Life begins in a nest of plastic bags and stained cardboard. It is dark and cold outside their den, but inside the pile of wriggling bodies is warm and crying and alive.
The smallest of them wails hungrily, muffled beneath her siblings, but she is strong enough to push her way through. She is new to the world, and it greets her in the back corner of an alley with the smell of rotting food and the buzzing of flies. Not unkind but not welcoming either. This is okay, because her mother greets her with a rough tongue and watchful eyes. She is loved.
When she is old enough, she will open her eyes to a polluted sky the color of ash. It will be the brightest thing she’s ever seen. In the city smog, she’ll look upon her brothers and sisters for the first time and see that some of them lay motionless amongst the debris. She won’t know it yet, but she is one of the lucky ones.
Soon, her mother will ween them off of her sweet milk and give them their first taste of fresh meat. A limp, greasy rat will be dropped amongst the mewling kittens, who will skitter nervously around this strange-smelling thing. But the moment when she first sinks her teeth into its flesh she will be able to taste the last of that life which has yet to fully seep from its body. It’s rich blood will soak her little tongue and coat her lips with crimson. Inside her will be planted a seed of bloodlust.
When they begin to leave the nest, they will trail obediently behind their mother as they dodge traffic and crawl beneath fences. She will teach them how to hunt, to hide, to hiss. And they will come to understand that their territory is infinite, but it is dangerous. It is the closest thing to freedom that any living thing can have.
Slowly and without warning, their numbers will dwindle. Her siblings will reduce from five to two as the world passes indifferent judgment upon them. It will deem her worthy of existing for no reason at all, merely by chance, as it has decided everything before and will decide everything after. She is the smallest, but she will eventually be the last.
On an unremarkable summer day when she is lazy from a recent feast, her mother will stalk off down the street and never return. This is okay, because her tongue will be rough against her own paw, an empress surveying her kingdom. She will dance on the edge of invincible.
She will travel farther than she ever has before, far away from that alley corner where she took her first polluted breath and find that there are others of her kind whose fur is not matted and scarred, whose bodies are soft and fat with indolence. They will regard her through the glass with a lack of fear that she will never know, a curiosity that she must always cast aside for caution. But in the end they will watch her disappear into the night, a savage, unbroken
When she is still young, she will catch the eye of a male who knows how to hunt. He will take from her without remorse, as only an animal can, and leave her with something hot and feverish like terror. The sky will be gray as it has always been, but she will be changed.
She will seek out the smell of rotting food and the buzzing of flies from a fading memory while the promise of new life expands her belly. When she finally cries out into the night with the pain of labor, the heavy price of such a beautiful thing, six little voices will join in her song. Alongside those deeply rooted instincts to survive and to kill, the softer desires to nurture and to protect will settle. Nature will make a mother out of a predator.
The smallest of them will be a girl who, not unlike herself, is far stronger than she at first appears. Only time will tell if chance continues to favor the smallest, but she is undeniably loved, and that must count for something.
Like a glittering crown, she will inherit the prestigious title of “Stray”.
The gray sky bows before her.