Heather set another stack of folders onto the desk with a thump and a cloud of dust. Then she dove back into the pile with a sneeze. Her mother had folders for taxes and folders for budgeting and folders for contracts. Some of them were labeled. All of them were stacked haphazardly around the office, breeding like rabbits in neglected corners. Heather dug the oldest files out of the desk drawers; she had already sorted the newer folders by subject. She wiped her forehead against her sleeve and left behind a streak of sweat gone brown from dust. A breeze blew in from the open window, but she could not feel it, crouched as she was behind the desk.
Last drawer. She wormed her hands down into it and pulled out the last stack of paper folders and envelopes gone yellow with time. That stack was heavier than the others. She placed it on the top of a tower of similar papers and bent down to shimmy the drawer shut. The bottom ones had both rusted with age and disuse and had to be shoved back into place. This one finally slid and Heather’s shoulder bumped the desk. Something rustled. Something slid. Something fell and bounced from her head to her shoulder to the floor.
“Ow, ow, ow. What did you keep in here, Mom? Bricks?” Heather asked. She rubbed her smarting head and looked at what had fallen. In with the folders, their papers now fanning across the thin carpet, there was a book.
Heather picked it up. The dust jacket had pulled free on one side in the fall and she tucked it back into place with reverent fingers. Joy of Cooking. All the O’s had happy faces with whiskers drawn in them with colored pencil. Her back and knees crackled as she stood up. She pushed back the papers on the desktop, sat in the leather chair, and opened the book.
On the title page, her mother’s round script waited for her. “For Heather, on her 3rd birthday. May you have the best of both worlds, all your days. Love, Mommy.” Heather ran her fingertip across the blue letters. She flipped the pages and let the book open to the most used pages and the ones with scraps of paper marking them.
There was Caribbean banana; they hated the taste, but loved the blue flames when they flambéed it. All the cats in the house came running when they made shrimp, crab, and oyster gumbo. They made stuffed potatoes for Heather’s fourth birthday. Heather once got it into her head to make vanilla cream caramels and burned herself so badly with superheated sugar syrup, she still had a scar on the back of her left hand almost thirty years later.
She took out a slip of bright orange construction paper. A cat’s face was drawn on it in marker. On the back side, in a child’s enthusiastic printing, it said I Love You, Momy. Heather laughed and scrubbed her tear-filled eyes. Idiot, she thought fondly. She tucked the paper back where it marked baked fish fillets Spencer.
Heather closed the book. When she had found out that no culinary school would take her, that rent cost more than she had ever imagined, that working in a restaurant was tiring and demoralizing and paid a pittance unless you were the one in charge, she had thought of the book and wished she had taken it with her when she left home. She had thought of it and told herself, someday, she would cook feasts for one hundred people and her food would haunt their dreams. Someday, she would get her dream. Someday had sustained her through pubs and burger joints and cafes and more dead-end jobs than one person should have to endure.
A scratch and a meow at the door pulled her from her reminiscing. “It’s open,” she called out. The door swung inward.
“Not busy, I hope,” Carlisle said as he came in.
“Actually, I was thinking of taking a few people down with me to pick up groceries.”
“You just went three days ago,” he said.
“Yes, Carlisle. But since there was nothing but cat food in the house when I got here, there’s rather a lot of restocking to do. And I can only carry so much in one trip with no car.”
“Sorry, but that will have to wait,” he said. Heather did not think he sounded terribly sorry. “There are some new arrivals today.”
“And? What’s that got to do with me?” Heather asked. Carlisle just gave her a pointed look. “Right, right. Queen of the cattery. Okay. Bring them in then.” She sat on the floor and leaned up against the desk. Her queen’s throne left something to be desired, she thought as Carlisle ushered three black cats into the office.
Carlisle spared a glance at Topaz when he came into the upstairs lounge room. He was so loud, it was impossible to ignore him. This time he was singing show tunes. He had been through the room three times that day alone.
“Who will buy this wonderful morning?” Topaz sang at the top of his lungs. It lost something in the translation. It came out meaning “to whom will I present this dawn territory,” but it did still fit the tune. He sat down next to Carlisle.
“Was there something you needed?” Carlisle asked just as he drew a breath for another line.
“Not particularly,” Topaz said. He pawed at the papers Carlisle was reading. “What ya doing?”
Carlisle pushed an envelope from one pile to another. “Going through the messages from cats living abroad.”
“Is someone AWOL?”
“We haven’t heard anything from Lynne West and her clan in eighteen months. I think we have to assume they’re dead.”
Topaz kneaded Carlisle’s shoulders. “Can I ask you something?” His claws rumpled and smoothed Carlisle’s fur in turns. When Carlisle purred in response, Topaz went on. “Now that Heather’s here, isn’t this her job?”
“No, not at all. As her second in — oh, just a bit to the right — in command, I am in charge of a host of domestic affairs.”
“Sure, sure. I get it. Only…” His paws stilled.
“What?” Carlisle asked.
Topaz went back to massaging. “I was just thinking that she has a lot of catching up to do. She needs to reacquaint herself with how things work here.”
“I suppose that’s true enough,” Carlisle agreed readily when Topaz switched to grooming behind his ears.
“And she can’t exactly do that if you baby her all the time. So you should take some time off.”
“What?” Carlisle craned his head around to look back at Topaz. The tom had an excessively innocent look on his face. “Oh, no. I can’t do that. There’s too much work to do.”
“Right, of course. I mean, you wouldn’t go away or anything. Hah! No.” He went back to kneading with one paw. “I just mean, you know, let Heather have the reigns for a while, see how she does, what responsibilities she wants you to handle for her.”
“Yes,” Carlisle agreed reluctantly, “that might be wise.”
“Great! That means you’re free to go climb the big pine tree in the back yard right now.”
“Well, wait, I–”
“Come on! This stuff can wait. If they’ve been missing for eighteen months, one more morning won’t hurt anything.”
As Topaz chased him out of the room, he tried to think of a counter argument that would let him stay with his paperwork in his quiet room. But there did not seem to be one. Ten feet up the pine tree, he forgot about it anyway.
Heather inched backwards. “Just don’t destroy the place or kill anybody else,” she said. Chocolate smells wafted through the room. She gave a frantic stir to the pot on the stove then pulled on a pair of oven mitts. “Hang on a minute, will you?” She opened the oven door and a fresh blast of hot air, laden with tangy chocolate, washed over her. She gingerly set the cake pan onto the cooling rack.
“Cake? You can make cake?” One cat asked her sharply.
Heather looked back. Five cats, all perfectly black, sat lined up on the kitchen island. They stared at her. One licked her lips. “Um. Yes. Yes, I can make cake. It’s chocolate though. You’ll have to change if you want some.”
They looked at each other. The same cat, their leader, spoke again. “You have cat’s bane in the backyard? We’ll be right back.” They all hopped down and dashed for the yard, chatting as they went.
“Let it cool before you cut into it,” Heather called after them. This is getting ridiculous, she thought. That’s the fourth batch today. Two yesterday. Another five over the past week. She gave the pot on the stove another stir and sniffed it. “And now my ganache is burnt on the bottom!”
She flung down her oven mitts. She moved the ruined pot of ganache to a back burner, checked that both oven and stove were turned off, and set off in search of Carlisle and some answers.
Carlisle, as it turned out, was up on the roof, having his belly bathed by that talkative ginger tom, Topaz. Heather cleared her throat as she clamored up through a door intended for cats, not humans. Carlisle jumped away, but Topaz just looked annoyed.
“I could have sworn I closed that door,” he said.
“So sorry to interrupt,” Heather said and rolled her eyes. “But I kind of need to talk to your boyfriend.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder.
Topaz grumbled and slunk to the hatch in the roof. Heather straddled the peak of the roof. She waggled her eyebrows at Carlisle when he finally looked away from where Topaz had disappeared into the house.
“I’m not his, that is, I mean,” Carlisle sputtered.
“Oh, come on.” Heather petted his head until he calmed down.
“Really, I barely know him.”
“If you say so,” she said with a shrug. “But he totally digs you.”
Carlisle’s stump of a tail puffed in embarrassment. “You said you needed to talk to me?”
“What’s with all the cats arriving? Every time I turn around, someone new wants temporary lodging at the House.” The roof was hot and smelled of tar paper. Summer was holding on as long as it could. But the breeze blowing in from the ocean was a breath of chill.
“Heather, October is almost over.” Carlisle seemed to think that explained everything. When Heather still did not get it, he went on. “It’s the Festival of Black Cats.”
“What, here?” He nodded. “Why didn’t you tell me? I, I’ve got to clean and cook and oh my god, I’ve only got a few days!”
Carlisle snorted. “They will take care of all of it. We just provide the venue, remember? Have you ever been to the festival?”
“Long time ago.”
“You should make an offering now that you’re back. For Poppy.”
“Just think about it. And relax. No one expects the Queen to clean house. Now, if you don’t need me, I think I’ll get back to my paperwork. Before Topaz finds me again.”
“Have fun,” Heather said absently. She stayed up on the roof for a long time after Carlisle left. She could feel her face burning in the sun and wind. What was the point of being Queen if she didn’t get to do anything, she wondered. She stood up and leaned over the edge of the roof a bit. Stretched out around her was a paradise of cats, green and warm and secluded. And she was in charge of it all.
“Time,” she said to herself, “for a new kind of Queen.” She watched the cats milling around in the backyard. “First, to rally my troops.”
Dopple kicked the front door. “Can I get a little help here?” She had two cat kennels with carry straps over her shoulders and a third in her arms. “Anybody?” There was still no answer. She could hear voices, so she knew someone was human at the moment.
She sighed. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen. I’m going to let you out here.” She let the straps slide off her shoulders one at a time. The kennels hit with little thumps. “Sorry, sorry,” she muttered. She set the third on top of another. “These doors are impossible to get open,” she said as she struggled with the pinch locks on the front of the first cage.
Two cats bolted out as soon as she got the door open. They mewed and scratched at the door. Dopple popped it open and went back to opening doors. Five changing-cats in total this trip. Just from one pet store and a cat show. She left the kennels on the front porch and went inside.
“Anybody home?” She hung her leather jacket up in the hall closet and followed the voices into the solarium, known conventionally as the room closest to the garden with all the windows.
The room was full of cats-gone-human, all cleaning and polishing and redecorating. Some were clothed, but most were naked as though they had changed suddenly and gone straight to work. Some were washing windows. Some were polishing wood with dust rags. Some were conversing over a half-assembled coffee table.
“Hold this, will you?” someone said and shoved a lamp into her arms. “I mean it: one more broken lamp and you can go without lights. You all have night vision for a reason,” she shouted to the room in general.
“I hardly recognize the place,” Dopple said, since the other woman was still standing nearby. Dopple did not recognize her either. “I go away for a couple weeks and the whole place changes.”
“Oh, no,” the woman said. “We’ve just done this in the past two days.” She took the lamp back and put it on the end table against the wall. “Everyone’s pitching in for the festival. Are you here for it as well?”
“No. I live here. Who are you?”
“Oh, sorry. There have just been so many new cats coming in.” She stuck her hand out. “I’m Heather. I’m in charge here, apparently.”
“Is that so?” Dopple smiled tightly. “Sorry,” she said and pulled off one of her leather gloves. “I don’t shake,” she said over Heather’s gasp.
Dopple’s fingers had all been cut down to the first knuckle. No nails, no fingertips. The ends were blunt and scarred. The remaining fingers hung limp due to the clumsily severed tendons. The pale skin of her hands abruptly turned darker at the wrist, belying the tuxedo pattern of her coat. She tugged the glove back on by holding the edge between her thumb and the side of her index finger, avoiding the painful ends of her fingers.
“You were declawed?” Heather asked. She gave Dopple a serious case of soulful eyes. Dopple could have vomited.
She shrugged. “As a kitten. That’s what happens when humans get a hold of cats, you know? Anyway. I take it you’re Heather Lee.”
“Yes. I didn’t catch your name.”
“Depending on who you talk to, it’s Heather Lee.”
Brilliant, this one, she thought. “Your mum had me pose as you on the phone.”
“Oh! You must be the one who talked to Susanna, the lawyer.”
“So, you met her then. Well, you must have found your credit card if you’ve been buying furniture.” She gestured to the rather laughable attempts of the group to attach all four table legs at once. “But I can give you the PINs for the accounts. That is, if you’re planning to stick around this time.”
Heather clucked her tongue against her teeth. “They can put the table together on their own. Why don’t you fill me in on everything?” She smiled with lots of teeth. “That will leave you free to go out of town whenever you like.”
Dopple narrowed her eyes. Cookie wanted to play that way, huh? “That’ll be swell.” She walked up the stairs to the office several respectful — and watchful — paces behind Heather.
On the last day before the festival, Heather was chained to the stove. The cold foods, the foods that needed time to mellow, and the reheatable foods had all been made. Now she had a chicken — the fourth chicken, in fact, to account for the still-swelling population of the house — roasting in the oven. Two cats from the New York Chinatown had shared a recipe for tiny, crunchy fish things, which were sautéing at the same time. A pan of liver and onions was doing the same. There was a knock at the swinging door into the kitchen.
“If you make me burn this food, I will serve you instead,” she shouted.
A shaggy blonde head peaked through the door. “Permission to enter, ma’am?”
“Topaz? You’re human. What’s up?”
Topaz scooted two casserole dishes farther down the island and hopped up on it. He was wearing a pair of jean cut-offs and nothing else. “Went with the last shopping team for you. Are you taking any requests?”
“Unless you have a specific cultural obligation, no.” She looked him up and down. He looked like a surfer. “And Cujo Mescal with a worm at the bottom does not count, grom.”
“Sorry. I’ve been working near the beach for too long. Never mind.”
“It wasn’t for me. It’s for Rune. I hear your mom used to make these little finger sandwiches he really liked. Cream cheese and olive.”
Heather switched off the heat on one pan and turned it up on another. “Is he still living in the attic to avoid the sight of me?”
He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. He looked about sixteen and too cute for words. He had human mannerisms down pat, as well. “Er, yeah. Pretty much full-time. I think I caught him in the garden the other night, but it might have been a raccoon.”
“Might I ask why, exactly, he hates me so?”
“That’s before my time, I think. I’ve only been here a year.”
“He’s hated me for more than a year? My, I do make an impression on people, don’t I?” she deadpanned.
“It’s something to do with your mom. Uh, anyway, I think he likes you.”
“Good god, Topaz, what does he do to the people he doesn’t like?”
“Naw, really, he liked you when you first arrived. I saw him look at you, ya know? Like, really look.”
“Mm, I wouldn’t know anything about that.” Which brother was the stoner again, she wondered.
“It’s the catnip,” he said fiercely, as though he read her thoughts. “It messes up his head. If he could just get offa it, he’d be fine.”
“I sense a request in there somewhere.” She set a finished dish on the island and smacked his roving fingers away from it.
“I’m trying to help him, but, like, I’m his baby brother.”
“Same father. He lets me tag along and all, but he’s not going to quit just to make me happy.”
“And you think I can convince him?”
“If he likes you enough.”
She turned off all the burners and faced him. “Are you asking me to, to seduce your brother so he’ll kick the habit?”
“Well, yeah. Kinda. I mean, you might like him,” he said in a rush. “He’s cute, in the growling, I’m-so-tortured way. Queens dig that, right? I mean, it’s not my thing, but I’ve heard.”
She laughed. “Yes, I’ve noticed what your thing is. On the roof with Carlisle?”
“What’s it to you?” She could almost see his ears pinned.
“Carlisle is my friend, is what.” She sighed. “Do I have to go through the whole, hurt him and I’ll feed your spleen to weasels speech?”
He held up his hands in surrender. “Consider it said.”
She turned back to the counter and started chopping vegetables. “I’m not going to seduce Rune. I’ll be lucky if I can get him to stay in the same room with me.”
He hopped down from the counter. “Finger sandwiches, babe. I’m telling ya. Just give it a try.” He sounded hurt, or maybe just disappointed. “Can’t make things worse, right?”
“He hasn’t tried to kill me in my sleep yet, so I’m going to say, yes, it can get worse.”
He shrugged and headed for the door. “Whatever. See ya.”
Heather paused, knife poised over a stalk of celery. Finger sandwiches. Well, the way to a tom’s heart is through his belly. And a catnip-free Household can only be a good thing. It did not have to mean anything more, did it?
Firelight twinkled in the yard and turned each cat into a lion in its shadow. Heather knelt, the only human form in a row of cats facing the shrine. It had been erected that morning by the last three cats to arrive. They were the shamans and their bodyguards had driven them across the country to conduct the ceremonies for the festival. Each was a black cat and though they were all shaky and rail-thin with age, there was not a single white hair on them.
One motioned the first cat in the row forward, while the other two chanted. Their chanting rose and fell over a handful of octaves, sweet and jarring at once. They sang as only cats can. The first supplicant bowed before the shrine, head down and tail up, and deposited a little paper box heaped high with bright orange fish roe. He returned to the line and the next went up.
It was the duty of every cat to attend the moving Festival of Black Cats at least once in their life and make offerings to the illustrious dead of their pedigree. This was the Day of the Dead for cats. Heather fidgeted in line; she had never before made an offering by herself, though she had accompanied her mother once. A Siamese left a bowl of rice and an Abyssinian arranged an open oyster with a shining pearl balanced on the gray flesh.
Finally, it was Heather’s turn. She shuffled forward on her knees. She felt terribly self-conscious as she towered over a shrine proportioned for cats. She had thought of skipping her cat’s bane so she could shift back, had even mentioned it to Carlisle, but she chickened out at the last minute. She told herself it was because they needed someone to move dishes of food and light candles, but she knew better.
In front of the shrine, she bowed as best she could without bumping her head into the first step of the tiered platform. Her hands shook at she unwrapped her offering. She folded back layers of wax paper so that the contents were visible, then scuttled back to her place in line.
Amid the rare delicacies and the artifacts and even the traditional offerings to the dead, a little pyramid of vanilla cream caramels stood out in their nest of wax paper. Heather touched the scar on the back of her hand. Mother, wherever she was, would certainly recognize them. Heather thought she would laugh when she remembered that particular kitchen disaster all these years later. It was a good offering, Heather decided.
When the ceremony ended and the shamans retired to the custody of their guards, six acrobats in succession took flying leaps at a huge hanging gong, ringing it with their bodies as they ricocheted off. Then the feast began.
Tables laden with Heather’s food were set upon by cats of every type and color. They shared and argued and ate endlessly. In the firelight, more acrobats performed while choirs of cats sang until dogs half a town away howled along with them. Kittens staged mock battles in the tall grass while their mothers, some of them long-distance friends reunited for just one night, gossiped and teased and flirted with passing toms. Overhead, bats flew through the warm air and snatched up airborne insects, while below them cats chased crickets and low-flying moths.
In the shadows by the house, where the firelight could not reach, Heather stood with one more plate of food. It was not a platter of silver, nor was the food a fine rarity. She stood and she watched and she worked up her courage.
Carlisle pushed past a clump of cats sampling a fine lager and trotted up to her. “Sure you don’t want to join in? You’ve only got an hour left on your last dose. There’s plenty of time.”
Heather shook her head and knelt down to pet him. “I don’t think I’m ready just yet. Eat a cricket for me, though, will you?”
“Oh, and don’t keep Topaz waiting.”
Heather jerked her chin to indicate where the leonine tom waited, just at the edge of the wooded area beyond the yard. “It looks like he’s got plans for tonight.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Carlisle said, but he ran off to meet him all the same.
Heather took a deep breath and a dose of cat’s bane. “No more stalling,” she told herself. But she clutched her plate like she wanted to use it as a shield.
Rune camped out in one of the many carpet trees in the yard to watch the festivities. He spoke in low tones with the tuxedo cat she had met the other day — the much-mentioned Dopple, she finally learned from Carlisle. Dopple offered an insultingly tiny bow when she noticed Heather approach, then left. She walked gingerly on her mutilated front toes, which gave her an odd, rolling gait. When Dopple struck up a lively conversation with several other cats, Heather was unsurprised to learn Dopple’s cold shoulder was reserved for Heather alone.
On a plywood platform covered with shredded carpeting, Rune watched Heather with eyes that shone lime green in the dark. She kept her eyes averted. She did not want to pick a fight, she reminded herself. She set the plate in front of him. Before he could say or do anything to reject the offering, she retreated toward the crowd of cats watching the acrobats.
While a cat balanced a tightly curled kitten on her head, Heather stole a look at Rune from the corner of her eye. He sniffed at the food. Did she imagine the look of pleasant surprise on his face? She found she was holding her breath. Then Rune took a bite from a cream cheese and olive finger sandwich. He chewed. He looked at her, one woman in a sea of cats, and she pretended to look at the moon, the acrobats, her nails, anything but him. When she dared to check again, he had his mouth full, chewing contentedly.
She let out a relieved sigh and turned back to watch the performances. Of all the fancy dishes she had slaved over for the festival and whatever praise she had been offered for her luxurious efforts as hostess, a humble finger sandwich gave her the most satisfaction that night.