All of the Stars in the Earth

Miller discovered Brutus’s corpse in the hayloft. The yellow tomcat had been scarce for days, well beyond the bounds of his usual secret life. Now he lay on his side, eyes half open. Floorboards beneath his paws were brushed clean of hay. The dying cat knew what pursued him, maybe couldn’t fight the instinct to run from it.

“Okay, old fella, time’s up,” said Miller. “You’re not going to make it to your twenty-sixth after all.”

He grasped the cat’s scruff and one-handed himself back down the ladder.

“Lucky for both of us that the ground didn’t freeze last night. Your good fortune’s mostly done and gone anyhow.”

He balanced a pickaxe and shovel on his shoulder and struck for the east pasture. An apple tree guarded the gate; blackened pulp marked where a surprise harvest of fruit had landed. Why this past autumn after so many barren years? Despite December’s arrival, the tree’s leaves still refused to let go.

Miller eased Brutus into the crook of some roots. He smoothed the cat’s coarse coat and flicked away stems of timothy. Losing a good mouser hurt a lot, as did knowing the farm would be short another friendly face. He picked a shady spot on the northern edge of the drip line.

From his first whack, arthritis needles stung Miller’s hands. The pickaxe bit through topsoil and into clay. Now for the shovel: clear the lumps and chunks. Back to swinging, letting his arms stretch a little. He smelled flinty sparks when the blade struck stones.

Sweat burned his eyes and he stopped to swab his face with a handkerchief. Brutus had spent hours at the foot of this old tree, or sometimes high up in its branches, stalking finches and sparrows. Back then, Miller judged the tom’s killing-time better spent inside the barn or shed, but cats cared squat about the wishes of humankind.

The farmer turned back to his labor. Sky and clouds reflected from Brutus’s final resting place.

“Goshdarned groundwater! There’s been no rain in a month. I’m here to bury a cat, not drown him.”

Back out came the handkerchief. Miller shook his head and spat into the hole. A direct hit but nary a ripple. He blinked a couple of times, chucked a dirt clod. The same result: an unbroken image of blue heaven and dumpling clouds, hustled by a stout breeze.

Leaves lay motionless around his boots. Brutus’s fur was unruffled. Miller glanced upward at featureless grayness; he flinched when a chevron of Canada geese honked its way overhead.

He gazed at the nearly filled pool. The daytime sky within seemed to flee, ousted by deepening darkness. One by one, and then in clusters, stars glowed from their black window. He wondered what moon would rise from this well, what cat could sleep in that cold light.

Evening spilled over the soil; constellations trickled between islands of rotten apple flesh. Brutus drifted like foam in a creek. The forgotten pick axe fell with a splash and vanished. Miller backed away from the flood, then hobbled to his barn. There weren’t enough empty Mason jars to do the job that needed done, but it was a beginning.

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author bio:

Michael Grant Smith wears sleeveless T-shirts, weather permitting. His writing has appeared or is soon to appear in elimae, Ghost Parachute, Longshot Island, The Airgonaut, formercactus, Riggwelter, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, and other publications. He is an editor at Longshot Press. Michael resides in Ohio. He has traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cincinnati.