Grimalkins

Kilmeny MacMichael

Joyanna began to see the cats three days before the fire. In the corner of her eye, a flash of marmalade fur, as she crossed the dusty yard. A grey turned to rocks in the field. Stripes melted into a tangle of wire beside the barn.

Joyanna had not suffered cats for years.

Not since a cat’s yowling woke her the day her last brother was gone. She’d risen and set their two breakfasts side by side at the long table. He didn’t come. Dread mounting in her throat, she looked for him, hesitating before each closed door. Earlier together, they had found the Dupress twins, hanging dead side by side. But she did not find him.

She wrapped herself from head to foot and went to the neighbours. Mrs. George met her on her porch, Joyanna asking, “My brother Mr. Harlan, is he here? Has he come this way?”

“I think he’s gone,” Joyanna had said. Mrs. George used to trade with them, pass words on the road.

But now Mrs. George turned away from her, saying, “Good riddance.”

Joyanna had gone home and drowned every cat she could find.

She had waited all through the winter before setting a cross for Harlan out in the cemetery, beside all the others.

Now she was the last. She was the last of a people who had been promised no end.

The pigs ran wild, the empty cabins caving. She tended the cows and chickens, and the garden. There were bats in the worship hall, she wiped guano off the alter. She kept the company of goats. She was always repairing, patching, weeding, preserving. She had no time for worrying the future. It was up to her to take care of what was now, that was all.

When she was very young, there was no trouble. She remembered the long table crowded by the strong, the happy. But since the Breaking and forsakings, each season, as there were fewer of them left, the others dared a little closer. The forest crept back into once cleared fields; the others crept into the forest. Trees felled, corn trampled. A skinned raccoon laid out by the well one night. Beyond was nothing. Beyond, they would be destroyed by the other. Here they were promised everything.

Joyanna braved going to the town twice a month, a blade in her boot, just to see people, even though they were not her people.

In the town, she gazed on the others; they both stared back at her and looked away.

When she started to see the cats again, she wasn’t sure if they were real or not. Perhaps being so alone, she now imagined companions.

She woke up dry mouthed, sun shining red through the cracks in the walls, the second day of the cats. Smoke drifted across the sun. Those who helped themselves were helped. Joyanna gathered water, and dragged the precious boxes of seed into the hall. A kitten bounded ahead of her.

The third day, the smoke hid the hills from view. The smell of bonfire filled her lungs.

She took chicken by their feet, four hens at a time; put them in the worship hall with the bats. The roosters crowed and lunged.

Mrs. George came into the yard as Joyanna pitched up a ladder to the roof carrying wet rags. She would damp down the roof, save the hall, at least, and what it held, she hoped.

Mrs. George had only set foot in their yard once before, decades before. She walked slowly about the yard, peering curiously about the buildings.

Joyanna saw cats slink behind her, twitching kinked tails.

“I’ve been thinking about those cats.” Joyanna called down to the Other woman, who jumped in surprise.

“You’re still here!” Mrs. George said accusingly. “I thought you would have left by now. You’re not going to try fighting off the fire, are you? We’re not, it’s hopeless. And you’re alone!”

“I’m not alone, or hopeless.” Joyanna said.

Mrs. George looked around again, said, “I thought all your people were dead.”

Joyanna said nothing.

Mrs. George half turned to go then turned back. “You come with me. I’ll take care of you; you don’t have to be afraid.”

“No, I stay here.”

“But it’s not safe here. There’s wildfire coming. Don’t you understand that?”

“I think the cats might be angels, or demons.”

The two women stared at each other. “We are going to the river. To cross over to the other side. It will be safe there. Away from the coming fire. Come with us.” Mrs. George said slowly.

“You ask me to leave?”

“Surely leaving is better than roasting alive!”

Anger filled Joyanna. “You all want us to leave. I remember. You shot our dogs. The doctor wouldn’t come, though the sickness did. Then you disappeared our men. Now you try to burn us. But I won’t go. We’re not frightened of you. This is ours. Nothing can take it from us.”

Mrs. George came towards the ladder, shaking her head. “Listen, Joyanna, I don’t know what you’ve been taught, but fire burns everyone equally. The past is past. You must come away. We must hurry.”

Joyanna said, “I will kick the ladder away if you come closer.”

Mrs. George threw her arms up and turned to go. As she went, the bats rose out of the crumbling lattice of the steeple. They swarmed into the sky, vanishing into smoke.

Joyanna sat on the edge of the roof, ashamed of her trembling as Mrs. George walked away. Soon she would know if her life was true. They were promised everything, here, but only here. All her life, she trusted this was true, as those around her died or went away. She kept her trust. Now she would at last learn if it was to be rewarded or obliterated.

The cats blinking in and out of her vision, she waited for the truth.

Author Portrait

Kilmeny MacMichael currently lives in western Canada's Okanagan Valley. This is the first time one of her short stories has been published.