When the cats came, they spoke to her. At their behest, the woman tamed them enough to touch them, and put out bowls of crunchy food and fresh water. They hid in the oleander bushes and this worried her because oleander bushes were toxic. One morning she came out and the female cat stood in the dirt, hunched, staring, drooling. The cat said, “This stuff is poisonous. You should have told us. I’m pregnant.”
The male had no such criticisms. He simply wanted to rub his head on the woman’s legs, and if she sat, he rubbed her breasts as if he would crawl under them, as if he would crawl right up into her.
She didn’t go out with the ladies at work as much, because the little cats needed food and water in the evening, too. The woman found the cats more interesting than her friends, who sometimes discussed things like peeling asparagus, the proper method of making corned beef hash, eyeliner. Traffic and gossip. She was tired of these things.
She named the female Gracie. Sometimes, she’d pet Gracie a while and the cat would lurch up with a squeak, and say, “Oh, man, I needed that.” Gracie’s belly grew heavy with pregnancy.
The woman named the male Chico. He dragged one leg. The woman herself had a limp, having injured her calf in a Brazilian dance class at the YMCA. And when she met Gracie, that pregnant young thing, the woman had just been informed by her gynecologist that she would need a hysterectomy. The idea of a hysterectomy made her think of the yellow grapefruits that sagged brown and bottomed out in the side yard. She’d wasted her fertility, like she wasted that fruit every winter.
When Gracie vanished for two days, the woman knew the litter was being born. She worried about the kittens being poisoned, born dead. She worried that little Gracie would die in childbirth. She was convinced all the babies would die, were dead, were meant to be dead.
During this time, Chico was a steady companion. He still showed up for food and water and love. He’d eat, nuzzle her calves, eat some more. He usually said something like, “Thank you. Love you. Oh, hi. Love you. Thank you.”
The woman’s friends joked with her, because she talked about the cats so much. She couldn’t help it. They were on her mind all the time. You could not care for a thing and not have it enter you. And how could you not care for a thing if it needed you?
Things in her life were in question. Her uterus. Her empty love life. Her job, where people were being laid off all the time. Politics which threatened to go haywire. People who shot random strangers to make indefinite points.
Here in her yard, though, there were living things, and she helped them.
Gracie brought her litter to the woman’s yard after a few weeks. There were three babies, black and gray balls of tumbling fur. Gracie said, “There ya go.”
The doctor’s office called and encouraged the woman to schedule her hysterectomy. They knew she was experiencing severe pelvic pain, and didn’t she want to be rid of that?
They were right about the pain. She suffered terribly each month. It was agony. She’d used up her sick days at work and her boss had become suspicious when she called to say she’d be out. “Again?” he’d ask.
But if she had a hysterectomy, she’d be out of work for weeks. Who would feed the cats? And if she lost the job and lost her insurance? And lost her retirement?
A white cat showed up on the side yard fence. It was older than Chico and Gracie, and it waited for the woman to leave so that it could steal their food. She was irritated at first and shooed it away. Then she saw its eyes, which were blue and worried, the glitter of a glaucoma in one of them. The white cat whispered, “You don’t see me.” The woman went and got an extra set of bowls for it.
The woman’s next cycle was brutal. She could barely feed and water the cats. She found herself crying out with pain in her empty house. Even outside, she walked doubled over, clutching her body with at least one hand.
“Hi, Hi, Hi,” said Chico, rushing past her to eat.
Then the white one showed up outside the sliding glass door in her bedroom, wounded, bloodied, ravaged. It looked like she felt. He’d been scraped raw and bloody on both back legs, his testicles and anus. There was blood on his ears and bright red gouges out of his side. She gasped, “Oh!” and cried in her bed, her hot pad clasped tight to her belly, heavily dosed on ibuprofen. Sympathy streamed from her nipples, her uterus, and she filled with love and sorrow—for all of them, their homelessness, the untended wounds, their too hot, too wet, too cold lives. It was a shabby kind of motherhood, she felt, to only offer food, water, and kindness. Living things needed more, didn’t they?
The next day, outside, as she hunched over the white cat, biting her lip and staring at his wounds, he said, “Just pretend I’m not here. It’s better for me, being invisible.”
The woman’s body felt dangerous, scooped hollow, as if she was disintegrating into her panties. She tried to do some work from home. She couldn’t really see. She couldn’t really focus. The pain came in huge dark waves and stole her mind. Sitting hurt, standing hurt, and she wore the eddies of her own blood. She made mistakes. She didn’t like the job that much, so when she was fired, just as she began to feel well again, she found that she wasn’t very upset. So she’d lose her insurance. So she’d lose her retirement. What did it matter, after all?
She told her lady friends over white sangria that she was just going to heal herself with oils and herbs. That she was going to take care of the cats for a while. She could see in their eyes that they found this alarming. She changed the subject to one of their boyfriends.
At home, Gracie’s litter of kittens was growing. The kittens got used to her voice, but wouldn’t let the woman touch them. She watched them and her fingers could imagine touching their tiny ribs, their thin fur, their little stick tails. She could imagine their weight. She looked into their shiny seed eyes.
Chico brought gifts. Big desert spiny lizards with white bellies and bloody necks. Torn dove wings. Beetles in stiff-legged death. Chico would even sit in her lap now, saying, “Thank you. Love you. See my gifts?”
It became summer and the yard began to smell with all of the cat turds and dead things and browning oleander blossoms. The woman began a daily ritual where she hosed down the shady spots, scooped the shit piles into plastic bags, and flung the dead things into the bushes at the far end of the yard. Daily food, water, love.
The woman could only give the white cat love with her eyes and voice. She found that indeed the white cat was partially blind, often hissing to the right of her instead of at her. His wounds did not heal fast. He moved as if everything hurt. She could see him crouched on the fence, not letting his hindquarters touch the wood. She fantasized about putting antiseptic on his wounds, but he would not allow her to approach. He said, “I’m not here. You don’t see me.”
Everyone needed to be neutered or spayed except for the white cat, who had a snipped ear for proof, but the woman had lost her job. She could only afford food, water, and love. They all, including her, needed more, but what was there to do? Just this.
It got intense, cleaning the shit and the dead things and keeping the cats cool as temperatures climbed. She felt guilty enjoying air conditioning when they were outside panting, so she sat with them for hours, petting them, sharing the heat with them.
One day, Gracie said, “You should just be one of us. You already are.”
The woman conceded that this was true. She was spending most of her days with them. She decided to try a night outside, and why not? It wouldn’t harm anyone. “Yeah,” Gracie said, as if mind-reading, “try a whole night.”
There were bugs and sticks and dirt, and the ground was so hard, but waking up eye-to-eye with a small gray kitten made up for it. The kitten let her touch its tiny, furred spine. It yawned and she could see each pristine needle tooth, the little pink tongue.
The woman stopped counting and dreading the days until her next cycle. She stopped worrying about insurance. She wetted the yard down for the cats and she, too, lay on the wet earth and panted while the kittens came to her, climbed over her hips and arms, and bit her fingers when she wiggled them.
“Yeah,” Gracie said to her kittens, “I need a break from you little fuckers chasing my tail. Give her a turn.”
One evening the woman bent her head to the bowl with all of them. Chico head-butted her lovingly saying, “Hey, hey, hey, love you.” Gracie’s whiskers tickled her face as they ate together. The food tasted of meat and factory machinery and sawdust, but the woman didn’t mind. The kittens rambled under her belly, jumped on her back while she crunched the kibble, while she spilled it from her mouth as they did while they ate.
Gracie said, “This is what you wanted. We’re your family.”
The woman only went in the house for the food and water, and she served it to the cats before crouching and joining them. In the side yard, the white cat moved even more stiffly, saying, “You can’t see me. It’s no use. I’m not here.”
At night the woman left the porch light on and they all chased moths and June bugs and geckos in the dark. Her knees were torn and her fingernails black with dirt, but she didn’t care. The moon brightened, night after night, and she slept on her back sometimes, shedding clothing and bathing in the light, a body tucked here and there against her, Chico purring loudly. When the cats moved, all of their actions were both illuminated and defined by deep black shadows, twinned.
The night of the full moon, the woman slept with the cats at the edge of the fence. She was awakened by a sensation of sharp satisfaction, a wet and fervent sucking all along her body. She looked down to see her own two human breasts vanished, replaced by a set of six milk-pouchy nipples, five sets of paws kneading her lightly furred belly, five mouths on her nipples, each mouth insistent, voracious. And then, even there, coming out of the shadows, the white cat padded towards her, calling, “Here I am, here I am.”
Frankie Rollins has a collection of short fiction, The Sin Eater & Other Stories (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013). She has also published work in Feminist Wire, Fairy Tale Review, Sonora Review, Conjunctions, and The New England Review, among others. Rollins has received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, and won a Prose Fellowship from the New Jersey Arts Council. She teaches writing at Pima Community College on the Desert Vista campus. She lives in a pink house.
Artwork: Tran Nguyen, Where the Creek Stood Still