In our most recent issue of Apeiron Review, we featured the short story “The Cat and The Tree” by Andréa J. Onstad.
The story reads like a fairy tale or bedtime story. Though the work features heavy elements of tragedy, the story is told with an almost motherly sense of care and reassurance, making this piece truly warm and poetic.
“The Cat and The Tree” deals with a man and wife whose first child, born blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, dies very young, later realizing they cannot have any healthy children. They decide to retreat to the woods, hoping that “the peacefulness of rural living would ease the situation.”
The woman embraces nature and takes to growing trees that eventually rise high enough to cover the couples’ property in perpetual darkness.
The man embraces progress; he cuts down other trees, clears shrubbery, and, as a former mason, takes up various projects, choosing to be, quite literally, constructive.
Both man and wife deal with their grief rather differently, finding both comfort and despair in their respective outlets, but things change when a cat appears on their property.
A cat with a missing ear and a blind eye.
I took the time to reach out to Andréa to discuss the story.
XV: This story feels as if it were inspired by fairy tales. The setting is reminiscent of an enchanted forest and the characters, while not underdeveloped, are very basic, as to be universal. Furthermore, the narration keeps a distant third person, allowing the reader to surmise intent and emotion.
In the spirit of fairy tales, were you trying to deliver a particular lesson on how one should cope with loss? The husband seems at times too distant and preoccupied with progress, while the wife stays stuck in the past, almost anesthetized by memories. One would immediately think this tale could preach moderation, but what are your thoughts?
AO: The story was indeed inspired by fairy tales. Puss In Boots, in fact. The idea was to use an “agent” or a “donor” that kicks all into gear, and for me, that was the cat. I found my notes that admitted to wanting to write a moral something akin to that found in Puss in Boots but soon found I was being too controlling and let the story itself take over. I can see that the story could be preaching moderation in terms of coping with loss though I certainly didn’t set out to say that. I don’t know that moderation in coping with loss is even possible. If there is a moral, it would be more about caring, kindness, and gentleness when one is suffering loss. And with loss there is always change–even gain.
XV: Regarding the story within the story, which I assume inspires the title, the girl and the mountain lion seemed to represent conservation when protesting against the progress-pushing chainsaw men.
When the husband, (who much later actually uses a chainsaw) initially cuts away the vegetation to make room for the cabin, the wife to begins planting her trees atop the graves of her children. Would you say that these parallels hint at a silent war between man and wife, or a problem between genders?
AO: What an interesting observation! Not intentional but could be construed. Certainly the man and wife went to the country to escape “progress.” Here I should note that this story evolved much as a dream. I had been working on a linear cat story from the point of view of a cat(s), but it wasn’t working. I wrote reams of garbage. Lots of technical trouble I couldn’t find my way out of. There were, however, many elements that carried over. As in a dream, these elements repositioned themselves kaleidoscopically. Are you familiar with Julia Butterfly Hill who sat in a redwood tree so it wouldn’t be cut down? She didn’t have a big cat with her, but that is my “dream” addition. And the man/woman parallel–I wouldn’t say it was a problem between the sexes but simply pointing out the differences. I never pictured the two at war. They were just whirling around in their own worlds. At this point it was like collaging–I had all these elements and threw them up in the air.
XV: As I’m sure you know, femininity has been tied to nature and the ability to produce healthy fruit. Considering that the children continued to die, and that the wife becomes something of a surrogate mother, do you feel there is any resentment in this story between the characters, especially considering their isolation?
AO: I didn’t intend for any resentment but a deepening separation as if each individual’s cells were expanding taking the form of the landscape–much like in meditation–separate but yet parts apart.
I love that so much can be “read into” this story.
XV: Could you comment on the cement in the story? It comes up multiple times, often seen as a remnant of the modern civilization the husband represents, which greatly sticks out when placed in the forest, up until the husband creates his statues.
AO: I see the man as an artist. He was certainly a craftsman in his trade during his working years but becomes an artist when making his beautiful statues. They are monuments, commentaries in an artistic sense, not in a modern/building/civilized sense–though I see how that can be construed.
XV: When the husband creates his cat statues with whiskers made of snakes I thought of Ouroboros, the snake eating itself as to represent infinity, self-reflection, and the cycle of nature. What did you have in mind? Is that interpretation accurate?
AO: What a terrific idea–I wish I’d thought of it! In fact, my image was much simpler. I saw our cat (and yes his name was Vinnie–he is now in the Great Beyond for Cats)–one day he was marching down the road with a snake I presume to be a rattler as that is what we have here, clamped down in the middle, the head and tail curling around his face like whiskers. And Vinnie was just marching along–strutting even. It was such an incredible visual it is no wonder it appeared in my writing–and here it is. I’ve never seen anything like it since.
I should also say, Vinnie came to us as a feral. And he ate the melon rind in the compost pit. I had him neutered on a “free” subsidy from the county (when I brought him in in the Have-A-Heart cage, I was asked if it was for euthanasia! To mark that he was a neutered feral, part of his ear was cut off. Hence, we called him Vince–Vinnie–after Vincent Van Gogh. He was not blind in one eye–that was another cat I had. So, again, a composite, collage character.
In a way, the story is an homage to Vinnie. (And I’d like to add, now we have rattlesnakes every year–he’s not around to dispatch them or the mice they are after.)
XV: What I appreciate about your technique is your ability to tell this story in such a quiet manner. There is very little dialogue, and the action of the story is far from explosive or cinematic. This piece was wholesome and filling, and almost told in a matter-of-fact fashion. What inspires you to stay so simple?
AO: I continually strive for simplicity but rarely rarely achieve it. It appears usually only after much mucky writing. As I mentioned earlier, this piece evolved out of a frustration with a longer more linear story I was writing from a cat’s point of view (and never did finish). When I decided to write this as a sort of meta-story that would fall within the story, it just clicked–possibly because I had been doing so much pre-writing and it was time–and also because I set a challenge to write a fairy tale.
I have always loved fairy tales–I love the distancing effect of the distant third person and have been using it more and more. It creates space–like the cells themselves stretching outward–and with brevity and simplicity meaning seems to resonate.
I was so pleased to achieve a simplicity in this story at long last–I am reminded of a play I wrote and rewrote and rewrote–until I tore it all up and it became simple, almost like a Greek myth though I did not set out to write a Greek myth.
I think so much of writing–for me anyway–is more like collage. I am very visual. Images stick in my mind–Vinnie with the snake, Julia Butterfly Hill living in a redwood tree and in my mind, with a cat, statues and art, and huge trees, and death, always death, the cycle of life includes death.
Virtually everything about “The Cat and The Tree” hearkens back to olden days. Before going into the woods, the man was a mason, the woman a stenographer, both careers pulling us back into a timeless time which we can only remember in black.
Just as the cat in this story brings the man a snake, hinting that the man is either loved enough to warrant a gift, or in great enough need of assistance in finding proper nourishment, I must admit I feel grateful that this fine piece of prose was submitted to Apeiron Review. It captures our vision most wonderfully and deserves to be read both for its poignant story, and for its masterful execution.
Andréa J. Onstad has had several monologues appear in collections published by Heinemann and plays produced in various venues in the United States and Germany. Andréa currently lives in an off-the-grid cabin in Northern California.