Copying The Cat
When I was young I knew a man, blind in one eye. It feels like a poem when I tell people, I feel as though I should follow up with a rhyme, but there is none. There’s no he couldn’t lie. He touched the sky. Sure didn’t he die.
It had simply, unpoetically, been poked out with a stick when he was six and playing in the garden with his brother. Of course, his mother had warned him against this exact outcome “you’ll poke an eye out” she’d said. But when he’d clambered into the kitchen with one eye in his head and the other in his hand, bleeding, she’d still held him for a few minutes and then taken him to get it sorted. There was never an “I told you so” from her, even if he was expecting it. Never a sense that she had seen this coming and he should feel guilty. Maybe losing an eye was enough of a punishment.
They’d given him a nice replacement, it had taken months to construct and in the meantime he’d wandered around with a patch while his classmates called him Pirate Murphy. Even long after the new eye was in place, the name stuck, he was Pirate Murphy forever. When he got it they’d delivered it to him in a box, almost like a Christmas present. It was glassy and pearly white, the red lines like threads where the little arteries snaked around the pupil so accurate that it sometimes looked like it was following you. He’d throw it at me sometimes “here Beth, catch, look out”. It was always slightly warmer than I was expecting, I’d hold it in my hand like an oversized marble and make it wink at him. “Pirate Murphy look, my hands can see” He’d usually let me hold it for much longer than you’d ever think a man would let you hold his eye for. I’d roll it back and forth across the wooden floor of his kitchen making the cat chase it and when I was done he’d rinse it in the sink under scalding water and pop it back into its socket. I hated looking at what was left when the eye was zipping around the room, a gaping cavern, dark and mysterious and pink. It didn’t look sore but I reasoned it must have been. He seemed calmer with it out. Maybe pretending to see was tiring.
There were days when he didn’t want me to hold it and I’d know as soon as I sat as his table. He’d look at me, equal intensity and darkness from both the flesh and the glass. On those days I wouldn’t ask, wouldn’t even hint. I’d play with the cat instead but even she would be put out, she’d look at me and I’d look back and share in her disappointment. “The eye is a treat, Maggie” I’d whisper to her when we halfheartedly threw around her felt mouse. It wasn’t the same.
Sometime around Christmas the cat and I developed a real attachment to the eye. I’d look into the pupil and imagine that I could see his thoughts. I could see all of the places he’d been, all the stories he never told us. I’d imagine the woman in the wedding dress on the mantle piece was my wife, this creaking farmhouse was mine, Maggie was mine. I spent longer and longer with it, giving it back felt harder, I’d savor the last few minutes of the smoothness in my hands. I’d hold it against my cheek, I’d drop it into my lap feeling the cool thud into my skirt. We resented the days we didn’t get the eye, especially when they started becoming more frequent, I’d try not to but I knew he could sense my internal pleading. I still never asked but I wanted to. Just five minutes would do. I wanted to be Pirate Murphy and so did Maggie.
One afternoon, an eye afternoon, we were batting the glassy orb back and forth across the living room carpet. I was deep in conversation with Maggie about our house, our wife. My Pirate Murphy voice was as close an imitation as a 5 year old girl could get to a pensioner. I had started closing one eye when I spoke to her. She gently sniffed the eye and lay down, the orb balanced between her paws, like a sphynx.
She tilted her head, her whiskers twitched and then she opened her teeth and dragged her rough tongue over the surface. She waited a few moments and then licked it again. The sunlight streamed through the window and settled on her, ginger fur, tiny pink tongue flashing over the glass again and again, pulling it into her mouth. She looked so calm. I was mesmerized.
Before my hands really knew what they were doing I swiped the eye and in one swift motion, put it into my own mouth. It was cold and as compact and perfect as I had imagined it to be. I swirled it around. My eye. My eye. My eye. The cat looked up lazily at me. I sucked the eye like a boiled sweet. I imagined the stories I was pulling from the iris, all the secrets the pupil held were mine now. I saw the wedding, the very moment it had been slotted into its new home. I saw the farmhouse door closing. I saw me, 5 years old, sitting at the kitchen table, ginger cat in tow, looking mournful and eyeless.
I didn’t realize he was standing there until he grabbed me by the shoulder. He had never touched me in all the years I’d been going over to the farmhouse. He spun me around and I looked up, mouth full of eye, into his eyeless socket and in utter fear, I felt the eye be swallowed. By me. I swallowed the eye.
He must have seen the lump go down my throat where it suddenly lodged and the breath lost its ability to leave or enter my body. Panic gripped me. The cat dashed from her spot out of the door and Pirate Murphy stared down at me in disbelief. I grabbed at my throat, I squeaked, I spluttered, he slapped a big, meaty hand against my back and I felt tears fill my eyes. He slapped me again between the shoulder blades and the eye dislodged, it flew out of my mouth and clattered across the floor. I gasped for air, sat down and then the tears came in full force.
He picked it up and left the room, returning a few minutes later to look at me incredulously with both eyes. I didn’t move. He didn’t speak. I didn’t speak. Half an hour later my mother bundled me into my coat and out of the house and I never went to Pirate Murphy’s again, I never played in the living room or sat at the kitchen table. I’d walk past the lane before and after school and remember the smooth glass on my tongue and the cat and the sunlight through the window. I never saw him again. I would strain to see up the lane but never caught sight of him.
And so the years passed until one afternoon, when I was 13, I returned home to find my mother at the kitchen table holding Maggie. I had long forgotten the eye and Pirate Murphy and now he was dead. He’d died slowly and peacefully. Up in his bed in his farmhouse with Maggie lying on his feet. “He wanted you to have her” my mother said. “He left her in the will”.
She was old now. Much skinner than I remembered. I rubbed her head as my mother passed me an envelope. I opened it and out slid the eye, landing on the table with a small tap. Exactly as it has always been, we had all aged and here it was, entirely the same. Just as glassy. There he was again, staring up at me incredulously.
I pulled out the accompanying note and read the spidery writing
Here you go, I won’t be needing this where I’m going.
Don’t go copying the cat now.
Me, I couldn’t be less warrior cat goddess if I tried. I hitch up my polyester trousers too late - a chill January already soaking up my ankle from the puddle I’m stood in.
Mum knows not to hug me now, she did that at home, note pressed into my blazer pocket. I finger the folds as she whispers, ‘You’ll have a great time, I know you will.’
I won’t open that note until lights out but I can guess its contents. 'You are enough, just as you are. Go on being your wonderful unique self.'
Bless her loving delusion but, no. My wonderful unique self isn’t cutting it at school. I spend break times being talked over. Lunchtime in the library while everyone else gapes at Vinnie Jackson. Only getting a look-in when it's time to do French homework. Or Science. Or Maths.
I’ve spent the last four months studying - and I’m a pro. Special subject: Lauren at school.
Lauren on the bus, face set to flirtatious smirk as the Year 10 boys flick tiny paper balls her way. Lauren in form time, eyeliner out, friends competing for a, ‘Yeah, same’. Lauren in English, an unlikely fan of Thomas Hardy, raising her hand with cool ownership of the room. When I answer a question even the teacher’s bored. No surprises: it’s what I do.
This trip promises a new start. The weekend’s purchases radiate promise from my rucksack. Ballet shoes, leggings, eyeliner. Buying them was the easy part. Who knows, maybe they’re enchanted… maybe I’ll put them on and feel that easy belonging Lauren must feel every single day.
We arrive just before lunch with half an hour to unpack. I dash to the bathroom. End cubicle: bag, travel mirror, make up remover wipes (I’m a realist about the steadiness of my hand). My elbows and ankles bang the sanitary towel bin as I battle with trousers. There’s nowhere to balance the mirror except the toilet lid, so I end up kneeling on the floor, thanking the gods (Egyptian, pagan, cat, whatever) I got there first so at least it's clean.
My attempts at cat's eyes use up half the wipes, but it’s only three minutes until lunchtime and the silence outside tells me everyone’s gone. Do I scrub it off and forget this whole thing? No. It’s time. Fists balled, I channel warrior goddess vibes and head to the dining room.
A quick scan and a dash to the one seat left on the girls’ table. And, oh gods, Lauren’s opposite me. A glance across, then a swift double take. Stares me straight in the eyes, brows arched.
Next to her, Ivy sniggers, triggering a cascade of head turns. Time stops.
I’m going to throw up.
This is the end. The actual end of me. I am, for once, the centre of attention. Lauren’s gaze is the sun and I’m about to be roasted alive.
‘Shut. Up.’ Her words are ice, and I blink, stupidly.
She’s not looking at me. Ivy shrivels under her glare, tears her bread roll into pieces. What is happening here? Lauren’s eyes flash across the table.
‘You. Toilets. Now.’
Back in the bathroom, though, thankfully, not that tiny cubicle, she sighs.
‘What the hell are you doing, Sophie? Where did you get this stuff from?’
Before I answer, her face softens as she pulls a note from her blazer. Mum’s handwriting. Its creases are soft from multiple reads and refolds.
Lauren, love, have a wonderful time! I’ll miss you both so much.
I see how you’ve been finding it tough these past few weeks,
what with all these assessments (even if you don’t want anyone
to think you care!). Know that we love you exactly as you are,
you don’t need to be anyone else, okay? I know it’s hard right
now - but you’ll look back on this and wonder what you were
stressing about, I promise. Look out for Sophie, she needs you as
much as when you were little. See you Friday. Love you. Mum.
‘Did you get one too?’
Sophie, sweetheart, have a wonderful time! I’ll miss you both so
much. You’ve done brilliantly on your assessments, but I worry
you’re forgetting to be yourself and have fun. Grades are not the
most important thing in the world, honestly. Use this trip to
relax with your friends. Know that we love you exactly as you
are, you don’t need to be anyone else, okay? Look out for
Lauren, she needs you as much as when you were little. See you
Friday. Love you. Mum.
Lauren’s eyes are glassy. I’m not about to hug her, can’t remember the last time we did that.
‘I just want to be normal for once. It’s so easy for you. Everyone likes you, all the girls want to be you.’
‘Me?! Easy? I’ve been playing catch up with my genius twin my whole life. Do you know how late I stay up studying? God, I’d give anything…’ she trails off.
We stare at each other in the mirror. She grabs the make up wipes from my pocket.
‘You look ridiculous.’
But it's her own reflection she’s talking to. Two decisive pulls against each eyelid and the cat’s eyes are gone.
Somehow, though, I have a feeling Sekhmet has just doubled her power.
Erica could not believe it.
She turned and looked at Alfie. He was pretending to be asleep, lying curled up near the radiator, but she knew that he was watching herself and Beatty closely. Erica was interested to see his reaction to Beatty, his identical twin.
The three of them sat close together in her studio, as she called it. It was actually more than a studio: it was more a laboratory, maybe more a workshop. For here, Erica had worked on 3d printing for the last decade, first of all producing models of things in three dimensions using printers she had bought. Then, being frustrated with their shortcomings, she used her skills as an engineer to develop them further. She increased their quality, increased their accuracy. Early printers she had bought could print items to resolution of 1600dpi. Erica could now scan and print at molecular level. This of course required incredible computer capacity, but Erica had formulated software which simplified the structure even of living tissue. The printer itself, similarly, was impossibly complicated, with tiny needles extruding matter of a size that could not be seen with the naked eye. But she had found a way of producing mass extrusions of differing materials from banks of tiny needles which enabled much faster production times.
Erica had started off small with inanimate objects, had then tried her hand at simple living forms, and now she was confident enough to reproduce living creatures. Alpha – Alfie – was her first cat to be copied. She liked the name Alfie – A Life, if you swopped things around a bit. Beta, the copy, was Beatty – that meant “voyager through life”. He was her latest living copy: he was a perfect copy of Alfie. She couldn’t help smiling proudly as she admired her work.
She would change the medical world, revolutionise it, producing tissues, organs, complete limbs, complete bodies even. As she sat and mused, she could perhaps even – goodness – give people eternal life by reforming them into younger bodies. Now that would be interesting.
Alfie also thought Beatty was interesting. Very interesting. He had been watching Erica and Alfie out of the corner of his eye, pretending to be not at all interested. He didn’t like this new cat on the scene. He didn’t like the way that his beloved Erica paid such close attention to him. Even stroking him! And looking him in the eye like that! This was too much. He waited his opportunity and he didn’t have to wait long: he saw Erica’s eyes glaze as she thought of her strange dreamy thoughts: so he pounced.
Beatty scarcely saw what was coming: he scarcely had time to widen his eyes before Alfie was upon him, a solid missile of teeth and spit and hair and claws, scrabbling sharply for a hold on him as they tumbled together onto the floor together. Beatty managed to recall from his reproduced brain the basic instinct to defend himself and together the two cats became one screaming, hissing bundle of fur writhing on the floor, locked together by their identical sharp claws. Alfie of course had the advantage, with Beatty scarcely awake and still getting used to using a body that felt slightly strange because even at molecular level there were always going to be microscopic manufacturing tolerances which would make him slightly different to the original.
Somehow Beatty managed to tear himself free from Alfie and ran frantically around the room trying vainly to escape, but no matter how he leaped up onto tables, hid behind chairs, ran behind Erica’s legs, he could barely escape Alfie’s snapping teeth and scratching claws.
Erica meanwhile screamed in hysteria as she saw her masterpiece being torn to shreds. Then, as she watched, Alfie caught Beatty again and together they rolled on the floor again, just one big mass of fur and legs and hissing and claws. Erica couldn’t even tell them apart.
Then, there was an agonised scream, and the explosion blew Alfie across the floor to hit the filing cabinets at the end of the room with an impact that knocked the breath out of him. Erica was knocked off her chair by the explosion and now she too sat dazed on the floor, covered in blood and teeth and lungs and liver. The walls were grossly sprayed with internal organs and part of Beatty’s fur hung limply from the door handle.
Alfie and Erica exchanged dazed glances.
Erica swore under her breath. She needed to do more work: her printouts were still proving to be unstable.