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Cats and Rats

By Claudia NeavesPublished 3 years ago 8 min read
Photo by Ciprian Pardău on Unsplash

Clara peeled off the blood-soaked trousers with a groan that sounded like release. Her shoulders ached, her thighs quivered, her heels felt as though they were made of glass—one more step and they might shatter. She thought about keeping the jacket, too exhausted to fumble with the buttons, but ending up shedding that too. The cats, just as accustomed to blood as the rest of them now, sauntered over the snuggle in the warm pile of clothing. Clara shooed them away. It had been Kate’s idea to keep the cats—to eat the rats who in turn might eat their rations—but as the rations dwindled, Clara thought she very well might want to catch her own rats. She thought about turning a nice juicy rat over the spit, popping with fat turned to grease. Maybe they could spare a bit of pepper, flavor it the way her father might do a rabbit or a stew. Her vision evaporated with the squeal and a hiss of a cat in pursuit. The rats were all skin and bones here anyhow. Like the cats. Like Clara.

Clara dressed in near silence, donning some warm gray stockings, a faded blue skirt, and one of Kate’s sweaters. She buried her nose in the soft material like she could still smell the subtle lilac of Kate’s perfume. She could pretend. Pretend there was something past the blood and cat piss-soaked hay and dirt. Pretend that Kate would waltz through the old barn doors at any minute, shucking off boots and pants and jacket as Clara had done, and demand that she return the sweater. Clara smiled softly, twirling a finger around a frayed edge. The sweater, like her fantasy, was beginning to unravel.

Twelve weeks, twelve they burrowed deep among the cats and the rats, watching autumn turn to winter as the war waged on. Twelve weeks they hid, spinning yarns to pass the time, cuddled close. Twelve weeks they had learned what it meant to be cold and alone and afraid.

Eleven weeks since the first soldier, stumbling, spitting, sorrowful and scared beat his bloody palms on the door, seeking solace. Kate was the first to reach him. She leapt off her perch on the loft where they slept, almost letting her book tumble to the ground below with her. Clara followed, but not before marking Kate’s place in the book.

“Use the ladder, Kate,” Clara had whispered as she descended the rungs. But Kate was at the door. The soldier was hurt, bad, hobbling on one half rotted foot and bleeding from a number of other holes and scrapes. He put on quite the brave face when he saw the pair of them, not exactly the picture of ladylike, but female regardless and he said in a very clear voice:

“May I come in?”

Kate was already half dragging the soldier inside by way of invitation, helping him to lie on the cold hard ground while she fussed over his injuries. Clara couldn’t help but to cast an anxious glance outside, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that the soldier had been followed by the enemy, but she softened when she confirmed he was alone. Then she sprang into action beside Kate, digging through their chest of “borrowed” supplies and ripping through his uniform to get down to his raw red skin.

“God, there’s a lot of blood,” Kate had murmured because it was only their first time. They didn’t know the meaning of a lot, didn’t know how it would stain them so permanently, overtake them so completely. Enough to bathe in, enough to swim in, enough to paint the walls of the barn iron-rich red. Clara thought for a moment that she wished she could go back to that time eleven weeks ago when the pair of them were together and the soldier boy’s blood was “a lot.”

Twelve weeks in the barn.

Eleven weeks since the first soldier, there had been so many more since. Dragging themselves in on one leg, carried by comrades, some pronounced dead by Clara, crossing herself and then the victim. Some screamed, some cried, some grabbed Kate by the neckline of her pretty sweaters and begged her to take away the pain. She gave them morphine. Clara didn’t know where she got it, and Kate would never tell. Even now as she sifted through the near empty supplies bin, she wondered what she would do when she ran out.

Two weeks. two weeks since Kate had gone missing.

Maybe she went out for more morphine. She was so secretive about her supplier and their meet ups, there was of course, the possibility that something had gone terribly wrong. Maybe she was caught in the crossfire. Maybe she had been arrested. Maybe she had found a bigger barn with a better friend and fatter, juicier rats.

Two weeks. Clara marked the days with notches in the wall of the loft. She marked her pillow with tears. There were more teardrops than notches. The cats curled up to her at night, stealing snatches of warmth. When her sobs rocked her body, the pretty black one with the yellow eyes would stand on her chest and lick the salty wetness from her face. Clara pretended they were kisses.

A large gust of blustering wind tore through the door, now ajar and this time Clara bypassed the ladder, leaping as Kate always did to meet whatever injured soul had been led here. There were two of them she recognized, supporting a third between them.

“Lay him down here,” she commanded, patting the overturned wooden door they used as a table. She cast her eyes over the frail body, brown hair hanging in front of the face, and small scuffed boots hanging at unnatural angles. Clara’s heart nearly came to a stop.

“Clara,” said Sam, the taller one, the soldier who once came in trench foot and had returned almost everyday since with another ailing battle. “It’s Kate.”

A wave of emotion toppled over Clara. She might have drowned had she not felt Sam’s eyes boring into her own. She couldn’t show weakness, not in front of him, and certainly not with Kate’s broken body lying too still on the table before her. She smoothed the wet and tangled hair out of the girl’s face. Her eyes were blackened, the bandit’s mask of a racoon that was characteristic from a blow to the back of the head. On the table her legs were positioned in that sickening angle, and Clara knew they had been broken. Clara pressed her fingers to the skin of her neck and felt a thready pulse. She went to work undressing, and the ulcerated wound on Kate left leg made Clara suck in a shaky breath.

“Get me some rags,” she whispered, and Sam obliged. Before he could get them wet and bring them to Clara, she used her bare finger to the nightmarish necrotic tissue. Something grabbed Clara’s wrist and she choked back a shriek. It was Kate, her little hand pawing for Clara’s. Clara wove her fingers through Kate’s and gave a reassuring squeeze. When Kate’s eyes fluttered open, she turned her broken chapped lips into a smile.

“How does it look?” she said hoarsely. Kate knew better than to insult her intelligence with a lie.

“It needs some work.”

Kate tried to sit up to inspect her own leg but groaned at the effort. Riley, the second soldier placed his hands on her shoulders, easing her back onto the table.

“We found her deep in the woods, nearly two towns over,” he explained on her behalf. “Whole camp of wounded men over there. Said she was on her way home when she stepped into an ambush. Guess she got lit up pretty bad.”

“I was coming to get you,” she said, and her voice sounded like a promise. “They needed us. Still do, patch me up”—here her breathing grew ragged— “and we can head back out tomorrow.”

Clara shook her head slowly but didn’t disagree. Kate’s face was wild with desperation. Why had she gone so far, she knew they weren’t supposed to go so far. Even with the promise of returning for the other, they had sworn to one another, sealed with the blood from their palms not go looking for trouble so far from the barn. Clara wiped her brow before going back to the leg, saying “and here I thought you were out sniffing around for morphine.”

Kate let out a gurgled laugh. “Morphine, ha. Morphine. Hm, do you have some?”

Sam and Riley helped bring down the thick wool blankets from the loft. It would be too difficult to hoist Kate onto the loft, and too cold that night for the girl to sleep alone. The cats scattered when they saw the men, but Clara could still see their bright eyes, watching Kate with their feline brand of adoration. When they had settled Kate into some semblance of comfort, the men tipped their hats and promised to return the following morning.

When it was time to settle into the makeshift bed beside Kate, Clara paused awkwardly. She half-expected Kate’s body to be cooled to a corpse-like temperature, but the girl was warm, and Clara found she was comforted by the rise and fall of her chest. She watched her for a long minute.

“Are you real?” she asked softly. Two weeks. Two weeks she had been gone after all. Kate didn’t answer with words, but solid surety of her body beside Clara felt real enough. Clara snuggled into the blankets, careful of Kate’s injuries but pulling her close. In the dark, Clara thought she saw Kate’s racoon eyes flutter at the contact, and the girl deepened the embrace. They were nearly nose to nose. Through the dirt and the grease, Clara thought she could smell the lilac perfume in Kate’s hair. She smiled and the movement made her cheeks ache. The cats were gathering round now, curling their little bodies up into loaves to bake alongside the pair. Black fur and yellow eyes wiggled right up between them, smushing herself into the wedge. Clara wasn’t ready to fall asleep. She wanted to watch Kate breathe, to smell the lilac, to feel black cat’s silky fur beneath her fingers. Before sleep took her, Clara managed to whisper:

“I hope you’re real.”

Two weeks. Two weeks and one day. Clara woke to the timid winter sun spilling through the slats in the barn’s roof. If she expected to see Kate, cuddled close, her fingers intertwined in Clara’s, then she didn’t let the disappointment show on her face when she woke up alone. She rose slowly, shooing away the cats who were already beginning to stretch and yawn and scrap with the rats skittering close to the walls.

Alone, Clara had been alone too long, she thought as she etched another notch into the wall. Feverish with loneliness she had began to imagine Kate’s triumphant return nearly every night now. Sometimes she reminded herself, that even if Kate stumbled in, injured or dying, there was nothing Clara could do for her. The supplies had dried up just days after Kate’s departure. Even the soldiers had stopped bringing their wounded. There was nothing left in that half-dilapidated barn. Just a girl and her cats and her rats.

Clara fingered the fray in Kate’s sweater. The thing was nearly bare now. Just one more pull would be all it took. Clara wrapped her finger around the fray. For a moment she felt like crying, but stopped herself, giving the fray a little tug.

She let the whole thing unravel.

Short Story

About the Creator

Claudia Neaves

Mother, Soldier, Physician, Reader, and Writer

If you like me on the page, you may enjoy a more immersive listening experience. Catch my episodes, Destinations and Beyond a Shadow on Full Body Chillls by Audiochuck

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