Fiction by Natalie White

 “A Cat May Look at a King”
             By Natalie White

I climbed up the steep hill. None of the workers were around, but the pre-dawn light was enough to show me the door in the gate and the low metal bars of the factory walls. I looked around; where should I put myself? The stench of the excrement and pools of urine were difficult to bear. I tried to breathe through my mouth, closing my nose.

I’d have to get used to it. Animals can get used to anything in time.

I inspected each one. The painted numbers on their shiny skin looked enormous.

The cows were mostly asleep, but one gazed up at me with her big brown-black puddle-like eyes. I stepped quietly towards her slowly, making sure to hold out the fresh grass. I had picked a bagful.

She bolted away a few steps, but bit by bit I moved a little forward, and after a while she did not budge.

“Hey, 1794,” I whispered, clicking my tongue in my mouth, showing her I was friendly. I did this to the cows in the forest, but they never came close. This one was interested. And I’m small, with brown hair and brown eyes too. Perhaps she even thought of me as a new kind of cow.

Who knows what animals think?

1794 sniffed my hand and cocked her head and tried to lick my hand, her long large pink-white rough tongue curling up towards me, her warm, sticky saliva covering my palm. She ate the grass too, never taking her eyes off me. Their depth was enticing, a whole different mental world.

I stroked her nose a little.

She was so heavy, her pink nipples straining with the milk needing to get out.

“So, a Rabbi I’ve just become friends with, told me,” – my sudden voice frightened her and she edged away, but I soothed her with my clicking again and offered her more grass from my bag.

“A Rabbi said your purpose is to supply milk for humans; that’s why God put you here.”

She blinked at me then, a glint in her eye.

“Yes, I thought it was a pretty poor excuse too.”

She licked my hand again, asking for more grass.

The flies were landing on me. 1794 was simply using her tail to swish them away. I shook my bob of hair until they flew off.

“He said you girls are enclosed to provide milk for our community. And that I should be grateful – which I suppose means you should be grateful – you’re not like the cows who freely roam the forest, handpicked, to be slaughtered for steaks.”

Great big warm juicy steaks, wet and warm like a cow’s nose in the sun.

She didn’t give me any kind of answer. Not a ‘moo’ or a lick. She just stood there, and then, because I didn’t give her any more grass, she turned around, displaying her ‘1794’ in full glory, and returned to all the other cows. Hundreds of them packed in together.

The cows sleep together, wake up and eat. They go where they are told and the milking is simply all in a day’s work.

I left the factory to pay my second visit of the day.

The cows in the forest are about two miles away, but I love to run, so I jogged over. It was still so early the cowherder was nowhere to be seen. The jangle of the cows’ bells decorated the air with the sweet birdsong preparing for the beautiful sunrise, the berries, and the foliage.

Another day. Another present. The birds know how to open it, how to live in it.

Are there any humans who will capture a singing morning lark and put it into a pot to eat?

I found a mother and her little girl, standing just off the beaten track. Her baby was sucking on her nipple, and she was staring at me, warning me not to come any nearer. I extended my hand with the grass.

“Hey, little mummy, hey there. Yummy grass!”

She took two steps closer, no more. She wouldn’t put her baby in danger. But I didn’t need her to be any nearer to listen to what I had to say.

“So, this Rabbi said you are here for us humans. Your purpose is to be slaughtered for meat, when the time is right, and that’s why God put you here.”

I felt bad saying this in front of her baby girl, but what was I supposed to do? Cover her tiny, soft, velvety calf ears with my rugged human hands?

The mother didn’t respond. But her baby stopped suckling and turned to face me. Her rich chocolate eyes seemed larger than her mother’s.

It made me hesitate, being stared at like that. But I had to speak. “So I was thinking, which is better, to be kept in a factory and used for milk, like a machine, or to be allowed to roam free in these beautiful forests, for a limited amount of time, before you’re…”

The calf blinked at me. “… taken away?”

The mum turned her back on me and started to leave. I had to quickly tell her.

“I’m fighting for you to have another choice. A third choice. To be left alone. The first of our human rights is the right to live. We are animals, just as you are animals. And so it’s only logical you are granted such a right.”

I was getting too agitated. She moo-ed to her daughter to move away from this strange cow creature with only two legs, no tail, and very strange hair.

I left them the rest of the fresh grass, and made my way back to the village. But before I got to the road, I did a slight detour, and picked up some supplies.

This was for part three of my day.

I’d promised to host the rabbi – the one I’d been talking about all morning – at a little get together. We’d only recently become friends. He was a fascinating guy – what they call ‘post-denominational’, meaning not traditional in any sense of the word. He loved and identified wholly with Judaism, but the individual laws were of no importance. It was refreshing to meet a rabbi who didn’t base my Jewishness on how well I kept the Sabbath, or kashrut. It was new, pluralistic. Only, when we began our discussions about veganism, and my desire to free the cows in the cowshed, we got into difficulties.

Still, I had listened to what he had to say, and I wanted to continue the discussion.

So I spent the entire day cooking all sorts of yummy things – even things I wouldn’t eat, to show how much I respected him.

Five invitees showed up, with wine or flowers, and he was the last. He has these phenomenal blue eyes which sparkle every time he smiles. And he smiles a lot. He talks a lot too. But I like to listen.

 It was a beautiful day, so I put everything outside, on disposable paper plates and plastic trays. After all, it’s one thing to prepare non vegan food – I’ve learned to accept it, because of all my work in restaurants for extra cash – but another to wash up plates with chewed bits of fat and discarded bone.

The party started better than I could have expected. Everyone had second helpings of almost everything, and he took centre stage – people are just drawn to his story telling – and spent a long time exploring his favourite parsha, the book of Job.

He told us how even God goes against Job because he is such an innocent soul.

“Why does God make the innocent suffer?” The Rabbi asked.

No one came up with a satisfactory answer.

He continued, “To suffer spiritually is one of the gifts of being human. No animal has the capacity to suffer as a human does. So we must be grateful for this distinction and to even see suffering as something holy.”

“So animals don’t suffer? That’s what you believe?” I asked, to clarify.

“Essentially, yes.”

My ‘friends’ from the community nodded in agreement.

I sighed and then smiled. “Well, that’s a relief.”

I could feel my friends’ eyes on me – they knew me better than the newcomer, but I avoided their gazes.

“Did you enjoy your meal, rabbi?” I asked, as nonchalantly as possible.

“It was delicious.” He said. “All of it. Thank you so much for making such an effort.”

One of my friends jumped in, “I can’t believe you served meat! Was it organic or something?”

I cleared my throat. “Kind of. I’d call it ‘free range’.” I paused for effect. “It was a dead cat I rescued from the road. I cut him up and cooked him.”

The silence of disbelief descended. Everyone was waiting for me to tell them I was joking.

But I only added, “I’m glad you all enjoyed it!”

I watched as it slowly dawned on them all I was telling the truth.

One ran to the toilet.

Another went white, then red, “Are you crazy?” he yelled.

The rabbi looked from me to the others, and back to me.

“You just served us cat?” He asked, calmly, but in his eyes, I saw no sparkles at all.

I nodded. “I thought it was important not to waste the creature. He had been hit by a car. What better than to make his purpose one where he gave pleasure to humans?

One after another, my guests got up to leave.

“You’re sick in the head,” one told me.

A few minutes’ later, just me and the Rabbi were left.

He looked at me.

I looked at him.

“We have three cats at home.” He blurted out.

“That’s nice! I love cats!” I answered, smiling. “What are their names?”

He replied through gritted teeth. “I think you’re purposefully missing the point.”

“Really?” I asked. Then I paused for a moment.

I looked into the Rabbi’s big blue eyes. “I think, rabbi, it is perhaps you who has missed the point for far too long.”

And then I began to clear the plates. The dead cat had been completely devoured.

Natalie White has a BA and MA in English literature, is an English Language and Literature teacher, a published author, a vegan and peace activist, and loves to run and bike in the hills! In 2011 she won second prize for “Polar Opposites” in the Writers’ Forum magazine and in 2013 “Beneath the Surface” was published in The Sea in Birmingham. Her novel The Forgotten People was longlisted for the Bridport prize in 2018. “Clear as glass” was one of the winners of the Mantle Arts writing competition and published in Songs for the Elephant Man in 2019, and “The Wall around you” was published in the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities collection entitled Birmingham in 2020. “Left Hanging” was published in the Momaya Press short story review, The Outsiders. Her novel The Forgotten People has just been accepted by Matar publishing house.

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