|Jul/Aug 2015 Fiction|
Photography by Lydia Selk
Under the boy's bed the birth occurred.
He had not imagined this.
For weeks the stray cat he was feeding in secret—his parents had seemed to forbid him from nourishing the thing—had been growing fatter. The boy was glad, for the cat when he first discovered it at the edge of the woods did not even look like a cat, but like a skeleton moving within a grayish sack. Feasting on the table scraps the boy slid under the porch each night, the beast soon resembled a cat again, silver-gray as the bark on the ash-tree under which the boy had found it, eyes green or yellow according to the light, and big, too big for a normal cat, more the size a one-year-old child walking on all fours.
But then the cat's belly became round, perfectly round. Did it have a stone in its gut, the boy wondered, or that ball he had heard of in a story his country grandmother had told him?
She was gray, too, her skin as much as her hair, ready to die, his parents had said, but the old woman told him just before she got buried about a boy who lived in a dream and had a ball the size of big pumpkin. This ball wasn't magic as you might think, only strange, making the boy believe things were true that were not.
The boy was old enough to know that within the cat's belly was not the weird ball and not a stone. He was also old enough to know that if he asked his parents what was rounding this cat's gut, they would say, if they answered at all, babies. But there were no kittens here. The boy could tell by the way the belly pulsed when he touched it that day. It was like one large heart, thudding, thudding—not like little squirming creatures.
When the boy tried to touch the beating gut again the next day, the cat hissed and scratched him.
Weeks later, five red lines still marked the boy's left hand. When his parents asked him why these marks had appeared, he said he was running over rocks and had tripped and scraped his hand. His parents paused when he said this, as if they knew he was lying, but then they kept moving, never asking him again about the wound, which still ached and kept him awake some nights.
Then one evening, when the boy laid the table scraps under the porch, the cat did not appear. The boy crawled under the porch to find the cat. He could not see very well, and he became filthy, and he banged his head on the underside of the floor of the house. He did not find the cat.
Through the boards in the floor of the house, the boy heard his parents call him inside. He waited, knowing what would happen next. The lights went out, and his parents walked upstairs and shut their door.
Usually after this happened, the boy would sit by the edge of the porch and talk to the cat. He would look at the cat's eyes, not green now but yellow in the fading light, and he would say things like, "What do you do when you are all alone?"
The cat would say nothing. It would look at the boy and then fall asleep.
The boy imagined the cat was thinking answers to his questions, though, and the cat would have said, if it had been able to speak, "When I am alone, I do not feel alone because in the forest nothing is separate from anything else; everything hides in the same darkness."
Now the gray cat was gone. Did it leave what was in its gut behind? The boy again searched around under the porch, feeling around as best he could in the darkness. He found nothing.
The boy crawled from under the porch. There was no moon that night. Still, the bark on the ash tree at the edge of the forest shone.
The cat was inside the tree.
So the boy thought.
The boy ran toward the tree. He tripped on the head-sized rock between his house and the tree. He scraped his left hand. He looked where he scraped it. Blood covered the back of his hand. He could not see the five stripes. The hand ached anew.
The boy continued to the tree. By the time he reached it, he felt wind on his face. The wind was cold, even though the season was summer.
The boy placed his hand on the trunk of the tree. He wanted the bark to pulse, thud, thud, as the cat's belly had done. The bark did not move.
The boy ran his hand up and down the shining tree, feeling for a bulge. The trunk, aside from some rough knots, was flat. But the trunk swayed in the rising wind.
A sound other than the wind came from the forest on the other side of the tree. The boy stepped toward the sound. He heard only the wind.
The boy was in the forest. His parents had seemed not to want him to enter there, so he had never done so.
The boy stepped three more times into the forest. He looked back. He could no longer see the ash tree. He saw only dark air and darker trees.
He listened again for the sound he had heard that was not the wind.
There it was. A hissing, a cat's hissing.
The boy knew what this meant. The gray cat was within the forest, and the cat was in danger.
He had heard the gray cat hiss the second day he touched its belly. He had also heard it hiss on that day his parents had tried to coax the cat from under the porch. They had said it was bad luck for a creature like that to live under the house. They stuck their hands under the house and gently called, "Kitty, kitty." The cat hissed. His parents returned to the house, shaking their heads. They spoke no more of the matter.
The cat was now hissing from within the forest. The cat was in danger. The boy would help the cat.
The boy walked toward the sound. He moved around the darker shapes, but he stumbled over roots and rocks and vines on the ground. He fell several times, but he kept pushing deeper into the forest, alert for the hissing.
Then the wind stopped.
The boy listened for the hissing. No sound was now in the forest.
The boy gently called the cat, just as his parents did that night.
The dark air bore no noise.
The boy sat down.
The boy was in the middle of the forest, and he did not know how to get out of the forest. He was lost.
Why had his parents not made him come back inside the house? Why had they allowed him to enter the forest alone?
The boy had not been afraid when he was looking for the cat. But now he did grow afraid.
That sick quivering in his belly was there, like the time his parents had accidentally locked him in the cellar. For a day, maybe two, maybe three—his parents never told him how long—he was trapped. He called and called, but no one came. Only when his grandmother came down for potatoes was he discovered.
This was before she was ready to die.
The boy now remembered his grandmother's story about the boy in the dream with the ball that was not magic but made him believe strange things.
Afraid in his belly, the boy thought the darker shapes were moving.
The boy stood up. He started to run.
The boy slammed into a tree and fell to the ground.
He was lying on his back. He was breathing hard, air hissing through his mouth.
That's when he saw what he saw.
Two eyes, head-sized, yellow-green-gray, falling from the sky, no face, only eyes, rushing straight for his face.
The boy closed his own eyes, shielded his face with his hands.
The boy stood up. He was no longer afraid, and he knew the way to his house. He walked there quickly, as if the dark trees did not exist.
He entered the house and then his room, and he slept.
The boy awoke. His left hand ached. He looked at it in the sunlight. It was covered in blood.
Something was under his bed.
The boy was not afraid. He crawled out of bed and stared into the space between the floor and his bed.
The gray skin was not as large as he would have thought, given the size of what was once inside of it. It rested on the floor like an empty sack. Blood stained the edges.
The boy had not thought that two round things were inside all this time. Perhaps the smaller one was inside the bigger, like the Russian dolls his now buried grandmother had given him.
The heads really were not as round as he had imagined, either. And he should have known they would not be the heads of cats.
Now nothing would be forbidden to the boy. He could feed the two bodies under the porch. He could walk into the forest when he liked. And he would no longer be lonely, since he was hiding in the same darkness as all the other creatures.