August was twelve and there were cats in the barn. Litters begetting litters begetting litters – some thin and misshapen with the afflictions of blood too many times remixed.
‘Get rid of the damn things,’ August’s father said. ‘The haymow smells like piss. Take a tire iron or a shovel or whatever tool suits you. You’ve been after me for school money? I’ll give you a dollar a tail. You have your jackknife? You have it sharp? You take their tails and pound them to a board, and then after a few days we’ll have a settling up. Small tails worth as much as large tails, it’s all the same.’
The cats – calicos, tabbies, dirty white, gray, jet black, and tawny – sat among the hay bales scratching and yawning like indolent apes inhabiting the remains of a ruined temple. August had never actually killed a cat before but, like most farm boys, he had engaged in plenty of casual acts of torture. Cats, as a species, retained a feral edge, and as a result were not subject to the rules of husbandry that governed man’s relation with horses or cows or dogs. August figured that somewhere along the line cats had struck a bargain – they knew they could expect to feel a man’s boot if they came too close; in return, they kept their freedom and nothing much was expected of them.
A dollar a tail. August thought of the severed appendages, pressed and dried, stacking up like currency in the teller drawer of some alien bank. Fifty dollars at least, maybe seventy-five, possibly even a hundred if he was able to track down the newborn litters.
He went to the equipment shed to look for weapons. It was a massive structure, made of metal posts skinned with corrugated sheet metal, large enough to fit a full-sized diesel combine. August liked to go there when it rained. It was like being a small creature deep in the bowels of a percussion instrument. The fat drops of rain would hit the thin metal skin in an infinite drumroll, punctuated by the clash of lightning cymbals and the hollow booming of space.
In the shed there was a long workbench covered in the tangled intestines of machinery: looping coils of compressor hoses, hydraulic arms leaking viscous fluid, batteries squat and heavy, baling twine like ligaments stitching the whole crazy mess together, tongue-and-ball trailer knobs, mason jars of rusting bolts and nuts and screws, a medieval-looking welder’s mask, and, interspersed among the other wreckage like crumpled birds, soiled leather gloves in varying degrees of decomposition. August picked up a short length of rusted, heavy-linked logging chain and swung it a few times experimentally before discarding it. He put on a pair of too-large gloves and hefted a broadsword-sized mower blade, slicing slow patterns in the air, before discarding it, too. Then he uncovered a three-foot-long breaker bar wrench with a slim stainless-steel handle that swelled at the other end into a glistening and deadly crescent head. He brought the head down into his glove several times to hear the satisfying whack. He practiced a few death-dealing swing techniques – the sidearm golf follow-through; the overhead back-crushing ax chop; the short, quick line-drive baseball checked swing – the wrench head making ragged divots in the hard-packed dirt floor. He worked up a light sweat and then shouldered his weapon, put the pair of gloves in his back pocket, and went to see his mother.
The old house was set back against a low, rock-plated hill. A year-round spring wept from the face of the rock, and the dampness of it filled the house with the smell of wet leaves and impending rain. The house was a single-level ranch that August’s mother’s grandparents had built with their own hands and lived in until they died. The old house looked up at the new house, the one August’s father had finished the year after August was born. The new house was a tall Victorian with white shutters and a full wraparound porch. August’s mother’s parents had both died when he was young, and he had no memories of them. After their passing his father convinced his mother to sell the vacation home on Torch Lake. With the money he built the new house and bought eighty head of Holstein-Friesians.
‘He feels like it’s his own,’ August’s mother had said to him once, smoking in the kitchen of the new house. ‘His people didn’t have much. Everything we got came from my side, you know. He would never admit it in a hundred years, but it bothers him.’ She coughed. ‘It’s too big. That was my complaint from the get-go. It’s hard to heat, too, exposed up on the hill like this; the wind gets in everywhere. My father or grandfather would have never done it like that. They built smart houses for their families, but that’s the type of men they were.’
August tapped the door a few times with the wrench and went inside. The old house was built by folks interested in efficiency, not landscape, and its windows were few and small. The kitchen was dimly lit by a single shaft of light coming through the window over the sink. The room smelled like frying bacon, and the radio was on. Paul Harvey was extolling the virtues of a Select Comfort Sleep Number Bed. At my age there are few things I appreciate more than a night of restful sleep. Get this mattress. It was dreamed up by a team of scientists.
‘Augie, my fair son, how does the day find you?’
His mother was at the kitchen table playing solitaire. A pan of thinly sliced potatoes fried with pieces of bacon and onion sat next to her ashtray. She smoked Swisher Sweet cigarillos, and a thin layer of smoke undulated above her head like a smooth gray flying carpet. He’d noticed that she seemed to tune in to Paul Harvey in order to make fun of him, while his father tended to listen to Paul Harvey just to listen.
‘I made lunch, and it smelled so good while it was cooking, but now I’m not hungry. I don’t know, I may have finally broken through.’
August pulled out a chair and sat across from his mother at the small table. ‘Broken through to what?’ he said.
‘Oh, I didn’t tell you? I’ve been devoting myself to a new teaching.’ She stubbed out her cigarillo and shook another from the pack sitting on the table. She lit it, a fine network of lines appearing around her mouth as she pursed her lips. Her nails were long and gray, her fingertips jaundiced with tobacco stain. ‘Yeah,’ she continued, ‘I’m considering becoming an inediate.’
‘An inediate – you know, a breatharian?’
‘I don’t know what that is.’
‘Air eaters? Sky swallowers? Ether ingesters?’
‘You can attune your mind and your body, Augie. Perfectly attune them by healthy living and meditation so that you completely lose the food requirement. I mean, not just that you’re no longer hungry – that’s not too hard. I’m talking about all you have to do is breathe the air and you’re satisfied. You get full and you never have to eat. And you can survive that way, happy as a clam.’ She took a sip of coffee, smoke dribbling from her nose as she swallowed. ‘That’s what I’ve been working on.’
She pushed the pan of potatoes and bacon toward him, and August ate some even though Lisa had told him she would make him a sandwich when she got up from the barn. The potatoes were greasy and good, the bacon little pieces of semi-charred saltiness. The onions were soft, translucent and sweet. August ate, then wiped his hands on his jeans and put his wrench on the table for his mother to see.
‘Dad gave me a job,’ he said. ‘For money.’
‘Oh, well, I’m proud to hear it. Did you negotiate a contract? Set a salary-review option pending exemplary performance?’
‘No, I’m just killing some cats.’
‘I see. And this is your Excalibur?’ She tinked the chrome-handled wrench with her fingernail.
‘Yeah. It’s a spanner wrench.’
She made a low whistle and coughed softly into the back of her hand.
‘I’m taking the tails. We’re going to settle up at the end of the week.’
‘That’s the kind of work you stand a chance of bringing home with you, if you know what I mean.’
‘The haymow smells like piss. It’s getting real bad.’
‘Your father. This is gruesome, even for him. Jesus.’ She looked down blankly at the cards in front of her. ‘I keep forgetting where I’m at with this. I can get only so far with solitaire before I get stumped. You ever win?’
‘I never play.’
‘I suppose it’s a game for old women.’
‘You’re not old.’
‘If I’m not, then I don’t want to feel what old is like.’
‘Are you ever going to come back to the new house?’
‘You can tell him no, if you want. About the cats. You don’t have to do it.’
‘She’s been staying over.’
‘I found all of Grandma’s old quilts. They were in a trunk in the back closet. Beautiful things. She made them all; some took her months. All of them hand-stitched. I never had the patience. She used to make me sit there with her for hours, learning the stitches. I’ll show them to you if you want.’
‘Sure. I should get to work now, though.’
‘Next time, then.’
August ate a few more potatoes and then stood up.
‘I wish you Godspeed,’ his mother said, coaxing another cigarillo from the pack with her lips. ‘May your arrows fly true.’
‘I don’t have any arrows.’
‘I know. It’s just an old Indian saying.’ She blew smoke at him. ‘I don’t care about the cats, you know,’ she said. ‘I look at you and it’s clear as day to me that he hasn’t won.’
The barn was empty. His dad and Lisa were out rounding up the cows for milking. August put on his gloves and wedged the wrench down under his belt and climbed the wooden ladder up to the haymow.
Half-blind in the murk, holding his nose against the burning ammonia stench of cat piss, August crushed the skull of the first pale form that came sidling up to him. He got two more in quick succession, and then there was nothing but hissing from the rafters, green-gold eyes glowing and shifting among the hulking stacks of baled hay. August tried to give chase. He clambered over the bales, scratching his bare arms and filling his eyes and ears and nose with the dusty chaff of old hay. But the cats were always out of reach, darting and leaping from one stack to the next, climbing the joists to the rafters, where they faded into the gloom. August imagined them up there, a seething furry mass, a foul clan of fanged wingless bats clinging to a cave roof. This was going to be harder than he had thought.
Photograph © Christian Collins