ME AND THE MOUSER • by Sarah Hilary

The cat is squalling again, the thin sound just human enough to trigger my maternal alarm. I’m halfway out of bed before I remember there’s no crying child in the next room; no one here but me and the mouser.

I meet its jaundiced stare, surfacing from the trench of darkness at my side. My brain scrambles messages, half asleep. The cat hates me, why wouldn’t it? It wants to punish me. Claw my face to meat, sink its razored teeth into me and hold on for grim life. I see my arms windmilling as the cat gorges on one wrist, a warm corpse kicking on the gallows tree. It can give me whatever diseases it’s hoarding in its bloated body. Ringworm. Toxoplasmosis, which slows reaction times and causes cysts in the heart and brain–which is linked to schizophrenia.

Rabies. The cat can give me rabies.

I fumble, thumbing on the light. The thing sits still, looking up at me. It dips its head, retracting the yellow beam of its stare, and starts to purr. Nauseous and sweaty, I slink from the bed.

The cat follows me to the kitchen, rubbing around my feet. I kick it away with a snarl, “Some therapy you are.”

Neither of us chose the other, our rancorous partnership arranged by a third party who imagined it might be therapeutic for the pair of us to bond, ‘learn to love again’. The cat doesn’t love me, why would it? And I can’t bring myself to look at it, resenting the insinuated embrace around my ankles when all it wants is feeding.

I turn my back and sit on my haunches in front of the fridge, remembering milk.

The thick cream-coloured stuff — baby milk — mixed from powder with a broad blue paddle in a plastic jug.

I remember the sound the paddle made, sucking and slapping as the liquid took shape, frothing the top layer into foam. The care I took, and the pleasure, measuring the newly-made milk into bottles, setting each one to cool, ready for Evie’s feed times.

I remember the sweet smell of the milk on her skin when she rested in the right angle of my arm and offered up a burp, her small mouth puckering, plucking at a smile. The satisfying sound of the brush scrubbing the empty bottle, its bristles a rich and reassuring abrasion. The pulse of water washing away; sunlight lifting a soft sparkle from the neat row of clean teats.

I remember —

The chatter of metal on enamel, the screws from Evie’s cot rolling away, trailing red from my wrists.

How slowly the bath emptied, how long it took, the plughole sucking water away. A sound like sailcloth beaten by a strong wind, that they said was me, screaming.

The big callused hands of the man in the mortuary who washed her that last time, his clumsy effort to hold me as I slid, sobbing snot down his front, to the floor.

The cat cries at my side, static sticking its fur to my flank. I take a plastic carton from the fridge and fill a bowl with milk.

As it drinks I attempt to stroke it, my hand awkward, gawky with remorse. Silence comes back close to us both, me and the mouser.

I stay by her side until it’s all gone, the milk, “All gone.”

She touches her wet nose to my hand, once.


Sarah Hilary won the Fish Historical-Crime Contest with Fall River, August 1892, and has two stories in the Fish anthology 2008. She was a runnerup in the Biscuit Short Story Contest 2008. MO: Crimes of Practice, the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, features Sarah’s story, “One Last Pick-Up”. Her work appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Literary Fever, Every Day Fiction, Ranfurly Review and Zygote in my Coffee. Sarah blogs at http://sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.com/.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Haunting, Sarah. I loved the way this line conjured aural memories: “The satisfying sound of the brush scrubbing the empty bottle, its bristles a rich and reassuring abrasion.” Gave it a five.

  • Robin

    Haunting, that’s a good word to describe this. Good story, Sarah. I just didn’t really understand how Evie died – am I missing something very obvious?

  • I didn’t get the death bit too. But this story unnerved the mom in me. It’s a powerful story.

  • Angela

    gut wrenching and raw. I like the idea of the pet trying to bring her back to the living but I had questions regarding the death scene too??? Beautifully written, Sarah.

  • I’ll echo the comments already – raw and powerful, but too obscure in the strobe-flashback memories of her daughter’s death and the aftermath.

    But very, very affecting.

  • She killed the child then stood there screaming? Blood in the bath? I haven’t got any mum in me, as you know, but it’s a disturbing tale.

  • So nice to read a cat story. I miss mine–well, my daughter’s, who reclaimed her. And your balance of cat to baby is beautiful.

    Thanks, too, for not indicating in your biography that you have a house full of cats–not the most significant thing in a writer’s life.

  • gay

    A five from me for the juxtaposition of everyday vs. tragedy. Confusion here too about the death. Does it matter? I’m not sure it does.

    Gorgeous line: “surfacing from the trench of darkness at my side.”

    And this: ” fumble, thumbing on the light. The thing sits still, looking up at me. It dips its head, retracting the yellow beam of its stare, and starts to purr. Nauseous and sweaty, I slink from the bed.”

  • Bill West

    Fabulous!
    5 star.

  • Nik

    I would like a little more explanation about how the child died, as well, though the small bit of confusion there is far outweighed by the excellence of the rest of the piece.

  • Wonderful writing, Sarah. Haunting, as so many have already said.

    I wasn’t sure about the means of death, either, but that didn’t bother me. I thought the choppiness portrayed nicely your protag’s distress and how desperately she’s battling the jagged bits of memory.

  • Whew, those first four paragraphs gave me the creeps! And then the rest of it? Achingly real. Great work, Sarah.

  • dark….very dark

  • Thanks, everyone. I knew I was treading a fine line here between subtlety and ambiguity. I intended the “big” clue to be the cot screws which the narrator used in her suicide bid. Evie was a cot death. Statistics suggest that most parents struggle not to blame themselves for the loss of an infant to cot death, so I was prepared to allow my narrator a sense of guilt to confound her loss. I didn’t want her to rationalise the tragedy or to state it baldly, but I do appear to have created more confusion than I intended. I’m grateful for the encouraging comments from those who did read. Thanks again.

  • Nik

    Ah, makes sense now. Part of the confusion might have been that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is called “Crib Death” in the U.S., rather than “Cot Death.”

    What a difference a word makes.

    No matter: this story was very well done. Several hours after first reading it, I still feel a little sad and disturbed, but with a little hope mixed in, prompted by the last sentence.

  • Thanks, Nik, I appreciate that you took the time to let me know the US perspective and also the impact of the story for you. I’m glad it left an impression, confusion notwithstanding.

  • Mark Dalligan

    Good strong read Sarah. Five from me too.

    Cheers

    Mark

  • A very strong and powerful story, as a cat lover myself I felt for both the protagonist and the cat. I too wondered how the baby died but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of this flash, although “enjoy” is not quite the right word. Very affecting, and a lovely ending.

  • Lyn

    Emotive and engaging writing. Congrats. I didn’t think it was all that dark, actually. Therapeutically dark – or shadowed rather – but it seemed ultimately hopeful.

  • Jen

    Aww, what a wonderful story. Loved the bond she ended up having with the cat after all.

  • Thanks, Mark and Tania. Lyn and Jen – I’m glad that hopeful note sounded for you both at the end, as it was the effect I was after.

  • Justine

    Lovely, evocative, dark, full of feeling and with the exactly right amount of hope, as usual. The image of the cat at the end has stayed with me all day.

  • Thank you, Justine, for reading and for this lovely and generous feedback.

  • Tis a fine line between subtlety and ambiguity but I think this works as it is.

    I didn’t get that it was a cot death on the first read but the fact the baby died was enough for me to ‘get’ the story. The baby died and the Mum tried to kill herself as a result, I got all these details and don’t think the piece would be strengthened by further explanation.

    This line got a gasp from me:

    “the screws from Evie’s cot rolling away,”

    before I’d even realised she tried to kill herself. Just such a perfect evocative line: the cot is no longer needed. A real ache to it.

    Good work SH.

  • Thank you, Chelsey, for reading and reassuring me about what I left out and put in. I’m so pleased you felt it worked so well.

  • Gosh, that’s a whole world of grief packed into such a small flash! Good writing as always Sarah.

  • Celeste

    The chatter of metal on enamel, the screws from Evie’s cot rolling away, trailing red from my wrists.
    Oh, stunning writing, Sarah. I’ve read it three times now. Absolutely glorious writing with real depth. What a talent! Five from me, girl.

  • Thanks, Sara.

  • Celeste, thank you! Three times! I’m very moved that you would read it over, and thank you for the lovely feedback.

  • Anne-Elisabeth Moutet

    You know mothers, and babies, and well-meaning friends cowed by the enormity of grief; but you also know cats, and I love the wet nose of the mouser, who finally is given her gender in the last line – a new sharp sensation; closeness of contact; good grounds for hope of recovery, and a lesser but healing complicity.

  • Joel Willans

    The sense of paranoia and dark imagery both helped draw me in, but it was the mystery that really made me want to carry on reading. I simply had to know why.

    Loved the instant contrast between the sunny images of baby life and the harsh images of attempted death. It’s a real whoah moment. Yet despite all that’s gone before, what really made it work for me was the subtle high of that final image.

    This has eveything you could hope for from a short story packed tight into an inspired flash.

    Great job Sarah H

  • I was distracted by the death as well, I’m afraid. I couldn’t work out what she’d done with the screws of the cot to cause the baby’s blood. Up until that point, I was totally with the woman. Unfortunately, I was distracted by this combining of the two events to the detriment of what is a otherwise a very powerful story.

  • Thank you, Anne-Elisabeth, I’m so pleased that last line felt real and hopeful. I wanted it to come across that way.

  • Joel, what can I say? High praise from a writer I admire – you’ve made my morning. I’m so glad you liked it so much. Thank you!

  • Thanks for reading, Sylvia, and I’m sorry it didn’t quite work for you. In fact the blood is the woman’s not the baby’s: “trailing red from my wrists”. I wanted to convey the sense that the baby’s death and the woman’s response to it (grief, attempted suicide, guilt, incoherence) were inextricably bound up together, inseparable in her mind. I realise I took a risk of losing readers with that approach but, on balance, given the overall feedback, I think it was a risk worth taking. I would have felt uneasy serving up a simple, rational tale of cot death and attempted suicide. Once I decided the story was being told by the mother I knew it had to be true to her (muddled) emotions. I do appreciate you taking the time to read and to leave feedback. Thank you.

  • Becca

    Visceral without being brutal, and very, very powerful. I love the way the hatred for the cat, the hard metal and emptiness, is smokescreen for a wholly compelling grief. Brilliant.

  • Thank you, Becca. Yes, “smokescreen” is exactly how I intended it to be read. I’m so glad it worked for you.

  • That made my chest hurt.

    I like it, and it still makes my chest hurt. Ouch, Sarah. Keep doing that. 🙂

  • Thanks, Kev.