man was found dead in his wheelchair in which, for some time now, he preferred to move around the house, not trusting his knees anymore, the body was in an advanced state of decomposition, and stared with empty eyes and a wide open mouth caused by the decay of tissues, in an eternal and astonished cry.

The forensic doctor dated the death by cardiac arrest to the days between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. On the tree that was originally a cheerful and gentle sign of affection, offered in the most benevolent and altruistic time of the year by the sole living relative still loyal to him, the ornaments and joy long gone had been, perhaps by a strange quirk of fate, or perhaps due to an equally incredible intentional malice, or even by a bizarre misunderstanding, replaced by the horrible parody of seven dead sewer rats.

All were in agreement that the macabre and irreverent sculpture absolutely could not in any way have been made by the deceased, who not only shunned animals generally more than humans, but who would never have been capable, in his frail physical condition, to even hunt or procure those disgusting rats. Moreover, it became clear that they showed unequivocal signs of a violent death caused by a predator.

This is the only plausible explanation: they had been killed in sewers in the street and then, however incredible it seemed, arranged between the spectral conifer branches by the big, beautiful tawny cat, who, in spite of the master’s will, insisted on inhabiting that house, and who, from that day, achieved a great fame in Baltimore, though no one ever saw her again.

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