The Barn Cats

(A heads-up for people who prefer their fiction in small bites–this story is about 5,000 words.)

As far back as I can remember, I enjoyed going to my grandparents’ house. It was little more than a large shack, even older than the house I lived in with my parents, sister, and brother. It was the outside, though, that called to us—the valley falling off to the left and the branch that rambled along its bottom; the steep hill rising on its other side, topped by a stand of woods that went on forever; the hayfields at the bottom of a slope to the back, their waving grasses reaching to a canebrake that bordered a wide creek; the ancient barn perched on the valley’s edge where Brother, Sister, and I played many a rainy day. And the corncrib next to it.

But we weren’t allowed to play there.

Before they came to stay with us, the barn cats lived in that corncrib. We heard but never saw them. The farm animals avoided the corncrib as well. Maybe it was the strange noises the cats made, more growl than hiss, that kept everyone and everything away from it. Except Grandma, and Grandpa before he died two years ago. All Brother, Sister, and I knew was the cats killed rats, mice, and snakes, so were tolerated but were to be avoided. Grandma said they were feral, were familiar with only her and grandpa, and they could hurt people they didn’t know.

Grandma died less than two years after Grandpa. Daddy found her sitting in her rocker on the front porch, stone-cold dead, when he went to visit her late one afternoon. I recall it being hot summertime, and as he did every day, Daddy had gone to take her a plate of food covered with tinfoil from the supper Mama had made.

I didn’t remember the event well, being as I was only six at the time. My main memory of Grandma’s death was a long, black car showing up and taking her body away while we kids looked on. I peeked from behind Mama’s dress tail; Brother and Sister were older than me, eleven and nine respectively, and didn’t shy away. Maybe because they had seen more of death than I had. Though I didn’t, both remembered when Grampa had also been carted off in a different black car up the rocky, dirt road that eventually led to town.

While we were watching the long car jostle and bounce over the rocks, Daddy said to Mama, “I’ll have to come back and get the barn cats. They’re our responsibility now.”

Mama sighed, “I know.”

The next day, Daddy worked out in our barn most of the day, hammering and sawing, fixing a place for the barn cats, then, that night after supper, drove his old truck with the sideboards on it over to Grandma’s house to fetch them. I didn’t see him come back; it was sometime after we were all asleep. The next morning after a breakfast of fried eggs, white gravy, and homemade biscuits, Daddy told us that the barn cats were now in the back room of our barn. The room he was talking about had only one flimsy door to it and cracks between the boards wide enough to sling a cat—or at least, a mouse—through. We used it to store potatoes we dug from the garden, spreading them out on clean, dry hay and dusting them with lime so they wouldn’t rot before we used them.

Later that day, Brother, Sister, and I decided to take a peek at the barn cats. But Daddy had replaced the old door with a thick piece of plywood cut to the right size and had put a hasp on in and fastened it closed with a shiny, new padlock. And Daddy had also nailed strips of plywood or old two-by-fours over the bigger cracks between the gaps in the boards, leaving open only little slivers of darkness here and there. And just like it had been at Grandma’s house, we could hear the barn cats moving about, but couldn’t see them.

Brother, Sister, and I asked if we could feed them, but were ordered to stay away, that taking care of the barn cats was grownup work. My mama, none too happy to have the barn cats, told us that one day, when she and Daddy were gone, we—probably Brother—would be taking care of them, but that day seemed a long way off.

The day after Daddy brought the barn cats to our house, Grandma was buried in the little family cemetery located on the property line between our land and our grandparents’. It was set back from the road a piece, with two rutted tracks cutting through the trees and brush, to a small open spot, which I recall on that day was bathed in sunshine. I remember a few neighbors being there and Preacher Fritch from the Assembly of God Church where we went every Sunday. I remember the mound of fresh dirt covering the place Grandma was buried, and gray headstones, some so old that the letters telling who they were, were all but gone. And I remember how hot it was and being glad it didn’t take long for the preacher to say his words, and everyone leave.

Mama and Daddy’s warnings didn’t keep Brother, Sister, and me from occasionally trying to see the barn cats. We would put an eye to one of the thin cracks, but all we ever saw was movement and shadows cast on the small room’s far wall. My siblings and I agreed that the shadows looked too big to belong to cats. When I mentioned that to Daddy, he got mad and said, “Lulabelle, if you and your brother and sister don’t stay away from the shed, y’all will get the whoopin’ of your lives.” I believed him. Daddy had never hesitated to pull off his belt and use it to get his point across. But his warning didn’t stop Brother ,Sister, and me from trying to see the barn cats. We just learned to be sneakier about it.

One day in early September when school was close to starting, I was straining to catch a glimpse of the barn cats through a crack (Brother and Sister each had an eye pressed against a dark line as well) when I saw a blur of movement coming swiftly toward my crack and jerked back. Seeing a gray claw sticking through right where my eye had been a second ago, I screeched. The thing was half the length of my thumb, skinny, and sharp. Brother pulled me farther away, and he, Sister, and I watched and listened, collectively holding our breaths, as the barn cat tried to pull out the stuck claw, hissing and snarling the whole time. With a final howl of rage, it pulled again, and the claw ripped loose, falling to the ground at the base of the wall.

His gaze focused on the crack, Brother told Sister, “Get it. I’ll watch and warn you if one of them tries anything.”

“I ain’t getting it,” Sister said. “Do it yourself.”

“But I’m watching….”

My fright over, I reached down and picked it up, then handed it to Brother.

He studied the claw, laid his thumb against its tip, and a bead of blood appeared. “Damn thing is as sharp as a tack,” he said. “Bet it could rip a rat to shreds.” He didn’t say what I was thinking—and probably Sister too—that it could just as easily rip us to bloody shreds. He handed it out to me. “You got it. It’s yours if you want it.”

And I did. I took it and closed my small fist around it, careful not to grip it so tight it would stick me like it had him.

And to this day, I still have it.

That was the last time Brother, Sister, and I tried to see the barn cats. We didn’t tell our parents what had happened, that would be a sure way to get a whoopin,’ and stopped playing in the barn. A few times, we talked about them, wondering why they had been feral, why our grandparents hadn’t tamed them, but most of all, why the barn cats sounded so angry and mean.

In time, we learned to ignore them. After all, it wasn’t us that took the buckets of bloody meat to the barn every evening; Daddy did that because it was grownup work. Sometimes, the meat came from wild game Daddy hunted. Sometimes, from a few chickens or hog he and Mama slaughtered. Sometimes, they bought scrap meat from the butcher in town. Why, those barn cats ate better than we did, at least meat-wise, which Mama only served on Sunday, cooked, of course.

As the years passed by, the barn cats lost their novelty, became just a farm chore mostly carried out by Daddy, but Mama took it on if he was sick or out of pocket. Brother, Sister, and I grew and passed from childhood to adolescence, and we ceased to talk about the barn cats.

Right after graduating high school, Brother was drafted and sent to Vietnam, then, shortly after he came home, Sister married and moved to another state. A couple of years later, I went off to college. Brother returned to the farm to stay after his stint in the Army, but Sister and I never came back to the homeplace except to visit.

And time moved on….

#

On a warm spring day in late April, Brother met me at the airport. He was beginning to look a lot like Daddy had in his later years—worn overalls, string-bean skinny, bald on top, and blue eyes that had seen too much.

He slung my suitcase into the bed of an ancient Dodge pickup, which if I wasn’t mistaken, was the same one Daddy had been driving on my last visit. “Sister’s at the house,” Brother said as he climbed behind the wheel, and with a scraping of gears, pulled away from the airport. “Her and Tom drove up from Texas…got in late last night.”

“When’s the funeral?” I asked.

“Tomorrow at two. Really more of a memorial service than a funeral.” He pulled onto the street and took a left toward interstate.

“Did I miss the viewing?”

“Wasn’t no viewing, and ain’t gonna be one. Daddy didn’t want it.”

That didn’t surprise me. There had been no viewing when Mama died last year of a stroke, just a hasty service before her coffin was lowered into the ground beside Grandma.

“You said he had a heart attack—right?”

“Yeah.” He steered the Dodge onto an entrance leading to the interstate. “He’d gone out to milk the cow and feed the barn cats, and when he didn’t come back in a little while, I went looking. Found him laid out in the barn, dead as a doornail.”

I recalled the barn cats…the claw I still had, and a small shudder shook me. But too much time had gone by for these to be the same barn cats we had been curious about as children. Perhaps their offsprings’ offsprings? I wondered if they were as vicious as their predecessors.

I knew I should have felt sadder than I did. Not that I didn’t feel grief, but time and distance had dulled the pain of losing Daddy, just as it had Mama. Sister and I had made lives away from the farm. She had married and had one boy and one girl, and though I hadn’t married, I had a rich, full life filled with friends and a rewarding job in a high-profile investment firm. Brother, though, had stayed on the farm, never marrying. I was sure he was crushed by the loss.

I laid my hand on his arm, squeezed gently. “They’re both in a better place now.”

He half snorted, half laughed. “I don’t know about that, Sister.”

It was a short service with only a few neighbors and a smattering of aunts, uncles, and cousins attending. Except for the aunts and uncles, Sister and I didn’t know anyone. But all said their “I’m sorry for your loss,” lingering longer with Brother, which was to be expected. And then went home. We didn’t even have the traditional, large, after-burial meal. That was fine by me; I didn’t know those people and they didn’t know me.

That evening, Sister and I put together a supper of cold cuts, cheese, and chips, and we all ate around the large, scarred kitchen table that we had as children. Tom did the most talking, asking Brother about the crops and cattle. Tom and Sister’s children, both teenagers, stared at their phones, adding little to the conversation. And since there was no TV, after eating, both went upstairs to the room Sister and I had shared when we lived at home.

As soon as the door shut on the bedroom, Brother said, “We need to have a talk.”

I said, “If it’s about the farm, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all yours.”

Sister said, “I feel the same, Brother. You’re the one who stayed and took care of our parents and the place. It’s yours. I’ll sign whatever you need me to.”

Brother scratched his bare scalp. “Well…you see…it ain’t that simple. Y’all got a stake in this place whether you want it or not.”

Tom arched his brows. “How so?”

“It’d be easier to show you than to explain it. Follow me.” Then he pulled open the squeaky back door and stepped out onto the back porch.

Sister, Tom, and I exchanged confused glances.

“What’s he up to?” Tom asked.

Sister and I shrugged our shoulders. I said, “No idea.” I headed for the back door, and Sister and Tom followed.

Darkness was settling in, so we didn’t immediately see Brother, not until he stepped into the shaft of light spilling through the kitchen doorway. He carried a dark-stained, gallon bucket in each hand. Beside me, Sister gasped. We both knew what was inside the metal buckets.

Brother handed one of the buckets out to Tom. “You carry this one,” he said.

Tom took the handle, drew in a sharp breath when he glanced down. “What the hell…?”

Sister and I said in unison, “The barn cats.”

“This is…this is…” Tom spluttered. “…raw meat.” His big hand clutching the bucket’s handle shook.

“That it is,” Brother said. He pulled a black Maglite from the back pocket of his overalls and handed it to me. “You lead the way.”

My eyes met Sister’s. “You never told him?” I asked.

Eyes wide and unnerved, she shook her head.

“Tell me what?” Tom asked.

Sister sighed. “It’s a long story, and well, really, there isn’t anything to tell.”

“You know better than that,” Brother said to her. “You and Sister might not know the whole story, but you know enough.” He stepped off the porch. “Now, all of y’all come on…time y’all know it all.”

Single file, we followed Brother, Tom behind him, then Sister, and me bringing up the rear, shining the powerful Maglite on the ground to light our way as we followed the well-worn path to the barn.

“What was that about cats?” Tom asked no one in particular. “Are we gonna feed cats? Seems like a hell of a lot of meat for cats.”

No one answered his questions. I’d had my suspicions about the barn cats, and I was sure Sister had too, but that’s all they were: suspicions. She and I had never seen what lay on the other side of the padlocked door.

Brother pushed against the barn door; it swung open on rusty hinges. And immediately, I heard them, sounding as I remembered them from my childhood, like they had in the nightmares I’d had for years after leaving the farm—hissing, growling, scratching.

As we drew closer to the back shed that was home to the barn cats, the noise from inside intensified, crackled with excitement. They smelled the bloody meat.

Brother set his bucket on the dirt floor and motioned Tom to put his down beside it, which Tom did with an audible sigh of relief. Then, Brother pulled a key from the front pocket of his overalls that had a piece of bailing twine attached to it and slid it into the padlock. The racket inside the small room increased even more, and now, something that sounded like fists slamming against the walls joined in.

“Back up,” Brother ordered, which we all did without hesitation. With a glance over his shoulder at us, he picked up a long cattle prod leaning against the wall beside the door, slipped the lock from its hasp, and using his foot, slowly began coaxing the door open, cattle prod held up about waist high in ready.

Ready for what? I wondered, again, remembering the claw. He’s holding it too high for a cat. “Brother….”

“Hush, Sister,” he said as the door swung wider.

And I saw….

There were no cats in the room. It was Mama and Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa. And two other people I didn’t recognize, old and wizened. All backed up from the cattle prod Brother held at ready, flattening their bodies against the far wall. Evidently, they had experienced its shock before.

Keeping a close eye on the people inside, Brother reached behind, picked up a bucket, and one-handed, flung the contents on the ground inside. To my horror, my parents, my grandparents, and the other old couple dropped to their knees, grabbing at the raw meat and stuffing it inside their mouths.

Why were they here? Why had my brother locked them up? Had he lost his mind?

Brother tossed the contents of the second bucket inside, and two of the six people fell upon it. “What have you done?” I wailed.

Brother didn’t turn to face me. He kept his eyes focused on the filthy, bloody people—our family!—cattle prod still clutched in his hand, and said. “Look at them, Sister, look close.”

Tom said, “You’re keeping them prisoners here…why?”

“Do as he says,” my sister said. “Look at them, really look at them.”

I glanced at Sister, saw the anger and disgust I felt mirrored on her face. Plus, another emotion: dawning knowledge.

“Oh, my god,” Tom whispered.

My eyes returned to the inhabitants of the small room. I took in the gray skin, oversized, pointed teeth, talons instead of fingernails on the hands that ripped at the meat. The cloudy, blank eyes. And the overwhelming stench of rotten meat and filth.

“Are they…” I swallowed. “…dead, Brother?”

“Yes,” he answered. “And no.” He closed the door on the horror inside the small room, leaned the cattle prod against the wall, then closed the hasp and slipped the lock through, clicking it closed. He turned to face us. “Let’s go outside.” He picked up the two empty buckets, and we followed him from the barn, out beneath the clean, black sky filled with stars and a three-quarter moon.

I thumbed off the Maglite, looked up at the uncaring heavens while blinking back tears.

Tom asked, “What the hell was that?”

“I don’t rightly know,” Brother answered. “All I know is what Mama and Daddy told me when I was fifteen or so.” His eyes settled for a moment on me, then Sister. “Story goes that when our great grandpa was around sixteen, he knocked up a girl who belonged to a bunch of gypsies his daddy let set up camp on the back twenty. Great-grandpa wouldn’t marry the girl, said the baby wasn’t his, and the gypsy girl and the baby ended up dying in childbirth. The girl’s daddy put some kind of curse on Great-grandpa, something about him never having any peace, even when he died, and that his future wife and firstborn son, and his wife, would suffer the same fate into eternity. Great grandpa and his folks brushed it off. They didn’t believe in curses—until a few years later when Great-Grandpa married, and Great-grandma died having Grandpa, and she dug herself out of the grave. They found her the morning after the funeral eating live chickens in the chicken house. They tried shooting her in the head, driving a stake through her heart, and putting her back underground, but nothing worked. She dug out again and ate the family cat, taking a hunk out of Great-great-grandma’s arm when she tried to take what was left of the cat away. So, they locked her up in the corncrib. After Great-grandpa died, Grandpa dug ‘em up after his funeral and put him in the corncrib too. Later on, Grandma, with Daddy’s help, put Grandpa in the corncrib, then Daddy did the same for Grandma.” Brother shook his head. Moonlight glittered off the tears in his eyes. “Me and Daddy took care of Mama, then I took care of Daddy. And now there’s just me.”

Tom, Sister, and I remained silent. I suppose they were as shellshocked as I was by what we had seen in the little room and Brother’s story. It was almost impossible for me to believe what Brother had told us, but my eyes hadn’t lied. Neither had Sister or Tom’s. A picture’s worth a thousand words, I thought, a strangled giggle escaping my lips. And, dear god, what a picture we had seen.

“It ends with me,” Brother said. “I never married, nor had sex with a woman. Daddy showed me the barn cats and told me about the curse before I’d seriously tried getting in a girl’s pants, said if I wanted any I’d best turn queer if I wanted to put an end to it. Trouble was, I didn’t lean that way. Would’ve made all these years a lot more bearable if I had.”

I felt sick inside. Brother, poor Brother, gave up having a normal life to stop the curse. While he had stayed here with our parents, wifeless and childless, Sister and I had gone out into the world and lived our lives. We had to help him with this.

Tom said, “This has to be some kind of joke. People just can’t…not die.”

Sister laughed, the sound harsh and mirthless. “Don’t be an idiot, we just saw they can.”

Silence as deep and dark as the velvet sky settled upon us. I knew everyone was having the same thought as I: when the time came, who would take care of Brother and the others? Who would lock him in the shed and feed him and the rest? And who after Sister and I were gone?

My gaze moved to the house, to the light spilling through the upper windows where my niece and nephew were most likely glued to the little screens of their phones, oblivious to what we were doing out in the night, oblivious to what inhabited the old, listing barn.

“Like I said, it ends with me.” Brother took a deep breath, let it out. “When I die, you got three, maybe four days to take care of things. Get back here quick, plant me in the ground, then dig me up and put me in the shed.”

“Will you…is there a chance…” Sister coughed. “…that you may hurt one of us, when we…well…dig you up?”

“No,” Brother answered. “From my experience, I’d say it’d take a couple of weeks before I’m plumb changed and need to be fed. On the other hand, our other folks….”

I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation. It was just so…so unreal. But of course, I knew it was real, had known since I was a child that something bad lived in the corncrib, then the shed. I just hadn’t known it was my relatives.

Tom said, “You expect us to move back here, pick up where you left off. We got kids to think of. We can’t just…just….”

“I will,” I said. “I’ll take care of you, Brother.”

“I don’t want you to do that, Sister, it ain’t no kind of life,” Brother said. “After y’all put me in the shed with the others, I want you to burn the whole damn barn down. It’ll go up like dry kindling, and me and the other barn cats with it.”

#

But as it turned out, when the time came, none of us could do it, so, like I offered Brother, I quit my job and moved back to the old farm to take care of the barn cats. Over the years, I had saved a lot of money, had stocks and bonds, and Sister and Tom contributed financially so I had no worries in that department. They seldom visited, though, and never brought their children.

I piddled around the old place, rarely making a trip into town. I kept to myself, raised a garden, tended flowers, while around me, the farm fell into disrepair. But I saw to it that the shed stayed sturdy and strong even if nothing else did. And as the years passed and I grew older, weaker, and slower, Tom started keeping the shed in shape.

Then he up and died.

A few days after Tom’s funeral, Sister came to visit. I poured us each a glass of sweet tea, and we went out on the back porch and sat in the two, wooden rockers that our parents had used. And Brother. I could tell which one he had favored because it was more worn than its twin. It became mine when I moved in. Strangely, I felt his presence when I sat there of an evening, looking out over the garden patch to the barn beyond, though what he had become following his death wasn’t really my brother. And sometimes, I could hear him chiding me for not following his instructions, letting him live on as a monster. It had been my decision. Sister and Tom had been ready to douse the barn with gasoline as soon as we put Brother in the shed, but I couldn’t do it. So, I stayed, every evening carrying the raw meat that I purchased in town, out to the barn and fed the barn cats. For years. For Brother, who had sacrificed so much.

Sister and I sat in silence for a while, sipping our tea and staring out at the sun sinking behind the barn. She spoke into the gloaming, “It’s time, Sister.”

Feigning ignorance, I asked, “Time for what?”

“To take care of the barn cats once and for all. I’m eighty-eight, you’re eighty-five. We won’t be around much longer, and we can’t leave it to my kids to take care of them.”

“I know,” I sighed. Sister’s children knew nothing of the barn cats, and I, like Sister, wanted to keep it that way. “It’s just…I don’t know…it feels like murder.”

“Killing what’s already dead isn’t murder, it’s a mercy. Something we should have done twenty years ago when Brother died.”

I knew she was right. I had been selfish to hang onto Brother, to hang onto a grotesque husk that held no soul. I had loved him too much to do the right thing.

But now the time had come. It was taking everything out of me to keep the barn cats fed. It had to end. But, oh, how I hated to let Brother go. “All right, Sister. When?”

“No time like the present,” she answered, rising slowly to her feet. “I got a can of gas in the trunk of my car. Let’s get on with it while we still have enough light to see.”

Leaning heavily on my cane, I followed her to the front of the house. Though three years my senior, she got around better than I, and already had the trunk open and waiting when I reached her car.

She handed me a box of kitchen matches. “You bring these. I’ll get the gas.” She reached in the trunk, bringing out a red, plastic gas can.

“That’s only a gallon,” I said. “Think that’s enough?”

“A match would probably be enough, but just to be on the safe side….”

I fell in behind as she made her way around the house, through the backyard, past the August-blistered garden, to the barn. I was huffing and puffing by the time we got there, barely able to see where I was going from the tears pouring from my eyes. I knew we were doing the right thing, finally doing what Brother had wanted done, but it didn’t make me hurt any less.

“Wait here,” Sister said. She opened the barn door, and immediately, the barn cats started their usual ruckus: hissing, growling, moaning, scratching. It was feeding time, and they knew it.

The bright, red gas can helped me follow Sisters’ progress inside the gloomy barn’s interior. I saw her shadowy shape pause outside the shed’s door, and soon smelled gasoline. Then she came toward me, dribbling a thin line of gas over the board bracing the door’s bottom, and over to where I stood, sick to my stomach and still crying. She laid a hand on my shoulder. “It’ll be over soon. Be strong, Sister. You know it has to be done.”

Unable to speak, I nodded.

She squeezed my shoulder. “I’m going to pour some gas around the back of the shed. Stay here.” She disappeared around the barn’s side and was soon back. “Give me the matches.”

For a moment, I was tempted to refuse, to stop this…this…murder. No, not murder. Mercy. I have to let Brother go. I have to let them all go! My hand trembled as I laid the matchbox in her palm. Sister took a few steps toward the barn, took out a match, and struck it against the box’s side. Then dropped it.

A line of fire raced toward the barn, burning like a trail of lava in the near-dark. It passed over the door board, then in seconds, a whoof. The interior of the barn lit up. The hungry howls and screeches of the barn cats quieted, then, as the flames licked up the walls of the shed and made their way inside, fear and pain filled their dark, mindless voices.

I thought I heard Brother’s among them, heard his familiar, beloved voice calling to me, calling out for me to save him. Why had I agreed to this? Why had I let Sister…?

I glanced to where she stood beside me, her back to the burning barn, head hanging, eyes closed, tears tracking down her cheeks. Moving slowly on the packed dirt, I hobbled toward the barn. I’m coming, Brother! And as I was placing my cane over the threshold, behind me I heard: “Sister, stop!”

But I didn’t. I stepped inside the barn, burning straw and sparks dancing in the air, latching onto my clothes and hair. Hot needles pierced my skin. I smelled singed hair.

“Sister!”

Halfway to the shed, I looked back, and through a wall of flames, saw my sister standing outside the door. Good. She hadn’t followed. Then, I resumed my horrifically, painful journey, fearing each step would be my last as the fire ate at my clothes. My hair. My skin. But finally, I made it to the shed and sank to my knees in the roaring conflagration beside the flaming padlocked door. “Brother….” I whispered, the flames scorching my lungs, the aroma of burning flesh—my own—filling my seared nostrils. “I’m here….” A charred hand reached from the flames and gently clasped mine. “I’m…here….”

©2022 July Day

 

Image by Alan Arthur from Pixabay

Author: Julydase

Writer, artist, newbie Tarot reader, thinker.

7 thoughts on “The Barn Cats”

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, Eugi. Most people don’t read long posts because of the time commitment involved, and I completely understand. I write a lot of short stories and have had quite a few published in magazines (under a different pen name), but don’t often post one. Again, my sincere thanks. 💕

      Liked by 1 person

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