(Disclaimer: I think this is quite possbily the most chilling thing I have ever written. Proceed at your own risk. You have been warned.)
A Devil’s Pet
The fire crackled softly to itself and the sleeping baby in the Moses basket made a tiny sound and lapsed into deeper sleep, a minute bubble of milk at the corner of her mouth. Naomi relaxed again and tried to focus again on her book. One child had been demanding enough but the arrival of her second baby had put a serious crimp on her ability to concentrate on anything but the essentials. At least Joel had taken the arrival of a sibling better than most toddlers, doting on his new little sister and seeming very keen to play with her.
Mike was doing the dishes in the kitchen, humming away to himself and the sound was comforting. Apart from the sound of the fire, his was the only sound she could hear at all and she snuggled further into her shawl. The little house was warm and cosy and the scented candles filled the room with the fragrances of summer. Beyond the walls, a fine layer of snow had begun to settle and turn the mundane suburban garden into a wonderland of white icing.
A new sound caught her attention, one she couldn’t place, a faint scratching that seemed to be coming from the back door.
“Mike, can you see what that noise is?” she called, keeping her voice low so as not to disturb the baby.
Mike came through, drying his hands.
“What noise?” he asked and as he said it, the noise died away.
“I heard something at the back door,” Naomi said. “Go and look.”
He gave her a look that clearly said, why don’t you go and look, but with a sigh, he went out into the back hall and opened the door. Freezing air flooded into the house, and in its wake came a fluttering of snow flakes like feathers from a ripped pillow and a half grown black cat.
The cat hurtled in as if there were a dog pursuing it, fur standing on end and eyes wild and frenzied, and dodged past Mike’s legs and into the living room, skidding to a halt in front of the open fire and the baby basket.
“What the-?” Mike shouted and Naomi shot off the sofa and out of the door to join him in the hall.
“Get rid of it, Mike,” she hissed, clinging to him and shrinking away from the living room. “You know I hate cats. Get it away from the baby. Now.”
Mike raised his eyebrows in surprise but approached the cat cautiously. He quite liked cats but he’d never really handled one before and the cat backed away, spine arched and spitting at him, and he moved away. He snatched up the baby basket and fled to the hall.
“Wuss,” Naomi said. “You’re scared of it!”
“So are you,” he countered but she shrugged.
“Mine’s a genuine phobia,” she said. “Kick it out.”
Mike decided that he wasn’t going to risk getting mauled and he faced his wife squarely.
“The poor thing will freeze to death if I kick it out tonight,” he said. “Let it stay and it can go in the morning.”
Naomi looked as if she might argue but the sleeping baby’s eyes flickered, the rosebud face became crimson and the hungry whimpering started.
“OK, OK,” she said. “Leave it there for tonight. I need to go to bed now anyway; this one needs a last feed and change. I don’t want that thing here tomorrow.”
Later, under the warm duvet, Naomi moved closer to Mike and cuddled up to him.
“Why do you hate cats so much?” he asked sleepily.
“My Gran said that cats were the devil’s pet,” she said. “They’re evil creatures. Noah only let cats on the Ark to keep the rats from eating everything.”
“I see,” he said, sleepily and drifted off into uneasy dreams.
The next morning the cat was curled up on the hearth rug,not quite sleeping to judge by the half open eyes. When Mike came into the room, it yawned and stretched and came over to greet him, rubbing against his legs and purring. It was such a contrast to its demeanour the night before, he immediately began stroking it, and the purring increased to a rumbling that seemed incredibly loud from such a small creature. This morning, the fur smoothed down, it was clear that this was scarcely more than a kitten and when Naomi came down with the baby, the cat was lapping milk from a saucer in the kitchen.
“It’s starving and homeless,” Mike said defensively when she let him get a word in edgeways. “It’s the worst weather I can ever remember and until I can find where it comes from, as far as I am concerned it can stay.”
The silence between them became deafening over the next few days until Naomi found mouse droppings behind the bread bin and decided to concede that a cat might actually have a use in her home. By the following morning, a row of mangled little corpses lay by the kitchen door and that was enough for her to agree that unless someone came forward to claim the black cat, it might be considered theirs, and a collar was bought, and bowls and all the usual equipment and toys followed.
“I still don’t like cats,” she said one evening. “But this little chap seems to have his uses. Just make sure he doesn’t go and sit on the baby.”
The black cat seemed to understand his boundaries and was almost always to be found next to wherever the baby was put, in basket or pushchair or cot, but never too close for Naomi’s comfort. The mouse problem vanished and fed with tinned cat food and the raw steak mince Mike used to sneak to the cat, the cat grew rapidly from an underweight scrap of rather mangy fur into a handsome glossy coated beast with a purr like a chainsaw starting.
Joel, their three year old son seemed to have inherited his mother’s dislike of cats, and had been put on the Naughty Step innumerable times for kicking out at the cat or pulling its tail. The cat had not retaliated with claws or teeth until one day when Mike and Naomi were alerted by screaming and ran into the living room to be confronted with a sight that chilled them both.
The baby basket was tipped over on the floor, the baby flung across the hearth rug and was squalling red-faced and with flailing limbs while the cat stood, back arched in fury, his mouth gaping wide to show needles of yellow teeth and yowling fiercely at Joel who was himself screaming fit to burst their eardrums, clutching his hand that bore the unmistakeable lines of a cat’s claws.
Naomi screamed too and ran to snatch up the baby while Mike scooped up his wailing son and examined his hurt hand. The cat simply vanished, leaving the scene like a streak of black lightning. As Mike struggled to calm both wife and son, and the baby quietened down, Mike picked the basket up and set it back on its stand. To his surprise, he saw that the poker had been moved from its usual place on the rack by the fireplace and lay now partially under where the basket had fallen.
The cat remained absent for the rest of the day and came in at twilight to eat and go to sleep by the fire again. Mike convinced Naomi that in all likelihood Joel had finally grabbed at the cat and got what he deserved and that the baby basket had been tipped over in a scuffle. She eyed the cat with dislike as he ate but didn’t seem inclined to take action beyond banning the cat from the house during the daytime when she was around.
“Joel needs to know he can’t just treat a live animal like a stuffed toy,” Mike said, reasonably. “He won’t try to hurt him again. He’ll have learned his lesson.”
The livid marks of the cat’s claws were covered with a small bandage but Joel said nothing about what had happened. He was not very advanced in his speech anyway and the health visitor had said that his speech might well be slowed by the arrival of a new baby. At night though, Mike could often hear him babbling away to his stuffed animals just as if he were a general ordering his army around. There weren’t many words that you’d recognise as English but he seemed quite fluent in whatever baby language he spoke.
The baby was a source of concern. From initially being a placid baby who only cried when hungry or wet, she had begun to howl like a banshee for hours on end and fretted at the breast and often when Naomi thought she’d settled her, minutes after she left the room, the baby would be screaming as if in pain. Joel played on with his toys, apparently oblivious of the noise. Tiny scratches and bruises showed up on the baby’s rose petal cheeks; she cut the baby’s tiny finger nails to stop her scratching at her face but still the marks appeared.
“I don’t know what to do,” Naomi said, anxiously when the health visitor came. “Joel was never like this. He was such a good baby.”
She placed the baby back in the basket and gently rocked it a little. Stiffening slightly, as the cat sauntered in and took up his old place next to the basket, she gazed beseechingly at the health visitor.
“What a handsome cat!” said the health visitor.
“It’s Mike’s,” Naomi said, hastily. “I wouldn’t have one. Aren’t there legends about cats smothering babies?”
“Myth, in all likelihood,” the woman replied. “A way of explaining sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Pets are good for children; gets their immune systems going properly for a start. See, Baby likes the pretty pussy cat; she’s gone to sleep now.”
Sure enough, with the arrival of the cat, the baby’s cries had ceased and she was now sleeping peacefully.
“Cats can be very calming; did you know their purrs can help heal broken bones?” the health visitor put in and Naomi smiled politely.
“Just as long as my baby is OK,” she said. She had no faith in the idea of cats being anything more useful than mouse killing nuisances.
“Baby is fine,” said the health visitor soothingly. “But Joel does rather concern me though. He’s not talking as much as we’d expect for his age. Nothing to really worry about yet, but worth reviewing properly at his next developmental checks.”
Joel heard his name and looked over.
“Nothing wrong with his hearing, anyway,” Naomi said.
That evening, she and Mike sat in front of the fire and watched the television without really taking anything in. Mike could sense she was worried and upset but knew better than to try and broach it before she was ready to talk. The cat lay curled on the hearth rug, purring softly and in the basket nearby, the baby slept peacefully.
He was about to suggest they go to bed when the living room door opened and Joel stumbled in, rubbing his eyes and grizzling as only a small child can. He toddled over to the baby basket and in an instant, the cat was awake and transformed from the purring bundle of shining black fur into a demonic shape, bristling and growling as if a dog had suddenly barged in. Spine arched, the cat lashed out with claws extended, and swiped at the child’s legs.
Naomi leapt to her feet and chased the cat out of the room, furious. When she came back, the baby was starting to cry and Joel was wailing while Mike inspected his legs for damage.
“It’s OK, it didn’t hurt him,” he said hastily.
Naomi sat down heavily on the sofa cuddling the baby into sleep again, and Mike took Joel back upstairs. When he got back, she was crying.
“It’s no good,” she said. “I’ve done my best but I can’t have that thing in my house any longer. Tomorrow, it goes. Either to the cat rescue people or the vet’s. I won’t have it attacking my children. I told you there was something evil about cats. Look what it tried to do to Joel. He didn’t even do anything that time.”
“The poor animal is scared of him,” Mike said. “Which isn’t surprising. I caught him the other day with the poker, chasing the cat with it. He should be old enough to understand it’s wrong.”
“He’s only a baby,” Naomi protested. “He doesn’t know any better.”
“Then he’ll have to learn,” Mike said. “And so will you, darling. It’s just a cat, but we took it in and we can’t just get rid of it like that. Think how many mice he’s caught.”
Naomi just cried harder but Mike was determined not to be undermined on this issue as he had been on so many others. She knew him of old; confrontation on something he was set upon simply was pointless. There were of course other ways. Cats would not stay in a home where they were ill treated so over the next days, she ignored the cat when he mewed to come in out of the cold and left the feeding to Mike. If the cat approached her, she made a rush at it to chase it away.
But the cat seemed just as determined to get close, not to Naomi but the baby and try as she might, whenever she turned her back, the cat came back and was settled near wherever the baby way. It made her at first uneasy and then angry.
“Leave my baby alone,” she would hiss, chasing the animal away. But it made no difference. As soon as she turned away, the cat returned.
It came to a head when the cat took to accompanying them on the short walk to the shop at the corner of the street, where their quiet residential avenue met a main road. People seemed to think it was cute that the cat would walk along with them but Naomi hated it. She paused outside the shop, hoping that the cat might actually just wander off if she left it out there alone long enough, and just as she was about to manoeuvre the buggy into the shop, Joel started to reach into the pushchair to pat his little sister’s face and the cat erupted into a spitting mass of fury, striking out at the toddler rapidly. Joel shrieked and to Naomi’s shock, he didn’t rush to her for protection but instead began kicking at the cat, driving it away from the pushchair and into the road. Naomi yelled and ran after her son, snatching at him and pulling him back out of the traffic.
There was a shrill sound of brakes being slammed on and a terrible soft wet thump as a car hit the fleeing cat, crushing the life out of it instantly. Naomi felt her knees go weak and pressed her son’s face into her legs, trying to shield him from the horrifying sight. The driver was as horrified as she was; the guy came tumbling out of his car, shaking and exclaiming, “Oh my God, oh my God,” over and over again.
The cat lay limp and bloody and unmoving and the driver stood over the body, almost weeping with the shock.
“Is it your cat?” he asked her finally and she just nodded.
“I am so sorry, so sorry,” he said and very gently he managed to lift the mangled remains onto the pavement. “Can I call somebody? Your partner? Your mum?”
Still dazed, Naomi said nothing but she relaxed her grip on Joel and he detached himself from her skirt and turned and looked with blank eyes on the dead cat.
“Bad kitty,” he said very clearly and then stamped on its head.
The next few hours were a horrible mess of emotions, guilt and anger and most of all a powerful sense of revulsion. Mike came home from work in response to her incoherent phone call and her guilt was made all the greater when he wept as he buried the cat in their back garden.
“Joel should be here too,” he said, blowing his nose as he patted down the last clods of earth. “He needs to know the cat is gone for good.”
I think he already does, Naomi thought but she was unable to tell her husband of that last action of violence towards the cat. It baffled and horrified her still and she had no way of explaining it adequately.
The next morning, breasts aching with milk, Naomi went through to the baby’s room to wake her for her morning feed and found the baby silent and cold and totally unresponsive. Neither her efforts nor Mikes nor that of the paramedics made the slightest difference and she was pronounced dead at the hospital, her tiny face slightly blue.
“I don’t understand. How can she just die?” Naomi said from the haze of tranquillizers the doctor had administered to try and calm her.
She held the silent bundle, Mike standing weeping at her side. Joel was playing with some toys the nurses had found for him, oblivious of the tragedy that was around him.
“Sadly it does happen,” said the doctor. “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I’m afraid there will have to be a post mortem, but at least that means you can have some peace that there was nothing you could have done. I am so sorry for your loss.”
He left the grieving couple alone slipping unobtrusively from the room; as the door shut, Joel seemed to notice his parents crying steadily and came over, a large floppy teddy bear in his hands.
Naomi looked at him, her eyes swimming with tears.
“Come here darling,” she said, her voice husky with crying. “Baby’s gone to be with Jesus and the angels now.”
Joel faced her with those blank eyes and leaning forward he peered at the still face of his baby sister cradled in his mother’s arms. A tiny frown appeared between his brows and Naomi thought he was going to start wailing himself. He took the teddy bear and laid it very solemnly over the baby’s face and patted it firmly down.
“Bad baby,” he said, and smiled.