Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#13



For our thirteenth tale, a little creepy yarn of Witches, magic potions, and a wholly justified fear of cats.... Appropriate, hmmm?



Ailurophobia

By Ora Matushansky

About the Author




Dead, dead, my lady is dead, and I am still alive, watching, waiting.

He flings the fridge open, and his brown eyes -- medium size, standard issue -- follow the tug of gravity: a bottle of juice on the top shelf, a carton of skimmed milk already gone sour, four empty shelves and wilted salad in the crisper. On the door, three tins of Whiskas, a tin of chicken liver, golden-pink fried salmon with a few spots of mold, and a container of cream.

He takes the cream out, sniffs and grimaces. The white surface under the foil is dusted with blue specks.

The kitchen shutters are closed to ward off the heat, and the only things that gleam are the fridge, the cream and the cat's eyes. In the clammy dusk, Eblis is a dark presence in a dark room -- especially when it is not there.

He returns the cream to the shelf, slams the door shut and leans back on the fridge. The cat looks at him -- small, its ribs sticking out from under the black lusterless fur and its pointed ears twitching nervously.

The metal handlebar is cold against his bare back.

Eblis sits down in front of him and looks -- a black cat in the middle of a brown-tiled floor so dirty that his bare soles stick to it.

Is Eblis laughing at him -- a cat who can look at a man?

He runs his hand through his hair, his fingers mechanically rearranging the blond locks to cover the tiny patch of naked skin on top. The handlebar cuts into his left shoulder-blade, but he doesn't move.

The doorbell rings, and he raises his eyes to the blotchy whitewash of the ceiling and slams his fist into the palm of his hand. Another letter for the old cow!

The corridor is dank, all light bulbs burnt out in one terrifying string of sudden blue flashes when Cassandra had breathed her last.

His fingers close on the door handle, and the porcelain clinks under his wedding band.

Keeping a wary eye on the floor, he opens the door a crack. "What is it today?"

The girl glances up -- and down again, when she sees his naked torso.

He is very handsome, as men go -- tall, muscular, with eyes strikingly light on a dusky face, light hair and rose-red lips. His nose is crooked like an eagle beak. His trimmed beard makes him look like a cowboy from Cassandra's beloved westerns.

The memory makes him grimace again.

"Please sign here, sir." Her gaze has reached his bare feet, and she hurriedly jerks her head up. As he wears skin-tight black jeans rolled up to his knees and nothing else, the happy medium between the two expanses of naked skin is his crotch, and now she begins to blush. The writing pad in her hands is shaking.

"She is dead, you know," he says conversationally, "no more witches."

The girl gives him a timid smile.

Signing, he leans his elbow against her bare arm. It's hot and sticky with the summer heat and he pulls back. The package has changed hands when he notices Eblis and boots it away from the door.

The girl cries out, her voice shrill like the cat's meow. Tearing the pad from his hands, she dashes down the garden path. The iron gate bangs after her, shedding flakes of rust.

With a curse he slams the door and returns to the kitchen, tossing the parcel on the counter. Eblis is skulking under the table -- if it weren't for the mice in the cellar, the creature would have been long dead.

Patience.

He clenches his fists and draws a long quivering breath so full of hatred that when the foul air hits him in the nostrils he staggers, startled into tears by the burning stink of cat urine.

Cassandra and her fetid beast!

Coughing, he tears the package open.

It is a photo, their wedding photograph in a silver frame and glazed in red. A crack across the glass divides the woman from the man.

He stands still, sweat trickling down his chest and shining on the small golden hairs.

So she did know?

He smashes the glazing and showers the pieces on the white Formica of the counter. Freed from the red shade, their faces come alive in a flurry of color, his light curls mixing with her dark straight hair -- and is she smiling?

He covers half the photo with his hand, his thumb and palm framing out her head.

Her irregular face with high cheekbones, her cobalt eyes shining in their webs of wrinkles, her pale lips, her neck in the folds of dry skin -- and the body below the neckline.

The body of a fairy and the head of a witch. He runs his hand down his own body, his palm cold against his cold skin. He looks no older than thirty, diets and exercises will keep him young. Now he has a life before him.

He grins, his lips dry against his gums, and rubs the glossy paper of the print as if to rub off the white dress. He covers her head with his fingers and looks at her slender waist, he remembers the narrow hips under the heavy skirt, the tiny breasts, untouched by age, skin as soft and golden as that of a young girl, the red nipples that almost glowed in the dark.

Without a head, she could have been the woman of his dreams.

She had a high girlish laughter, her hand on his when she led him to a dance was firm, and in the twilight she looked maybe his age. He was very drunk, or he would never have let the old hag touch him. At forty-five, even with his bad credit history and many thousands of debt to pay, he wouldn't stoop low enough to become a gigolo.

But how drunk he was!

She pressed her body against his and laughed incessantly, showing her small teeth, and the indigo light in her eyes flared like a gas-burner. His hands forced their way into the folds of her loose robe to find the dry warmth of her body, and under his tongue, her lips became moist, filled with life. He dragged her to the back porch and fucked her, her girlish giggle quelling his strange fear -- the fear he had felt when he first set his eyes on her, the fear he would never admit.

Hag, harridan, harpy!

Dead, she is dead now; no one to prowl cemeteries or fly to covens with, body to body in a hunchback shape momentarily crossing the moon. Even the moon waned and withered when her crooked shadow reached its disk.

He leans over, picking up an empty Coke tin, and the cat dashes to the door. The tin rattles on the tiles, and he laughs and opens the fridge again. His slender fingers rest gently on the top shelf, one in each gap between metal bars. He crooks them into claws and rests his head against the coldness of the closed freezer.

Did she know when she would die, Cassandra the prophetess?

Suddenly he is shaking so badly that even the shiny white bulk of the fridge is shaking with him. The roots of his hair are wet, and the airy cloud of his hairdo feels dampened, pressing on his scalp.

With an unsteady step he crosses the kitchen and opens a tiny squalid cupboard in the dark corner crisscrossed with cobwebs. Bottles of brown glass and cracked faience bowls clutter up the splintered wooden shelves. A bottle of alcohol and a crystal ball are the only things that try to shine in this realm of lackluster.

From the back he withdraws a small phial. When he turns it to light, the gothic lettering on the label glitters black in the kitchen's twilight.

My life.

My life, it says.

He got Cassandra's address from his friends, ignored their warnings and drove his battered Ford to her town. He was told that she was a man-catcher, a true witch, that she made someone a love-potion, that she gave someone else a poison that no tests could discover.

He laughed.

When he came to her house, a ramshackle cottage with an unkempt lawn, he laughed again -- a witch who can brew such potions needn't live in poverty. In the quietness of this small town, where not even a leaf stirred without a nervous glance and a cough, the sound carried to the very end of the street, and the mangy dog bathing in the dust jumped to its feet and dashed off.

He stopped laughing when the door blew open, as if by a gust of wind.

The phone rings, an unstrung tremulous sound, and he swears before perching on the edge of the counter and answering, "Yes?"

Silence answers him and then a gust of wind.

"Who is it?"

When a voice answers, he almost screams, for it's Cassandra's voice -- dry
like the rustle of autumn leaves.

"Oh poor, poor Cassandra," cries the voice, "I have just heard! How awful!"

"Who is it?" he croaks, and doesn't hear the name when she says it. She speaks on, fast and ruthlessly, commiserating and gloating, and he begins to understand that it's one of Cassandra's schoolmates he met at their wedding, one of the hags old and young who went to college with his late wife.

He accepts the expressions of sympathy with monosyllabic grunts -- he has heard them all before. He was a moderately sad widower, unhappy, but not on the edge of a breakdown. He has never given the impression of being passionately in love, nor will he color his grief with undue emotion.

He sighs. "Well, sixty is no longer youth, and she wanted to bear a young girl's load."

He had planned to make her death seem to be a suicide, but it turned out to be unnecessary. At least some of the rumors were true -- her poisons were untraceable.

"It must be so bad for you, poor darling, you seemed to love her."

He is careful. He exudes warmth and fondness.

In the beginning, she didn't dare believe he loved her, of course. As a witch, you can check, he told her, but then you will know. Do you really want to know?

Cassandra opted not to know.

He has always been careful. He even tried to befriend the witch's cat, but the damned thing hissed at him whenever he tried to touch it. Cassandra made it sit still while he stroked it, and so he did, with a smile, all the while longing to pick up this tattered black rag and toss it out of the window.

He pictures the glass shattering around the long body, glass daggers slicing the black fur, a triangle of reflected sunlight in a golden-dark eye.

He only wanted to divorce her, get her money and repay what his first wife had stolen from him. A woman taketh away and a woman giveth. He rendered humanity a service; he only served the witch one of her own foul brews!

"Eblis?" he repeats, turning his eyes to the dark corner he had last seen the cat, but the dark refuses to reveal its secrets. "It won't eat, the poor thing; I don't think it will outlive its mistress by much."

A rattle makes him whirl.

Tossing the phone away, he covers the kitchen in one long stride, slamming the cupboard doors. The cat slithers under his arm, a torrent of bottles following it in its wild jump to the floor, and he barely manages to kick it with his foot.

The floor is a mess of liquids and powders from Cassandra's deadly phials, and the mixture is already beginning to change colors. Fascinated, he watches as it turns blue, yellow, and finally brown.

Brown with specks of red, like half-dried blood.

He picks up the phial and returns it to the shelf. The old bitch believed that it contained her life, and he can well believe it -- through the green glass, the liquid inside looks black.

The telephone squeals when he picks it up.

"It's the cat," he explains, "it misses Cassandra, you know, and the havoc it wrecks..."

His brown eyes meet Eblis' golden ones.

You will die before me, it seems to answer. Play on. So far, it's a tie.

He reaches for his throat as he realizes that his voice no longer obeys him.

"I rather thought so," the woman says in Cassandra's dry tones. "Good luck, young man."

He hangs up, his hands shaking.

She laughed before ringing off.

Eblis makes a sound like laughing.

He'll go crazy here, he surely will, but he can't leave the creature to die in the closed
house because he can't do anything suspicious, and Eblis knows it. It must die of grief, and then he will move out, take the money and maybe find a good use for some of Cassandra's potions.

Witchcraft is just another word for knowledge, and Cassandra's knowledge was permeated with evil. From knowing Cassandra he knows that a witch and a bitch differ only in one letter. A witch indeed! If she were a witch, she would have checked if he loved her. No woman can resist a mystery -- and he dangled this mystery before her, like a bait. He wanted to be sure beforehand, he had too much to gain.

An old woman with a young woman's body -- he deserved her money for just fucking this half-human wreck. Besides, she did nothing with it; the way she lived she didn't need the money, only to buy expensive cat-food for her familiar.

Eblis knows everything, she said, and understands even more.

And now he is going mad with the creature, unable either to lay his hands on it, or starve it. Its very look reminds him of the old bitch.

Did you bewitch me that first time? he asked her once. No, she murmured, casting her eyes down, like a demure little girl, it was all your doing, my love.

Because I have fallen out of love, he said, and I want a divorce.

The indulgence of her glance! Then I will bewitch you back into love, darling. It is easy.

How she begged him to bring her the cordial when she realized what she had drunk!

He was so afraid of her, of her piercing blue eyes, of her dry laughter. Why didn't she see right through him? Witch or no witch, she was smart and as evil as they come, but love makes blind. She invited him into her gingerbread house to roast him for dinner, but in the end, she only wanted to eat him.

He laughs hoarsely.

Die, foul beast.

He looks down, at the mess on the floor, at the cat -- where's the cat?

His first glance is at the cupboard, where the inky-black thing is reaching for the phial with its paw, and he jumps across the kitchen. His fingers slide on the slick fur, and Eblis dashes free.

Only then he becomes aware of the burning in his soles and looks down.

He is standing in the pool of broken glass and the dark liquid from Cassandra's phials.

Exit the man.

The pain in his feet suddenly becomes unbearable and he cries out, the gravity tugging him down, his fingers digging into the cracked wood of the of the cupboard to push him up. As he is struggling with Newton, the world begins to mist over.

A clatter makes him whirl so fast that he nearly loses his balance. The kitchen shutters fall down one by one under his fascinated stare. A complacent smile on its black face, Eblis is sitting on its haunches in the middle of the kitchen, and in his blind rage he darts forward, grabbing the phone from the counter and hurls it at the cat.

Black plastic explodes against the yellow tiles.

The cordial!

Glass crunching under his feet, he turns and staggers towards the phial standing in the pool of sunlight, the sun glittering on the glass.

A black shadow crosses the sun.

Slowly, the cat hits the phial with its paw and the cordial splashes on the tiles in a burst of green glass.

His knees give way and he falls down, hears his head resound as it hits the floor. He draws in the foul air to drink the cordial with his breath, but the liquid is too viscous to move. Eblis is cackling, a dry laughter of an old woman, and when it slashes out with its paw, he feels no pain.

One for my lady.

Eblis becomes blurry, too far or too close, and he feels blood trickle down his cheek where his eye had been.

One for myself.

As darkness descends upon him with its four curved claws, he sees the blackness that is the cat begin to change...



The End








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Ailurophobia is copyright 1998, by Ora Matushansky. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)