- Prologue -
A frantic, hoarse whisper as the moon hung like a pale, bloodless finger
“Here, kitty. Here kitty, kitty.”
Her sinuses flared. She heard it mewling, heard its small padded feet crackling the autumn leaves.
A little louder this time -
“Here, kitty, kitty."
She was answered by a yowl, long and pitiful, sending a shiver through her. It was close. Closer than she thought. It’s yellow striped head poked out from behind the clump of birch to her right. Its mouth opened in a silent scream.
She grabbed it roughly by the scruff of the neck. Ignored the scratches it inflicted on her forearms, the teeth sinking into the flesh between her thumb and forefinger.
She leaned back against a large tree, thrust the hissing animal between her thighs and held it there, bringing the garden shears up to its scrawny neck.
“Here, kitty,” she said one last time, the words spat out as she began to cut.
* * *
She didn’t plan this. It just happened.
The whirlwind in her mind.
Walking from her backyard to the cemetery on the thin trail winding through the trees, the last light of dusk quickly disappearing. All she wanted to do was trim the weeds from her mother’s grave. But when she heard the cat’s meows, all that her father had told her descended upon her like a dark and heavy cloud. All he'd said, bit by painful bit, flared into her brain.
When he first told her, it made her ill. She didn’t believe it. But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. The more it explained things. The more and more her father’s words echoed in her mind, and the more the storm in her head developed and grew. A whirlwind of alternating heat and cool.
She tried to put it out of her mind. Forgive and forget. But out here on the edge of town, the edge of a small town, beyond which were only cornfields and patches of trees and sky - it was hard. Hard when the neighbor across the field of tall grass and weeds was so much a part of it all.
Just looking out her window, seeing the cracked, dull orange brick, the black, mansard roof staring back at her - they had seen it all - the roof, the brick.
And especially the neighbor.
The next-door neighbor always brought it back to her.
Looking out across the grassy, weed-filled field and seeing her out there - just knowing she still lived there - made the whirlwind grow.
The cat belonged to the neighbor.
So as she walked along the path toward the cemetery, toward her mother’s grave, toward her sister’s grave - she heard the cat in the clear evening air, and the whirlwind flared. The crying of the cat was the crying of the past come up to haunt her.
The whirlwind in her head, dull heat and cold, drove her to keep clamping her hands shut until the last bit of tendon and bone gave way to the shears.
She dropped the cat right there; the neck pointed away from her, thank God, from her clothes, her skin. She ran home, shoving aside the branches that whipped at her face, turned on the spigot outside of her house, and sprayed the blood and gristle from the shears, from her hands.
She cried, but the whirlwind remained, just behind the eyes, between the temples.
She got gloves.
Even under the gloves, even after washing her hands, she still felt the sticky residue of the cat’s blood. Another reminder.
She got a piece of rope.
Raced over the trail, the branches clawing at her face and arms, the moon a giant dead slit of an eye, white and harsh through a canopy of old birch and maple.
When she found the cat again, she tied one end of the rope around the cat’s torso and the other end around a branch, pulling the rope so tight that bolts of pain shot through her fingers. She let it go and watched it swing. It was hard not to stand there and stare at it as the blood dripped slowly in an even rhythm, smacking against the freshly fallen leaves.
And the head lying at her feet, the mouth open in a fixed cry, the eyes shut tight in agony. A snapshot of its final moments.
She felt nauseous.
It had been easy. Too easy.
That was what repulsed her more than anything; the fact that the line between sanity and deadly compulsion had been crossed so quickly.
She watched the torso swing back and forth. A pendulum of fur and flesh. A pendulum counting back the years.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the windows of her neighbor’s house lit up through the trees. Windows like eyes.
She heard a car pull into the neighbor’s driveway. The headlights swept across her face through the crisscross of branches.
She recognized the car. The sheriff.
The sheriff’s car pulled into Mae Stone’s yard, the dome light blinking on as the door opened into the night air. Someone got out, headed toward Mae’s door. Someone she hadn’t seen before. The sheriff and deputy stayed in the car.
Are they looking my way? she wondered, crouching lower. No, they couldn’t see her. Not in this darkness, not through these trees.
She knelt and waited, not wanting to make any sudden movements or noise. What if they caught her? What would her father do without her?
Finally, the car gave a honk and the sheriff’s voice rang out, “Will you be all right, Ms. Stone?” The sheriff then waved at the house and pulled away, the taillights leaving a red streak that hung in the air for a moment and disappeared.
She couldn’t see the front of Mae’s house from where she knelt, but she held her breath and heard her neighbor’s voice spread through the air into her ears, her brain, squeezing her heart.
“Andy, come in,” it said.
Andy. The name was unfamiliar. Her father had never mentioned him.
She heard the door shut.
The rope creaked next to her as it swung lightly in the breeze. The dripping ceased. She crept back through the trees to the grassy field and stopped. The purple flowers of thistle looked black in the darkness, looked like tiny heads bobbing back and forth as the wind forced the grass to bow.
She knew all about Mae Stone. Mae and her sisters. What they did to her. To her father.
But who was Andy?
She looked at Mae’s house, the light glaring at her, hurting her eyes. She felt old, too old to be doing this. She wanted to rip the gloves off her hands, bury them deep into the ground. She wanted to run to her father and forget about all of this.
But she couldn’t.
Her father wouldn’t let her.
She shivered. Crept closer to her neighbor’s house, cringing each time her feet landed on the dry, brittle grass, the blood-soaked gloves growing tight on her hands.