THE BLACK CAT
Edgard Allan Poe
I do not expect or ask you to believe this narrative that is both strange and unpretentious that I am about to write. It would be really crazy if I waited, in which case even my senses rejected the evidence itself. However, I am not crazy and I certainly did not dream what I am going to narrate. But tomorrow I will die and today I want to relieve my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, simply, succinctly and without comment, a series of events that are nothing more than domestic. Through their consequences, these events terrified, tortured and destroyed me. However, I will not attempt to explain or justify them. For me they meant only Horror, for many they will seem less terrible than Gothic or grotesque. Later, perhaps, some intellect will emerge to reduce my phantasmagoria to commonplaces – some calmer, more logical, much less excitable intelligence than mine; and the latter will perceive, in the circumstances I describe with astonishment, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
From childhood they observed my docility and the humanity of my character. The tenderness of my heart was indeed so conspicuous that it made me the target of my companions’ jokes. I especially liked animals, so my parents allowed me to raise a large number of pets. I spent most of my time with them and my happiest moments were when I fed or caressed them. This peculiarity of character grew with me, and as I became a man, I proceeded to derive from it one of my main sources of pleasure. All those who have established an affectionate relationship with an intelligent and faithful dog will hardly need me to bother to explain the nature of the intensity of the gratification that derives from such a relationship. There is something about selfless love and ready to sacrifice an animal that goes directly to the heart of one who has had frequent occasions to test the petty friendship and fragile loyalty of men.
I got married early and was fortunate to find in my wife a disposition that was not very different from mine. Observing how she liked domestic animals, she did not miss an opportunity to bring me representatives of the most pleasant species. We had birds, goldfish, a beautiful dog, rabbits, a little monkey and a cat.
The latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, completely black and endowed with a truly admirable wit. In speaking of his intelligence, my wife, whose heart was unaffected by the slightest superstition, made frequent allusions to the old popular belief that all black cats were witches in disguise. It is not that she never mentioned this matter seriously – and if I speak of it it is simply because I have now remembered the fact.
Pluto – that was the cat’s name – was my favorite pet and spent more time with him. It was just me who fed him and the animal accompanied me anywhere in the house I went. In fact, it was difficult to stop him from going out with me and accompanying me.
Our friendship lasted this way for several years, during which my general temperament and my character – due to the interference of Intemperance created by the Demon – had (my face flushed with confession) had undergone a radical change for the worse. With each passing day I became more sulky, more irritable, less interested in the feelings of others. It allowed me to use rude language with my own wife. After a certain period of time, I came to make her the target of personal violence. Naturally, my pets felt the difference in my mood. Not only did he neglect them, he even treated them badly. But with regard to Pluto, however, I still held enough consideration to restrain myself before mistreating him, whereas I had no qualms about judging rabbits, monkeys and even dogs when, by accident or even affection , they got in my way. But my illness grew more and more – since what illness is worse than the addiction to alcoholism? – and finally, even Pluto, who was now getting old and, as a result, somewhat impertinent, even Pluto began to experience the effects of my bad mood.
One night, when I got home quite drunk, after one of my aimless walks through the city, I imagined that the cat was avoiding my presence. I grabbed him by force; and then, startled by my violence, he inflicted a small wound on my hand with his teeth. A demon’s fury instantly seized me. I couldn’t even recognize myself. My original soul seemed to have fled my body immediately; and a more than satanic malevolence, fueled by gin, took control of every fiber in my body. I took a pocketknife out of my vest pocket, opened the blade, grabbed the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately pulled one eye out of its socket. I blush and my whole body trembles as I record this abominable atrocity.
When the morning brought me back to reason – after sleep had put most of the fire out of my alcoholic orgy – I experienced a mixed feeling of horror and remorse for the crime I had committed. But this feeling was at best weak and elusive and the soul remained untouched. Again I plunged into my excesses and soon drowned in the drink every memory of my wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, the cat slowly recovered. The empty orbit of the missing eye, of course, had a frightening appearance, but he didn’t seem to be in any more pain. He walked around the house, as usual, but, as you might expect, he ran away from me in extreme terror every time I came near him. I still had a certain part of my previous spirit left, and at first I regretted that now I hated so much a creature that had already loved me. But this feeling soon gave way to irritation. And then I was struck, as if for my final and irrevocable fall, by the spirit of Perversity. Philosophy itself has not studied this spirit. And yet, just as I am sure that I have a living soul, it is my conviction that wickedness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart – one of the primary and indivisible faculties, one of the feelings that give rise to and guide the character of Man. Who has not caught a hundred times to commit a vile or merely foolish action for any reason except to feel that they shouldn’t? Don’t we all have a perpetual inclination and contrary to our best judgment to violate the Laws, simply because we understand that they are mandatory? For it was this spirit of Perversity, I say, that came to cause my final fall. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul, which yearns to harm itself, to offer violence to its own nature, to do evil for the sake of evil and nothing else, that impelled me to continue and finally consummate the injury that I had inflicted on harmless little beast. One morning, in cold blood, I put a noose around his throat and hung it on the branch of a tree – I hung it with tears in my eyes, at the same time feeling the most bitter remorse in my heart – I murdered the poor man cat because I knew he loved me and because I understood very well that he had given me no reason to complain – I killed him because I knew that in doing so I was committing a sin – a mortal sin that would taint my immortal soul by point of putting it – if that were possible – beyond the reach of even the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.
The night after the day I practiced this cruel action, I was awakened from sleep by shouts of “Fire!” The curtains on my bed were on fire. The whole house was on fire. It was with great difficulty that my wife, a maid, and myself escaped the conflagration. The destruction was complete. All my material possessions were consumed and from that moment on I surrendered to despair.
I am above the weakness of trying to establish a cause and effect sequence between disaster and atrocity. But I am detailing a chain of facts – and I do not wish to leave a single link in the chain imperfect. The day after the fire, I visited the ruins. All the walls had collapsed, except for one. This exception was that of an internal room, a wall not too thick, which rose more or less in the middle of the house, precisely the one against which the head of my bed rested. The plaster itself had, to a large extent, resisted the action of fire – as I judged, because it was made of new mortar, perhaps still a little wet. A large crowd was gathered around this wall; and many people seemed to be examining a special section of it, with meticulous attention. The words “strange”, “singular” and similar words aroused my curiosity. I approached and saw, as if it were engraved in bas relief  on the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat. The image was drawn with really wonderful precision. There was a rope outlined around the animal’s neck.
The first time I saw this apparition – because I could hardly call it anything less amazing – my astonishment and terror were extreme. But, finally, reasoning and reflection came to my protection. The cat, he recalled, had been hanged in a garden adjacent to the house. As soon as the fire alarm was given, this garden was immediately filled with basbaques, one of which had probably cut the rope that attached the cat to the tree and tossed the animal into my room through an open window. Maybe even the intention was good, maybe they wanted to wake me up from sleep and throw the animal out the window for that purpose. The fall of the other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the very substance of the freshly applied plaster; the lime contained in it, mixed with the ammonia from the carcass, with the heat of the flames, had then realized the portrait he was now contemplating.
Although I satisfied my reason so quickly, although I could not completely calm my conscience and tried in this way to discard the amazing fact that I have just described, this did not prevent it from making a strong impression on my imagination. For months I could not get rid of my internal vision of the cat’s ghost; and, during that period, a kind of feeling that resembled remorse returned to my spirit, but it was not exactly that. I went so far as to mourn the loss of the animal and to seek, in the ordinary environments I now habitually frequented, for another mascot of the same species, whose appearance was similar and could occupy the void left by the first.
One night I was sitting, numb from drinking so much, in a tavern of the worst kind, when my attention was suddenly drawn to a black object that rested on the lid of one of the immense Bordeaux gin or rum that constituted the main furniture of the piece . Several minutes ago I had already stared at the lid of that barrel, and what now surprised me was the fact that I had not noticed the object that was on it before. I approached with hesitant steps, reached out and touched him. It was a black cat – a very large animal – as big as Pluto and extremely similar to him in every detail, except for one: Pluto had no white fur on any part of his body; but this cat had a rather large white patch, although of an indefinite shape, covering almost entirely his chest.
As soon as I touched it, the animal immediately got up, purred loudly, rubbed itself against my hand and seemed delighted with my attention. He had found the very creature he had been looking for. Immediately I went to speak to the innkeeper and offered to buy the pussy, but he said that the animal did not belong to him – that he had never seen it before and that he had no idea where it had come from or who it might belong to.
I continued with my caresses, and when I was ready to go home, the animal showed its willingness to accompany me. I allowed him to do so; in fact, on the way, I occasionally stopped, bent and caressed him. When we arrived at the house where I now lived, he immediately became acquainted, and then got my wife’s good graces.
As for me, to my disappointment, I soon discovered that I didn’t like the animal. This was just the reverse of what I had anticipated; but – I don’t know how or why – the evident pleasure that the cat found in my company annoyed and disgusted me. Slowly and progressively, these feelings of disgust and boredom have turned to bitterness and hatred. He avoided the creature whenever he could; a certain sense of shame and the memory of my old feat of cruelty prevented me from hurting him physically. For a few weeks, I didn’t hit him or mistreat him violently; but gradually – very gradually – I began to look at him with indescribable disgust and to escape silently from his odious presence, as if I were trying to escape the suffocating breath of a swamp or the pestilent breath of a plague.
Undoubtedly, what sparked my resentment for the animal was the discovery, the very morning after the night I brought him home, that he, just like Pluto, had had one eye taken out as well. This circumstance, however, only led my wife to like him even more, which, as I reported earlier, possessed in a high degree that humanity of feelings that in past times was also one of my characteristic features and the source of many of my most pleasures simple and pure.
As my aversion to the cat grew, his love for me seemed to grow at the same rate. I followed in my footsteps with a pertinacity that would be difficult to make the reader understand. Wherever I sat, I would curl up under my chair or jump on my knees, covering myself with disgusting caresses. If I rose to walk, he would intrude between my feet and almost make me fall; or else I dug his long, sharp nails into my clothes and tried to climb up to my chest in this way. On those occasions, although I longed to blow it up, I still felt unable to do so, partly because of the memory of my previous crime, but especially – I will confess immediately – because I was absolutely terrified of that animal.
This dread was not exactly a fear of the possibility of physical harm, yet I am not able to define it any other way. I am almost ashamed to admit – yes, even in this condemned cell I am almost ashamed to admit – that the terror and horror that the animal inspired me had been greatly enhanced by one of the most illusory chimeras that would have been possible to conceive. My wife had drawn my attention, more than once, to the character of the white fur patch that I already mentioned and that constituted the only apparent difference between the strange animal and the one that I had killed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, was originally very vague; however, very slowly, in an almost imperceptible way, a form that for a long time my Reason struggled to consider as merely fanciful, ended up assuming a strictly different outline. It was now the representation of an object such that the very idea of mentioning it makes me tremble. That was why, above all, I hated and feared that monster so much and would have gotten rid of it, if only I dared. That image, I write now, was the image of a horrible thing, a terrifying thing … the image of a STRENGTH! Ah, melancholy and terrible instrument of Horror and Crime – of Agony and Death!
And now, behold, I was really miserable, a wretch beyond the disgrace and misery of human nature. And it was a soulless animal, whose companion I had scornfully destroyed, it was a soulless animal that originated in me – me, who was a man, created in the image of the Most High God – so much intolerable anguish! Woe is me! Neither day nor night was I more blessed by Rest! During the day the creature did not leave me for a single moment; and at night, I would wake up hourly, awakened from dreams filled with indescribable dread, to find the hot breath of that thing blowing directly over my face and its enormous weight – a red nightmare from which I could never wake up , forever oppressing and crushing my heart!
Under the pressure of such torments, the feeble traces that remained of my good nature have completely succumbed. Bad thoughts became my close friends, my only friends, then the wickedest and most evil thoughts. The bad mood of my habitual disposition became an undefined rancor aimed at all things and for all mankind; and the sudden, frequent and uncontrollable fits of fury that I now abandoned myself blindly and without the slightest remorse were discharged – alas! – precisely about my wife, the most patient and most constant sufferer, who never uttered a word of complaint or revolt against me.
One day she accompanied me, with the intention of doing some domestic chores, to the basement of the old building where our current poverty forced us to live. The cat followed me up the steep steps and, when it tripped me and almost caused me to fall down the stairs, it left me exasperated to the point of going crazy. Raising an ax, forgotten in my anger at the childish fear that had hitherto prevented me from raising a finger against it, I aimed a blow at the animal that, without a doubt, would have been fatal if I had hit where I wanted to. However, the ax was prevented by my wife’s hand holding my arm. This interference sent me into more than demonic rage: I pulled her arm out of her grip and, with a single blow, buried the ax in her head. She fell dead in the same spot, not letting out a single moan.
Having committed this dreadful murder, immediately, without remorse and in the most deliberate way possible, I turned to the task of hiding the body. He knew that he could not remove him from the house, day or night, without risking being watched by the neighbors. A series of projects crossed my mind. For a while, I thought of cutting the body into tiny fragments that I would then destroy in the fire. Then I thought of digging a hole in the basement floor. It also crossed my mind to throw the corpse into the well in the courtyard; or placing it in a box, as if it were a commodity, applying all the care that is usually devoted to the preparation of such volumes and hiring a porter to remove it from the house. Finally, I imagined what seemed to me to be a better expedient than any of these. I decided to wall it up in one of the basement corners – as the monks of the Middle Ages used to do with their victims, they say.
The basement was perfectly adapted for that purpose. Its walls had been badly built and had recently been plastered with a coarse mortar, which the humidity of the environment had not allowed to harden. In addition, on one wall there was a projection, caused by a false chimney or fireplace that had been filled with bricks in an attempt to resemble it to the rest of the basement walls. I had no doubt that I could easily remove the bricks at this point, insert the corpse and then restore the entire wall to its previous state, so that looking at it could detect anything suspicious.
I was not mistaken on this point. With a crowbar, I easily removed the bricks and, after carefully depositing the body against the inner wall, lifted it up so that it stood upright against the wall. With little difficulty I replaced the bricks and left the structure exactly as it was before. Having brought lime, sand and a lot of animal hair removed from hides, as was the custom at the time, I prepared, with all possible precautions, a mortar that could not be different from the one that covered the rest of the wall and with this I towed it very carefully the bricks he had replaced. When I finished, I was satisfied with the perfection of the work. The wall showed no sign that it had been modified. I picked up the floor tiles with the utmost care. I looked around me triumphantly and congratulated myself: “At least this time I didn’t work in vain”.
My next task was to look for the beast that had been the cause of such misfortune, because I finally had the firm resolve to kill it. If he had been able to find her at that moment, his fate would have been sealed, but apparently the cunning animal had sensed something or was frightened by the violence of my previous anger, avoiding appearing before me while my bad mood lasted. It is impossible to describe or imagine the feeling of deep and blessed relief that the absence of the detested creature caused in my chest. Better still, the cat did not appear that night – and so, at least for one night, since the bastard had entered my house, I slept soundly and peacefully; yes, I slept the sleep of the just, even though it now had the weight of murder in my soul!
The second and third days passed and my tormentor did not return. Again I breathed like a free man. The monster had fled in terror and left my company forever! I would never see him again! My happiness was supreme! The remorse caused by my action, so black and perverse, hardly disturbed me. Some questions had been asked, but it had been easy to answer. A search had even been made by the police, but of course they had found nothing. I thought my future happiness was assured.
But on the fourth day after the murder, a police patrol returned, very unexpectedly, entered my home and started to make a thorough investigation of the building again. I felt safe, however, due to the impenetrability of the place where I hid the corpse, and so I was not at all embarrassed by the search. The police ordered me to accompany them while they were looking. They left no corner or bin untapped. Finally, for the third or fourth time, they went down to the basement. I didn’t feel a shiver in my muscles. My heart was beating calmly like someone perfectly innocent. I walked from end to end of the cellar. I crossed my arms and kept pacing. The police were finally satisfied and were about to leave, this time for good. The joy in my heart was too great to be contained. I longed to say at least one word of triumph and I wanted to assure myself doubly that they thought me innocent.
“Gentlemen,” he said at last, as the group climbed the stairs, “I am delighted to have dispelled all your suspicions.” I wish you all good health and a little more courtesy. By the way, gentlemen, this house, this house is very well built. (Taken by a violent desire to appear most natural, he spoke without paying much attention to what he said.) I can even say that it is an excellently well-built house. These walls – are they leaving already, gentlemen? – these walls are very solid.
And it was at this point that, taken by a stupid bravado frenzy, I tapped heavily with a cane in my hand just over that portion of the wall behind which lay the corpse of the wife he had pressed so often against his chest.
May God shield and protect me from the fangs of the Father of Demons! As soon as the reverberation of the blows he had made disappeared in the silence, he was answered by a voice from inside the tomb! – answered by a cry, at first muffled and choppy, like the sobs of a child, but quickly swelling into a long, loud and continuous cry, totally abnormal and inhuman – a howl -, a wailing squeak, a bit of horror and half of triumph, just as it could only have risen from the depths of hell, a scream emitted jointly by the throats of hundreds condemned to eternal damnation, tortured in their agony, and by the demons who rejoice in their condemnation.
It is foolish to try to describe my thoughts. Feeling faint, I staggered to the opposite wall. For a moment, the group of policemen who were climbing the stairs remained motionless, in a mixture of awe and deep terror. In the next moment, a dozen sturdy arms struggled to crush the wall. It fell all over. The corpse, already badly decomposed and covered with clotted blood, was erect before the eyes of the spectators, in the same position in which I had left it. But over his head, with his red mouth wide open and a spark of fire in his one eye, sat the hideous beast whose devices had led me to murder and whose accusing voice would now lead me to the executioner. I had walled the monster inside the grave!
. Low relief. In French in the original. (N.T.)