Cateye Gleaming In The Dark
by David M. Hoenig
James Riordan thinks that eighty four is a pretty fine number. It’s round, for one thing. It’s made up of what should be a lucky seven of dozens, for another. And he’s had time to get used to it, since it doesn’t look like he’s going to get around to eighty five.
The watery light of a cold February morning enters tentatively, as if unsure of its welcome. It rises slowly from the floor, up the starched white linens of his bed and creeps onto the homey red and blue quilt which insulates his thin frame. Even though he watched its hesitant approach the whole time, he seems surprised when it’s finally there, because he’s had to split his attention between it and breathing. The effort clearly tires him, because his eyes drift closed.
He wrestles his hand from under the sheets and up to his chest where he takes weak hold of a small leather bag which hangs on a thong from his neck. While he still has to strive for breath- oxygen supplemented by the twin-pronged, plastic life-giver across his upper lip- a smile settles across his achingly exhausted features.
He was not always so.
Seventy four years ago…
“If it isn’t my good friend, Jimmy-mon! I knew I’d be seeing you today!” said the old Jamaican man in the big leather chair in the lobby of the apartment building. His huge smile showed the gold in his bottom front teeth the way it always did.
“It’s good to see you, too, Mr. Bee,” said Jimmy.
“Now, boy, you know my name is Mo”–he stretched the long ‘O sound far out–”by. Like the whale in that story,” he said.
“The one with Jonah?”
“No, not that one. The book I gave you about a month ago. With that Captain Ahab on the Pequod and Stubb and Queequeg and all those boys.”
“Oh, that one,” Jimmy said. “I didn’t understand it all, Mr.–”
“–Moby,” the boy finished. “But how come you were named after the whale if you’re black and it was white?”
“That is a good question, little mon. I don’t have a good answer for you; you’d have to ask my parents, but they went up to heaven a long time ago.”
“Oh,” said Jimmy. “How’d you know you were going to see me today?”
“Well, the Cateye told me late last night, after I saw the duppy.”
“You saw a guppy?” Jimmy asked, confused. “Like the fish?’”
“Not a ‘guppy’, Jimmy! Duppy. In my home of Jamaica, there’re legends of ghostly spirits that come to a man three times when his days are soon to end. I’ve seen my duppy two nights in a row, now.”
The boy was quiet for a moment. The man sat there with a peaceful expression on his face, the hint of his ready smile still there. “Well, what’s ‘the Cateye then?”
The smile widened. “Old Cateye be the most special one in the whole group. Oh the Aggie, she’s fine and trustworthy and it’s hard to go wrong with Clams, Corkscrews and Puries, that’s for certain. True, you have to be careful of the Clouds and End of Days; you have to know when is best for them to be out to play, you hear me?” He licked his lips, enjoying the confused and intent expression on the boy’s face. “The Onionskin’s best on cloudy days and I could always count on the Peppermint Swirls in summertime. But leaving all those other ones aside, the Cateye is the most special of them all.” He reached one long, bony hand into the pocket of his blazer.
“What’re you talking about, Moby?” Jimmy asked. “I don’t understand.”
“These, Jimmy,” the old man said with a short laugh and brought a small, leather bag from his pocket. “Marbles. Very special ones, good friends, all of them.”
“Oh. I’ve seen kids playing marbles before…”
“Ever try it, Jimmy?”
“No. Father said it would be a waste of money and…”
“And nothing! Marbles are a pastime that’ll last ‘til the Earth itself isn’t round anymore. In fact,” he said, as if only now just considering the possibility. “With the duppy coming to visit me tonight, it’d be a shame if I didn’t pass on the Cateye and his friends to a deserving young boy with many a year in front of him yet to pass.” He undid the string around the neck of the bag, and shook a bunch of the marbles out onto his big, pink palm.
Jimmy’s eyes widened at the sight. “Wow!”
The old Jamaican put the empty bag down and used his other index finger to point out and name each the marbles. “That rugged, handsome fellow is the Cateye,” he said, pointing to the last one. “He’s the special one.”
“How’s it special?”
“Not ‘it’, Jimmy–him,” Moby said in a serious tone. “The Cateye’s a hungry one. He likes the taste of fresh dreams of a night, he does.” He suppressed a smile at the look of sudden fright on the boy’s face. “No, my little friend. He likes the taste of sweet dreams, he does. And he’s lucky and special as long as he gets what he needs, you just wait and see.”
“Father says there’s no such thing as luck, just what God and Jesus say will happen.” “Now, Jesus, there’s one deserving of respect.” the old man said.
“‘He’s all about avoiding sin and doing right by his fellow man, and those are very important lessons he tried to teach the world. And while the Bible says that nothing happens without God knowing it, that doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as luck, Jimmy.”
“I don’t know…”
“You keep the Cateye safe and sound,” the man said firmly. “‘He’ll listen to you in the night and do right by you all the days of your life, he will. And then, well…” he trailed off.
“Then you pass the Cateye on to someone you care about,” the man finished, his smile as wide as before, but his eyes now wet with unshed tears.
“Oh,” said Jimmy. He looked the man in the face, solemnly. “I’ll keep the Cateye safe then for you. And all his friends, too.”
The old man put the marbles back in the bag, looking down and surreptitiously wiping his eyes as he did so. “That’s most kind of you, friend Jimmy. I’m in your debt.” He handed over the small leather sack. “May Jesus look out for you all the days of your life.”
“You too, Moby.” Jimmy tucked the bag into his pants pocket and went out into the sun to play.
He wouldn’t see the old Jamaican man again.
Seventy two years ago…
“Alright champ, time for some shut-eye.” Patrick Riordan closed the book he was holding and sat forward to put it on the bedside table.
“You sure you’re okay, Jimbo?”
“Uh huh. Sorry about the bike, though,” Jimmy said as he laid his head on his pillow.
“Never mind the bike, son–it’s just a thing, anyway. We’ll get a new one, okay? The important part is that you’re okay, champ. I mean, when I saw that idiot in the De Soto turn…”
“I’m sorry I made you and Mom worry,” the boy said, eyes closing.
His father reached out to smooth away some of the hair hanging over Jimmy’s eyes with a loving touch. “Sweet dreams, eh Jimbo?”
“It’s the only kind I have,” Jimmy said, voice slowing with sleep. “The Cateye’s a hungry one…” he mumbled into his pillow.
“What was that?” his father asked in surprise, but his son was already lightly snoring. Puzzled, he looked Jimmy over for a few heartbeats, but the boy looked to be at peace and with the trace of a smile on his face. He went to the door and saw his wife Agnes standing there, watching the two of them.
“What was that he said just now, dear?”
“I dunno,” he whispered. “Just sleepy-talk, I guess.”
“It’s hard to imagine just how he didn’t get hurt at all in that accident, Paddy. When I saw the bike crumple under the fender and Jimmy go flying…”
“I know, I know,” he said. “Lucky he went right past the tree on the corner and into the bags of leaves we’d raked up…”
“Patrick James Riordan!” Agnes said in a firm, no-nonsense tone.
He raised his eyebrows in questioned surprise at her vehemence.
“You know luck had nothing to do with it. That was a blessed miracle from Jesus that we still have our son alive and without a scratch on him.”
He heaved a sigh. “Yes, Agnes. You’re right, of course. We should…”
“Yes and we will. This coming Sunday, which can’t come soon enough for us to go to His house and offer up our thanks for His beneficence, along with a big donation to the Church and the poor plate. And we’re going to pray for our boys fighting in both the Pacific and in Europe.”
“Okay, dear,” Patrick Riordan agreed, realizing that there were certainly plenty of things for which they could offer up some prayers and charity.
That settled, they took a moment to watch Jimmy sleeping the sleep of the innocent and each in their own way silently thanked God for their son’s well-being.
As they closed the door, they could see the smile on the boy’s face widen.
They didn’t see the way the Cateye marble gleamed on the bedside table in what was, most probably, the last light from the hall before the door shut.
Sixty two years ago…
“Private James Riordan,” Major Cantrell said from behind his desk. His face dripped sweat in the oppressive, late July heat of South Korea.
“Sir. Yes sir.” Jimmy replied.
“I would like to know the answer to one simple question, son.”
“How is it that you’re the only man from your squad to make it back from the patrol without taking a serious wound,?”
Jimmy appeared at a loss for words. “Uh. I dunno, sir.” With his hands rigidly at his side, he took a moment to rub the small bulge in his right front pants pocket. “Just a bit luckier, I guess. Sir.”
The Major ran a handkerchief across his sopping brow. “Well. Can’t say there ain’t a lot of luck to living or dying in a war zone, I guess. But what’s important is that you and your squad did get the job done, Private. I sent the intel you obtained from Pork Chop Hill up the chain of command and they were impressed when you took over for Lieutenant Kincaid when he was killed.”
“Yes sir. Sorry I couldn’t bring the Lieutenant back with us, Major.”
“It happens, Riordan. You should be proud you saved the other men in your rifle squad and got the job done. They’ve all said they’d be dead if it weren’t for your bravery under fire and your leadership. I’m impressed that you rotated yourself and the men through sleep while you were pinned down, son. A rested soldier makes fewer mistakes and that’s a fact.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’re gonna get another medal out of this. Well done.” Major Cantrell stood, opened up a box on his desk and took out a cigar. “Victory smoke, Private,” he said and passed it over.
Jimmy put it in his shirt pocket with a grin and a sharp salute. “Will we be going back out, Major?”
“You’re going to remember July 27, 1953 for a long, long time, Private: a medal, a cigar, and… an armistice.” The Major smiled broadly.
“Yes, indeed I do, son. Since you are one of the few walking unwounded and hence ready to travel, you will be among the first to rotate out and head back to the good ole U.S. of A…”
Fifty seven years ago…
“Jeepers, Suzy Q, I keep telling you to watch where you’re walking instead of reading,” the brunette said to her friend as they walked along Madison Avenue in the bright afternoon sun.
“Oh, lighten up, Carol,” replied Susan Atwood brightly, her nose still buried in her book. “You’re looking out for both…”
“SUZY!” Carol grabbed for her friend’s arm as she was about to stumble off the curb and into the street where a taxi had just whipped onto 47th Street.
“I got you, Miss,” said James Riordan as he caught Susan lightly around the waist and deposited her gently back on the sidewalk.
Susan glanced from her rescuer’s handsome face dazedly into the street where her book had been crushed and torn by the cab.
“Ohmigod, Suzy Q, you nearly got killed! I told you to be careful!”
You alright?” asked James at nearly the same moment.
Susan dragged her gaze from the remains of her book back to the young man who had grabbed her. “That… that could’ve been me.”
James looked at Carol. “I think she’s in a bit of shock. Can we take her somewhere to sit down?”
“Sure. I’m Carol, the book-worm you saved is Susan.”
“James Riordan,” he replied with a smile.
“But that was ‘Moby Dick’,” Susan said in a vague voice, pointing at the book. “I’ve no idea what’s going to happen to Queequeg.”
James took her left arm, Carol her right and they started walking back down Madison in the direction of a diner. James had a big smile on his face as he answered her. “Well, he takes a fever down in the hold…”
“Ohmigod!” Carol muttered, almost to herself. “It’s like you two were fated to meet.” They made their way to the coffee shop.
Carol left after only twenty minutes claiming errands to get done, but James and Susan ended up staying long enough to have a late supper.
And many others which followed in later years.
Fifty five years ago…
The door swung wide and James Riordan’s head snapped up off the wall behind him where it had rested while he dozed. A green gleam in his right hand was eclipsed as his fist closed tightly and he was already standing before the doctor got there, an anxious look on his face.
“Congratulations, Mr. Riordan!” the doctor said, a big smile on his face. “Susan was a champ and she’s doing great.”
“Well? Is it a boy or a girl, Doc?”
The doctor’s eyes crinkled. “Both,” he said with a laugh. “And they’re perfect! If that don’t beat all, huh? Congratulations, James: you’re the proud father of twins…”
Twenty two years ago…
“Okay: mom, dad, you ready? Jennifer’s pregnant with number five!”
“Oh, my God! I’m so proud of you, Danny!” James Riordan exclaimed. “Real proud,” he repeated in a husky voice, eyes wet with unshed tears.
“We both are,” Susan said warmly. “You’d think your father would be less of a mush by now, wouldn’t you? After all, James, between Daniel and Kelly we’ve got enough for a Riordan family baseball team…!”
Two years ago…
“Thank you so much for coming, Father Timothy,” said James Riordan from his leather armchair. “You should drink that coffee before it gets cold–it’s the brand you’ve always liked, you know.”
The heavyset priest leaned forward on the sofa, his coffee untouched. “James,” he said, his face unusually serious. “It’s been a month since… well, since Susan passed. How are you, really? Haven’t seen you in Church much the last few weeks.”
James sighed. “I miss her, Father. Every single day.” He paused.
Father Timothy nodded and waited quietly.
“But she was lucky to go in her sleep, I think. If you don’t think God would mind me saying that. She was still a strong woman and the cancer was just eating at her. Doctors said they couldn’t cure it, just buy her some time,” James said in a quiet voice.
“I don’t think the Almighty would ever mind you speaking from the heart, Jimmy. Go on.”
“She was only just starting to have pain that the Tylenol couldn’t touch the night the embolism took her,” James said. “Little James and Agatha were over for playtime that evening, and oh heavens, they were just like little fun spitfires that night,” he said with a small smile. “When I kissed her later on when we went to bed, she said it’d been a perfect day and that she loved me more than words could say…” He couldn’t speak.
“And then she was gone during the night,” the priest finished.
“Yes,” James said in a rough voice, unlike his usual.
“I feel lucky that she had a perfect day before she had to go…” He burst into tears which ran freely down his face.
Father Tim stood and put his arms around James Riordan and simply held him as the old man wept. Soon, the sobbing eased and he was able to let go and step back. “And how are you, Jimmy?” he asked.
“I’m not sleeping so well, to be honest. My dreams have been dark, disturbing and I start awake many times during the night.”
“Have you spoken to your doctor about it? They have medicines which can help with that.”
James surreptitiously rubbed a hand over his right front pants pocket as he spoke. “I’ve tried them, Father Timothy, but I’m not sure I do any dreaming when I take them and I don’t think I can afford to make that trade.”
“Mr. Riordan?” a soft voice asks, calling him back from a dream he can’t remember, other that it was as bitter as ashes.
He wakes and opens his eyes to see a face that’s become almost as familiar to him as his own. It belongs to Shaindel Roth, dark hollows beneath her eyes and no makeup to soften the pale hurt she carries in her face. He sees strands of her mousy brown hair which is streaked with grey under the edge of the dark wig she wears in deference to her religion’s demands for modesty and the pain of loss etched into the lines by her lips. He sees the kindness in her soul like a holy light illuminating her from within.
Seeing her face makes him smile because he realizes he’s come to a decision while he slept.
“Yes, Mrs. Roth,” he says, more alertly. “What can I do for you, dear lady?”
“I’ve been sitting with Avi for a while now–it’s later than when you usually get up in the afternoon and come to visit him. I,” she hesitates, a slight blush rising on her cheeks. “I wanted to make sure you were alright, see if you needed anything.”
“What time is it?”
“So late? How is Avi today?”
“The same since he was shot,” she answers, her trembling chin belying her steady voice as she confronts that awful fact once again.
James nods. “How is your husband?”
“He passed from his wounds the day before yesterday,” she answers, tears forming in her eyes. “His funeral was yesterday.”
“Shouldn’t you be home for, uh…?”
“Shiva?” she laughs bitterly. “I can’t mourn my husband properly when I don’t even know if my son will wake up. And because he needs the ventilator, it’s got to be this care facility rather than home and I had to have my sister and brother-in-law stay with my other children.”
“So, what will you do?” he asks in honest curiosity.
“Pray,” she says in a small voice.
“Help me to see Avi,” he responds after a moment.
“But you don’t have to…”
“Please,” he interrupts.
So she does. It takes some laborious minutes to help James Riordan out of bed to the reclining chair by his bedside, but finally he is there. She gets behind him and pushes to wheel him out of his room, past the nurse’s station and to her son’s still form.
When they arrive, all is silent but the respirator, hissing air in and out of the lungs of Avi Roth as they watch.
“Mrs. Roth,” James says softly.
“Yes?” she says in a choked voice redolent with grief.
“I’d like to give Avi a gift, if it’s alright with you.” He undoes the drawstring around his neck.
“Mr. Riordan,” she interrupts. “That’s very kind, but, what about your own family? The grandchildren, the great-grandchildren… whatever it is, shouldn’t you give it to them to remember you by?”
He shakes his head. “They will remember me just fine. I want Avi to have this.”
He tries to pass the bag to her.
She covers his hand with both of hers, keeping it against his palm. “What is it?”
“Marbles, the kind children play with,” he says, his breath wheezing now.
“They’re very old and special.”
“I had a set when I was just a girl,” Shaindel says with emotion in her voice.
“But, my Avi… he may never even get to play with them, Mr. Riordan.”
“Just… let him… have… them… for me,” he says over his shoulder, leaving them in her hands. Then he leans close to the boy in the bed. “The Cateye’s the special one, Avi,” he whispers to him.
“What was that, Mr. Riordan?” Shaindel asks.
“Just… a small prayer… I’m…ready to … go… back now,” James says to Shaindel.
After a glance at her son, she takes the old man back to his room.
Later, James Riordan dies.
After nightfall, Avi Roth will open his eyes when his mother kisses his cheek, and she will let out a shocked shriek which will bring doctors and nurses at a run.
Her tears of love and release will run so hard and so fast that she won’t notice the Cateye in the boy’s hand.
Gleaming as it feeds.
About the Author
David M. Hoenig is a practicing physician for whom writing is his ‘second career’. He’s won 2 short fiction contests (Dark Chapter Press, Espec books) and placed 3rd in another (Morning Rain Publishing). He’s had multiple stories published/accepted to different anthologies with Horrified Press, Zoetic Press/NonBinary Review, Drunk Monkeys Literary, Dark Chapter Press, and Nebula Rift Magazine.
About the Narrator
B.J. Harrison is the award-winning host of The Classic Tales podcast, and has narrated hundreds of audiobooks. His work has received thousands of five star ratings and reviews, and has been recommended by The Wall Street Journal. His most notable works have been The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, and Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens. His website is formulated to work like an audiobook club, where he gives supporting listeners monthly coupons and access to special content.