The boy who threw the cat into the well. Winner of SCREAMS!!! July 7, 2020.
|The Cat is in the Well
I had good reason. You would have done it too, if you had suffered as I have. Years of daily thrashings from that cat and you would have cheered me as I threw it into the well. The silent wait as it fell and finally that echoing splash into the water was the happiest moment of my life thus far.
How I hated that cat. So old and regularly used that it had lost most of its tails and would be called a cat o’ three tails were it ever graced with a full name again. But no, he refers to it only as “the cat,” as though it were a friend of long standing and the nickname was quite sufficient. And so it was for him as he wielded it purely for the pleasure of hearing my pain at its touch.
I tried, I really did, to please him, to accomplish my tasks for the day on time and without error. It would have been madness not to. Yet every time he would find something, some petty quibble to arouse his anger and send him into his favoured state of justified revenge. Then came the threats, the slavering descriptions of my agonies to come, the promises of the visit of “Master Cat” and his less than gentle ministrations.
Never did those promises prove empty. My back was always a mass of red wheals and stripes where the blood seeped from the marks of the cat, forcing me to sleep each night on my stomach, head turned so that I could inhale the wracking breaths of my pains, hands reaching out to grasp the front of the bed, seeking solace of some kind in the touch of the rough-hewn wood of the bed frame.
And now the cat had gone. Its metal winding and decorations should prevent it from floating so that the bucket could never raise it within his grasp again. He would try, I had no doubt of that, but it was gone forever, to rust and rot down there, poisoning his water forever. It was my water too, all I was ever given to drink, but I no longer cared. If it killed me, it would take me out of his reach for eternity. Maybe it would just make the water taste awful and he would suffer it with me. It was too much to hope for that it would kill him and spare me.
There was the ale to consider, too. Perhaps he would never drink the water and the ale he consumed instead would make him even more drunk and enraged. I would bear the brunt of that, I knew, but anything was better than that hateful cat. Without the cat, my back might have a chance to heal and, one day, I’d have the strength to take him down, to make him pay for my misery.
But wait. I hear the gate creaking open out in the courtyard. He is back and I must steel myself for the storm that will follow. I have done everything he ordered this morning but he will find something to dislike, I know. Stack the logs one way and he would want it done the other. Clean and put away the pots and he would say I’d put one of them in the wrong place. Rake out the pigsty and replace the straw and he’d insist I’d taken the straw from the wrong pile. I knew the game after long years of losing it, day after day.
I listen to his staggering footsteps as he stumbles across the courtyard. He’s had more to drink than usual, I can tell that. The loud clanging of an overturned milk churn confirms it. And that will only incense him the more. I’ll be to blame for leaving the churn there, of course. No matter that it stands in the same spot that it has occupied for years. Oh, I know the game alright.
The door is thrown open, banging against the wall and rebounding into his side as he enters. He hits it with a fist and it repeats the performance, this time cracking him on the head. For a moment he staggers in a ragged course towards the centre of the room, holding his head and shouting his anger into the smokey air.
“Where are ye, Wormeater! Get out ‘ere or I’ll skin ye alive with yon cat. Ye dirty shit smear on me boot, ye’ll pay for that churn ye left in me way. Get out ‘ere now!”
I am sitting at the table and he would see me if he just took the time to look. But there is no point in hiding, even if it were possible. I stand up and the movement attracts his attention.
He stops and his body sways in its drunkenness as he looks at me. “Ah, there ye be, Muckraker. Didja think ye could ‘ide from me? No chance o’ that, ye little bastid, I knows where ye be every moment o’ the day. Woddaya mean by setting yon milk churn right in me path, ‘ey? Thought ye’d play a trick on thy old dad, huh? Well, ye’ll pay for it now, ye bleeder. Master Cat was tellin’ me this mornin’ that he be hungry for blood today. And ye know it be yer duty to feed the bugger, don’t ye?”
I say nothing, knowing that would only invite more rage against my impudence in speaking. He lurches towards his hiding place for the cat. Of course, it’s impossible for him to hide anything in this little shack. His drunken fumbling for the cat every night was easily observed and I’ve known for years where he keeps it. But tonight I know he will not find it and the storm is about to become much worse, possibly as bad as when he used to blame me for my mother’s death in childbirth.
Not that I believe he cared for her in any meaningful way. I have no doubt that he treated her as badly as he does me and that her release into death was a blessed relief to her. My grandmother confirmed that with what little she told me while raising me for the first five years of my life.
Now his search for the cat becomes erratic as he finds nothing in the spot where he knows, in his befuddled state, that it must be. When he has searched the entire length of the high shelf, he stops and turns slowly to hold me in his gaze.
“What ‘ave ye done with the cat?” he asks in a quiet, threatening voice that is so in contrast to his usual bellowing that, for a moment, I am scared. I say nothing.
He takes a step toward me. “I know ye’ve taken it. Ye’ll tell me where ye’ve ‘id it when I’ve beat it out o’ ye. Might as well spit it out now and save yeself from worse than ye’ve ever ‘ad before.”
His voice is still low and ominously controlled. I have never seen anything like this and I waver in my determination to say nothing.
“I never ‘id it,” I say.
He takes another step forward. “Where is it?” he asks, and I can sense the rage building in him, still held back into this quiet, terrible voice. My resolution collapses.
“I threw it into yon well,” I say.
He freezes into immobility, his eyes bulging as he glares at me. The seconds tick by as we are held in a motionless tableau, the huge man towering over the small boy, the atmosphere thickening with smoke from the clogged chimney and the man’s mounting rage.
At last the tension breaks. “Ye little bastid!” he roars and moves, swiftly, surely, without a hint of drunkenness, to grasp me by the scruff of my ragged shirt. He drags me to the door, still wide open as he left it after his homecoming encounter. Without a word, he wrenches me through the door after him and marches across the courtyard to the well.
Now he stops and hauls me to my feet to look directly in my eyes. “So ye threw it in yon well, did ye?” he asks, suddenly back to the cold, controlled person I’ve never seen before. I nod, unable to form words through my throat, constricted as it is by the massive fist holding my collar in a bunch.
“Well, ye’d best go and get it then!” He shouts the words, at the same time lifting me off my feet, dangling me over the well and then, with a grin, letting me go.
I am falling into darkness, my flailing hands bouncing off the rock walls of the shaft and then, before I can even think about what has happened, I hit the water with a splash and go under. I struggle to escape, unsure of which way is up, and, entirely by chance, I’m sure, my head breaks the surface and I can take a great gulp of air.
The darkness down here is so complete that I cannot see the walls, but I can feel that they are slippery with moss and algae. There is no grip there to help in climbing out. Looking up, I see the star-strewn sky, with a black shape intruding. Surely that is him, looking down at me in satisfaction.
“Let down the bucket,” I shout.
“Do ye ‘ave yon cat?” he asks.
I decide to lie and suffer the consequences later. “Yes,” I answer.
“Ah, well, the damn thing was gettin’ old,” he says. “Ye can keep it now.”
The dark shape moves away from the circle of the sky and I am left alone in the cold and the darkness.
Word Count: 1,631
For SCREAMS!!! July 10, 2020
Prompt: The cat is in the well