My mother is Puerto Rican and my father is Irish. Lucky me, I got the worst combination of both of their hair.
On my mother’s side, I got my really thick, ridiculously strong hair. My Abuela used to say, “Natalia, you’re hair is like fibers from a coconut husk!” (she’d say it in Spanish, of course.) I’d been known to break a comb just trying to work it through a knotted tangle. On my dad’s side, I got the super frizzy, curly, red hair. Put those two together, and you can see why I need a steady supply of hair ties to keep my head from looking like an explosion of ginger cotton candy.
I buy the cheap ones I find at Target or WalMart that come in packs of thirty. I’ve found some higher quality ones at Ulta but I can’t let myself spend that much money on something so disposable, especially when the megapack rarely lasts a month. Plus I don’t need anything fancy or showy, I just want something to keep this mane pulled back so I can have peripheral vision.
I live in Athens, Ohio, where I go to school part-time at OU while training as a barista at a trendy hipster coffee bar where every latte has a design in the foam. So far I’ve only got the leaf down; I can’t quite make a heart yet without leaving a stem, hence the leaf.
I leave the house every day with three hair ties: one in my hair and two on my wrists for backups. Between work and school, if I don’t break the one in my hair I usually loan out one or both of my spares to coworkers or classmates. I say ‘loan,’ but loaning hair ties is like loaning tampons. You don’t expect or want it back, just the unspoken understanding that the courtesy may need to be repaid should I find myself empty-handed at some point down the road.
On the rare occasion that I make it home in the evenings with a hair tie still on my wrist, it belongs to my cat, Watson. After rubbing against my legs to welcome me home, he’ll go after the hair tie on my wrist, tugging at it with his claws and teeth. He’ll follow me everywhere, the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, fixated on my wrist, meowing and pawing at the hair tie until I removed it and flicked it across the room for him to fetch.
That’s how we spent our evenings. My head buried in a textbook or my laptop working on a paper, Watson hopping up on the counter with his newly captured hair tie prey in his mouth, him dropping it and nudging my hand until I stretched it between my fingers and let it fly across the room, and he’d be off like a shot after it. Repeat until bedtime.
I never knew what Watson did with them once our game of fetch ended. I figured there was a pile of them under the stove and refrigerator, or perhaps he lost them in the air vent. Turns out, it was something more sinister.
It learned all of this about a week ago. I woke up around 2 am with my face buried in the crease of my Econ book and slumped over the counter. It wasn’t the first time I’ve woken up like that, but it was the first time I saw Watson pawing at the back window of my apartment.
I should point out that Watson is an inside cat, always has been. So it was odd to see him pawing at the latch at the top of the window, especially with two of my old hair ties in his mouth. I honestly thought I was dreaming at first.
“Come on, buddy let’s go to bed,” I remember saying through a yawn.
I turned to get up, and just as my back was turned I heard the thwick! of the window latch popping open. I live in an older apartment complex where the windows pop outwards vs slide open when the latch is disengaged. No screen, just an opening about four inches wide.
He turned to look at me, then to the window. He let out a trill as he clenched the hair ties between his teeth, hopping through the opening and disappearing into the darkness.
I grabbed my closest pair of shoes (a pair of Crocs, not my best quick thinking) and bolted out of my apartment, taking the stairs two at a time. By the time I made it around back of my apartment Watson had disappeared into the woods behind my complex.
“Watson! Here kitty, kitty, kitty!”
My apartment backs up to the Hocking Hills State Park, a massive woodland area home to coyotes, bobcats, even black bears. Watson was a pampered, indoor housecat whose one trip outside ended when his paw touched a wet patch on my front porch and promptly ran back inside. What would possess him to bolt out of my apartment like that?
I stopped calling and listened. Other than the hoot of an owl, I could hear the faint tinkle of Watson’s collar as he ventured further into the forest. I followed along, listening, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness as I trailed behind him.
It wasn’t long before I realized we weren’t alone out there.
A second tiny bell tinkled behind me. I turned to see a small faced grey cat making her way through the darkness. I watched as she ran past me, padding through the underbrush with her tail up as she bounded over a log. When she jumped, I caught the faint glimpse of a stick held tightly in her teeth.
As I wandered deeper into the forest, dozens more cats streamed past me, each carrying something in its mouth. A yellow tabby cat that might have belonged to my next-door neighbor gripped a tealight candle in its teeth. A fluffy Maine coon bounded past with a bundle of twigs in his jaws. A line of tiny black kittens, each with a piece of string hanging from their mouth, trailed behind their onyx mother who carried in her jaws a ball of twine.
I was amazed by what I was seeing. I was also creeped the fuck out.
I followed the unusual gathering of cats to a steep ridge at the edge of the forest. The cats easily bounded up the almost sheer face of the ridge, like tiny surefooted mountain goats. Even the kittens made quick work of the climb. I, on the other hand, had to find a way up more suitable for a human female in pajamas and Crocs.
I found a manageable passage about a hundred yards down from where the stream of cats disappeared over the top of the ridge’s crest, carefully placing my feet on jutting rocks and pulling myself up by exposed tree roots. As I reached the top of the ridge, I heard the crackle of a fire and caught the whiskeyed aroma of burning oak. I crept up behind a massive pine tree at the edge of the ridge, crawling under the low branches to hide from who or whatever might be up there.
I wish I’d brought my phone to record what I saw.
A ring of stones circled the clearing at the top of the ridge, and in the middle hung a metal pot on a spit over a roaring fire. Next to the pot was a lone figure in a long black cloak, stirring the pot with a long branch.
With the light of the fire behind them, the figure’s features were masked in silhouette. I couldn’t make out his (or her) face, only the gnarled fingers that gripped the stirring stick and the long cloak covering their body.
One by one the cats formed a queue and stepped towards the figure, who surveyed whatever they were holding and gestured to different collection piles near the pot. One pile consisted of sticks and twigs, the next contained candles, and the third was where I saw my Watson drop off his mouthful of hair ties on top of a pile of string, twine, and rubber bands.
Watson rubbed up against the leg of the figure, then stepped aside as the Maine Coon took his place. After delivering their offerings, the cats sat along the edge of the stone circle, mewing and purring as they watched the cloaked figure add the candle pieces from the second pile into the pot.
I watched the figure pick up sticks from the pile, bending and positioning them to fashion crude dolls. Using the bits of twine, rubber bands, and hair ties, the dolls were bound into shape. I heard a low thrum come from the figure, chanting in a language I did not recognize. Once assembled, the figure dunked them one by one in the hot wax pot, sealing them and molding features into the heads of the dolls.
Over and over the cloaked figure repeated the process of making crude dolls. Around the stone circle, the cats purred in unison, joining in the chorus of the thrum. Their tails all pointed straight up in the air, waving back and forth like wind whipping through a field of wheat.
I had seen enough. I slowly backed out from under the branches of the pine tree, working my body back over the ridge and down the rocky slope.
Going up proved easier than down. After a few uneasy steps, my Croc slid off the knot of tree roots I had used to pull myself up. I tumbled down the side of the hill, skinning my legs and side as I skidded to a halt at the bottom.
Above me, the chanting chorus stopped. I looked up, holding my breath. The silence was vacated by the sound of a hundred or more cats hissing in anger.
I pulled myself up and tried to run, but was yanked back down on my ass. I reached back and felt a thick rope of my hair tangled on a tree root.
“Shit,” I muttered, gripping my hair in my palm and giving it a solid tug. The root bent towards me, cinching the knot tighter.
Above me, pebbles skittered down the ridgeline as a line of cats formed above me. In the center of the line was the Maine Coon, who locked his eyes on me as he growled lowly. The rest of the cats hissed, including my Watson.
I pulled at my hair again, neither it or the root was budging.
On the hilltop, the low, booming voice of the figure called out in the darkness. It wasn’t loud but I could feel the reverberations in my chest. I looked up. Above me, the cats picked their way down the hill, advancing towards me.
I held my breath and leaned my head closer to the knuckle of roots, then threw my head forward as hard as I could. The sound of my scalp ripping was unpleasant, but mostly painless, at least at first.
I ran as fast as I could in the darkness, pursued by a pack of tinkling, hissing housecats. The warm wetness of blood dripped down my forehead as my scalp throbbed, but I kept running until I saw the lights of my apartment complex peeking through the edge of the trees. I didn’t stop running until I was in my apartment, the door locked tight behind me.
I sat there, slumped on the ground for a few minutes against the door, catching my breath. When I turned around, I let out a scream as Watson meowed at me from the countertop.
Behind him, the window hung open. I quickly closed and locked it, making sure he was the only cat to get in.
I approached him slowly, uncertain of his demeanor after seeing him hiss at me before. Whatever trance he was under seemed to have lost its hold. He meowed and rubbed his head against me in his usual loving manner, curling up at my side when I plopped down on the couch after dressing my small headwound.
I lost a small chunk of my scalp about the size of a dime, but you’d hardly notice through my massive pile of hair. It still throbbed but looked worse than it was. I sat there on the couch, stroking my now docile cat and watching the window for any other visitors. It was daylight before I finally fell asleep, not wanting to turn my back on whatever was out there in the night.
I called in sick to work and school so I could get my scalp looked at properly. I ended up with two stitches for my adventure.
The following night, I stayed up waiting to see what might happen.
Watson was stone-cold asleep on my lap, but when the clock struck 2 am, he awoke in an instant. He turned to me, meowing and nudging my wrist as he bit at the hair ties around it. It wasn’t the playful chittering sounds he’d make while we played fetch; this was different. When I removed the ties from my wrist, Watson picked them up and jumped over to the window. He looked back at me and let out a low, rumbling growl.
I opened the window and he was off again.
It doesn’t happen every night, but on the nights that he’s called if I’m not awake he’ll paw at my face to wake up and let him out at 2 am on the dot. I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t know who to tell. I’m afraid what might happen if I didn’t let him out. He might try to attack me or hurt himself I tried to restrain him. Or worse; someone or something may come looking for him.
I’ve been looking for apartments but with six months left on my lease, I didn’t know if my landlord would let me break it without charging me for it. I figured as long as I didn’t go out into the woods poking around at night, Watson would be fine. Then when my lease was up, we’d be safe to move away, hopefully out of range of the cloaked figure’s call.
That line of thinking changed when I woke up this morning with Watson standing on my chest, holding one of those creepy wax dolls in his mouth. Even through the wax, I could recognize the bindings used to hold the doll’s limbs in place.
It wasn’t a hair tie. It was my hair that I had ripped out that night while running away, still held together by the tiny hunk of my scalp at the end.