Clowder

Clowder

clowder-finished

The sound woke her from a nap. She lay curled on back of the living room couch where a pillow had been placed so she could look out the window while basking in the sun. But there was rarely sun in this new place, and the view now was of the soggy, leaf-strewn backyard bounded by a high, wood fence: beyond that, the edge of a mist-shrouded woods festooned with damp, gray moss.

She listened, one ear cocked forward, one sideways, trying to locate the source of the sound. There it was again: definitely not in the house, or from one of the neighbors on either side. It nudged the hairs inside her ears: thin, stretched over distance so that only the teasing edges of it reached her. It seemed a little like crying, or music.

She was still getting used to the scents and sounds of their new home. No more rumbling trains at regular intervals, no tires whining on asphalt, no constant hum of spiderwebbed power lines overhead. No roaches scuffling under the stove or rats softly gnawing inside the walls at night. It had used to drive her crazy, looking out the high apartment window from the carpet-covered tower. From that perch, she’d kept watch on everything happening in the street below- the small, bug-like movements, begging to be stalked. But she was not allowed out. They had bought her toys: cloth and paper made to look like mice or spiders. She tried, for their sake: batting them around, purposefully losing them in shadowy places beneath the entertainment system where they could not easily be retrieved. Then, a few weeks ago, a shift. Anxiety and excitement. Boxes were filled with crumpled newspaper. She had hidden inside them, leaping out at unsuspecting arms and legs. They had laughed and stroked her, making  sounds that meant amusement mixed with annoyance. Then there had been a long ride in a car: she had lounged in the back window above the speakers, watching a grey road unwind behind them like a snake carrying them away from the jagged skyline.

She stretched and leapt down to the rug, angling through the kitchen. She held her breath and shoved quickly through the swinging flap in the door, accelerating in time to keep it from pinching her tail as she exited. The cool, humid air, expanding around her in every direction made her shiver. Outside. She padded across the soft, damp leaves, the air so rich it made her lose track of why she had come out. The sound reached her a third time, closer now… not crying… not music… voices? Clenching her muscles, she sprung to the top of the wood fence, balanced as it leaned a little with her weight, then down again onto the yielding moss. The sound grew thicker, more distinct: not humans, not dogs. Her skin pulled tight against her skull and between her shoulders, fur spiked, whiskers vibrating. These were the voices of no animal she knew.

As she reached a clearing in the woods, the sound stopped. She paused, tail lashing back and forth. She sniffed the foot of a tree, the gravel, some clumps of wet grass. Something watched her from a house at the center of the clearing. She took her time, letting it see her move, her strong muscles, her sleek fur. She rubbed her jaw and face on a rock, then on a fallen log, leaving her scent, taking with her a tangled odor that made her lower jaw shudder. A living thing had left this scent, a strong, powerful thing. Was it the thing watching her now? She meandered closer until she stood outside a door. Rotted wood. Mouse nests. The click and crunch of beetles. There were no people inside, had been none for a long time. The sound came again, rising and falling like water tumbling from a faucet, but warm, like blood. The lower part of the door was eaten away. She slid through.

On the other side, silence. A silence full of listening. Every part of her aimed into the dim space ahead, listening back. The room was large and high. A stairway rose on one side to the second floor. Directly across from her the vertical lines of a tall, square piece of furniture, and above it a line of severed animal heads hung on the wall. The smell of their fur was thick with dust. Their eyes shone in the gray light, but with a false life. Things that resembled tree branches spread from the tops of their heads. They stared down at her, unbreathing, bloodless. Something white appeared across the room, low to the floor, gliding slowly toward her. She was about to break and dart back  through the hole in the door when she heard the welcoming sound: low, warm, alive. The animal came closer, touched its nose to hers, sat and began washing itself. All around the room, pieces of the shadows began to move, came toward her, making small sounds. The powerful scent surrounded her. She flopped on her side and scraped her body against the floorboards, rolling with ecstasy.

***

She woke when the moon appeared through a hole in the roof. She hunted in the dark with the others. She had grown thinner, her fur dirty. A scar crossed her nose and one eye where her prey had wounded her before the killing bite. Once, she had heard them looking for her, their voices carrying through the trees. They called over and over, the sound they had made for her, a sound that had never been her name. Soon after, they had come to the house, calling, calling. She hunkered under the floorboards as they crossed overhead, shining their flashlights into closets and cupboards. She heard the distress in their noises, with it came memories: the soft couch, their warm, caressing hands, their love. Near her, in the dark, the others crouched, the heat of their bodies, their green, flaming eyes. When the people had gone, they emerged together, stretching, washing, getting ready for the night.