Anita and the Mother of Cats
This was the second of two stories written
for a friend of mine. (The other one is "Passion
Play".) It was actually published in a
magazine he was editing at the time - back in
1997, to be precise. I'd been reading a lot of
Charles De Lint at the time, and that influence
is evident - though I don't think it measures up
to the quality of his work. I had a fairly
strict limit on story length, which forced me to
squeeze things down more than I really liked.
Still, it was fun to write.
It had, reflected Anita, been one hell of a day.
On the good side, she had managed to scrape
together enough to pay for the coming semester’s
tuition. Unfortunately, even at a junior college
the cost virtually emptied her bank account, and
she really wasn’t sure if she could make it to
payday this time. Then, on the way back from the
grocery store, her timeworn Dodge had broken
down, leaving her to walk the rest of the way
with her two carefully-stocked grocery bags, one
in each arm. As a result, her arms were now
aching, and her back was starting to join them.
If I’d had enough cash to fill them properly,
she thought, I’d never have made it. As
it was, she was returning home later than she
ever really wanted to be out, especially in this
As she made her way up the street, placing
her feet carefully to avoid tripping on the
uneven stones of the sidewalk, she saw him: a
younger man in ratty clothes, his face made
prematurely harder and colder by the street,
with carefully greased black hair and a gold
ring in one ear. He let his eyes wander
insolently from her face to her feet and back
Then he smiled.
Chilled, she turned and mounted the steps
into her apartment building. As she cleared the
doorway, she saw him cross the street, not
hurrying, but definitely turning in her
direction. She immediately regretted her outfit,
but the short skirt and the blouse were an
unwritten part of her job requirements. If being
a secretary hadn’t turned out to pay better than
most other jobs, and if she hadn’t needed the
money so badly, she would have quit long ago. At
least her shoes were sensible; she exchanged
heels for tennis shoes every day, as a part of
her after-work ritual.
She paused at the top of the stairs, looking
back to see if he was going to follow her into
the building, the weight of the groceries
momentarily forgotten. For a moment the front
hall was still. Then a figure moved through the
doorway, the light of the single dim bulb
revealing the younger man’s face. Though she had
half-expected this, she started slightly when
she saw him, causing one of the grocery bags to
crumple. He looked up at the sound, smiling his
predatory smile at her again, and started up the
Anita didn’t waste any time. She dropped both
bags immediately, sending cans of vegetables
rolling down the stairs, turned, and ran quickly
up the hallway to her door. She had left it
locked, of course, and there was a long,
terrible time while she fumbled out her keys and
unlocked the door. At any minute, he would come
up behind her and...
But no. He reached the top of the stairs just
as the door opened, his steps slow and almost
lazy. His insolence and composure made her want
to scream, in fear and frustration combined. If
he was going to attack her, couldn’t he at least
be nervous about it? Or guilty? Anything,
anything would be better than this awful, placid
calm. Stumbling into her apartment, she slammed
the door behind her, shot the bolt and slipped
the chain into place. Breathing deeply, she
leaned back against the door and forced herself
to be calm. The door was locked; she was safe;
she could relax. She repeated this to herself
like a prayer, over and over.
When he knocked on the door, she nearly leapt
out of her skin.
“Can I borrow some sugar, miss?” The voice
was smooth, even amused.
“Sure,” she shot back. “It’s out there by the
stairs.” Immediately, she regretted speaking. “Pendejo,”
she added under her breath.
“Let me in,” he said, his voice insistent.
“‘S not polite t’ leave me standing out here.”
She didn’t answer, backing nervously away
from the door. She knew she should call the
police, but the police seldom came to this
neighborhood. They would probably take their
time answering the call, and by then it would be
too late. Shaking her head as if to clear it of
that morbid line of thought, she looked around
for a weapon.
It was a cheap apartment, the only kind she
could afford. In addition to its other problems—
its location, the bugs she had persistently
chased out, the occasional lack of hot water— it
had a cheap front door. The intruder was a
fairly big man, and his first kick broke away
the wood around the bold, leaving it hanging in
the doorframe as the door swung open. The chain
held it for a moment, but then a second kick
ripped it free of the door as well, and he
walked casually into the room. Smiling, he swung
the door shut behind him, pushing a chair back
against it to keep it closed. Anita’s kitten,
Whisper, raised his voice in a low sound of
warning, more groan than anything else, but he
was only five weeks old, and too small to pose a
While the intruder’s back was turned, she
swung the baseball bat at his head.
He was faster than she thought— too fast!
Screamed part of her mind— and he managed to
turn in time to ward the off most of the blow
with his arm. He stepped in before she could
swing again, wrestling the bat out of her hands
and tossing it away behind him. She took a step
back, and he backhanded her across the face.
The force of the blow brought tears to her
eyes and set her ears to ringing. She fell back,
landing gracelessly on her butt, her vision
blurred and her wits fled. At that moment,
someone else knocked on the door. Anita wiped
desperately at her eyes, trying to clear away
tears so she could see. The man hesitated,
holding out a knife he had drawn from somewhere
in his clothing. It was a hunting knife, not
large, but smooth and extremely well polished;
to Anita’s eyes, it looked very sharp.
After a moment the door swung open, the chair
sliding across the bare wooden floor in front of
it. The man shifted uncomfortably, trying to
find a position where he could watch both Anita
and the door at once. Whisper made his low,
yowling sound again.
When the hunched, ragged figure shuffled into
the room, Anita wanted to cry. Mad Maggie was no
threat to anybody— just a harmless old street
person, scrounging her living out of the
dumpsters and alleyways. She must have left her
cart in the front hall, Anita thought wildly.
She was never without her shopping cart, and the
twin grey cats that rode in its front. Pouncer
and Yowler, she called them— she would speak to
the animals from time to time, but almost never
to people. The two cats sat in the doorway at
her feet, eyeing the room disdainfully.
Anita had met Mad Maggie during her second
day in the apartment. Maggie did her scrounging
in the same block as the apartment building (she
probably had a squate somewhere nearby), keeping
strictly to her territory. The residents knew
her by sight, and sometimes gifted her with bits
of food or worn-out clothing. Given food, Maggie
invariably divided it among the dozen or so cats
who followed her— a constantly changing group,
though Yowler and Pouncer seldom left the cart—
and ate no more than the animals did.
Anita had found the woman interesting, in a
peculiar sort of way. She had tamed her as she
would any other wild animal, giving her food
when she could afford to, keeping her movements
slow and careful so as not to alarm. After a
time, the old woman seemed to become accustomed
to her, and after Whisper came to live with
Anita, Maggie proved willing enough to teach her
the names of the other cats as well.
The intruder turned, emitting a low chuckle,
and gestured with the knife. He was almost twice
her height, straight and strong against her
hunched, elderly frame. “Get lost, old woman,”
he said. His voice carried the unmistakable hint
of a threat.
Mad Maggie said something— Anita couldn’t
tell exactly what— and shuffled easily into the
room, raven-sharp eyes glancing easily around.
When she stopped, she was not quite betwen Anita
and the intruder. She lifted her head, peering
out from beneath the shapeless cloth hat,
absently brushing away a tangle of unruly grey
hair. “Jordan Thomas,” she said suddenly, and
the young man jumped. Her voice was surprisingly
clear and penetrating.
“Ain’t no thing,” said the man, who
apparently was named Jordan, with a small shrug.
Then, with a sudden, vicious movement, he lunged
at Mad Maggie, driving his knife deep into her
ribs. She let out a strange sound— a whuff!—
and folded over, collapsing onto the floor.
“Crazy old woman,” he said, turning back to
Anita. “Ain’t nobody goin’ t’miss her at all.”
The sound cut him off, rising up from
stillness to fill the room. It was an eerie
sound, an inhuman moaning cry from a chorus of
feline throats. Unnoticed, they had followed Mad
Maggie into the room, spreading out along the
walls, perching on the table, the windowsill,
the desk which held her battered old typewriter,
the edges of chairs— everywhere. A low
counterpoint rose beneath the sound: some of the
cats were growling as well.
Jordan Thomas turned back in disbelief as Mad
Maggie straightened and rose. No longer hunched,
she seemed to gain height as she drew herself
up. For a moment she regarded him, something
ancient and cold and regal and powerful in her
“My boy, my boy,” she pronounced. “You’ve
done it now. I couldn’t stop them if I wanted
to, and I don’t.”
He looked from her to the circle of cats.
Anita saw more of them coming in the door every
minute, filling the room in a steady stream.
Slitted pupils glared coldly. She recognized
some of them— Snowy, who belonged to Mrs. Moore
down the hall, a tabby who lived upstairs— and
realized that every cat in the building was
here. No, she thought, realizing how many
she didn’t recognize, more like every
cat on the block...
They parted as they came around her, furry
bodies brushing easily up against her. She might
have been part of the furniture, save that they
never stepped on her. Jordan spun, disbelief
turning to panic as he looked for a way to
escape. There were none. The windowsill was
guarded, by Yowler and Pouncer and Whisper and
others. Other cats were still arriving through
the front door, and for a moment he could
imagine a steady flow of them going all the way
out to the street.
A set of claws raked his arm, and he cut at it
with the knife. It dropped easily away, avoiding
the blade, and large tomcat latched onto his
achilles tendon. Before he could stab it, an
orange tabby had sunk its fangs into his hand,
forcing him to drop the knife.
It was over in minutes.
“There now,” said Mad Maggie, putting out a
hand and drawing Anita to her feet, even as her
age seemed to reassert itself. “That’ll be
better. A kindness for a kindness. Best if you
don’t say anything about this, though,” she
said, watching the last of her children stroll
easily out of the room. Anita nodded, her
muscles slow with shock. Then Maggie patted
Anita on the arm, and shuffled out the door
behind that long, impossible stream of cats.
Behind her, on the window sill, Anita heard
Whisper meow. When she looked over at him, he
licked his lips, then put his head down and
settled into a long, contented purr.