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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Bishop's Claw
by Stella Abbott

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He wears it all the time, hidden beneath his cassock. Sometimes, in the summer, it gives him a rash with an unbearable itch and he wants to divest himself of the thing. He knows a cat's claw is an unusual charm to carry; but nonetheless in his case he feels it obligatory.

The original owner had been a large multicoloured tomcat by the name of Mustapha, who had belonged to a friend of his father; Samuel Rosenthal.

Bishop Jones remembered, as a boy, asking Mr Rosenthal why the cat bore such an odd name. Mr Rosenthal had told him a long story about a plague of mice in his delicatessen. Many methods had been used to get rid of the rodents, none of them effective, so eventually, reluctantly, Rosenthal agreed with his customers that he 'must have a cat', naming the animal Mustapha Cat.

Mr Rosenthal was proud of the fact that Mustapha had never actually caught a mouse.

"The smell was enough you know. One whiff of Mustapha and all the mice vanished," he said, laughing with his wobbly chins.

When Jones was fifteen years old Mr Rosenthal went on holiday for a week, asking Jones to "Nip in and feed Mustapha a bit of fish every day. Just make sure it isn't too cold for him. I keep it in the freezer."

The first three days were easy. Jones would go to the freezer, cut a piece of cod or haddock with Rosenthal's sharp scissors, and put it on a page of clean newspaper and call, "Ch ch. Ch ch," until Mustapha appeared in the kitchen.

On Thursday morning the cat was nowhere to be seen. Jones cut a lump of cod, put it on newspaper, then went to the kitchen door and called, "Ch ch. Ch ch," but nothing happened. He returned to the kitchen sink, washed the smell of fish off his hands and left, closing the freezer door on his way out.

The cat could be anywhere in the building. Jones thought he was probably asleep on Rosenthal's bed.

Friday morning Jones went to the freezer as usual and discovered Mustapha frozen stiff on the remains of the haddock. He could not tell whether the animal was dead or alive. He rubbed its fur to remove the frosting, but the cat stayed frozen. He took it into the lounge and turned the gas fire full on. As warmth filled the room Mustapha slowly thawed. As he did so the tip of his tail fell off, onto Rosenthal's white sheepskin rug.

Mustapha looked behind him, at his bleeding tail stump, then at Jones who had locked him in the freezer.

With fur erect he gave a loud screech and flew at Jones' neck. As he put pressure on his haunches his back legs splayed and cracked loudly. His claws stuck in Jones' neck and stayed there as the cat dropped to the floor, spitting and snarling. Jones gazed at what was left of the animal, shocked and smarting at the wounds in his neck, until suddenly Mustapha was dead, his face stuck forever in a snarling expression.

Shocked and scarcely knowing what he was doing, Jones brought fresh newspaper, wrapped up the cat, and its tail, straightened its legs, and carried the parcel to the dustbin. While he tried to clean the white sheepskin rug, new drops of blood fell and he remembered the cat had caught him. The kitchen mirror showed four claws around his neck, two of them quite close to his Adams apple. Gingerly he pulled them out and dabbed his neck with cold water. The claws lay side by side on the drainer.

The enormity of what had happened suddenly dawned on him. He had been so careless he had killed one of God's creatures. Mr Rosenthal was very proud of Mustapha and would be broken-hearted at his death. In that moment Jones felt he could have died of remorse. Still shocked, he pocketed the claws and went home.

Rosenthal was not much put out by the disappearance of the cat. He immediately bought another from the cats home.

Jones, on the other hand, suffered nightmares for weeks after the incident, and even the valium given him by Doctor Green didn't help. Pastor Brennan told him to pray and Jones was amazed to find that prayer eased his suffering.

Sometime later he had the biggest of the claws mounted on a silver chain, in memory of Mustapha, and to remind him to be more careful. Though he can't see it under his cassock, Bishop Jones knows the claw is there. All the time.

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