The crime scene was clear.
There were signs of struggle on the front porch. The small rug, crumpled and disheveled, rested three feet from its starting point, and feathers were everywhere. And I mean everywhere. They coated the creased rug and lay in small drifts across the porch.
A sparrow carcass lay near the door, claws up in the rictus of death. It seemed like a small bird to have given up so many feathers.
Internally, I had named the neighbor cat “Murder-Bot” months ago, as I repeatedly interrupted it stalking the tall dried grasses in our backyard. It always looked annoyed when I did that. But truthfully? The handsome cat, with dark, seal colored tabby stripes, always looked annoyed. It was a cat that only suffered human existence in exchange for occasional shelter, and promises of food and water.
That cat lived its own life.
This morning, the name proved to be accurate. The cat is, indeed, a murderous beauty. And, despite whatever name my neighbor calls it —or me, for that matter— it stalks the yards under its own authority. Its own name.
As long as there are songbirds, Murder-bot knows its purpose.
Sighing, I left aside all thoughts of coffee, shucked my slippers and shoved my feet into boots. Then I clomped outside to get the shovel. The poor sparrow wouldn’t take care of itself, but the soldier fly larvae in the compost heap would be happy to eat it into nothingness.
Coffee would wait until after I’d taken care of Murder-bot’s handiwork.
Hunting is joy. Blood on claw and tooth. The crunch of tiny bones. The sense of power.
But mostly, the focus. Stillness. Waiting. Stalking. Waiting. Collecting speed in muscles until…strike. Snap! Victory.
Even the occasional misses satisfy. They teach me other things I need to know. The arc of the trajectory. The inaccuracies in gauging speed.
All of these are fixable, with time.
It was one week after the sparrow murder, and I was out back shoveling mulch, spreading it around the garden beds. I hoped to get one last round of autumn vegetables in before putting the garden to sleep for the winter.
There was a shining glimmer over by the small concrete bird pond I’d set into the ground beneath the persimmon tree. I had installed it, hoping to keep a garter snake around, but other than one sighting two springs ago, I hadn’t seen the slender visitor again. No matter. The small birds loved the bath, as did the crows. And a raccoon family made use of it at night. So, I imagine, did the local opossums.
This looked like none of those, and it was far too late for butterflies. A downed hummingbird, perhaps? It had that sheen about it.
I knocked the mulch from the shovel and propped it against the garage, tugging my elbow-length work gloves off as I walked toward the cement pond.
Hunting the Bright Things is harder. They fly or scurry in patterns I don’t know.
But sometimes I catch one, all the same.
Resting against the curve of the half-empty cement bowl, was a tiny figure. It looked like the largest dragonfly I’d ever seen. Two of its wings were crumpled. But it wasn’t a dragonfly.
I didn’t know what it was.
That’s a lie.
I did know what it was. I’d just never seen one before. And I didn’t think they were real.
It had golden skin. And humanoid limbs with strange, attenuated, little hands. Huge eyes like those creepy paintings. Even clouded with death, I could see that once upon a time they were violet colored. It was the size of a robin or a jay.
It was a faery.
My mouth set itself in a grim line, and I shook my head. Then I spoke out loud to the garden:
“OK, Murder-Bot. Enough is enough.
The human was in my territory again, going about its business, disturbing the birds and mice.
I had a good spot in a bush near the fence. The earth was comfortable. Still warm enough, too. Twitching my tail, once, twice, thrice, I settled in to wait.
Sitting in my clean but crusty old kitchen that desperately needed updating, I brewed a pot of tea. Mint and lavender from the garden.
Carrying the white ceramic pot to the well-oiled wood table that served as a kitchen island and breakfast table, both, I groaned and eased myself into one of the ladder-back chairs. Gardening kept me fit, but shoveling mulch still made me feel my age.
I dragged my electronic tablet and stylus pencil across the table and opened a notebook app. Though it already smelled delicious, the tea would take a few minutes to steep.
May as well get to thinking, Alyssa.
What did I know? The cat was a class A hunter. A murderer par excellence.
I wrote “Cat is a killer” in looping cursive script on the tablet.
“Seems to hate everyone” I wrote next. That seemed like a non-essential point, except that it was important to the nascent plan cooking in my head.
Pausing for a moment, I poured some tea into the delicate flowered cup I’d picked up as part of a mis-matched set at my local charity shop. The herbs could still use more time to steep, but the pale greenish yellow brew would do for now.
Except, in order to write the next part, I needed more fortification.
Shoving back up from the table, I went to get the shortbread biscuits I half-hid from myself in the back of the cupboard. There should still be an unopened packet of the buttery treats.
The birds stayed in the higher branches. I would need to come back in the morning to catch the wrens and finches that foraged for pine seeds on the ground.
Besides, the sun was dimming. My human would be putting out some moist treats. Not as good as a mouse or bird, but they would do.
Still chewing the rectangle of butter and sugar held together with a modicum of wheat, I picked up the stylus and tapped at my lips. Was I thinking? Or was I avoiding writing the next damn thing?
I forced myself to write the words. “Faeries are real.”
I exhaled, and reached for the white porcelain pot again, pouring out more tea. The greenish yellow was darker this time, and even more fragrant. The scent should calm me. At least, that was the idea. But the way this was going, I would need a tot of whiskey by the time this list making was through.
Seriously, Alyssa? Faeries are real? I thought. But they were.
The proof was in a small box I’d lined with fallen leaves and mulch, then taped shut. I hadn’t been able to bear throwing the creature into the compost, stupidly sentimental as that was.
All of my childhood books and dreams lay stiff and cold in a box on my back porch, and the murderous cat was still on the loose.
“What to do?” I wrote, followed quickly by, “A: somehow contact the Faery Court or whatever.” As if I had a chance of that. What was I going to do, text them? Turn widdershins in my backyard under the full moon?
“B: Bell Murder-Bot.”
So round. So plump. So small. So tasty.
I could almost hear the little bones snapping between my teeth as I sat beneath my favored bush, tail twitching in anticipation.
They were not snapping yet, but all good things came with time.
The round little birds took flight. Damn it! That lumbering human!
Large paw gripping my neck! I hissed. Yowled. Lashed out with my strong legs and razor claws.
“Damn it!” Murder-Bot had turned into a spitting wildcat. My elbow length work gloves, denim jacket, and jeans saved me from the worst of the claws, but the thing was damn hard to keep a grip on.
And I’d forgotten to protect my face. A claw slashed my cheek open.
“Damn you again!” I shouted, struggling to wrap the old wool blanket around the hissing whirlwind and get the back legs secured.
Maybe I should have gotten backup for this operation. Too late now. This would be the only time Murder-Bot would let me sneak up on it.
There was as sudden whirring near my head. I jerked and almost dropped the cat. Clutching tightly, I ducked my head and barely missed getting swiped by those claws again.
The whirring was bright, glinting in the weak morning sun. Faeries?
Tiny, brightly winged bodies wove in and out between my arms and the slashing murder claws. Time to change strategy. I gripped the blanket encased lower legs and held the struggling cat as far from my torso as possible. The faeries grabbed the blanket edges with tiny hands and wrapped the spitting cat’s front paws, then pulled a flap of wool over its head.
I snatched it close to secure the whole thing. The faeries swooped away just in time.
No! Yowl! No! What was this thing? This thing that smelled of large animals. I fought with all my might. Spitting. Clawing with all my strength.
Strange whirring sounds.
It was them. The Bright Things.
“What was your plan?” A voice behind me, sounding quite amused, the scent of wood smoke and loam.
I turned slowly, clutching the still squirming killer-in-a-blanket, and gasped.
The creature was beautiful. Just taller than my own 5 foot eight. Hair the color of midnight, woven through with pale birch branches. Skin the particular shade of leaves turning into dark mulch. Some sort of garment dyed cranberry red.
Whether it was female or male, or something else entirely, I could not tell, though it carried itself like a queen. All I knew was that my heart pounded in my chest. My mouth was suddenly dry, and I really wanted to pee.
I also wanted to fade into the background. To stand so still, they wouldn’t notice me.
“Too late,” the faery said.
It can read my mind?
“Of course I can. So, what exactly was your plan?”
The faery inclined its head toward the bundle in my arms. Hmm. The murder-bot had calmed down. Either it liked being wrapped in a blanket, or the big faery had the same effect on the cat, it had on me. The cat wanted to disappear.
“T-t-to bell the cat. So the birds and the…um…faeries? So the birds and faeries could hear it coming and get out of the way.”
“A capital idea!” The faery clapped its hands and two of the small, winged creatures swooped in and landed on its shoulders. The larger faery turned to one and then the other, whispering something in a language I could not understand.
Then the small faeries disappeared as if they had just…winked out.
“We shall bring a special bell and collar. And this is much better than what I was going to do.”
“Which was?” The words were out of my mouth before I could call them back.
“Snap its neck.”
My neck is scratched half raw. The thing will not come off. Even my human tried after I snapped at its hands and cried, but no. The infernal tinkling starts up every time I move.
No more, the thrill of the hunt. No more, the juicy flesh. No more crunchy bones.
It is all dried up kernels in a bowl, and moist treats that do not satisfy.
My life is hell. My purpose is no more.
Winter settled in, and the steady rains and dark sky reign. There’s a snap in the air that speaks of frost, and maybe even snow.
There are no more crime scenes on the front porch. No more carcasses for the compost. The faeries took the body of the victim from my box and winked out of sight, carrying it with them.
The larger faery creature? Part of me wanted to know what it was. Part of me hopes I never see it again.
Murder-Bot glares at me from my neighbor’s porch, or from the side window. It never comes into my yard anymore.
My house is in order and the gardens are at rest. Stew bubbles in the slow cooker, and the stove is gleaming and clean. My house is in order and the gardens are at rest. There is only one thing left to do.
With a smile on my face, I pull a sack out from the pantry. A bag of seeds for the finches and wrens.
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