Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, Cadance Bell is an emerging writer, producer, and director. She’s the CEO and Co-Founder of Wayflair Studios where she un-makes prejudice through entertainment. Cadance was the writer/director of The Rainbow Passage commissioned by Screen Australia and Network Ten, and the award-winning comedy horror short, Mirror Spider. Cady very much likes burritos and short walks to the fridge. And she documents her shenanigans at Imisspockets.com. Cadance performed this story as part of the Antidote Festival at the Sydney Opera House in November 2020.
Ghostly gums huddled on the rise. A pair of rosellas fled skylorn in a flummox of jam red and green. Across the golden plains, wild grasses rippled as a giddy wind tousled their stalks. Dad was chopping a log nearby. My brothers were out gathering melons. The back of the ute was filled with paddy melons we’d plucked from the field. If you don’t know what they are, paddys are a small, wild melon sometimes known as gooseberry cucumber, but don’t be fooled into eating one. They taste like an unripe testicle.
We used them for Patty Splatty. It was a vehicle safety game of sorts in which the people riding in the tray of the ute hurled them over the front like a trebuchet over the front, and into the driver’s path. There was two ways to score in the game. The first thing was to run the fucking things over and watch them explode or toss some silly bastard out of the back with your wild driving. The latter got you the most points. This is what it’s like growing up in Mudgee.
Growing up there in rural Mudgee, I’d known how to drive since I was an embryo, but I was 13 now, I was a teenager, and my body had begun to betray me. Puberty was setting in and it was wreaking masculine havoc. I did what was expected of me and I leaned into that savage testosterone, which cursed my veins. It was easier for me to be the son that my parents wanted. I wanted to impress them and so I did the boy thing, and I never felt closer to my father than when I was killing things in his wake.
Suddenly, something ran past the ute. It was a little white ball of fur. “Christ, did you see that?” Dad said.
“Was it a rabbit?”
“Dunno,” he said, skulking after it. He hopped a fence and bent to look under an old, corrugated sheep shelter. Cloud shadow inked across the dusty ground, shifting Dad from light to muted, and back again. He crouched, studying into the void.
“Get the guns, get the guns.” he said.
“What? What is it?”
“It’s a cat. It’s a feral cat.” He remained crouched, staring it down, keeping it cornered. I fetched a pair of brown .22 rifles from the cab, took them from their holsters. I grabbed a box of bullets. They jangled in my clutch. I kept the rifles aimed at the ground as I carried them, as Dad had taught me. Never fire above a ridge. Never fire across a road. Always point your gun at the dirt. I passed Dad a rifle over the fence. He put a bullet in the chamber and he cocked it.
“Where is it?”
“Up the back, in the corner,” he said, never taking his eye off it.
“I think there’s more than one.”
“They’re just cats.”
“They’re feral cats, mate. They kill the native animals.”
“We could take them home?”
“Your mother would murder me if you brought another bloody cat home,” he said. “And besides – you can’t keep these. They’re pests.”
“But do we have to kill them?”
“It’s the law. If you have a gun in the bush and you come across a feral cat, you have to shoot it.” There was a scratching sound at the back of the sheep pen. Suddenly a white ball escaped beneath the tin and took off into the gums.
“Christ, one of them’s broken away. Quick, you go after that one. I’ll go after the mother.”
“Go, mate, go on. Go!” I ran. The rifle stayed pointed downward, swinging with the rhythm of my stride. Cloud shadow enveloped the steep and plunged my path into gloom. Ahead of me I saw it. It was baffled, unsure of which way to run. It turned towards the edge of the trees, changed its mind. It ran back and jumped onto a trunk. It was tiny.
(VOICE BREAKING) It was no bigger than a can of coke. It was so soft, this ball of white fluff marbled in grey patches and chalked with red dust. It clung to the trunk of the tree, desperately scrambling upwards, its tiny paws imbecilic to its pursuit. I caught up to it. It reached its zenith. It had gone as far as it could. It was level with my chest. It looked back and around, and it meowed, crying, frozen, and stuck. The sun came back out and the kitten squinted against the glare.
In the distance, I heard Dad’s rifle snap. The sound bounced around the valley, strong. A startled flock of cockatoos took off, screeching their protest. I loaded the chamber. I raised the rifle. I placed the muzzle… to the back of its tiny, fluffy head. I walked back to the ute, rifle in arm, a master of life and death. The muzzle was pointed to the ground. My eyes were pointed to the ground. Dad was sitting in the cab, his ear cocked, scanning the radio. It fitted and fizzled between grainy voices. I put my arm on the roof with a heavy thwamp, leaned in the window. Dad shushed me. He was focussed on the radio. I looked around for the signs of his work, found none. His rifle was sheathed in the back seat.
“What are you -”
“Shh. Listen.” He landed on a clear signal. A voice sounded out.
“…despite their best efforts, the surgeons were unable to save her. The vehicle, a Mercedes, struck a support column in the tunnel. Police described the damage as catastrophic.”
“Who are they talking about?” Dad responded slowly, seeming to find each word antagonistic to the last.
“It’s Princess Diana.” I caught the briefest flash, just the briefest flash of grief in the corner of his gaze before he looked away from me. And for a relenting moment, he appeared lost. We were silent. Atop the hill near the ghostly gums, the undulating cloud shadow swept across the dash as radio poured out gossip into the afternoon.
Three months later, we sat on the floor of my brother’s bedroom, my two brothers, Mum, and I. In the corner of the room was Mew, her belly enlarged. Mew was a bitch of a cat. She was like the love child of Ellen Ripley and Margret Thatcher. If rarely she graced you by jumping up on your lap, by no means were you to touch her. You were simply a chair. But something strange can happen to a house cat when she’s pregnant.
For months, Mewy’s resolve had softened. She craved affection and warm pats. She was brimming with oxytocin, so lovely that you could have bottled her snot and sold it as MDMA. She wanted us there that day. She’d waited. As the first kitten pressed out of her body I was filled with awe. This tiny, saggy little thing with shuttered eyes, and gasping maw. Another. Another. A litter. We ooh-ed and ah-ed, and I gave myself a brief parole from my feted masculinity, and I wept. My mum helped the kittens find their mum’s belly, and they nestled in to suck.
My mind wandered back to that day in the paddock, as it still often does. I remind myself of the love I have for cats, of how many of them our family has had over the years, each one of them strange and greatly different. Like Brush. He was a cat who could talk. Having picked up on the attention our childish cries would garner he had learned to scream, “Muuuuuuuum,” down the hallway. Or KK, the licky cat who thought he was a dog. Or Smokey, the sheddy chinchilla with affection only for me.
I wax the angles. I was told to do it, it was expected of me, it was the law. I tell myself that every year in Australia, over a quarter of a billion native birds are killed by feral cats. And during La Nina, as it is this year, that increases to over 700 million. These are the stats that I tell myself to balance that thing that I did.
The kittens grew as kittens do, and Mew buggered off for good. Having deposited a litter of bubbies for us to raise in her stead, she was adopted by our neighbour, Mary, in the block behind us. For reasons known only to her catty mind, she adored Mary. Mary would chuck her up on her shoulder and carry her around like a baby. Occasionally, we would find Mew sitting on our back fence, staring back at us with contempt, showing her claws like switchblades.
I wandered down into the backyard. My teenage body was heavy upon me now. It cocooned me in a rough, vinegarish trap. I had hair in all the wrong places, I’d come to loathe the cracking baritone of my voice, and I couldn’t go swimming without wearing a shirt. Something felt wrong when exposing my chest.
Samson followed me down the yard, a tenacious ginger and white thing. He lifted his tiny paws up high with every step. He was still coming to terms with the sharp feeling upon his pads of spikey grass near taller than he. I laid down on the lawn and he caught up to me. With a struggle, he climbed up onto my flat chest.
“What are you doing mate?” I said, because you have to ask a pet what it’s doing when you know what it’s doing. It’s some kind of a rule. He closed his eyes, his little frame rising and falling with my breath. I looked up to the slow-drifting clouds. A pair of grass parrots shot across the Mudgee sky. Samson purred upon me, a tiny little rumble pack against the cadence of my beating heart.
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