by Andrew Willett
It was Sunday in snowy Manhattan. Jenna was in the tub, and I was doing the Times crossword, listening to the clang of the radiators and the swish of the taxis on the slush outside, when my coffee-scented reverie was broken by a loud squawk from the bathroom, and a splash, and a flesh-upon-cold-tile sort of thump.
“Go away! Shoo! Get out of my bathroom!”
I threw down my pen and dashed down the hall. Jenna was picking herself up off the floor of the bathroom. In the bathtub, a bar of soap was gaily chasing a nylon scrubby thing around the surface of the water.
“Damned pixies!” Jenna said, smacking the bathtub’s drain lever. “Again! I am so tired of these things!” A piteous squeak came from the scrubby thing as the water began to swirl down the drain. A translucent little head poked out from behind a pot of organic-sugarcane exfoliating body polish, and looked at me with exaggerated puppy eyes and a trembling lower lip.
“Sorry, kids,” I said to the bathtub.
“Don’t humor them, dammit,” Jenna said, and stomped, still naked, still wet, toward the phone in the kitchen. She’d be irritated by her own wet footprints on the battered wood of the hallway floor later, but right now she had blood on her mind. Or water. Ichor. Whatever it is that the common Manhattan water-pixie uses for blood.
I couldn’t say I blamed her. She got the brunt of the pixies’ odd sense of humor much more than I did, because she’s the one who likes to take baths. Although I will say that a pixie hiding in the sink among the dirty soup bowls makes doing the dishes an adventure.
“Ramon? Hi. It’s Jenna McMasters in 5C. Ramon, the pixies are out of control. You’ve got to do something about — yes, I know — Ramon, the equinox isn’t for weeks and weeks. Really, we need you to do something sooner... Well, I’m just not ready to wait that long. We may have to try something on our own, then. Goodbye, Ramon. You’ve been a huge goddamn help.”
She hung up the phone.
“Man, he’s useless,” she said.
“On the other hand,” I said, “he’s the first super we’ve had who keeps the boiler, the door buzzers, and the electrical system in perfect working order.” I took the robe I’d brought from the bathroom and wrapped it around her shoulders. “What is it they say in yoga class? Take a deep cleansing breath. Spiral out from your navel center, and stuff.”
“Robert, this sort of thing never happened in San Francisco.”
“No,” I said. “In San Francisco we got earthquakes, and there were wood sprites in Golden Gate Park. Welcome to New York.”
“I keep trying to tell myself that this is cool. But then they come at me on a Sunday morning, when I have no work to do and I’m trying to relax and I’m naked, and I just lose it....”
“And you take it out on the super,” I said.
“And now I’m gonna have a bruise on my butt, too,” she said.
“Well, that’s karma for you. Now stretch out on the couch, and I’ll bring you coffee and rub your feet.”
Jenna smiled. “Just make sure there are no pixies in the coffee pot, is all I ask.”
Ugh. That was our previous Sunday morning adventure: most unpleasant, and marked by the death of a new French-press pot. I realized that I, too, hated the pixies.
“We need a plan,” I said.
Faced with apartment issues, we did what any modern couple would do: we got out our laptops and looked on the net for solutions.
Poisons were useless. Traps, mostly ditto: if you didn’t keep a very close eye on them, they tended to overflow, and then their prisoners all got loose at once. Water-pixies couldn’t be appeased: no dishes of milk or stuff like that.
Good old-fashioned violence was cathartic, but the minute you picked the phone book/running shoe/rubber mallet back up, they just re-formed themselves from the puddles to which they’d been reduced. Plus, you never knew if they were going to be amused or annoyed by your attempts to chase them out. And annoyed water-pixies were even worse than the usual kind.
“Says here,” I said, “that we could try to entice a brownie into staying here for a while.”
“Oh, honey,” Jenna said. “I’m not ready to adopt a 9-year-old girl. Pigtails or no. I mean, where would she sleep?”
I glared at her. She smirked and returned to her own research.
“I’m just saying, it would keep the vermin out,” I said. “Help out Ramon. Maybe make us some new shoes, even.”
“Yeah, sure. My god, if there was a brownie in this building? They’d double the rent for all of us — Aha!”
“Yes!” Jenna said, not looking up from her laptop. “Oh, this is... oh. That’s brilliant. Put on your shoes, my dear, because we’re going out.”
“We’re getting a cat.”
There are things I never knew you could buy on the Lower East Side. Schoenfein’s Useful Goods was full of them, and what we brought home was definitely one of them, but from what we could tell it had a devoted following in its obscurity. It was a rectangle of pale sunny yellow, like a stiff piece of thickish cardboard, wrapped in an eighth-generation photocopy of a set of instructions.
“Okay,” I said, opening a container of kosher salt we’d bought on the way home. “Salt, check; dish, check; one cup of warm water, check. Where’s the Sharpie?”
“I’ve got it here,” Jenna said, holding up a sheet of paper she’d covered with black squiggles. “Just practicing.”
I made a circle of salt in the bottom of the dish. Jenna placed the yellow cardboardy thing in the circle, then carefully inked the Hebrew letters from the instruction sheet onto its back in small, neat forms. We held hands and dumped the water into the dish.
Remember those stove-top popcorn dishes? The ones where all of the sudden the little flat tinfoil skillet would mushroom up into this huge thing and it was like watching magic happen? It was like that. Only instead of a big tinfoil balloon, we stood in our living room watching a piece of cardboardy stuff in a Pyrex dish expand into a big yellow kitchen sponge about eight inches tall and shaped like a dainty cat. It had neat Hebrew letters across its back in black ink. It blinked its eyes at us.
“Coool,” I said.
“Mao,” the cat said.
“I think we’ll call you Daisy,” Jenna said.
“Here I am!” I said, as loudly as I could. “A human filling a tub! Dum-de-dum-de-doo! And also I have the taps running because I am shaving! I am a human who has lots of water running in the bathroom!”
“I am the human’s wife!” came Jenna’s voice from the kitchen. “I think I will make soup now! I am filling pots of water! Oh, how I love soup! And oh, look, there goes the cat, headed for the bathroom!”
I tried to stay casual, looking at the bathtub spigot in the mirror. A pair of shimmering forms sat atop it, watching two others skip lightly across the surface of the water. They were groovy, sure, but I was tired of unexpected puddles on the bathroom floor. So I was thrilled to see Daisy’s pale yellow form slink smoothly through the doorway and across the tile.
Daisy padded noiselessly to the bathtub, ears high. She could hear something, even if I could not, and right away she was crouched against the outside of the tub, her body coiled and compressed in a way that would have been quintessentially feline if it had made any allowances for a skeleton. Her tail flicked restlessly — her head peeked slowly over the rim of the tub — she sprang into the air —
And then all hell broke loose. Splashing and thrashing and twisting, jets of water everywhere, the whomping sound of a heavy kitchen sponge slamming against the sides of an old bathtub. The pixies vanished into her mouth like... like so much water into a sponge.
The last of the pixies squirted itself through the air and into the sink. Daisy quickly wrung herself out (most disconcerting to watch) and jumped into the basin after it. By the time she got there, the pixie had squeezed itself into the tap, but Daisy easily wedged her soft yellow head right behind it into the one-inch opening. Her tail twitched, once, and then she pulled her head back out, her soft yellow tongue licking her soft yellow lips.
“Holy hell,” I called to Jenna, turning off the taps. “You shoulda—”
“If you’re done with her in there,” Jenna said, “I think the word has gotten out—” There was a loud crash from the kitchen. Daisy looked up, eyes wide, and took off down the hallway. I followed.
There were at least six pixies in the kitchen, launching silverware around the room on of jets of water. One of the soup pots lurched across the stovetop toward the floor.
The little bastards never stood a chance.
“Good kitty,” said Jenna, scratching Daisy between the ears. Daisy wrung herself out where she stood in the sink basin and accepted Jenna’s affections. I went to fetch the mop.
“You know,” Jenna said a few days later, “Daisy is the first good thing that’s happened since we came to New York.” She handed me a plate to dry.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You know that’s not true.”
“Bah,” said Jenna. “Do you know how long it had been since I washed dishes without getting squirted in the eye? New York sucks. I don’t know what you see in this place sometimes.”
“But you were so excited to get here! You got your dream job —”
“I was hired to do my dream job. And now that we’re here in this city you love so much, the industry is on fire and the economy is going to hell and my project has been backburnered and I’m doing the exact same thing I was doing before, only with exciting new forms of vermin.”
“But —” I said.
“And the food’s expensive and it’s too loud and crowded and I hate the cold weather and everyone spends insane amounts of money for teeny tiny apartments and nobody seems to mind how crazy the rents are and you spend a fortune and your apartment still has pixies in the water pipes.”
“I beg your pardon,” I said. “We do not have pixies in this apartment. Not anymore. Isn’t that right, snookie?”
“Mao,” said Daisy.
“Hmmph,” said Jenna.
“And besides,” I said, moving Daisy off the counter, “you have a job, which lots of people in your business — including people we left behind in San Francisco — can’t say right now.”
“Hmmph,” said Jenna.
“And just think what it’s going to be like up on the little roof deck when the weather gets warm. You could take off your shoes in the sunshine,” I said. I put down the dishtowel and put my arms around her waist. “We could sip wine by candlelight.”
“That does sound nice.”
“Baby, it’ll be great. Don’t let the winter make you give up on spring.”
“Mao,” said Daisy, on the counter again.
Jenna looked at me, and at the cat. “You two make it hard to stay cranky, you know that?”
Day-to-day life with a sponge golem was pleasant. Daisy needed no litter box or exotic foods: just a dish of clean salt water to keep herself moist. She never felt soggy, just damp, like the flesh of a banana. She would (rather adorably) wash herself in the sink or the tub when she got dirty.
Once, when she made my cousin Martin stumble and spill his pilsner on her back, she wobbled hilariously around the living room for twenty minutes before we took pity on her and rinsed her out in the sink. She got underfoot, as cats do, but it was reassuring to know that stepping on her would do her no serious injury.
Every now and then she’d perk up and dash into the bathroom or the kitchen and press her nose against a drain, or stare wild-eyed into the toilet for two minutes before losing interest and wandering off. She enjoyed sitting nearby when we’d bathe or wash dishes, hoping for a quick meal. After a successful hunt, she would snooze in her baking dish atop the living-room radiator, which not only steamed off her excess fluids but hydrated the dry winter air in the apartment as well. She kept our apartment so free of vermin that we even lent her out to lovely old Mrs. Forbush in 5D, when we realized that our share of pixies had moved in next door.
Daisy liked to eat ice chips from Mrs. Forbush’s hands, which was something she would never deign to do with us, sweet-natured though she generally was. Every now and then Daisy would start to smell mildewed, as sponges do, but we’d just pop her in the microwave for a couple of minutes and she’d be fine.
So I was surprised when one day in late February I got a call at the office from our building’s management company.
“Mr. Elias?” This is Pearl McPhee at Superior Rentals. I’m afraid this is about your... cat.”
“I see,” I said. I had just come out of a meeting, and there was a post-it note on my computer monitor. CALL JENNA NOW, it said. Uh-oh. “What seems to be the trouble? We didn’t think she fell within the no-pets rules, I mean, she’s made out of —”
“No, sir, it’s — well, there have been complaints about the noise. I’m afraid she’s —”
“Noise? But she’s made out of sponges! She meows a little sometimes, but who can hear her when she’s inside the apartment?”
“That’s exactly the problem, sir. She’s no longer in the apartment. She’s inside the walls somewhere.”
I called home as I left my office, and when Mrs. Forbush answered I knew things were bad.
“Just tell Jenna I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said. For once, the C train was waiting on the subway platform just as I arrived. Entering our building, I ran into Ramon in the hallway. “Very bad,” he said. “I’m getting the big snake.”
“Metal thing. Clears out pipes.”
“Oh. Oh, god. Okay, I’ll — I’ll see you upstairs.” I dashed up to the apartment. On the third floor I started hearing the sounds: a horrible yowling, the sound of something either very frightened or very injured or very both. Jenna and Mrs. Forbush were in the bathroom. Jenna sat on the edge of the tub, looking stricken. Mrs. Forbush stood over the toilet in her purple cardigan, shaking a handful of ice chips over the bowl and calling Daisy’s name.
“Robert!” Jenna leapt up and grabbed my hands. “She went into the damn toilet after the pixies! There were, like, 30 of them standing in the bowl and she chased them into the pipes and she’s been in there for two hours and she started making this horrible noise and I don’t know if she’s stuck or scared or hurt or what and she won’t come out and Ramon is getting the snake....”
“I know,” I said. “I saw him.”
“Robert, we just can’t leave her there, we have to get her out, I mean, the man on the phone said she’ll live until the marker gets all blurry, and who knows how long that could be, and, oh, oh god...”
“Okay, okay. Here’s Ramon. Okay? Oh, dumb cat. C’mon, Daisy. Come on, sweetie, come out...” But Daisy just kept making the horrible noise.
Ramon had a long jointed-metal coil that he pulled out of a heavy plastic bag. It had a big mass of pointy blades at the end, and Mrs. Forbush blanched upon seeing it, but Ramon detached the blades and plugged in one of those grabby claws instead, like the thing you use to pull teddy bears out of the box at carnivals. He started to feed it into the toilet.
About 20 feet in, the snake hit something, and Daisy’s moans changed. Ramon tightened the claw and reeled the snake back in as gently as he could, coiling the muck-encrusted snake up in the bathtub.
Eventually, Ramon brought Daisy out of the pipe.
“Mao,” said Daisy.
There was no way to tell what had happened to her — snagged on something jagged, somewhere in the darkness? The water-pixies? Rats? — but it had been bad. Three of her legs were missing, seemingly torn off in a single go along with a strip of her belly.
She didn’t appear to be in any pain. We rinsed her gently in the tub and put her in her baking dish on the radiator. Mrs. Forbush gave her some ice. But I called the guys at Schoenfein’s, and they confirmed our fears. There was no way to repair her.
Jenna and I sat with Daisy for a while, stroking her soft, moist head. And then I got the Sharpie.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I said.
“I’ll do it,” said Jenna. She took a deep breath.
“Sorry, sweetie. We loved you. You were a great cat, weird as you were.”
“Mao,” said Daisy.
And then Jenna took the Sharpie and drew a heavy line through the letters on Daisy’s back, and she stopped moving. Suddenly, she was just half a beat-up sponge. And that was the end.
That was the beginning of what Mrs. Forbush described as the Great Pixie Peace. We didn’t see a single one anywhere in that building until June. Whatever had happened in those pipes, Daisy taught the pixies a lesson it took them a good while to forget. And the spring came, and Jenna got a new, better job, and although I was prepared to move us out to Brooklyn if that would have helped to keep us out East and in the city I love, we never had to do it. Maybe if we have kids — probably when we have kids — but not until then.
And I think we owe our present happiness to Daisy. Weird as she was, she was a great cat. We’ve had others like her since: they are charming companions, and all sentiments aside this is still Manhattan and Ramon is still Ramon and the water-pixies do come back eventually. But Daisy was our first.
And we still miss her.