They chewed. Mouths closed, looking down, they chewed. Each had a fork poised, eyes on their plates, choosing the next bite. He was first, speared a large piece of stringy meat, and scraped it into his mouth over his teeth, tines curved upward.
She chose something green and mushy and scooped from under with fingers from her other hand poised to help.
They chewed. She spoke first. “I think I saw a kitten.”
“No, you didn’t.” He cut off another piece of meat and didn’t speak again until he had chewed and swallowed. “It’s just the dogs, Maxine, nothing but dogs with black feet. There ain’t no cats.”
“I saw a kitten,” she said.
He slouched into his seat. “Was its feet black?”
“Where was it?”
“In the barn loft.”
He shook his head. “Not possible. I searched the hay. Killed a snake.”
She thought about having a pet again. She used to have puppies to care for every spring, and kittens in the barn.
The sharp chemical smell came through the door on a gust of wind. He choked and began coughing. She put down her knife and fork and watched him until he stopped, then drew a long breath. He took out his dirty handkerchief, lifted his glasses, and wiped his eyes and nose. Shoving the handkerchief back in his pocket, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and left the table.
She stood too — wiped their dishes and her hands with the towel that hung over the door. The towel was thin and worn, covered with embroidered daisies. For years she hadn’t picked up a needle for anything that frivolous. Now, in a matter of months, they had also abandoned cleanliness, order, and anything pretty. Only idleness was abundant.
Despite their efforts to keep it out, the crude, black stuff was everywhere, even oozed onto the first step to the back porch. He was glad he had galoshes. She stayed in the house or wrapped rags around her feet.
“Frank,” she yelled at him as he went down what had once been a path of fieldstone. She could see stem tops and pale salvia-belled spikes that had grown in beds around the small lawn she claimed from their truck farm. Dry husks stood tall against the encroachment of black, just like the bushy stalks from last year’s squash and cucumbers.
He plowed through the slimy yard, ignoring her, stood with his cane, trying to gauge how fast it was moving and how deep it was. Some days it didn’t move at all, just covered everything and glistened. He supposed it was seeping into a depth he didn’t want to think about.
At first it had come fast, moving slick over the ground like milk over cereal, except that it was black and shiny. Sometimes it carried little balls, like licorice jellybeans. They watched it flow over everything on the farm that was a few inches high, and around everything higher. They talked about being rescued, waved at a few planes. He tried to drive the truck out, but it slid or stalled. He tried to walk, but came back when the coughing took all his energy. Their closest neighbor was more than three miles away.
Few living things crossed their line of sight, not even mosquitoes. An occasional cockroach made her shudder, spiders’ bodies clung to their corner webs in the house and barn, and dead moths left dust on the windowsills. The first grasshoppers had floated.
The silence disturbed them,and their isolated life shrank as the blackness spread. No bullfrogs croaked at night. No owls hooted from the woods. At first birds had landed in the treesandon the roofs, scuffled across the shingles. Then song turned to squawk. The birds flew to the ground and in time suffocated, their bodies coming to rest against fence poles or trees. Squirrels dropped and died scrambling to live.
Only the big dogs came on four feet, panting and growling and wagging their tails, as though they no longer knew how to get attention. He hadn’t seen one for weeks and that one didn’t come close enough.
The only sounds to break the silence were those she and Frank made shuffling around the house, coughing and sneezing, his loud farts and her sighs and their limited conversations. A few times they heard noisy propellers from distant planes, and a clap of thunder was always welcome for its promise of rain. One morning she heard a familiar sound and looked up to see a flock of geese flying south in formation. She giggled and waved, foolishly wanting to thank them for being.
The bales of hay he had piled up around their well were a futile effort, because the cow might have lived longer. He caught rainwater in pans and buckets, but that would soon be gone. It hadn’t rained for weeks. Two cans of store-bought spinach remained in the pantry along with a few jars of her canned vegetables.
Every day he took a few branches from the withering trees to add to their supply of fuel for the fireplace. They guarded embers and hoarded the few remaining matches. Flashlights and candles were past luxuries.
She was calling from the back porch, “I’m not eating a kitten. I didn’t like the dog, but I couldn’t eat a kitten.”
He looked back toward the house. She was standing in the doorway wiping her hands on her apron — constantly, forever wiping her hands. He could tell her that would do no good. The stuff was like black glue.
“You will if you get hungry enough,” he muttered.
He slid his boots through the sludge, using his cane as a third leg to stay upright. The barn wasn’t far and if Maxine wasn’t just seeing things, a hungry cat should be easy to catch.
Chris Antenen is a retired teacher from Illinois, who retired as a mainframe systems designer at the University of Georgia in administrative data processing. Although she loves the technology and finds herself continuing to want new toys, Antenen believes that none of it is meaningful without the magic and mystery of words, like ‘South’ — syrup in the mouth, sweet and a little decadent. ‘Dark’ might define most of her work. Her first published story was ‘True Colors’ in Deep South Magazine, an online journal of ‘southern food, travel & lit.’ Antenen is anticipating publication of her stories in book form.
This story is sponsored by
StoryADay — StoryADay May is an extreme writing challenge for short story writers. Write every day, not “some day”.