Day was waking. A quiet wind blew, imparting secrets to the trees. The stars in the dawn gained life from a new day, so new it could have been the first day. How many days have there been on the earth? Ada wondered, as she stood on her back step.
She would have been able to count how many had dawned on herself if she knew her birthday.
An evanescent grey mist obfuscated the hills. The watery sun was shy, hiding behind a shroud of thick nimbus. This day was similar to most days up here year round so far north of Twin Creeks.
A blow-in from the orphanage these two years, Ada had not yet been inured to its burr on the nerves. The weather was mild but the landscape was a bog, vortical with a vertiginous suck toward the centre, which seemed to be nowhere and everywhere at once. So alone and exposed without protection, she felt like one on the edge of a sea cliff. Her nearest neighbour, Niall McCarthy, was a mile south of her house, and the town, twenty-two.
Feed the cats. They could wait. The grey brother toms, Dougal and Ted, watched her from the low branches of the apple tree in the vegetable garden. She chewed the apple in her mouth. Her tongue, like a pillowy finger, grasping the fruit covetously. Finished so soon, a small apple, the core in her left hand left it as she tossed it into the overgrown lawn for some animal to discover.
November always felt like it should be her birthday. She felt like a dragon from China, from their zodiac. And hoped she was, because the dragon was the most confident and powerful of all the signs. She wished she was somewhere near nineteen - it felt like she was there - she could be a dragon.
Margaret Wills, the social worker, had said she looked around that point when they were doing a class on family trees. Ada had no family records so she took it as a chance to catch up on some reading. Where I Was From, a memoir by Joan Didion, had shown itself to her on the shelf in the community centre library, and had a kind of shimmer around it. She took it home.
Pshwshwshwsh, she said, as she clomped her wellies down the steps into the muddy yard.
This was the cats' favourite sound because it meant food, or, a little less joyfully, forced cuddles. Scuffles from behind the shed and rustling leaves on the right brought three of the missies flurrying out to her, Mrs Doyle, Niamh Connolly and Polly Clarke. Every cat in her yard was named after characters in the Irish comedy show, Father Ted.
Her family of strays had grown to sizeable since she'd arrived. Ada lacked the temperament to drive them away without atrocious guilt. By now the cast of Father Ted's more minor characters had been dipped into for naming newcomers.
A cacophony of furtive mewing from every direction brought Todd Umptious, Mary & John (from the shop), Father Dick Byrne, Pat Mustard and Bishop Brennan to her side. Ten cats.
All here, she counted.
She bent low to stroke them and let them lick her fingers gently with kisses. As always, she tried, and, as always, failed to kick Bishop Brennan, the new tabby, up the arse - the kick being a running joke of the show that made her chuckle. Out of an inborn abjection toward violence, she could never let herself visit violence on anything living. However, fond tradition demanded re-enactment on each encounter. So, at the Bishop, she archly angled the threat of a kick with a slowly outstretching foot - only to have him bleat, hop and scamper away faster than a darting fish, performing the role he'd now come to understand as his own.
Meow, said Ada, to the others, as she opened the door to the dusky hen shed, long empty of hens. Here the cats spent the nights sleeping in the rows of nesting boxes where some decrepit hay still lay. Ancient droppings, compacted over decades, forming a second layer over the floor and high along the roosts, hung its must on the dank air.
From a derelict pine sideboard she pulled from the top drawer two tins of cat food with pictures of cats on them. There had been something in her hand. A tin opener. It was gone.
She cast about - disappeared. She knew she'd picked it up from the ledge behind the door. Hadn't she? The ledge was empty. This happened. It happened. Retracing her steps, she searched up and down the silvery shed threaded through by its legion of resident spiders.
Nothing. The bastard had vanished.
The cats bumped and whined with waspy complaints at her feet, having no care or comprehension of the delay, causing her to stumble. A sudden flare of anxiety brought dizziness. Desperation got the better of her, and admitting defeat, she collapsed onto the old armchair.
It exhumed a sporous cloud of dust. Waving a hand across her face and reducing her breath so she didn't choke, she let some dust filter into her lungs, focusing on something outside herself in the here and now. She angled her head to let the shaft of light from a sunburst thrusting through the open door blind her eyes until they closed. She sank lower and listened to the white silence of peace that lay beneath the bird chatter and still shifting confusion of the cats. The sunlight refracted through her closed lids and, borrwing the color of the lid's interior, granted her a feeling of amelioration. The mental flob from her flapping began to dissolve. Her breath slowed and her heart rate returned to normal.
Polly Clarke and Mrs Doyle brushed against her knees. She looked down at them. Their plaintive eyes were refulgent and frightened, inspiring pity. Taking her attention on them as a cue, they climbed up onto her lap where they paced flagrantly about her thighs, nudging her face with their wet, velvet muzzles, pawing her belly. Tom and Mary from the shop scaled the armrests to perch behind her head, where they complained into her ears and dealt petulant bumps to her head. She smiled. Each cat was a bead on a golden thread.
She looked down at her left hand. It held the tin opener.
She rose with a harumph to finish the task so she could go back in out of the cold and start making coffee.
Leaving the shed and the gratified cats, she pulled the door to, until a gap of about a foot remained for them to come and go during the day. Before the gloaming fell and the fireflies twinkled, she would lock them in for the night, frightened as she was of desperate wolves driving south to escape the brutal winter storms that had been hitting the Grange Pass these past two days.
To one side of the shed, a breath of mist hung around the base by the door. Where a hollow cleft the earth in the shape of a half moon against the wall, something red caught her attention. At its low center, something red was touching the wet wall. A shiny red thing, giving off a smell of rotting flesh. It looked like a hand. It looked like it should have been a severed hand. A severed hand.
Moving a little closer, Ada hunkered down on the step. No. The dizziness that this uncanny vision had brought on died. It was just a plant. A strange plant, with a scent so violently umptious, her senses were dazed.
Retreating a few steps, but keeping her eye on it, she pulled out her phone and typed into the Google search bar: red plant stink. The result threw up a number of plants fitting the description, including an image of the thing she was looking at. It claimed a number of titles: Octopus stinkhorn, Stinkhorn fungus, Clathrus archeri, but it was more commonly known as the Devil's Fingers plant, a type of mushroom that emitted a scent like rotting flesh in order to attract flies and other insects that feed on dead meat. It was indigenous to Australia but was making occasional appearances in Europe and the U.S. thanks to the food import industry.
How on earth could it have gotten up here? she wondered.
She came back and moved in closer. Her first impulse was to touch it, immediately followed by the impulse not to touch it. She added to the text in the Google search bar: poisonous. Answer: no.
She liked mushrooms. She was also brave. She added to the search bar: cooking. The internet warned that its texture was unpalatable.
It was so unlike any plant she'd seen it felt like she was looking at an alien from outer space. She reached out and touched one of the 'fingers' with her forefinger. It was plush and moist and gave too much under the pressure of contact, just like dead flesh. Coupled with the oppressive smell, she almost gagged.
Despite its foreboding appearance, its black speckled fingers didn't twitch or recoil or suddenly grasp her finger like she'd expected it to. Nonetheless, her inner self went into a spin of anguish from having touched the thing at all with her bare, foolish flesh. Waves of fear pulsed from her chest as the prickling sensation which had been niggling her from the moment she saw the plant suddenly came to bear its stark truth: the memory of a movie. The movie she'd seen only last weekend, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The possibility of her body becoming host to a foreign alien plant bore into her. It was closely followed by an ambivalent guilt attached to the xenophobic sensation inherent to the assertion. She touched it because she was afraid. Of what… she didn't know because she had all the sobering facts from the internet.
Without warning, she plucked at the plant. Its skin was coarse. A doleful sound escaped her lips, like a cat trying to respond to a complex question put to it by a human - like, 'How are you today?' - capable of only communicating impotence with its tone.
She was misunderstanding herself, and that a part of her had become mystical without her permission. She frightened herself by believing some kind of telepathy was possible here, that it was bridging the gap between two species, plant and human, for the first time. Or, perhaps, human and alien.
The finger gave dreadfully under her grip. Her pluck was stronger than necessary and made mush of the devil's finger. Misjudging the force and, failing to compensate for her wavering centre of gravity, she was sent keeling off her haunches onto her arse.
The thing in her hand, an entire red finger, smelled like warm death, and its unctuous juice, she knew, was making her skin smell the same.
She rolled to her feet, and cast the devil's finger on top of the wheelie bin next to the shed door, wiping her hand on the grass. She forestalled any further decisions about what to do with it and the mother plant at large until she was done with what she'd come outside to do. Feed the cats.
Maybe she'd have to call the FBI. Were the X-files real? She remembered reading somewhere that there really was a department of the government that dealt with unexplained phenomena. She frowned at the glistening wound she had made on the finger still oozing juice on the lid of the bin.
When she went into the shed, she was puzzled to see the food bowls half full with fresh food, and the cats busily inhaling the last chunks of opalescent meat. Terror. Had someone fed her cats. Why? Had she done it in her sleep? No. She hadn't been asleep for hours.
Oh slippers, she cursed.
She looked back at the finger on the bin and the mother plant. Both were as she'd left them: silent, mimicking the broader panoply of native flora around them. The cats began to peel away as their fill was met. They were peaceful now, heavy and languorous, releasing themselves to lounging and slinging their pliable bodies about the armchair, or retiring to private corners to lick themselves. She started. Behind her, Bishop Brennan had jumped up on the lid of the bin to sniff the finger. He jerked at her jump, but his curiosity held him to the spot to inspect the object that had captivated her. She watched him, as though his opinion might elucidate the truth of the situation. However, once his nose caught something offensive, his head shot back from the mimetic meat. Without any further clue as to his revulsion - save for the straightforward and therefore dissatisfying idea that the plant was not meat as advertised - he beat a hasty retreat into the shed, to the safety of reality.
Ada stood there, caught between two worlds. There was no other answer available at that moment, except this. It was not the plant, not the cats, not the wolves or this place that was the anomalous, offensive, encroaching vagary.
It was her.
She was the one who didn't belong.
The tin opener was in her hand. How did it get there? She hadn't even been inside the shed yet. And there was fresh food on the cutter.
Photograph by Rahul