By John C Adams
From the December 2021 issue of CHM
The cats of Winfield had been tormented by Neville Jones for too long. One night, gathering in a stealthy counsel up on the roof of the inn amid much howling and mewing, they formed a strategy and elected a leader from among their number to see that it was carried out. The answer, according to the old ginger mouser who’d seen more than fifteen winters, lay in prayer to the spirit of the black kitten.
The black kitten was legendary in Winfield for reasons the old ginger mouser could well remember. He confidently assured his brethren that their evocation of the little one’s spirit would be answered, if they put their incantation in precisely the right wording and accompanied it with the correct blood offering. For the spirit of the black kitten who opened the way to the greater Feline Gods was particular as to every detail, and many was the exhortation that had been received in unresponsive silence for lack of the right ceremony to accompany it.
This would not be easy to achieve, bearing in mind that Neville’s parents loathed cats as much as their eighteen-year-old son did, the old tabby who adorned the cat basket in the post office warned them all. Mr and Mrs Jones were known to trap any cat that strayed into their garden, and woe betide one that jumped up onto the sill or into their kitchen.
The cats of Winfield arranged to meet seven-night hence, on the passing of the Old Night at the Year’s End, but before they could wait a week, events overtook them. Neville responded to the disappointment of a particularly bad set of A level retake results delayed by snow during the Yule period, by capturing a two-year-old black and white female cat alive. She was carrying six kittens, the matronly tortoiseshell from the inn informed them, though the exact identity of the father was unknown. Her pitiful cries for rescue had drifted across from the Jones’s house on the afternoon breeze in between bouts of heavy snow.
The cats sent a scouting party to reconnoitre the Neville’s home led by a Burmese Blue and White Cross, tastelessly named Randy by his owners when he was still whole and they found his romantic antics amusing. The party reported back that the chances of rescue were terribly slim.
Neville had slammed his bedroom window after realising that the captive’s plaintive cries for help could be heard outside. His parents were tucked in warm by the fire, staring at the flickering television with blankets spread across their knees and with all the doors inside the house firmly closed against interior draughts. Even if the cats did find a way in, it would be impossible to move around freely and attempt a rescue with so many closed doors in their way, Randy told them.
The cats washed their paws as they ruminated about what to do next. Finally, the tabby insisted that they ask the spirit of the black kitten for help immediately.
The tortoiseshell and the ginger caught a mouse apiece and carried them tenderly in their mouths to the most sacred place in Winfield: the site of the last prayer offered up to the spirit of the black kitten by the ginger mouser. An offering must be made, he reminded them, if they were to have any hope at all of attracting the spirit’s attention. And it must be a blood offering, absolutely fresh. The other cats nodded thoughtfully. The spirit of the black kitten would be drawn by the smell of blood and nothing else. It was known.
The two cats laid their offering upon the flat stone, a kind of altar in the odd language of their people, down by the dairy at the Gleaning farm. The scent of fresh milk appealed to the spirit of a kitten long gone from his own world beyond the river Skai, just as much as it did to the cats who still dwelt upon the earth of Winfield.
Under the leadership of the ginger mouser, the cats mewed strange prayers that seemed to drift up into the cold January night and swirl around them in the falling snow. They fell into a soft rhythm that felt to them not unlike purring, bursting forth from their chests and keeping an easy pace that would not tire them, even if they went on all night.
At length, their prayers were answered.
A white light descended through the falling snow and hovered above the spot where the fresh mice had been laid as an offering. Two tiny drops of blood had fallen onto the flat stone from one mouse’s neck and the other’s chest where the fatal wounds had been inflicted. The drops had spread out across the slate and dried in the cold night air.
The spirit of the black kitten manifested itself ephemerally. This unnerved the younger cats, but the doughty warriors who had seen many a winter and much odder things than this in Winfield took it in their stride.
The kitten’s aura led the cats marching two abreast back to Neville’s home, and they stealthily crept through the garden and over to the ivy growing up the side of the house. The power of the kitten had greatly augmented their number and their determination to succeed. They swarmed up the ivy, digging their claws into its hoary old branches and surging up onto the wooden windowsill.
The ginger mouser traced a circle just big enough to fit a human body through around the windowpane. The power of the kitten had made the ginger’s claws unnaturally long, and they penetrated deep into the glass. Not a hint of a screech escaped, but a perfect hole was crafted and the circle of glass fell with a tinkling crash into the snowdrift below Neville’s window.
The graceful marauders froze, lest this slight sound alert Neville’s parents on the floor below (staring at their television and crunching on popcorn as they discussed the show), making them come to investigate. But their inane comments did not miss a syllable, and the cats gave thanks to their guiding spirit from Ulthar for coming to the aid of one of their number.
The young cat had to be rescued as a matter of urgency, and the pack surged through the circle as one. Neville entered a trance at the sight of them bounding onto his carpet and gathering menacingly around him. They played, patting him with their paws. Then the claws came out, right enough. His pathetic voice whined that he’d only meant a bit of fun and that they’d made their point.
The motherly tortoiseshell roused the prisoner with a wash from her rough tongue. They snuck out onto the sill and slid down with scraping claws.
Neville was lured out of the window and down the ivy in the same trance. He fell the final ten feet and landed heavily in the snowdrift, spraining his ankle. The cats scratched at his feet and knees until he crawled out of the snow and dragged himself up. His eyes were sunk in with the pain, but the cats, remembering many an instance of torment to their number, forced him on all the same.
They crossed the bridge by the inn in a single-minded mass of sleek bodies, marching Neville on and ignoring his feebly weeping requests to rest a while until his ankle hurt a bit less. When he slyly suggested they return home and talk it over in the warm over a saucer of warm milk in his kitchen, the cats clawed his thighs until he limped on.
Old Mrs Forrest lived in a quirky little house of uncertain geometry just over the bridge. The septagenarian hardly left home and relied almost entirely upon her young black and white cat for company in the many hours when her family were busy with work and friends.
The ginger mouser howled at Mrs Forrest’s door until the deaf old woman finally heard and came to investigate. An expression of total joy spread across her face at the sight of her beloved Janet returned at last. Posters had been up all around the village ever since Janet had disappeared.
Mrs Forrest carried Janet inside and wrapped her up in a blanket in her basket by the fire. She seemed hardly to notice the fifty cats weaving in between her legs and lolling on all her best upholstery as she tearfully welcomed her darling home. But her glowering at Neville was not lost upon the lad, nor upon the protective felines.
They almost decided to leave Neville to Mrs Forrest’s merciless punishment, but the spirit of the black kitten had become a part of them that night. He miaowed that the sacrifice of the two mice and the milk from the dairy had been a promising start to their offering, but could never represent the entirety of it. The spirit of the small black kitten had found its way to Winfield at their behest, and now they must give him his reward in thanks.
The cats acquiesced, for the spirit of the small black kitten was very kind on the surface but there was an iron strength beneath that almost frightened the younger among them and inspired an awed reverence from the older cats of the village. None dared challenge him when he insisted that Neville was his, to dispose of as he wished at his leisure back home beyond the river Skai.
The spirit expanded into a white cloud, shining out over the tiny cottage, the old stone bridge and the ancient inn. Neville limped into it with barely a murmur and the cats lolled on the bridge, washing and feeling very smug at all the good they had done tonight, watching him go.
Neville squeaked out his thanks to the spirit of the black kitten for rescuing him from the nasty cats of Winfield. The old ginger mouser purred out in satisfaction that Neville’s gratitude was entirely misplaced: the spirit of the black kitten was heading home to a place where not one iota of cruelty to cats is ever tolerated.
The boy’s brown eyes grew wide as he shrunk to the size of a dog, then a rat and finally just a tiny mouse. He sat on his haunches, petrified at the cats stalking him, stammering that he was sorry.
The spirit reassumed the form of a real kitten for an instant. It told Neville that repentance might wash out in the world of trusting, naive humans, but that their fierce species was not so weak as the creatures that warmed their milk and fed them scraps of roasted meat from their own plates as they stretched out on fluffy rugs before the fire.
They floated away together, leaving this world of men far behind. Neville’s ankle tormented him, but that was nothing to the terror that gnawed into his soul when he thought of what lay ahead for him. For Neville had heard tell of Ulthar and its ways, but he had still been reckless enough to torment the cats of Winfield even so.
At length, Neville reached the ground. As the cloud subsided, he found himself surrounded by intrigued felines not quite like those he had terrorised back home.
The black kitten pushed Neville forward into the middle of the group. They were huge and bestial, their brutality barely concealed beneath their elegant exterior.
“Welcome to your new home. We are many, and my friends are always hungry.”
Six weeks later, the young black and white cat safely gave birth to a litter of black kittens, each lithe of body and bestowed with knowing dark eyes that awed but also unsettled everyone who saw them. The identity of the father was never established, though the cats of Winfield forever after swore that the spirit of the black kitten had been the culprit, for the offspring looked just like him.
John C Adams is a nonbinary author and critic of horror and fantasy fiction, reviewing for Horror Tree, British Fantasy Society and Schlock! Webzine. They’ve had short fiction, reviews and articles published in many anthologies from independent presses, on the Horror Addicts blogsite and in various magazines including the Horror Zine, Sirens Call Magazine, Lovecraftiana Magazine, Devolution Z Magazine and Blood Moon Rising Magazine. You can read their blog twice weekly at John C Adams Reviews.
They have a Postgraduate Certificate in Creative Writing from Newcastle University, and they were longlisted for the Aeon Award twice. John’s latest horror novel ‘Blackacre Rising’ is available now on Smashwords.