BY MEL MASSEY
Copyright is held by the author. Read Part Two here.
THE LITTLE black cat flickered up the stairs and drifted across the porch. Now she was almost at my lounge chair, her thin tail flicking in an imaginary breeze.
I dropped the thriller onto the floor feeling a little guilty because it was a library book.
“Hi Shmolin,” I said. “Have you come over for the sunshine and a visit? I won’t be very good company because of this lousy book. It’s just a pile of words.”
My voice trailed off as she flowed from the floor onto the arm of the chair. I knew what was coming and leaned back like someone on an operating table. As usual, my feline friend walked up my stomach onto my chest and stretched out with her face over mine. She kneaded her paws and purred looking into my eyes.
She was the most presumptuous cat I had ever encountered. Also the friendliest. There was only one thing wrong with the picture; I am seriously allergic to cats. I am also asthmatic. The reaction starts in my nose and travels through my airways. It feels as if they’re filling up with fibreglass insulation. I appreciate interspecies closeness, but this was a health issue.
“You shouldn’t let me lie on your chest, Danny,” she said, in a surprisingly deep voice for such a small being. “You’re allergic to cats. I can hear your breathing. Raspy, like me purring. Only you can’t.”
She let out a few snorts, her version of chuckling.
“You know, Shmolin,” I said, “you’re awfully forward. If you were a human, they’d call you a tramp. On the other hand, maybe you’re just crazy about me. Is that it?”
She looked away, pretending to be interested in the front yard. Cats do that when they are embarrassed. She pushed at my chest and I felt claws pricking through two layers of cloth.
Her eyes glowed green around the black pupils.
“Because you’re tall and have brown hair you think you have the right to make fun of me. Anyhow, your eyes are small and brown in that white face and can’t even see at night. ”
“You’re the wrong species, Danny boy.” She continued, “also, you’re married. I don’t know what you’re thinking to say such stupid things. You probably just want to be outrageous and show how important you are.” She paused and inspected me through narrowed eyes.”
“However, you can still be useful and I don’t mean only as a doormat. Why don’t you get me some of that stuff from your place?”
She jumped down and ambled over to the door. I saw how tiny she was, a wispy black form. She wanted to go inside with me and I almost let her. Then reason won out and I lifted her away. She was so light with downy fur.
She looked up at me.
“Why don’t you let me in?”
“I won’t let you into the house because I can’t breathe air with your fur in it. You said it yourself.”
“Just for a minute. That won’t hurt you. While you’re getting the stuff for me.”
I knew letting Shmolin into the house, even for the time it took me to find her catnip, would set a precedent. I closed the door carefully, not wanting to catch any part of her if she made a run for it. Still, it felt bad to shut her out.
When I came out, she was pacing back and forth working her tail. She stopped when I sprinkled some of the green powder at her feet. She didn’t say anything but her glance was thanks enough; it also contained a guarded appraisal.
“Mmm, this is quite nice, Danny Boy,” she said rolling on the powdered herb until it covered her coat like dusty straw.
There was something abandoned in her belly-up writhing. I felt like rubbing her stomach, but I had learned not to. That would trigger a swipe of claw across the back of my hand. Then she would say, “I told you not to touch me when I’m celebrating. Nothing personal, but you know it’s not polite.” I didn’t know that, but never contested the point.
“So Shmolin,” I said once I was back in the porch chair, “I’d like to know something.”
“Anything, Danny,” she said, twisting her neck to lick her shoulder. I thought she would dislocate something but her neck was amazingly flexible. Her contortions emphasized that my pal belonged to an entirely different species. I was unsure of the next question. I had never raised the subject.
“You know, they say black cats are different from other animals,” I began.
“Yeah, I know,” she interrupted. “We’re supposed to bring bad luck and all that. I like to run in front of people before they can stop, and see how worried they look. It’s also nice of you to call me an ‘animal’, buddy.”
“That’s sheer superstition,” I said, “What I’d really like to know is whether you are a familiar to someone or something.”
“Of course I’m familiar, like I’ve been coming around since spring. You’d have to be pretty thick not to notice,” she said but she stopped moving. I had her full attention and her emerald eyes fixed on me.
“I mean, is there a personage, some sort of witch, warlock or whatever somewhere you report to; magic, that sort of thing?” I asked.
A cloud crossed the sun. The temperature dropped and a breeze blew around the pointy spring leaves, the same vivid green as Shmolin’s eyes. She had stopped paying attention to the catnip and was watching me. The sunny part of the day had passed and late afternoon had arrived. It was time to think of a cup of hot coffee and getting back to work.
I wrote information manuals for small drug retailers and publicity releases for condo developers. It wasn’t steady work and didn’t pay much. It was also far from what I imagined I would be doing with a graduate degree in literature. However, the writing provided Annie and me with enough to get by. However, Annie got sick and we were living on the edge.
A woman stuffed into skinny jeans heaved up the sidewalk behind a chocolate lab. It headed for our lawn. She lived in the pile of smoked plate glass up the street, the house built right to the sidewalk where I saw her getting into luxury cars. I watched her dilemma; would she let her pet onto our lawn while I was there? She pulled ineffectually at the leash as her pet mounted the scrubby grass and dropped its bum
“It’s okay,” I called out. It won’t hurt the lawn. When we had a dog, I sometimes walked her on your property.”
“Thank you,” the owner said as her dog squatted. Then she frowned, “I don’t remember seeing you.”
She wasn’t happy that I had trespassed on her property, even if it was mostly pavement.
“Well, it was early in the morning,” I said.
She pulled out a plastic bag and groped her hand onto the large mound. The powerful dog pulled towards the park, drooling and yanking her other arm.
“Barbarians,” Shmolin muttered when owner and dog had disappeared. Then she lit into me.
“You’ve got quite the imagination, boy-o,” she said. “Ever since you took that weird medieval course at the University of Universal Ignorance you see a unicorn horn poking out of every bush and broomsticks against the full moon. Wise up, will you?”
“I was just thinking,” I said.
“Well, stop it. That should be easy enough for you. Go eat some sardines with a glass of milk. Brain food. And pick up that library book; it’s going to get filthy on the porch you didn’t sweep.”
That was playing dirty. My wife had assigned me one task that day and I hadn’t even rounded up a broom.
I could see Shmolin was working up a real head of steam. She didn’t curse me out frequently, but when she did, usually for sending her home in the rain, it was stinging. She had a way with words, even in English and I didn’t want to aggravate her further. I was nonplussed.
At that moment, Lincoln glided up the steps. He resembled a small orange panther and his golden eyes appeared friendly, until he was distracted by the twitter of a bird. Then he became truly attentive. I could imagine myself as a small living thing, skewered by that merciless stare, terrorized by the mechanical chatter, the chk-chk-chkk, from his jaws. Of course, his ancestors had hunted humans since the beginning of time, sending our forbearers cowering for safety into caves behind fires.
“Shmolin,” he said, “You’ve been at it again. The happy powder. Wizard weed. Look at you, dirty, like a kitten rolling in the litter box.” He shifted his gaze to me.
“Daniel, you should know better, tempting Shmolin to make a fool out of herself.”
“Do you want some catnip, Lincoln?” I asked with calculation, “there’s enough to go around.”
I wanted him to get a bit high, lighten up. I had never heard the cat narcotic called ‘wizard weed’ and it sounded creepy.
“Nope, something’s come up. We’ve got to go,” he said. Turning he spoke roughly to Shmolin, “Come on, you’ve wasted enough time here.”
Instead of leaving, Shmolin stuck her little black face in her roommate’s orange mug and hissed. It was not a pleasant sound, not one associated with pets.
These cat neighbours rarely spoke to each other when I was around. When they did, it was in low whines and half snarls. They always spoke conversationally, with what I interpreted as respect. This time the exchange was troublesome.
The voices became deeper, grating. Fur stood up along their spines and tails switched uncontrollably. They even paced away from each other from time to time like warriors in combat catching their breath before ears are shredded and eyes blinded.
I was relieved they didn’t lash out. The longer they argued, the greater the chance of a fight, one that frail Shmolin was sure to lose. One swipe from a large clawed paw would injure her. Being older than Lincoln and female wouldn’t check violence or inspire pity in the cat world. Not at all.
Before I could move to break up the ruckus, Shmolin showed her fangs and emitted a low yelp, a command! The noise stopped.
The cats looked at me and the silence grew. I didn’t know what they expected. Finally, Lincoln spoke in a reluctant growl as if the sounds were being dragged out of him. He paced back and forth not addressing me directly. I had to strain to hear him.
“Shmolin tells me that you had some awkward questions about us. Frankly, Daniel, I expected more sense from you. What is the stuff about ‘familiars and principals?’ He pronounced the words with a hiss of disgust and flattened his ears. I hadn’t used the expression ‘principal’ with Shmolin. He stopped to wash his face with a paw.
Lincoln was an entirely different customer from flirty Shmolin. She stepped lightly as nobility. He strode without a backward glance, always in hunt mode. The neighbourhood cats skulked away from him on the sidewalk and even larger dogs tugged away at their leashes.
It was months before he would condescend to speak to me. I don’t think he would have bothered if Shmolin hadn’t tormented him ceaselessly, risking a thrashing for impudence. She told him he was an oaf, a crude alley cat. Moreover, it was stupidly short sighted not to seek potential allies.
One day, without warning, he said, “you’d better take out the trash early, so you won’t forget like last week.” Whatever his message, it pointed out a defect in me or my behaviour. Come to think of it, both cats joined Annie, my wife in highlighting my shortcomings.
I didn’t know what he was going to say. Obviously, I had stirred up something by talking to Shmolin about magic.
“Lincoln,” I said, “whatever it is you want to tell me, please go ahead. It’s getting late and I have to send some e-mails. In addition, you and Shmolin should go home before your owners come looking for you. They’ll be worried you were hit by a car or something.” An SUV sped by underlining my warning.
I put the bag away. “I’ll take the catnip or wizard weed as you call it, inside. You can have some tomorrow if you’re in a better mood.”
I was being provocative referring to the cats’ owners. According to them, they didn’t have owners, only individuals who found pleasure feeding and housing them for as long as it suited their disposition.
I stood up. The sun had disappeared and shadows crept from the base of the old brick walls. Windows had brightened and up and down the street, porch lights welcomed overtime workers. Lincoln paced back and forth through the shadowy bars of light cast by the streetlights.
“Look” I said, “I’m going in. You and Shmolin have to leave right now.” Lincoln stopped moving and looked at me with amber globes. He continued in a cold steady tone, very different from the nasty chiding with which he had started.
“Come to think of it, Daniel, instead of wasting time in speculation which, by the way, might not be entirely free from risk, I’ll mention the back yard. Have you been there recently? Did you check the places where you threw the compost last fall? Notice anything special?” After the barrage of questions, he continued pacing. Shmolin looked on, a black cat at dusk.
He had struck a nerve! A few days earlier while weeding our garden a stench like rotting leather had made me gag. It came from a growth of bushes clumped along the fence. They had purple stems running with red bugs and white-veined leaves.
I remembered while digging up dandelions I had broken into nests of white grubs with red spots. They writhed like cut off fingers in the waste bucket. I had thought of pitching them over the fence into the back yard of the big building but couldn’t stomach the thought of the slimy things dying on the asphalt.
My wife and I had the board fence put up as high as we could afford to. It was our small yard’s only protection against the towering structure of glass and plastic a mortgage company had erected next to us. That building seemed to create filth. Every day bits of fibreglass and scraps of dirty plastic blew into our garden. At night, harsh security lighting blotted out the sky.
I blamed myself for the fleshy bushes and creepy insects. Before the snow flew, I had spread loads of stuff from our compost bin to encourage the plants and small trees. I had piled it ankle deep against the roots of the lilac bushes.
“Grow higher, block it out,” I had appealed, almost prayed. The plants were our only defence. However, the scattered layers of rotting stuff disgusted Annie. She was a perfectionist and gardened with the care of a nursery school teacher. She pruned ceaselessly and dug in bags of organic fertilizer.
“So, you actually noticed something.” Lincoln broke into my thoughts.
“Yeah, there is some weird stuff growing back there.” I said, “That’s because I put down too much compost last year. I’ll rake it out tomorrow.”
“Don’t count on that doing any good, Danny boy,” Shmolin broke in. “You don’t know what’s going on. Actually, you don’t have the faintest idea. However, you will. We’ll make sure of that.”
With a flick of her tail, she pranced across the porch, skipped down the steps and disappeared into the shadows. Lincoln followed but stopped on the walkway.
“You should come out back tonight,” he hissed, “there’s no moon and we’re going for a prowl. You might learn stuff.” He fixed me with a hard look and bounded off.