I paint whiskers on my face with bath water. The water doesn’t stay, but the whiskers remain. I prowl around the house in my bathrobe.
The cat is washing herself on the rug. I kneel down to show her my fresh whiskers. “Meow,” I say. She flicks her tail in disdain, as though I’m any other human.
Dad looks up from his newspaper. “Eyra, stop that.”
I’m too old to be a house cat.
My dad told me a story once, about leopard spots being leftover ink from making humans brown. I’m too brown to be a leopard; the spots wouldn’t show. I try anyway, pressing my fingers in a circle where the spots should be. The spots don’t feel right, so I save them for another cat.
When I was ten, I became a tiger. I searched the house for ambush points and found one under dad’s bed.
There was a book in my hiding place. It was charred around the edges and the cover blackened.
It was a fairytale about a boy who was born as a cat. His human mother was forced to run away, to stop them hurting her little kitten. Once he was grown, he washed away his fur and became a man. Had he always been a man inside, waiting for the right moment to shed his fur? Did he ever miss being a cat? I imagined what it must be like, to be born with a tail and whiskers.
When dad saw me reading it, he snatched it from me. There were tears in his eyes. Said it was mum’s book.
Cheetahs can run at over 70 miles per hour. That’s way above the speed limit.
I run down my road as fast as I can. Maybe I’ll set off the speed camera and people will marvel at how fast I am. I’ll tell them there’s a cat inside me. It’s always been there, but no one could see it. They won’t laugh, because they’ll see me running and know it’s true.
Dad sees me running in the road and stops me. I expect him to shout, but he doesn’t. He hugs me instead.
Dad’s making a cake. I’ll be sixteen tomorrow and we can’t afford a big party. It’s just me, dad, and the cat. We’ve always called her cat, as she wasn’t ours. Just a stray who ended up living here more often than she didn’t.
The oldest photo I have is when I was seven, taken at school. My hair is pulled into a puff and I’m smiling. My eyes look brown in the photo, but they’re not. If I tilt my head the right way in the light, I can see amber glittering under the brown. I wish there was a way to peel back the brown and see my real eyes.
“Dad, do we have any pictures of baby me?”
He stops stirring the cake mix. “Sorry.”
I know what that means: The fire took them. It took my memories, too.
My birthday card from dad has a jaguarundi on the front. It’s one of those conservation cards, where money goes to making sure the cats have a home. Dad looks sad, says he’s just being sentimental, seeing me all grown up.
I sit on the front doorstep and place the card next to me. The little brown cat watches me from the cardboard. I watch the cat, until I win the staring contest and he looks away. We settle down to watch the rain together.
Jaguarundis don’t meow or roar — they whistle to each other. I call into the storm.
A whistled reply comes from the bushes and I remember. I’ve heard the sound before, years ago. Mum sang me to sleep the night they set fire to the house. My room was full of smoke when dad woke me. He picked me up and jumped out the window. Mum wouldn’t jump. She tried to run down the stairs, but she wasn’t a cheetah.
“Look after dad,” I tell the brown cat as I slip the card under the front door.
I step into the rain. It washes away my skin, leaving only my fur behind.
Polenth Blake lives in England with her pet cockroach. Her website lurks at polenthblake.com.
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