I prefer caring for the dead than the living. I find the latter too fragile, not only through their physical make up but also in their emotional multiplicities. None of them can be handled with the same regard as the former. It takes too much work to adjust to their likes and dislikes.
This is why I set my funeral home in the country near the edge of town but not too far from the stores and entertainment centres to not quietly go insane as I stitch bodies together. The cats also help.
Strays arrive through the year, hungry and abandoned and flea-ridden as they were. Jenny, Zennon, and I take them in. We feed and bathe them, getting rid of the fleas and ticks then take them to the vet to get their shots and have them neutered and spayed.
They stay with us, for a few months, or for a year, sometimes for ever.
We never seem to have more than seven cats and rarely have less than three. The cat population are as follows: Miki and Miko, a Siamese and a chestnut oriental respectively, the two peas in a pod and often play about in the meadow near the woods of our abode; Wamu and Kukkun, a Bengal and a Calico who yowl in the morning either for food or to irk us awake and scare the scavenging birds away; and lastly, the smallest of them all, Koda, a black and white Japanese bobtail that Jenny discovered near the porch one day, half-dead with an injured foot, tongue sticking out as it struggled to breathe, and surprised us by growing up to be the most well-natured cat we have ever had. Koda and Zennon were inseparable after hours of work, both dozing off in the hammock just outside the garage.
And then there is the black cat who turned up two months ago. Jenny named it Akira. We did not think it would live here at first; it looked too well-mannered and well-fed to be a stray, too old and sturdy to be abandoned. Akira reminded me of a small panther, its movements like patches of night as it jumped to and fro the garage, to Koda’s and Zennon’s annoyance during their naps.
It was in early summer when it lurked in our tumbledown porch, living in one of the old cat beds Zennon fashioned for Miki and Miko: male, yellow-eyed, very friendly but not too playful. There was a certain rigidness to it that didn’t border on snobbery like the usual felines.
Jenny accompanied me out of town for a few weeks for my annual psychiatric evaluation, a mandatory requirement for my parole. When we came home, Akira was still in our porch slumbering in one of the female cats’ beds. He was unrecognizable, patches of its dark fur had fallen off and there were deep gashes on its bared skin. The tip of its right ear was chewed away. A gash cut across a bloodshot left eye, a slice gone from the lower lip. He looked thin and exhausted.
He was taken to the vet, given antibiotics and we fed him each night with softened cat food.
My colleagues and I discussed what he was fighting. One of our male felines? A possum? One of those faeries Zennon was insisting that existed in the woods?
Each night the scratches would tally up. One night, his underbelly would be chewed-up, the next his side, ridden with claw marks and stained our hands in scarlet when we try to carry it.
When it got to the point that he was unable to stand, I took him down to the basement to recover, beside the furnace and piles of boxes of sealed preservatives. He was surprisingly heavy, as I carried him down with a cat-basket Zennon fashioned from one of our baskets of treats a customer forgot to bring home in one of the funerals, a litter box, and food and water. I had to wash the bloody hands when I left the basement.
Akira stayed there for five days. At first, he was too weak to feed himself: his gashes in the face rendered him almost one-eyed. He limped and lolled weakly, yellow pus oozing out from the cut in its lip.
I went down there every morning and evening, feeding him, giving him antibiotics mixed with his food, dabbing the worst of its cuts, and speaking to him before I went off to work or to bed. He also had diarrhoea, making the basement stink evilly despite my changing his litter daily.
Those five days of his stay in the basement were our five worst days in the house: Zennon nearly struck his head with a large rusty nail during one of his naps and had the biggest fight with his girlfriend; I nearly lost my funeral license when the local government began poking through my past; Jenny was having terrible luck at her side business selling dolls when a larger manufacturer started selling its own brand just outside of town and hit a deer while returning home that night, rendering the car undriveable and rewarding her with a small cut across her right cheek.
By the fifth day, Akira prowled the basement, walking impatiently between the stacks of boxes and nearly crashed a jar of sealed formalin. He mewled at me piteously to let him out and I reluctantly did so.
He returned to his cat bed near the porch and slept there for the remainder of the night.
The next morning there were new, deeper gashes in his flanks. Clumps of his black hair covered the wooden boards of the porch.
Zennon managed to patch up his relationship with his girlfriend and successfully invited her to a date the next day. One of the prosecutors in my case was sued for taking bribes, hence initial decision to take away my license was overturned. Jenny was asked, to her delight, to collaborate with the company in designing one of their new lines.
I thought of returning Akira to the basement but decided against it. I, instead, resolved to discover the culprit that came to our house each night and then formulate a plan of action to catch or kill it.
I receive plenty of questionable gifts from customers every birthday and Christmas, giving plenty of gizmos and utensils that though posh and pricey, rarely leave their boxes. I grabbed a pair of binoculars from one of the boxes that can be used in the dark, slapped on batteries and set my camp on one of our moth-eaten armchairs, propping it a few inches in a specific angle away from the window, giving me enough camouflage from outside eyes and letting me advantageously stalk whatever animal came to attack Akira. Zennon and Jenny handed me a blanket before yawning off to bed. I then went out to the porch and bade Akira goodnight.
Zennon told me a hunch that Akira, when he first arrived, is a person. There was something person-like in his leonine face: his broad black nose, his greenish-yellow eyes, that fanged and amicable mouth (that still leaked amber pus from its lower lip).
I sat on the chair, enveloped by darkness in the house. I switched the binoculars on, a trickle of greenish light coming from the eyepieces. I experimented with the binoculars, learning how to focus, to see the world in shades of green. I found myself enthralled by the swarming insects seen through the night air, the blackness a kind of nightmarish soup that swam with life. I then lowered the eyepiece and enjoyed the stars out, at the blacks and swirling blues of the evening, empty and quiet and calm.
Time continued to pass. I struggled to stay awake, found myself nearly grabbing the large knife I hid beside the fireplace, a relic from a past that was darker than the patch of woods that vacuumed the starry sky somewhat. Before I would come to seize it, however, a hair-raising yowl struck through the night, jerking me fully awake. I fumbled through the binoculars and was disappointed to see Wamu, the calico, streaking across the garden. He vanished into the woods by the left and was gone.
I was about to sink back in my chair again but then I began to wonder what exactly startled Wamu and so, I scanned through the middle distance to look for a huge dog, or possum, even that damn fairy Zennon keeps rambling about. There was indeed something coming down from the knolls and into our house. I could see it through my binoculars, clear as the morning star rising.
It was the devil.
I had never seen the devil before, but I have read aplenty. I confess that I do not believe in the supernatural, other than the imaginary figures in shows. But the figure coming in the driveway was not as weakly portrayed as the ones humans portrayed it was. This was the devil.
I could feel my heart began to pound, could nearly feel it trying to break free from my chest that it hurt. I hoped that it would not see me behind the window glass, in my dark house.
The devil flickered and changed as it walked to the drive and near the gate. One moment it was bull-like, horns threatening and lethal, the next it was slim and female, with silvery white hair the shone like moonlight, and then it was a cat itself, an ugly contorted grey beast, its face contorted with hate.
At the bottom of the steps leading up to the porch (also in need of a coat of white paint that was almost indiscernible through the binoculars) the devil stopped and called out four, or five words in a whining, indescribable language that must be old and forgotten even when Babylon was young. Though I did not understand the words, I felt the hairs on my back standing on end as it howled.
Then I heard, muffled through the window pane, but still audible, low growl- a challenge- and slowly, shakily, a black figure began walking down the steps of the house toward the devil. Akira no longer moved like a panther or a tiger. Instead, he stumbled and rocked, like a baby deer learning how to totter.
The devil was a woman now. She said something soothing and gentle to the cat, beguiling him, saying something soothing and gentle, reaching a hand to him. Akira sank his teeth into her arm and her lips pursed, and she spat at him, whipping him away.
She then glanced at me, and if I had doubted of her being the devil, I was certain of it now: the woman’s eyes flashed like hellfire, only shades of green in my night-vision binoculars. It saw me through the window. I did not doubt that at all.
The devil writhed and morphed, and now it was a mangled jackal, flat-faced, a cross breed of a dingo and a hyena. Maggots squirmed around its mangy fur as it began to pace up at the steps.
The black cat leapt upon it and in seconds they became a rolling, grotesque mass, moving faster than my eyes could follow.
All done in silence.
And then a low roar- by the distance down the country road, lumbered the late-night truck with its usual lumber, the blazing headlights ruining my vision. I lowered my binoculars and saw only darkness. The red lights on its rear slowly began to flicker into nowhere as it zoomed past.
When I raised my binoculars again there was no longer anything to see. Only Akira, on the steps, staring up in the air. I turned my binoculars up and saw something flying in retreat—a vulture, perhaps a roc— soaring beyond the trees and was gone.
I went out to the porch, sitting beside the black cat, stroking him gently, saying kind, soothing words to him. He mewled pitiably at me as I approached but after a while, he slept on my lap. I put him into his cat-bed and then went upstairs to my bed. The following morning, I washed the dried blood on my polo and jeans.
That was six days ago.
The thing coming into our house comes on most nights. We know from the wounds on the cat and the pain seeping through his leonine eyes. He lost the use of his left back limb, and his left eye had closed for good.
I wonder what I did to deserve Akira. I wonder who sent him. And selfish and scared and consoled, I wonder how much left he’ll be able to give.