The Little Gift by Stephen Volk



THE NOCTURNAL SCAMPERING invariably signals death. I try to shut it out. The cat might be chasing a scrap of paper or a ball of silver foil across the bare floorboards downstairs, say a discarded chocolate wrapper courtesy of my wife, who likes providing it with impromptu playthings. I tell myself it isn’t necessarily toying with something living, but my stomach tightens.

What time is it?

I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to have to fumble to find my glasses and look at the clock. I want to go back to sleep, but dawn is cracking through the slatted blinds. I want to ignore what destruction and mutilation might be going on below, but now the cat is in the room, hopping onto the bed and I have the awful feeling, eyes still closed, it might drop a mouse, alive or dead, in the valley between us.

It settles, purring, relaxes, and so do I. For once no ghastly surprises.

Its head nuzzles against my outstretched hand. I feel its small pointed incisors against the soft skin below my little finger. This is my early morning call. I sink back to sleep. My wife is up first as she always is, kettle on before the children wake. I dimly perceive her weight leave the bed, but a minute later her cry from the ground floor cranks me off the pillow. I hurry down in boxer shorts and bare feet asking her what’s the matter, but I already know.

The room is full of feathers—never a good sign. There’s no doubt the cat has been to work, had its fun, prolonged the killing process in the way that millions of years of evolution has engineered it.


“What kind of bird is it?”

She sobs, tightening the belt of her dressing gown. “A beautiful one.”

They are always beautiful to her. Whatever our beloved feline brings in from the garden, whatever dire state they are in, however bloodied or punctured or lifeless, she thinks in some way they warrant saving—I swear, like they are Stuart Little or something. For the last few years we’ve been hoarding plastic soup containers, their sole purpose the catching and liberation of garden kill. My wife makes air holes in the lid with a kitchen knife and drips in water and feeds them bits of granola or Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, even if they’re at death’s door. She knows I think it’s ridiculous the way she insists on caring for the doomed creatures like some Mother Teresa of vermin. There again, I’m not always right. Once we had a field mouse with an eye missing, eviscerated down one side. I walked to the other side of town and emptied it into the river and it swam off happily. This time, though, it’s a bird and still alive, lolloping along the skirting board.

My wife grabs our cat, a haughty and self-satisfied Abyssinian, in her embrace and decants it into the utility room, shutting the 17th Century door and throwing the 17th Century bolt. I return to the living room wrapping a glove of kitchen roll round my hand to see the bird isn’t moving now, not even when I lift it up in cupped hands.

“Monster,” I say under my breath.

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