Domino is a modern fable about a barn cat locked in a deadly rivalry with a pampered house pet who convinces all the other animals that hunting is wrong. Before he knows what’s happening, Domino is in an existential struggle to protect his territory, his family, and a time-honored feline way of life.


Excerpt 1
They had reached a wooded space between two houses. Here, the ground dipped down from the edge of the road to the gully, a strip of wild land between the lawns and hedges of the neighborhood with a ditch along the bottom. When the rain was heavy, the ditch became a torrent that carried runoff away. Through this patch of woods and at the far end of the gully was another road lit by a streetlamp. In the bright circle it cast, on the open pavement between lawn, hedge, and woodland, cats convened on certain nights to exchange greetings and news.
The two friends proceeded stealthily through the woods along the edge of the gully. At length, when Domino looked ahead through the trees, he saw that a good number of cats had already arrived at the prowl. He and Flufferdoodle left the cover and sifted into the overgrown grass by the pavement. Domino squinted at the gathering as he approached. There were perhaps ten or twelve cats, all of whom were sitting and looking at one cat in particular. “What the . . . ?” exclaimed Domino.
The cat at the center of attention had positioned himself just under the streetlight so that his face was in shadow, though he could easily see all the cats assembled before him. But odder still was his position: he was sitting up on his haunches, like a squirrel or a chipmunk when eating a nut. But this cat wasn’t eating anything. He was holding forth, and the other cats were listening.
“That’s Socrates,” said Flufferdoodle in a low voice. “See what I mean?” he added.
“Yeah, I do.”
Domino and Flufferdoodle broke from the brush and entered the circle of light on the pavement. Domino called out loudly, “Sorry we’re late, guys.”
The gathered cats all turned to greet them and there was much meowing and touching of noses. Only Socrates did not move.
“Come here, you’ve got to meet the new guy,” said a tabby cat with the predictable name of Tiger.
“Looking forward to it,” said Domino. Since Socrates had not moved, he allowed himself to be led to the odd cat. “Welcome,” he meowed when he reached him.
Socrates didn’t look at Domino so much as he evaluated the way the other cats treated the barn cat: with deference and respect. His eyes narrowed before he finally returned Domino’s look. “Nice of you to join us,” he said finally. He did not come down from his strange sitting up position.
“I know you’re new to the neighborhood,” began Domino, “but around here, we greet by touching noses.”
“How quaint.”
Domino’s tail began to twitch with annoyance. He tried again. “I am unable to greet you properly while you sit up so high. Why do you sit in that strange position?” His eyes remained locked on Socrates’s, which were slightly crossed and so pale a color as to appear almost white. Domino felt an unpleasant quaver in the pit of his stomach.
“Where I come from, all the cats sit like this,” declared Socrates.
Domino could hear Flufferdoodle chortle behind him. “Exactly where do you come from?” he asked.
“The city,” said Socrates with obvious pride. “A place to which I am certain you have never traveled.”
“You’d be right,” answered Domino. “Why would I go to a place where cats don’t even know how to behave like proper cats?”
Their meows had risen in volume with each word, and a calico female quickly stepped between them.
She rubbed sweetly against Domino’s cheek. “Domino,” she said, “Socrates has some really interesting things to say. Yes, he’s from a different place, and, yes, his ways are different from ours. But he knows so much. You should listen to what he’s saying. He’s really smart.”
Domino dropped his attention from Socrates to greet the calico cat. “You’re right, Cricket. Where are my manners?” But he didn’t look at Socrates again, preferring to blink lazily while Cricket groomed the impossible-to-reach spot on the back of his head. She made a soft chirping sound when she purred, and since she was always purring, the other cats had given her the name Cricket. She had no people and lived alone in the woods at the head of the Gully. But she was so sweet and gentle that she had no trouble finding plenty of human benefactors in the neighborhood.
The other cats had all grown silent, looking from Domino to Socrates. Still sitting up high, Socrates kept a composed demeanor, but his twitching tail tip gave away his annoyance at the interruption. At last, another male tabby (this one was called Mister) walked back to Socrates, sat respectfully before him, and said, “Will you please explain what you were saying before, about cats being tran . . . tran-scendent beyond the pre-sup-po-si-tion of others?”
Domino and Flufferdoodle exchanged amused glances at the unaccustomed words from a cat they had known their whole lives. But Cricket’s head popped up as she exclaimed, “Oh! He’s going to talk again.” She abandoned Domino to join Mister and sit at Socrates’s feet. Most of the other cats did the same. Domino gave Flufferdoodle a questioning look, and the big tom shrugged in reply. They stepped back to make room for the audience, preferring to stand at the back of the odd gathering.
“Yes, please do share your pearls of wisdom with us,” muttered Domino under his breath. Flufferdoodle snickered.
“Not just cats, all creatures are transcendent.” Socrates spoke in a voice of authority, in the guttural tones of a Siamese. Domino felt a pang of envy. His own voice was deep and strong, but he could never make the exotic, attention-commanding sounds of that breed.
There were murmurs of enlightenment from the cats gathered closest to the speaker.
“Cats are transcendent,” boomed Socrates.
“Of course!”
“Naturally!” came the replies.
“Dogs are transcendent.”
Less enthusiastic responses of “What?” and “Hmm.”
“Even birds, mice, rabbits, and rats are transcendent.”
This time Socrates’s words were greeted with gasps of disbelief.
“I don’t understand. What do you mean?” called a female tuxedo cat over the murmurs.
“I’m glad you ask, Lily.” Socrates’s entire expression transformed from the glare he had recently shown Domino. Now his eyes seemed alight with inspiration as he stared into the space over the cats’ heads. He appeared to be seeking and finding higher orders of knowledge in the very ether. “I mean that cats are not, simply, hunting and killing machines, all claws and teeth and no mercy for smaller creatures.”
“Speak for yourself,” grumbled Flufferdoodle. Domino huffed in agreement.
“I mean that dogs are more than unintelligent eating-sleeping-pooping machines.”
The crowd’s murmurings took on a note of understanding.
“And I mean that even rats and mice have a purpose, and it isn’t simply to steal and spread filth.”
More sounds of enlightenment from the onlookers. Domino began to feel uneasy. He called out, “Then what is it?”
Socrates’s distant gaze locked suddenly onto him. “Why don’t we let them tell us for once?” he thundered. “Why do we get to decide what they are? Why do we presuppose? Who put cats in charge of defining other living creatures?”
For once in his life, Domino didn’t know what to say or do. The growing sounds of approval from the gathered cats didn’t help him think, either.
Beside him, Flufferdoodle was shaking his head. “This guy’s out of his mind.”
Socrates continued, “And why are we so sure that it’s perfectly all right for cats to kill and eat other creatures, based only on our own presuppositions?”
Again, sounds of wonder and amazement came from the listeners. Some moved closer still to Socrates and he looked down upon them with benevolence.
“I suppose we don’t really need to kill them,” a ginger tabby near Domino said. “I mean, all of us have humans who feed us.”
Domino turned to her. “Well I, for one, have a job to do. Mr. Brown would not only not feed me, he would throw me off my territory and get a new cat if I were to let rats take over Mrs. Brown’s henhouse.”
The tabby only looked at him in confusion.
A battle-scarred older tom sidled up between Flufferdoodle and Domino. “He’s lying, you know,” he said softly.
“How do you know, Rudy?” asked Domino.
“I used to live in the city,” replied the stray. “I hung out in the meat-packing district, back when I was young and strong enough to hold the respect of the others. There were a lot of us there, and I never once saw a cat sit up like he does.” He inclined his head with a scowl at Socrates. “Any cat who put himself above the others like that would have been knocked down in a hurry.”
“Huh,” said Domino.
“In fact,” continued Rudy, “cats like him never even saw other cats at all in the city. Pet cats live in apartments, which are rooms inside a building. They are never outside at all. A cat like our friend here wouldn’t have had any contact with other cats whatsoever.”
“DOG!” yelled a cat on the other side of the crowd. Instantly, every shade of fur stood on end as all the cats arched their backs.
Every cat except Socrates. “Be still, you fools,” he hissed.
Frozen in fear, the cats obeyed him. Domino watched, fascinated, as a medium-size, yellow dog raced into the group from just outside the ring of light. He came to a halt and looked from cat to cat, barking and snarling and showing his teeth. Everyone gasped in fear.
Suddenly, Socrates was in the dog’s face. “Be quiet, Max,” he meowed sternly.
The onlookers all drew in their breath in horror, awaiting Socrates’s inevitable murder. But instead of clamping his jaws around the cat’s neck, the dog stopped barking and stood still. Then, in an inexplicable display of what could only be called transcendent animal behavior, he touched noses with Socrates. To everyone’s amazement, the dog began to wag his curly tail.
The reaction from the crowd was powerful. Cats exclaimed out loud at the miracle they had just seen.
And though Domino still felt wary of Socrates, he was speechless for the second time that evening. Even he had never seen a cat perform such a sensational act as commanding an angry dog to be quiet. And while he was pretty sure Socrates’s theory of “transcendence” was so much cow dung, he was unable to explain what he had just seen in any other way at that moment. But from the sounds around him, the other cats were firmly convinced that Socrates was wise and powerful, more so than any cat any of them had ever met before.
Excerpt 2
Domino caught a squirrel!
Amazed by his own prowess, he danced and hissed around the dazed creature. “Where’s your sense of superiority now, tree rat?” he taunted.
In his whole life, Domino had never before been able to catch a squirrel. The bushy-tailed rodents were just too cautious, too quick, and could climb a tree faster than any cat ever could–facts they never let cats forget. Every cat Domino knew who had tried to catch one had instead gained only an hour of abuse hurled down by the obnoxious beast from the safety of a lofty bough. Every humiliating near miss in his life came back to Domino now, and he gave the expiring creature a hearty swat for good measure.
“Impressive.”
Domino looked up sharply to see who had spoken. Atop a nearby boulder, with the sun reflecting off her ebony fur in a thousand dazzling shades of blue-white, sat the female who had stolen his rat two days earlier.
“I caught a squirrel!” Domino meowed. What luck, for her to have happened by at this very moment.
“So I see.”
Domino sat up straight, basking in his triumph. In a last burst of frantic energy, the squirrel leaped to its feet and ran for the woods, shrieking, “No! No! No! No!”
Domino produced his deepest, most lionlike roar. “Oh no you don’t!” In a flash he was atop the fleeing rodent. He clamped his jaws on its neck, grasped it with his front claws, and pushed off with his hind legs to roll the two of them over onto his back. The disoriented squirrel squeaked and struggled with every bit of its fading strength. Holding tightly, Domino brought his rear feet up and kicked over and over until he heard the dull snap of the squirrel’s neck.
His sides heaving, Domino posed awhile longer with his quarry, making sure the strange female got a good view. Then he cautiously stood, lifting the carcass and laying it on its side. He sat tall beside it and tried to look as regal as possible for his visitor’s benefit.
“You going to eat that?” she meowed.
Her voice delighted him. Though she was clearly a mature female–he guessed she had two years, like he did–her voice had a high-pitched, kittenish quality to it. This was probably because she was a small cat, but Domino had seen for himself the power and prowess she packed. Yet her lilting meows somehow made her seem more approachably feline, an intriguing contrast to her sudden, mysterious appearances.
Domino had already eaten well that morning. One of the children had brought a plate out to him with an uneaten portion of eggs, milk, and butter. The squirrel was nice and plump in anticipation of the coming winter and surely held more meat than he could eat. “Is that the only reason you come around here?” he asked his visitor. “The food?”
“What do you think?”
“I think you like me.”
She didn’t answer. But as she sat on the sun-warmed boulder, Domino could have sworn that she winked at him.
Domino let himself admire her compact cat shape, her slender legs (a little on the long side for her size), and her slim tail wrapped elegantly about her paws. Her fur looked as lustrous as a star-filled night sky.
“I suppose you could have a bite or two,” he meowed.
A thrill ran through Domino. He had never before allowed a strange cat to so much as wander onto his territory without a fight. He had certainly never invited anyone to share his kill. The invitation had been a thoroughly un-Domino-like impulse, as though another part of him altogether had made the decision without running it past his brain first. This dazzling little female had such a strange effect on him.
“Thank you,” she said in her dainty voice. She leaped lightly from her perch and came to him with cautious steps. He was, after all, much larger than she. To reassure her, Domino sat back from the kill and looked away to the side. He glanced back only when he heard the sound of rending flesh.
He watched her work. Her teeth were white and healthy looking, and she kept her claws exquisitely sharp. The squirrel was soon opened up so that both cats could easily access the meat. Domino leaned in for a bite, making sure to take a perfunctory swat at the stranger’s head. After all, he didn’t want her to think he had no regard for custom whatsoever. Without letting go of the strip of meat she was chewing, she gave the swat right back to him. Feisty. He liked it. He issued a warning growl. Still holding tight to her morsel, she moved aside almost imperceptibly so that he might lower his head and enjoy the kill as well.
Here was another first for Domino: sharing a kill at whiskertouch with another cat. Once or twice, Flufferdoodle had visited him and they had nibbled together at the scraps the Browns sometimes left on the back porch. But Flufferdoodle was so well fed by his own people that it had been more of a social pastime than a meal.
Eating the squirrel with this glossy little female was a new experience altogether. First, there was the pride Domino felt in having taken the squirrel with her there to witness it. But then there was a new feeling, similar to the sense of accomplishment he got from keeping the Brown territory free of vermin. He had performed a service for his new friend. He had hunted so that she might eat. He felt a quiet joy in having provided this meal for her. After all, as far as he could tell, she was on her own in the woods, where she had no people to help her through dry hunting spells, and she had real enemies to avoid, like raccoons, coyotes, and bobcats. He was glad she had come to his territory, where he could feed her and protect her.
He bent his head to the meal alongside her. She flicked her ear as his whiskers tickled it, and likewise he felt her whiskers caress his cheek. He half closed his eyes and chewed the sumptuous meat, even as she did the same a mere breath away from him. It was the most sensuous, enjoyable meal he had ever eaten.
After they had taken their fill, the two cats found a sunny patch of grass where they could rest. Domino slid onto his side and made sure to stretch out as far as he could so she could see how long his body was.
Though she didn’t comment on it, he caught her looking. After a moment, she came to him and began grooming his face and neck. Domino closed his eyes and purred. Soon the visitor was purring, too. She settled down near him, lying on her stomach with her legs tucked beneath her, her golden eyes even now keeping watch on him. Domino was almost asleep when she asked, “What’s your name?”
“Domino,” he said. “Mr. Brown named me when I was a kitten.” He struggled to stay awake. “What’s yours?”
“Celine.”
“Celine . . . that’s nice. It suits you.” His eyes closed. Domino could hear her purring drowsily. The autumn sun was generous with its warmth today, and he absorbed it happily. Soon he was asleep. And when he finally awoke, Celine had vanished again.
Excerpt 3
Domino gobbled up the dry cat food with gusto. Three days after the disastrous prowl, his leg had healed considerably, and he was once again filled with restless energy. He figured he would stoke the furnace in his belly with a hearty breakfast before heading out to patrol the meadow, away behind the barn.
The kitchen door closed quietly behind Mrs. Brown as she came onto the back porch. “Hey, Domino, how’s it going?” She squatted next to him.
“Oh, brother,” muttered Domino to himself. He laid his ears back and scooped up one last huge mouthful.
Mrs. Brown placed a soothing hand on his back. “How’s the leg coming, big guy?”
“Here, let me show you,” Domino meowed. He skittered off the porch and down the steps to the yard.
As he trotted away, he heard Mrs. Brown say, “Pretty good, huh? Okay, then, I guess you don’t need me.”
That morning, Celine had deemed him well enough that she felt comfortable leaving to go work her woods. Domino was on his own for the day. He skirted the barn and headed for the meadow. Almost immediately, images of the miserable prowl began flashing into his mind, as they had done frequently over the past few days, and Domino didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to think about how the neighborhood cats seemed to have been infected with madness, like rabies or some sort of mental distemper. He didn’t want to deal with the natural order of the world being deconstructed and reassembled into something bizarre and unrecognizable by a cat who had never actually lived as a cat. He didn’t want to relive the nauseating sight of cats–once noble and proudly feline cats!–greeting rats–filthy, corrupt, destructive, nasty rats!–as though they were equals. Actually touching noses with them.
The memory of Sunflower Seed’s carefully groomed fur came back to him and he gagged abruptly. He didn’t even want to try to get his head around the disturbing mass delusion.
He wanted to hunt, to run, to stalk and pounce. He wanted to be a cat, and he didn’t want to have to delve into why he was a cat and whether he should be a cat and if it was all right for him to be a cat. He just wanted to be.
The lawn gave way to long, whispery brown grasses. Domino’s trot altered to a methodical high-step over the clumps and tufts, punctuated by the occasional leap. A crispy coating of sleet and ice capped the hay and crunched under his paw pads. The air was sharp and clear, stinging his nose and burning his eyes. The low winter sun blared light, even if it gave no warmth.
A rabbit–that would be just the thing. Something large enough to give him a good fight and the glorious moment of hard-won victory. Something to make him feel like a cat again. And so Domino worked his way deeper into the long grass, sniffing and looking for tracks and scat.
Before long, he found rabbit pellets. This was no surprise; the meadow was full of rabbits. He began moving low to the ground, concealing himself behind hummocks, and silencing his movements. His spots disappeared among the harsh shadows of the bright winter day. Soundless and invisible, he moved across the westerly breeze, scenting. The smell of rabbit was strong. It wouldn’t be long now.
Up ahead, he spotted a patch of brown fur, almost invisible among the dead grasses. Domino froze, ducked, took an invisible step forward, and cautiously lifted his head again. The fur remained in the same position. He hadn’t been seen.
He stalked forward several lengths of his own body before chancing another look. He could see most of the rabbit this time. It was lying on its side, which was unusual out in the open in the cold of winter. Something seemed off. Domino sniffed the breeze, now that he was close enough to get more specific information. The scent of rabbit was strong, but there were other smells as well. Blood. Fear. Vermin. Death.
Rage came over him. He gracelessly hopped the last few yards and came to the rabbit’s corpse. The creature lay where it had fallen, its back to Domino. He walked around it and saw it had suffered myriad injuries. A great many small rips, tears, and shreds. Fur rent, eyes raked, and innards strewn. Flesh torn and fouled but not eaten. Damage done by creatures not built for hunting animals this size. Rodents, with tiny razors on their claws and in their mouths.
It had to have been more than one; no single rat could have killed a full-grown wild rabbit. And it had to have taken a long time. Domino noted the trampled grass, the spattered blood, and the multiple pellets–rat and rabbit–expelled in terror and excitement. Finally, he looked at the rabbit’s face. Destroyed and plundered, yes, but still frozen in an expression of pure terror. The stink of rat hung over the whole scene.
Fur riffled along Domino’s back. He flattened his ears and bared his teeth, spinning and scanning the blowing grasses all around. He glanced at the dead rabbit again and saw how stiff and icy it was. It had been there a day at least, maybe two. There was no immediate threat. As Domino’s adrenaline rush faded, he felt the now familiar roiling of his stomach contents. His mouth watered but he forced himself to lift his head and take gulps of bracing air. Turning from the carcass, he skulked all the way back to the barn.
He spent the day in the loft, lolling on the blankets in front of the open hay door. His healing leg exacted a painful toll for the morning’s excursion, and though adrenalin from agitated instincts coursed through his system, he was obliged to rest and recover. But he kept watch over the yard from his vantage point. He spent the midday hours observing the hens as they worked their way into the kitchen yard, scratching and complaining. Mrs. Brown came out of the house at one point and threw them some stale bread crusts. Domino snickered as the plump birds jostled and upended one another in a frenzy of clucking and floating bits of down.
Over by his doghouse, Thor paced restlessly. He glanced up at Domino once before studiously ignoring him. Domino smiled, amused. Thor went back to his pacing, his eyes raised to the distant meadow to the east and the strip of woods to the north. Domino figured he had caught wind of the rats that had invaded the territory, maybe even the fouled rabbit carcass. Truth be told, it unnerved Domino as well. He thought of the unfortunate creature that had been savaged in the meadow. He couldn’t stop seeing the rabbit’s face, contorted and frozen in uncomprehending terror. For a fraction of a moment he felt empathy for the prey, even as he himself could not comprehend the disturbing new sentiment that had infected the neighborhood. He quickly shook his head to dispel the notion, laughing at himself. “Imagine a hunter like me, empathizing with a rabbit. How ridiculous. How transcendent,” he mocked.
He slipped into a troubled doze and dreams beset him. As usual, they involved hunting. Back in the meadow, Domino crept through blowing grasses. A high moon dappled the ground with harsh shadow, and a strong breeze concealed his scent from prey ahead. Rat stench hit him in the face and he crouched, listening and looking. Scuttling noises gave away the rodent’s location. Domino approached in a transport of stealth. The rat was a big one, and Domino watched as it plundered the hatchlings from a bobwhite nest. The tiny, naked birds chirped and cried piteously, but the evil rat stuffed one after another into its foul mouth. It ground the tiny hatchlings in its jagged yellow teeth and let the bits fall to the ground in long strands of saliva. It laughed as it terrorized the dwindling number of helpless baby birds.
With a pounce, Domino was upon it.
The fight was vigorous at first, but soon the rat ceased trying to injure its opponent and instead began wriggling and squirming in an attempt to free itself. “Please,” it pleaded in its ugly, screechy voice. “Please don’t hurt me. I have babies at home.” Domino only laughed and pinned the beast on its back on the ground. He fastened his jaws on the rat’s throat and raked his hind legs across the gray belly. The rat screamed horribly, the sound universal to all field animals in mortal danger, a high-pitched shriek of terror. Domino clamped his jaws tighter to silence the disturbing yowl. It was a rat shrieking, then a weasel, then a hawk, then a rabbit, and finally a cat. Then the sound died altogether. But Domino’s fur was raised at the feline end to the death cry. Lifting his head in alarm, he looked down to see the dear face of his Celine, the once-bright eyes already beginning to glaze over.
“Ugh!” Domino meowed as he snapped awake. He was on his feet, his back arched and his fur on end, his ears pricked forward in confusion. It took a moment before he came to himself. “What an awful dream,” he exclaimed. He quickly looked over the interior of the empty hayloft then spun to scan the view out the open door. All seemed to be in order in the yard below. There was no physical threat to be found. “Dung,” growled Domino. “That stupid rat-cat is getting to me. He’s even messing up my thoughts.”