Rinidra’s ears went flat and her tail went stiff. The mottled blur moving toward her was fast, too fast. If she had heard it a fraction of a heartbeat later, she wouldn’t have even seen it.
Her heartbeat. It was hammering now. A surge of raw force filled her chest. In an instant, her body unfroze. Her legs sprung beneath her. They swept her to the side. The mottled blur zoomed past her. She felt its whiskers brush her side.
She skittered away from the edge and turned to look over it.
They were high. The blur was gone.
The cat…was gone.
It had leapt toward Rini, and then plummeted over the side of the roof.
Rini approached the edge, cautiously, as if she was afraid that the cat would suddenly leap up. They had sharp claws. Maybe sharp enough to dig into the brick and hang there. And they had strong muscles. Maybe strong enough to pull themselves up the side of a building.
Rini had never seen a cat climb a building as tall as the one she was on. But maybe…
So she approached with caution, and she peered over the edge.
There, below on the ground, lay the cat, its remains spattered on the sidewalk.
It hadn’t cried out, Rini realized.
The cat was going to kill her, but Rini still felt a moment of pity and regret.
She also still felt the slowly receding remnants of fear and dread.
The feelings would linger, she knew. She would likely not sleep well that night.
Rini woke feeling that cold empty dread in the pit of her stomach. She lived in her hovel alone, and yet she felt the presence of another.
Before she could fully wake, she saw the other.
Her ears went flat, and her tail went stiff.
Two eyes, yellow with a green glow, hovered in the darkness. A shaft of soft light from a crack in the wall fell between Rini and those eyes, those eyes that loomed. Those eyes that floated closer.
A smiling snout appeared in the shaft of light, and wicked whispers, and sharp, pointed ears, and those eyes whose hungry gaze fell upon Rini.
And Rini knew, though she hadn’t seen it closely before, that this was the same cat who had come for her on the roof. The same cat with the many-colored fur. The same cat whose feet had made enough noise to alert Rini in time to escape.
This time, the cat leapt, and Rini’s body remained frozen. She should have kept her eyes open. She should have died defiant. But she couldn’t help it. She closed her eyes.
And she felt that cold fog of dread again. Not in her gut, but all around her. A shock of cold that made her gasp and open her eyes.
Rini stood still, just breathing, short and shallow breaths.
She began to shiver. She was cold, but the cold began to fade. She felt a tickle on her skin and realized that it was liquid. She shook herself and saw droplets flying off her fur. Water had condensed on her fur and then melted, as if she’d come indoors from out of a wintry day.
She spun around and braced herself.
Where is it? she thought.
Where was the cat?
Suddenly, she heard a low, rumbling purring. Those two glowing green-yellow eyes appeared again, staring at her. Rini flexed her muscles, but the cat was too close. And Rini was dazed and dizzied. The cat pounced again. Rini froze again, her eyes open this time, expecting the inevitable pain, and hoping for the merciful numbness that would surely follow. But the cat passed right through her, like cold fog, dissipating like vapor.
Rini understood right away.
And so, it seemed, did the cat.
“I’m a ghost,” the cat said.
Rini wasn’t sure what to expect next as the cat’s wispy form solidified until it looked almost alive again. Rini gulped. Would the cat release a great and frustrated yowl? Would it begin to swipe its paws at Rini in a futile rage? Would it stalk away into the night never to be seen again?
Rini dared to hope it would be that last guess.
But the cat did not do any of what Rini expected.
The cat sat on her haunches and sighed. She smiled a lazy smile and said again, “I’m a ghost.”
But then she stopped smiling and her eyes widened. She looked down at Rini. “I must have unfinished business in this world. That’s why I’m still here.”
Rini gulped again, but this time, it wasn’t out of fear. Her fear was fading. Because as she gazed at the feline figure before her, she could see the difference between that figure and the form of a living cat. This cat, even when appearing fully solid, had a just-perceptible wispiness surrounding her form. And she wasn’t quite “fully” solid. She was just mostly solid. Rini thought she could see the outline of the cat’s tail through her body.
“Why are you haunting me, cat?” Rini said, and she had only meant to say it to herself (as she often spoke to herself when alone).
But the cat heard her. “My unfinished business. You must be a part of it.” The cat leaned down, causing Rini to skitter back a few steps. “I’m Patter, by the way. How do you do?”
Rini realized what the cat must mean by “unfinished business.” The last thing that cat did in life was try to kill Rini.
The cat didn’t wait for an answer to her insensitive pleasantry.
“I must complete my unfinished business before I can pass into the afterworld, into paradise,” the cat said.
Rini blinked. She peered at the cat. Now that she knew the cat couldn’t hurt her, she was curious. This time, when she spoke aloud, it was on purpose. “After all the mice you’ve killed, you still expect to see the afterworld paradise?”
The cat recoiled from her. “Well…”
“Or is it worse? Is killing mice the way that you enter paradise? How gruesome.”
“Well, you mice eat worms!” the cried proclaimed. “Don’t you?”
Rini felt her whiskers bristle. But she quickly reminded herself that, ghost or not, she was speaking to a cat. The ghost cat had found her way to Rini’s hovel. Rini would have to abandon her home. She did not know if the ghost cat would be able to follow, but she had to at least try to escape.
“I’ve never killed a mouse in my life,” the cat said. She sat all the way down and rested her head on her paws. “I never wanted to. I never would have. But the Knights…”
Rini began to back away, as quietly as she could while the cat’s head was turned away.
“I tried for a while, you know,” the cat said, sighing. She licked her paws, sending curls of wispy vapor into the air. “I’m no hunter. But why should a cat be a hunter? I tried to find other cats who didn’t want to hunt. I wonder if you mice know of our legends.”
She raised her head and turned it toward Rini, who froze in her tracks.
“We cats didn’t always hunt prey for food, you know. We once survived on a food that legend calls the ‘milk of the moon.’” They were hunters actually, our ancestors, but they never hunted small prey. They hunted evil things.” She turned away, and Rini prepared to move, but she turned to Rini again. “And they weren’t the enemies of the dogs.”
Rini frowned. She had no idea what the cat was talking about. She’d had no reason to study cat legends.
“I didn’t want to hunt you,” the cat said.
She went on to explain that she had only been hunting Rini because it was a test put to her by a group of young cats who call themselves the Knights of the Fang. They fancied themselves modern-day equivalents of the old orders of Knights that were once prevalent among the many societies of cats around the world.
But the cat wasn’t sure what the Knights of the Fang did. They didn’t seem to have any purpose, be it protecting their people, scholarship, artistry, or anything. They didn’t sing in the alleyways, or hunt evil.
“They only hunt mice,” Patter said. Her voice grew deep and dark. “They explained to me and the other initiates how mice were not harmless prey as all cats are taught to keep us from fearing and worrying. No, mice were sneaky and cunning and lazy, scavenging off other mammals. They were a dire threat to the feline way of life.”
Rini felt her heart seize. She reminded herself again that this particular cat could not harm her. At least, not physically. At least, not so far as she knew.
The cat put her head back down and turned away from Rini again. “You know, my mother is the one who first started calling me Patter. She thought it was clever, because of my real name…”
Rini crept away, farther and farther away. She did not have time or space to gather any precious belongings. Maybe she would ask a friend to go and fetch them for her. For now, she had only to carry away her most precious belonging. Her life.
She walked slowly backwards, watching the entrance to her hovel, watching for those glowing green-yellow eyes. But they didn’t appear as she made her way across the large room. And they didn’t appear when she squeezed through a crack into the hallway of the apartment building where she had made her home for most of her life. And they didn’t appear as she began to creep down the stairs and out into the alleyway.
Hugging the wall of the building, Rini allowed herself as much rest as she could while feeling a strange and restless tension just under her skin. It was the middle of the night. She was tired and cold. She had to find shelter or she might encounter a living cat, leaping out of the shadows, one who actually could dismember her for sport or food.
She crept along the wall of the building toward a corner. She would have to dash across the street in the open. She paused at the corner to look around.
“That was unpleasant.”
Rini gasped and spun around at the chilling sound of a familiar voice.
It was her. That patch-furred cat. That ghost.
“Why did you leave without saying anything?” the cat asked. She shook her fur and arched her back. “I still feel the tingles! It like I was a rubber band—have you ever played with those? I started feeling a strange tension, but I kept on talking, like a fool. And you weren’t even listening.”
“She said without conviction,” said the cat.
The cat sighed. “You are stuck with me, mouse-whose-name-I-don’t-know. And I do mean stuck.”
Rini gulped, and wondered why her cursed throat had to be so dry. “You didn’t follow me, did you?” She knew the cat had not followed her, unless the cat was able to be invisible. But Rini had felt a strange tension too. She had thought it was apprehension, but that was a tension she recognized. This new tension felt different.
Patter shook her head. “I understand why you snuck away, of course.” She grinned. “I was boring you!”
Rini hesitated, thinking of how she might respond.
“You want to be rid of me, I know,” said the cat. “I would too if I were you. I’m glad it worked out for you. I’m glad my feet were so noisy. That’s how I got my nickname, by the way. My mother said I didn’t have the quiet feet of a cat, but the pattering feet of a—“ She suddenly stopped and her eyes grew wide as she looked at Rini.
“A mouse?” Rini finished.
“But I’m glad my feet were noisy in life, because if they weren’t, you might not have heard me. I might have killed you. And even after you passed into your paradise, I would have been haunted by you and what I did to you for the rest of my days.”
Rini peered at the ghost cat for a moment. Then she arched a brow. “I would have heard you anyway.”
The cat grinned. “Really?”
Rini wasn’t sure if she would have or not. “You don’t seem upset to be dead.”
“For trying to kill, I deserved to die.” Patter dropped her gaze.
Rini peered at the cat, until she found words to speak. “To that, I have no response that would satisfy either of us.”
“Perhaps the opposite is true too,” Patter said, raising her gaze and smiling again. “For trying to save, I would have deserved to live.”
“You? Maybe that is my penance, my unfinished business. I am to accompany you for the remainder of your days and make sure that no one—especially no cat—preys on your or even bothers you.”
Once again, Rini gulped. “I’m certain that’s not your unfinished business. In any case, I absolve you of all responsibility toward me. You are free to go. Really.”
The cat began to purr and by reflex a spike of fear pierced Rini’s heart, until she realized that Patter was laughing.
“You want to be rid of me. But you’re my unfinished business. Something must be awry.”
“Begging your pardon, but you’re a ghost. You can’t touch anything. How could you possibly protect or save me anyway?”
Patter stopped purring. “You have a point.”
“Yes, so maybe I am not your unfinished business. Maybe your link to me is accidental, because I was the last living being near you just before you died.”
Patter tapped her claws on the pavement, ghostly claws that made no tapping sound. “Maybe…”
“And maybe if I help you with your actual unfinished business, you and I will both be free of the link.”
Patter cocked her head. “You would help me, after what I’ve done—or tried to do?”
Rini shook her head. “It would seem I have no choice.”
“Of course. Well, there is something else, something important. But I can’t quite recall. I didn’t want to hunt you, but I was hunting you for some reason.”
Rini frowned. “Yes, you were trying to pass that morbid test.”
Patter gasped with realization. “Yes, a test! The Knights of the Fang. I remember now.”
Rini sighed and began walking along the building back the way she had come. She thought she might as well return to her hovel. The cat followed and began to tell her the story of how she had come to Rini. She repeated much of what she’d already told Rini, even what she knew Rini had heard before sneaking off. And she began telling other stories of her life, surprising herself with her remembrances. Rini observed that the cat seemed to only remember details of her life when she spoke them aloud, or maybe when she spoke them aloud to someone else.
She was encouraged by that observation. If she was right, then she might be able to help the cat discover her true unfinished business. Because it certainly wasn’t being Rini’s bodyguard. Or so Rini prayed.
By the time they returned to the hovel, Patter was recounting again how and why she been on that roof, noisily hunting Rini. She paused the story as Rini squeezed through the door and back inside. Rini’s sigh of gladness was interrupted by the purring of the ghost cat, who had suddenly appeared inside the novel, her patchwork fur prickling.
She wondered aloud how Rini could stand living in such a cramped space, then continued on with her story.
Finding no friends or companions elsewhere, Patter had applied to join the Knights of the Fang, dreaming that she might defend her people, be hailed as a hero, or just sit and bask in the company of her fellow cats.
The Knights told Patter that she must prove herself to join them. And to prove herself worthy, she had to do three things: hunt and kill a mouse, give up something precious to her as a token of her loyalty, and renounce her given name to take on her Knight name.
She had already claimed the name that they had given her, Graydoom. She couldn’t even remember her given name. She only knew it had some relation to the nickname that she somehow still remembered. And she had surrendered something precious to her, though she couldn’t remember what. The only challenge that had remained was hunting and killing a mouse.
“Curse those Knights,” Patter said. “If I could haunt them instead, I would. Curse them and that stupid name they gave me. I renounce the name Graydoom!”
Suddenly, the cat’s entire form burst out into a thick fog that vanished into vapor, and then slowly condensed and rematerialized again.
“What happened?” Patter asked.
“I think you might have figured out your unfinished business,” Rini said, nibbling on the cheese and cracker snack she had fetched herself while Patter chattered on with her story.
The cat frowned. “But I’m still here.”
Rini explained about the tension she felt when the cat was present, a tension that intensified when they were farther away from each other, but one that she felt even when the cat was right in front of her.
“That tension just vanished for a few heartbeats,” Rini said. “But it came back when you turned back from vapor into the shape of a cat.”
Patter furrowed her brows. “Did I tell you,” she asked, “what my true name is? The one my mother gave me?”
Rini nibbled. “No, you couldn’t remember.”
The cat smiled, not an amused smile, and certainly not a wicked smile. She smiled a fond smile. “My mother named me. All the other kittens in her brood had fur that was all one color. But I was many colors,” she said, glancing down at her patchwork fur. “She called me Pattern.”
Despite herself, Rini smiled. “I like that name.”
The cat threw back her head and laughed until she purred. “Enough to give me yours at last?”
Rini stopped nibbling. “Rinidra.” She bowed her head. “Shall I give you my titles as well?”
“Do you have any?”
They both began to chuckle.
“No one calls me that,” Rini said. “Most call me Rini.”
“Good, then I renounce my hunt of the brave mouse, Rini,” the cat said. “Now and forevermore.”
Again, the cat’s form burst out into fog and vapors that fluttered and curled back into themselves, before condensing and reforming the figure of the mottled cat.
Rini gazed at the ghost cat.
“It’s working, Rini.”
“So, your unfinished business is to renounce the test that your false friends, the Knights of the Fang, gave you.”
The cat was taken aback at Rini’s words. “False friends. Yes, they were. Except that to call them ‘friends’ is itself a falsity.” Patter sighed and twitched her whiskers. “We were never friends.”
“Then you might want to take back from them whatever precious thing you gave up to them,” Rini said. “Maybe you can haunt it away from them. What was it anyway? A tuft of your mother’s fur? A fang that fell out when you were a kitten? A ribbon your found on—“ Rini stopped.
The cat had started fading, growing translucent, her color graying. But Rini still felt that tension, and though the cat was still right in front of her, the tension intensified. It crackled along Rini’s skin.
The tension slackened.
The cat, whose eyes seemed to be gazing into a different world from the one Rini occupied, solidified again, regaining her color and form, and that luminescence that traced her form. But her head drooped, and her ghostly fur seemed wilted.
“What have I done?” Patter said. “I thought it would be all right. They give the precious things back after you have passed the tests, after you have become one of them. I’d heard they give it back. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”
She released a yowling groan.
“What is it?” Rini asked. “What did you give them?”
The cat’s glowing green-yellow eyes dimmed. “You must help me Rini. You don’t owe it but I ask you for it. Help me, I beg you. And even if it doesn’t work, even if my business is unfinished, I will find some way to free you from me. I promise you.”
Rini stood on her hind legs, trying to bring herself closer to the cat’s face. “What, Patter? What did you give up?”
With another sorrowful yowl, the cat spoke.
Rini gaped. “I’ll help you,” she said. And as the cat began to beam, she pointed a tiny finger in the air and added. “If you find someone else to take her in. I am not raising a kitten.”
Rini, calm and resolved, her ear’s perked and her arms crossed, listened as Patter, her ghostly heart hammering, described the lair of the Knights of the Fang.
So ended the night of a fateful failed hunt.
And so began the day, with a cat and a mouse plotting, each for her freedom from the other.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel