The Querency—beginning at midnight 24 October—is when Witches and Cats seek to bond with each other. It lasts until sundown on Hallowe’en, when the Choosing—the selection period—begins and lasts until midnight [11:59:59pm].
~ Ordinatio pro Felis Silvestris Catus [Regulations for Woodland Cats]
The house was an outlier–on the thin border between what was once an old but good area and one already gone bad—and a lot like the woman and the girl. Something and someone that got left behind. The result of unfortunate events.
‘It needs a lot of work… but then so do Audrey and me,’ Clarinda thought as she hugged her daughter on the front porch of the house. “Mind the loose boards, honey,” she cautioned as Audrey walked to the far end and craned her neck to look down the side yard. ‘I’ve got to get her some decent clothes that fit,’ she thought, looking at Audrey, who always seemed to have on pants showing too much ankle or that bunched around her shoes. She sighed to herself feeling the stinging remorse of a parent struggling to provide for their children.
Clarinda Stockard was as much a victim of life and death as the house itself with the doubt when her mother-in-law died as to whom legally held the mortgage and title to the property. That mess left the house vacant for nearly two years until the estate was settled. With that resolved she decided to move to Weathersfield, Connecticut with her 15- soon, in a week, to be 16-year-old daughter, Audrey. Hoping a new home and new opportunity would wash away the past and create or at least have the promise of a happy new life.
Audrey had been silent during the long ride up; seeming to be reading one of her books but not turning the pages as often—a sure sign she wasn’t really reading—she usually raced through books but was blessed with the ability to remember everything she read. And she read all the time. ‘Did she read more to remember her father, who’d loved books and taught her to read, or to keep her mind occupied to ignore what’s happened,’ Clarinda wondered, not for the first time.
The movers had arrived before them and brought in the boxes for the kitchen and bathrooms along with the furniture. Her sofa, chairs, and tables were well-worn and patched in places, but with her employer helping to pay for the movers, keeping them was less expensive than buying new furniture. What she owned and brought with them along with what was left in the house would do well enough for now. Stretching to get the kink out of her back from the drive, she and Audrey unloaded the van bringing in boxes of personal things and suitcases packed with clothes.
Carrying one of her boxes to the room her mother said was hers, Audrey set it next to the mattress and bed frame leaning against the wall. She and her mother would need to assemble it soon. It was already evening and night was falling. Audrey looked out the bedroom window onto a scene lit by the setting sun spilling over the house. She faced an expanse of yard with a white disc of the moon starting to show just over the back tree-line. In the backyard was the largest tree stump she’d ever seen. It looked as wide as the kitchen countertop was long, maybe bigger. Carpeting the ground were thousands of leaves—a gorgeous mix of reds, orange and shaded browns resting in the end of day sunshine slanting down. No tree. No cut up pieces. Just a whopping big stump and a blanket of oak leaves. Further back on the fence line, surrounded by much smaller trees, stood what looked like an almost equally large tree. Its gnarled trunk and branches poked into the gray sky like hands grasping at the low clouds; the moonrise brushing the fingers but soon to fit as if held in its hands.
Her mother called from the kitchen, “I’m going to get some groceries. It’s getting a little late to cook, do you want me to find a drive through and get some hamburgers and fries or would you like pizza?” In the silence, she left her mom hanging in, she heard steps coming towards her room, “Audrey, do you want burgers or pizza?” This time she heard a tinge of irritation in her mother’s voice as she stood in the doorway.
“Burgers are fine, mom.”
“Do you want to go with me?”
“No,” and before her mom filled the pause, “I’ll unpack my things while you get food.”
“Okay, I’ll be back as fast as I can. Stay in the house and keep your cell phone on. Call me if you need to.”
Clarinda got in her van and reversing the route that brought her to the house got back to the main intersection bordered on the corners by a supermarket, a PriceRite and two fast-food places, a Burger King and a Tilted Kilt. ‘Not sure about that Kilt place so definitely Burger King,’ she thought as she pulled into the parking lot. Thinking of things other than buying milk, coffee and toilet paper she grabbed a shopping cart nearby and wheeled it into the PriceRite. (An American company with Impossibly, Incredibly, Inconceivably Low Prices Every Day!) The move to a new town, the way it had worked, out was not the best timing and made a difficult school year for Audrey even harder. Tomorrow would be spent getting her registered, a locker assignment and class schedule for her to start on the 28th. ‘She’ll have three days to get acclimated, but I have to report to my new job late tomorrow and work through the weekend.’ The following thought caught at her heart, as it had each of the last four years, ‘next Thursday was the anniversary of the worst day of her life.’
* * *
Audrey stepped onto the back porch, finding the switch near the door and snapping on the light only for it to last just a handful of seconds before a flash then the darkness left by a burnt-out bulb. But the rising moon offered some light to see, and she used her cell phone as a flashlight. She held it close and low to the ground as she stepped through the leaves—a ‘shlusshing’ shuffling sound as her feet pushed leaves aside. She could dimly see the stump ahead of her. It rose up knee-length from the ground, and she almost stumbled as her feet struck its widening base roots spread out unseen beneath the leaves. Stepping up, dragging leaves along, she moved to the center about three feet in.
She’d been here, at this house, once before—for three or four hours—after her father’s funeral and seen what once stood where she now sat. But they hadn’t let her go in the backyard to touch the tree that had been there for as long as anyone could remember. Her father had been born in Weathersfield and spent his childhood and most of his teen years here until he turned 18 and joined the military. He’d instructed that he be buried next to his twin sister who had died at sixteen—a loss he’d never quite gotten over until Audrey’s birth. It had been a six-hour drive up I-95, following the hearse, from Dover, Delaware to Weathersfield, Connecticut—on top of a three-hour drive from Dulles airport, outside of Washington DC, to Dover and that after a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Florida to Dulles. They left the next day right after the funeral. It was the most terrible and wounding 24-hour period in her life. Now she had to stay here, all because it had worked out for her mom to take over the house her father had been raised in when her grandmother died.
* * *
Balthazar saw a burst of light and then a flicker. It moved toward the roots of the great tree—the Grand White—an Old One that had been murdered almost five years ago when he was newborn. He cursed the thought of its death. He’d been born within its embrace… favored because his clan tree was among the oldest—strong and wise. But his family was no more… gone just like the Old One. Curious, he smoothly moved along the branch reaching farther out and closest toward the light flickering in his yard.
The shape, a lighter shadow in the dusk, held something that lit the hands cupping it. He could see clearly now it was a small human with finely shaped hands. The long, slender fingers seemed to play upon whatever it was that emitted the light. In the slow, quiet, way of all cats of his kind, he crept down the tree onto the ground. Approaching the root source, his passage through the leaves hardly stirred them. When he was a few feet away, he stopped to watch and listen. He saw the thing the human held also had two vines coming from it each running up the front of the human’s clothing, and entering the head through the ears. What was that and for what purpose? Inching closer, he rolled his ears forward—focusing. He could see that it was a female human, her face framed in a small illuminated oval, her eyes closed and from her ears… from her ears leaked… sound? Music?
“I put a spell on you… cause you’re mine. You better stop th–” Audrey pulled her earbuds out; she’d heard something. Something close. She scanned the darkness around her, the shining moon not bright enough, yet, to help her see anything close to the ground or in the leaves. There. Facing her, right above the edge of the stump were two black triangles, slightly lighter inside. As she watched, they rose and below them, two yellow eyes peered at her just above the rim. For a brief moment, they flashed a brilliant golden topaz that lanced into her green eyes—as if a spark jumped across.
He stopped. How could she see or even hear him? He was not the biggest, most potent cat, but he was the quietest and not since he was three had he been seen when he did not want to be. As he raised his eyes, he felt more than saw the emerald flash from the girl’s eyes. He continued to feel it with his eyes closed—a tingling—as he quickly backed away, returning to his perch high in the only remaining great tree within his rights to climb. Enough foolishness he chided himself, the Querency had begun at midnight with the Choosing only one week away. It was his fifth and last chance—it must be this year! He climbed higher putting his back to the nearly full moon as he watched for a sign… a connection… he was waiting for his witch.