Three young men and one woman waited for their train.
“Damn, it’s cold tonight,” said the shortest man, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He couldn't wait to be alone with the woman.
“It’ll snow tomorrow,” said the woman and smiled.
“We’ll see,” said the tallest man, checking his watch. “I'm hungry; it’s good we got some food.” He turned to the woman. He had been secretly in love with her for the best part of the year. “Would you hand me my piece?”
The church bells started ringing in the distance.
The woman set a big paper bag on the floor by the bench. The bag had the name of a restaurant printed in red and black on the sides. She started taking things out of it and distributing them. “Joe, you’re cheese, right?”
The third man, who was sitting on the bench, coughed loudly. The warmth of his breath rose and disappeared under the moon. “Yeah.”
She gave him the piece with cheese.
He took his black wool gloves off and reached out. “Thanks!”
They all started eating and waited in silence.
The yellow light of the train appeared in the horizon, cutting through skeletons of birch trees. The blades reverberated as it approached. When the train came to a full stop, they climbed in. Once its doors had closed with a puff, the beast of steel resumed its journey, rocking to the gentle rhythm of the rails.
“Fuck, I left the bag,” said the woman and, grabbing the nearest pole, turned and tried to look out through the frosted glass. The bench and the bag besides it were already too far behind to see.
In a sunny day in spring Shadow ran by the creek, chasing Bobby, Cindy, and Charlie clumsily; butterflies flew away as the kitties ran among daisies and lilies.
Mother called out to them. The kitties meowed and rushed to her. She was hunting a pair of mice.
The mice and Mother were the first ones to disappear. The bright day got a little darker; a rattling sound grew louder and louder, replacing the voices of the birds in the trees. Bobby disappeared, and then Charlie, and Cindy, leaving Shadow alone. The noise of the train finally woke Shadow up; the sun was gone, the scent of wildflowers replaced by that from the wood on which Shadow’s tired bones had slept for some hours, in the small shed by the tracks. As he stretched his legs lazily against the logs, memories of his dream vanished.
It was cold and he was hungry but it no longer rained. It was time to go play tricks.
He came out on the rooftop of the shed. It was dark but this didn’t matter much; his amber eyes adjusted well and, in any case, he navigated mostly by smell.
After a minute or two, he jumped to the top of a wall, on which he walked swiftly, his long tail drifting in the air behind him, slowly swinging left and right. From the wall he jumped down to a rusted tractor that had been frozen for decades and finally back down to the wet grass.
Shadow went down to the channel and, stretching his neck, wet his red hairy tongue several times. The water was refreshing, albeit cold.
He then set off to the main square, with its many odors, sweet and foul.
He ran fruitlessly after a crow which took to the white trees lazily. Perched on a branch, the black bird cawed twice.
Shadow looked up and meowed and took satisfaction in how deep and strong his voice sounded. One day he would finally catch a crow, like he thought Mother had, back before disappearing.
Shadow pissed under a bush with yellow flowers. The strong smell shadowed all others and he was quick to cover it with soil. He noticed a worm. He brought his noise to it and gave it a nudge with his left paw but decided to leave it alone.
He walked away, again towards the old town, stopping only to smell his way. Someone was cooking pork. There was a squirrel not too far. The bark of the birches and the aroma of roses reached his nostrils.
Suddenly, he caught wind of the delicious and mysterious whiff he had first perceived just a week before.
He drifted from his path, determined he'd this time actually find the source. This was the one scent a male cat was unable to resist. He tried to hurry but the enchanting fragrance was still distant and weak.
The wind turned and the smell dissolved in the cold of the night. He stopped briefly, nose raised to the wind. He sensed the bark—oils on his fur from the wood on which he had slept—, freshly dug ground, and, once again, a murder of crows not too far off. Some dog had peed on a nearby tree some hours ago but no other trace of him remained. Some ducks floated in the channel. He meowed once or twice. His moist black nose pulsed slightly, still lifted to the moon. An abandoned nest laid nearby.
Shadow backtracked for half a minute. His whiskers finally registered another change in the wind and brought back the desired scent. Inhaling deeply, taking in the luscious fragrance, isolating it from thousands of familiar odors, Shadow managed, once again, to lock in on it.
Arrested, he started following it, through alleys, ditches, fences, and bridges, a path that twisted and turned, a gnarled thread in a tangle of wool.
So was his resolve that he ignored the many olfactory warnings of the presence of several other male cats, older cats, bigger cats, hornier cats, meaner cats, nearby. He smelled them before he heard them and he heard them meow and hiss before he saw them but it didn't matter: his eyes would soon lay upon the angel his nose sang of.
A big calico cat ran into him from behind a bush. It had a half-healed wound across his forehead finishing just above his left eye.
The spell broke. Shadow tried to jump back, to scratch the attacker, scare him away, but ended up getting his paw caught by those of his enemy. The other cat bit his paw hard. Shadow flinched as the other cat bit hard and didn't let go—the excruciating pain immediately joined by the odor of blood. It all happened in an instant. Shadow finally managed to claw the mouth of the bully, causing him to recoil.
Jumping back, his arched back menacingly, Shadow puffed-up, a fortress of hatred. Blood dripped onto the filthy cobblestones. His tongue, a red flame, hung between his teeth as he hissed as loud as his vocal chords would, whiskers and ears cautiously retracted. He did his best to ignore the throbbing pain from his paw.
The other monster, eyes locked with Shadow, alternated between hissing back and snarling, returning the threats and showing Shadow the saber-shaped canine teeth that had just drawn blood. Its tail raised vertically until the very tip, which bent at an angle.
Shadow had but a split second to assess the situation. They were not the only cats—there were several others—and they’d all be in this strange vicious trance; at least two others were closing in on them, though he could not yet see them.
Shadow started slowly backing away, still hissing, hair standing on end.
Accepting Shadow's surrender, the Calico turned and kept after the mysterious scent.
Shadow went back, limping. He hid in a field near a scarecrow wearing a red helmet and, thinking of Mother, licked his paw, which hurt like hell, until the bleeding stopped. One day would come when he would be the one to dispel the other cats.
“Here, kitty!” said a woman as she saw Shadow across the street. She had an old blanket wrapped around her and laid on a mattress on the street by the green wooden gate leading to a toy store that wouldn’t open until Monday. A man sat next to her, smoking.
Shadow crossed the street and approached them cautiously, limping slightly. They hadn’t showered in many days and their several layers of clothing hadn't been washed in even longer. They had eaten recently; they might still have food, maybe in the old bag resting between them. An open bottle with something foul rested besides the man.
The woman sat up and reached out to Shadow, brushing her thumb against her index and middle fingers.
“Meow!” Shadow walked to her, extending his long whiskers and nose, trying to read her intentions.
“Aww, isn’t he cute?”
Not saying anything, the man took a drag from his cigarette, gave the cat a brief glance through his thick glasses, and looked away letting smoke out of his lungs.
Shadow reached the woman and rubbed his whiskers and the side of his face against her hand. He liked the smell of her greasy fingers. His cheek was pushed up briefly and she felt the side of his teeth run gently against her skin.
“Here, kitty, kitty!” She smiled at Shadow. “Ernie, we ought to adopt him!”
The man laughed and his laughter turned into a coughing fit that nearly made him lose his glasses.
Shadow rubbed his head thrice against the woman’s hand and once against her leg. She scratched him gently behind his ears and patted his head. He purred briefly.
The man stopped coughing but still he said nothing. Shadow reminded him of Lucy, an old and stubborn cat he had once had, long ago.
How Lucy loved sardines! He remembered playful Lucy knocking down a potted plant, lazy Lucy sleeping on the bed by their feet, silly Lucy leaving the carcass of a small yellow bird by the bed, God knows how she had caught her. Elizabeth, the woman he lived with back then, had explained that it was a tribute.
He was assaulted by the memories of Elizabeth: days of long baths, love making, stinky cheeses, bottles of wine, and the smell of books and ink drying. He remembered how incredibly loud Elizabeth used to laugh her obnoxious laugh every chance she got and how, in the beginning, he used to go see her play the violin every Tuesday.
He remembered the big fight and how sad it had made him when fucking Elizabeth left him for the pathetic clown trombonist, taking Lucy with her. What a joke! Talk about depression. At least he didn't have to put up with her high-pitched laugh anymore, so there was that.
And then came the breakdown; they had loaded him up on so many kinds of medications, he was seeing little green men with spider legs jumping out of trees.
He hadn't thought of Lucy or Elizabeth in a very long time.
Shadow took a few steps towards the man, who had taken his hat off and was scratching his bald head with his eyes closed. The few hairs he still had were all white. His thoughts were interrupted by Shadow, who rubbed his head against the man's leg.
The man shoved Shadow aside violently, nearly kicking him, which sent a jolt of pain to Shadow's wounded paw. “Out of here, fucking piece of shit!”
Shadow fled for a few seconds, until he ascertained he was not chased. Shadow turned to look at the couple. The man held the bottle to his lips.
“Dammit, Ernie,” complained the fat woman, “he just wants to play. Why are you always so mean?”
“Leave me alone,” said the man, both to her and Shadow, taking another drag from his cigarette and returning to his troubled thoughts.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” said the woman, rubbing her fingers again. “Here! Mishy, mishy!”
Shadow licked his wounded paw and gave the beggars a long sideways gaze through his yellow eyes before deciding to continue the way he had come.
“Come back, kitty! Kitty!” The woman sighed as he got away. “See what you did, Ernie?” She shook her head as she laid down again.
The man offered the woman the bottle but she turned her back on him and ignored him.
Oliver left the pub, said goodbye to his four friends, and walked briskly. It was supposed to snow the next day.
As he walked past the couple in the toy store, two coins and a heavy screw jingled loudly at the bottom of a metal cup that the old man shook vigorously.
The old man tried to speak but only managed a cough.
“Spare a coin, sir?” asked the woman and tried to smile.
Oliver said nothing and walked past them.
He reached the station with five or six minutes to spare. His train was the last one running that night.
He glanced at two groups of people also waiting for the train, most of them drunk, as he was, and decided to put some distance between them.
As he approached the bench on the further end of the station, he noticed the paper bag from the restaurant. It stood sideways, the wind ruffling it slightly though not yet dragging it. It annoyed him that people didn’t bother properly disposing of their trash. Assholes.
As he got closer, he noticed a beautiful piece of glossy black cloth spilling out of it, perhaps a shall. He regarded it for a few seconds. This was actually an animal’s hide, it must have costed a fortune! It reflected the combined white light from the street lanterns and the ghostly moon.
Shadow, back in the prairie, his stomach full, ran, besides Cindy, after a little mouse.
It seemed to Oliver that the fur shook slightly. He scrutinized it but it remained still; the wind must have shaken it. Extending his leg timidly, Oliver tapped it gently with the tip of his pointy leather shoe.
In a single movement, Cindy and the mouse gone, Shadow, startled, jumped up and turned, on his feet, back in the painful present. After a night of many tricks, it was time to disappear!
Oliver, equally startled, took a step back and watched as the pitch black patch that was Shadow ran away as fast as his three healthy legs and his wounded one would carry him, fading out in the night.