Best of Breed

by Renee Carter Hall

_

My show name is Silver Willow, but he calls me Mina. The first two things I remember are my mother’s scent and his.

* * *

GENERAL: The ideal Angoran Mau is graceful, of medium size, and well-balanced both physically and temperamentally. Males tend to be larger than females.

HEAD: A medium, smooth wedge. Muzzle gently rounded, should flow into wedge of the head. Firm chin. Ears medium to large, pointed and tufted, close-set and high on the head. Eyes large and almond-shaped. Neck slim and long.

BODY: Toned and slender, finely boned, with long arms and long legs. Paws small, dainty, and round, tufted between toes.

TAIL: Long and tapering with a full brush.

EYE COLOR: Acceptable colors include blue, green, or amber. Preference given for clearer, richer colors.

COAT: Single-coated, medium in length, silky and fine. Coat pattern of random, distinct spots with good contrast between spots and ground color. Arms and legs barred; tail banded. Distinct necklaces on neck and chest. Recognized colors: Cream (pale buff ground color with warm milk-chocolate markings), Smoke (pale silver ground color with jet black markings), Bronze (warm bronze ground color with dark brown-black markings).

DISPOSITION: Alert, affectionate, and intelligent. Basic literacy (see Testing Standards). Calm and cooperative. Pleasant voice, neither strident nor soft-spoken.

PENALIZE: Solid stripes or patches instead of distinct spots. Eyes with casts or rings of other color. Poor condition. Color blindness.

DISQUALIFY: Lack of spots. Short or kinked tail. Extra toes. Crossed eyes. Inability to speak and/or hear. Intelligence below Testing Standards.

* * *

I don’t like the hotel where this show is. It smells like cigarettes and makes me want to wash my fur constantly. I follow Shawn through the crowd of cats and handlers. The cats flatten their ears and hiss when someone gets too close. We’re all edgy, all bristling. I try to act as if I’m not, the way Shawn has taught me ever since I was a kitten.

“Easy,” Shawn says, and he places a hand on my back as we get in line to register. I purr softly, trying to soothe myself. I don’t mind the judging, but these hours before, the cats, the smells, the strange place, the waiting—these close in around me, and I’m glad for his touch.

The woman behind the table has me turn around so I stand with my back to her. Something beeps. “All right,” she says, and when I turn around she is handing Shawn the papers he needs.

I follow him to the judging arena. “What number am I?”

“Six. Early, but not too bad.” He shifts the big plastic bag he’s carrying to his other hand.

I nod, thinking it through. Sometimes it’s not good to be one of the first ones they look at. If they see someone nice near the end, the judges might remember her easier.

“How many are there?”

“Eleven in your group. About forty all together.” He walks along the booths, looking at the numbers. “Here.”

Each booth is the same: gray boards for walls, a slot to hold your name card, and a chair without a back.

Shawn puts his bag down and starts getting ready. First he takes out the purple cushion that goes on the chair. Then comes the sleek-shiny fabric that he tacks onto the boards behind me. He spends several minutes arranging it, putting it up, taking it down, muttering things, stepping back to look. The edge of one piece is torn, and he finds pins in the bag to fold it over and hide it.

“Now,” he says, and starts on me with a stiff brush until all the loose fur is out. It feels good, and I smile as he gets to an itchy place. After that, he uses the soft brush, smoothing my coat. He works all the way to the tip of my tail, arranging it so it fans out over the purple satin.

“There.” He takes my face in his hands. “Beautiful.”

I like feeling beautiful. I like winning, because it makes him happy, and I hope I’ll win today.

There is still an hour before judging starts. He checks his phone for messages while we wait. When I was a kitten, he read me silly stories to pass the time, so I wouldn’t get nervous and sick. Now I don’t need it. But sometimes I miss hearing his voice anyway.

Finally he looks up at me, and I know he’s making sure everything looks right. “It’d be perfect with a necklace,” he says with a sigh. “Silver and amethyst, with that silver fur. One of these days we’re going to have to try you in something fancy, so we can really dress you up.”

The fancy shows are bigger and cost more, but the prizes are bigger too. Here in the natural ones, I win ribbons and a little money. There, it would be more money, maybe even a contract for something. The thought of it flutters in my belly.

“Feeling all right?” he asks.

I nod.

He glances at his phone to check the time. “I’d better go.” He takes my hands. His skin is warm against the pads of my fingertips and palms. “Knock ’em dead, kiddo.”

It’s the same thing he says to me at every show, ever since my first one. He squeezes my hands, then leaves. Handlers are allowed to be in the room during judging, but he says it looks better if he’s gone. That way, if the judges ask me questions, they know he isn’t trying to tell me what to say.

The first judge is a bald man with little glasses on his nose. “Good morning.”

I smile without showing my teeth. “Good morning, sir.”

“And how are you doing today?”

“Very well, sir, thank you.”

He nods and writes something on his screen. “Will you stand, please?”

“Of course, sir.”

He runs his thick hands over my fur. He smells strongly of cologne, and my whiskers twitch, but I stay still, even when I think of how long I will have to wash to take this heavy stink out of my fur.

He touches my face next, feeling my cheekbones, then has me walk to the end of the aisle and back. I do this slowly, placing each paw with care.

He nods. “Thank you. That’s all.” He scribbles something with his stylus and moves on.

The other judge is a woman. Her face is hard, with deep lines in it, but her eyes are soft and almost as blue as mine. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, ma’am.”

“Stand, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She makes some notes, then holds her screen so I can see it. “Identify this, please.”

“The number four, ma’am.” I have seen the dot-pictures many times.

“Read this aloud, please.”

I take the screen carefully from her. “‘Without thinking highly either of men or of m… matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honorable pr… provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their… pleasantest pr—pres—preservative from want.'”

“That’s enough. Thank you.” She takes the screen back.

I sit down again and try to fan my tail out the way it was.

The last judge is a young woman I know from other shows. “Good morning, Mina.”

I smile, but this time I feel it. “Good morning, ma’am.”

She feels along my back, has me turn and walk, then thanks me and leaves.

My pads are slick with sweat, and my mouth is dry. Shawn comes back then, bringing me a cup of water. “How was it?”

“Easy.”

He grins. “That’s my girl.”

From then, it’s more waiting while the judges finish looking at everyone. I sit and fan my tail and watch people go by. Sometimes I think I would like to see a show for people. There are so many breeds, all the sizes and shapes and colors, so different. I wouldn’t know how to judge.

Finally the young woman comes back, smiles at me, and pins the ribbon up high on the drape where everyone can see it. A red ribbon, Best of Breed. I feel the purring bubbling up in my chest, but I pretend I don’t even see the ribbon at all. After a few minutes, the bald man comes back with another ribbon. Best in Show.

We go afterwards to a place that sells frozen yogurt. I can’t go in, but he brings me some in a cup, and I eat it on the way home. Strawberry.

I am so happy.

* * *

“Did you win?” Sanura asks as we come into the apartment. “I want to see.”

I show her the two ribbons. She touches them carefully and speaks in a whisper. “Pretty.”

My mother had two other kittens besides me. One was born very small and had a kinked tail and crossed eyes. He sent her away, I don’t know where. I don’t think she was ever named.

Sanura lives with us. Shawn says her name means ‘kitten’ in another language, one people used to speak far from here. When he first told me that, I had that feeling again of the sky being too high, everything too big, wanting to hide under the bed. How strange it was to think that there could be so many ways of saying the same thing. How sad that two people could be saying the same thing and not know it.

He bought me a toy shaped like a ball, that said hello in all the different ways when you pressed it in different places. I learned to say a lot of them. But Sanura liked to press all the places at once and make the voices speak fast one after the other. She laughed to hear them. The toy broke, and he didn’t buy another one.

Sanura has faults, Shawn says. Her eyes are greenish-gold, not clear blue like mine, and her spots run together in stripes and blotches. I think she’s very pretty, but he told me the judges only want certain things, and it would be a waste of time and money to take her even to the local shows. So I don’t ask him anymore.

While Shawn pays the sitter, I take the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner out of the suitcase and give them to Sanura. She doesn’t use them, but she likes to line them up and look at them. Sometimes she knocks them over and then lines them up again, purring, then puts them all away in a shoebox under her bed.

That night, after dinner, Shawn sits at the table planning for the next show. The table is covered with bits of fabric, blues and purples and silvers. He mixes them around, stares at them, then pours another drink.

I want him to read to me, but I know that what he’s drinking will have him asleep soon.

“What the hell,” he says, shrugging. He looks up and sees me. “Wanna move up, kiddo? Try something big?”

My tail lashes. “A fancy show?”

“Not yet. But bigger than today. Much bigger.”

I relax a bit, twitching my tail back and forth while I think. “Do you think I’ll win?”

He smiles. “Yeah. I think you can. Wanna try?”

I smile back. “Okay.”

* * *

The next week, I go to the testing center to qualify. Shawn signs me in, but he has to wait while the woman takes me back to the testing room. She smells like too many flowers, and I try to keep from sneezing. I don’t understand why humans wear so much scent. Most of them don’t smell bad as long as they’re clean.

First she feels all along my fur, fingers seeking out hidden things that listen or speak. It’s not that different from what a show judge does, but her hands are quick and rough. Then she looks into both my ears with a little light. “All right,” she says at last. “You’re clean.”

I sit down at the screen and touch where it says “Begin.” A clock appears in the corner of the screen, counting down from thirty minutes. This test is longer than most, but it starts with the same easy questions. I touch the red shape, then the triangle, then the picture of the car, so they know I can read and see colors. The questions are different every time and in a different order, so handlers can’t tell their cats which answers to press when. Still, the flower-woman watches me the whole time through the window.

I finish in eighteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds. The screen chimes and shows my score. 100 percent. I know Shawn is already getting the computer message with the results—he’s probably looking at it on his phone right now. I hope this means yogurt on the way home. I’ve gotten all the answers right before, but not on a test this long.

This time, I get peach, and when I ask him, he even brings out a little cup to take home for Sanura. While I eat, I remember how scared I was the first time I took a test. I thought I would get them all wrong and Shawn would send me away like he did my other sister. But I only got four wrong, and for a kitten it was good enough to pass. I won my first ribbon that weekend, and after the show was over, I asked him why I had to answer the questions. I didn’t understand then about the drinking, but that’s what he was doing. The glass had only a few amber drops left in the bottom. The bottle was empty too.

“Makes them feel better,” he said.

“Who?”

“The judges. That way they can tell off everybody who says we’re breeding intelligence out. Makes it seem respectable.” He had to say the last word three times before he got it right.

I still didn’t understand. But I figured it out later. Making us pretty makes us not as smart sometimes. The judges want pretty and smart.

Sanura loves her yogurt. The cup is clean when she’s done. I sit and stroke her fur as she falls asleep, and I wish she could win a ribbon sometime, too.

* * *

The bigger show is in two days, but Shawn is already thinking farther ahead. A thin package comes, with two long blue ribbons on sticks inside. At first I think he’s bought a toy for Sanura, but then he tells me how the fancy shows have talent, which is where you do something special that not everyone can do. And in another place across the ocean, he tells me, they teach their cats to dance with fans or ribbons.

He shows me one on the screen, a slender seal-point with wide blue eyes, moving with ribbons flowing like water over glass. So beautiful. I long to move that way, but when I try, my steps are clumsy, and the ribbons tangle around my legs and tail.

“It’s all right,” he says. “It takes practice.”

I know that birds are born knowing how to fly. I wish I had been born knowing how to dance this way.

* * *

We drive a long way to the show. I thought our city was big, but I was wrong. Shawn laughs at how big my eyes get as I stare out the window.

This hotel is nicer, and the room doesn’t smell like smoke. The carpet is thick, the bathroom smells clean, and the shampoo bottles are a pretty shape. I put them into the suitcase right away so I won’t forget.

He has a surprise for me. This city has a place where cats can stay with their handlers while they eat at little tables outside. He takes me there for lunch and orders me tuna salad. They don’t have frozen yogurt, but I have something called sorbet, which is almost as good as it tingles cold on my tongue.

There are a couple of other handlers there, and I wonder if they’re going to be in the same show. I also see a woman alone at another table, reading a screen while she eats her salad. I don’t want to stare, but I can’t stop looking back at her, wondering if she’s lonely. Except for the testing, I’ve never been anywhere alone. It must feel so strange, so sad.

On the way back to the hotel, we pass by a public screen that shows a picture of a cat like me, only cream with brown spots. REWARD, it says.

“What’s reward?” I ask him. It’s not a pretty name, not like Silver Willow or Sanura.

“It means she’s lost. Her handler doesn’t know where she is. So he puts her picture on screens everywhere in case someone sees her. Reward means he’ll give money to whoever finds her.”

Lost. No handler. Alone. The thought makes me bristle and shiver.

“Don’t worry.” He puts his arm around me. “You’ll never be lost.”

Once we’re back in the room, he shows me why. He takes my hand and shows me where to feel, at the back of my neck. There’s a little hard thing there under the fur. He says it tells him where I am, so he can always find me.

I can’t see anything for the tears. I hug him and purr as he strokes me.

Never lost, ever. He is so good.

* * *

I win Best of Breed, and even though I’m still clumsy with the dancing, Shawn signs me up for the fancy show. He switches me from ribbons to fans and hires a man to teach me three times a week. I don’t like the way the man looks at me, but my dancing gets much better, and that makes Shawn happy.

The night after my last lesson, after Sanura has gone to bed, I decide to dance for Shawn to show him how much better I am. His breath is already sharp and sour, but I put the music on anyway. I place my paws just so, slow and silky, careful to keep my eyes soft and heavy like the man told me.

I like this dance. The steps and turns blend into each other like water. The fans are easier than the tangly ribbons were, and I love peeking over them and making fluttering shapes in the air with them as I dance.

The room feels warmer. I step closer to him. His upper lip is shining with sweat, and his eyes widen as I approach. “Jesus,” he mutters, “what’d he teach you?”

“Is it all right?” My heart races, and suddenly nothing matters more than his answer.

“Um… yeah.” He shifts on the couch, looking uncomfortable. “It’s… good.”

I sit next to him. He smells different, and something about it makes me want him to touch me. I press against him, but he pushes me away. “No, Mina.”

“But…” I can’t use words for how I feel. Maybe another language has some. It’s like wanting food, but bigger. It’s like him stroking my back, but more.

“No,” he says again. His voice is sharp and cold, and he goes to his room and shuts the door. I hear the lock click into place.

Is he afraid of me? I would not hurt him. I stand there, shaking, for a long time, and at last I go to my room and try to sleep. But all I can hear is his voice. Why is he angry?

* * *

The next morning, I hear him on the phone.

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ve got her signed up for the Diamond International in two months, for God’s sake. I’ve already paid the fees. I’ve gotta do something.” He pauses to listen, and then his voice turns colder than I’ve ever heard before, enough to raise the fur on the nape of my neck. “I’m not a fucking pervert.” A long pause. “I just didn’t want to do it this soon…” He sighs. “Yeah. I know. What’s her number?”

He looks tired when I come out for breakfast. He heats a breakfast tray for me, then stares into his cup of black coffee while I eat.

“How are you feeling?” he asks finally.

I try to think of the right words. I feel different, but not sick. I don’t like sitting still. I wish I could go dance, but the lessons are over. Most of all, I want to be close to Shawn. I want him to stroke me, a long time, everywhere. I want to go out with him to another place where we could eat together.

I tell him all of this. He looks angry at first, but then he scrubs his face with one hand and just looks tired again.

“I wanted to wait another year or so,” he says at last, “but it sounds like you’re ready now.”

“Is it another show?”

“Not exactly.”

* * *

“Don’t worry,” he tells me. “Just relax, and you’ll be all right. He knows it’s your first time.”

Telling me to relax is not the same as feeling relaxed. The place smells strange and harsh, too clean, and the blonde handler woman smiles too much and too easily. I sip the catnip tea she brings me. I have to stay all night and sleep here. I want to go home. I want the itchy buzzing in my blood to stop.

I go into the room alone. The bed there is clean and soft, the lights are dim, and faint music plays from speakers in the ceiling. A large window takes up most of the wall by the door, and I see Shawn and the woman sitting there, watching.

I don’t know what to do. There is a table in one corner with food trays and water, but I’m not hungry or thirsty. I sit on the edge of the bed and think about what Shawn told me. How we’re making kittens, so they might look like me, might grow up to win ribbons and titles. This tom is a Triple Grand Champion, and from the way Shawn said that, I know it’s important.

The door opens, and I catch the tom’s scent before I see him. I hold on to the bed because I feel like I’m falling. He is spotted like me, only bronze. He is beautiful, and I want… I want…

He opens his mouth to taste my scent. As he sits beside me on the bed, I hear him purring.

Shawn didn’t tell me I would feel like this.

I’m panting. He brushes his whiskers against mine.

“Don’t be afraid,” he whispers. “I won’t hurt you.”

And he doesn’t. Not once.

Shawn and the woman watch from the glass. They talk to each other, but I can’t hear the words. She blushes. When I look up again, after a long time, they are gone. It doesn’t matter.

We couple all night, and too soon it’s morning. “Did we make kittens?” I ask him.

The tom smiles. “Maybe. We won’t know yet.”

I groom his ear. “Even if we didn’t, I liked it anyway.”

Shawn comes for me then. He doesn’t look like he’s gotten much sleep, and his shirt is buttoned the wrong way. Then I smell the woman’s scent mingled with his, and I’m happy for him. Coupling is so wonderful, I’m happy he got to do it, too.

* * *

The itchy, restless feeling is gone the next morning, but when I wake up I wish I had the tom’s arms around me. It felt so nice.

Today is a day for lessons, and I spend most of it sitting at the screen in my room. Reading, spelling, math. Then, watching the video the dance teacher made of my routine, practicing more, moving just the right way in front of the mirror.

A package comes in the mail that afternoon: my costume, Shawn says, for talent. I’ve never worn a costume before, and I want to open the box right then.

“I have to go back and work a while longer,” Shawn says. “We’ll try it on later.”

Work means sitting at a screen looking at rows and rows of numbers. I don’t know what he does with them, but whatever it is, he gets money to pay for food and the apartment and to register me for shows.

“Did you finish all the lessons?” he asks.

I nod.

“Go ahead and take the practice test, then. And after I’m done, we’ll see if the costume fits. Okay?”

I look at the box again. “Okay.”

The test is easy. I only miss one, when I don’t answer fast enough because I’m wondering what the costume looks like, and whether I’ll be able to dance in it the way I do now.

My claws are sharp enough to cut the tape. I’ll just open the box and look.

I slip into the hallway. Shawn’s door is closed, so he’s still working. Sanura’s door is closed, too—sometimes she likes to have it shut when she plays.

The box is easy to open, and there are two more boxes inside it. One has something that looks like hair in it, black like my spots, with flowers and beads mixed in and slits for my ears to go through.

The other box is flat, and inside is something silky and pink. I take the costume out of the plastic, feeling the cool smoothness of the fabric against my finger-pads.

It’s beautiful. It’s the same thing the ribbon dancer was wearing when Shawn showed me, the thing he called a kimono. It has little flowers and branches all over it, delicate and swirling, and it shimmers from pink to pale purple in the light.

I slip it on. At first the weight on my fur, even such thin stuff, feels strange. I can’t figure out how the hair thing is supposed to go, and it looks like it might hurt my ears anyway, so I leave it in the box. Then I go to the mirror in my room. And stare.

It’s still me, but I look so different. The fabric ripples around me as I try part of the dance. It’s perfect. I have to show him. I have to thank him.

I run to his door and open it. The desk chair is empty, and the screen is dark.

Then I hear something from Sanura’s room. It sounds like his voice, so I open the door.

Sanura is lying on her bed. Shawn is lying on top of her, and he is doing with her what the tom did with me.

I remember how he told me no. I remember how he pushed me away.

I feel my fur bristling, my lips pulling back, my claws coming out. I lay my ears back and hiss.

Now I wish I had blotchy spots, or bad eyes, or even a kinked tail. I would not have had the tom then. I would have had him.

But Sanura has him. And all at once I hate them both.

“Go back to your room, Mina,” he says. And I do.

I go back to my room and sit on the floor and shred the fans into little pieces, breaking the thin sticks that hold them together. I won’t dance for him again. I won’t dance for anyone.

Hours later, Sanura comes in. I’m still sitting on the floor, all the broken pieces of the fans scattered around me. I know I should get up. I’m hungry, but I don’t feel like eating. I’m sad, but there aren’t any tears.

Sanura sits beside me. She bats at the silky paper for a minute. “Mina, don’t be mad. Please?”

I don’t know what to say. Everything feels wrong. Then I look in her eyes. They look like a kitten’s eyes, I realize. I’ve always known it, but I’ve never seen it until now.

One thing I have to know. “Do you love him?”

She thinks for a moment, stirring the bits of paper around, picking up one of the sticks and biting on it. It’s like there’s a right answer and she’s trying to think of it, to pass a test. “Not like I love you,” she says at last.

“Does he hurt you?”

She shakes her head, still chewing on the stick. Then she takes it out of her mouth and looks down at the floor, and her voice drops to a whisper. “Sometimes it feels good.”

I want to ask more, but I hear Shawn coming. He stops in the doorway and sees the fans. “Mina, what happened?” His hands shake as he gathers up the pieces. “These were expensive!”

Sanura hunches low then. “I was playing. I’m sorry.”

“These aren’t toys. They’re Mina’s, and they’re very important. I don’t want you playing with anything in her room again, okay?”

She nods, eyes wide. “Promise.”

Shawn dumps the pieces in the trash. “I’ll order new ones tonight. They’ll still come in time for the show. Now come on, both of you. Dinner’s ready.”

He leaves. I stare at Sanura. She puts her arms around me and rubs her head against my cheek. “Not like I love you.”

I lean against her, closing my eyes and listening to her purr. She should be with a tom, like I was. She’d love to have kittens, and she never will. I feel like I’m reading a test where I don’t even understand the questions, and there’s no way I can know the answers.

* * *

The next day, we go to the testing place again, so I can qualify for the fancy show. Shawn doesn’t say anything on the way, but I can feel him looking at me.

When I sit down at the screen and the test begins, I touch the first answers without thinking—the green square, the word “balloon,” the picture of a fish. Then the next question appears, asking me to choose the picture with seven objects. It’s the one with the paper clips, and I reach to touch the screen—and stop.

I don’t want to be in this show anymore. And if I don’t answer the questions right—if I don’t pass the test…

The timer in the upper corner of the screen is still counting down. I watch the numbers, then look back at the pictures. I can’t decide—but the test is just starting. Besides, if I miss the easy questions, he would know I’m doing it on purpose. I touch the paper clips, the word “tree,” the birthday cake.

I realize I don’t know what day I was born. I don’t understand why that bothers me, but it does.

I touch the next answer without looking at the screen. Then the next. By then, my heart is pounding so much I’m afraid they’ll think I’m cheating, so I give the right answers for a while until I calm down.

What will he say? Will we go back to the smaller shows? What if the judges ask me their questions and I don’t answer?

The correct answer is fifty-three. I touch fifty-two instead. My finger-pad squeaks against the screen.

I glance at the status bar in the lower corner of the screen. Three questions left. Will that be enough? I skim through the little story, then press “She went to the store to buy milk” instead of “She went to the store to buy bread.” I press “Wednesday” instead of “Saturday.”

The last question appears. The timer says I have five minutes. I think about just sitting here and waiting until the time is up, but then he’d know.

He might know anyway. I’ve never missed this many, not since I was a kitten. Maybe I can tell him I’m sick. It wouldn’t be a lie, really. I feel hot, and I keep swallowing back a burning taste in my throat. The screen shimmers in front of my eyes. I can’t think anyway.

I stare at the question on the screen, but the questions circling around and around in my head are harder than how to spell “bottle.” If I didn’t go to the shows, would Shawn send me away? Where would I go? Who would give me food?

Then I feel a flutter inside that has nothing to do with my nervous stomach.

Kittens.

I press my hand against my belly, and there it is again. There they are.

I look back at the screen. I can’t just think of myself. What if he waits until they’re born, and then sends me away? What would I do?

I try to swallow, but my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. The timer says two minutes, seventeen seconds. I punch the right answer. The test is over. I hold back tears, watching the blurry hourglass until the results appear.

I’ve passed. By two questions.

I’m shaking when I go back to him. He asks why I missed so many, and I say they were harder. I don’t know if he believes that, but on the way home I have to ask him to pull over so I can throw up, and he strokes my back and tells me it’s okay, everything’s all right, and even though it’s not the truth, I let myself believe him.

* * *

Days go by, slowly at first, then faster. I go to coaching sessions with a too-cheerful woman named Ashlee who teaches me how to walk and turn and hold my arms the right way. At the last session before the show, she gives me a set of plastic alphabet blocks that rattle when you shake them. “For the kittens,” she says. “Oh, it’s so exciting! How are you feeling?”

The doctor tells me I’m feeling fine. At the appointments, I answer his questions and stay silent otherwise. I talk less than Sanura these days. And every night, Sanura comes into my room and lies next to me in bed, resting her cheek against my belly like she’s listening to the kittens instead of just feeling them.

According to the doctor, they’re due two weeks after the show. Shawn turned pale when he heard that and spent the next few minutes looking up the Diamond International qualifications on his phone. “Okay, we’re good,” he said then. “Don’t worry,” as if I had been.

If he notices any difference in me, he doesn’t talk about it. He gives me anything I ask for, and I eat strawberry yogurt until I’m sick of it. Then, on the way home from the last doctor’s appointment before the show, I decide to try for something else.

“Shawn?”

“Mm?”

“After the kittens come, do I still have to go to shows?”

“You can still go. Plenty of show cats have kittens.”

He hasn’t heard me at all. “I don’t want to go.” I mouth the words, but there’s little breath behind them.

He glances at me, then back at the road. “What?”

I force the words out. “I don’t want to be in any more shows.”

Rain patters on the windshield. He turns on the wipers, and their squeaking rhythm fills the car. He grips the steering wheel tighter. He doesn’t answer.

At last, in the driveway, he turns the car off, and we sit for a moment. The rain runs down the windows, blurring everything.

“I’m sorry, Mina.” His voice is tight, like he’s keeping more words inside him that might fly out if he isn’t careful.

I think about the woman at the café, the one sitting by herself. I wonder where she went afterwards and what it must be like to go wherever you want, stay there as long as you like, and then go somewhere else after.

Shawn says nothing else. He opens the car door for me, and we go inside.

* * *

The Diamond International show is held in the biggest hotel I’ve ever seen. The ceiling is mostly glass and so high up it makes my neck hurt to look at it. A fountain bubbles in the middle in the lobby, with green ferns all around and vases of white roses, and off to one side a man plays something quiet and rippling on a piano.

I’ve never seen so many cats in one place, every shape and color, tabbies and spots, longhair, shorthair, calico, toms and queens and kittens. Some wear sparkling collars connected to jeweled chains held by their handlers. One black cat even wears a kind of harness, a web of thin, glittering golden strands across her ebony fur. Men stare at her, then try to look like they weren’t staring.

We get in line to register. I keep taking slow, deep, wondrous breaths, drinking in the different scents, cats and perfumes and roses. My kittens leap inside me, like they’re caught up in it too.

Over in one corner of the lobby, I see a table laid with big plates of things to eat, little bits of cheese and fish on crackers. Cats wander around, talking to each other, and most are without their handlers.

“Can I go over there? Please? There’s food.”

He’s ready to say no until I mention the food. I know he’s worried that I haven’t gained enough weight, even if it does make me look better at the show. “All right, but don’t go anywhere else. I’ll meet you there when I’m done.”

I approach the table slowly, waiting for others to move away before I go near. I take a little cup of water that smells like catnip and mint, and then a cracker topped with a morsel of fresh salmon. I want to talk to someone, more than I’ve wanted anything in a long time, but I don’t know how.

Next to me, a gray tabby with green-gold eyes takes a cracker, eats it in two bites, and gives me a smile with her ears up and her whiskers forward. “Fancy stuff, huh?”

I nod and smile back, not knowing what to say. She’s not wearing any jewelry, so I can’t talk about that.

“Did you try the shrimp? They’re wrapped in bacon. Really good.” She hands me one, and I nibble at it. “First time at a glitz?”

“Yes.”

“Thought so. I haven’t seen you around before, and I hit most of the big ones. Name’s Cady. What’s yours?”

“Hartley’s Silver Willow.”

She smiles, and at first I think she’s laughing at me, but her eyes are too kind. “No, I mean your real name.”

“Mina.” As I say it, a rippling twinge goes through my belly, and I put my hand there.

She looks at me for a long time. She looks at my belly even longer. “Your handler’s cutting it close, isn’t he?”

“The rules say it’s okay.”

I don’t like the way she’s looking at me, the way she’s listening so closely to everything I say and don’t say. Like she hears what I’m thinking, how angry I am at Shawn, how I don’t want to do any of this anymore. Like she would understand everything if I told her.

Two more questions wrong. That would have been enough.

“I’m all right,” I say, but it sounds like a lie, even to me.

Her eyes fix on mine. “We’ve got an hour before lineup,” she says. “Does your handler let you go places by yourself?”

I don’t want to tell her I had to ask to cross the room. “I… don’t think so.”

Her whiskers drop a bit, but then she nods like that’s what she thought I would say. Then she steps close enough to touch noses, close enough to share breath. She says nothing, but I watch her breathe in, tasting my scent.

A woman with long gray hair almost the same color as my fur comes up behind Cady. The cat glances at her and shakes her head very slightly, such a small motion that I almost don’t see it. Then they move away into the crowd. My mouth is dry, and I lap at the flavored water to give myself something to do.

Shawn finds me a minute later. I’m glad he didn’t see me talking with Cady. “Lineup’s in two hours,” he says. “Time to get you ready.”

Getting ready means going to the room, sitting in a big oval tub while he scrubs my fur with gardenia shampoo. Suddenly all I can think about is that I’ve never seen a real gardenia. I’ve seen pictures of gardens with fountains and hedges and benches where you can sit and think. I wish I were at one now, someplace I could sit in the quiet and nobody would ask me anything, and maybe then I could catch some of these thoughts that are swirling around in my head like those ribbons I tried to dance with. As big as I know the world is, mine feels smaller now than it ever has before.

Shawn rinses my fur, combs more gardenia stuff through it, then starts drying it on low. He doesn’t say anything except to tell me when to tip my head back or turn one way or another. Every time I look at him, I see him with Sanura, so I try not to look at him at all. I stare into the mirror, into my own eyes. I look scared, but I don’t know why. I’ve never been nervous at a show before. The kittens move inside me, and I wonder if they feel the same things I feel.

Once my coat is dry and fluffed, he starts fixing up all the things we’ve never been able to do before. He puts a silver wig on my head, long hair that matches my fur. It looks silly, but I don’t say anything. These are the kinds of things you have to do if you want to win. He brushes my teeth and paints stuff on them to make them look whiter. This close to him, I can smell the drink on his breath. He usually drinks after the show, not before. Maybe he’s nervous, too. Next come pale purple covers for my claws, each one carefully glued on. My hands feel strange and clumsy when he’s done.

At last he brings out a black velvet box. “I’ve got a present for you,” he says, and opens the box to show me. A necklace lies on a bed of black satin, clear purple gems sparkling in silver.

I try to smile because I feel like he expects me to. Finally he just nods and fastens the clasp at the nape of my neck.

“Mina,” he says softly then, still standing behind me. His voice goes up a bit at the end of my name, and I realize he wants a response.

“Yes?”

“What you saw with me and Sanura that day, in her room. You know that’s a secret, right?”

That’s true. It was his secret.

“So you can’t tell anyone.”

Who does he think I would tell? Now I wish I’d gone with Cady. Maybe I can find her again somehow.

“Because if you tell anyone about it, if anyone finds out, I’d have to send Sanura away. Forever.”

I wonder if Sanura even understands coupling. Or does she sit as I am sitting here now, and let him do what he thinks he needs to do?

He goes back into the room. I stay in front of the bathroom mirror and look at my reflection. I don’t look like myself, but it’s not just the silly hair and the necklace. I don’t look scared anymore. And I’m starting to understand what I have to do, if I want to win.

I pick up the little shampoo bottle with the name of the hotel on it. I turn it around and around in my hands, like it’s going to talk the way my old toy did, like it’s going to say something in another language, something I should learn.

Sanura, I keep thinking. Sanura. My belly twinges again, as if the kittens know who she is.

Then Shawn is back in the doorway. “It’s time to go down.”

Again I try to smile, and I follow.

* * *

These fancy shows are different in other ways. Instead of the judges coming to us, they sit at a long table in front of a stage, and we walk along the stage when our names are called. I look for Cady in the lineup, but I don’t see her or her handler anywhere.

“Number twenty-four, Hartley’s Silver Willow.”

I walk the way we’ve practiced, slow and smooth, gliding. My mind floats somewhere above the stage, past the judges. I know I’m supposed to look at them and smile, but I don’t. I know if I look for Shawn in the crowd behind the judges, I will see him urging me to smile, so I don’t look there either. And then my time is up, and they say my name again, and I leave the stage.

Shawn’s angry with me. I can tell by the tension in his jaw, the darkness in his eyes. But he’s trying not to show it because of everyone else around.

“You have to look at the judges,” he says. “You have to smile at them, or we won’t win. Just do it like we practiced, okay?”

But I can’t, because when we practiced, I didn’t feel this way. Back then, I felt like smiling.

We have an hour before talent starts. Shawn dresses me in my kimono, arranges the hairpiece with the trailing pearls and fake orchids, and gives me the pair of fans to hold. Then he takes me to the hotel bar, where he drinks a little glass of the amber stuff. He orders another one, drinks half of it, then looks around to see if anyone’s watching, but we’re the only ones there.

He pushes the glass over to me. “Here. Drink this.”

I pick up the glass, sniff it, and pull back. Just the scent of it burns my nose.

“Drink it. It’ll help you relax.”

The man who filled the glass is at the other end of the long bar. He’s looking at us, I realize, but Shawn stares at him with hard, dark eyes. The man looks away, and there’s no one else, and then those hard eyes are on me.

I should put the glass down. It might hurt the kittens. I should walk out of the bar, out of the show, out of the hotel. But I don’t know where I’d go.

“All at once,” he says. “Like medicine. That’s all it is.”

I drink it in a single swallow that burns all the way down. Tears fill my eyes as I set the glass back on the bar, and I hold back a cough until the burning fades.

Shawn smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “That’s my good girl. Come on, kiddo. Let’s go knock ’em dead.”

I follow him out of the bar, hating him, hating myself.

* * *

My turn comes after a white Persian who sings some song I don’t listen to. Everything feels fuzzy around the edges, like I’m wrapped in an invisible blanket. Maybe this is what Shawn likes about it.

I still don’t see Cady in the lineup.

I glance out at the crowd, judges and handlers and cats. This, then, is my life. This will be my kittens’ life. Good girls, ready to dance like they’ve been taught. And the ones with crossed eyes or kinked tails will wait at home for shampoo bottles and their handlers in their beds…

“Hartley’s Silver Willow.”

I jerk back to attention. From the emcee’s expression, this is the second time he’s called my name.

No. Not my name. Not my real name.

I step up onto the stage, find the spot where I’m supposed to stand, unfold my fans and hold them just so, and wait for the music to start.

The opening strains of a violin fill the ballroom. I know the next step, the turn, the flow of one movement into the next. I learned them all perfectly, when his happiness was mine.

I fold my fans up, carefully. They’re expensive, after all. I stand, arms at my sides, while the music rises and swells and crests. I look at the judges, and fire burns in my belly, and I do not smile.

The music stops. The emcee looks confused. “Ah— that’s contestant number twenty-four, Hartley’s Silver Willow.”

I stop in front of the emcee on my way off the stage. My tongue feels funny from the drink, but I shape the words carefully. “My name is Mina.”

And as I step down off the stage, I see Cady in the back of the crowd, a gray shadow slipping out the ballroom door, out of sight again. I take a step to follow her—and Shawn’s hand clamps onto my arm.

“What the hell was that?” He keeps his voice low as he pushes me out of the room and into the elevator. Once the doors close, he doesn’t bother. “It cost me five hundred dollars to register for this. Five hundred. Plus the lessons and the coaching and all this shit.” He yanks the hairpiece off me, the adhesive pulling out a patch of fur behind my ear. One of the trailing strands of pearls breaks, scattering the little beads across the floor.

The elevator doors open. He pulls me to our room and slams the door behind us. Then he takes a bottle from one of the suitcases and pours enough to fill one of the hotel glasses halfway. He takes one gulp, then another, then blows out a breath and closes his eyes. He sets the bottle and glass on the desk and sits down on the edge of the chair.

I sit on the edge of the bed. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I already know that nothing’s going to be the way it was, ever.

Shawn drinks in silence. I lose track of how many times he refills the glass, but the bottle is more than half empty already.

“I’m not doing any more shows,” I say finally.

He barks a laugh. “Yeah, I kinda figured that.” He takes another swallow. “So what do you wanna do, then, huh? ‘Cause your qualifications are pretty slim.”

He sets the glass back on the desk and studies me for a moment, then breaks into a lopsided grin. “Course, I know some people who might be very happy to pay you a few hundred here and there.” He sits down next to me on the bed, his hand on my knee. “Not as high-class as the shows, but it brings the money in.”

His hand slides under my kimono, cold between my thighs. He leans so close I can taste his breath.

“Ohh, now, don’t look like that,” he says, taking hold of my arm again with his other hand. I try to pull away, and he grips tighter. “Don’t act like you didn’t want it when you danced for me. You wanted me to fuck you then. Maybe I should’ve, huh? Maybe that would’ve kept you nice and happy and they’d be putting a crown on you downstairs right now. But no, I couldn’t, you were too important, everything was riding on you.”

“So you fucked Sanura instead?” The words taste gritty and sour in my mouth.

He laughs. “Tell you a secret, kitty. She likes it. She asks for it. And she’s a damn good fuck for a retard.”

I’ve only managed to pull off three of the purple claw covers while he’s been talking, but it’s enough to cut three deep lines in his neck. He jerks away, stumbling, pressing a hand to his neck. He stares at the blood on his fingers, like he doesn’t know what it is or how it got there. It’s enough time to get the bottle and bring it down hard. He trips over the chair, pulling it down with him. I hear his head hit the wall.

At first I think he’s dead, and my stomach knots from a mixture of terror and satisfaction. Then I realize he’s still breathing. I know this sort of sleep; it lasts a long time.

I take off the claw covers and the kimono. After a moment to think, I find the silver necklace from earlier, safe in its box, and put it on. It was a gift, after all, and silver means money.

I want to take the little shampoo bottle, the conditioner, the lotion, all lined up on the mirrored tray. But none of the luggage is small enough for me to carry without looking suspicious. A handler might send their cat on an errand, but not carrying a suitcase, and I’ve never needed a little bag of my own.

There’s nothing else to take. I step over Shawn, open the door, and walk into the world alone.

* * *

It starts in the elevator, with a sudden warm rush down the fur of my legs, soaking a dark splotch into the carpet. The first pain hits me soon after. Distantly I hear the bell ding, but by the time the doors open, the pain has passed. I’d planned to look for Cady or her handler, to ask everyone I could find where they might be. But the kittens have planned something else.

There are no safe places here. I have to get as far away as I can before he wakes up. With that button under my skin I can never be lost. He might even have it hooked to his phone.

I make my way out of the hotel from a side entrance. It’s getting dark, and the streetlights are flickering on. I rest against the side of the building as the pain grips me again, and once it passes, I move on. The street feels too exposed. I find an alley, dark, safe, and double over against the next wave. They’re closer now. Soon.

I huddle behind a huge metal box of garbage. The smell is awful, mostly rotten meat and urine, but I feel protected. The pain comes again, familiar now. This time I push against it, and one by one, they are born.

I wash them and bite them free. They smell like nothing I’ve ever smelled before, and I breathe in their scents again and again. I want to rest now, forget everything else for these precious first minutes, but there’s one more thing I have to do.

I find a piece of glass nearby, sharp and straight and easy to hold.

It hurts. It hurts so much, but I cut until the button comes free. My back feels warm and wet, and I’m shaking. I throw it as far as I can, but it’s not very far.

The kittens are crying. They’re so tiny, but so strong. One is blotchy like Sanura. One is smoky gray, no spots at all. One has a bronze coat just like the tom. All of them are beautiful and perfect and mine. They press their paws against my belly, and I hear myself purring as they start to nurse.

Then eyes come out of the darkness. Green eyes. Yellow eyes. Water-blue. Two queens and a tom-who-isn’t.

“Showgirl,” one whispers.

I flatten my ears and spit. No one will touch my kittens. No handlers. No cats.

Green-eyes comes close. She doesn’t smell angry. She touches noses with me.

“I’m not going back,” I say. “I’m lost. Forever.”

She nods. “So are we.”

And then, someone I know. Tabby stripes and gold-green eyes and Cady’s scent. “It’s all right. They’re with me.”

The world has gone gray, and I don’t know if I’m really saying the words or not, but I try. “My sister…”

“We’ll find her. Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.” Her voice floats in the gray.

They lift me up, away from the blood and the button he’ll find. A van is parked nearby, and Cady helps me into it. I don’t know where we’re going, but the others tell me about warm beds and food. Safe, they keep saying, away, and that is all I need.

I hold my kittens close. Someone asks me my name, and tired as I am, when the old title swims up out of the gloom, I push it away again. “Mina,” I reply softly, whispering it to each kitten, singing it to myself, sharp as a shard of glass, bright as a purple stone. “My name is Mina.”

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10 responses to “Best of Breed

  1. I think the first comment pretty much sums this story up

    Renee, you have an astounding control over tone, each scene contains a consistent melancholy atmosphere. Even during the scenes where good events happen, we have this persistent feeling that something is very wrong up until the final moments where we can breath a sigh of relief

    It’s no surprise that you won the editor’s choice. You deserve it

  2. Impressive, as usual. You handled a very controversial subject with grace and heart. The simple point of view of an animal is very clear, and the transition to more complex thought processes is so gradual I barely recognized it.

    • That’s good to know about the transition aspect — that’s what I was going for, but by the time all was said and done, it was hard for me to tell if I’d succeeded at all, or if I just thought I did. :) Thanks!

  3. Black TearsWolf

    A very beautiful story indeed wish it was a movie.

  4. Wow.. this story left me shaking. it’s hard to type this comment even because I can’t calm down. This is the best story I have read in a very long time. Kudos.

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