An excerpt from the draft…
The Querency—beginning at midnight on 24 October—is when Witches and Cats seek to bond with each other. It lasts until sundown on Hallowe’en, when the Choosing—the selection period—begins and lasts until midnight [11:59:59pm]. ~ Ordinatio pro Felis Silvestris Catus [Regulations for Woodland Cats]
The Toyota Sienna minivan pulled up in front of the house. It settled on its haunches into the stillness of the street. Silent except for the tick tick tick of its cooling engine. The two figures inside exchanged a ‘who’s getting out first’ look in that numb moment when the inertia of a long road trip—made droningly, mostly on interstates—ends. An almost odd reluctance to step from within the travel cocoon. As if doing so would trigger the beginning of something unexpected… and unwanted.
Both turned their heads to study the destination of their 1,244-mile-18-and-a-half-hour journey from Tampa, Florida. They had passed beyond the town’s lighted streets, and the shadowed eastern face of the house feathered into the gloaming, becoming one with the growing twilight. It was an outlier, on the thin border outskirt between what was once an old but good area of the town and one already gone bad. And forlorn. A lot like the woman and the girl. Something and someone that got left behind. The result of unfortunate events.
A burly raven landed on the Sienna’s hood with a nightbird’s raucous cry to hurry the sundown, breaking their stupor. Both stepped out.
* * *
‘It needs a lot of work… but then so do Audrey and me,’ Clarinda Stockard thought as she hugged her daughter on the house’s front porch. “Mind the loose boards, honey,” she cautioned as Audrey walked to the far end and craned her neck to look down the side yard. ‘I’ve got to get her some clothes that fit,’ she thought, looking at Audrey, who had constantly avoided dresses or ‘girly’ clothes of any kind and always seemed to have pants showing too much ankle or bunched around her shoes. Clarinda sighed to herself, feeling the bitter responsibility of a single parent struggling to raise their child well.
Clarinda felt as much a victim of life and death as the house itself. The property had been in limbo—vacant for two years—since her mother-in-law, Aradia Maddalena-Stockard’s death. David had died not long after her. That is, the notification of his death came soon after his mother’s. Issues concerning who held the mortgage and title to the property she now stared at had delayed settling Aradia’s estate. Last month, the attorney’s letter said the legal matter had been resolved, and Audrey was the sole inheritor. That there was some value to the Maddalena-Stockard estate had decided it. The attorney had not stated its worth—some restriction in Aradia’s instructions prohibited him—just confirmed there were assets and observed that Aradia’s will had some strange provisions. One being the inheritance could only be passed on to someone physically living in Wichaven, Connecticut. And that had decided her. David’s $100,000 Death Gratuity had paid off all their debts: her lingering many-years-old student loans, car loans, and credit cards. And had helped her care for her mother for a year until she passed. Now that money was gone. She and David had had to ‘borrow’ from Audrey’s college fund over the years, so any ‘found’ money for Audrey would be a blessing. And she needed to plan for the years to come. All the years without David. She still cried every night at that reality.
So, here she was with her 15- soon, in a week, to be 16-year-old daughter, who shared a birthday, October 31st, with her father. That had tragically also been the date she had learned David had died. The government wouldn’t even tell her where it happened. David had often joked about the compartmentalization of intelligence and operational information in the military and the agency he worked for… their ‘Need-to-Know’ restrictions. The government had deemed she lacked the need to know… the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of David’s death. And not knowing the location of her husband’s remains just added to the pain. How could Audrey ever celebrate her birthday—or Halloween, her favorite holiday—again? Still, Clarinda prayed a new home, and maybe some money would help wash away the past and at least offer the potential for a happier new life.
Audrey had been silent during the long ride up, seeming to read one of her books but not turning the pages as often. A sure sign she wasn’t really reading. Audrey usually raced through books but was blessed with the ability to remember everything she read. And now she reads all the time. ‘Does she read more to remember her father, who’d loved books and taught her to read, or to keep her mind occupied to ignore what’s happened?’ Clarinda wondered, not for the first time.
The movers had arrived before them and brought in the boxes with things for the kitchen, bathrooms, and large pieces of furniture, locking up afterward. Her sofa, chairs, and tables were well-worn and patched in places. But with her employer paying for the movers, keeping them was less expensive than buying new furniture. That offer from her new boss surprised her. What she owned and brought with them and what was left in the house would do well enough for now. Stretching the kink out of her back from the drive, she and Audrey unloaded the van, bringing in boxes of personal things and suitcases packed with clothes.
* * *
Carrying one of her boxes to the room her mother said was hers, Audrey set it next to the mattress and bed frame leaning against the wall. She and her mother would need to assemble it soon. It was already evening, and night was falling. Audrey looked out of the bedroom window onto a scene lighted by the remnants of the setting sun spilling toward the house. In the backyard was the largest tree stump she’d ever seen. It looked as wide as the kitchen countertop was long, maybe bigger. Carpeting the ground were thousands of leaves—a gorgeous mix of reds, oranges, and shaded browns resting in the end-of-day sunshine. No tree. No cut-up pieces. Just a whopping big stump and a blanket of oak leaves.
Further back on the fence line, surrounded by much smaller trees, stood what looked like an almost equally large tree. Its gnarled trunk and branches poked into a sky deepening to a blood-orange. The dying light sank into darkness. The black band of night increased as she watched the tree’s splayed hands of forked limbs grasp at the lowering clouds brushing their fingers. Soon they’d grip them until letting go to reach for the moon.
Her mother called from the kitchen: “I’m going for groceries, but it’s getting a little late to cook. Do you want me to find a drive-through and get some hamburgers and fries, or would you like pizza?” In the silence, she left her mom hanging in; Audrey heard steps coming toward her room. “Audrey, do you want burgers or pizza?” This time, there was irritation in her mother’s voice as she stood in the doorway.
“Burgers are fine, mom.”
“Do you want to go with me?”
“No,” and before her mom filled the pause with a question, “I’ll unpack my things while you’re gone.”
“Okay, I’ll be back as fast as I can. Stay in the house and keep your cell phone on. Call me if you need to.”
* * *
Clarinda got in her van, reversing the route that brought her to the house, and returned to the main intersection bordered on the corners by a supermarket, a PriceRite, and two fast-food places, a Burger King and a Tilted Kilt. ‘Not sure about that Kilt place, so definitely Burger King,’ she thought as she pulled into the parking lot. Thinking of things other than buying milk, coffee, and toilet paper, she grabbed a shopping cart nearby and wheeled it into the PriceRite. [An American company with Impossibly, Incredibly, Inconceivably Low Prices Every Day!] Moving to a new town, the way it had worked, was not the best timing and made a tough year for Audrey even harder. They would spend tomorrow getting her registered, a locker assignment, and a class schedule for her to start school. ‘I wish I could give her a few days to get acclimated, but the night after tomorrow, I start work.’ The next thought got caught in her heart and made it thud in her chest: ‘Next week is two years….’
* * *
Audrey stepped onto the back porch, finding the switch near the door and snapping on the light only for it to last just a handful of seconds before a flash, then the darkness left by a burnt-out bulb. Behind and above her—just clearing the roof peak—the white disc of the rising moon offered wan light. She used her cell phone as a flashlight and held it close to the ground as she stepped through the leaves—a ‘shlusshing’ shuffling sound as her feet pushed leaves aside. She could dimly see the stump ahead of her. It rose knee-height from the ground, and she almost stumbled as her feet struck its roots spread out unseen beneath the leaves. Stepping up, dragging leaves along, she moved to the center about three feet in.
Audrey had been here, at this house once before, for one night, many years ago, and seen what once stood where she now sat. But they hadn’t let her go in the backyard to touch the tree that had been there for as long as anyone could remember. Her father had been born in Wichaven and had spent his childhood and most of his teen years here until he turned 18 and joined the military. He had left, never planning to come back. But he had come back, with her and her mother, just the once at her grandmother’s demand. While there, she had overheard her grandmother tell her mother that if something happened to David, he must be buried in Wichaven. In the family plot next to his twin sister, who had died at sixteen. A loss she’d also learned that trip her father had never quite gotten over until her birth.
Now she had to live here, all because it had worked out for her mom to take over the house her father had been raised in when her grandmother died.
* * *
Balthazar saw a burst of light and then a flicker. It moved toward the root source of the Great Tree—the Grand White—an Old One that had been murdered almost five years ago when he was newborn. He cursed the thought of its death. He’d been born within its embrace… favored because his clan tree was among the oldest—strong and wise. But his family was no more… gone, just like the Old One. Curious, he glided along the branch, reaching farther out and closest toward the light flickering in his yard.
The shape, a lighter shadow in the dusk, held something that lit the hands cupping it. The figure was a tiny human with finely shaped hands. Their long, slender fingers seemed to play upon whatever emitted the light. In the slow, quiet way of all cats of his kind, he crept down the tree onto the ground. Approaching the root source, his passage through the leaves hardly stirred them. A few feet away, he stopped to watch and listen. The thing the human held also had two vines coming from it, each running up the front of the human’s clothing and entering the head through the ears. What was that, and for what purpose? Inching closer, he rolled his ears forward—focusing. He could see it was a female human, her face framed in a small illuminated oval, her eyes closed, and from her ears… from her ears leaked… sound? Music?
* * *
“Taste me, the salty tears on my cheek… I’m not okay; I feel so scattered. Don’t say I’m all that matters… leave me–” Audrey paused Billie Eilish, stopped singing, and pulled her earbuds out. She’d heard a noise. Something close. She scanned the surrounding darkness, the shining moon still not bright enough to help her see anything close to the ground or in the leaves. There. Facing her, right above the edge of the stump, were two black triangles, a silver-gray inside. As she studied them, they rose, and below them, two yellow eyes peered at her just above the rim. For a moment, they flashed a brilliant golden topaz that lanced into her green eyes—a spark jumped across.
* * *
Balthazar stopped. How could she see or even hear him? He was not the biggest, most potent cat, but he was the quietest, and not since he was three had he been seen when he did not want to be. As he raised his eyes, he sensed more than saw the emerald flash from the girl’s eyes. He felt it with his eyes closed—a tingling—as he quickly backed away, returning to his perch high in the only remaining Great Tree within his right to climb. Enough foolishness, he chided himself. The Querency would begin at midnight, with the Choosing only one week away. It was his fifth and last chance—it must be this year! He climbed higher, putting his back to the nearly full moon as he watched for a sign… a connection… he was waiting for his witch.
* * *
To be continued in 2023…