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/.