background stars background text eye to the telescope tour of alternate worlds spacer



Help SFPA achieve non-profit status and expand its goals in promoting the speculative poetry community!
Issue 38 • October 2020
Cat People
edited by John Philip Johnson

Table of Contents

Editor’s IntroductionJohn Philip Johnson

On becoming a cat • Jane Williams
After Zhuangzi • Mary Soon Lee
Feline animorph volunteer summary (see attached for a complete report of the program, now cancelled) • FJ Doucet
mr. james smith refuses further treatment • Maria Zoccola
The Claws We Bare • Jennifer Crow
Feline Cerebrum • Morgan Fenn Jamison
King • Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe
Ignorance, my prophylactic • Akua Lezli Hope
Beguiled • Marge Simon
The Witch’s Cat • Deborah L. Davitt
Monster Cats • Mary Turzillo
Form Factor • Tim Jones
cat people • Ken Cathers
Archenemies • Steve Castro
Astrogator’s Mantra • R. H. Nelson

On becoming a cat

When anyone asked you always said bird.
Eagle. Hawk. Always imagined yourself
airborne. Unencumbered by gravity.
To return as a mouser seems like demotion.
Like you have settled somehow.
Like you had a choice.
But perception is always misshapen 
until you’ve stalked the mile. 
In time you will come to understand
elegance at a visceral level, to own
the privilege as if it were your birthright,
as if you had not been hand-picked
from a line-up on death row.
More than ever your eye will reflect the moon,
the skin beneath your hair ripple in anticipation.
You will come to relish the chase
from both perspectives.
The superiority of night vision.
The rapture of a long afternoon stretch.
Everything lost to language
finds itself in the yowl.
Everything distasteful
can be licked pure again.
Know that your new self was once part
of a venerated and protected species.
That your form was the stuff of chilling deities.
The Lady of Slaughter. The Lady of Dread.
True, you may never convince
your beloved of your return,
laying slick feathers and rodent gifts
at their feet, smiling pinkly.
But understand if you can
that they will adore you in ways
you could only have dreamed
within the juvenile confines
of mere human guise.

—Jane Williams

After Zhuangzi

To have dreamt, even once,
that you were a cat—

ears arched to catch
the footsteps of a mouse—

To have woken, declawed,
furless, lamentably human

in the bleary heaviness
of a bedridden bipedal body—

To have held to the hope
that you might still be cat:

a cat merely dreaming
this seeming of humanity—

To have wished to wake up
whiskered, perfect, whole.

—Mary Soon Lee

Feline animorph volunteer summary (see attached for a complete report of the program, now cancelled)

They were mostly women. We expected
they would be men. Would be heavy, six-
foot-tallers. Would be athletes. Soldiers. But

no. They were rounder. Shorter. Too short
to reach the top shelf of the kitchen cupboards.
Our expectations subverted by softness. Our subjects

twisted by brute desire to throw aside
all that ties women to the world.
When questioned, most confessed

to a lover, a child. A house, car, and mortgage.
Too many strings to hold separate. We were
told—(said the girls)—to stay inside, to fear

a man on a midnight sidewalk. To raise with fear
our daughters, though our breath quickened
in the lure of moonlight from open windows. We did

try. We cowered until we couldn’t. Until hallowed
woods and hushed meadows, fierce maelstroms
from earliest girlhood threw our bones

against the walls of cities. We still remembered
when no one forced shoes on our feet. Clothes
on our limbs. When the house cats’

claws were as awful as the tigers’.
When pink princesses curled tiny fingers
into feral claws. Mewling

turned to growls. Take us—(the women implored)—
for the program. Splice our genes with the
untamed feline. We promise to follow

orders. Serve the government, for a time.
Anything to cut us free. Divorce us
from our softness. Marry us to the hunt and the heart

cut open in the blood-air. Let us forget all love
that came before. Even the mother. Even
the child. Some blessings are too great
                                                                        to bear.

—FJ Doucet

mr. james smith refuses further treatment

yesterday i boxed up the house and drove
through three hundred miles of unbroken
september fields, all that corn moving here
and there in the wind, stooping towards
my car and then recoiling, and somewhere
around imperial the pills wore off and my nails
came through the steering wheel in ribbons
of shredded leather, and as soon as i could
make myself stop clawing the thing to pieces
i yanked off the road and down a churned-up
tractor path that washed out in a heap of dirt
and chokecherries and a running stream,
just a wet trickle, just a damp little creek
where a half-inch of water could pick
its way along over sticks and leaves
and small jagged rocks and not bother
anybody or serve anybody or do one single
thing for any living soul. when the burning
came in my skin and teeth and in the sockets
of my eyes i did not cry but instead took
my shirt over my head and lay myself down
in the dust by the water where i heard
the wind in the corn and the voice of the stream
and the ticking of my engine settling down
to sleep and the low purring groan of my own
bones reknitting themselves into new
and fantastical shapes, like the unfurling stems
of golden flowers, rare and heady and correct
in this soil. enormous hours. acres of shadow
and sound. at the crux of the matter the sky
ripped open at the belly with such ferocity
of noise and light that only the impossible
could dare demand our place inside of it,
so i gulped down the wild air and shrieked
and howled and saw rain turn to river
by the power of transmutation.

—Maria Zoccola

The Claws We Bare

A simple yawn becomes a test of your fortitude
as our jaws widen and sharp teeth flash. A stretch
of limb becomes a threat, claws hooking fabric or flesh
and needling like an unpleasant truth. We embody
fear, a predator’s needs and urges compacted
into a form small enough to carry. But if you forget
our past, we will make your present uncomfortable,
a bite of warning to stay on the right side of the line
and a reminder that our wishes are always correct.
In the deep hours of darkness, we have our moment
to prowl the world, unseen and unheeded, our legs
longer, our teeth sharper, our hungers fiercer
than in daylight. If we steal your two-legged form
to suit our hunt, what does it matter
so long as we return it at daybreak? Your yawns
less terrifying than ours, your muscles aching
from the dreams you can’t recall, a tale of cat-life
you tell yourself is only an illusion. We lick
our paws and close our eyes, resting up
for another expedition, another night in the shadows
pretending to humanity.

—Jennifer Crow

Feline Cerebrum

The first thing you notice is the splitting, awful sensation in your skull
This is because cats have different brains than humans
(there’s a reason the transformation is a high-level skill)

Your brain has to shrink.
Your neurons have to die off and twist
and the folds of your cerebellum
rearrange themselves.

Circuits, severed.

Your hippocampus will shift,
your sensory systems will melt down
and rebuild.

It’s a painful process.
You will scream.
They will hold you down.
You will say you will never shift again.

There’s something addictive in the pain,
and something even more addictive in the feeling of fur
sprouting along your back,
of your pupils warping,
your irises blowing out wide.

You’ll forget things,
human things.
It gets worse the more often you do it.

Cats have selective memories,
and with the twisting-warping cerebral change,
things get lost.

Sometimes, you wake up from the change
and forget your own name.

Your mother will say,
You need to stop.

Your wife will say,
Go to this group,
And hand you a pamphlet.

Your psychiatrist will say,
Do you remember your birthday?
And you will say,

The cat doesn’t think your birthday is important.

You don’t like being touched, now.
You’d rather hide under the futon in the living room.
(Your children are scared of you)

Your head itches.
There’s an impossible pressure in your skull,
like your brain is too big and is bursting out,
ready to shatter open the bone
and send all of that unnecessary human-matter
splattering all over the pale-blue bathroom tiles.

You look at your hairless reflection and feel disgust.
Your wife and children aren’t yours anymore.

You don’t know what your name is.
You haven’t been human in a long time -
It’s hard to go back, to feel the bubbling pressure
of your head growing,
the popping of your limbs,
the sensation of bones growing and cells dying,

One day, perhaps,
you will lose all memory of who you were
and of why you ever wanted to come back.

—Morgan Fenn Jamison


for Chadwick

Look, see the king prowling in the woods,
Look at his black fur glistening with morning dew,
Look at his green eyes burning with knowledge,
Look at his fearful teeth and sharp claws,
Look at the shadow of death that gives us life.

When the king growls, the forest trembles
And intruders flee before his terrible rage
In the dark, his is the tread of death
In silence, he pounces and rips his prey to shreds.

Once the king was a man,
Once, he sat in a hall of sunlight,
Once, he had a beautiful queen,
Once, he thought himself better than the gods.

But they smote him in their wrath,
Gave him four legs and a tail,
Made him king over leaves and trees and beasts
Gave him silence and death as his eternal queen.

So when you see the panther prowling,
Pay obeisance to the king who was and who is.
Bow to he who reigns over the souls of brave men.
And like him, never forget who you are,
As a human or as a big cat or as a mop stick,
Remember that a king is always a king.

—Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe

Ignorance, my prophylactic

Lust lies heavy on me when it’s my yearning time
I fear the mixed and urgent heat of being were-feline
should I conceive while in that state, far from my rational mind
there’s no guidance about what may happen
when I’m fur her—no clues of any kind

There are others. I smell them, passing in a crowd
emanating scent trails, nothing said aloud
a stranger’s eyes blink slowly, their iris shimmers fast
I am aroused, but somehow manage to stroll past

Human trysts don’t fulfill no matter how skilled the lover
I always want to do it furred and pawed as my other
but I don’t know enough of her to know what satisfies
and fear making a litter if I give in, yield all to gratify

Who or what would come, the issue I might bear
furred or smooth, one or two, or more might appear
when, 9 months? less or more, to form in were-chemistry
My fluid body has just two breasts for future kits or babies

One day, a fierce and fertile tom may proposition me
or were-dragon, one spicy afternoon’s stray from my species
so maybe twins will come as the case might be—
one of each, or perhaps blurred, none will be like me

—Akua Lezli Hope


“She is a beauty,” my father would say,
on trips to the zoo, he’d stop at her cage.
Sometimes I thought he’d never leave,
just stood there, like in a trance.

He’d talk to her,
call her silly names like
“Baby Doll” and “Sugar,” names
he never called my mom,
I didn’t understand it then.

One summer night, when the
crickets were singing crazy loud,
and the darkness tingled,
I was watching at the window
making wishes on the stars,
when I heard the back door open
and out my father came.

From the shadows slipped a
giant cat, yet he showed no fear,
and once he took her in his arms,
until the moon sank in the skies,
she was a cat no more.

I never told our mother,
or mentioned it back then.
No one would believe a child,
but I’m a man now,
and I believe.

—Marge Simon

The Witch’s Cat

She lived alone, as she’d always wished to;
no husband or children to trouble her
and yet she brewed a broth of bitter rue.

She crafted medicines from balsam fir,
attended births of cows and humans both;
no husband or children to trouble her

meant she had time for such personal growth!
She read both spells and improving books, she
attended births of cows and humans both,

gossiped with neighbors and drank cold mint tea
(secretly admitting she was lonely)—
she read both spells and improving books, she

worked a charm on her cat, Mr. Beastly.
Her cat turned human now, three days a week.
She had admitted that she was lonely—

no more silence now when she wished to speak.
She lived alone, as she’d always wished to
but her cat turned human three days a week,
and she no longer brewed a broth of bitter rue.

—Deborah L. Davitt

Monster Cats

Buildings at twilight are monster cats,
red lights in their ears, green lights for eyes.
Cafes and shops at their feet are kittens;
they tower silently and purr with the thoughts of people inside.
We can pet them just in our sleep;
we can watch from across water as dusk fades behind them,
soothing them like the giant hand of someone in love.

They have whiskers of high tension wire.
They have claws of cars and parking garages.
They surprise us by turning lights off and on,
still not moving, only watching as twilight fondles them.

When it is dark, the Rhodes Tower will be Our Lady Bast.
The Terminal Tower her fierce avatar Sekmet.
The others will guard her,
silent as toms watching a queen snap the spine of a mouse.
All cities are ruled by their shapes in the dark.

In fog, they will vanish, give up their catness
as fog rolls over the river
and they slip into holes in the mist-chained horizon
like tabbies avoiding rude boys in the street.

They have eaten our prayers.

Do not forget they are monstrous,
pretty as we falsely surmise.
They can swallow us: we need only draw nearer,
their height dwarfing us
to birds, to mice, to creatures of blindness and dreams.

—Mary Turzillo

Form Factor

I downloaded myself into this shape
to be free. Now it consumes me.
So strange to dream of skin

and wake in fur. Curled, unfurling.
Once I knew things, useful things.
How to press those little keys,

how to open cans. I mourn
my thumbs: blunt instruments
that fed and housed me once.

Necessity reduces me. I hunt,
must hunt, my body weight
diminishing. Mouse, bird. Focus,

sharpen, ignore his murmurings.
He comes to me in dreams, begging
to be poured into his fur-free form—

but nothing he says can make me care.
Through sunlit hours I sleep, save energy,
twitch distracting thoughts away. At sunset

my hackles, rising, remember him.
You could have chosen any form,
you fool, yet you chose mine.

—Tim Jones

cat people

the crazy lady
in the room upstairs
is singing to her cats

imagine the floor
cluttered with saucers
stink of sour milk
            and tuna.

bits of off-key
song filter down
like darkness.

            see these eyes
            so green …

it is a night music
for the lonely, for
a crazy lady
            who sings to cats:

strays, cripples, cast-offs.
how the shape
of her story shifts

becomes a fable
about an old woman
tuned to the occult
rhythm of cats
            their sleep and hunger.

how she longs to be
what she sings to

and there is a kind
of courtesy

            a feline etiquette
            a feigned indifference

her voice a shrill thread
in their late night choir
that winds through darkness,
my sleep, this whole
            crumbling city

while upstairs
cats curled
on piles of soiled laundry

—Ken Cathers


I was writing a novel, when I heard a knock at my front door. I looked through my peephole. It was a were-cat. I ain’t opening the door, I thought. Mama didn’t raise no fool. I went back to writing my novel. I then got a telephone call. “Please open the front door. I just want to talk.” How did you get my number? “I got it from your ex.” My ex is dead. “I know,” he said. “I met her at a séance,” he continued. His sharp claws & fangs looked powerful enough to tear apart flesh, so I slid an eucalyptus leaf under the door as a peace offering. In case you get hungry, I said. “Who do you think I am, a were-koala? Were-cats eat meat.” Aha, I said. So that’s why you want to come in. You want to eat my roommate the were-mouse. “You’re roommates with a were-mouse?” the were-cat asked innocently. “Yes, cats love meat, but I’m currently on a strict water diet myself.” “Yeah, right,” I mumbled inaudibly. All that noise must have woken up my were-mouse roommate ’cause he came out of his room towards the living room on all fours with his tail dragging on the ground. What’s going on? my roommate asked me. Open the door and find out if you’re really that curious, I said. Then I went to my room, locked the door and continued to write my romance novel while listening to The Dark Side of the Moon.

—Steve Castro

Astrogator’s Mantra

One must become a cat
in thought and spirit.
It is the only way
to unravel the yarn
of tangled quantum strings
and leap between the stars.

—R. H. Nelson