Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two
The Cat Inside - Edward Morris
I never saw a brute I hated so.
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.
I dreamt I sat in the soft white camp-chair on the porch, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and watching the cats in the yard. Something had just happened. They were talking to each other, nosing and chirruping and yawping excitedly. Getting ready to . . . do something.
From under the porch steps, the half-dead black tomcat reared at me, making no noise yet assaulting every other sense with that septic stench, assaulting sight with the gray visible bones in its neck, darker than the gray hairs that had begun to crop up in his fur after the night he tried to start up with a raccoon out in the blackberries by the back fence. The sounds of that battle generated at least three 911 calls on our block. Not even the cops could catch the black cat, though at least one officer was visibly sickened by the extent of the poor thing's injuries.
In the dream, the other cats wouldn't come near him. The three proud, sleek Siamese from the neighborhood drew back the furthest, like a jury pronouncing sentence, giving him their backs. In time-lapse, one of those ignorant little red-headed boys from one block over chased the black cat through the yard, hucking rocks at it. None of them hit. After a while, the boy's face and clothing changed, several times over. There were different cars on the street: a Stutz, an Edsel, a seventies moped. The houses changed a little as I watched, but I didn't catch most of that.
I didn't understand the dream much, but I understood when our yard-cat looked directly at me. I understood the smoking hatred in Anakin's furious green eyes. Under the waxing gibbous moon, the halo of flies rose from him to me. I understood more. I understood --
I understand. I stand under the steps, and wait for the yard to clear. Not even the possums will come near me. The three Siamese witches call me sick.
But the white light all around my head yanks me around on strings. There's a dance in the old tom yet. There are fieldmice nesting in the shed where the little red-headed boys chain up their dog, the one they call Evil. The long hedge-city at the edge of the yard is my house. The neighbors expect me to die there. If only I could do so, lie down in the leaves and cast off the yoke, the wheel, the duty. . .
There is hope. There is always hope. I had two legs once. So shall it be again. . .
I always woke from that dream with an aching jaw, tongue bloody in the shape of filled back molars, every scar itching and aching in the dawn's early light. It never made any sense, not even at the end.
The black cat first started coming around right after we moved in. I was delighted. Black cats were always my favorite. They had the most personality.
My wife and I were picked for ownership by two yard cats. I named the calico Ananda, the Sanskrit word for bliss, because she only showed up when I wasn't looking for her. She had a frayed pink collar with a bell on it, signifying domesticity sometime long ago.
That collar was about to fall off. She seemed to prefer miaowing at back doors, eating some food, being very sweet for an hour and moving on. Our landlady Anita next door let her into their house all the time. She (Ananda, not our landlady) tried coming into our house a few times, but quickly became what bouncers call a permanent exclusion after our very territorial Lynx-point Katmandu resumed his practice of heavy spraying afterward. Katmandu did not play well with others of his species, at least not inside.
Ananda was a hoot. She would follow me around the yard while I tended to our massive plots of tomatoes and zucchini. She was one of those cats who talks when birds are near, making little sounds just before leaping for it. A certain male bluejay, who had also adopted us very early, was the permanent target of the little calico's ire. Every day, she went after him, and regularly fell out of one or the other fruit trees in vain attempts to take him down.
Ananda could stay, I decided. Just not in the house. As far as the black tomcat was concerned, I really wasn't so sure. At first, he would circle the house in the evening, eventually coming up on the porch while I smoked a cigarette before turning in. The look in his eyes told me that, in one life or another, he'd been human. Maybe he was someone I knew. I let it be.
After a while, he started coming by less and less. I'd grown busier by being unemployed, paradoxically enough, throwing myself into chores around the house. The disability checks came like clockwork. Satu got further along with school. The garden grew. The neighbor kids tried to kill each other. Stuff like that.
For as long as I can remember, I've tried to adopt feral cats. Very often, the results there are predictable. Either they don't want to get close enough, or they run away like Ananda must have done from somewhere nearby at some point.
Our neighborhood was lousy with feral cats. As spring waxed ascendant, I started seeing more and more black cats bleached in weird spots, as if some sadistic child had been after them with harsh chemicals from the garage. That segment of the local feral-kitty population only showed up when I was drunk. That wasn't much. Any more. A few times a week. Seriously. And I didn't black out that often. Not any more.
Seriously. But the city was just too big to take care of them all. Even if someone were to adopt one, it would probably have feline AIDS or be missing part of its head and neck, or a back leg, or an ear. Animal Control should just do all the poor things a favor. Or so I told myself at the time.
The cold, awful spring rolled over into a muggy, verdant summer. I started going for long walks, meditating again, reading everything I could. The garden plots took off like a rocket-sled. Satu got a scholarship and a new job.
"Your cat has a broken leg," my wife told me one night in the middle of writing a paper. I glanced over at her from my own computer, where I'd been playing around on some news site."Is he here?"
I looked around. Satu chuckled, glasses twinkling in the low incandescence. "No, I saw him outside yowling at the cow-cat. Can you hear?"
I stopped and listened. The cow-cat belonged to the neighbors a block straight over. He was colored black-and-white like a Holstein milk cow. I heard his small, high voice raised in a yowl that faded into a hiss, and then the sound of scratching claws beating a hasty exit-stage-right. I rolled a smoke and went outside.
For the hundredth time, I cursed myself for not having the money to just haul him off the street, go get him fixed and vaccinated, and let him and Katmandu fight it out. Katmandu did all right with male cats, since he'd been fixed. It was really only females who got on his nerves.
The black cat was sitting in our front yard, looking defeated and making a low noise. He let me get close enough for a look, which was really all I wanted before rushing back inside for aloe and isopropyl alcohol.
"He got bit in the leg," I told Satu, who was tying back her head of fabulous rainbow dreadlocks while typing with the other hand. She looked at the two bottles I had. "Well, I dunno. See what you can do. Need any help?"
I shook my head, feeling an odd pressure at the back of my neck. I knew that pressure from three years as a bouncer, but didn't understand the danger-sense one little bit. "I got this." She snapped the ponytail into place and shrugged. "Okay."
Outside, the wheeling stars overhead were maddeningly beautiful. I wasn't used to seeing stars. In our old neighborhood, there were two or three visible on a good night. The cow-cat was gone. Across the street, two of the three Siamese with whom Katmandu loved to romp in the backyard, sat and sang to each other in their weird voices, staring straight at my crippled friend in the yard.
He looked up at me. One of his eyes was developing a cataract. I knelt down, rubbed his head. . . and pounced. He bit off part of my left index fingernail when the alcohol started to pour. I poured some on the nail in mid-stroke, flourishing the bottle like a bartender and squeezing out a glop of aloe to slather on his leg.
With as much dignity as he could, he got up and limped away into the kitty-city of tall, silent hedges at the border of our yard, throwing me a last withering look as he did.
The fingernail didn't really hurt, but it was bleeding slowly. I looked at it, wondering what I had done, what would happen, and why. Then I went inside and found the first-aid kit to make a pressure bandage. All I told Satu was, "I got him." Sagaciously, she observed my finger.
"Looks like he got you, too. His name should be Anakin."
I raised an eyebrow.
"You helped him, and he got mad and didn't come back. Sometimes, when someone's hurt badly enough, they'll bite the hand that sews their wounds. . ." She was looking at me funny when she said it, but the hangover felt like my head had been riveted together, and the look barely scanned.
Anakin got Ananda pregnant. I was sure it was him. In our yard, those two were the only permanent residents. I made her a bed under the overhang of our shed in the backyard, safe from the rain. The bed was a cardboard box, full of old clothes I didn't want and towels that were ready for the ragbag.
The tiny creature gave birth to three healthy, rambunctious kittens, all perfectly brindled black-and-calico. Three of Satu's classmates in the Art Therapy program at Lewis and Clark swooped down and grabbed the babies as soon as they were off the teat, so quickly that I barely had time to get used to them. Ananda resumed her eternal Looney Tunes war with the bluejay after a day of bed rest. I came to wonder whether there was any end to the feline drama in my neighborhood.
Then came the night of the raccoon I startled, out by Ananda's rough nest under the eaves of the shed. The big fellow knocked over her water dish, where he'd been washing a handful of her food, and lumbered off, dragging his belly behind him, belching like a drunken trucker. Later, I heard feline yowls and more belches. Predictably, the belches stopped, and the yowls escalated. The cops came and went. I filled out a statement and went back to bed.
I woke up a lot that night. I think, reorienting to the new house I still wasn't used to, just wanting to shrug it all off and find a cool, dark corner. My eyes burned. I smelled bleach. There were cuts on my hands from a thick, sharp blade.
Then my focus began to peel away with a pain I can't even fathom. I disconnected completely, remembering something about using the sickles to trim something down, something where I had to bend. . . like. . . so. . .Half in a dream, I never bothered to ask the next question until I went out to have my morning coffee and cigarette on the porch.
Anakin was curled up like some grisly trapper's offering in the white canvas camp-chair, making it rapidly not-so-white with sebum and blood and a hundred foul humours. His throat was laid open on the right side, matted so badly with blood and fur that I couldn't tell the extent of the damage. Some of his neck was gone, and quite a bit of his scalp. I heard the camera whirring in my head, powerless to look away. REWIND. PLAY. REWIND. PLAY. REWIND. PLAY.
I ran to find the alcohol again. He was gone when I got back outside.
"Damn it!" I slammed the door when I came back in. Satu got an earful, but what could anyone do?
She gave me a big hug and told me she had to get to the bus. I spent the rest of the day looking at classified ads on line, not really knowing what jobs I was applying for. Nobody called back that day. When the mail came, there were no checks, only a bill from the Division of Child Support. There was nothing I could do about that, either. That wound was so old, there was nothing for it.
That day, I got a temp job silkscreening t-shirts in a big warehouse across town for a few weeks. We spent the night celebrating at a friend's house, then woke to giggle our way out the door for Turkish coffee and baklavah. The world was a very bright and fertile place. I couldn't stop smiling.
But I couldn't live on dreams and maybes, either. Satu was supporting my dumb monkey ass, most of the time. Every night, I dreamed of my little girl, who'd been stolen from my life for as long as her mother could get away with it. She'd just turned seven. Seven. The very word made me see every new laugh-line on my face, and every strand of silver in my hair. My sleep grew worse and worse, until I woke Satu at least once a night (after which I'd go sleep in the recliner. )
Katmandu was a great comfort to me then. Being half-Siamese, he had an odd habit of barking and twittering and making very un-catlike noises while jumping into my lap hard enough to make sure I'd never father any more children. I didn't mind. I would scratch his head and bask in his normalcy, delighted by his lack of wounds. Though he was ornery most of the time, he knew when I was sad.
Cue ahead three weeks. Stop. Play.
One bowl of cold oatmeal with brown sugar, staring up at me like a sick eye on a rainy morning alone, unemployed again. Satu had class at nine. I woke up at ten when the mail came. I opened the door.
Anakin was trembling in the chair. Sparks of death clung to his fur, more matted now than I remembered. The cataract in his right eye was bigger, brighter blue, eclipsing the whole right corner. And the wound. . .
I ran inside, this time for a can of tuna and a big mixing bowl I filled with water, spilling it three times in the process. Katmandu twittered at me, having appeared in the kitchen with that instantaneous teleportation common to his species. "Not for you," I admonished, and filled his food dish.
There was no way Anakin could have eaten dry food. I could see the tuna going down his throat when he swallowed. The wound was septic, peeling away in a gigantic, scaly flap of skin around the perfect vertebrae and the hole that went right through the esophagus. He got most of the tuna down.
No matter how far I backed away, I could still smell the wound. No matter how closely I peered, the sepsis and gangrene and whatever else just kept looking worse and worse. There was no way this animal should have been upright and taking nourishment. But there he was, doing exactly that.
"What do you want?" It all came out in a breathy whisper. Hardly were the words out when his sad, battered head bobbed up from the can of tuna and nosed forward. He made a noise that would have made any of the three Siamese grind their teeth in their sleep.
I reached forward and scratched his head. He lay down before me and let me. But when I moved to grab him, he was --
Gone twenty feet across the yard in less than the time it took my eyelids to complete a blink. The hole in his neck breathed like a separate mouth. I went inside, sterilized, and curled up in a ball on the bed, not remembering what I'd been about to do for the rest of the day.
But I knew where I kept the .22, under lock and key in the back closet. Satu hated guns. This one was an heirloom.
Then I took my last twenty bucks to the King of Swords, a biker bar down the street with a big wood-burned sign over the door reading NO COPS ALLOWED. At the King, I loaded the jukebox with Metallica and drank two pitchers of beer to nerve myself up. A few of the older heads there heard my tale and bought me a shot. Each. After a while, things started to get non-linear and make a lot less sense. After a while, that was all right.
I remember taking the long way home, with at least enough remaining sense to walk. It was a way I told myself I hadn't been, yet all the houses looked so familiar, the backyards disturbingly so.
Everywhere, garages were marked with small dots of different-colored Krylon, like a cat marking its territory. I remembered the smell of gold paint from nowhere, gold as the paint splashed across the hindquarters of the cat that nosed its way out of one shed and hissed at me. It had a wound in its neck like Anakin's, but on the opposite side, and not as deep. Must have. . .
Missed, the sickle flying from my hand with the force of the swing, clanging into the street. A light went on up the block. There was blood on my shoes. I --
Huh? There were a pair of sickles in our shed, from the landlady, but Anita also had a string-trimmer she let me borrow, I hadn't -- I looked down at my sneakers. The laces were dark with old brown crud soaked into the cotton, yellow at the edges. Like the chair on the porch before I washed the cover, like . . .
Something took hold of my senses and straightened my spine. Everything would be okay. Everything would work out. Just one more night, one more night to slip out . . .
I lost track of time on an unfamiliar corner, remembering only that I'd sat down on the curb by a fire-hydrant to try and sober up. There was a vast roaring in my ears. My broken mind remembered watching "The Gods Must Be Crazy" with Satu one lazy Sunday, the way that the Kalahari bushmen would apologize to an animal before they put it down.
My mother was raised in the South, and imparted to me that when an animal is in pain, death is a mercy. I hoped there wouldn't be much mess, but knew there would.
The city was too big to take care of them all. Like my poor tomcat, Sylvester. Didn't even look anything like a Sylvester. Big and orange and when that possum tied into him, I saw him in the shoebox before Mom closed the lid and sped off to the vet and his head, his head --
Some sober part of my brain got me inside to lie down. Everything would work out. It was full dark in the house, with no wounds to break night's hide. Hide . . .
. . .Seek. Snatched from the random, grotesque jaws of Death, nerves exposed. Each ring of pain murders the last. And then . . . All of a sudden, I have all the time in the world to think. The terror is simply not here. Some part of my mind was listening all along. I've been waking up more and more lately. But now I'm awake all the way.
I smell madness, alcohol, desperation. I want to eat and drink for real. I have the worst taste in my mouth.
Something tells me these days are gone for good now.
I was really far gone inside myself back there. I got so cowed and neurotic and seared by what went on in the immediate day-to-day that I forgot who I was. I can't think about that, or my brain will bash itself to bits against the walls of my skull.
I'm a living, breathing itch. Best not to think too far ahead. I hiss with pain, trying to roll over. The gray turns white-hot, then black. I drift back through memories, moving through them without a form.
The tension and bitterness and pain in here are as thick as cigarette smoke. This all happened so quickly that I'm still pushed up under a bubble inside my head, cowering at the core. My dreaming tonight has been so busy that it barely feels like a rest.
Something else is happening, some red tide of rage, unbridled, surging and lapping out from the motor in my lungs. This breathing in and out, out and in, this crimson sea falling over my sight, falling, falling. . .The red curtain over my eyes pulls back the tiniest bit.
My heart locks into a little ball of stone as I behold my tormentor hovering over me. I open my mouth to scream, but can only manage a tidal exhale just as he gasps. Something else is happening. In and out . . . Out and in.
I look down at the twitching, dying carcass on the floor of the little bungalow. It's not pretty. "Rabies?" Satu asks behind me. I shrug. My voice comes easier than I thought it would.
"Dunno. I just left the back door open when I was asleep. It -- "
I look away. I cannot continue. Satu comes and puts her arms around me. No one will ever, ever know. Better this way.
He was half-insane anyway. With all those wounds left unhealed, who wouldn't be? Easy to work with. I witched him into making all the sacrifices for me. Of the two, my job was easiest. I kick the carcass on the floor, wondering if he can still hear me in there as the clay begins to cool. All that stuff is going to be hell to get out of the carpet.
Dropping to one knee, I slide him into the black trash bag, crying great big crocodile tears. I slap him on the rump as I walk outside whistling, and whisper the only word he needs to hear,
Out in the corn, the three Siamese have been watching the whole time. The sleek one sits with her paws out flat, yowling, unblinking, kneading a loose configuration of twigs fallen from the apple tree. The burly, big-shouldered middle one bats at a pile of flat stones. The runty one is playing with a snarl of yarn. As I watch, she bites through it and spits it out.
The shovel is in the same shed as the pruning hooks. It's all over but the burial. I haven't had human form in this part of the world for some time, and with a sweet little wifeling to boot, and these new things, these computers. . .
After the job is done, I go inside, accessing memories at a mile a minute, trying not to look over my shoulder, pretending nothing's wrong. Soon the streets shall be purged of all the dying strays, all this overpopulation, all this choking-out. Every death shall be rendered unto my name. Soon the old ways of sacrifice shall return to this land.
Tomorrow belongs to me.
- END -