An essay by May Hayashi, as provided by Laura Duerr
Art by Justine McGreevy
“So! You’re May, right? What do you do?” Brianne asks. She’s standing a little too close, hanging on to every word I say, smiling nonstop like she’s in conversation with her very best friend.
I manage to not roll my eyes. Weredogs.
She latched onto me the moment I arrived at this networking event, identifying me (correctly) as an introvert who did not want to be at said networking event and assuming (incorrectly) that I just needed someone to talk to. Her name is Brianne, and I expect her shapeshifter form is a golden retriever or something similarly friendly and nonthreatening.
I haven’t been able to tell if she knows I’m also a ‘shifter. The uncertainty makes me more anxious. Plus, since this is the eighth time tonight someone’s asked me what I do, I feel an increasing urge to answer truthfully:
“I turn into a housecat and prowl the streets hunting evil spirits.”
“Oh, you’re a ‘shifter too? Cool!”
“Technically, I’m a necromantic ailuranthrope. You’re a golden retriever, right?”
“Oh my God, how did you know?”
Casual sip from drink; present business card; profit.
“Right now I’m a barista,” I say, “but I’m looking for admin work.”
“Oh my gosh. I was a barista all through college, and I loved it,” Brianne gushes. “You meet so many interesting people!”
I still can’t figure out if she’s identified me or not. Subtle mockery of a cat ‘shifter’s introversion is a time-honored pastime of dog ‘shifters. We make fun of them in return, mocking their simple work and light responsibilities (they’ve fallen far from the tree of, say, their Armenian ancestors, who could resurrect dead warriors by licking their wounds), but we do so privately, to the one or two associates we work most closely with. I haven’t interacted with a dog ‘shifter in years, but it’s likely Brianne hasn’t run into any cat ‘shifters recently, either. There aren’t very many cynanthropes in the city because it’s harder for them to move around unnoticed, and ailuranthropes keep to heavily populated areas, where our prey is more common. Weredogs keep people happy; my sisters and I keep them safe.
I belatedly realized that the polite thing to do is ask her what she does, so I do.
She tilts her head towards me. “Sorry?”
I clench my jaw briefly. I was too quiet. I’m always too quiet. I hate it out here. I hate the cozy façade behind which it’s so easy for evil spirits to hide. I hate this punch, alarmingly red and so sweet it makes me thirstier with every sip. I hate the spirit I fled from, that drove me from my old job where I never had to talk to anyone. I want to go home.
I feel psychic flickers on the edge of my awareness. There are at least two other cynanthropes here, and despite their blithe cheeriness, they’ve begun to pick up on my distress. I don’t think they’ve identified me yet–the thought probably hasn’t even crossed Brianne’s mind–but I force myself to relax. If they can sense me, any spirits in the area will be able to sense me, too.
I clear my throat as nonchalantly as possible. “What is it you do?”
“I work in real estate right now, but my real passion is event planning.” She goes on to describe how her planning skills have transformed her real estate office and increased sales, and I try to look interested. I practice tracing the psychic flickers back to their origins. Sure enough, there are two other cynanthropes in the room: a woman representing a local microchip company and a fresh grad who thought wearing jeans and a hoodie to a networking event was a good decision. I think the woman has picked up on me, but the boy, like Brianne, is either clueless or unconcerned.
The woman notices my gaze and raises her cup slightly. I look away, frustrated. Getting a better job is not worth blowing my cover. I reach out again, seeking anyone else who might have detected me, but instantly pull back: something else is here, something far more dangerous than a curious weredog.
As soon as Brianne wraps up her pitch, I nod and gesture with my cup at nothing in particular. “Well, it was nice talking to you. I’m gonna …”
It’s probably rude to say “go somewhere else” even though that’s the extent of my plan, but Brianne just beams. “It was great to meet you, May! Good luck tonight.”
She shakes my hand and attaches herself to a nearby conversation with an ease I both detest and envy. I take my over-dyed sugar water and go to the nearest window. I let my eyes unfocus and my senses drift.
Anyone looking at me would see an ordinary woman scoping out a half-empty parking lot. I pretend it’s a view I’m more used to: a city at night, all black walls, purple sky, yellow streetlights, and the shifting white gleam of headlights trailed by dim red shadow. Though I’m hunting indoors, I can summon memories of the breeze in my whiskers and the smell of tires, garbage, cigarettes, and a dozen different cuisines. I can remember the twitch of my tail as I pick up scents of prey both mundane and supernatural. I can feel gravelly rooftops beneath hands turned paws. Most important of all, I can remember having purpose: those nightly hunts for the evil that creeps in wherever there is neglect, abuse, and violence. Those things exist everywhere, but they are abundant in the cities, and my sisters and I kept them controlled. We rarely interacted with each other–we are reclusive and territorial by nature–but we worked well enough in silent tandem.
I ache for that.
I can only sense traces of the nearby spirit. Possibly it realized I’d spotted it and retreated. I come back to myself, leaving little psychic tripwires along the way. If the spirit creeps back, I’ll know.
I sip my drink and pretend to respond to a nonexistent text. No one, not even my online friends, knows where I am. I’ve gone dark, done everything short of changing my identity. I have to lay low until it’s safe to return home.
The suburbs have proved less safe than I anticipated, though. Twice in the first week, while on the hunt, someone assumed I was a stray and tried to “rescue” me. In the city, no one gave a cat running around at night a second glance. I’ve been chased out of yards four times already, once by an excitable retiree defending her bird feeder with a BB gun. Instead of angry drunks and speeding cabs, I have to contend with aggressive children, mundane dogs with uncontrolled prey drive, and ‘shifter dogs who would expose me by trying to befriend me.
Three of whom are here tonight.
Around two dozen people have come to this event, mostly fresh grads dressed in slim trousers and preppy jackets. Then there’s me: twenty-seven years old, avoiding any actual networking, wearing a blazer I’ve had since high school and no makeup. My five years of admin experience aren’t even on my résumé because I can’t risk anyone, even potential employers, connecting me to my old life. Any one of them could be hosting the spirit that nearly killed me.
Something brushes the edges of my first psychic tripwire and scatters, spooked, before I can trace it. The suburbs have a sizable population of spirits, but they’re better at hiding than the urban ones, entrenched behind the privacy and niceties of the cozy upper middle class. In some ways, that makes my job easier. It means the spirits have grown complacent, unaccustomed to the hunt. I’ve identified and destroyed five already. The one skittering around the edges of my consciousness might become number six tonight.
Too bad that’s not the kind of thing that looks good on a résumé. Besides, with those five eliminated, the others will just burrow deeper, making my work harder.
It just makes me relish the hunt even more: the solitude, the clear goal, the quiet. I try not to let my skills slip. I’ll need them when the time comes for me to return to the city and drive out the evil I had to flee.
I shiver uncontrollably and try to mask it by draining the rest of my punch. For once, my tremor of fear wasn’t caused by a bad memory–I’ve sensed the spirit testing my tripwire again, and it feels familiar.
I don’t want to believe it, but even the dog ‘shifters seemed quieter, as if they can sense it, too.
I have to be sure.
I move away from the window and throw my empty cup away with unnecessary vehemence. I take refuge in the bathroom, hoping no one has noticed that it’s the third time I’ve gone in.
I lock myself in the large stall on the end and stand still, trying to keep my racing heart and increasingly frantic breathing under control. It smells like industrial antiseptic, perfume, and human waste, but beneath that, I can sense the swirl of psychic traces left by everyone who’s used this bathroom today. The weredogs–Brianne and the manager–have contributed their customary relaxed bliss to the mental cocktail. It’s tempting to just lean back and let it wash over me, to let the cynanthropes do their effortless work and cheer me up, and but I can also detect undercurrents of fear, futility, and shame. In cat form, I’d be able to perceive them more clearly, but they are strong enough that I can feel them even now.
And one of them feels very familiar.
My fingers tremble as I take off my black blazer, slacks, and the blouse that I can’t wear on its own because of the gaps between buttons. I lay them all gently over the bar on the wall, along with my socks, underwear, and bra. Even in my growing panic, I share a fastidiousness regarding germs with my cat form. I place my shoes on the toilet’s lid, out of view of anyone who might peek underneath the stall door.
I close my eyes, exhale, and feel myself collapse. If the transformation hurts, I never remember it. It’s always a confused blur as my senses reallocate themselves and my consciousness alters to perceive the supernatural more clearly.
I coil my hind legs and spring, landing delicately atop the toilet tank, where I sit and curl my tail around my toes. The cat, poised and alert, calms me. My whiskers and nose twitch. Yes–it’s the same scent, a mixture of fur and agony and the dead.
The nekomata has been here, and recently.
My first reaction is that it’s hunting me, but I dismiss that as vanity. Nekomata are old and vicious cat spirits, and they go where the prey is easy. In the same way American cat and dog ‘shifters each descend from various lines of guardian spirits, the nekomata I’ve encountered have adapted to new roles. This particular one doesn’t raise and control dead spirits, but it will still eat human flesh, and it’s more than happy to subdue and consume living spirits worn down by abuse, depression, addiction, or grief. In a suburb full of anxious, disheartened undergrads, it can find plenty of prey. It’s been testing me because it wasn’t sure it was actually me. It probably can’t believe its luck, and even now it’s planning how to destroy me.
I change back and dress myself slowly, calmly. Perhaps it’s a remnant of feline serenity, but I’m not frightened of the nekomata, even though I probably should be. I am already tired of hiding, and this time, I will not fail in my hunt.
It’s nearly ten, and Main Street is busy. Students and young professionals are crowded into the bars, their energies tingeing the whole block with the urgency of people seeking validation in the form of other people. Adding to the confusion is a heady mix of glee and courage: somewhere nearby, at least one weredog is getting drunk and having an awesome time, bringing with them everyone in their vicinity.
I hunt elsewhere–no spirit is going to bother trying to land a target in that. My senses extend down the street, past the other bars, into and out of restaurants, and along the sidewalks, all crowded in the warm spring evening. Many people are drinking; many are not. Some are airing deep hurts and frustrations; some are suffering alone. Most are just out to have a good time. In the wake of all their laughter and recklessness and confessions and anxiety lie shame, discouragement, hunger for reassurance, even self-loathing–and prowling in that wake is the nekomata.
I’ve been sitting in my car behind one of the quieter bars for the last two hours, letting my senses drift, tracking it. Unlike the cynanthropes, I can tell it’s identified me, and it’s toying with me. It’s still “downtown,” just three blocks away–and it’s already found its own quarry.
It’s baiting me. I accept.
I roll down my window slightly and transform before fear has a chance to set in. Any uneasiness I’m feeling fades when the cat takes control. I wriggle through the window’s gap and crouch atop my car.
It’s a decent crowd for a Thursday night, but I know by eleven or midnight, the streets will be quiet again. The quiet unnerved me the first few nights I was here. In the city, nothing stops, ever. There are always cars, always sirens, always people. The noise never totally goes away like it does out here.
I thought I would like it. Instead, I realized sound was just something else to hide in. Out here, in the quiet, with the gaps between the buildings and so much of the sky visible overhead, I just feel exposed.
The cat minds it less. The cat, for all its solitude, has an aloof confidence that’s unfazed by noise or crowds–or lack thereof. So I allow the cat to guide me, letting its unfathomable senses lead me towards my quarry.
The girl is walking quickly down the sidewalk. Even from a block away, I can hear her on the phone, crying. She’s just left a terrible first date with a guy who turned out to be far less charming in real life than he was online. She’s disappointed in herself, ashamed by what she perceives to be a failure on her part. She is awash in frustration, guilt, and disgust–and that is what the nekomata has latched onto.
I glimpse it as it darts across an exposed alley. It resembles an ordinary, if elderly and somewhat large, orange tabby–except for its dual tails. I freeze. I don’t want it to see me yet, but I can’t afford to lose it. If it pulls its usual trick and convinces her it’s a harmless stray, she’ll be lost.
We pass townhomes fronted by a plank fence, its top edge easy to run along. I move silently, padded feet balancing effortlessly, closing the distance. The girl is still on the phone, and the streets are deserted. We’re approaching a quiet intersection, and she won’t have to stop for any traffic.
At the end of the fence, I launch, claws extended, and catch the orange tabby right between the shoulders. We roll into the bushes and skitter across the sidewalk, almost into the street. I risk a glance at the girl. She’s still on the phone, crossing the street, unaware of the battle that’s begun behind her.
Claws slash my jaw and I reel back. The older a nekomata, the more powerful it is, and this one is even more powerful than I would have expected this far from its usual hunting grounds. It must have even more reliable prey than I anticipated. I rear up and deflect the next two blows, but it moves too quickly, and the third strikes me right between the eyes. I stagger and fall, get to my feet and bolt down the sidewalk. The spirit could take this opportunity to leave, but it won’t want to let me escape a second time. Its feline pride won’t allow it.
As I run, I extend my senses, keeping a kind of psychic rearview mirror on the spirit pursuing me. On the fringes of my perception, I identify a handful of other ‘shifters, all dogs. I ignore them–even if I called, they wouldn’t help me. They wouldn’t be able to handle a fight like this, anyway.
I’m not even sure I can.
I zigzag around corners and find myself in an empty parking lot behind a bank. It’ll do–it’s enclosed on three sides, which is not ideal, but at least I know no innocents will wander through.
The nekomata arrives with a snarl, and I plant all four feet. I’m beginning to feel a sense of déjà vu, and more than a little dread. Not only is the spirit just as strong as it was when I first fought it, I know there’s no chance of another cat ‘shifter coming to back me up. Only one or two work this far from the city, and I can sense they aren’t close enough for me to call for help.
I never thought I would dislike feeling alone, but tonight, cut off from my sisters and battling for my life, it terrifies me.
The spirit lunges, striking with lightning swiftness, and it hits me so hard it knocks the wind out of me. I reel back, hissing at unexpected searing pain: the nekomata is already summoning fire, and its smoldering paws left twin circles singed into my chest.
I take cover behind a dumpster. I can see the tabby’s twin tails thrashing tiny flames as it circles me. Pain and terror chase away the last of my pride, and I send out a psychic scream for help. The spirit will hear, but I don’t care, not if it means living through this.
The dumpster rattles–the nekomata is actually strong enough to knock it out of the way. I scamper out of range of its burning claws. The echoes of my psychic plea fade. A couple of dog ‘shifters were in range, but none of them respond.
I have to do this alone.
I dodge as the nekomata pounces. It lands off-balance and I slash, opening up its left flank with four gashes that ooze yellow flame. Its yowls echo off the bank walls. It recovers quickly, though, and before I can register its movement, I have a fresh gash across my exposed stomach. It slashes my face, one, two, three, and I skitter away, partly blinded in my left eye. My belly and eye burn, and my blood is hot on my face. I twist frantically, trying to keep it in my narrowing field of vision. It’s pacing just a few feet away, its tongue tasting blood–my blood–on its whiskers. It looks confident, even pleased.
It’s going to kill me.
I run again. My stomach throbs and my eye stings, but to stay put will mean death. I blink away blood, struggling to see street signs. I rely on my nose and whiskers to tell me where I need to go, but there’s so much confusion–
Another presence, warm and strong, materializes. Running alongside me is a golden retriever, fur flowing, tongue lolling. It’s offering help, but even now, wounded and partly blinded, my feline pride wants to turn it down.
Luckily, human terror wins out. At this proximity, it’s easy to communicate psychically and keep our plan secret from the pursuing spirit. My eyes and belly burn and all I see is red.
The nekomata hisses–it’s right behind us. The dog beside me barks and sends a message: take the next right. I put on a fresh burst of speed, the last bit of strength I have to give, and launch myself off the curb.
Tires screech, metal crunches, a horn blares. From the safety of a shrub across the street, I use my paw to wash one eye clear of blood and look back.
The orange tabby is dead, its crumpled body a few feet from the tire of the truck that slammed on its brakes to avoid what looked like three crazed pets. The nekomata’s second tail disappeared when the spirit surrendered its mortal feline host body. Three other cars are angled around the truck, bringing the intersection to a furious, honking standstill.
My whiskers twitch as I seek confirmation, even as my heart rate returns to normal. There’s still a chance the spirit is lingering, desperate to locate a fresh host in its final moments.
What I sense is hard to define: relief where there had been sickness; release where there had been pressure; absence where there had been pain.
It’s done–the spirit is dead.
The cynanthrope is nearby, unharmed, staying hidden until the furor dies down. I sit and bathe my stinging face. My wounds don’t bother me–they hurt, but they’ll heal up when I return to human form. I remind myself I’m alive in a constant refrain of stunned relief, but my heart keeps racing, and the cat’s fur still bristles. It’s the second time I’ve come so close to death, and this time, I’m having a hard time believing that it’s all done and over with, that I’m safe.
I shake myself, flecking the shrubs with spots of blood. My fur returns to its usual sleekness, aside from the singed patches. I smell like ash and terror and blood and exhaustion.
I sense a call and follow it deeper into the landscaping. The golden retriever is sitting in the shadow of a huge rhododendron, panting happily. She tilts her head and sends another message: an image of a car, and another of a gray tabby who looks like she lost a fight with a lawnmower: me.
I look like hell … but I won.
Somehow, the dog ‘shifter got me back safely to my car, and somehow, I made it inside. My first coherent thought is of how cold it is in my car. The adrenaline ebbs away, leaving me shivering with cold and probably shock. I prod my bare stomach. As usual, there’s no residual pain and no sign of injury. I dress myself with stiff fingers, pulling my blazer on over my bra. I climb out of the back seat, blouse in hand, and see the golden retriever standing guard outside. A cheap drawstring backpack–the goodie bag from the networking event–sits on the pavement next to her.
She looks at me and tilts her head. She looks almost embarrassed, but the psychic impression I get from her is much more vague now that I’m back in human form. I get the gist of it, though, and hold the door open for her. She picks up the backpack in her jaws and leaps inside.
A few minutes later, Brianne emerges, her preppy jacket rumpled but her smile just as bright. She does a double-take at my exposed cleavage.
“You weren’t wearing that at the event, were you?”
“No.” I hold up my shirt. “I need this for something else, though.”
Brianne’s smile fades slightly as I scrub my blood off the side of my car with the old blouse. I ball it up and lob it into the nearest dumpster.
She brightens. “Nice shot!”
“Thanks,” I say, shifting awkwardly. My chest is cold, I’m exhausted, and I would like to go home and process how I nearly died.
“I’ve never seen a fight like that,” Brianne says. “My kind of work … it usually doesn’t get that violent, you know? I hope you don’t mind that I helped. I wasn’t even really sure what I was doing.”
An incredulous laugh bursts out of me. Brianne looks hurt.
“It would have killed me,” I say tersely. “My kind of work is often that violent, but that one … well, we have history.”
“Well, now it’s history.” Brianne folds her arms, proud of herself, and I can’t help but smile.
“And I appreciate your help. Really. Thank you.” I gesture at my car. “But now, if it’s okay with you, I’d kind of like to …”
“Oh! Sure. Absolutely.” Now she’s the one to fidget awkwardly. “I just thought, you know, if you wanted to celebrate and get a drink or something, maybe unwind a little–”
“That would be the opposite of unwinding for me,” I say as gently as I can manage. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, it’s just …”
I don’t understand how it’s possible for a human to have such a perfect sad-puppy face, but Brianne does. I sigh. “Maybe another time? I mean, you did save my life–the least I can do is buy you a drink.”
She beams. “I’ve never worked with an ailuranthrope before–I mean, before tonight. Maybe we can do it again!”
I open my mouth to turn her down–the nekomata is gone, which means it’s safe for me to go home, back to the city, back at last to my cozy reclusive job and my few but precious friends–but I hesitate. I want to chalk it up to shock, or euphoria, or being just plain tired, but I can’t shake the possibility that Brianne has a good idea.
Maybe, in spite of the artifice and the expense and the difficulty of the hunt, it’s worth staying out here a little longer. After all, this place could definitely use another cat ‘shifter or two. The weredogs might be good at containing evil spirits, but someone has to do the dirty work and actually finish them off.
I hear feline shrieks and hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s no ordinary cat fight. I can feel as much as hear the screams–it’s another ‘shifter, battling an owl spirit, probably a strix. She needs help.
Brianne hears it, too, and a slow smile spreads across her face. “Can I use your car after you?”
I’m already opening the door. “We should get a phone booth or something.”
Together, tabby and retriever, we run to join the hunt.
May Hayashi is a necromantic ailuranthrope and admin assistant living in an overpriced studio in Snoqualmie, WA. She holds a BA in Mass Communication and studied necromancy under noted (within ‘shifter circles, anyway) Seattle ailuranthrope Ursula Alexander. She partners with Brianne on a regular basis, fighting evil spirits all along the I-90 corridor.
Laura Duerr is a writer, social media coordinator, gamer, and reader living in Vancouver, WA, with her husband, a rescue dog, and more cats than she’d like to admit. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Linfield College. Her other work can be seen in Devilfish Review and on her blog, Ruby Bastille.
Justine McGreevy is a slowly recovering perfectionist, writer, and artist. She creates realities to make our own seem slightly less terrifying. Her work can be viewed at http://www.behance.net/Fickle_Muse and you can follow her on Twitter @Fickle_Muse.
“Grimalkin and Hound” is © 2017 Laura Duerr
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Justine McGreevy