CHAPTER 1 THE COMING STORM
The clouds were as dark and thick as a murder of Crows. The winds howled like Wolves as they raced through the wheatfield. Lightning flashed like the talons of Hawks above the woods. I slipped through the billowy stalks like a shadow, seeking the mouse that I had seen scrambling in the underbrush. I was so quiet. Even if the lightning did not crash and boom overhead the mouse would not have heard me. I moved as smoothly as a little wavelet upon the Big Water; soundless as a droplet of water slipping down a whisker.
But then I thought of what Jack had taught me about hunting like a Dog. So, taking a deep breath and heaving my chest as high as I could, I barked at the mouse— or barked as well as any Cat could—and charged after the mouse, barking as I went. The mouse squeaked a scream, fleeing on its little pink paws and zigzagging here and there in the crowding clutter of wheat. I had been only playing at hunting, but seeing the mouse run caused my heart to race. My paws trampled the wispy grass as they beat fast upon the ground. There was excitement in the air, and a tingling thrill in my chest, as I bolted after the mouse’s spindly little tail. I lost sense of my self and all that remained was the slip-dashing chase.
But the barking made me breathless. I lost speed to a fit of coughs, my throat soar and my chest aching. Barking while running did not help when you were a Cat and did not have a barrel chest like Dogs do. I became dizzy with barking and running. I felt as if I had taken a big gulp of water into my lungs.
The mouse emerged from the wheatfield and shot into the woods. Trying to regain my wind, I slowed down. The wheatfield opened and fell away and I approached the trees. Taking a big gulp of air, I barked once again and thrust myself in between the crooked trunks and low-hanging branches. I heard a mousy scream, just as soon silenced. A thundercloud rumbled overhead. I plunged deeper into the woods, nearly landing in the pond sheltering there. Recoiling, I fell back in the decaying leaves, their dust making me sneeze. I blinked at the pond and caught a glimpse of an orange-and-cream colored tail. It fidgeted irritably. My eyes followed that tail and I discovered that it was connected to the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. I did not know what to say, so I gawped at her, the mouse forgotten. She scoffed, and turned her back to me.
“Go home, lap pet,” she mumbled, her mouth full of mouse. “Run back to your litter box.”
I was thunderstruck. I could only stare at her as she left, disappearing into the deeps of the woods. She seemed to glow, like the fire the Man summoned in the fireplace, and the snow that heaped upon the yard in Winter. I sat without moving, watching the shady depths and hoping she might come back. I might have sat there forever, if only to glimpse her yellow eyes again, but the rain began to fall, and I hated to be wet, even in Summer. The woods bowed and whipped in the rallying winds like the necks of angry Geese. It was time to return home.
Lightning hissed like Snakes and thunder galloped like Horses. The storm followed me back to the house where the Man and the Woman were canning tomatoes. They were standing under the portico, near the Truck. There was a table with lots of glass jars on it, and the Man and Woman stooped over a silver pot cooker. They smashed the tomatoes and then boiled them and then ladled them into glass jars. I had seen them do it earlier that week. Jack and I watched them do it for a little while.
“Storm’s coming,” I told Jack. “And I saw a beautiful creature.”
“Not as beautiful as Master,” Jack said. He was laying on a rug, chewing at it absently. “And the storm only comes if Master says so.”
“He probably wants rain for the wheat,” I said.
“Yes,” Jack said. “And for the Big Water. It is leaking.”
“The clouds are leaking?” I said, confused.
“No, the dam,” Jack said. “But, yes, clouds leak too. That’s how the Big Water grows.”
I looked at the yard where the clover grew thick and soft. Goldie was standing there, bright yellow as she watched her chicks. They were scattered all around her, popping up and stooping down in the clover, eating ticks and grasshoppers and other nasty things. Sandy was nearby also, hopping on one leg. Sandy was older than Goldie, but Goldie was much bigger than Sandy. It was like me and Jack. Jack was my older brother, but I was bigger than him. I guess it was because I was a Cat and Jack was a Dog. Were all Cats bigger than Dogs? I didn’t know. Jack had a limp and Sandy had only one good leg. But I had problems, too. I had a torn ear, like a crescent moon. I had caught it on the barbed wire fence one day and ripped it. It had hurt pretty badly, but it didn’t hurt anymore. Actually, what hurt right now was something else. It was my chest. Too much running, I thought.
“Goldie,” I said, walking toward her. “I saw the most beautiful creature in the world.”
Goldie looked at me sideways— because she was a Chicken. “And what was that, Stormy?”
“I saw another Cat,” I said. “She was orange and white and had yellow eyes.”
Goldie watched me with one eye and watched her chicks with the other. I sometimes wondered if she did not trust me, or like me. “There are lots of Cats like that,” she said.
“I don’t look like that,” I said. It was true: I was striped all black and gray, like smoky night, or the storm that was bellowing as it approached the farm. “I wish I did, though. She looked like …well…like sunrise.” I thought about seeing my own reflection on the Big Water. “I look like a cloudy twilight.”
Sandy hopped over to us, steadying herself against Goldie as she stopped. “If you can get up in the morning you should be grateful,” she said. “If you’re not someone else’s dinner you should be grateful. If you have one good leg, then you’ve got nothing to complain about.”
“I have four good legs,” I admitted reluctantly. “And a tail.”
“Then you have more than you know what to do with!” Sandy exclaimed. She dipped her head into the clover and withdrew a worm in her beak. She tilted her beak up and opened her throat, gobbling the wiggly worm down. She nearly fell over with gobbling. “Four legs and two ears and a tail. Not even Jack has a tail. Or the Man or the Woman. If anyone has no right to complain, it’s you.”
I felt ashamed. “You’re right, Sandy,” I said. “It’s just that she was so pretty…”
“So is the sunset,” Goldie said. “But it always brings out the most dangerous animals.”
Sandy shuddered as if a dangerous animal had her by her bad leg. “Don’t speak about them,” she said. “They’ll hear you.”
The thunder boomed above us and the chicks all ran toward the apple tree for cover. The rain began to fall in hesitant droplets. Sandy hopped toward the tree like a bouncing ball of feathers. She moved pretty well for only having one good leg.
“Stormy,” Goldie said, “be careful what you wish for. You might think you want to be something else, but you’ll regret it. As for this Cat that’s struck your fancy, be careful. If you met her in the woods then she’s probably a Stray, or worse, Feral. And such Cats are not to be trusted. Do you understand? Not only will a Feral Cat eat Chickens, it will attack you, too, and the Man and the Woman. They are wild. You might want to stay away from the wheatfield from now on.”
“But Jack and I go hunting there,” I said, scared of losing our favorite place to hunt.
“Do as you will,” Goldie said, “but Jack is old now. He could get hurt trying to keep up with you. And none of us want Jack to be hurt, especially for some foolishness in Summer.”
“Okay,” I mumbled.
Goldie walked toward the apple tree and I ran up the steps and joined Jack on the ivy-curtained porch.
“Jack,” I said, “Goldie said we should stay away from the wheatfield.”
“We can’t do that,” Jack said. “We have to protect Master’s wheatfield.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” I said, curling up beside Jack. The storm was crackling now, and it scared me a little. Rain hammered the roof. “She said you were old,” I added.
“Old?” Jack said. “I’m not old. Master is old. He is older than the Big Water. Did you know that?”
“Yes,” I said. “You’ve told me that. And you said he’s older than the house and the wheat and even the Woman.”
“He is older than everything,” Jack said. “And he will live forever. And I will live forever, too, because he needs me to be with him. It would be very lonesome for Master to live without me. And the Woman, too. Probably. Though it would be a lot quieter without them arguing all of the time.”
“That sure is true,” I said. Even now the Man and the Woman were arguing.
“I told you that you need it hotter!” the Woman said, dumping a jar of tomato juice back into the pot. “Otherwise you aren’t going to cook them good enough for canning!”
“I’m cooking them plenty hot enough,” the Man growled. “If I cook it any hotter you’ll scald me while you’re ladling it in the jar.”
“If you’d just hold the jar still you’d have nothing to fear. But you got to stop swaying it around and not paying no attention…”
“The only thing hotter than this here pot of tomatoes is your temper, woman!”
They thundered and crackled like the thunderstorm in the sky.
“By God,” the Man said, “I hope a tornado comes and takes you off to Oz! All you’d need is a bicycle to get you there safely.”
“And you think yourself so high and mighty?” the Woman said. “I’ve had a peek behind the curtain and I can assure you you ain’t no big man as you like to think!”
Jack sighed beside me. “I hope they calm down soon.” His curly head hung low, his ears flat on either side of his big brown eyes. “And I hope they don’t give me a bath.”
“I hope they’re not mad when we go inside,” I said. “The Woman pets me awfully rough when she’s mad. It makes my ears hurt.”
“Yeah,” said Jack, “and either they’re really loud or they’re really quiet. I don’t know which is worse!”
“Hey,”I said, suddenly curious. “What’s a ‘tornado’?”
Jack tilted his head to the side, as if trying to slide his thoughts from one side of his head to the other. “Torn-a-dough? I think it is that thing that happens when you need to do two things, but you are torn between the two things because they won’t let you. And you get all twisted and pulled in two different directions, like bread dough.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” I said. It did not really make sense to me at all.
Jack tilted his head to the other side. “Like wanting to eat and wanting to go play at the same time. You are pulled in two different directions at the same time.”
As with everything else, I took what Jack said to be the truth and trusted in what he said, even if I didn’t understand it or think it entirely true. I spoke no more about it, or about the beautiful creature I saw near the little pond. I didn’t want Goldie to hear and lecture me again.
The wind warred with itself, whipping about the trees and flinging rain under the car porch until it reached the Man and the Woman.
“Leave off until tomorrow,” the Man said, putting down a jar and taking off his mittens. “We’ll finish it then.”
“We still have a lot of green beans to can,” the Woman said.
“My back’s hurtin’ anyway,” the Man said, pushing his chest out and pressing on his back with his hands. “Can’t do much more today.”
“All right,” the Woman said.
They turned off the cooker and the Man put up Goldie and her chicks in the little shed for the night. They corralled the other Chickens from the Pen into the Coop. Then the Man and the Woman headed to the house. At the door the Woman called for us.
“Jack! Stormy! Hurry up!”
We came running and went inside with them. Jack laid by the Man’s chair, waiting for him to sit down. I leapt up to the window sill, laying on the edge and staring outside. I did not mind being inside the house— especially when it was raining or cold outside—but in the Summer I always found myself looking outside in the evening time, wondering what was happening out there. The window was open and I could feel the wind thrash against my whiskers. There was something very nice about being inside while the world outside was wet and windy. It made me feel nice, like I was too good to be drenched in rain; like I was safe.
Looking out on the wheatfield I saw the rain veil the sky with its falling wash. The wheat billowed violently. It rolled in waves, like the Big Water after a fish had leapt and plunged back into its depths. I could feel that angry wind on my fur. The gusts had paws and smacked me and whistled and screamed like a living thing. I could not fight it. No one could. You just had to seek shelter.
“That sky’s brewing worse than a witch’s cauldron,” the Man said, gazing out another window in the living room. He smiled slyly. “Your momma must be havin’ another fit.”
The Woman put her hands on her wide hips and looked ready to say something spiteful. But a tree creaked outside in the wind, and soon all of the trees were groaning.
“Maybe we ought to go down in the cellar,” she said.
“Oh, don’t be hysterical,” the Man said. “Just like a woman to let your emotions get the better of you.”
“I am not,” she said. She gave him her scariest looks; a look that chilled the skin under my fur. “You’re the one that said it don’t look good.”
“Just because I say something don’t mean I mean it,” he said. He grinned. “I always say I love your cooking, don’t I?”
Her cold scowl cracked, like ice, but instead of chilly mists coming out of her mouth and freezing the house she just went and sat down in her recliner and called me to her. Reluctantly, I tiptoed to her. She patted her legs and I jumped into her lap, coiling around myself. The Man sat in his recliner. Jack tried jumping into his lap, but his back legs didn’t let him jump much, even if he could run. Instead, he barked up at the Man.
“Aw right, aw right,” the Man said, leaning forward and picking Jack up. He put him in his lap and petted his curly hair. “Spoilt dog.”
The Woman petted me, too, but I could tell she was angry. Her fingers were stiff as they raked my fur. It was like being petted by a Hawk’s talons. Still, her dress was soft and I nestled perfectly between her knees, resting my head on my own paws. It was better than sleeping on the warm towels that she pulled out of the noisy box that spun them around. Often, this was my favorite time of the day.
The Man turned on the thing they called a “television”. It was a window where small things lived. One time I tried to catch them, but I could never find the opening to the window. It was like that fish bowl that the Woman had. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t catch the little fish in it. Then one day Jack knocked the bowl over and it broke and the fish flopped around on the floor. I felt so sorry for the fish that I decided not to try to catch the little creatures in the television anymore either. I didn’t want to see them flop around and gawp breathlessly for air like the fish.
The rain splattered like tomatoes against the house and the lightning flashed and the thunder grumbled and roared. It was like a big creature stalking the farm. But it did not frighten me. I was inside the house. I was on the Woman’s lap. Her lap was warm and soft and made me feel relaxed and peaceful, like the whole world was tucked into a cushioned bed, even though I could still hear the storm outside, raging beyond the windows.
As I fell asleep I suddenly remembered the beautiful Cat I saw in the woods. I wondered if she was someplace warm and dry, or if she was being drenched by the rain. I also remembered how she called me a “lap pet”. She said it like it was bad. I told myself that it did not matter what she thought about me. I was comfortable and happy. I liked being a “lap pet”. I wanted her to go away and let me sleep in peace.
And yet her beautiful fire-and-snow stripes flashed in my dreams.