She could see them on the edge of the woods, crouched low in the brush, hungry and afraid, but hopeful. New ones. The regular ones, the ones that came around every night, were already at the foot of the garden. Waiting for her to put the food into bowls and close the door. A few were bold enough, these days, to come almost within reach of her broom. They knew her. She took care of them. They were still afraid.
It was her kind, mostly, that hurt them. But the elements and animals, predators like foxes and cougars and even wild dogs, took their toll. They were so small. They weren’t fast or strong. Some of them didn’t learn quick enough. They remembered, somewhere in the back of their minds, that people had taken care of them. They had petted and doted on them, bought them ribbons and treats, and gave them soft places to sleep. They hadn’t had to worry. They hadn’t had to hide. But that wasn’t true anymore.
There were bad people. People trapped them. They hurt them. Sometimes they killed them. Sometimes they did it because they were afraid. They thought they carried disease or that they might attack. They didn’t want their yards or houses upset. They didn’t like the smell. They didn’t like to think about them. Sometimes, though, they hurt them for fun. They hurt them to laugh and to watch them die.
Those that escaped started to learn. They kept to the shadows in the day. They hunted when they could in the woods. But mostly they came here at night. They wanted and they hoped. This wasn’t home. There was no more home. There could never be. But this was safe, for a while, and there was food, and there were more of them. They were safer when there were more of them. No one could catch them all. And there was her and she called them by names she made up and she remembered to call them the same names, as if they were worth something, and she helped them when she could, and when they couldn’t go on, she helped them then too. Maybe it wasn’t much, but it was something, so they came every night, in twos and threes, they crept up to the door or the garden path, or the edge of the woods and they waited.
Sometimes bad things came here, but they drove them off. They couldn’t kill them, but they were many. Too many to be stopped by any one or two. Too many for a cougar or a dog pack even. She taught them that. They had strength. They knew by her smell, because they lived in a world where there was nothing but scent, where all you were and are and were planning was as clear as taking a breath, they knew she was old. They knew one day she would not come to the door and then they would be alone. But they hoped. They hoped that when the day came she might join them. They thought that might be true. That there were things beyond life and death and that even in death they might have something of her. A spirit. A hope. Or something more. She sang to them sometimes. Songs they remembered. They knew them from times before. Sometimes they sang back. Tried to anyway. It was hard to remember and they couldn’t make the sounds right. She knew they tried. That counted for something. Tonight was different though.
Tonight there was something more on the wind that the old lady or the food or their brothers and sisters. Somewhere along the line they had become more than ones and twos and fours and twenty. They had become one and there was a sort of synthesis to their thought. They thought in the now and then they did. Others joined the colony and some faded away. But they were thought and action. There were people here. Maybe bad people. They were not so close, but not so far away. They smelled like metal and smoke and blood and hate. They smelled like death. They knew death. It came at you with guns and wire. It was food that burned and cars that ran them down. It was fire and drowning. It was always waiting and behind it there were men with smiles that smelled like blood. One man you could hide from. Two you could run from. More though. Many. They could scatter, but some would be caught. And they knew in their hearts that there was more at stake.
Death was coming for them. True. Always. But it was coming for her too. How they knew this, they could not have said. It was in the air like electricity. Maybe it was something they learned in the shadows. Maybe it was what you had to learn to survive. That second or third sense that kept you moving, told you not to go beyond that yard, to touch that food, to stay low, stay safe. And they were right.
They heard the car, cars, truck, trucks. She heard it too and started. She dropped a bowl. They pulled back to the shadows. Laid low. But they did not scatter. The men were making words. Bad words. Hard words. One hit her across the breastbone with the end of his gun and she went down hard, on her knees. She was crying. She was crying for them and then men were laughing. What they were saying, they didn’t know. Not the words, really, but they knew what they meant. They meant kill them. Kill them all. Kill them with blood and smoke and pain. Kill her too and burn the house down and then go home and go to sleep and get up tomorrow.
A buzz ran through them like fire. It was painful. It was what it felt like to hate. They never hated. They just were. They knew the taste of hate though. They remembered it. Pain, fear, loss, hunger. Those were their words now. But she had taught them other words. She had taught them love and hope and faith. And now they had hate. They stood, all of them, and there were many. They didn’t wait, they just came forward. There were too many of them. They were like an army. So many that the old lady couldn’t count them. They never came out together, not even for her. They learned to share and wait. They learned to live in shadows. They were moving now in the light of the moon they were twenty and thirty and fifty. They were small. It was easy to hide. Who would count them? Who wanted to? And now the old lady was laughing and they smelled fear. They smelled fear on the men and even though guns were firing they were so many. So very many.
A man was yelling you had to shoot them in the head, nothing else would work, and to not let them bite you, but no one was listening. There were just so many, wearing sneakers and sandals and dresses straight from Church. Some of them still had toys that they couldn’t quite remember what to do with, but they knew they were important. They were to a child grubby and ragged. Some had bones showing through patches of skin. Others had patches of grave moss growing on their faces and arms. But they were smiling. All of them. Smiling with baby teeth and braces and righteous fury. And they were hungry. So. Very. Hungry. After all, they hadn’t been fed tonight.