Richard felt the life go out of Mildred. He felt her head loll against his chest and he felt the last padding of her paw against his stubbled chin. He felt her take in her final breath. He felt her arch her delicate back and her twitching tail as if she was in something like pain and then he felt another sensation: her soul peeling away from her body, like layers of tissue being pulled apart until the final layer was thin and translucent, not of any earthly use at all.
Then he was clutching the still-warm corpse of a cat. In her final moments, Mildred had soiled his work shirt and tie; they reeked of ammonia. Her empty, catty gaze was fixed on a point that might have been the edge of his shoulder but he’d never know for sure; this is what he was thinking as he lowered Mildred onto her favorite blanket and wrapped her, rested his hand on her stiffening body, felt, through the molasses of his sadness, that maybe he’d been remiss right at the end. That he could have said something soothing. That he could have eased her suffering somehow, if she’d suffered. As it was, he’d just clung to her. As it was, he’d just watched her die.
In that moment, the flat was emptier than it had ever been: window blinds, unbrushed against, the sound of soft paws on hardwood no longer ghosting in rooms and halls. He realized, later, as he sat on the couch next to Mildred’s bundled body and let his aloneness percolate, he was a man who had soaked an animal in so much love over so many years, like a maraschino cherry soaked in syrup, it was no wonder she’d been so sweet-tempered, such an intelligent and indispensable companion. He’d raised her since the day he and his college roommates found her abandoned under the porch of their dilapidated house. He’d treated her ear mites and brushed her fur and taken her along with him from home to home, through grad school, through jobs, to here. She’d needed, she’d needed, she’d needed. She’d needed him.
This is what he told the mummy lady, the first time they spoke on the phone.
“She was a wonderful spirit, wasn’t she?” Asked the mummy lady. Her voice was cool and smooth, a ribbon of sound coiling out from the underworld. But Richard could hear life in the background: the clink of plates, a door opening and shutting, what might have been a dog’s toenails against linoleum. “She loved you.”
Richard’s heart surged a little at this. He fingered the brochure for Immortal Beloveds, a glossy thing he’d picked up off a stack on the vet’s marble reception desk the last time he’d taken Mildred in. At the time, it had seemed so absurd that he’d had to grab one. Pet mummification: an epic waste of money, targeted at rich heiresses with bleeding lipstick and lazy eyelids. On the front, a mummified Chihuahua yoked with a big gold chain, one tuft of fur poking from between layers of gauze on the top of its tiny head, making it look like a desiccated Mr. T. Richard had tucked the brochure into the back of a drawer full of odds and ends. He’d forgotten about it. Until the moment he realized, sitting beside Mildred’s body, that keeping it nearby would give him an epicurean sort of comfort he was vaguely ashamed of. Who would understand this desire? A taxidermist, certainly. But taxidermy was too brute; taxidermy said, I killed this. Mummification said, I loved this. He exhumed the brochure. He phoned the mummy lady.
She lived in Roncesvalles, on the bottom floor of a big brick Victorian with a wraparound porch and a turret. As Richard climbed the porch stairs, toting Mildred in a duffel bag, he could still hear the close-by rumbling of the streetcar and some Polish music being piped onto Roncesvalles Avenue. A small porcelain cat sarcophagus was affixed to the front door; it seemed to wear a painted-on look of judgment. Richard knocked. Life sounds stirred deep in the house. Barking dog. Slamming doors. Footsteps. They grew louder until the dog was behind the door, and then the door and its sarcophagus swung away, and there was the face of the mummy lady. A young face. Olive skin, green-grey eyes like sea glass, a kind mouth, if mouths could be kind, soft dark curls that she swept aside with her hand; the other held the collar of the dog, who sniffed at the duffel bag.
“I’m Sara,” she said. “Is that Mildred?”
Richard lifted the bag. “Yes.”
She ushered Richard inside. Her apartment smelled like old flesh and cinnamon. She sat him in her living room. It was decorated with more porcelain sarcophagi, framed reproductions of papyrus scrolls. She explained her mummification process to him while he squeaked against her tan leather couch. She explained that she would brine Mildred in oils and tinctures. Then she would remove Mildred’s organs, one by one, and pack the cavities with salt. When Mildred was dried, she’d fill the cavities with linen and wrap the body, and brush it with resin. The process would take forty days.
“And then she’ll be a beautiful mummy,” she said, “for you to love and treasure.” When she smiled, her eyes squeezed half-shut and glittered like costume jewels. Richard couldn’t stop looking.
She asked for Mildred.
And, with some reluctance, Richard handed over the bag. The process of mummification: he still wasn’t sure about it. He wasn’t sure, when he got the mummy, that the mummy would be what he’d wanted. It was an expensive process. He had ample money saved with no real purpose in mind for it besides his distant retirement, but this was more than he’d ever spent on the living Mildred, on the Mildred who batted green olives around the den and knocked her soft paw against the TV screen whenever she saw a close up of a bird. In forty days, he would receive a small, preserved corpse that looked like a linen milk bottle topped with a cat’s head. All the same, he couldn’t go back now. He couldn’t offend Sara.
Sara unzipped the bag. Richard watched as she slipped her long hands inside and lifted out the bundle he’d made of Mildred. Then he watched as she set the bundle on her lap and unwrapped it, soft, like she was handling a swaddled baby. As she ran her gentle fingers through the long fur, smoothed it against Mildred’s death-curled back. As she looked into Mildred’s milky eyes. As she made soothing noises. Richard felt all of this like she was running her fingers through his hair, cooing at him.
“I’ll just take her into my workshop,” said Sara. And she carried Mildred away, down the hall, into a room whose door had been closed. When she opened the door, the flesh smell, the smell of spices and oils and old death, rolled into the living room like a noxious gas. But, when she came back out she closed the door on that old death and the smell faded, and she padded towards him, light in her socked feet, and the sway of her hips was like the soft glide of Bastet, that feline goddess, and when she sat in front of him again her eyes were green and glittering and full of life, like Mildred’s eyes, and her smile was gentle, too. She put a hand on his hand.
He felt something slip away from him. He couldn’t say what.
Sara walked him to the door. The empty duffel bag dangled from his fist; as they passed the kitchen, where Sara kept the dog behind a baby gate, the dog let out a halfhearted bark and Sara shushed it.
At the door, out on the porch, the streetcars still rolled by.
“I’ll call you in forty days,” she said.
Richard nodded dumbly. “Okay.”
And Sara smiled, and the door, with its porcelain cat sarcophagus, eased shut.
But, he thought, what if I want to call tomorrow? Is that what I should do?
It occurred to him that he was asking the sarcophagus.