Plaything

map Plaything

by Tim Fredrick

Published in Issue No. 191 ~ April, 2013

Photo by Helen Cassidy (Glasgow, Scotland)

My oldest sister was a cat and I the catnip toy she played with. She played with me between her two paws, batting me back and forth and back and forth at will like I was a real mouse and not a fabric replica. I was helpless in this game. Yes, it was a game, one that she tired of quickly and then moved on to bigger things. A real mouse, a real bird. Not me.

And, I sat – perhaps beneath the couch or the bed gathering dust. I was as worthless as a hairball to her during these times. I knew she was stalking outdoors, predator to someone else’s prey. I was only meant to be taken out when she needed the high. Even if she caught nothing, coming home empty-mouthed and empty-pawed, the thrill of the hunt was enough to continue her forgetfulness and I gathered more dust, more hair, more whatever would cling to me.

Until later, when she would stumble upon me and crouch down, batting her paw under the couch or the bed with me just out of reach. The game began and however eagerly I wanted to inch toward her so that she could begin playing, I was inert. I could only move at her will. But, when the tippy-tip-tip of her paw caught me and I moved to be caught and then batted back and forth and back and forth, I came alive. If only in spirit. The movement she began made me forget my inertness.

She was particularly vigorous the day the truth began to reveal itself to me. The day that started my journey to where I am right at this moment, standing here awaiting the result. Yes, it was that day that I began to remember and realize. My world spun and flipped and careened. I thought I might get sick from being so dizzy, from being thrown here and then pounced on and thrown there. So many days and hours I had gotten high myself off this sick-causing dizziness. I knew it was bad for me, I knew that I would feel like I was spinning out of control while laying still after she eventually stopped. I was on the edge of pleasure and pain, heaven and hell. She had a lot of energy that day, more than usual. The aggression was uncharacteristic even for her.

Just when I thought I couldn’t take anymore, another cat arrived at the door. I’d seen her playing with this new cat before but in strange ways. He sauntered in, his hips and his tail moving in a rhythmic, hypnotic motion. They purred and rubbed their bodies on one another. I’d never seen her like this before.

Hey baby, he said.

Hey there, she replied.

As they passed each other, their tails intertwined and I was amazed how they could twist their bodies so they were still looking at each other with their intense eyes. Their gazes never separated. These were the eyes she used when she looked at me that first day I came home.

She motioned to me. Wanna play? she said. A statement more than a question.

He nodded and they both pounced and soon I was not just thrown around or batted back and forth. I was not played with for the joy of playing with me. It was something more. They weren’t playing with me – they were playing with each other using me. She was sharing me with another cat and the game was not about me and her, it is about her and him. How did we get here, dear sister?

My sadness turned to anger. In a fit of emotions I couldn’t control I tried to move by throwing my force one way and then the other. But, nothing. Again one way and then another. Nothing. Then he had me in his mouth and his spit was rolling down my back causing shivers along my cloth skin. I couldn’t take it. She never drooled or spat on me. He dropped me, and I tried to move again and just as I tried with all my might, he pounced. But, this time I actually moved. Just a bit. Just enough, but I made my world spin as I rolled only a few inches.

He had thrown himself with all his force in my direction, but because I was finally able to move myself– I didn’t know then how it happened – he missed and he was the one to tumble and careen and have his world spun around. She laughed at him; I laughed my silent laugh as well.

You think that’s funny? he screamed, bits of cat food spewing from his molars.

Her reply: Yes, I do. She motioned to the door and he got the message. He sauntered out with just a bit less bravado than when he came in. She turned and, clearly forgetting me, began to lick her paws.

That night, I sat in the middle of the floor. Usually I was forgotten and unseen under a piece of furniture or knocked down the stairs. This time, I was forgotten and seen, but I didn’t focus on this. How could I when I had done the impossible? I moved! Try as I might, though, I couldn’t repeat the movement. I shifted and I rocked in my head but my body remained still. I thought, maybe the emotions of the moment had something to do with it, and then I thought of him. I thought of his disgusting eyes and how wet his mouth felt when he played with me. I felt the anger rising up in me. I shifted and I rocked. But, nothing. I gave up and decided to enjoy being in the open air of the cavernous room.

Something about the room made me feel big and small at the same time. I was used to laying with cover, the few inches of the bottom of a couch over my head. There was safety in that cover. But to have moved and be in this wide-open space, I couldn’t help but think of all the possibilities. The places I could go. The world seemed like one giant possibility, which led me back to feeling small again. I fell asleep looking longingly at the underside of the couch where I saw an Army action figure pointing his gun flaccidly to the wooden leg of the couch.

I never saw the other cat again. When she woke up the next morning, she played with me until I got tossed too fervently under the TV console. It was a toss of complete luck (or unluck, if you were looking at it from my perspective), the open space just big enough to fit my body but too small for her. After I zoomed into the hole and my world went dark, I expected and hoped for her paw to peek through. At least to give a cursory try at retrieving me, her toy. All I saw were her four paws slowly walk by.

I don’t know how long I was lost under the TV console. It seemed like months, maybe, that I languished there. The film of dust grew thick as I tried to pass the days as best I could. I replayed some highlights from our first days. After the purring stopped and the exploration began, the relationship we had grew quickly. Suspiciousness was replaced with wonder. She had a toy and it seemed like I was her first. I never felt so good. Hanging by a plastic tag in a pet store, being manhandled by every cat parent in the town was not a pleasant experience. Their hands were too smooth and too cold. When I finally felt the touch of paws – her paws – I knew my purpose.

Those first few days she did not lose track of me. She was spry and agile. She bent her body in every possible contortion to get me when I fell out of reach. I laid back and enjoyed it, giving myself over to her. We truly loved each other, I believed. There were many nights when I feel asleep between her two front paws, her drowsy breath caressing my body.

I thought of all this and more as I lay there until Spring Cleaning day. Furniture was moved. I was found, cleaned, revived. It was hours before she was let back in the house. I waited eagerly by her food dish where I was placed. I heard her enter and the soft patter of her paws. She circled the house – the living room, the bathroom, upstairs. I could even hear her in the bedrooms, or maybe I was just imagining that. Eventually she wandered into the kitchen and I saw her. She looked worse for wear, as if she was banished from the house for an entire season. What trouble had she gotten herself into this time? If I could have talked, I would have asked and I was sure she would unload and I would empathize or share her adventure and we would both laugh with glee. I willed her, strongly, to look at me. She did not. Instead, she sniffed a corner of the room and then under the oven and then the crack between the refrigerator and the wall. The smell of cleaner drew her attention.

Finally she made her way to me. I thought I saw a glint of happiness in her eyes. She sniffed me, sneezed, and walked away. I had never felt so alone as I did when she left me lying there in the kitchen.

The next day, the screeching of my sister awakened me. Mother was shoving her in her tan plastic carrier. The fear in her eyes was not something I had ever seen before. The level of intensity, yes. But not this specific emotion. She was looking at me, specifically me. As if everything that had happened the day before in the kitchen didn’t matter. I wanted to go to her to help her, to release her from the cage in which she now found herself, but alas I was inert.

I had moved before, though, and if there was ever a time for me to move again it was now. All this time I had needed her, but now she needed me and I could do nothing. I was incapable of moving or doing anything as her carrier was lifted up and she disappeared behind the door.

And then she was gone. She had been gone before, but the emptiness I felt now was different from her previous exits. In those absences she had chosen to leave me, but this time she was taken away from me. I was angry at the incursion, at how she had been ripped from my life as quickly and easily as I had been brought into hers. Anger welled up inside me, filling me like stuffing. Every thread of my being was teeming with anger. I thrust myself towards the door and – and it worked. I was moving, faster and farther than I had previously. It was as if my feet – those little tiny pieces of pink fabric – were working like real feet. When I looked down, speeding along as I was, I realized that those little fabric feet were actually moving. I had defied the laws of physics! But I had defied them only so far, I realized, as I slammed into the front door. The sheer speed of my movement and the unfortunate solidness of the door had the effect of knocking me out. I awoke only as the front door was opened, catching me in its path and shoving me under the side table right behind it. Drowsily, I found myself once again under a piece of furniture, out of sight … And out of mind.

I drifted in and out of consciousness for I don’t know how long. But, while I was out, I dreamt of my first memories at the pet store. These memories felt so real, but the details were off. One dream in particular was puzzling. It was the day before my sister’s cat parent picked me up. I was ranting and raving to my fellow toys – the catnip mice, the feather mini fishing rod, and the various stiff plastic squeaky toys who everyone found to be obnoxiously loud and full of themselves – about how bored I was and how I longed to be out of the stupid store. It was late at night when the store was shuttered and all but a few floodlights were turned off. It’s a horrible time to be in a pet store. You have to imagine how isolating and horrible it can be to hang from a hook or stand on a shelf, unmoving, in the dark. Much of the stock goes crazy during this time, mostly the Frisbees and other fetch toys in the dog section who are made to move. I don’t remember going mad like this, though. But, in the dream I was ranting and raving and – most astonishingly – swinging back and forth on the hook. My fellow toys were telling me to stop, but I would not listen. In fact, I stopped twirling side-to-side and started shoving myself forward, centimeter by centimeter on the hook. I did this enough that the three toys in front of me started to fall off the end of the hook, screaming as they fell the four feet and falling into the cat beds who were impossible to wake up at any time. I suddenly found myself at the front of the line, next to be taken away from the store.

When I woke up from the dream, still under the side table, the dream continued to haunt me. As time wore on and I spent days under the side table, I started to believe that the dream wasn’t a dream. It was a memory. More dreams like it occurred. As I dreamed about the incident with the male cat, I realized that I had misremembered it. In my earlier memory, my sister was in the room, but in the dream – the dream I later realized was the true memory – she had been out of the room visiting her litter box in the upstairs bathroom. She had come back to the living room just to see the other cat tumble, but she wasn’t in the room when I moved.

If all of this were true – if I really did move to the front of the line in the pet store and I really did escape the male cat even without her there – then I could move from underneath the side table. I had gotten there, in part, because I moved. It was time. I righted myself to my feet. It worked! My feet began to move as soon as I thought about it and before I knew it, I was zipping around the living room. I felt giddy. Playing with my sister, being batted back and forth between her paws and tossed up in the air and caught in her mouth, couldn’t compare with the rush I now felt careening around the room of my own free will. I worried that my legs, tethered to my body by only a few stitches, would fall right off, but when I looked down my fears were eased. Before I knew it, I was out from underneath the side table and walking, running, careening, jogging, hopping all over the living room floor. After several minutes, I became tired physically and emotionally. I laid down on the carpet, panting and excited.

I dreamt of races and explorations, adventure and exercise. In every dream, my sister was right there beside me. We would be running together, and somehow I would keep up even though her legs were longer than mine. We laughed and I never felt closer to her. I was no longer her plaything. I was her equal.

I awoke from these dreams when our mother brought her back from wherever she had taken her. The car door slammed, the key slid into the front door, and there was my sister released from her cage looking drowsy but largely okay. When Mother left, I stood up with a big grin on my face. Finally, we could play together properly. I ran circles around her and she stood largely still and silent. After several orbits, I stopped in front of her proud and happy to show off my newfound skills.

She stared at me for a long time. And then, slowly, almost without my being able to perceive it, her face turned into a scowl and a low growl began to emanate from deep inside her. At first I thought the scowl may have been a smile and the growl maybe a laugh. But, as she slowly and purposefully lifted her paws and began creeping toward me, I worried that she did not share my excitement. I couldn’t understand why. We could be friends, equals. We could be a pair. These were things she clearly wasn’t feeling.

When I first imagined running with my sister, I imagined us running side-by-side, but soon reality gave me an alternate scenario. I was running from her. Like my imagination, though – luckily – I was able to keep away from her running quickly and being more agile than even my slinky sister. I ran underneath all the furniture I knew that she could not reach under. What had been the bane of my existence – the narrow spaces underneath the couch and the side tables – were now what was saving me from her wrath. I paused to catch my breath – I was so out of shape! – underneath an antique radio. She did not paw at me or otherwise try to get at me. She simply crouched down and stared. The pupils of her eyes narrowed and what stared at me were yellow circles with black slits. She was now playing a different game.

We stayed like that for hours, I think. The good thing about being a catnip toy was that I didn’t have to eat or defecate. Eventually she had to leave and I waited patiently for her to do so. While we stared at each other, I willed my thoughts into her. Please, I said. Please see this as a good thing. We can be friends. We can be equals. Think of all the fun we can have. But either my thoughts didn’t get to her or she didn’t care. Those yellow eyes and black slits stayed trained on me until she eventually had to give up and go eat or visit the litter box.

When she did, I was too scared to move. I tried, but the effect was as if I had never learned how to move. I took the opportunity to at least calm my nerves and relax. The intensity of her stare had made me incredibly tense. She eventually came back, licking her lips, returning to exactly the same place doing the same pose looking at me with the same eyes. I again willed my thoughts. Why, dear sister? Why do you not like this? Do you like me only when I’m inert? When I’m your plaything and not your play pal? I knew all along that this was the answer – she liked me only when she could play with me. Only when she could bat me around and use me. Only when I was at her disposal. But, as I learned how to be more myself, to take matters into my own hands, to have my own opinions, she felt threatened, violated. She had to tear me down. I had to know my place.

My love for her eroded as we faced off. I could not only move, I could see her for who she was. A conniving feline who only loved me when she could decide who I was and what I did. When I began to decide these things – when I began to move both physically and otherwise – her hatred of me boiled over. It made me question if she ever loved me, or if it was always hate. Did you always hate me like this? Her stare gave me the answer.

Yes.

And with that, I knew that there was only one way for this to end. There was no escape for me and she would not allow this to continue. I could no longer be her plaything – I didn’t want to be her toy and she wouldn’t let me be anything else. My only hope at that point was that it wouldn’t hurt when she did whatever she did.

I stand here now, ready to take the step forward knowing that the cheap stitching which holds me together will not be able to withstand her anger. I look back and know – know deeply and certainly – that I would have it no other way. As I put one cloth paw out and then another and then another, I know that when she tears me apart she will not be tearing me apart as a plaything. The very nature of my decision means that I will never be a plaything again. My sister cannot take this decision away from me. I have become my own person in this moment.

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Tim Fredrick writes short stories and novels that explore the core human emotional experience. He is the founding editor of Newtown Literary, a literary journal publishing short stories, essays, and poetry from Queens, NY writers. His writing has been published in TC Record, The English Record, Changing English, and R&W Quarterly. More information can be found at http://www.timfredrick.com