With autumn's chill in the air and the fragrant scent of woodsmoke wafting through my neighborhood, I thought I'd share with you all an essay I wrote in 2008, back when my husband and I were still trying to make our marriage work, back when I only owned one cat. It's a cautionary tale, but one with a happy ending, thank goodness. Enjoy.
Always Look In The Direction Your Cat Is Looking
It was Friday night at my house. The chill October air had spurred me to put out my autumn decorations the previous Sunday, piling the fireplace mantel in the dining room high with silken fall leaves and real and imitation gourds, nuts and fruit, Indian corn and pine cones. Anticipating my weekly "date-night" with my husband, I built a roaring fire in the fireplace and set the dining room table. Jesse was on his way with take-out from our favorite Italian restaurant and a bottle of red.
I tuned the radio to our favorite evening blues program and lit the candles which emerged from the harvest display atop two wrought-iron candlesticks on the mantelpiece. I looked at my watch. Everything was ready.
Our gray kitty, Underfoot, appeared to be in a mood to play and, having nothing more to prepare, I got down on the floor with him and we engaged in a game of hide and seek around the kitchen island. My back was to the dining room, opposite the direction that Underfoot was facing. I thought we were having a pleasant, interactive game, but Underfoot's gaze kept shifting from me into the room beyond. I teasingly thought to myself that his startled expression made him look as though he thought the house was on fire, and I was reminded of ancient folklore which describes cats as "seers" who follow the auras of spirits around a room while seeming to be looking at nothing.
Finally, my curiosity piqued, I turned around to see what was catching the cat's rapt attention. Flames were shooting from the top of the mantel into the air. My house was on fire. I leapt to my feet just as the smoke alarm's shrill wail began to pierce the air, causing the cat to hightail it for the perceived safety of the basement. I grabbed my fire extinguisher from the kitchen, but figuring out how to pull the pin and whether I had to break the seal first seemed to require a longer learning curve than I had time for. I set the fire extinguisher down and grabbed a large pitcher from the kitchen cabinet, filling it with water in the sink, which seemed to take an eternity. While the pitcher filled, I grabbed a kitchen towel and headed toward the flaming ledge.
In my attempt to smother the flames with the towel, I managed to send the burning harvest decorations crashing to the ground, spreading flaming bits all over my antique hardwood floor. I tried to stomp the blazing fragments with my foot, causing melted synthetic gourd to stick to my shoe, all aflame. Now my shoe was burning, too. My emergency "extinguishment" was not going very well. Flames on the mantel continued to stretch toward the ceiling.
I put out my shoe and ran back into the kitchen for the pitcher of water. As I prepared to splash water on the mantel and the floor, I pondered the words in an email I had just received the week before from my insurance agent, cautioning against dousing certain fires with water lest it lead to a most un-Martha Stewart-like explosion. I quickly reasoned that this was not a grease fire and began to administer water from the pitcher across the flames. Thankfully, this tactic worked far better than my towel-smothering effort, and I soon had almost all the flaring spots merely smoldering.
By now the house was filled with thick, acrid smoke and I could feel it drawing into my lungs with every hyperventilated breath I took. Enter Jesse, through the kitchen door, wine in one hand, dinner in the other, his ever-present cell phone pressed firmly to his ear with his shoulder. Nothing new there. I waited for Jesse to drop his cell phone in horror and rush to my aid, but to my surprise he continued his telephone conversation standing in the kitchen in plain view of me and my obvious emergency scene, seemingly oblivious to the pungent smoke and the shrieking wails of the smoke alarm. I waited some more, continuing to douse bits of smoldering plastic gourd. At least Jesse comes by his absent-mindedness honestly, I thought to myself. Finally, realizing that Jesse was so absorbed in his conversation that he must not see or smell the smoke or hear the screaming smoke alarm, I did what any red-blooded, adrenaline-filled woman would do in such a situation, especially since I had the "emergency" pretty much handled by then. I screamed -- a blood-curdling, ear-splitting scream that would have done a starlet proud. I heard Jesse say: "Omigod. I have to hang up immediately". He came rushing into the dining room.
I know exactly what happened. A silken leaf on the rosette around the candlestick had brushed too close to the flickering pillar on the sill. I saw the errant leaf when I lit the wick, and had tucked it back down, away from the flame. But the heat from the candle must have expanded the fabric and caused it to unfurl, sending the imitation foliage back into the path of the fire.
Later, as Jesse and I ate our now-cooled dinner, having cleaned up the mess left behind by my firefighting adventure, I decided that I would, from now on, immediately seek out the focus of my cat's long gaze, no matter how silly and unfounded in reality I might think it to be. My fireplace mantel doesn't look very Martha Stewart-like anymore, half of it laden in autumnal splendor and the other half rather devoid of anything but blackened bits of melted plastic and charred debris. But I think I'll keep it that way this fall, as a reminder of how lucky I am to enjoy a life of small adventures that mostly end pretty well. Be safe.
October 3, 2008