Thursday, January 25, 2007

Assignment: Pets

I love the old English folk tale: "King O The Cats". I think I have written that that story was one of my first horror stories as a kid. What follows is my assignment, a reworking of that old story.


Tom licked himself, wondering why he never saw humans grooming themselves in the same manner. Perhaps because they weren't quite so limber. More likely because they weren't quite so clean. Humans weren't cats, after all.

His master, George Underwood bathed rarely, and when he did, it was a household event of enormous proportions. The Woman, she might have a name, but no one called her anything else, would set a kettle on the fire to later pour steaming water into a wooden tub. George would then make a big show of stepping in, screwing up his face with resolve as his bum hit the surface.

"Annoying man," thought Tom, stretching, then moving closer to the fire. The Woman walked by, carrying several vegetables in the crook of her arm. She snorted at Tom.

"I just saw a rat by the barn," she said to him.

Tom looked up with yellow eyes feigning interest. He then yawned, amused at his own wit, and fell back with a chuckle. The Woman rolled her eyes, chiding him further as she hurried into the kitchen to prepare dinner.

The sound of a horse outside told him George was home at last. His human came in through the door, red-faced, eyes wide with excitement. He removed a jacket, beating it first with his hand, then laying it across the back of a chair. He went to his wife, kissed her quickly on the cheek, and went to warm himself before the fire.

"Oh, you will never guess what I saw this night. What a thing! What a thing!"

She ignored her husband, she always did. Tom, however, couldn't help but find his curiosity unaccountably ignited. He sat up, black fur highlighted by the fire's glow.

"I was coming home, as I always do, when what should I see?" asked George. He waited futilely for The Woman to show interest. Undaunted, George continued. "I saw a group of cats bringing along the body of another, dragging it behind them. Can you imagine? And behind them, behind them were at least a hundred other cats, all keeping a respectful distance."

"You've been drinking," The Woman said at last.

"By God's blood, truer words by me were never spoken," objected George. He reached out and stroked Tom, who leaned back, resisting the urge to swipe a claw at him.

"But there's more, my sweetness. More," said George. "The cat they were dragging had a knife sticking from its side. Not a big knife, like we would keep in our kitchen, but a little knife. It was a black cat, like our Tom here, and its fur was covered with blood as though he had been stabbed over and over again."

Tom looked nervously toward the door, his ears strained forward to listen to the night. A shiver passed through him.

"And one of the cats who led this whole gruesome parade kept shouting..."

"Wait," said The Woman, "you're saying a cat spoke?"

"I swear by your life and by your mother's life. I swear by your sister's life. God rest her soul."

"And what did this cat say?"

"He said 'The King is dead, the tyranny is over.'"

The Woman laughed to hear this. She started to return to the kitchen area to continue cutting up the vegetables. George looked a bit put out at this response. He stood, talking as he chased after her.

"That lead cat, a big yellow tab with the queerest eyes, stopped. He looked at me and said: 'You're George Underwood.'"

"'You know me?'" I asked. "I shouldn't have been so amazed. After all, our's is a smallish town, but it did put me out."

"'We know you," said the tabby. 'Tell Tom his precious king is dead. He'll not ascend to the throne now. The reign of terror is ended.'"

"'The terror?' asked The Wife.

Tom began pacing nervously, his eyes darting about. The fur along his spine raised up. He wanted to run, to find safety, but he had to hear the rest. Anything stupid old George could offer up might be useful.

"What was that?" asked The Wife.

Tom lifted his head. He had heard it, too. The sound of feet on the roof. No, the sound of many feet on the roof now.

"What was what?" asked George. "I don't hear anything."

Tom yowled, partly in anger and partly in fear. The old fool had led them back here. While he had sat before the fire, spinning his stupid tale, the rebels had been creeping into place. Tom could feel them on the roof, getting ready for the strike. He could sense them in the garden, feel them just under the window. All waiting for the signal to strike. Stupid George. Stupid old man. Tom hissed, circled, hissed again. He yowled.

The king was dead. Now he was the king.

"Look at our Old Tom. I wonder what's wrong. What is it, old boy?"

The Woman shook her head, her face grim, and her eyes fearful. "Put him out," she said. "Put him out."

"What's this?" asked George.

"Do as I tell you. Put him out now."

A yowl sounded from without. Another followed.

George nodded, his stupid eyes expressing a sudden awareness that something was wrong here. He went toward Tom, who backed against the wall, exposing fangs, and preparing to run for his life. He wasn't going to be put outside. Not tonight. George reached for his coat, holding it to trap Tom.

The yowling outside continued to build as more voices joined the horrible cacophony. It was as though misery had been given a voice and thrown to the wind to scream its song through the night. Tom heard the anger, the hideous demand for blood. His blood. If he could stay here until morning, he might make his way down country to the city. His kin still held sway there.

"Got you," said George.

Tom had allowed himself to become distracted, giving George an opportunity to pounce, throwing the coat over him. He screamed, slashing with claws through the thick wool as George bundled him up. Shouting with rage, frustration, and terror, Tom couldn't escape.

The door opened and he found himself dropped into the dirt before the small house. The yowling stopped.

Hundreds of cats crept through the yard. They moved along the fence, by the barn, over the small shed where George kept his tools. They moved as one predatory, casting one shadow by the moon.

Tom studied them, trying to see where the opportunity to escape might present itself. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw George, faced pressed against the window glass, eyes blinking in amazement.

Tom drew himself up, moving toward a tabby with queer green eyes that had seperated slightly from the hoard. The cat gave a cruel and triumphant smile.

"I'm the king o' the cats," Tom proclaimed. He strutted forward, listening to the hissing that had begun.

"I'm the king o' cats," he shouted. Feeling his strength, reveling in his nobility, he moved forward, head held high. "I'm the king o' the cats."

He stopped and let his tail swish once or twice. He almost allowed himself a sliver of hope. Then they descended on him.



Susan Miller said...

Great tension. I could see it so clearly...Tom's arrogance, the ignorance of his humans and the resulting demise. It is always a pleasure to see your handiwork, my friend.

Kate S said...

Great pacing and tension, Stewart! Of course, I didn't like the ending because poor Tom reminded me of my cat Max. :)

The imagery is very well done, and I also loved when Tom messed with the old woman then laughed at his own joke. I'm sure some cats do that. :)

crunchy carpets said...

Oh that wonderful...
Have you read Tail Chasers Song by Tad Williams? It sort of reminded me of that.
I would love to hear more of this world.

SQT said...

Holy crap! That was great!

That's one of those things I read and think, I wish I had written that.

Kate -- I used to have a black cat named Max too, best cat I ever had.

DesLily said...

I think I have the next king here in this house lol.. his name is Booboo Kitty. (King Booboo?!) If he's not careful he may find himself back in the streets fighting for his life! (just kidding) Great story!

whimsicalnbrainpan said...

Wonderful story! I think all cats feel as if they are royalty though. You did a great job capturing a cat's attitude.

jedimerc said...

The tension reminded me a little of 'Watership Down'... at least that was what kept running through my mind.

Very nicely done.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thank you susan, kate, Sqt...I was going nuts at school, realizing it was Thursday and I had nothing. Nada. Maybe a paragraph about a dog bouncing around, but nothing. So I sat down and remembered The King O The Cats. Mine is obviously different from the original, sort of a twisted fairytale like my version of The Frog Prince, available for reading elsewhere on this blog.

I don't think I've ever read anything by Tad Williams, crunchy.

King Booboo??????? deslily, you must email me when you get the next kitty and I will help name him. King Booboo, indeed.

thanks whimsi, jedi

Lucas Pederson said...

The tension slipped under my skin and drug me along for the ride! Well paced, very interesting story. I'm honestly baffled you're not published yet. Loved it!!

Charles Gramlich said...

POEesque. I liked it. Cats are hard to capture as characters but this does it well.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

i have always owned border collies. but i enjoyed your story, mr. sternberg. yrs. truly, t.s. eliot

miller580 said...

Visual. It played like a movie. I could hear the hiss of Tom, and the yowls of the cats outside...The tension was very, I don't know--Birds-esque or The Dark Half? Both used a house to shelter from attacking birds. Oh, but yours was a shelter only for man. How I loved your twist...Georgie boy scooping up his beloved cat and throwing him to the to speak. Nice touch. I must admit to never hearing of "King o the Cats" but recently read "Puss n' Boots" for my daughter. Not that it means much except that its getting too late.

DonkeyBlog said...

"His human" - Ha! I love it! I'm sorry I missed this one - I was in transit - but this is really great fun. It's refreshing to read something that's not about relationships or a sick society.

I don't know the King of the Cats story, but I'm loving the idea of some kind of Cat Mafia, controlling us humans, as we go about our stupid, meaningless, George Underwood-lives.

This grab certainly makes one want to know the rest of the story - like what it is these cats actually do, and what it means to be the king. Perhaps some opportunity for expansion, and also plenty of opportunity for the cute kitties to get into some really chilling cruelty. Good Fun, Mr S!

Sidney said...

As you know, I love that bit of folklore. Yours is a brilliant twist of the tail, er tale.

I particularly liked this line: "It was as though misery had been given a voice and thrown to the wind to scream its song through the night."

This makes me a bit pensive as one of my cats has been having words with a neighbor's cat over the back fence.

DesLily said...

Whaaaaa? you don't like "BooBoo Kitty"?? lol.. he got his name because when he strayed into the yard here he was dirty and always had "boo boos" in the corner of his eyes... the guys here wanted to name him snowball.. I hate that name for a white cat LOL.. Here are the other names of the cats in this house:


ps did you see on my blog that I found some "Snake" cartoons????

gugon said...

I thought this was an excellent story. As others have said - the cat's attitude is authentic. The way the tension builds from unconcerned to panic - very well done.

I wanted to know more. Like what exactly is meant by "reign of terror"? What exactly has been going on in the cat world?

You should write a series of twisted children's stories.

SQT said...

I had a cat named Wendel. We named him that because he was the ugliest cat we'd ever seen. But he was sooo coooool. Most of the dogs were afraid of him.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I enjoyed this so much! Great building of tension, right to the end.

And I'm sure that cats do consider humans quite stupid. I know mine does. She keeps me humble.

Chuck Zaglanis said...

I never had an affection for cats (I'm allergic to them and I'd never met a social one) until I got an apartment with a coworker and his two black siamees. Wonderful pets, and my allergies didn't kick in around them.

Very good story Stew. And I too am shocked he's not published, but we're working on that. (g)

Remind me not to partake of any Kool-aid you bring to writer's meetings Mr. Cultist.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thank you, Lucas. Thanks Charles. I don't think I've ever been compared to Poe before. I like it. Strangely, I am not a fan of cats. I prefer dogs each time. Of course, I am now co owner of two black cats. I have to confess, I really enjoy these two old guys, Damien and Nadine.

Again, also thanks to Jim, Donkey, Hearts, Sidney, Gugon, and Wayne.

Thanks also, Chuck. Update your blog.