The morning breeze was cool and soft. It ruffled the fur on Eggplant’s large, exposed belly as he lay in a patch of sun on the red bricks near the Benjamin tree in his backyard. His blackish-blue fur glittered in the light, clean and well maintained.
Eggplant was daydreaming about the food his people had left out on the counter that morning. His mouth watered as he remembered the large bite of scrambled eggs he’d taken and the sausage he’d snagged from the plate. Oh, how his mouth had come alive with such flavor! His entire body had felt energized, and all of his senses had been engaged. The food his people ate was far better than the dry biscuits he was expected to eat.
Still, even the dry biscuits provided on the regular were a better experience than hunting bugs. Back in his days as a crow, before he’d done a favor for Smudge the witch and been transformed into a cat, he’d had to eat bugs to survive. Much less preferable.
Life was easy now, he mused, and he was glad for it. Eggplant rolled over on his other side, letting the warmth of the sun soak into him.
Unbeknownst to Eggplant, a predator lurked in the shadows. Squiggles, a yellow and orange cat, crept forward one paw at a time, moving through the tall flowers. When he was close enough to pounce, he lowered down into the ready position. His heart raced, and he felt as if Eggplant could hear it. Haunches wiggling, tail straight out, he readied himself to jump.
“I know you’re there,” Eggplant said, eyes closed.
Squiggle’s jump floundered, and he landed short of his target on the bricks.
Eggplant rolled to his side and launched himself at his stalker. They rolled over and over until they both came to a stop in the soft grass nearby.
“You always know I’m there. How do you know?” Squiggles asked.
Eggplant let out a small laugh. “I’m an expert hunter,” he said. His chubby sides heaved as he tried to catch his breath.
Squiggles pounced onto Eggplant who rolled again, throwing his attacker off. After another minute of battle, they lay in the grass.
“You interrupted me,” Eggplant said.
Squiggles looked at him in confusion. “What were you doing?”
“I was resting. It’s essential for a cat to rest, as you should know,” he said to the younger cat. “Why have you come to bother me?”
“I’ve been itching all day. We should check in with Smudge,” Squiggles said.
“Are you sure you don’t have fleas?”
“If I had fleas, you would too. I’d know that strange itch anywhere.”
Eggplant lay on his side, belly extending into the grass. “I’m not itchy yet. We don’t need to go so soon.”
Squiggles lifted one front paw, then another. “We should make sure everything is ready for the ritual,” he said, referring to the yearly ritual they undertook to keep their feline forms. If they didn’t undertake the ritual, they’d transform back into their original selves—Eggplant a crow and Squiggles a gecko.
Eggplant sighed. “You’re always so nervous, aren’t you? What a scaredy-cat. I’m sure everything will be fine.” But he could see the look of concern in Squiggles’ bright eyes. “Alright,” he said, heaving himself to his paws. His belly hung down, touching the grass.
The two cats left their backyard and headed into the neighborhood out front. At the end of the street, a car puttered by. The sky was a standard Australian blue, without a cloud in sight, and the wind moved softly past, carrying the scent of cooking breakfast sausages.
“I’d like some of that,” Eggplant said, sniffing the air as his whiskers twitched.
Squiggles laughed and used a paw to point at Eggplant’s belly. “You don’t need any more food.”
“How rude! That’s my primordial pouch, and it’s completely normal for cats to have it. It protects my stomach from attack.”
“The girth of it protects itself from attack.”
Eggplant sighed, thinking of the sausages again. Maybe his people would have something waiting for them, forgotten, out on the counter when they got home. He wanted to check, but an itch started at the back of his paw, reminding him of the ritual. He bit at the itch, satisfying it, and decided to continue checking in on Smudge. Afterall, there would be no more leftovers on the kitchen counter or those scratches he loved, the ones right between his ears, if he turned back into a crow.
The neighborhood was full of large houses. Olive, mulberry, pine, and gum trees rose up from the various front yards, all swaying gently in the wind. Most of the houses had manicured flower beds out front and patchy, green yards with tough sun-resistant grass. Driveways up and down the street were empty, with most of the neighbors having gone to work for the day.
The pair crossed the flowerbed in their front yard with delicate steps, slinked under the pine tree, and then went through the driveway of the house next door. They went down two houses, Eggplant leading the way, tails perky and raised high.
From across the street came a yapping bark. A small, fluffy white dog ran to the edge of a yard of an older house while his elderly owner smoked on her wooden porch. He barked at the two cats as they walked.
“My yard!” the little dog said. “Stay away! I’ll kill you!”
“Quiet, Chester,” the old woman said without much enthusiasm.
The two cats ignored Chester with their heads held high. Why he wanted to defend the yellowish, summer-burned grass in the front yard was beyond the comprehension of the two cats.
Squiggles and Eggplant walked alongside Smudge’s house. There were several praying statues out front and a pebbled area with a small stream. They crossed the tiny, wooden bridge over the trickling water and went along the side of the house toward the backyard.
Eggplant looked at the bamboo gate. Usually, it stood open, and they could walk right through it. “Smudge!” Eggplant called.
“We’ll have to go over,” Squiggles said. Without hesitation, Squiggles jumped and propelled himself over the top of the gate. “Are you coming?” he called from the other side.
“Why don’t you go on without me?” Eggplant said, and Squiggles sighed.
“Too much sausage!” Squiggles said.
Eggplant looked up at the latch on the gate. It seemed simple. In his crow days, it would have been easy to get it open. He jumped and pawed the latch.
“What are you doing?” Squiggles asked, tail twitching impatiently.
“I’m going to open the gate,” Eggplant said.
Squiggles sat in the grass, not knowing how long it would take for Eggplant to either open it or give up. He knew that once Eggplant got an idea into his bird-brain, it was hard to convince him out of it.
Eggplant smacked against the gate, shaking the door. Squiggles looked through the slats of the gate, trying to see what was going on.
“I’ve almost got it!” Eggplant said.
The latch was secured with a metal bar. He jumped again and batted at the tail end of the metal bar, pushing it to the side. Now, all he had to do was get the gate open. Eggplant stuck his paw under the gate.
“What are you doing now?” Squiggles asked.
Eggplant’s reply sounded strained. “I have to open the door,” he said. “I’ve got it unlatched. Help me push.”
Squiggles went up to the door and put both paws against it. He pushed, but the door didn’t move.
“We have to go the other way,” Eggplant said after a moment. “Get out of the way. I’ll push.”
On the other side of the door, Eggplant repeated the motion Squiggles had just taken. He pushed with both paws, and the gate swung open.
He sauntered through the opening, tail raised high, with a look of smug satisfaction on his face. “There,” he said. “Much more civilized than all this jumping business.” But he sounded out of breath, and Squiggles could tell it had taken a considerable effort.
“Whatever you say,” Squiggles said, turning toward the rest of the yard.
They walked together on the pebbled path. “Smudge!” they called as they left the alleyway between the fence and the house and made it into the yard.
Smudge’s backyard was a pristine garden full of maintained flowerbeds and ornate, praying statues. Urns sported multicolored plants of different shapes and sizes. There was a large pagoda made of bamboo off to the side near the fence. The two cats walked into the center of the yard, detouring around a bubbling water feature Smudge used for her rituals. The water fountain flowed into a pond where water plants bobbed. The water was clean and clear, and Eggplant lapped some on his way by.
“Smudge? Are you here?” Squiggles called.
Eggplant went over to the bench under the pagoda and sniffed around—no sign of Smudge.
“What if she’s inside?” Eggplant called over to Squiggles.
They went to the cat door, but it was closed, locked by a latch on the inside.
“Rats,” Eggplant said.
“Maybe she’s out in the neighborhood,” Squiggles said, and Eggplant nodded. They’d have to check.
Squiggles followed Eggplant out through the open gate and back into the front yard and the rest of the neighborhood.
The little white dog, Chester, ran back into position by the street. “Stay away! I’ll eat your innards!”
The cats continued on. They knew he was all bark, and no bite.
“Smudge!" they called while walking across the front yards and driveways of the neighborhood. They sniffed, trying to pick up her familiar scent. Unfortunately, the smell of sausage overpowered any smell of Smudge, causing Eggplant’s stomach to growl.
Several houses down, they heard a greeting bark reply to their calls. They were near Deefa’s house.
“I bet she can pick up the scent,” Eggplant said, and Squiggles nodded in agreement.
Deefa was laying in the shade of a wooden back porch next to a hot tub and sun-aged outdoor furniture. Her thick tail thumped on the ground as she saw her friends approach.
“Deefa!” Squiggles called. “We can’t find Smudge.”
The two cats walked up to the dog and nuzzled her in a greeting. The Australian Shepherd gave them each a hearty lick from the nose back between the ears to say hello.
“I’ll help,” she said, standing up, tail wagging.
Squiggles, seeing Deefa’s tail, was transfixed by the movement it made back and forth and hunched down, ready to pounce.
“Squig!” Eggplant said.
Squiggles shook his head, breaking his concentration, and returned to the conversation. Eggplant was telling Deefa they had searched the yard and the neighborhood to no luck.
“I know her scent well,” Deefa said. “We’ll be able to find her.”
Deefa led the way, nose twitching. She stood in her front yard and sniffed the air. She looked up and down the road, still sniffing, then she walked back up the street toward Smudge’s house. Deefa led them back to the open gate and around the building to the other side. She stopped at an open window.
“The smell is strongest in this area,” she said and smelled the air again. “She’s inside.”
“Are you sure?” Eggplant asked. “The cat door was locked, and her people always let her outside.”
Deefa sniffed deeply before letting out a quick sneeze, nose pointed toward the window. “I’m sure!” she said.
Three garbage bins sat below the window, and Squiggles jumped up on top of the yellow lidded bin. “I think I can get in through here,” he said to the others.
Eggplant looked up at the top of the bin. It was a high jump. He looked over at Deefa as if asking her to go first.
“Don’t look at me,” Deefa said. “I can’t jump, not since I had that problem with my hips,” she said and picked up one back leg weakly to show her point.
Eggplant looked back up at Squiggles who had jumped the rest of the way up onto the ledge of the window.
“Come on,” Squiggles called down at Eggplant.
“Mind giving me a boost?” Eggplant askedDeefa, who looked confused.
“Come stand over here,” Eggplant said. After he had maneuvered Deefa into position, he hopped up onto the dog’s back and jumped the rest of the way onto the lid of the yellow bin.
“Thanks for the help,” Squiggles said to Deefa, who gave a happy little bark in reply.
“Now, let’s go find Smudge,” Squiggles said, squeezing his way through the opening of the window and dropping down inside. Eggplant followed. His large belly squished, and he groaned as he moved through the opening, but, finally, he was through and dropped down onto the chair on the other side of the wall.
* * *
The inside of the house was cool, and the lights were off. The dim light caused no problem for the two cats and their keen sight.
They were in a white kitchen next to a large wooden dining table, and the scent of a recently eaten breakfast lingered in the air.
“Smudge?” Squiggles said nervously, taking a step forward.
A quiet meow replied to Squiggles call, coming from down the hall.
“Did you hear that?” Eggplant asked, ears perked and listening. “I thought I heard something.”
“Me too,” Squiggles replied.
They left the kitchen and walked into a hallway that branched off into other rooms of the house. Most of the doors were closed.
Eggplant called out. “Smudge!”
Another meow came in reply, a little louder this time.
They walked up the hallway and pushed open a door that hadn’t been closed all the way.
Inside, was Smudge’s cat room. Sunlight streamed in through a large window. A carpeted tree structure with many sitting platforms spanned one wall, providing a great vantage point over the toys and cardboard boxes that littered the floor. In the middle of the room was a large cage.
“I’m here!” came a meow from the cage. Eggplant immediately recognized the soft voice, it was Smudge!
They walked up to the cage and took turns touching noses in greeting between the metal bars.
“What are you doing here?” Smudge asked. The she-cat was beautiful. Her long white fur and blue eyes made her a star of the neighborhood.
“We could be asking you the same thing,” Eggplant said.
“What’s with the cage? Are you in trouble?” Squiggles asked, circling.
Smudge laughed and then showed them her back leg. It was wrapped tightly in a solid, green cast.
“What happened?” Eggplant asked.
Smudge took a deep sigh. “I was out looking for Charlie, and I was attacked by someone,” she said and lay down, getting comfortable. “I can barely remember.”
“Why can’t you remember?” Eggplant asked
Smudge shook her head. The events of the attack were cloudy in her mind, and she tried to explain the best she could. “I must have hit my head, and it caused a bit of memory loss. I’m sure whatever potion the vets gave me for pain hasn’t helped either,” she said with a small chuckle.
“Why are you stuck in there? We were looking for you out in the garden,” Squiggles said.
“It’s only while my people are gone.”
Eggplant stared at the latch on the cage. It was similar to the one on the gate. His eyes flashed in the low light, and he smirked. “Would you like us to let you out for a little walk?” he asked.
Smudge shook her head. She could barely manage a limp. She was about to speak but caught the look in Eggplant’s eyes. Something about his expression told her that he wanted to open the cage for his own reasons, and she couldn’t help but let a smile touch her muzzle.
“Sure,” she said. “Let me out. I could use a bit of a stretch.”
Eggplant knew it was a lie for his benefit. The cage was the largest one he had ever seen and plenty big enough for her to stretch all she wanted. It had food, water, and even a litter tray in the back. Still, he was eager to show off his skills.
“Alright,” Eggplant said, taking a preliminary stretch. His mind raced, trying to figure out the best angle to undo the latch. It seemed simple, but it would be hard to maneuver it without the way he’d been able to grasp things in the past when he was a crow.
Smudge moved to the other side of the cage, and Squiggles followed alongside, tail raised high in concern.
“Tell me more about what you do remember, if you can,” Squiggles said. He was worried something so wrong had happened in their neighborhood, right under his nose.
Smudge looked down at her front paws in concentration. “It’s foggy,” she said. “I’ve been trying to remember. I recall barking,” she paused, searching for the right words, “but I’m not sure who it was, and I remember a bad smell.”
While they talked, Eggplant worked on the latch. He used a paw to nudge the bar to the side slowly, but it was hard to control the movement.The metal bar didn’t slide well against the other metal pieces.
Back on the other side of the cage, Squiggles was questioning Smudge. She answered his questions to the best of her ability, but recalling was hard due to the pain potion her people had given her to help with her leg.
The conversation switched to the disappearance of Charlie, and it brought her fear up again. Her tail twitched as she told Squiggles that Charlie had been missing for several days.
A click sounded from the other end of the cage where Eggplant was working. Eggplant let out a meow of satisfaction as he nudged the metal door open with his paw.
Smudge moved slowly. Her casted leg dragged awkwardly behind her through the soft blankets and thumped down onto the floor when she left the cage. She let out a little meow of discomfort, and Squiggles raced over to her. He gave her a reassuring lick on the forehead, and she purred weakly in reply.
I think I’ll sit here,” she said, plopping down with her casted leg sticking out.
“Does it hurt?” Squiggles asked.
“The potion helps,” she replied and tried to sound cheery, but it was hard. “It’s impossible to bend, and I can’t groom the area nearby well.”
Mention of the potion made Eggplant’s memory flash. He looked over at Squiggles, who was busy grooming Smudge’s hard to reach spot.
“This might be a bad time to ask,” Eggplant said, getting Smudge’s attention. “But we still need our ritual in the next coming days.”
Smudge’s eyes widened, and her purr stopped. “That’s right! It’s almost the full moon,” she said. Then she looked back at her casted leg. “I’m afraid you’ll have to gather the ingredients for me. Usually, it would be up to Charlie to keep me well-stocked, and I can’t do it myself in this state. I used the last of several ingredients for my potion to help find Charlie, as much help as that ended up doing.”
Squiggles gulped. Gather their own ingredients? He tried to remember the last ritual almost a year ago and thought of the complicated process they had been through.
Smudge sensed his concern. “It won’t be a problem, I have most of the items,” she said, motioning toward the area nearby where a cardboard house stood. “The Falling Cat has graced me with a bountiful harvest of the harder to get ingredients. It’s only the simpler, more used ones we’ll need for the ritual this year.”
“What are those?” Eggplant asked.
“Spiderwebs, moonberries, and cat grass,” she said.
Aside from spiderwebs, Squiggles didn’t recognize the names of the other items. How were they supposed to get them all?
“We’ll report back when we’re done with the spider webs,” Eggplant decided.
Eggplant pushed the door to the cage closed with both paws and went about fastening the lock. It was easier now that he’d already done it once. All he had to do was move the metal piece over to the left where it would connect.
Squiggles followed Eggplant through the house and back the way they’d come. They hopped up onto the chair like they’d done on their way in, jumped up to the ledge, and went through to the outside.