Authors: Robert Repino
Copyright © 2015 by Robert Repino
All rights reserved.
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.
The Handmaid’s Tale
, by Margaret Atwood, US Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Edition, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by O.W. Toad Ltd.; UK Virago Press Limited Edition, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by O.W. Toad Ltd.; and Canadian McClelland & Stewart Edition, Copyright © 1985 O.W. Toad Ltd. Reprinted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Used with permission of the author.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mort(e) : a novel / by Robert Repino.
1. Human-animal relationships—Fiction. 2. Monsters—Fiction.
3. Imaginary wars and battles—Fiction. I. Title.
Interior illustrations by Sam [email protected] Project
For my family
and my families
Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.” Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face …
God is love, they once said, but we reversed that …
Before he took his new name, before the animals rose up and overthrew their oppressors, before there was talk of prophecies and saviors, the great warrior Mort(e) was just a house cat known to his human masters as Sebastian. It was a time that now returned to him only in dreams and random moments of nostalgia that disappeared as quickly as they arose. All of it except for Sheba. The memory of her was always digging at him like a splinter under a nail.
Sebastian’s mother, a nameless stray, gave birth to her litter in the cargo bed of a pickup truck. If he tried hard enough, Mort(e) could see brief flashes of those days spent suckling with his brother and sister. He could recall the warmth of his mother’s fur, the rough surface of her tongue, the sound of her cooing, the smell of his siblings as they climbed over him, the wetness of their breath.
He could not, however, remember the circumstances that separated him from his family. There were no records for him to consult once he became sentient. All he could do was imagine the truck driver—most likely a friend of the Martinis, his eventual owners—discovering the destitute brood while loading the vehicle one morning. Sebastian’s mother probably hissed and scratched when the humans removed her kittens. But in
the end, she must have been grateful to be relieved of them. Instinct told her that she had fulfilled her evolutionary role and was still young enough to have more kittens.
From that morning on, the days dissolved into one another for little Sebastian. Janet and Daniel Martini were a young couple then. The newlyweds spent their first year together renovating their house for the children they planned to have. Left to himself, Sebastian believed that he owned the place. He crept into the rafters and slunk through the newly constructed ceilings and walls. The workmen covered up the wooden beams, shooing Sebastian away from his favorite hiding spots.
Once the living room was complete, Sebastian would recline in the square of sunlight on the carpet, drifting in and out of sleep, watching the dust motes floating around him. During the day, while the Martinis worked, the house was quiet. At night, Sebastian would visit his masters at the dinner table, sometimes reaching his paws up to Daniel’s lap. The man wore jeans that carried the scents of his print shop: chemical cleaners and metal and ink. The manufactured odors would sting Sebastian’s nostrils if he inhaled too deeply. Daniel would then lead the cat to the basement stairs, where he kept the water and food, along with the litter box.
Sebastian rarely thought of his siblings or his mother, until one morning when a family of strays marched in single file across the front lawn. The mother led two kittens who obediently hopped behind her. Sensing they were being watched, the mother stopped and pointed her tail in the air. She eyed Sebastian, who stared at her in return, his paws propping him up on the windowsill. She hissed. Sebastian hissed back, mimicking her. Then she extended her paw, and three sharp claws emerged from the tips. Sebastian flinched. Satisfied, the mother cat kept walking. Her young ones gave Sebastian a final once-over before following.
A dog’s bark sent them scurrying out of sight. The dog was Hank, a brown mutt who lived across the street. Hank seemed to have no purpose in life other than barking until he was hoarse, while his red nylon leash strained to keep him at bay. He often focused his anger on Sebastian, who slept on the windowsill when he wanted to feel the cool glass on his side. On this day, Sebastian let Hank holler for a little while before stepping away from the window. It was an act of mercy.
Sebastian gazed at his own paws and noticed for the first time that the toes were not as long as those of the other cats. The digits had been sheared off. That seemed impossible, for he should have remembered such an incident. Regardless, this observation produced a moment of clarity for him. There were probably many things he did not remember about his past, living by himself in this house, sleeping away the time. Moreover, there were cats and other creatures beyond the walls, and he had been one of them. But now he was here, separated from others like him. He knew there was no way out, even though he had never searched for one.
Though it may have been terrifying, the moment drifted away, along with most other memories. There was warmth and food here, along with other wonders and distractions. A new plush carpet in the living room was even softer than his mother’s furry belly. An enormous gaudy mirror took up nearly an entire wall of the living room, leaving him baffled for weeks after its installation. Not only was there another room, but another cat! This stranger had a white chin with an orange streak that draped over his forehead, extending along his spine to his tail. Though Sebastian was relieved to discover that the other cat was an illusion, he still had to remind himself of this fact every time he walked by the mirror.
He dedicated entire days to the new television, with its
flickering screen, endless looping wires, and whirring circuitry. When the Martinis left the attic door open, Sebastian had a new world to conquer, filled with toys, cardboard boxes, holiday decorations. His first expedition lasted from one sundown to the next. From the window he could see gray roofs, green lawns, streets that glistened in the rain, and a never-ending stream of cars rolling along the horizon, the edge of the known world.
And then Janet brought home a young one of her own. A few days later, Daniel picked Sebastian up—something he never did—and carried him into a bedroom where the baby boy lay on a towel on the mattress. Daniel spoke softly to Sebastian, rocking him gently before placing him on the bed. Sebastian sniffed the baby’s soft, clean skin. The baby gurgled and waved his arms. Daniel let Sebastian sit there for a long time.
Sebastian liked the child, whose name was Michael. And he was happy when, perhaps a year later, Daniel brought him another infant, a girl named Delia. These were his people, and he belonged with them. This was home. He was safe here. There was nothing else to life. There didn’t need to be.
FOR MANY ANIMALS,
things began to change when they were first exposed to the hormone. For Sebastian, the real change began when Janet started sleeping with the next-door neighbor.
The neighbor appeared out of nowhere in the Martinis’ driveway one day. Janet chatted with the man while the babies were asleep upstairs. Sebastian observed from the window. The neighbor was tall, with long hair that flopped behind his ears and a pair of round glasses that reflected the light in brief flashes. Beside him, fidgeting at his knees, was a dog. Large brown eyes. A white coat with an orange patch extending from the hip to the shoulders. Mysterious and exotic, a
creature from another world. The man would occasionally grasp her collar in order to hold her still.
Sebastian was convinced that the dog was about to attack Janet. He pawed at the window in an attempt to warn her. If only he had those sharp claws like the stray cats, she would have heard the scratching. The neighbor gave the dog a whack on her side, and she sat down and remained still. This animal was clearly the man’s property, and posed no threat. The use of force to subdue the dog surprised Sebastian, for the only time he could recall being disciplined was when he sat in the recliner. Janet had swatted him out of it so many times that he began to believe that the chair was somehow connected to the woman, and could summon her instantly.