The sky was turning from bright blue to a shade of pink as the sun was setting behind the granite peaks of the mountains. Snow was falling as it had been for much of the day and much of the past week, bending the firs and pines and torturing the flattened bushes underneath. In a clearing surrounded by trees, stood a log cabin. Its slant roof was weighted down with deep, packed snow. Only the strength of the thick logs that made up the roof beams and walls kept it from collapsing. If the cabin had any windows, they were buried under snow. A door was visible, wooden planks that had turned to grey from the beatings taken from wind, rain, ice, and sun. The door seemed a small guardian against the elements. Despite the black smoke that poured from the chimney, that spoke of an active fire, it was probably colder indoors than could be borne with comfort.
The latch lifted. The door to the cabin opened a crack and then a little wider as the being inside pushed against the accumulated snow that, no matter how many times shovelled aside, always managed to return. A weather-raw hand held the handle and pulled the door shut a lot quicker than it had taken to open, but not before a small back cat had managed to squeeze its way outside.
The shadows grew quickly and darkness came as the angle of the setting sun was blocked by the mountain ridges. The cat sniffed the snow. It leaped from side to side forward and back making small holes in the drifts as if making sure that its legs still worked after having been cooped up indoors all day. It batted at the falling flakes with its paw, and caught bits in its teeth, but soon tired of this. The cat shook its fur and stretched back on its haunches. Tail erect it started to prowl, first lifting nose up and then placing it toward the ground, ears twitching, trying to detect the sound of hidden movements under the snow or in the surrounding woods. With a bound, the cat jumped to the top of a drift and clawed its way onto a fallen tree sticking out of the snow. It danced supple steps along the bark until it was within another jump of leaving the clearing and entering the thick tangle of forest. It knew where the snow was packed hard and where it was soft. It smelled the warm blood of prey out there in the distance. One jump and a little run and it was among the trees, lost from sight, a black spot in a winter night full of blackness.
The cat had its favourite haunts as all cats do. It checked out all of its familiar hiding spots, rubbing against trees and rocks, spraying where necessary. The muscles of the cat’s shoulders rippled as it slunk through the forest, mournful of the absence of birds, but majestic in its awareness and faith in its own abilities.
The cat was not the only animal on the prowl. There were other hunters out there – some much larger. Hunger could make a house cat appear as good a meal as a rabbit or fawn if the kill looked easy. So thought the cougar resting under an overhang of rock when it smelled, then spied, its small relative. It saw only a rival in lean times and a potential meal. The cougar rose and stretched. Soon it was stalking the cat, which had also seemed to have detected a scent of interest and be preparing for the kill. Small black feet crept through the snow and dark. Larger padded feet crept towards the cat. The cat turned on a small path. Its back was towards the bigger cat that was concealed by naked brown bushes, dead snow-covered weeds, and the white-powdered trunks of trees. The cougar leaped with fangs bared. The little cat turned and hissed. Screeches filled the winter forest.
Adam Payton huddled under his buffalo robe on the bunk made from split logs that served as his bed. The robe was warm but not warm enough in this cold. His right leg was broken, splinted tight. It grieved him much, but he declined to say a word about it. Not that anyone present would listen. Adam kept his damaged leg pointed toward the fire as the tickle of heat eased the discomfort in the bone. Adam was near fifty – or past it. His hair was long and patched with grey. His beard was wide and bushy. Adam had lived alone in the mountains as a hunter and trapper for many years until the loneliness got to him and he took a wife. His wife was now tending the fire and the cauldron that hung over it. She was boiling bed linens and clothing to kill the fleas, ticks, and other pests, that were an unwelcome fact of life all year round, but even more of a bother in the winter while at close quarters. Laundry was not the only thing Mabel Payton put in that cauldron. It was good for cooking stew or carrying water, plus a few other things that Mabel was keen on and that Adam did not like to think about.
A high moaning came from outside. Something scratched at the door. Adam reached for his rifle. He always kept his gun loaded and no more than arm’s length away. Mabel stopped stirring the laundry. She straightened her back, and wiped her hands on her apron and her long calico dress. She adjusted her shawl and smoothed her black bun of hair. Adam cocked his gun. Mabel walked over to the door. She put her ear against the wood and called out, “Who is it?”
The only answer was, “Meow.”
“It’s only Anselm,” Mabel said. “You can put down that gun, Adam.”
“Says you,’” Adam spat, but he put down the gun. He never did like cats. He especially did not like this one, but when you marry a woman you marry her cat, too. Or so he came to learn.
Mabel opened the door. The light from the fire fell out on the snow illuminating a small black cat with big eyes. Its fur was wet and matted. The cat looked at Mabel and gestured with its head towards a figure lying in the snow.
Mabel smiled. She stooped down and stroked the head of the cat. She cooed lovingly, “What have you brought home this time?”
“Close the door or go out,” Adam growled. “You are letting all the heat out!”
Mabel twisted her neck and shouted at her husband. “Now calm down, Adam. The door will be closed soon enough.”
Mabel put on her coat and went to get a lantern. She saw that her hand was covered with blood. She looked at Anselm the cat. “Are you hurt?”
The cat shook its head.
Mabel took the lantern and stepped out into the snow. Sprawled three feet from the door was the carcass of a cougar, its throat ripped out, and a look of chagrin frozen on its dead face. Mabel felt sorry for the cougar. How embarrassed it must have been right before it died. Mabel ran to tell her husband.
“Anselm took down a cougar!”
Adam punched the wall. “Tarnation!” he yelled. “It ain’t right I tell you. It just ain’t right. The man’s supposed to feed his family, not the family cat.”
“Stop shouting. You’ll wake the baby.”
They both glanced at a cradle in the corner of the room.
“We’re talking about my manhood,” Adam argued in a quieter tone. “It was bad enough when he bagged the deer. Then he brought home a moose. Now it’s a cougar. What kind of man does that make me look like, lying here all day.”
“It makes you look like a man with a broken leg. Serves you right for fighting that bear like that. Besides, you should be thanking Anselm for keeping us from starving while you’re laid up.”
“That bear got into my cache of dried fish.”
“That bear could have killed you,” Mabel said wagging a finger.
“I could have killed that bear,” Adam insisted.
Mabel threw up her hands. “So now you have a broken leg and the bear is missing an eye and an ear. Serves you both right for not sharing. Now Anselm and I have to do all the work until you’re healed.”
That comment made Adam smart. It hurt him in his pride. “I’ll be up and about in no time,” he said.
“I’d say four more weeks,” Mabel said. “You call that no time?”
Mabel took a blanket outside and placed it on the ground next to the cougar. With effort, she rolled the dead cougar onto the blanket and started to pull the blanket towards the open door.
“You shouldn’t be so upset about Anselm,” Mabel grunted while tugging at the blanket. “He’s not a real cat. He’s a familiar. Plus he’s the one who chased that bear off and done dragged you home.”
She was right, Adam thought. Anselm’s not a cat. What is he? A demon of some kind? A spirit? That’s what he gets for marrying a witch, but there were not a lot of women in the mountains. You take what you can get. Hell, Mabel was the only woman for fifty miles around. That’s why Adam started courting her. He knew she was a witch woman from the start. Only a witch woman would go off to live in the mountains by herself. Only a witch woman would be left alone by the bears and cougars and what not. But why did she have to have a cat? Why couldn’t she have had a bullfrog or a prognosticating chicken, one that produced eggs? Adam liked eggs, especially for breakfast. He thought about all the ways eggs could be cooked. His mouth started to water.
A disgruntled “Humph” came from Anselm who had been sulking nearby.
“So now I’m not a cat?” Anselm said. “I thought you liked me killing mice. I had just gotten used to their flavour.”
Mabel pulled the cougar laden blanket over the threshold. “Now don’t you start!” she snapped. “I don’t think I could deal with two cantankerous males at once.”
Adam was still in a bad mood. He glared at the black cat. “Mighty proud of yourself aren’t you?”
The cat sighed “Not really,” said Anselm.
Adam’s bushy eyebrows shot up. “Oh, so even you know it’s not right to show up a man before his family.”
“It’s not that,” Anselm said sulkily. “It’s just all so …uncouth.”
“Never mind,” Anselm said. He busied himself running his tongue over his blood-stained fur. All he wanted now was to relax and have a good bath.
Mabel shut and barred the door. She took Adam’s Bowie knife and began cutting open the cougar’s body. “This skin will make a good coat,” Mabel said as she pulled back the flesh. “And there’s enough meat here for all of us to eat for a week or two if it doesn’t go bad.”
“The moose would have fed us for the winter if you had cured it,” Adam said.
“The damn thing was too big to get through the door,” Mabel replied. “I cut out what I could carry, and brought it inside. I didn’t think the wolves would get at it overnight. Not like them to come around here. They usually run when they get a whiff of me.”
Adam grunted, “Must be hard pickings for them to come so near the cabin.”
“It’s a hard winter for everybody,” Mabel said, and then added coldly, “Who ain’t in bed.”
Anselm was sitting on the floor. He had his rear leg up over his head. He was licking his inner thigh. He paused to call out, “Don’t eat the liver.”
“Why?” Mabel asked her face splattered with gore.
“Trust, me,” Anselm said lazily. “You won’t like it. Lots of toxins in there. Dog liver, wolf liver, cougar liver. You don’t eat it.” He went back to bathing.
Adam was watching Anselm. He wrinkled his nose. “That’s just plain disgusting.”
“What?” Anselm said. “Bathing? You should try taking a bath more than once a year. We would all appreciate it, especially our noses.”
Adam reached for his rifle. “Why you son of a bitch!”
“Adam!” Mabel snapped. “Don’t you dare harm Anselm.”
“He said I stank.”
“You do. So do I. We’re just used to it. The animals can smell us a mile away. We smell like sweat and dead critters.” She plucked out the cougar’s eyeballs, and held them aloft admiringly, one in each hand. “I think I can do something with these. Anselm, what do you think?”
Anselm was licking his other thigh. He looked up, and saw the cougar’s eyes staring at him from Mabel’s hands. He winced and turned away. “There are several incantations I can think of that could use cougar eyes,” he said without looking at Mabel. “Though human eyes or even cow eyes would do as well for most.”
“Then I better put some whiskey in a jar and put these in there to soak,” Mabel said. “It will help them keep.”
“Not my whiskey!” Adam said. He tried to get out of bed, but the pain in his leg stopped him. “Don’t use it up. There’s not nearly enough to get me through until spring.”
“Don’t fret,” Mabel said. “Or I won’t try to heal you. I’ll just conjure up another man instead.” Mabel uncorked a jug and poured some of the contents into a mason jar. Adam winced as she dropped in the eyeballs.
“My whiskey!” he mourned.
“What’s your problem?” Mabel said. “The eyeballs won’t kill your whiskey. You can drink what’s left in the jar after I decide what to use them eyeballs for.”
That eased Adam’s mind a bit “Maybe you can think up something tonight?” he suggested. He was feeling mighty parched now that he saw the golden liquid in the jar. The floating eyeballs didn’t faze him one bit.
“Tonight?” Mabel thought. “Tomorrow is more likely. I’m sort of busy right now. Besides I gotta decide who or what I want to charm or curse.”
“You could charm Anselm to stop licking himself,” Adam said.
Anselm stopped licking his privates and calmly chided his mistress’s husband.
“You’re just jealous because you are not as flexible as I am.”
“That’s not true,” Adam argued, “I am all gristle.”
“You mean under the fat?” Anselm replied.
“I ain’t fat,” Adam growled. “This is a real man’s body. All muscle with just a little extra padding for the lean months.”
Anselm and Mabel both chuckled.
“If you are so flexible,” Anselm said, licking between his legs, “Let me see you do this.”
Adam gave the cat a sour look. “I was raised right. I would never do anything like that in front of a lady.”
“I did not know I was in the presence of such a gentleman,” Mabel chuckled. She was back on her knees pulling entrails out of the cougar.
“Neither did I,” sniffed Anselm.
Adam was hot. He hated Anselm. Every word from that feline’s fanged mouth raised hackles with Adam. He glanced at the rifle but thought better of it. He shook his head. “It ain’t right,” he said. “It just ain’t right. A man should not be treated like this in his own home.”
“Treated like what?” Mabel inquired.
“Like some kind of pariah. Here I am an outcast in my own home, mocked and humiliated.”
Anselm rolled his eyes. He was tempted to say something nasty but decided not to escalate matters, He kept his mouth shut.
The baby started to cry.
“Damn you men,” Mabel screeched. “You woke Fergus.”
“Now I’m a man,” Anselm said. “Cat, demon, man. Take your pick. All this role shifting is getting on my nerves.”
“You know what I meant, Anselm,” Mabel said.
She dropped the big cat’s entrails on the floor and went to get little Fergus from his cradle. She did not pause to wipe the blood and fat from her hands and arms. She picked up the baby and handed him to Adam. “Handle it,” she said.
“What am I supposed to do?” he asked.
“Take a sniff. You’ll figure it out.”
Adam raised the child to his nose and sniffed. “Oh,” he said. “Anselm, can you get me a rag? I gotta change the one he’s wearing.”
Anselm felt it was beneath him, but he did as requested. A woven basket near the fireplace contained scraps of old clothing used for patches, bandages, and swaddling. Anselm pried the lid off with his head. He saw a mouse inside and had the pleasure of spearing it with his claws. He bit its neck and left it on the floor for a late-night snack. Next, he seized a rag in his teeth and carried it to Adam. The mountain man already had the dirty rag off his young’un.
“He needs his bottom cleaned,” Adam said to the cat. “Can you oblige?”
“What do you think I am,” Anselm gasped, “a dog?”
“Well, I can’t get to the water pitcher,” Adam explained, “Cause I am sort of stuck in bed.”
“No,” Anselm said shaking his head. “I won’t do it. I have my dignity. I have to draw the line somewhere.”
“Come on, Anselm,” Mabel shouted. She was kneeling on the floor, carving out cuts of meat from the carcass. “It will be no worse than bathing yourself.”
“No,” Anselm said. “I won’t do it!”
“Can’t you just help out?” she pleaded. “Can’t you see I have my hands full?”
“Don’t make me force you, Anselm,” Mabel said. “You know I can.”
“Okay, I’ll do it,” Anselm said. “But not because you can make me. You can’t. It’s not in the contract. I’ll do it for Fergus.”
“What contract?” Mabel laughed, “I bound you fair and square.”
“There are still some things you can not force me to do,” Anselm said trying to maintain some level of dignity. “I’ll do this for Fergus, and only for Fergus. I’ll do it because I like him. I have a good feeling about the boy. I sense the beginnings of magic in him.”
“My son shall be a righteous man,” Adam growled, “A good trapper who knows his Bible.”
“Even if he ignores it,” Mabel teased.
“Fergus will be a good man, a strong man,” Adam continued. “Not a servant of the devil.”
Mabel laughed, “How long you know me, Adam Payton? You know I ain’t nobody’s servant. Not yours, not the devil’s, not anybody’s. Never been, never will be.”
Adam ignored her. He held his son up and looked the boy in the eye. “My son won’t have no need for magic. He will be a man who can stand on his own two feet, needing only his muscles and wits.”
“Like his father?” Anselm said, gesturing with his head towards Adam’s broken leg.
“That’s right,” Adam grinned. “Just like his father.”
Anselm sighed. Sarcasm was wasted on this man.
The baby giggled at the rough tongue sliding over his skin. Anselm felt he was going to vomit. Anselm closed his eyes. He repeated to himself. This is for Fergus. This is for Fergus.
When Anselm was done, Adam tied a fresh rag, a section of an old shirt, around the baby’s bottom. The mountain man put Fergus down next to him on the bed. He threw a corner of the buffalo robe over the baby to keep him warm. He then placed his arm over top, holding the robe in place and keeping Fergus from rolling off the bed. Adam lay there watching his son. Fergus smiled at his father. This caused the grizzled mountain man to grin. The baby then shifted his gaze to the black cat.
Anselm hung his head over the edge of the bed and started coughing. His stomach throbbed. He threw up on the floor.
Kid, Anselm thought, I hope you are worth it.
As if in response to Anselm’s thoughts, the child reached out from under the robe and grabbed a handful of the cat’s fur. The gentle tug startled Anselm. He started to pull away but stopped when he heard the words in his mind.
“I will be, Anselm. I will.”
Anselm smiled. He curled up in a ball on top of the robe, nestling close to the baby’s feet, closed his eyes, and began to purr.
Joseph Farley’s poetry and fiction has appeared recently in Ygdrasil, Horror Sleaze Trash, US1 Worksheets, Home Planet News Online, Schlock!, Wilderness House Review, Lummox, Big Windows, Mad Swirl, and other places. His science fiction novel, Labor Day, was reissued in a special edition by Peasantry Press (Canada) in 2019.