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The Reminder

    Fiona’s eyes were fixed on the steady cadence of the string attached to the old man’s finger. Up and down, up and down. She was a slim cat, just two years old but aware of her presence like a movie star passing a random mirror. She had wandered in from a lilac hedge in April and bonded with the old man within a week. It was now November and she lay on the side table as usual, hindquarters settled, front paws tucked under her chest, and her tail wrapped alongside and disappearing under her belly.

     He sat on the vinyl seat of an oak frame chair. His back was arched forward and his head sagged as if too heavy for his body. His eyes, like his mouth, hung half open. His hands rested on his thighs and he gazed at the off-white string tied with a neat bow to the index finger of his right hand. The finger moved up and down in a steady rhythm and the string followed with the bow tails dancing off his brown polyester slacks.

     Fiona didn’t say much. She just watched with steady unfocused eyes like those of a guard at a watchtower. Even when the nurse opened the curtains in the morning and Fiona’s pupils automatically narrowed, her overall expression remained unchanged.

     For the past three months, the routine was the same. After a quick bath, the nurse dressed the old man, combed his hair, make sure he was comfortable in the chair and then, gently tied the string around his finger. Up and down, up and down, like the branch of a willow caught in an oscillating breeze. The nurse thought that he recalled events of his life as an occasional grin or a raised eyebrow sent a sparkle across the room. She watched Fiona catch the thought as she rolled her head as if being stroked behind the ear.

     Over the past several years, cats had come and gone. Most of them wandered from room to room looking for a slice of attention from a needy resident. Fiona was one of those odd cats who selected her own resident. The old man belonged to Fiona; there was no question about it.

     Neither cats nor old men need large vocabularies.

 Fiona and the old man were alone in the world but their unspoken bond erased any loneliness. It was hard to determine the degree to which the old man acknowledged Fiona’s attention but he willingly embraced the reminder on his index finger for two hours every day. At midmorning, the nurse would put her hand on his shoulder and leaning close to his ear, she would tell him that it was time to feed his friend. Then, methodically, she would untie the string from his bent and wrinkled finger.

     Fiona knew this routine and her ears independently scanned for activity as her tail swung in gentle arcs like a pendulum in a grandfather’s clock. It was clear to the nurse that Fiona did not want to miss any of the action, limited as it was.

     The old man would adjust his head slowly and gaze at the string now lying on the table. The corners of his mouth would lift slightly as if from a deep sleep. He would lean to the right and with a shaky hand; he would carefully scoop a cup of food from a plastic bin into a small dish. The nurse would place the cup back into the bin as the old man settled back into his chair. With a quiet sigh of deep satisfaction, he would lower his eyes and wait.

     In her way, Fiona would acknowledge the deed by stepping lightly across the old man’s trousers, running her tail across his stubbled chin, produce a quiet but thoughtful meow, and step to the floor to enjoy her lunch.

    For another day, the cycle of hope and love and compassion was complete.