A Feline Familiar
November wind rattles the windows and rain gusts against the panes. The cats have withdrawn to the kennel's heated indoor section and curled up in their cosy donut beds. Some doze with heads on paws, others watch my fingers dance across the keyboard, ears tilted forward as they listen to the rhythmic clack-clack-clack.
Several stare intently at the door, waiting.
They seem to know it's a Saturday, the day when the Feline Familiars sanctuary opens its doors, and potential adopters drop in, wizards in search of a magickal assistant and pet.
The first arrival, alas, has not come to adopt one of my charges. She places a cat carrier on the rickety table by the door, shakes the raindrops from her purple mane and juts her chin. "Ms Landen, this cat is no good."
My heart plummets: a reject. I remember the cat this young woman adopted three weeks ago. "I'm sorry to hear that. What's the problem with Hekate?"
"She's supposed to be a genuine magickal familiar." The customer points an index finger at the carrier and tosses her head so vigorously that her dyed tresses fly. “Are you intentionally misleading customers, Ms Landen? I tried her, and she has no magick. None whatsoever."
I click to open Hekate's computer file. A blue screen announces, "Word experienced an error trying to open the file.” My old laptop is overdue for replacement, but the budget is stretched thin with vet’s bills, huge amounts of cat food, and heating to keep this basement warm in winter.
My mind holds information on every animal in my care, so I don’t need the computer’s help to recall Hekate’s details: nine-year-old female, came to the shelter four months ago, owner-surrender, micro-chipped, spayed. Her owner, an elderly witch, was ill and could no longer care for her companion. According to her, Hekate was "hugely intuitive with remarkable psychic gifts, a good conductor of magick."
The old lady probably exaggerated her beloved pet’s abilities. I don't blame her for trying to secure her darling a good home, but it leaves me with a big problem.
I walk to the table by the door and give the purple-maned witch a pacifying smile. "Let's see, shall we?" I unzip the carrier's front flap, expecting to see a bewildered, distressed cat. Instead, Hekate strides out with the confident grace of a black panther. She rubs her head against my arm, then sits on the edge of the table, scanning the one-room shelter-shop-office like a queen surveying her realm.
I caress her black coat, soft and smooth like silk. It will be difficult to find a forever home for this old lady. Most magicians want young familiars they can train to their ways, not a senior in her sunset years. Especially not one without magic.
Stroking Hekate from the crown of her head to the tip of her tail, the way she likes it, I point my free hand at the kennel. "Would you like to see which of our cats resonates best with your magick?"
Eleven cats are waiting, all awake and alert now, pushing against the bars to get noticed. Some hold their tails upright in a 'come pick me' pose.
The young woman pulls at her layered capes and gives a nervous laugh."Are you sure they're different?"
Suddenly I see what's going on. This girl with her purple hair, tie-dye skirts and crystal pendants - she has no magick. She sought a cat to compensate for her lack. Too lazy to put in the practice needed to master magick, she expected the cat to provide instant results. I can see her in my mind's eye, like a movie...
In a yellow haze, she dances on a round rug with pentagram pattern, skyclad but for a dozen occult pendants dangling on her chest, the paperback 1001 Instant Spells For The Teenage Witch in her hand.
If only I had perceived this at the screening interview three weeks ago! But I’m not particularly intuitive and definitely not psychic. I’m not even a good judge of character. When interviewing clients who want to adopt a cat, I just ask questions to see if they’ll treat the animal with kindness and offer a suitable home.
I decide to put my impression to the test. “I’ll open the kennel, so you can meet our current cats. Then I’ll observe how they respond to your kind of magick, and recommend the right one.”
Of course that’s not something I could truly do. The magickal bond between human and feline emerges only after weeks of close interaction, trust and respect, not at a first encounter.
A flush creeps across the teenage witch’s cheeks and she looks at her shoes. “I don’t really have the time.”
I’m right: she’s frightened to expose her ignorance of magick.
“Maybe you want to come back another day when you have more time,” I suggest tactfully. “I’ll print you off a voucher which you can exchange for a cat any day in the future. Or you can spend it on something from our gift range.” I gesture to the merchandise shelf with its displays of cat goddess statues, tumble stones and gemstone pendants.
She lets out a huge breath. “Yes, that will be good.” She takes the empty carrier and waits for voucher – which I have to scribble by hand, because the the laptop won’t power up - gathers her layered capes around her, and departs.
This still leaves me with the problem of Hekate.
If the old cat really has no affinity for magick, could I place her with another animal shelter? But the local places are overflowing, and their resources are stretched even thinner than mine. They struggle to provide for the animals already in their care, and are forced to euthanise those who don’t get adopted fast.
Few people want to adopt a black cat. They adhere to superstitions that black cats bring bad luck or are minions of evil. Hekate’s chances look bleak.
If Caradoc says so, it’s true. Unlike me, he can sense magickal powers in all creatures.
“She’s just been returned as a reject,” I tell him. “The client who brought her says she has no magick at all.”
He raises his silver eyebrows. “That wannabe witch who just left? That figures.”
Caradoc possesses the kind of insight into people that I wish I had. He only needs to look at someone for a few seconds to form a dependable judgement. I’m glad he likes me.
He reaches out to stroke Hekate. She backs away.
“She’s skittish,” I feel obliged to explain. “She’s just been rejected and feels shy.”
“I’ll take her.” He grabs to lift Hekate into his arms.
She squirms, hisses, rakes claws across his face.
“Feck!” He tosses her against the wall.
It’s a powerful throw, and Hekate wails in pain. Then, as she cowers under the table, he steps closer and kicks her in the side.
When he turns to me again, his lips curve in a tolerant smile. “She’s a spirited girl and will need some time to get used to me. But I’ll take her.”
My mind whirls. What has just happened? What does it mean?
Caradoc just hurt a cat before my eyes! But I’ve known him for years, he’s a good man. Hekate scratched his face – he tossed her away from him in a reflex act, without meaning to. That kick, on the other hand... A sudden coldness hits me at the core. That kick was deliberate. He meant to hurt.
Huddled in the far corner under the table, well away from Caradoc’s shined leather shoes, Hekate sends me a beseeching gaze from yellow eyes.
“You won’t take her,” I hear myself saying. Where did this resolution come from?
“What?” He gives me an incredulous stare. A moment later, his self-possession is back. “You’re right, Lavinia. She clearly doesn’t fancy me, and it’s never good to take a female who doesn’t care for you from her own free will. I’ll choose another.”
He walks along the kennel’s edge, peering in. Many eager cats rub against the bars.
Hekate keeps staring at me, her gaze so hypnotic that my whole vision tints yellow. Suddenly I see an image of Caradoc working magick in a circle of green light. On the table before him lies a cat, strapped down. Now I hear the sounds of the scene, the cat’s squeals of pain and fear. With every feline scream, magickal energy rises as green light, and gets absorbed by Caradoc.
Nausea churns my stomach and spirals into my throat. I try to blink away the vision, but Hekate wills me to understand.
I begin to comprehend. I’m not a psychic – but Hekate is. Her old witch had described her as ‘hugely intuitive with remarkable psychic gifts’. She can see into Caradoc’s soul, replay his memories and intentions... and she’s transmitting them to me.
Dizzy and sick, I grab my mug and gulp down some tea to ground myself. As my rational reasoning returns, everything falls into place. Caradoc torments animals, feeding his magick with their pain. That’s why he adopted eleven cats in two years.
I rise, clutching the desk for support. “It’s best if you don’t come here again.”
A deep furrow draws on his brow, and he appears to stare right into my heart to probe if I really mean it. Then he shrugs and strides out. The door jingles and closes behind him with a thud.
What have I done?
I’ve lost the sanctuary a good customer and supporter – that’s bad. But I’ve protected the cats in my care, and that’s what counts.
Hekate relaxes. She hops onto my lap, rubs her head against my arm and purrs. I stroke her absent-mindedly while I take stock of the situation.
Without Caradoc’s aid, the Feline Familiars sanctuary’s resources will be even more tightly stretched, but we will manage. He might place a vengeful spell on us, but I think that’s unlikely, and I can ask our other clients to create protective wards. Deprived of his supply of magickal felines, he may turn to ordinary cats, so I’ll give the other shelters in the area a call to alert them about a suspected animal abuser.
What about Hekate, though?
“Mirr, mrrrr!” she says. She slides off my lap, crosses the room, and leaps onto the table by the entrance. Like a gatekeeper statue, she gazes at the door.
The message is clear: she intends to stay here, and vet the humans who come to adopt felines. She’ll help me with the screening interviews. I’m neither psychic nor intuitive or even good at judging people – but Hekate excels. Together, we’ll make the perfect team.
The door handle dips. Hekate’s ears tilt forward.
“You got the job,” I tell her. Then I shout, “Come right in, we’re open.”
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I stroke Hekate’s silky coat along the length of her spine, and she purrs softly, grateful for the caress.
The door jingles, and another visitor arrives, a man with a firm stride and a friendly smile. Caradoc is a real magician and one of my favourite clients. Not only has he adopted several of our cats over the years, but he’s helped me with magickal aid on occasion, protecting the sanctuary against vandals and driving away the rain clouds that threatened the fundraising bazaar. A little older than I, he’s handsome with bright blue eyes, silver-streaked dark hair and strong hands with manicured nails.
“Blessed be, Lavinia,” he greets. He gives me a smile that instantly brightens my day, and turns to Hekate who still sits on the table by the door. “Wow, this one has magick!”
This story is dedicated to Sulu, the black cat I adopted from the local cat shelter, to mark our two-year anniversary together.
For many months, nobody wanted to adopt this sweet cat, simply because he was black.
Sulu's story has a happy ending, because we've found each other. Happy to have a home and to be loved at last, Sulu enjoys being a writer's cat. You can read more about Sulu here.
Sulu hopes that more humans will adopt a shelter cat - maybe even a black one.