Fiction · 09/04/2019

We Are Not Cat Island

After our island’s veterinarian died, the cat population exploded. We were already used to shooing them away from our doors as we left for work, whether it was to the counter at the pharmacy, down to the docks to fish or operate the ferry, or to teach at the only school we had. We knew to clamp down our garbage can lids, and the fishermen knew to assign one person the sole task of whisking a broom in the cats’ direction as they docked for the day with their catch. But after Dr. Oshima died, the yowling started and continued, unabated, as the cats tangled and rubbed and created kittens.

Now we see mothers with fat bellies stalking furtively through our scraggly bushes, nosing in the gutters for fish scales. The orange toms — more of them every day — no longer cower at the fishermen’s brooms or our waving feet. Mrs. Anderson came home one afternoon to find five tabbies on her doorstep, meowing for food. Eighteen calicos have made a home in the old fountain in the town square. We make cracks about turning the water back on, but when the cats turned their heads in our direction, we shut our mouths and scurry home.

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The very first cats came to the island with the fishermen years ago. They were stowaways looking for mouthfuls of fish to fatten their bellies. When the missionaries arrived, they brought more — not stowaways but part of the crew, their job to trap and kill rats that might threaten the missionaries’ food stores. These cats were sleek, tails always held high, confident enough to wash themselves in open view. They’d been coddled. We liked these cats, gave them names, fed them scraps, sometimes invited them into our homes when mice or bugs invaded. Mrs. Huber, the nurse, once walked throughout the island with a bag of food, cats following her as if she were the Pied Piper. She petted them and convinced Dr. Oshima to give her a discount on flea medication.

In the summer, the cats reclined in the shade of our houses and our trees. We laughed to watch them roll in the sand. In the winter, we saw them scurry from one hidey-hole to another, their coats gone thick, their heads low. Some of us built little boxes for them to retreat to when the wind off the water grew too sharp, and their coats became matted with salt spray. Children were told to place the remnants of dinner in the boxes for the cats. They thanked us by standing guard on the docks as seagulls and pelicans ached to swoop in and make off with a portion of our catch. For their trouble, we gave them some fish. They never took more than we gave.

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But after Dr. Oshima passes, never again to stroke an animal’s chin and look into its eyes, people from the mainland start coming to see all of the cats. Already in the hundreds, the cats quickly overwhelm our island.. The mainlanders have cats in their cities, but nothing like this. The mainlanders bring cameras. The ferry operator, Mr. Maytree, is very pleased. With more paying customers, he’s starting to earn a little more. He begins offering exclusive tours of the island and its shoreline to cat lovers. Some of us start fashioning little headbands with cat ears or offering to paint the faces of the visitors with whisker lines and pink noses. When the visitors tell us how jealous they are of us, how much they love cats but can’t have one of their own because of their landlord, because their father is allergic, because they can’t ultimately stand the smell of a litter box, we smile without letting the smile reach our eyes.

Mr. Maytree creates special excursion packages and buys up some of the empty homes to turn them into bed-and-breakfasts. Builders are adding special tunnels to some of them so the cats can play and join the visitors. Those will cost extra. Mr. Maytree, overwhelmed with business, has turned cargo space into passenger space. We have to wait longer for our newspapers, our rice, our fruit, our chicken. We take out our dusty fishing rods, or turn to the fishermen for sustenance. But by now herds of cats are piling onto every boat that returns. Boats teeming with glistening, flopping fish five minutes before are soon filled with nothing but bones and a few entrails. The cats eat the eyes first. A delicate burst on the palate, we know how good the eyes taste.

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The visitors are friendly, if clueless. They ask where our espresso bars are and where they can get a pedicure, preferably with cat faces drawn on their nails. They ask how we like to prepare all the fish we catch. They speak slowly and use big hand gestures and bigger smiles, as though we are slow or speak another language. But they pay for the package tours and the headbands and the face-painting, so we make cat cookies and embroider pillows, and we learn to paint tiny cat faces onto finger- and toenails.

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Fights break out among the cats over the fish eyes, over the tails, over anything. Their fur becomes matted with scales. Schoolchildren come home with pictures of themselves walking through the village on the backs of cats. Their colored pencils draw orange, black, white, striped bodies mixed and whirling, endless. A tail joins a rib. An ear joins a back paw. Little Asha draws the cats living in our houses, taking tea and filleting fish. They have thumbs. She draws herself as part cat, whiskers framing a fanged smile. Her mother hides the drawings in an unused dresser.

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The cats fight over the visitors. Mr. Maytree has sold them small bags of food, and the cats know this. They line the docks, their numbers swelling at the scheduled arrival times. At first, they flick their tails and beg while on all fours. Sweet, coy, mewling demurely. But soon they lunge at the ferry, braving the spray of the water to hop aboard first and so consume the most. Visitors find themselves fending off these cats, earning scratches and bites. Mr. Maytree starts stocking bandages and ointment. He assures the visitors that all they need is to buy more treats for the cats. Then all will be well.

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The summer is hot. We keep our windows closed. The cats can claw through the screens. We sit and sweat. The cats howl. Their smell grows. The ferry keeps coming. The visitors turn red in the sun. The pharmacy doesn’t have enough sunscreen or water or seasickness tablets or lint rollers or allergy pills. Summer session at the school is cancelled. A janitor tells everyone the school courtyard is overrun, that the cats have taken over the teachers’ lounge, the small gymnasium, the classrooms. He says the smell made him run all the way home to bathe. He may have stepped on a few cat tails on the way. Hissing. Cats surround his home, block his way. He can’t leave.

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We wake one morning to find the Gomez family has left in the middle of the night. Their boat is gone, and when we enter their house, we see only a few cats nosing into the corners of the kitchen. If it weren’t for the missing boat, we would think they had just run to the store for a moment. A cup of tea on the counter is still steaming. The clock has recently been wound, its gentle ticking in time with the cats’ licking their paws and swiping at their faces. Nothing looks touched, nothing seems to be missing, as if the Gomez family hadn’t packed anything for their presumed flight. We try to shoo the cats out so we can lock up their home in case the Gomezes return from wherever they’ve gone, but the cats hiss and rise up on their hind legs. We hurry out. The Gomezes didn’t leave a note.

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Other families soon go missing like this. Houses empty, everything in its place. From deep in our memories rise the tall tales that sailors brought back from their trips around the globe. Ghost ships, sea monsters, and finding one ship adrift with no crew, no captain, nothing but a hot bowl of oatmeal, a pipe just lit, its smoke curling toward the rafters. Such stories make us shudder, and even in the heat of the summer, they send goosebumps down on our arms. We wait for word from the Gomezes, from any of the families. We tune our radios and twist the antennae to find out if any news from the mainland mentions them, mentions islanders arriving in fishing boats with no cargo but themselves. No word, no news. Some of us keep an eye on the shores, fearing the worst for our friends. If they had capsized close to shore, we’d find a body. But further out? We decide to meet at the Gomezes’ abandoned house. Something has to be done.

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We can’t risk meeting at night. The cats are too active then. We wait for early afternoon when the sun is high, and most of the cats retreat to shade, lying on their sides, breathing heavily. Some purr. Some still nestle together. Others take their chances by the water, seeking cool air there. In twos and threes and at staggered times, we wander over to the Gomezes’. Some of us carry shopping bags, as if there is anything left to buy. Others ride their bicycles, some push their children in carriages. We squeeze into the Gomezes’ main room, sweating more with the press of bodies. Some of us have brought fans. Others try to control their squirmy children by giving them pencil and paper, promising ice cream or fresh fruit for later. They’re lies: Mr. Maytree hasn’t brought such treats in months.

Mrs. Huber calls the meeting to order, quietly. Someone has wound the Gomezes’ clock again, and the ticking fills the hot room. Floorboards creak. We sweat. Someone clears their throat at last. We should poison them, the janitor says. That would be the easiest method of control. We shift on our feet, cut our eyes to the windows, worry the cats are just outside the windows, worry they know what we are doing. Others cock their heads and nod. The janitor makes a good point. I don’t see what the problem is, says Mr. Maytree, who has taken a rare day off. Some of us say his coming is merely a show of solidarity: Mr. Maytree has earned thousands of dollars off of the cats, far more than if he’d continued to deliver supplies and take us to and from the mainland on our rare trips. Some of us have seen Mr. Maytree feeding choice pieces of the fattiest tuna to some of the cats, making pets of them, allowing them to sleep at the foot of his bed. He sports a sharper haircut, paid for on the mainland, and has taken to wearing a pinky ring, an affectation some of us find laughable and others simply sad.

Of course you have no problem with the cats, we call out. Or we stay silent, waiting our turn or waiting for others to voice their thoughts. But we all stand to profit from our status as Cat Island, Mr. Maytree says. I’ve even submitted the paperwork to have our name changed. We’ll really be on the map, then! We yell, some of us curse, some of us put our hands over our children’s ears.

What about the poisoning? Others call out. Shhhhhh…we say.

Dr. Oshima wouldn’t have wanted to poison or outright kill them, someone says.

Sure, but he put animals to sleep all the time, someone else says.

They were sick! Injured!

I don’t think we should poison them, Asha says. They’re nice.

Dear one, her mother says, kneeling down. The cats are not nice.

But why? Asha asks. I feed them, and they purr. If you’re nice, they’re nice.

Tell that to my husband the next time he pulls his boat up to the dock — we haven’t had a scrap of fish in months!

I’m tired of these visitors taking pictures of my house!

I hear them laughing at us!

The cats won’t stop watching me when I do my exercise!

I feel like I’m suffocating!

The Gomezes’ house fills with our yells. We forget about the cats outside the door. We turn to each other, pointing fingers, tearing our hair, clutching our stomachs.

I miss fresh-caught fish!

I need a lint roller!

I haven’t breathed through my nose since May! My asthma! My asthma!

Mr. Maytree brought the visitors here!

We are not Cat Island!

Maytree is to blame!

The visitors bring us money!

Why can’t we find another veterinarian?

No one would come!

Give it time!

How long?

I miss Dr. Oshima!

We could be Cat Island!

I hate these cats!

Get them away!

I hate these cats!

We should kill them all!

A deep yowl breaks through our noise. Guttural, toneless — as though hundreds of cats are in pain or heat or about to fight or all three. The hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. Parents pull their children close, and we watch dust drift through the sunbeam coming through the crack in the curtain over the kitchen window. We hold our breath. Sweat trickles down our temples. We feel it between our shoulders, on our upper lips. Or we begin to wonder if maybe Mr. Maytree is right. Maybe the visitors would bring us connection to the mainland, more money, means to send our children off the island and away from the cats, away from the ceaseless waves and crying gulls and scent of fish.

Look, we whisper. A cat sits on the other side of the kitchen window, looking at us through the curtain’s gap. Cats don’t blink the way humans do. Some of us cover our eyes. Some of us stare right back. We hear the waves on the shores. Then another yowl breaks through, then another, and another, until all we can hear are the cries and meows and yowls and yips and hisses of all the cats on our island. We peek through the windows and see cats on top of cats, twisting, snaking, climbing, clawing, grasping, trying to reach the windows, flexing toward the door handles, their paws splayed wide and claws unsheathed. We push our children to the center of the room. Then we hear the voices.

They’re over here!

Aren’t they beautiful? Look at them all together!

It’s a cat house!

It’s cool that they have, like, the run of the island.

Get in for a selfie, guys.

The visitors are here, their phones drawn, snapping photo upon photo. They turn to take their selfies, squinting into the sunlight.

Mr. Maytree, I thought you took the day off, we say.

I did, I did! he whispers. I haven’t been near my ferry today.

We listen to the visitors coo and laugh. The cats have stopped yowling. Someone at the window whispers that the cats have turned to sniff the air, rub against the visitors.

Give them those treats we got.

There aren’t going to be enough.

Just toss them in, I guess.

A hiss, a growl, a yelp. We watch through the curtains as the cats pile on the small pieces of food and turn to the visitors, their fur raised, ears flat. The sun beats down on their coats, some sleek and glossy, some matted and patchy.

Pst, pst, pst, the visitors say, trying to get all of the cats to look at once into their cameras. We sweat in the Gomezes’ house, fanning ourselves, our breathing shallow. We think of the other families that left and never sent back word. Have they made it across the channel? What would they make of us all holed up here? What would they think if we were able to tell them we couldn’t keep the cats out of their homes? That the linens given to them by their grandmothers are destroyed? The screens clawed through? The once-gleaming corners full of filth?

We watch as more and more cats surround the visitors outside. The yowling from all of the cats reaches such a pitch that plugging our ears does nothing. Sweat stings our eyes as we see one cat leap onto a visitor’s chest, claws digging in. Then another, and another, until the visitors are covered and subsumed.

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The cats surround the Gomezes’ house. To look out a window is to look into a wall of green and golden eyes, tail tips twitching. They know we’re in here. The janitor tries to leave, to shoo them away and clear a path to the visitors. We see him covered with cats, and then nothing else. Three days pass, and the babies grow weak and pale, our children listless. The rest of us sit and sweat and stare. Yowling and hissing block out the sound of the waves. We are waiting for the cats to leave. We are waiting for some assistance from the mainland. We are waiting.

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Theresa J. Beckhusen is a writer and editor living in the Twin Cities. Her work has appeared in Sundog Lit, NAP Magazine, and Junoesq. Her editorial work has appeared in Forbes.com, Paste, American Theatre, and others. You may find her at theresajbeckhusen.wordpress.com.