“My little friends have all gone home,” Mrs. Barbara Dabsfield-Worth said from her front doorway to Ms. Alicia Moulton, who stood on the small cement porch. In her sixty-odd years, Mrs. D. had been a schoolteacher, a housewife, a library volunteer, and a feminist. Most recently, she had been known as a crazy cat lady. Some said she had set a record for the number of cats harbored and fed and cared for—hundreds to thousands, it was said.
Now they were gone. That had brought the attention of the ASPCA, who sent their representative. Ms. Moulton was easy going and prim, a woman who saw everywhere things needing to be done. She smoothed her sweater sleeves and said, “They sure left a mess.”
Through the front door, the young woman could see the living room. The scuffed parquet floors bore patches of cat litter, and little clumps that could be hairballs, and stains of urine. The old couch and armchairs had been shredded by thousands of cat claws. A smell of ammonia, but not a clean one, forced its way out into the open and into the visitor’s nostrils. The older woman seemed not to notice.
Mrs. D.’s eyes remained fixed straight ahead, as if focused on the future—a new life, a new adventure. This was possibly true; several large, brand new leather suitcases stood by the door. Mrs. D. wore a new outfit: the print dress, windbreaker and comfortable shoes of an American tourist in a far land. A new sun hat crowned her head. A new and expensive looking camera hung around her neck.
“Are you going on vacation?” Ms. Moulton asked. She hoped to break the ice for a more serious conversation about the missing animals.
“Yes, dear. The taxi should arrive within the hour. I was just going to have some tea while I wait. Won’t you join me?”
“That will be fine.” The young woman firmed her voice. “I’ve been asked to inspect the premises. The ASPCA obtained a permit…”
“I have no objection. Help yourself.” She gestured to a piece of wooden furniture that had been clawed beyond recognition. “If you go to the basement, bring the flashlight. I’ve had the electricity turned off.”
“Oh. Will you be gone for a while?”
“Yes, yes quite a while. A few months here, a few months there. Eight months in all. I’ve always wanted to see the world. Maybe I’ll stay longer.”
Ms. Moulton’s anxieties prickled, as if she was watching a crime program on television. The cats disposed of in one swoop, sold to a dog food company, or gassed, murdered heaven knows how. And now the perpetrator fleeing justice, refusing to answer for her crimes.
With a shaking hand, the young woman took up the flashlight; Mrs. D. didn’t notice. Her eyes never met her guest’s eyes, never saw her at all, it seemed.
‘I shall be thorough,’ Ms. Moulton informed herself. She hefted her own small camera. ‘I shall discover and document the truth here, and justice shall be done for the poor creatures so recently departed.’
The rambler had four large bedrooms. Like the sitting room, each held furniture tortured and torn by thousands of animals indifferent to the suffering of these insignificant constructs of fabric and wood. Rows of litter pans lined one wall in each room; urine had wicked out across the carpet in front of the boxes and had been sprayed in layered jets on the walls behind. Hard gray pebbles of litter had been kicked and sprinkled and piled around the room, interspersed with crushed food, loose fur, hairballs, and dried brown plivets. The beds and bedding were matted with fur, stained with feces and urine. Ammonia pervaded the air, and Ms. Moulton regretted not bringing a surgical mask; she had to make do with her own perfumed handkerchief.
Taking a deliberately measured stance, she photographed each scene, feeling like the first witness to the opening of a concentration camp or medieval dungeon or haunted house.
Then she came to the basement door. Touching the door knob, turning it, pulling open the door—these actions required all her resolve. Normally, she would have fled from such anxieties, but the need to do what had to be done asserted itself with greater firmness, one anxiety surmounting the other.
Down the stairs, following the circle of illumination at the end of the flashlight’s glowing beam, she allowed herself to be enfolded by darkness. She saw a dirt floor, and the dirt was loose. Her flat shoes compressed the soil, leaving impressions an inch deep. For a moment, Ms. Moulton held the banister as her stomach seized. She gathered her nerve and scanned the room with the faint light.
Bare cinderblock walls enclosed an open space lacking in furnishings. The customary appliances—washer and dryer, water heater and HVAC unit—were absent. In fact, there was no evidence of plumbing, no electrical box, no pipes or wires.
As if the mound of a recent grave, the entire floor consisted of moist, freshly turned soil. Legs akimbo to steady herself, camera poised, she used a flash to illuminate the photographs. Then she inspected the walls. On the front and sides, the cinderblocks stood firm, from crumbled floor to the white acoustic tile of the ceiling. But the wall running along the back yard seemed of a different color: lighter and newer, yet not as sturdy. No mortar joined the blocks, and they were not properly aligned, as if someone had piled them in a hurry to create the false wall of a burial chamber.
Using all her strength, Ms. Moulton pushed on a particularly loose looking block. It shifted with ease, and she nudged it through to the opposite side of the wall, into emptiness. One after another, she displaced the blocks to create a crawlspace for herself.
When she beamed the light through, it disappeared into a profound dark. To do what was right she had to look, so she pushed her arm and her head and her shoulders through. The openness extended a long distance away and down, as if the back yard had been hollowed out under a roof of sod and topsoil. In its own tenuous fashion, the thin, pale light touched upon strange objects. Tubular scaffolding stretched in a long arc across the middle of the space. Heavy machinery faced with a complex array of dials and switches stood in mute evidence of some alien activity. Something large and heavy and complex had been constructed here in the secret darkness of the under earth. Another machine, and one capable of movement, for it was no longer here.
Looking to the far distance, she saw the skins hanging on some factory line that dragged in slow jerks across the length of the space. The pelts came in every color of housecat: orange tabbies and gray tabbies, calicos and tuxedoes, pure white and pure black, the fur long and short; and the tails were intact on every one. There were also great piles of bones, some straight like leg bones, some curved like ribs, and some rounded and full like the skulls of every single cat that had lost its skin to the line.
Then she saw another movement. Mechanical cylinders ringed with jointed metal arms wheeled about, performing some coordinated task. The machinery and scaffolding were being disassembled. Some robots tore the skins from the lines and fed them into a kind of shredder; other robots fed the bones into a crusher. Pulsing and grinding sounds roared across the space, filling Ms. Moulton’s ears, her brain, her very soul. Somehow her arms did not shake as she raised her camera and flashed several photographs, covering the space in a methodical grid, careful to reconstruct the complete scene of destruction and carnage on the film.
Several of the robots noticed the unwelcome bursts of light; their arms swiveled and whirled as they rolled forward, red lights pulsing on the upper domes of their tubular bodies. They rushed across the space to the young woman, perhaps seeking to blind her, to silence her, to add her bones and her pelt to their piles, to feed them to their machines.
Now terror found its inroad to Ms. Moulton’s spirit. It ran cold fingers across her scalp, across her mind, and down the back of her neck, down her spine. It breathed in her ears; on one side it commanded, “Stay!”; on the other, it ordered, “Run!” Her eyes bulged and her breath caught, and then she kicked backwards, sprawling in the loose dirt, flailing for a moment as if newly emerged from a grave.
Terror pursued her across the loose floor, sucking at her feet, sucking at her breath, her lungs, her soul. Flailing and kicking and struggling for air and safety, she made the stairs, fell on the lowest riser, looked up.
High above, a flood of light spread down the steps, and in it, at the top, stood Mrs. Dabsfield-Worth, the shadow of her body extending from the doorway down, angling in a kind of gray spike that nearly touched the young woman with its head.
“The tea is ready, dear,” the older woman said. “Why don’t you come upstairs and tell me what’s the matter?”
Dirt fell from the young woman’s clothes as she took the steps one at a time. Terror gripped her ankles, begging her to climb no further, to stay in the dark safety of the basement, to dig into the soft earth and lie quietly for a while. The flashlight sagged in her hand, illuminating nothing in the fearsome brightness of the open doorway.
In a breakfast nook off the kitchen, Mrs. D. stood by a filthy, claw-marked table, where two chairs, also torn and hanging with splinters, waited to receive them. Two cups of tea had already been poured.
“Your clothes are covered in dirt! Did you fall?”
“The back wall.”
“The workshop. The machines. The robots. The earth.”
“Yes dear. My friends left them behind. They built their spacecraft, but they couldn’t fit everything. There were too many refugees, you see.” The old woman spoke in a calm, even voice and sipped her tea. Her eyes stared forward, again not focusing, not meeting the other’s eyes, as if there was still something to hide.
“And they took the cats? For food, I suppose.” Terror had released her lungs and breathed new fire into her.
“Yes, they took the cats, in a way. But you don’t understand. They looked like cats to you. But to me, they were much more beautiful. Little people like you’ve never imagined. Fine and light, with six limbs and lovely, clear wings. They had large eyes that shined like obsidian and pierced you with intelligence and sensitivity such as you never know here on Earth. Their voices tinkled like those little bells and chimes that move with the wind in patterns we can’t follow. Oh, how I’ll miss them! But they had to go home.”
“You couldn’t see them!” Ms. Moulton said in the heat of impatient anger. “People saw your cats. Hundreds and thousands of cats. Not fairies or dreams. Beautiful creatures of Earth that walk on four legs and have glowing eyes and long, expressive tails that whisper their love for their people.”
“I can’t argue with you, dear. Of course, you would see cats. I can see cats, too, and I love them as much as you do. I helped many stray cats over the years. Always took them from the shelter when they had nowhere else to go. People brought me boxes of kittens they didn’t want, and I’ve always cared for them. There had to be some real cats about, lots and lots of them, to create the appearance of a large population. My friends wouldn’t leave all this hair and litter and so forth themselves.”
“Do you know where the cats went?” Ms. Moulton asked, her voice firm and challenging.
“What do you mean? People from the shelter and from your own group came to take the animals away, having found families to adopt them.” She sipped her tea, and her eyes lied with a flat, unemotional gaze. No light reflected from the blue irises. No moisture showed on the whites. Detecting the young woman’s dismay at her visage, Mrs. D. spoke again. “You might think I’m blind, but I can see you perfectly. My friends gave me these new eyes, made of a kind of material like this tea cup. Not just ceramic eyes, but eyes like computers that can see through their mystery. I don’t understand it, but they had machines downstairs that made a field to disguise their appearance. My eyes saw what was real.”
Ms. Moulton stared, clutching her camera. ‘The film,’ she thought; ‘maybe the old woman can’t see what I have in my hand.’
“No one can know what happened here,” Mrs. D. continued. “My friends came by accident, and they worked and left in secret. I have always helped them keep that secret. After I leave, there will be a gas leak. The whole place will burn, and the yard will collapse. A trust will hold the property for a hundred years. By then, all memory, all trace, will be gone.”
“Are you really going away?”
“Indeed I am. They provided me funds for travel, for my care. But I have one more job to do for them. You can’t take what you’ve seen with you. You’ll have to leave all that here, to be buried with the rest.”
Ms. Moulton’s eyes jumped to the ceramic eyes of Mrs. Dabsfield-Worth, hoping to find some pity there, some human understanding. But the eyes had become white and cold. They seemed to expand, to widen and stretch forward, reaching out to touch the other’s eyes.
“Keep that gaze, hold my eyes in yours, dear. Just for a moment, and then you will be free.”
The camera burned like dry ice in the young woman’s hand, as if the cold white light had gotten inside its shell, gotten at the film, to drown the images in glowing liquid ice.
Freezing whiteness now filled Ms. Moulton’s eyes; her mind blazed with light. The quality of this light surprised her; it spread in cool blue waves, sparkling through her memories, and a tinkling sound like metal bells and seashell chimes washed through, picking up thoughts and wiping them clean. A floral scent soothed her anxieties: a sweetness of roses and peaches and a lover’s hair. Ms. Moulton did not resist. No, she threw her mind open to the sweetness and the light, and she danced across a soft, cool meadow bathed in a mist of stars.
“You feel better now, my dear?” Mrs. D. asked.
Ms. Moulton sipped at her tea, although she couldn’t quite remember picking up the cup. Ammonia filled her nostrils, and the house was filthy, and she just wanted to go home.
“Yes, ma’am. I must have tripped in the dark basement and hit my head. I’m sorry I caused you so much trouble.”
“No trouble at all, dear. I’m off on vacation now. I have people coming in to clean and paint, and to redecorate. Then I’ll come home.”
“Yes, home,” Ms. Moulton said. “It’s always nice to come home.”
A multi-media artist living near Washington, DC, Jeff Bagato produces poetry and prose as well as electronic music and glitch video. Some of his poetry and visuals have recently appeared in DM, Empty Mirror, Futures Trading, Otoliths, Gold Wake Live, H&, The New Post-Literate, and Midnight Lane Boutique. Some short fiction has appeared in Gobbet and The Colored Lens. He has published nineteen books, all available through the usual online markets, including Savage Magic (poetry) and Kill Claus! (fiction). A blog about his writing and publishing efforts can be found at http://jeffbagato.com.