– a short story by Marie-Therese Sauer
They keep asking me why as if they’d understand when I tell them. They can’t. But I tell them anyway.
We were five when we noticed the cats. Ice cream sweating over our cones, we were tracing the river path through the forest. We’d just come from a museum and our heads were dizzy with the dozens of dots of dallying people, sashaying here and there, stopping now to put a hand to their chin, to cough discreetly, to wrinkle their brows, in the room right below us. They’d moved like beetles, right beneath and between our feet and if they’d looked up, we woulda looked like four feet-shaped shadow creatures up through the glass.
“So many people”, she said, “so, so many. And we never woulda seen them if we hadn’t looked down.”
Like glass breaking without a reason, with only itself to explain, she stopped on the path, long enough for dark chocolate to snake down her wrist. My tongue was already out when she remembered.
“Come with me, John”, she said and led me to the camomiles.
A whole field of them, white and pristine and near-blinding in the downlight. My pupils kept darting from yellow core to yellow core, hoping to hold onto something, but they swayed with the heat.
“Like the people?”, I ventured.
She laughed. “Almost.” Another laugh.
Her fingers sticky with ice, she grabbed my own and led me right to the centre.
“Who’s here, you think?”
“You”, I started, “Me. The sun. The earth. The camomiles.”
The light danced and shook in the shatters of her glassy eyes, as she shook her head with a smile.
“You’re close, John, but never there.”
She lifted her other hand and pressed me to the ground. We crouched, the camomiles near-tickling our ears and our knitted sticky hands on the brown of the earth. I eyed the camomiles with suspicion. The branching stalks were thick and wiry. Their leaves seemed like an afterthought.
“So what?”, I asked.
“So look,” she grinned. And that was when my own eyes splintered. I saw them: armies of beetles, thick and brown with heavy hair and heavier wings, whizzing across the dirt. They were everywhere. On the stalks. On the blooms. On the ground. In the air. In her hair. In my hands. In my mouth. In her teeth.
We were boiling with laughter.
“Why didn’t I see them before?”, I kept wondering. And she’d always say:
“Because you never look down, John. You never do. You’d run off a cliff if I wasn’t here.”
We were back on the main street, passing the baker’s lit window in the dim twilight of August or June.
I wanted to say something about looking ahead but she didn’t have to reply. She only pressed the palm of her hand on my chest to stop me from moving. I followed her gaze through the night and found two pain-bright eyes staring back at me. No. Not two. Four. Eight. Sixteen. A hundred.
A glaring of cats was marching away from the square and right towards us. They were lighter than air, it seemed, smoothing their way ahead and pawing right past us with regal selectiveness.
“They can tell if you’re worthy,” I said.
She nodded. She didn’t ask worthy of what. Not like you policemen have done for three times in a row now.
All it takes to know is yourself and a cat in the dark of the night – then you know if you are worthy. It’s a slight worse than heartbreak when you know they are right as they pass you right by. And, I’ll admit it, I was wavering with all that I was that night.
Back home, dad would reign on the couch. He’d complain about “the neighbourhood critters” and shit in his garden. I wanted to break a chair on his hairline. I understood that he’d never understand.
We were twelve when we saw them again, behind the butcher’s old oak tree in the fog of Old Hollow’s Night. They clung to each other in pairs, screaming like babies whose limbs are eased off one by one and who long for more limbs.
Our hands found each other, sticky again, but this time with sweat. None of them watched us, none of them even flinched at our intrusion, but we knew that this time, we were welcome, and that magic was real.
She came that night – a gorgeous creature, half beetle, half cat, and awoke me with a feeler coated in fur.
“What is it you want, John?”, she whispered, her many bright eyes hazed with my head within them, “I can give you”, she sighed, “Whatever you want.”
My dad was out at the butcher’s, so I said “I want to grow up. I want to see all the magic for what it is. And”, this last one, this real one, stumbled and skid over my tongue like a taste of dark chocolate, “I want – I want to see her.”
Her eyes widened into the hunger of hives, her mouth a grimace of delighted disgust, and she near-choked me with fingers that dug into my skin: “Are you sure?”
And, mad as I was, I was.
One touch of hers and the floor opened right under my naked feet. I fell through dozens of people, those that had once strolled through the exhibit, their long faces “ah”-ing and “oh”-ing as they watched my skin from all sides and I fell further, further still, through the hive and the moving masses of millions. The hot glimmer of my eyes could only just illuminate the cool and smooth shells of the beetles pressing down on me – around me – within me – until they opened into a gash of light and the warmth of the future.
Smooth, not sticky, she now shakes my hand with the most vacant of smiles.
Do you not remember?
“It’s good to see you again.”
It was right here. Right here, by the butcher’s.
“Unbelievable how little has changed.”
What about the field? Do you remember the field? Look, it was way back, way over yonder, right when you crossed the –
“I work in insurance now. I know it sounds dry, but I actually love it.”
The cats. Please. Tell me you remember the cats.
“Why did you call me?”
Tell me. You remember. The cats. Woman.
“You sounded so-“
She turns towards me, her glassy eyes ground to the finest and most inconsequential of
Empty, she muses, “What about
And then, with a flicker, she remembers.
And then, as I’ve already told you dozens of times, gentlemen, then, she felt like she had the right to laugh.