IN THE CAT god’s house, nuns carry silver-plated dishes of raw fish.
The cat god has a name I can’t understand, heavy with consonants, limited in vowels. The cat god stands with limbs twitching and does what it was born to do. The cat god fluffs its whiskers. The cat god rules.
The cat god has twelve nuns. They get down on their knees and clean it with their tongues—dozens of pink nubs coming out of human mouths and swatting against coarse fur. They rub the hard crusts from the corners of its eyes. The cat god sits on a litter box throne, the nuns at the ready to clean what reeks—swollen intestines and blocked up anus.
The cat god is gray, of course. The color of nothing. The cat god’s eyes are gold-blue, with flecks of green along the edges. It blinks slowly, lowering its lids as if they are heavy. The languorous act makes it seem ready to sleep. But the cat god doesn’t sleep. The nuns don’t sleep. I never see those eyes close.
THE CAT GOD yowls all night, but isn’t in heat. It doesn’t procreate. It sits on its litter box throne and eats. The nuns feed the cat god thick slabs of raw fish. The flesh slides over its tongue, presses against its tonsils, then dips down, edging towards the waiting stomach. The cat god can’t help the way it eats. It believes in the goodness of feline matters.
Some nuns pick nits from the cat god’s fur and other nuns trim its nails. The cat god sits hunched over, its front legs directly in front of its back legs, the paws spread so that the claws stick out. The claws glitter. Cat fur gets in my nose.
The light in the cat god’s room is very dim. The light in the entirety of the cat god’s house is very dim. There’s nothing I can do to prevent stumbling around in the half-dark. It doesn’t matter if I yank at myself. The cat god is there and then the cat god isn’t, like a ghost.
I came to the cat’s house because someone died, someone broke my heart, someone was gone. Before the cat’s house, I spent a month confined to a small room, mourning what needed to be mourned. When I finally left the room, I saw the nuns walking down the street across from me. The nuns walked quickly, purposefully. I thought I could be a nun. By the time I realized the truth, it was too late.
IN A CRAMPED kitchen painted emerald green, nuns open small tins filled with anchovies. The cat god only abides by green. Green litter box. Green sheets and blankets adorning every bed. Green window draperies. Each closed window has pale green glass like sea glass or a lime lollipop.
When I first came to the cat’s house, I went to the window in my bedroom and licked along the glass. I wanted to know what the green tasted of. I wanted to know if the green was something I should be frightened of.
When my tongue touched the glass, I felt a rip form in the center of the meat. Each subsequent lick caused the rip to enlarge until there was a split running the length of my tongue from base to tip. I felt the split in my tonsils. I felt it edging down my throat. I stopped licking and the split healed. I had to keep my mouth closed to help the healing along.
The nuns were pleased with this self-sacrifice. My muteness meant that I was willing to speak through the cat god, that I had no need for my own voice when the cat god could meow for us all.
THE HOUSE OF the cat god is hidden in an old factory. There’s a parking lot, but that doesn’t count. There are concrete columns, but those don’t count either. The cat’s house is behind all those pieces of masonry, up a tight staircase, which looks like a crack in the foundation pillars.
To reach the house, you have to claw at that concrete and breathe slowly so that the concrete doesn’t push too hard against the bones. You have to inhale and exhale without taking in too much air. A quick expansion of the chest will cause bones to crack. A sudden deflation will cause the body to move in an unnatural way. The jarring will cause the body to bang against the concrete, increasing the likelihood that your bones will break.
You have to crawl through the broken concrete pillar as a testament to your faith in the cat god. You have to do as the cat god decrees by regulating your breathing. The passageway seems like it stretches on forever, but it only takes ten slow breaths to reach the end. There’s a beam of light, then the feeling of whiskers on your face.
If you can get through without breaking a bone, then the cat’s house is yours. You will live inside forever. You can go to the cat god and bow down until your face nearly sweeps over the paws. You don’t touch the cat god’s feet. No one touches him but the nuns.
The nuns murmur chants as they clean the cat god. Hallowed be the cat god for he is good. Hallowed be the cat god and his many creations. Hallowed be the cat god, for in the cat god’s likeness we are made. We are all cats inside. The nuns mumble, their mouths foaming as they speak.
When the cat god demands it, we recite the CAT GOD COMMANDMENTS for its amusement. We get on our hands and knees and whisper the rules with our tongues between our teeth. If you don’t believe in the cat god properly, then you bite yourself. More than half of us will bite our tongues three times before the commandments are finished. The unluckiest will bite upwards of five times. If you believe, your mouth will be free of pain.
Thou shalt have only one cat and that cat shall be the cat god.
Thou shalt not take the cat god’s name in vain.
Thou shalt keep the cat’s house holy.
Thou shalt not shit in any litter box not blessed in the name of the cat god.
Thou shalt not eat another meat that is not fish.
Thou shalt only wear green, the sacred color of the cat god.
Thou shalt not covet the cat god for the cat god shall always be whole.
Thou shalt wear the words of the cat god upon thy flesh.
I wear the commandments across my spine, each letter tattooed into my skin by a cat claw dipped in ink. The claw isn’t from the cat god, but blessed in the cat god’s name. The cat claw is the remnant of a mummified cat saint, the first to die for the cat god’s cause.
When the cat nuns tattooed my spine, I felt each ink droplet fuse beneath my flesh, like barbed wire being shoved under my skin. It felt like hooks ripping at my vertebrae. I didn’t scream. I couldn’t scream. The cat nuns kept a brick between my teeth. They directed me to a litter box in case the pain was too much. But thou who doesn’t invite pain isn’t holy in the cat god’s name. I stayed quiet.
When the tattooing was over, the cat nuns wiped my back with alcohol and cat saliva. There is no mouth holier than the cat god’s, the nuns said, and applied their own tongues as salve. They worked their tongues up and down my back until I felt faint. When the application was over, the tattoo was nearly healed.
I am sick with their moisture. I am sick with the cat hair packed into the wounds. My skin prickles with feline follicles.
THE CAT GOD purrs in my ear when I sleep, and I grow feverish with nightmares. Each nightmare the same: a cat, standing on its back legs, mouth open wide. The cat presses its paws against its jaws, pulling them apart until the skin sags. The cat pushes its skin down, allowing it to puddle around its stomach.I rise out of the melting skin. I stand in the center of the cat, the skin around my ankles. Nothing else around us, only a cat skin and me. As the dream ends, my mouth opens wide and I meow. I wake up wet with fever, moist across my core. Every night, the same dream. The puddling cat skin, my voice meowing. A human shouldn’t meow. It isn’t natural. But in my dreams, I meow until my throat is sore.
After the dreams, the air stinks of litter box.
EVERY MIDNIGHT, THE cat god scratches the wallpaper. Usually, the scratch is singular. During the full moon, the cat god offers a second scratch and I imagine the cat god whispering, Here is a scratch and now here is one more.
The cat god’s voice sounds scratchy in my head, high-pitched and heavy with static, as if the cat god isn’t speaking from the same plane. The cat god might live in another veil and only the occupants of the cat’s house can see into that other dimension. We see the cat god when the cat god isn’t present.
The cat god drinks milk from a faucet that always trickles. Maybe the faucet is attached to a bathtub constantly filled with fresh milk gallons. I prefer to think the faucet is attached to a hose that is attached to a cow. The faucet tweaks the cow’s udders and fresh milk comes pouring out of the faucet. When the cow is empty and exhausted, it’s replaced with another cow already leaking milk onto the floor. The empty cow is brought to the slaughterhouse where it’s electrocuted, then slit across the throat.
None of us really know what the milk-producing faucet is attached to. The cat nuns might know, but they are unwilling to reveal the cat god’s secrets. If the cat god is really a god, then the faucet might be one of its many feline miracles, a way to create milk from the air.
I watch the faucet drip and wonder if the milk has a particular taste. Is the milk warm? Is the milk chilled? Does the milk have an artificial flavor? How thick or waterlogged might the milk be? Questions I never ask, because asking questions in the cat’s house is frowned upon. To ask is to show that the cat god isn’t believed in as devoutly as required. The belief has to be like a frenzy, a fever.
IN THE CAT’S house, there’s a window that looks out into a wall, a staircase that ends with a locked door. The locked door can’t be opened, and not only because it’s locked. It can’t physically be opened.
I don’t know what’s behind the locked door. The locked door could have a second door. The locked door could have an anvil. The locked door could have a staircase. No one goes through the locked door.
The cat god directs with its whiskers. If the cat god wants a house that looks out into a waterfall, then the architects make that happen. If the cat god demands a house in the shape of a sardine, in a few short months, the cat god will be living inside a sardine.
The locked door is part of the cat god’s mind. The cat god wanted a locked door and so it demanded a locked door. What does it matter where the locked door leads? Only one privy to the cat god’s mind will ever know.
The cat nuns walk to the door, get on their knees, and kiss the metal. They push their tongues into the locks. They work the muscles in and out, then suck their tongues back in, the meat bloodied all around.
The cat nuns soak their tongues in clean spring water to wash the wounds. They could squeeze lemon juice over the locked door. Why lemon juice? Fish pairs well with lemon. Or should I say, lemon pairs well with fish? Really, lemon pairs well with everything. Skin, hair, walls, locked doors, hardwood floors, litter boxes, tin cans, diluted milk. If the cat god insists that a lemon be eaten in the cat god’s name, then a lemon will be consumed quickly.
A lemon could be swallowed whole, then vomited back up in order to be chewed. The initial swallowing would soften the rind for mastication. It’s very difficult to bite through the peel and pith to get at the softer meat below. And what to do with the lemon seeds? Chew them carefully. A whole lemon in the stomach has the possibility of sprouting an entire grove.
But this is hypothetical.
The lemons don’t exist. There has never been a lemon in the house’s refrigerator. If the cat god is unwilling to chew a lemon, then no one else will chew one either. The locked door isn’t dependent on a lemon. A lemon is still the way of the world.
HOW DO YOU get to the cat’s house?
You follow a path. You wake up and look for an orange trail in the sky. The orange has to be clementine-shaded. It has to have a melon hue. If there is no orange in the sky, you have to sleep, then look again the next day. When you finally see an orange hue, you know you are blessed in the cat god’s name. Then you walk.
You walk north without looking at the sidewalk. The cat god doesn’t approve of gazing directly down. The cat god insists that the gaze be focused fully ahead in anticipation of the cat god’s majesty. The cat god won’t wait for eyes to lift up. The cat god demands that every eye be open, engorged with tears (whether emotional or created via allergies), anticipating the reception of the cat god’s everlasting grace.
You have to walk down the sidewalk without looking at the cracks or the curb. You can’t hop while you walk either. The cat god has no patience for sidewalk games such as hopscotch. You have to walk purposefully, but without swinging your arms too much. Your arms can lift up approximately five inches from your body, no more than that. It can’t be less either, because the cat god doesn’t believe in walking with arms only at your sides. You can swing them, but you have to have enough sense to know when to cease the swinging. You have to do what the cat god requires or the orange will dissipate before you reach the cat’s house.
The cat’s house is a holy place. It is the temple of the cat god, solid steel beneath an orange sky, and when you get close enough, you will smell the distinctive odor of fermenting fish. You can’t look in the garbage pails. They’re filled to the brim with discarded fish heads and tails. If you lift the lid, flies will swarm. The cat god doesn’t like the sound of swarming flies. They get in the cat god’s ears and the buzzing sound interferes with the nuns’ chanting.
To get to the cat’s house, you have to walk so that your feet slap flat against the ground. You have to obey all traffic signs. You can’t wander into traffic. You have to keep your eyes ahead. You can’t allow your gaze to dart from side to side. You can’t look all the way up and you can’t glance down.
A woman comes to you dressed in green. A sign of the cat god. She bows down, brushing her knees against the sidewalk, but because you have to keep your eyes ahead, you only see the top of her head disappear below the bridge of your nose. She dips down, bends her head, and stands up again. She sighs in your ear. Do you love green?
It isn’t a trick question. If you answer yes, she will step back so you can continue walking. If you say no, she will smile sadly and push you into oncoming traffic. The cat god is quick to do away with fallen worshippers. But you know the right answer, and so you say yes, and you mean it. The woman bows again, kisses your elbows, and turns away. She doesn’t watch you cross the street.
As you walk, you ponder the shade of green the woman wore. It was less of an emerald green and more of a sea green. It was such a pretty pastel, you wish it were a water body you could fling yourself into. But the cat god does not approve of full moisture. A sip of water is fine. A wet rag across a sweaty brow. But a dip in the ocean? Submersion in a lake? A bathtub with running water? The cat god doesn’t allow those things.
A second woman approaches but doesn’t bow. She stares at you, leans forward, and touches her tongue against the tip of your nose. She licks around your nostrils, then withdraws her tongue. Sardines or anchovies, she asks. You say both. Otherwise, you are telling the cat god that you are picky. The cat god doesn’t approve of one fish being picked over another. As long as both have tails and scales, both are edible. You don’t insult the cat god by whispering your personal preference. You say both and are done with it. You say both and await the woman licking your nose again.
Around and around your nostrils her tongue goes and when she stops, it’s with her tongue up one of your nasal passages, flicking in and out like a sex act. Then the tongue is back in her mouth and your nostrils are surprisingly clean. You can breathe better than you have in years. The cat god is better than a decongestant. You will never feel the old pressure again once you reach the cat’s house. But you have to get to the factory first.
You have to crawl into the parking lot, scrape your knees, and rest your head against the shins of the nun who will be waiting. She will kiss your hair. She will lead you to a pillar at the back of the parking structure. The pillar will have a hole near the bottom. That is where you will go. A cat will rise into your mouth. If you climb through, you will no longer be yourself. Blessed be.
There is a large mouth peering down from the sky. It wears a fat pustule in the corner of its upper lip. It is a good mouth, such a good mouth, the kind of mouth someone might want to climb into. That mouth has eyes. It watches me sit in an underground hole and tuck silver coins into my eyes. Although I know I can’t leave the cat’s house, I still try. I pull at the window sashes, struggle to lift them from the frame. The windows don’t budge. There is a locked door you can’t go through. There are windows that lead into walls.
You might think you could get out the way you came in. Shove yourself through the broken pillar that extends between floors, down the crack to the bottom. To fit inside, you have to struggle not to breathe. Squeezing, scraping claustrophobia. But your body, now the cat god’s servant, rebels. It expands and sticks. The nuns come eventually and chisel the flesh and bone free. No one leaves the cat’s house alive.