Heart of an Orca, Grace of a Cat

“The cat’s ears flicked. Her black and white patches made her look like she was wearing a tuxedo, terribly overdressed for the wild, windy beach.”

by Mary E. Lowd

Originally published in Furvana 2019 Conbook, September 2019

Jamie watched the roiling waves, searching for unicorns in the white spray.  She sat on the golden sand of the freezing Oregon beach, clutching her favorite book, The Last Unicorn, to her chest.  Her toes were red and numb from wading.  The water was too cold for swimming.

Every summer, Jamie’s parents brought her to the beach house, where there was nothing to do but read the same old books with yellowed pages, do the same old puzzles with missing pieces, and play the same weird, off-brand board games.  But three blocks away, there was a stretch of gold and blue paradise, where every piece of driftwood was a magic wand lost by a fairy and every pebble was a royal gemstone.

After Jamie tired of collecting precious treasures into piles, she liked to sit on the sand, reading and dreaming.  Today Jamie was so deep in her dreams that when she saw a black and white cat strolling down the beach toward her, she wasn’t even surprised to hear the cat say, “I’m looking for a witch.”

“I’m a witch,” Jamie said, suddenly deciding.  That was how one became a witch; she was sure of it.

The cat sat down beside her and licked a paw, carefully grooming the grains of sand out from between her paw pads.  She was a very handsome cat, and she looked at Jamie appraisingly.  “Do you know magic?”

“I can learn.  Can you teach me?”

The cat’s ears flicked.  Her black and white patches made her look like she was wearing a tuxedo, terribly overdressed for the wild, windy beach.  Finally, she said, “No, but I believe I am destined to be a witch’s familiar.  We can learn together.”

Jamie named her new familiar Tuxedo, and they began work on their first magical spell:  convincing Jamie’s parents to take in a stray beach cat.  However, that spell proved harder than some of the more arcane arts.  Jamie and Tuxedo had better luck bending the shape of space-time with minor portals, allowing the cat to sneak into Jamie’s attic bedroom at night, than bending her parent’s will.

Jamie and Tuxedo spent every minute together for the rest of the summer, inventing magical spells.  When Jamie’s parents dragged her away at the end of the summer, they still refused to bring the seemingly stray cat home with them.  The young girl cried herself to sleep every night for weeks, worrying that she would never see Tuxedo again.  She even began to lose interest in learning magic.

Then one morning, as Jamie waited for the school bus, bleary and tired from her poor night of sleep, her eyes seemed to play tricks on her.  A dinner plate-sized circle of space above the sidewalk began to sparkle and swirl.  A portal appeared on the street corner, exactly like the ones Tuxedo had used to sneak into her bedroom at night.  The cat had finally managed to stretch her portal magic far enough to reach Jamie!

The black and white cat jumped out of the portal and landed awkwardly on the pavement.  But the cat recovered her composure quickly.

“Tuxedo!” Jamie cried.

“We have work to do,” Tuxedo said, refusing to show any relief at seeing her friend again or reveal the slightest hint of affection.

“I have to go to school,” Jamie said grumpily.

The cat shrugged.  “No matter.  I will wait.”

Jamie spent the whole school day scrawling notes for spells in the margins of her worksheets.  Her enthusiasm for magic had been completely renewed by the return of her familiar and friend.  By the time she was reunited with Tuxedo in the afternoon, she had worked out a chant that caused the girl and cat to trade ears.

Tuxedo looked ridiculous with human ears, and she felt clumsy and half-deaf.  But Jamie loved trying out pointy cat ears; her hearing had never been so sharp.  She could hear insects crawling and the muffled snorts of a dog inside a house nearly a block away.  Though, Jamie had to trade the ears back before dinner when her parents would have seen them.

Jamie giggled herself to sleep that night.  The cat slept beside her pillow every night from then on, and the two of them whispered ideas for spells to each other late into the night, so late that sometimes Jamie couldn’t tell if their conversations were dreams.

Eventually, Jamie wore her parents down and convinced them that a cat who followed them all the way home from the beach deserved to be taken in.  Tuxedo was hers; even her parents had to see that.

By the time summer rolled around again, Tuxedo was part of the family and rode in the car, sitting on Jamie’s lap for the long drive to the beach house.  Together, they had worked out spells for minor works of teleportation, telekinesis, telepathic communication, and levitation.  But Jamie’s favorite spells were for transfiguration.  She liked to transform herself into a cat and walk beside Tuxedo, a perfect matched pair.

When Jamie and Tuxedo returned to the beach, Jamie found the grainy sand irritating to her transformed cat paws, and she chanted a new spell, giving herself and Tuxedo tiny wings on their tails and paws.  They chased each other over the dunes, bounding and bouncing, nearly flying, paws barely touching the golden sand.

Over the course of the summer, Jamie tweaked the forms they took when they were alone together — she added blue swirls to their tuxedo coats to match the streak of blue her mother had let her dye into her hair; she stretched out their ears and narrowed their muzzles to match the pictures she’d seen of fennec foxes, her current favorite animal; and she strengthened their hind legs to let them jump higher, like bunnies.

Tuxedo complained that cats were already perfect.  But Jamie was a very young witch, and the very young don’t always know when to stop adding ruffles and sequins to perfection.  She would grow out of it.

Until then, Tuxedo tolerated her games.  She finally had a witch and could fulfill her destiny of being a witch’s familiar.  Anything else was quibbling.

On the last day of the summer, Jamie stared out at the waves again, wishing for unicorns.  She had found magic — her own magic — but she felt like she was missing something.

“What are you looking for?” Tuxedo asked.

“I don’t know,” Jamie said.  She flapped the tiny wings on the tip of her tail.  “I read this book… and it made me believe there was magic in the ocean.”

Tuxedo shivered.  No matter how much Jamie transformed the cat’s exterior shell, she was still a cat inside and shuddered at the idea of all the water in the ocean.  Yet, her witch was sad.  “You are magical.  I am magical.  Shall we… explore the ocean?”

“It’s too cold,” Jamie said.

“Not for everything.”

Jamie thought about her favorite jigsaw puzzle back at the beach house — it was a picture of an orca, swimming just below cerulean waves.  The puzzle had been missing three pieces for years, but then Jamie had invented a conjuring spell and replaced them.  The puzzle was perfect now.

Orcas looked like they were wearing tuxedos too.  Their markings matched Tuxedo’s.  Jamie began chanting, and the heart in her breast — and the one in Tuxedo’s — strengthened, beating with the rhythm of the waves.

Tuxedo smiled, her whiskers rising with the curl of her muzzle.  Her witch had found a transformation she approved of:  the water no longer looked frightening and cold to her.  It looked inviting.  Inside the breast of a cat beat the heart of an orca.  All of Jamie’s transformations had finally come together and made a creature that was perfect.

The orca heart had been the missing puzzle piece.

“Tomorrow, we have to go back home,” Jamie said, “but today, let’s explore.”

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