Electric Storm

I

MISS MINTON thought she had never experienced worse heat than this, and she knew a good deal about heat. When she had first come to Canada from her native Lancashire she had spent several years on the Western prairie. She had seen the parched land crack for lack of moisture. She had seen cattle die for lack of food because drought and heat had killed the grass. She had seen the prairie bleached to nothingness.

Yet, standing in the doorway of her cottage on this August afternoon, she said out loud, though she was alone except for her cats: —

’I have never felt anything like it!’ Probably she was wrong. The natives of this well-wooded corner of Ontario, with the great lake lapping its shore, would have said that she did not know what she was talking about, that she was deliberately giving the place a bad name, that she was crazy. As she was talking to herself, they would have inclined toward the last belief.

She was far too gentle to have argued with them, but as there was no one there to contradict her she repeated: —

‘I’ve never felt anything like it! It’s enough to kill a cat, isn’t it, Timmie?’

Timmie was a tawny yellow Persian cat, thirteen years old, with a flat, inscrutable, angry face. As a kitten her disposition had been spoiled and she had never got over it, though she had been comforted, petted, fed on her favorite foods for six years, by Miss Minton. It was certain that Timmie’s yellow eyes were always looking for trouble, and generally finding it.

She had been given to Miss Minton, rather against Miss Minton’s will. But she had no power of resistance where animals were concerned. Indeed she had little power of resistance where the desires of people were concerned, having spent a great part of her life in nursing relatives and friends through illnesses, looking after their children when they died, undertaking, without protest, tasks that were too heavy for her.

Not that she was spiritless. On the contrary, she had very good spirits, and, when it came to endurance and making the best of a bad job, she had a quite remarkable courage.

She had two blessings which she was always thankful for. She had work she loved and congenial companionship. The work was weaving, the companionship cats.

She earned her living by weaving, which she did on an enormous old loom brought from Newfoundland. It quite filled her little living room, overshadowing all else.

Sometimes it seemed to her like an instrument she could play on. It hummed and throbbed and even sang to her. Yet, unlike the songs of other instruments, its music did not die on the air, but was captured, held fast, in the colors and textures of the stuffs she wove.

In truth Miss Minton had the soul of an artist.

Now, as she turned from the doorway and cast her eyes over the work she had done that day, she saw to her dismay that she had captured something of the sultry August heat and woven it into the scarf she was making.

Surely that threatening purple, that sulphuric yellow streak, were not a part of her original design! Surely the patron who had ordered this scarf would be dissatisfied and it would remain on her hands, unsold!

She decided that she did not much care. She liked the scarf. The weaving of it had helped her to endure the crushing heat. Now the sun was burning its way towards the west. Before many hours the relief of the evening would come. Then she and the cats would stroll together in the moonlight. She would give them something special for their supper. Their saucers of milk stood untouched, soured by the heat.

Before she sat down at the loom she went to see what the thermometer, hanging beside the window, registered. The mercury just touched 102 degrees. There was not a breath of air. The vine outside the window hung limp and lifeless. She pressed her fingers on the earth of the potted fern and found that it was still moist. The fern bore up well.

She placed herself on the seat before the loom and began to work the treadles. The low humming sound soothed her nerves. She smiled at the three cats because they were watching her so closely. Their pairs of eyes glowed at her and there was a different expression in each pair. Timmie’s looked angry and yet amused, as though she had a rather sinister joke up her sleeve. Patchy’s eyes were pleading, and Ali’s bewildered and a little frightened.

Timmie was in her favorite seat on top of the loom. From this point she could see all that was going on, both outside the door and in the room, even while she appeared to keep her gaze fixed on Miss Minton’s deftly moving hands. Patchy sat in the rocking chair, from where she could look down into the box in which the kitten lay curled in a close yellow ball. It was a week old.

Ali sat on the window ledge. It was through this window that he made all his exits and entrances. In a sense, he was the outsider, for he never had kittens. He was Timmie’s grandson and bore a spurious resemblance to her, being twice removed from the Persian.

The habit of having kittens was so firmly fixed in Timmie that her thirteen years had yet scarcely hampered her. She had them several times a year, always tawny like herself, always of weaker physique. She was still strong, though she had gone through many an illness, in addition to the bearing of kittens.

Disposing of Timmie’s kittens had, in the past six years, been one of the chief problems of Miss Minton’s life. There was also the disposal of Patchy’s kittens to vex her.

The kittens were all so sweet, yet everyone in the neighborhood, and even beyond the neighborhood, had been supplied. The drowning of kittens hung over Miss Minton like a cloud; whenever she saw the bodies of Timmie and Patchy beginning to swell and sag the thought came, with a pang of pain, ‘More kittens to find homes for! What if I can’t do it? What if they must all be drowned?’

There had been drownings lately. Miss Minton and Timmie and Patchy had been having a very bad time. Just a week ago Timmie had had kittens. The one comfort about it was that her litters were growing smaller. There were not so many kittens to dispose of. In the last litter there had been only three. Two of them had to be drowned and the third now lay curled in the box, not minding the heat at all. A good home had been found for it when it was older. Miss Minton thanked goodness for that.

Two days after Timmie had had her kittens Patchy had given birth to four. No one had wanted them, so they were all drowned. The drowning was made as easy as possible for Miss Minton by the good-natured Finn who occupied the other half of the cottage. But nothing could make drowning easy for the kittens. The day it was done Miss Minton had sat at her loom with tears streaming down her cheeks, and her emotion had turned a quite gay scarf she was making into a sombre one. One kitten left out of seven! It was hard — it was hard!

The problem of Patchy’s bereaved heart had been mercifully solved. A few hours after her kittens were born Timmie had picked up her own kitten and leaped with it into the box beside Patchy. When Patchy’s four kittens were destroyed the two mothers had attended to the one remaining kitten with thoroughness and mutual content. There was peace in the cottage. It was only Miss Minton who now and then gave a thought to the little lost lives.

Then suddenly, the day before yesterday, Patchy had turned against Ali. She was his aunt. What relation he was to the various litters of kittens was a mystery, even to the cats. But his manner disclaimed all connection with them.

He had come into the room with his usual slinking, apologetic air, when Patchy, with a scream that had gone right through Miss Minton, leaped from the kitten’s box and flung herself at him. He had fled from the room horrified.

Whatever was in Patchy’s mind against Ali she had been able to communicate to Timmie. When evening came and he stole fearfully home, first Patchy had flung herself at him shrieking, then Timmie had descended on him from the top of the loom, with a still more savage yell.

The noise had been so terrible that the Finn and his wife had run from their side of the cottage to see what was the matter. He had suggested that the remaining kitten might be the bone of contention and that perhaps he had better drown it. With her dark blue eyes flashing, her small head with its mass of iron-gray hair erect, Miss Minton had almost driven him from the room. Indeed, in that moment she had got rid of feelings she had harbored against the Germans. Good-natured as the Finns were, their nearness was a trial to her, their noise, their litter, their never-ceasing foreign talk that penetrated through the thin partitions. She blamed herself for feeling resentful toward them. They were kind neighbors and she could always depend on him to — oh, why did the thought of drowning kittens return so painfully to her mind?

The heat had, it seemed, softened the bitterness of both grandmother and aunt toward Ali. That day he had gone in and out of the cottage unmolested. Now they did not even glance at him as he sat on the window ledge. He kept his eyes fixed on the strip of flypaper that dangled from the ceiling, where a score of flies buzzed their death song. His long thin tail, in contrast to the thick fluffy tails of his aunt and grandmother, occasionally twitched.

Miss Minton found it hard to move the treadles. The power seemed to have gone out of her legs, but she worked on. The scarf she was weaving showed an almost sinister individuality. She did not feel able to control it. The eyes of all three cats closed. They dozed to the humming of the loom. The kitten, which had never yet seen the light, curled itself in deep primeval slumber.

II

Sunset brought little relief from the heat except that the impersonal glare of the sun was gone. With it went any stir of air that had enlivened the day. There seemed nothing to breathe.

Miss Minton felt that she wanted a good drink of cold water more than anything on earth. She took a tin pail from the bench in the kitchen and set out. There was no water supply in the cottage. She had to carry it from the neighbor’s well, excepting the rain water which she caught from the eaves. But there had been no rain for weeks.

She had to cross a field to get to the well. The cats followed her, Ali keeping in the rear, now and again uttering a soundless mew. The corn in the field stood harsh and dry, ants scurried on the sandy soil, and locusts chirped their thin dry song.

Miss Minton pumped and pumped, seeking the cold water at the bottom of the well. Some of the water splashed over her feet and the cool moisture pleased her. Then she remembered that drought had made the water low and that she must not waste it. She filled her pail. The cats lapped the pool in the pump stand.

In her kitchen she drank long from the shining tin dipper. She felt refreshed, but the thick hair hung heavy and moist on her forehead. She remembered that she had promised the cats a special treat for their supper. It must be a tin of salmon.

There was just enough in the tin for the three of them. She gave the most generous portion to the females because of all they had been through lately, eking out Ali’s portion with some cold rice, of which he was very fond. He waited till Timmie and Patchy were eating before he approached Miss Minton. His mouth was open in an apologetic smile.

All three attacked the fish with avidity, making hissing noises as they drew it into their mouths. The very smell of it in such weather was almost too much for Miss Minton. She made herself a pot of tea and ate a few biscuits.

She had hoped for a moonlit evening, but now remembered that the moon would not rise till after midnight. She went down the path and sat on the grass a little distance from the cottage, for she felt that she could not talk to her neighbors. They were sitting on their verandah, the man smoking, the woman peeling apples for apple sauce.

The quick dusk had already fallen, but no dew. A mood of playfulness had descended on the cats. They darted about her, peering at each other through the long grass. Even Ali ventured to join in the play. But he was wary.

Miss Minton had brought the kitten in the crook of her arm so that it might breathe the air. It seemed to her that she could not remember the time when there was not a kitten to curl in the crook of her arm. Now and again it stretched its tiny legs and she felt its claws, as fine as the finest fishbones.

Heat lightning played on the horizon, and as the evening drew on there were rumbles of distant thunder. Perhaps a storm would come and cool the air. Perhaps there would be rain! She pictured how the rain would soak into the parched earth, how refreshed all living things would be by it.

At last she called the cats and wTent slowly back to the cottage. Her neighbors had gone to bed and it was very quiet. The tall pine that stood at either end of the cottage loomed darker than the dark sky. She had always liked these trees, but often felt them to be a danger.

The cottage seemed even more breathlessly hot than it had during the day. It stood, as an island of heat, in the sea of night. She felt that she should like to sleep on the verandah, but she was sure a storm was coming up and her tired body longed for the ease of her bed. She locked the screen door, returned the kitten to its box, and made ready for the night. Ali leaped to his place on the window ledge and peered out. Timmie and Patchy got into the box with the kitten and both made as though to nurse it. It stretched between them, in the heat of their furry bodies, and at last discovered a teat. Miss Minton could not tell which cat the teat belonged to, but she heard a contented purring from them both.

III

Miss Minton was woken from a heavy sleep by something moving over her. She was not as startled as some might be, for occasionally one of the cats took it into its head to sleep on her bed. But there was something different in this. The cat walked the length of the bed making soft trilling noises in its throat, talking, without doubt, to the kitten. In another moment the kitten was introduced under the edge of the sheet against Miss Minton’s neck. It pressed its tiny claws into her and mewed faintly.

‘Oh, naughty, naughty!’ said Miss Minton. ‘Which of you two has done this?’ She turned on the light and saw Timmie standing on the side of the bed looking angry and roguish and pleased with herself.

‘It cannot be,’ said Miss Minton. ‘I cannot have the kitten in bed with me. I might roll on it and smother it. Besides — well, Timmie, you ought to know better.’

She got up and carried the kitten back to its box. Patchy was lolling there with arms open for it. Miss Minton laid the kitten on Patchy’s breast and it scrambled there, hunting for a teat. Timmie leaped into the box also. Ali was curled up in the rocking chair.

When the light was out and she was back in bed Miss Minton had a glimpse of her room in a vivid flash of lightning. There was an angry flourish to this lightning very different from what she had seen earlier in the night. She would be glad of a storm if it brought plenty of rain. She kept her thoughts quiet and again fell asleep.

She was dreaming of rain in an English garden. She was trying to discover whose garden it was and why she herself was in it when she was again woken by one of the cats walking over her. She was instantly tense, almost alarmed. She put out her hands to feel which cat it was. She put one of her hands right on the kitten, held in the cat’s mouth. Miss Minton ran her hands over the cat’s sides and knew her to be Patchy. The fur was less long and fine than Timmie’s. She exclaimed: —

‘Whatever have you in your silly minds to-night? You are making me angry, do you know that? And making me lose my sleep, which I need! ’

She got out of bed and turned on the light. Patchy dived under the sheet and deposited the kitten there.

Miss Minton carried the kitten back to the box, Patchy following, purring loudly. Timmie lolled on her back, arms spread to welcome the kitten. Miss Minton laid it on Timmie’s breast. It meowed feebly. Patchy sprang in beside them. Ali had left the chair and was sitting on the loom. He stared at the strip of flypaper that dangled from the ceiling just as though he had never left off staring at it.

Miss Minton went back to bed.

There was almost continual lightning now, and a small faint breeze that rustled the dry needles of the pine above the cottage. Miss Minton felt it on her face and was thankful. She lay awhile listening for thunder, but it did not come. Again she fell asleep.

But her mind was disturbed. She never ceased dreaming. Now she was back in the prairie province. She could see the prairies stretching on and on to the horizon, feel the hot wind that swept across them.

Almost before the cat was on the bed she was awake. She was angry with it, yet she had to laugh. It was so ridiculous, this bringing of the kitten to her bed. She wished she had not taken off the door and substituted a woven curtain. Then she might have shut herself in. This time it was Timmie who brought the kitten.

The next time it was Patchy.

The next time it was Timmie.

The next time it was Timmie again. The breeze was stronger now, and all the boards of the frail cottage were straining as though it were an unseaworthy ship.

Now neither of the cats would get into the box with the kitten. They walked up and down the room, waving their plumed tails, staring with hostile looks at Miss Minton. Ali sat on top of the loom staring at the fly paper. A dead branch of one of the pines was sawing against the roof as though it would saw it in two.

IV

For a long time Miss Minton could not sleep, yet the cats made no attempt to come in to her. She knew that they paced up and down in the outer room, waiting for her to sleep.

When at last the fitful slumber came to her she dreamed that the loom was spinning of itself, humming and turning, turning and humming. Over and over it hummed the words, ‘The mother-one gave birth to another one. . . . The mother-one gave birth to another one. . . .’ For some reason Miss Minton disliked these words very much and felt bitter towards the loom for humming them.

She was woken by a terrible commotion taking place on top of her.

She was so excited that she struck out blindly. The furry body that her hand encountered leaped to the floor with a scream, then back again to the bed. There was a flash of lightning so steady, so brilliant, that, sitting up wildly, she saw exactly what was going on.

Timmie and Patchy were both on her bed, scrabbling desperately to extract something that had fallen between the mattress and the wall. Their long arms stretched, they pawed and peered, hindering each other, spitting and sneering at each other. It was the poor kitten that was wedged there between bed and wall!

They had thought to force her to submission by coming together! The one she had struck — she was sure it was Timmie — had given her a nasty scratch on the hand. Blood was oozing through.

‘Oh, you bad cats! You wicked things! ’ she cried. She had never spoken to them so before.

She put her hand to her mouth and sucked the wound. She was surprised to find that she was in darkness. What she had seen was vivid in her mind, every hair of the angry cats, their upright bushy tails, their glowing eyes. ‘Dear heaven,’ she thought, ‘the kitten may be dead!’

She sprang from the bed and turned on the light.

The cats saw that she had taken the situation in hand. They withdrew composedly to the foot of the bed. She stood a moment irresolute, afraid to draw the bed from the wall, afraid to see the limp, smothered body of the kitten.

All air seemed gone from the room, as though the night had sucked it out to add to the approaching storm. The hands of her little clock on the dressing table pointed to three. She counted three drops of blood on the back of her hand.

‘One, two, three,’ she counted aloud, and, as though the storm had been waiting for this signal from her, a shattering clap of thunder burst from the sky.

Miss Minton screamed in terror and put her hands to her horrified ears. The two cats simultaneously leaped straight into the air, then again stood rigid, staring at her. An attenuated whisper of a mew came from the kitten. It was alive! Miss Minton drew the bed from the wall a little way, put down her hand and rescued it.

Its fur was in wet tufts from so much carrying about and pawing. It opened its pink mouth and curled its tiny tongue.

‘Dear little kitty!’ she breathed, snuggling it.

Now came a shrill whistling sound of wind. Forked lightning split open the sky, which clapped itself together again in consternation.

‘This time,’ said Miss Minton, ‘I shall put you both in the box with the kitten and cover you up, so you can’t get out. Why did n’t I think of that before?’

She laid the kitten in the box, then ran about closing windows. Rain was beginning to lash against the walls. She wondered about Ali, then saw him sitting on the rocking chair peering into the box at the kitten. The rocking chair swayed slightly.

She was struggling with the stiff latch of the kitchen window when she heard screeches of rage from the mother cats. The screeches seemed ripped from their innermost being. She ran back to the living room.

Timmie and Patchy stood by the kitten’s box, their lips drawn from their pointed teeth, every hair on end, their tails lashing in rage. Ali was in the box with the kitten. . . .

Whether some latent bond between him and the newborn creature was stirred to life by the storm, whether male curiosity concerning the activities of the females had got the better of him, or whether some perverse desire to enrage them had given him courage for this, could only be guessed at. He peered up at them with his half-sneering, half-apologetic look. The kitten crawled over his lean breast searching vainly for succor.

Simultaneously with a flash of lightning that discovered the outside world in livid detail, his grandmother and his aunt leaped on him. The box became a whirlpool of writhing tawny bodies, their shrieks mingled with the sharp crackle of thunder.

In and out of the whirlpool the kitten’s body appeared, helpless as a leaf on Niagara. Miss Minton was brave, but she dared not put her hand into that box. She stood petrified, her small oval face very pale, waiting for the moment when she might help.

Suddenly Ali shot from the box and tore like a yellow streak around the room, the she-cats after him. The kitten was hurled to the floor. It lifted its face from side to side like a blind worm.

Ali fled to the bedroom. Miss Minton had a glimpse of the three speeding across the bed.

They came out again, and for a space ran head to tail in a frenzied circle. Even Ali’s tail looked bushy. He was panic personified. He fled to the kitchen and Miss Minton heard the overturn of the pail of water from the bench. When they reappeared Ali’s fur clung to him in wet tufts.

He sprang on to the rocking chair and from there to the top of the loom. The three ran across the top of the loom like a fantastical frieze. Miss Minton heard herself laughing. There was a deafening, splintering crash, as one of the pine trees was struck by lightning.

From the top of the loom Ali described a wide arc toward the door. Miss Minton sprang forward and threw it wide. The three cats shot out into the livid brightness. She shut the door.

She picked up the kitten and held it under her chin. It snuggled weakly there. A thumping came on the wooden partition and the Finn’s voice called out, ‘De beeg tree is bust!’

With the blasting of the pine the storm had spent its power. First a lull came, then a longer lull, then a gentle silence with a faint patter of rain to break it.

Miss Minton did not wake till nine o’clock. The kitten was still asleep beneath her chin. Sweet cool air and the smell of the refreshed earth filled the cottage.

When she opened the door the three cats entered, Ali behind the others. Each one of them bore some mark of the battle of the night before, but Ali bore the most. Patchy at once leaped into the box beside the kitten and began to nurse it. Timmie leaped after her and began to lick it vigorously. Ali took his place on the window ledge and stared up at the flypaper.

Miss Minton picked up the bottle of fresh milk left by the milkman. All three cats began to purr. First she filled her little milk jug, then their three saucers. Then she put the kettle on.

An exquisite breeze blew into the cottage. She saw the loom waiting for her, the happy cats lapping. She smiled.