We had a cat. She was oil-gushing, midnight-piercing, charcoal-crumbling black, so we called her Black Cat. It was simple, really—no debate or anything.
Sometimes we’d set fires in the backyard. We’d gather up all the twigs in a pile, away from the uncut grass. Black Cat would sit and stare at the fire all glassy-eyed, like she was waiting. Even when the ashes stopped glowing, she’d stay there, watching.
That was how we found her in the first place. It was summer and the sky was stark and starless, and the grass was brown from weeks without a storm. They told us there was a wildfire advisory, so of course we had to set something ablaze. Everything caught just like we’d hoped, and after the smoke and the flare and the fizzle, we saw Black Cat just out of the reach of the light, with her eyes gleaming steady.
We watched her back, playing chicken to see who could go longest without blinking. She won by mere seconds—once we both cracked, she shut her eyes all slow and opened them back up real lazy-like. She followed us into the house when our yawns told us it was curfew, and that was that.
We never saw her eat, but we knew she did. She was lithe, all fur and bones, but when we’d leave out saucers of milk and little dishes of chopped up meat, they’d be empty by morning—licked clean, even. She didn’t seem to like to do a whole lot while we were watching, really. Anytime we were in the room she’d just sort of stop whatever she was doing and curl up. She didn’t even really meow.
She could purr something mighty, though, like a motorcycle engine rumbling in her chest. Sometimes she’d sit in a little patch of sun on the carpet and kind of buzz. Her eyes would always be open, looking right into the light even though we told her it was bad for her vision. She wasn’t much of a listener, that Black Cat.
She definitely didn’t like strangers. One time about a month after she showed up, Mrs. Davenport from next door came over to check on us and was asking all about where our parents had gone. We didn’t really want to tell her the whole thing because we didn’t want her to call Child Services, but lucky for us Black Cat was there and she jumped up and bit Mrs. Davenport right on that wrinkly, flappy skin beneath her arms. We had to say all kinds of sorry and pretend we were mad at Black Cat for show, but it got Mrs. Davenport to leave and stop asking all her nosy questions pretty quick.
The fire we set that night was extra big. We even went out in the woods behind Kevin Rothschild’s house and got some sassafras twigs because he told us sassafras makes real nice-smelling smoke. We made a kind of monster pile of twigs and grass and a few bigger sticks that had fallen down the last time it had stormed—we weren’t so sure about cutting down trees ourselves and anyway our axe was all busted off the handle so it wasn’t much good for anything. We stacked it real tall until it kind of looked like it was gonna fall over, and then we lit a match and threw it in. We didn’t realize Black Cat was outside with us until she bounded over and hunched down real close to the fire like she was gonna pounce on it. The flames were dancing in her eyes, and she looked a little scary right then, real powerful, like a piece of the night sky torn down and brought here to the earth.
The fire started to pop and hiss when the sassafras caught, and Black Cat started her little buzz-purr-rumble so it was competing with the fire. The wind started howling too and it was a kind of eerie little orchestra. We both got goosebumps even with the fire crackling right there in front of us.
We remembered that one time before Mom left when she told us that the night was not a thing to be trifled with. She always liked big words like that, trifled. We knew she was dead serious because her breath smelled like tequila. She only told the truth when she was wasted.
Black Cat kept rumbling something awful, and we didn’t realize it but we’d started shrinking together until our arms were wrapped around each other tight. Black Cat was a feral creature and we couldn’t really own her, we knew that now. She opened her mouth all wide and we could see the little red stains on her teeth where they’d sunk into Mrs. Davenport’s arm earlier. The fire made her tongue look orange.
The wind picked up some more and the fire got real tall all of a sudden, and we wanted to move but were too scared to try it. Next door Mrs. Davenport’s porch light flickered on.
The fire got bigger and bigger and Black Cat got louder and louder and then there was a knock at the gate and everything all stopped. The fire was just embers, and Black Cat was sitting there purring all quiet-like and normal, with her mouth closed and her eyes just yellow-gold again.
We got up after a moment and went to the gate. It was Mrs. Davenport and she insisted on coming into the yard because of course she did. She was always kind of pesky, used to gossip to all the neighbors until they realized she was talking about them behind their backs. Now she was kind of lonely and sad, but still a real busybody with no sense of what was her business and what wasn’t. She came right over to our fire pit and looked right at it with a strange sort of grown-up contempt, the look they get when they think they’re too good for fun things, and we felt something kind of like pity until she opened up her thin little mouth.
“You kids have got to get yourselves under control. Where are your parents? Where’s that deadbeat mother of yours, that trucker father? What kind of people leave two rowdy boys alone in a house like that?”
Those were exactly the kinds of questions we’d been asking ourselves lately but it hit differently to hear her say them out loud. One of us started crying. The other got all jumpy-nerved and tense.
We didn’t have anything to say and she wouldn’t soften just looking at us. Kept muttering to herself as she started to stamp out our fire with her big pink slippers.
“Stupid kids, bastard parents, what do you expect? You can’t have a neighborhood with this kind of riff-raff running around all the time setting fires, of all things.”
She was going and going and we were stuck still in place and Black Cat started rumbling again, loud like before. The wind joined her like they were duet partners and suddenly the fire caught up again. The tops of Mrs. Davenport’s slippers caught, and instead of kicking them off she just sort of yelped and bent down to beat at the flames with her hands. Black Cat leapt up and bit her again, right there in the face, purring all the while, and the fire grew and grew. Now we were both wide-eyed and open-mouthed, but we didn’t say a word as her blood dripped onto the twigs and the orange flames climbed her stupid bathrobe, her ridiculous papery skin. She might have been screaming but the wind carried it away.
The moon emerged from behind a cloud and the trees looked like they were dancing in the gale. We could hear the cicada hum now, and when the fire dipped down again Mrs. Davenport was nowhere to be seen, not even her bones. Black Cat sat licking her bloodied claws and an owl hooted somewhere close by. We pulled apart, looked at one another, looked at Mrs. Davenport’s flickering porch light, gaped at the sky full of stars. When we looked back down, Black Cat was gone, and she had taken the smell of the sassafras with her, leaving only green grass scent and the pines on the breeze.