Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 180 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. Sand, a collection of his short stories, was published recently by Clarendon House Books. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee.

Clara in the Moonlight

By Steve Carr  

Sam’s house burned like kindling. It went from being a modest two story home to a pile of ash and blackened beams in less than an hour. Spirals of smoke wafted upward and were blown inland by the warm ocean breeze.

With his back to his destroyed home, Sam sat on the cliff, his legs dangling over the edge and held a pair of binoculars to his eyes and watched a sailboat with glistening white sails glide over the gentle waves. The binoculars, and the neon green board shorts and straw hat he had bought in Mexico that he was wearing, were the only possessions he had left. When the sailboat sailed out of view Sam lowered the binoculars and turned his attention to the seagulls fighting over the carcass of a seal on the small strip of  beach at the base of the cliff. Sam pulled a small rock out of the dirt beside where he sat and threw it into the tide washing up on the shore of the beach.

“Are you okay?”

Sam turned and put his hand over his eyes to deflect the bright sunlight. A young woman stood a few feet behind him. Her bright green eyes sparkled. The smile on her face was disarming.

“My house burned down,” he said.

“I see that,” she said. “This isn’t a very good place to have built it to begin with. The view is great but it’s so far out of town the volunteer fire department would never be able to get here fast enough in an emergency.

“Yes, I know,” he said. “Where do you live?”

“I own the house down the road. The one surrounded by the garden,” she said.

“That’s a nice place.”

“Thanks,” she said. “What are you going to do now?”

Sam looked out at the ocean again, then back at her. “I was thinking about getting a sailboat.”

She tilted her head and eyed him appraisingly. “Until you do I have a sofa on my porch you’re welcome to sleep on if you need a temporary place.”

“That’s nice of you,” he said. He stood up and reached out his hand. “My name is Sam Macintosh.”

She took his hand and shook it. “I’m Clara,” she said.

Across the road from Clara’s house the branches of a solitary cypress tree swayed gently in the breeze. It was surrounded by shrubs and bright yellow wooly sunflowers that also carpeted the rocky, sandy landscape. Red headed house finches flew in and out of the brush adding their crisp melodic chirps to the otherwise silence. Seagulls going to or coming from the ocean soared high above the ground.

Sitting on the sofa and looking through his binoculars he watched two of Clara’s cats chasing each other among the shrubs, and then raised the binoculars and watched the pure white tufts of clouds that slowly floated across the baby blue sky. The tabby cat sitting in his lap playfully slapped at the dangling strap attached to the binoculars.

Clara came around the corner of the house and sat down on the porch steps. She sat a trowel at her side on the stair and took off her gardening gloves and placed them next to the trowel. She smoothed out the pale green and white spotless apron she was wearing to protect her blue and white gingham dress, and then removed her white wide brimmed sun bonnet and placed it in her lap.

Looking at the cypress tree, she said, “Some days there just isn’t enough time to get everything done in the gardens that I’d like to.”

Sam lowered the binoculars. “I’m surprised you’re able to grow anything in this soil,” he said.

“It takes skill,” she said. “I hope you like eggplant. I thought I’d fix eggplant lasagne tonight for dinner.”

“Sure,” he said. “I’ve been imposing on you for over a week. I was thinking that maybe tomorrow I’d move on.”

“You haven’t been imposing.” She said. She reached down and scratched the head of a large white, black and gold calico cat that had come out of a patch of watermelon and was rubbing its body against her legs.

Sam lifted a bare foot and rested it on the edge of a cushion. “I don’t mean to be nosy, but I’ve been wanting to ask you something.”

“What?” she said.

“Why do you live alone?”

“I’m not alone,” she said. “I have twelve cats that live with me.”

At the dining room table, Sam watched through the open window the bright orange sun on its slow descent toward the ocean’s horizon. He inhaled the moist, salty sea air into his lungs, and momentarily held his breath, savoring the taste and feel of it.  He leaned back in the chair and slipped his hands into the pouch on the front of the solid gray sweatshirt that Clara had given him.

Clara came in from the kitchen and placed the pan of lasagne on a hand knitted pad in the center of the table and sat down across from Sam. She put her hands together in prayer, closed her eyes and bowed her head and prayed silently. When she raised her head and opened her eyes she said, “We talk  a lot but I don’t really know much about you.” She cut the lasagne and scooped some onto his plate then on hers.

“There’s not much to tell,” he said as he put his fork into the food. “My parents died within months of each other about ten years ago and left me a large inheritance that allows me to live where I want and not have to worry about working.” He put the lasagne in his mouth and swallowed. A smile spread across his face. “Every dish you’ve fixed has been great, but this goes beyond great. There’s some kind of spice in it that I’ve never tasted. What is it?”

“It’s a special herb I grow in my herb garden,” she said. “I’m glad you like it.”

He pointed at the lasagne that was on her plate. “You haven’t eaten a bite.”

“I’m not very hungry tonight,” she said, “but I’m glad to see that you enjoyed it.”

Sam scooped up the last of the lasagne from his plate and put it in his mouth. “I sure did.”

As Clara collected the plates, glasses and utensils from the table and carried them into the kitchen, Sam looked out the window and was surprised that he hadn’t noticed that the sun had gone down. Pin pricks of sparkling white starlight dotted the sky.

Hearing Clara in the kitchen washing the dishes, he got up and went into the living room which was remarkable only because of its simplicity.  Beside an old rocking chair was a basket with balls of yarn. Across from that was an overstuffed green sofa, and between the two was a coffee table on which sat a bowl always filled with fruit. The pale white walls were adorned with prints of pictures by Thomas Kinkade; quaint cottages in dream like settings. On one wall was a framed needlework done on white canvas with the words “home sweet home” done in a rainbow of colors. Against one wall was an upright piano. Everything was immaculately clean.

He ran his fingers across the keys of  upright piano, then walked to the screen door and looked out. All twelve cats were on the porch. He opened the door and stepped out, stepping over the ones in the way as he went to the sofa. He sat down and stared at the cypress tree, thinking his eyes were playing tricks on him or it was because of the darkness. The branches looked as if they had been re-arranged.

He slid off the running shoes she had given him and laid down. In seconds he was sound asleep.

Awaking in the middle of the night, Sam rubbed his eyes and blinked hard several times. Clara was on the porch. She was naked and bathed in moonlight and looking toward the cypress tree. The cats were circled around her legs, taking turns rubbing against her. He sat up and shook his head, trying to clear the fog from his brain.

At that moment Clara was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

She turned and smiled.

He instantly fell back asleep.

On the porch, Clara breathed in the fresh morning air as she petted her thirteenth cat, a solid gray chartreux that she held in her arms. She nuzzled its neck with her face then set it on the sofa. It arched its back as she ran her hand down the length of its body.

“You’ve found a home, Sam,” she said.