A Tale of Two Cats
by Lori D'Angelo
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The first thing you should know is that all witches aren't I'll-get-you-my-pretty-and-your-little-dog, too, evil. And we're not all like, "If you kill your friend Duncan, you could be king." And the top hat and the broomstick and the striped stockings, those are all very Hocus Pocus Halloweeny.
In many ways, witches are just like humans who don't have powers, but they're more attuned to the world around them. Witches can be good, or they can be evil, based on the people and creatures they associate with.
Most people without power have the potential to be powerful. They just don't know how to harness the power inside them or around them.
Witches are like Mario once he finds the squirrels or the mushrooms. They're like humans but supercharged. And once you know that you could be supercharged, why would you settle for being ordinary? Of course, in the words of Spider-Man's Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility." But sometimes the glamour and glitter of the power blinds you, and you forget the responsibility part.
That's what your friends and your familiar is for, to help you walk the line but not cross it.
For example, creating storms can be fun, but you have to be careful not to get carried away. You have to think about the damage to the crops and the livestock.
The damage that we can do without thinking, that's why they burned us.
Sometimes though, your friends and your familiar don't keep you in check like they're supposed to. Sometimes they do just the opposite.
The worst case that I can think of, the worst case that anyone knows of, though most people who know don't talk about it, is the case of Miranda and her cat, Snowball.
At first, the match between them seemed Heaven sent. They laughed and rainmade and baled hay together and then they danced in the forest. But the forest dancing wasn't innocent, it wasn't like the coven dances that we all did. Instead, it was solitary, secret.
Goody Sexton urged her father to report it to the High Priest, but things had gotten stressful lately between the male leaders and the female followers, and Miranda's father didn't want to make it worse.
He didn't want Miranda to have to stand at the scaffold for all to see, wearing the S for Shame. We didn't know what Miranda had done alone in the forest with Snowball, but we assumed it was nothing good. After that, Miranda looked paler, weaker. When we asked if she was okay, she said, yes, of course she was fine, she was great. And we felt it would be unwise to press any further. We looked over at Snowball, who looked fat and content. He licked his red lips happily while Miranda said that she was just going to go lie down. Snowball purred approvingly. We let it go. After all, we had to rest up for tomorrow's full moon.
“Do you feel the wind?” Goody Bradford asked. She was the witch most attuned to the rhythms of nature.
I nodded though I didn't get her point. The wind felt... well, windy. And wasn't that what wind was supposed to do? Blow?
"Claudia, you, too, could harness the potential of the wind. You have the magic in you. If you just took the time to be still and listen. Here, come sit near me by the fire."
Skeptically, I did. "Close your eyes. Take my hand," she commanded. I wanted to laugh. This seemed like the theatrical witch stuff we did for tourists.
"Shh, Claudia. Listen."
I did, and what I heard was piercing, ominous.
"Holy Crap," I muttered. Then, I apologized for my outburst. "I didn't think this wind reading stuff was real. What do you think it means?"
"Nothing good," she said. We continued to hold hands as we listened to the leaves rustle. To me, they sounded like the torment of the damned. I wanted to shut the noise out, but now that I knew how to communicate with the wind, I couldn't unhear its ominous moaning. I didn't know what was coming, but I knew it was bad.
"Tomorrow," Goody Bradford said, "I'll teach you how to communicate with water."
I wondered what good that would do, but I didn't tell her.
Still, she seemed to sense my thoughts. "Claudia, only the most powerful of witches can communicate with the elements. If I can teach you what you need to know in time, together we might be able to stop this.
The next morning, I woke up late. We all did. On the nights of full moon, we would become creatures of the night. It was colder than it should have been, and, in other times, I might have frozen, but Goody Bradford had covered me in a blanket made from ash and fire. It kept me warm and toasty and sound asleep despite the disturbance of the wind and now the waves.
"Ah, she stirs," Goody Bradford said. "First, we eat. Then, we go to the water."
I nodded. Though I still didn't know what good water dancing or whatever Goody Bradford had in mind would do us, I was curious. So I followed. Plus, I knew her magic was more powerful than mine.
We stood at the edge of the shore watching the waves break.
"Now," she said, "call them to you."
I protested, "But with the wind, we just listened."
"Claudia, isn't communication a two-way street?"
I nodded but thought this is crazy.
"Now," she said, "call the waves."
I did, and to my surprise, they came.
I both longed for and dreaded the rising of the moon. I think we all did. All of us had a sense, though not as great as Goody Bradford's, that everything would come to a head with the rising of the moon.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
For the ceremony, Genevieve would bang the drum and Miranda would play the queen. In retrospect, this casting choice seemed unwise. Who had determined that it was a good idea to give a struggling witch such an important role?
At the shore that morning, Goody Bradford had told me, “Every witch has her moment, a moment that determines whether she will rise or fall. When your moment comes, Claudia, what will you do?”
The sky was clear, and the moon was bright. Genevieve banged on the drum.
The chorus sang their appointed lines, and when they sang, "One night in the forest, after the sun had faded, and the light of the moon pierced the darkness, Diana emerged from the forest," Miranda was supposed to appear. But she didn't. Truthfully, I was hoping that maybe she wouldn't come at all.
The chorus repeated the line. Miranda emerged. She wore a long white dress. With her was her fearsome, awful cat, both of their eyes glowing red. Holy Shit, I thought.
The chorus continued, and, since things were about to go all Stephen King, I wondered if it was really necessary for them to continue saying their lines: “Diana emerged from the forest and showed the world her power.”
With that, the forest caught fire, and I knew that the fire was coming from Miranda.Goody Bradford took my hand. I knew it was time for us to call the water.
"This is going to be hard," she said, "maybe the hardest thing you've ever done. Are you ready?"
What was the alternative, to let all the witches burn?
"Let's begin," she said.
“We call to you, Great Spirit of the Water.”
At first, nothing happened. I watched the fire rage.
"Don't focus on the fire. Call the water."
I closed my eyes and pictured the waves. They began to come to me. But then, Miranda's cat stood before me, and I was frightened.
"See the water," Goody Bradford said. I did. I saw it come close, but it stopped just around the cat, as if he was powerful enough to part the waves.
Some of the witches had run away screaming, but a few had stayed to watch. Fewer still came to our aid.
One of them was my mother. She had been dead for twelve years. Her voice, though, was strong: “Claudia, calm the wind.” With the power of my mother running through me, I did.
The leaves, which had been blowing in twisty turny patterns, came to a stop.
Then, rain began to fall.
Defeated, Miranda's cat disappeared and Miranda collapsed. The fires that had raged died out. All but the ones that surrounded Miranda. They consumed her. She faded to nothing but a puff of smoke.
Goody Bradford looked at me with pride. I felt like I couldn't take the credit.
"My mother," I began.
"Claudia, that was all you."
A few days later, a black cat appeared and wouldn't leave, though I tried to shoo him. Finally, I fed him mice and birds, and he began to settle in. After the full moon and the fire, we could sleep again at night. I named the cat Midnight, and he nestled by my side, purring loudly. For the moment, at least, everything was fine.
Lori D'Angelo's work has appeared in various literary journals including Drunken Boat, Gargoyle, Hawaii Pacific Review, Heavy Feather Review, Juked, Literary Mama, the Potomac Review, Reed Magazine and Word Riot. She is a fellow at Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She lives in Virginia with her two dogs, two cats, two kids, and one husband. You can find her on Twitter @sclly21.
written in Russian by Jonathan Vidgop
translated into English by Leo Shtutin
This story was featured on Kitaab on February 11, 2023.
Click here to listen to this story on the podcast.
My room is very small. I can traverse it in five steps, turn right or left, depending on what wall I’m walking along, and take three further steps. My room thus resembles a Christian coffin or an antique pencil box with a fitted wooden lid. But my door is reinforced with iron, and floating fish-like in the little porthole cut into its centre is the great eye of some unknown warden. A repulsive oily colour covers the walls—a colour to which the grey fur of my little friends stands in most agreeable contrast.
There are five of them, my interlocutors. The trouble is that we’re all of us intelligible only to ourselves. Their shrill, scarcely audible squeaking is incomprehensible to me—I cannot so much as discern modulations in it; and my speech, for them, is but a dull drone. My grey friends began putting in appearances recently, when I realized that my stay here has no time limit.
In the middle of the night I awoke on the cement floor, swaddled in my loose mackintosh, and saw a pair of little sparks ablaze in the half-dark. A pair: another: yet another: still yet another: five pairs of eyes, regarding me intently. Abrim with all manner of prejudice, I leapt to my feet in a trice and pressed myself against the wall. The rats shrank back, too, then froze stock-still.
Our natural state is war. Though why this became the case is beyond anyone’s ken. Recalling legends that tell of rat-devoured babies, I aimed a blow with my foot. But the creatures did not stir. It was only later that they repaired to a corner, unhurried, quiet, self-assured, and vanished into it, one after the other. I waited a long time that night for the reappearance of tiny blazing eyes. But they did not show themselves. Nor did they do so the following night. They materialized only when I stopped waiting for them. Lining up unhurriedly along the wall, they fixed their gazes on me once again. We passed two hours or so in silent face-off. Then the neat little rat-column vanished into the corner.
Why are people afraid of rats? Why are rats afraid of people? In rats’ eyes, no doubt, people are repulsive and hideous. Grotesque two-legged creatures who’ve sworn to eradicate them. Why are we enemies? The rats have done nothing to me that would cause me to kill them.
They’ve started to come every night. I know everything about them. They’re old as the world. They almost triumphed in a great battle under the banner of the plague. They were forced back into the cellars. They survived. They multiplied. And now they’re biding their time. Memories of how they advanced down cobbled town streets in living grey masses, filling those streets to the very brim, disturb them. The burden of heady victory, frenzied feasting and erstwhile greatness has been handed down to them by their forefathers. But new generations have risen in the interim. Should they join battle?
They materialize before me: five warriors. I’m more cowardly than they. They’re confident and calm; I’m short on sleep and short on patience. Panicked now, I lunge at them, aiming clumsy kicks in their direction. They’re more agile than I am, and dodge my feeble attacks without any trouble. And now they’re behind me, stock-still once again, save for their long, whip-like, madly writhing tails. All five eye me with dispassionate gaze.
Strength sapped, I sink to the cement. Their nerves are stronger than mine. Well, let them attack. I cover my face with my hand—only for them to withdraw with a haughty swish of their whips.
I’ve heard it said that rats are unusually intelligent. Indeed they are: they could have attacked me, but they did not. They find me interesting. We scrutinize each other assiduously. I think they’re wiser than I am.
I try to corner them. The creatures grumble with displeasure. Were someone to attack me, I’d grumble too. Like them, I’m hungry all day long. Our diets differ, but we’re on the same page. Perhaps the fact I have a god sets me apart from them? But who says they don’t have a god themselves?
I awake once more. Sat in a semi-circle, they’re watching me intently. And now they rear onto their hind legs and stand unmoving, supported by their sturdy tails. Would boots and leather sword-belts complete with countless narrow straps look good on them? No. They’re just animals, soft and silky of fur. Quietly, lined up in their usual column, they vanish.
Breaking off a hefty chunk of plaster from high up on the wall, I find their hole and drive in the chunk. Farewell, friends: I’m frightened to be in your presence. I hear a quiet rustle behind my back. They’re sitting in their semi-circle. They’ve tricked me—slipped imperceptibly out of their hole while I was breaking off the plaster. Which I’ve driven into the hole with my boot. Wedged it firmly in place. And trapped us all in this room.
I share my meagre victuals with them. I eat in great haste, swallowing down mouthfuls. Unlike me, and contrary to legend, none of them pounce on the food with a vengeance. Their white teeth work at it patiently.
Perhaps I could tame them? Just, of course, as they could me. I can tell them apart now. No doubt they all have names of their own, though I shall never know them. Could they be new wardens, come to watch over me? Or chroniclers, perhaps?
We don’t discommode one another. I fear them no more. They’ve done me no evil this entire time. I think they’re as harmless as I am.
Sitting circlewise, they converse amongst themselves. The screak of their voices sounds like far-off, ill-tuned violins. I address them. They turn quizzically towards me. It’s true: I’ve disrupted their conversation. What can I tell them? They know it all without my saying a word.
Beyond the bounds of my room, autumn has been and gone. The cold seeps through the walls, and my mackintosh can no longer shield me against it. The cement floor is worse than ice. It sucks the warmth out of my body. Every night finds the creatures lying beside me, their little bodies nestled into mine. Are they feeling the cold? Or are they doing this specially to keep me warm? As we lie unmoving in the dark, I feel the hot coursing of their blood, feel it pulsing warmth into my core. We lie there like six warriors on some unknown battlefield.
Before long it’ll be difficult for me to imagine life without these quiet, severe creatures. I don’t feel like I’m their leader. We’re equals. How good it is, when you’re half aslumber, when it’s deadly cold beyond the walls, to feel a warm, grey little body against your bare hand. How swift their breathing as they press their whiskered muzzles to my shoulder; how deft and noiseless their movements as they scuttle up my neck. Their teeth are so sharp that their bites hurt me not at all. My only displeasure is the hot stickiness of my own blood. But they work at me with such diligence that I soon cease to feel its flow.
I do not open my eyes: I’m sure they’ll perform the deed well. They’re no stranger to it. We are, after all, but warriors of opposing armies who have encountered and recognized one another.
Jonathan Vidgop is a theatre director, author, screenwriter, and founder of the Am haZikaron Institute for Science and Heritage of the Jewish People in Tel-Aviv, Israel. Born in Leningrad in 1955, Jonathan was expelled in 1974 from what is now called the Saint-Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts “for behavior unworthy of the title of Soviet student.” Having worked as a locksmith, loader, and White Sea sailor, he was drafted into the army and sent to serve in the Arctic Circle. He is the author of several books. Two chapters from his latest novel, Testimony, accepted by the leading Russian Publishing House NLO, “Birdfall” and “Man of Letters,” were published in English in Goats Milk Magazine and The CHILLFILTR Review. A story was recently accepted by Los Angeles Review, and another by Pembroke Magazine. The story “Nomads” is the recent winner of the Meridian’s Editors’ Prize in Prose.
A graduate of Merton College, Oxford, Leo Shtutin is a freelance translator from Russian and French and has worked for online publications such as The Calvert Journal and Open Democracy. His translation of Death of a Prototype, a novel by the contemporary Russian author Victor Beilis, was published by Anthem Press in 2017 and nominated for the 2018 Read Russia Prize. Between Page and Stage is his first book.
A Devil In The Making
by Melissa Miles
Click here to listen to this story on the podcast.
Again. It happened again.
His eyes stung, he instinctively rubbed them even though he knew it would just make it worse. He was just doing his job, but this kept happening. It would make any Angel angry, but it happened to him over and over, again and again…
Sure. God had sent him down to earth as a penance. He’d been told that he’d been too uppity, trying to start his own court and Lord it over the earth in direct opposition to God. Yes, he knew it had been a make or break situation, but he never in his wildest dreams thought God would put him here, in the realm of humans, to be so bored. And on top of the boredom to be treated with such intentional disrespect. It made his blood boil, and every time that happened, he'd noticed his beautiful Angelness had grown a little darker, and a little redder. He felt more solid. It was most unpleasant.
Of course, he understood that penance wasn’t meant to be nice…but it had been years now, and he had been standing, as he had been ordered from on high, behind every human’s left shoulder.
Being an Angel, even an oddly transforming one, he could be in many places at once, like the endless reflections in parallel mirrors, so he could stand simultaneously behind every adult human’s left shoulder. What had once been millions had now become billions. And every second, every part of every second, someone was throwing salt over their shoulder and into his face.
Obviously some ass up in Heaven had put the notion in their heads that something awful was standing there, and that it could be chased away by throwing salt! What these poor stupid humans didn’t get, was that in their infinite ignorance, they were, with their actions, creating that which they feared most.
They knew about the existence of God and the Angels, and they had, to enliven the tedium of their dull little lives--and explain away their own indefensible actions-- created a creature of the opposite persuasion, and called it ‘The Devil.’
While still a gleaming Angelic being, he had thought this all rather quaint, the funny little imaginings of the cute little creatures he had been sent to care for. But now that the stupid fear of this imaginary ‘Devil’ was affecting his own life, he began to take a very dim view of it indeed. It was in fact making him seethe with anger.
He had been everywhere of course. Everywhere a human being was, he had been there, standing stupidly, silently, behind their left shoulders, and in his punishment, unable to influence their lives one iota. He was there in every palace, in every prison cell, on every yacht and in every torture chamber. He became not only angry, but doused in despair at the actions of humans. But it was only when they had salt in their grubby, stubby little fingers, that they could, unwittingly, change his being.
It had been centuries now, and he had become a very different creature. His wings had slid down his back to form a pointed tail, his elegant hands had become claws and his beautiful ethereal body had become solid, scaled, and a deep dark red, the color of blood. The fact the he hated it, made it worse, and of course in the contrary way of things, more solid.
But it wasn’t even this hideous change that was the most vile, what the very worst change had been, was that of his interior self, what might once have still been a soul, had been transformed by every handful of salt in his face thrown by some ignoramus, every single handful laid grains of darkness, bitterness and cruelty in that part of him that had still been pure.
Gradually, humanity had changed the Angel who loved them so much he had tried to wrest their care from God. By their blank acceptance of what they had been told he was, by their thoughtless repetition of what they believed would keep him at bay, they had changed him into what they feared the most, a Devil indeed, who was no longer aghast at the extremes of human actions. He was now the very evil they feared, he had become a repository for all their dark thoughts and deeds.
He now crowed with glee at the torture of innocents, at the disasters and death that befell humans, and because God had never given him an end to his punishment, he grew with each passing moment. Every bad action, every disgusting desire, every cruel contemplation fortified him.
The Devil now stands looming above us. His shadow falls everywhere. He no longer fits behind each human’s left shoulder, now he stands to the left of the world. We have made him into the absolute opposite of goodness and of God.
God made us in his image, and we have made the Devil in ours.
Melissa Miles is an American who lives in New Zealand. She had many professional iterations--acting, teaching, film-making--but is now focusing on her writing while caring for her aging menagerie.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.