The Changeling

JOSEPHINE JOHNSON, a native of Missouri, whose first published short story appeared in the Atlantic, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1934 with her beautifully descriptive novel. Now in November. Today she is living with her husband, her two children, and Fuzzy, the cat she describes in her story, in a 130-year-old house just outside of Cincinnati. In spite of her family responsibilities, she still finds the necessary quiet for the new novel on which she is at work.


A MODERATELY dreadful thing took place this autumn. Among the chattels personal, including domestic bats and mice, which came with an ancient home we bought several years ago, was a cat with a proud Egyptian profile. Of autumnal orange and black coloring and semi-Persian lineage, and with more than the usual inscrutable witch-seed look about her, she seemed a creature of profound wisdom and possible cap-of-darkness connections. Sometimes fed and sometimes abandoned by the families who succeeded each other in this house, she had made her way as a wild cat for several years, bearing her inevitable and interminable litters in a hungry silence, suffering incredible cold in winters when the very marrows of the mice must have frozen, becoming an expert hunter of rabbits and birds, and in her lonely and persistent life exemplifying the ancient and undeniable urge to live for no particular reason.

I felt an awe at her wild independence, her ability to catch a sparrow on the wing, and her daily strewing of the porch with small bloody animals caught on her nocturnal journeys. But ignoring all this, and with a warm, friendly lack of imagination, our child Annie named the old cat by the ignominious name of Fuzzy — symbol of brick hearth, thatched roof, of warmth and pipe and slippers. Such is the power of innocence, the cat seemed to become all that in her encircling arms. The dreadful cold topaz eyes would shut up to conceal the feral soul, and she would expand, fluff out, and purr softly to appear the Fuzzy of all childhood dreams.

She is very old now and her last litter came out badly. Only four, two of which were born dead, and when found in a clothes box, only the small wet head of one remained. The third was a yellow runt with enormous eyes like a lemur, which died shortly after opening its sorrowful orbs upon the world, its little mice legs curled beneath it. (Annie was horrified by all this and it took away some of the sorrow. The grotesque, the ugly, the unsightly fur and sour smells — these tug at the stomach rather than the heart, and we are spared the melancholy loss.) But I digress — all this is not the “dreadful thing” — it is significant because there was only one kitten left by late September when it happened. One kitten of gray and silver and rare perfection, with white immaculate paws.

The old cat, being full of a certain cold wisdom and experience, made it her custom to disappear periodically with each succeeding brood of kittens into the small swampy woods and seem to abandon them for days. Not precisely offering them to the gods on shields for survival, but teaching them to hunt and not depend on the uncertain charity of man, expressed in canned liver and barley and the skins of fishes. It is usually saddening to us to see this twice-a-year pilgrimage into the leafy tunnels, the old cat leading under leaf and shadow and the gradually concealing stalk of ragweed and wild lettuce, uttering cajoling, guttural sounds with an undertone of menace, and all the dancing, fluffy, varicolored, innocent litter following on little feet, their vacant blue eyes reflecting butterflies and snails and wings of birds, until they disappear silently from sight into the swampland and the woods. The depreciation of the flock on these journeys is far less than we gloomily predict. Far less than the loss of “several boys” that used to be reported on the big-game expedition, and besides there is very little we can do about it, since it is Fuzzy’s business and not ours, her families reaping the bitter and the sweet fruits of her own lonely life in the face of old neglect.

But this September, with but one kitten left, it was with even more than the usual misgivings we watched the ritual begin. The old cat prowling restlessly along the porch and then a few steps toward the woods, calling and sitting down to wait, and coming back and calling again, and the silvery and perfect kitten pretending not to hear, but playing with its own shadow and clasping a little leaf delicately as a flower between its pure-white paws. But gradually following and following. First teetering at the far edge, pretending to peer under the porch, examining the dusty black recesses, and then suddenly pouncing on the old cat’s impatient tail, as though prolonging knowingly its milk-fed kittenhood and putting off the hour. But at last disappearing quietly, not even disturbing the wild peas and the matted grass. And gone.

Hours later the old cat returned alone, tired and burr-ridden and enigmatic as ever. But the kitten did not return, either that day or the next. On the third day of its absence, along toward evening when the sharp autumn coolness starts coming in with the sunset, my husband and I were out on the porch and Fuzzy sat there on the step, straight and quiet, watching the far edge of the woods. We were just sitting there when out of the weeds came a terrible little Thing with a kitten shape. The most evil thing we had ever seen. It was the bones of a kitten with a covering of fur, fur like dirty black moleskin, as though it had been shaved. All its teeth were pointed like fangs, and the shape of the skull was covered only by skin. It was like a microscopic hyena. Like some monstrous insect. It came crying and dancing out of the grass and ran straight up to the old cat, arching its back and mewing and trying to rub itself under her chin. Fuzzy drew back in disgust and moved away and the thing ran up to her again. She hissed at it and snarled, but it kept crying and coming on, and then it danced up on the porch.

We looked at each other and I said, “Oh, the poor little kitten.”

And my husband said, “Somebody must have dumped it by the road,” but his voice didn t sound quite certain.

I pushed the old cat’s pan of milk toward the starving thing, but the kitten only looked at the milk and went on jumping and crying. And then it tried to get in the house. It kept running up to the door and crying and there was something infinitely strange and evil about its starving and refusing food, and knowing the door was an entrance to the house and determined to get inside. What did it want inside?

My husband made up his mind quickly. He saw the thing was bad and possibly mad and oughtn’t to live, and if it could not eat it wouldn’t live anyway. “You go in the house,” he said. His voice was very sharp and he sounded urgent. It seemed odd that such a small frail thing should frighten us.

The old cat had leaped up on the window sill, where the thing couldn’t touch her, and watched every twitch it made with a cold distaste. I went inside the screen door and Grant got a mallet from the tool shed and a sack. Then when the kitten came wailing up to him again and tried to rub up against his legs he threw the sack over it and hit it hard on the head. The blow made a curious popping sound, like the skull of a small hard bird exploding. Then he wrapped it up in the sack — which wasn’t bloody at all — and carried it out to the incinerator and burned it up, sack and all.

Fire is a wonderful thing. Fire and decision. The thing over, he grew more cheerful, washed his hands, and waxed bitter against people who had not the courage to kill a cat but abandoned it in a loose sack along lonely roads. I looked at Fuzzy and she looked back at me. A long cold enigmatic stare, but one with a certain peace inside it.

I felt very differently about the old cat from that hour. I feel very certain evil things had come into play that evening and that, in the world of animals, there are witch things too, evil spirits that loose their changelings. For, undoubtedly this was purely a changeling deal, a vile trick by the old cat’s enemies, who had captured the beautiful gray kitten somewhere out there in the autumn night, and who had intended to keep it as their precious plaything — as a plaything, and as a hostage and a warning to all the wild things who crossed over into the bright domestic world. A warning to the feralhearted who accepted the name of Fuzzy.

But “they” had not counted on the guardians of this world, nor the mallet and the little pop that can break the evil spell, and the next day the gray and silver kitten sat in the sunshine on the step and played with the furry end of a little weed. Calm and innocent, and if you peered close, which I did —you could see nothing but yourself reflected in its eyes.