“Hold still and stop that mewling, Marina! I’m almost done.”
The little girl held the struggling kitten firmly with one hand as she sprayed the last white paw black.
“There! Now you can be a proper witch’s cat.”
Marina wavered as she raised each paw and shook it vigorously, trying to get rid of the icky black stuff covering the beautiful white of her paws. She licked at one experimentally, which proved to be a really bad idea. Her whole body shook in revulsion and she shook her paws harder. Marina dropped on her haunches and mewled at the little girl.
“Oh, it’s not so bad Marina. If you were a real black cat I wouldn’t have to paint your paws. What proper witch has a black and white cat?”
She twirled, her new witch’s costume flowing around her ankles. There was a knock on the door.
“I’ll get it!” She screamed. She rushed to open the door, almost tripping over Marina, who was still halfheartedly shaking her paws.
“How dare you come to a witch’s house, mortal? I should turn you into a warty, farty toad!”
The little girl dressed in black cocked her head and perched a fist on her waist.
“How dare you talk like that to a creature of the night?”
She opened her mouth, revealing long plastic canines, and hissed, spittle flying towards the little witch.
“Eww! You got spit on me!”
They laughed, squealed and hugged. Marina blocked out their conversation and sulked quietly.
Suddenly she had a wonderful idea. The girls were completely oblivious to the wide-open door. Before she lost her nerve, Marina ran past the witch and vampire.
“Marina! Marina, no!” The little girl’s desperate cries almost made her stop and come back, but Marina was too hurt by her words. She’d come back when she felt like it. She rounded the corner of the apartment building and disappeared into the woods.
“Marina, you’re a good witch’s cat, even with white paws. Please come back, I didn’t mean it! I love you; I’m sorry! I—” She broke out in loud sobs that grew dimmer the further away Marina ran.
She slowed to a stop when she couldn’t hear the girl’s cries anymore and noticed two things: she had no idea where she was and night had suddenly fallen.
Her nose worked hard trying to pick up the scent of home, but was distracted with alien smells. She couldn’t decide if they were good or bad, especially the smell coming from a dangling branch in front of her.
A hiss, a spit and a slash made her scurry backwards and land on her rump quite ungracefully. A black figure, much bigger than Marina, ripped the dangling branch to shreds using skilled teeth and claws. The head of a snake landed at her feet, forked tongue lolling between ready fangs.
“Kitten, you will not survive the rite of passage this Halloween with poor survival skills like that.”
Shaking, Marina stared wide-eyes into the grassy green eyes of the blackest cat she had ever seen.
“Come, pick up the snake’s head and bring it along. It should serve well as a gift for Witch Mother.
Not daring to oppose or question such a huge and dangerous cat, Marina struggled to carry the serpent’s head and followed. Just when she thought about dropping the head and running away, the path opened to a small clearing revealing at least fifty black cats sitting in a circle around another, as big as the bobcats Marina had seen on the television show her little human liked so much. She froze.
“Go on, kitten. Go present our gift to Witch Mother.”
Undecided if she was more terrified of her savior or the Witch Mother, she figured the safest thing to do was to obey. Other cats made way for her; most of them were around her age. She dropped the snake and dared to glance up and up into the eyes of the Witch Mother. She whimpered when she saw that instead of eyes there were only barely visible slits.
Marina cowered and flattened her ears in alarm as that eyeless head bent to smell and nuzzle her fur. She was surprised at how gently and warmly Witch Mother caressed her.
“My, my, you are an interesting kitten. Lost your way, have you?”
Marina raised her head in surprise. She understood every word coming from Witch Mother, except they were undoubtedly the words of a human.
Yes, came a whisper in her mind, I was once a witch. But something bad happened…when I lost my eyes I decided to turn into a cat one last time…and here we are.
Witch Mother turned away from Marina and addressed the rest of the black cats.
“Welcome to this year’s FFF meeting, where we begin the initiation of future Fearless Feline Familiars. Make your witches proud in the next five days before Halloween. What you do in that short period of time will bring either misfortune or prosperity in your witch’s family for the rest of the year.”
Witch Mother paused and seemed to glance at each of the kitten initiates in turn. Marina felt electric fingers climbing up her spine when that eyeless face turned towards her.
“My second in command, Ms. Fortuna, will give you the five tasks you need to accomplish to pass your initiation and begin your life as a familiar. If you fail, you will set forth on a journey with the Night Claws for a year so that your misfortune will not fall on your witch family.”
Marina’s rescuer stepped forward to address the circle.
“One: cross a human’s path; only when the human believes in your power to bring misfortune will the task be complete. Two: catch the light to your eyes at night and stare unwaveringly at a human; only when the human shivers and gives you wide berth will your task be complete. Three: sit at a window sill and call for the rain by cleaning behind your ears; when the first drops begin to fall, your task is complete. Four: hiss and spit at midnight before Halloween; only when a human screams with fright will your task be complete. Fifth and final task: protect the one and only pure white hair on your coats; if it falls or gets plucked from your fur before the night of Halloween, failure will be yours.”
A rustling in the woods broke the sudden silence.
“Impossible! No one can break the barrier of the gathering.”
A kitten slightly older than Marina pushed her out of the circle.
“She has white paws painted black; she’s not one of us!”
Before Marina could think to explain how she had gotten there, an explosion and sharp light exploded in the clearing. Four human boys broke into the circle, throwing a net over the cats. Witch Mother and five others were trapped while the others ran, scared witless by the firecrackers the boys kept throwing. Marina saw Ms. Fortuna attack one of the boys, scratching his bare leg raw. Yowling in pain, the boy grabbed her by the tail and slammed her against a tree.
A fire filled Marina’s chest; a fire that burned to her eyes and nose. She ran towards Ms. Fortuna, ignoring the screams, hisses and howls of pain. She ignored the boy’s laughter as she confronted him, only half as big as his shoe.
The fire in her chest left her body in that one sneeze and covered the clearing. Silence suddenly blanketed them. The boys blinked slowly and shook their heads. They gathered their net, lifting it off the six trapped cats and limped away, complaining how they didn’t find any cats to drown this year.
The circle slowly gathered around Marina and Ms. Fortuna, who was bruised and scratched, but would be fine.
“Not a completely black cat; not a witch’s familiar, yet she possesses one of the rarest and most powerful talents of us all.”
Marina looked up at Witch Mother, uncomprehending. She, like the other cats, bowed low.
“Little one, Ms. Fortuna is the only one among us who can bring good fortune with a sneeze. Some cats can barely claim that honor and yet you saved us all with one sneeze. We owe you our lives.”
The night slowly gave way to morning as Ms. Fortuna explained to Marina what it meant to be a lucky cat. A real witch would happily take her under her wing and she would always have a home with the black cats, white paws and all. All she had to do was complete the initiation tasks before Halloween.
Marina pondered and pondered and couldn’t make up her mind. She let Fortuna show her the way home. As she scratched at the door and was crushed with a hug by her crying little girl she wondered what she would decide. Only five days to make a choice.