Back when her skin was smooth and her lips were juicy as ripe berries, Eunice did the nasty with the devil. And she loved it. If she hadn't, I wouldn't be lurking in the dark, twitching the tip of my tail, trying to keep an eye on what the old witch is up to. Everyone knows spells cast during the Black Moon aren't illuminated by the Goddess's light.
The candle flames bob toward the ritual grounds. I track their yellow-orange trails through Corey Woods into the clearing where the scuffling of witches' feet has worn a ring of bare earth in the new spring grass. Tonight, the coven within a coven that is loyal to Eunice gathers. Four witches. One perversely devoted warlock. And me; a small, black, feline familiar. I know better than to get too close. I know what will happen, what always happens, the same way it's happened across all the years. Why singe my whiskers?
The witches extinguish their candles when the circle is complete. Their black-robed figures are an inkier spot in the midnight. From where Eunice stands in her position of power, an even blacker tendril snakes toward the others, making the gloom appear gray in comparison. It weaves a net around the chanting witches, bending as it goes, to trace the outline of their bodies until the threads pull tight. I hear the dull thuds as all but the warlock lose consciousness and hit the ground. Protected by her favor, he moves closer to his priestess until they are cocooned together by the magic. The ebony tornado enfolds them as it swirls into the sky. The wind howls.
And then, exactly as it always happens, it happens. A bright purple orb of light streaks from the heavens and explodes inside the funnel, dispersing the darkness and tossing Eunice and the warlock backward as easily as a twister tosses a scarecrow. For a moment, they loll like turtles on their backs, their limbs waving in the air that still sizzles with violet static as the lightning dissipates.
When they recover their wits, the man flaps his palms at spots where the arcs of power ignited his robe. Eunice sits up, raises her head, and screams her rage at the retreating brightness. The year, the chant, the participants, each of them changes, but it doesn't matter. Someone powerful doesn't want her spell to be cast.
Still, like me, my mistress can't let go of the hope she'll wake one day and the rules of her universe will have changed.
When the warlock is done slapping at his robe, he pushes back his hood and reveals a pock-marked face under a disheveled comb-over: Eunice's loyal sycophant, Kevin. Eunice brought him in to her Black Moon nights twenty years ago when he was just a pimply faced high school senior.
Kevin looks down on her where she still sits near a patch of scorched grass. Through compressed lips, he says, "You promised it would be different this time!"
"Just give me a hand up." She extends an arm. He doesn't take it. "Now," she adds. He continues to glare for a moment and then bends over to grasp it, helping her struggle to her feet.
His voice is low and angry. "I'm sick of your promises. I've kept the cops and Dad away from a lot of things for you. It's time for you to give me what you owe me. I'm tired of hearing just one more thing needs to happen first."
"Shut up, Kevin!" She inclines her head toward where the movement of the other witches indicates they're waking up. "Our secrets are our secrets. We'll talk later."
"No. I want my due. I want the coven, my piece of your imports, and I want Ca…"
Eunice flicks her pinky finger at him, and his flapping tongue swells to fill his mouth, preventing him from finishing his sentence. It looks painful and vaguely obscene.
His eyes move from anger to pleading as the back of his throat closes. I try not to remember how that feels from my own experience annoying Eunice.
"Cat, I know you're there. Come out!"
Oh, so that's it. It's me who's not allowed to hear what he has to say. She always sniffs me out. I lope forward briskly, hoping to avoid the treatment her other pet is getting.
As I rub my cheek against her leg in greeting, Kevin goes to his knees.
"Will you hold your tongue?" she asks him. Her lips twitch into a smirk at her own dark pun.
He nods frantically. She waves a hand toward him as she pivots away. When his tongue shrinks back into his mouth, it reminds me of a snail pulling into its shell.
"Good. As I said, we'll talk later." She doesn't glance back at him, just starts a slow trek along the path through the woods. The chilly night air is never a friend to her knees. I think about pouncing on the hem of her trailing robe, but then I think better of it. I turn back to watch Kevin where he kneels, leaning heavily on his hands, still trying to catch his breath. He raises his head, and I meet his gaze as he glares after us with bloodshot eyes.
That's right, buddy. Look who's the favorite now.
The next day, it's business as usual. I'd like to take a nap, but Cat is distracted by everything: a passing shoelace, the shop broom moving across the floor, the sound of paper bags crinkling.
Crinkling. First my ears and then my eyes are drawn to the source of the sound. Eunice's granddaughter, Cassie, plops a brown paper bag onto the counter, and it rustles again as she rests a dainty hand on it.
"Thanks for the pickles, Gran. You know how Dan loves them. You're sure there's nothing else before I go?"
"I'm fine. Run along."
"I'm not convinced," Cassie says, turning her head to the side, her brow pulling downward, her pale blue eyes narrowing as she scrutinizes her grandmother's face. "You don't look well to me."
"Just off my feed. Nothing to concern yourself about. Back to Boston with you, and don't forget the pickles." Eunice pushes the paper bag toward her. It makes the scrunching noise again. I try not to let the sound excite me, but it does. My haunches tingle. I want to spring.
"Okay, but call if you need me." She leans over the counter to plant a kiss on Eunice's withered cheek with her full, candy-pink glossed lips, then turns and leaves the shop, her long brown hair swaying gently across her back as she goes. If she'd been wearing stockings on those shapely, skirt-clad legs, Cat would have been off the counter like a shot to shred them for her, taking me along for the ride.
I track her departure until I spot an iridescent, feathery pigeon strolling along the back of a bench just outside the plate-glass window where Eunice showcases her magical wares. My entire being follows its every movement, lust for the hunt rising, but I'm trapped inside and can't get to it. I can only stalk it with my eyes as it struts along beyond the display of colorful potions and powders.
Another day, I'll tear into that pigeon: I have hope. I have nothing but hope. The hope I'll someday be a man again is the only thing that keeps me from running out my nine lives one after the other after the other.
But no matter how much hope I cling to, I won't be having pigeon dinner today. The swaggering bird shifts on its perch, flicks its tail, and drops a load of splat on the bench before flying away uneaten. That's what you get with hope.
My ex-wife Gillian interrupts my bird-watching the next time the shop bell ting-a-lings. She strolls in, disappears behind a shelf, then reappears with a jar in her hand. She heads for Eunice, who's been glaring at her since the door opened, and holds the jar outstretched for her to see. From where I lounge next to the cash register, I can't tell if it's vervain or bat wing.
Good. It's time for the weekly skirmish. Although Gillian is a powerful witch, she's never been invited to my mistress's rituals beneath the Black Moon. She and Eunice are worlds apart as witches go.
"Eunice, what are you asking for this?"
"The price is on the bottom. The same place it is every time you ask."
Gillian turns the jar over and lets out a low whistle.
Eunice responds, "Go to Salem if you have a problem with the prices. They cater to the drugstore witches over there."
"You've always been an opportunist!" Gillian replies in the remnants of her British accent. The wording never changes. My sweet Gilly has become a creature of habit.
"And you're a fat, old witch," Eunice reels off from the tape the two of them have played over and over again through the years. She's a creature of habit now, too, although her accent has become more refined over time. To hear her, you'd think she's one of Boston's Brahmins. She certainly wants the residents of our dysfunctional hamlet to think so.
I only half-listen these days, particularly when I've got a good groove going with the paw-lick / ear-swipe combo. The fight never varies much. Over the years, they've both frozen into their own idealized versions of themselves. Gillian's colorful, long skirts swish along the ground enticingly, and her flowing embroidered tops make her look approachable but sloppy. She still wears her white hair long, but most days she twists it and holds it up with a clip on top of her head instead of letting it hang loose down her back. Eunice is a sharp contrast: she's all lines and angles in tailored, beige perfection with short, carefully mussed gray hair that frames a face weighed down by frowns.
"Phhht!" Gillian sounds like a leaky basketball. "Fat old witch? As if that's an insult in a town full of aging practitioners. You've always had to have your own way. You've never once considered the feelings or needs of anybody else."
"I considered Tom's feelings, didn't I? I considered them on the sofa, on the chaise, on the floor, and, obviously, on the bed." Eunice turns away from Gillian then, enjoying her own cleverness, a sly smile stretching the skin on her lips to near-transparency as she scratches seductively behind my left ear. She continues, "Sometimes I considered Tom's feelings two or three times in the same night." I push Cat to resist her, show Gillian a little silent support, but you can't imagine how satisfying a good ear-scratching is: it's sex, steak, and rum wrapped up together with a side order of pecan pie. Cat leans our head in to her hand and rubs our cheek hard against it before she turns away to face her opponent.
It's off to the races then: in their younger days, it might have ended in hair-pulling or face-slapping, although it never turned into a legendary knock-down, drag-out, winner-take-all event. Gilly always backs off after she spits out the real reason for the argument, which has nothing to do with vervain or bat.
"You drove him away, Eunice. You drove my Tom away. I'll never forgive you for that!" Then she storms out of the shop without another word, the shop bell ringing harshly as she exits. From behind a steadily grooming paw, I can see she's slowing down. Her storm is now more of a light drizzle.
Poor Gilly. But Eunice didn't drive me away. I'm still right here, hoping you don't someday push her too far and bang! Pudgy Gilly shrinks to pudgy toady, hopping away from Eunice at the end of a broom as she shoos you into the street.
I'd always hoped Gillian would recognize me somehow, but no one has ever put together my disappearance with the arrival of Cat in Eunice's shop. Not Gillian, not even that bastard Robert, the other warlock Eunice was keeping time with back in my day. She lost interest in him quick enough once she had me to herself. But why would anyone put it together? Who could believe it was possible for Eunice to have so much power?
Eunice says they've long suspected it, even hinted at it, but Gillian and the other coven members have never been able to prove she's dipping deeply into the black arts pool. Pushing the boundaries of white magic, maybe. Stocking questionable items in the store, definitely. Nevertheless, the summer tourists passing through Giles on their way to Salem expect to see "black magic" items in Cat's Magical Shoppe. It doesn't mean they're in use. It will never prove she's lying down with demons.
"Tom, come to bed," Eunice calls from upstairs now that the shop is closed. I'm still downstairs with the shadows, pouncing away at the ones that take my fancy, but I always know what's coming after a day like today. There are few surprises between us after over forty years of our arrangement. Tonight's the night. I can feel it. A run-in with Gillian always revs her up.
There's nothing else I can do. I climb the stairs one slow step at a time, but I only delay the inevitable. I pad into the bedroom and jump lightly to the bed. Cat's body ignores my heavy human heart. She reaches out a hand to stroke my back, and Cat arches in response, purring softly despite my reluctance.
"Good Tom," she says. The magic words.
I'm used to the change they precipitate now—the pain, the near loss of consciousness, being suddenly disoriented in a world full of the reds a cat's eye can't see.
Here I am, Tom Sanders. Naked, chilled without my fur, and resigned to what comes next.
Understand that she never forced me. I've always yielded. And it wasn't so bad forty-five years ago. It's in both my and Cat's nature to yield to a woman without too much fuss, and Eunice was a breath-taking woman in her day. But Cat and I only age in proportion to the time we spend in our own forms, and I've been mostly Cat for years. My body is 24 or 25. My soul, if I still have one after doing Eunice's dirty work for so long, is much, much older. By the time I finally realized satisfying every woman who asked isn't what makes a man a man, I found myself no longer man enough to care.
Eunice turns where she sits on the edge of the red satin bedspread and extends a fairy-pink shot glass toward me. "Catnip, Tom." It's an order.
I could refuse her. I want to refuse her. There's nothing erotic left for me now that she's over seventy. She'd be angry and punish me in other subtle ways, but she wouldn't force me. And she doesn't approach me often now. There are times, when she's in a rare mellow mood, I even feel sorry for her. She's as lonely as I am. No one but Cassie loves Eunice.
I knock the potion back. It tastes sweet as it goes down, but the aftertaste is bitter. Things blur. Under the influence of the aphrodisiac, I move to her, seeing her as she looked forty years ago. My hands drop to her waist, and I pull her toward me. It feels as though her body yields with a flexibility she lost long ago. I let my lips trail downward from her earlobe to her collarbone, and now it's Eunice who purrs.
As the potion wears off, it leaves my mouth dry and my left eye tingling. The sensation of Eunice's slack skin beneath the cradling arm where I'd felt the firm flesh of youth only seconds before gives me a jolt. And there's that subtle odor she's developed over the past few weeks: a whiff of bowel overlaid by a definite top note of decay. With my head unmuddled, I regret I didn't stand up to her. I can't linger tonight in some vile imitation of affection.
She turns and reaches for me. I shrug away. "I don't want to snuggle. Turn me back into Cat. I'll sleep in my basket." I roll across the bed and put my feet on the ground, preparing to walk away. It feels good to talk back to her.
"I'd think twice, Tom. You've managed to keep Cat intact in this lifetime. That doesn't mean a visit to the vet is out of the question."
Oh, there it is—the big threat—neutering. It affects Cat but not my human body: that wouldn't suit her at all. But it makes Cat docile and loving. It makes him lose interest in the hunt. It makes him rub up against her legs whenever she's near like she isn't hellspawn. And me? It makes me want to run him in front of a swiftly moving train.
I think about the snip, and I flash to the memory of her ancient body pressed to mine insistently only moments before. I can't care about the threats any more. I'm done. In this moment, I'm done hoping. I can't care about anything.
I'm up and running away toward the window when the silver sparks twine around me, entangling me in a net built with strands of her magic.
She gets out of bed. Her robe rustles as she walks toward me. She moves in front of me where I can see her and says, her voice low, "Four more lives, Tom. That's all."
When she's calm like this, it scares me more than the rages.
"Do you want to go out, Tom?"
I can't move, so I don't respond.
"I know you do. But you want to be wearing this fine, manly body of yours when you leave, don't you? You could walk over to Gillian's and tell her how sorry you are you cheated on her. Or take flowers to your mother's grave, perhaps?" She leans in to my ear, solicitous. "It was sad you missed your parent's funerals. Or no—you could escape Giles altogether and go back to your tomcatting ways in the big city. I think that's more likely, don't you?"
She turns and walks into the hall, and I'm pulled along behind by her magical, silver tractor beam. I struggle not to lose my footing on the stairs as it tugs me downward.
When we're finally standing at the shop door, looking out on the deserted nighttime street, she frees my head and neck, then places a hand on my jaw to turn my face to hers. She gives me an unpleasant smile. "Go on, Tom. I give you your freedom." Her voice drops to a whisper. "Walk out like a man."
The magical net lets loose. I face forward, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. I know I can't leave as a man. I know it's a trick. I know she's taunting me: this hope welling up inside is just another load of splat. Every door, every window, every point of exit from this house precipitates the shift.
But I can't help it. The same as my mistress, I can't bear to let go of the hope that one day I'll wake up and the rules of my universe will have changed. I'm not thinking of the transformation any more than Eunice thinks of the spell-shattering bolt of brightness under the Black Moon. I'm thinking only about how the wind would feel blowing through my hair.
I open my eyes and step through the doorway. I'm outside, and I'm Tom. And the breeze, oh the breeze…
Then the pain comes.
My body pulls in on itself, folding up like intricate origami, my smooth skin darkening and sprouting fur, until Cat stands where the man was.
I hate myself for believing, even a little.
Eunice's laughter follows me all the way down the street.
Cat doesn't like fog. You'd think he would with both he and the fog ghosting around on their little cat feet, but despite the potential for stealth, it hides the small movements of nearby prey. Hunting is poor. I hear the night creatures scatter as they smell me moving toward them, but I can't find them. They're lost in the mist.
I prowl the backyards of the row of well-maintained Victorian-era buildings where the shop is located, searching for a creature skittering there that I can stalk and control and kill. But there's just the rustle of small feet hurrying out of my way. It'll be off to the woods, then. I can sniff something out farther from home. Maybe a squirrel, something that isn't afraid of a fight.
I dart across the street, distracted by my urges. Tires squeal ten feet from me. I look up at the driver and see good ol' Kevie-baby's ugly mug in the windshield just before Cat is knocked over and goes down screaming to be crushed by a rear wheel and pop out behind it in a world of pain.
I'm too hurt now to even scream as the car pulls to the side of the road. I hear doors slam and raised voices.
"I don't know why you always have to make a big deal out of everything, Dad. Leave it for the road crews."
"We're not leaving some kid's dead pet on the street where he can find it. Toss me your keys. Do you still have those burlap bags in the back?"
Great. Robert's here, too. If I wasn't already dying, Eunice would kill me.
There's a jangling thud as the keys hit the road, and a little later, the sound of the trunk popping open as footsteps move toward me.
Then the pain stops, and the breath stops, and the sound stops, and the dark starts, and I'm in that nothing space where I know I'm dead. I wonder idly if it's final this time. But no, it's only Cat's sixth life done: the transformation begins.
It happens fast: claws retract as fingers grow, fur becomes hair, the bones in my legs crack as they stretch and straighten and push their way out.
For a brief moment, I'm a buck naked man in the middle of the street, blinking at the brightness of the streetlight after the darkness of death. Brief, yes, but it's long enough for Kevin to spot me as he walks back to what he thinks will be a cat's carcass he's supposed to bag and take to the dump. When he sees me, his eyes go round, and the curse he utters isn't a magical one. Then the cat comes back as my body folds into itself.
Yes, Cat's back as a sweet young kitten.
I can't resist a quick kitty-wink at Kevin before I run into the woods.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, just like that poet wrote it. But I'm no longer a bad-ass tomcat with years of muscle memory for hunting and killing. I'm a mewling kitten that could barely take down a mouse, much less a gigantic squirrel. The woods, which should beckon freedom, shout out danger now. I crawl into a hollow at the base of a rotten tree to sleep there, dozing then waking, wary of the night noises. An owl hoots in the distance. I cower in my hole.
In the morning, I run home, tripping once or twice on my tiny, newly unfamiliar feet, and glance both ways before I cross each street. I bet it looks cute as hell. I hate it when Cat loses a life.
When I arrive back at the shop, I shimmy up the tree in the back, move along a branch that leads to the open window, and launch myself at the sill. I snag it with my front paws, but as I dig in for firmer purchase, I feel like I'm posing for that poster from the seventies—the one with the cat and the branch and the "Hang In There, Baby." I slide down the sill fast, losing my grip and hoping my young bones bend instead of break when I hit the ground two stories below.
Then, I'm traveling up and in by the scruff of the neck. "Stupid, stupid Tom. Another life gone? That only leaves seven, eight and nine, and you could have just lost number seven." Eunice drops me on the floor, not gently, and I skulk away under the bed to spend the morning in hiding.
I wish I didn't have to return, but where else would I go? I don't want to live rest of my lives trying to make my way as a mangy alley cat. Maybe it's time to accept I'll never be a man again. In fact, with this latest setback, I'm not even a decent cat.
I wake to the sound of a ringing phone which Eunice answers promptly.
"Cassie, stop crying. You're worth ten of him, sweetheart," Eunice murmurs into the phone in the deceptively kind tone she saves for her granddaughter. I hear the girl's sobs from where I'm still hiding under the bed.
When she talks this way, a listener might think Eunice truly cares, but her interest in Cassie, like her interest in anyone, isn't genuine. She wants something from the girl. I know it, and I want to protect her from it, but I've never been able to figure out what it is. Still, she's been over-solicitous of her granddaughter's well-being since she was eight or nine. Cassie had been hit by a car, and Eunice not only donated blood, she stayed by her bedside for days. From then on, Cassie stayed with us on her summer vacations. She was someone nice for Cat to cuddle with. She never demanded more than I wanted to give.
"No, dear, no, you don't pack his things up for him nice and tidy. You found him in bed with your best friend! No, his things go on the lawn. Preferably in the rain, with the crotch cut out of all his pants...that's the only thing for it, dear. Are you listening? Go find the scissors now before you forget. I'll wait..."
Ten minutes pass while Eunice waits. "Lovely, dear. How did it feel? Yes, I said so, didn't I? Granny Eunice always knows what to do...and remember, on the lawn once you're finished. He needs to know that final is final. He'll not be forgiven, not by you. Not ever."
Eunice makes her goodbyes and places the phone back in the cradle as a smug expression plays across her face. She airs her thoughts out loud, perhaps to herself, perhaps because she knows I'm still lurking under the bed.
"I cannot believe that disaster zone of a girl found someone to get engaged to and nearly ruined everything! In any case, that's sorted things nicely, if I do say so myself."
She walks through the hall to the small kitchen / breakfast room combo at the end. She calls out, "Cat!"
I don't have a choice. My cat self has a painfully empty stomach due to being freshly reanimated and cowering in the woods all night, and while I might regret it, I sweep out from under the overhang of the bedspread, stopping only briefly to bat at the fringe, and then rush along the hall toward the sound of the can opener and the smell of something savory. I leap from the floor to the chair to the tabletop, where my blue ceramic dish contains a pile of fishy-smelling slop. I eagerly shove my little pink nose into it and chew away daintily as Eunice rubs me behind my tiny black ears and waits for the kettle to boil.
I hate myself for purring. Cat forgives everything so easily when food is involved.
"Well, Tom, I'm sorry that you can't join me for tea. I prefer the company of Cat right now, given your behavior last night. Such a shame you're not always as sweet-tempered as a kitten."
I glance up from my meal, and she gives me a quick scratch under the chin. "You do look charming. Perhaps I'll leave you that way, and you can go fully cat from now on." She's a shark when she smiles. "How would you like that, Tom?"
I try to arrange my face into an expression of horror, but I'm sure my wide-open eyes and plastered-back ears just make me adorable. No, I wouldn't like being fully cat from now on. Every time I'm Cat too long, I start to lose my human self.
The last time Eunice forgot to let me spend time in human form, I almost didn't come back from it. She was having her brief but unsavory affair with Kevin after school in one of the cabins she owns in Corey Woods. She was in her late fifties at the time. Despite Eunice's trim figure and piercing blue eyes, young Kev must have been one hard-up teen to do it with a woman old enough to be his granny. And Eunice? I've never been able to figure out what she'd want from such a soft, greasy chunk of high school wedgie bait.
It was a week, at least, before she got the itch for me again and sprang me from Cat's body. I held her immobile with my teeth gripping the back of her neck, and she arched, scratched, and growled when I treated her to a little lovin' the tomcat way. Later, as we lay together, perspiration shining on our exhausted bodies, she rubbed up behind my ear with one hand as if I were still Cat, and said, "The teeth were a nice touch."
Despite her approval, there's no way she'd want me asserting myself outside of the bedroom. She never left me as Cat that long again.