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art by Melissa Mead

The Witch's Cat

Kalisa Lessnau is determined to write fantasy genre stories despite living in the science fiction setting of Huntsville, Alabama. Her previously published story, "Orbium," can be found in the Triangulation: Morning After anthology and her website is kalisalessnau.wordpress.com. She lives with her husband and their two cats.

We knew the witch was dead when her cat showed up on our doorstep. Mom found him sitting patiently beside the morning's milk delivery, like he was waiting for his share of the cream. She only called to Dad, but the tone of her voice got us both up from the breakfast table until we all stood in the entryway to stare at the cat.
"You poor thing," Mom said, wrapping both the cat and his former mistress up in one expression of pity. "Won't you come in?" The cat took the invitation and stepped over the threshold of our house, weaving between Mom's ankles in a figure eight of appreciation. My father leaned down to pet him, and I heard the murmur of his voice as he spoke to the cat. Whatever he said seemed to satisfy the cat, who then made his way to me. I reached down and ran my hand along his back, which struck up a low, deep purr from his chest. Mom gathered up the milk bottles, Dad closed the front door, and the two of them shared a look.
"Your mother and I are going to have to make some calls," said Dad. "Can you keep yourself busy? Out of the house?"
I had made plans to spend the rest of the day watching cartoons and eating cereal straight from the box, but Dad's expression let me know there was little room for negotiation. "Okay," I said.
"And take the cat with you."
The cat's name was Sampson. He was small with the black, velvety fur that you'd hope a witch's cat would have. I knew his name because everybody in town knew Sampson; he was always at the witch's side when she made house visits and was her herald when she ran errands at the library or hardware store. He would perch on her shoulder like a parrot or curl himself up in the basket of vegetables she bought at the farmer's market, cramming himself between the carrots and bundles of fresh herbs like he was meant to be there. Even if you were new in town you'd know his name because the witch had embroidered it onto his collar. I didn't think that a creature owned by a witch should tolerate wearing a collar, but he never seemed to mind the jingle of the metal tags that proved he had all his shots.
I wandered around the neighborhood and tried to think of how to spend the day. Sampson was happy to walk along with me, occasionally darting into a yard to terrorize the local squirrel population before trotting back to my side. It occurred to me that he probably hadn't been fed yet and must be hungry, so I decided to head down to the grocery store. Once we got away from the houses and closer to Main Street, Sampson walked in front of me with his tail held high, like the drum major of his own one-cat, one-kid parade. We started to run into other people who caught sight of the cat before they noticed me.
"Isn't that the witch's cat?" They'd ask.
"Was," I'd answer. Then whoever asked would kneel down to give Sampson a pat and say something to him that I couldn't catch before they excused themselves and rushed off. Sampson took the attention in stride, even to where he'd let people snatch him up in their arms and give him a tight hug.
We made our way to the grocery store where I found a few tins of cat food. When we reached the checkout, Sampson jumped up on the counter so the lady running the register could scratch under his chin and whisper into his ear. I tried to pay for the cat food, but the lady waved away my money and called for her shift supervisor, who called for the store manager, who went and got the butcher. The butcher hardly caught sight of Sampson before he ran back to his department and returned with steaks and fresh ground meat. Sampson purred as he tore into the meat, and the butcher watched him closely as he ate. When he leaned in to say what he had to say, I was already standing close enough to listen in without being noticed.
"Your witch saved our little boy," the butcher said. "We won't forget that, and we won't forget her."
When the butcher stepped away, another person stepped up to say something, and soon we had the whole store around us. It seemed like everyone had something to say to Sampson, and I realized that I probably ought to make sure everyone got their chance.
I spent the rest of the day taking Sampson around town. Wherever we went, there were people who recognized him and had to say something to him. By lunchtime, Sampson had started lagging behind me as we walked, so I started carrying him to make it easier on the little creature. We stopped so that I could feed him a tin of the cat food and that seemed to do him some good.
We made it to the courthouse, the school, the pharmacy, and anywhere else that had a door for me to open. Once we were through with the old folks home, it seemed like Sampson was worn out for the day. He fell asleep as I carried him between places and only stirred himself when he heard a new voice nearby.
"Let's go home," I said to Sampson. "We'll get you some rest and maybe tomorrow--"
Sampson did not let me finish, instead he dug every claw he owned into my skin so that I knew exactly how he felt about my suggestion.
"Fine," I said. "I'll keep going as long as you will."
After that, we went to the post office and the florists. People pressed their mouths to the cat's ears and I held him still so they could have their turn before we moved on. Sampson mewled up at me, like a kitten might, and I took a moment to sit on the curb and comfort him before we headed on our way.
"One last place," I told him. "You know where it is."
I walked up the only hill in town to where the witch had lived. Her home was a small cottage that had been built by the town, with a set of flowerbeds beneath the front windows that was tended by a local bridge club. To my surprise, I was not alone. Dozens of people milled around the house, waiting near what looked like a huge pile of kindling. Sampson cuddled against my neck as I walked up to the scene.
"What's happening?" I asked the question to no one in particular. There was a wave of motion in the crowd and I saw my mother push her way towards me.
"You're just in time," she said. When she saw my blank face, she continued, "We're all here to honor our witch, and we each brought something special to give to her as thanks. Think of this as a tribute to her life."
"I don't have anything," I said. I stepped closer to the pile of kindling and saw that it was made up of hundreds of little trinkets: jewelry, flowers, sealed envelopes, pictures and news clippings, and all the charms that the witch had made over the years. The charms wore out after a while, once they were no longer needed, but people kept them anyways. My Mom had one of her own that had been made for me when I was born too early. I imagined it now, lost in the rest of the offerings meant to show gratitude to the witch.
"You did your part by letting everyone know," Mom said. "Your father and I are so proud."
"What about Sampson?" I asked and gripped him tight.
"Oh, sweetheart, he's just a cat. He can watch if he wants," she said. I nodded and stepped away so we could have a clear view while Mom went back into the crowd. I moved Sampson so that I cradled him like a baby, to make sure he could see everything that went on. His eyes didn't seem to focus on anything now and his breath had grown quick and shallow. By the time I looked up from him to ask for help, someone had lit the bonfire.
I was struck by the beauty of the fire, as its flames had more colors than any fire could make on its own. I didn't know the witch well, but as I watched the fire burn, I remembered her for when she broke the fever of my friend Beverly and how she ran to haul Joseph Meyer out of the frozen lake when he had gone out across the thin ice on a dare. We all stood so close to the fire that I felt like we might burn up with it, but the heat was warm, comforting. The tributes broke down as they burned and soon became one mass of white-hot ash.
My thoughts splintered when Sampson jumped out of my arms and into the fire. I screamed, and the people around me could hardly keep me from trying to follow him in a rescue attempt. He shouldn't have had the strength left to make the leap but he had pushed against my chest like a springboard and burst out of my grip. A gasp rippled through the crowd as Sampson dove into the ashes, the force of his impact sending a spray of sparks into the sky as he disappeared. We heard no howl of pain, we saw no attempt to escape. He was just gone.
After that, it took both of my parents to haul me back home and a doctor to convince me to fall asleep.
A few weeks later, when the newspaper was done running stories about her, I went back to the witch's house. The place felt empty and lonely without her presence. For as long as I could remember there had always been at least a car or two parked out front or the smell of something cooking coming up from the chimney. I walked up to the house with the hope of finding Sampson's collar among what was left of the tribute's ashes. I wanted something to remember him by.
I kicked around in the ashes, lifting up little else but clouds of dust. Everything that had gone into the pile of tributes had been burnt completely. Disappointed, I sat down on the edge of one of flowerbeds and put my head in my hands. I stayed like that for a while and let the afternoon sun soak into my skin. When I lifted my head again, I found that I was not alone.
A cat, more a kitten, had sat itself down at my feet. My heart twisted as I expected to see a bundle of black fur, but this kitten had a coat that was gray like a rain cloud or the shade of wet cement.
Or gray like the color of ashes. I offered the kitten my hand and it responded with a testing nip. I picked it up and, by the time I lifted it to my chest, it had worked itself into a purr.
"I bet you're hungry," I said. The kitten mewled back at me, and I was not surprised to find that I recognized its voice. By the time I stood up, the little thing was already lulled asleep by the warmth of my hands.
I figured the walk back home would give me enough time to think up a new name.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Author Comments

"The Witch's Cat" explores what happens when a magical creation survives its master. I feel that the witch and Sampson, so closely bound in life, would never let something as inconsequential as death separate them. This is my second story dealing with what happens to magical creations that survive their masters. I hope one day to find an answer that satisfies me so that I may write about something else for a change.

Credit for the build and behavior of Sampson must be given to my own black cat, Higgs. This story was inspired during one of his afternoon naps on my chest. Higgs' brother, a tabby named Cave Johnson, has yet to share any of his stories with me.

- Kalisa Ann Lessnau
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