They said it started in Northern Europe somewhere, though nobody really knows. At first, it was a small footnote article in the web press, but then it spread, grew viral in the media, in the hushed and slightly panicked conversation around dinner tables. It gave hell to the cat population for a while, but that was then. They gave it a label too—necrotising something-or-other. It’s just a label, and in a way, it only serves to sanitise the true nature of that particular, peculiar beast.
I read all I could at the beginning, tried to comprehend what was happening, but I only got so far, immersed in all that medical jargon. What I did understand were the bacteria. Cartilage and flesh and bone. They were hungry little buggers. You shake your head, read on, know deep inside that it can never happen to you. That’s the other thing about the media; it puts things right there in front of your face, but keeps them at a distance. For all of the reportage, it’s like watching a movie, always at an acceptable distance, that extra step removed. It could never happen to us. Nothing could ever happen to us. Nothing like that.
That first night, a heavy sticky evening, not a breath of air, I was standing out on the porch watching the bug light, as we used to call it, fanning myself with an old hat, feeling the sweat trickles crawling down between my shoulder blades. A hazy white corona encircled the porch light, small insects and moths darting in and out, fading into darkness and back again. I remember the smell of damp earth and vegetation filling the surrounding atmosphere with extra weight. At one end of the porch sat a pile of stacked chairs, covered with an old blanket. From time to time, we’d pull them out and sit around at the back of the house, sharing drinks or simply reading, but the rest of the time, they were stacked there out of the way of our comings or goings. Our cat had decided that was in ideal spot to curl up and sleep in comfort. Most of the time, he seemed to do little else. As I stood there, I was tempted to go over and disturb his feline reveries. What right did he have to sleep while we stood around and sweltered? Good luck to him that he actually could. I turned away to watch the insect dance for a while, still fanning myself before heading back inside, my hopes for a little relief in the evening air already faded. At least we had a fan in there.
Just as I was about to reach for the back door, a movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. At first, I thought it was merely Angus, turning and stretching on his accustomed perch, and I was tempted to go over and give him a scratch anyway, but it was something else. Nuzzling up against him, licking at his exposed pale belly fur was Cashew, the neighbour’s cat, a friendly, stocky, black and white, easily recognisable by her burglar-mask facial markings. I crouched down to call her over. She was fond of bumping up against your legs and sliding in an out.
“Hey, Cashew,” I called. “Here puss.”
She halted her ministrations and jumped down from the stack of chairs, quickly padding across to my outstretched hand with a faint miaow. There was something funny about the sound, something different, but I didn’t register it immediately. I was still looking up at Angus when Cashew butted against my leg and miaowed again. At that point, I looked down, preparing to scratch the top of her head.
“Shit,” I said and scuttled backwards. There was something wrong with her face. The burglar mask was still in place, but all around it and below, the fur was gone. No, not only the fur. It was just hollow, missing. Where there should have been white fur, where there should have been flesh and more, there was nothing. Just deep incised hollows, and at the bottom of them, it looked like bone. It was hard to tell in the shadowed light, but it was enough. I shot to my feet, scrabbled with my free hand at the back door behind me and stumbled back into the house. I stood panting there, like that, for a couple of seconds, shaking my head, something cold working inside me. Then, I headed further back into the house to find Anna.
“Christ,” I said to her, standing in the doorway to the lounge. “I don’t know what’s happened to the neighbour’s cat, but it’s dreadful.”
She looked up from her place on the couch, lifting her gaze from the magazine she was reading and gave me a frown. “What do you mean?”
“Cashew. The neighbour’s cat. You know.” I proceeded to describe what I’d just seen.
“Oh God,” she said. “Really?”
“Yeah. It didn’t seem to be bothering it though.”
“I wonder what happened. Maybe it got hit by a car or something.”
“No,” I said. “It didn’t look like that. It was something different. Oh shit, I touched it.” I dropped the hat and quickly strode over to the kitchen sink and started scrubbing my hands. “I touched it,” I said.
“John, you don’t know. It didn’t sound as if it was something like that,” said Anna from the lounge.
“No, I don’t know,” I snapped back, but by then, it was probably too late anyway.
We weren’t aware of the growing tide then.
Angus was the first to get it, our Blue Burmese with his beautiful face, his silky sealskin fur. The first sign was that he started to look patchy around his eyes, like mange, but it was too even for that, too regular. Thin lines of bare skin appeared beneath his eyes and down the sides of his nose. Apart from the missing hair, he seemed completely unaffected. We took him to the vet, who gave as some ointment to apply and told us about this new mutant strain of streptococcus. He’d seen more than a few cases recently and there was very little he could do about it. What was peculiar about it was that it was so targeted, so specific about the regions that it attacked. He told us to expect further degeneration in the affected areas. As he said, there was very little he could do about it until they understood more. Angus grew steadily worse. The skin along the affected areas just seemed to withdraw, the flesh beneath drawing back and collapsing into itself till it revealed bare bone beneath, and then it kept going.
We were worried of course, but he didn’t seem to be experiencing any real discomfort. He was still hungry, affectionate, his usual cat-like self.
“But it’s so ugly,” said Anna.
“I know,” I told her. “There’s nothing I can do about that. He’s still Angus. Perhaps it will grow back.”
The first human cases appeared a couple of days after we had taken Angus to the vet. It wasn’t until it broke the press in full force that the words ‘flesh-eating bacteria’ appeared. Anna and I were already nervous. That first experience with the neighbour’s cat had been enough, but after the press got hold of it, we didn’t know what we were going to do. By then, there was nothing we actually could do. It was far too late. And anyway, perhaps we’d be okay. It’s funny how you always live with that vain hope.
I was the first to exhibit the symptoms. Deep lines appeared below my eyes like grooves in the skin. There was no real discomfort, more a sort of numbness. At first I didn’t believe it. I poked and prodded at my face, but they didn’t go away. I tried smoothing them with my fingers, but that did nothing other than making the numbness around the area more apparent. For a while, I simply ignored the fact that they were there, but I could see them in Anna’s expression when she looked at me. The lines started to grow deeper, and two days later, they appeared on Anna’s face as well. We raced to the emergency room, but the hospitals were already overflowing, the panic was on the streets. Even the medical staff looked at us askance, apparently reluctant to approach too close. Pills and ointments and salves, they provided in abundance, but the truth was that they didn’t really know what to do at all. They didn’t understand it, and that soon became painfully apparent. I shouted at them. I yelled and I ranted. There had to be something they could do. What sort of medical facility was it anyway? Did we live in the Dark Ages?
By the time Anna started exhibiting the full-blown symptoms, we knew, it was firmly on its path. We didn’t bother calling the doctor. We didn’t bother heading back to the hospital. We stayed locked behind our front door, hidden, drawing back from our own images in the hall mirror, from the unfamiliar ruined faces, from the hollows where our noses had gradually dissolved away, from the deep grooves across the tops of our cheeks. I couldn’t look at myself. I couldn’t look at Anna without turning away despite myself. We weren’t sick. We didn’t feel sick, but the thing continued regardless and dragged us down with it. I even considered drastic action for a while, but my mother used to say to me that that was the coward’s way out. Those words had stuck with me for some reason.
One day, it simply stopped. Angus was Angus, and he continued on with his cat life as if nothing had ever happened. Anna and I didn’t believe it, looking, waiting, hoping that there would not be any more, but it had really stopped. The gradual deterioration slowed, then crawled to a halt and went away as if it had never been there, leaving us with nothing but our ruined images and our…shame…yes, that was the best way to describe it. We felt ashamed. We were embarrassed about our own faces. We could not look at ourselves, let alone each other. How could we carry on like that?
Each day, we peered at Angus, hopefully, praying that there’d be some sort of improvement, that he’d regain some of the parts that had simply shrunk away to expose the ugliness, but there was nothing. We saw Cashew a few times too, but it was the same, and she had had it longer.
We had to venture out eventually, from sheer necessity. We had to eat, we had other things to attend to, and we weren’t really sick, were we? We decided on hats and scarves, despite the weather. At least it would do something to conceal a part of our humiliation and if we didn’t look at people directly, if we kept our exposure to the outside world to a minimum…. We simply had to hide what we had become, that was clear. Work, social interaction, other things, we could deal with those in due course, but in the meantime, we had to live. We still had to live. All around us, the plague continued, passing from cat to human to country to country, across oceans and mountains, around the globe, as more and more became afflicted, but to us, that no longer mattered. We were too busy dealing with our own little microcosm to pay any real attention. It was still hard to look at each other, to look at ourselves, but we were learning to cope. Outside, and we had started to think of it as that, the outside, things were more difficult. I know that look. We’ve all done it. You look at something or someone, register, and then your gaze simply slides away pretending that you hadn’t seen. The maimed, the disfigured, the unusual, I’d done it myself. You don’t want to be caught staring, do you? It was strange being on the receiving end instead.
“There might be options, things we could do…” I said to Anna a few days later.
“Like what?” she said. There was still resentment in her voice. I couldn’t work out whether it was directed at me or at the circumstance. We were learning to accept how the disease had left us, but it was not enough.
“I don’t know. Surgery? Prosthetics? I’m sure there’s something they can do.”
“And where are we going to find the money for that?”
“What about masks? We can get those medical masks. You know, like the ones they always seem to wear in Asia. I’m sure they’re easy enough to get.”
Anna narrowed her eyes at me, processing the image, but at least she was considering.
“Maybe,” she said, resignedly and turned away.
My shoulders slumped and I let out an involuntary sigh. I was trying. Why couldn’t she see that?
For a while, we were so bound up in dealing with our affliction that we hadn’t really been paying attention to what was really going on outside in the big bad world. It consumed us, just as the bacteria had consumed our cartilage and flesh. Every time we thought about the future, a cold hollowness grew inside. The road ahead was bleak, but gradually, some sort of acceptance had started to come with it. I don’t know whether it was displacement or simple resignation, but after a few more days locked in our self-imposed social quarantine, we turned back to the television. It was another reminder, but we felt there was nothing more we could see that could make us feel any the worse about our condition. There was the vague hope, perhaps, that we might even see something about some potential cure. It was not to be. The Eater, as they called it now, continued its spread. Some seemed to be immune, but mostly, it was indiscriminate. At least they’d passed beyond the cat culling that had taken place in the early stages.
The funny thing was that I hadn’t been too far off the mark with my suggestions. Things had moved on in other ways whilst we’d been locked away. Masks are all the rage now. Even the newsreaders are wearing them. And the weather girl. It won’t be long before they’re appearing on the sitcoms too. The designer labels have started with their own lines of specialist fashion masks and, of course, they cost and arm and a leg, well beyond our reach. The aesthetic of what is desirable has always been defined by its context. The culture, the social media, the fashions of the age, all of them delineate the boundaries of what is attractive or acceptable. It doesn’t matter if it’s the dimensions of the Rubinesque or the frame of Heroin Chic, the use of labrets in the Amazon and Africa, the stretching of the necks. I understand that better now, or think I do and Anna too. We have discussed it at length. Together though, finally, we have come to a decision. In the end, perhaps, we won’t be too alone. But then again, perhaps it’s just our way of coping.
We built a fire in the back yard last night and burned our masks. We stood there, hand in hand, watching the sparks float up into the night sky, a symbol of our transformation. Tomorrow, we plan to venture in to town, together, our heads held high. We don’t need the masks any more. Nobody really needs them any more. After all, why would we? We’re beautiful.