Bonnie Stufflebeam

FEEDING THE SKELETON CATS

The old writer fed her skeleton cats their evening meal of maggots and milk. The cats climbed over one another to get at their bowls, skeleton feet pushing against skeleton ribs and skulls. Many of the cats were broken from this daily ritual, bones jutting out at unconventional angles. The old writer peered into the feeding room, once the office where she typed stories onto her blank white screen. Now she could not step into the room for the shit and piss that covered the beautiful blue tile the texture of an ocean.

Every day the number of cats grew, though there were never any kittens, never the yowling sounds of mating cats so much like strangulation. They must have numbered in the hundreds. She kept all her windows open so that they might come and go as they pleased. In the backyard where sometimes she took her tea, skeleton cats pawed at the fence as though they longed to escape. She could appease them. She could open the gate and let them free. But she lived all alone in a house built for a family of three, the cats her only companions.

Many of the woman’s stories had found homes. A few had been praised not only by family and friends but by strangers who had never seen her face and knew her only by her hiding name; to be exposed was to be vulnerable, and if she hated one thing in a person it was vulnerability. Every day she fed her screen. Her wife provided for her so that she could fill her days with words. Years passed, two of them, in which a steady trickle of her stories fled into the world, opening themselves up like onion bulbs in damp soil. Too often they died before pushing through the surface, no matter how much she watered them, no matter how many pleas she made for readers in emails and forums, no matter how many posts she released into the ether of the blogosphere. For all the strangers’ praise, it was the failures that she clung to in desperate attempts at resuscitation, as a grieving mother might ignore her living children. Once she fed her screen. Now she fed the skeleton cats.

After feeding, she walked out to her mailbox and retrieved the three letters snug in the back, reaching her hand so far in she feared she might never be able to pull it out again. Goosebumps rose along her bare arms, for a front had swept in overnight, but she refused to shiver. Two of the letters urged the old writer to subscribe to journals to which she once subscribed; she no longer read anything but the backs of boxes of snack crackers, the ingredient lists of pre-mixed smoothies at the supermarket. She tossed the letters in the recycling. The third, a holiday card from her ex-wife and the new family, she pored over as she used to with books then the backs of books, the bios of writers who had found their way.

When her wife saw the first cat, she forbid it from the house. “I’m allergic,” her wife said. “You know that.” The cat had not been skeleton then; as years went by, the skin and fur dripped off like wax down a candle no matter how much they fed it. At first the old writer’s wife cleaned the skin from the floor. Then she didn’t. The old writer’s wife took a job that followed her into dreams instead of nightmares. As easily and as painfully as the reveal of a predictable ending, the old writer’s wife left. The skeleton cats slept on the empty side of the bed and woke her each morning with their begging, swiping their paws across her face.

The old writer stuck the ex-wife’s card to the fridge. The skeleton cats swarmed her feet and mewed, as though her proximity to the fridge turned the clock back to feeding time again. The old writer made her tea and went out to her garden of buried stories. The skeleton cats surrounded the abandoned raised bed, circling frantic an object the old writer could not at first see. She set down her tea and struggled through the swarm of skeletons. In the raised bed lay a cat, not skeleton but flesh-and-fur. The old writer shooed the skeleton cats away and knelt and placed her ear against its belly. Its heart beat but barely. Not knowing what else to do, she scooped the cat into the cradle of her arms and carried him inside.

In the bathroom she washed the blood from his fur where the skeleton cats had begun to nibble it away. The cat did not move but to breathe the breath of the dying. She arranged a towel into a bed and placed the cat upon it, turned on her heating lamp, and then brought in the cat food from her fridge: water in a stopper and tuna from a can. No maggots for the living. No milk for a cat whose stomach still worried in its belly and would not properly process the drink.

It had been years since she’d seen a live cat. She opened his mouth and dropped in the water. She spooned the tuna onto his tongue and massaged his throat as he swallowed, which she had seen done with baby birds who had fallen from the nest. The cat’s breath did not steady; its heart did not gain in strength. She petted its fur, but the cat did not purr. All night she sat with him. Because he did not beg, because he asked for nothing, she told him everything: of her stories, of her wife, of her skeleton cats. She made a story from her life, concentrating on the words and not the way the cat might hear them, for she was not sure the cat would hear them at all. She told her stories in the hopes that it would keep the cat from death. When the cat’s breathing abated, the old writer kissed its nose and covered its eye from the light.

She buried the cat in the garden and stood in the moonlight, watching over the grave mound to make certain the skeleton cats did not dig it up. In the night air, she did not try to stop her shivers. As she stood guard, the skeleton cats multiplied before her, broken bones breaking from one and forming a new, growing from leg bone to body to head. She slept in the dark atop the mound. Skeleton cats crawled across her, but she did not budge until morning came and she stood and looked across the yard at thousands of skeleton cats.

They heard her wake and came to her in mewing droves. If she did not leave the mound and feed them, she feared that they would eat her alive. Already the air was thick with the musty stink of rotting bone. She pushed her way through their throng like an ocean thick as ink and into her house, where there were no fewer cats than they were outside. From the fridge she pulled the cartons of maggots and milk and tossed them into the crowd. The cats jumped over one another to get at their wriggling meal. The old writer covered her ears and tossed the whole of the cartons out to them. They gobbled it all and stared at her, wanting more. They always wanted more. Their bodies never filled, black holes of desire.

She pushed again through them and out the door and to the fence, where she opened the gate and let them free. If she could not satisfy their want with food, it was best to let them go before she could not breathe for their presence.

They poured through the gate and across her front yard and into the streets. She did not watch them go or stay to see her neighbors’ reactions. Instead she crawled through the filth they left across her floor to her computer, where she pinned the card from the fridge above her old secretary desk and wrote until her fingers bled of a once-love and a once-home and a once-success, an old writer who caught not fish but cats.

The words were all she wanted. They were enough to fill her.

Still, the next morning before sitting down once more at her desk, she took her tea in the garden. The mound had not been disturbed by the skeleton cats on their way out the gate, but around the grave tiny spears of green had appeared. She bent to pluck the weeds; they were not dandelions but the burgeoning tops of onions sprouting, the shape of the cat, surrounding his rotting body. She pinched one and lifted her fingers to her nose. She would write of the smell: of green, of fresh, of food that promised more to come.



TORNADO SEASON

We fucked in the tornado’s wake, in the ruins of our city. That was the first time: first tornado, first fuck. More tornadoes came. We came with them. After that first time we fucked crouched in the last remaining storm shelter half-sucked from the dirt by wind like ghosts wreaking havoc. The concrete had cracked and let water in. A snake glided between our legs, and when you grabbed it by the throat it was already dead.

Waiting for the storms, we kissed in a closet on the first floor of our work building. Why? We didn’t know. It wasn’t like we were in love or anything. On our phones the radar showed an army of red and purple paisley swirls sweeping east across the country. We let it glow in our groping hands.

Now we wait each night for morning. We yell at the sun. Go away, we say. Don’t you dare come out. But it does, it does. By noon the ground is hot under our bare toes. By evening all is cold and we shiver in our skin. We walk through homes that used to stand tall. We eat the cans left by families who couldn’t protect themselves.

How are we still living? we ask. Why us?

Once we loved others. Some nights when I sleep, burrowed deep into dirt or secluded under crumbled sheetrock, I remember a person beside me who isn’t you. Who are you? I trace the moles around your belly button, three of them, like your own private Stonehenge. Our phones have died. If they hadn’t, I would search mine and find the face of dreams. I trace the black hair between your legs and you are no one. Are we searching for the ones we love? They’re gone now. Everyone is gone now. Why won’t the tornadoes take us too?

+

The green sky like sick gives us the first hint. We never fuck until the rain stops. That’s the deal we’ve made; if we’re going to go, we’ll go out fighting. We don’t run from the wind. When I first kissed you, I imagined you were someone else. When we first fucked, I forgot there was a world outside. You don’t know me. I can never tell you that I dream of her. I dream of you. I make of you an obstacle. Beyond your body, I see her, the curve of her back as she turns away. The seafoam green of her, a beautiful green, a kinder green than the sky. I want her back. I can’t see her through you. You pin me down. We fuck again. We’re always fucking. Fucking and looking for a place where we are safe.

That’s a joke we tell sometimes. Safe is a word to call the tornadoes to us. Because we realize something, two weeks in, fifty fucks and counting. They follow us wherever we go.

We have two choices, then: keep running, leaving this trail of destruction behind us, as though our feet are so heavy they drag canals in the dirt. Or stop.

+

“What do you think about?” you ask me as we lay on a bed of cooled tar. You’ve found a single reed sticking out of a patch of concrete and set fire to it. You puff it like a cigarette. Inside the gas station across the street, tobacco has spread across the broken floor. You refuse to smoke it; the floor is dirty, you say.

“Think about what?” I say.

“When we’re fucking? What do you think about when we’re doing it?”

“I don’t.” It’s after that I think, after the storm has passed, after the panic has left my breath, my bowels empty. “I think about you.”

“There was someone before, for me. Was there someone before for you too?”

“When I fall asleep I feel her with me.” I hold you.

“What if she was me? What if fear’s made masks of our faces?”

I imagine you, masquerade. Paper faces on parade. But you look nothing like her, you and the moles like a map of damage across you.

“You’re not her.”

“I’ m her.” You kiss me even though there’s no danger. Even though we won’t die, not now, not yet. “I’m her.”

+

Is it us together that draws them or is it us apart, too? I break free from you and wander into the night. An old siren wails in the dark like a coyote with a broken leg. I ignore the sound and carry on. But I lose faith halfway through and return. We cower as the storms rage back. I smear tobacco all over you and lick it off. I feel wild. I’m the only coyote left alive.

This time we don’t fuck. I make your body wet, and then we lay wrapped and rapt.

There are no more transitions from sun to rain, rain to sun. It is now all sun, then all rain. Cold air and hot air, pillows under our heads. We are blue or red with too much, too little blood. I want the tornado to find us, to take us away. Where would it take us? But of course it’s not the same tornado. Tornadoes die. Tornadoes rage to life. They sound like trains in the night. We hop old trains, half-toppled into ditches alongside railroads. Where have all the people gone? Oil seeps into the earth and all is black. Nothing will ever grow here again. Seeds scatter and die, like people. We don’t fuck at all anymore.

This sort of thing happened before the tornadoes, too. Couples dried up and disappeared from one another’s dream. Now when I try to find her, she turns to me and her face is a tornado, a funnel of skin and debris.

I wake you. “I’m going.”

“But I’m her,” you say. “Don’t you remember?” She grabs me by the hair. “I know you. I’ve always known you. I’m her.”

I shake you loose. I leave you shaking.

The sun stays up over where you sleep. Where I walk, the storm brews and waits overhead to suck me up, to take me away, to eat me alive.


Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction has appeared in magazines such as Room, Hobart, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the USM’s Stonecoast program and curates the annual Art & Words Show in Fort Worth, Texas. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or at www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.

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