Mary lay dreaming. Her eyes flickered, and behind them:

… a vast army rising, splattered in blood and mud, a man-boy’s unshod foot pressing the cheek of his slaughtered lover down into the earth as he scrambles to free his legs from spilled viscera, frantic to escape the looming, inhuman shadow…

Her eyes snapped open and focussed on the picture of the bird in flight against the rising sun, hung on the far wall. Its outspread wing feathers echoed the dazzling rays. It served as an inspiration on the greyest of days.

The room was chilly, the bedlinen damp with sweat but the end of her nose was cold. She breathed in and she breathed out. She felt the cool air enter at her cupid’s bow and leave the same way, warmed. Both cats were snuggled in, pinning her legs from either side, as if to secure their heat and food source. In her darker moments Mary would imagine them devouring her generous body for days before her absence was noticed or discovered. But she was in no mood for such maudlin thoughts, inclined rather to banish the negative emotional imprint left by the dream. Her body echoed with the maleness she had just psychically inhabited, the ache of his limbs and heart, above all, his fear. Her throat was dry. She could smell the cats had had their morning shits and felt the usual waking dilemma of diving deeper into the warmth and comfort of the duvet, to luxuriate for a short while, or to get up, wee, clean the litter boxes and air the flat. She could taste the acrid air down the sides of her tongue, encroaching on her hedonistic predilection.

She gathered her will, threw back the covers and placed her feet on the floor. She paused a moment to feel the earth rise up to support her through the pads of flesh on the soles. The cats jumped down, one trotting expectantly to the kitchen, the other glowering disapprovingly from beside the cold radiator. Mary drank water, and put the day in motion, folding back the covers to air, opening the blind, pulling on yesterday’s slouchy crumpled clothes, boiling the kettle, feeding the cats Myw 1 and Myw 2.

This was the space between sleep and properly awake when possibilities became likelihoods. Even if no plan was formally made, she would march or meander toward one outcome or another. Of course, the unexpected could happen and did more often than one might assume – the trick was to push its range into the golden zone through consistent effort. But she accepted her own shadow aspects, her laziness, greed and anger, loved and revelled in them even sometimes without shame or apology. So, this morning over breakfast she affirmed her theoretical right to roll around in her own mire if she so chose, acknowledged that this is sometimes nourishing for future growth, and celebrated her freely made decision to go shower, wash her hair, moisturise her entire body, put on clean clothes and make the bed. In fairness, she always made the bed, after airing it half an hour, this much at least was as constant as tea and coffee, and every bit as life-enhancing. She also always moisturised, using natural creams she made herself with shea butter and essential oils. Her ex used to call her ‘Lady of the Ointments’. Massaging herself she tranced out, a fragment of dream returning:

The man-boy stood in a temple complex, and watched as his lover raped an old woman, the attendant, having snapped a sacred cat’s neck in front of her. The man-boy couldn’t move, and no sound would issue from his throat.

The woman’s slumped body morphed into an undulating sea of cats, rippling forward and rising, taking the form of a lioness-headed woman; the cats were the shimmering edge of her robe. She moved inexorably forward, brandishing a knife.

Mary jolted from her reverie, with a wave of nausea. It was a theme she tried to sublimate as best she could. The first time she’d been ruthied by a dealer. She’d entertained violent revenge fantasies for nine years after, then eventually these dropped away as she forgave herself for her youthful folly, irresponsibility and risk-taking, her lack of vigilance and self-care. She didn’t want to blame herself, as that would be internalised misogyny, the worst shame of all, but still she couldn’t help thinking if it had been anyone else in her care but herself, she would have done a better job of it. She forgave herself for her naivety, for not expecting bad people to do bad things when they could, and also for mixing herself up in all sorts of moral grubbiness, confusion and unwholesomeness.

The second was harder to process, as it came 24 years later, and because she had once loved him. It was maybe seven years now; she’d passed through menopause and not had a lover since, and really didn’t expect she ever would again. He was wrong, obviously, but it wasn’t her job to weigh and judge his soul. No, it was her own lack of discernment that was most disturbing, the fact that even as a mature woman, romantically she still couldn’t be trusted to protect herself. Intimacy brought vulnerability, invited suffering. It was less of a problem now she had less of a libido, and for peace, fun and company, cats were the better answer.

She nestled her now stout frame onto the plump velvet sofa with a strong tea and gave herself up to the mood of the dream, placing the second remembered piece where it belonged, in front of the first. Was there more? Myw 1 settled on her lap, and Myw 2 sat in the centre of the rug, licking her forepaws and wiping the tuna aroma from her whiskers, then rolled onto her back; such a silly sausage.

The boy roughly wrapped the dead cat in cloth, holding the mummy up to appease the lioness-headed woman. She roared, and he took to his heels, a rippling army of cats close upon them. He ran to his house, but it was on fire. One of the cats looked to the leader, but she slowly shook her head. He ran to a field; the cats pulled him down into the mud. The lioness-headed lady lifted a golden knife. She opened him, smiling as she pulled his insides out. His liver, spleen, intestines, brain all lay on the ground beside shards of broken jars. In the centre of his chest was a black hole where the heart should have been, bottomless, foreboding. The boy-man knew if he fell in, into his dead lover’s heart-void, he’d never stop falling; he looked up into the vertical slits of the feline-headed woman’s kohl-lined eyes and ran.

Mary shuddered and stood, taking her mug to the sink. She’d been obsessed by Egyptology as a child, as so many children always have been. As a life-long cat lover, now officially a spinster Cat Lady, she knew odd fun facts that she would regale her sister’s children with, like that worshippers of the cat-headed goddess Bastet believed if a cat ran through a burning house the flames would follow it, and the house would be spared. Why would her subconscious pull up this ancient tidbit of information now?

She wanted to change her feeling, so she opened Facebook on her phone. She had blocked her ex at the time of the incident, which she’d never reported to the police, going only to the VD clinic as there’d been a tear. She’d thought she’d blocked his family too and was relieved not to have heard from them. Too-too weird, a post from his daughter from the day before popped up saying RIP for the old family cat. Come to think of it, there was a moment in the dream where one of the cats at the goddesses’ feet had looked up at the flames of the burning house reflected in her eyes. With a thump to the pit of her stomach, she realised this cat was her ex’s, a gentle tabby she’d missed far more than the owner. She’d avoided the area where he lived altogether all this while, but now picked up her keys and drove there.

She passed the house; it was a charred burned-out shell, still issuing wisps of smoke into the late-morning air. It was shocking. The sun glinted through the cloud cover in her rear view, the hint of a smile feathered at the crow’s-feet of her eyes.