When hunger’s making your insides growl, and rain’s a-rattling your midnight window, and you’re lying in your driftwood bunk waiting for the door to whine open and your Ma to lean inside to tell you it’s time – the very second she does you whip yourself upright, shove Greymalkin onto the good-earth floor, jump down sure-footed landing at exactly the same time as she.
Da says Manx cats are nimbler than ordinary cats because they don’t have tails to trip them up, but Da’s a bugger for telling tall tales and I’ve never met an ordinary cat, so I ask Ma if it’s true as I follow her to the fireside. Mingled scents of peat smoke and pottage turn my stomach as I don my outdoor cloak.
‘Why, lass,’ says she. ‘I’ve no idea what makes Manx cats queens among felines, but nimble hunters they surely are, a breed on their own like we Laxey folk, but I do know how they lost their tails.’ She laces her boots and puts on her story-telling face but I’m a woman now making ready to attend my first rescue – I can’t be doing with her childish blather.
‘They were the last creatures on The Ark,’ she drawls, like I care a jot, then yanks my cloak hard enough to chafe. ‘Just a-testing you’ve tied it tight enough to withstand the wind, Miss All-Grown-Up. Three days’ bleeding does not a woman make.’
I knot it tighter, wondering if she’s a thought-seeing sea hag.
‘Too busy they were a-sharpening their claws,’ she rattles on, ‘so by the time they’d reached The Arc, the drawbridge door was almost shut. But quick as moonlight on a flayer’s blade, they hunkered flat and slid beneath – but alas! Too late – for the door slammed shut, with the cats inside and their tails without.’
I move to the cottage door in thin-lipped silence.
‘Believe what you will, Sour-face,’ she snaps. ‘But sometimes mishaps work out well. Tis said Manx cats washed up here on the same bark as we, and displaced the runt-tailed cats already settled – mated with them most like, then fed only the tailless kits – for who wants mongrel mutts when they could have pureblood wolf-cubs?’ She opens the door, and midnight blows in, and I wonder if it’s chance I’m an only child. We stride brisk down the steep coast path by the light of the storm-lantern she holds aloft, shielded from the sea-wind’s deepest bite by overhanging blackthorn that rattles and snaps like broken bones. I’m hoping the tight lips that keep Laxey childer ignorant of full-grown knowings will slacken tonight now I’m part of the rescue. I screw up my courage and ask.
‘Why do boats run shallow here each month?’
‘Sailors naming things they shouldn’t most like,’ she tattles. ‘Saying cat instead of scratchet, or rat instead of long-tailed fellow. Or maybe they mistake the Will-o-the-Wake’s ghost-fire over Laxey cliffs for Douglas Lighthouse. Guiding lights and lures look much the same on cloudy nights like this.’
‘It’s not that boats falter I’m a-quizzing,’ I say, irritated because I know she’s keeping secrets. ‘It’s the regularity. Every month.’
‘Hush,’ she growls. ‘Laxey kin learn by deeds, not prattle.’
I free my thoughts to stay my tongue, thinking on Da’s words about The Isle of Man, how our outcast forebears washed ashore when a lucky gust blew them through the mist into Laxey Bay – our stony homeland, steep and separate, even from the rest of the island. A raw wind whips me from my musings as hedgerow opens onto pebble beach. Busy kinsfolk are fuelling a blazing beacon and making good two rescue rowboats. Scores of milk pails are stacked by the rough jetty, and close out on the boiling blackwater, a stricken schooner rolls and pitches, clearly visible by its ship-shaped lights. Halloos resound as they see us coming, and though their words flounder in the noisy weather, the thrill of their voices carries meaning. Da raises a hand and everyone gathers.
‘Men. You know the ropes – crew before cargo, but take some salvage for the customs men should they come a-sniffing tomorrow. And sisters, make haste, the cloud cover’s shifting.’ I meet his gaze as he addresses me. ‘And Daughter, when we come back safe, you’ll need no steer if your nature’s sound.’ White foam sucks and snaps around their boots as the menfolk haul the rowboats seaward. I watch them pitch and yaw their way through the hungry water.
‘Come then, first-blood,’ trills Auntie Ylfa tugging me toward the blazing beacon, and I join the kinswomen making a chain, passing buckets to quench the fire with seawater. Once it’s dead, we scoop up the remnants and cast them out to sea until there’s no trace, no mark, no scent. The heavy work done, we crunch over sodden shingle to the hinterland, the thin margin where earth meets water.
‘Do you feel it, Daughter?’ Ma whispers, lifting her chin. ‘The wind a-changing? The tide a-turning?’
I say naught as I watch the rowboats pull slowly nearer, and even when the waves fetch them up safe and full of salvaged souls, I feel nothing bar the salty spray chafing at my cheeks. I turn to the kinswomen who turn to me, their looming figures masked in shadow until the wind howls a hole in the blanketing cloud, and a huge full moon floods their faces in a silvery glare. It crashes over me that white-water moonlight, bends me double as sensations rage – the taste of the trust of the rescued crew in the salty scent of their cooling sweat, the beating throb of their salvaged hearts, the toothsome tang of their fresh-caught flesh.
I stand, smiling or snarling – I can’t tell which now I’m one of the pack. We watch the sailors watch us shapeshift, their features twisting from relief, to disbelief, to delicious terror as we lick our lips and slink toward them.
Jan Kaneen is a working class writer from Bolton in Lancashire who now lives in the flat manmade washes of the Cambridgeshire Fens worrrying about climate change. Her prose has been published hither and yon and won prizes in loads of places places including most recently at Bath Flash, Flash 500, Segora, Molotov Cocktail and Retreat West. She’s been nominated for Best on the Net, Best Micro and several Pushcarts and was one of the BIFFY 50 in 2020. She holds an MA (with distinction) from the OU and on April 22nd 2021, Retreat West Books will publish her memoir-in-flash, The Naming of Bones. She blogs at jankaneen.com and tweets @jankaneen1.