BY MEL MASSEY
ANNIE OPENED the door while I was considering Lincoln’s suggestion. She had long blond hair and wide blue eyes over shaped bones. Now, too frequently she wore a haunted look and violet crescents formed under her eyes. Her beauty was strangely strengthened by her distress and I would do anything to help her.
“What strange sounds,” she said, “I was at the upstairs window and thought the cats were going to fight. They live together and should get along. Weren’t you also saying something, talking to them?”
She waited for an answer. I didn’t want to lie to her so I kept my head down and gathered the cups and plates left over from the afternoon. I earmarked the uneaten bruised half of a grapefruit for the composter.
Facing away, my hands full, I said, “I suppose I was blabbing something. You know, it’s like talking to yourself. Helps you think. What’s for supper?” She gave me the same look she used on lying witnesses in court.
I don’t know what my wife thought of me. She had put up with years of my bizarre hobbies and low-level nuttiness. The last year, I had taken a university night course in medieval cooking. I also kept a small collection of carnivorous plants and gave them hamburger because I was too finicky to feed them live insects.
Annie started the standard conversation.
“You’re such a talented writer but you never try. Why don’t you get some interesting work instead of that commercial stuff? You can do better, Daniel, be useful, help people. Remember those things you were going to do when we met?”
“I have to do something to earn money,” I said. “I don’t have time now for research projects or novels. The technical stuff is available and it pays the bills.”
I didn’t want to say that looking after Annie was a full-time job.
Anxiety choked my breathing as I headed for the door. I needed my inhaler right away! However, she was relentless.
“The companies you write for are the same ones that put up that monstrosity in back. Sometimes you seem clueless.”
I tried to calm the troubled waters. “Aren’t we lucky you’re a sharp lawyer? You can earn enough for both of us. Remember, you bought this house.”
However, Annie would earn nothing more unless the doctors found an answer to her autoimmune disorder. She went sleepless many nights and couldn’t tolerate noise, let alone the demands of an office. This was the second year she was on disability leave, taking experimental medication. She no longer enjoyed gardening and complained bitterly about the incessant construction in our neighbourhood. Benefits had run out and she was living in the shadows. We both were.
I welcomed her scolding as a sign of renewed energy.
“Sleep well, dear,” I called out as she headed up the stairs to her noise-shielded bedroom on the third floor, “I’ll eat the curry again tonight and tomorrow I’ll clean up the compost. We can get some flowers at the market.”
There was no reply; she must not have heard me.
I put the stuff in the kitchen and went up to my study on the second floor kicking aside clothes to get to my computer.
I wrote, ‘In Centertown Village you enjoy elegant modern living high above the vital streets and boutiques of our bustling neighbourhood. You feel the urban buzz in the streets but if your vision clouds or itching develops in the armpits or groin area, cease medication immediately and call your doctor.’ Cursing, I erased the muddled text and started over.
I hadn’t decided what I was going to do, try to sleep or head into the backyard after midnight. Could I even sleep? Annie and I were going to have trouble meeting the next mortgage payment and it was painful to think about the cost of her medication.
They were waiting at the bottom of the garden steps, outlined in the light from the massive structure. I felt my way to the ground in the darkness; why was I here; what was I doing?
Shmolin’s voice drifted out of the night “I told you he’d show up,” she said. “He just pretends not to care. Under that silly reserve, he wants to know what’s going on. He may even be interested. Curiosity, eh, Dan? Remember what it did to the cat!” Tinkling laughter followed.
“Just follow us,” Lincoln said, growling. He was already in motion, sliding down the pathway on the left side leading into the garden. I followed.
I have walked in our garden thousands of times, usually during the day but also at night, sometimes after beers or wine. My wife also made sure I swept it frequently. I also thought I knew every crack in the pavement, where the cement ended and bricks began.
I stumbled and nearly fell when my foot rammed something hard. A step up to another level? Positively, I knew there was nothing there except flat bricks! I trailed more cautiously after the cats. Now, the surface was smooth, no longer concrete, probably the brickwork. Crazy! Where was I? Ahead, night vision detected a thigh-high form moving steadily and I heard large animals breathing.
“Are you oriented yet, Daniel?” Lincoln’s voice rumbled out of the night from a moving shape, followed by a ponderous chuckle, something like truck gears.
The head turned and eyes the size of oversize marbles glowed green. The critter was gigantic, the size of the stuffed Siberian tiger I had adored as a child. Back then, I had also fantasized about riding the brute but now I found the prospect wasn’t appealing.
I could sense plants everywhere. Beside the path towered what had to be a stand of bushes and tree limbs stretched overhead in a canopy. A carrion odour of rot, almost vomit underlay the plant smell. I gasped and stopped, then took a feeble step, blood hammering in my ears.
“Hey! What’s going on?” I blurted.
The vegetation muffled my exclamation. Wildly, I turned my head in the darkness. My body trembled and I whimpered. Where was the house? Where was I? I heard panting, my own deep breaths, hyperventilating. A warning whirled in my mind, “too much oxygen makes you black out.”
“Are you still with us, Danny?” Shmolin asked beside me. “Or was that just a huge mouse squeaking? Maybe I should investigate.”
It was a louder more authoritative voice than the one I knew. Her black form was beside me, as high as my thighs and long as my body. Twin eyes radiated like the dials of huge clocks Large strands of something smooth and stiff like plastic brushed my arm; whiskers!
“Now at last, I can have my way with you,” she said, with a muted slurp that could only have been a huge tongue sliding over teeth. Then she chuckled, like a mountain stream.
“Just kidding. You’re still the wrong species even though right now you’re about the right size for a midnight snack.”
“Cut it out, Shmolin,” Lincoln’s voice came out of the dark. “This part is fun for us but he has to be in shape to understand what we’re up against. He’s mostly blind and has no idea where he’s going. We’ve got to be practical.”
“Okay,” the Shmolin voice said. “Danny, why don’t you put your hand on my shoulder and just follow along. One foot after the other and you won’t fall, I promise. Unless, you’ve been drinking that bubbly pond water that makes you people crazy.” She giggled. “Let’s get going.”
I wasn’t entirely sightless because the surrounding foliage glowed softly, enough to make out shapes as my vision adjusted. I rested my hand on the body at my side. The fur was soft and thicker than the old mink coat Annie had inherited from her mother. It felt nothing like little Shmolin’s thin fur. She must have felt me trembling because she spoke vague comforting nonsense.
She talked of cat things, the nest of cute spiders under the porch, how humorous they were — so funny that even their prey, the flies, laughed. She also started to tell me about the sweet smell of the mouse nest she and Lincoln had found in the grass by the shed but changed the subject before describing the situation.
As we walked, a crazy thought came to me; I could probably ride this beast, but that would dangle my legs up near the enormous carnivore teeth. How large would they be in proportion to this animal? I thought of an illustration from a child’s book, it was Queen Boadicea of ancient Britain mounted on a tiger heading into battle against the Romans. In the picture, the point of her spear shone and the animal’s tongue was scarlet.
We followed a sand path between slabs of rock, radiating warmth from the heat of the day. I tried to match what little I could see with my knowledge of the yard. However, the disproportion was so extreme I kept losing myself. Soon the giant padding beasts ahead and beside me was the only reality, surrounded by night noises and the susurration of unseen insects. It was a jungle scented with the tropics.
Something stirred in the underbrush ahead. Muscles tensed under my hand as Shmolin stopped, then relaxed.
“The toad,” she said. “Poor thing, just about finished. Can’t hunt any more.”
It sounded more like something dragging itself than jumping. When we had first moved into the old house, at dusk I liked to watch the toads hunt. They were skilled predators — unmoving until they pounced; the mouth gaped, the tongue flashed and an insect disappeared.
Shmolin detoured around a shape on the path. It was the toad, a knee-high lump lit yellow from inside its body. The normally brown blotches on the amphibian’s back were black, and thin grey scabs littered the ground. There were occasional glowing red patches on its back and heaving sides.
“Don’t say anything,” She warned. “He’s ashamed enough. Clive is the last of his family, maybe his tribe.” She felt me shrink away from the diseased flesh. “Don’t worry. At least for the time being, you’re too warm to catch Chytrid fungus.”
When we moved into the old house, the garden had been full of toads and green and brown frogs; I even saw a pink salamander. However, I hadn’t seen an amphibian in years. Of course, back then, everything seemed better. Children played hockey on the quiet street and your neighbours didn’t complain about the peeling paint on your porch.
The humid air of the garden carried the acrid smell of the dying creature. My mind wandered; what was once bizarre was now normal, species disappearing, banana fungus and dying reefs. The sharp sword of continuous heating hung over the earth.
I sensed sinuous movement around us and a plant frond touched the skin of my neck — delicately at first, then sticking and stinging with the burning pain of acid. The plants were carnivorous! I yelped and pulled it off. It was slimy like the leech I had once pulled off my leg.
“Come on, will you?” hissed Lincoln. “Don’t complain.”
“Hurry up, slow poke,” Shmolin echoed, lashing her tail. I felt the muscles move under her fur and skin, smooth lumps flexing under my hand. I had never imagined her as being awesome powerful, but I had also never expected to walk with huge cats in our yard.
It felt like we were heading for the shed at the back of the garden and I expected to sense it in the dark. The cats would see it. The glow from the soil gained power until the dim outlines of the walls were evident. Then we were walking on broken rocks, on the gravel that led around the left side of the shed to the composter. It felt dangerous, something to do with the occult, I half remembered.
The walls of the shed rose through the branches overhead. My head reached only half as high as the bricks of the foundation. I was shrinking. Hours must have passed; it was still dark, what time was it?
“Hey,” I said. “We’re heading for the composter near the fence. The shed’s right here. Isn’t that where we’re going?” My words were croaks in the mist, wet sounds. I wanted to get back to the house. It seemed a huge distance like being in a foreign country with days of air travel and most of the planet between you and home.
“Yes, we know you’re frightened,” Lincoln said, “and you want to stop for a break, go home. However, we have to keep moving. We should be at the meeting.” When he said “meeting” the muscles of Shmolin’s back bunched and tightened and the animal odour of huge cats strengthened.
While I shrank, they had grown. I was now the size of their nocturnal prey. Some mornings, my wife and I found the bodies of small animals the cats laid out on our doormat as gifts. A thought insinuated itself into my mind; these predators were now free to take revenge on me for the times I had ignored their cries of hunger. I had once stepped on Shmolin’s tail — with a sandal, it is true, and accidentally, but afterwards she hadn’t visited for weeks.
Her side pushed against my waist, back and forth in rhythm with her prowl. The movements made it difficult for me to walk over the rocks and I opened my mouth to ask her to slow down. She cut me off.
“Danny, after this point, don’t talk. Hide. They’ll eat you or take you hostage if they catch you. Afterwards, Lincoln or I will make sure you get home. Even if I have to carry you in my mouth. Imagine!”
I heard a wet slurp in the darkness, but it wasn’t all that humorous. I pressed closer to the huge haunches and tried to coordinate my halting walk with her stride.
Ahead of us, Lincoln had slowed. The glow from his eyes lit the ferns and I judged we had rounded the side of the shed. Then we were at the opening in the front of the black pyramid of the composter.