Jeremy G Byrne
Hmmm. Have I mentioned that I've always hated cats? Well, that's probably a bit of
an exaggeration. Let's just say I rank them with Diet Coke, "Stairway to Heaven" and
Stephen King novels as things some people claim to enjoy, but I expend considerable
energy avoiding. Not that I'm crazy about dogs either, but I feel a lot more comfortable
with them. I suppose it's because I grew up with dogs; old dogs, and not cats.
You know I lived with my parents until I was about twenty one? Well, we must have gone
through about half-a-dozen old dogs in that time. They all had names like Scruffy or
Bluey or just plain Dog, and were the type that spent their entire lives aged ten and
a half, breaking wind under the kitchen table or stretched as inconveniently as possible
in front of the fire in the living room. I can recall at least four of these old
dogs by name, but I'm sure we bought them as pups and only ever had one at a time.
The math doesn't work, but memory's funny like that.
The pink thing had about eleven legs. It was warm like vomit and smelt worse, and it seemed intent on filling my ears, eyes and nose with various appendages while building a nest in my hair.
I wouldn't like to repeat the sound I made, but if you can imagine a lot of vowel sounds shouted very loudly down the wrong end of a Tuba you'd come close. Believe me, it wasn't a pleasant thing to hear, let alone utter. I was completely incapacitated for a good ten seconds while this thing struggled around up there, but I finally had the sense to simply nod my head with a bit of force and the creature plopped to the paving at my feet.
Viewed in the rosy light of hindsight, it wasn't very horrible after all. In fact, despite being a nearly iridescent coral pink and covered in a complex tracery of fine brown lines like an arterial system with delusions of grandeur, weighing in at about three pounds and having antennae twice the length of its body, it could have belonged to the grasshopper family without too much entomological upheaval. However, Tizzy wasn't interested in unusual biological variations not directly related to flavour or nutritional value, and just as the creature was preparing to make a break, she pounced.
The huge insect managed to jump clear, moving fast but weirdly, like a Willis O'Brien stop-motion model from a 30's silent monster flick, but Tizzy wasn't far behind. In a final, desperate move, the thing fanned out a set of enormous filmy wings, reared back on its hind legs, and, for the last time in its life, chirped. The bluff failed, Tizzy lunged, there was a crunching sound that made me want to unswallow my breakfast and, just as I decided it might be a good idea to retain the body as evidence for my Committal hearing, Tizzy jumped the fence and was away. I did, however, find a six-inch antennae on the bricks where she had dispatched the beast, and I'd have it still if I hadn't lost it later.
For a while after the Big Pink Grasshopper Incident, which Jenny and I managed to rationalize away as being within the bounds of possibility given the diversity of the insect world, the wide-ranging activity of the cat herself and our proximity to a large area of untamed parkland - you know, total bullshit - Tizzy continued her regular nightly excursions. Although nothing as spectacular resulted from them, I did find her playing with a very strange bluish-grey leaf that came from no tree I've ever seen, and once she came back with a coat-full of bright orange, spiny caryopses that my rusty university botany couldn't identify with any grasses in this part of the country (or, if I really have to admit it, with any grasses on this continent). Then one day, somewhere far, far away, Tizzy met something that either didn't like her at all or thought it might like her a lot, in an inconveniently gustatory sense, and she came back soaked in grume.
I don't know to this day exactly what the goop was. All I know is that it was extremely nasty. There was no dismissing this stuff as sickly sweet, mildly malodorous or euphemistically distasteful; it was unutterably horrid, stomach-churningly effluvial and compulsorily avoidable, to coin a phrase. It smelt like the inside of a horse on a hot day and probably came from somewhere a lot worse. I mean, if you could have packaged this stuff right, called it "Galactic Mutant Monster Muck" and organised a movie tie-in, you could've made a killing in the Nasty Toy market. Tizzy was drenched from head to foot in it, and what made the situation just that much more enjoyable for all concerned was the way she woke up Jenny and I that morning (we leave the window open for her) by jumping on the bed.
If there's anything in this world more pitiable than a wet cat, especially a long-haired cat like Tizzy, then I've yet to see it. This gunk had soaked right through to her skin, and underneath was this sort of sticks-and-rubber creature; really thin and bony. And God was she ugly! She looked like a cross between E.T. on a really rough morning and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. It took literally hours in a bath full of industrial-strength soap powder to get it out of her fur, and of course she loved every minute of it, poor little bugger. It was only after we'd set Jenny up in front of the heater with a hair-drier and I'd gone back upstairs to wash the disgusting residue off the bath that I discovered the whole business actually had a positive aspect. What I thought were flecks of brown dirt on the bottom of the bath turned out to be fleas - dozens of them, stone dead. Tizzy was flea-free for weeks.
Jen was not very happy about the whole business. I was prepared to accept it as one of the little, unexplained mysteries of life, but she seemed to consider it a personal attack by the cat on our domestic stability. We had to get rid of the eiderdown off our bed - there was no way it would smell any better than slightly dead and the cat-sized, pinky-brown stain ignored my most determined application of Preen, White King, Caustic Soda and battery acid. (I tried the last two out of curiosity; the acid actually changed the stain to pale blue, but didn't do the quilt much good.) Jenny liked that quilt, she was fond of the leather couch Tizzy favoured as a scratching block, she enjoyed her peace and quiet and she didn't have any time at all for bizarre mystery that stepped down from the Silver Screen and came blundering and crashing into Real Life. Luckily for the furry perpetrator of this catalogue of unpleasantries, things did settle down a bit. Apart from vomiting up something resembling hairy black pudding on the kitchen bench one particularly bleary-brained Saturday morning (my brain, not hers), Tizzy was comparatively quiet over the next month or two. I mean, she even slept inside once or twice.
I haven't mentioned Tizzy's musical bent, have I? You might have noticed that she sort of warms up with a little chorus of meows in a major key of her choice before she jumps or runs anywhere, and she makes a sound like someone abusing a piano-accordian when she lands. Well, one night during this quiet period I was woken by some nasty cat noises from outside the bedroom window. I'm a lighter sleeper than Jen - I snore, so she has to sleep deeply - and I crawled out of bed as quietly as I could, because it sounded to me like someone was repeatedly bashing a cat against the wall of our carport.
Trying to stick my arm through the inside-out sleeve of the bathrobe I use as a dressing gown and pull on some underwear in case things got nasty, while simultaneously hurrying down the stairs, listening for the noise outside and being as quiet as possible myself so as not to wake Jenny up, ended with me on my back at the bottom of the stairs, my bathrobe ripped from neck to waist and Jennifer very much awake. By this time I was less than amused myself. I spent a good minute or two fumbling at the front door lock in the dark before flicking on the hall light in exasperation, which left me as blind as a mole and about as effective, and finally tearing open the front door to peer into the night.
Picture this: Tizzy, all alone and totally absorbed in herself, springing high into the air, and I mean six or seven feet, at a bright shaft of moonlight streaming through a hole in the carport roof. Every time she took off she'd squeak, and every time she landed she'd squeal. And she was purring like a steam train the whole time. I couldn't be angry - she looked so cute - but believe me, I tried very hard at the time.
Anyway, to get back to the story, Tizzy's caution lasted a couple of months, but wanderlust got the better of her at last, as I strongly suspected it would. One afternoon last November Jenny had something really vile to show me when I got back from work. She'd beaten me home and had been in an uncommonly moderate mood, but by the time I arrived she was very upset and angry. Actually, I'd spent about three quarters of an hour and half a roll of packing tape cleaning long white cat-hairs off my suit coat before an important meeting earlier in the day, so I wasn't feeling particularly partial to feline foolishness either. Nevertheless, at the bottom of Tizzy's basket in the laundry, nestled between her slightly ragged yellow fluffy elephant and the cane, was a Thing. It was sort of a lumpy, rather rubbery, greyish-brown, flaccid kind of a thing, somewhere in size between large frog and a small hamster, and it had obviously once belonged quite intimately to something. Anatomically, even. James Thurber's "The Thirteen Clocks" has this wonderful creature called the Todal which looks like a blob of glup and is composed entirely of lip, and after I'd spent a few minutes staring stupidly at the appalling thing in the basket, I suddenly had this vision of a group of cats (what do you call that? a pride? a pack? No . . . That's it! A clowder!), a clowder of head-strong felines, led by Tizzy the Huntress, bringing down a fleeing bull Todal and tearing it to pieces on some high, snow-swept slope of Mount Karakal overlooking the Lamastry of Shangri-La, or on a wide, grassy plain beside the River Alph which flows past the ruins of the pleasure dome of Xanadu. And she'd saved the juiciest bit for later.
That was really too much for Jenny. After Tizzy had shown such promise, to have her slip right back to her wicked, wicked ways was such a terrible let-down for Jen that she made it clear she never wanted anything to do with the cat again. I've since forgiven her because she was going through a rough patch with her family and was quite depressed, but at the time it seemed grossly unfair to lumber me with the damn cat when she certainly hadn't been my choice of pet in the first place. It was getting on for early Summer by this time and Jen and I were going out separately more often than we had for quite a while. This wasn't just because we shared the high anxiety of living with the feline equivalent of Indiana Jones on Speed, although that didn't help. I think we'd reached that difficult point in our relationship when we realised that we were pretty much committed to one another for a long stretch and we'd have to come up with a better excuse than "the rent's cheaper by half, she likes my cooking and I can only pick the difference between a washing machine and a microwave three times in four". A couple of other things had come up at the time that really made us think about where we were headed, and I believe the realization that you're about to lose the freedom of irresponsible youth is always a bit unsettling. Jenny's problems had really been coming thick and fast and she seemed to need a lot of time by herself. It was on one of those emotionally chilly evenings, when the temperature was in the high thirties and Jenny had decided to catch a movie on her lonesome, that Tizzy finally went altogether too far.
As I say, it was hot that night. Not that the heat was actively oppressive or anything, it just seemed to wrap itself around the house and me, like I was living in a sock. It must have been some time after eleven, and I was indulging in an ice-cold shower before a sleepless lie-down for the few hours till dawn. You'd have expected the shower to have drowned the sounds, but after all those months I guess I was somehow tuned in. I turned the water off to be sure I'd heard what I thought I had, and as the pipes gurgled it away Tizzy's meow came again. You get to know when a cat wants your attention. Whether it's to be let outside, to be allowed to eat the rest of the biscuit you thought you were sharing, to have her head rubbed behind the ears or just to remind you that she's there, there's no mistaking that insistent sound. With a cat it's never "whenever you're ready" or even "could you hurry it up a bit". No! It's "yesterday, Bozo" and "it'll go very rough on the curtains and the carpet if you keep me waiting again". So of course, I had no choice if I wanted to stay friendly with the neighbours, because she wasn't going to shut up until I obeyed. Damn cat was always ruining my showers.
Despite myself though, I must admit something made me feel it'd be different this time. Tizzy had been gone since the previous morning and even Jenny, though she'd never have admitted it, had started to worry. The house felt very empty and most of the lights were off downstairs. I remember the shadows seemed darker than normal, the street sounds were sort of distant and muted and the night felt kind of heavy and old. I'd just reached the back door when I realised that there was something wrong with the cat's cry. What I'd mistaken from a storey up and three rooms away as an indignant demand now seemed, from the other side of a thin, wooden door, more like a fearful pleading.
Just then, just as I began to unlock the door, there came a sound I'll never forget. I suppose it was natural enough for the caller to bang on the door when I was slow in answering, but the sound itself was definitely not normal. I'd never heard anything like it before, but it sounded for all the world like somebody knocking on my door with a squid. Why I didn't stop then, I can't tell you. It's not that I regret it now, but I sure as Hell did then.
Never try to build a Cephalopod without the manual - I've seen the result. When I opened the door it was lurking in the shadows right in front of me. Now, I've also seen people in silly rubber suits - wonderful latex creations that cost tens of thousands, take hours to put on and longer to remove and make actors look just exactly like actors in silly rubber suits. Some of them were even vaguely convincing, in their way. But I know one when I see one, and I wasn't seeing one then. Not that what I was seeing wasn't silly, mind you - it just wasn't a rubber suit.
It had the features you might expect in your typical Horrible Fish Monster; a surfeit of scaly protuberances, a plethora of pseudopodia and myriad other anatomical irrelevancies, none of which seemed to occupy even vaguely sensible positions, at least at first. As I stared, however, a certain fearful symmetry emerged, centred around a pair of great, gibbous eyes. It was like Jaques Cousteau and Georges Braque had collaborated on construction but couldn't afford to finish, and it smelt like Moby Dick was buried in it. Don't misunderstand - I'm only being flippant in retrospect: at the time I was paralysed.
I think if it had spoken, I would have carked it on the spot, but apparently vocal apparatus exceeded the budget. Its big, round eyes spoke volumes though: disdain, impatience and something I recognised instantly - a strong dislike of cats. It was only when she cried that pitiful cry again that I even noticed Tizzy. The pelagic Picasso had her in a manipulative appendage, dangling by the end of her tail.
Wherever she'd been this time, it had been near some kind of ocean. I could see the salt on her fur and practically smell the fish on her breath (had it not been for Mister Black Lagoon). No doubt she'd been having a great time, but now she wasn't. I stood there for a moment, caught between a mild sense of responsibility for the errant pussycat and a desperate concern for my sanity, bodily integrity and digestion. Unfortunately, I'll never know what I would have done, because the only one of the three of us who seemed at least modestly unperturbed chose that moment to act.
The distance between us was a good twelve or thirteen feet - I imagine our piscine interloper had retreated from the door after its knocking - but from somewhere in its bulbous body the tentacular extension holding the cat found the mass and muscle to bridge that gap. Tizzy was dangled in front of my face for a second pregnant with unlanguaged imprecation, then dropped. I can't really blame her for the claws, but I've still got the scratches to prove that my reflexes were up to the challenge, and I caught her at waist height. While Tizzy lay there in my arms, stiff as a board and grafted to my stomach, the creature fixed me with a gaze that left me with no doubt that I was lucky to see the idiot cat back at all and that if it ever caught her back wherever it had come from again, its altruistic spirit of goodwill could be severely strained. Then, having made its point, the creature turned away into the warm shadows and vanished.
I can't imagine what mystic bridge my visitor used to cross back to the Twilight Zone - I wasn't about to follow it to find out. Besides, Tizzy was shivering, probably more from shock than from cold, and I needed to sit down a lot. Once I'd surgically separated her from my midriff, the cat was not much worse for wear. Her tail was sort of burnt and she had a few cuts on her nose, but she lay down in her basket and went straight to sleep, the little swine. I, on the other hand, had to sit up for three and a half hours watching Rock-and-Wrestling with all the lights turned on until Jenny got back from her movie.
Tizzy doesn't roam much any more. Jenny thinks it's because we've had her spayed.
I've never actually told her what happened that night and I'd appreciate it if
you didn't tell her either - she has doubts about my sanity already. I think
the mysteries of the beyond places still call to our Tizzy, but her little pointy
ears are deaf - not that she's totally cowed by her experience, just a bit wiser
Originally appeared pp07-18, Eidolon Issue 02, August 1990.
Copyright © Jeremy G Byrne, 1990. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.
Eidolon Publications 1995-2005
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