Another cat. Another drape of dew-sodden fur over a worn headstone, blood sticky on the granite. Hardened black drips of candle wax make a witch-ring about the grave. Another Halloween.
I never understood the part about the cats. A real witch would never. Whatever it is they want from me, living cats draw ghosts aplenty; that poor carcass will only draw flies.
I want to bury the wretched thing right now; I can touch things, if I want enough. But any activity on my part would only encourage them.
I find the groundskeeper, luckily, at a plot nearby, not another cemetery across town, and whisper in his ear, “The other side could use a little attention, sonny.” He doesn’t know he hears me, but when he’s finished weeding the Baker plot he picks up his kit and wanders over to where I’ve pointed. He sees the cat, swears a blue streak, and begins to gather up the mess before he can bury her. The stone will have to be scrubbed clean, the wax and matchsticks picked out of the grass. Crumpled Yuengling cans peek out from under fallen leaves like shining Easter eggs for him to find.
Only cats linger after they’re buried. One human’s as good as another to them, I suppose, but I like to think they like my company. Maybe it’s them that root me here in the mist. But it’s not their fault.
Here’s the problem: stories need weight, and they’ll take it where they can. If you make a story that means nothing, that has no truth behind it, it starts to reach for things that can give it flesh, so to speak. So, first you start spinning stories of a girl who never existed, a girl named Becky who learned magic at the feet of some Shawnee healer, hanged as a witch for knowing something a girl shouldn’t; and then you send your ghost-botherers out to trample through a swamp and photograph bits of mist in the weeds overgrowing an empty patch of dirt; eventually that dirt will feel a need to be filled, will start reaching out for any dead girl unlucky enough to bear the name you’re throwing about willy-nilly. Young woman hanged, old lady burnt to death in her bed, makes no difference. A Becky was called, and I came. A cat was killed here and there in the name of a girl who never was, and here I am, an old lady surrounded by cats in the mist.
Maybe if I’d been less careful in life, I’d have enough unfinished business to keep me rooted to my own sad story, my own plot to haunt and my own shape to wear as I did it. But I’d been old enough, happy enough, done. I don’t remember the fire, or even any pain. Smoke kills quickly. And there I was, miffed as anyone would be, but mostly content with my lot, and so available, when the call came.
Or maybe if I’d been a Becca. I always thought it’d be prettier, but no one ever called me that, and you can’t very well ask. If I’d been Becca, I bet I could have stayed in my own grave with my Sam and slept the world away, or haunted it as myself, at the very least. Instead I was wrenched across town and down into the woods where these pasty kids dressed all in black, snarling cat in tow, swayed drunkenly and chanted my name, neither knowing nor caring who answered, and the story called through them, claimed me, changed me.
Another Rebecca, about my age, stands just at the edge of the grove beyond the cemetery. She died alone, cursing grandkids who’d never visit, and she loves when the children come to play at being witches. They don’t hear her scold them for the trash they leave and the animals they . . . well, but she loves them for coming. She doesn’t even mind the way the story twists her shade into a pretty young thing, the way the noose tightens or the flames lick—there’s no consensus, you see, as to how the poor woman died. Waste of oddness, if you ask me, since most of them can’t even see us as they chant and wail, can’t see the story twisting, wrenching, reshaping us, making our voices smooth and pitch and wail so prettily in service of their make-believe. It doesn’t hurt, really. Only . . . it does . . . something.
A few more arrived sopping wet—the floods wash them up and down the valley now and then, so many dead to spare for stories that these Beckys don’t have as much pulling them in the direction they belong. Sometimes, during a good heavy rain, they go off together to mingle among the hordes of the drowned; but they keep coming back to the story that claimed them. One died just young enough to play our witch without all that twisting, shifting strangeness. Sweet girl, kind enough to work overtime at Halloween to keep the stories from working us, like so much Play-Doh, into something we’re not. One dry night, she forgot to wring out her dress, and they saw her trail slick and dark upon the leaves, and now some stories call for a drowned witch. The way she throws herself into the role, I think she likes that better than being a drowned woman among hundreds.
The trespasser can hear her now, dripping among the dead leaves as he lights his candle, the guttering flame his alibi, but he pays no heed. He can see the eyes of my cats in the shadows, glinting towards a wriggling sack—it’s too late in the year for fireflies, but it’s only odd enough to give him pause, not enough to stay his hand.
He’ll wish it had been.
Cats don’t mind being dead—they cross back and forth where they will, and both life and afterlife have enough to keep them amused—but they loathe disrespect. They’ll tolerate a pack of teenagers and their destructive, drunken games, but this is no child, no game. We know this man. He comes sober, calls to no one. His first was a dog, a stray beagle that howled the woods down before its neck snapped. That had people talking. One spring it was a nestful of starlings in the crook of his arm—seven quick twists, a sudden silence, a stillness in his face like relief—and then a scattering of tiny bodies in the leaves, and he was gone. The cats—I only had a few back then—tossed them around a bit, but only because something like that is expected of them. You could tell they didn’t have much taste for it in the way they stared after him as he slipped through the trees and back into town, back into his lie of a life, thinking he’d left his violence buried and forgotten.
He switched to cats right quick. Hardly anyone comments on them, and they’re easy to come by with so many roaming the streets. For three years he’s been bringing the cats here to do his work, leaving them where kids might leave theirs, the candle a disguise, cruelty dressed in sacrificial garb. But he doesn’t know that cats stick around. He doesn’t think that someone here might have a few comments for him.
He doesn’t know that cats stick around, and he’s left me a horde of them.
He drops the hissing sack to the ground, kneels beside it, picks at the knotted string as the burlap writhes.
The cats wait, hungry, backs stiff in the shadows, and the Beckys, uncalled for and so unchanged, array ourselves behind them as ourselves, a double circle of long frustration and sudden freedom. You don’t have to be a witch to harness this.