By Karly Foland
The cats noticed them first.
They materialized while the cats, aglow with the rays of golden hour, sprawled in their favorite armchair. Thrust into a state of alertness, their bodies tense and eyes widened as they scanned the room for the threat. Through solid walls and unopened doors, they witnessed the invaders creep in. Shadows coated the room in darkness like a malevolent eclipse that cooled the air and raised the cats' fur in a ridge along their spines. With low almost inaudible growls they challenged the shadows as they rolled along the floors like fog. Ears flattened; the cats prepared to pounce. But the roiling blackness flummoxed them as they failed to locate where their paws would land on such an insubstantial thing. They paced and panicked as they watched it settle over their owners like cocoons. Their owners' shoulders sagged, and eyelids drooped as they moored themselves to their couches and beds and sank into layers of fleece and flannel and cashmere. The desire to groom their owners free of this alien thing surged within them. But each halting step forward made them shudder with fear of how it might contaminate them too. So, they slunk around their owners instead and wondered, do they not feel these shadows and what they leave behind? Then the owners flinched at this strange new heaviness and the cats rejoiced and sprang onto their chests. Soft heads pressed against cool cheeks offered an alternative to the company of the darkness. But the shadows were obstinate. When the owners failed to shrug them off completely, they surrendered and sank deeper into the comforts of their space. As the owners rolled over, the cats lost their footing and hopped down. Curled up under a nearby table, though the darkness dulled the glint in their tea green eyes, they kept a vigilant watch.
The cats marked time by following the movement of the sun, basking in its warmth as they napped; feeling the rumbles in their bellies as the morning's dry offerings faded away; and sniffing the air for their owners' odors after they disappeared, knowing as they weakened when their owners would reappear. They pieced these clues together to create a record of the time segments of the owners' lives. For five of these segments, their owners kept to strict schedules, but during two segments, chaos reigned. The owners disappeared less but at different sun positions, sometimes when there was no sun at all and when they normally slept. Lately, this unpredictable chaos trickled into more of the time segments. When the cats awoke from their naps, they expected dwindling odors, the sign they could traverse the forbidden counters of the eating room. But now, they found their owners curled up next to them when they should have been gone. Today is a disappearing time segment, is it not? They would call out to their owners. But the owners merely patted their heads in response. Frustrated, the cats trotted to the doors, imploring their owners to go. Disappearing temporarily is good for you, is it not? But the owners misunderstood them. They spelled out that they could not let the cats explore, could not risk them getting lost or hurt.
The cats blamed the shadows that clung to their owners for these changes. Their distrust and alarm grew as the shadows darkened. They looked unnatural, like the owners would not want them there if they could see them. They held the owner’s arms down, so they struggled to do mundane tasks. Though the owners still managed to feed the cats, the games of fetch and chase gave way to piles of limp, passive catnip. Fatigue plagued the owners now, so the naps and cuddles multiplied, and the cats, against their better judgment, purred with delight. They embraced the increased presence of their owners, but asked them, at what cost to you?
Each time the cats awoke, they did so with exaggerated stretches and yawns, knowing the coos the owners would award them. But now, it failed to impress the owners. The cats nuzzled their faces and kneaded their torsos. But the shadows curled around their arms like puppet strings, lifted them, and swatted the cats away. The light, angled low through the blinds, indicated it was time to eat. Yet the owners made no moves for the evening food ritual. No cupboards opened, no cans popped, no aroma of tuna or chicken tickled the cats' noses. Not until their sandpaper tongues slid over their owners' eyelids did they stir. They marveled at the time but remained seated with their hands glued to their heads. The light faded more before they dragged their bodies, heavy with that oppressive darkness, to the eating room. The cats screeched. They turned in circles. They climbed up their owners’ legs. The owners used to enjoy these games, but now their voices rose, they shook the cats off their legs, and they released sighs that seemed to come from the shadow itself. The cats pondered this while they devoured their overdue meal. They smell like our people, they sound like our people, but they are no longer our people. The shadows have overtaken them. Something akin to their own claws now extended from the shadows deep into their owners' heads.
In the ensuing days, the cats milled about their owners. They peered at them from behind curtains and the tops of bookshelves, eyes locked on the shadows. Their owners quizzed them on their strange behavior, on what they were staring at. Called them weird, joked at what ghosts only they could see. But the cats remained steadfast. If we stare long enough, the shadows will grow uneasy and leave. But day after day, the shadows remained. Until, without explanation, they slid off of the owners like storm clouds rolling down a mountain. They passed through the walls and sunk into the cracked, khaki-colored earth, once teeming with colorful life, now long-neglected by the owners. This sudden freedom buoyed the owners, who disappeared and returned with fresh food, provided pets and cuddles, and invited over other people, from whom the cats normally skittered away. But now, in such uncertain times, the cats threw themselves at these newcomers. Help our people. They tried to communicate. The shadows are resting but they will return. But their cries fell on ears unable to understand. These new people asked the owners what the cats wanted, and they always blamed it on ghosts - they must be protecting us from ghosts, we have no idea the struggles they fight for us. And they all laughed about what heroes the cats were.
The cats were even more agitated after these visits. They knew the shadows would emerge and slither up their owners once more. When alone with the darkness, the owners lamented how draining such company was and vowed to keep to themselves for a while. And so many, many time segments of solitude began anew. We cannot go out, they would say. It is too late, too far, and we are too tired. And the owners would quiver and grip at their chests as if to keep melting hearts from seeping out. They would conjure up a different excuse every time, but they did not seem to believe their own reasons or understand their hesitation. They convinced themselves that they must save their energy for all the things they must do around the house. But they never did anything around the house anymore. Pieces of cloth soaked in the owners' smells piled up in the sleeping room, items that carried the owners' food littered the counters, a parapet that prevented, at last, the cats from exploring there. The living green things looked so feeble that the cats stopped chewing on them. It seemed cruel to hasten their demise. Usually the owners brought them water, but the living green things could not screech like the cats, so the owners forgot about them. The cats tried to bring them water cradled in their small mouths, but it was not enough. So, the cats knocked the living green things over. Now they will notice. Their little clay homes broke, and clods of parched dirt scattered across the floor. The owners scolded the cats and swept everything outside into a pile of detritus that warned all who passed that darkness had fallen on the house.
For many time segments, the shadows prevented any light from touching the owners. Every time the owners slept, the cats mustered their courage to carve a path through the darkness and lay on their chests. The cats showered them with head bunts, sending out waves of pheromones. We are connected, they called. I am still alive. You are still alive. The owners pulled the cats in close and hugged them tight. Waves of purrs rippled across their bodies and dispersed the shadows where the cats sat and allowed the owners' hearts to beat with renewed urgency.
Inspired, the cats climbed onto the owners' pillows and sat next to their heads. Their purrs reached a hundred decibels. The shadows moved away, and the cats lulled the owners' fitful sleep into pleasant dreams, in which the cats allowed them to pet their bellies, the greatest gift they could think to bestow on them. This was easy while they slept, but while the sun shared its warmth, the shadows fought back and sunk their claws in deeper. The cats tugged at them but came away with mouthfuls of their owners' hair instead. Yelps of pain and demands to know why the cats were misbehaving sent them scurrying under the bed. What if we cannot fight them off? Will they come for us next?
The cats waited and waited for their owners to get out of bed. Hunger gnawed at their tiny stomachs. They jumped on them again, purred against their cheeks. I need you, please. The owners stirred but ligaments of shadows fastened them back to bed like tent ropes. The cats pounced and scratched but the shadows evaded their claws, so they tore the bedding instead. The owners yelled again, demanding to know what had gotten into their once docile companions. The shadows held the owners still, tendrils entered their ears, and the owners contemplated aloud giving these problematic creatures away. Frightened, the cats turned up the purrs and kneaded their owners as if their futures depended on it. The owners, horrified by themselves, wondered what they were thinking, and the shadows retreated. The cats achieved small victories like this, but feared they would lose the war.
The cats learned when the shadows would attack, when their blackness became so absolute and impenetrable so no part of their owner could be seen. They kept watch at the foot of the beds and stared, ready to counterattack. The owners no longer yelled at them for being weird nor praised them for chasing ghosts. The owners failed to notice anything anymore. So, the cats redoubled their efforts. When water leaked from their owners' eyes, the cats lapped it up, tickling the owners and getting them to stop and hug them and, during good time segments, get out of bed. But when the owners opened the front doors, they stopped as if an invisible wall barricaded them in. When they collapsed to the floor shaking their heads, the cats bolted outside, which broke their owners out of their daze as they raced to catch them. The cats sprinted to the first people they saw with the smallest shadows and jumped on their backs. They beseeched their owners, ask them to help you fight the shadows. The owners' faces flushed, and they stammered out apologies, but the strangers always laughed and marveled at their friendly, acrobatic cats. The cats played it up as they perched on their shoulders and nibbled on their ears. After each encounter, the shadows grew more transparent. The owners stood under the indoor rain, again smelling the flowers and fruits. They opened the door more often, almost enticing the cats to go and seek out others. The cats chose to perch on the same strangers, to build a bond between them and their owners. The strangers asked about the broken green living thing on the porch. The owners pointed fingers at the cats and mumbled about not getting around to cleaning it up. The next time the owners opened the doors, the mess was gone, and a new green living thing was in its place, a red cloth wrapped around it. Maybe the cats will not go to war with this one, pronounced a little beige square attached to the cloth. The corners of their mouths lifted as they turned to the cats, insisting they behave. The cats, in turn, loved the new living green thing as if it came from their own litter.
Every night the cats slept at their owners' heads, careful now not to attack the shadows directly. They came at them sideways, bringing other living things into their owners' lives. The cats chirped at birds outside the sleeping room's windows. Such killers, the owners joked, and they bought bird feeders so their cats could watch them and twitter to their hearts' content. Colorful hummingbirds buzzed at the windows like shimmering confetti suspended in the air. The cats learned that these quick little creatures pleased the owners the most and refrained from scaring them away. Little by little, the shadows lessened, until some days, they were a haze that a swipe of a paw could dissipate.
Yet, sometimes the shadows slipped back into their lives and a chill settled on the house once more. The cats puffed up and ran sideways to warn their owners, but they already knew. During those time segments, they stayed inside. Their eyes leaked. But they never succumbed to the full darkness of the shadows again. They knew the shadows, named them, and learned how to resist them. And now they had allies. When they faltered, their cats were there. Together they cuddled in the sunlight and counted the birds outside, while hundreds of decibels of purrs helped keep the darkness at bay.
From the author:
“I am a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer with a master's degree in International Psychology and a bachelor's degree in International Studies, specializing in Russia. I have spent a decade living in Africa, Asia, and Europe and live with my husband and the two cats we rescued from the streets of Rabat, Morocco.”