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  • Writer's pictureL. Delaney

The Woman Who Changed Her Men For Cats

I collect stories, and New Orleans obliges, dripping them down eaves into century-old puddles, rattling them in streetcar morse, and singing them across shop counters in a clatter of coinage. Most stories evaporate, leaving naught but traceries, like fingerprints in beignet dust, suggestive of what has been, and what has been gobbled by time. But a few are caught in my notebook, their golden wings snared in a net of pencil scratches and tea-ringed pages. The following was told to me by a whiskered neighbor of Chopitulip Street. As I passed his gate one day, he stretched, yawned, and tossed it to me. I tell it now more or less in the words of the old gentleman.

"There wuhz an ole mansion uptown a-ways, an' an ole lady livin' in it. She go by Baba, but the young ones got it right callin' her witch. She wuhz scarin'ly ugly, uglier than a loup garou, an' it's a wonder she got even one husband, much less six. Or maybe t‘wuhz eight'? Don't nobody 'round here remember no more. That's for sure, chère. Wuhz a long time back."

And here he crossed himself in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Other.

Now, particulars of th'story I got to tell ya happened in my 18th summah. Those days was so hot, all the gates of the city meltin’ to puddles an’ folks moppin’ ‘em up. All the cemetery angels cryin’ real tears sizzlin’ down they marble cheeks. All the while, those rich folk idlin’ on their verandahs in the Fleurondissement, linens flappin' under fans a-spinnin’, an’ us youngin’s runnin' round an’ round doin’ odd jobs for ‘em, keepin’ ‘em propped up like linened waxworks. But ya better move quick, else ya shoes’d melt to the pavement!

Well, between her bouts o'matrimony, ol’Baba kept no company but her cats, an’ her yards wuhz teemin’ wild wid ‘em. Cats built like railway planks and cats spokey as wagon wheels. Dapper cats an’ ratter cats. Cats stretched in windows, cats dreamin’ in patches o'moss-fuzzed sunlight. They tripped ya up passin’ on the banquettes, they yelly smelly eyes followin' after ya, sniffin' your breezeways, and knowin’ ya secrets.

Sof'n'fuzzy as a rotten ol’peach, Baba would say to the milkman lingerin’ on her stoop, Antoine has gone to St Louis to see about a property sale, and Milkman would tilt back, eyes goin' all squinty in his head, countin’ the towers of Baba’s mansion 'ppraisin’ly. Amber-colored 'baccy juice would begin at Baba and land in the overgrown yard as her own yelly eyes lingered 'ppraisin’ly over Milkman’s face, shoulders, and arms. And then Milkman might find his self invited in for a sweet tea.

Ol' Baba made the neighborhood uneasy, on account of her bein' a woman mindin' her own, on account of the cats, and on account of the missin' husbands. Stories sprung up; Baba had planted the missin' husbands in the yard, or burned 'em up, or ground 'em down as feed for her cats. A couple of the bolder young so-and-so's would call at Baba's lookin' for work. My pal Sam was one of ‘em, goin’ ‘round her place for the 'casional chore. And then the 'casional came to be the frequent. And then, before you'd know it, he's puttin’ on airs. sayin' Baba this Baba that, how he was Baba’s favorite, and sportin' a gold chain Baba given him on 'count o' cleanin’ out her eaves.

Sam’d laugh it up with us boys, sayin’ how he’d do a good bit more than clean her eaves if it meant livin’ uptown in the Fleurondissment with the rich folks, drinkin’ tea under ceilin’ fans whirrin’.

‘Hadn’t Baba gone and gotten herself married again last year?’ I asked Sam.

‘Well, yah, but husband’s gone off. To settle a property Up River, Baba says...Or count his gold!’ Sam laughed. “Or whatever rich folk do.’ With a face like Baba’s, couldn’t blame a man for takin’ wild when given leash.

‘She got plenty o'money in there,’ Sam grinned, with a wink and a flash of his gold tooth. Soon after, Sam himself went Up River, and one day as I was passin’ Baba’s big ol'house, she hollers to me:

got a job for you child

'Sure, Baba.' I call back, inclinin' to say no, but sure could usin’ those extra pennies. That day, for a whole silver dollar, I oiled the squeak out of Baba’s gate. And the next day, I'm passin’ Baba’s house, she hollers again:

got a job for you child

And so I dug a hole for Baba. And this time she give me a gold chain, not so d'similar to the one I seen my buddy Sam sportin'. And the day after? I'm passin’ Baba’s house, she hollers again.

got a job for you child

And so I set to fixin' some boards come loose on Baba’s porch. And each day, all the while, noticin' a little ginger cat that would follow me, peerin' up. And I think to my-self, somethin’ mighty queer 'bout that little ginger cat. But I couldn’t quite put a thumb to it.

By this time, I been courtin’ my pretty Sally for some months, and she warn me: “That ol' woman will fix the eye on ya.” But every day, Baba warmed me over, gettin’ friendl'er and friendl'er. So I paid no mind to Sally's scoldin' and fussin' an' one day when I'd finished hammerin’ on Baba's porch, she came up behind and put her hand gentlin' on my shoulder, sayin’

why don’t you come in for some cold sweet tea

And was the chill breeze I felt then autumn comin' on? But Baba said

no that’s just the molasses cookie waiting for you in the ice box

And so I followed Baba inside and the little ginger cat followed us too. In the parlor, an audience of more yelly eyes peered as Baba handed me a sweatin’ glass of tea and settled herself into a great big ol' caboose of a chaise. Then a black cat jumped into her lap askin' for pets which she obliged, all the while watchin' me, and the cat purrin' and Baba smilin', and I drinkin' that tea down in one swallow, with the m'lasses cookie followin' it down in the next.

another cookie, child?

I nodded and Baba winked as she hobbled out of the parlor to get it. No sooner had she gone, then the queer little ginger cat jumped up upon me, lookin' me square in the face. And then that cat smiled, flashin' its gold tooth.

“Well, I'll be. Sam? Is that you! What are you doing as a cat?”

"Meow," said my ol' pal Sam.

Just then Baba returned with the cookie and I looked from the cat to Baba to my empty glass, noticin' a clump of soggy fur floatin' at its bottom. Well I set the glass down real slow and when I looked back across at Baba, Baba and her cats wuhz all lookin' right back at me. Wuhz right then I 'spected she fixin' to expand her cat collection. And wuhz right then I could feel the tickle of whiskers comin' in an' the itchin' of a tail where a glass of tea an' one m'lasses cookie ago, there'd been none. Baba's teeth flashed as her lips curled into a grin.

all the better to gobble you with my dear

Well, I wuhzn't ready to be that woman’s housecat! When I leaped, Baba sprang. When I ran, Baba bolted. Slam! went the front door behind Baba. And Lock! went the key a-turnin'. So, Up! the grand ole stairs I zoomed, in a blur of legs (two legs now or was it four?), and in a flash, that ole Baba chased behind me, not hobblin', but taking the stairs by two and three clawfuls at a time, an' a mess of boy and fur and ol' lady shootin' up past yelly eyes watching sleep'ly from dark corners. Our commotion came to the top of the stairs, where the stairs run out, and the only place left wuhz right through the window crownin' that queer house like an ogre eye.

And from that high window you can believe I lept. But Lord, Baba had me by the tail! As we tumbled through the open window, cat and boy and Baba, I shouted the prayer taught me by the good nuns of Lord’s Bend, though its corners were rusty with disuse:

Our Pops,

up in the clouds,

Your name be holy.

Bring Your kingdom here,

and make everythin' go down like it does up there.

Give us our grub for today,

and excuse our missteps,

like we excuse the missteps of others.

Don't let us get pulled into any bad stuff,

but get us out of the rough spots.

Amen, Pops!

As that ol' rascal Baba came tumblin' out the window after me. I braced myself for impact that never came. For the oak tree reachin' its gnarlin' branches to touch Baba's house had snagged the patch in my trousers put there by the thread and needle of that bestest of gals, Sally Molallay! It’s hard to say if it wuhz a broken heart or the broken neck that killed Baba, but dead on the ground she lay below me.

When the undertakers came to collect her, an 'ccounting was made of that ole mansion, attic to parlor, an' it wuhz discovered to contain as many hats as missin' husbands, an' then some. Bowlers, beavers, stovepipes, and canvas delivery boy caps. Covered in fur, every last one of 'em.”

My neighbor sighed. “Cats don’t often wear bowler hats, chère, but they most certainly never sport gold teeth."

Baba's house still stands, where the trees shake off their banquettes and the wrought iron gate bows, but never melts. And Baba herself is planted in the old cemetery just beyond that neighborhood. Her name on the stone’s worn away, but you’ll know the place by the cats. Or so my neighbor claims. With his tail told, he yawned and stretched to resume his patch of sunlight. You won't find this story written down anywhere because the best stories belong to ears and mouths.

And that’s the way it is in New Orleans, mon chère.

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1 Comment

Teri Calia
Teri Calia
Nov 18, 2023

This is simply brilliant! One of the best spooky stories I’ve had the chance to know. Thank you!

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