The first of four consecutive weekly short stories about cats
My stepmother calls. She says, “Jean, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
“Missing what, Annabelle?” She has woken me up. “What?”
It’s late morning, autumn. The light barely makes it through the clouds. I was up past midnight with Ed, doing the furs. There’s scratch marks all over my hands, my fingers swell purple.
“Life. You’re not suited to this farm shit.”
“I’m well suited. Well.”
“You used to be a fighter. That’s what I married in for.”
“You married Dad for me?’ I try to sit up but that’s not great so I lie back again. “That’s a bit weird, isn’t it?”
“Don’t distract me. It’s you I’m worried about. You’ve had your claws ripped out by this shit.”
My snort comes out high, sounds lonely. A nasal whistle will really put some people off, but not Annabelle.
“You’ve nothing to fight for. Nothing to live —”
I laugh properly. Roberta waddles into the room and uses her short wings to try to make it up to the bed. She misses, pecking the duvet in frustration until I haul her up with me. The chicken nestles between my massive stomach and the crook of my arm and starts a contented burr. If there were cigarettes, I would smoke one.
“Aren’t you coming down tonight for my birthday?” I ask.
“Of course I’m coming. You know I am. I had a card all done up and I sent the link to everyone to sign.” There’s a pause. I know she’s sucking smoke over there in Caballus Road. I know she’s got a whole packet of menthol fresh. “Your dress and my dress,” she breathes. “We’ll be like a pair of dolls. A pair of dolls from a birthday cake.”
“What’s the problem, Annabelle?”
“The problem is now you’re set to lose everything and you won’t stand up. Most people get married so they can fight.” Her lips smack as she smiles. “That’s why I got married.”
“I thought you got married because you had a crush on me. That’s what you just —”
“Don’t be crass. Your father didn’t raise you to be crass. He raised you to be a little bruiser, in my opinion.”
“I’ll knock you around a bit tonight if you like.”
“See, I would almost prefer that. I really would. Why even bother getting out of bed today?”
“I wouldn’t if you hadn’t called. I wouldn’t be up ’til saucer time.”
“Saucer time? Saucer time, now?’ Annabelle shrieks like a punch to the ear.
I gaze wistfully towards the bathroom, but Roberta is snoozing so cutely on my stomach and she’s not always cuddly.
“We’re not losing everything. Half the clowder, max. We’ll be left with 120 cats and they say if we can keep up production we’ll earn the rest back again by the baby’s first birthday.” There’s a gulping sound on the other end. “How much are you drinking anyway?” I ask.
“I’m not drinking anything. A wine or two at night. Maybe beer at lunch. Gin.” She trails off. I want to see if I can get my feet over the edge of the bed without upsetting Roberta. I can.
“I’m saying you’ve got to keep on trying,” Annabelle goes on.
“For what?” I lay down again. Saucer time isn’t for hours. Ed is out taking care of the cats. Roberta clucks in her sleep. I can rest too.
“I can rest too,” I tell Annabelle.
“You just don’t get it, do you?”
She’s already hung up.
The swirl of fur and dust and the smell of cat shit both acrid and sweet—the smell of life, for us. The felines appeal through the bars as I waddle through the caged aisles. Their pens are spotless—they like it that way—but they mew at me, shivering. Until last week we had the summer lights on so they’d shed. Now it’s back to winter to grow new pelt. Skinning is where it’s at, these days, but Ed was born to the shed: his parents did British longhair, now he does British longhair, and I do it too. There is still market for shed—in felt, catton, and yarn. We’ve had to make changes. Narrowed the cages to stop them licking our product away. Ed is up by the breeding pits at the other end of the barn, leaning on the pit rail and frowning into his phone.
“I’ve been messaging you,” I shout over the squeals of the kittens. He kisses my cheek with cracked lips.
“Look at this.” A cute Jersey/Frisian cross with bandy legs stumbles across his phone screen. “Some bastard was planning to use her for milk.”
“God. Why do they do that?”
“Fetish or something. I’ve decided what I’m making for everyone tonight. Pony pizza.”
“We can’t afford the cheese, Ed. Just do a stir fry.”
“I’ve still got that foxhound feta in the freezer. You’ll love it. You’ll both love it, won’t you? Won’t you?” Ed grins at my stomach.
“Have you heard from The Guy?”
He straightens. “What Guy?”
“Come on, Ed.”
He runs a path through his hair with his big hand—follows the thinning line. “He’s just going to pop over. Tonight.”
“Pop over? In person?”
“IRL, babe. In real —”
“I know what it means. I said five o’clock to Dad and Annabelle. The Guy can just call. Email.”
“He wants to make things clear. Said it won’t take long.”
One of the longhair gibs lets out a wrenching yowl. I need to urinate with a sudden intensity and clutch the edge of its cage. “Let me talk to him.”
“It’s my —”
“No Ed, Annabelle’s right. Someone has to stand up.”
Ed peers at me. “You’re taking advice from Annabelle now? Annabelle Annabelle?”
The gib wedges his muzzle through the gap and begins to lick my fingers tenderly with a raspy pink tongue. Cats can be like that.
Annabelle and Dad arrive early, glinting of battle. Some hour-long car rage that has taken them from the quarrel at hand right back to the start of their relationship and every grievance in between. It’s impossible to tell who has won. While Dad bares a certain cowboy swagger under the weight of two fat boxes and a cooler bag, Annabelle is triumphant in a white Persian jumpsuit that looks set to cleave her in half. Ed takes the boxes. I kiss their freezing cheeks.
“How’s my little girl?” Dad asks, his stumpy hand on my stomach.
“She’s good. I’m good too. Who are you talking to?”
“Your father talks to everyone, don’t you, Martin?”
Somewhere in the flaky layered pastry of that marriage, this means something.
“Is that the dresses?” I lean against the door and nod at the white boxes. “I won’t be able to wear anything, you know, with this.”
Annabelle opens them right there on the dog hide in the hall and she’s right, they are absolutely beautiful. Two tent dresses that shimmer and squirm like mermaids in a plastic sea. I reach to touch, expecting they’ll be cool, but Annabelle grips my hand.
“You, darling, smell. Like cat.”
“I had a shower.”
“You smell like cat.”
We go upstairs to wash me and my hair again. Annabelle lets me have a drag on a menthol that she ashes into the bathroom sink. When we come back down the stairs, resplendent and glittering, The Guy is sitting on our couch. Jeffries. Doesn’t get up. Just sits there wearing a squashed, hairy face and catweed suit like he’s about to go on a hamster hunt.
“Good season for guineas?” I ask. Annabelle glances at Dad and smiles as affectionately as she ever does. Like, well done. What a little bruiser. Jeffries’ face clouds. Just when I think I’ve lost him and the farm too, Dora decides to join the party and Jeffries’ breaks into a smile that’s almost human. I should have called Dora earlier: these men are all jumbuck boys. They won’t give a pregnant woman and her adorable husband an inch but bring in a sheep and they’re soft as kitten skin.
“Hello there. Hello.”
“Come on then, Dora.”
The sheep wags her woolly tail and gazes shyly at Jeffries. “Merino, is she?”
“We paid for Merino but she has that lamby face so we think her daddy might have been a bit East Friesian. Doesn’t matter anyway — ” I pat my bespangled belly — “they’re all good with kids.”
Ed shoots me a look. He’s right: I’m scouting for sympathy.
“Whose a nice girl then? Who’s a fluffy girl?” Jeffries settles back on the couch, his head against the rug Ed made last winter. Fur, fur. Our whole lives made of fur. And now this hairy Jeffries. “We’ve got two Jacobs at home,” he says.
“Horns,” Dad puts in. “Horny.”
“Yes but no kids, no problem.”
“Yes,” says Ed. “We better make a start so we can get to our dinner. It’s Jean’s birthday tomorrow.”
No more smiles from Jeffries. Honestly, we’d be better off dressed as sheep.
By the time Jeffries leaves it’s almost nine. Ed hasn’t defrosted the foxhound or fried the pony. Me, Ed, Dad, and Roberta all slump in a line along the couch, while Annabelle and Dora troop up and down. Annabelle serves a nice red wine, and some dachshund foie gras canapés that’ve gone soggy and brown. Dora is the only one of us that’s happy, preferring groups and everyone still and silent. She rubs her face on our knees and lets Annabelle sit on the floor and pick burrs out of her wool. From there, Annabelle necks the rest of the wine and tries to fix everything.
“You’ll just have to move in with us,” she says.
“We’ve got three bedrooms. We’ll build an extra bath. We—”
“You can’t stay here, Jean. This is a cat-fur farm and you’re losing all your cats.”
“Did he say all of them?”
“He did.” Ed’s smile comes out wonky.
“Who to? Who’s the new place?”
“Hairline. They’re big. Big scale.”
“Hairline. That’s a really great name.”
“Isn’t it?” says Annabelle.
“Cat Coats is good too.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I reach over Ed to pat him on the knee. Dad catches my hand, holds it.
“I suppose you’ll go into horses. Dogs,” he says, giving me a squeeze.
Ed shakes his head. “We don’t know milk or meat. All the equipment and everything except the outbuilding is set up for fur, hired from the company. Even the cats is hired from the company so—”
“Are,” says Annabelle.
“Even the cats are hired from the company and you’re screwed.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot, Annabelle. As far as cats go, we are screwed. We thought if we joined the big guys we’d get a better run and we didn’t. Our insurance covers the building and its contents and once the contents is gone—”
“You’ll move in with us. Plenty of room for you and the baby.”
“What about Roberta? And Dora?”
The sheep eyes us and we stare back at her long, flat face.
“It’s dumb,” says Ed. His head is on my shoulder in the bed, voice muted against my milk-puffed breast. “I was going to get that little poddy calf as a pet for the baby. They could grow up together. The poddy could stay in the nursery, they say the chewing helps babies sleep—”
“What’s dumb about that?”
“Because it’s what I feel worst about. Not losing the business or not being able to make mortgage or even having to move, but this little calf.”
“She’s our future.”
I flex my shoulder so he’ll shift his head. “We’re still having the baby, Ed. That’s still happening.”
He gives my boob a kiss, rolls off. I lose his slow breathing to other sounds. The cats in the barn. The house as the temperature plummets. Dad’s snores that grind out of the spare room, up the receding carpet on the stairs and then come to a stop, leaving a gap in the world. A terrible quiet. I would worry into that silence as a kid. Now Annabelle worries. We usually find her on the couch when they stay here, the Alsatian rug across her body, hair like a bag over her face. But when I edge down the stairs to look, only Dora is there—sharp hooves scuffing up the dog-hide. The fridge whines from the kitchen. Roberta gives a warm brood from her perch and it all feels lost already. Another snore from dad rips through, dies again. I wait in the space the sound leaves, all our lives dependent on it. One snore and we lose everything, two and we stay. He snores again. Two snores. Two snores. We stay.
Another sound. Yowling that gets louder and doesn’t stop. A light on in the cattery, illuminating the yard. I waddle over the freezing grass to check the schedule. Winter, still winter. It’s supposed to be cold, dark, to let the clowder re-fur. The summer lights are blazing. It gets warmer as I move along the aisle, the fuzz caught up in it like asbestos rain and the cats quiet, slugged by heat. A figure down the end under the hot lights. My blood rises; the baby shuffles too. It’s Jeffries. Snooping around in the night. I tuck my hands under my belly and get up a lumpy sort of a run, barreling down the aisle, ready to bawl him out. Squeaky, lopsided singing slows my gait.
“Meow, meow, milk cat, have you any fur? Here are three bags full, good sir!
One for the master,
One for the dame—”
Annabelle is cross-legged on the straw-strewn floor, flannel nightdress hitched up, a bunch of kittens and the breeding dam on her lap. The kittens are getting up a purr, stupid with milk. Even the big female is purring, her grotesque teats laid out like half-filled water balloons on Annabelle’s thigh. A glass of dark liquor is nestled into the straw.
“Put them back, Annabelle.”
She finishes the song. “And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.”
“Annabelle, hello? They’re not declawed yet. You’ll get an infection.”
“From these things?” She lifts one of the sucklings by its scruff. It cries out. The dam barely registers—we’ve got her doped so she can relax, be fully productive. The kitten mews harder, its bony mouth a battle against the hot air. At that age they scarcely resemble the hairy, fattened livestock they’ll become. You can still see the wild in them —milk teeth sharp, claws too, limber bodies pouncing and crouching within days. In a few weeks we’ll wean them; we’ll de-canine and claw.
“Put them back, Annabelle.”
She drops the catling to her lap where it burrows with the others to the teat. Annabelle’s nightdress is fuchsia, buttoned to her neck. Bits of grey wink through her loose hair. She looks the age she probably is.
“Have you ever seen one of these in the wild, Jeanie?”
“I’ve seen tigers on the ranches.”
“I mean a little cat, gone feral.”
“No, and nor have you.”
“In Australia a whole bunch of them got loose and they bred and bred. They’re good breeders, but you know about that.”
The baby kicks me so hard in the kidney that I sink to the straw. Annabelle is encouraged.
“There’s fires in Australia. Big ones. The cats worked out that if they waited at the fire fronts, all the little animals—” she drains her glass and wipes her mouth on her nightie sleeve, “—the bush rats, the small marsupials would run from the flame to tiny tiger, monster paw.” In her lap, the kittens push the dam’s teats, forcing the milk. “The cats eat well that way. The sound of a eucalypt fire is like a bomb, like a freight train, and it scares the little animals. But the cats— ”
“How can it be a bomb and a train? They’re different sounds.”
“The thing is that cats are survivors, aren’t they? More than that: they thrive.”
I frown at the female on Annabelle’s lap, her breathing laboured against the weight of her teats; the cages around us packed with fat, patchy animals. Annabelle sees my expression.
“Maybe not them, but if they had their teeth and their claws, they’d be in it for a fight.”
The summer lights reach their zenith. Fur thickens the air. I try to get up, but the weight of my baby and breasts hold me down. I too am having trouble breathing.
“Unbroken animals. Rewilded stock. Beasties, at best.” She’s really gearing up now. “Cats who ate through walls of captivity to the better wild— ”
“Annabelle, I need your help here.”
She blinks, gathers the cats back into the pit, and extends a muscular hand. I get into a sort of crouch, rise up belly first to meet her. We sway like dance partners while I find my balance.
“I’ll help you, sweetie,” she whispers in my ear.
“Thanks, I’m right now. Turn off the lights. Go to bed.”
“I’ll sort it out.”
“You just have to make sure they’re switched to winter. The cats need to—” I yawn, take in a lungful, “—to re-fur.”
I leave Annabelle in the golden light and go back to the house. The frigid night air can’t shift the fug of tired that has settled over me. I stink like cat again. Haul off my nightie and undies at the back door and lurch naked through the house to crawl in beside Ed. He makes an appreciative sound; slips his hand around my belly, bracing us to his heat.
It’s summer, I’m shedding. Thick, strong hair all over the bed—stumps of silk. Ed moves and I know he’s gathering it, harvesting my fur. The cry I make is animal.
My eyes fly open. A strange glow. Ed is rushing around the room, frantic. Downstairs, Roberta is going berserk.
“The summer lights,” I tell him. “Annabelle put them on.”
“Don’t you move,” he hollers. Trips over Dora who has appeared in the doorway, wool lit up in the special light. I haul myself from the bed, edge past Ed and Dora and out to the stairwell where Roberta is trying to reach me by throwing herself against the walls. I catch her mid-flight and tuck her under my arm, feathers soft as angels against my flesh. It’s darker downstairs but Dad still pulls up short when he sees me—all distended gut and belly button and pubes and boob and with Roberta peeking from my armpit.
“Fetch me a wrap, Dad?”
He falls over himself to throw one of the sequined tent dresses over me. Takes Roberta and tosses her in the hutch. ‘There’s trucks or something outside.’
“It’s just the summer lights.”
“It’s the whole bloody shed.” Ed barrels past, Dora behind him.
“Come on, Dad,” I yell, running with them.
Dad looks as though he’s lost his reading glasses. “Annabelle. Where’s my Anna?”
The shed is tremendous with flames that take up a third of the structure, thickest towards the back at the breeding pits. Smoke rolls out from the open end. Dad and I guide each other around it. Ed is gone. Dora too. Annabelle appears in a plume hefting a cage so cramped with cats it just seems like a box stuffed with fur. She sets it down beside dozens of others on the lawn. Mews peal over the flames. Dad lets go of me to run to her. I call for Ed. Stumble and weep past the orange heat to find him ineffectually dousing an edge with the high-pressure hose we use for cleaning.
“Look at this, Jeanie,” Dad calls me back. “Anna has gone and saved all the stock.”
Annabelle winks at me, wipes her hands on her nightie. “Insurance.” The roof collapses. I charge at her, thrusting my head and fists so they’ll take the strike. Dad’s face contorts. Annabelle reaches out like I’m coming in for a hug. The boom-rush of the fire like an exploding train. Just before impact, I hear another sound. A strange singing from the grass beyond the fire. It pulls me up. Again, the singing. Annabelle takes the chance to grab me, point me towards the cages. “They’re here, Jeanie. Even that big one.”
The breeding dam has a pen to herself. She raises her head to look confusedly down at her teats empty of kittens, then out past the roaring shed to the long grass. Something is singing out there, moving — I see it too. Shapes that don’t belong outside, like underpants or computer monitors. I shrug Annabelle off my shoulders. My dress goes too. I creep naked to the flickering verge of light. In the grasses: mirrored eyes, fireworks of fur, thin tails waving like snakes, mewing.
“Here now, come on,” I call. “Come on, catlings. Hey, kittens.”
It’s like they’ve become grass. Stripy fur now thin shadows, soft feet now air, prickly purrs now the cackle of the flames. Just me at the cold edge.
“Cats at the Fire Front” will appear in Laura Jean McKay’s next collection of short stories, Gunflower, published by Scribe late 2023. Next week’s short story, the second in a series of four about cats, is by Emma Sidnam.