Cat’s tail flicked impatiently back and forth across Elle’s face. She resisted the urge to brush it away. Mud tugged at her feet, and putrid water soaked through her shoes. She ducked beneath a low hanging branch dripping with old man’s beard. It trailed over her shoulders, and evidently Cat, who dug his claws into her scalp slightly in payback. She bit her lip at the pain.
“Cat,” Elle said, trying to keep her tone calm. “Would you like to walk?”
After an indigent pause, Cat replied. “No… the view from here is much better…”
by Caitlin Thiele
Cat’s tail flicked impatiently back and forth across Elle’s face. She resisted the urge to brush it away. Mud tugged at her feet, and putrid water soaked through her shoes. She ducked beneath a low hanging branch dripping with old man’s beard. It trailed over her shoulders– and evidently Cat– who dug his claws into her scalp in payback. She bit her lip at the pain.
“Cat,” Elle said, trying to keep her tone calm. “Would you like to walk?”
After an indigent pause, Cat replied. “No… the view from here is much better.” Elle raised her eyebrow.
“It’s pitch-black. There is no view.”
“That’s what you think.” Cat retorted petulantly. Elle rolled her eyes as she navigated around a large cypress. It had a southern belle way to it, with its roots hitched up like so many skirts and crinolines. Despite the dark, Elle walked with confidence. The bayou was home, even after years of being away. She could find her way through it with a blindfold on and dizzy from being spun ‘round half a dozen times. Since she had moved back, she was out every night, dancing with the trees and critters like long lost kin.
It wasn’t long before Cat grew tired of sulking. His tail resumed its pendulum. He started humming some obscure tune, which came out as a caterwaul resembling a toy with dying batteries. She countered the offence to her ears, and really, the ears of any poor soul within a hundred square feet, with a song of her own. It consisted mainly of yowling as discordantly as she could. The humming cat stopped.
“Giselle, this may seem harsh, but you have no musical talent. It’s time you knew.” Cat’s tone was sympathetic. Elle ignored him. Cat took this as a sign that she was crushed. “I’m sure that you have other abilities.” He offered. Elle didn’t respond, trying to stuff down the silent laughter earthquaking her body. “Oh, no, don’t cry. Some people just… aren’t good at anything, that’s all.”
Her resistance broke, spilling her laughter over the levies. Startled, Cat lost his grip, and fell off her head into the bog water. He shrieked, and scrambled up Elle’s leg. Still chuckling, she scooped him up. Elle could feel his glare burning her as she used the edge of her t-shirt as an in-a-pinch towel, scrubbing the biggest clumps of muck from his fur.
“I hate you.” Cat muttered.
“No you don’t.” Said Elle. “Leastways, not enough to do anything about it,” she added as an afterthought.
“Only because the guilt of doing something cruel to a little girl with one foot in the grave would be-“
“Oy!” Interrupted Elle. “I’m not one foot in the grave. I’m two feet in the bayou– and doing fine, thank you very much! And nevermind the fact that seventeen is hardly a little girl.” She plunked Cat back on her head. He attempted to hold her face between his paws, his extra toes spreading across her cheekbones.
“No need to get worked up about it,” he said. “I only meant that as you are actively dying-“
“Hush, you.” Elle interrupted again. Cat gave a melodramatic sigh, and settled onto his haunches.
They walked in silence for a while. Or, rather, Elle walked, and Cat lounged. Sounds of the night filled the silence between conversations. Splashes and the occasional whoosh of wings were accompanied by the growling vibrato of bullfrogs and the clicking, whirring, and buzzing of insects.
A soft glow shuddered a few strides away from Elle, stopping her in her tracks. As she watched, the glow condensed into a floating, ghostly flame. Luminescent drops fell from it, disappearing before they touched the water, which glimmered in the newborn light.
“Will-o’-wisp!” She gasped. Cat yawned, loudly.
“It’s swamp gas,” said Cat.
“Beautiful is what it is,” Elle said. She stood, taking in the sight. Then, she yanked first one foot, then the other from where they had started to sink into the mud, and headed off in the opposite direction. Darkness closed back around them, with just a reflecting shine here or there.
“Excuse me, Giselle, but why are we leaving the beautiful swamp gas?”
“Cause I don’t want to die following a will-o’-wisp into some trap or another, like an idiot. They’re pretty, but that doesn’t mean they’re nice.” She kept walking, putting distance between herself and the light.
“It’s swamp gas.” Cat stated again.
“It’s a spirit, Cat. And a particularly unfriendly kind, too.”
“Giselle.” The tone in Cat’s voice was that of someone who must explain very simple things over and over. “The light is the fluorescent combination of combustible-“
“Cat-“ He ignored her.
“More specifically, diphosphane, phosphine, and methane. Mixing with oxygen causes them to ignite. It’s not a ghost. It’s swamp gas.”
“If you want to chase after a will-o’-wisp, go ahead.”
Cat remained silent, but his weight settled more firmly on Elle’s head. “That’s what I thought.” She said.
The earth sponged beneath Elle’s feet. The tiny peat island hunched, surrounded by the bayou. Elle felt the trees straining above her, their branches desperate to fill the open space made by the clearing. The night air blanketed everything in soft, warm comfort. A man-shaped shadow moved towards her.
“André?” She asked the darkness, reaching tentatively forward as he came in range. She felt dreadlocks, coarse between her fingers. Elle’s hands ran along the smooth skin of André’s face. He tensed slightly at her touch. She pulled back. “My name’s Elle. I’m here to help.” She held her palms out. The shadow shifted, and she felt fever hot breath on her open hands. “I won’t hurt you.” André inhaled her scent slowly, testing for any danger.
“I trust you.” He said, the sound almost two-toned, carrying a growl on its back. Cat’s claws sunk into Elle’s scalp for more than the second time that night. He hissed, leaning as far as he could without falling to swipe at the figure.
“Leave be, Cat. You’re fine.” Elle swung her backpack off her shoulders. The outside was painted with dried mud that crunched as she unzipped the largest pocket. She fumbled through the contents, drawing out a ziplock bag stuffed with folded clothes. She passed it to André. He took it silently, opening the plastic and sniffing gingerly. He stopped abruptly, realizing what he had done.
“Sorry ma’am. I don’t mean any offence by it,” André mumbled. “Just that I’m very sensitive to…well, to smells.” He was caught somewhere between man and boy, with all the awkwardness that comes natural at that stage.
“No worries. They aren’t new, but I washed them as many times as I could without turning them to lint.” Elle offered.
“You aren’t kidding, these don’t smell of much at all…”
Elle handed him another bag. “Bus tickets, and papers, this should get you where you need to go. But most important right now,” Elle said, “Is this stuff.” André tore into the bag she held, spilling its contents– a rain of food. She waited as he filled his stomach.
As André polished off the last chunk of bread, he asked, “Not that I don’t appreciate it, because I do, but…why are you helping me? You don’t even know me. “
“So? Anybody that needs help deserves to get it.”
André hesitated. “Do you even know about-I mean, do you even know what I am?”
“Well, if by that you mean a person who is on the run because of who they are? Yes. I also know that you’re Rougarou.”
“And you aren’t scared?”
Elle laughed. “There are things worth being scared of, and you aren’t one of them.”
“Besides the fact that there are no such things as werewolves.” Cat chimed in.
“Says the talking cat.” Elle said.
“I have a theory about that.” Cat started to say, but was interrupted by André.
“The cat talks?” André’s voice raised an octave.
“Yes, it does.” Said Cat. “I believe it to be the next stage of evolution in my species. As you can see…or rather, not see,” He amended, realizing that the boy probably lacked the night vision that he possessed. “I am already part of the next generation of cats. Polydactyl. “I have more than the usual number of toes. Some would argue that I have thumbs. Speech is simply the clearest progression.”
“Oh.” André said faintly. “Of course.”
Elle attempted to conquer the conversation. “Anyway, in with the papers, there’s a map that will show you the next station and conductor.”
“What, like the Underground Railroad?”
“Actually, yes. I think some of the other conductors are descendants from the original railroad folk.”
André chewed on this. “So you and your talking cat are conductors on an Underground Railroad for werewolves-“
“Don’t exist.” Cat interjected.
“But other than that, yes.” Elle said.
“I have a theory about that,” Cat repeated. Once he had a mind to say something, it took more than a subject change to stop him. “You likely suffer from a condition known as Clinical lycanthropy. I’m sure that you believe that you are a werewolf, or Rougarou if you prefer, but it’s simply a psychological disorder.”
“I’m not making this up!” André’s voice snared in his throat, more growl than words. What had been a warm night breeze was now choking hot.
“Of course you are,” Cat soothed. “You just don’t know it.”
André laughed. “Why would I put myself through this? Why would I want to be persecuted? My own mother won’t be under the same roof as me. She thinks I’m a monster.” Elle stretched her hand to where she guessed his shoulder was. He crushed her fingers between his talons, twisting her knuckles against each other painfully.
“No.” Elle said. She took his wrist with her free hand and squeezed as she pulled her hand away. André drew back.
“I’m so sorry-I can’t help it. I am the monster everyone thinks I am-”
“No,” said Elle. The only way you can be a monster is if you choose to do harm.”
“And Cat?” Elle prodded his ribs. “Do you fancy a swim? Cause I don’t have to carry you if you won’t be nice.”
From on top of Elle’s head came the sound of a small, broken garbage disposal. This was, of course, Cat clearing his throat.
“If I may…suggest another theory?”
“Yeah?” Said André.
“It is completely possible, that your condition, and my own, for that matter, is purely a construct. Giselle has a malignant brain tumor that realistically could trigger hallucinations. We could merely be a means of escape from her tragic reality.”
“Oy!” said Elle.
“Giselle, I am not above repeating myself. You may not have accepted my theory the first eight times I posed it, but minds can change.” Cat patted Elle’s head in an attempt to reassure her, less than successfully.
“You should get going, André. If you miss the bus you’ll have to wait a few hours for the next one.”
“Thanks. I mean…” The boy touched her arm. “Thank you.”
Elle nodded, knowing he would see the movement. “Be safe.”
“Uh, yeah…talking cat?” André asked.
“My name is Cat. Imagine how redundant it would be if I called you Talking Human. Anyway, if you come across a strange glow or a light…walk the other way.”
“Will do.” Said André, quizically. And with that, he set off. Before he was five paces away, he had disappeared completely into the blackness.
“That was nice of you,” said Elle.
“I only mentioned it because there could be a risk of quicksand. Rotting organic material might cause-“
“About what I said earlier…?”
“You really should consider that you only perceive me as talking due to the cancer spreading in your brain.”
“Thank you, Cat.
Somewhere in the roaring quiet, a boy was running away from his fears, to face them in the day. But here, a girl stood with the breeze wrapping around her arms, smiling and twirling strands of her hair, as tears trailed down her skin. Her eyes shone faint in the swamp, matched by the eyes of a cat perched on her head. And around them, the bayou crept into the night.