By Beka Gremikova
“Rats in the grain again,” Farmer Jem mutters over breakfast while he tears into his slice of bread smothered with jam and cream. He doesn’t even glance at me, but Mrs. Jem does, shooting me a narrow look that makes me squirm.
“You know what that means, Kitten.” She sets a thin crust before me. “Time to earn your keep.”
The hair on my neck prickles. No human-shaped name for me to own and grow into. To them, I’m just a cat who masquerades as a child. I wish I could pounce on her and squish her like I do the rats. Would the Home for Magical Foundlings have sent me here if they knew what my loving parents are doing?
I don’t want to know the answer.
I’m sorry, child. Your mother… she was bitten, cursed. She can’t take care of you anymore. That’s what they told me three years ago before dragging me away to the foundling home and shipping me overseas to the wheat fields. As far as I know, Mother still lies comatose. Stories have spread about her, a Sleeping Beauty—but nobody cares about the child left in a curse’s wake. Nobody cares that I’m surviving on scraps of food without even scraps of love.
I stuff the stale slice into my mouth and skitter from the room. Though my stomach rumbles, I don’t dare beg for more—I know what the answer will be.
You foundlings are so greedy. Such parasites. Be grateful you get anything, Kitten.
The door clatters shut behind me as I slink down the rickety front steps. Barefoot, I pick my way across the barnyard, avoiding sharp stones and sticks. The barn looms, a palace of worn boards and hungry shadows, where low chitters echo from the darkness.
My stomach twists, but I can’t run away unless I want to go hungry. Though tears sting, I blink them back. Farmer Jem wants dead rats from his foundlings, not tears.
I curl my already skinny body, hunching my shoulders. The magic that lies asleep in my stomach stirs, then stretches like a yawn before quickly turning painful, yanking and poking and hurting everywhere. But I don’t cry out. Not anymore.
My body, now furred and warm, slowly stops trembling. I step into the barn and blink, my eyes adjusting to the gloom. Feed sacks line the walls, and grain peppers the floor where some of those sacks have been chewed through.
Legions of tiny feet scurry across the wood.
My ears flick. My claws protract, and I crouch, my belly brushing the floor.
A flash of white darts in front of me. It’s so large, nearly my size. Its tail glows with magic. I gulp. I shouldn’t risk getting bitten, but Farmer Jem wants them all gone…
My paw lashes out. With an enraged squeak, the rat scrabbles at me with its feet. We tumble across the floor. Magic tingles where my claws dig into the rat’s body. The child in me curls back in horror. These rats don’t just carry plagues.
They carry curses.
Don’t get bit. Don’t get bit.
Finally, I clamp my jaws around the rat’s neck. Once it’s limp, I drop its corpse and move on to the next.
High-pitched squeals ring through the barn. I catch another rat, pop it in the corner next to its fellows. Yet another scurries toward a grain sack. It’s huge. Its sheer size makes my back arch with fear, but I can’t risk Farmer Jem’s wrath. I dart after it.
The rat leaps from one sack to another, sure-footed and quick.
I pounce, catching the rat just as it turns to race along the wall. I pin it with one paw and raise the other to strike.
It wriggles, baring sharp, yellowed teeth. “Wait! I can help you!”
“Help me?” A strangled meow of laughter escapes me. “How?” Farmer Jem’s voice barks in my mind: You want to be fed, Kitten? Then get rid of them parasites!
“My curse!” it squeaks. “I could turn you into something no one will mess with!”
My paw trembles. “What do you mean?”
It squirms, fighting my clutches, but I hang on. “Transformation,” it hisses. “You’ve heard of that prince who turned into a beast, cat? That was our doing.”
I sink back on my haunches. “So you’d turn me into a monster?” Some large, fanged beast? Farmer Jem would kick me out!
“Something that can take down much larger prey than rats.” The rat nods to its dead fellows stacked in the corner.
My stomach twists, and I lick my lips. Food larger than scraps? No more going hungry; no more chasing down rats… I wouldn’t even need Farmer Jem! But… “Would I stay that way?”
“Only if you want to. Curses do break, you know.” Its whiskers twitch. “So be careful.”
My throat closes. Do I really want this? To give up my humanity? Then my stomach rumbles, sore and gnawing. Better to be a well-fed beast than a starving human, I suppose. My paw slides off the rat’s stomach. “Do it,” I whisper.
It jumps up, sinking its teeth into my leg. I yowl, and the sound bounces off the walls. Piercing agony rips through me again; I can’t contain the screams.
The barn blurs in a slurry of shadows. By the time I blink past the bleariness and pain, the floor is very far away. The feed sacks look like grotesque toenails. Ducking to avoid the rafters, I glance down at my huge paws with their long, sharp claws. When I meow, the barn rattles under the impact.
“What’s that racket?” Farmer Jem bellows. With Mrs. Jem at his heels, he bursts into the barn, waving a pitchfork above his head. Then they spot me and stutter to a stop. Mrs. Jem claps a hand over her mouth. Trembling violently, Farmer Jem points the pitchfork at me. They’re like tiny scarecrows.
“Oh, look.” I bare my teeth. “Rats in the grain.”