'Illegitimate' and Barn Cats
Updated: Jul 10
This story is one I wrote for an Uxbridge Writers' Circle word challenge a while ago. The words that had to be used are shown in italics.
I follow with a short piece about our barn cats.
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The stink of the seaweed washed up on the pebble beach, and left to rot, overpowers all other aromas as I walk along the slippery cliff path. But the noise of the waves crashing on the red rocks below is quieter now that the inclement weather has passed and the tide has receded. I have walked this path since I was a young child, often with my grandfather striding by my side with a store of legends to be told. My late mother forbade him to tell me these tales, so he chose the private time of our walks together to share them.
His favourite story was about Oscar, a Viking from Scandinavia, who was a brilliant seafarer and avid trader. After a terrible voyage through unprecedented high seas that capsized his longship off-shore, Oscar was dumped like a piece of driftwood on this very beach. He’d lost his men, the spices he’d purchased with slaves, and his bearings. A fisherman rescued him and gave him shelter. The story was that the fisherman had a beautiful young wife called Luella. Grandfather made particular mention of her sparkling green eyes.
He would stress that the fisherman was the salacious one, not the Viking, as one might assume. Luella was abused and desperately unhappy, and Oscar was smitten. The Viking could be quite sentimental and charming and pulled at Luella’s heartstrings.
One early morning, when the sea mist hung to the cliffs and the water was calm, Oscar seized the fisherman’s boat and he and Luella left the coast of Devon behind.
Oscar hoped to persuade Luella to settle in Scandinavia, but she couldn’t bear to leave her country, so they landed at a small port on the North Sea coast. Grandfather would point out how indulgent Oscar was—building a castle for her which overlooked the sea so she could watch for him returning home from his trading and conquests. Luella was never seen outside of the castle, and there were no pictures of her. They had two illegitimate sons who built on their father’s trading success.
Grandfather would add new details from time to time, but, even though it appeared to be a passion of his, I didn’t find the story particularly exciting.
I’m nearing the end of the cliff path, but I have to tell you what I found out yesterday.
Grandfather died last week and I’m the only family around, so I’m going through his things as I clear out his home ready for sale. In a drawer of the large, dark oak, roll-top desk, I found a locked box. Once I pried it open, I discovered a thick, spiral-bound book filled with Grandfather’s writing—his memoir. Curious, I curled up in a chair and read, and am still reeling from what I learned. This is a synopsis of the parts that interested me the most.
My Grandfather, Orville, when a young man, entered a race across the English Channel, from France, in his fifty-five-foot yacht. A violent storm stirred up enormous waves which smashed the boat, and his crew was lost overboard. He managed to cling onto the mast, and was eventually tossed up by the foaming sea, like a piece of driftwood, onto the same red, barnacle-covered rocks I can see from this cliff path. Exhausted, he was crawling through the rotting seaweed which covered the pebble beach when he saw a fisherman approach, who guided him to his cottage.
The fisherman had a beautiful wife, Lilian. Grandfather fell in love with her, and it wasn’t difficult for him to convince her to leave with him. He couldn’t persuade her to live in France, so they stayed in a hotel for a while, overlooking the sea. But her husband found her, and, when Orville was absent one day, he visited. Grandfather was not away long, and when he returned, he discovered the fisherman wielding a sharp filleting knife, about to stab Lilian who had been brutally beaten and cut. Orville mustered all his strength and wrestled the knife away from the husband, and stabbed him in the neck, killing him.
Grandfather built a mansion for Lilian, providing every comfort he could think of. She could always be found there. No mirrors were allowed, so that she would never have to see her disfigured face. I had been skeptical of the reason Grandfather gave for Grandmother’s scars—I was told she’d fallen down the stairs.
I feel like a fool for not picking up on the clues in Grandfather’s story of Oscar.
And I’ve wondered where Grandfather’s wealth came from. He would give a different, incredible answer each time I asked. And the tale of Oscar doesn’t help me. But earlier in his memoir, he writes of his birth into a wealthy, aristocratic French family living in opulence in the outskirts of Paris. I now realize I’d been oblivious to his muted accent and to the origins of much of the contents of his mansion.
Grandfather and Grandmother never married, which makes my mother illegitimate. It must be a family tradition, because my mother didn’t marry my father, and I have no idea who he is, or was. And that’s a story my grandfather didn’t tell.
The Barn Cats
The cats were named Thing One and Thing Two (See Dr. Seuss, 'Cat in the Hat') but our grandsons have renamed them Cricket and Brownie. When they arrived in our barn, they were 90% feral. But now they are tame, although still wary of strangers.
I worry about them every day. Why? Because we have coyotes and coywolves roaming around looking for food. A good friend a bit further north of us had four chickens taken recently.
We have installed several red flashing solar-powered lights on the outside of the barn (they're quite small but very bright), we have motion-sensitive outside lights (three), and four radios playing classical music (we hope this is a genre that coywolves don't like!) and lights inside in strategic spots. Also, they have sharp claws and can easily jump onto the barn roof in a couple of spots, and have several safe places in the barn that they can reach.
But we can't control where the cats roam. This is why I'm reluctant to post about them.
I can hear howling in the distance as I write this. Fortunately it's coming from a long way away.
They are lovely cats and I hope they live as long or longer than Harri. She was a barn cat who lived here for 17 years.
Vicky Earle Copyright 2022