So, you want to know about the man who has been killing kittens.
There’s a little congress of dead men in bad suits at the bottom of the reservoir. Some are handcuffed to steering wheels and float upside-down from shattered windshields, and others have their ankles chained to old cinderblocks. Some, their murderers evidently keen on homage, even have their feet sealed in buckets full of cement. They bicker and gossip and lie to one another. Blank-eyed and bloated and secretive are the dead men in their underwater garden.
They talk about the man who has been killing kittens. Twisting off their little kitten heads and laying them on the welcome mats of prominent members of the community. They say his name, although their tongues are rotten and sound is fat and shapeless underwater.
But they will tell you where to go.
Out of the suburbs and onto the highway, ten minutes north, where the buildings become tall. Navigate the one-way streets. Don’t make eye contact. I assume you know the place where the freight train runs on elevated tracks that intersect Fifth Street. Down that self-consciously quaint, white-urban cobbled road, very nearly at the corner of Fifth and Wayne, there’s a little bar with a private guesthouse out back. The guest house used to be a tuberculosis ward, and people say that it is haunted by the ghosts of patients who drowned on dry land. You can almost hear them, their coughs so forceful and wet that they become tonal, melodic, almost the squawks of huge water birds. They are not the ghosts of tuberculosis patients. They are only the ghosts of their coughs.
But a cough is a song, and a song is a story, and maybe they’ll sing you the one about the man who has been killing kittens. He has something special planned, that man. Something bigger than petty catrocide. A party. A cotillion. But here, the ghosts of dead coughs run out of dead breath and are silent.
You might ask yourself why you care. Why you have invested so very many evenings of hours to investigating the man who has been killing kittens. He hasn’t killed any kittens of yours. Are you sure you want to do this?
Back to the streets, following the trail out of the thoroughly-gentrified networks of renovated houses and into the places about which words like “unsafe” and “run down” are used euphemistically. Ask questions. Make demands. Learn about a cabal of chaos magickians.
There is a cabal of chaos magickians, who are mostly full of shit but who sometimes step without looking and accidentally put their feet in the real deal. They meet in new places every week, but—being pointless contrarians and transgressivists—they prefer churches. They affect exclusivity, but pretty much anyone is allowed to join up. If somebody puts the word out that they’re interested in that sort of stuff, whispers it in the right ears, they’re sure to get an invite.
They adopt all the typical iconography—the robes, the candles, the beards, the daggers, the vernacular of ritual—and masturbate onto pieces of parchment, on which are written the names of gods they’ve mostly just made up. Whereupon, sometimes, their made-up gods answer. Those gods, when they deign to exist at all, know all about the man who has been killing kittens. It’s a compulsion, you know, he can’t help himself. Some people smoke cigarettes and some people pick at scabs and some people kiss their hands and touch the roofs of their cars when they pass beneath yellow traffic lights. And the man who has been killing kittens kills kittens. Of course, it is not just a compulsion. It’s also a project of enormous scope and consequence. But a person can be compelled toward completing a project, too. That’s its own kind of addiction. If anybody ought to understand that, it’s you.
The highway again, clogged with orange barrels and flashing detour signs and nighttime-made-daytime work lights, in the center of which stand sour-faced construction workers with reflective orange vests and unhappy, unfocused eyes. You should talk to someone. Someone you know.
She’s waiting for you at your apartment, by the way. She made you dinner and cleaned your bathroom, even though she kind of resents doing that sort of gender-normative crap, but she wanted to do something nice for you.
Down in the series of tunnels that attach the various buildings that comprise the college, there’s a tiny wing of classrooms and one block of faculty offices, only one of which is occupied. The man who works in that office is a professor of theoretical ichthyology. The study of possible fish. His office is cluttered with fish tanks outfitted with different configurations of salt and freshwater, rock bottoms or silt, plastic castles or pirate ships, but no fish. Each glowing tank has a sheet of paper taped to its face, with a question mark in Sharpie thereon. He’s an old friend, the man who studies possible fish. And in that office, lined with empty aquariums, he might let loose whatever secrets he possesses regarding the man who has been killing kittens. For example, he might mention that almost every professor and adjunct has been honored (his choice of words) with a head on his or her doorstep (his tone will be conspicuously neutral, but the corners of his mouth will twitch and his eyebrows will furrow, and he’ll smile sadly as if to say, “You can’t win them all,”) and that, in the mouth of each kitten, they have found rolled-up newspaper clippings. But he can’t (or won’t) say which stories were clipped.
And anyway, he’ll wonder what you’re doing there. He won’t say anything, but he’ll wonder. He’ll watch your restless feet shuffling and he’ll try, without trying, to isolate and identify the part of you that pulls you away from your bed and keeps you pacing dark corridors. He’ll wonder why you want to make this your business, and he’ll suspect, and he’ll be pretty close. He might remember the zeal with which you declared your intention to quit smoking when he eyes the rectangular bulge in your breast pocket. He might see the way you round your shoulders to cradle the incredible ache in your solar plexus. He might even say, “How are you holding up these days?”
How are you holding up these days?
Listen. Right now, and no other time, there is a very old woman in a shapeless floral nightgown, standing in the alley that runs between the houses on Walnut and the houses on Waverly. She had a kitten, when she was nine years old, that used to sleep at the foot of her bed. That was more than eighty years ago, but tonight, she is awake and standing outside, stuck in the cone of light cast by the motion-sensitive bulb somebody mounted above their garage, because she has suddenly remembered her old kitten and how she came to lose it. She remembers, for the first time in eight decades, a man with a wholly unremarkable hat who arrived in her childhood bedroom through the window. She awoke just in time to witness the man prying her kitten from the warm spot between her legs. He looked at her and said the exact words that, if you only knew them, would make everything absolutely clear. Right now, she is consumed by the panicked conviction that her little kitten has had its head twisted off. She feels it die.
You will, of course, never get to her in time. She’s already shaking her head and unlatching the back gate of her little house and walking back inside. She’ll forget all of this by morning.
You know, for some reason, the girl in your apartment is in love with you. She sees a future with you. You are all she wants in the entire world. She neither knows nor cares about the man who has been killing cats.
She does not know that, right now, the man who has been killing cats is calling a late-night AM radio talk show and attempting to confess everything. She doesn’t know that he holds the receiver of his old rotary phone between fingers covered in painful sores. She doesn’t know that the worst kind of magic isn’t the old kind, it isn’t the dusty books or the ancient talismans. She has no inkling at all that the worst kind of magic is the shit we make up on the fly. And she has no idea how hard it is to remove the putrid stink of it, once it’s set in. She doesn’t hear the man who has been killing kittens when he hisses at the radio call screener, “Listen to me: there is a beehive in my brain. I just want it to stop buzzing and stinging and making me angry. I’m so fucking angry all the time now. So fucking angry that I just want to collect men and women and make of them fingers and make of those fingers a fist bigger than my own and use that fist to twist off heads much bigger than those to which my own fingers are accustomed to twisting. Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand that creation and destruction aren’t binaries, but layers? Don’t you know that, sometimes, you need to break shit in order to build shit in order to break more shit?” She doesn’t hear the screener—some poor intern who pulled the short straw and got stuck with the night shift and the crazies—sigh and hang up on him before he ever gets to air.
All she knows is that it’s hours past midnight and you’re not home. Ouch.
Don’t think about that. Don’t think about that because there is a man in your city who has been killing kittens. And that’s a reason to get up in the morning. That’s a reason to never go to bed at all. The city’s surface is lousy with underground tunnels, both figurative and literal, so many that the integrity of the ground is irreparably compromised and you could fall through, and you could get lost in it all, all the stinking hexes and scumfuck spells you deserve would be yours for the wallowing, and you would never have to suffer the indignity of being loved by someone ever again, would never be paralyzed by the concrete and inescapable truth of someone else’s trust, you could just sink forever into ghosts and moon-children and monsters and sorcery and you could smoke your cigarettes and cast your spells and do your detective work until they kill you, and until then (and maybe after), you’d never run out of places to debase yourself, ever, ever, ever, ever.
Stop. Listen. Something’s buzzing.
The newest text message on your phone doesn’t say, “where r u?” It says, “u ok?”
There is wolf in the woods outside of town. And this might be your best bet, so listen closely. The wolf in the woods outside of town will know that you are looking for it. It will be waiting for you.
While you’re on your way to where it waits, here’s what else will be happening: the dead men in the reservoir will crane their necks to stare at the surface because something true is happening, and they miss truth like they miss air. The ghosts of tubercular coughs will feel, for just a moment, like the men and women who once wretched them through their throats are able to breathe again. The asshole chaos magickians will all simultaneously glance up from the parchment, onto which they’ve done their business, and one of their made-up gods will hover in the middle of their circle, lonely and confused at its sudden being-ness, and one of the magickians will say, “Guys … man … I don’t know …” Your friend, the potential fish aficionado, will receive an email from an old college buddy the two of you had, and it will make him smile, and for the first time in a very long time, he will think about what it was like to be nineteen and to have his very first crush on a boy, for which he didn’t feel ashamed, and he will whisper something very sweet and very secret at the screen. The old woman, in her sleep, will feel the weight of something warm settling down between her knees. The intern at the radio station will count down the very last minute before she can go home and go to bed. Every lucky citizen upon whose stoop was left the head of a dead kitten will leave their homes and start walking toward a place I’m not allowed to tell you about. And, sensing their approach, the man who has been killing kittens will breathe deeply and wait for them to come to him.
And as for her? What will she do?
The wolf in the woods outside of town knows. It watches. It does not take any great pleasure in knowing or in watching. No collector, the wolf. Just an organ of the city with a vital but passive role to play in the secret understructure of our community. It won’t wish to be rushed. It won’t respond to manic demands. So take a deep breath and let it say what it wants to say. It might tell you where to find the man who has been killing kittens, and when it does, its mouth might water, and it might long for a simpler life like the lives of its fellows, who eat little animals and don’t give a shit about back-alley black magic. And if it does tell you that, you’re welcome to go there and do whatever it is you hope to do. May it bring you peace.
But if the wolf chooses not to? If it refuses to speak? If it looks at you through eyes that catch the moonlight and shine like headlamps and says, “Go home,” soundlessly? Then?
Then, you get in your car and you go home. You park outside of your apartment and walk up the stairs. You rummage in your pocket for your key and use it to unlock your door only to find that your door is already unlocked. And when you swing it open, you find your apartment empty, save for the smell of a meal cooked hours ago, a copy of the key abandoned on the arm of the sofa, and a poster of your favorite Magritte painting, which wasn’t there before, leaning against the wall. The one of the man, his hair impeccably parted in the center and combed to either side, staring into the mirror at the back of his own head.