Why Do Alley Cats Scream At Night?
Joshua Luke Cable
It feels like I have spent my life inside my bedroom, orbiting a tungsten bulb, dazed by LEDs screens. But when the sun sets and the day grows dim and quiet, the scope of my thought narrows into a contemplative zone, where it is easier to think about the strange ideas which stir me. I find that I am at my best in these hours; yet always when I’m on the precipice of some enriching thought, my eyelids grow too heavy to be held aloft any longer, and I am called to sleep.
Every night I reach for the rod which rolls down the blinds of my bedroom window, and every night I am struck by the atmospheric sight of the solitary lamppost beaming in the dark alley behind my terraced home. The alley itself practically belonged to the cats. By day, they’d bask in in the faint Yorkshire sun atop shed roofs, and by night, they’d creep furtively across fences and over walls into gardens of paved stone. My area, like many post-industrial towns was comprised of dense grids of two-up, two-down terraced housing, each with a small back yard leading to an alley, which separates the back of one street from another. For the domestic cat this area should be perfect for them. And yet, recently in the twilight hours I have noticed an alarming sound. Which had made me wonder: why do the alley cats scream at night?
If only I could see what the cats can see in the dark back alleys of Barnsley, perhaps I’d be screaming too. But without their optical gifts, I could only speculate what was raising their hackles. A reasonable guess was that their feline cries may just be a prelude to mating, but the prospect of a stranger, more macabre answer excited me. Whatever the reason, their yowling in the late hours was a disturbing sound, and one that has led me to close the window of my bedroom many times.
One very late night a few weeks ago, long after my mother had gone to bed, the screaming was worse than ever. Their shrill sounds tore me away from my desk, and I perched myself on my windowsill looking over the alley. Looking around at the neighbouring houses it appeared as if I was the last human awake. Not a single house light shone, only the lamppost. The night sky was unfathomably dark, but its distance instilled in me a sense of awe and mystery. In contrast to the dark alley below, which exuded a far more immediate sense of dread.
We are born with an innate fear of the dark, it’s an ancient instinct, which metastases into childhood, where our burgeoning imaginations imbue the dark and its unknown contents with horrifying possibilities. The experience of adulthood discounts many of those imaginative possibilities. Til you no longer fear the monster under your bed, but the murderer outside your patio window. Ever since Prometheus stole fire from the Gods, and gave it to Man, we have been peeling back the unknown with successive waves of technology. Modernity has illuminated the world, yet deep shadows are cast, which contain the same instinctual fears; yet only some of the old threats survive. As a species, the unknown is perhaps our greatest fear, but fear is not our strongest emotion. No, I think our curiosity is stronger, otherwise we never would have left our painted caves and spread about the world as we have. Bare that in mind, when I say that I slipped into my flip flops and ventured out into the alley that night through our back garden gate.
By the time I was outside, the screaming had stopped, I could have returned to my room and gone to sleep. Equally, I thought, the absence of screams may have kept me awake with worry. What could make them scream so, and then silence them? In one hand I gripped a large, jagged stone from our garden, and with the other I strafed the darkness with my phone torch. I concealed the stone out of potential embarrassment, I did not want to be seen skulking the alley, rock in hand like a Cro-Magnon throwback; neither did I want to be wholly unarmed if the worst were to happen. At that time, the alley was quiet save for the distant sounds of souped-up cars making the most of quiet roads, and the electric hum of the lamppost, which shone brightly to my left. "Pspspsps" I whispered along the alley, hoping to bring the cats out, but I couldn’t see or hear them. I passed beneath the lamppost. Under its light the exposed skin on my hand felt a little warmer, but I think that was only in my imagination. The illusion of safety.
Further down the alley, I heard a sound. Like something clattering to the ground. I followed the noise to the broken gate of a neighbours back yard. The sound appeared to have come from a dilapidated brick coal shed near the gate. The coal shed was close, and the house lights were off. I would not be seen trespassing, but I didn’t relish the risk. I covered the light of my phone torch and crept past the broken gate. I crouched by the old coal shed where the sound was coming from and shone my light inside. I saw the usual things which get put away in winter, a set of folded chairs, a rusted Swingball set, a faded plastic push-car for kids, and so on. In the corner of the shed blinking in the light were a dozen set of eyes, a crowd of cats, of various breeds all huddled together. In their trembling terror they’d knocked an old trowel over.
They looked terrified of me; I tried to reassure them. I whispered a gentle "pspspsps" and reached my hand out to them, but they pulled back even further. I backed off too, sensing a claw swipe in my near future if I didn’t. I noticed blood in their fur. It was fresh, but none of them seemed wounded. There was a clang in the alley, the cats fled in all directions, and I stumbled out into the alley after them where I was struck by the foul stench of sewage.
To my right, the alley stretched into pitch blackness, and to my left back toward the lamppost and my garden gate. That stench was awful, as I looked behind me there was a different shade of darkness, my own moon spun shadow moving against the wall. The question I asked flashed before my eyes like text from a projector emanating from deep within my animal brain, “why do the alley cats scream at night?”
Of course, the cats were not terrified of me. I was frozen solid, so why was my shadow moving? Without pause I ran toward the light of the lamppost, to my shame I fell, but not because of my flip flops. Mid frantic stride the ground beneath my forward leg was gone, as if I had misjudged the place of the bottom step on my way down a staircase. My body slammed into the concrete, I released my grip on the rock; my fallen leg kicked out from the void it was hanging in and sprung me off the ground. Later, I would see how sore my knees and palms were, but in the moment, like the frightened ape I was, and feeling as if I was about to be overtaken, I ran to the lamppost and sheltered in the centre of the radiant circumference shone upon the ground.
I pivoted on my heel and raised my clumsy guard up against the darkness; under the bright light my pupils dilated, and all detail was lost from the shadow. I could be seen, but I could not see, effectively, I was as blind and defenceless as a kitten. When it became clear that nothing was there, I fumbled for my phone torch and ran back to my home. I was kept awake that night by my adrenaline, with that smell of sewage affixed in my nostrils.
The morning after I returned to the alley, curious and a little sore. I noticed several cats, I recognised a few from the night before. Some fled, others came closer when I beckoned them with a "pspspsps." The inquisitive ones sniffed my outstretched hand and allowed me to pet them. If not for these cute cats, the alley was otherwise grim, but exceedingly normal, at least until I noticed the closed manhole cover. I could faintly smell the same foul sewage seeping through its cracks. Someone must have sealed it in the morning. I considered myself lucky that the open hole didn’t swallow me up entirely, my fall was bad enough. A deep instinct told me to run from that grey abnormality in the dark. In the stark light of day, I felt foolish like adults do, but in my gut, I was thrilled to run. It felt good to exercise that flight reflex that modernity had rendered almost vestigial from underuse.
For a few weeks after the alley incident, I had been turning off lights in the house and navigating around in the dark, after my mother had gone to bed. I endured bashed shins and stubbed toes to see if the eye like a muscle can trained to be stronger, to see better in the dark? If the eye couldn’t be improved, then the mind certainly could be made more resilient against the dark. I would not be rendered terrified by shadows again. With time, I grew better at discerning shape and depth in the dark, and revisiting the instinct to illuminate a room, to guarantee that I was truly alone, and safe in it. I channelled my newfound fascination for the dark into exploring beyond my home.
In the twilight hours I’d wander the streets, armed with a new understanding that most people, even the real bastards stay out of the dark. It is instinctual. If you were prepared to go against that instinct, you could walk freely where others would not follow. Afterall there were no wolves in England anymore, the predators are gone; only man is left, and they don’t wander aimlessly through the dark. Their violent wills are more discerning.
Later that night I was walking through streets, when I heard that God awful sound. The screaming of cats which begun all this. I lingered in a narrow ginnel between houses and crouched quietly in the pitch blackness. Every move I made was deliberate. I smelt the sewage first, it took time to see the shapes and ascertain the finer details. I saw an open manhole cover, and a turned over bin with its contents spilled. A dead cat lifted high, its lifeblood glinting in the moonlight, spilling onto the elongated snout of a terrible thing, which meeped as it ate the cat. Its knees bent like a dog’s, its body was tall and lean like a man's, and covered in cat scratches. Its fingers were long, and easily capable of prying open manhole covers. I froze again, not from indecision but a heightened sense of survival. By the sight of it I knew it could not outrun it or fight it. I stayed impossibly still as it devoured one poor cat after another. I watched and prayed it would not see, hear, smell or intuit I was here. I don’t know how long I watched that macabre buffet, but eventually I awoke in the ginnel, and it was over, the thing was gone, the cats too, and the manhole covered as if It was never there, but the smell lingered.
It was dawn when I made it home on my exhausted legs, the chimney pots of the cascading rows of terraced house were silhouetted by the rising sun. I had made it through the night; “Never again,” I thought. The darkness had hidden me sufficiently well, but I certainly was not its master. I reached for the key in my coat pocket, but there was something else, something I had dropped that night in the alley all those weeks before. I found the large and jagged stone placed inside my pocket.
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