This Issue

May/June 2016

The Cat at the End of the World

Emily Devenport

The two men in the tank methodically blew up the houses along the street. 

“Look!” The gunner paused to point at a low wall that had once been part of a fine house.

“What do you mean, ‘Look’?” said the driver. He was inside the tank, and had a very limited view of things. But he climbed out onto the turret with the gunner.

“A cat,” said the gunner.

“See how it’s looking at us? Like it’s smart or something. Like it knows what we’re doing.”

The driver shook his head. “Cats can fool you that way. They stare at you so hard, you think there’s something going on inside their heads.”

“No, this one is smart. It knows.”

The driver frowned. “Okay. What do you want to do about it?” 

“Kill it,” said the gunner.

“Hurry up. We’ve still got twelve houses on
this block.”

The driver climbed back into the tank. The gunner aimed at the cat, looking at its peculiar, alert face in the viewfinder. He fired his gun, and the wall blew up.

***

Maggy was sitting in her wingback chair and watching the one remaining station on her ancient TV. It was broadcasting The Day the Earth Stood Still. Periodically, news bulletins would scroll across the bottom of the screen, but Maggy had learned to ignore them. They were inaccurate and hysterical. She wanted to be calm. She listened to the explosions going up and down the street and pretended they were just part of the movie.

Felix the cat ran in and jumped into her lap. He was shaking. He studied her face with an intent expression. She noticed bits of powdered masonry in his fur.

“Don’t watch the tanks anymore, Felix. You can’t stop them.”

She petted Felix until he stopped shaking, and finally he settled down and gave his attention to the movie. Outside, the tanks moved up and down the streets, demolishing them row by row.

***

Maggy had a mental image of what the city looked like now. It was miles and miles of ruined squares and rectangles. The guns turned brick and cement into powder, wood and drywall into ash. The powder and the ashes blew away in the early morning wind, so there was very little rubble left, and from the air the city must have looked like a dead computer circuit.

Maggy wandered down the ruined streets in her mind. Some of the ash still lingered, like a low fog. She saw no bones, no signs of life at all. But after a while, she could hear the music: Sad Waltz by Sibelius. She could also picture the cat. Ah, now she remembered where she had seen this scene before: in the animated movie she and Oscar once watched, Allegro Non Troppo, where the little cat is the last one left in the ruined house and has only his memories to keep him company. She had cried in the theater. Oscar had put his arm around her, shielding her from the rest of the audience. He knew she would be embarrassed if people saw her crying. 

But the little cat in the movie wasn’t at all like Felix. It was small, dark, and shaggy. It had sad eyes, like cats do in kitschy paintings. Felix was big and short-haired. He was white with striped patches. His face shone with feline intelligence. He always knew what was going on. He waited, with Maggy, for the end of the world. Maggy’s world had come to an end once before, when Oscar died. By the time the world began to end for everyone else, she had found a pattern in life that suited her. She had even begun, just barely, to live again. When the explosions started, Maggy thought they were coming from outer space. It was War of the Worlds. Hadn’t the aliens warned us that they would destroy us if we took our wars into space? But wait, that was the other movie, the one she had seen—when?

Maggy woke up. She was in bed; she didn’t remember moving from the wingback chair. She heard the distant sound of explosions. She tried to relax and go back to sleep. That wasn’t how she had felt that first night, or in the many days that followed. She had run around trying to do the right things. Has someone called the police? Has someone called the fire department? We’ve got to get water and supplies! Who’s screaming? Who’s hurt? Call 911!

But the phone emitted a high-pitched shriek, as if to say Get off! No help here! After that, it had just gone dead. Maggy’s neighbors ran away, or died, until only she and Felix were left. They spent the days and nights inside her big, old house. They ate from the storeroom, mostly from cans, and drank bottled water and pop. Maggy had always stocked up on things, but only because she liked to take advantage of sales, not because she had ever believed the supermarkets would be blown up.

The explosions came closer, and Felix jumped onto the bed. He was shaking again. Maggy took him into her arms and looked into his eyes. His stare was more intent than ever.  The explosions were coming down their street now, house after house. The pictures on her end table rattled. She took her favorite—the one of her with Oscar and Felix—and laid it flat so it wouldn’t fall over and break.

“Don’t be afraid,” she told Felix. “It doesn’t help.”

Felix tucked his head under her chin and curled up beside her. He was still shaking, but he couldn’t help that. Maggy wondered why she wasn’t shaking. The third house from hers exploded, making her ears ring. Then the second, and finally the one next door. Then there was a long pause.

***

“Hey!” said the gunner. “Come look at this house!”

The driver climbed up and looked. “Nice.” 

“It looks like a castle. It looks like it’s hundreds of years older than these other houses.”

“It couldn’t be hundreds of years older.”

“Hey, wouldn’t it be neat to get all the guys and come back here and have a party when we’re finished?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Then we can blow it up.”

“So you want to wait?”

“Yeah. Let’s save it for last.”

“Hey, maybe there’s a princess inside that castle!”

“A princess. Dream on.”

***

Felix heard the tank drive away. It blew up another neighbor’s house, then moved on. He didn’t stop shaking until the explosions had moved to the other end of the block. Maggy wasn’t shaking, either. But she was asleep. 

Felix got up carefully. He didn’t want to wake her.

He went to the window and looked into the night. The stars shone and the moon was almost full. He looked for the eagle. He had seen it in Maggy’s picture book, the one she liked to read to him: The Owl and the Pussycat. Felix had decided that Maggy was the owl, and it went without saying who Felix was.

The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat . . . 

The pictures meant nothing to Felix until Maggy showed him the eagle flying in a sunset sky, right above the beautiful boat. Something tickled Felix’s cat senses—the eagle was important to him and to his beloved owl. In a way, they were also at sea, tossed here and there by forces beyond their control.

 The eagle had flown across every page of Maggy’s book. Felix made up his own story to explain its persistence.

The eagle flew out of the North, he thought. It was cold, and he wanted to follow the summer sun. Lots of birds and small prey live in the warmer lands, and the eagle was hungry. He was tired of looking for life in the frozen lands.

Felix looked out at the ruins. This is where we live now. Are we the last ones alive?

In Maggy’s book, there was a picture of the eagle perched on a black peak. He searched the land below him. All around him, thunder and lightning crashed. The sky was the color of stone. Everything looked as ruined as the world outside Maggy’s window. 

Felix heard the booms as the tank went up and down the streets. They sounded like the heartbeat of a giant. They seemed to be fading, so maybe the giant was almost dead.

He came away from the window and watched Maggy sleep. We’re lost, he thought. But I’ll find a way back to shore. I promise. 

He curled up at her side and went back to sleep.

***

When Maggy woke up again, it was night, but it might not have been the same night. The spaceships had finally arrived. Or one, anyway; Maggy could see it through the high window of her bedroom. It dipped below the clouds, looking in at her, then gliding up again. It was like an egg without its shell. It had a transparent outer part that changed shape as it flowed across the sky, and its dark inner section looked like a yolk. Or an eye, thought Maggy, like the eye from War of the Worlds that shoots fire.

Now Felix was awake, too, and watching the ship. It descended and peered in the window again. Then it landed.

Maggy grabbed Felix and ran into the music room. Inside she found her old Philco radio/stereo cabinet. It was empty, but Maggy had kept it because she liked the old wood. She pulled it away from the wall, and she and Felix crawled inside. She inched it back against the wall, then looked out through the speaker grill.

The alien entered a short while later. He was dressed all in black, from his shiny helmet to his gloved hands and his boots. He looked like a man, but his movements were stiff, as if his knees were different. He could  turn his head almost all the way around when he looked the room over. The light glinted off his helmet as his gaze went past Maggy and Felix, and they shivered together. Maggy averted her eyes, but Felix stared at the alien, his body utterly still.

Something about the alien made Maggy think of music. Maybe it was just because they were in the music room. But then she recognized the piece that played inside her head. It was from The Day the Earth Stood Still, the eerie music from Klaatu’s spaceship. Oscar had called it the meow music. He said it sounded like a space cat. 

When you heard that music, you knew you were in the presence of something otherworldly. You knew it was time to hide, and wait, and watch. 

***

Inside the radio cabinet, Felix fell asleep in Maggy’s lap. He dreamed about his mother.

All he remembered about his mother was warmth and nourishment, a feeling of love that seemed like it could not end. But it did end, long before Felix was able to survive in the world.

After that he felt cold, hungry, and afraid. Felix pressed himself into the smallest corner he could find and cried for a mother who wasn’t there. Death sat close enough for him to smell, and hour by hour it crept closer.

Then Maggy picked him up and cuddled him close. She fed and protected him until Death lost interest in him. She became the sun at the center of his world.

If Maggy was the sun, then Oscar was the moon. He liked Felix, and could be counted on to feed and pet him without complaint. But the best thing about Oscar was that he loved Maggy, too. He welcomed Felix into that circle. So Felix was surprised to see Death creeping close again. 

Not for Felix. For Oscar.

“Felix,” Oscar had whispered, “take care of our Maggy. I’m counting on you.”

I will, promised Felix. 

He waited with Maggy inside the radio cabinet until the alien went away. When the sun came up, Maggy pushed the cabinet away from the wall, and she and Felix came out of hiding. They ate breakfast. But then Maggy didn’t want to do anything else. She went to bed.

Felix watched her for a while. Then he crept outside and into the ruins. He could hear the tank, but it was far away. He could hear something else, too, though it was more of a fluttering against his ears than a sound. He trotted past wrecked houses and climbed over shattered walls, until he saw an egg-yolk ship hovering over a house that was not so ruined. Felix knew that a boy lived in this house. He had a puppy dog instead of a pussycat.

When Felix climbed a wall to get a better look, he saw yet another ship, over another not-so-ruined house. Someone lived there, too. Not everyone was dead. 

Felix watched aliens in black suits, carrying things from the houses into the egg-yolk ships. And then he ran back home to look for Maggy.

***

Felix managed to coax Maggy out of bed. They lay under the big dining room table, reading poems from Maggy’s picture book. 

“Listen to this, Felix. The owl and the pussycat went to sea, in a beautiful pea green boat. What a tiny little boat they’re in! But they seem to have everything they need in there. Look, there’s a picnic lunch, and some wine. And the owl brought his books. The cat brought her knitting and a painting of her grandmother.”

Felix knew about the painting of the grandmother, but now he only wanted to see the eagle flying over the boat. He thought he was beginning to understand what it was looking for. 

“See the way the waves are painted?” said Maggy. “Like they’re a design on the wallpaper. And the clouds, too. Beautiful, but you could hardly expect any harm to come from them. Oh, Felix, there’s an eagle flying out of the clouds! Do you think he sees their boat? Maybe he’ll stop and they can share their picnic with him . . . ”

Maggy fell silent as black boots appeared at the dining room entrance. She and Felix drew closer together. The boots stayed where they were, as if the owner were looking into the room. Then they moved on.

“We’ll keep hiding,” Maggy whispered to Felix. “Under things and behind things. He won’t find us.”

Felix sniffed the air. Maggy seemed certain that Death wore those boots. But Felix smelled something different. 

***

Far away, they could still hear explosions. The tanks were destroying the rest of the city. 

Maggy wasn’t sure what to call these enemies. They spoke the same language as her. The last time she checked, they had consisted of twelve or thirteen different, warring groups. They were the People Who Wanted to Live in Separate Groups According to Color, the People Who Wanted to Live in Separate Groups According to Religion, the Conservative Bomb People, the Liberal Anarchist People, the You’re Ruining Our Country and You’ve Got to Be Stopped People, the We Hate All of the Other Groups People. They had all gotten their hands on large stores of weapons, and once they started using them, they didn’t want to stop until everything was destroyed. 

The television stations used to show scenes from the war. People ran, buildings burned, women and children were killed. Maggy had watched it all in horror, crying, “Someone call the police, someone call the fire department, someone call 911!” But she had turned those stations off after awhile, and just watched the station with the old movies.

Lately she had been reading books, digging out all of her old favorites and saying goodbye to them. Or perhaps hello, depending on how you looked at it. She thought she had better do it fast. Things were disappearing from her house, several items at a time. Just the other day she had looked for her favorite tea set, the one with the coral and yellow roses. She found a big, dust-free spot where it had previously sat. Soon there wouldn’t be anything left in the house except for her and Felix. The food was disappearing, too, but they were making it do that themselves.

Maggy continued to read the book of poems to Felix in a very low voice, until she had finished it. Then the two of them went upstairs, into a room that Maggy hadn’t entered for months, or possibly years. It was the room where Maggy put Oscar’s things after he died.

Lots of things were missing from this room, too. Maggy frowned. But when she opened the closet, Oscar’s old clothes were still there. One shirt hung front-wise, as if she had hung it there to button it up and then forgotten to put it away. She wrapped the long sleeves around her neck and leaned into the closet, pressing herself into the old clothes and smelling their mustiness. “Oscar,” she said, “what am I waiting for?”

Felix tried to get his head into one of Oscar’s shoes. He looked up at Maggy, his mouth open so he could smell things that were inaccessible to her human nose. Yes, he seemed to be saying, what are we waiting for, Maggy? And whatever it is, we’ll do it together, won’t we?

“Always together, Felix. And we won’t be afraid.” Though she had no idea if that was true or not.

***

Maggy dressed in some of Oscar’s old clothes. They were too big for her, but she could remember a time when that sort of thing had been fashionable. After she was dressed, she and Felix went downstairs to watch the TV. The house was almost empty, now. Was it happening by the minute? Would the TV still be there?

It was, and so was her wingback chair. She settled down with Felix in her lap and turned on the TV. It was playing War of the Worlds again. Outside, the world had fallen into silence.  

She fell asleep. Felix watched her for several minutes. He listened to her breathing, her heartbeat. He smelled the tension and the sadness on her skin, and the despair as well, for cats have always sensed that on others. After he judged that she had entered a deep sleep, he jumped up and ran outside.

***

Felix found the alien near the same ruined wall where he had almost met his death, a few days before. The alien saw him and straightened up from his examination of the ruins. Felix sat very still and stared back. I know why you’ve come, you and your brothers. You’re looking for all of the owls and the pussycats who are still here. You’re going to fly away with us.

The alien made no threatening moves. He had no weapon, either. After a moment, Felix turned and made his way back toward Maggy’s house. The alien followed.

***

Felix jumped into Maggy’s lap and put his paws on her chest. He meowed into her face until she woke up. She stroked his ears and the place between his shoulder blades, but he didn’t settle down into his usual comfy lap position, so she opened her eyes to see why.

The alien stood over them. Maggy was startled for a moment, and very frightened. But finally she gave him a defiant (if somewhat resigned) smile.

The alien picked Maggy up, just like one of those giant robots in a science fiction movie, except that Felix was perched on top of the bundle. The alien carried them through the ruined city to where his ship waited. Its transparent outline distorted the ruins behind it. 

The alien carried Maggy and Felix into the dark center of the ship. He set Maggy in a wingback chair. He turned on a little monitor that displayed Maggy’s house. While she watched, her house grew farther and farther away, until it was lost in the ruins. What was the music she heard in her mind? Ah, yes, Sad Waltz again. In the movie, they had panned away from the old house, where the little cat had lived. But here, the cat was with Maggy, and the two of them were going away together, the owl and the pussycat.

A tear rolled down Maggy’s cheek, and the alien reached to brush it away. He had taken off his glove. His skin was soft and golden, covered with tiny feathers. His nails were like talons. He took off his helmet. Felix and Maggy examined him, their heads cocked. Then Maggy nodded, and Felix began to purr.

The alien looked at them through eagle’s eyes.

The three of them sat down and had tea together, on dishes with coral and yellow roses.

***

“Hey, there’s an old TV set in here!” 

The gunner stood in front of Maggy’s set. The Day the Earth Stood Still was still playing.

“Jeez, don’t they have anything to play besides that corny old sci-fi crap?” The driver inspected the wingback chair. “Listen to this guy. People of the Earth! Stop making war or we will destroy you!

“We should blow the station up after we’re done here.”

“It’s in another city.”

“So? One city is just like another. As long as we’ve got the tank and the ammo, why not?”

“There’s almost no one left to come to the party.” 

The driver might have been criticizing the gunner or himself—even he couldn’t say. He had a fine sense of ethics, but a complete inability to apply any of them to his own life. There was nothing left in the house. He had hoped for an interesting book or two. Maybe something he could put in the house he wanted to build himself, one day, when everything was over.

“No princess in here,” said the gunner.

“What were you planning to do with a princess, anyway?” asked the driver.

“Kill her.”

“Yes. Everyone should die.”

“Except us.”

“That goes without saying.”

The gunner and the driver went back to their tank. They started to climb in. Red light poured over them, from the direction of the sunrise. Something blossomed, just over the horizon. 

***

“Hey, look at the sky!” said the gunner.

“Uh-oh,” said the driver.

Inside the house, on the little TV, the alien climbed back into his spaceship. He waved, but others waved with him, owls and pussycats, eagles and princesses, boys and puppy dogs. The doors closed, the ships flew away, and then the TV screen blazed into a snow pattern as the light grew outside. 

And the sound the light made was like the sound of the eye that shoots fire from War of the Worlds

Until fire was all that remained.  

 

Emily Devenport’s novels have been published in the U.S., the U.K., Italy, and Israel.  Her newest short story can be found in The Mammoth Book of Kaiju. But she really wants to be a geologist. 

 

Text © 2016 by Emily Hogan