Maria slid the toilet window across and pressed her aquiline nose to the flyscreen, searching the car park below uneasily. Nothing but the gleam-wobbling macadam and a few cars. ‘Bickie!’ she called in a sing-song voice. ‘Bikkiiiie!’ Usually, as soon as she called, she would see the cat’s stripy form appear from behind a bin or emerge from a bush and come loping over the asphalt from afar. Then, after half a minute, he would burst into the flat, both needy and haughty, waving his tail with patrician entitlement. Like a dog, the way she could call and he would come. But not this time.
Gato travieso, she muttered as she bustled into the kitchen—‘naughty cat’. Her walk was lopsided, rump hefty, floral blouse bunched up at the hip, and she grunted in pain with each step. From a drawer she pulled out a trendy knife her children Eva and Pedro had bought her for Christmas and used it to cut potatoes into thick chips, careful to keep her fingers shy of the keen blade, which sliced through the spuds almost too easily. She flicked the grubby potato skins into the sink. Once she had cooked the chips she piled them into a pyramid, soaking their oil into absorbent paper. Then with a fork she carefully laid a rich, red steak, an inch and a half thick, in the remaining oil. It hissed like an alley cat. Lately, Eva had forced Maria into a ‘paleo diet’ and regularly came around to the flat to check that she was keeping up with it. But Eva was at the theatre tonight, so Maria was going to treat herself.
Paleo diet. Didn’t cavemen die at about 25? Let an old woman live in peace and eat what she wants. The fat on the steak popped. Maria grinned and the lines on her dark face deepened and wrinkled.
Yes, she was going to cook it perfectly until it charred and blistered, the way they used to do on the grills back home, until it was just right. Chips, steak, beans, tortillas and rice—a huge meal for one. Maria often caught Eva looking at her sideways, then smoothing down her dress over her legs in a repeated motion as if it might cast a spell of everlasting skinniness. A family of strong, squat Mayan women, mija—the genes are there, no matter how hard you try to battle against it.
She eyed the front door. Where could that cat be?
The TV was on softly, a newsreader’s rectangular head saying something serious. Maria knew what he would be talking about. On everyone’s lips and minds, the killer on the loose. The killings had been going on for three months now, and still he hadn’t been caught. At first the main suspect had been a Pakistani student who hadn’t been seen for a month, and the prime minister had even gone so far as to say it was a potential terrorist threat. However, in a bizarre turn of events, the student had been found dead at the end of a drain on the outskirts of town, seemingly also a victim of the murderer. Each murder was horrifying and perverse. The killer would wait for hours on end in cupboards, so the story went, and watch people before he butchered them, and in this small, convivial town people had taken to locking their houses for the first time. Men accompanied women down the street after dark. Maria crossed herself quickly.
Bickie’s brother Coffee appeared suddenly and rubbed his head against Maria’s ankle. He, unlike Bickie, never strayed too far from home. He was the runt of the litter and much more timid, awkward, a light brown tabby with a front paw constantly lifted, as if injured. She wrestled his rangy limbs up into her arms and greedily fussed over him, tickling behind his soft ears and sniffing his paws. Coffee closed his eyes with pleasure and bobbed his wet nose in the air. Maria loved the way they smelled, especially when they’d just woken up. She set him down after a minute, puffing. She rubbed the small of her back with her thumb, then pressed directly into the most painful spot, what she imagined as an infra-red tangle of nerves between the vertebrae, but it did no good. The pain was constant.
Coffee miaowed. He was missing his brother. She bent over slowly and tipped some dried biscuits into a bowl to distract him, but he ignored them and continued miaowing. Maria cursed herself for not getting Pedro to install a cat flap. It wasn’t safe to leave the door open. But what choice did she have? The summer had been brutally hot, and without a cross-wind coming through, it was unbearable in the flat. Not only that, but the cats had been getting restless, unused to being locked inside for days on end, pacing tirelessly along the windowsill and making a hell of a racket, so much so that her neighbour Freddy had complained. She had taken to leaving the door open during the day, and counting on the cats to go out for a maximum of three hours only, well before it got dark. Coffee always came home before Bickie. Where was it they went every day? She was glad that she coddled them so much as kittens because it meant they couldn’t bear to be away from her for very long and regulated their absences. Until today. Bickie had been out for five hours already.
It was still light outside, still safe. The sky was murky, sepia like an old photograph, burned out at the edges. She went onto the steps of the flats and called out, louder this time. She leaned out and yelled at the Korean kids from the flat below kicking a soccer ball in the front yard, ‘You seen Bickie, kids?’
‘No, Mrs Flores!’ they yelled back.
She stretched out over the railing and could see the next landing. Freddy, the bachelor from directly beneath her, had set up a mini grill on the landing, turning over sausages and sipping a beer. He was quite big, with a foppish haircut and sharp eyes. Even before the killings he had been a paranoid bastard, a stickybeak, up at all hours checking on his new Mazda and for suspicious activity around the flats, which was mild solace to Maria. If any dodgy activity was going on, Freddy would be onto it in a flash.
She had a neighbour once in Guatemala, Julio, strong and brave, whose courage did him no good in the end. She thought of his face, with its proud Mayan nose and intelligent eyes, that it was almost unrecognisable when she saw him dead in the street the day she and her husband fled their homeland for good. Eva and Pedro didn’t understand war or true sacrifice, and it was good they didn’t. Eva didn’t want to, preferring to tell people she had royal Spanish blood somewhere back up the family tree. Pedro was different. He wanted to know a bit too much. When he asked her about the war, the killings, the death squads, she noticed a greedy look in his normally placid eyes that she didn’t like, as if his parents’ suffering would lend him pity or prestige among his university friends.
She knew there was no way he could understand, no way she could word a phrase to take on the shape of absolute horror. Every now and again, rarely, she would try to explain about los desaparecidos, the so-called ‘disappeared’. She would say that she had known people who had gone missing, that even when mass graves appeared many years later, there was no closure for their families. It seemed to both intrigue and terrify Pedro, but still, he didn’t get it. Maria’s grandchildren understood even less. Once, at a family Christmas, she had asked Eva’s daughter, Barbara, what magic power she wished she had. Barbara had replied instantly, ‘Invisibility!’ Maria had smiled and in a voice she didn’t recognise, said ‘that is not a super power, my darling. There are millions of people in the world who are invisible and wish to God they weren’t.’
Suddenly she smelled something burning and swore to herself. The steak. Hustling as fast as she could into the kitchen, she cursed herself, but was glad that Eva wasn’t there to witness it. She would take it as yet more evidence of Maria’s growing infirmity. As if she needed any—she seemed to find evidence in every stumble, every forgotten appointment. So critical, that girl. Maria took the steak off the heat and eyed it. It wasn’t unsalvageable, she realised, cutting into it with the trendy knife; it was burned only on the outside, leaving the meat inside rich and juicy. She smiled to herself proudly. Just right.
She sliced it into thin strips, for easy consumption.
Lately Eva had been hinting that Maria should move into a retirement home, but Maria had refused outright, saying she wanted to stand on her own two feet, in the flat that she owned, and would make a great show of throwing pamphlets from the nursing homes into the bin. But Eva was getting more and more persistent. She had a steely determination that terrified Maria. Her father’s daughter. The type of cunning tenacity a person had to have to survive danger, to flee a homeland and to start a new life, had transmuted into something else in a new generation. Pedro, though—he was Maria’s hope. As placid as he was, he was a mama’s boy and if there was one thing he would fight for, it was her dignity.
She set the table with a glass of red wine and sat down heavily, grunting again. She shifted to get comfortable, then shifted again. It did no good. She savoured the first bite of the steak, and the second and the third, chewing slowly, imagining that it was filling her limbs with strength. She needed it. As well as getting her pension, she still worked stubbornly a day a week as a cleaning lady at a local primary school. Everyone loved her there, but she would have to give it up soon, because she was getting too slow at even the smallest tasks. She got a quarter of the way through the steak and set it aside. She wasn’t as hungry as she had thought and plus, it was too gristly and it hurt her teeth. A little pile of chewed gristle sat on the side of the plate. She transferred the steak, rice, beans, tortillas and chips onto another plate, put it in the fridge, then carried the plate of gristle to the front door. But what for? Was she forgetting something? Maybe Eva was a little bit right. Sometimes Maria’s memory floated from her like a balloon and she had to use all her concentration to catch it and bring it back.
She stood there, looking down the darkening stairs with a plate of gristle in her hand. Coffee rubbed against her ankles again. The cat! Of course. She tossed a piece of gristle to Coffee, who sniffed it, chewed it once, then let it drop to the floor. She stooped over and set the plate of gristle on the floor in the doorway. Cats have a good sense of smell, didn’t they? Bickie would smell it a mile off and come bounding in. He would be starving by now, surely.
It was dusk now and the sky was strange, brown darkening into black. She sat by the window and watched it through a mess of cobwebs. Coffee jumped on her lap and miaowed loudly, trembling. As she patted and calmed him, she looked at the framed pictures of her cats and children next to a crucifix on a bookshelf, at the brightly coloured painting of her namesake Maria and the photograph of her dead husband. There were more photos of the cats than the humans. She hadn’t always loved cats. Her husband had thought them a pestilence, but when he had died she had been so lonely, mourning for hours in the dusty flat, weeping and refusing to eat, to take visitors. One day, Eva and Pedro had bought her the kittens and said they would be good for her. She laughed at them then, saying she was not the crazy cat lady from those cartoons Barbara liked. But then Bickie began to tug at her sock with his little teeth while Coffee tried to clean him and their loveliness stirred something within her and brought her back to life. She had been devoted to them ever since and thought of little else, not her husband, not God.
She no longer believed in God. How could she? Whenever she crossed herself, it was only out of habit. Her crucifixes were mere artefacts. If God does exist, she thought, he is a torturer. If not, then what remains? War remains. As much a war today in Guatemala as back then. The same M16s as el ejército used. That poor young generation, knowing no better life than the black blood that trickles between tiles and pavements, then turns mercury bright when police lights appear, a generation living in the spaces between bodies that would never be found, that went missing and were forever missed. A people who were somehow still brimming with humour despite the carnage, or maybe because of it. War remains. What Australians found so terrifying about the killer’s violence was its grotesque novelty. They were not used to it. It was not banal. It was not the everyday.
She suddenly realised the phone was ringing. Eva. No-one else would call at this hour, not even those telemarketers, whom Maria was not sure whether to pity or despise. Maria hovered over the phone, her left arm crossed over her body, propping her right arm straight, resting her chin on her right palm, tapping her nose with the index finger on the same hand. It rang out. There was a moment of silence before it started ringing again. She picked it up.
‘Mum,’ came Eva’s serious voice, the one she had modelled on ABC newsreaders. Maria imagined her on the news, talking sombrely about the killer. ‘Mum, we need to talk.’ Wasn’t that something people only said in American movies?
‘We’re talking now, mija.’
Her daughter’s voice cracked. ‘How’s Bickie? How’s Coffee?’
Get to it, girl.
‘They’re good. Right here in my lap. They just ate.’
‘Mama … we need to … we’ve found the perfect retirement home for you. It’s near us. They have a spa there, they even have a chef.’
‘I can cook for myself. Just did. We’ve talked about this already.’
‘I know, I know. But, but, they have a nice big lawn and a waterfall. Perfect for your afternoon walks. They have an art studio with painting classes every Thursday.’
‘What am I going to do in a studio? I haven’t got an artistic bone in my body.’
Eva’s voice was getting desperate now. ‘We’re doing it for you, mama. It’s the best thing for you. You can barely get up and down the stairs of the flats any more.’
‘It’s only you who are saying it.’ Maria decided she would talk to Pedro, her sweet Pedrito. He would go in to bat for her with this stubborn Eva. She tried to change the conversation. ‘Let me talk to Barbara. I miss my granddaughter.’
‘That’s a lie. I can hear a cartoon on in the background.’
Eva was nearly at her wit’s end. Maria could hear the aggression bubbling in the crucible. Smoke was rising. Yes, that’s it. Get angry, mija. Eva started again. ‘Mama, please listen to me. We’re doing it for your own—’
‘You let that child stay up much too late.’
It was then that Eva’s temper broke, as did the urbane accent she had tried so hard to cultivate. She suddenly became a girl from the flats again and spat the words out. ‘Mum, fucken hell. Are you being a pain in the arse on purpose? I don’t have time for your bullshit. I don’t wanna be the one to have to clean up your shit and wipe your arse every day when you can’t do it yourself. It’s not our fucken problem.’
Maria smiled, enjoying the sport of it. Her voice rose too. ‘Ah, now the truth comes out. I’m a burden to you, is that it?’
There was a suck of breath and it sounded like Eva was going to retort when suddenly Pedro’s wispy voice appeared on the line. He had been listening the whole time. ‘Mama. Mama? I think Eva’s right. It’s not safe for you to be by yourself in that flat. What if you fall and hurt yourself? Mama, at least come and look at the place.’
Maria said nothing. Eva spoke again and this time she was calm and triumphant. Her ‘reasonable’ voice. ‘It’s for the best, mama. We’ve made an appointment. Take a look at least.’
Maria didn’t want her voice to betray her, so she remained silent for a moment. ‘You are a hard child, Eva,’ she wanted to say, and ‘Pedro, how could you betray me? Pedrito, mi corazón,’ but instead she spoke softly, ‘Okay, okay. I’ll come with you. See you tomorrow.’
She bowed her head and put the phone gently in its cradle, her face shining with tears. She looked around the flat and went to the kitchen, running her hand over the faux marble kitchen bench again and again. It was hers. Years of exile, years of toil. Had it made her happy? Her hand tightened around the trendy kitchen knife.
What was happiness? If happiness existed, it was a skein whose knotted lengths were lost and tangled among those of pain and loss, inextricably, loose leads threaded through the remains of bodies and bullet shells. Eva spoke endlessly about happiness, and did all manner of things—diets, yoga, cosmetic surgery—but she didn’t seem happier. Maria thought of how from even a young age, she would pick up an apple with one bruise and look at it as if it were wholly unclean. She would refuse to cut the bruise off and eat the good bits.
Maria placed the knife in her pocket. She nodded to herself and made a decision, wiping the tears from her face and jutting her chin out. She would go outside into the darkness to find her cat Bickie. But she would have to leave the door open, just in case he came home when she was gone.
What to do with the other one? She had an idea. She laboriously took the catbox down from a shelf in the laundry and opened it up. Coffee was shaking, but he went inside without her having to push him. She shut the grill and his wet nose and eyes shone from behind the bars. The louder you miaow, the more chance your brother will come home, she said to him. She carried him to the top of the stairs, in front of the open door. Bait!
Each step down the stairs sent excruciating pain down her back and into her legs, then down into her feet, where she felt a dangerous tingling. She looked back up the stairs and all was dark, just a dull rectangle of light from her doorway. She compelled herself down the stairs and was breathing heavily by the time she got to the bottom. ‘Bickie,’ she called out in a thin voice. ‘Bickiiiie!’
A light went on above her and there was a shadow behind a curtain. She walked forwards step by step into the yard of the flats and kept calling to Bickie. There was a toy ball on the ground and she would have stooped to pick it up if it wasn’t such a waste of energy. She went out the front gate. She faced a row of houses and flats, all locked shut and silent, turned strange colours by blinking streetlamps and the particulate air. All else was shadow and there was no movement whatsoever.
She climbed the hill next to the flats slowly, each step more plodding than the last. Excruciating. She suffered forwards and the air was malevolent, almost choking her. She had once enjoyed the town’s dry heat but now its grit seared her throat. She kept looking around. Every tree, every fence, every garbage alcove could be a hiding place. She touched the knife in her pocket. I wouldn’t even know what to do with it, she thought. Suddenly something appeared at her periphery, a spark of white-hot movement and a pair of flashing eyes. ‘Bickie?’ her voice quivered, almost gone. Yes, it was a cat, but it was pure white. Actually there were several of them, fleeing across the road and somehow they looked like birds flocking against a very black sky. Her heart leapt for a moment, thinking that maybe this was where Bickie went during the day, to join a gang of white street cats to go on adventures. But he wasn’t with them.
She stumbled to the crest of the hill and could feel something trickling down her leg. Maybe it was blood, maybe it was sweat, or maybe something else. She couldn’t control her bladder so well these days. Up on the corner, against a streetlight, she saw the shapes of two humans, but couldn’t make them out. People said they dealt heroin on this corner. Drug dealers wouldn’t be afraid of a murderer, would they? Not if they were armed. By the time she made it to the corner there was no-one there.
When she got to the bottom of the hill, her throat was burning. Her breath came out in heavy rasps. It was the furthest she had walked in a year and she wasn’t sure how she would get back home. Maybe in her absence Bickie had come running up the stairs and was sniffing around Coffee in the catbox, trying to lick him, warm and safe again. She stood facing a square vacant lot with an open stormwater drain next to it, often filled with plastic bags and deformed crab apples that fell from a tree that arched over it. It was once home to a melon patch, an orange cat and its kitten. Maria had often thought she could take the scabby creatures up and look after them, but she knew how her coddled cats would be terrified. ‘Wouldn’t be worth it,’ she said aloud. The lot was empty now, but the drain caught her eye. It was at the other end of this drain, on the edge of town, where the water empties out into the river, that the Pakistani student had been found. An early-morning jogger had come across the lipless body.
She moved towards the drain, feet somehow sure of themselves again, and now stared into the darkness, an abyss or black mirror, and it seemed to shift somehow, like waves on the surface of the deep, blackness on blackness, and at its epicentre she thought she could see something, two eyes maybe, and she peered back at them, and in that moment she cared little about pain or death, about the labyrinth of streets and the countless dreams and nightmares being made and unmade around her. She stared and stared, drawn forwards until, at last, she recognised what it was that she saw.