Tiny wings, sharp teeth, writhing in the undergrowth. No music, no laughter, the wrong kind of magic is waiting at the door.
The Day Mrs Higgins’ Cat Turned Inside Out
By Lydia Trethewey
Introduction: James is back from college, sitting in his old attic room. He reminisces about the incident from four years ago, with the cat, and the creatures.
It started with the cat, the pinkness of its guts looped over the grey brick steps. Calling forth flies in their dozens, the summer heat baking the wet entrails into the mortar. Then of course the screams when Mrs Higgins came home, which we’d waited tensely for since we’d spied the poor beast on our walk home from the park. Harriet of course already knew what had happened, before either of us saw it. I was seventeen at the time, Harriet just nine, and yet my sister bore the putridity of the inverted animal with greater ease.
Mum had asked us fretfully if we knew what had happened. ‘It must have been those wild kids down the street. Ever since the father left…’ and she’d shaken her head.
That was four years ago. Harriet had listened impassively and then rushed into the garden to play. I had run up the stairs to pack for London, the Pendolino train which would take me to college and bigger things.
I’m home again, in my attic room writing job applications. Everything looks as it had when I left. Old posters on the slanted walls of that dorky anime I used to love. My school bag propped against the cupboard. Yet the house feels empty, with Mum and Dad’s impromptu trip to Majorca, and Harriet out who knows where.
In the silence the image of the cat returns, its bowels blistering in the sun. The memory has the texture of a dream, the ordinary and supernatural worlds colliding for the briefest of seconds, leaving a residue. I was glad to be leaving after Harriet discovered the faeries.
She insisted we call them faeries. They were small and brown with spiny backs and leathery wings, tiny beaks of overlapping fangs. More like raptors, but Harriet named them faeries, smiling at a joke only she understood. We were moving the old chairs into the gap between the shed and the hedge and Harriet found a writhing mass of them in the undergrowth. ‘We can’t tell the grown-ups. They won’t understand’ she’d said, looking fondly at the horrible things. ‘We need to protect them’.
I wanted to say no, but the ‘faeries’ gave me this horrible sensation, as if they could understand me, would know if I ratted them out.
A loud smash echoes through the house. A dish fallen off the sink perhaps. I glance at the door, making sure it’s still locked so that nobody can disturb me.
In the yellow lamplight the thin scar traversing my right hand is thrown into relief.
Mum didn’t say it as she hugged me goodbye on the platform, but she worried that with me gone the bullying would get worse. The girls ignored Harriet and the boys laughed at her attempts to be tough. She’d come home and run straight into the backyard to the gap behind the shed, remaining there until Mum called us in for tea. Hours spent whispering into the grass, teaching them.
The first letter from home reported that Harriet seemed happier lately. It didn’t mention Jeremy Dawson, but I saw on the news. I recognised the name from muffled conversations Mum and Dad had when they thought I was asleep. Jeremy was the kid who went out of his way to make Harriet miserable. The BBC reporter announced that after five days the missing boy from Cheshire had been found in a park near his school, covered in tiny bite marks that the doctors couldn’t identify.
The square window shows a sky of ultramarine. Harriet is still out. I glance at the door.
It seems like yesterday that my sister was too young to go out by herself. Once I took her to a fancy dress party, in her werewolf costume. At the corner we’d passed old Mrs Higgins. ‘Why don’t you ever wear anything pretty?’ she’d asked Harriet ‘like a faery costume. What girl doesn’t like faeries?’
Harriet hadn’t replied.
The front door bangs open. Harriet’s footsteps fill the hall, loud clomping boots, along with a soft sound like the flapping of tiny wings. I glance at the door, at the scar on my hand. Perhaps I’ll just double check the lock.