A Short Story by Harris Coverley
A Slithy Tove
Since it happened I have been thinking about the word “glamour”. These days people define it in terms of the glamourous, the beautiful, the showy, the flash, the fashionable, the hyper-presentable, people on film and TV and so on, but what they have forgotten is that it once had a more mysterious, occult meaning. It actually originates from an old Scottish word for magic or enchantment, and was related to Gypsy lore, specifically the creation of an illusion, an act of transmogrification, or the undertaking of trickery…
That night, around one in the morning, I was lying in bed with my latest read, a techno-thriller which I should have put down at page two hundred and fifty given that I could guess the ending, but since I was already past the halfway point I just had to carry on or feel like a fool.
Me not looking up, there was the distant, corroded plastic crack of a cat flap, followed a minute later by a recognisable creaking on the landing, a rustle of wood as my door juddered open, and with a bound and a leap Thomas jumped front paws first onto my lower abdomen with a characteristic dull stab.
“There you are you bugger,” I said in a mock-scold, marking my page with an old receipt.
I checked his fur and found it only slightly damp—the rains had been light and misty. His paws left no visible water stain on the duvet cover, so I was content enough.
I scratched around his tall black-brown ears and he got his purr going.
“Where have you been?” I asked him. “At least you haven’t brought me back a half crushed rodent like last week.”
That was certainly a wild night—a man and a cat chasing a mouse with broken back legs but exceptionally energetic front ones around a bedsheet. I actually considered taking the small grey pest to a vet, but it was doomed, so I sealed its fate and put it in the natural waste bin, letting the Earth take it back.
I released Thomas from my hands, and he pricked at the sheet and stretched out across my chest, eyes half-closed. I pulled his ears back a few more times before picking my book back up and deciding to at least get through the next chapter before trying to sleep.
Thomas didn’t mind the wall of separation between me and him in the form of the novel. I felt him briefly sniff my finger before hearing him licking a paw.
I started to get back into the narrative again—it was not too bad I suppose—and read for a while until I began to hear that distant cracking of the cat flap again.
That bugger, I thought, trying to get out again. He couldn’t though—the cat flap was permanently on the setting that allowed a “user” to enter into the house but not leave. Thomas did not appreciate this, and so protested by lifting the exterior cover of the flap over and over again, as I could hear…and yet, as I closed my book, I looked down to see Thomas in my literary interlude had slipped between my legs and curled into what my mother used to affectionately call a “doughnut”.
The cat flap continued to crack and crack, over and over, as I lay there, Thomas undisturbed.
I began to think: the wind? No, it wasn’t that—the night was mild.
Another cat? It had happened before—just last month a large ginger tom had taken advantage of the fact that the magnet lock that was supposed to keep interlopers out had ceased to function to attempt a full-fledged home invasion. Luckily, Thomas is house proud and a jealous domestic, and had, as I opened the back door, run that intruder out with a few good hits.
It seemed rational to think that was the case. It was, I suspected, most likely that little black and white female I had seen him hanging around and play fighting with—maybe she wanted a rematch and could not have waited.
Thomas still balled up between my thighs, I carefully slid my whole body up to my pillow, raising my knees up to my chest and curving around to put cold feet into my ragged slippers. The excitement of sudden movement after two hours supine caused my gastric tract to release a sudden thunderous belch, but this did not upset Thomas one bit. He had already stretched out to exploit my remaining heat signature as much as possible. Getting back into bed would prove to be a task…
I slid my dressing gown on and went down the stairs, not bothering to turn any lights on. I walked though my front room and reached the doorway to the kitchen, the flap still lifting up and down, the sound broken up by pained meows—my last hypothesis appeared correct. I put my hand around the door frame and switched the florescents on. I was surprised: at the cat flap was not the little piebald female I had expected, but a medium-sized black cat.
He was sat on his haunches in that classic P-shape, staring at the clear window of what he had hoped to be his escape route.
“Stealing some house time eh?” I said. He didn’t seem an angry or imperialistic fellow—just a little lost and confused. I stood over him and said, “Come on you, time for you to leave.”
I put my finger on the Yale lock to release it, but I stopped.
The cat had looked up at me with big, yellow-green eyes, very familiar eyes. His ears were tall, browned by age. His fangs however were still crystal white, and hung out of his top lip. He mewed at me in a way I knew well, very well. The fur was mid-length, hanging roughly over a crimson and purple striped collar.
I let go of the lock, blinked hard, and looked again, but the cat remained. But it wasn’t just any cat. It was my cat, Thomas, there in the flesh and the fur. But that was impossible—I had left Thomas upstairs, sprawled across my duvet.
I bent down my hand, and this phantasm acted as Thomas would—he cocked his head and rubbed against the side of my palm, before mewing again in protest at being kept in.
A chill echoed through my back and I considered things: was I going mad? Had Thomas somehow slipped out of my bedroom before I got to the kitchen? It was too late at night…maybe I was just tired. Then what explained the cat flap cover making all that noise which had got me out of bed in the first place while Thomas had lain there with me?
Nothing made sense, but I opted to let it go.
This cat was Thomas, it had to be—anything else was insane.
“Right you,” I said to it, “no more noise, no more buggering about, and no going out now. We’re both going to bed…daddy’s burnt out.”
I turned and froze—I had been mistaken.
There, in the doorway into the front room, sat Thomas, staring at the other cat. I walked backwards into the centre of the kitchen floor—in my line of vision the two toms were parallel.
“How the hell…?” I began, but the Thomas in the front room doorway let go a high-pitched growl, and the Thomas at the back door responded in kind.
Don’t tell me anything about cats not being able to recognise their own reflection—both knew that the other was the same thing, and therefore surplus to requirements.
The Thomas at the front room door’s growl broke into a wail of a war cry and lunged at the back door’s analogue.
Cat fights, genuine ones, happen fast, and are hard to parse with human eyes. There was a lot of screeching and squealing, a ball of hairy darkness fuzzed out, sort of like how a rumble is depicted in a newspaper comic strip.
One Thomas threw the other a couple of feet away with its back legs, and they paused for a moment to stare and moan.
I stood in shock—usually in something like this I at least attempt to stick my foot in to temper things, but my shin was bare, and my mind perplexed. To be honest, there was also a morbid gamble going on somewhere in my brain: which Thomas would win the fight? Rationality had gone out the window.
The fight resumed and the ball of furry anger continued its wild fluctuations. This went on for about thirty seconds, getting more and more vicious, but one of the Thomases I saw had begun to alter as the other brought down his sharp blows. He seemed to be warping, almost as though he was not fully solid.
I got closer—I was right: one of them was losing his form as the fight went on. Also, the unwarped Thomas appeared to be gaining scratches; his nose was now bloody, whereas the warping one seemed otherwise undamaged by strikes even if he was beginning to distort.
By the time the second pause came about and the two were staring off again, the warped Thomas had mutated into what was but the outline of a black tomcat, while the other, certainly my true Thomas, was an exhausted wreck, his inner right eyelid grazed and twitching, deep shiny red lines across his nostrils, a drip of his own blood hanging from a fang, his left ear split at the end.
I knew who our real enemy was—the morphing invader had to be destroyed.
Spurred on by the sight of my injured pet, I grabbed the broom and dustpan stand set from the corner. I pulled the broom out of its clip and rammed its brush into the pseudo-Thomas.
The creature yowled like a cat, but as the brush connected it collapsed into itself like some cosmic event, becoming a pile of seething ashes.
Seeing it finally on the back foot, Thomas leaned forward and got a few strokes in as I dragged the caterwauling mass across the floor.
I began to look about, trying to think of a plan of action. The back door was out of the question—if I threw it out that way it would only return with a vengeance. I could freeze it to death in the fridge-freezer, preserve it for any sceptics? No—if it can morph into a cat, it could potentially morph into something slender enough to escape through any door cracks.
I would have to kill it—but how?
In my haste I hit the end of my kitchen—the sink before the back window.
“The waste disposal!” I cried in triumph.
As it tried to squirm away, I put my foot on the head of the brush to keep it captive. Meanwhile, I removed the strainer plug of the basin and turned the cold tap on full, splashing everything. All the while, the real Thomas went back and forth, getting in hit after hit between snarls.
At last I was able to raise the broom up into the air, the thing embedded in the bristles, its sounds now more like a dying bird than a wounded cat.
I shoved the head of the broom into the sink hole. Unfortunately, no cocky phrases of the “time to take out the trash”-type came to mind, so I just turned the knob of the waste disposal on the wall with a self-pleased grin.
The grey mass was sucked downwards into the roar of the self-sharpening blades, but now clung to the brush rather than trying to escape it—it knew it was on the ropes!
I needed a tool—with my right hand I grabbed a fork off the countertop and started to stab at the mass, but it suddenly warped wildly, tossed the fork to the floor, and wrapped about my fingers.
“Damn you!” I yelled.
The broom fell away—it was now just me and the grey blob. I could see it being pulled down beneath the black teeth of the sinkhole’s rubber guard, the blades churning—it was trying to take me with it.
I let my hand, its fingertips coated with the vilely unnatural ooze, smooth and neutral in temperature, drop further down, into the drain. I could feel the whirl mere centimetres from my skin. With my other hand, I rotated the spraying tap directly above the drain, and slowly began to lift my hand back out.
With a final scream it succumbed to the mechanism, and I felt its slithering grip leave my skin.
Free from the creature, I knew I had to take precaution still. I kept the disposal on, and turned the cold tap to hot. I grabbed the bottle of bleach from beneath the sink—careful also to check if it had already tried to sneak through any gaps in the drain, but thankfully not—and poured the lot in the drain.
The kettle was still half full from earlier in the day, so I switched it on, ran upstairs, grabbed the other bleach from the bathroom, and returned to the kitchen. Then, with the boiled water, I poured it all down in a deadly cocktail.
After a minute, I switched the mechanism off and listened, counting another sixty seconds. Nothing—no slithering, so mewing, just the wind from outside and my own laboured breath. It was, as far as I could tell, exiled for good, if not obliterated.
I turned and slumped against the kitchen unit. As I leaned there, soaked and depleted, head pounding, some lines of Lewis Carroll spontaneously floated into view:
“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”
“Oh piss off!” I told myself, annoyed with own mental wandering in the face of such horror more than anything else.
A few feet away sat Thomas, looking at me with one good eye, his other swollen shut. I reached out to comfort him, but he hissed at me and walked away.
I was taken aback at first, but then I realised that, in tomcat logic, he had a right to be furious with me: I had interrupted his fight and robbed him of his victory. Plus, I had also, in my struggle, gotten him very wet, and cats don’t look kindly or understandingly upon that, even if it is for a good reason or unavoidable collateral damage.
As he sauntered off into the front room, I noticed what had happened to my right hand: my fingernails and thumbnail were all missing! There were just the red indents were they had previously sat snuggly. I could not believe it—that monster had sucked them clean off! It had taken some of the melanin out of my skin too.
The next day I took Thomas to the vet. I was prescribed some antibiotics for him just to be cautious, but was told that he would be fine if I kept him inside for a week.
I told the vet I believed it had been a particularly nasty catfight, although he thought it may have been a dog or a fox rather than a cat, given the damage.
While I was talking with him, he asked about my right hand, sealed up in a leather glove while my left was naked and free. I told him I had cut it on a can and wanted to keep it clean.
I don’t think my fingernails will ever grow back, but I’m not yet going to my GP about it—I haven’t been able to come up with a good enough lie to explain it.
The cat flap has been sealed up and Thomas is now a house cat, whether he likes it or not (mostly not)—it’s not fair, but it’s the only way.
I don’t like to think whether I cuddled with that thing in bed or not—the emulation, the glamour, followed by the melee between the two, was such that I couldn’t tell who was at the back door and who had come in from the front room.
Hopefully it wasn’t that thing. Such a belief at least allows me to sleep more easily at night. But very recently a new worry has been entering my thoughts against my will: if that thing, if it still lives, can transform into anything, then why not take my form? It has my fingernails, therefore it has my DNA…if it could increase its overall mass, is there conceivably now another me out there? Could it even be waiting outside this moment?
As I look out the window I see nobody there, but, unlike a cat, I can’t see into the shadows…