Horla Fiction (April 2021)

 

EX FELIS

by GEORGE AITCH

THE cat looked out from her plastic crate. She didn’t like the dark room nor the thick incense which permeated it. I didn’t care much for the setup either. In my time working with Vincent there had been many dark rooms choked with scent. He liked to refer to me as his apprentice. This was not the case of course, but I didn’t raise that in front of clients. Of the two of us, he was by far the more talented. His sales patter was far better than mine, which is why today he would be taking the lead.

As I held the shaking carry case down on the table, a task which took all of my strength, he consulted with the cat’s family in whispered strains. I couldn’t make out much but it sounded as though he was reassuring them.

“I’ve done this many times, there’s no need to worry.”

“On cats?”

“On cats,” Vincent confirmed.

This wasn’t strictly true either. We had attempted this type of thing on people with mixed results. Animals were actually a bit more complicated. Of course, I did most of the physical work, soothing the animal as Vincent looked up the procedure for removing whatever it was that was inside her.

The table pitched sharply and upset our incense. Ash scattered onto the plush carpet of our office, a small furnished room kept to the expectation of anyone hiring our services. The mahogany bookshelves were fake, as were most of the uncut volumes lining them. So much of this business was flourish and façade. Even the lilies adorning the reception desk were plastic.

A low yowl rolled out from the metal grating of the carry case as the shaking stopped. It picked up in volume and became a growl and then a roar which any ordinary housecat could not have made.

Linda and Stephen weren’t sure when her unusual behaviour had started. Pets have so many idiosyncrasies that it’s difficult to keep track of most changes to their temper. Maybe she had been antsier lately and had been bringing ever greater numbers of birds and rodents to their door. They couldn’t pinpoint exactly when they’d known that something was wrong but it might have been when she began clawing ancient cuneiform curses into their floorboards. So they looked us up in the business directory. We’re between Event Planning and Farming & Agriculture.

So we’d trooped around to the Rogstadts’ cottage and discussed the case with them over a cup of tea. They showed us some of the cat’s unusual habits such as rubbing herself against the furniture. This was normal for a cat, but that furniture included ceiling beams and chandeliers. The visit also gave me an opportunity to transcribe the symbols scratched into the floor. Unfortunately, I’d kept the wad of paper in the back of my jeans which went through the wash. We booked an appointment for the next new moon.

“Sahira, I think that we should start, don’t you?” said Vincent. I nodded and adjusted the clasps of the case. The door swung open and the cat padded out uncertainly. The Rogstadts, Linda and Stephen, watched as she bounded across the polished table yet came to a halt at its threshold. A circle of brick and chalk dust kept her from advancing any further. She paced back and forth as caged animals do. Vincent, meanwhile uncorked a wine bottle with his teeth and approached the table.

He drank some of the wine and spat it over a candle beside the carry case. The candlelight stuttered in the spray. Next he seized a bundle of incense and laid his hand over the head of the cat, who struggled and clawed. The exorcist passed the lit joss sticks horizontally in front of our subject and chanted softly. The cat’s body went slack; she was hypnotised.

The rest of us watched to see what would happen. I handed Linda a wooden board adorned with symbols I’d looked up online and told her how to use it. I hoped she wouldn’t notice where my fingertips had smudged the marker pen. Her husband leant against a bookcase, unaware that his left ear was inches away from a terrible volume detailing the dreaded acts of a series of cults from Central Asia. In his hands he clutched a purified white cloth which I had prepared earlier. There was a dark stain on the corner from an incident at the Italian restaurant on Fifth Street. A creeping tendril of fog plucked at the nape of my neck.

Vincent grasped the cat’s head and held her attention. She meowled uncertainly as he replaced the incense twigs, slotting them into a lacquered wooden holder. They stared into each other’s eyes. Not breaking gaze, Vincent snapped his fingers and pointed to the white cloth. Stephen passed it to him and in silence it covered the cat until all we saw was her twitching orange tail.

Still with the cat’s head between his fingers, Vincent leant to the white lump and began to whisper in her ear. Occasionally he would stop, giving her time to reply. She did so, in a soft low voice. It was not the first time I had heard a cat speak. On the other hand, it was the first time I ever heard a cat conversing in Akkadian.

Soon it would be time to cleanse the cat. I took a goldfish bowl which had been rubbed with salt especially for the occasion. We’d bought everything in one trip; the salt, the bowl, the incense, and the chalk. When the checkout girl rang everything up she raised an eyebrow.

“We’re Wiccans.” We had claimed, in lieu of the truth.

Vincent stood up. Keeping the cloth covering the cat, he addressed us.

“When I uncover her, Sahira you catch it in the goldfish bowl and Linda you cover the top of the bowl so that it can’t escape.”

“So what can’t escape?” Linda asked.

“Think of it as an evil spirit,” He said. That wasn’t right at all and we both knew it but the real answer would have been too complex for the Rogstadts.

“Now, on three.” He counted backwards and tugged the white cloth from the victim. As ordered I caught it in the glass bowl and Linda slammed the board on top. The cloth immediately began to dance and wriggle inside its prison. The bowl shook and grew hot; good thing I was wearing oven gloves. They probably didn’t look very professional but I wasn’t going to burn my hands this time. With the inscribed wooden board pressed firmly over the bowl, we placed it back on the table. Meanwhile Stephen checked the limp cat and lifted her back into her crate. She would be fine.

While the two of us held down the struggling handkerchief, Vincent pulled a yellowed scroll from his jacket pocket and cleared his throat. The inscription had been printed off last night but to make it look more impressive I’d soaked it in old coffee ground and baked it in the oven so that it resembled a page from some ancient tome of wisdom. I’ve seen enough of them to know what they look like.

The cloth’s twitching became more violent as Vincent started to read aloud. Its white surface folded into a crude mouth which snapped at us from beyond the glass. We continued the ritual and it began spitting sparks and spinning like a miniature white tornado. Then just as the reading was complete the rag exploded in a thick puff of smoke and ash. The shaking stopped and we relaxed, massaging some feeling back into our arms. Linda panted and thanked us.

We ushered the Rogstadts to the door and negotiated a fee. It was always much easier to do this after we’d demonstrated our peculiar skills. While they heaped praise on Vincent I swept the blue residue from the fishbowl into a vial. Once it was stoppered I unlocked an antique cabinet with a brass key and stored the remains of the unwanted visitor there. The exorcist wrote up a receipt with his chickenscratch handwriting.

“You want how much?” said Stephen in disbelief. The exorcist sucked his teeth and pretended to study the cat. She was shaken, but she’d be fine.  

“It’s fine Stephen. This is much cheaper than what the vet was asking for.”

“I’m a union man and really this was done out of hours,” Vincent explained “So when you take that into account I think you’ll find the rate is very fair. It’s a bit like plumbing. Call us again if you have any problems.” He wasn’t part of any union but at this point they’d believe anything.

 

 

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George Aitch is a writer from Blackheath, London. His essays and short fiction have appeared at Horla as well as Litro, Massacre, Storgy and The Crazy Oik. As with all of our authors, past work by him can be found by inputting his name into the search engine at the top right of our pages. 

Title photo credit – Liliya Grek on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction. (The cat to which this paw and claw belong is, as far as we are concerned, entirely innocent!)