I first saw the Cheshire cat at a convention for rare and exotic pets. Among the various puks, pelycosaurs, pellis worms, and basili, the cat was far from the most celebrated animal at the event. I, however, had been interested in the species for some time and it was a dream of mine to finally be able to interact with one in person.
“Oh, look, a Cheshire cat!” I said aloud to no one in particular and walked straight up to it assuming the owner would be eager to share his companion with a fellow enthusiast.
Instead he snapped back, “It’s not actually a Cheshire cat. It’s a rare synapsid called a magnaurodon. They look vaguely feline,” all the while not even looking at me, but gazing
around the room as if searching for someone. He spoke quickly as though he’d repeated the abrupt explanation many times.
“Oh,” I said deflated, but reached out to pet the cat anyway. I ran my fingers along the arch of his back. His fur was sharp and bristly, not at all like the soft fur of a house cat.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the owner said. “He bites.”
Though he had rows of razor sharp teeth curled into its signature grin, the Cheshire cat made no move to nip at me.
I had often stayed up late at night perusing photos of Cheshire cats on the internet and knew what they looked like, though I had never until now seen one in person. I felt confident that the animal before me was in fact a Cheshire cat and wondered if the man had lied because he was embarrassed that his pet was no longer the main attraction as it would have been only a couple years before. I was annoyed that he did not better appreciate his companion when I had longed for one of my own for many years, never able to afford the high price.
Just as I reached out to scratch the cat behind its big ears, the man, without even glancing in my direction, began to lead his Cheshire cat away on a leash and disappeared in the crowd. The cat’s toothy smile hung disembodied in midair. It was smiling right at me I thought.
I was so put off by the man’s unfriendly manner that I turned away and walked back to the stage where proud owners displayed their amazing pets, each covered in a colorful array of scales, feathers, and horns, but I was not interested in them. My brief encounter with the Cheshire cat had invigorated my desire to own one more than ever so that I grew anxious and restless in the uncomfortable metal chair, and yet I was grinning to myself as I considered the bright white smile shining towards me as the cat and I parted ways.
That night as I returned home, I felt very sad. I kept my apartment clean and tidy, but sometimes that made it feel even emptier. I had tried adopting a house cat from a rescue shelter once, but the relationship didn’t last long. Though she was sweet and affectionate, I ignored her attempts to cuddle and play while I looked up Cheshire cats on the internet. Eventually, I found myself resenting her for not being a Cheshire cat. I would even shove her away when she tried to nuzzle my leg. In the end I gave her away to an acquaintance. It wasn’t until the new owner asked me the cat’s name that I realized I had not gotten around to giving her one in the few months she lived with me, though I was currently trying to decide between several different names for my future Cheshire cat.
Forlorn, I made myself an egg sandwich, ate it standing over the kitchen counter, and washed the dishes. I sat on the couch and turned on the television, but there was nothing I wanted to watch. I felt I should be doing something else, but instead I opened my laptop and typed “Cheshire cats” into the search engine. I had seen the pictures a million times, knew the history of their evolution, and could recite their care instructions and facts about their behavior and biology from memory. When I first discovered these wonderful beasts and my own interest in them, I would read about them with a thumping heart and shaky hand, so excited was I to learn new details, to get a glimpse of one from a different angle. Something about their mysterious grins, huge ears, and the way their smiles, as though burned into the atmosphere, hung suspended after they departed fascinated me. It was not soon after that I realized with a sinking heart that the costs of purchasing a Cheshire cat and maintaining its needs were vastly out of my price range. Now, I felt little satisfying about going over the same material time and time again.
That night I climbed into bed my thoughts filled with sorrow and loneliness, but as I slept, I dreamt of Cheshire cats. I dreamt I kept one as my personal companion who would lie by my side while I stroked his course bristles. Suddenly, in the logical disjunction of dreams, there was another. I never thought I could own a single Cheshire cat, much less two, but here they were. The next thing I knew there was another and then another until my entire apartment was filled with with Cheshire cats.
I awoke in a frenzy. My apartment was empty, of course, and I felt the absence of Cheshire cats more than ever, yet I smiled at the dream, smiled as I bathed and brushed my teeth, smiled on my commute to work, and when I got there and sat down at my desk, Rod, with whom I shared a cubicle asked me what I was so happy about.
“Oh, just a dream,” I told him.
“Must’ve been a pretty good dream,” he said.
“It was the best dream I’ve ever had,” I said proudly.
The rest of the day I couldn’t concentrate. While typing up reports, I found that I replaced phrases with the words “Cheshire cat.” Several times during the day I thought that I saw Cheshire cats out of the corner of my eye and snapped my head around only to discover that there was nothing there at all. Once I even answered the phone, “Cheshire cat,” by mistake. I wasn’t embarrassed or perturbed by these blunders. Instead, every time I thought about Cheshire cats, I only smiled all the more. I almost expected my apartment to be full of Cheshire cats when I got home. I couldn’t wait to get off work to see them.
When I did return home, however, there were no Cheshire cats in my apartment at all. I felt foolish in my disappointment. Why, I asked myself, would they be in my apartment waiting for me? How would they have gotten there? I was unable to rationalize away the heartache. I opened my laptop but almost threw it across the room so fed up was I with the same old pictures, so far removed from the flesh and blood Cheshire cat I longed to hold.
I decided to check my online dating profile. Having been some time since I considered it, I thought it might distract me and cheer me up. I used to go out with women occasionally, but nothing had ever grown serious. In conversation I found it difficult to keep from returning to the subject of Cheshire cats. Even if a woman was eager to discuss them initially, at some point she’d want to move on to other topics. After a couple dates I always lost interest. Finally, I changed my profile to read, “Who I’m searching for: 21 – 45 year old female. I’m not specific about appearance. Owner of a Cheshire cat a must!” Tonight was no different from any other; I couldn’t understand why I never received a response.
By the time I went to bed I was so dejected, I had trouble falling asleep. When I finally drifted off, I dreamt I was in a dark wood standing over a fire of hot coals. I roasted a strange piece of meat on a spit. Although I was starving, I had burned it beyond recognition. I felt a delirium from hunger and exhaustion, but just turned the spit around and around until the meat was roasted to a black crisp. When it was little more than ash, I cast it aside and reached into a cage that was filled with cats who were screaming and howling in fear and agony. I grabbed the scruff of the first one I could catch and lifted it out of the cage. I could feel its teeth and claws ripping into the flesh of my hand, but I did not let go. I shoved the sharpened end of the spit into its throat above the collar bone and pushed it out the other side of the cat, which I threw over the fire. Somehow I knew that if I did this horrible thing, roasting live cats into ash, day after day without eating or sleeping, a Cheshire cat would come to me, would be forced to do my bidding and live as my servant. I had lost any concept of time and knew not how long I’d been standing over this fire, how many cats I had already murdered, but they were a sacrifice I had to make in order to finally get my one true wish. Before the Cheshire cat arrived, I could hear him snarling and hissing from a long way off. When he appeared he was nothing but eyes burning with a green fire, huge ears, and a disembodied grin lined with razor sharp teeth that opened into a fanged, gaping maw. As he licked his chops, I knew that I had made a terrible mistake, that I was soon to be his prey.
I awoke in a cold sweat, shaking, with tears in my eyes. Nevertheless, I was smiling from ear to ear and continued smiling all day at work. I spent the day anxious and exhausted, yet the very thought of Cheshire cats had my mouth turning up involuntarily at the edges. Rod didn’t ask me why I was so happy, but avoided making eye contact with me altogether. Most of my other coworkers turned away from me as I passed them in the hall. Despite my dream, I longed to be surrounded by Cheshire cats. I raced out of the office prematurely only to return home and, finding my apartment empty once again, feel crushed with disappointment.
I realized that the work I was doing at the office was increasingly unsatisfactory, but instead of my usual reports, I couldn’t prevent myself from typing “Cheshire cat” over and over again all the while smiling smiling smiling until my cheeks hurt and I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to. Finally my boss called me into his office.
“Can you even begin to explain the work you’ve been turning in this week?” he asked.
“I have been feeling very distracted lately, sir,” I answered trying to sound grave, though I couldn’t keep from grinning.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t be smiling, Charles,” the boss said, shaking his finger at me. “This is very bad for you.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
I knew the situation was serious, but at that moment I thought of the possibility that there may be a Cheshire cat waiting for me in my apartment when I got home, and I smiled even wider.
My boss gasped.
“What have you done with your teeth?” he nearly shouted.
“I don’t know, sir. Nothing,” I answered confused.
“Charles, I have no choice at this point but to terminate your employment at this office. For your own sake, I urge you to seek professional psychological help. Please clean out your desk immediately.”
Despondent, I rushed home without stopping by my cubicle. My apartment was filthy; I couldn’t remember the last time I had cleaned it. Worst of all, it was completely devoid of Cheshire cats. Though it was taking longer than I could stand, I had been saving my money to buy one, but now without an income I saw my dreams as nothing but empty, hopeless fantasies. To make matters worse, distraught though I was, I couldn’t stop smiling. I had been smiling so long my jaw ached and my cheeks burned. I looked in the mirror with horror and disgust. My own image revolted me. I was smiling wider than I would have thought possible, and there between my stretched lips were rows and rows of razor sharp teeth.
I threw myself on my bed sobbing through my inhuman grin. I thought about my time in the hospital and wondered if I should go back. They had brought cats in from a local shelter to comfort the infirm. Like vermin they crawled over me, bedridden as I was. I screamed at them to leave me alone because none of them were Cheshire cats. I even railed at the nurses and orderlies for not being Cheshire cats and grew so agitated they were forced to restrain and sedate me to prevent me from further harming myself.
No, I would not go back there. I decided I would never again go anywhere where there were no Cheshire cats. Job or no, I would collect my meager savings, purchase a gun, and rob convenient stores or mug civilians in back alleys in order to afford my very own Cheshire cat. Owning a Cheshire cat was a right I had been denied my whole life, and I was determined to crush anyone who kept me from achieving my one true desire. Amidst these thoughts of violence and despair, I finally cried myself to sleep.
As I slept I dreamt of only one Cheshire cat. He lived in my apartment, but he grew so big that I had to keep him outside, and even then he kept growing. He grew until he was bigger than the building on my block, and bigger still until the entire city lie in the shadows of his enormous ears. He grew until his front paws were in one ocean and his back paws were in the other. Soon he was larger than the earth, bigger than the sun, and still he grew until he was the center of the galaxy around which every solar system orbited. He grew until he filled every corner of the universe and still he grew. He grew in between particles and grew until he burst open atoms, and with a stretch of his paws, a wiggle of his ears, and a twinkle in his grin, he grew until he was everything that had ever been and ever would be again.
When I awoke it was night. I was still smiling but calm now. I got up and sat on the couch deciding what to do with myself. I glanced at my laptop but did not feel like opening it. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt like taking a walk outside. Some fresh air and a stroll through the neighborhood would do me wonders, I thought. I didn’t even bother to lock the door behind me. I passed a neighbor, a young blond woman to whom I had never given a second thought. I was suddenly struck by how pretty she was. Surprisingly, she smiled at me as I walked by. It was a warm night with a mild breeze blowing, and the entire block seemed to be out and about: young parents with a toddler in a stroller, an elderly couple holding hands, teenagers on the prowl, policemen in uniform, families returning home from dinner, still licking the drippy ends of ice cream cones, a middle-aged man walking a dog. All of them were smiling big, toothy grins, their mouths filled with razor sharp teeth, and all of them, it seemed, were smiling right at me. I looked up at the crescent moon shining down on me and knew, with joy in my heart, that it was the bright, white smile of a Cheshire cat.
Teege Braune is a writer, ESOL instructor, bartender, and the fiction editor for Burrow Press’ Fantastic Floridas. Some of his work has been published in 15 Views of Orlando, Bridge Eight Literary Magazine, decomP magazinE, and Ghost Parachute. He lives in Orlando with his fiancé and two cats.