/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy

Tails of Wonder and Imagination

Ellen Datlow

From legendary editor Ellen Datlow, Tails of Wonder collects the best of the last thirty years of science fiction and fantasy stories about cats from an all-star list of contributors.

TAILS OF WONDER AND IMAGINATION

Cat Stories

Edited by Ellen Datlow

INTRODUCTION

Ellen Datlow

Acknowledgments:

I would like to thank Daniel Braum, Dave Hinchberger, Jacob Weisman, John Joseph Adams, John Kessel, George Scithers, Colleen Kelly, Eleanor Lang, Charles Tan, Gord Sellar, and Richard Bowes for their recommendations and encouragement.

What is it about cats? Why do they lend themselves to fiction so easily? There have been numerous anthologies of cat stories, several of them multi-volume series. There is no other animal about which writers from all genres seem to be obsessed. Mystery, horror, science fiction, and fantasy stories have been written about cats.

It’s possible that felines, thought to be domesticated by happenstance rather than intent, are considered more mysterious, and thus more interesting to write about than other animals. Canines are pretty up front about their feelings—they’re considered to be loyal, obedient, and cheerful. Dogs, the oldest domesticated animal, have anthropomorphized themselves—become more like people. Cats have done very little of that. They are still strangers in the house. The cat does what it wants and goes its own way, which conjures up the darker images of willfulness, self-interest, and mystery.

It’s said that one is a dog person or a cat person. I’ve been both. I grew up with a wonderful cocker spaniel I adored and took “exploring” in the suburban woods across from where I lived. I don’t recall seeing many cats. All I knew of these mysterious creatures was that they chased and ate mice in the weird, silent, black and white, very primitive “Farmer Grey” cartoons of my childhood, and that my aunt living in West Germany would write regular letters to me reporting on her cat’s antics. It, and as a result she, were always in trouble with the neighbors for its skill at killing birds.

It wasn’t until I moved to Manhattan that I acquired (through a roommate) my first cat. The roommate moved in, immediately brought home two kittens, and then fled Manhattan after a couple of months, leaving me with one kitten because her parents wouldn’t let her take both back to Ann Arbor. I was suddenly a cat owner, soon acquiring a second, older cat (who lived to be twenty-three plus), and was soon faced with my own dead or dying birds—a roof adjoining my apartment allowed my cats limited roaming area.

Since then I’ve always owned cats. Or have they owned me?

The stories herein are culled from anthologies, magazines, and collections, most published from 1980–2009, a few (such as the Lewis Carroll excerpt and the John Crowley and Stephen King stories) in the late 70s. There are stories in which cats are the heroes and some in which they’re the villains. There are domestic cats, tigers, lions, mythical part-cat beings, people transformed into cats, and cats transformed into people. There’s science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, and even one mainstream cat story. And yes, a few cute cats.

This is not my first cat anthology. I edited Twists of the Tale in 1996—it consisted of mostly original horror stories, three of them reprinted in this book.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

(excerpt)

Lewis Carroll

One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it—it was the black kitten’s fault entirely. For the white kitten had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering); so you see that it couldn’t have had any hand in the mischief.

The way Dinah washed her children’s faces was this: first she held the poor thing down by its ear with one paw, and then with the other paw she rubbed its face all over, the wrong way, beginning at the nose; and just now, as I said, she was hard at work on the white kitten, which was lying quite still and trying to purr—no doubt feeling that it was all meant for its good.

But the black kitten had been finished with earlier in the afternoon, and so, while Alice was sitting curled up in a corner of the great armchair, half talking to herself and half asleep, the kitten had been having a grand game of romps with the ball of worsted Alice had been trying to wind up, and had been rolling it up and down till it had all come undone again; and there it was, spread over the hearth-rug, all knots and tangles, with the kitten running after its own tail in the middle.

“Oh, you wicked little thing!” cried Alice, catching up the kitten, and giving it a little kiss to make it understand that it was in disgrace. “Really, Dinah ought to have taught you better manners! You ought, Dinah, you know you ought!” she added, looking reproachfully at the old cat, and speaking in as cross a voice as she could manage—and then she scrambled back into the armchair, taking the kitten and the worsted with her, and began winding up the ball again. But she didn’t get on very fast, as she was talking all the time, sometimes to the kitten, and sometimes to herself. Kitty sat very demurely on her knee, pretending to watch the progress of the winding, and now and then putting out one paw and gently touching the ball, as if it would be glad to help, if it might.

“Do you know what to-morrow is, Kitty?” Alice began. “You’d have guessed if you’d been up in the window with me—only Dinah was making you tidy, so you couldn’t. I was watching the boys getting in sticks for the bonfire—and it wants plenty of sticks, Kitty! Only it got so cold, and it snowed so, they had to leave off. Never mind, Kitty, we’ll go and see the bonfire to-morrow.” Here Alice wound two or three turns of the worsted round the kitten’s neck, just to see how it would look; this led to a scramble, in which the ball rolled down upon the floor, and yards and yards of it got unwound again.

“Do you know, I was so angry, Kitty,” Alice went on as soon as they were comfortably settled again, “when I saw all the mischief you had been doing, I was very nearly opening the window, and putting you out into the snow! And you’d have deserved it, you little mischievous darling! What have you got to say for yourself? Now don’t interrupt me!” she went on, holding up one finger. “I’m going to tell you all your faults. Number one: you squeaked twice while Dinah was washing your face this morning. Now you can’t deny it, Kitty, I heard you! What’s that you say?” (pretending that the kitten was speaking.) “Her paw went into your eye? Well, that’s your fault, for keeping your eyes open—if you’d shut them tight up, it wouldn’t have happened. Now don’t make any more excuses, but listen! Number two: you pulled Snowdrop away by the tail just as I had put down the saucer of milk before her! What, you were thirsty, were you? How do you know she wasn’t thirsty too? Now for number three: you unwound every bit of the worsted while I wasn’t looking!

“That’s three faults, Kitty, and you’ve not been punished for any of them yet. You know I’m saving up all your punishments for Wednesday week—Suppose they had saved up all my punishments!” she went on, talking more to herself than the kitten. “What would they do at the end of a year? I should be sent to prison, I suppose, when the day came. Or—let me see—suppose each punishment was to be going without a dinner: then, when the miserable day came, I should have to go without fifty dinners at once! Well, I shouldn’t mind that much! I’d far rather go without them than eat them!

“Do you hear the snow against the window-panes, Kitty? How nice and soft it sounds! Just as if someone was kissing the window all over outside. I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’ And when they wake up in the summer, Kitty, they dress themselves all in green, and dance about—whenever the wind blows—oh, that’s very pretty!” cried Alice, dropping the ball of worsted to clap her hands. “And I do so wish it was true! I’m sure the woods look sleepy in the autumn, when the leaves are getting brown.

“Kitty, can you play chess? Now, don’t smile, my dear, I’m asking it seriously. Because, when we were playing just now, you watched just as if you understood it: and when I said ‘Check!’ you purred! Well, it was a nice check, Kitty, and really I might have won, if it hadn’t been for that nasty Knight, that came wiggling down among my pieces. Kitty, dear, let’s pretend—” And here I wish I could tell you half the things Alice used to say, beginning with her favourite phrase “Let’s pretend.” She had had quite a long argument with her sister only the day before—all because Alice had begun with “Let’s pretend we’re kings and queens;” and her sister, who liked being very exact, had argued that they couldn’t, because there were only two of them, and Alice had been reduced at last to say, “Well, you can be one of them then, and I’ll be all the rest.” And once she had really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, “Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyaena, and you’re a bone.”

But this is taking us away from Alice’s speech to the kitten. “Let’s pretend that you’re the Red Queen, Kitty! Do you know, I think if you sat up and folded your arms, you’d look exactly like her. Now do try, there’s a dear!” And Alice got the Red Queen off the table, and set it up before the kitten as a model for it to imitate; however, the thing didn’t succeed, principally, Alice said, because the kitten wouldn’t fold its arms properly. So, to punish it, she held it up to the Looking-glass, that it might see how sulky it was—“and if you’re not good directly,” she added, “I’ll put you through into Looking-glass House. How would you like that?”

“Now, if you’ll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I’ll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there’s the room you can see through the glass—that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way. I can see all of it when I get upon a chair—all but the bit behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit! I want so much to know whether they’ve a fire in the winter; you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too—but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I’ve held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold up one in the other room.

“How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they’d give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink—But oh, Kitty! now we come to the passage. You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open; and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond. Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—” She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright, silvery mist.

NO HEAVEN WILL NOT EVER HEAVEN BE…

A. R. Morlan

A.R. Morlan’s short fiction (under her own name and three pen names) has been published or is forthcoming in over one hundred twenty different magazines, anthologies, and webzines in the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe. Her stories are collected in Smothered Dolls. She lives in the Midwest with a house full of cat “children.”

Morlan’s love of cats shows in her portrait of a man and his cats. When I first read the story (I originally bought it for my cat horror anthology Twists of the Tale), I was so taken by Hobart Gurney and Katz’s cats that I called the author to ask if Gurney was based on a real person: the answer is yes and no. Morlan says that the character was inspired by a real barn advertising painter (who only painted text, not pictures of cats). All of the cats depicted in the story are based on actual cats the author has owned.

There are no ordinary cats.

—COLETTE

Not too long ago, it wasn’t too uncommon for someone driving down Little Egypt way, where southern Illinois merges into Kentucky close to the Cumberland River, to see oh, maybe five-six Katz’s Chewing Tobacco barn advertisements within a three- or four-hour drive; in his prime, Hobart Gurney was a busy man. Now, if a person wants to see Gurney’s handiwork, they have to drive or fly out to New York City, or—if they’re lucky—catch one of the traveling exhibitions of his work. If the exhibitors can get insurance—after all, Gurney was sort of the Jackson Pollock of the barn-art world; he worked with what paints he had, with an eye toward getting the job done fast and getting his pay even quicker once he was finished, so those cut-out chunks of barn wall need to be babied like they were fashioned out of spun sugar and spider webs—and not just flaking paint on sometimes-rotting planks. Someone once told me that the surviving Katz’s barn signs had to be treated with the same sort of preservation methods as the relics unearthed from Egyptian tombs—now that would’ve tickled old Hobart Gurney’s fancy, as he might’ve put it.

Oh, not so much the preservation part, but the Egyptian aspect of it all, for Gurney did far more than paint Katz’s Chewing Tobacco signs for a living (not to mention for a good part of his life, period); he lived for his “Katz’s cats.”

Died for them, too. But that’s another story… one you won’t read about in any of those books filled with photographs of Gurney’s barn signs, or hear about on those PBS or Arts & Entertainment specials on his life and work. But the story rivals any ever told about the cat-worshiping Egyptians… especially since Hobart knew his cats weren’t gods but loved them anyhow. And because they loved him back….

When I first met Hobart Gurney, I thought he was just another one of those old men you see in just about every small town in the rural heartland; you’ve seen them—old men of less than average height, wearing pants that are too big in the waist and too long in the leg, held up by suspenders or belts snugged up so tight they can hardly breathe, with spines like shallow Cs and shoulders pinched protectively around their collarbones, the kind of old men who wear too-clean baseball caps or maybe tam-o-shanters topped with fluffy pom-poms, and no matter how often they shave, they always seem to have an eighth-inch-long near-transparent stubble dusting their parchment cheeks. The kind who shuffle and pause near curbs, then stop and stand there, lost in thought, once they step off the curb. The kind of old man who’s all but invisible until he hawks phlegm on the sidewalk not out of spite but because men did that sort of thing without thinking years ago.

I was adjusting the shutter speed on my camera when I heard him hawk and spit not two feet away from me—making that irritating noise that totally blows one’s concentration. And it was one of those days when the clouds kept moving in front of the sun every few seconds, totally changing the amount of available natural light hitting the side of the barn whose painted side I was trying to capture… without thinking, I looked back over my shoulder and grumped, “You mind? I’m trying to adjust my camera—”

The old man just stood there, hands shoved past the wrists into his trouser pockets, a fine dark dribble of tobacco spittle still clinging to the side of his stubbled chin, staring mildly at me with hat bill-shaded pale-blue eyes. After a few false fluttering starts of his chapped-lipped mouth, he said, “No self-respectin’ cat ever wants to be a model… you have to sorta sneak up on ’em, when they ain’t payin’ you no mind.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, turning my attention back to the six-foot-tall cat painted next to the neatly lettered legend: KATZ’S CHEWING TOBACCO—IT’S THE KATZ’S MEOW. This Katz’s cat was one of the finest I’d seen yet—unlike other cat-logo signs, like the Chessie railroad cat, for instance, every Katz’s cat was different: different color, different pose, sometimes even more than one cat per barn sign. And this one was a masterpiece: a gray tiger, the kind of animal whose fur you know would be soft to the touch, with each multi-hued hair tipped with just enough white to give the whole cat an aura-like sheen, and a softly thick neck that told the world that this cat was an unneutered male, old enough to have sired a few litters of kittens but not old enough to be piss-mean or battle-scarred. A young male, maybe two, three years old. And his eyes were gentle, too; trusting eyes, of hazy green touched with a hint of yellow along the oval pupils, over a grayish-pink nose and a mouth covering barely visible fang tips. He was resting on his side, so all four of his paw pads were visible, each one colored that between gray and pink color that’s a bit of each yet something not at all on the artist’s color wheel. And his ombre-ringed tail was curled up and over his hind feet, resting in a relaxed curl over his hind paws. But something in his sweet face told a person that this cat would jump right up into your arms if you only patted your chest and said “Come ’ere—”

But… considering that this cat was mostly gray, and the barn behind him was weathering fast, I had to make sure the shutter speed was adjusted so, or I’d never capture this particular Katz’s cat. Not the way the clouds were rolling in faster and faster—

“Don’t look like Fella wants his picture took today,” the tobacco-spitting old man said helpfully, as I missed yet another split-second-of-sun opportunity to capture the likeness of the reclining cat. That did it. Letting my camera flop down against my chest by the strap, I turned around and asked, “Do you own this barn? Am I supposed to pay you for taking a picture or what?”

The old man looked at me meekly, his bill-shaded eyes wide with hurt as he said around a glob of chaw, “I already got my pay for that ’un, but I ’spose you could say it’s my cat—”

When he said that, all my irritation and impatience melted into a soggy feeling of shame mingled with heart-thumping awe—this baggy-trousered old man had to be Hobart Gurney, the sign painter responsible for all of the Katz’s Tobacco signs dotting barns throughout southern Illinois and western Kentucky, the man who was still painting such signs up until a couple of years ago, stopping only when old age made it difficult for him to get up and down the ladders.

I’d seen that profile about him on CNN a few years ago, when he was painting his last or next-to-last Katz’s sign, but most old men tend to look alike, especially when decked out in the ubiquitous uniform of a baseball cap and paint-splattered overalls, and at any rate, the work had impressed me more than the man who created it…

Putting out my hand, I said, “Hey, sorry about what I said… I—I didn’t mean it like that, it’s just that I only have so many days of vacation left, and the weather hasn’t exactly been cooperative—”

Gurney’s hand was dry and firm; he shook hands until I had to withdraw my aching hand, as he replied, “No offense meant, no offense taken. I ’spect Fella will wait awhiles until the clouds see fit to cooperate with you. He’s a patient one, is Fella, but shy ’round strangers.” The way he said “Fella,” I knew the name should be capitalized, instead of it being a generic nomenclature for the animal at hand.

Judging from the way the clouds scudded across the sun, I figured that Fella was in for a good long wait, so I motioned to the rental car parked a few yards away from the barn, inviting Gurney to share one of the cans of Pepsi in my backseat cooler. Gurney’s trousers made a raspy rubbing noise when he walked, not unlike the sound a cat’s tongue makes when it licks your bare arm. And when he was speaking in close quarters, his tobacco-laced breath was sort of cat fetid, too, all wild-smelling and warm. The old man positioned himself half in and half out of my car, so he could see his Fella clearly, while still keeping his body in the relative warmth of my car. Between noisy slurps of soda, he told me, “Like I said, no self-respectin’ cat aims to model for you, so’s the only way to get around it is to make your own cat. Memory’s the best model they is—”

I almost choked on my Pepsi when he said that; all along, I’d assumed that Gurney had used whatever barn cats were wandering around him for his inspiration… but to create such accurate, personable cats from memory and imagination—

“Funny thing is, when I was hired on to work for Katz, back in the thirties, all they was interested in was gettin’ their name out in front of the public, in as big letters as possible. That I added cats to the Katz’s signs was my idea—didn’t get paid no extra for doin’ it, neither. But it seemed natural, you see? And it did get folks’ attention. ’Sides, them cats, they kept me company, while I was workin’—gets mighty lonely up on that ladder, with the wind snaking down your shirt collar and no one to talk to up that high. Was sorta like when I was a boy, muckin’ out my pa’s barn, and the barn cats, they’d come snaking ’round my legs purrin’ and sometimes jumpin’ straight up onto my shoulders, so they’d hitch a free ride while I was workin’—only I didn’t get ’round to givin’ too many of them cats names, you see, ’cause they was always comin’ or goin’, or gettin’ cow-crushed—oh, them cows didn’t mean no harm, see, it’s just they was so big and them cats too small when they’d try snuggling up wi’em on cold winter nights. But I sure did enjoy their company. Now you may laugh at this, but—” Here Gurney lowered his voice, even though there was no one else around to hear him but me and the huge painted Fella resting on the side of the abandoned barn. “—when I was a young’un, and even a not so young’un, I had me this dream. I wanted to be small, like a cat, for oh, maybe a night or so. Just long enough for me to snuggle down with a whole litterful of cats, four-five of ’em, all of us same-sized and warm in the hay, and we’d tangle our legs and whatnot in a warm pile, and they’d lick my face and then burrow their heads under my chin, or mine under theirs, and we’d sleep for a time. Nothing better for the insomnia than to rest with a cat purring in your ears. ’Tis true. Don’t need none of them sleeping pills when you gots yourself a cat.

“That’s why I took the Katz’s Tobacco job when I heard of it, even though I wasn’t too keen on heights. Course, it bein’ the Depression was a powerful motivator, too, but the name Katz was just too good to pass by… and them not minding when I dickied with their adverts was heaven-made for me, too. Struck me funny, when them television-fellers interviewed me and all, when I was paintin’ the little girls—”

Gurney’s words made me remember the album of Katz’s signs I kept locked in the trunk of the car (not my only set, but a spare album I used for reference, especially when coming across a barn I may have photographed before, under different lighting or seasonal circumstances); too excited to speak, I got out of the backseat and hurried for the trunk, while Gurney kept on talking about the “pup reporter” who’d interviewed him for that three-minute interview.

“—and he didn’t even ask me what the cats’ names was, like it didn’t matter none to—”

“Were these the ‘little girls’?” I asked as I flipped through the album pages until I found the dry-mounted snapshot of one of the most elaborate Katz’s signs: four kittens snuggled together in a hollowed-out bed of straw, their pointed little faces curious yet subtly wary, as if they’d all burrow into the straw if you took one step closer to them. Clearly a litter of barn kittens, even if you discounted the straw bedding; these weren’t Christmas-card-and-yarn-balls kittens, cavorting like live Dakin kittens for a Madison Avenue artist, but feral-type kittens, the kind you’d be lucky to coax close enough to sniff your fingers before they’d run off to hide in the farthest corners of the manure-scented barn where they were born. The kind of kitten who’d grow up slat-thin and long-tailed, slinking around corners like a fleshed-out shadow, or coming up to you from behind, as if sizing up whether or not to take a sharp-clawed swipe at your shoe before running for cover. The kind of cat you know will get kittened out before she’s three years old, winding up saggy-bellied and defensive by the time she’s four.

But when Gurney saw the eight-by-ten enlargement, his face lit up and his puckered lips stretched out into a broad grin, exposing what my own grandfather used to call “dime-store choppers” of an astonishing Chiclets gum uniform squareness and off-whiteness.

“You took a picture of my little girls! Usually they’re tricky ones, on ’count of Prissy and Mish-Mish lookin’ so much alike, but you caught ’em, by gummy, got them in just the right light—”

“Wait, wait, let me get this down,” I said, reaching over the seat for the notebook and pen resting on the front passenger seat. “Now, which one is which?”

His face glowing with the kind of pride most men his age took in showing off pictures of their grandchildren (or even great-grandkids), Gurney pointed at each kitten in turn, stroking their chemically captured images with a tender, affectionate forefinger, as if chucking each under her painted chin. “This ’un’s Smokey, the tiger gray, and here’s Prissy—see how dainty she looks, with them fox-narrow eyes and little points on her ears?—and right next to her is Mish-Mish, even though they’re both calicos, Mishy’s a little more patchy-colored than usual—”

“‘Mish-Mish’?” I asked, not knowing how he’d come up with that name; Gurney’s answer surprised—and touched—me.

“Got that name from the Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet, where they put all their funnies and little offbeat articles… was an article about the Middle East, and it mentioned how them A-rabs like cats so much, and how their version of ‘Kitty-kitty’ was ‘Mish-Mish,’ which is their lingo for peach color, on ’count of most of their strays bein’ sorta peachy-orange. See how Mish-Mish’s face is got that big splotch of peach on it? Oh, I know we’re not ’sposed to care what them A-rab folks think, on ’count of them bein’ the enemy or whatnot, but you can’t fault a people who care so much for their cats too much. Heard tell the Egyptians worshiped their cats, like gods… done up their pets as mummies, the whole shebang. So’s I don’t even mind when their descendants says they hate us, long as they take care of their cats—’cause a man who can hate a cat can’t much like hisself, I says.”

I had to laugh at that; before Gurney could go on, I quoted Mark Twain from memory: “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve the man but deteriorate the cat—”

Now it was Gurney’s turn to laugh, until he spittle-flecked his shirt collar before he went on, “Anyhows, next to Mish-Mish is Tinker, only you can’t tell from lookin’ at her that she’s a girl, on ’count of her only bein’ two colors and all, but from personal experience, most gray cats with white feet I’ve seen’s been girls. Don’t know why that is… sorta like how you never see a white cat with black feet and chest, like you see black cats with white socks and bibs. Funny how nature works that way, ain’t it?”

Having told me the names of the “little girls” (which I duly wrote down in my notebook), Gurney began paging through the rest of the album, matching heretofore anonymous painted felines with the names that somehow made them real—at least to the man who created them: black-bodied and white-socked Ming, with his clear, clear green eyes and luxurious long fur with a couple of mats along the chest; calico Beanie with her rounded gray chin and owl-like yellow-green eyes; dandelion-fuzzy Stan and Ollie, black-and-white tuxedo-patterned kittens, one obviously fatter, but both still too wobbly-limbed and tiny-eared to look anything but pick-me-up adorable; and too many more to remember offhand (thank goodness I had many clean pages left in my notebook that afternoon). But once each cat was named, I could never again look at it as just another Katz’s Tobacco cat; for instance, knowing that Beanie was Beanie made her into a cat, one with a history and a personality… you just knew that she was full of beans when she was a kitten, getting into things, playing with her tail until she’d spun herself like a dime-store top… And for a moment, Gurney’s cats became more than pigment and imagination. Not unlike the work of regular canvas-easels-and-palette artists, or those natural-born billboard painters, the legendary ones who never needed to use those gridlike blue-prints to create the advertisements.

It was sad, really, how that reporter had missed out on the essence of Gurney’s work; all the “pup reporter” seemed to be interested in was how long Gurney had been at it.

As Gurney looked at the last of the barn pictures I’d taken and enlarged, he said shyly, “I feel sorta humbled by this and all… it’s like I was one of them art-fart painter guys, in a gallery ’stead of a regular workin’ Joe… Oh, not that I’m not pleased… it’s just… oh, I dunno. It just seems funny to have my cats all put in a book form, ’stead of them just bein’ out where they are, in the open and all. Like they was suddenly domesticated ’stead of bein’ regular barn kitties.”

I didn’t know how to answer that; I realized that Gurney must be astute enough to realize that his signs were works of art—he may have been slightly inarticulate, and most likely unschooled, but he wasn’t ignorant by any means—he was obviously in a quandary; on the one hand, he was from a time when work was simply something you got paid for, period; yet on the other hand, the fact that he’d been interviewed on TV and caught me taking pictures of his efforts must have been an indication that his work was something special. He couldn’t quite cope with having a fuss being made over something he’d considered to be paid labor.

I gently lifted the book off his lap and placed it on the seat between us before saying, “I can empathize with you there… I work as an advertising photographer, taking pictures of products for clients, and when someone praises me for my composition, or whatever, it can be a strange feeling… especially since I’m just a go-between when it comes to the product and the consumer—”

Gurney’s watery pale-blue eyes were darting around as I spoke, and for a moment I was afraid that I was losing his attention, but instead he surprised me by saying, “I think Fella’s lost his shyness… the sun’s been shining for a good minute now.”

Quickly, I got out of the car and positioned myself in front of the barn; true to Gurney’s word, Fella was no longer shy, but exposed in all his sunlit perfection against the sun-weathered barn. It’s funny, but even though the lettering next to the cat was badly flaked, I could almost see every individual hair of the tomcat’s fur.

And behind me, Hobart Gurney took a noisy slurp of soda as he repeated, in the way of old men you find in every small town, “Yessirree, my Fella’s not shy anymore…”

I said good-bye to Gurney a couple of hours later, outside the adult day-care center and seniors apartment where he lived; without going in, I knew what his room must be like—single bed, with a worn ripcord bedspread, some issues of Reader’s Digest large-print edition on the bed-stand, and a doorless closet filled with not too many clothes hanging from those crochet-covered hangers, and—most depressing of all—no animals at all to keep him company. It was the sort of place where they only bring in some puppies or kittens when the local newspaper editor wants a set of human interest pictures for the inner spread during a dull news week—“Oldsters with Animals” on their afghan-covered laps.

Not the sort of place where suddenly-small men snuggle with litters of barn cats in a bed of straw…

With an almost comic formality, Gurney thanked me for the Pepsi and for “letting me see the kitties” in my album. I asked him if he got out much, to see the signs in person, but instantly regretted my words when he nonchalantly spit at his feet before saying, “Don’t get ’round much since I turned in my driver’s license… my hands aren’t as steady as they used to be, be it with a brush or with a steering wheel. Once I almost run over a cat crossing a back road and tol’ myself, ‘This is it, Hobart’ even though the cat, she got away okay. Wasn’t worth the risk…”

Not knowing what else to do, I opened the back door of the car and brought out the album; Gurney didn’t want to take it at first, even though I assured him that I had another set of prints plus the negatives back in my studio in New York City. The way he brushed the outside of the album with his fingers, as if the imitation leather was soft tiger-stripe fur, was almost too much for me; knowing that I couldn’t stay, couldn’t see any more of this, I bid him farewell and left him standing in front of the oldsters’ home, album of kitties in his hands. I know I should’ve done more, but what could I do? Really? I’d given him back his cats; I couldn’t give him back his old life… and what he’d shared with me already hurt too much, especially his revelation of the smallness fantasy. I mean, how often do even people who are close to each other, like old friends, or family, reveal such intimate, deeply needing things like that—especially without being asked to? Once you know things like that about a person, it gets a little hard to face them without feeling like you have a bought-from-a-comic-book-ad pair of X-ray glasses capable of peering into their soul. Nobody should be that vulnerable to another living being.

Especially one they hardly know…

A few days after I met Hobart Gurney my vacation in the Midwest was over, and I returned to my studio, to turn lifeless sample products into… something potentially essential to people who didn’t know they needed that thing until that month’s issue of Vanity Fair or Cosmopolitan arrived in the mail, and they finally got around to paging through the magazine after getting home from work. Not that I felt responsible for turning the unknown into the essential; even when I got to keep what I photographed, it didn’t mean squat to me. I could appreciate my work, respect my better efforts… but I never gave a pet name to a bottle of men’s cologne, if you get my drift. And I envied Hobart for being able to love what he did, because he had the freedom to do it the way he wanted to. And because the now-defunct Katz’s Chewing Tobacco people could’ve cared less what he painted next to their logo. (Oh, for such benign indifference when it came to my work!)

But I also pitied Hobart, because letting go of what you’ve come to love is a hard, hard thing, which makes the lending of that creative, loving process all the harder to take, especially when the ending is an involuntary thing. What had the old man said in the TV interview? That he was too old to climb the ladder anymore? That had to have been as bad as him realizing that he couldn’t drive safely anymore…

And the funny thing was, I got the feeling that if he could have climbed those ladders, he would’ve still been putting those man-sized cats on barns, whether Katz’s paid him or not.

I honestly couldn’t say the same about what I did for a living.

I was in the middle of shooting a series of pictures of a new women’s cologne, which happened to come in a bottle that resembled a piece of industrial flotsam more than a container for a fragrance boasting “top notes of green, with cinnamon undercurrents”—whatever that meant, since the stuff smelled like dime-store deodorant, when my studio phone rang. I had the answering machine on Call Screening, so I could hear it while not missing out on my next shot… but I hurried to the phone when a tentative-sounding voice asked, “Uhm… are you the one who dropped Mr. Gurney off at the home a couple of months ago?”

“Yeah, you’re speaking to me, not the machine—”

The woman on the other end began without preamble, “Sorry to bother you, but we found your card in Mr. Gurney’s room… the last anyone saw of him he was carrying that album you give him under his arm, before he went for his walk, only he never went for a walk for a week before—”

The sick feeling began in my stomach and soon fanned out all over my body; as the woman in charge of the old people’s home rambled on, telling me that no one in the area had seen the old man after he’d accepted a lift from someone with Canadian plates on his car, which naturally meant that he could be anywhere, but maybe headed for New York. I shook my head, even though the woman couldn’t possibly see me, as I cut in “No, ma’am, don’t even try looking here. He’s not far away… I’m sure of it. If he’s not still in Little Egypt, he’s across the border in Kentucky… just look for the Katz’s Tobacco signs—”

“The what?”

I pressed the receiver against my chest, muttered You stupid old biddy just to make myself feel better, then told her, “He painted signs, on barns… he’s saying good-bye to the signs,” and as I said the last few words, I wondered at my own choice of words… even as my own artist’s instincts—instincts Gurney and I shared—told me that I had, indeed, chosen my words correctly.

Despite the fact that the woman from the rest home had gotten her information from me, she never bothered to call me back when Hobart Gurney’s body was found, half buried in the unmown grass surrounding one of the abandoned barns bearing his loving handiwork; I found out about his death along with all the other people watching CNN that late-fall evening—the network reran the piece about his last or next-to-last sign-painting job, along with an oddly sentimental obituary that ended with a close-up of the “little girls,” whose particular sign the old man’s body had been found under. The camera zoomed in for a close-up of Mish-Mish, with her patchwork face of mixed tan and gray and white, with that peach-colored blotch over one eye, and she looked so poignant yet so real that no one watching her—be they a cat lover or not—could fail to realize what may’ve been more difficult to realize during that warts-and-all initial CNN interview, which plainly showed how unsophisticated and gauche Hobart Gurney may have seemed to be on the outside (so much so, perhaps, that it made underestimating his work all the easier): that Gurney was more than a great artist: He was a genius, easily on the par of Grandma Moses or anyone of her ilk.

J. C. Suarès was the first person to put out a book devoted to Katz’s Cats, as Gurney’s creations were to become popularly known. Many famous photographers, including Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz, and Avedon, took in that collection; I wasn’t one of them, but I did get on that other collection put together for one of the AIDS charities. Then came the specials on what Gurney would’ve called the “art-fart” stations, and there’s even been word of a postage stamp bearing his likeness, along with one of the Katz’s Cats.

The irony was, I seriously doubt Gurney would’ve truly enjoyed all the fuss made about his work; what he’d created was too private for all that. Not when he’d so lovingly stroked the images of his “little girls” faces in that rental car of mine, and not when he’d so spontaneously shared that cat-size dream of his from his barn-mucking boyhood so many years—and barn cats—ago. But at least for me, there was one benefit from his life, and his work, becoming so public: It gave me an opportunity to find out what really happened to him, without my needing to visit that depressing small town where I’d met him or to actually see his all-but-empty cell-like adult day-care bedroom.

Some policemen found his body, almost covered by long, dead grass, just below the barn where he’d painted the “little girls”; he was curled on his left side, almost in a fetal position, with both hands covering his face, not unlike a cat at sleep or rest. Supposedly it was a heart attack, but that didn’t account for the abrasions on his exposed face and hands; a rough, red, rash-like disruption on his flesh, which was eventually dismissed as fire-ant bites. Nor did the “official” cause of death account for the blissful look on his face that the policeman in one A&E special described; you don’t have to be a doctor to know that heart attacks are painful.

Nor do you need to be an expert on cats—especially big cats—to know what a cat’s tongue can do to unprotected flesh, especially when they get it into their heads to keep licking and licking while snuggled together in a pile of warm, furry flesh.

Maybe Hobart Gurney didn’t mean to say good-bye per se during that self-prescribed tour of his creations; maybe he’d just grown nostalgic after seeing the pictures I’d given to him. Funny how he took the album with him, when he’d never forgotten a single cat he’d created, but then again, no one will ever know what drove him to turn a Depression-era job taken despite an aversion to heights into something more than his life’s work. Perhaps my decision to collect photographs of his work ultimately led to his death, which I heard about on the CNN news. But if that is so, I can’t quite feel guilty about it—after all, Gurney hadn’t painted cats in years; true, nothing stopped him from painting them on canvas, but I don’t think that was Gurney’s way at all.

Hadn’t he said that what he was doing was work, something he was supposed to be doing? I doubt that the notion of painting for himself applied to his practical mind, just as I doubt that he could have foreseen a day when his cats would be severed from the very barns on which they lived, to be taken in wall-size chunks and “domesticated” in museums and art galleries all over the country.

Or… maybe he did have an inkling of what would happen, and knew that he wouldn’t have his cats to himself for very much longer…

And, considering what was written on his tombstone—by whom, I don’t know—I don’t think I’m the only person who maybe knows what really happened to Hobart Gurney, down in the long, dead, flattened grass below the “little girls”… for this is what is carved on his barn-gray tombstone:

No Heaven will not ever Heaven be,
Unless my Cats are there to Welcome me.

All I can say is, I hope it was warm, and soft, and loving, there in the long, dead grass, with the little girls…

In memory of:

Beanie, Ming, Fella, Ollie, Stan, Puddin’, Blackie, Cupcake, Smokie, Prissy, Mish-Mish, Dewie, Rusty, Precious, Puff, Lucky, Eric, Sweetheart, Jack, Early Grey, Charlie, Dolly, Maynard, Willie, Gwen, Laya, Spunky, Belle, Stripes, Boo, Moo-Moo, Bruiser, Monkey, Goldie, Poco, Butterball, Spooky, Silky, Ladybug, Orangey, Ko-Ko, Frosty, Simba, Rosie, Mrs. T., Mister, Muffin (Bubba), Speedy, Whiskers, Bitsy, Purr-Bear, Kay-Tu, Chloe, Bippy, Brutis, Teddy, Amelia, Elmo, Alphie, Gloria, Woody, Jezebel, Tigger, Pansy, Oscar, April, Peokoe, Meg, Adrian, Sylvester, Baby, Marco Polo, Lovey, Candy, Lola, Lacy, Poopie (Violet), Queenie, Otto, Babykins, Momma Cat, Cutie Pie, Sandy, Beauty, Sean, Chewie, Scooter, Mittens, Taffy, Boo Boo, Clyde, Bailey, Gummitch, Dundee, Chatty, Princess, Pinky, Apollo, Amber, Denise, Callie, Bijou, Squeeky, Cee-Cee, Felix, Boogie, Little Boy, Sugarplum, Tweetie Pie, Ruby, Penny, Fluffy (II), Pumpkin, Casper, Boots, Jet, Honey, Beau, Angel, Mack, Bugsy, Miss Kitty, Katie, June Bug, Cinnamon, Tippi, Gracie, Quinn, Grady, Trudy, Baby Biscuit, May, and Mongo.

THE PRICE

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is the Newbery-winning author of The Graveyard Book and a New York Times bestseller, whose books have been made into major motion pictures including the recent Coraline. He is also famous for the “Sandman” graphic novel series, and for numerous other books and comics for adult, young adult, and younger readers. He has won the Hugo, Nebula, Mythopoeic, World Fantasy, and other awards. He is also the author of powerful short stories and poems.

“The Price” is a lovely mystical, powerful, and moving tale that Gaiman admits is also more or less true. At least, the narrator in this story “is pretty much me, the house is my house, the cats my cats, and the family is my family. The black cat was just as I have described him.”

Tramps and vagabonds have marks they make on gateposts and trees and doors, letting others of their kind know a little about the people who live at the houses and farms they pass on their travels. I think cats must leave similar signs; how else to explain the cats who turn up at our door through the year, hungry and flea-ridden and abandoned?

We take them in. We get rid of the fleas and the ticks, feed them and take them to the vet. We pay for them to get their shots, and, indignity upon indignity, we have them neutered or spayed.

And they stay with us, for a few months, or for a year, or for ever.

Most of them arrive in summer. We live in the country, just the right distance out of town for the city-dwellers to abandon their cats near us.

We never seem to have more than eight cats, rarely have less than three. The cat population of my house is currently as follows: Hermione and Pod, tabby and black respectively, the mad sisters who live in my attic office, and do not mingle; Princess, the blue-eyed long-haired white cat, who lived wild in the woods for years before she gave up her wild ways for soft sofas and beds; and, last but largest, Furball, Princess’s cushion-like calico long-haired daughter, orange and black and white, whom I discovered as a tiny kitten in our garage one day, strangled and almost dead, her head poked through an old badminton net, and who surprised us all by not dying but instead growing up to be the best-natured cat I have ever encountered.

And then there is the black cat. Who has no other name than the Black Cat, and who turned up almost a month ago. We did not realize he was going to be living here at first: he looked too well-fed to be a stray, too old and jaunty to have been abandoned. He looked like a small panther, and he moved like a patch of night.

One day, in the summer, he was lurking about our ramshackle porch: eight or nine years old, at a guess, male, greenish-yellow of eye, very friendly, quite unperturbable. I assumed he belonged to a neighboring farmer or household.

I went away for a few weeks, to finish writing a book, and when I came home he was still on our porch, living in an old cat-bed one of the children had found for him. He was, however, almost unrecognizable. Patches of fur had gone, and there were deep scratches on his grey skin. The tip of one ear was chewed away. There was a gash beneath one eye, a slice gone from one lip. He looked tired and thin.

We took the Black Cat to the vet, where we got him some antibiotics, which we fed him each night, along with soft cat food.

We wondered who he was fighting. Princess, our white, beautiful, near-feral queen? Raccoons? A rat-tailed, fanged possum?

Each night the scratches would be worse—one night his side would be chewed-up; the next, it would be his underbelly, raked with claw marks and bloody to the touch.

When it got to that point, I took him down to the basement to recover, beside the furnace and the piles of boxes. He was surprisingly heavy, the Black Cat, and I picked him up and carried him down there, with a cat-basket, and a litter bin, and some food and water. I closed the door behind me. I had to wash the blood from my hands, when I left the basement.

He stayed down there for four days. At first he seemed too weak to feed himself: a cut beneath one eye had rendered him almost one-eyed, and he limped and lolled weakly, thick yellow pus oozing from the cut in his lip.

I went down there every morning and every night, and I fed him, and gave him antibiotics, which I mixed with his canned food, and I dabbed at the worst of the cuts, and spoke to him. He had diarrhea, and, although I changed his litter daily, the basement stank evilly.

The four days that the Black Cat lived in the basement were a bad four days in my house: the baby slipped in the bath, and banged her head, and might have drowned; I learned that a project I had set my heart on—adapting Hope Mirrlees’ novel Lud in the Mist for the BBC—was no longer going to happen, and I realized that I did not have the energy to begin again from scratch, pitching it to other networks, or to other media; my daughter left for Summer Camp, and immediately began to send home a plethora of heart-tearing letters and cards, five or six each day, imploring us to take her away; my son had some kind of fight with his best friend, to the point that they were no longer on speaking terms; and returning home one night, my wife hit a deer, who ran out in front of the car. The deer was killed, the car was left undriveable, and my wife sustained a small cut over one eye.

By the fourth day, the cat was prowling the basement, walking haltingly but impatiently between the stacks of books and comics, the boxes of mail and cassettes, of pictures and of gifts and of stuff. He mewed at me to let him out and, reluctantly, I did so.

He went back onto the porch, and slept there for the rest of the day.

The next morning there were deep, new gashes in his flanks, and clumps of black cat hair—his—covered the wooden boards of the porch.

Letters arrived that day from my daughter, telling us that Camp was going better, and she thought she could survive a few days; my son and his friend sorted out their problem, although what the argument was about—trading cards, computer games, Star Wars or a Girl—I would never learn. The BBC Executive who had vetoed Lud in the Mist was discovered to have been taking bribes (well, “questionable loans”) from an independent production company, and was sent home on permanent leave: his successor, I was delighted to learn, when she faxed me, was the woman who had initially proposed the project to me before leaving the BBC.

I thought about returning the Black Cat to the basement, but decided against it. Instead, I resolved to try and discover what kind of animal was coming to our house each night, and from there to formulate a plan of action—to trap it, perhaps.

For birthdays and at Christmas my family gives me gadgets and gizmos, pricy toys which excite my fancy but, ultimately, rarely leave their boxes. There is a food dehydrator and an electric carving knife, a bread-making machine, and, last year’s present, a pair of see-in-the-dark binoculars. On Christmas Day I had put the batteries into the binoculars, and had walked about the basement in the dark, too impatient even to wait until nightfall, stalking a flock of imaginary Starlings. (You were warned not to turn it on in the light: that would have damaged the binoculars, and quite possibly your eyes as well.) Afterwards I had put the device back into its box, and it sat there still, in my office, beside the box of computer cables and forgotten bits and pieces.

Perhaps, I thought, if the creature, dog or cat or raccoon or what-have-you, were to see me sitting on the porch, it would not come, so I took a chair into the box-and-coat-room, little larger than a closet, which overlooks the porch, and, when everyone in the house was asleep, I went out onto the porch, and bade the Black Cat goodnight.

That cat, my wife had said, when he first arrived, is a person. And there was something very person-like in his huge, leonine face: his broad black nose, his greenish-yellow eyes, his fanged but amiable mouth (still leaking amber pus from the right lower lip).

I stroked his head, and scratched him beneath the chin, and wished him well. Then I went inside, and turned off the light on the porch.

I sat on my chair, in the darkness inside the house, with the see-in-the-dark binoculars on my lap. I had switched the binoculars on, and a trickle of greenish light came from the eyepieces.

Time passed, in the darkness.

I experimented with looking at the darkness with the binoculars, learning to focus, to see the world in shades of green. I found myself horrified by the number of swarming insects I could see in the night air: it was as if the night world were some kind of nightmarish soup, swimming with life. Then I lowered the binoculars from my eyes, and stared out at the rich blacks and blues of the night, empty and peaceful and calm.

Time passed. I struggled to keep awake, found myself profoundly missing cigarettes and coffee, my two lost addictions. Either of them would have kept my eyes open. But before I had tumbled too far into the world of sleep and dreams a yowl from the garden jerked me fully awake. I fumbled the binoculars to my eyes, and was disappointed to see that it was merely Princess, the white cat, streaking across the front garden like a patch of greenish-white light. She vanished into the woodland to the left of the house, and was gone.

I was about to settle myself back down, when it occurred to me to wonder what exactly had startled Princess so, and I began scanning the middle distance with the binoculars, looking for a huge raccoon, a dog, or a vicious possum. And there was indeed something coming down the driveway, towards the house. I could see it through the binoculars, clear as day.

It was the Devil.

I had never seen the Devil before, and, although I had written about him in the past, if pressed would have confessed that I had no belief in him, other than as an imaginary figure, tragic and Miltonion. The figure coming up the driveway was not Milton’s Lucifer. It was the Devil.

My heart began to pound in my chest, to pound so hard that it hurt. I hoped it could not see me, that, in a dark house, behind window-glass, I was hidden.

The figure flickered and changed as it walked up the drive. One moment it was dark, bull-like, minotaurish, the next it was slim and female, and the next it was a cat itself, a scarred, huge grey-green wildcat, its face contorted with hate.

There are steps that lead up to my porch, four white wooden steps in need of a coat of paint (I knew they were white, although they were, like everything else, green through my binoculars). At the bottom of the steps, the Devil stopped, and called out something that I could not understand, three, perhaps four words in a whining, howling language that must have been old and forgotten when Babylon was young; and, although I did not understand the words, I felt the hairs raise on the back of my head as it called.

And then I heard, muffled through the glass, but still audible, a low growl, a challenge, and, slowly, unsteadily, a black figure walked down the steps of the house, away from me, toward the Devil. These days the Black Cat no longer moved like a panther, instead he stumbled and rocked, like a sailor only recently returned to land.

The Devil was a woman, now. She said something soothing and gentle to the cat, in a tongue that sounded like French, and reached out a hand to him. He sank his teeth into her arm, and her lip curled, and she spat at him.

The woman glanced up at me, then, and if I had doubted that she was the Devil before, I was certain of it now: the woman’s eyes flashed red fire at me; but you can see no red through the night-vision binoculars, only shades of a green. And the Devil saw me, through the window. It saw me. I am in no doubt about that at all.

The Devil twisted and writhed, and now it was some kind of jackal, a flat-faced, huge-headed, bull-necked creature, halfway between a hyena and a dingo. There were maggots squirming in its mangy fur, and it began to walk up the steps.

The Black Cat leapt upon it, and in seconds they became a rolling, writhing thing, moving faster than my eyes could follow.

All this in silence.

And then a low roar—down the country road at the bottom of our drive, in the distance, lumbered a late-night truck, its blazing headlights burning bright as green suns through the binoculars. I lowered them from my eyes, and saw only darkness, and the gentle yellow of headlights, and then the red of rear lights as it vanished off again into the nowhere at all.

When I raised the binoculars once more there was nothing to be seen. Only the Black Cat, on the steps, staring up into the air. I trained the binoculars up, and saw something flying away—a vulture, perhaps, or an eagle—and then it flew beyond the trees and was gone.

I went out onto the porch, and picked up the Black Cat, and stroked him, and said kind, soothing things to him. He mewled piteously when I first approached him, but, after a while, he went to sleep on my lap, and I put him into his basket, and went upstairs to my bed, to sleep myself. There was dried blood on my tee shirt and jeans, the following morning.

That was a week ago.

The thing that comes to my house does not come every night. But it comes most nights: we know it by the wounds on the cat, and the pain I can see in those leonine eyes. He has lost the use of his front left paw, and his right eye has closed for good.

I wonder what we did to deserve the Black Cat. I wonder who sent him. And, selfish and scared, I wonder how much more he has to give.

DARK EYES, FAITH, AND DEVOTION

Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is a full-time writer and musician who presently makes his home in Ottawa, Canada, with his wife MaryAnn Harris, an artist and musician. His most recent books are Widdershins, Promises to Keep, Dingo, and The Mystery of Grace. Other recent publications include the collections The Hour Before Dawn, Triskell Tales 2, and Muse and Reverie. For more information about his work, visit his website at www.charlesdelint.com.

Many of de Lint’s short stories take place in the fictional city of Newford and “Dark Eyes, Faith, and Devotion” is one of them. In it, an atypical taxi driver provides an atypical favor for one of his fares, with unexpected results.

I’ve just finished cleaning the vomit my last fare left in the back seat—his idea of a tip, I guess, since he actually short-changed me a couple of bucks—and I’m back cruising when the woman flags me down on Gracie Street, outside one of those girl-on-girl clubs. I’ll tell you, I’m as open-minded as the next guy, but it breaks my heart when I see a looker like this playing for the other team. She’s enough to give me sweet dreams for the rest of the week, and this is only Monday night.

She’s about five-seven or five-eight and dark-skinned—Hispanic, maybe, or Indian. I can’t tell. I just know she’s gorgeous. Jet black hair hanging straight down her back and she’s all decked out in net stockings, spike heels, and a short black dress that looks like it’s been sprayed on and glistens like satin. Somehow she manages to pull it off without looking like a hooker. It’s got to be her babydoll face—made up to a T, but so innocent all you want to do is keep her safe and take care of her. After you’ve slept with her, mind.

I watch her in the rearview mirror as she gets into the backseat—showing plenty of leg with that short dress of hers and not shy about my seeing it. We both know that’s all I’m getting and I’m lucky to get that much. She wrinkles her nose and I can’t tell if it’s some linger of l’eau de puke or the Lysol I sprayed on the seat after I cleaned up the mess my last fare left behind.

Hell, maybe it’s me.

“What can I do for you, ma’am?” I ask.

She’s got these big, dark eyes and they fix on mine in the rearview mirror, just holding on to my gaze like we’re the only two people in the world.

“How far are you willing to go?” she asks.

Dressed like she is, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a come-on. Hell, that was my first thought anyway, doesn’t matter she’s playing on that other team. But there’s that cherub innocence thing she’s got going for her and, well, take a look at a pug like me and you know the one thing that isn’t going to happen is some pretty girl’s going to make a play for me from the back seat of my cab.

“I can take you any place you need to go,” I tell her, playing it safe.

“And if I need something else?” she asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t deal with anything that might put me inside.”

I almost said “back inside,” but that’s not something she needs to know. Though maybe she already does. Maybe when I pulled over she saw the prison tattoos on my arms—you know, you put them on with a pin and the ink from a ballpoint so they always come out looking kind of scratchy and blue.

“Someone has stolen my cat,” she says. “I was hoping you might help me get her back.”

I turn right around in my seat to look at her straight on. I decide she’s Hispanic from her accent. I like the Spanish warmth it puts on her words.

“Your cat,” I say. “You mean like a pet?”

“Something like that. I really do need someone to help me steal her back.”

I laugh. I can’t help it.

“So what, you flag down the first cab you see and figure whoever’s driving it’ll take a short break from cruising for fares to help you creep some joint?”

“Creep?” she asks.

“Break in. But quietly, you know, because you’re hoping you won’t get caught.”

She shakes her head.

“No,” she says. “I just thought you might.”

“And that would be because…?”

“You’ve got kind eyes.”

People have said a lot of things about me over the years, but that’s something I’ve never heard before. It’s like telling a wolf he’s got a nice smile. I’ve been told I’ve got dead eyes, or a hard stare, but no one’s ever had anything nice to say about them before. I don’t know if it’s because of that, or if it’s because of that innocence she carries that just makes you want to take care of her, but I find myself nodding.

“Sure,” I tell her. “Why not? It’s a slow night. Where can we find this cat of yours?”

“First I need to go home and get changed,” she says. “I can’t go—what was the word you used?” She smiles. “Creep a house wearing this.”

Well, she could, I think, and it would sure make it interesting for me if I was hoisting her up to a window, but I just nod again.

“No problem,” I tell her. “Where do you live?”

This whole situation would drive Hank crazy.

We did time together a while back—we’d each pulled a stretch and they ran in tandem for a few years. It’s all gangs inside now and since we weren’t either of us black or Indian or Hispanic, and we sure as hell weren’t going to run with the Aryans, we ended up passing a lot of the time with each other. He told me to look him up when I got out and he’d fix me up. A lot of guys say that, but they don’t mean it. You’re trying to do good and you want some hardcase showing up at your home or place of employment? I don’t think so.

So I wouldn’t have bothered, but Hank never said something unless he meant it, and since I really did want to take a shot at walking the straight and narrow this time out, I took him up on it.

He hooked me up with this guy named Moth who runs a Gypsy cab company out of a junkyard—you know, the wheels aren’t licensed but so long as no one looks too hard at the piece of bureaucratic paper stuck on the back of the driver’s seat, it’s the kind of thing you can get away with. You just make a point of cruising for fares in the parts of town that the legit cabbies prefer to stay out of.

So Hank gave me the break to make good, and Moth laid one piece of advice on me—“Don’t get involved with your fares”—and I’ve been doing okay, keeping my nose clean, making enough to pay for a room in a boarding house, even stashing a little extra cash away on the side.

Funny thing is, I like this gig. I’m not scared to take the rough fares and I’m big enough that the freaks don’t mess with me. Occasionally I even get someone like the woman I picked up on Gracie Street.

None of which explains why I’m parked outside a house across town on Marett Street, getting ready to bust in and rescue a cat.

My partner-in-crime is sitting in the front with me now. Her name’s Luisa Jaramillo. She’s changed into a tight black T-shirt with a pair of baggy faded jean overalls, black hightops on her feet. Most of her make-up’s gone and her hair’s hidden under a baseball cap turned backwards. She still looks gorgeous. Maybe more than she did before.

“What’s your cat’s name?” I ask.

“Patience.”

I shrug. “That’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.”

“No, that’s her name,” Luisa says. “Patience.”

“And this guy that stole her is…?”

“My ex-boyfriend. My very recent ex-boyfriend.”

That’s what I get for jumping to conclusions, I think. Hell, I was cruising Gracie Street. That doesn’t automatically put me on the other team either. Only don’t get me wrong. I’m not getting my hopes up or anything. I know I’m just a pug and all she’s doing is using me for this gig because I’m handy and I said I’d do it. There’s not going to be any fairy tale reward once we get kitty back from her ex. I’ll be lucky to get a handshake.

So why am I doing it?

I’ll lay it out straight: I’m bored. I’ve got a head that never stops working. I’m always considering the percentages, making plans. When I said I’d come to enjoy driving a cab, I was telling the truth. I do. But you’re talking to a guy who’s spent the better part of his life working out deals, and when the deals didn’t pan out, he just went in and took what he needed. That’s what put me inside.

They don’t put a whole lot of innocent people in jail. I’m not saying they aren’t biased towards what most people think of as the dregs of society—the homeboys and Indians and white trash I was raised to be—but most of us doing our time, we did the crime.

Creeping some stranger’s house gives me a buzz like a junkie getting a fix. I don’t get the shakes when I go cold turkey like I’ve been doing these past couple of months, but the jones is still there. Tonight I’m just cozying it up with a sugar coating of doing the shiny white knight bit, that’s all.

I never even stopped to ask her why we were stealing a cat. I just thought, let’s do it. But when you think about it, who steals cats? You lose your cat, you just go get another one. We never had pets when I was a kid, so maybe that’s why I don’t get it. In our house the kids were the pets, only we weren’t so well-treated as I guess Luisa’s cat is. Somebody ever took one of us, the only thing Ma’d regret is the cut in her cheque from social services.

You want another reason? I don’t often get a chance to hang out with a pretty girl like this.

“So what’s the plan?” I ask.

“The man who lives in that house is very powerful,” Luisa says.

“Your ex.”

She nods.

“So he’s what? A politician? A lawyer? A drug dealer?”

“No, no. Much more powerful than that. He’s a brujo—a witch man. That is not a wrong thing in itself, but his medicine is very bad. He is an evil man.”

I give her the same blank look I’m guessing anybody would.

“I can see you don’t believe me,” she says.

“It’s more like I don’t understand,” I tell her.

“It doesn’t matter. I tell you this only so that you won’t look into his eyes. No matter what, do not meet his gaze with your own.”

“Or what? He’ll turn me into a pumpkin?”

“Something worse,” she says in all seriousness.

She gets out of the car before I can press her on it, but I’m not about to let it go. I get out my side and join her on the sidewalk. She takes my hand and leads me quickly into the shadows cast by a tall hedge that runs the length of the property, separating her ex’s house from its neighbours. I like the feel of her skin against mine. She lets go all too soon.

“What’s really going on here?” I ask her. “I mean, I pick you up outside a girl bar on Gracie Street where you’re dressed like a hooker, and now we’re about to creep some magic guy’s house to get your cat back. None of this is making a whole lot of sense.”

“And yet you are here.”

I give her a slow nod. “Maybe I should never have looked in your eyes,” I say.

I’m joking, but she’s still all seriousness when she answers.

“I would never do such a thing to another human being,” she tells me. “Yes, I went out looking the way I did in hopes of attracting a man such as you, but there was no magic involved.”

I focus on the “a man such as you,” not sure I like what it says about what she thinks of me. I may not look like much, which translates into a lot of nights spent on my own, but I’ve never paid for it.

“You looked like a prostitute, trying to pick up a john or some freak.”

She actually smiles, her teeth flashing in the shadows, white against her dark skin.

“No, I was searching for a man who would desire me enough to want to be close to me, but who had the heart to listen to my story and the compassion to want to help once he knew the trouble I was in.”

“I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” I tell her. “Neither of those are things I’m particularly known for.”

“And yet you are here,” she says again. “And you shouldn’t sell yourself short. Sometimes we don’t fulfill our potential only because there is no one in our life to believe in us.”

I’ve got an idea where she’s going with that—Hank and Moth have talked about that kind of thing some nights when we’re sitting around a campfire in the junkyard, not to mention every damn social worker who’s actually trying to do their job—but I don’t want to go there with her any more than I do with them. It’s a nice theory, but I’ve never bought it. Your life doesn’t go a certain way just because other people think that’s the way it will.

“You were taking a big chance,” I say instead. “You could’ve picked up some freak with a knife who wasn’t going to stop to listen.”

She shakes her head. “No one would have troubled me.”

“But you need my help with your ex.”

“That is different. I have looked in his eyes. He has sewn black threads in my soul and without a champion at my side, I’m afraid he would pull me back under his influence.”

This I understand. I’ve helped a couple of women get out of a bad relationship by pounding a little sense into their ex-boyfriend’s head. It’s amazing how the threat of more of the same is so much more effective than a restraining order.

“So you’re looking for some muscle to pound on your ex.”

“I’m hoping that won’t be necessary. You wouldn’t want him for an enemy.”

“Some people say you’re judged by your enemies.”

“Then you would be considered a powerful man, too,” she says.

“So the get-up you had on was like a costume.”

She nods, but even in the shadows I can see the bitter look that comes into her eyes.

“I have many ‘costumes’ such as that,” she says. “My boyfriend insists I wear them in order to appear attractive. He likes it that men would desire me, but could not have me.”

“Boy, what planet is he from?” I say. “You could wear a burlap sack and you’d still be drop-dead gorgeous.”

“You did not like the dress?”

I shrug. “What can I say? I’m a guy. Of course I liked it. I’m just saying you don’t need it.”

“You are very sweet.”

Again with the making nice. Funny thing is, I don’t want to argue it with her anymore. I find I like the idea that someone’d say these kinds of things to me. But I don’t pretend there’s a hope in hell that it’ll ever go past this. Instead I focus on the holes in her story. There are things she isn’t telling me and I say as much, but while she can’t help but look a little guilty, she doesn’t share them either.

“Look,” I tell her. “It doesn’t matter what they are. I just need to know, are they going to get in the way of our getting the job done?”

“I don’t think so.”

I wait a moment but she’s still playing those cards pretty much as close to her vest as she can. I wonder how many of them are wild.

“Okay,” I say. “So we’ll just do it. But we need to make a slight detour first. Do you think your cat can hold out for another hour or so?”

She nods.

She doesn’t ask any questions when I pull up behind a plant nursery over on East Kelly Street. I jimmy the lock on the back door like it’s not even there—hey, it’s what I do; or at least used to do—and slip inside. It takes me a moment to track down what I’m looking for, using the beam of a cheap key-ring flashlight to read labels. Finally, I find the shelf I need.

I cut a hole in a small bag of diatomaceous earth and carefully pour a bit of it into each of my jacket’s pockets. When I replace the bag, I leave a five-spot on the shelf beside it as payment. See, I’m learning. Guys back in prison would be laughing their asses off if they ever heard about this, but I don’t care. I may still bust into some guy’s house to help his ex-girlfriend steal back her cat, but I’m done with taking what I haven’t earned.

“You figure he’s home?” I ask when we pull back up outside the house on Marett.

She nods. “He would not leave her alone—not so soon after stealing her from me.”

“You know where his bedroom is?”

“At the back of the house, on the second floor. He is a light sleeper.”

Of course he would be.

“And your cat,” I say. “Would she have the run of the house, or would he keep her in a cage?”

“He would have… other methods of keeping her docile.”

“The magic eyes business.”

“His power is not a joking matter,” she says.

“I’m taking it seriously,” I tell her.

Though I’m drawing the line at magic. Thing is, I know guys who can do things with their eyes. You see it in prison all the time—whole conversations taking place without a word being exchanged. It’s all in the eyes. Some guys are like a snake, mesmerizing its prey. The eyes lock onto you and before you know what’s going on, he’s stuck a shiv in your gut and you’re down on the floor, trying to keep your life from leaking out of you, your own blood pouring over your hands.

But I’m pretty good with the thousand-yard stare myself.

I get out of the car and we head for the side door in the carport. I’d have had Luisa stay behind in the cab, except I figure her cat’s going to be a lot more docile if she’s there to carry it back out again.

I give the door a visual check for an alarm. There’s nothing obvious, but that doesn’t mean anything, so I ask Luisa about it.

“A man such as he does not need a security system,” she tells me.

“The magic thing again.”

When she nods, I shrug and take a couple of pairs of surgical gloves out of my back pocket. I hand her one pair and put the other on, then get out my picks.

This door takes a little longer than the one behind the nursery did. For a guy who’s got all these magic chops, he’s still sprung for a decent lock. That makes me feel a little better. I’m not saying that Luisa’s gullible or anything, but with guys like this—doesn’t matter what scam they’re running, magic mumbo-jumbo’s not a whole lot different from the threat of a beating—it’s the fear factor that keeps people in line. All you need is for your victim to believe that you can do what you say you’ll do if they don’t toe the line. You don’t actually need magic.

The lock gives up with a soft click. I put my picks away and take out a small can of W-30, spraying each of the hinges before I let the door swing open. Then I lean close to Luisa, my mouth almost touching her ear.

“Where should we start looking?” I say.

My voice is so soft you wouldn’t hear me a few steps away. She replies as quietly, her breath warm against my ear. This close to her I realize that a woman like her smells just as good as she looks. That’s something I just never had the opportunity to learn before.

“The basement,” Luisa says. “If she is not hiding from him there, then he will have her in his bedroom with him. There is a door leading downstairs, just past that cupboard.”

I nod and start for the door she pointed to, my sneakers silent on the tiled floor. Luisa whispers along behind me. I do the hinges on this door, too, and I’m cautious on the steps going down, putting my feet close to the sides of the risers where they’re less liable to wake a creak.

There was a light switch at the top of the stairs. Once I get to the bottom, I stand silent, listening. There’s nothing. I feel along the wall and come across the other switch I was expecting to find.

“Close your eyes,” I tell Luisa.

I do the same thing and flick the switch. There’s a blast of light behind my closed lids. I crack them slightly and take a quick look around. The basement is furnished, casually, like an upscale rec room. There’s an entertainment center against one wall, a wet bar against another. Nice couch set up in front of the TV. I count three doors, all of them slightly ajar. I’m not sure what they lead to. Furnace room, laundry room, workshop. Who knows?

By the time I’m finished looking around my eyes have adjusted to the light. The one thing I don’t see is a cat.

“You want to try calling her?” I ask.

Luisa shakes her head. “I can feel her. She is hiding in there.” She points to one of the mystery doors. “In the storage room.”

I let her go ahead of me, following after. Better the cat see her first than my ugly mug.

We’re halfway across the room when someone speaks from behind us.

<I knew you would return,> a man’s voice says, speaking in Spanish. <And look what you have brought me. A peace offering.>

I turn slowly, not letting on that I know what he’s said. I picked up a lot of Spanish on the street, more in jail. So I just look surprised, which isn’t a stretch. I can’t believe I didn’t feel him approach. When I’m creeping a joint I carry a sixth sense inside me that stretches out throughout the place, letting me know when there’s a change in the air.

Hell, I should at least have heard him on the stairs.

“I have brought you nothing,” Luisa says, speaking English for my benefit, I guess.

<And yet I will have you and your champion. I will make you watch as I strip away his flesh and sharpen my claws on his bones.>

“Please. I ask only for our freedom.”

<You can never be free from me.>

I have to admit he’s a handsome devil. Same dark hair and complexion as Luisa, but there’s no warmth in his eyes.

Oh, I know what Luisa said. Don’t look in his eyes. But the thing is, I don’t play that game. You learn pretty quickly when you’re inside that the one thing you don’t do is back down. Show even a hint of weakness and your fellow inmates will be on you like piranha.

So I just put a hand in the pocket of my jacket and look him straight in the eye, give him my best convict stare.

He smiles. “You are a big one, aren’t you?” he says. “But your size means nothing in this game we will play.”

You ever get into a staring contest? I can see that starting up here, except dark eyes figures he’s going to mesmerize me in seconds, he’s so confident. The funny thing is, I can feel a pull in that gaze of his. His pupils seem to completely fill my sight. I hear a strange whispering in the back of my head and can feel that thousand-yard stare of mine already starting to fray at the edges.

So maybe he’s got some kind of magical power. I don’t know and I don’t care. I take my hand out of my pocket and I’m holding a handful of that diatomaceous earth I picked up earlier in the nursery.

Truth is, I never thought I’d use it. I picked it up as a back-up, nothing more. Like insurance just in case, crazy as it sounded, Luisa really knew what she was talking about. I mean, you hear stories about every damn thing you can think of. I never believed most of what I heard, but a computer’s like magic to someone who’s never seen one before—you know what I’m saying? The world’s big enough and strange enough that pretty much anything can be out there in it, somewhere.

So I’ve got that diatomaceous earth in my hand and I throw it right in his face, because I’m panicking a little at the way those eyes of his are getting right into my head and starting to shut me down inside.

You know anything about that stuff? It’s made of ground up shells and bones that are sharp as glass. Gardeners use it to make barriers for various kinds of insects. The bug crawls over it and gets cut to pieces. It’s incredibly fine—so much so that it doesn’t come through the latex of my gloves—but eyes don’t have that kind of protection.

Imagine what it would do if it got in them.

Tall, dark and broody over there doesn’t have to use his imagination. He lifts his hand as the cloud comes at him, but he’s too late. Too late to wave it away. Too late to close his eyes like I’ve done as I back away from any contact with the stuff.

His eyelids instinctively do what they’re supposed to do in a situation like this—they blink rapidly and the pressure cuts his eyes all to hell and back again.

It doesn’t help when he reaches up with his hands to try to wipe the crap away.

He starts to make this horrible mewling sound and falls to his knees.

I’m over by the wall now, well out of range of the rapidly settling cloud. Looking at him I start to feel a little queasy, thinking I did an overkill on this. I don’t know what went on between him and Luisa—how bad it got, what kind of punishment he deserves—but I think maybe I crossed a line here that I really shouldn’t have.

He lifts his bloodied face, sightless eyes pointed in our direction, and manages to say something else. This time he’s talking in some language I never heard before, ending with some Spanish that I do understand.

<Be so forever,> he cries.

I’m turning to Luisa just then, so I see what happens.

Well, I see it, but it doesn’t register as real. One moment there’s this beautiful dark-haired woman standing there, then she vanishes and there’s only the heap of her clothes left lying on the carpet. I’m still staring slack-jawed when the clothing moves and a sleek black cat wriggles out from under the overalls and darts into the room where Luisa said her cat was.

As I take a step after her, the man starts in with something else in that unrecognizable language. I don’t know if it’s still aimed at Luisa, or if he’s planning to turn me into something, too—hell, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool believer at this point—but I don’t take any chances. I take a few quick steps in his direction and give him a kick in the side of the head. When that doesn’t completely stop him, I give him a couple more.

He finally goes down and stays down.

I turn back to go after Luisa, but before I can, that black cat comes soft-stepping out of the room once more, this time carrying a kitten in its mouth.

“Luisa?” I find myself saying.

I swear, even with that kitten in its mouth, the cat nods. But I don’t even need to see that. I only have to look into her eyes. The cat has Luisa’s eyes, there’s no question in my mind about that.

“Is this… permanent?” I ask.

The cat’s response is to trot by me, giving her unconscious ex’s body a wide berth as she heads for the stairs.

I stand there, looking at the damage I’ve done to her ex for a long, unhappy moment, then I follow her up the stairs. She’s sitting by the door with the kitten, but I can’t leave it like this. I look around the kitchen, not ready to leave yet.

The cat makes a querulous sound, but I ask her to wait and go prowling through the house. I don’t know what I’m looking for, something to justify what I did downstairs, I guess. I don’t find anything, not really. There are spooky masks and icons and other weird magical-looking artifacts scattered throughout the house, but he’s not going to be the first guy that likes to collect that kind of thing. Nothing explains why he needed to have this hold over Luisa and her—I’m not thinking of the kitten as a cat anymore. After what I saw downstairs, I’m sure it’s her kid.

I go upstairs and poke through his office, his bedroom. Still nothing. But then it’s often like that. Too often the guy you’d never suspect of having a bad thought turns out to beating on his family, or goes postal where he works, or some damn crazy thing.

It really makes you wonder—especially with a guy like Luisa’s ex. You find yourself with power like he’s got, why wouldn’t you use it to put something good into the world?

I know, I know. Look who’s talking. But I’m telling you straight, I might have robbed a lot of people, but I never hurt them. Not intentionally. And never a woman or a kid.

I go back downstairs and find the cat still waiting by the kitchen door for me. She’s got a paw on the kitten, holding it in place.

“Let’s go,” I say.

I haven’t even started to think about how a woman can be changed into a cat, or when and if and how she’ll change back again. I can only deal with one thing at a time.

My first impulse is to burn the place to the ground with him in it, but playing the cowboy like that’s just going to put me back inside and it won’t prove anything. I figure I’ve done enough damage and it’s not like he’s going to call the cops. But the first thing I’m going to do when I get home is change the plates on the cab and dig out the spare set of registration papers that Moth provides for all his vehicles.

For now I follow the cats down the driveway. I open the passenger door to the cab. The mama cat grabs her kitten by the skin at the nape of her neck and jumps in. I close the door and walk around to the driver’s side.

I take a last look at the house, remembering the feel of the guy’s eyes inside my head, the relief I felt when the diatomaceous earth got in his eyes and cut them all to hell. There was a lot of blood, but I don’t know how permanent the damage’ll be. Maybe he’ll come after us, but I doubt it. Nine out of ten times, a guy like that just folds his hand when someone stands up to him.

Besides, the city’s so big, he’s never going to find us, even if he does come looking. It’s not like we run in the same circles or anything.

So I get in the cab, say something that I hope sounds calming to the cats, and we drive away.

I’ve got a different place now, a one-bedroom, ground-floor apartment which gives me access to a backyard. It’s not much, just a jungle of weeds and flowers gone wild, but the cats seem to like it.

I sit on the back steps sometimes and watch them romp around like… well, like the cats they are, I guess. I know I hurt the man who had them under his power, hurt him bad. And I know I walked into his house with a woman and came out with a cat. But it still feels like a dream.

It’s true the cat seems to understand everything I say, and acts smarter than I think a cat would normally act, but what do I know? I never had a pet before. And anybody I talk to seems to think the same thing about their own cat or dog.

I haven’t told anybody about any of this, though I did come at it from a different angle, sitting around the fire in the junkyard with Hank one night. There were a half-dozen of us. Moth, Hank’s girlfriend Lily, and some of the others from their extended family of choice. The junkyard’s in the middle of the city, but it backs onto the Tombs and it gets dark out there. As we sit in deck chairs, nursing beers and coffees, we watch the sparks flicker above the flames in the cut-down steel barrel Moth uses for his fires.

“Did you ever hear any stories about people that can turn into animals?” I ask during a lull in the conversation.

We have those kinds of talks. We can go from carbs and engine torques to what’s wrong with social services or the best kind of herbal tea for nausea. That’d be ginger tea.

“You mean like a werewolf?” Moth says.

Sitting beside him, Paris grins. She’s as dark-haired as Luisa was and her skin’s pretty much covered with tattoos that seem to move on their own in the flickering light.

“Nah,” she says. “Billy Joe’s just looking for a way to turn himself into a raccoon or a monkey so he can get into houses again but without getting caught.”

“I gave that up,” I tell her.

She smiles at me, eyes still teasing. “I know that. But I still like the picture it puts in my head.”

“There are all kinds of stories,” Hank says, “and we know one or two. The way they go, the animal people were here first and some of them are still living among us, not looking any different from you or me.”

They tell a few then—Hank and Lily and Katy, this pretty red-haired girl who lives on her own in a school bus not far from the junkyard. They all tell the stories like they’ve actually met the people they’re talking about, but Katy’s are the best. She’s got the real storyteller’s gift, makes you hang onto every word until she’s done.

“But what about if someone’s put a spell on someone?” I say after a few of their stories, because they’re mostly about people who were born that way, part-animal, part-human, changing their skins as they please. “You know any stories like that? How it works? How they get changed back?”

I’ve got a lot of people looking at me after I come out with that.

Nobody has an answer.

Moth gives me a look—but it’s curious, not demanding. “Why are you asking?” he says.

I just shrug. I don’t know that it’s my story to tell. But as the weeks go by I bring it up again and this time I tell them what happened, or at least what I think happened. Funny thing is, they just take me at my word. They start looking in on it for me, but nobody comes up with an answer.

Maybe there isn’t one.

So I just drive my cab and spend time with these new families of mine—both the one in the junkyard and the cats I’ve got back home. I find it gets easier to walk the straight-and-narrow, the longer you do it. Gets so that doing the right thing, the honest thing, comes like second nature to me.

But I never stop wondering about what happened that night. I don’t even know if they’re really cats who were pretending to be human, or humans that got turned into cats. I guess I’m always going to be waiting to see if they’ll change back.

But I don’t think about it twenty-four/seven. Mostly I just figure it’s my job to make a home for them and keep them safe. And you know what? Turns out I’m pretty good at doing that.

NOT WAVING

Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter, writing under several different names, including Michael Marshall. His first novel, Only Forward, won the August Derleth and Philip K. Dick awards. Spares and One of Us were optioned for film by DreamWorks and Warner Brothers, and the Straw Men trilogy—The Straw Men, The Lonely Dead, and Blood of Angels—were international bestsellers. His Steel Dagger-nominated novel The Intruders is currently in series development with the BBC.

Smith is also a three-time winner of the British Fantasy Award for short fiction, and his stories are collected in two volumes—What You Make It and More Tomorrow and Other Stories (which won the International Horror Guild Award). His most recent novels are Bad Things and The Servants (a short novel published under the new pseudonym M. M. Smith).

“Not Waving” is a story about love, guilt, and the choices that sometimes trap us. Smith comments on the story’s most unusual—and one of its most painful—aspects, “I wrote about bulimia because a friend of mine was a sufferer—though I stress she bore no relationship whatsoever to the character in the story. I guess I wanted to try to capture the strange combination of strength and weakness that the condition seems to confer on people, without making it the sole focus of the story; not least because that combination of strength and weakness is in all of us. Also, that it is the condition of which one appears to be trapped—much like the relationship of the narrator.”

Sometimes when we’re in a car, driving country roads in autumn, I see sparse poppies splashed in among the grasses and it makes me want to cut my throat and let the blood spill out of the window to make more poppies, many more, until the roadside is a blaze of red.

Instead I light a cigarette and watch the road, and in a while the poppies will be behind us, as they always are.

On the morning of 10th October I was in a state of reasonably high excitement. I was at home, and I was supposed to be working. What I was mainly doing, however, was sitting thrumming at my desk, leaping to my feet whenever I heard the sound of traffic outside the window. When I wasn’t doing that I was peeking at the two large cardboard boxes that were sitting in the middle of the floor.

The two large boxes contained, respectively, a new computer and a new monitor. After a year or so of containing my natural wirehead need to own the brightest and best in high-specification consumer goods, I’d finally succumbed and upgraded my machine. Credit card in hand, I’d picked up the phone and ordered myself a piece of science fiction, in the shape of a computer that not only went like a train but also had built-in telecommunications and speech recognition. The future was finally here, and sitting on my living room floor.

However.

While I had £3000 worth of Mac and monitor, what I didn’t have was the £15 cable that connected the two together. The manufacturer, it transpired, felt it constituted an optional extra despite the fact that without it the two system components were little more than bulky white ornaments of a particularly tantalizing and frustrating kind. The cable had to be ordered separately, and there weren’t any in the country at the moment. They were all in Belgium.

I was only told this a week after I ordered the system, and I strove to make my feelings on the matter clear to my supplier, during the further week in which they playfully promised to deliver the system first on one day, then another, all such promises evaporating like the morning dew. The two boxes had finally made it to my door the day before and, by a bizarre coincidence, the cables had today crawled tired and overwrought into the supplier’s warehouse. My contact at Callhaven Direct knew just how firmly one of those cables had my name on it and had phoned to grudgingly admit they were available. I’d immediately called my courier firm, which I occasionally used to send design roughs to clients. Callhaven had offered, but I somehow sensed that they wouldn’t quite get round to it today, and I’d waited long enough. The bike firm I used specializes in riders who look as if they’ve been chucked out of the Hell’s Angels for being too tough. A large man in leathers turning up in Callhaven’s offices, with instructions not to leave without my cable, was just the sort of incentive I felt they needed. And so I was waiting, drinking endless cups of coffee, for such a person to arrive at the flat, brandishing said component above his head in triumph.

When the buzzer finally went I nearly fell off my chair. The entry phone in our building was fashioned with waking the dead in mind, and I swear the walls vibrate. Without bothering to check who it was I left the flat and pounded down the stairs to the front door, swinging it open with, I suspect, a look of joy upon my face. I get a lot of pleasure out of technology. It’s a bit sad, I know—God knows Nancy has told me so often enough—but hell, it’s my life.

Standing on the step was a leather convention, topped with a shining black helmet. The biker was a lot slighter than their usual type, but quite tall. Tall enough to have done the job, evidently.

“Bloody marvelous,” I said. “Is that a cable?”

“Sure is,” the biker said indistinctly. A hand raised the visor on the helmet, and I saw with some surprise that it was a woman. “They didn’t seem too keen to let it go.”

I laughed and took the package from her. Sure enough, it said AV adapter cable on the outside.

“You’ve made my day,” I said a little wildly, “and I’m more than tempted to kiss you.”

“That seems rather forward,” the girl said, reaching up to her helmet. “But a cup of coffee would be nice. I’ve been driving since five this morning and my tongue feels like it’s made of brick.”

Slightly taken aback, I hesitated for a moment. I’d never had a motorcycle courier in for tea before. Also, it meant a delay before I could ravage through the boxes and start connecting things up. But it was still only eleven in the morning, and another fifteen minutes wouldn’t harm. I was also, I guess, a little pleased at the thought of such an unusual encounter.

“You would be,” I said with Arthurian courtliness, “most welcome.”

“Thank you, kind sir,” the courier said, and pulled her helmet off. A great deal of dark brown hair spilled out around her face, and she swung her head to clear it. Her face was strong, with a wide mouth and vivid green eyes that had a smile already in them. The morning sun caught chestnut gleams in her hair as she stood with extraordinary grace on the doorstep. Bloody hell, I thought, the cable unregarded in my hand. Then I stood to one side to let her into the house.

It turned out her name was Alice, and she stood looking at the books on the shelves as I made a couple of cups of coffee.

“Your girlfriend’s in Personnel,” she said.

“How did you guess?” I said, handing her a cup. She indicated the raft of books on Human Resource Development and Stating the Bleeding Obvious in 5 Minutes a Day, which take up half our shelves.

“You don’t look the type. Is this it?” She pointed her mug at the two boxes on the floor. I nodded sheepishly. “Well,” she said, “aren’t you going to open them?”

I glanced up at her, surprised. Her face was turned toward me, a small smile at the corners of her mouth. Her skin was the pale tawny color that goes with rich hair, I noticed, and flawless. I shrugged, slightly embarrassed.

“I guess so,” I said noncommittally. “I’ve got some work I ought to do first.”

“Rubbish,” she said firmly. “Let’s have a look.”

And so I bent down and pulled open the boxes, while she settled down on the sofa to watch. What was odd was that I didn’t mind doing it. Normally, when I’m doing something that’s very much to do with me and the things I enjoy, I have to do it alone. Other people seldom understand the things that give you the most pleasure, and I for one would rather not have them around to undermine the occasion.

But Alice seemed genuinely interested, and ten minutes later I had the system sitting on the desk. I pressed the button and the familiar tone rang out as the machine set about booting up. Alice was standing to one side of me, sipping the remains of her coffee, and we both took a startled step back at the vibrancy of the tone ringing from the monitor’s stereo speakers. In the meantime I’d babbled about voice recognition and video output, the half-gigabyte hard disk and CD-ROM. She’d listened, and even asked questions, questions that followed from what I was saying rather than to simply set me up to drivel on some more. It wasn’t that she knew a vast amount about computers. She just understood what was exciting about them.

When the screen threw up the standard message saying all was well we looked at each other.

“You’re not going to get much work done today, are you?” she said.

“Probably not,” I agreed, and she laughed.

Just then a protracted squawking noise erupted from the sofa, and I jumped. The courier rolled her eyes and reached over to pick up her unit. A voice of stunning brutality informed her that she had to pick something up from the other side of town, urgently, like five minutes ago, and why wasn’t she there already, darlin’?

“Grr,” she said, like a little tiger, and reached for her helmet. “Duty calls.”

“But I haven’t told you about the telecommunications yet,” I said, joking.

“Some other time,” she said.

I saw her out, and we stood for a moment on the doorstep. I was wondering what to say. I didn’t know her, and would never see her again, but wanted to thank her for sharing something with me. Then I noticed one of the local cats ambling past the bottom of the steps. I love cats, but Nancy doesn’t, so we don’t have one. Just one of the little compromises you make, I guess. I recognized this particular cat and had long since given up hope of appealing to it. I pointlessly made the sound universally employed for gaining cats’ attention, with no result. It glanced up at me wearily and then continued to cruise on by.

After a look at me Alice sat down on her heels and made the same noise. The cat immediately stopped in its tracks and looked at her. She made the noise again and the cat turned, glanced down the street for no apparent reason, and then confidently made its way up the steps to weave in and out of her legs.

“That is truly amazing,” I said. “He is not a friendly cat.”

She took the cat in her arms and stood up.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. The cat sat up against her chest, looking around benignly. I reached out to rub its nose and felt the warm vibration of a purr. The two of us made a fuss of him for a few moments, and then she put him down. She replaced her helmet, climbed on her bike, and then, with a wave, set off.

Back in the flat I tidied away the boxes, anal-retentive that I am, before settling down to immerse myself in the new machine. On impulse I called Nancy, to let her know the system had finally arrived.

I got one of her assistants instead. She didn’t put me on hold, and I heard Nancy say “Tell him I’ll call him hack” in the background. I said good-bye to Trish with fairly good grace, trying not to mind.

Voice recognition software hadn’t been included, it turned out, nor anything to put in the CD-ROM drive. The telecommunications functions wouldn’t work without an expensive add-on, which Callhaven didn’t expect for four to six weeks. Apart from that, it was great.

Nancy cooked that evening. We tended to take it in turns, though she was much better at it than me. Nancy is good at most things. She’s accomplished.

There’s a lot of infighting in the world of Personnel, it would appear, and Nancy was in feisty form that evening, having outmaneuvered some coworker. I drank a glass of red wine and leaned against the counter while she whirled ingredients around. She told me about her day, and I listened and laughed. I didn’t tell her much about mine, only that it had gone okay. Her threshold for hearing about the world of freelance graphic design was pretty low. She’d listen with relatively good grace if I really had to get something out of my system, but she didn’t understand it and didn’t seem to want to. No reason why she should, of course. I didn’t mention the new computer sitting on my desk, and neither did she.

Dinner was very good. It was chicken, but she’d done something intriguing to it with spices. I ate as much as I could, but there was a little left. I tried to get her to finish it, but she wouldn’t. I reassured her that she hadn’t eaten too much, in the way that sometimes seemed to help, but her mood dipped and she didn’t have any dessert. I steered her toward the sofa and took the stuff out to wash up and make some coffee.

While I was standing at the sink, scrubbing the plates and thinking vaguely about the mountain of things I had to do the next day, I noticed a cat sitting on a wall across the street. It was a sort of very dark brown color, almost black, and I hadn’t seen it before. It was crouched down, watching a twittering bird with that catty concentration that combines complete attention with the sense that they might at any moment break off and wash their foot instead. The bird eventually fluttered chaotically off and the cat watched it for a moment before sitting upright, as if drawing a line under that particular diversion.

Then the cat’s head turned, and it looked straight at me. It was a good twenty yards away, but I could see its eyes very clearly. It kept looking, and after a while I laughed, slightly taken aback. I even looked away for a moment, but when I looked back it was still there, still looking.

The kettle boiled and I turned to tip water into a couple of mugs of Nescafé. When I glanced out of the window on the way out of the kitchen the cat was gone.

Nancy wasn’t in the lounge when I got there, so I settled on the sofa and lit a cigarette. After about five minutes the toilet flushed upstairs, and I sighed.

My reassurances hadn’t done any good at all.

A couple of days came and went, with the usual flurry of deadlines and redrafts. I went to a social evening at Nancy’s office and spent a few hours being ignored and patronized by her power-dressed colleagues, while she stood and sparkled in the center. I messed up a print job and had to cover the cost of doing it again. Good things happened, too, I guess, but it’s the others that stick in your mind.

One afternoon the buzzer went and I wandered absentmindedly downstairs to get the door. As I opened it I saw a flick of brown hair and saw that it was Alice.

“Hello there,” I said, strangely pleased.

“Hello yourself.” She smiled. “Got a parcel for you.” I took it and looked at the label. Color proofs from the repro house. Yawn. She must have been looking at my face, because she laughed. “Nothing very exciting, then.”

“Hardly.” After I’d signed the delivery note, I looked up at her. She was still smiling, I think, though it was difficult to tell. Her face looked as if it always was.

“Well,” she said, “I can either go straight to Peckham to pick up something else that’s dull, or you can tell me about the telecommunications features.”

Very surprised, I stared at her for a moment, then stepped back to let her in.

“Bastards,” she said indignantly when I told her about the things that hadn’t been shipped with the machine, and she looked genuinely annoyed. I told her about the telecoms stuff anyway, as we sat on the sofa and drank coffee. Mainly we just chatted, but not for very long, and when she got to the end of the road on her bike she turned and waved before turning the corner.

That night Nancy went to Sainsbury’s on the way home from work. I caught her eye as she unpacked the biscuits and brownies, potato chips and pastries, but she just stared back at me, and I looked away. She was having a hard time at work. Deflecting my gaze to the window, I noticed the dark cat was sitting on the wall opposite. It wasn’t doing much, simply peering vaguely this way and that, watching things I couldn’t see. It seemed to look up at the window for a moment, but then leapt down off the wall and wandered away down the street.

I cooked dinner and Nancy didn’t eat much, but she stayed in the kitchen when I went into the living room to finish off a job. When I made our cups of tea to drink in bed I noticed that the bin had been emptied, and the gray bag stood, neatly tied, to one side. When I nudged it with my foot it rustled, full of empty packets. Upstairs the bathroom door was pulled shut, and the key turned in the lock.

I saw Alice a few more times in the next few weeks. A couple of major jobs were reaching crisis point at the same time, and there seemed to be a semi-constant flurry of bikes coming up to the house. On three or four of those occasions it was Alice whom I saw when I opened the door.

Apart from one, when she had to turn straight around on pain of death, she came in for a coffee each time. We’d chat about this and that, and when the voice recognition software finally arrived I showed her how it worked. I had a rip-off copy, from a friend who’d sourced it from the States. You had to do an impersonation of an American accent to get the machine to understand anything you said, and my attempts to do so made Alice laugh a lot. Which is curious, because it made Nancy merely sniff and ask me whether I’d put the new computer on the insurance.

Nancy was having a bit of a hard time, those couple of weeks. Her so-called boss was dumping more and more responsibility onto her while stalwartly refusing to give her more credit. Nancy’s world was very real to her, and she relentlessly kept me up to date on it: the doings of her boss were more familiar to me by then than the activities of most of my friends. She got her company car upgraded, which was a nice thing. She screeched up to the house one evening in something small and red and sporty, and hollered up to the window. I scampered down and she took us hurtling around North London, driving with her customary verve and confidence. On impulse we stopped at an Italian restaurant we sometimes went to, and they miraculously had a table. Over coffee we took each other’s hands and said we loved one another, which we hadn’t done for a while.

When we parked outside the house I saw the dark cat sitting under a tree on the other side of the street. I pointed it out to Nancy but, as I’ve said, she doesn’t really like cats, and merely shrugged. She went in first and as I turned to close the door I saw the cat was still sitting there, a black shape in the half-light. I wondered who it belonged to, and wished that it was ours.

A couple of days later I was walking down the street in the late afternoon when I noticed a motorbike parked outside Sad Café. I seemed to have become sensitized to bikes over the previous few weeks: Probably because I’d used so many couriers. “Sad” wasn’t the café’s real name, but what Nancy and I used to call it, when we used to traipse hung-over down the road on Sunday mornings on a quest for a cooked breakfast. The first time we’d slumped over a Formica table in there we had been slowly surrounded by middle-aged men in zip-up jackets and beige bobble hats, a party of mentally subnormal teenagers with broken glasses, and old women on the verge of death. The pathos attack we’d suffered had nearly finished us off, and it had been Sad Café ever since. We hadn’t been there in a while: Nancy usually had work in the evenings in those days, even at weekends, and fried breakfasts appeared to be off the map again.

The bike resting outside made me glance inside the window, and with a shock of recognition I saw Alice in there, sitting at a table nursing a mug of something or other. I nearly walked on, but then thought what the hell, and stepped inside. Alice looked startled to see me, but then relaxed, and I sat down and ordered a cup of tea.

She’d finished for the day, it turned out, and was killing time before heading off for home. I was at a loose end myself: Nancy was out for the evening, entertaining clients. It was very odd seeing Alice for the first time outside the flat, and strange seeing her not in working hours. Possibly it was that which made the next thing coalesce in front of us.

Before we knew how the idea had arisen, we were wheeling her bike down the road to prop it up outside the Bengal Lancer, Kentish Town’s bravest stab in the direction of a decent restaurant. I loitered awkwardly to one side while she stood in the street, took off her leathers, and packed them into the bike’s carrier. She was wearing jeans and a green sweatshirt underneath, a green that matched her eyes. Then she ran her hands through her hair, said “Close enough for rock and roll,” and strode toward the door. Momentarily reminded of Nancy’s standard hour and a half preparation before going out, I followed her into the restaurant.

We took our time and had about four courses, and by the end were absolutely stuffed. We talked of things beyond computers and design, but I can’t remember what. We had a bottle of wine, a gallon of coffee, and smoked most of a packet of cigarettes. When we were done I stood outside again, more relaxed this time, as she climbed back into her work clothes. She waved as she rode off, and I watched her go, and then turned and walked for home.

It was a nice meal. It was also the big mistake. The next time I rang for a bike, I asked for Alice by name. After that, it seemed the natural thing to do. Alice also seemed to end up doing more of the deliveries to me, more than you could put down to chance.

If we hadn’t gone for that meal, perhaps it wouldn’t have happened. Nothing was said, and no glances exchanged: I didn’t note the date in my diary.

But we were falling in love.

The following night Nancy and I had a row, the first full-blown one in a while. We rarely argued. She was a good manager.

This one was short, and also very odd. It was quite late and I was sitting in the lounge, trying to work up the energy to turn on the television. I didn’t have much hope for what I would find on it but was too tired to read. I’d been listening to music before and was staring at the stereo, half mesmerized by the green and red points of LEDs. Nancy was working at the table in the kitchen, which was dark apart from the lamp that shed yellow light over her papers.

Suddenly she marched into the living room, already at maximum temper, and shouted incoherently at me. Shocked, I half stood, brow furrowed as I tried to work out what she was saying. In retrospect I was probably slightly asleep, and her anger frightened me with its harsh intensity, seeming to fill the room.

She was shouting at me for getting a cat. There was no point me denying it, because she’d seen it. She’d seen the cat under the table in the kitchen, it was in there still, and I was to go and throw it out. I knew how much she disliked cats, and anyway, how could I do it without asking her, and the whole thing was a classic example of what a selfish and hateful man I was.

It took me a while to get to the bottom of this and start denying it. I was too baffled to get angry. In the end I went with her into the kitchen and looked under the table. By then I was getting a little spooked, to be honest. We also looked in the hallway, the bedroom, and the bathroom. Then we looked in the kitchen again and in the living room.

There was, of course, no cat.

I sat Nancy on the sofa and brought in a couple of hot drinks. She was still shaking, though her anger was gone. I tried to talk to her, to work out what exactly was wrong. Her reaction was disproportionate, misdirected: I’m not sure even she knew what it was about. The cat, of course, could have been nothing more than a discarded shoe seen in near darkness, maybe even her own foot moving in the darkness. After leaving my parents’ house, where there had always been a cat, I’d often startled myself by thinking I saw them in similar ways.

She didn’t seem especially convinced but did calm a little. She was so timid and quiet, and as always I found it difficult to reconcile her as she was then with her as Corporate Woman, as she was for so much of the time. I turned the fire on and we sat in front of it and talked, and even discussed her eating. Nobody else knew about that, apart from me. I didn’t understand it, not really. I sensed that it was something to do with feelings of lack of control, of trying to shape herself and her world, but couldn’t get much closer than that. There appeared to be nothing I could do except listen, but I suppose that was better than nothing.

We went to bed a little later and made careful, gentle love. As she relaxed toward sleep, huddled in my arms, I caught myself for the first time feeling for her something that was a little like pity.

Alice and I had dinner again about a week later. This time it was less of an accident and took place farther from home. I had an early-evening meeting in town, and by coincidence Alice would be in the area at around about the same time. I told Nancy I might end up having dinner with my client, but she didn’t seem to hear. She was preoccupied, some new power struggle at work edging toward resolution.

Though it was several weeks since the previous occasion, it didn’t feel at all strange seeing Alice in the evening, not least because we’d talked to each other often in the meantime. She’d started having two cups of coffee, rather than one, each time she dropped something off, and had once phoned me for advice on computers. She was thinking of getting one herself, I wasn’t really sure what for.

While it didn’t feel odd, I was aware of what I was doing. Meeting another woman for dinner, basically, and looking forward to it. When I talked to her, my feelings and what I did seemed more important, as if they were a part of someone worth talking to. Some part of me felt that was more important than a little economy with the truth. To be honest, I tried not to think too hard about it.

When I got home Nancy was sitting in the living room, reading.

“How was your meeting?” she asked.

“Fine,” I replied. “Fine.”

“Good,” she said, and went back to scanning her magazine. I could have tried to make conversation, but knew it would have come out tinny and forced. In the end I went to bed and lay tightly curled on my side, wide awake.

I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard a low voice in the silence, speaking next to my ear.

“Go away,” it said. “Go away.”

I opened my eyes, expecting I don’t know what. Nancy’s face, I suppose, hanging over mine. There was no one there. I was relaxing slightly, prepared to believe it had been a fragment of a dream, when I heard her voice again, saying the same words in the same low tone.

Carefully I climbed out of bed and crept toward the kitchen. Through it I could see into the living room, where Nancy was standing in front of the main window in the darkness. She was looking out at something in the street.

“Go away,” she said again, softly.

I turned round and went back to bed.

A couple of weeks passed. Time seemed to do that, that autumn. I was very immersed, what with one thing and another. Each day held something that fixed my attention and pulled me through it. I’d look up, and a week would have gone by, with me having barely noticed.

One of the things that held my attention, and became a regular part of most days, was talking to Alice. We talked about things that Nancy and I never touched upon, things Nancy simply didn’t understand or care about. Alice read, for example. Nancy read, too, in that she studied memos, and reports, and boned up on the current corporate claptrap being imported from the States. She didn’t read books, though, or paragraphs even. She read sentences, to strip from them what she needed to do her job, find out what was on television, or hold her own on current affairs. Every sentence was a bullet point, and she read to acquire information.

Alice read for its own sake. She wrote, too, hence her growing interest in computers. I mentioned once that I’d written a few articles, years back, before I settled on being a barely competent graphic designer instead. She said she’d written some stories and, after regular nagging from me, diffidently gave me copies. I don’t know anything about fiction from a professional point of view, so I don’t know how innovative or clever they were. But they gripped my attention, and I read them more than once, and that’s good enough for me. I told her so, and she seemed pleased.

We spoke most days and saw each other a couple of times a week. She delivered things to me, or picked them up, and sometimes I chanced by Sad Café when she was sipping a cup of tea. It was all very low key, very friendly.

Nancy and I got on with each other, in an occasional, space-sharing sort of way. She had her friends, and I had mine. Sometimes we saw them together, and performed, as a social pair. We looked good together, like a series of stills from a lifestyle magazine. Life, if that’s what it was, went on. Her eating vacillated between not good and bad, and I carried on being bleakly accepting of the fact that there didn’t seem much I could do to help. So much of our lives seemed geared up to perpetuating her idea of how two young people should live that I somehow didn’t feel that I could call our bluff, point out what was living beneath the stones in our house. I also didn’t mention the night I’d seen her in the lounge. There didn’t seem any way of bringing it up.

Apart from having Alice to chat to, the other good news was the new cat in the neighborhood. When I glanced out of the living room window sometimes it would be there, ambling smoothly past or plonked down on the pavement, watching movement in the air. It had a habit of sitting in the middle of the road, daring traffic to give it any trouble, as if the cat knew what the road was for but was having no truck with it. This was a field once, the twitch of her tail seemed to say, and as far as I’m concerned it still is.

One morning I was walking back from the corner shop, clutching some cigarettes and milk, and came upon the cat, perched on a wall. If you like cats there’s something rather depressing about having them run away from you, so I approached cautiously. I wanted to get to at least within a yard of this one before it went shooting off into hyperspace.

To my delight, it didn’t move away at all. When I got up next to her she stood up, and I thought that was it, but it turned out to be just a recognition that I was there. She was quite happy to be stroked and to have the fur on her head runkled, and responded to having her chest rubbed with a purr so deep it was almost below the threshold of hearing. Now that I was closer I could see the chestnut gleams in the dark brown of her fur. She was a very beautiful cat.

After a couple of minutes of this I moved away, thinking I ought to get on, but the cat immediately jumped off the wall and wove in figure eights about my feet, pressing up against my calves. I find it difficult enough to walk away from a cat at the best of times. When they’re being ultra-friendly it’s impossible. So I bent down and tickled, and talked fond nonsense. I finally got to my door and looked back to see her, still sitting on the pavement. She was looking around as if wondering what to do next, after all that excitement. I had to fight down the impulse to wave.

I closed the door behind me, feeling for a moment very lonely, and then went back upstairs to work.

Then one Friday night Alice and I met again, and things changed.

Nancy was out at yet another work get-together. Her organization seemed to like running the social lives of its staff, like some rabid church, intent on infiltrating every activity of its disciples. Nancy mentioned the event in a way that made it clear that my attendance was far from mandatory, and I was quite happy to oblige. I do my best at these things but doubt I look as if I’m having the time of my life.

I didn’t have anything else on, so I just flopped about the house for a while, reading and watching television. It was easier to relax when Nancy wasn’t there, when we weren’t busy being a Couple. I couldn’t settle, though. I kept thinking how pleasant it would be not to feel that way, that it would be nice to want your girlfriend to be home so you could laze about together. It didn’t work that way with Nancy, not anymore. Getting her to consider a lie-in on one particular Saturday was a major project in itself. I probably hadn’t tried very hard in a while, either. She got up, I got up. I’d been developed as a human resource.

My reading grew fitful and in the end I grabbed my coat and went for a walk down streets that were dark and cold. A few couples and lone figures floated down the roads, in mid-evening transit between pubs and Chinese restaurants. The very formlessness of the activity around me, its random wandering, made me feel quietly content. The room in which Nancy and her colleagues stood, robotically passing business catchphrases up and down the hierarchy, leapt into my mind, though I’d no idea where it was. I thought quietly to myself that I would much rather be here than there.

Then for a moment I felt the whole of London spread out around me, and my contentment faded away. Nancy had somewhere to go. All I had was miles of finite roads in winter light, black houses leaning in toward each other. I could walk, and I could run, and in the end I would come to the boundaries, the edge of the city. When I reached them there would be nothing I could do except turn around and come back into the city. I couldn’t feel anything beyond the gates, couldn’t believe anything was there. It wasn’t some yearning for the countryside or far climes: I like London, and the great outdoors irritates me. It was more a sense that a place that should hold endless possibilities had been tamed by something, bleached out by my lack of imagination, by the limits of my life.

I headed down the Kentish Town Road toward Camden, so wrapped up in heroic melancholy that I nearly got myself run over at the junction with Prince of Wales Road. Rather shaken, I stumbled back onto the curb, dazed by a passing flash of yellow light and a blurred obscenity. Fuck that, I thought, and crossed at a different place, sending me down a different road, toward a different evening.

Camden was, as ever, trying to prove that there was still a place for hippie throwback losers in the 1990s, and I skirted the purposeful crowds and ended up in a back road instead.

And it was there that I saw Alice. When I saw her I felt my heart lurch, and I stopped in my tracks. She was walking along the road, dressed in a long skirt and dark blouse, hands in pockets. She appeared to be alone and was wandering down the street much as I was, looking around but in a world of her own. It was too welcome a coincidence not to take advantage of and, careful not to surprise her, I crossed the road and met her on the other side.

We spent the next three hours in a noisy, smoky pub. The only seats were very close together, crowded round one corner of a table in the center of the room. We drank a lot, but the alcohol didn’t seem to function in the way it usually did. I didn’t get drunk but simply felt warmer and more relaxed. The reeling crowds of locals gave us ample ammunition to talk about, until we were going fast enough not to need any help at all. We just drank, and talked, and talked and drank, and the bell for last orders came as a complete surprise.

When we walked out of the pub some of the alcohol kicked suddenly in, and we stumbled in unison on an unexpected step, to fall together laughing and shh-ing. Without even discussing it we knew that neither of us felt like going home yet, and we ended up down by the canal instead. We walked slowly past the backs of houses and speculated what might be going on beyond the curtains, we looked up at the sky and pointed out stars, we listened to the quiet splashes of occasional ducks coming into land. After about fifteen minutes we found a bench and sat down for a cigarette.

When she’d put her lighter back in her pocket Alice’s hand fell near mine. I was very conscious of it being there, of the smallness of the distance mine would have to travel, and I smoked left-handed so as not to move it. I wasn’t forgetting myself. I still knew Nancy existed, knew how my life was set up. But I didn’t move my hand.

Then, like a chess game of perfect simplicity and naturalness, the conversation took us there.

I said that work seemed to be slackening off, after the busy period of the last couple of months. Alice said that she hoped it didn’t drop off too much. So that I can continue to afford expensive computers that don’t do quite what I expect? I asked.

“No,” she replied, “so that I can keep coming to see you.” I turned and looked at her. She looked nervous but defiant, and her hand moved the inch that put it on top of mine.

“You might as well know,” she said. “If you don’t already. There are three important things in my life at the moment. My bike, my stories, and you.”

People don’t change their lives: evenings do. There are nights that have their own momentum, their own purpose and agenda. They come from nowhere and take people with them. That’s why you can never understand, the next day, quite how you came to do what you did. Because it wasn’t you who did it. It was the evening.

My life stopped that evening, and started up again, and everything was a different color.

We sat on the bench for another two hours, wrapped up close to each other. We admitted when we’d first thought about each other, and laughed quietly about the distance we’d kept. After weeks of denying what I felt, of simply not realizing, I couldn’t let go of her hand now that I had it. It felt so extraordinary to be that close to her, to feel the texture of her skin on mine and her nails against my palm. People change when you get that near to them, become much more real. If you’re already in love with them then they expand to fill the world.

In the end we got on to Nancy. We were bound to, sooner or later. Alice asked how I felt about her, and I tried to explain, tried to understand myself. In the end we let the topic lapse.

“It’s not going to be easy,” I said, squeezing her hand. I was thinking glumly to myself that it might not happen at all. Knowing the way Nancy would react, it looked like a very high mountain to climb. Alice glanced at me and then turned back toward the canal.

A big cat was sitting there, peering out over the water. First moving myself even closer to Alice, so that strands of her hair tickled against my face, I made a noise at the cat. It turned to look at us and then ambled over toward the bench.

“I do like a friendly cat,” I said, reaching out to stroke its head.

Alice smiled and then made a noise of her own. I was a bit puzzled that she wasn’t looking at the cat when she made it, until I saw that another was making its way out of the shadows. This one was smaller and more lithe, and walked right up to the bench. I was, I suppose, still a little befuddled with drink, and when Alice turned to look in a different direction it took me a moment to catch up. A third cat was coming down the canal walk in our direction, followed by another.

When a fifth emerged from the bushes behind our bench, I turned and stared at Alice. She was already looking at me, a smile on her lips like the first one of hers I’d seen. She laughed at the expression on my face and then made her noise again. The cats around us sat to attention, and two more appeared from the other direction, almost trotting in their haste to join the collection. We were now so outnumbered that I felt rather beset.

When the next one appeared I had to ask.

“Alice, what’s going on?”

She smiled very softly, like a painting, and leaned her head against my shoulder.

“A long time ago,” she said, as if making up a story for a child, “none of this was here. There was no canal, no streets and houses, and all around was trees, and grass.” One of the cats round the bench briefly licked one of its paws, and I saw another couple padding out of the darkness toward us. “The big people have changed all of that. They’ve cut down the trees, and buried the grass, and they’ve even leveled the ground. ‘There used to be a hill here, a hill that was steep on one side but gentle on the other. They’ve taken all that away, and made it look like this. It’s not that it’s so had. It’s just different. The cats still remember the way it was.”

It was a nice story, and yet another indication of how we thought in the same way. But it couldn’t be true, and it didn’t explain all the cats around us. There were now about twenty, and somehow that was too many. Not for me, but for common sense. Where the hell were they all coming from?

“But they didn’t have cats in those days,” I said nervously. “Not like this. This kind of cat is modern, surely. An import, or crossbreed.”

She shook her head. “That’s what they say,” she said, “and that’s what people think. They’ve always been here. It’s just that people haven’t always known.”

“Alice, what are you talking about?” I was beginning to get really spooked by the number of cats milling softly around. They were still coming, in ones and twos, and now surrounded us for yards around. The stretch of canal was dark apart from soft glints of moonlight off the water, and the lines of the banks and walkway seemed somehow stark, sketched out, as if modeled on a computer screen. They’d been rendered well and looked convincing, but something wasn’t quite right about the way they sat together, as if some angle was one degree out.

“A thousand years ago cats used to come to this hill, because it was their meeting place. They would come and discuss their business, and then they would go away. This was their place, and it still is. But they don’t mind us.”

“Why?”

“Because I love you,” she said, and kissed me for the first time.

It was ten minutes before I looked up again. Only two cats were left. I pulled my arm tighter around Alice and thought how simply and unutterably happy I was.

“Was that all true?” I asked, pretending to be a child.

“No,” she said, and smiled. “It was just a story.” She pushed her nose up against mine and nuzzled, and our heads melted into one.

At two o’clock I realized I was going to have to go home, and we got up and walked slowly back to the road. I waited shivering with her for a minicab, and endured the driver’s histrionic sighing as we said good-bye. I stood on the corner and waved until the cab was out of sight, and then turned and walked home.

It wasn’t until I turned into our road and saw that the lights were still on in our house that I realized just how real the evening had been. As I walked up the steps the door opened. Nancy stood there in a dressing gown, looking angry and frightened.

“Where the hell have you been?” she said. I straightened my shoulders and girded myself up to lie.

I apologized. I told her I’d been out drinking with Howard, lying calmly and with a convincing determination. I didn’t even feel bad about it, except in a self-serving, academic sort of way.

Some switch had been finally thrown in my mind, and as we lay in bed afterward I realized that I wasn’t in bed with my girlfriend anymore. There was just someone in my bed. When Nancy rolled toward me, her body open in a way that suggested that she might not be thinking of going to sleep, I felt my chest tighten with something that felt like dread. I found a way of suggesting that I might be a bit drunk for anything other than unconsciousness, and she curled up beside me and went to sleep instead. I lay awake for an hour, feeling as if I were lying on a slab of marble in a room open to the sky.

Breakfast the next morning was a festival of leaden politeness. The kitchen seemed very bright, and noise rebounded harshly off the walls. Nancy was in a good mood, but there was nothing I could do except smile tight smiles and talk much louder than usual, waiting for her to go to work.

The next ten days were both dismal and the best days of my life. Alice and I managed to see each other every couple of days, occasionally for an evening but more often just for a cup of coffee. We didn’t do any more than talk, and hold hands, and sometimes kiss. Our kisses were brief, a kind of sketching out of the way things could be. Bad starts always undermine a relationship, for fear it could happen again. So we were restrained and honest with each other and it was wonderful, but it was also difficult.

Being home was no fun at all. Nancy hadn’t changed, but I had, and so I didn’t know her anymore. It was like having a complete stranger living in your house, a stranger who was all the worse for reminding you of someone you once loved. The things that were the closest to the way they used to be were the things that made me most irritable, and I found myself avoiding anything that might promote them.

Something had to be done, and it had to be done by me. The problem was gearing myself up to it. Nancy and I had been living together for four years. Most of our friends assumed we’d be engaged before long; I’d already heard a few jokes. We knew each other very well, and that does count for something. As I moved warily around Nancy during those weeks, trying not to seem too close, I was also conscious of how much we had shared together, of how affectionate a part of me still felt toward her. She was a friend, and I cared about her. I didn’t want her to be hurt.

My relationship with Nancy wasn’t completely straightforward. I wasn’t just her boyfriend, I was her brother and father, too. l knew some of the reasons her eating was as bad as it was, things no one else would ever know. I’d talked it through with her, and knew how to live with it, knew how to not make her feel any worse. She needed support, and I was the only person there to give it. Ripping that away when she was already having such a bad time would be very difficult to forgive.

And so things went on, for a little while. I saw Alice when I could, but always in the end I would have to go, and we would part, and each time it felt more and more arbitrary and I found it harder to remember why I should have to leave. I grew terrified of saying her name in my sleep, or of letting something slip, and felt as if I were living my life on stage in front of a predatory audience waiting for a mistake. I’d go out for walks in the evening and walk as slowly up the road as possible, stopping to talk to the cat, stroking her for as long as she liked and walking up and down the pavement with her, doing anything to avoid going back into the house.

I spent most of the second week looking forward to the Saturday. At the beginning of each week Nancy announced she would be going on a team-building day at the weekend. She explained to me what was involved, the chasm of evangelical corporate vacuity into which she and her colleagues were cheerfully leaping. She was talking to me a lot more at the time, wanting to share her life. I tried, but I couldn’t really listen. All I could think about was that I was due to be driving up to Cambridge that day, to drop work off at a client’s. I’d assumed that I’d be going alone. With Nancy firmly occupied somewhere else, another possibility sprang to mind.

When I saw Alice for coffee that afternoon I asked if she’d like to come. The warmth of her reply helped me through the evenings of the week, and we talked about it every day. The plan was that I’d ring home early evening, when Nancy was back from her day, and say that I’d run into someone up there and wouldn’t be back until late. It was a bending of our unspoken doing-things-by-the-book rule, but it had to be done. Alice and I needed a longer period with each other, and I needed to build myself up to what had to be done.

By midevening on Friday I was at fever pitch. I was pacing round the house not settling at anything, so much in my own little world that it took me a while to notice that something was up with Nancy, too.

She was sitting in the living room, going over some papers, but kept glancing angrily out of the window as if expecting to see someone. When I asked her about it, slightly irritably, she denied she was doing it, and then ten minutes later I saw her do it again. I retreated to the kitchen and did something dull to a shelf that I’d been putting off for months. When Nancy stalked in to make some more coffee she saw what I was doing and seemed genuinely touched that I’d finally got around to it. My smile of self-deprecating good-naturedness felt as if it were stretched across the lips of a corpse.

Then she was back out in the lounge again, glaring nervously out of the window, as if fearing imminent invasion from a Martian army. It reminded me of the night I’d seen her standing by the window, which I had found rather spooky. She was looking very flaky that evening, and I’d run out of pity. I simply found it irritating, and hated myself for that.

Eventually, finally, at long last, it was time for bed. Nancy went ahead and I volunteered to close windows and tidy ashtrays. It’s funny how you seem most solicitous and endearing when you don’t want to be there at all.

What I actually wanted was a few moments to wrap a present I was going to give to Alice. When I heard the bathroom door shut I leapt for the filing cabinet and took out the book. I grabbed tape and paper from a drawer and started wrapping. As I folded I glanced out of the window and saw the cat sitting outside in the road, and smiled to myself. With Alice I’d be able to have a cat of my own, could work with furry company and doze with a warm bundle on my lap. The bathroom door opened again and I paused, ready for instant action. When Nancy’s feet had padded safely into the bedroom, I continued wrapping. When it was done I slipped the present in a drawer and took out the card I was going to give with it, already composing in my head the message for the inside.

“Mark?”

I nearly died when I heard Nancy’s voice. She was striding through the kitchen toward me, and the card was still lying on my desk. I quickly drew a sheaf of papers toward me and covered it, but only just in time. Heart beating horribly, feeling almost dizzy, I turned to look at her, trying to haul an expression of bland normality across my face.

“What’s this?” she demanded, holding her hand up in front of me. It was dark in the room, and I couldn’t see at first. Then I saw. It was a hair. A dark brown hair.

“It looks like a hair,” I said carefully, shuffling papers on the desk.

“I know what it fucking is,” she snapped. “It was in the bed. I wonder how it got there.”

Jesus Christ, I thought. She knows.

I stared at her with my mouth clamped shut and wavered on the edge of telling the truth, of getting it over with. I thought it would happen some other, calmer, way, but you never know. Perhaps this was the pause into which I had to drop the information that I was in love with someone else.

Then, belatedly, I realized that Alice had never been in the bedroom. Even since the night of the canal she’d only ever been in the living room and the downstairs hall. Maybe the kitchen, but certainly not the bedroom. I blinked at Nancy, confused.

“It’s that bloody cat,” she shouted, instantly livid in the way that always disarmed and frightened me. “It’s been on our fucking bed.”

“What cat?”

“The cat who’s always fucking outside. Your little friend.” She sneered violently, face almost unrecognizable. “You’ve had it in here.”

“I haven’t. What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you deny, don’t you—”

Unable to finish, Nancy simply threw herself at me and smashed me across the face. Shocked, I stumbled backward and she whacked me across the chin, and then pummeled her fists against my chest as I struggled to grab hold of her hands. She was trying to say something but it kept breaking up into furious sobs. In the end, before I could catch her hands, she took a step backward and stood very still. She stared at me for a moment, and then turned and walked quickly out of the room.

I spent the night on the sofa and was awake long after the last long, moaning sound had floated out to me from the bedroom. It may sound like selfish evasion, but I really felt I couldn’t go to comfort her. The only way I could make her feel better was by lying, so in the end I stayed away.

I had plenty of time to finish writing the card to Alice, but found it difficult to remember exactly what I’d been going to say. In the end I struggled into a shallow, cramped sleep, and when I woke Nancy was already gone for the day.

I felt tired and hollow as I drove to meet Alice in the center of town. I still didn’t actually know where she lived, or even her phone number. She hadn’t volunteered the information, and I could always contact her via the courier firm. I was content with that until I could enter her life without any skulking around.

I remember very clearly the way she looked, standing on the pavement and watching out for my car. She was wearing a long black woolen skirt and a thick sweater of various chestnut colors. Her hair was backlit by morning light, and when she smiled as I pulled over toward her I had a moment of plunging doubt. I don’t have any right to be with her, I thought. I already have someone, and Alice is far and away too wonderful. But she put her arms around me, and kissed my nose, and the feeling went away.

I have never driven so slowly on a motorway as that morning with Alice. I’d put some tapes in the car, music I knew we both liked, but they never made it out of the glove compartment. They simply weren’t necessary. I sat in the slow lane and pootled along at sixty miles an hour, and we talked or sat in silence, sometimes glancing across at each other and grinning.

The road cuts through several hills, and when we reached the first cutting we both gasped at once. The embankment was a blaze of poppies, nodding in a gathering wind, and when we’d left them behind I turned to Alice and for the first time said I loved her. She stared at me for a long time, and in the end I had to glance away at the road. When I looked back she was looking straight ahead and smiling, her eyes shining with held-back tears.

My meeting took just under fifteen minutes. I think my client was rather taken aback, but who cares. We spent the rest of the day walking around the shops, picking up books and looking at them, stopping for two cups of tea. As we came laughing out of a record store she slung her arm around my back, and very conscious of what I was doing, I put mine around her shoulders. Though she was tall it felt comfortable, and there it stayed.

By about five I was getting tense, and we pulled into another café to have more tea, and so I could make my phone call. I left Alice sitting at the table waiting to order and went to the other side of the restaurant to use the booth. As I listened to the phone ringing I willed myself to be calm, and turned my back on the room to concentrate on what I was saying.

“Hello?”

When Nancy answered I barely recognized her. Her voice was like that of a querulously frightened old woman who’d not been expecting a call. I nearly put the phone down, but she realized who it was and immediately started crying.

It took me about twenty minutes to calm her even a little. She’d left the team-building at lunchtime, claiming illness. Then she’d gone to Sainsbury’s. She had eaten two Sara Lee chocolate cakes, a fudge roll, a packet of cereal, and three packets of biscuits. She’d gone to the bathroom, vomited, and then started again. I think she’d been sick again at least once, but I couldn’t really make sense of part of what she said. It was so mixed up with abject apologies to me that the sentences became confused, and I couldn’t tell whether she was talking about the night before or about the half-eaten packet of Jell-O she still had in her hand.

Feeling a little frightened and completely unaware of anything outside the cubicle I was standing in, I did what I could to focus her until what she was saying made a little more sense. I gave up trying to say that no apology was needed for last night and in the end just told her everything was all right. She promised to stop eating for a while and to watch television instead. I said I’d be back as soon as I could.

I had to. I loved her. There was nothing else I could do.

When the last of my change was gone I told her to take care and slowly replaced the handset. I stared at the wood paneling in front of me and gradually became aware of the noise from the restaurant on the other side of the glass door behind me. Eventually I turned and looked out.

Alice was sitting at the table, watching the passing throng. She looked beautiful, and strong, and about two thousand miles away.

We drove back to London in silence. Most of the talking was done in the restaurant. It didn’t take very long. I said I couldn’t leave Nancy in the state that she was in, and Alice nodded once, tightly, and put her cigarettes in her bag.

She said that she’d sort of known, perhaps even before we’d got to Cambridge. I got angry then, and said she couldn’t have done, because I hadn’t known myself. She got angry back when I said we’d still be friends, and she was in the right, I suppose. It was a stupid thing for me to say.

Awkwardly I asked if she’d be all right, and she said, yes, in the sense that she’d survive. I tried to explain that was the difference, that Nancy might not be able to. She shrugged and said that was the other difference: Nancy would never have to find out if she could. The more we talked the more my head felt it was going to explode, the more my eyes felt as if they could burst with the pain and run in bloody lines down my cold cheeks. In the end she grew businesslike and paid the bill, and we walked slowly back to the car.

Neither of us could bring ourselves to small talk in the car, and for the most part the only sound was that of the wheels upon the road. It was dark by then, and rain began to fall before we’d been on the motorway for very long. When we passed through the first cut in the hillside, I felt the poppies all around us, heads battered down by the falling water. Alice turned to me.

“I did know.”

“How,” I said, trying not to cry, trying to watch what the cars behind me were doing.

“When you said you loved me, you sounded so unhappy.”

I dropped her in town, on the corner where I’d picked her up. She said a few things to help me, to make me feel less bad about what I’d done. Then she walked off around the corner, and I never saw her again.

When I’d parked outside the house I sat for a moment, trying to pull myself together. Nancy would need to see me looking whole and at her disposal. I got out and locked the door, looking around halfheartedly for the cat. It wasn’t there.

Nancy opened the door with a shy smile, and I followed her into the kitchen. As I hugged her and told her everything was all right, I gazed blankly over her shoulder around the room. The kitchen was immaculate, no sign left of the afternoon’s festivities. The rubbish had been taken out, and something was bubbling on the stove. She’d cooked me dinner.

She didn’t eat but sat at the table with me. The chicken was okay, but not up to her usual standard. There was a lot of meat but it was tough, and for once there was a little too much spice. It tasted odd, to be honest. She noticed a look on my face and said she’d gone to a different butcher. We talked a little about her afternoon, but she was feeling much better. She seemed more interested in discussing the way her office reorganization was shaping up.

Afterward she went through into the lounge and turned the television on, and I set about making coffee and washing up, moving woodenly around the kitchen as if on abandoned rails. As Nancy’s favorite inanity boomed out from the living room I looked around for a bin bag to shovel the remains of my dinner into, but she’d obviously used them all. Sighing with a complete lack of feeling, I opened the back door and went downstairs to put it directly into the bin.

There were two sacks by the bin, both tied with Nancy’s distinctive knot. I undid the nearest and opened it a little. Then, just before I pushed the bones off my plate, something in the bag caught my eye. A patch of darkness amid the garish wrappers of high-calorie comfort foods. An oddly shaped piece of thick fabric, perhaps. I pulled the edge of the bag back a little farther to look, and the light from the kitchen window above fell across the contents of the bag.

The darkness changed to a rich chestnut brown flecked with red, and I saw it wasn’t fabric at all.

We moved six months later, after we got engaged. I was glad to move. The flat never felt like home again. Sometimes I go back and stand in that street, remembering the weeks in which I stared out of the window, pointlessly watching the road. I called the courier firm after a couple of days. I was expecting a stonewall and knew it was unlikely they’d give an address. But they denied she’d ever worked there at all.

After a couple of years Nancy and I had our first child, and she’ll be eight this November. She has a sister now. Some evenings I’ll leave them with their mother and go out for a walk. I’ll walk with heavy calm through black streets beneath featureless houses and sometimes go down to the canal. I sit on the bench and close my eyes, and sometimes I think I can see it. Sometimes I think I can feel the way it was when a hill was there and meetings were held in secret.

In the end I always stand up slowly and walk the streets back to the house. The hill has gone and things have changed, and it’s not like that anymore. No matter how long I sit and wait, the cats will never come.

CATCH

Ray Vukcevich

Ray Vukcevich’s fiction has appeared in many magazines including The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, SmokeLong Quarterly, Night Train, Polyphony, and Hobart, and has been collected in Meet Me in the Moon Room. He also works as a programmer in a couple of brain labs at the University of Oregon. Read more about him at www.sff.net/people/rayv.

I asked the author how he came up with the preposterous germ of his story and this is what he relates: “The story, I remember, came from a jumble of images. I remembered throwing my son up in the air when he was a baby. He loved it. Those might have been his first giggles. But one time, I nearly missed. It was a close call, he was so slippery for some reason, and I might have dropped him. He might have hit his head on the edge of the coffee table on the way down. It might have been a disaster. My wife was sitting across the room, reading, smiling up at us now and then. She didn’t realize what had happened, and I didn’t tell her, and now it’s too late, but the kid seemed to know, or maybe it was the look on my face. He clutched at my shirt. I hugged him in close rather than go for one more toss.

“Oddly, the other image was of a kitten who had put her paw through a hole in a cardboard box to swat at the turtle inside, and the turtle had grabbed the paw. Much drama. Once I got the cat loose, I tossed her to my wife who caught her neatly.

“The story didn’t come together for more than twenty years after those two incidents.”

Your face, I say, is a wild animal this morning, Lucy, and I’m glad it’s caged. Her scowl is so deep I can’t imagine she’s ever been without it. Her yellow hair is a frumpy halo around her wire mask. My remark doesn’t amuse her.

I know what I did. I just don’t know why it pissed her off, and if I don’t know, insensitive bastard that I am, she certainly isn’t going to tell me.

She lifts the cat over her head and hurls it at me. Hurls it hard. I catch it and underhand it back to her. The cat is gray on top and snowy white below and mostly limp, its eyes rolled back in its head and its coated tongue hanging loose out of one side of its mouth. I know from experience that it will die soon, and its alarm collar will go off, and one of us will toss it into the ditch that runs between us. A fresh angry bundle of teeth and claws will drop from the hatch in the ceiling, and we’ll toss the new cat back and forth between us until our staggered breaks and someone takes our places. The idea is to keep the animals in motion twenty-four hours a day.

In this profession, we wear canvas shirts and gloves and wire cages over our faces. I sometimes dream we’ve lost our jobs, Lucy and me. What a nightmare. What else do we know?

My replacement comes in behind me. He takes up the straw broom and dips it into the water in the ditch that runs through the toss-box and sweeps at the smeared feces and urine staining the floor and walls. A moment later, the buzzer sounds, and he puts the broom back in the corner. I step aside, and Lucy tosses the cat to him. I slip out of the box and into the catacomb for my fifteen-minute break before moving on to the next box.

Lucy and I work an hour on and fifteen minutes off all day long. As we move from toss-box to toss-box, our paths cross and recross. I’ll be out of phase with her for half an hour, probably just long enough for her to work up a real rage.

The catacomb is a labyrinth of wide tunnels dotted with concrete boxes. There is a metal chute running from the roof to the top of each box. The boxes are evenly spaced, and there is a light bulb for every box, but not all the bulbs are alive so there are gaps in the harsh light. The boxes are small rooms, and there is a wooden door on each side so catchers can be replaced without interrupting the tossing. The concrete walls of the tunnels, like the concrete walls of the boxes, are streaked black and white and beaded with moisture. The floors are roughened concrete. Everything smells like wet rocks and dead things.

So what did I do?

While Lucy dressed for work this morning, I played with our infant daughter, Megan, tossing her into the air and catching her again, blowing bubbles into her stomach while she pulled my hair and giggled until she got the hiccups.

When Lucy came in, I tossed the baby in a high arc across the room to her. Megan tumbled in a perfect backward somersault in the air. Lucy went dead white. She snatched Megan out of the air and hugged the child to her chest.

“Nice catch,” I said.

“Don’t you ever,” Lucy said, her voice all husky and dangerous, “ever do that again, Desmond! Not ever.”

Then she stomped out, taking Megan with her.

What the hell? I’d known there was no chance whatever that Lucy would miss. She’s a professional. My trusting her to catch the love of my life, the apple of my eye, Daddy’s little girl, was, I thought, a pretty big compliment. Lucy didn’t buy it. In fact, she didn’t even let me explain at all, said instead, oh shut up, Desmond, just shut up, and off we went to work, silent, stewing, our hurt feelings like a sack of broken toys between us.

Now she’s not speaking to me. It’s going to be a long day.

The buzzer sounds, and I move into the next box. I do my duty with the broom, and when the buzzer sounds again I replace the catcher. The cat here is a howling orange monster, and I have my hands full. When the animal is this fresh, the tossing technique looks a lot like volleyball. You don’t want to be too close to the thing for very long.

By the time Lucy takes her place across from me, I’ve established a rhythm and am even able to put a little spin on the cat now and then. I have to hand it to Lucy. She catches up quickly, and soon we have the animal sailing smoothly between us.

The animals go through stages as we toss and catch them. First defiance, then resistance, followed by resignation, then despair, and finally death. This one is probably somewhere in the resistance stage, not fighting wildly, but watching for an opening to do some damage. I put one hand on the cat’s chest and the other under its bottom and send it across to Lucy in a sitting position. Not to be outdone she sends it back still sitting but upside down now. Maybe the silly positions have done the trick. Whatever. I can feel the animal slip into the resignation stage.

I toss the cat tumbling head over heels, a weak howl and a loose string of saliva trailing behind it. Is Lucy ever going to talk to me again?

“Okay, I’m sorry,” I say, giving in to the idea that I might never know exactly why I should be sorry.

I see tears come to her eyes, and she falters, nearly drops the cat. I want to go to her. I want to comfort her, but it will be some time before we’re both on a break at the same time, and I see suddenly that it will be too late by then. It simply won’t matter anymore.

My replacement comes in and sweeps up. Then the buzzer sounds. I step aside.

Lucy isn’t crying anymore.

I reach for the door.

THE MANTICORE SPELL

Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Physiognomy, Memoranda, The Beyond, The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, and The Shadow Year. His short fiction has been published in three collections: The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, The Empire of Ice Cream, and The Drowned Life. His fiction has won the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award, and Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons and teaches literature and writing at Brookdale Community College.

Ford has said that his use of the Manticore as the center of a story was influenced by his having read a number of old and modern bestiaries, and by the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of fantastic creatures: harpies, unicorns, mermaids, and the Sphinx. In addition, his fellow teacher and author—William Jon Watkins, a sort of wizard in his own right—had just retired. Watkins taught Ford so much about writing and teaching, two strange, chimerical beasts, that he was given a place in the story as well.

The first reports of the creature, mere sightings, were absurd—a confusion of parts; a loss of words to describe the smile. The color, they said, was a flame, a hot coal, a flower, and each of the witnesses tried to mimic the thing’s song but none could. My master, the wizard Watkin, bade me record in word and image every thing each one said. We’d been put to it by the king, whose comment was, “Give an ear to their drollery. Make them think you’re thinking about it at my command. It’s naught but bad air, my old friend.” My master nodded and smiled, but after the king had left the room, the wizard turned to me and whispered, “Manticore.”

“It’s the last one, no doubt,” said Watkin. We watched from the balcony in late afternoon when the king’s hunters returned from the forest across the wide green lawn to the palace, the blood of the Manticore’s victims trailing bright red through the grass. “It’s a very old one,” he said. “You can tell by the fact that it devours the horses but the humans often return with a limb or two intact.” He cast a spell of protection around the monster, threading the eye of a needle with a hummingbird feather.

“You want it to survive?” I asked.

“To live till it dies naturally,” was his answer. “The king’s hunters must not kill it.”

Beneath the moon and stars at the edge of autumn, we sat with the rest of the court along the ramparts of the castle and listened for the creature’s flute-like trill, descending and ascending the scale, moving through the distant darkness of the trees. Its sound set the crystal goblets to vibrating. The ladies played hearts by candle light, their hair up and powdered. The gentlemen leaned back, smoking their pipes, discussing how they’d fell the beast if the job was theirs.

“Wizard,” the king said. “I thought you’d taken measures.”

“I did,” said Watkin. “It’s difficult, though. Magic against magic, and I’m an old man.”

A few moments later, the King’s engineer appeared at his side. The man carried a mechanical weapon that shot an arrow made of elephant ivory. “The tip is dipped in acid that will eat the creature’s flesh,” said the engineer. “Aim anywhere above the neck. Keep the gear work within the gun well-oiled.” His highness smiled and nodded.

A week later, just prior to dinner, at the daily ritual in which the king assessed the state of his kingdom, it was reported that the creature devoured two horses and a hunter, took the right leg of the engineer’s assistant and so twisted and crumpled the new weapon of the engineer that the poison arrow set to strike the beast turned round and stabbed its inventor in the ear, the lobe of which dripped off his head like a lit candle.

“We fear the thing may lay eggs,” said the engineer. “I suggest we burn the forest.”

“We’re not burning down the forest,” said the king. He turned and looked at the wizard. Watkin faked sleep.

I helped the old man out of his chair and accompanied him down the stone steps to the corridor that led to our chambers. Before I let him go, he took me by the collar and whispered, “The spell’s weakening, I can feel it in my gums.” I nodded, and he brushed me aside, walking the rest of the way to his rooms unassisted. Following behind, I looked over my shoulder almost positive the king was aware that his wizard’s art had been turned against him.

I lay down in my small space off the western side of the work room. I could see the inverted, hairless pink corpse of the hunch monkey swinging from the ceiling in the other room. The wizard had written away for it to Palgeria five years earlier, or so said his records. When it arrived, I could see by his reaction that he could no longer remember what he’d meant to do with it. Two days later, he came to me and said, “See what you can make of this hunch monkey.” I had no idea, so I hung the carcass in the work room.

From the first day of my service to Watkin he insisted that I tell him my dreams each morning. “Dreams are the manner in which those who mean you harm infiltrate the defenses of you existence,” he told me during a thunderstorm. It was mid-august, and we stood, dry, beneath the spreading branches of a hemlock one afternoon as a hard rain fell in curtains around us. That night, in sleep, I followed a woman through a field of purple flowers that eventually sloped down to the edge of a cliff. Below, an enormous mound of black rock heaved as if breathing, and when it expanded I could see through cracks and fissures red and orange light radiating out from within. The dream woman looked over her shoulder and said, “Do you remember the day you came to serve the wizard?”

Then the light was in my eyes and I was surprised to find I was awake. Watkin, holding a lantern up to my face said, “It’s perished. Come quickly.” He spun away from the bed, casting me in shadow again. I trembled as I dressed. I’d seen the old man pull, with his teeth, the spirit of a spitting demon from the nostril of one of the ladies of court. Unfathomable. His flowered robe was a brilliant design of peonies in the snow, but I no longer trusted the sun.

I stepped into the work room as Watkin was clearing things from the huge table at which he mixed his powders and dissected the reptiles whose small brains had a region that when mashed and dried quickened his potions. “Fetch your pen and paper,” he said. “We will record everything.” I did as I was told and then helped him. At one point he tried to lift a large crystal globe of blue powder and his thin wrists shook with the exertion. I took it from him just as it slipped from his fingers.

Suddenly, everywhere, the scent of roses and cinnamon. The wizard sniffed the air, and warned me that its arrival was imminent. Six hunters carried the corpse, draped across three battle stretchers, and covered by the frayed tapestry of the War of the Willows which had hung in the corridor that ran directly from the Treasury to the Pity Fountain. Watkin and I stood back as the dark bearded men grunted, gritted their teeth, and hoisted the stretchers onto the table. As they filed out of our chambers, my master handed each of them a small packet of powder tied up with a ribbon—an aphrodisiac, I suspected. Before collecting his reward and leaving, the last of the hunters took the edge of the tapestry, and lifting the corner high, walked swiftly around the table, unveiling the Manticore.

I glanced for a mere sliver and instinctually looked away. While my eyes were averted, I heard the old man purr, squeal, chitter. The thick cloud of the creature’s scent was a weight on my shoulders, and then I noticed the first buzz of the flies. The wizard slapped my face and forced me to look. His grip on the back of my neck could not be denied.

It was crimson and shades of crimson. And after I noted the color, I saw the teeth and looked at nothing else for a time. Both a wince and a smile. I saw the lion paws, the fur, the breasts, that long beautiful hair. The tail of shining segments led to a smooth, sharp stinger—a green bubble of venom at its tip. “Write this down,” said Watkin. I fumbled for my pen. “Female Manticore,” he said. I wrote at the top of the page.

The wizard took one step that seemed to last for minutes. Then he took another and another, until he was pacing slowly around the table, studying the creature from all sides. In his right hand he held the cane with the wizard’s head carved into the head of it. Its tip was not touching the floor. “Draw it,” he commanded. I set to the task, but this was a skill I was deficient at. Still, I drew it—the human head and torso, the powerful body of a lion, the tail of the scorpion. It turned out to be my best drawing, but it too was terrible.

“The first time I saw one of these,” Watkin said, “I was with my class as a boy. We’d gone on a walk to the lake, and we’d just passed through an orchard and onto a large meadow with yellow flowers. My teacher, a woman named Levu, with a mole beside her lip, pointed into the distance, one hand on my shoulder, and whispered, ‘A husband and wife Manticore, look.’ I saw them, blurs of crimson, grazing the low hanging fruit by the edge of the meadow. On our way back to town that evening, we heard their distinctive trill and then were attacked by two of them. They each had three rows of teeth chewing perfectly in sync. I watched them devour the teacher as she frantically confessed to me. While I prayed for her, the monsters recited poems in an exotic tongue and licked the blood from their lips.”

I wrote down all of what Watkin said, although I wasn’t sure it was to the point. He never looked me in the eye, but moved slowly, slowly, around the thing, lightly prodding it with his cane, squinting with one eye into the darkness of its recesses. “Do you see the face?” he asked me. I told him I did. “But for that fiendish smile, she’s beautiful,” he said. I tried to see her without the smile and what I saw in my mind was the smile without her. Suffice to say, her skin was crimson as was her fur, her eyes yellow diamonds. Her long hair had its own mind, deep red-violet whips at her command. And then that smile.

“She lived next to me, with hair as long as this but golden,” Watkin said, pointing. “I, a little younger than you, she a little older. Only once we went out together into the desert and climbed down into the dunes. Underground there, in the ruins, we saw the stone carved face of the hunch monkey. We lay down in front of it together, kissed, and went to sleep. Our parents and neighbors were looking for us. Late in the night while she slept, a wind blew through the pursed lips of the stone face, warning me of treachery and time. When she woke, she said in sleep she’d visited the ocean and gone fishing with a Manticore. The next time we kissed was at our wedding.”

“Draw that,” he shouted. I did my best, but didn’t know whether to depict the Manticore or the wizard with her at the beach. “One more thing about the smile,” he said. “It continually, perpetually grinds with the organic rotary mechanism of a well-lubricated jaw and three sets of teeth—even after death, in the grave, it masticates the pitch black.”

“Should I draw that?” I asked.

He’d begun walking. A few moments later, he said, “No.”

He laid down his cane on the edge of the table and took one of the paws in both his hands. “Look here at this claw,” he said. “How many heads do you think it’s taken off?” “Ten,” I said. “Ten thousand,” he said, dropping the paw and retrieving his cane. “How many will it take off now?” he asked. I didn’t answer. “The lion is fur, muscle, tendon, claw and speed, five important ingredients of the unfathomable. Once a king of Dreesha captured and tamed a brood of Manticore. He led them into battles on long, thousand link, iron chains. They cut through the forward ranks of the charging Igridots with the artful tenacity his royal highness reserves for only the largest pastries.”

“Take this down?” I asked.

“To the last dribbling vowel,” he said, nodding and slowly moving. His cane finally tapped the floor. “Supposedly,” he said, “there’s another smaller organ floating within their single chambered heart. At the center of this small organ is a smaller ball of gold—the purest gold imaginable. So pure it could be eaten. And if it were, I am told the result is one million beautiful dreams of flying.

“I had an uncle,” said the wizard, “who hunted the creature, bagged one, cut out its ball of gold, and proceeded to eat the entire thing in one bound. After that, my uncle was sane only five times a day. Always, he had his hands up. His tongue was always wagging, his eyes shivering. He walked away from home one night when no one was watching. He wandered into the forest. There were reports for a while of a ragged holy man but then a visitor returned his ring and watch and told us his head had been found. Once it was safely under glass, I performed my first magic on it and had it tell me about its final appointment with a Manticore.

“Take a lock of this hair, boy, when we’re done,” he said. “When you get old, tie it into a knot and wear it in your vest pocket. It will ward off danger… to an extent.”

“How fast do they run?” I asked.

“How fast?” he said, and then he stopped walking. A breeze blew through the windows and porticos of the work room. He turned quickly and looked over his shoulder out the window. Storm clouds, lush hedge, and a humidity of roses and cinnamon. The flies now swarmed. “That fast,” he said. “Draw it.”

“Notice,” he said, “there is no wound. The hunters didn’t kill it. It died of old age and they found it.” He stood very silent, his hands behind his back. I wondered if he’d run out of things to say. Then he cleared his throat and said, “There’s a point at which a wince and a smile share the same shape and intensity, almost but not quite the same meaning. It’s at that point and that point alone that you can begin to understand the beast’s scorpion tail. Sleek, black, poisonous, and needle sharp, it moves like lightening, piercing flesh and bone, depositing a chemical that halts all memory. When stung you want to scream, to run, to aim your crossbow at its magenta heart, but alas… you forget.”

“I’m drawing it,” I said. “Excellent,” he said and ran his free hand over one of the smooth sections of the scorpion tail. “Don’t forget to capture the forgetting.” He laughed to himself. “The Manticore venom was at one time used to cure certain cases of melancholia. There’s very often some incident from the past at the heart of depression. The green poison, measured judiciously, and administered with a long syringe to the corner of the eye, will instantly paralyze memory, negating the cause of sorrow. There was one fellow, I’d heard, who took too much of it and forgot to forget—he remembered everything and could let nothing go. His head filled up with every second of every day and it finally exploded.

“The poison doesn’t kill you, though. It only dazes you with the inability to remember, so those teeth can have their way. There are those few who’d been stung by the beast but not devoured. In every case, they described experiencing the same illusion—an eye-blink journey to an old summer home, with four floors of guest rooms, sunset, mosquitoes. For the duration of the poison’s strength, around two days, the victim lives at this retreat… in the mind, of course. There are cool breezes as the dark comes on, moths against the screen, the sound of waves far off, and the victim comes to the conclusion that he or she is alone. I suppose to die while in the throes of the poison, is to stay alone at that beautiful place by the sea for eternity.”

I spoke without thinking, “Every aspect of the beast brings you to eternity—the smile, the purest gold, the sting.”

“Write that down,” said Watkin. “What else can you say of it?”

“I remember that day I came to serve you,” I said, “and on the long stretch through the poplars, my carriage was stopped due to a dead body in the road. As the carriage passed, I peered out to see a bloody mess on the ground. You were one of the people in the crowd.”

“You can’t understand my invisible connection to these creatures—a certain symbiosis. I feel it in my lower back. Magic becomes a pin hole shrinking into the future,” he said.

“Can you bring the monster back to life?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. I have something else in mind.” He stepped over to a work bench, left the cane there and lifted a hatchet. Returning to the body of the creature, he walked slowly around it to the tail. “That was my wife you saw in the road that day. Killed by a Manticore—by this very Manticore.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’d think you’d have tried harder to kill it.”

“Don’t try to understand,” he said. He lifted the hatchet high above his head, and then with one swift chop, severed the stinger from the tail of the creature. “Under the spell of the poison, I will go to the summer house and rescue her from eternity.”

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

“You can’t go. You could be stranded in eternity with my wife and me—think of that,” said Watkin. “No, there’s something else I need you to do for me while I’m under the effects of the venom. You must take the head of the Manticore into the forest and bury it. Their heads turn into the roots of trees, the fruit of which are Manticore pups. You’ll carry the last seed.” He used the hatchet to sever the creature’s head while I dressed for the outdoors.

I’d learned to ride a horse before I went to serve the wizard, but the forest at night frightened me. I couldn’t shake the image of Watkin’s palm impaled on the tip of the black stinger and him rapidly accruing dullness, gagging, his eyes rolling back behind their lids. I carried the Manticore head in a woolen sac tied to the saddle and trembled at the prospect that perhaps Watkin was wrong and the one sprawled on the work table, headless and tailless, was not the last. For my protection, he’d given me a spell to use if it became necessary—a fistful of yellow powder and a half dozen words I no longer remembered.

I rode through the dark for a few minutes and had quickly had enough of it. I dismounted and dug a hole at the side of the path, standing my torch upright in it. It made a broad circle of light on the ground. I retrieved the shovel I’d brought and the head. After nearly a half hour of digging, I began to hear a slight murmuring sound coming from somewhere close by me. I thought someone was spying from a darker part of the forest, and then I took it for the whirring of a Manticore’s tri-toothed jaws and was paralyzed by fear. Two minutes later, I realized the voice was coming from inside the sack. When I looked, the smile was facing out. The Manticore’s eyes went wide, that chasm of a mouth opened, flashing three-way ivory, and she spoke in a foreign language.

I took her out of the sack, set her head up at the center of the circle of torch light, brushed back her hair, and listened to the beautiful sing-song language. Later, after waking from a kind of trance brought on by the flow of words, I remembered the spell Watkin had given me. Laying the powder out on the upturned palm of my hand, I aimed it carefully and blew it into the creature’s face. She coughed. I’d forgotten the words, so said anything that I recalled them sounding like. Then she spoke to me, and I understood her.

“Eternity,” she said and then repeated it, methodically, with the precise same intonation again and again and again…

I grabbed the shovel and started digging. By the time I had dug a deep enough hole, my nerves were frayed by her repetition, and I couldn’t fill the dirt in fast enough. When the head was thoroughly buried, its endless phrase still sounding, muffled, beneath the ground, I tamped the soil down and then found an odd looking green rock, like a fist, to mark the spot for future reference.

Watkin never returned from the place by the sea. After the venom wore off, his body was lifeless. I then became the wizard. No one seemed to care that I knew nothing about magic. “Make it up till you’ve got it,” said the King. “Then spread it around.” I thanked him for his insight, but was aware he’d eaten pure gold and now, when not soaring in his dreams, was rarely sane. The years came and went, and I did my best to learn the devices, potions, phenomena, that Watkin had bothered to record. I suppose there was something of magic in it, but it wasn’t readily recognizable.

I was able to witness Watkin’s fate by use of a magic looking glass I’d found in his bedroom and learned to command. It was a tall mirror that stood on the back of his writing desk. In it I could see anywhere in existence with a simple command. I chose the quiet place by the sea, and there before me were the clean swept pathways, the blossoming wisteria, the gray and splintering fence board. Darkness was coming on. The woman with golden hair sat on the screened porch in a wicker rocker, listening to the floor boards creak. The twilight breeze was cool against sunburn. The day seemed endless. As night came on, she rocked herself to sleep. I ordered the mirror to show me her dream.

She dreamed that she was at the beach. The surf rolled gently up across the sand. There was a Manticore—her crimson resplendent against the clear blue day—fishing at the shoreline with a weighted net. Without fear, the woman with bright hair approached the creature. The Manticore politely asked, with smile upon smile, if the woman would like to help hoist the net. She nodded. The net was flung far out and they waited. Finally there was a tug. The woman with the golden hair and the Manticore both pulled hard to retrieve their catch. Eventually they dragged Watkin ashore, tangled in the webbing, seaweed in his hair. She ran to him and helped him out of the net. They put their arms around each other and kissed.

Now I keep my ears pricked up for descriptions of strange beasts in the heart of the forest. If a horse or a human goes missing, I must get to the bottom of it before I can rest. I try to speak to the hunters every day. Reports of the creature are vague but growing, and I realize now I have some invisible connection to it, as if its muffled, muted voice is enclosed within a chamber of my heart, relentlessly whispering, “Eternity.”

CATSKIN

Kelly Link

Kelly Link is the author of three collections: Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters (the last, for young adults). Her short stories have recently been published in Tin House, Firebirds Rising, Noisy Outlaws, The Restless Dead, The Starry Rift, and Troll’s Eye View. Her work has won three Nebulas, a Hugo, four Locus Awards, The British Science Fiction Association Award, and a World Fantasy Award. She and her husband Gavin J. Grant run Small Beer Press, and twice-yearly produce the ’zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.

Link has said that the inspiration for “Catskin” was a conversation she had with fellow-writer Christopher Rowe, about whether or not a picture of his cat was a real feline, or a spooky cat-impersonator. Rowe produced a ’zine, Say… is this a cat?, on the subject.

Cats went in and out of the witch’s house all day long. The windows stayed open, and the doors, and there were other doors, cat-sized and private, in the walls and up in the attic. The cats were large and sleek and silent. No one knew their names, or even if they had names, except for the witch.

Some of the cats were cream-colored and some were brindled. Some were black as beetles. They were about the witch’s business. Some came into the witch’s bedroom with live things in their mouths. When they came out again, their mouths were empty.

The cats trotted and slunk and leapt and crouched. They were busy. Their movements were catlike, or perhaps clockwork. Their tails twitched like hairy pendulums. They paid no attention to the witch’s children.

The witch had three living children at this time, although at one time she had had dozens, maybe more. No one, certainly not the witch, had ever bothered to tally them up. But at one time the house had bulged with cats and babies.

Now, since witches cannot have children in the usual way—their wombs are full of straw or bricks or stones, and when they give birth, they give birth to rabbits, kittens, tadpoles, houses, silk dresses, and yet even witches must have heirs, even witches wish to be mothers—the witch had acquired her children by other means: she had stolen or bought them.

She’d had a passion for children with a certain color of red hair. Twins she had never been able to abide (they were the wrong kind of magic), although she’d sometimes attempted to match up sets of children, as though she had been putting together a chess set, and not a family. If you were to say a witch’s chess set, instead of a witch’s family, there would be some truth in that. Perhaps this is true of other families as well.

One girl she had grown like a cyst, upon her thigh. Other children she had made out of things in her garden, or bits of trash that the cats brought her: aluminum foil with strings of chicken fat still crusted to it, broken television sets, cardboard boxes that the neighbors had thrown out. She had always been a thrifty witch.

Some of these children had run away and others had died. Some of them she had simply misplaced, or accidentally left behind on buses. It is to be hoped that these children were later adopted into good homes, or reunited with their natural parents. If you are looking for a happy ending in this story, then perhaps you should stop reading here and picture these children, these parents, their reunions.

Are you still reading? The witch, up in her bedroom, was dying. She had been poisoned by an enemy, a witch, a man named Lack. The child Finn, who had been her food taster, was dead already and so were three cats who’d licked her dish clean. The witch knew who had killed her and she snatched pieces of time, here and there, from the business of dying, to make her revenge. Once the question of this revenge had been settled to her satisfaction, the shape of it like a black ball of twine in her head, she began to divide up her estate between her three remaining children.

Flecks of vomit stuck to the corners of her mouth, and there was a basin beside the foot of the bed, which was full of black liquid. The room smelled like cats’ piss and wet matches. The witch panted as if she were giving birth to her own death.

“Flora shall have my automobile,” she said, “and also my purse, which will never be empty, so long as you always leave a coin at the bottom, my darling, my spendthrift, my profligate, my drop of poison, my pretty, pretty Flora. And when I am dead, take the road outside the house and go west. There’s one last piece of advice.”

Flora, who was the oldest of the witch’s living children, was redheaded and stylish. She had been waiting for the witch’s death for a long time now, although she had been patient. She kissed the witch’s cheek and said, “Thank you, Mother.”

The witch looked up at her, panting. She could see Flora’s life, already laid out, flat as a map. Perhaps all mothers can see as far.

“Jack, my love, my birdsnest, my bite, my scrap of porridge,” the witch said, “you shall have my books. I won’t have any need of books where I am going. And when you leave my house, strike out in an an easterly direction and you won’t be any sorrier than you are now.”

Jack, who had once been a little bundle of feathers and twigs and eggshell all tied up with a tatty piece of string, was a sturdy lad, almost full grown. If he knew how to read, only the cats knew it. But he nodded and kissed his mother’s gray lips.

“And what shall I leave to my boy Small?” the witch said, convulsing. She threw up again in the basin. Cats came running, leaning on the lip of the basin to inspect her vomitus. The witch’s hand dug into Small’s leg.

“Oh it is hard, hard, so very hard, for a mother to leave her children (though I have done harder things). Children need a mother, even such a mother as I have been.” She wiped at her eyes, and yet it is a fact that witches cannot cry.

Small, who still slept in the witch’s bed, was the youngest of the witch’s children. (Perhaps not as young as you think.) He sat upon the bed, and although he didn’t cry, it was only because witch’s children have no one to teach them the use of crying. His heart was breaking.

Small could juggle and sing and every morning he brushed and plaited the witch’s long, silky hair. Surely every mother must wish for a boy like Small, a curly-headed, sweet-breathed, tenderhearted boy like Small, who can cook a fine omelet, and who has a good strong singing voice as well as a gentle hand with a hairbrush.

“Mother,” he said, “if you must die, then you must die. And if I can’t come along with you, then I’ll do my best to live and make you proud. Give me your hairbrush to remember you by, and I’ll go make my own way in the world.”

“You shall have my hairbrush, then,” said the witch to Small, looking, and panting, panting. “And I love you best of all. You shall have my tinderbox and my matches, and also my revenge, and you will make me proud, or I don’t know my own children.”

“What shall we do with the house, Mother?” said Jack. He said it as if he didn’t care.

“When I am dead,” the witch said, “this house will be of no use to anyone. I gave birth to it—that was a very long time ago—and raised it from just a dollhouse. Oh, it was the most dear, most darling dollhouse ever. It had eight rooms and a tin roof, and a staircase that went nowhere at all. But I nursed it and rocked it to sleep in a cradle, and it grew up to be a real house, and see how it has taken care of me, its parent, how it knows a child’s duty to its mother. And perhaps you can see how it is now, how it pines, how it grows sick to see me dying like this. Leave it to the cats. They’ll know what to do with it.”

All this time the cats have been running in and out of the room, bringing things and taking things away. It seems as if they will never slow down, never come to rest, never nap, never have the time to sleep, or to die, or even to mourn. They have a certain proprietary look about them, as if the house is already theirs.

The witch vomits up mud, fur, glass buttons, tin soldiers, trowels, hat pins, thumbtacks, love letters (mislabeled or sent without the appropriate amount of postage and never read), and a dozen regiments of red ants, each ant as long and wide as a kidney bean. The ants swim across the perilous stinking basin, clamber up the sides of the basin, and go marching across the floor in a shiny ribbon. They are carrying pieces of Time in their mandibles. Time is heavy, even in such small pieces, but the ants have strong jaws, strong legs. Across the floor they go, and up the wall, and out the window. The cats watch, but don’t interfere. The witch gasps and coughs and then lies still. Her hands beat against the bed once and then are still. Still the children wait, to make sure that she is dead, and that she has nothing else to say.

In the witch’s house, the dead are sometimes quite talkative.

But the witch has nothing else to say at this time.

The house groans and all the cats begin to mew piteously, trotting in and out of the room as if they have dropped something and must go and hunt for it—they will never find it—and the children, at last, find they know how to cry, but the witch is perfectly still and quiet. There is a tiny smile on her face, as if everything has happened exactly to her satisfaction. Or maybe she is looking forward to the next part of the story.

The children buried the witch in one of her half-grown dollhouses. They crammed her into the downstairs parlor, and knocked out the inner walls so that her head rested on the kitchen table in the breakfast nook, and her ankles threaded through a bedroom door. Small brushed out her hair, and, because he wasn’t sure what she should wear now that she was dead, he put all her dresses on her, one over the other over the other, until he could hardly see her white limbs at all beneath the stack of petticoats and coats and dresses. It didn’t matter: once they’d nailed the dollhouse shut again, all they could see was the red crown of her head in the kitchen window, and the worn-down heels of her dancing shoes knocking against the shutters of the bedroom window.

Jack, who was handy, rigged a set of wheels for the dollhouse, and a harness so that it could be pulled. They put the harness on Small, and Small pulled and Flora pushed, and Jack talked and coaxed the house along, over the hill, down to the cemetery, and the cats ran along beside them.

The cats are beginning to look a bit shabby, as if they are molting. Their mouths look very empty. The ants have marched away, through the woods, and down into town, and they have built a nest on your yard, out of the bits of Time. And if you hold a magnifying glass over their nest, to see the ants dance and burn, Time will catch fire and you will be sorry.

Outside the cemetery gates, the cats had been digging a grave for the witch. The children tipped the dollhouse into the grave, kitchen window first. But then they saw that the grave wasn’t deep enough, and the house sat there on its end, looking uncomfortable. Small began to cry (now that he’d learned how, it seemed he would spend all his time practicing), thinking how horrible it would be to spend one’s death, all of eternity, upside down and not even properly buried, not even able to feel the rain when it beat down on the exposed shingles of the house, and seeped down into the house and filled your mouth and drowned you, so that you had to die all over again, every time it rained.

The dollhouse chimney had broken off and fallen on the ground. One of the cats picked it up and carried it away, like a souvenir. That cat carried the chimney into the woods and ate it, a mouthful at a time, and passed out of this story and into another one. It’s no concern of ours.

The other cats began to carry up mouthfuls of dirt, dropping it and mounding it around the house with their paws. The children helped, and when they’d finished, they’d managed to bury the witch properly, so that only the bedroom window was visible, a little pane of glass like an eye at the top of a small dirt hill.

On the way home, Flora began to flirt with Jack. Perhaps she liked the way he looked in his funeral black. They talked about what they planned to be, now that they were grown up. Flora wanted to find her parents. She was a pretty girl: someone would want to look after her. Jack said he would like to marry someone rich. They began to make plans.

Small walked a little behind, slippery cats twining around his ankles. He had the witch’s hairbrush in his pocket, and his fingers slipped around the figured horn handle for comfort.

The house, when they reached it, had a dangerous, grief-stricken look to it, as if it was beginning to pull away from itself. Flora and Jack wouldn’t go back inside. They squeezed Small lovingly, and asked if he wouldn’t want to come along with them. He would have liked to, but who would have looked after the witch’s cats, the witch’s revenge? So he watched as they drove off together. They went north. What child has ever heeded a mother’s advice?

Jack hasn’t even bothered to bring along the witch’s library: he says there isn’t space in the trunk for everything. He’ll rely on Flora and her magic purse.

Small sat in the garden, and ate stalks of grass when he was hungry, and pretended that the grass was bread and milk and chocolate cake. He drank out of the garden hose. When it began to grow dark, he was lonelier than he had ever been in his life. The witch’s cats were not good company. He said nothing to them and they had nothing to tell him, about the house, or the future, or the witch’s revenge, or about where he was supposed to sleep. He had never slept anywhere except in the witch’s bed, so at last he went back over the hill and down to the cemetery.

Some of the cats were still going up and down the grave, covering the base of the mound with leaves and grass and feathers, their own loose fur. It was a soft sort of nest to lie down on. The cats were still busy when Small fell asleep—cats are always busy—cheek pressed against the cool glass of the bedroom window, hand curled in his pocket around the hairbrush, but in the middle of the night, when he woke up, he was swaddled, head to foot, in warm, grass-scented cat bodies.

A tail is curled around his chin like a rope, and all the bodies are soughing breath in and out, whiskers and paws twitching, silky bellies rising and falling. All the cats are sleeping a frantic, exhausted, busy sleep, except for one, a white cat who sits near his head, looking down at him. Small has never seen this cat before, and yet he knows her, the way that you know the people who visit you in dreams: she’s white everywhere, except for reddish tufts and frills at her ears and tail and paws, as if someone has embroidered her with fire around the edges.

“What’s your name?” Small says. He’s never talked to the witch’s cats before.

The cat lifts a leg and licks herself in a private place. Then she looks at him. “You may call me Mother,” she says.

But Small shakes his head. He can’t call the cat that. Down under the blanket of cats, under the windowpane, the witch’s Spanish heel is drinking in moonlight.

“Very well, then, you may call me The Witch’s Revenge,” the cat says. Her mouth doesn’t move, but he hears her speak inside his head. Her voice is furry and sharp, like a blanket made of needles. “And you may comb my fur.”

Small sits up, displacing sleeping cats, and lifts the brush out of his pocket. The bristles have left rows of little holes indented in the pink palm of his hand, like some sort of code. If he could read the code, it would say: Comb my fur.

Small combs the fur of The Witch’s Revenge. There’s grave dirt in the cat’s fur, and one or two red ants, who drop and scurry away. The Witch’s Revenge bends her head down to the ground, snaps them up in her jaws. The heap of cats around them is yawning and stretching. There are things to do.

“You must burn her house down,” The Witch’s Revenge says. “That’s the first thing.”

Small’s comb catches a knot, and The Witch’s Revenge turns and nips him on the wrist. Then she licks him in the tender place between his thumb and his first finger. “That’s enough,” she says. “There’s work to do.”

So they all go back to the house, Small stumbling in the dark, moving farther and farther away from the witch’s grave, the cats trotting along, their eyes lit like torches, twigs and branches in their mouths, as if they plan to build a nest, a canoe, a fence to keep the world out. The house, when they reach it, is full of lights, and more cats, and piles of tinder. The house is making a noise, like an instrument that someone is breathing into. Small realizes that all the cats are mewing, endlessly, as they run in and out the doors, looking for more kindling. The Witch’s Revenge says, “First we must latch all the doors.”

So Small shuts all the doors and windows on the first floor, leaving open only the kitchen door, and The Witch’s Revenge shuts the catches on the secret doors, the cat doors, the doors in the attic, and up on the roof, and the cellar doors. Not a single secret door is left open. Now all the noise is on the inside, and Small and The Witch’s Revenge are on the outside.

All the cats have slipped into the house through the kitchen door. There isn’t a single cat in the garden. Small can see the witch’s cats through the windows, arranging their piles of twigs. The Witch’s Revenge sits beside him, watching. “Now light a match and throw it in,” says The Witch’s Revenge.

Small lights a match. He throws it in. What boy doesn’t love to start a fire?

“Now shut the kitchen door,” says The Witch’s Revenge, but Small can’t do that. All the cats are inside. The Witch’s Revenge stands on her hindpaws and pushes the kitchen door shut. Inside, the lit match catches something on fire. Fire runs along the floor and up the kitchen walls. Cats catch fire, and run into the other rooms of the house. Small can see all this through the windows. He stands with his face against the glass, which is cold, and then warm, and then hot. Burning cats with burning twigs in their mouths press up against the kitchen door, and the other doors of the house, but all the doors are locked. Small and The Witch’s Revenge stand in the garden and watch the witch’s house and the witch’s books and the witch’s sofas and the witch’s cooking pots and the witch’s cats, her cats, too, all her cats burn.

You should never burn down a house. You should never set a cat on fire. You should never watch and do nothing while a house is burning. You should never listen to a cat who says to do any of these things. You should listen to your mother when she tells you to come away from watching, to go to bed, to go to sleep. You should listen to your mother’s revenge.

You should never poison a witch.

In the morning, Small woke up in the garden. Soot covered him in a greasy blanket. The Witch’s Revenge was curled up asleep on his chest. The witch’s house was still standing, but the windows had melted and run down the walls.

The Witch’s Revenge woke and stretched and licked Small clean with her small sharkskin tongue. She demanded to be combed. Then she went into the house and came out, carrying a little bundle. It dangled, boneless, from her mouth, like a kitten.

It is a catskin, Small sees, only there is no longer a cat inside it. The Witch’s Revenge drops it in his lap.

He picked it up and something shiny fell out of the loose light skin. It was a piece of gold, sloppy, slippery with fat. The Witch’s Revenge brought out dozens and dozens of catskins, and there was a gold piece in every skin. While Small counted his fortune, The Witch’s Revenge bit off one of her own claws, and pulled one long witch hair out of the witch’s comb. She sat up, like a tailor, cross-legged in the grass, and began to stitch up a bag, out of the many catskins.

Small shivered. There was nothing to eat for breakfast but grass, and the grass was black and cooked.

“Are you cold?” said The Witch’s Revenge. She put the bag aside and picked up another catskin, a fine black one. She slit a sharp claw down the middle. “We’ll make you a warm suit.”

She used the coat of a black cat, and the coat of a calico cat, and she put a trim around the paws, of grey-and-white-striped fur.

While she did this, she said to Small, “Did you know that there was once a battle, fought on this very patch of ground?”

Small shook his head no.

“Wherever there’s a garden,” The Witch’s Revenge said, scratching with one paw at the ground, “I promise you there are people buried somewhere beneath it. Look here.” She plucked up a little brown clot, put it in her mouth, and cleaned it with her tongue.

When she spat the little circle out again, Small saw it was an ivory regimental button. The Witch’s Revenge dug more buttons out of the ground—as if buttons of ivory grew in the ground—and sewed them onto the catskin. She fashioned a hood with two eyeholes and a set of fine whiskers, and sewed four fine cat tails to the back of the suit, as if the single tail that grew there wasn’t good enough for Small. She threaded a bell on each one. “Put this on,” she said to Small.

Small put on the suit and the bells chime. The Witch’s Revenge laughs. “You make a fine-looking cat,” she says. “Any mother would be proud.”

The inside of the cat suit is soft and a little sticky against Small’s skin. When he puts the hood over his head, the world disappears. He can see only the vivid corners of it through the eyeholes—grass, gold, the cat who sits cross-legged, stitching up her sack of skins—and air seeps in, down at the loosely sewn seam, where the skin droops and sags over his chest and around the gaping buttons. Small holds his tails in his clumsy fingerless paw, like a handful of eels, and swings them back and forth to hear them ring. The sound of the bells and the sooty, cooked smell of the air, the warm stickiness of the suit, the feel of his new fur against the ground: he falls asleep and dreams that hundreds of ants come and lift him and gently carry him off to bed.

When Small tipped his hood back again, he saw that The Witch’s Revenge had finished with her needle and thread. Small helped her fill the bag with gold. The Witch’s Revenge stood up on her hind legs, took the bag, and swung it over her shoulders. The gold coins went sliding against each other, mewling and hissing. The bag dragged along the grass, picking up ash, leaving a trail of green behind it. The Witch’s Revenge strutted along as if she were carrying a sack of air.

Small put the hood on again, and he got down on his hands and knees. And then he trotted after The Witch’s Revenge. They left the garden gate wide open and went into the forest, towards the house where the witch Lack lived.

The forest is smaller than it used to be. Small is growing, but the forest is shrinking. Trees have been cut down. Houses have been built. Lawns rolled, roads laid. The Witch’s Revenge and Small walked alongside one of the roads. A school bus rolled by: The children inside looked out their windows and laughed when they saw The Witch’s Revenge walking on her hind legs, and at her heels, Small, in his cat suit. Small lifted his head and peered out of his eyeholes after the school bus.

“Who lives in these houses?” he asked The Witch’s Revenge.

“That’s the wrong question, Small,” said The Witch’s Revenge, looking down at him and striding along.

Miaow, the catskin bag says. Clink.

“What’s the right question, then?” Small said.

“Ask me who lives under the houses,” The Witch’s Revenge said.

Obediently, Small said, “Who lives under the houses?”

“What a good question!” said The Witch’s Revenge. “You see, not everyone can give birth to their own house. Most people give birth to children instead. And when you have children, you need houses to put them in. So children and houses: most people give birth to the first and have to build the second. The houses, that is. A long time ago, when men and women were going to build a house, they would dig a hole first. And they’d make a little room—a little, wooden, one-room house—in the hole. And they’d steal or buy a child to put in the house in the hole, to live there. And then they built their house over that first little house.”

“Did they make a door in the lid of the little house?” Small said.

“They did not make a door,” said The Witch’s Revenge.

“But then how did the girl or the boy climb out?” Small said.

“The boy or the girl stayed in that little house,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “They lived there all their life, and they are living in those houses still, under the other houses where the people live, and the people who live in the houses above may come and go as they please, and they don’t ever think about how there are little houses with little children, sitting in little rooms, under their feet.”

“But what about the mothers and fathers?” Small asked. “Didn’t they ever go looking for their boys and girls?”

“Ah,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. And after all, who was living under their houses? But that was a long time ago. Now people mostly bury a cat when they build their house, instead of a child. That’s why we call cats house-cats. Which is why we must walk along smartly. As you can see, there are houses under construction here.”

And so there are. They walk by clearings where men are digging little holes. First Small puts his hood back and walks on two legs, and then he puts on his hood again, and goes on all fours: He makes himself as small and slinky as possible, just like a cat. But the bells on his tails jounce and the coins in the bag that The Witch’s Revenge carries go clink, miaow, and the men stop their work and watch them go by.

How many witches are there in the world? Have you ever seen one? Would you know a witch if you saw one? And what would you do if you saw one? For that matter, do you know a cat when you see one? Are you sure?

Small followed The Witch’s Revenge. Small grew calluses on his knees and the pads of his fingers. He would have liked to carry the bag sometimes, but it was too heavy. How heavy? You would not have been able to carry it, either.

They drank out of streams. At night they opened the catskin bag and climbed inside to sleep, and when they were hungry they licked the coins, which seemed to sweat golden fat, and always more fat. As they went, The Witch’s Revenge sang a song:

I had no mother
and my mother had no mother
and her mother had no mother
and her mother had no mother
and her mother had no mother
and you have no mother
to sing you
this song

The coins in the bag sang too, miaow, miaow, and the bells on Small’s tails kept the rhythm.

Every night Small combs The Witch’s Revenge’s fur. And every morning The Witch’s Revenge licks him all over, not neglecting the places behind his ears, and at the backs of his knees. And then he puts the catsuit back on, and she grooms him all over again.

Sometimes they were in the forest, and sometimes the forest became a town, and then The Witch’s Revenge would tell Small stories about the people who lived in the houses, and the children who lived in the houses under the houses. Once, in the forest, The Witch’s Revenge showed Small where there had once been a house. Now there was only the stones of the foundation, upholstered in moss, and the chimney stack, propped up with fat ropes and coils of ivy.

The Witch’s Revenge rapped on the grassy ground, moving clockwise around the foundation, until both she and Small could hear a hollow sound; The Witch’s Revenge dropped to all fours and clawed at the ground, tearing it up with her paws and biting at it, until they could see a little wooden roof. The Witch’s Revenge knocked on the roof, and Small lashed his tails.

“Well, Small,” said The Witch’s Revenge, “shall we take off the roof and let the poor child go?”

Small crept up close to the hole she had made. He put his ear to it and listened, but he heard nothing at all. “There’s no one in there,” he said.

“Maybe they’re shy,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “Shall we let them out, or shall we leave them be?”

“Let them out!” said Small, but what he meant to say was, “Leave them alone!” Or maybe he said Leave them be! although he meant the opposite. The Witch’s Revenge looked at him, and Small thought he heard something then—beneath him where he crouched, frozen—very faint: a scrabbling at the dirty, sunken roof.

Small sprang away. The Witch’s Revenge picked up a stone and brought it down hard, caving the roof in. When they peered inside, there was nothing except blackness and a faint smell. They waited, sitting on the ground, to see what might come out, but nothing came out. After a while, The Witch’s Revenge picked up her catskin bag, and they set off again.

For several nights after that, Small dreamed that someone, something, was following them. It was small and thin and bleached and cold and dirty and afraid. One night it crept away again, and Small never knew where it went. But if you come to that part of the forest, where they sat and waited by the stone foundation, perhaps you will meet the thing that they set free.

No one knew the reason for the quarrel between the witch Small’s mother and the witch Lack, although the witch Small’s mother had died for it. The witch Lack was a handsome man and he loved his children dearly. He had stolen them out of the cribs and beds of palaces and manors and harems. He dressed his children in silks, as befitted their station, and they wore gold crowns and ate off gold plates. They drank from cups of gold. Lack’s children, it was said, lacked nothing.

Perhaps the witch Lack had made some remark about the way the witch Small’s mother was raising her children, or perhaps the witch Small’s mother had boasted of her children’s red hair. But it might have been something else. Witches are proud and they like to quarrel.

When Small and The Witch’s Revenge came at last to the house of the witch Lack, The Witch’s Revenge said to Small, “Look at this monstrosity! I’ve produced finer turds and buried them under leaves. And the smell, like an open sewer! How can his neighbors stand the stink?”

Male witches have no wombs, and must come by their houses in other ways, or else buy them from female witches. But Small thought it was a very fine house. There was a prince or a princess at each window staring down at him, as he sat on his haunches in the driveway, beside The Witch’s Revenge. He said nothing, but he missed his brothers and sisters.

“Come along,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “We’ll go a little ways off and wait for the witch Lack to come home.”

Small followed The Witch’s Revenge back into the forest, and in a while, two of the witch Lack’s children came out of the house, carrying baskets made of gold. They went into the forest as well and began to pick blackberries.

The Witch’s Revenge and Small sat in the briar and watched.

There was a wind in the briar. Small was thinking of his brothers and sisters. He thought of the taste of blackberries, the feel of them in his mouth, which was not at all like the taste of fat.

The Witch’s Revenge nestled against the small of Small’s back. She was licking down a lump of knotted fur at the base of his spine. The princesses were singing.

Small decided that he would live in the briar with The Witch’s Revenge. They would live on berries and spy on the children who came to pick them, and The Witch’s Revenge would change her name. The word Mother was in his mouth, along with the sweet taste of the blackberries.

“Now you must go out,” said The Witch’s Revenge, “and be kittenish. Be playful. Chase your tail. Be shy, but don’t be too shy. Don’t talk too much. Let them pet you. Don’t bite.”

She pushed at Small’s rump, and Small tumbled out of the briar and sprawled at the feet of the witch Lack’s children.

The Princess Georgia said, “Look! It’s a dear little cat!”

Her sister Margaret said doubtfully, “But it has five tails. I’ve never seen a cat that needed so many tails. And its skin is done up with buttons and it’s almost as large as you are.”

Small, however, began to caper and prance. He swung his tails back and forth so that the bells rang out and then he pretended to be alarmed by this. First he ran away from his tails and then he chased his tails. The two princesses put down their baskets, half-full of blackberries, and spoke to him, calling him a silly puss.

At first he wouldn’t go near them. But, slowly, he pretended to be won over. He allowed himself to be petted and fed blackberries. He chased a hair ribbon and he stretched out to let them admire the buttons up and down his belly. Princess Margaret’s fingers tugged at his skin; then she slid one hand in between the loose catskin and Small’s boy skin. He batted her hand away with a paw, and Margaret’s sister Georgia said knowingly that cat’s didn’t like to be petted on their bellies.

They were all good friends by the time The Witch’s Revenge came out of the briar, standing on her hind legs and singing

I have no children
and my children have no children
and their children
have no children
and their children
have no whiskers
and no tails

At this sight, the Princesses Margaret and Georgia began to laugh and point. They had never heard a cat sing, or seen a cat walk on its hind legs. Small lashed his five tails furiously, and all the fur of the catskin stood up on his arched back, and they laughed at that too.

When they came back from the forest, with their baskets piled with berries, Small was stalking close at their heels, and The Witch’s Revenge came walking just behind. But she left the bag of gold hidden in the briar.

That night, when the witch Lack came home, his hands were full of gifts for his children. One of his sons ran to meet him at the door and said, “Come and see what followed Margaret and Georgia home from the forest! Can we keep them?”

And the table had not been set for dinner, and the children of the witch Lack had not sat down to do their homework, and in the witch Lack’s throne room, there was a cat with five tails, spinning in circles, while a second cat sat impudently upon his throne, and sang,

Yes!
your father’s house
is the shiniest
brownest largest
the most expensive
the sweetest-smelling
house
that has ever
come out of
anyone’s
ass!

The witch Lack’s children began to laugh at this, until they saw the witch, their father, standing there. Then they fell silent. Small stopped spinning.

“You!” said the witch Lack.

“Me!” said The Witch’s Revenge, and sprang from the throne. Before anyone knew what she was about, her jaws were fastened about the witch Lack’s neck, and then she ripped out his throat. Lack opened his mouth to speak and his blood fell out, making The Witch’s Revenge’s fur more red now than white. The witch Lack fell down dead, and red ants went marching out of the hole in his neck and the hole of his mouth, and they held pieces of Time in their jaws as tightly as The Witch’s Revenge had held Lack’s throat in hers. But she let Lack go and left him lying in his blood on the floor, and she snatched up the ants and ate them, quickly, as if she had been hungry for a very long time.

While this was happening, the witch Lack’s children stood and watched and did nothing. Small sat on the floor, his tails curled about his paws. Children, all of them, they did nothing. They were too surprised. The Witch’s Revenge, her belly full of ants, her mouth stained with blood, stood up and surveyed them.

“Go and fetch me my catskin bag,” she said to Small.

Small found that he could move. Around him, the princes and princesses stayed absolutely still. The Witch’s Revenge was holding them in her gaze.

“I’ll need help,” Small said. “The bag is too heavy for me to carry.”

The Witch’s Revenge yawned. She licked a paw and began to pat at her mouth. Small stood still.

“Very well,” she said. “Take those big strong girls the Princesses Margaret and Georgia with you. They know the way.”

The Princesses Margaret and Georgia, finding that they could move again, began to tremble. They gathered their courage and they went with Small, the two girls holding each other’s hands, out of the throne room, not looking down at the body of their father, the witch Lack, and back into the forest.

Georgia began to weep, but the Princess Margaret said to Small: “Let us go!”

“Where will you go?” said Small. “The world is a dangerous place. There are people in it who mean you no good.” He threw back his hood, and the Princess Georgia began to weep harder.

“Let us go,” said the Princess Margaret. “My parents are the King and Queen of a country not three days’ walk from here. They will be glad to see us again.”

Small said nothing. They came to the briar and he sent the Princess Georgia in to hunt for the catskin bag. She came out scratched and bleeding, the bag in her hand. It had caught on the briars and torn open. Gold coins rolled out, like glossy drops of fat, falling on the ground.

“Your father killed my mother,” said Small.

“And that cat, your mother’s devil, will kill us, or worse,” said Princess Margaret. “Let us go!”

Small lifted the catskin bag. There were no coins in it now. The Princess Georgia was on her hands and knees, scooping up coins and putting them into her pockets.

“Was he a good father?” Small asked.

“He thought he was,” Princess Margaret said. “But I’m not sorry he’s dead. When I grow up, I will be Queen. I’ll make a law to put all the witches in the kingdom to death, and all their cats as well.”

Small became afraid. He took up the catskin bag and ran back to the house of the witch Lack, leaving the two princesses in the forest. And whether they made their way home to the Princess Margaret’s parents, or whether they fell into the hands of thieves, or whether they lived in the briar, or whether the Princess Margaret grew up and kept her promise and rid her kingdom of witches and cats, Small never knew, and neither do I, and neither shall you.

When he came back into the witch Lack’s house, The Witch’s Revenge saw at once what had happened. “Never mind,” she said.

There were no children, no princes and princesses, in the throne room. The witch Lack’s body still lay on the floor, but The Witch’s Revenge had skinned it like a coney, and sewn up the skin into a bag. The bag wriggled and jerked, the sides heaving as if the witch Lack were still alive somewhere inside. The Witch’s Revenge held the witchskin bag in one hand, and with the other, she was stuffing a cat into the neck of the skin. The cat wailed as it went into the bag. The bag was full of wailing. But the discarded flesh of the witch Lack lolled, slack.

There was a little pile of gold crowns on the floor beside the flayed corpse, and transparent, papery things that blew about the room, on a current of air, surprised looks on the thin, shed faces.

Cats were hiding in the corners of the room, and under the throne. “Go catch them,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “But leave the three prettiest alone.”

“Where are the witch Lack’s children?” Small said.

The Witch’s Revenge nodded around the room. “As you see,” she said. “I’ve slipped off their skins, and they were all cats underneath. They’re cats now, but if we were to wait a year or two, they would shed these skins as well and become something new. Children are always growing.”

Small chased the cats around the room. They were fast, but he was faster. They were nimble, but he was nimbler. He had worn his cat suit longer. He drove the cats down the length of the room, and The Witch’s Revenge caught them and dropped them into her bag. At the end there were only three cats left in the throne room and they were as pretty a trio of cats as anyone could ask for. All the other cats were inside the bag.

“Well done and quickly done, too,” said The Witch’s Revenge, and she took her needle and stitched shut the neck of the bag. The skin of the witch Lack smiled up at Small, and a cat put its head through Lack’s stained mouth, wailing. But The Witch’s Revenge sewed Lack’s mouth shut too, and the hole on the other end, where a house had come out. She left only his earholes and his eyeholes and his nostrils, which were full of fur, rolled open so that the cats could breathe.

The Witch’s Revenge slung the skin full of cats over her shoulder and stood up.

“Where are you going?” Small said.

“These cats have mothers and fathers,” The Witch’s Revenge said. “They have mothers and fathers who miss them very much.”

She gazed at Small. He decided not to ask again. So he waited in the house with the two princesses and the prince in their new cat suits, while The Witch’s Revenge went down to the river. Or perhaps she took them down to the market and sold them. Or maybe she took each cat home, to its own mother and father, back to the kingdom where it had been born. Maybe she wasn’t so careful to make sure that each child was returned to the right mother and father. After all, she was in a hurry, and cats look very much alike at night.

No one saw where she went—but the market is closer than the palaces of the Kings and Queens whose children had been stolen by the witch Lack, and the river is closer still.

When The Witch’s Revenge came back to Lack’s house, she looked around her. The house was beginning to stink very badly. Even Small could smell it now.

“I suppose the Princess Margaret let you fuck her,” said The Witch’s Revenge, as if she had been thinking about this while she ran her errands. “And that is why you let them go. I don’t mind. She was a pretty puss. I might have let her go myself.”

She looked at Small’s face and saw that he was confused. “Never mind,” she said.

She had a length of string in her paw, and a cork, which she greased with a piece of fat she had cut from the witch Lack. She threaded the cork on the string, calling it a good, quick, little mouse, and greased the string as well, and she fed the wriggling cork to the tabby who had been curled up in Small’s lap. And when she had the cork back again, she greased it again and fed it to the little black cat, and then she fed it to the cat with two white forepaws, so that she had all three cats upon her string.

She sewed up the rip in the catskin bag, and Small put the gold crowns in the bag, and it was nearly as heavy as it had been before. The Witch’s Revenge carried the bag, and Small took the greased string, holding it in his teeth, so the three cats were forced to run along behind him as they left the house of the witch Lack.

Small strikes a match, and he lights the house of the dead witch, Lack, on fire, as they leave. But shit burns slowly, if at all, and that house might be burning still, if someone hasn’t gone and put it out. And maybe, someday, someone will go fishing in the river near that house, and hook their line on a bag full of princes and princesses, wet and sorry and wriggling in their catsuit skins—that’s one way to catch a husband or a wife.

Small and The Witch’s Revenge walked without stopping and the three cats came behind them. They walked until they reached a little village very near where the witch Small’s mother had lived and there they settled down in a room The Witch’s Revenge rented from a butcher. They cut the greased string, and bought a cage and hung it from a hook in the kitchen. They kept the three cats in it, but Small bought collars and leashes, and sometimes he put one of the cats on a leash and took it for a walk around the town.

Sometimes he wore his own catsuit and went out prowling, but The Witch’s Revenge used to scold him if she caught him dressed like that. There are country manners and there are town manners and Small was a boy about town now.

The Witch’s Revenge kept house. She cleaned and she cooked and she made Small’s bed in the morning. Like all of the witch’s cats, she was always busy. She melted down the gold crowns in a stewpot, and minted them into coins.

The Witch’s Revenge wore a silk dress and gloves and a heavy veil, and ran her errands in a fine carriage, Small at her side. She opened an account in a bank, and she enrolled Small in a private academy. She bought a piece of land to build a house on, and she sent Small off to school every morning, no matter how he cried. But at night she took off her clothes and slept on his pillow and he combed her red and white fur.

Sometimes at night she twitched and moaned, and when he asked her what she was dreaming, she said, “There are ants! Can’t you comb them out? Be quick and catch them, if you love me.”

But there were never any ants.

One day when Small came home, the little cat with the white front paws was gone. When he asked The Witch’s Revenge, she said that the little cat had fallen out of the cage and through the open window and into the garden and before The Witch’s Revenge could think what to do, a crow had swooped down and carried the little cat off.

They moved into their new house a few months later, and Small was always very careful when he went in and out the doorway, imagining the little cat, down there in the dark, under the doorstep, under his foot.

Small got bigger. He didn’t make any friends in the village, or at his school, but when you’re big enough, you don’t need friends.

One day while he and The Witch’s Revenge were eating their dinner, there was a knock at the door. When Small opened the door, there stood Flora and Jack. Flora was wearing a drab, thrift-store coat, and Jack looked more than ever like a bundle of sticks.

“Small!” said Flora. “How tall you’ve become!” She burst into tears, and wrung her beautiful hands. Jack said, looking at The Witch’s Revenge, “And who are you?”

The Witch’s Revenge said to Jack, “Who am I? I’m your mother’s cat, and you’re a handful of dry sticks in a suit two sizes too large. But I won’t tell anyone if you won’t tell, either.”

Jack snorted at this, and Flora stopped crying. She began to look around the house, which was sunny and large and well appointed.

“There’s room enough for both of you,” said The Witch’s Revenge, “if Small doesn’t mind.”

Small thought his heart would burst with happiness to have his family back again. He showed Flora to one bedroom and Jack to another. Then they went downstairs and had a second dinner, and Small and The Witch’s Revenge listened, and the cats in their hanging cage listened, while Flora and Jack recounted their adventures.

A pickpocket had taken Flora’s purse, and they’d sold the witch’s automobile, and lost the money in a game of cards. Flora found her parents, but they were a pair of old scoundrels who had no use for her. (She was too old to sell again. She would have realized what they were up to.) She’d gone to work in a department store, and Jack had sold tickets in a movie theater. They’d quarreled and made up, and then fallen in love with other people, and had many disappointments. At last they had decided to go home to the witch’s house and see if it would do for a squat, or if there was anything left, to carry away and sell.

But the house, of course, had burned down. As they argued about what to do next, Jack had smelled Small, his brother, down in the village. So here they were.

“You’ll live here, with us,” Small said.

Jack and Flora said they could not do that. They had ambitions, they said. They had plans. They would stay for a week, or two weeks, and then they would be off again. The Witch’s Revenge nodded and said that this was sensible.

Every day Small came home from school and went out again, with Flora, on a bicycle built for two. Or he stayed home and Jack taught him how to hold a coin between two fingers, and how to follow the egg, as it moved from cup to cup. The Witch’s Revenge taught them to play bridge, although Flora and Jack couldn’t be partners. They quarreled with each other as if they were husband and wife.

“What do you want?” Small asked Flora one day. He was leaning against her, wishing he were still a cat, and could sit in her lap. She smelled of secrets. “Why do you have to go away again?”

Flora patted Small on the head. She said, “What do I want? That’s easy enough! To never have to worry about money. I want to marry a man and know that he’ll never cheat on me, or leave me.” She looked at Jack as she said this.

Jack said, “I want a rich wife who won’t talk back, who doesn’t lie in bed all day, with the covers pulled up over her head, weeping and calling me a bundle of twigs.” And he looked at Flora when he said this.

The Witch’s Revenge put down the sweater that she was knitting for Small. She looked at Flora and she looked at Jack and then she looked at Small.

Small went into the kitchen and opened the door of the hanging cage. He lifted out the two cats and brought them to Flora and Jack. “Here,” he said. “A husband for you, Flora, and a wife for Jack. A prince and a princess, and both of them beautiful, and well brought up, and wealthy, no doubt.”

Flora picked up the little tomcat and said, “Don’t tease at me, Small! Who ever heard of marrying a cat!”

The Witch’s Revenge said, “The trick is to keep their catskins in a safe hiding place. And if they sulk, or treat you badly, sew them back into their catskin and put them into a bag and throw them in the river.”

Then she took her claw and slit the skin of the tabby-colored cat suit, and Flora was holding a naked man. Flora shrieked and dropped him on the ground. He was a handsome man, well made, and he had a princely manner. He was not a man that anyone would ever mistake for a cat. He stood up and made a bow, very elegant, for all that he was naked. Flora blushed, but she looked pleased.

“Go fetch some clothes for the Prince and the Princess,” The Witch’s Revenge said to Small. When he got back, there was a naked princess hiding behind the sofa, and Jack was leering at her.

A few weeks after that, there were two weddings, and then Flora left with her new husband, and Jack went off with his new princess. Perhaps they lived happily ever after.

The Witch’s Revenge said to Small, “We have no wife for you.”

Small shrugged. “I’m still too young,” he said.

But try as hard as he can, Small is getting older now. The catskin barely fits across his shoulders. The buttons strain when he fastens them. His grown-up fur—his people fur—is coming in. At night he dreams.

The witch his mother’s Spanish heel beats against the pane of glass. The princess hangs in the briar. She’s holding up her dress, so he can see the catfur down there. Now she’s under the house. She wants to marry him, but the house will fall down if he kisses her. He and Flora are children again, in the witch’s house. Flora lifts up her skirt and says, see my pussy? There’s a cat down there, peeking out at him, but it doesn’t look like any cat he’s ever seen. He says to Flora, I have a pussy too. But his isn’t the same.

At last he knows what happened to the little, starving, naked thing in the forest, where it went. It crawled into his catskin, while he was asleep, and then it climbed right inside him, his Small skin, and now it is huddled in his chest, still cold and sad and hungry. It is eating him from the inside, and getting bigger, and one day there will be no Small left at all, only that nameless, hungry child, wearing a Small skin.

Small moans in his sleep.

There are ants in The Witch’s Revenge’s skin, leaking out of her seams, and they march down into the sheets and pinch at him, down under his arms, and between his legs where his fur is growing in, and it hurts, it aches and aches. He dreams that The Witch’s Revenge wakes now, and comes and licks him all over, until the pain melts. The pane of glass melts. The ants march away again on their long, greased thread.

“What do you want?” says The Witch’s Revenge.

Small is no longer dreaming. He says, “I want my mother!”

Light from the moon comes down through the window over their bed. The Witch’s Revenge is very beautiful—she looks like a Queen, like a knife, like a burning house, a cat—in the moonlight. Her fur shines. Her whiskers stand out like pulled stitches, wax and thread. The Witch’s Revenge says, “Your mother is dead.”

“Take off your skin,” Small says. He’s crying and The Witch’s Revenge licks his tears away. Small’s skin pricks all over, and down under the house, something small wails and wails. “Give me back my mother,” he says.

“Oh, my darling,” says his mother, the witch, The Witch’s Revenge, “I can’t do that. I’m full of ants. Take off my skin, and all the ants will spill out, and there will be nothing left of me.”

Small says, “Why have you left me all alone?”

His mother the witch says, “I’ve never left you alone, not even for a minute. I sewed up my death in a catskin so I could stay with you.”

“Take it off! Let me see you!” Small says. He pulls at the sheet on the bed, as if it were his mother’s catskin.

The Witch’s Revenge shakes her head. She trembles and beats her tail back and forth. She says, “How can you ask me for such a thing, and how can I say no to you? Do you know what you’re asking me for? Tomorrow night. Ask me again, tomorrow night.”

And Small has to be satisfied with that. All night long, Small combs his mother’s fur. His fingers are looking for the seams in her catskin. When The Witch’s Revenge yawns, he peers inside her mouth, hoping to catch a glimpse of his mother’s face. He can feel himself becoming smaller and smaller. In the morning he will be so small that when he tries to put his catskin on, he can barely do up the buttons. He’ll be so small, so sharp, you might mistake him for an ant, and when The Witch’s Revenge yawns, he’ll creep inside her mouth, he’ll go down into her belly, he’ll go find his mother. If he can, he’ll help his mother cut her catskin open so that she can get out again and come and live in the world with him, and if she won’t come out, then he won’t, either. He’ll live there, the way that sailors learn to live, inside the belly of fish who have eaten them, and keep house for his mother inside the house of her skin.

This is the end of the story. The Princess Margaret grows up to kill witches and cats. If she doesn’t, then someone else will have to do it. There is no such thing as witches, and there is no such thing as cats, either, only people dressed up in catskin suits. They have their reasons, and who is to say that they might not live that way, happily ever after, until the ants have carried away all of the time that there is, to build something new and better out of it?

MIEZE CORRECTS AN INCOMPLETE REPRESENTATION OF REALITY

Michaela Roessner

Michaela Roessner has had four novels, assorted fiction and nonfiction published. She is also an exhibiting visual artist. Her most recently published and upcoming publications include “The Fisherman’s Wife,” in Room magazine, “The Klepsydrain the anthology Polyphony 7, and “The Fishes Speak,” in the winter 2009/2010 Postscripts anthology. A graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program, she teaches online for Gotham Writers’ Workshop and Axia College. She has practiced Aikido for over twenty-five years and has been known to fall down with great mastery.

Roessner explains her inspiration for this story: “As someone who has always been owned by cats, the whole Schrödinger’s Cat paradox always drove me bonkers. Even if it was supposed to be just a gedankan, a thought experiment, why would Erwin Schrödinger pick a cat to hypothetically lock in a box and put in peril? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of other critters, like cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes, that would have made for a better fit, both literally and figuratively.

“It seemed clear to me that Schrödinger bore a passive-aggressive hostility towards felines. And what a silly choice, as well, for an observer effect experiment. Because who is a more focused observer than a cat? I felt that it was more than time to give a voice to the cat jammed in the deadly box, and to turn the tables in a duel of observer one-up-manship.”

Zurich, 1935.

Mieze flattens her ears to her skull and thrashes her tail about in the manner of irritated cats everywhere. She opens her jaws so that she can smell with the inside of her mouth, a motion humans take for nervous panting.

Humans, who think they know so much. Who know so little.

Mieze needs the extra olfactory sense to track her surroundings in the airtight, light-tight box, where even her enormous, luminous golden eyes cannot see.

But there are many ways of seeing. Many ways of observing.

Eye-blind inside the box, Mieze still knows her surroundings well. She’s been here before. She’s endured many sessions in this container.

As soon as her human pet, Felicie, leaves for school, Felicie’s father, the great Herr Professor Erwin Schrödinger, is prone to pop Mieze in the box.

With the sensitive organs in her oral tissues, Mieze breathes in the smell of the sweet-honey heavy-lead walls of her prison; the acid metal taste and tick of the Geiger counter; the slick glassine odor of the bottle containing and masking, for now, the cyanide gas; the wood and steel of the trip-hammer poised to crash down on the cyanide bottle.

But even more than these, Mieze tastes/smells/observes/knows the pulse of electrons and trembling of nuclei in the little case that contains the radioactive isotope. This smaller box is surrounded by a cage to prevent her from dislodging it in the fit of fear or fury that Herr Erwin seems to expect of her. Does Herr Erwin think she hasn’t noticed that he hasn’t similarly secured the bottle of cyanide?

Well, that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Not the great scientific experiment, the one Herr Erwin’s friend, the renowned Doktor Einstein, called the “prettiest way” to show that the wave representation of matter is an incomplete representation of reality.

No, the true reality, the real representation of reality, is that Herr Erwin, father Mieze’s beloved Felicie, detests cats.

So if Mieze, in the process of this to-be-famous experiment, should inadvertently bump into the cyanide instead of waiting for the statistical judgment of nuclei, what will Herr Erwin say? He will say, “I am a Swiss scientist. I am not responsible for the non-precision of felines.”

Yet for all the innocence Mieze knows Herr Erwin would profess, she notices how gingerly he lifts the lid at the end of each experiment, the gloves he has donned, the air-filter mask he wears over nose and mouth.

In spite of her anger, Mieze is drawn to and fascinated by the cage around the box of radioactive matter. It reminds her of the cage that secures Felicie’s brother’s white mice and the wire prison that confines Felicie’s mother’s canary.

Inside this cell too, the atomic particles tremble, hop and spin, watching her watch them. Just like the mice and the bird. Sometimes (Mieze cannot help herself) she feels one paw curling out towards the caged box. Her hindquarters begin their rhythmic pre-pounce twitch.

At these moments she sympathizes briefly with Herr Erwin Schrödinger. Is this not the same twitch she has observed in him as he sets up his experiments?

When he pounces upon and captures the elusive, fluttering bits of knowledge, she has seen in him the sharp spark of the thrill of a successful hunt. She believes he may even experience a brief, atavistic sensation as of soft fur or feathers against the inside of his mouth; a rush of the sweet warmth of blood.

But after a while of such conjecture Mieze grows bored and tired and wishes she could sleep. Then she again becomes irritated with Herr Erwin. She is not stupid. If she dozes, if she suspends her observations, she could die.

At some point in the time she spends in here, Herr Erwin Schrödinger believes there is a fifty percent chance (in his mind, at least) that one of the nuclei in the case will decay and trigger the Geiger counter, causing the hammer to descend on the bottle containing the cyanide. Herr Erwin lives for a brief moment’s delusion of immortality and omnipotence. He hypothesizes that as long as he does not open the box that Mieze is neither dead nor alive. Or she is both. During that indeterminate moment he believes himself to be her deity—that it is his paltry act of lifting the lid that determines her survival.

Yet Mieze has noticed that he has at times left her in the box far longer than necessary to make this determination. At first she thought he might have lost track of the time in his addictive immersion into godhood. Later she accepted the possibility that his hatred of cats might be stronger than his egomania. If he “forgot” and left her in the box long enough, she would suffocate. Then he would say, “I am a Swiss physicist. What would I know of feline lung capacity and oxygen requirements?”

So the moment he places her in the enclosure, Mieze shallows her breathing, shuns the desire to sleep.

Poor Herr Erwin, Mieze thinks. He congratulates himself on his scientific prowess, yet he lacks the most rudimentary observational skills. Take, as an example, how he initiates this experiment. Anyone who observes cats for the briefest length of time knows that to entice a cat into a box, one has only to leave it invitingly open. The cat’s own scientific fervor (mislabeled by humans as mere curiosity) will lead it unerringly to investigate.

Yet time and time again, Herr Erwin—ignorant, sadistic, and completely untalented—has picked her up and jammed her into this container. Always with the same results. It is her only satisfaction, she thinks as she licks his blood from between her claws.

No, Herr Professor Erwin Schrödinger sees and understands nothing. Even the mice and the canary know more than he. Even they would be capable of scrutinizing the subatomic particles studying them and be able to control the atomic assassins with their own watching. Creatures, being more intelligent than men, know that all the games of life and death, existence and non-existence, are determined by one-upmanship in observation. The cat sits and waits at the mousehole. The mouse sits and waits on the other side. Each by its watching determines the other’s reality.

Sad, pathetic Herr Erwin does not understand how much his own existence is determined by the watchful vigilance of cats, of small birds and rodents, even of atomic particles—all watching him. Herr Erwin, who neither sees nor tastes/smells/observes the imprisoning box of his own reality.

Mieze yawns. She wishes the canary or one of the mice were here instead. Stalemating nuclei is too easy. She’s had plenty of time, too much time, to think of all the ramifications of her situation.

Oh yes, yes, she knows that by imposing her will to live that in a parallel reality another Mieze (she assumes a sub-intelligent version of herself) is dying. But Mieze is pragmatic. She is only concerned with her consciousness continuing along this particular lifeline.

She’s imagined so many other possibilities, all of which she knows must be happening at this very moment in an “else-when.” In another universe Herr Erwin’s daughter is not called Felicie and does not like cats. There Mieze chose to be mistress to a dairyman’s family. She lives on cream by a warm hearth.

In other continuums, Herr Erwin:

Has only sons, no daughters, and kidnaps his feline victims from alleys.

Is married, but has no children.

Is not married and has no children.

Only proposes the experiment as an idea, leaving others to follow through with it, if they will. But he doesn’t fool the cats in that reality for an instant. After all, if he truly meant no malice, why didn’t he suggest another animal for the experiment? Say, for example, a dog?

Mieze conjectures other, earlier realities she knows must exist. A continuum where before he receives his doctorate in 1910, Herr Erwin Schrödinger is drummed out of the university for a sexual scandal involving a middle-aged whore, a baron’s wife and daughter, and copious amounts of cherry strudel.

Whole universes where at the age of eight young master Erwin trips over a black cat while on his way to school and is run over by a passing carriage, his skull crushed!

But still, Mieze considers, later would not be too late. She meditates on a universe where Herr Professor Erwin Schrödinger—woefully ignorant of the extent to which his very existence depends on the adroit observation of certain four-legged adepts—mysteriously disappears after a hard day of experimenting in his lab. His dear little daughter Felicie comes by to see him after her lessons, discovers him gone and in the nick of time rescues her beloved, golden-eyed silver tabby from a diabolical box.

Mieze lingers over the potential of this universe. She likes it. A great deal. Yes, it will do nicely.

After all, she has held back from meddling up until now. She has endured session after session in this box, thinking with a softened heart of Felicie, who slips her morsels of chicken livers; who knows how to sleep in just the right alignment of curves for ideal cat nestling. Mieze does know the anguish Felicie would suffer if anything should happen to her father, Herr Erwin, who the child believes to be perfect.

Yet Herr Erwin cares not a whit for the grief that Mieze’s death would cause Felicie. How heartbroken Felicie would be to discover what a monster her father truly was. Far better to save the child that trauma.

Mieze stretches in the confines of the box. It is decided. She cannot be like the mice and the canary, even if she wished it. She is an observer extraordinaire—a hunter far superior to Herr Erwin. Which means she has been patient. But a cat can be patient too long.

A deep voluptuous purr fills Mieze’s throat. The moment has come. It is time to open the box on Herr Professor Erwin Schrödinger.

GUARDIANS

George R. R. Martin

George R.R. Martin is best known today for his epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” which began with A Game of Thrones in 1996. Before that, he was already a multi-award-winning science fiction and horror writer, having won Hugo Awards, Nebula Awards, Locus Awards, the Bram Stoker Award, and the World Fantasy award for his work. His earlier novels range from science fiction, with Dying of the Light and science fantasy Windhaven (with Lisa Tuttle), to the historical vampire novel Fevre Dream, and the rock n roll apocalyptic novel Armageddon Rag, all written between 1977 and 1983.

Martin became story editor for The New Twilight Zone in 1986 and later was Executive Story Consultant for the television series Beauty and the Beast, on which he worked for several years. He also helped create and edit the “Wild Cards” shared world series of anthologies in 1987, which continue to be published today.

“Guardians” is one of a series of darkly comic science fiction space adventures about a cat-loving trader who sells his services as he travels the galaxy. Martin likes cats, and has said that Dax, Tuf’s companion in most of the stories, was actually a cat he owned back in the 70s, around the time he started writing the Tuf stories. A picture of the cat appears on Martin’s website.

Haviland Tuf thought the Six Worlds Bio-Agricultural Exhibition a great disappointment.

He had spent a long wearying day on Brazelourn, trooping through the cavernous exhibition halls, pausing now and then to give a cursory inspection to a new grain hybrid or a genetically improved insect. Although the Ark’s cell library held cloning material for literally millions of plant and animal species from an uncounted number of worlds, Haviland Tuf was nonetheless always alert for any opportunity to expand his stock-in-trade.

But few of the displays on Brazelourn seemed especially promising, and as the hours passed Tuf grew bored and uncomfortable in the jostling, indifferent crowds. People swarmed everywhere—Vagabonder tunnel-farmers in deep maroon furs, plumed and perfumed Areeni landlords, somber nightsiders and brightly garbed evernoons from New Janus, and a plethora of the native Brazeleen. All of them made excessive noise and favored Tuf with curious stares as he passed among them. Some even brushed up against him, bringing a frown to his long face.

Ultimately, seeking escape from the throngs, Tuf decided he was hungry. He pressed his way through the fairgoers with dignified distaste, and emerged from the vaulting five-story Ptolan Exhibit Hall. Outside, hundreds of vendors had set up booths between the great buildings. The man selling pop-onion pies seemed least busy of those nearby, and Tuf determined that a pop-onion pie was the very thing he craved.

“Sir,” he said to the vendor, “I would have a pie.”

The pieman was round and pink and wore a greasy apron. He opened his hotbox, reached in with a gloved hand, and extracted a hot pie. When he pushed it across the counter at Tuf, he stared. “Oh,” he said, “you’re a big one.”

Indeed, sir,” said Haviland Tuf. He picked up the pie and bit into it impassively.

“You’re an offworlder,” the pieman observed. “Not from no place nearby, neither.”

Tuf finished his pie in three neat bites, and cleaned his greasy fingers on a napkin. “You belabor the obvious, sir,” he said. He held up a long, calloused finger. “Another,” he said.

Rebuffed, the vendor fetched out another pie without further observations, letting Tuf eat in relative peace. As he savored the flaky crust and tartness within, Tuf studied the milling fairgoers, the rows of vendors’ booths, and the five great halls that loomed over the landscape. When he had done eating, he turned back to the pieman, his face as blank as ever. “Sir, if you will, a question.”

“What’s that?” the other said gruffly.

“I see five exhibition halls,” said Haviland Tuf. “I have visited each in turn.” He pointed. “Brazelourn, Vale Areen, New Janus, Vagabond, and here Ptola.” Tuf folded his hands together neatly atop his bulging stomach. “Five, sir. Five halls, five worlds. No doubt, being a stranger as I am, I am unfamiliar with some subtle point of local usage, yet I am perplexed. In those regions where I have heretofore traveled, a gathering calling itself the Six Worlds Bio-Agricultural Exhibition might be expected to include exhibits from six worlds. Plainly that is not the case here. Perhaps you might enlighten me as to why?”

“No one came from Namor.”

“Indeed,” said Haviland Tuf.

“On account of the troubles,” the vendor added.

“All is made clear,” said Tuf. “Or, if not all, at least a portion. Perhaps you would care to serve me another pie, and explain to me the nature of these troubles. I am nothing if not curious, sir. It is my great vice, I fear.”

The pieman slipped on his glove again and opened the hotbox. “You know what they say. Curiosity makes you hungry.”

“Indeed,” said Tuf. “I must admit I have never heard them say that before.”

The man frowned. “No, I got it wrong. Hunger makes you curious, that’s what it is. Don’t matter. My pies will fill you up.”

“Ah,” said Tuf. He took up the pie. “Please proceed.”

So the pie-seller told him, at great rambling length, about the troubles on the world Namor. “So you can see,” he finally concluded, “why they didn’t come, with all this going on. Not much to exhibit.”

“Of course,” said Haviland Tuf, dabbing his lips. “Sea monsters can be most vexing.”

Namor was a dark green world, moonless and solitary, banded by wispy golden clouds. The Ark shuddered out of drive and settled ponderously into orbit around it. In the long, narrow communications room, Haviland Tuf moved from seat to seat, studying the planet on a dozen of the room’s hundred viewscreens. Three small grey kittens kept him company, bounding across the consoles, pausing only to slap at each other. Tuf paid them no mind.

A water world, Namor had only one landmass decently large enough to be seen from orbit, and that none too large. But magnification revealed thousands of islands scattered in long, crescent-shaped archipelagoes across the deep green seas, earthen jewels strewn throughout the oceans. Other screens showed the lights of dozens of cities and towns on the nightside, and pulsing dots of energy outlay where settlements sat in sunlight.

Tuf looked at it all, and then seated himself, flicked on another console, and began to play a war game with the computer. A kitten bounded up into his lap and went to sleep. He was careful not to disturb it. Some time later, a second kitten vaulted up and pounced on it, and they began to tussle. Tuf brushed them to the floor.

It took longer than even Tuf had anticipated, but finally the challenge came, as he had known it would. “Ship in orbit,” came the demand, “ship in orbit, this is Namor Control. State your name and business. State your name and business, please. Interceptors have been dispatched. State your name and business.”

The transmission was coming from the chief landmass. The Ark tapped into it. At the same time, it found the ship that was moving toward them—there was only one—and flashed it on another screen.

“I am the Ark,” Haviland Tuf told Namor Control.

Namor Control was a round-faced woman with close-cropped brown hair, sitting at a console and wearing a deep green uniform with golden piping. She frowned, her eyes flicking to the side, no doubt to a superior or another console. “Ark,” she said, “state your homeworld. State your homeworld and your business, please.”

The other ship had opened communications with the planet, the computer indicated. Two more viewscreens lit up. One showed a slender young woman with a large, crooked nose on a ship’s bridge, the other an elderly man before a console. They both wore green uniforms, and they were conversing animatedly in code. It took the computer less than a minute to break it, so Tuf could listen in. “…damned if I know what it is,” the woman on the ship was saying. “There’s never been a ship that big. My God, just look at it. Are you getting all this? Has it answered?”

“Ark,” the round-faced woman was still saying, “state your homeworld and your business, please. This is Namor Control.”

Haviland Tuf cut into the other conversation, to talk to all three of them simultaneously. “This is the Ark,” he said. “I have no homeworld, sirs. My intentions are purely peaceful—trade and consultation. I learned of your tragic difficulties, and moved by your plight, I have come to offer you my services.”

The woman on the ship looked startled. “What are you…” she started. The man was equally nonplussed, but he said nothing, only gaped open-mouthed at Tuf’s blank white visage.

“This is Namor Control, Ark,” said the round-faced woman. “We are closed to trade. Repeat, we are closed to trade. We are under martial law here.”

By then the slender woman on the ship had composed herself. “Ark, this is Guardian Kefira Qay, commanding NGS Sunrazor. We are armed, Ark. Explain yourself. You are a thousand times larger than any trader I have ever seen, Ark. Explain yourself or be fired upon.”

“Indeed,” said Haviland Tuf. “Threats will avail you little, Guardian. I am most sorely vexed. I have come all this long way from Brazelourn to offer you my aid and solace, and you meet me with threats and hostility.” A kitten leapt up into his lap. Tuf scooped it up with a huge white hand, and deposited it on the console in front of him, where the viewer would pick it up. He gazed down at it sorrowfully. “There is no trust left in humanity,” he said to the kitten.

“Hold your fire, Sunrazor,” said the elderly man. “Ark, if your intentions are truly peaceful, explain yourself. What are you? We are hard-pressed here, Ark, and Namor is a small, undeveloped world. We have never seen your like before. Explain yourself.”

Tuf stroked the kitten. “Always I must truckle to suspicion,” he told it. “They are fortunate that I am so kind-hearted, or else I would simply depart and leave them to their fate.” He looked up, straight into the viewer. “Sir,” he said. “I am the Ark. I am Haviland Tuf, captain and master here, crew entire. You are troubled by great monsters from the depths of your seas, I have been told. Very well. I shall rid you of them.”

“Ark, this is Sunrazor. How do you propose doing that?”

“The Ark is a seedship of the Ecological Engineering Corps,” said Haviland Tuf with stiff formality. “I am an ecological engineer and a specialist in biological warfare.”

“Impossible,” said the old man. “The EEC was wiped out a thousand years ago, along with the Federal Empire. None of their seedships remain.”

“How distressing.” said Haviland Tuf. “Here I sit in an illusion. No doubt, now that you have told me my ship does not exist, I shall sink right through it and plunge into your atmosphere, where I shall burn up as I fall.”

“Guardian,” said Kefira Qay from the Sunrazor, “these seedships may indeed no longer exist, but I am fast closing on something that my scopes tell me is almost thirty kilometers long. It does not appear to be an illusion.”

“I am not yet falling,” admitted Haviland Tuf.

“Can you truly help us?” asked the round-faced woman at Namor Control.

“Why must I always be doubted?” Tuf asked the small grey kitten.

“Lord Guardian, we must give him the chance to prove what he says,” insisted Namor Control.

Tuf looked up. “Threatened, insulted, and doubted as I have been, nonetheless my empathy for your situation bids me to persist. Perhaps I might suggest that Sunrazor dock with me, so to speak. Guardian Qay may come aboard and join me for an evening meal, while we converse. Surely your suspicions cannot extend to mere conversation, that most civilized of human pastimes.”

The three Guardians conferred hurriedly with each other and with a person or persons offscreen, while Haviland Tuf sat back and toyed with the kitten. “I shall name you Suspicion,” he said to it, “to commemorate my reception here. Your siblings shall be Doubt, Hostility, Ingratitude and Foolishness.”

“We accept your proposal, Haviland Tuf,” said Guardian Kefira Qay from the bridge of the Sunrazor. “Prepare to be boarded.”

“Indeed,” said Tuf. “Do you like mushrooms?”

The shuttle deck of the Ark was as large as the landing field of a major starport, and seemed almost a junkyard for derelict space craft. The Ark’s own shuttles stood trim in their launch berths, five identical black ships with rakish lines and stubby triangular wings angling back, designed for atmospheric flight and still in good repair. Other craft were less impressive. A teardrop-shaped trading vessel from Avalon squatted wearily on three extended landing legs, next to a driveshift courier scored by battle, and Karaleo lionboat whose ornate trim was largely gone. Elsewhere stood vessels of stranger, more alien design.

Above, the great dome cracked into a hundred pie-wedge segments, and drew back to reveal a small yellow sun surrounded by stars, and a dull green manta-shaped ship of about the same size as one of Tuf’s shuttles. The Sunrazor settled, and the dome closed behind it. When the stars had been blotted out again, atmosphere came swirling back in to the deck, and Haviland Tuf arrived soon after.

Kefira Qay emerged from her ship with her lips set sternly beneath her big, crooked nose, but no amount of control could quite conceal the awe in her eyes. Two armed men in golden coveralls trimmed with green followed her.

Haviland Tuf drove up to them in an open three-wheeled cart. “I am afraid that my dinner invitation was only for one, Guardian Qay,” he said when he saw her escort. “I regret any misunderstanding, yet I must insist.”

“Very well,” she said. She turned to her guard. “Wait with the others. You have your orders.” When she got in next to Tuf she told him, “The Sunrazor will tear your ship apart if I am not returned safely within two standard hours.”

Haviland Tuf blinked at her. “Dreadful,” he said. “Everywhere my warmth and hospitality is met with mistrust and violence.” He set the vehicle into motion.

They drove in silence through a maze of interconnected rooms and corridors, and finally entered a huge shadowy shaft that seemed to extend the full length of the ship in both directions. Transparent vats of a hundred different sizes covered walls and ceiling as far as the eye could see, most empty and dusty, a few filled with colored liquids in which half-seen shapes stirred feebly. There was no sound but a wet, viscous dripping somewhere off behind them. Kefira Qay studied everything and said nothing. They went at least three kilometers down the great shaft, until Tuf veered off into a blank wall that dilated before them. Shortly thereafter they parked and dismounted.

A sumptuous meal had been laid out in the small, spartan dining chamber to which Tuf escorted the Guardian Kefira Qay. They began with iced soup, sweet and piquant and black as coal, followed by neograss salads with a gingery topping. The main course was a breaded mushroom top full as large as the plate on which it was served, surrounded by a dozen different sorts of vegetables in individual sauces. The Guardian ate with great relish.

“It would appear you find my humble fare to your taste,” observed Haviland Tuf.

“I haven’t had a good meal in longer than I care to admit,” replied Kefira Qay. “On Namor, we have always depended on the sea for our sustenance. Normally it is bountiful, but since our troubles began…” She lifted a forkful of dark, misshapen vegetables in a yellow-brown sauce. “What am I eating? It’s delightful.”

“Rhiannese sinners’ root, in a mustard sauce,” Haviland Tuf said.

Qay swallowed and set down her fork. “But Rhiannon is so far, how do you…” She stopped.

“Of course,” Tuf said, steepling his fingers beneath his chin as he watched her face. “All this provender derives from the Ark, though originally it might be traced back to a dozen different worlds. Would you like more spiced milk?”

“No,” she muttered. She gazed at the empty plates. “You weren’t lying, then. You are what you claim, and this is a seedship of the… what did you call them?”

“The Ecological Engineering Corps, of the long-defunct Federal Empire. Their ships were few in number, and all but one destroyed by the vicissitudes of war. The Ark alone survived, derelict for a millennium. The details need not concern you. Suffice it to say that I found it, and made it functional.”

“You found it?”

“I believe I just said as much, in those very same words. Kindly pay attention. I am not partial to repeating myself. Before finding the Ark, I made a humble living from trade. My former ship is still on the landing deck. Perhaps you chanced to see it.”

“Then you’re really just a trader.”

“Please!” said Tuf with indignation. “I am an ecological engineer. The Ark can remake whole planets, Guardian. True, I am but one man, alone, when once this ship was crewed by two hundred, and I do lack the extensive formal training such as was given centuries ago to those who wore the golden theta, the sigil of the Ecological Engineers. Yet, in my own small way, I contrive to muddle through. If Namor would care to avail itself of my services, I have no doubt that I can help you.”

“Why?” the slender Guardian asked warily. “Why are you so anxious to help us?”

Haviland Tuf spread his big white hands helplessly. “I know, I might appear a fool. I cannot help myself. I am a humanitarian by nature, much moved by hardship and suffering. I could no more abandon your people, beset as they are, than I could harm one of my cats. The Ecological Engineers were made of sterner stuff, I fear, but I am helpless to change my sentimental nature. So here I sit before you, prepared to do my best.”

“You want nothing?”

“I shall labor without recompense,” said Tuf. “Of course, I will have operating expenses. I must charge a small fee to offset them. Say, three million standards. Do you think that fair?”

“Fair,” she said sarcastically. “Fairly high, I’d say. There have been others like you, Tuf—arms merchants and soldiers of fortune who have come to grow rich off our misery.”

“Guardian,” said Tuf, reproachfully, “you do me grievous wrong. I take little for myself. The Ark is so large, so costly. Perhaps two million standards would suffice? I cannot believe you would grudge me this pittance. Is your world worth less?”

Kefira Qay sighed, a tired look etched on her narrow face. “No,” she admitted. “Not if you can do all you promise. Of course, we are not a rich world. I will have to consult my superiors. This is not my decision alone.” She stood up abruptly. “Your communications facilities?”

“Through the door and left down the blue corridor. The fifth door on the right.” Tuf rose with ponderous dignity, and began cleaning up as she left.

When the Guardian returned he had opened a decanter of liquor, vividly scarlet, and was stroking a black-and-white cat who had made herself at home on the table. “You’re hired, Tuf,” said Kefira Qay, seating herself. “Two million standards. After you win this war.”

“Agreed,” said Tuf. “Let us discuss your situation over glasses of this delightful beverage.”

“Alcoholic?”

“Mildly narcotic.”

“A Guardian uses no stimulants or depressants. We are a fighting guild. Substances like that pollute the body and slow the reflexes. A Guardian must be vigilant. We guard and protect.”

“Laudable,” said Haviland Tuf. He filled his own glass.

“Sunrazor is wasted here. It has been recalled by Namor Control. We need its combat capabilities below.”

“I shall expedite its departure, then. And yourself?”

“I have been detached,” she said, wrinkling up her face. “We are standing by with data on the situation below. I am to help brief you, and act as your liaison officer.”

The water was calm, a tranquil green mirror from horizon to horizon.

It was a hot day. Bright yellow sunlight poured down through a thin bank of gilded clouds. The ship rested still on the water, its metallic sides flashing silver-blue, its open deck a small island of activity in an ocean of peace. Men and women small as insects worked the dredges and nets, bare-chested in the heat. A great claw full of mud and weeds emerged from the water, dripping, and was sluiced down an open hatchway. Elsewhere bins of huge milky jellyfish baked in the sun.

Suddenly there was agitation. For no apparent reason, people began to run. Others stopped what they were doing and looked around, confused. Still others worked on, oblivious. The great metal claw, open and empty now, swung back out over the water and submerged again, even as another one rose on the far side of the ship. More people were running. Two men collided and went down.

Then the first tentacle came curling up from beneath the ship.

It rose and rose. It was longer than the dredging claws. Where it emerged from the dark green sea, it looked as thick as a big man’s torso. It tapered to the size of an arm. The tentacle was white, a soft slimy sort of white. All along its underside were vivid pink circles big as dinner plates, circles that writhed and pulsed as the tentacle curled over and about the huge farming ship. The end of the tentacle split into a rat’s nest of smaller tentacles, dark and restless as snakes.

Up and up it went, and then over and down, pinioning the ship. Something moved on the other side, something pale stirring beneath all that green, and the second tentacle emerged. Then a third, and a fourth. One wrestled with a dredging claw. Another had the remains of a net draped all about it, like a veil, which didn’t seem to hinder it. Now all the people were running—all but those the tentacles had found. One of them had curled itself around a woman with an axe. She hacked at it wildly, thrashing in the pale embrace, until her back arched and suddenly she fell still. The tentacle dropped her, white fluid pulsing feebly from the gashes she had left, and seized someone else.

Twenty tentacles had attached themselves when the ship abruptly listed to starboard. Survivors slid across the deck and into the sea. The ship tilted more and more. Something was pushing it over, pulling it down. Water sloshed across the side, and into the open hatchways. Then the ship began to break up.

Haviland Tuf stopped the projection, and held the image on the large viewscreen: the green sea and golden sun, the shattered vessel, the pale embracing tentacles. “This was the first attack?” he asked.

“Yes and no,” replied Kefira Qay. “Prior to this, one other harvester and two passenger hydrofoils had vanished mysteriously. We were investigating, but we did not know the cause. In this case, a news crew happened to be on the site, making a recording for an educational broadcast. They got more than they bargained for.”

“Indeed,” said Tuf.

“They were airborne, in a skimmer. The broadcast that night almost caused a panic. But it was not until the next ship went down that things began to get truly serious. That was when the Guardians began to realize the full extent of the problem.”

Haviland stared up at the viewscreen, his heavy face impassive, expressionless, his hands resting on the console. A black-and-white kitten began to bat at his fingers. “Away, Foolishness,” he said, depositing the kitten gently on the floor.

“Enlarge a section of one of the tentacles,” suggested the Guardian beside him.

Silently, Tuf did as she bid him. A second screen lit up, showing a grainy close-up of a great pale rope of tissue arching over the deck.

“Take a good look at one of the suckers,” said Qay. “The pink areas, there, you see?”

“The third one from the end is dark within. And it appears to have teeth.”

“Yes,” said Kefira Qay. “All of them do. The outer lips of those stickers are a kind of hard, fleshy flange. Slapped down, they spread and create a vacuum seal of sorts, virtually impossible to tear loose. But each of them is a mouth, too. Within the flange is a soft pink flap that falls back, and then the teeth come sliding out—a triple row of them, serrated, and sharper than you’d think. Now move down to the tendrils at the end, if you would.”

Tuf touched the console, and put another magnification up on a third screen, bringing the twisting snakes into easy view.

“Eyes,” said Kefira Qay. “At the end of every one of those tendrils. Twenty eyes. The tentacles don’t need to grope around blindly. They can see what they are doing.”

“Fascinating,” said Haviland Tuf. “What lies beneath the water? The source of these terrible arms?”

“There are cross-sections and photographs of dead specimens later on, as well as some computer simulations. Most of the specimens we took were quite badly mangled. The main body of the thing is sort of an inverted cup, like a half-inflated bladder, surrounded by a great ring of bone and muscle that anchors these tentacles. The bladder fills and empties with water to enable the creature to rise to the surface, or descend far below—the submarine principle. By itself it doesn’t weigh much, although it is amazingly strong. What it does, it empties its bladder to rise to the surface, grabs hold, and then begins to fill again. The capacity of the bladder is astounding, and as you can see, the creature is huge. If need be, it can even force water up those tentacles and out of its mouths, in order to flood the vessel and speed things along. So those tentacles are arms, mouths, eyes, and living hoses all at once.”

“And you say that your people had no knowledge of such creatures until this attack?”

“Right. A cousin of this thing, the Namorian man-of-war, was well-known in the early days of colonization. It was sort of a cross between a jellyfish and an octopus, with twenty arms. Many native species are built along the same lines—a central bladder, or body, or shell, or what have you, with twenty legs or tendrils or tentacles in a ring around it. The men-of-war were carnivores, much like this monster, although they had a ring of eyes on the central body instead of at the end of the tentacles. The arms couldn’t function as hoses, either. And they were much smaller—about the size of a human. They bobbed about on the surface above the continental shelves, particularly above mud-pot beds, where fish were thick. Fish were their usual prey, although a few unwary swimmers met a bloody awful death in their embrace.”

“Might I ask what became of them?” said Tuf.

“They were a nuisance. Their hunting grounds were the same areas we needed—shallows rich with fish and seagrass and waterfruit, over mud-pot beds and scrabbler runs full of chameleon-clams and bobbing freddies. Before we could harvest or farm safely, we had to pretty much clean out the men-of-war. We did. Oh, there are still a few around, but they are rare now.”

“I see,” said Haviland Tuf. “And this most formidable creature, this living submarine and ship-eater that plagues you so dreadfully, does it have a name?”

“The Namorian dreadnaught,” said Kefira Qay. “When it first appeared, we theorized it was an inhabitant of the great deeps that had somehow wandered to the surface. Namor has been inhabited for barely a hundred standard years, after all. We have scarcely begun to explore the deeper regions of the seas, and we have little knowledge of the things that might live down there. But as more and more ships were attacked and sunk, it became obvious that we had an army of dreadnaughts to contend with.”

“A navy,” corrected Haviland Tuf.

Kefira Qay scowled. “Whatever. A lot of them, not one lost specimen. At that point the theory was that some unimaginable catastrophe had taken place deep under the ocean, driving forth this entire species.”

“You give no credit to this theory,” Tuf said.

“No one does. It’s been disproved. The dreadnaughts wouldn’t be able to withstand the pressures at those depths. So now we don’t know where they came from.” She made a face. “Only that they are here.”

“Indeed,” said Haviland Tuf. “No doubt you fought back.”

“Certainly. A game but losing fight. Namor is a young planet, with neither the population nor the resources for the sort of struggle we have been plunged into. Three million Namorians are scattered across our seas, on more than seventeen thousand small islands. Another million huddle on New Atlantis, our single small continent. Most of our people are fisherfolk and sea-farmers. When this all began, the Guardians numbered barely fifty thousand. Our guild is descended from the crews of the ships who brought the colonists from Old Poseidon and Aquarius here to Namor. We have always protected them, but before the coming of the dreadnaughts our task was simple. Our world was peaceful, with little real conflict. There was some ethnic rivalry between Poseidonites and Aquarians, but it was good-natured. The Guardians provided planetary defense, with Sunrazor and two similar craft, but most of our work was in fire and flood control, disaster relief, police work, that sort of thing. We had about a hundred armed hydrofoil patrol boats, and we used them for escort duty for a while, and inflicted some casualties, but they were really no match for the dreadnaughts. It soon became clear that there were more dreadnaughts than patrol boats, anyway.”

“Nor do patrolboats reproduce, as I must assume these dreadnaughts do,” Tuf said. Foolishness and Doubt were tussling in his lap.

“Exactly. Still, we tried. We dropped depth charges on them when we detected them below the sea, we torpedoed them when they came to the surface. We killed hundreds. But there were hundreds more, and every boat we lost was irreplaceable. Namor has no technological base to speak of. In better days, we imported what we needed from Brazelourn and Vale Areen. Our people believed in a simple life. The planet couldn’t support industry anyway. It is poor in heavy metals and has almost no fossil fuel.”

“How many Guardian patrolboats remain to you?” asked Haviland Tuf.

“Perhaps thirty. We dare not use them anymore. Within a year of the first attack, the dreadnaughts were in complete command of our sea lanes. All of the great harvesters were lost, hundreds of sea-farms had been abandoned or destroyed, half of the small fisherfolk were dead, and the other half huddled fearfully in port. Nothing human dared move on the seas of Namor.”

“Your islands were isolated from one another?”

“Not quite,” Kefira Qay replied. “The Guardians had twenty armed skimmers, and there were another hundred-odd skimmers and aircars in private hands. We commandeered them, armed them. We also had our airships. Skimmers and aircars are difficult and expensive to maintain here. Parts are hard to come by, and we have few trained techs, so most of the air traffic before the troubles was carried by airships—solar-powered, helium-filled, large. There was quite a sizable fleet, as many as a thousand. The airships took over the provisioning of some of the small islands, where starvation was a very real threat. Other airships, as well as the Guardian skimmers, carried on the fight. We dumped chemicals, poisons, explosives and such from the safety of the air and destroyed thousands of dreadnaughts, although the cost was frightful. They clustered thickest about our best fishing grounds and mud-pot beds, so we were forced to blow up and poison the very areas we needed most. Still, we had no choice. For a time, we thought we were winning the fight. A few fishing boats even put out and returned safely, with a Guardian skimmer flying escort.”

“Obviously, this was not the ultimate result of the conflict,” said Haviland Tuf, “or we would not be sitting here talking.” Doubt batted Foolishness soundly across the head, and the smaller kitten fell off Tuf’s knee to the floor. Tuf bent and scooped him up. “Here,” he said, handing him to Kefira Qay, “hold him, if you please. Their small war is distracting me from your larger one.”

“I—why, of course.” The Guardian took the small black-and-white kitten in hand gingerly. He fit snugly into her palm. “What is it?” she asked.

“A cat,” said Tuf. “He will jump out of your hand if you continue to hold him as if he were a diseased fruit. Kindly put him in your lap. I assure you he is harmless.”

Kefira Qay, appearing very uncertain, shook the kitten out of her hand onto her knees. Foolishness yowled, almost tumbling to the floor again before sinking his small claws into the fabric of her uniform. “Ow,” said Kefira Qay. “It has talons.”

“Claws,” corrected Tuf. “Tiny and harmless.”

“They aren’t poisoned, are they?”

“I think not,” said Tuf. “Stroke him, front to back. It will make him less agitated.”

Kefira Qay touched the kitten’s head uncertainly.

“Please,” said Tuf. “I said stroke, not pat.”

The Guardian began to pet the kitten. Instantly, Foolishness began to purr. She stopped and looked up in horror. “It’s trembling,” she said, “and making a noise.”

“Such a response is considered favorable,” Tuf assured her. “I beg you to continue your ministrations, and your briefing. If you will.”

“Of course,” said Qay. She resumed petting Foolishness, who settled down comfortably on her knee. “If you would go on to the next tape,” she prompted.

Tuf wiped the stricken ship and the dreadnaught off the main screen. Another scene took their place—a winter’s day, windy and chill by the look of it. The water below was dark and choppy, flecked with white foam as the wind pushed against it. A dreadnaught was afloat the unruly sea, its huge white tentacles extended all around it, giving it the look of some vast swollen flower bobbing on the waves. It reached up as they passed overhead, two arms with their writhing snakes lifting feebly from the water, but they were too far above to be in danger. They appeared to be in the gondola of some long silver airship, looking down through a glass-bottomed viewport, and as Tuf watched, the vantage point shifted and he saw that they were part of a convoy of three immense airships, cruising with stately indifference above the war-torn waters.

“The Spirit of Aquarius, the Lyle D., and the Skyshadow,” said Kefira Qay, “on a relief mission to a small island grouping in the north where famine had been raging. They were going to evacuate the survivors and take them back to New Atlantis.” Her voice was grim. “This record was made by a news crew on the Skyshadow, the only airship to survive. Watch.”

On and on the airships sailed, invincible and serene. Then, just ahead of the silver-blue Spirit of Aquarius, there was motion in the water, something stirring beneath that dark green veil. Something big, but not a dreadnaught. It was dark, not pale. The water grew black and blacker in a great swelling patch, then bulged upward. A great ebony dome heaved into view and grew, like an island emerging from the depths, black and leathery and immense, and surrounded by twenty long black tentacles. Larger and higher it swelled, second by second, until it burst from the sea entirely. Its tentacles hung below it, dripping water, as it rose. Then they began to lift and spread. The thing was fully as large as the airship moving toward it. When they met, it was as if two vast leviathans of the sky had come together to mate. The black immensity settled atop the long silver-blue dirigible, its arms curling about in a deadly embrace. They watched the airship’s outer skin tear asunder, and the helium cells rip and crumple. The Spirit of Aquarius twisted and buckled like a living thing, and shriveled in the black embrace of its lover. When it was over, the dark creature dropped the remains into the sea.

Tuf froze the image, staring with solemn regard at the small figures leaping from the doomed gondola.

“Another one got the Lyle D. on the way home,” said Kefira Qay. “The Skyshadow survived to tell the story, but it never returned from its next mission. More than a hundred airships and twelve skimmers were lost in the first week the fire-balloons emerged.”

“Fire-balloons?” queried Haviland Tuf. He stroked Doubt, who was sitting on his console. “I saw no fire.”

“The name was coined the first time we destroyed one of the accursed things. A Guardian skimmer put a round of explosive shot into it, and it went up like a bomb, then sank, burning, into the sea. They are extremely inflammable; one laser burst, and they go up spectacularly.”

“Hydrogen,” said Haviland Tuf.

“Exactly,” the Guardian confirmed. “We’ve never taken one whole, but we’ve puzzled them out from bits and pieces. The creatures can generate an electric current internally. They take on water, and perform a sort of biological electrolysis. The oxygen is vented into the water or the air, and helps push the things around. Air jets, so to speak. The hydrogen fills the balloon sacs and gives them lift. When they want to retreat to the water, they open a flap on top—see, up there—and all the gas escapes, so the fire-balloon drops back into the sea. The outer skin is leathery, very tough. They’re slow, but clever. At times they hide in cloud banks and snatch unwary skimmers flying below. And we soon discovered, to our dismay, that they breed just as fast as the dreadnaughts.”

“Most intriguing,” said Haviland Tuf. “So, I might venture to suggest, with the emergence of these fire-balloons, you lost the sky as well as the sea.”

“More or less,” admitted Kefira Qay. “Our airships were simply too slow to risk. We tried to keep things going by sending them out in convoys, escorted by Guardian skimmers and aircars, but even that failed. The morning of the Fire Dawn… I was there, commanding a nine-gun skimmer… it was terrible…”

“Continue,” said Tuf

“The Fire Dawn,” she muttered bleakly. “We were… we had thirty airships, thirty, a great convoy, protected by a dozen armed skimmers. A long trip, from New Atlantis to the Broken Hand, a major island grouping. Near dawn on the second day, just as the east was turning red, the sea beneath us began to… seethe. Like a pot of soup that has begun to boil. It was them, venting oxygen and water, rising. Thousands of them, Tuf, thousands. The waters churned madly, and they rose, all those vast black shadows coming up at us, as far as the eye could see in all directions. We attacked with lasers, with explosive shells, with everything we had. It was like the sky itself was ablaze. All those things were bulging with hydrogen, and the air was rich and giddy with the oxygen they had vented. The Fire Dawn, we call it. It was terrible. Screaming everywhere, balloons burning, our airships crushed and falling around us, bodies afire. There were dreadnaughts waiting below, too. I saw them snatching swimmers who had fallen from the airships, those pale tentacles coiling around them and yanking them under. Four skimmers escaped from that battle. Four. Every airship was lost, with all hands.”

“A grim tale,” said Tuf.

Kefira Qay had a haunted look in her eyes. She was petting Foolishness with a blind rhythm, her lips pressed tightly together, her eyes fixed on the screen, where the first fire-balloon floated above the tumbling corpse of the Spirit of Aquarius. “Since then,” she said at last, “life has been a continuing nightmare. We have lost our seas. On three-fourths of Namor, hunger and even starvation hold sway. Only New Atlantis still has surplus food, since only there is land-farming practiced extensively. The Guardians have continued to fight. The Sunrazor and our two other spacecraft have been pressed into service—bombing runs, clumping poison, evacuating some of the smaller islands. With aircars and fast skimmers, we have maintained a loose web of contact with the outer islands. And we have radio, of course. But we are barely hanging on. Within the last year, more than twenty islands have fallen silent. We sent patrols out to investigate in a half-dozen of those cases. Those that returned all reported the same things. Bodies everywhere, rotting in the sun. Buildings crushed and ruined. Scrabblers and crawling maggies feasting on the corpses. And on one island they found something else, something even more frightful. The island was Seastar. Almost forty thousand people lived there, and it was a major spaceport as well, before trade was cut off. It was a terrible shock when Seastar suddenly stopped broadcasting. Go to the next exhibit, Tuf. Go on.”

Tuf pressed a series of lights on the console.

A dead thing was lying on a beach, rotting on indigo sands.

It was a still picture, this one, not a tape. Haviland Tuf and Guardian Kefira Qay had a long time to study the dead thing where it sprawled, rich and rotten. Around and about it was a litter of human corpses, lending it scale by their proximity. The dead thing was shaped like an inverted bowl, and it was as big as a house. Its leathery flesh, cracked and oozing pustulence now, was a mottled grey-green. Spread on the sand around it, like spokes from a central wheel, were the thing’s appendages—ten twisted green tentacles, puckered with pinkish-white mouths and, alternately, ten limbs that looked stiff and hard and black, and were obviously jointed.

“Legs,” said Kefira Qay bitterly. “It was a walker, Tuf, before they killed it. We have only found that one specimen, but it was enough. We know why our islands fall silent now. They come from out of the sea, Tuf. Things like that. Larger, smaller, walking on ten legs like spiders and grabbing and eating with the other ten, the tentacles. The carapace is thick and tough. A single explosive shell or laser burst won’t kill one of these the way it would a fire-balloon. So now you understand. First the sea, then the air, and now it has begun on the land as well. The land. They burst from the water in thousands, striding up onto the sand like some terrible tide. Two islands were overrun last week alone. They mean to wipe us from this planet. No doubt a few of us will survive on New Atlantis, in the high inland mountains, but it will be a cruel life and a short one. Until Namor throws something new at us, some new thing out of nightmare.” Her voice had a wild edge of hysteria.

Haviland Tuf turned off his console, and the telescreens all went black. “Calm yourself, Guardian,” he said, turning to face her. “Your fears are understandable but unnecessary. I appreciate your plight more fully now. A tragic one indeed, yet not hopeless.”

“You still think you can help?” she said. “Alone? You and this ship? Oh, I’m not discouraging you, by any means. We’ll grasp at any straw. But…”

“But you do not believe,” Tuf said. A small sigh escaped his lips. “Doubt,” he said to the grey kitten, hoisting him up in a huge white hand, “you are indeed well named.” He shifted his gaze back to Kefira Qay. “I am a forgiving man, and you have been through many cruel hardships, so I shall take no notice of the casual way you belittle me and my abilities. Now, if you might excuse me, I have work to do. Your people have sent up a great many more detailed reports on these creatures, and on Namorian ecology in general. It is vital that I peruse these, in order to understand and analyze the situation. Thank you for your briefing.”

Kefira Qay frowned, lifted Foolishness from her knee and set him on the ground, and stood up. “Very well,” she said. “How soon will you be ready?”

“I cannot ascertain that with any degree of accuracy,” Tuf replied, “until I have had a chance to run some simulations. Perhaps a day and we shall begin. Perhaps a month. Perhaps longer.”

“If you take too long, you’ll find it difficult to collect your two million,” she snapped. “We’ll all be dead.”

“Indeed,” said Tuf. “I shall strive to avoid that scenario. Now, if you would let me work. We shall converse again at dinner. I shall serve vegetable stew in the fashion of Anon, with plates of Thorite fire mushrooms to whet our appetites.”

Qay sighed loudly. “Mushrooms again?” she complained. “We had stir-fried mushrooms and peppers for lunch, and crisped mushrooms in bitter cream for breakfast.”

“I am fond of mushrooms,” said Haviland Tuf.

“I am weary of mushrooms,” said Kefira Qay. Foolishness rubbed up against her leg, and she frowned down at him. “Might I suggest some meat? Or seafood?” She looked wistful. “It has been years since I’ve had a mud-pot. I dream of it sometimes. Crack it open and pour butter inside, and spoon out the soft meat, you can’t imagine how fine it was. Or sabrefin. Ah, I’d kill for a sabrefin on a bed of seagrass!”

Haviland Tuf looked stern. “We do not eat animals here,” he said. He set to work, ignoring her, and Kefira Qay took her leave. Foolishness went bounding after her. “Appropriate,” muttered Tuf, “indeed.”

Four days and many mushrooms later, Kefira Qay began to pressure Haviland Tuf for results. “What are you doing?” she demanded over dinner. “When are you going to act? Every day you seclude yourself and every day conditions on Namor worsen. I spoke to Lord Guardian Harvan an hour ago, while you were off with your computers. Little Aquarius and the Dancing Sisters have been lost while you and I are up here dithering, Tuf.”

“Dithering?” said Haviland Tuf. “Guardian, I do not dither. I have never dithered, nor do I intend to begin dithering now. I work. There is a great mass of information to digest.”

Kara Qay snorted. “A great mass of mushrooms to digest, you mean,” she said. She stood up, tipping Foolishness from her lap. The kitten and she had become boon companions of late. “Twelve thousand people lived on little Aquarius,” she said, “and almost as many on the Dancing Sisters. Think of that while you’re digesting, Tuf.” She spun and stalked out of the room.

“Indeed,” said Haviland Tuf. He returned his attention to his sweet-flower pie.

A week passed before they clashed again. “Well?” the Guardian demanded one day in the corridor, stepping in front of Tuf as he lumbered with great dignity down to his work room.

“Well,” he repeated. “Good day, Guardian Qay.”

“It is not a good day,” she said querulously. “Namor Control tells me the Sunrise Islands are gone. Overrun. And a dozen skimmers lost defending them, along with all the ships drawn up in those harbors. What do you say to that?”

“Most tragic,” replied Tuf. “Regrettable.”

“When are you going to be ready?”

He gave a great shrug. “I cannot say. This is no simple task you have set me. A most complex problem. Complex. Yes, indeed, that is the very word. Perhaps I might even say mystifying. I assure you that Namor’s sad plight has fully engaged my sympathies, however, and this problem has similarly engaged my intellect.”

“That’s all it is to you, Tuf, isn’t it? A problem?”

Haviland Tuf frowned slightly, and folded his hands before him, resting them atop his bulging stomach. “A problem indeed,” he said.

“No. It is not just a problem. This is no game we are playing. Real people are dying down there. Dying because the Guardians are not equal to their trust, and because you do nothing. Nothing.”

“Calm yourself. You have my assurance that I am laboring ceaselessly on your behalf. You must consider that my task is not so simple as yours. It is all very well and good to drop bombs on a dreadnaught, or fire shells into a fire-balloon and watch it burn. Yet these simple, quaint methods have availed you little, Guardian. Ecological engineering is a far more demanding business. I study the reports of your leaders, your marine biologists, your historians. I reflect and analyze. I devise various approaches, and run simulations on the Ark’s great computers. Sooner or later I shall find your answer.”

“Sooner,” said Kefira Qay, in a hard voice. “Namor wants results, and I agree. The Council of Guardians is impatient. Sooner, Tuf. Not later. I warn you.” She stepped aside, and let him pass.

Kefira Qay spent the next week and a half avoiding Tuf as much as possible. She skipped dinner and scowled when she saw him in the corridors. Each day she repaired to the communications room, where she had long discussions with her superiors below, and kept up on all the latest news. It was bad. All the news was bad.

Finally, things came to a head. Pale-faced and furious, she stalked into the darkened chamber Tuf called his “war room,” where she found him sitting before a bank of computer screens, watching red and blue lines chase each other across a grid. “Tuf!” she roared. He turned off the screen and swung to face her, batting away Ingratitude. Shrouded by shadows, he regarded her impassively. “The Council of Guardians has given me an order,” she said.

“How fortunate for you,” Tuf replied. “I know you have been growing restless of late from inactivity.”

“The Council wants immediate action, Tuf. Immediate. Today. Do you understand?”

Tuf steepled his hands beneath his chin, almost in an attitude of prayer. “Must I tolerate not only hostility and impatience, but slurs on my intelligence as well? I understand all that needs understanding about your Guardians, I assure you. It is only the peculiar and perverse ecology of Namor that I do not understand. Until I have acquired that understanding, I cannot act.”

“You will act,” said Kefira Qay. Suddenly a laser pistol was in her hand, aimed at Tuf’s broad paunch. “You will act now.”

Haviland Tuf reacted not at all. “Violence,” he said, in a voice of mild reproach. “Perhaps, before you burn a hole in me and thereby doom yourself and your world, you might give me the opportunity to explain?”

“Go on,” she said. “I’ll listen. For a little while.”

“Excellent,” said Haviland Tuf. “Guardian, something very odd is happening on Namor.”

“You’ve noticed,” she said drily. The laser did not move.

“Indeed. You are being destroyed by an infestation of creatures that we must, for want of a better term, collectively dub sea monsters. Three species have appeared, in less than half a dozen standard years. Each of these species is apparently new, or at least unknown. This strikes me as unlikely in the extreme. Your people have been on Namor for one hundred years, yet not until recently have you had any knowledge of these things you call dreadnaughts, fire-balloons, and walkers. It is almost as if some dark analogue of my Ark were waging biowar upon you, yet obviously that is not the case. New or old, these sea monsters are native to Namor, a product of local evolution. Their close relatives fill your seas—the mud-pots, the bobbing freddies, the jellydancers and men-of-war. So. Where does that leave us?”

“I don’t know,” said Kefira Qay.

“Nor do I,” Tuf said. “Consider further. These sea monsters breed in vast numbers. The sea teems with them, they fill the air, they overrun populous islands. They kill. Yet they do not kill each other, nor do they seem to have any other natural enemies. The cruel checks of a normal ecosystem do not apply. I have studied the reports of your scientists with great interest. Much about these sea monsters is fascinating, but perhaps most intriguing is the fact that you know nothing about them except in their full adult form. Vast dreadnaughts prowl the seas and sink ships, monstrous fire-balloons swirl across your skies. Where, might I ask, are the little dreadnaughts, the baby balloons? Where indeed.”

“Deep under the sea.”

“Perhaps, Guardian, perhaps. You cannot say for certain, nor can I. These monsters are most formidable creatures, yet I have seen equally formidable predators on other worlds. They do not number in hundreds or thousands. Why? Ah, because the young, or the eggs, or the hatchlings, they are less formidable than the parents, and most die long before reaching their terrible maturity. This does not appear to happen on Namor. It does not appear to happen at all. What can it all mean? What indeed.” Tuf shrugged. “I cannot say, but I work on, I think, I endeavor to solve the riddle of your overabundant sea.”

Kefira Qay grimaced. “And meanwhile, we die. We die, and you don’t care.”

“I protest!” Tuf began.

“Silence,” she said, waving the laser. “I’ll talk now, you’ve given your speech. Today we lost contact with the Broken Hand. Forty-three islands, Tuf. I’m afraid to even think how many people. All gone now, in a single day. A few garbled radio transmissions, hysteria, and silence. And you sit and talk about riddles. No more. You will take action now. I insist. Or threaten, if you prefer. Later, we will solve the whys and hows of these things. For the moment, we will kill them, without pausing for questions.”

“Once,” said Haviland Tuf, “there was a world idyllic but for a single flaw—an insect the size of a dust mote. It was a harmless creature, but it was everywhere. It fed on the microscopic spores of a floating fungus. The folk of this world hated the tiny insect, which sometimes flew about in clouds so thick they obscured the sun. When citizens went outdoors, the insects would land on them by the thousands, covering their bodies with a living shroud. So a would-be ecological engineer proposed to solve their problem. From a distant world, he introduced another insect, larger, to prey on the living dust motes. The scheme worked admirably. The new insects multiplied and multiplied, having no natural enemies in this ecosystem, until they had entirely wiped out the native species. It was a great triumph. Unfortunately, there were unforeseen side effects. The invader, having destroyed one form of life, moved on to other, more beneficial sorts. Many native insects became extinct. The local analogue of bird life, deprived of its customary prey and unable to digest the alien bug, also suffered grievously. Plants were not pollinated as before. Whole forests and jungles changed and withered. And the spores of the fungus that had been the food of the original nuisance were left unchecked. The fungus grew everywhere—on buildings, on food crops, even on living animals. In short, the ecosystem was wrenched entirely askew. Today, should you visit, you would find a planet dead but for a terrible fungus. Such are the fruits of hasty action, with insufficient study. There are grave risks should one move without understanding.”

“And certain destruction if one fails to move at all,” Kefira Qay said stubbornly. “No, Tuf. You tell frightening tales, but we are a desperate people. The Guardians accept whatever risks there may be. I have my orders. Unless you do as I bid, I will use this.” She nodded at her laser.

Haviland Tuf folded his arms. “If you use that,” he said, “you will be very foolish. No doubt you could learn to operate the Ark in time. The task would take years, which by your own admission you do not have. I shall work on in your behalf, and forgive you your crude bluster and your threats, but I shall move only when I deem myself ready. I am an ecological engineer. I have my personal and professional integrity. And I must point out that, without my services, you are utterly without hope. Utterly. So, since you know this and I know this, let us dispense with further drama. You will not use that laser.”

For a moment, Kefira Qay’s face looked stricken. “You…” she said in confusion; the laser wavered just a bit. Then her look hardened once again. “You’re wrong, Tuf,” she said. “I will use it.”

Haviland Tuf said nothing.

“Not on you,” she said. “On your cats. I will kill one of them every day, until you take action.” Her wrist moved slightly, so the laser was trained not on Tuf, but on the small form of Ingratitude, who was prowling hither and yon about the room, poking at shadows. “I will start with this one,” the Guardian aid. “On the count of three.”

Tuf’s face was utterly without emotion. He stared.

“One,” said Kefira Qay.

Tuf sat immobile.

“Two,” she said.

Tuf frowned, and there were wrinkles in his chalk-white brow.

“Three,” Qay blurted.

“No,” Tuf said quickly. “Do not fire. I shall do as you insist. I can begin cloning within the hour.”

The Guardian holstered her laser.

So Haviland Tuf went reluctantly to war.

On the first clay he sat in his war room before his great console, tight-lipped and quiet, turning dials and pressing glowing buttons and phantom holographic keys. Elsewhere on the Ark, murky liquids of many shades and colors spilled and gurgled into the empty vats along the shadowy main shaft, while specimens from the great cell Library were shifted and sprayed and manipulated by tiny waldoes as sensitive as the hands of a master surgeon. Tuf saw none of it. He remained at his post, starting one clone after another.

On the second day he did the same.

On the third day he rose and strolled slowly down the kilometers-long shaft where his creations had begun to grow, indistinct forms that stirred feebly or not at all in the tanks of translucent liquid. Some tanks were fully as large as the Ark’s shuttle deck, others as small as a fingernail. Haviland Tuf paused by each one, studied the dials and meters and glowing spyscopes with quiet intensity, and sometimes made small adjustments. By the end of the day he had progressed only half the length of the long, echoing row.

On the fourth day he completed his rounds.

On the fifth day he threw in the chronowarp. “Time is its slave,” he told Kefira Qay when she asked him. “It can hold it slow, or bid it hurry. We shall make it run, so the warriors I breed can reach maturity more quickly than in nature.”

On the sixth day he busied himself on the shuttle deck, modifying two of his shuttles to carry the creatures he was fashioning, adding tanks great and small and filling them with water.

On the morning of the seventh day he joined Kefira for breakfast and said, “Guardian, we are ready to begin.”

She was surprised. “So soon?”

“Not all of my beasts have reached full maturity, but that is as it should be. Some are monstrous large, and must be transshipped before they have attained adult growth. The cloning shall continue, of course. We must establish our creatures in sufficient numbers so they will remain viable. Nonetheless, we are now at the stage where it is possible to begin seeding the seas of Namor.”

“What is your strategy?” asked Kefira Qay.

Haviland Tuf pushed aside his plate and pursed his lips. “Such strategy as I have is crude and premature, Guardian, and based on insufficient knowledge. I take no responsibility for its success or failure. Your cruel threats have impelled me to unseemly haste.”

“Nonetheless,” she snapped. “What are you doing?”

Tuf folded his hands atop his stomach. “Biological weaponry, like other sorts of armament, comes in many forms and sizes. The best way to slay a human enemy is a single laser burst planted square in the center of the forehead. In biological terms, the analogue might be a suitable natural enemy or predator, or a species-specific pestilence. Lacking time, I have had no opportunity to devise such an economical solution.

“Other approaches are less satisfactory. I might introduce a disease that would cleanse your world of dreadnaughts, fire-balloons, and walkers, for example. Several likely candidates exist. Yet your sea monsters are close relatives of many other kinds of marine life, and those cousins and uncles would also suffer. My projections indicate that fully three-quarters of Namor’s oceangoing life would be vulnerable to such an attack. Alternatively, I have at my disposal fast-breeding fungi and microscopic animals who would literally fill your seas and crowd out all other life. That choice too is unsatisfactory. Ultimately it would make Namor incapable of sustaining human life. To pursue my analogy of a moment ago, these methods are the biological equivalent of killing a single human enemy by exploding a low-yield thermonuclear device in the city in which he happens to reside. So I have ruled them out.

“Instead, I have opted for what might be termed a scattershot strategy, introducing many new species into your Namorian ecology in the hopes that some of them will prove effective natural enemies capable of winnowing the ranks of your sea monsters. Some of my warriors are great deadly beasts, formidable enough to prey even on your terrible dreadnaughts. Others are small and fleet, semi-social pack hunters who breed quickly. Still others are tiny things. I have hope that they will find and feed on your nightmare creatures in their younger, less potent stages, and thereby thin them out. So you see, I pursue many strategies. I toss down the entire deck rather than playing a single card. Given your bitter ultimatum, it is the only way to proceed.” Tuf nodded at her. “I trust you will be satisfied, Guardian Qay.”

She frowned and said nothing.

“If you are finished with that delightful sweet-mushroom porridge,” Tuf said, “we might begin. I would not have you think that I was dragging my feet. You are a trained pilot, of course?”

“Yes,” she snapped.

“Excellent!” Tuf exclaimed. “I shall instruct you in the peculiar idiosyncrasies of my shuttle craft, then. By this hour, they are already fully stocked for our first run. We shall make long low runs across your seas, and discharge our cargoes into your troubled waters. I shall fly the Basilisk above your northern hemisphere. You shall take the Manticore to the south. If this plan is acceptable, let us go over the routes I have planned for us.” He rose with great dignity.

For the next twenty days, Haviland Tuf and Kefira Qay crisscrossed the dangerous skies of Namor in a painstaking grid pattern, seeding the seas. The Guardian flew her runs with elan. It felt good to be in action again, and she was filled with hope as well. The dreadnaughts and fire-balloons and walkers would have their own nightmares to contend with now—nightmares from half-a-hundred scattered worlds.

From Old Poseidon came vampire eels and nessies and floating tangles of web-weed, transparent and razor-sharp and deadly.

From Aquarius Tuf cloned black raveners, the swifter scarlet raveners, poisonous puff-puppies, and fragrant, carnivorous lady’s bane.

From Jamison’s World the vats summoned sand-dragons and dreerhants and a dozen kinds of brightly colored water snakes, large and small.

From Old Earth itself the cell library provided great white sharks, barracuda, giant squid, and clever semi-sentient orcas.

They seeded Namor with the monstrous grey kraken of Lissador and the smaller blue kraken of Ance, with water-jelly colonies from Noborn, Daronnian spinnerwhips, and bloodlace out of Cathaday, with swimmers as large as the fortress-fish of Dam Tullian, the mockwhale of Gulliver, and the ghrin’da of Hruun-2, or as small as the blisterfins of Avalon, the parasitical caesni from Ananda, and the deadly nest-building, egg-laying Deirdran waterwasps. To hunt the drifting fire-balloons they brought forth countless fliers: lashtail mantas, bright red razorwings, flocks of scorn, semi-aquatic howlers, and a terrible pale blue thing—half-plant and half-animal and all but weightless—that drifted with the wind and lurked inside clouds like a living, hungry spiderweb. Tuf called it the-weed-that-weeps-and-whispers, and advised Kefira Qay not to fly through clouds.

Plants and animals and things that were both and neither, predators and parasites, creatures dark as night or bright and gorgeous or entirely colorless, things strange and beautiful beyond words or too hideous even for thought, from worlds whose names burned bright in human history and from others seldom heard of. And more and more. Day after day the Basilisk and the Manticore flashed above the seas of Namor, too swift and deadly for the fire-balloons that drifted up to attack them, dropping their living weapons with impunity.

After each day’s run they would repair to the Ark, where Haviland Tuf and one or more of his cats would seek solitude, while Kefira Qay habitually took Foolishness with her to the communications room so she could listen to the reports.

Guardian Smitt reports the sighting of strange creatures in the Orange Strait. No sign of dreadnaughts.

“A dreadnaught has been seen off Batthern, locked in terrible combat with some huge tentacled thing twice its size. A grey kraken, you say? Very well. We shall have to learn these names, Guardian Qay.”

“Mullidor Strand reports that a family of lashtail mantas has taken up residence on the offshore rocks. Guardian Horn says they slice through fire-balloons like living knives—that the balloons flail and deflate and fall helplessly. Wonderful!”

“Today we heard from Indigo Beach, Guardian Qay. A strange story. Three walkers came rushing out of the water, but it was no attack. They were crazed, staggering about as if in great pain, and ropes of some pale scummy substance dangled from every joint and gap. What is it?”

“A dead dreadnaught washed up on New Atlantis today. Another corpse was sighted by the Sunrazor on its western patrol, rotting atop the water. Various strange fishes were picking it to pieces.”

“Starsword swung out to Fire Heights yesterday, and sighted less than a half-dozen fire-balloons. The Council of Guardians is thinking of resuming short airship flights to the Mud-Pot Pearls, on a trial basis. What do you think, Guardian Qay? Would you advise that we risk it, or is it premature?”

Each day the reports flooded in, and each day Kefira Qay smiled more broadly as she made her runs in the Manticore. But Haviland Tuf remained silent and impassive.

Thirty-four days into the war, Lord Guardian Lysan told her, “Well, another dead dreadnaught was found today. It must have put up quite a battle. Our scientists have been analyzing the contents of its stomachs, and it appears to have fed exclusively on orcas and blue kraken.” Kefira Qay frowned slightly, then shrugged it off.

“A grey kraken washed upon Boreen today,” Lord Guardian Moen told her a few days later. “The residents are complaining of the stink. It has gigantic round bite-marks, they report. Obviously a dreadnaught, but even larger than the usual kind.” Guardian Qay shifted uncomfortably.

“All the sharks seem to have vanished from the Amber Sea. The biologists can’t account for it. What do you think? Ask Tuf about it, will you?” She listened, and felt a faint trickle of alarm.

“Here’s a strange one for you two. Something has been sighted moving back and forth across the Coherine Deep. We’ve had reports from both Sunrazor and Skyknife, and various confirmations from skimmer patrols. A huge thing, they say, a veritable living island, sweeping up everything in its path. Is that one of yours? If it is, you may have miscalculated. They say it is eating barracuda and blister-fins and lander’s needles by the thousands.” Kefira Qay scowled.

“Fire-balloons sighted again off Mullidor Strand—hundreds of them. I can hardly give credence to these reports, but they say the lashtail mantas just carom off them, now. Do you…”

“Men-of-war again, can you believe it? We thought they were all nearly gone. So many of them, and they are gobbling up Tuf’s smaller fish like nobody’s business. You have to…”

“Dreadnaughts spraying water to knock howlers from the sky…”

“Something new, Kefira, a flyer, or a glider rather, swarms of them launch from the tops of these fire-balloons. They’ve gotten three skimmers already, and the mantas are no match for them… all over, I tell you, that thing that hides in the clouds… the balloons just rip them loose, the acid doesn’t bother them anymore, they fling them down…”

“…more dead waterwasps, hundreds of them, thousands, where are they all…”

“…walkers again. Castle Dawn has fallen silent, must be overrun. We can’t understand it. The island was ringed by bloodlace and water-jelly colonies. It ought to have been safe unless…”

“…no word from Indigo Beach in a week…”

“…thirty, forty fire-balloons seen just off Cabben. The Council fears…”

“…nothing from Lobbadoon…”

“…dead fortress-fish, half as big as the island itself… dreadnaughts came right into the harbor…”

“…walkers…”

“…Guardian Qay, the Starsword is lost, gone down over the Polar Sea. The last transmission was garbled, but we think…”

Kefira Qay pushed herself up, trembling, and turned to rush out of the communications room, where all the screens were babbling news of death, destruction, defeat. Haviland Tuf was standing behind her, his pale white face impassive, Ingratitude sitting calmly on his broad left shoulder.

“What is happening?” the Guardian demanded.

“I should think that would be obvious, Guardian, to any person of normal intelligence. We are losing. Perhaps we have lost already.”

Kefira Qay fought to keep from shrieking. “Aren’t you going to do anything? Fight back? This is all your fault, Tuf. You aren’t an ecological engineer—you’re a trader who doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s why this is…”

Haviland Tuf raised up a hand for silenee. “Please,” he said. “You have already caused me considerable vexation. Insult me no further. I am a gentle man, of kindly and benevolent disposition, but even one such as myself can be provoked to anger. You press close to that point now. Guardian, I take no responsibility for this unfortunate course of events. This hasty biowar we have waged was none of my idea. Your uncivilized ultimatum forced me to unwise action in order to placate you. Fortunately, while you have spent your nights gloating over transient and illusory victories, I have continued with my work. I have mapped out your world on my computers and watched the course of your war shudder and flow across it in all its manifold stages. I’ve duplicated your biosphere in one of my great tanks and seeded it with samples of Namorian life cloned from dead specimens—a bit of tentacle here, a piece of carapace there. I have observed and analyzed and at last I have come to conclusions. Tentative, to be sure, although this late sequence of events on Namor tends to confirm my hypothesis. So defame me no further, Guardian. After a refreshing night’s sleep I shall descend to Namor and attempt to end this war of yours.”

Kefira Qay stared at him, hardly daring to believe, her dread turning to hope once again. “You have the answer, then?”

“Indeed. Did I not just say as much?”

“What is it?” she demanded. “Some new creatures? That’s it—you’ve cloned something else, haven’t you? Some plague? Some monster?”

Haviland Tuf held up his hand. “Patience. First I must be certain. You have mocked me and derided me with such unflagging vigor that I hesitate to open myself to further ridicule by confiding my plans to you. I shall prove them valid first. Now, let us discuss tomorrow. You shall fly no war run with the Manticore. Instead, I would have you take it to New Atlantis and convene a full meeting of the Council of Guardians. Fetch those who require fetching from outlying islands, please.”

“And you?” Kefira Qay asked.

“I shall meet with the council when it is time. Prior to that, I shall take my plans and my creature to Namor on a mission of our own. We shall descend in the Phoenix, I believe. Yes. I do think the Phoenix most appropriate, to commemorate your world rising from its ashes. Markedly wet ashes, but ashes nonetheless.”

Kefira Qay met Haviland Tuf on the shuttle deck just prior to their scheduled departure. Manticore and Phoenix stood ready in their launch berths amidst the scatter of derelict spacecraft. Haviland Tuf was punching numbers into a mini-computer strapped to the inside of his wrist. He wore a long grey vinyl greatcoat with copious pockets and flaring shoulderboards. A green and brown duckbilled cap decorated with the golden theta of the Ecological Engineers perched rakishly atop his bald head.

“I have notified Namor Control and Guardian Headquarters,” Qay said. “The Council is assembling. I will provide transportation for a half-dozen Lords Guardian from outlying districts, so all of them will be on hand. How about you, Tuf? Are you ready? Is your mystery creature on board?”

“Soon,” said Haviland Tuf, blinking at her.

But Kefira Qay was not looking at his face. Her gaze had gone lower. “Tuf,” she said, “there is something in your pocket. Moving.” Incredulous, she watched the ripple creep along beneath the vinyl.

“Ah,’’ said Tuf. “Indeed.” And then the head emerged from his pocket, and peered around curiously. It belonged to a kitten, a tiny jet-black kitten with lambent yellow eyes. “A cat,” muttered Kefira Qay sourly.

“Your perception is uncanny,” said Haviland Tuf. He lifted the kitten out gently, and held it cupped in one great white hand while scratching behind its ear with a finger from the other. “This is Dax,” he said solemnly. Dax was scarcely half the size of the older kittens who frisked about the Ark. He looked like nothing but a ball of black fur, curiously limp and indolent.

“Wonderful,” the Guardian replied. “Dax, eh? Where did this one come from? No, don’t answer that. I can guess. Tuf, don’t we have more important things to do than play with cats?”

“I think not,” said Haviland Tuf. “You do not appreciate cats sufficiently, Guardian. They are the most civilized of creatures. No world can be considered truly cultured without cats. Are you aware that all cats, from time immemorial, have had a touch of psi? Do you know that some ancient societies of Old Earth worshipped cats as gods? It is true.”

“Please,” said Kefira Qay irritably. “We don’t have time for a discourse on cats. Are you going to bring that poor little thing down to Namor with you?”

Tuf blinked. “Indeed. This poor little thing, as you so contemptuously call him, is the salvation of Namor. Respect might be in order.”

She stared at him as if he had gone mad. “What? That? Him? I mean, Dax? Are you serious? What are you talking about? You’re joking, aren’t you? This is some kind of insane jest. You’ve got some thing loaded aboard the Phoenix, some huge leviathan that will cleanse the sea of those dreadnaughts—something, anything, I don’t know. But you can’t mean… you can’t… not that.”

“Him,” said Haviland Tuf. “Guardian, it is so wearisome to have to state the obvious, not once but again and again. I have given you raveners and krakens and lashtail mantas, at your insistence. They have not been efficacious. Accordingly, I have done much hard thinking, and I have cloned Dax.”

“A kitten,” she said. “You’re going to use a kitten against the dreadnaughts and the fire-balloons and the walkers. One. Small. Kitten.”

“Indeed,” said Haviland Tuf. He frowned down at her, slid Dax back into the roomy confines of his great pocket, and turned smartly toward the waiting Phoenix.

Kefira Qay was growing very nervous. In the council chambers high atop Breakwater Tower on New Atlantis, the twenty-five Lords Guardian who commanded the defense of all Namor were restive. All of them had been waiting for hours. Some had been there all day. The long conference table was littered with personal communicators and computer printouts and empty water glasses. Two meals had already been served and cleared away. By the wide curving window that dominated the far wall, portly Lord Guardian Alis was talking in low urgent tones to Lord Guardian Lysan, thin and stern, and both of them were giving meaningful glances to Kefira Qay from time to time. Behind them the sun was going down, and the great bay was turning a lovely shade of scarlet. It was such a beautiful scene that one scarcely noticed the small bright dots that were Guardian skimmers, flying patrol.

Dusk was almost upon them, the council members were grumbling and stirring impatiently in their big cushioned chairs, and Haviland Tuf had still failed to make an appearance. “When did he say he would be here?” asked Lord Guardian Khem, for the fifth time.

“He wasn’t very precise, Lord Guardian,” Kefira Qay replied uneasily, for the fifth time.

Khem frowned and cleared his throat.

Then one of the communicators began to beep, and Lord Guardian Lysan strode over briskly and snatched it up. “Yes?’ he said. “I see. Quite good. Escort him in.” He set clown the communicator and rapped its edge on the table for order. The others shuffled to their seats, or broke off their conversations, or straightened. The council chamber grew silent. “That was the patrol. Tuf’s shuttle has been sighted. He is on his way, I am pleased to report.” Lysan glanced at Kefira Qay. “At last.”

The Guardian felt even more uneasy then. It was bad enough that Tuf had kept them waiting, but she was dreading the moment when he came lumbering in, Dax peering out of his pocket. Qay had been unable to find the words to tell her superiors that Tuf proposed to save Namor with a small black kitten. She fidgeted in her seat and plucked at her large crooked nose. This was going to be bad, she feared.

It was worse than anything she could have dreamed.

All of the Lords Guardian were waiting, stiff and silent and attentive, when the doors opened and Haviland Tuf walked in, escorted by four armed guards in golden coveralls. He was a mess. His boots made a squishing sound as he walked, and his greatcoat was smeared with mud. Dax was visible in his left pocket all right, paws hooked over its edge and large eyes intent. But the Lords Guardian weren’t looking at the kitten. Beneath his other arm, Haviland Tuf was carrying a muddy rock the size of a big man’s head. A thick coating of green-brown slime covered it, and it was dripping water onto the plush carpet.

Without so much as a word, Tuf went directly to the conference table and set the rock down in the center of it. That was when Kefira Qay saw the fringe of tentacles, pale and fine as threads, and realized that it wasn’t a rock after all. “A mud-pot,” she said aloud in surprise. No wonder she hadn’t recognized it. She had seen many a mud-pot in her time, but not until after they had been washed and boiled and the tendrils trimmed away. Normally they were served with a hammer and chisel to crack the bony carapace, and a dish of melted butter and spices on the side.

The Lords Guardian looked on in astonishment, and then all twenty-five began talking at once, and the council chamber became a blur of overlapping voices.

“…it is a mud-pot, I don’t understand…”

“What is the meaning of this?”

“He makes us wait all day and then comes to council as filthy as a mudgrubber. The dignity of the council is…”

“…haven’t eaten a mud-pot in, oh, two, three…”

“…can’t be the man who is supposed to save…”

“…insane, why just look at…”

“…what is that thing in his pocket? Look at it! My God, it moved! It’s alive, I tell you, I saw it…”

“Silence!” Lysan’s voice was like a knife cutting through the hubbub. The room quieted as, one by one, the Lords Guardian turned toward him. “We have come together at your beck and call,” Lysan said acidly to Tuf. “We expected you to bring us an answer. Instead you appear to have brought us dinner.”

Someone snickered.

Haviland Tuf frowned down at his muddy hands, and wiped them primly on his greatcoat. Taking Dax from his pocket, Tuf deposited the lethargic black kitten on the table. Dax yawned and stretched, and ambled toward the nearest of the Lords Guardian, who stared in horror and hurriedly inched her chair back a bit. Shrugging out of his wet, muddy greatcoat, Tuf looked about for a place to put it, and finally hung it from the laser rifle of one of his escort. Only then did he turn back to the Lords Guardian. “Esteemed Lords Guardian,” he said, “this is not dinner you see before you. In that very attitude lies the root of all your problems. This is the ambassador of the race that shares Namor with you, whose name, regrettably, is far beyond my small capabilities. His people will take it quite badly if you eat him.”

Eventually someone brought Lysan a gavel, and he rapped it long and loud enough to attract everyone’s attention, and the furor slowly ebbed away. Haviland Tuf had stood impassively through all of it, his face without expression, his arms folded against his chest. Only when silence was restored did he say, “perhaps I should explain.”

“You are mad,” Lord Guardian Harvan said, looking from Tuf to the mud-pot and back again. “Utterly mad.”

Haviland Tuf scooped up Dax from the table, cradled him in one arm, and began to pet him. “Even in our moment of victory, we are mocked and insulted,” he said to the kitten.

“Tuf,” said Lysan from the head of the long table, “what you suggest is impossible. We have explored Namor quite sufficiently in the century we have been here so as to be certain that no sentient races dwell upon it. There are no cities, no roads, no signs of any prior civilization or technology, no ruins or artifacts—nothing, neither above nor below the sea.”

“Moreover,” said another councilor, a beefy woman with a red face, “the mud-pots cannot possibly be sentient. Agreed, they have brains the size of a human brain. But that is about all they have. They have no eyes, ears, noses, almost no sensory equipment whatever except for touch. They have only those feeble tendrils as manipulative organs, scarcely strong enough to lift a pebble. And in fact, the tendrils are only used to anchor them to their spot on the seabed. They are hermaphroditic and downright primitive, mobile only in the first month of life, before the shell hardens and grows heavy. Once they root on the bottom and cover themselves with mud, they never move again. They stay there for hundreds of years.”

“Thousands,” said Haviland. “They are remarkably long-lived creatures. All that you say is undoubtedly correct. Nonetheless, your conclusions are in error. You have allowed yourself to be blinded by belligerence and fear. If you had removed yourself from the situation and paused long enough to think about it in depth, as I did, no doubt it would become obvious even to the military mind that your plight was no natural catastrophe. Only the machinations of some enemy intelligence could sufficiently explain the tragic course of events on Namor.”

“You don’t expect us to believe—” someone began.

“Sir,” said Haviland Tuf, “I expect you to listen. If you will refrain from interrupting me, I will explain all. Then you may choose to believe or not, as suits your peculiar fancy. I shall take my fee and depart.” Tuf looked at Dax. “Idiots, Dax. Everywhere we are beset by idiots.” Turning his attention back to the Lords Guardian, he continued, “As I have stated, intelligence was clearly at work here. The difficulty was in finding that intelligence. I perused the work of your Namorian biologists, living and dead, read much about your flora and fauna, recreated many of the native lifeforms aboard the Ark. No likely candidate for sentience was immediately forthcoming. The traditional hallmarks of intelligent life include a large brain, sophisticated biological sensors, mobility, and some sort of manipulative organ, such as an opposable thumb. Nowhere on Namor could I find a creature with all of these attributes. My hypothesis, however, was still correct. Therefore I must needs move on to unlikely candidates, as there were no likely ones.

“To this end I studied the history of your plight, and at once some things suggested themselves. You believed that your sea monsters emerged from the dark oceanic depths, but where did they first appear? In the offshore shallows—the areas where you practiced fishing and sea-farming. What did all these areas have in common? Certainly an abundance of life, that must be admitted. Yet not the same life. The fish that habituated the waters off New Atlantis did not frequent those of the Broken Hand. Yet I found two interesting exceptions, two species found virtually everywhere—the mud-pots, lying immobile in their great soft beds through the long slow centuries and, originally, the things you called Namorian men-of-war. The ancient native race has another term for those. They call them guardians.

“Once I had come this far, it was only a matter of working out the details and confirming my suspicions. I might have arrived at my conclusion much earlier, but for the rude interruptions of liaison officer Qay, who continually shattered my concentration and finally, most cruelly, forced me to waste much time sending forth grey krakens and razorwings and sundry other such creatures. In the future I shall spare myself such liaisons.”

“Yet, in a way, the experiment was useful, since it confirmed my theory as to the true situation on Namor. Accordingly I pressed on. Geographic studies showed that all of the monsters were thickest near mud-pot beds. The heaviest fighting had been in those selfsame areas, my Lords Guardian. Clearly, these mud-pots you find so eminently edible were your mysterious foes. Yet how could that be? These ereatures had large brains, to be sure, but lacked all the other traits we have come to associate with sentience, as we know it. And that was the very heart of it! Clearly they were sentient as we do no know it. What sort of intelligent being could live deep under the sea, immobile, blind, deaf, bereft of all input? I pondered that question. The answer, sirs, is obvious. Such an intelligence must interact with the world in ways we cannot, must have its own modes of sensing and communicating. Such an intelligence must be telepathic. Indeed. The more I considered it, the more obvious it became.

“Thereupon it was only a matter of testing my conclusions. To that end, I brought forth Dax. All cats have some small psionic ability, Lords Guardian. Yet long centuries ago, in the days of the Great War, the soldiers of the Federal Empire struggled against enemies with terrible psi powers; Hrangan Minds and githyanki soulsucks. To combat such formidable foes, the genetic engineers worked with felines, and vastly heightened and sharpened their psionic abilities, so they could esp in unison with mere humans. Dax is such a special animal.”

“You mean that thing is reading our minds?” Lysan said sharply.

“Insofar as you have minds to read,” said Haviland Tuf, “yes. But more importantly, through Dax, I was able to reach that ancient people you have so ignominiously dubbed mud-pots. For they, you see, are entirely telepathic.

“For millennia beyond counting they have dwelled in tranquility and peace beneath the seas of this world. They are a slow, thoughtful, philosophic race, and they lived side by side in the billions, each linked with all the others, each an individual and each a part of the great racial whole. In a sense they were deathless, for all shared the experiences of each, and the death of one was as nothing. Experiences were few in the unchanging sea, however. For the most part their long lives are given over to abstract thought, to philosophy, to strange green dreams that neither you nor I can truly comprehend. They are silent musicians, one might say. Together they have woven great symphonies of dreams, and those songs go on and on.

“Before humanity came to Namor, they had had no real enemies for millions of years. Yet that had not always been the case. In the primordial beginnings of this wet world, the oceans teemed with creatures who relished the taste of the dreamers as much as you do. Even then, the race understood genetics, understood evolution. With their vast web of interwoven minds, they were able to manipulate the very stuff of life itself, more skillfully than any genetic engineers. And so they evolved their guardians, formidable predators with a biological imperative to protect those you call mud-pots. These were your men-of-war. From that time to this they guarded the beds, while the dreamers went back to their symphony of thought.

“Then you came, from Aquarius and Old Poseidon. Indeed you did. Lost in the reverie, the dreamers hardly noticed for many years, while you farmed and fished and discovered the taste of mud-pots. You must consider the shock you gave them, Lords Guardian. Each time you plunged one of them into boiling water, all of them shared the sensations. To the dreamers, it seemed as though some terrible new predator had evolved upon the landmass, a place of little interest to them. They had no inkling that you might be sentient, since they could no more conceive of a nontelepathic sentience than you could conceive of one blind, deaf, immobile, and edible. To them, things that moved and manipulated and ate flesh were animals, and could be nothing else.

“The rest you know, or can surmise. The dreamers are a slow people lost in their vast songs, and they were slow to respond. First they simply ignored you, in the belief that the ecosystem itself would shortly check your ravages. This did not appear to happen. To them it seemed you had no natural enemies. You bred and expanded constantly, and many thousands of minds fell silent. Finally they returned to the ancient, almost-forgotten ways of their dim past, and woke to protect themselves. They sped up the reproduction of their guardians until the seas above their beds teemed with their protectors, but the creatures that had once sufficed admirably against other enemies proved to be no match for you. Finally they were driven to new measures. Their minds broke off the great symphony and ranged out, and they sensed and understood. At last they began to fashion new guardians, guardians formidable enough to protect them against this great new nemesis. Thus it went. When I arrived upon the Ark, and Kefira Qay forced me to unleash many new threats to their peaceful dominion, the dreamers were initially taken aback. But the struggle had sharpened them and they responded more quickly now, and in only a very short time they were dreaming newer guardians still, and sending them forth to battle to oppose the creatures I had loosed upon them. Even as I speak to you in this most imposing tower of yours, many a terrible new lifeform is stirring beneath the waves, and soon will emerge to trouble your sleep in years to come—unless, of course, you come to a peace. That is entirely your decision. I am only a humble ecological engineer. I would not dream of dictating such matters to the likes of you. Yet I do suggest it, in the strongest possible terms. So here is the ambassador plucked from the sea—at great personal discomfort to myself, I might add. The dreamers are now in much turmoil, for when they felt Dax among them and through him touched me, their world increased a millionfold. They learned of the stars today, and learned moreover that they are not alone in this cosmos. I believe they will be reasonable, as they have no use for the land, nor any taste for fish. Here is Dax as well, and myself. Perhaps we might commence to talk?”

But when Haviland Tuf fell silent at last, no one spoke for quite a long time. The Lords Guardian were all ashen and numb. One by one they looked away from Tuf’s impassive features, to the muddy shell on the table.

Finally Kefira Qay found her voice. “What do they want?” she asked nervously.

“Chiefly,” said Haviland Tuf, “they want you to stop eating them. This strikes me as an eminently sensible proposal. What is your reply?”

“Two million standards is insufficient,” Haviland Tuf said some time later, sitting in the communications room of the Ark. Dax rested calmly in his lap, having little of the frenetic energy of the other kittens. Elsewhere in room Suspicion and Hostility were chasing each other hither and yon.

Up on the telescreen, Kefira Qay’s features broke into a suspicious scowl. “What do you mean? This was the price we agreed upon, Tuf. If you are trying to cheat us…”

“Cheat?” Tuf sighed. “Did you hear her, Dax? After all we have done, such grim accusations are still flung at us willy-nilly. Yes. Willy-nilly indeed. An odd phrase, when one stops to mull on it.” He looked back at the telescreen. “Guardian Qay, I am fully aware of the agreed-on price. For two million standards, I solved your difficulties. I analyzed and pondered and provided the insight and the translator you so sorely needed. I have even left you with twenty-five telepathic cats, each linked to one of your Lords Guardian, to facilitate further communications after my departure. That too is included within the terms of our initial agreement, since it was necessary to the solution of your problem. And, being at heart more a philanthropist than a businessman, and deeply sentimental as well, I have even allowed you to retain Foolishness, who took a liking to you for some reason that I am entirely unable to fathom. For that, too, there is no charge.”

“Then why are you demanding an additional three million standards?” demanded Kefira Qay.

“For unnecessary work which I was cruelly compelled to do,” Tuf replied. “Would you care for an itemized accounting?”

“Yes, I would,” she said.

“Very well. For sharks. For barracuda. For giant squid. For orcas. For grey kraken. For blue kraken. For bloodlace. For water jellies. Twenty thousand standards per item. For fortress-fish, fifty thousand standards. For the-weed-that-weeps-and-whispers, eight…” he went on for a long, long time.

When he was done, Kefira Qay set her lips sternly. “I will submit your bill to the Council of Guardians,” she said. “But I will tell you straight out that your demands are unfair and exorbitant, and our balance of trade is not sufficient to allow for such an outflow of hard standards. You can wait in orbit for a hundred years, Tuf, but you won’t get any five million standards.”

Haviland Tuf raised his hands in surrender. “Ah,” he said. “So, because of my trusting nature, I must take a loss. I will not be paid, then?”

“Two million standards,” said the Guardian. “As we agreed.”

“I suppose I might accept this cruel and unethical decision, and take it as one of life’s hard lessons. Very well then. So be it.” He stroked Dax. “It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I can only blame myself for this wretched turn of events. Why, it was only a few scant months past that I chanced to view a historical drama on this very sort of situation. It was about a seedship such as my own that rid one small world of an annoying pest, only to have the ungrateful planetary government refuse payment. Had I been wiser, that would have taught me to demand my payment in advance.” He sighed. “But I was not wise, and now I must suffer.” Tuf stroked Dax again, and paused. “Perhaps your Council of Guardians might be interested in viewing this particular tape, purely for recreational purposes. It is holographic, fully dramatized, and well-acted, and moreover, it gives a fascinating insight into the workings and capabilities of a ship such as this one. Highly educational. The title is Seedship of Hamelin.”

They paid him, of course.

LIFE REGARDED AS A JIGSAW PUZZLE OF HIGHLY LUSTROUS CATS

Michael Bishop

Michael Bishop has been publishing stories, novels, poetry, and criticism for forty years (starting at age two). His novel No Enemy but Time won the Nebula Award, Unicorn Mountain won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and Brittle Innings won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. He has published seven volumes of short fiction, and his stories have won the Nebula, two Southeastern Science Fiction Association short-fiction awards, and, most recently, the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story (“The Pile,” based on notes left behind by his late son, Jamie). His most recent book, this time as editor, is the anthology A Cross of Centuries: Twenty-Five Imaginative Tales about the Christ, and his most recent story is a Lovecraftian science-fiction tale, “The City Quiet as Death,” written with Steven Utley and published at Tor.com.

Bishop says that he “borrowed” one image in the story from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a passage in which she describes a cat of hers—walking across her bed and unclothed body, leaving rose-like red paw prints behind as a result of having earlier stalked through wet red clay.

Your father-in-law, who insists that you call him Howie, even though you prefer Mr. Bragg, likes jigsaw puzzles. If they prove harder than he has the skill or the patience for, he knows a sneaky way around the problem.

During the third Christmas season after your marriage to Marti, you find Howie at a card table wearing a parka, a blue watch cap with a crown of burgundy leather, and fur-lined shoes. (December through February, it is freezing in the Braggs’ Tudor-style house outside Spartanburg.) He is assembling a huge jigsaw puzzle, for the Braggs give him one every Christmas. His challenge is to put it together, unaided by drop-in company or any other family member, before the Sugar Bowl kick-off on New Year’s Day.

This year, the puzzle is of cats.

The ESB procedure being administered to you by the Zoo Cop and his associates is keyed to cats. When they zap your implanted electrodes, cat-related memories parachute into your mind’s eye, opening out like fireworks.

The lid from the puzzle’s box is Mr. Bragg’s—Howie’s—blueprint, and it depicts a population explosion of stylized cats. They are both mysterious beasts and whimsical cartoons. The puzzle lacks any background, it’s so full of cats. They run, stalk, lap milk, tussel, tongue-file their fur, snooze, etc., etc. There are no puzzle areas where a single color dominates, a serious obstacle to quick assembly.

Howie has a solution. When only a handful of pieces remain in the box, he uses a razor blade to shave any piece that refuses to fit where he wants it to. This is cheating, as even Howie readily acknowledges, but on New Year’s Eve, with Dick Clark standing in Times Square and the Sugar Bowl game only hours away, a man can’t afford to screw around.

“Looking good,” you say as the crowd on TV starts its rowdy countdown to midnight. “You’re almost there.”

Howie confesses—complains?—that this puzzle has been a “real mindbender.” He appreciates the challenge of a thousand-plus pieces and a crazy-making dearth of internal clues, but why this particular puzzle? He usually receives a photographic landscape or a Western painting by Remington.

“I’m not a cat fancier,” he tells you. “Most of ’em’re sneaky little bastards, don’t you think?”

Marti likes cats, but when you get canned at Piedmont Freight in Atlanta, she moves back to Spartanburg with your son, Jacob, who may be allergic to cats. Marti leaves in your keeping two calico mongrels that duck out of sight whenever you try to feed or catch them. You catch them eventually, of course, and drive them to the pound in a plastic animal carrier that Marti bought from Delta, or Eastern, or some other airline out at Hartsfield.

Penfield, a.k.a. the Zoo Cop, wants to know how you lost your job. He gives you a multiple-choice quiz:

A. Companywide lay-off

B. Neglect of duty and/or unacceptable job performance

C. Personality conflict with a supervisor

D. Suspicion of disloyalty

E. All, or none, of the above

You tell him that there was an incident of (alleged) sexual harassment involving a female secretary whose name, even under the impetus of electrical stimulation of the brain (ESB), you cannot now recall. All you can recall is every cat, real or imaginary, ever to etch its image into your consciousness.

After your firing, you take the cats, Springer and Ossie (short for Ocelot), to the pound. When you look back from the shelter’s doorway, a teen-age attendant is giving you, no doubt about it, the evil eye. Springer and Ossie are doomed. No one in the big, busy city wants a mixed-breed female. The fate awaiting nine-year-old Jacob’s cats—never mind their complicity in his frightening asthma—is the gas chamber, but, today, you are as indifferent to the cats’ fate as a latter-day Eichmann. You are numb from the molecular level upward.

“We did have them spayed,” you defend yourself. “Couldn’t you use that to pitch them to some nice family?”

You begin to laugh.

Is this another instance of Inappropriate Affect? Except for the laughing gas given to you to sink the electrodes, you’ve now been off all medication for… you don’t know how long.

On the street only three years after your dismissal, you wept at hoboes’ bawdy jokes, got up and danced if the obituaries you’d been sleeping under reported an old friend’s death.

Once, you giggled when a black girl bummed a cigarette in the parking lot of Trinity United Methodist: “I got AIDS, man. Hain’t no smoke gonna kill me. Hain’t time enough for the old lung cee to kick in, too.”

Now that Penfield’s taken you off antipsychotics, is Ye Olde Inappropriate Affect kicking in again? Or is this fallout from the ESB? After all, one gets entirely different responses (rage and affection; fear and bravado) from zapping hypothalamic points less than 0.02 inches from each other.

Spill it, Adolf, Penfield says. What’s so funny?

Cat juggling, you tell him. (Your name has never been Adolf.)

What?

Steve Martin in The Jerk. An illegal Mexican sport. A joke, you know. Cat juggling.

You surrender to jerky laughter. It hurts, but your glee isn’t inappropriate. The movie was a comedy. People were supposed to laugh. Forget that when you close your eyes, you see yourself as the outlaw juggler. Forget that the cats in their caterwauling orbits include Springer, Ossie, Thai Thai, Romeo, and an anonymous albino kitten from your dead grandparents’ grain crib on their farm outside Montgomery….

As a boy in Hapeville, the cat you like best is Thai Thai, a male Siamese that your mama and you inherit from the family moving out. His name isn’t Thai Thai before your mama starts calling him that, though. It’s something fake Chinese, like Lung Cee or Mouser Tung. The folks moving out don’t want to take him with them, their daddy’s got a job with Otero Steel in Pueblo, Colorado. Besides, Mouser Tung’s not likely to appreciate the ice and snow out there. He’s a Deep South cat, Dixie-born and -bred.

“You are who you are,” Mama tells the Siamese while he rubs her laddered nylons, “but from here on out your name is Thai Thai.”

“Why’re you calling him that?” you ask her.

“Because it fits a cracker Siamese,” she says.

It’s several years later before you realize that Thailand is Siam’s current name and that there’s a gnat-plagued town southeast of Albany called, yeah, Ty Ty.

Your mama’s a smart gal, with an agile mind and a quirky sense of humor. How Daddy ever got it into his head that she wasn’t good enough for him is a mystery.

It’s her agile mind and her quirky sense of humor that did her in, the Zoo Cop says, pinching back your eyelid.

Anyway, Daddy ran off to a Florida dog-track town with a chunky bottle-blonde ex-hairdresser who dropped a few pounds and started a mail-order weight-loss-tonic business. He’s been gone nine weeks and four days.

Thai Thai, when you notice him, is pretty decent company. He sheathes his claws when he’s in your lap. He purrs at a bearable register. He eats leftover vegetables—peas, lima beans, spinach—as readily as he does bacon rinds or chicken scraps. A doll, Mama calls him. A gentleman.

This ESB business distorts stuff. It flips events, attitudes, preferences upside-down. The last shall be first, the first shall be last. This focus on cats, for example, is a major distortion, a misleading reenvisioning of the life that you lived before getting trapped by Rockdale Biological Supply Company.

Can’t Penfield see this? Uh-uh, no way. He’s too hot to screw Rockdale Biological’s bigwigs. The guy may have right on his side, but to him—for the moment, anyway—you’re just another human oven-cake. If you crumble when the heat’s turned up, great, zip-a-dee-zoo-cop, pop me a cold one, justice is served.

Thing is, you prefer dogs. Even as a kid, you like them more. You bring home flea-bitten strays and beg to keep them. When you live in Alabama, you covet the liony chow, Simba, that waits every afternoon in the Notasulga schoolyard for Wesley Duplantier. Dogs, not cats. Until Mouser Tung—Thai Thai—all the cats you know prowl on the edges of your attention. Even Thai Thai comes to you and Mama, over here in Georgia, as a kind of offhand house-warming gift. Dogs, Mister Zoo Cop, not cats.

Actually, Penfield says, I’m getting the idea that what was in the forefront of your attention, Adolf, was women….

After puberty, your attention never has a forefront. You are divebombed by stimuli. Girls’ faces are billboards. Their bodies are bigger billboards. Jigsawed ad signs. A piece here. A piece there. It isn’t just girls. It’s everything. Cars, buildings, TV talking heads, mosquito swarms, jet contrails, interchangeable male callers at suppertime, battle scenes on the six o’clock news, rock idols infinitely glitterized, the whole schmear fragmenting as it feeds into you, Mr. Teen-age Black Hole of the Spirit. Except when romancing a sweet young gal, your head’s a magnet for all the flak generated by the media-crazed twentieth century.

“You’re tomcatting, aren’t you?” Mama says. “You’re tomcatting just like Webb did. God.”

It’s a way to stay focused. With their faces and bodies under you, they cease to be billboards. You’re a human being again, not a radio receiver or a gravity funnel. The act imposes a fleeting order on the ricocheting chaos working every instant to turn you, the mind cementing it all together, into a flimsy cardboard box of mismatched pieces.

Is that tomcatting? Resisting, by a tender union of bodies, the consequences of dumping a jigsaw puzzle of cats into a box of pieces that, assembled, would depict, say, a unit of embattled flak gunners on Corregidor?

Christ, the Zoo Cop says, a more highfalutin excuse for chasing tail I’ve never heard.

Your high school is crawling with cats. Cool cats, punk cats, stray cats, dead cats. Some are human, some aren’t.

You dissect a cat in biology lab. On a plaster-of-Paris base, guyed upright by wires, stands the bleached skeleton of a quadruped that Mr. Osteen—he’s also the track and girls’ softball coach—swears was a member of Felis catus, the common house cat.

With its underlying gauntness exposed and its skull gleaming brittle and grotesque, this skeleton resembles that of something prehistoric. Pamela van Rhyn and two or three other girls want to know where the cats in the lab came from.

“A scientific supply house,” Coach Osteen says. “Same place we get our bullfrogs, our microscope slides, the insects in that there display case.” He nods at it.

“Where does the supply house get them?” Pamela says.

“I don’t know, Pammie. Maybe they raise ’em. Maybe they round up strays. You missing a kitty?”

In fact, rumor holds that Mr. Osteen found the living source of his skeleton behind the track field’s south bleachers, chloroformed it, carried it home, and boiled the fur off it in a pot on an old stove in his basement. Because of the smell, his wife spent a week in Augusta with her mother. Rumor holds that cat lovers hereabouts would be wise to keep their pets indoors.

Slicing into the chest cavity of the specimen provided by the supply house, you find yourself losing it. You are the only boy in Coach Osteen’s lab to contract nausea and an overwhelming uprush of self-disgust; the only boy, clammy-palmed and light-headed, to have to leave the room. The ostensible shame of your departure is lost on Pamela, who agrees, in Nurse Mayhew’s office, to rendezvous with you later that afternoon at the Huddle House.

“This is the heart,” you can still hear Osteen saying. “Looks like a wet rubber strawberry, don’t it?”

As a seven-year-old, you wander into the grain crib of the barn on the Powell farm. A one-eyed mongrel queen named Sky has dropped a litter on the deer hides, today stiff and rat-eaten, that Gramby Powell stowed there twenty or more years ago. Sky one-eyes you with real suspicion, all set to bolt or hiss, as you lean over a rail to study the blind quintet of her kittening.

They’re not much, mere lumps. “Turds with fur,” Gramby called them last night, to Meemaw Anita’s scandalized dismay and the keen amusement of your daddy. They hardly move.

One kitten gleams white on the stiff hide, in the nervous curl of Sky’s furry belly. You spit at Sky, as another cat would spit, but louder—ssssphh! sssphh!—so that eventually, intimidated, she gets up, kittens falling from her like bombs from the open bay of a B-52, and slinks to the far wall of the crib.

You climb over the rail and pick up the white kitten, the Maybe Albino as Meemaw Anita dubbed it. “Won’t know for sure,” she said, “till its eyes’re open.”

You turn the kitten in your hands. Which end is which? It’s sort of hard to say. Okay, here’s the starchy white potato print of its smashed-in pug of a face: eyes shut, ears a pair of napkin folds, mouth a miniature crimson gap.

You rub the helpless critter on your cheek. Cat smells. Hay smells. Hide smells. It’s hard not to sneeze.

It occurs to you that you could throw this Maybe Albino like a baseball. You could wind up like Denny McLain and fling it at the far wall of the grain crib. If you aim just right, you may be able to hit the wall so that the kitten rebounds and lands on Sky. You could sing a funny song, “Sky’s being fallen on, / Oh, Sky’s being fallen on, / Whatcha think ’bout that?” And nobody’ll ever know if poor little Maybe Albino has pink eyes or not….

This sudden impulse horrifies you, even as a kid, especially as a kid. You can see the white kitten dead. Trembling, you set the kitten back down on the cardboardy deer hide, climb back over the crib rail, and stand away from the naked litter while Sky tries to decide what to do next.

Unmanfully you start to cry. “S-sorry, k-kitty. S-s-sorry, Sk-sky. I’m r-r-really s-sorry.” You almost want Gramby or Meemaw Anita to stumble in on you, in the churchly gloom and itch of their grain crib, to see you doing this heartfelt penance for a foul deed imagined but never carried out. It’s okay to cry a bit in front of your mama’s folks.

I’m touched, Penfield says. But speak up. Stop mumbling.

For several months after your senior year, you reside in the Adolescent Wing of the Quiet Harbor Psychiatric Center in a suburb of Atlanta. You’re there to neutralize the disorienting stimuli—flak, you call it—burning out your emotional wiring, flying at you from everywhere. You’re there to relearn how to live with no despairing recourse to disguises, sex, drugs.

Bad drugs, the doctors mean.

At QHPC, they give you good drugs. This is actually the case, not sarcastic bullshit. Kim Yaughan, one of the psychotherapists in the so-called Wild Child Wing, assures you that this is so; that antipsychotics aren’t addictive. You get twenty milligrams a day of haloperidol. You take it in liquid form in paper cups shaped like doll-house-sized coffee filters.

“You’re not an addict,” Kim says. (Everyone at QHPC calls her Kim.) “Think of yourself as a diabetic, of Haldol as insulin. You don’t hold a diabetic off insulin, that’d be criminal.”

Not only do you get Haldol, you get talk therapy, recreational therapy, family therapy, crafts therapy. Some of the residents of the Wild Child Wing are druggies and sexual-abuse victims as young as twelve. They get these same therapies, along with pet therapy. The pets brought in on Wednesdays often include cats.

At last, Penfield tells an associate. That last jolt wasn’t a mis-hit, after all.

The idea is that hostile, fearful, or withdrawn kids who don’t interact well with other people will do better with animals. Usually, they do. Kittens under a year, tumbling with one another, batting at yarn balls, exploring the pet room with their tails up like the radio antennas on cars, seem to be effective four-legged therapists.

One teen-age girl, a manic-depressive who calls herself Eagle Rose, goes ga-ga over them. “Oh,” she says, holding up a squirmy smoke-colored male and nodding at two kittens wrestling in an empty carton of Extra Large Tide, “they’re so soft, so neat, so… so highly lustrous.”

Despite Kim Yaughan’s many attempts to involve you, you stand aloof from everyone. It’s Eagle Rose who focuses your attention, not the kittens, and E.R.’s an untouchable. Every patient here is an untouchable, that way. It would be a terrible betrayal to think anything else. So, mostly, you don’t.

The year before you marry, Marti is renting a house on North Highland Avenue. A whole house. It’s not a big house, but she has plenty of room. She uses one bedroom as a studio. In this room, on the floor, lies a large canvas on which she has been painting, exclusively in shades of blue, the magnified heart of a magnolia. She calls the painting—too explicitly, you think—Magnolia Heart in Blue. She’s worked on it all quarter, often appraising it from a stepladder to determine how best to continue.

Every weekend, you sleep with Marti in the bedroom next to the studio. Her mattress rests on the floor, without box springs or bedstead. You sometimes feel that you’re lying in the middle of a painting in progress, a strange but gratifying sensation that you may or may not carry into your next week of classes at GSU.

One balmy Sunday, you awake to find Marti’s body stenciled with primitive blue flowers, a blossom on her neck, more on her breasts, an indigo bouquet on the milky plane of her abdomen. You gape at her in groggy wonderment. The woman you plan to marry has become, overnight, an arabesque of disturbing floral bruises.

Then you see the cat, Romeo, a neighbor’s gray Persian, propped in the corner, belly exposed, so much like a hairy little man in a recliner that you laugh. Marti stirs. Romeo preens. Clearly, he entered through a studio window, walked all over Magnolia Heart in Blue, then came in here and violated Marti.

My wife-to-be as a strip of fin de siècle wallpaper, you muse, kissing her chastely on one of the paw-print flowers.

You sleep on the streets. You wear the same stinking clothes for days on end. You haven’t been on haloperidol for months. The city could be Lima, or Istanbul, or Bombay, as easily as Atlanta. Hell, it could be a boulder-littered crater on the moon. You drag from one place to another like a zombie, and the people you hit up for hamburgers, change, MARTA tokens, old newspapers, have no more substance to you than you do to them, they could all be holograms or ghosts. They could be androids programmed to keep you dirty and hungry by dictating your behavior with remote-control devices that look like wristwatches and key rings.

Cats mean more to you than people do. (The people may not be people.) Cats are fellow survivors, able to sniff out nitrogenous substances from blocks away. Food.

You follow a trio of scrawny felines down Ponce de Leon to the rear door of a catfish restaurant where the Dumpster overflows with greasy paper and other high refuse. The cats strut around on the mounded topography of this debris while you balance on an upturned trash barrel, mindlessly picking and choosing.

Seven rooms away from Coach Osteen’s lab, Mr. Petty is teaching advanced junior English. Poetry. He stalks around the room like an actor doing Hamlet, even when the poem’s something dumb by Ogden Nash, or something beat and surface-sacrilegious by Ferlinghetti, or something short and puzzling by Carlos Williams.

The Williams piece is about a cat that climbs over a cabinet—a “jamcloset”—and steps into a flowerpot. Actually, Mr. Petty says, it’s about the image created by Williams’s purposely simple diction. Everyone argues that it isn’t a poem at all. It’s even less a poem, lacking metaphors, than that Carl Sandberg thing about the fog coming on little, for Christ’s sake, cat’s feet.

You like it, though. You can see the cat stepping cautiously into the flowerpot. The next time you’re in Coach Osteen’s class, trying to redeem yourself at the dissection table, you recite the poem for Pamela van Rhyn, Jessie Faye Culver, Kathy Margenau, and Cynthia Spivy.

Coach Osteen, shaking his head, makes you repeat the lines so that he can say them, too. Amazing.

“Cats are digitigrade critters,” he tells the lab. “That means they walk on their toes. Digitigrade.”

Cynthia Spivy catches your eye. Well, I’ll be a pussywillow, she silently mouths. Who’d’ve thunk it?

“Unlike the dog or the horse,” Coach Osteen goes on, “the cat walks by moving the front and back legs on one side of its body and then the front and back legs on the other. The only other animals to move that way are the camel and the giraffe.”

And naked crazy folks rutting on all fours, you think, studying Cynthia’s lips and wondering if there was ever a feral child raised by snow leopards or jaguars…

Thai Thai develops a urinary tract infection. Whenever he has to pee, he looks for Mama pulling weeds or hanging out clothes in the backyard, and squats to show her that he’s not getting the job done. It takes Mama two or three days to realize what’s going on. Then you and she carry Thai to the vet.

Mama waits tables at a Denny’s near the expressway. She hasn’t really got the money for the operation that Thai needs to clear up the blockage, a common problem in male Siamese. She tells you that you can either forfeit movie money for the next few months or help her pay to make Thai well. You hug Mama, wordlessly agreeing that the only thing to do is to help your cat. The operation goes okay, but the vet telephones a day later to report that Thai took a bad turn overnight and died near morning.

Thai’s chocolate and silver body has a bandage cinched around his middle, like a wraparound saddle.

You’re the one who buries Thai because Mama can’t bring herself to. You put him in a Siamese-sized cardboard box, dig a hole under the holly in the backyard, and lay him to rest with a spank of the shovel blade and a prayer consisting of grief-stricken repetitions of the word please.

Two or three months later, you come home from school to find a pack of dogs in the backyard. They’ve dug Thai Thai up. You chase the dogs away, screeching from an irate crouch. Thai’s corpse is nothing but matted fur and protruding bones. Its most conspicuous feature is the bandage holding the maggoty skeleton together at its cinched-in waist.

This isn’t Thai, you tell yourself. I buried Thai a long, long time ago, and this isn’t him.

You carry the remains, jacketed in the editorial section of the Atlanta Constitution, to a trash can and dump them with an abrupt, indifferent thunk. Pick-up is tomorrow.

One Sunday afternoon in March, you’re standing with two hundred other homeless people at the entrance to Trinity United Methodist’s soup kitchen, near the state capitol. It’s drizzling. A thin but gritty-looking young woman in jeans and sweatshirt, her hair lying in dark strands against her forehead, is passing out hand-numbered tickets to every person who wants to get into the basement. At the head of the outside basement steps is a man in pleated slacks and a plaid shirt. He won’t let anyone down the steps until they have a number in the group of ten currently being admitted. He has to get an okay from the soup-kitchen staff downstairs before he’ll allow a new group of ten to pass.

Your number, on a green slip of paper already drizzle-dampened, is 126. The last group down held numbers 96 to 105. You think. Hard to tell with all the shoving, cursing, and bantering on the line. One angry black man up front doesn’t belong there. He waves his ticket every time a new group of ten is called, hoping, even though his number is 182, to squeeze past the man set there to keep order.

“How many carahs yo ring?” he asks. “I sick. Lemme in fo I fall ouw. Damn disere rain.”

When the dude holding number 109 doesn’t show, the stair guard lets number 182 pass, a good-riddance sort of charity.

You shuffle up with the next two groups. How many of these people are robots, human machines drawn to the soup kitchen, as you may have been, on invisible tractor beams? The stair guard isn’t wearing a watch or shaking a key ring. It’s probably his wedding band that’s the remote-control device….

“My God,” he cries when he sees you. “Is that really you? It is, isn’t it?”

The stair guy’s name is Dirk Healy. He says he went to school with you in Hapeville. Remember Pamela van Rhyn? Remember Cynthia What’s-her-name? When you go down into the basement, and get your two white-bread sandwiches and a Styrofoam cup of vegetable soup, Dirk convinces another volunteer to take over his job and sits down next to you at one of the rickety folding tables where your fellow street folk are single-mindedly eating. Dirk—who, as far as you’re concerned, could be the Man in the Moon—doesn’t ask you how you got in this fix, doesn’t accuse, doesn’t exhort.

“You’re off your medication, aren’t you?” Your hackles lift.

“Hey,” he soothes, “I visited you at Quiet Harbor. The thing to do is, to get you back on it.”

You eat, taking violent snatches of the sandwiches, quick sips of the soup. You one-eye Dirk over the steam the way that, years ago, Sky one-eyed you from her grain-crib nest.

“I may have a job for you,” Dirk says confidentially. “Ever hear of Rockdale Biological?”

One summer, for reasons you don’t understand, Mama sends you to visit your father and his ex-hairdresser floozie—whose name is Carol Grace—in the Florida town where they live off the proceeds of her mail-order business and sometimes bet the dogs at the local greyhound track.

Carol Grace may bet the greyhounds at the track, but, at home, she’s a cat person. She owns seven: a marmalade-colored tom, a piebald tom, three tricolor females, an orange Angora of ambiguous gender, and a Manx mix with a tail four or five inches long, as if someone shortened it with a cleaver.

“If Stub was pure Manx,” Carol Grace says, “he wouldn’t have no tail. Musta been an alley tom in his mama’s Kitty Litter.”

Stroking Stub, she chortles happily. She and your mother look a little alike. They have a similar feistiness, too, although it seems coarser in Carol Grace, whom your balding father—she calls him Webby, for Pete’s sake—unabashedly dotes on.

A few days into your visit, Carol Grace and you find one of her females, Hedy Lamarr, lying crumpled under a pecan tree shading the two-story house’s south side. The cat is dead. You kneel to touch her. Carol Grace kneels beside you.

“Musta fell,” she says. “Lotsa people think cats are too jack-be-nimble to fall, but they can slip up, too. Guess my Hedy didn’t remember that, pretty thing. Now look.”

You are grateful that, today, Carol Grace does the burying and the prayer-saying. Her prayer includes the melancholy observation that anyone can fall. Anyone.

Enough of this crap, Penfield says. Tell me what you did, and for whom, and why, at Rockdale Biological.

Givin whah I can, you mumble, working to turn your head into the uncompromising rigidity of the clamps.

Adolf, Penfield says, what you’re giving me is cat juggling.

Alone in the crafts room with Kim Yaughan while the other kids in Blue Group (QHPC’s Wild Child Wing has two sections, Blue and Gold) go on a field trip, you daub acrylics at a crude portrayal of a cat walking upside down on a ceiling. Under the cat, a woman and a teen-age boy point and make hateful faces.

“Are they angry at the cat or at each other?” Kim asks.

You give her a look: What a stupid question.

Kim comes over, stands at your shoulder. If she were honest, she’d tell you that you’re no artist at all. The painting may be psychologically revealing, but it refutes the notion that you have any talent as a draftsman or a colorist.

“Ever hear of British artist Louis Wain?” Kim says. “He lived with three unmarried sisters and a pack of cats. His schizophrenia didn’t show up until he was almost sixty. That’s late.”

“Lucky,” you say. “He didn’t have so long to be crazy.”

“Listen, now. Wain painted only cats. He must’ve really liked them. At first, he did smarmy, realistic kitties for calandars and postcards. Popular crap. Later, thinking jealous competitors were zapping him with X-rays or something, the cats in his paintings got weird, really hostile and menacing.”

“Weirder than mine?” You jab your brush at it.

“Ah, that’s a mere puddy-tat.” Then: “In the fifteen years he was institutionalized, Wain painted scads of big-eyed, spiky-haired cats. He put bright neon auras and electrical fields around them. His backgrounds got geometrically rad. Today, you might think they were computer-generated. Anyhow, Wain’s crazy stuff was better—fiercer, stronger—than the crap he’d done sane.”

“Meaning I’m a total loss unless I get crazier?” you say.

“No. What I’m trying to tell you is that the triangles, stars, rainbows, and repeating arabesques that Wain put into his paintings grew from a desperate effort to… well, to impose order on the chaos inside him. It’s touching, really touching. Wain was trying to confront and reverse, the only way he could, the disintegration of his adult personality. See?”

But you don’t. Not exactly.

Kim taps your acrylic cat with a burgundy fingernail. “You’re not going to be the new Picasso, but you aren’t doomed to suffer as terrifying a schizophrenia as Wain suffered, either. The bizarre thing in your painting is the cat on the ceiling. The colors, and the composition itself, are reassuringly conventional. A good sign for your mental health. Another thing is, Wain’s doctors couldn’t give him antipsychotic drugs. You, though, have access.”

“Cheers.” You pantomime knocking back a little cup of Haldol.

Kim smiles. “So why’d you paint the cat upside-down?”

“Because I’m upside-down,” you say.

Kim gives you a peck on the cheek. “You’re not responsible for a gone-awry brain chemistry or an unbalanced metabolism, hon. Go easy on yourself, okay?” Dropping your brush, you pull Kim to you and try to nuzzle her under the jaw. Effortlessly, she bends back your hand and pushes you away. “But that,” she says, “you’re going to have to control. Friends, not lovers. Sorry if I gave you the wrong idea. Really. Really.”

“If the pieces toward the end don’t fit,” Howie tells you, “you can always use a razor blade.” He holds one up.

You try to take it. Double-edged, it slices your thumb. Some of your blood spatters on the cat puzzle.

A guy in a truck drives up to the specimen-prep platform and loading dock behind Rockdale Biological Medical Supply. It’s an unmarked panel truck with no windows behind the cab. The guys who drive the truck change, it seems, almost every week, but you’re a two-month fixture on the concrete platform with the slide cages and the euthanasia cabinet. Back here, you’re Dirk Healy’s main man, especially now that he’s off on a business trip somewhere.

Your job is both mindless and strength-sapping. The brick wall around the rear of the RBMS complex, and the maple trees shielding the loading dock, help you keep your head together. Healy has you on a lower dosage of haloperidol than you took while you and Marti were still married. Says you were overmedicated before. Says you were, ha ha, “an apathetic drug slave.” He should know. He’s been a hotshot in national medical supply for years.

“We’ll have you up in the front office in no time,” he assured you a couple weeks ago. “The platform job’s a kind of trial.”

The guy in the truck backs up and starts unloading. Dozens of cats in slide cages. You wear elbow-length leather gloves, and a heavy apron, and feel a bit like an old-timey Western blacksmith. The cats are pieces of scrap iron to be worked in the forge. You slide the door end of each cage into the connector between the open platform and the euthanasia cabinet, then poke the cats in the butt or the flank with a long metal rod until they duck into the cabinet to escape your prodding. When the cabinet’s full, you drop the safety door, check the gauges, turn on the gas. It hisses louder than the cats climbing over one another, louder than their yowling and tumbling, which noises gradually subside and finally stop.

By hand, you unload the dead cats from the chamber, slinging them out by their tails or their legs. You cease feeling like a blacksmith. You imagine yourself as a nineteenth-century trapper, stacking fox, beaver, rabbit, wolf, and muskrat pelts on a travois for a trip to the trading post. The pelts are pretty, though many are blemished by vivid skin diseases and a thick black dandruff of gassed fleas. How much could they be worth?

“Nine fifty a cat,” Dirk Healy has said. That seems unlikely. They’re no longer moving. They’re no longer—if they ever were—highly lustrous. They’re floppy, anonymous, and dead, their fur contaminated by a lethal gas.

A heavy-duty wheelbarrow rests beside the pile of cats on the platform. You unwind a hose and fill the barrow with water. Dirk has ordered you to submerge the gassed cats to make certain they’re dead. Smart. Some of the cats are plucky boogers. They’ll mew at you or swim feebly in the cat pile even before you pick them up and sling them into the wheelbarrow. The water in the wheelbarrow ends it. Indisputably. It also washes away fleas and the worst aspects of feline scabies. You pull a folding chair over and sort through the cats for the ones with flea collars, ID collars, rabies tags. You take these things off. You do it with your gloves on, a sodden cat corpse hammocked in your apron. It’s not easy, given your wet glove fingers.

If it’s sunny, you take the dead cats to the bright part of the platform and lay them out in neat rows to dry.

Can’t you get him to stop mumbling? Penfield asks someone in the room. His testimony’s almost unintelligible.

He’s replaying the experience inwardly, an indistinct figure says. But he’s starting to go autistic on us.

Look, Penfield says. We’ve got to get him to verbalize clearly—or we’ve wasted our time.

Two months after the divorce, you drive to Spartanburg, to the Braggs’ house, to see Jacob. Mr. Bragg—Howie—intercepts you at the front gate, as if appraised of your arrival by surveillance equipment.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “but Marti doesn’t want to see you, and she doesn’t want you to see Jake. If you don’t leave, I’ll have to call the police to, ah, you know, remove you.”

You don’t contest this. You walk across the road to your car. From there, you can see that atop the brick post on either side of Mr. Bragg’s ornate gate reposes a roaring granite lion. You can’t remember seeing these lions before, but the crazed and reticulated state of the granite suggests they’ve been there a while.

It’s a puzzle….

As you lay out the dead cats, you assign them names. The names you assign are always Mehitabel, Felix, Sylvester, Tom, Heathcliff, Garfield, and Bill. These seven names must serve for all the cats on the platform. Consequently, you add Roman numerals to the names when you run out of names before you do cats:

Mehitabel II, Felix II, Sylvester Tom II, and so on. It’s a neat, workable system. Once, you cycled all the way to Sylvester VII before running out of specimens.

As a fifth grader in Notasulga, you sit and watch a film about the American space program.

An old film clip shows a cat—really more a kitten than a cat—suspended from a low ceiling by its feet. It’s a metal ceiling, and the scientist who devised the experiment (which has something to do with studying the kitten’s reactions to upside-downness, then applying these findings to astronauts aboard a space station) has fastened magnets to the cat’s feet so that they will adhere to the metal surface.

The scientist has also rigged up a pair of mice in the same odd way, to see if they will distract, entice, or frighten the hanging kitten. They don’t. The kitten is terrified not of the mice (who seem to be torpid and unimaginative representatives of their kind), but of the alien condition in which it finds itself. Insofar as it is able, the kitten lurches against the magnets, its ears back, its mouth wide open in a silent cry. On the sound track, a male voice explains the import and usefulness of this experiment.

No one can hear him, though, because most of the other kids in Miss Beischer’s class are laughing uproariously at the kitten. You look around in a kind of sick stupefaction.

Milly Heckler, Agnes Lee Terrance, and a few other girls appear to be as appalled as you, but the scene doesn’t last long—it’s probably shorter than your slow-motion memory of it—and it seems for a moment that you are that kitten, that everything in the world has been wrenchingly upended.

I know it seemed to you that evil people were trying to invade and control your thoughts,” Dr. Hall, the director of Quiet Harbor, tells you. He pets a neutered male just back from a visit to the Gerontological Wing. “But that was just a symptom of the scrambled condition of your brain chemistry. The truth is…

Fatigued, you slouch out the rear gate of Rockdale Biological. Your apartment—the three-roomer that Healy provided—is only a short distance away. A late-model Lincoln Town Car pulls alongside you as you walk the weed-grown sidewalk. The tinted window on the front-seat passenger’s side powers down, and you catch your first glimpse of the raw-complexioned man who introduces himself as David Penfield. An alias? Why do you think so?

“If you like,” he says, “think of me as the Zoo Cop.”

It’s a permission you don’t really want. Why would you choose to think of a well-dressed, ordinary-featured man with visible acne scarring as something as déclassé as, Jesus, the Zoo Cop. Is he a detective of some sort? What does he want?

The next thing you know you’re in the car with Penfield and two other tight-lipped men.

The next thing you know you’re on the expressway and one of the Zoo Cop’s associates—goons?—has locked the suction-cup feet of one of those corny Garfield toys on his tinted window as a kind of—what?—mockery? rebuke? warning?

The next thing you know you’re in a basement that clearly isn’t the soup kitchen of Trinity United Methodist. The next thing you know you’re flat on your back on a table. The next thing you know you don’t know anything….

Marti’s body is stenciled with primitive blue flowers, a blossom on her neck, more on her breasts, an indigo bouquet on the milky plane of her abdomen. You gaze at her in groggy wonderment. The woman you one day marry has become, overnight, an arabesque of disturbing floral bruises.

“Marti,” you whisper. “Marti, don’t leave me. Marti, don’t take my son away.”

Penfield, a.k.a. the Zoo Cop (you realize during your descent into the puzzle box), isn’t a real cop. He hates you because what you’ve been doing for Healy is vile, contemptible, evil. So it is, so it is. He wants to get Healy, who hasn’t been around this last week at all, who’s maybe skipped off to Barbados or the Yucatan or Saint-Tropez.

Penfield is an animal-rights eco-terrorist, well-financed and determined, and the ESB zappings to which he and his associates are subjecting you are designed to incriminate, pinpoint, and doom old Dirk and his associates, who obviously deserve it. You, too. You deserve it, too. No argument there. None.

Christ, Penfield says, unhook the son of a bitch and carry him upstairs. Dump him somewhere remote, somewhere rural.

You visit the pound for a replacement for Springer and Ossie, gassed three or four years ago. The attendant tells you there are plenty of potential adoptees at the shelter. You go down the rows of cages to select one. The kittens in the fouled sawdust tumble, paw, and miaow, putting on a dispirited show.

“This one,” you finally say.

“Cute.” The attendant approves. Well, they’d fire her if she didn’t. The idea is to adopt these creatures out, not to let them lapse into expendability.

“It’s for Jake, my son,” you tell her. “His asthma isn’t that bad. I think he may be growing out of it.”

“Look at my puzzle,” Howie says, yanking the razor blade away from you. “You’ve bled all over it….”

—For Jeanne Schinto

GORDON, THE SELF-MADE CAT

Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle was born in Manhattan in 1939 and raised in the Bronx. He originally proclaimed he would be a writer when ten years old, and is now acknowledged as an American fantasy icon. In addition to being an acclaimed novelist and writer of short stories and nonfiction, Peter also has written numerous plays, teleplays, and screenplays, and is a gifted poet, librettist, lyricist, and singer/songwriter. For more information about The Last Unicorn, A Fine and Private Place, Summerlong, I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons, I See By My Outfit, “Two Hearts,” and the rest of his work, visit www.peterbeagle.com.

“Gordon, the Self-Made Cat” started life in the late 1960s when Beagle was asked by a relatively small (and now defunct) animation company to submit ideas for possible feature-length development. Nothing came of it and the story languished until late 2001, when a friend discovered the manuscript while hunting through a rusty filing cabinet in the author’s garage. After several revisions, “Gordon” was published in Beagle’s email newsletter The Raven as a freebie and then reprinted in his collection The Line Between. He is now expanding the story into a standalone children’s book.

Beagle had a Persian cat named Princess Grace (the original of Miss Sophia Brown in his novel Tamsin), who hung out entirely with the dogs—she never once looked at another cat—and was a fully-accepted member of the pack. “Gordon” is an outgrowth of his speculation on what a mouse equivalent of Princess Grace (“the Hussy,” as his kids called her) might be like.

Once upon a time to a family of house mice there was born a son named Gordon. He looked very much like his father and mother and all his brothers and sisters, who were gray and had bright, twitchy, black eyes, but what went on inside Gordon was very different from what went on inside the rest of his family. He was forever asking why everything had to be the way it was, and never satisfied with the answer. Why did mice eat cheese? Why did they live in the dark and only go out when it was dark? Where did mice come from, anyway? What were people? Why did people smell so funny? Suppose mice were big and people were tiny? Suppose mice could fly? Most mice don’t ask many questions, but Gordon never stopped.

One evening, when Gordon was only a few weeks old, his next-to-eldest sister was sent out to see if anything interesting had been left open in the pantry. She never returned. Gordon’s father shrugged sadly and spread his front paws, and said, “The cat.”

“What’s a cat?” Gordon asked.

His mother and father looked at one another and sighed. “They have to know sometime,” his father said. “Better he learns it at home than on the streets.”

His mother sniffled a little and said, “But he’s so young,” and his father answered, “Cats don’t care.” So they told Gordon about cats right then, expecting him to start crying and saying that there weren’t any such things. It’s a hard idea to get used to. But Gordon only asked, “Why do cats eat mice?”

“I guess we taste very good,” his father said.

Gordon said, “But cats don’t have to eat mice. They get plenty of other food that probably tastes as good. Why should anybody eat anybody if he doesn’t have to?”

“Gordon,” said his father. “Listen to me. There are two kinds of creatures in the world. There are animals that hunt, and animals that are hunted. We mice just happen to be the kind of animal that gets hunted, and it doesn’t really matter if the cat is hungry or not. It’s the way life is. It’s really a great honor to be the hunted, if you just look at it the right way.”

“Phooey on that,” said Gordon. “Where do I go to learn to be a cat?”

They thought he was joking, but as soon as Gordon was old enough to go places by himself, he packed a clean shirt and some peanut butter, and started off for cat school. “I love you very much,” he said to his parents before he left, “but this business of being hunted for the rest of my life just because I happened to be born a mouse is not for me.” And off he went, all by himself.

All cats go to school, you know, whether you ever see them going or not. Dogs don’t, but cats always have and always will. There are a great many cat schools, so Gordon found one easily enough, and he walked bravely up the front steps and knocked at the door. He said that he wanted to speak to the Principal.

He almost expected to be eaten right there, but the cats—students and teachers alike—were so astonished that they let him pass through, and one of the teachers took him to the Principal’s office. Gordon could feel the cats looking at him, and hear the sounds their noses made as they smelled how good he was, but he held on tight to the suitcase with his shirt and the peanut butter, and he never looked back.

The Principal was a fat old tiger cat who chewed on his tail all the time he was talking to Gordon. “You must be out of your mind,” he said when Gordon told him he wanted to be a cat. “I’d smack you up this minute, but it’s bad luck to eat crazies. Get out of here! The day mice go to cat school…”

“Why not?” said Gordon. “Is it in writing? Where does it say that I can’t go to school here if I want?”

Well, of course there’s nothing in the rules of cat schools that says mice can’t enroll. Nobody ever thought of putting it in.

The Principal folded his paws and said, “Gordon, look at it this way—”

“You look at it my way,” said Gordon. “I want to be a cat, and I bet I’d make a better one than the dopey-looking animals I’ve seen in this school. Most of them look as if they wouldn’t even make good mice! So let’s make a deal. You let me come to school here and study for one term, and if at the end of that time I’m not doing better than any cat in the school—if even one cat has better grades than I have—then you can eat me and that’ll be the end of it. Is that fair?”

No cat can resist a challenge like that. But before agreeing, the Principal insisted on one small change: at the end of the term, if Gordon didn’t have the very best marks in the school, then the privilege of eating him would go to the cat that did.

“Ought to encourage some of those louts to work harder,” the Principal said to himself, as Gordon left his office. “He’s crazy, but he’s right—most of them wouldn’t even make good mice. I almost hope he does it.”

So Gordon went to cat school. Every day he sat at his special little desk, surrounded by a hundred kittens and half-grown cats who would have liked nothing better than to leap on him and play games with him for a while before they gobbled him. He learned how to wash himself, and what to do to keep his claws sharp, and how to watch everything in the room while pretending to be asleep. There was a class on Dealing With Dogs, and another on Getting Down From Trees, which is much harder than climbing up, and also a particularly scholarly seminar on the various meanings of “Bad Kitty!” Gordon’s personal favorite was the Visions class, which had to do with the enchanting things all cats can see that no one else ever does—the great, gliding ancestors, and faraway castles, and mysterious forests full of monsters to chase. The Professor of Visions told his colleagues that he had never had such a brilliant student. “It would be a crime to eat such a mouse!” he proclaimed everywhere. “An absolute, shameful, yummy crime.”

The class in Mouse-Hunting was a bit awkward at first, because usually the teacher asks one of the students to be the mouse, and in Gordon’s case the Principal felt that would be too risky. But Gordon insisted on being chased like everyone else, and not only was he never caught (well, almost never; there was one blue Persian who could turn on a dime), but when he took his own turn at chasing, he proved to be a natural expert. In fact his instant mastery of the Flying Pounce caused his teacher and the entire class to sit up and applaud. Gordon took three bows and an encore.

There was also a class where the cats learned the necessities of getting along with people: how to lie in laps, how to keep from scratching furniture even when you feel you have to, what to do when children pick you up, and how to ask for food or affection in such a sweet manner that people call other people to look at you. These classes always made Gordon a little sad. He didn’t suppose that he would ever be a real “people” cat, for who would want to hold a mouse on his lap, or scratch it behind the ears while it purred? Still, he paid strict attention in People Class, as he did in all the others, for all the cats knew that whoever did best in school that term would be the one who ate him, and they worked harder than they ever had in their lives. The Principal said that they were becoming the best students in the school’s history, and he talked openly about making this a regular thing, one mouse to a term.

When all the marks were in, and all the grades added up, two students led the rankings: Gordon and the blue Persian. Their scores weren’t even a whisker’s thickness apart. In the really important classes, like Running And Pouncing, Climbing, Stalking, and Waiting For The Prey To Forget You’re Still There; and in matters of feline manners such as Washing, Tail Etiquette, The Elegant Yawn, Sleeping In Undignified Positions, and Making Sure You Get Enough Food Without Looking Greedy (101 and 102)—in all of these Gordon and the blue Persian were first, and the rest nowhere. Besides that, both could meow in five different dialects: Persian, Abyssinian, Siamese, Burmese (which almost no cat who isn’t Burmese ever learns), and basic tiger.

But there can only be one Top Cat to a term; no ties allowed. In order to decide the matter once and for all between them, the Principal announced that Gordon and the blue Persian would have to face one another in a competitive mouse roundup.

The Persian and Gordon got along quite well, all things considered, so they shook paws—carefully—and the Persian purred, “No hard feelings.”

“None at all,” Gordon answered. “If anyone here got to eat me, I’d much rather it was you.”

“Very sporting of you,” the Persian said. “I hope so too.”

“But it won’t happen,” Gordon said.

The blue Persian never had a chance. Once he and Gordon were set on their marks in a populous mouse neighborhood, Gordon ambushed and outsmarted and cornered all but a handful of the very quickest mice, and did it in a style so smooth, so effortlessly elegant—so catlike—that the Persian finally threw up his paws and surrendered. In front of the entire faculty and student body of the cat school, he announced, “I yield to Gordon. He’s a better cat than I am, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. If all mice were like him, we cats would be vegetarians.” (Persians are very dramatic.)

The cheering was so wild and thunderous that no one objected in the least when Gordon freed all the mice he had captured. Cats can appreciate a grand gesture, and everyone had already had lunch.

Gordon had won his bet, and, like the blue Persian, the Principal was cat enough to accept it graciously. He scheduled a celebration, which the whole school attended, and at the end of the party he announced that Gordon was now to be considered as much a cat as any student in the school, if not more so. He gave Gordon a little card to show that he was a cat in good standing, and all the students cheered, and Gordon made another speech that began, “Fellow cats….” As he spoke, he wished very much that his parents could be there to see what he had accomplished, and just how different things could be if you just asked questions and weren’t afraid of new ideas.

Being acknowledged the best cat in the school didn’t make Gordon let up in his studies. Instead, he worked even harder, and did so well that he graduated with the special degree of felis maximus, which is Latin for some cat! He stayed on at the school to teach a seminar in Evasive Maneuvers, which proved very popular, and a course in the Standing Jump (for a bird that comes flying over when you weren’t looking).

The story of his new life spread everywhere among all mice, and grew very quickly into a myth more terrifying than any cat could have been. They whispered of “Gordon the Terrible,” “Gordon, the Self-Made Cat,” and, simply, “The Unspeakable,” and told midnight tales of a gigantic mouse who lashed his tail and sprang at them with his razor claws out and his savage yellow eyes blazing; a mouse without pity who hunted them out in their deepest hiding places, walking without a sound. They believed unquestioningly that he ate mice like gingersnaps, and laughingly handed over to his cat friends those he was too full to devour. There was even a dreadful legend that Gordon had eaten his own family, and that he frequently took kittens from the school on field trips in order to teach them personally the secret mouse ways that no mere cat could ever have known.

These stories made Gordon deeply unhappy when he heard them, because he believed with absolute conviction that what he had achieved was for the good of all mice everywhere. Whether he trapped a lone mouse or cornered a dozen trembling in an attic or behind a refrigerator, he would say the same thing to them: “Look at me. Look at me! I am a mouse like you—nothing more, nothing less—and yet I walk with cats every day, and I am not eaten! I am respected, I am admired, I am even powerful among cats—and every one of you could be like me! Do not believe that we mice are born only to be hunted, humiliated, tormented, and finally gobbled up. It is not true! Instead of huddling in the shadows, in constant lifelong terror, pitiful little balls of fur, we too can be sleek, fierce hunters, fearing nothing and no one. Run now and spread the word! You must spread the word!”

Saying that, he would step back and let the mice scatter, hoping each time that they would finally understand what he was trying to show them. But it simply never happened. The mice always scurried away, convinced that they had escaped only by great good fortune, and myths and legends of the terrible Self-Made Cat were all that spread among them, growing ever more horrifying, ever more chilling. It didn’t matter that not one mouse had ever actually seen Gordon doing any of the frightful things he was supposed to have done. That’s the way it is with legends.

Now it happened that Gordon was walking down the street one day, on his way to a faculty meeting, padding along like a leopard, twitching his tail like a lion, and making the eager little noises in his throat that a tiger makes when he smells food. Quite suddenly an enormous shadow fell across his path, so big that he looked up to see if he were going through a tunnel. What he saw was a dog. What he actually saw was a leg, for this dog was huge, too big for even a full-grown cat to have understood his real size without looking twice. The dog rumbled, “Oh, goody! I love mice. Lots of phosphorus in mice. Yummy.”

Gordon crouched, tail lashing, and lifted the fur along his spine. “Watch it, dog,” he said warningly. “Don’t mess with me, I’m telling you.”

“Oh, how cute,” the dog said. “He’s playing he’s a cat. I’m a cat too. Meow.”

“I am a cat!” Gordon arched his back until it ached, hissing and spitting and growling in his throat, all more or less at the same time. “I am! You want to see my card? Look, right here.”

“A crazy,” the dog said wonderingly. “They say it’s bad luck to eat a crazy. Good thing I’m not superstitious.”

Having given the proper First Warning, exactly as he’d been taught, Gordon moved quickly to the Second—the lightning-swift slash of the right paw across the nose. Gordon had to leap straight up to reach the dog’s big wet nose, but even with that handicap, he executed the Second Warning in superb style.

Instead of yelping and retreating in a properly humbled state, however, the dog only sneezed.

This, Gordon thought, is the difference between theory and practice.

But there was a reason that Gordon’s seminar in Evasive Maneuvers was always so well attended. With astonishing daring, he went directly from the Second Warning right into the Fourth Avoidance, which involves a double feint—head looking this way, tail jerking that way—followed by a quick, threatening charge directly at the attacker, and then a leap to the side, which, done correctly, leaves one perfectly poised either for escape or the Flying Pounce, depending on the situation.

But the big dog had no idea that a classic Evasive Maneuver had just been performed upon him, leaving him looking like an idiot. He was used to looking like an idiot. He gave a delighted bounce, wuffed, “Tag—you’re it!” and went straight for Gordon, who responded by going up a tree with the polished grace that always left his students too breathless to cheer. He found a comfortable branch and rested there, thinking ruefully that a real cat wouldn’t have been so proud of being a cat as to waste time arguing about it.

The dog sat down too, grinning. “Be a bird now,” he called to Gordon. “Let’s see you be a bird and fly away.”

Normally, Gordon could easily have stayed up in the tree longer than the dog felt like waiting below, but he was tired and rather thirsty, not to mention annoyed at the thought of being late for the faculty meeting. Something had to be done. But what?

He was bravely considering an original plan of leaping straight down at the dog, when three young mice happened along. They had been out shopping for their mother.

They were really very young, and as they had never seen Gordon the Terrible—though they had heard about him since they were blind babies—they didn’t know who it was in the tree. All they saw was a fellow mouse in danger, and, being at the age when they didn’t know any better than to do things like that, they carefully put down their packages and began luring the dog away from the tree. First one mouse would rush in at him and make the dog chase him a little way, and then another would come scampering from somewhere else, so that the dog would leave off chasing the first mouse and go after him.

The dog, who was actually quite good-natured, and not very hungry, had a fine time running after them all. He followed them farther and farther away from the tree, and had probably forgotten all about Gordon by the time the Unspeakable was able to spring down from the tree and vanish into the bushes.

Gordon would have waited to thank the three mice, but they had disappeared, along with the dog. Anxious not to miss his meeting, he dashed back to the school, slowing down before he got there to catch his breath and smooth his whiskers. “It could happen to anyone,” he told himself. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Yet there was something fundamentally troubling to Gordon about having run away. Feeling uncertain for the first time since he had marched up the front steps, he washed himself all over and stalked on into the school, outwardly calm and proud, the best cat anyone there would ever see, Gordon the Terrible, the Unspeakable—yes, the Self-Made Cat.

But another cat—the Assistant Professor of Tailchasing, in fact—had seen the whole incident, and had already interrupted the faculty meeting with the shocking tale.

The Principal tried to brush the news aside. “When it’s time to climb a tree, you climb a tree,” he said. “Any cat knows that.” (He had become quite fond of Gordon, in his way.)

It wasn’t enough. The Assistant Professor of Tailchasing (a chocolate-point Siamese who dreamed of one day heading the school himself) led the opposition. As the Assistant Professor saw it, Gordon was plainly a fraud, a pretender, a cat in card only, so friendly with his fellow mice that they had rushed to help him when he was in danger. In light of that, who could say what Gordon’s real plans might be? Why had he come to the school in the first place? What if more like him followed? What if the mice were plotting to attack the cat school, all cat schools?

This thought rattled everyone at the table. With a mouse like Gordon in their midst, a mouse who knew far more about being a cat than the cats themselves, was any feline safe?

Just that quickly, fear replaced reason. Within minutes everyone but the Principal forgot how much they had liked and admired Gordon. Admitting him to the school had been a catastrophic mistake, one that must be set right without a moment’s delay!

The Principal groaned and covered his eyes and sent for Gordon. He was almost crying as he took Gordon’s cat card away.

Gordon protested like mad, of course. He spoke of Will and Choice, and Freedom, and the transforming power of Questioning Assumptions. But the Principal said sadly, “We just can’t trust you, Gordon. Go away now, before I eat you myself. I always wondered what you’d taste like.” Then he put his head down on his desk and really did begin to cry.

So Gordon packed his clean shirt and his leftover peanut butter and left the cat school. All the cats formed a double line to let him pass, their faces turned away, and nobody said a word. The Assistant Professor of Tailchasing was poised to pounce at the very last, but the Principal stepped on his tail.

Nobody ever heard of Gordon again. There were stories that he’d gone right on being a cat, even without his card; and there were other tales that said he had been driven out of the country by the mice themselves. But only the Principal knew for sure, because only the Principal had heard the words that Gordon was muttering to himself as he walked away from the cat school with his head held high.

“Woof,” Gordon was murmuring thoughtfully. “Woof. Bow-wow. Shouldn’t be too hard.”

THE JAGUAR HUNTER

Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard was born in Lynchburg Virginia, grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida, and lives in Portland, Oregon. His short fiction has won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the National Magazine Award, the Locus Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and the World Fantasy Award. His most recent books are a short fiction collection, Viator Plus and a short novel, The Taborin Scale. Forthcoming are another short fiction collection, Five Autobiographies, and two novels, tentatively titled The Piercefields and The End Of Life As We Know It, and a short novel, The House of Everything and Nothing.

“The Jaguar Hunter” is based on a story told to Shepard in a bar in Telas, Honduras by an old and very drunk man.

It was his wife’s debt to Onofrio Esteves, the appliance dealer, that brought Esteban Caax to town for the first time in almost a year. By nature he was a man who enjoyed the sweetness of the countryside above all else; the placid measures of a farmer’s day invigorated him, and he took great pleasure in nights spent joking and telling stories around a fire, or lying beside his wife, Incarnación. Puerto Morada, with its fruit-company imperatives and sullen dogs and cantinas that blared American music, was a place he avoided like the plague; indeed, from his home atop the mountain whose slopes formed the northernmost enclosure of Bahía Onda, the rusted tin roofs ringing the bay resembled a dried crust of blood such as might appear upon the lips of a dying man.

On this particular morning, however, he had no choice but to visit the town. Incarnación had—without his knowledge—purchased a battery-operated television set on credit from Onofrio, and he was threatening to seize Esteban’s three milk cows in lieu of the eight hundred lempiras that was owed; he refused to accept the return of the television, but had sent word that he was willing to discuss an alternate method of payment. Should Esteban lose the cows, his income would drop below a subsistence level and he would be forced to take up his old occupation, an occupation far more onerous than farming.

As he walked down the mountain, past huts of thatch and brushwood poles identical to his own, following a trail that wound through sun-browned thickets lorded over by banana trees, he was not thinking of Onofrio but of Incarnación. It was in her nature to be frivolous, and he had known this when he had married her; yet the television was emblematic of the differences that had developed between them since their children had reached maturity. She had begun to put on sophisticated airs, to laugh at Esteban’s country ways, and she had become the doyenne of a group of older women, mostly widows, all of whom aspired to sophistication. Each night they would huddle around the television and strive to outdo one another in making sagacious comments about the American detective shows they watched; and each night Esteban would sit outside the hut and gloomily ponder the state of his marriage. He believed Incarnación’s association with the widows was her manner of telling him that she looked forward to adopting the black skirt and shawl, that—having served his purpose as a father—he was now an impediment to her. Though she was only forty-one, younger by three years than Esteban, she was withdrawing from the life of the senses; they rarely made love anymore, and he was certain that this partially embodied her resentment to the fact that the years had been kind to him. He had the look of one of the Old Patuca—tall, with chiseled features and wide-set eyes; his coppery skin was relatively unlined and his hair jet black. Incarnación’s hair was streaked with gray, and the clean beauty of her limbs had dissolved beneath layers of fat. He had not expected her to remain beautiful, and he had tried to assure her that he loved the woman she was and not merely the girl she had been. But that woman was dying, infected by the same disease that had infected Puerto Morada, and perhaps his love for her was dying, too.

The dusty street on which the appliance store was situated ran in back of the movie theater and the Hotel Circo del Mar, and from the inland side of the street Esteban could see the bell towers of Santa María del Onda rising above the hotel roof like the horns of a great stone snail. As a young man, obeying his mother’s wish that he become a priest, he had spent three years cloistered beneath those towers, preparing for the seminary under the tutelage of old Father Gonsalvo. It was the part of his life he most regretted, because the academic disciplines he had mastered seemed to have stranded him between the world of the Indian and that of contemporary society; in his heart he held to his father’s teachings—the principles of magic, the history of the tribe, the lore of nature—and yet he could never escape the feeling that such wisdom was either superstitious or simply unimportant. The shadows of the towers lay upon his soul as surely as they did upon the cobbled square in front of the church, and the sight of them caused him to pick up his pace and lower his eyes.

Farther along the street was the Cantina Atómica, a gathering place for the well-to-do youth of the town, and across from it was the appliance store, a one-story building of yellow stucco with corrugated metal doors that were lowered at night. Its façade was decorated by a mural that supposedly represented the merchandise within: sparkling refrigerators and televisions and washing machines, all given the impression of enormity by the tiny men and women painted below them, their hands upflung in awe. The actual merchandise was much less imposing, consisting mainly of radios and used kitchen equipment. Few people in Puerto Morada could afford more, and those who could generally bought elsewhere. The majority of Onofrio’s clientele were poor, hard-pressed to meet his schedule of payments, and to a large degree his wealth derived from selling repossessed appliances over and over.

Raimundo Esteves, a pale young man with puffy cheeks and heavily lidded eyes and a petulant mouth, was leaning against the counter when Esteban entered; Raimundo smirked and let out a piercing whistle, and a few seconds later his father emerged from the back room: a huge slug of a man, even paler than Raimundo. Filaments of gray hair were slicked down across his mottled scalp, and his belly stretched the front of a starched guayabera. He beamed and extended a hand.

“How good to see you,” he said. “Raimundo! Bring us coffee and two chairs.”

Much as he disliked Onofrio, Esteban was in no position to be uncivil: He accepted the handshake. Raimundo spilled coffee in the saucers and clattered the chairs and glowered, angry at being forced to serve an Indian.

“Why will you not let me return the television?” asked Esteban after taking a seat; and then, unable to bite back the words, he added, “Is it no longer your policy to swindle my people?”

Onofrio sighed, as if it were exhausting to explain things to a fool such as Esteban. “I do not swindle your people. I go beyond the letter of the contracts in allowing them to make returns rather than pursuing matters through the courts. In your case, however, I have devised a way whereby you can keep the television without any further payments and yet settle the account. Is this a swindle?”

It was pointless to argue with a man whose logic was as facile and self-serving as Onofrio’s. “Tell me what you want,” said Esteban.

Onofrio wetted his lips, which were the color of raw sausage. “I want you to kill the jaguar of Barrio Carolina.”

“I no longer hunt,” said Esteban.

“The Indian is afraid,” said Raimundo, moving up behind Onofrio’s shoulder. “I told you.”

Onofrio waved him away and said to Esteban, “That is unreasonable. If I take the cows, you will once again be hunting jaguars. But if you do this, you will have to hunt only one jaguar.”

“One that has killed eight hunters.” Esteban set down his coffee cup and stood. “It is no ordinary jaguar.”

Raimundo laughed disparagingly, and Esteban skewered him with a stare.

“Ah!” said Onofrio, smiling a flatterer’s smile. “But none of the eight used your method.”

“Your pardon, don Onofrio,” said Esteban with mock formality. “I have other business to attend.”

“I will pay you five hundred lempiras in addition to erasing the debt,” said Onofrio.

“Why?” asked Esteban. “Forgive me, but I cannot believe it is due to a concern for the public welfare.”

Onofrio’s fat throat pulsed, his face darkened.

“Never mind,” said Esteban. “It is not enough.”

“Very well. A thousand.” Onofrio’s casual manner could not conceal the anxiety in his voice.

Intrigued, curious to learn the extent of Onofrio’s anxiety, Esteban plucked a figure from the air. “Ten thousand,” he said. “And in advance.”

“Ridiculous! I could hire ten hunters for this much! Twenty!”

Esteban shrugged. “But none with my method.”

For a moment Onofrio sat with hands enlaced, twisting them, as if struggling with some pious conception. “All right,” he said, the words squeezed out of him. “Ten thousand!”

The reason for Onofrio’s interest in Barrio Carolina suddenly dawned on Esteban, and he understood that the profits involved would make his fee seem pitifully small. But he was possessed by the thought of what ten thousand lempiras could mean: a herd of cows, a small truck to haul produce, or—and as he thought it, he realized this was the happiest possibility—the little stucco house in Barrio Clarín that Incarnación had set her heart on. Perhaps owning it would soften her toward him. He noticed Raimundo staring at him, his expression a knowing smirk; and even Onofrio, though still outraged by the fee, was beginning to show signs of satisfaction, adjusting the fit of his guayabera, slicking down his already-slicked-down hair. Esteban felt debased by their capacity to buy him, and to preserve a last shred of dignity, he turned and walked to the door.

“I will consider it,” he tossed back over his shoulder. “And I will give you my answer in the morning.”

“Murder Squad of New York,” starring a bald American actor, was the featured attraction on Incarnación’s television that night, and the widows sat cross-legged on the floor, filling the hut so completely that the charcoal stove and the sleeping hammock had been moved outside in order to provide good viewing angles for the latecomers. To Esteban, standing in the doorway, it seemed his home had been invaded by a covey of large black birds with cowled heads, who were receiving evil instruction from the core of a flickering gray jewel. Reluctantly, he pushed between them and made his way to the shelves mounted on the wall behind the set; he reached up to the top shelf and pulled down a long bundle wrapped in oil-stained newspapers. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Incarnación watching him, her lips thinned, curved in a smile, and that cicatrix of a smile branded its mark on Esteban’s heart. She knew what he was about, and she was delighted! Not in the least worried! Perhaps she had known of Onofrio’s plan to kill the jaguar, perhaps she had schemed with Onofrio to entrap him. Infuriated, he barged through the widows, setting them to gabbling, and walked out into his banana grove and sat on a stone amidst it. The night was cloudy, and only a handful of stars showed between the tattered dark shapes of the leaves; the wind sent the leaves slithering together, and he heard one of his cows snorting and smelled the ripe odor of the corral. It was as if the solidity of his life had been reduced to this isolated perspective, and he bitterly felt the isolation. Though he would admit to fault in the marriage, he could think of nothing he had done that could have bred Incarnación’s hateful smile.

After a while, he unwrapped the bundle of newspapers and drew out a thin-bladed machete of the sort used to chop banana stalks, but which he used to kill jaguars. Just holding it renewed his confidence and gave him a feeling of strength. It had been four years since he had hunted, yet he knew he had not lost the skill. Once he had been proclaimed the greatest hunter in the province of Nueva Esperanza, as had his father before him, and he had not retired from hunting because of age or infirmity, but because the jaguars were beautiful, and their beauty had begun to outweigh the reasons he had for killing them. He had no better reason to kill the jaguar of Barrio Carolina. It menaced no one other than those who hunted it, who sought to invade its territory, and its death would profit only a dishonorable man and a shrewish wife, and would spread the contamination of Puerto Morada. And besides, it was a black jaguar.

“Black jaguars,” his father had told him, “are creatures of the moon. They have other forms and magical purposes with which we must not interfere. Never hunt them!”

His father had not said that the black jaguars lived on the moon, simply that they utilized its power; but as a child, Esteban had dreamed about a moon of ivory forests and silver meadows through which the jaguars flowed as swiftly as black water; and when he had told his father of the dreams, his father had said that such dreams were representations of a truth, and that sooner or later he would discover the truth underlying them. Esteban had never stopped believing in the dreams, not even in face of the rocky, airless place depicted by the science programs on Incarnación’s television: That moon, its mystery explained, was merely a less enlightening kind of dream, a statement of fact that reduced reality to the knowable.

But as he thought this, Esteban suddenly realized that killing the jaguar might be the solution to his problems, that by going against his father’s teaching, that by killing his dreams, his Indian conception of the world, he might be able to find accord with his wife’s; he had been standing halfway between the two conceptions for too long, and it was time for him to choose. And there was no real choice. It was this world he inhabited, not that of the jaguars; if it took the death of a magical creature to permit him to embrace as joys the television and trips to the movies and a stucco house in Barrio Clarín, well, he had faith in this method. He swung the machete, slicing the dark air, and laughed. Incarnación’s frivolousness, his skill at hunting, Onofrio’s greed, the jaguar, the television… all these things were neatly woven together like the elements of a spell, one whose products would be a denial of magic and a furthering of the unmagical doctrines that had corrupted Puerto Morada. He laughed again, but a second later he chided himself: It was exactly this sort of thinking he was preparing to root out.

Esteban waked Incarnación early the next morning and forced her to accompany him to the appliance store. His machete swung by his side in a leather sheath, and he carried a burlap sack containing food and the herbs he would need for the hunt. Incarnación trotted along beside him, silent, her face hidden by a shawl. When they reached the store, Esteban had Onofrio stamp the bill PAID IN FULL, then he handed the bill and the money to Incarnación.

“If I kill the jaguar or if it kills me,” he said harshly, “this will be yours. Should I fail to return within a week, you may assume that I will never return.”

She retreated a step, her face registering alarm, as if she had seen him in a new light and understood the consequences of her actions; but she made no move to stop him as he walked out the door.

Across the street, Raimundo Esteves was leaning against the wall of the Cantina Atómica, talking to two girls wearing jeans and frilly blouses; the girls were fluttering their hands and dancing to the music that issued from the cantina, and to Esteban they seemed more alien than the creature he was to hunt. Raimundo spotted him and whispered to the girls; they peeked over their shoulders and laughed. Already angry at Incarnación, Esteban was washed over by a cold fury. He crossed the street to them, rested his hand on the hilt of the machete, and stared at Raimundo; he had never before noticed how soft he was, how empty of presence. A crop of pimples straggled along his jaw, the flesh beneath his eyes was pocked by tiny indentations like those made by a silversmith’s hammer, and, unequal to the stare, his eyes darted back and forth between the two girls.

Esteban’s anger dissolved into revulsion. “I am Esteban Caax,” he said. “I have built my own house, tilled my soil, and brought four children into the world. This day I am going to hunt the jaguar of Barrio Carolina in order to make you and your father even fatter than you are.” He ran his gaze up and down Raimundo’s body, and, letting his voice fill with disgust, he asked, “Who are you?”

Raimundo’s puffy face cinched in a knot of hatred, but he offered no response. The girls tittered and skipped through the door of the cantina; Esteban could hear them describing the incident, laughter, and he continued to stare at Raimundo. Several other girls poked their heads out the door, giggling and whispering. After a moment Esteban spun on his heel and walked away. Behind him there was a chorus of unrestrained laughter, and a girl’s voice called mockingly, “Raimundo! Who are you?” Other voices joined in, and it soon became a chant.

Barrio Carolina was not truly a barrio of Puerto Morada; it lay beyond Punta Manabique, the southernmost enclosure of the bay, and was fronted by a palm hammock and the loveliest stretch of beach in all the province, a curving slice of white sand giving way to jade-green shallows. Forty years before, it had been the headquarters of the fruit company’s experimental farm, a project of such vast scope that a small town had been built on the site: rows of white frame houses with shingle roofs and screen porches, the kind you might see in a magazine illustration of rural America. The company had touted the project as being the keystone of the country’s future and had promised to develop high-yield crops that would banish starvation; but in 1947 a cholera epidemic had ravaged the coast, and the town had been abandoned. By the time the cholera scare had died down, the company had become well entrenched in national politics and no longer needed to maintain a benevolent image; the project had been dropped and the property abandoned until—in the same year that Esteban had retired from hunting—developers had bought it, planning to build a major resort. It was then the jaguar had appeared. Though it had not killed any of the workmen, it had terrorized them to the point that they had refused to begin the job. Hunters had been sent, and these the jaguar had killed. The last party of hunters had been equipped with automatic rifles, all manner of technological aids; but the jaguar had picked them off one by one, and this project, too, had been abandoned. Rumor had it that the land had recently been resold (now Esteban knew to whom), and that the idea of a resort was once more under consideration.

The walk from Puerto Morada was hot and tiring, and upon arrival Esteban sat beneath a palm and ate a lunch of cold banana fritters. Combers as white as toothpaste broke on the shore, and there was no human litter, just dead fronds and driftwood and coconuts. All but four of the houses had been swallowed by the jungle, and only sections of those four remained visible, embedded like moldering gates in a blackish green wall of vegetation. Even under the bright sunlight, they were haunted looking: their screens ripped, boards weathered gray, vines cascading over their façades. A mango tree had sprouted from one of the porches, and wild parrots were eating its fruit. He had not visited the barrio since childhood; the ruins had frightened him then, but now he found them appealing, testifying to the dominion of natural law. It distressed him that he would help transform it all into a place where the parrots would be chained to perches and the jaguars would be designs on tablecloths, a place of swimming pools and tourists sipping from coconut shells. Nonetheless, after he had finished lunch, he set out to explore the jungle and soon discovered a trail used by the jaguar: a narrow path that wound between the vine-matted shells of the houses for about a half mile and ended at the Rio Dulce. The river was a murkier green than the sea, curving away through the jungle walls; the jaguar’s tracks were everywhere along the bank, especially thick upon a tussocky rise some five or six feet above the water. This baffled Esteban. The jaguar could not drink from the rise, and it certainly would not sleep there. He puzzled over it awhile, but eventually shrugged it off, returned to the beach, and, because he planned to keep watch that night, took a nap beneath the palms.

Some hours later, around midafternoon, he was started from his nap by a voice hailing him. A tall, slim, copper-skinned woman was walking toward him, wearing a dress of dark green—almost the exact color of the jungle walls—that exposed the swell of her breasts. As she drew near, he saw that though her features had a Patucan cast, they were of a lapidary fineness uncommon to the tribe; it was as if they had been refined into a lovely mask: cheeks planed into subtle hollows, lips sculpted full, stylized feathers of ebony inlaid for eyebrows, eyes of jet and white onyx, and all this given a human gloss. A sheen of sweat covered her breasts, and a single curl of black hair lay over her collarbone, so artful-seeming it appeared to have been placed there by design. She knelt beside him, gazing at him impassively, and Esteban was flustered by her heated air of sensuality. The sea breeze bore her scent to him, a sweet musk that reminded him of mangoes left ripening in the sun.

“My name is Esteban Caax,” he said, painfully aware of his own sweaty odor.

“I have heard of you,” she said. “The jaguar hunter. Have you come to kill the jaguar of the barrio?”

“Yes,” he said, and felt shame at admitting it.

She picked up a handful of sand and watched it sift through her fingers.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“If we become friends, I will tell you my name,” she said. “Why must you kill the jaguar?”

He told her about the television set, and then, to his surprise, he found himself describing his problems with Incarnación, explaining how he intended to adapt to her ways. These were not proper subjects to discuss with a stranger, yet he was lured to intimacy; he thought he sensed an affinity between them, and that prompted him to portray his marriage as more dismal than it was, for though he had never once been unfaithful to Incarnación, he would have welcomed the chance to do so now.

“This is a black jaguar,” she said. “Surely you know they are not ordinary animals, that they have purposes with which we must not interfere?”

Esteban was startled to hear his father’s words from her mouth, but he dismissed it as coincidence and replied, “Perhaps. But they are not mine.”

“Truly, they are,” she said. “You have simply chosen to ignore them.” She scooped up another handful of sand. “How will you do it? You have no gun. Only a machete.”

“I have this as well,” he said, and from his sack he pulled out a small parcel of herbs and handed it to her.

She opened it and sniffed the contents. “Herbs? Ah! You plan to drug the jaguar.”

“Not the jaguar. Myself.” He took back the parcel. “The herbs slow the heart and give the body a semblance of death. They induce a trance, but one that can be thrown off at a moment’s notice. After I chew them, I will lie down in a place that the jaguar must pass on its nightly hunt. It will think I am dead, but it will not feed unless it is sure that the spirit has left the flesh, and to determine this, it will sit on the body so it can feel the spirit rise up. As soon as it starts to settle, I will throw off the trance and stab it between the ribs. If my hand is steady, it will die instantly.”

“And if your hand is unsteady?”

“I have killed nearly fifty jaguars,” he said. “I no longer fear unsteadiness. The method comes down through my family from the Old Patuca, and it has never failed, to my knowledge.”

“But a black jaguar…”

“Black or spotted, it makes no difference. Jaguars are creatures of instinct, and one is like another when it comes to feeding.”

“Well,” she said, “I cannot wish you luck, but neither do I wish you ill.” She came to her feet, brushing the sand from her dress.

He wanted to ask her to stay, but pride prevented him, and she laughed as if she knew his mind.

“Perhaps we will talk again, Esteban,” she said. “It would be a pity if we did not, for more lies between us than we have spoken of this day.”

She walked swiftly down the beach, becoming a diminutive black figure that was rippled away by the heat haze.

That evening, needing a place from which to keep watch, Esteban pried open the screen door of one of the houses facing the beach and went onto the porch. Chameleons skittered into the corners, and an iguana slithered off a rusted lawn chair sheathed in spiderweb and vanished through a gap in the floor. The interior of the house was dark and forbidding, except for the bathroom, the roof of which was missing, webbed over by vines that admitted a gray-green infusion of twilight. The cracked toilet was full of rainwater and dead insects. Uneasy, Esteban returned to the porch, cleaned the lawn chair, and sat.

Out on the horizon the sea and sky were blending in a haze of silver and gray; the wind had died, and the palms were as still as sculpture; a string of pelicans flying low above the waves seemed to be spelling a sentence of cryptic black syllables. But the eerie beauty of the scene was lost on him. He could not stop thinking of the woman. The memory of her hips rolling beneath the fabric of her dress as she walked away was repeated over and over in his thoughts, and whenever he tried to turn his attention to the matter at hand, the memory became more compelling. He imagined her naked, the play of muscles rippling her haunches, and this so enflamed him that he started to pace, unmindful of the fact that the creaking boards were signaling his presence. He could not understand her effect upon him. Perhaps, he thought, it was her defense of the jaguar, her calling to mind of all he was putting behind him… and then a realization settled over him like an icy shroud.

It was commonly held among the Patuca that a man about to suffer a solitary and unexpected death would be visited by an envoy of death, who—standing in for family and friends—would prepare him to face the event; and Esteban was now very sure that the woman had been such an envoy, that her allure had been specifically designed to attract his soul to its imminent fate. He sat back down in the lawn chair, numb with the realization. Her knowledge of his father’s words, the odd flavor of her conversation, her intimation that more lay between them: It all accorded perfectly with the traditional wisdom. The moon rose three-quarters full, silvering the sands of the barrio, and still he sat there, rooted to the spot by his fear of death.

He had been watching the jaguar for several seconds before he registered its presence. It seemed at first that a scrap of night sky had fallen onto the sand and was being blown by a fitful breeze; but soon he saw that it was the jaguar, that it was inching along as if stalking some prey. Then it leaped high into the air, twisting and turning, and began to race up and down the beach: a ribbon of black water flowing across the silver sands. He had never before seen a jaguar at play, and this alone was cause for wonder; but most of all, he wondered at the fact that here were his childhood dreams come to life. He might have been peering out onto a silvery meadow of the moon, spying on one of its magical creatures. His fear was eroded by the sight, and like a child he pressed his nose to the screen, trying not to blink, anxious that he might miss a single moment.

At length the jaguar left off its play and came prowling up the beach toward the jungle. By the set of its ears and the purposeful sway of its walk, Esteban recognized that it was hunting. It stopped beneath a palm about twenty feet from the house, lifted its head, and tested the air. Moonlight frayed down through the fronds, applying liquid gleams to its haunches; its eyes, glinting yellow-green, were like peepholes into a lurid dimension of fire. The jaguar’s beauty was heart-stopping—the embodiment of a flawless principle—and Esteban, contrasting this beauty with the pallid ugliness of his employer, with the ugly principle that had led to his hiring, doubted that he could ever bring himself to kill it.

All the following day he debated the question. He had hoped the woman would return, because he had rejected the idea that she was death’s envoy—that perception, he thought, must have been induced by the mysterious atmosphere of the barrio—and he felt that if she was to argue the jaguar’s cause again, he would let himself be persuaded. But she did not put in an appearance, and as he sat upon the beach, watching the evening sun decline through strata of dusky orange and lavender clouds, casting wild glitters over the sea, he understood once more that he had no choice. Whether or not the jaguar was beautiful, whether or not the woman had been on a supernatural errand, he must treat these things as if they had no substance. The point of the hunt had been to deny mysteries of this sort, and he had lost sight of it under the influence of old dreams.

He waited until moonrise to take the herbs, and then lay down beneath the palm tree where the jaguar had paused the previous night. Lizards whispered past in the grasses, sand fleas hopped onto his face; he hardly felt them, sinking deeper into the languor of the herbs. The fronds overhead showed an ashen green in the moonlight, lifting, rustling; and the stars between their feathered edges flickered crazily as if the breeze were fanning their flames. He became immersed in the landscape, savoring the smells of brine and rotting foliage that were blowing across the beach, drifting with them; but when he heard the pad of the jaguar’s step, he came alert. Through narrowed eyes he saw it sitting a dozen feet away, a bulky shadow craning its neck toward him, investigating his scent. After a moment it began to circle him, each circle a bit tighter than the one before, and whenever it passed out of view he had to repress a trickle of fear. Then, as it passed close on the seaward side, he caught a whiff of its odor.

A sweet, musky odor that reminded him of mangoes left ripening in the sun.

Fear welled up in him, and he tried to banish it, to tell himself that the odor could not possibly be what he thought. The jaguar snarled, a razor stroke of sound that slit the peaceful mesh of wind and surf, and realizing it had scented his fear, he sprang to his feet, waving his machete. In a whirl of vision he saw the jaguar leap back, then he shouted at it, waved the machete again, and sprinted for the house where he had kept watch. He slipped through the door and went staggering into the front room. There was a crash behind him, and turning, he had a glimpse of a huge black shape struggling to extricate itself from a moonlit tangle of vines and ripped screen. He darted into the bathroom, sat with his back against the toilet bowl, and braced the door shut with his feet.

The sound of the jaguar’s struggles subsided, and for a moment he thought it had given up. Sweat left cold trails down his sides, his heart pounded. He held his breath, listening, and it seemed the whole world was holding its breath as well. The noises of wind and surf and insects were a faint seething; moonlight shed a sickly white radiance through the enlaced vines overhead, and a chameleon was frozen among peels of wallpaper beside the door. He let out a sigh and wiped the sweat from his eyes. He swallowed.

Then the top panel of the door exploded, shattered by a black paw. Splinters of rotten wood flew into his face, and he screamed. The sleek wedge of the jaguar’s head thrust through the hole, roaring. A gateway of gleaming fangs guarding a plush red throat. Half-paralyzed, Esteban jabbed weakly with the machete. The jaguar withdrew, reached in with its paw, and clawed at his leg. More by accident than design, he managed to slice the jaguar, and the paw, too, was withdrawn. He heard it rumbling in the front room, and then, seconds later, a heavy thump against the wall behind him. The jaguar’s head appeared above the edge of the wall; it was hanging by its forepaws, trying to gain a perch from which to leap down into the room. Esteban scrambled to his feet and slashed wildly, severing vines. The jaguar fell back, yowling. For a while it prowled along the wall, fuming to itself. Finally there was silence.

When sunlight began to filter through the vines, Esteban walked out of the house and headed down the beach to Puerto Morada. He went with his head lowered, desolate, thinking of the grim future that awaited him after he returned the money to Onofrio: a life of trying to please an increasingly shrewish Incarnación, of killing lesser jaguars for much less money. He was so mired in depression that he did not notice the woman until she called to him. She was leaning against a palm about thirty feet away, wearing a filmy white dress through which he could see the dark jut of her nipples. He drew his machete and backed off a pace.

“Why do you fear me, Esteban?” she called, walking toward him.

“You tricked me into revealing my method and tried to kill me,” he said. “Is that not reason for fear?”

“I did not know you or your method in that form. I knew only that you were hunting me. But now the hunt has ended, and we can be as man and woman.”

He kept his machete at point. “What are you?” he asked.

She smiled. “My name is Miranda. I am Patuca.”

“Patucas do not have black fur and fangs.”

“I am of the Old Patuca,” she said. “We have this power.”

“Keep away!” He lifted the machete as if to strike, and she stopped just beyond his reach.

“You can kill me if that is your wish, Esteban.” She spread her arms, and her breasts thrust forward against the fabric of her dress. “You are stronger than I, now. But listen to me first.”

He did not lower the machete, but his fear and anger were being overridden by a sweeter emotion.

“Long ago,” she said, “there was a great healer who foresaw that one day the Patuca would lose their place in the world, and so, with the help of the gods, he opened a door into another world where the tribe could flourish. But many of the tribe were afraid and would not follow him. Since then, the door has been left open for those who would come after.” She waved at the ruined houses. “Barrio Carolina is the site of the door, and the jaguar is its guardian. But soon the fevers of this world will sweep over the barrio, and the door will close forever. For though our hunt has ended, there is no end to hunters or to greed.” She came a step nearer. “If you listen to the sounding of your heart, you will know this is the truth.”

He half-believed her, yet he also believed her words masked a more poignant truth, one that fitted inside the other the way his machete fitted into its sheath.

“What is it?” she asked. “What troubles you?”

“I think you have come to prepare me for death,” he said, “and that your door leads only to death.”

“Then why do you not run from me?” She pointed toward Puerto Morada. “That is death, Esteban. The cries of the gulls are death, and when the hearts of lovers stop at the moment of greatest pleasure, that, too, is death. This world is no more than a thin covering of life drawn over a foundation of death, like a scum of algae upon a rock. Perhaps you are right, perhaps my world lies beyond death. The two ideas are not opposed. But if I am death to you, Esteban, then it is death you love.”

He turned his eyes to the sea, not wanting her to see his face. “I do not love you,” he said.

“Love awaits us,” she said. “And someday you will join me in my world.”

He looked back to her, ready with a denial, but was shocked to silence. Her dress had fallen to the sand, and she was smiling. The litheness and purity of the jaguar were reflected in every line of her body; her secret hair was so absolute a black that it seemed an absence in her flesh. She moved close, pushing aside the machete. The tips of her breasts brushed against him, warm through the coarse cloth of his shirt; her hands cupped his face, and he was drowning in her heated scent, weakened by both fear and desire.

“We are of one soul, you and I,” she said. “One blood and one truth. You cannot reject me.”

Days passed, though Esteban was unclear as to how many. Night and day were unimportant incidences of his relationship with Miranda, serving only to color their lovemaking with a spectral or a sunny mood; and each time they made love, it was as if a thousand new colors were being added to his senses. He had never been so content. Sometimes, gazing at the haunted façades of the barrio, he believed that they might well conceal shadowy avenues leading to another world; however, whenever Miranda tried to convince him to leave with her, he refused: He could not overcome his fear and would never admit—even to himself—that he loved her. He attempted to fix his thoughts on Incarnación, hoping this would undermine his fixation with Miranda and free him to return to Puerto Morada; but he found that he could not picture his wife except as a black bird hunched before a flickering gray jewel. Miranda, however, seemed equally unreal at times. Once as they sat on the bank of the Rio Dulce, watching the reflection of the moon—almost full—floating upon the water, she pointed to it and said, “My world is that near, Esteban. That touchable. You may think the moon above is real and this is only a reflection, but the thing most real, that most illustrates the real, is the surface that permits the illusion of reflection. Passing through this surface is what you fear, and yet it is so insubstantial, you would scarcely notice the passage.”

“You sound like the old priest who taught me philosophy,” said Esteban. “His world—his Heaven—was also philosophy. Is that what your world is? The idea of a place? Or are there birds and jungles and rivers?”

Her expression was in partial eclipse, half-moonlit, half-shadowed, and her voice revealed nothing of her mood. “No more than there are here,” she said.

“What does that mean?” he said angrily. “Why will you not give me a clear answer?”

“If I were to describe my world, you would simply think me a clever liar.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “Sooner or later you will understand. We did not find each other merely to have the pain of being parted.”

In that moment her beauty—like her words—seemed a kind of evasion, obscuring a dark and frightening beauty beneath; and yet he knew that she was right, that no proof of hers could persuade him contrary to his fear.

One afternoon, an afternoon of such brightness that it was impossible to look at the sea without squinting, they swam out to a sandbar that showed as a thin curving island of white against the green water. Esteban floundered and splashed, but Miranda swam as if born to the element; she darted beneath him, tickling him, pulling at his feet, eeling away before he could catch her. They walked along the sand, turning over starfish with their toes, collecting whelks to boil for their dinner, and then Esteban spotted a dark stain hundreds of yards wide that was moving below the water beyond the bar: a great school of king mackerel.

“It is too bad we have no boat,” he said. “Mackerel would taste better than whelks.”

“We need no boat,” she said. “I will show you an old way of catching fish.”

She traced a complicated design in the sand, and when she had done, she led him into the shallows and had him stand facing her a few feet away.

“Look down at the water between us,” she said. “Do not look up, and keep perfectly still until I tell you.”

She began to sing with a faltering rhythm, a rhythm that put him in mind of the ragged breezes of the season. Most of the words were unfamiliar, but others he recognized as Patuca. After a minute he experienced a wave of dizziness, as if his legs had grown long and spindly, and he was now looking down from a great height, breathing rarefied air. Then a tiny dark stain materialized below the expanse of water between him and Miranda. He remembered his grandfather’s stories of the Old Patuca, how—with the help of the gods—they had been able to shrink the world, to bring enemies close and cross vast distances in a matter of moments. But the gods were dead, their powers gone from the world. He wanted to glance back to shore and see if he and Miranda had become coppery giants taller than the palms.

“Now,” she said, breaking off her song, “you must put your hand into the water on the seaward side of the school and gently wiggle your fingers. Very gently! Be sure not to disturb the surface.”

But when Esteban made to do as he was told, he slipped and caused a splash. Miranda cried out. Looking up, he saw a wall of jade-green water bearing down on them, its face thickly studded with the fleeting dark shapes of the mackerel. Before he could move, the wave swept over the sandbar and carried him under, dragging him along the bottom and finally casting him onto shore. The beach was littered with flopping mackerel; Miranda lay in the shallows, laughing at him. Esteban laughed, too, but only to cover up his rekindled fear of this woman who drew upon the powers of dead gods. He had no wish to hear her explanation; he was certain she would tell him that the gods lived on in her world, and this would only confuse him further.

Later that day as Esteban was cleaning the fish, while Miranda was off picking bananas to cook with them—the sweet little ones that grew along the riverbank—a Land Rover came jouncing up the beach from Puerto Morada, an orange fire of the setting sun dancing on its windshield. It pulled up beside him, and Onofrio climbed out the passenger side. A hectic flush dappled his cheeks, and he was dabbing his sweaty brow with a handkerchief. Raimundo climbed out the driver’s side and leaned against the door, staring hatefully at Esteban.

“Nine days and not a word,” said Onofrio gruffly. “We thought you were dead. How goes the hunt?”

Esteban set down the fish he had been scaling and stood. “I have failed,” he said. “I will give you back the money.”

Raimundo chuckled—a dull, cluttered sound—and Onofrio grunted with amusement. “Impossible,” he said. “Incarnación has spent the money on a house in Barrio Clarín. You must kill the jaguar.”

“I cannot,” said Esteban. “I will repay you somehow.”

“The Indian has lost his nerve, Father.” Raimundo spat in the sand. “Let me and my friends hunt the jaguar.”

The idea of Raimundo and his loutish friends thrashing through the jungle was so ludicrous that Esteban could not restrain a laugh.

“Be careful, Indian!” Raimundo banged the flat of his hand on the roof of the car.

“It is you who should be careful,” said Esteban. “Most likely the jaguar will be hunting you.” Esteban picked up his machete. “And whoever hunts this jaguar will answer to me as well.”

Raimundo reached for something in the driver’s seat and walked around in front of the hood. In his hand was a silvered automatic. “I await your answer,” he said.

“Put that away!” Onofrio’s tone was that of a man addressing a child whose menace was inconsequential, but the intent surfacing in Raimundo’s face was not childish. A tic marred the plump curve of his cheek, the ligature of his neck was cabled, and his lips were drawn back in a joyless grin. It was, thought Esteban—strangely fascinated by the transformation—like watching a demon dissolve its false shape: the true lean features melting up from the illusion of the soft.

“This son of a whore insulted me in front of Julia!” Raimundo’s gun hand was shaking.

“Your personal differences can wait,” said Onofrio. “This is a business matter.” He held out his hand. “Give me the gun.”

“If he is not going to kill the jaguar, what use is he?” said Raimundo.

“Perhaps we can convince him to change his mind.” Onofrio beamed at Esteban. “What do you say? Shall I let my son collect his debt of honor, or will you fulfill our contract?”

“Father!” complained Raimundo; his eyes flicked sideways. “He…”

Esteban broke for the jungle. The gun roared, a white-hot claw swiped at his side, and he went flying. For an instant he did not know where he was; but then, one by one, his impressions began to sort themselves. He was lying on his injured side, and it was throbbing fiercely. Sand crusted his mouth and eyelids. He was curled up around his machete, which was still clutched in his hand. Voices above him, sand fleas hopping on his face. He resisted the urge to brush them off and lay without moving. The throb of his wound and his hatred had the same red force behind them.

“…carry him to the river,” Raimundo was saying, his voice atremble with excitement. “Everyone will think the jaguar killed him!”

“Fool!” said Onofrio. “He might have killed the jaguar, and you could have had a sweeter revenge. His wife…”

“This was sweet enough,” said Raimundo.

A shadow fell over Esteban, and he held his breath. He needed no herbs to deceive this pale, flabby jaguar who was bending to him, turning him onto his back.

“Watch out!” cried Onofrio.

Esteban let himself be turned and lashed out with the machete. His contempt for Onofrio and Incarnación, as well as his hatred of Raimundo, was involved in the blow, and the blade lodged deep in Raimundo’s side, grating on bone. Raimundo shrieked and would have fallen, but the blade helped to keep him upright; his hands fluttered around the machete as if he wanted to adjust it to a more comfortable position, and his eyes were wide with disbelief. A shudder vibrated the hilt of the machete—it seemed sensual, the spasm of a spent passion—and Raimundo sank to his knees. Blood spilled from his mouth, adding tragic lines to the corners of his lips. He pitched forward, not falling flat but remaining kneeling, his face pressed into the sand: the attitude of an Arab at prayer.

Esteban wrenched the machete free, fearful of an attack by Onofrio, but the appliance dealer was squirming into the Land Rover. The engine caught, the wheels spun, and the car lurched off, turning through the edge of the surf and heading for Puerto Morada. An orange dazzle flared on the rear window, as if the spirit who had lured it to the barrio was now harrying it away.

Unsteadily, Esteban got to his feet. He peeled his shirt back from the bullet wound. There was a lot of blood, but it was only a crease. He avoided looking at Raimundo and walked down to the water and stood gazing out at the waves; his thoughts rolled in with them, less thoughts than tidal sweeps of emotion.

It was twilight by the time Miranda returned, her arms full of bananas and wild figs. She had not heard the shot. He told her what had happened as she dressed his wounds with a poultice of herbs and banana leaves. “It will mend,” she said of the wound. “But this”—she gestured at Raimundo—“this will not. You must come with me, Esteban. The soldiers will kill you.”

“No,” he said. “They will come, but they are Patuca… except for the captain, who is a drunkard, a shell of a man. I doubt he will even be notified. They will listen to my story, and we will reach an accommodation. No matter what lies Onofrio tells, his word will not stand against theirs.”

“And then?”

“I may have to go to jail for a while, or I may have to leave the province. But I will not be killed.”

She sat for a minute without speaking, the whites of her eyes glowing in the half-light. Finally she stood and walked off along the beach.

“Where are you going?” he called.

She turned back. “You speak so casually of losing me…” she began.

“It is not casual!”

“No!” She laughed bitterly. “I suppose not. You are so afraid of life, you call it death and would prefer jail or exile to living it. That is hardly casual.” She stared at him, her expression a cipher at that distance. “I will not lose you, Esteban,” she said. She walked away again, and this time when he called she did not turn.

Twilight deepened to dusk, a slow fill of shadow graying the world into negative, and Esteban felt himself graying along with it, his thoughts reduced to echoing the dull wash of the receding tide. The dusk lingered, and he had the idea that night would never fall, that the act of violence had driven a nail through the substance of his irresolute life, pinned him forever to this ashen moment and deserted shore. As a child he had been terrified by the possibility of such magical isolations, but now the prospect seemed a consolation for Miranda’s absence, a remembrance of her magic. Despite her parting words, he did not think she would be back—there had been sadness and finality in her voice—and this roused in him feelings of both relief and desolation, feelings that set him to pacing up and down the tidal margin of the shore.

The full moon rose, the sands of the barrio burned silver, and shortly thereafter four soldiers came in a jeep from Puerto Morada. They were gnomish copper-skinned men, and their uniforms were the dark blue of the night sky, bearing no device or decoration. Though they were not close friends, he knew them each by name: Sebastian, Amador, Carlito, and Ramón. In their headlights Raimundo’s corpse—startlingly pale, the blood on his face dried into intricate whorls—looked like an exotic creature cast up by the sea, and their inspection of it smacked more of curiosity than of a search for evidence. Amador unearthed Raimundo’s gun, sighted along it toward the jungle, and asked Ramón how much he thought it was worth.

“Perhaps Onofrio will give you a good price,” said Ramón, and the others laughed.

They built a fire of driftwood and coconut shells, and sat around it while Esteban told his story; he did not mention either Miranda or her relation to the jaguar, because these men—estranged from the tribe by their government service—had grown conservative in their judgments, and he did not want them to consider him irrational. They listened without comment; the firelight burnished their skins to reddish gold and glinted on their rifle barrels.

“Onofrio will take his charge to the capital if we do nothing,” said Amador after Esteban had finished.

“He may in any case,” said Carlito. “And then it will go hard with Esteban.”

“And,” said Sebastian, “if an agent is sent to Puerto Morada and sees how things are with Captain Portales, they will surely replace him, and it will go hard with us.”

They stared into the flames, mulling over the problem, and Esteban chose the moment to ask Amador, who lived near him on the mountain, if he had seen Incarnación.

“She will be amazed to learn you are alive,” said Amador. “I saw her yesterday in the dressmaker’s shop. She was admiring the fit of a new black skirt in the mirror.”

It was as if a black swath of Incarnación’s skirt had folded around Esteban’s thoughts. He lowered his head and carved lines in the sand with the point of his machete.

“I have it,” said Ramón. “A boycott!”

The others expressed confusion.

“If we do not buy from Onofrio, who will?” said Ramon. “He will lose his business. Threatened with this, he will not dare involve the government. He will allow Esteban to plead self-defense.”

“But Raimundo was his only son,” said Amador. “It may be that grief will count more than greed in this instance.”

Again they fell silent. It mattered little to Esteban what was decided. He was coming to understand that without Miranda, his future held nothing but uninteresting choices; he turned his gaze to the sky and noticed that the stars and the fire were flickering with the same rhythm, and he imagined each of them ringed by a group of gnomish copper-skinned men, debating the question of his fate.

“Aha!” said Carlito. “I know what to do. We will occupy Barrio Carolina—the entire company—and we will kill the jaguar. Onofrio’s greed cannot withstand this temptation.”

“That you must not do,” said Esteban.

“But why?” asked Amador. “We may not kill the jaguar, but with so many men we will certainly drive it away.”

Before Esteban could answer, the jaguar roared. It was prowling down the beach toward the fire, like a black flame itself, shifting over the glowing sand. Its ears were laid back, and silver drops of moonlight gleamed in its eyes. Amador grabbed his rifle, came to one knee, and fired: The bullet sprayed sand a dozen feet to the left of the jaguar.

“Wait!” cried Esteban, pushing him down.

But the rest had begun to fire, and the jaguar was hit. It leaped high as it had that first night while playing, but this time it landed in a heap, snarling, snapping at its shoulder; it regained its feet and limped toward the jungle, favoring its right foreleg. Excited by their success, the soldiers ran a few paces after it and stopped to fire again. Carlito dropped to one knee, taking careful aim.

“No!” shouted Esteban, and as he hurled his machete at Carlito, desperate to prevent further harm to Miranda, he recognized the trap that had been sprung and the consequences he would face.

The blade sliced across Carlito’s thigh, knocking him onto his side. He screamed, and Amador, seeing what had happened, fired wildly at Esteban and called to the others. Esteban ran toward the jungle, making for the jaguar’s path. A fusillade of shots rang out behind him, bullets whipped past his ears. Each time his feet slipped in the soft sand, the moonstruck façades of the barrio appeared to lurch sideways as if trying to block his way. And then, as he reached the verge of the jungle, he was hit.

The bullet seemed to throw him forward, to increase his speed, but somehow he managed to keep his feet. He careened along the path, arms waving, breath shrieking in his throat. Palmetto fronds swatted his face, vines tangled his legs. He felt no pain, only a peculiar numbness that pulsed low in his back; he pictured the wound opening and closing like the mouth of an anemone. The soldiers were shouting his name. They would follow, but cautiously, afraid of the jaguar, and he thought he might be able to cross the river before they could catch up. But when he came to the river, he found the jaguar waiting.

It was crouched on the tussocky rise, its neck craned over the water, and below, half a dozen feet from the bank, floated the reflection of the full moon, huge and silvery, an unblemished circle of light. Blood glistened scarlet on the jaguar’s shoulder, like a fresh rose pinned in place, and this made it look even more an embodiment of principle: the shape a god might choose, that some universal constant might assume. It gazed calmly at Esteban, growled low in its throat, and dove into the river, cleaving and shattering the moon’s reflection, vanishing beneath the surface. The ripples subsided, the image of the moon re-formed. And there, silhouetted against it, Esteban saw the figure of a woman swimming, each stroke causing her to grow smaller and smaller until she seemed no more than a character incised upon a silver plate. It was not only Miranda he saw, but all mystery and beauty receding from him, and he realized how blind he had been not to perceive the truth sheathed inside the truth of death that had been sheathed inside her truth of another world. It was clear to him now. It sang to him from his wound, every syllable a heartbeat. It was written by the dying ripples, it swayed in the banana leaves, it sighed on the wind. It was everywhere, and he had always known it: If you deny mystery—even in the guise of death—then you deny life and you will walk like a ghost through your days, never knowing the secrets of the extremes. The deep sorrows, the absolute joys.

He drew a breath of the rank jungle air, and with it drew a breath of a world no longer his, of the girl Incarnación, of friends and children and country nights… all his lost sweetness. His chest tightened as with the onset of tears, but the sensation quickly abated, and he understood that the sweetness of the past had been subsumed by a scent of mangoes, that nine magical days—a magical number of days, the number it takes to sing the soul to rest—lay between him and tears. Freed of those associations, he felt as if he were undergoing a subtle refinement of form, a winnowing, and he remembered having felt much the same on the day when he had run out the door of Santa María del Onda, putting behind him its dark geometries and cobwebbed catechisms and generations of swallows that had never flown beyond the walls, casting off his acolyte’s robe and racing across the square toward the mountain and Incarnación: It had been she who had lured him then, just as his mother had lured him to the church and as Miranda was luring him now, and he laughed at seeing how easily these three women had diverted the flow of his life, how like other men he was in this.

The strange bloom of painlessness in his back was sending out tendrils into his arms and legs, and the cries of the soldiers had grown louder. Miranda was a tiny speck shrinking against a silver immensity. For a moment he hesitated, experiencing a resurgence of fear; then Miranda’s face materialized in his mind’s eye, and all the emotion he had suppressed for nine days poured through him, washing away the fear. It was a silvery, flawless emotion, and he was giddy with it, light with it; it was like thunder and fire fused into one element and boiling up inside him, and he was overwhelmed by a need to express it, to mold it into a form that would reflect its power and purity. But he was no singer, no poet. There was but a single mode of expression open to him. Hoping he was not too late, that Miranda’s door had not shut forever, Esteban dove into the river, cleaving the image of the full moon; and—his eyes still closed from the shock of the splash—with the last of his mortal strength, he swam hard down after her.

ARTHUR’S LION

Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee has written nearly one hundred books and over two hundred and seventy short stories, as well as radio plays and TV scripts. Her genre-crossing combines fantasy, SF, horror, young adult, historical, detective, and contemporary fiction. Her latest publications include the Lionwolf Trilogy: Cast a Bright Shadow, Here in Cold Hell, and No Flame but Mine, and the three Piratica novels for young adults. She has also recently published several short stories and novellas in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Realms of Fantasy, The Ghost Quartet and Wizards. Norilana Books is reprinting all of her Flat Earthseries, with two new volumes to follow. Lethe Press will be reprinting the Esther Garber lesbian fiction, plus a new collection of gay/lesbian short stories, including all new tales by “Esther, her brother Judas and even myself.”

She lives on the Sussex Weald with her husband, writer/artist John Kaiine, and two omnipresent cats. More information can be found at www.TanithLee.com.

About the story, Lee says: “‘Arthur’s Lion’ arrived from a sort of semi-waking dream I experienced one morning. The background scenario, including the narrator, had also arrived by breakfast time. The direction of the story too, though, was ultimately a surprise.”

That year I had some business to see to in Kent, and it wasn’t long after arranging this that I received the letter from my uncle. It came as a surprise; at first I hadn’t the faintest idea who was writing to me so familiarly. When I realized, I was in two minds. But curiosity got the upper hand.

I had better explain that I was nephew only to one uncle, Arthur, the brother of my then-deceased male parent. Arthur had made a lot of money in the north of England, as my mother had been wont to say: “By exploiting the workers and putting them into marmalade.” This had always been the joke, that Uncle Arthur had made a fortune in marmalade, some exotic variety which, I’m pretty certain, never appeared on our table. Frankly, once I’d grown up and moved into my own life, I may well, here and there, have eaten the fabulous spread—and not known it. Basically, Arthur had removed himself from the family early on, and never afterwards himself maintained any contact. My father had seen his brother last in childhood. “I was only five when he took himself off. But I always remember, he was a funny chap,” said my father. “Peculiar things stick in your mind, even when you can’t recall what they were all about.” The peculiar Arthurian thing which had stuck, apparently, concerned an Arthur then sixteen years of age, letting out a loud cry and promptly fainting to the ground.

“We were in some sort of park—I think it was a park. We were going somewhere, but there was such a fuss, we didn’t go. I’ve no memory as to where. All I recollect is Arthur yelling at the top of his lungs and sprawling on the gravel path.”

“Perhaps,” postulated my mother, “it was the first time making a fortune in marmalade occurred to him.”

In fact, though Arthur did become extremely rich, it formed a dark mark on his escutcheon that none of this wealth was ever put in the way either of my grandparents, or my father’s family, of which it seemed Arthur had been told.

Arthur’s contemporary letter, however, when it reached me, was friendly and warm in tone. He said that he had come across my name in a promotion in the local newspapers, relating to the theatrical performance because of which I was going down to Kent. Since our name is rather unusual, he had decided it must be me, and an inquiry at a London theatre provided him my address. The substance of his letter was to invite me to stay with him at his house. This was, he assured me, only three miles from my business venue, and his chauffeur would, of course, drive me in each day and retrieve me in the evening. Arthur was sure, besides, I would appreciate the comforts of a house over an “inn,” and added that he sincerely hoped I would visit him, we had been “estranged” too long.

Initially I tossed the letter in the waste-paper bin. But then, as I say, curiosity won me round. By that era of my life, I was involved in work I found both fascinating and highly remunerative, so Arthur’s fortune had no allure. But I’d heard of the house, which I will call Blue Firs, a place, it seemed, of luxury. And I confess I wondered very much what Arthur would be like—and if at all like my father, or even myself.

I therefore rescued his letter, and replied in the affirmative. The next morning, I travelled down to Kent.

It was a mild October afternoon when I arrived at Kesslington Station. Arthur’s huge shining car, complete with respectful driver, picked me up and bore me away down autumnal lanes thick with yellow foliage and cows peering across gates.

Blue Firs was a large house, if by no means a mansion. It had been built in the 1800s for someone or other’s mistress. Enormous trees framed the views as we drove up through the grounds, and there gradually appeared a cream-and-rose façade with pillarings and tall windows. Long roofs, with sun-gilded red tiles, had put up the periscopes of rather charming ornamental chimneys, modelled on an earlier design. I could imagine my mother saying, “Ah, the house built of marmalade.”

When I’d got inside, I found myself in one of those polished echoing halls, whose acoustics are normally so bad for actors—a whisper carries like an unintelligible roar, and a roar like a rumble.

I asked the housekeeper if my uncle was about. She told me he was lying down but would meet me at the drinks hour. I went to unpack. It seemed Arthur hadn’t after all lost his social gracelessness, at least where it could be applied to relatives.

But my room was large and airy, with a fire laid ready for later, and the great bed comfortable, and the bathroom well-appointed. Someone had also supplied gin, whisky and soda, and a bowl of hot-house oranges. Not so bad.

When I went down at six, a butler showed me at once into the long, narrow drawing-room that looked out across the lawn. No one else was there.

“Is my uncle coming down?” I asked, rather impatiently.

“Yes, sir. He’ll be here directly.”

“Are there other guests for dinner?”

“No, sir.”

Left alone, I sat by the fireside, watching the brown shadows gather over the room, and the bluer ones fill in the sweep of grass and trees outside.

I felt—and now for the first I admitted it—distinctly uneasy. Was I worried then, to be confronting my “peculiar” uncle? Or was it the big quaint house? I thought not. Already once or twice I had stayed with various theatrical royalty and been in buildings far more eccentric and grandly expanded. Besides, I have never been the nervous type. Even First Nights move me only to extra diligence. A cool head: I’ve been mocked for it.

The shadows thickened. I got up and switched on a pair of lamps, and turning again, saw the light reflecting on a short stocky man, formally dressed for dinner, standing in the wide doorway, and staring at me with enormous eyes. It struck me, extraordinarily, he was most like a child, an anxious child. I had the urge to put him at his ease. And too the wild notion he was truly frightened, scared at meeting at last this alien nephew, son to a brother he had barely troubled to know.

What did I call him?

I decided on mundane family courtesy. “Uncle Arthur?”

“Oh,” he said, “Arthur. We’re both past the age of needing ‘uncle’ shoved in. And you must be—” he named me.

And I found myself saying kindly, “Oh, please call me Jack. It’s what I generally answer to with friends.”

“I hope we shall be,” he said.

“I hope so too.”

He stole forward—no other way to describe it. We shook hands. His was warm enough, but slightly stiff and swiftly withdrawn. He then came to the fire and stood there, lit by the flames and the lamps, his melancholy gaze now on the hearth and now, in fleeting glimpses, on me. Neither of us sat down.

Finally he glanced at the drink in my hand, but didn’t seem to want one for himself. Suddenly he said, “You must think it odd, my contacting you like that, out of the blue.”

“It was a pleasant surprise.”

He looked away from me then, discounting, I thought, the shallowness of my reply. He looked instead at the dark lawn beyond the window, and the trees heavy with a new night.

“Don’t you think,” he said, “this lighted room is like a camp in some jungle place, or on some open plain? A fire, a pair of lamps. Anything might be there,” he said, strangely, “beyond the light.”

“Do you mean in your grounds? I suppose—”

“No, not in the grounds. Nothing’s there.”

Somewhere from the depths of the house there came at that moment a long, indefinite sound. It was, I thought, the timbers shifting at the chill of evening. But Arthur looked round now at it, scanning the doorway, as if he expected someone—something—to appear. He seemed less startled, though a little startled, than apprehensively resigned.

At that second moment too, something did move into or over the doorway. It was a large bulky shadow, reeling across the duller lighting of the hall. And it was instantly followed by its cause. The butler filled the doorframe.

“Have you locked up?” asked Arthur, rather breathlessly, I thought.

“Yes, sir. All but the usual door.”

“Good. That’s good.”

The butler then spoke about the dinner arrangements, which sounded ordinary enough that a report seemed unnecessary. Arthur must be a very pedantic and unsettled man. I pondered also why the house had been locked so early, and why the “usual door” was not. Perhaps to let particular servants, who didn’t sleep over at the house, return to the village?

When the butler again went out, he left the drawing-room door wide open. Looking after him quite idly, I saw that flowing shadow veer again along the hallway. This time it seemed not to match his movements, nor that of anything in the room. But firelight can play tricks.

In any case Arthur now sat down, and I with him. He helped himself to a drink and me to another. And then at last, in the expected way of relatives, he began to question me about my father and mother, our past life, my present one, and so on, until a maid came to call us to dine.

The meal was very good, with local fish and roast, and a wonderful sugary dessert concocted by Arthur’s cook. All through the courses he seemed fairly relaxed, and only once got the jitters, for some reason I couldn’t fathom at all. But he swallowed another glass of wine and cheered up again.

We went into an old-fashioned smoking-room after dinner, with the brandy and cigarettes—it was a tradition of Arthur’s, because smoking otherwise was permitted everywhere about the house.

The velvet curtains were drawn, and another fire sparkled. Everything all told was very appealing and comfortable. Had it not been for the constant sense of unease and alertness—most like a vague, almost undetectable smell—that also hung over virtually every instant. Even Arthur’s relaxed periods had begun to seem forced. What was bothering him? I had come to the conclusion, whatever it was, it would be the very same matter that had prompted him to invite me to his home. I’m afraid I felt quite irritable at this. Once tomorrow dawned, I would have my hands full with the theatrical event in the town, and little time for sudden extra dramas.

Throughout dinner we’d spoken only of trivial things, mostly to do with the family. Arthur had remarked that I resembled my grandfather, when young, which I valued. In him, although I didn’t say so, I could see no likeness to any of our tribe.

Once in the smoking-room, a silence drifted down. We sat in armchairs, and Arthur stared long into the fire. And I thought, by now highly apprehensive myself, any minute and he’ll come out with it. Whatever the hell it is. And then let’s hope it can be put right very simply. Otherwise it must wait until the play is done.

Arthur said, again, “Yes, I can see my father in you. My brother must have grown to be a strong, well set-up young man. I know he can have been afraid of absolutely nothing. As a little child, even, he was fearless. I remember his nanny, the very woman who had terrified me as a child with her ghost stories, having no effect on him whatsoever.”

I said, “Yes, he was a brave man. I’ve seen as much myself from his war record.”

“Indeed. But I suppose,” said Arthur softly, “we are all of us, in the end, afraid of something. Otherwise, could we be human?”

“Certainly, I’m terrified of several things. The British tax system for one thing. Oh, and I admit, a certain well-known actress who shall be nameless.”

Arthur smiled, but the smile slipped off like water.

His face was closed-in, bent to the fire, his eyes viewing, it seemed, only that.

“Yes, but there are other fears, aren’t there? Inner fears. Fears located—how do they say it now—within the Id.”

I said nothing. This promised to be more weird and much more time-consuming than I’d supposed.

Arthur stirred the fire slowly with a poker. Then he sat there, holding the poker loosely in his hand.

“Since I was a boy,” he said, “since then, about six years of age. Something. I saw it first in a book, one of those stupid highly-coloured old illustrated books for children. Though I’d guess now it was meant for a much older child than I then was. It was on a low table, in the library. Thinking back, I believe it must have been my father’s property, when he was little. Had it terrified him? Apparently not. And why anyway was it lying out open where I could find it? I’ve often wondered that. I’d think, really, almost any child might have been frightened by it. The drawn picture—was very crude, all reds, yellows, blacks—horrible—” He raised his eyes straight up to mine. And they were full of utter terror, that glowed like tears. “I know now it was a book about Ancient Rome. And this picture concerned the Emperor Nero’s habit of having Christians thrown into the arena, and savage hungry animals let loose on them. An awful subject to illustrate. Probably meant to be improving. But me it did not improve. I rather think,” he lowered the poker slowly back into its place, “it ruined me.”

I was then, and am, no psychiatrist. I said, no doubt with inappropriate foolishness, “Of course, as a child, you might be afraid at it. But—how can it have ruined you?”

“I’d been quite a bold little boy. Always in scrapes. Brave. I used to lead a little local gang. We had some piratical name. But after I saw in that book—after I saw that picture, a change came over me. I used to dream, you see. I used to dream over and over about the picture.”

“The Christians being killed in the arena by the animals.”

“Killed, and devoured. Yes. They were—” he hesitated, and the oddest small twist of a smile distorted his lips, “they were lions,” he said. And then again, “Lions.” As if to repeat the name took a great effort of will, which he must exert.

Something in how he had stirred the fire had upset the logs. It sank and darkened, and the room seemed to darken too, despite the electric lamps.

I said, encouragingly, “Well, what you describe could be enough to give any kid nightmares.”

“Perhaps. But I must explain. My dreams were very specific. I was in the arena, you see. I, as a child. And I was alone. Alone that was but for a huge, formless, faceless crowd shouting and baying all around me from the seats. And I would stand there on the sand, naked, shivering and afraid—sickeningly afraid—and then a kind of black hole would come in the side of the arena, and a lion would come out. Only one, you see. Only one.” Arthur stopped. He put his head into his hands, but not before I’d seen his face was now almost green.

“Don’t go on if it distresses—”

“I must go on,” he said. He lifted his head and brought his brandy to his mouth and gulped the lot. “One lion,” he said. “I know him so well. A huge ochre beast, with a vast black-ruffed head. There were bloody welts on his side—they must have whipped him up from the cages below—that filthy book showed all that too… Each of his eyes were like yellow-red coals. He stank. I could smell him. He stank of butcher’s meat. And then he ran towards me—right at me—and I stood there screaming—and as he leapt his great claws flashed like silver hooks—and I woke—always I woke—just before his weight could come down and his talons and teeth could go into me. Always. And always, screaming. It happened every night, yet only ever once—once every night. It happened once every night for a whole year. I was afraid to go to bed. I would make myself keep awake, sitting up in the darkness—but in the end always I fell asleep. And then I’d be in the arena, alone but for the crowd, and he would come, the lion. And he would run and leap and in that split second, when the rush of his stinking flesh and his claws already felt like a boiling wind across my body—I’d wake up. I would escape him.”

“My God,” I said. Finally, I thought, the elements of his fear had truly communicated themselves to me. As with a powerful acting performance, the catharsis of empathically induced emotion. I was shaken.

“Well,” Arthur said presently. “I must tell you why the dreams stopped. First my parents tried to laugh and tease me out of them. Then they tried to bully me out. You perhaps have wondered why I’ve been a stranger to my own family all these years. Partly it began there. I never forgave them for it, their crass lack of understanding. And though in later years I could grasp almost perfectly that it came not from cruelty, but from a genuine, if entirely misplaced, conception of how best to deal with me—the rift had widened and was too enormous to heal. However, long before that, when I was seven years old, I met a gypsy in our garden. He’d just walked in at the gate, and was going round to the back of the house with some tinker’s stuff he’d got for the kitchen. But seeing me, he pulled a face, and then called to me, quite politely and gently. Come here, young master. That was what he said. And for some reason, to him I went. I was by then a thin, pale-faced child, with rings under my eyes from never sleeping well. I must have looked haunted enough; our doctor had already apparently warned my father I might be in the early stages of some incurable malady—which idea alarmed mother, but my father scoffed at it, saying I was just in a silly mood, trying still to be a baby, and waking everyone by yelling every night. But the gypsy man stared into my face, and then he said, ‘I can make him go away. One day he will come back. But you’ll be a man then, and perhaps a man will have the strength to turn him off for good.’ I gaped at him, and because I’d been brought up a certain way, I feebly said to him, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Hush now,’ he answered. Then he put his hand on my head. It felt scalding hot, his hand, and he breathed in my face, and his breath was bad, because I suppose, poor fellow, his teeth weren’t up to much. But somehow that didn’t repulse me. When he lifted his hand away, I felt something go with it. He said, ‘Done now. Not till you’re a man will it come back. Go and tell the cook you took a toy off me from my sack, and I’m owed half a shilling.’ I did what he said, and later I received a smacking from my father, who told me off for making the cook pay for a paltry toy for me. He asked where the toy was. I said it had broken, and my father said that served me right. He would have broken it if I had not. That night I crept up to bed, and sat there in the dark as usual, my back sore from the blows, and biting my hand to keep awake. But I kept thinking of the gypsy, too. And in the end I let go. I let go and I slept. I slept right through. It was the first night in a year I didn’t have the dream. But after that, night followed night without it. Gradually then my general health improved. I was soon at school, and began to lead my own boy’s life again. Although I was never as I had been before I saw the book. I hadn’t the stamina I had had, even though I’d grown older and bigger. I tended to weight rather than muscle, I had headaches and once or twice fainted, if I was too hot or cold, and sometimes in church. But the dream was entirely gone. Gone till I should be a man and have the strength to face it once more, and then be able to send it away, to turn it off for good. Nevertheless—I could never be reconciled to that word, that name, or if I saw any picture of them, even a fine painting. Or if it was in a lesson. In Latin, for example. I even fainted then, too. Something in Suetonius, I think it was, about the Roman Circus.”

The fire was dying. I took it on myself to poke at the logs and drop on another one. Arthur poured us more brandy, but said nothing. His face was less pallid, but had the greasy look of light sweating.

When I straightened up I said, “What happened then, when you were sixteen?”

“Oh,” said Arthur, “your father remembered that, did he? Yes. It was nothing really. Nothing for them. We were to visit a garden. A zoological garden. By that time I’d got much better at suppressing my fear. Or I told myself I had. I’d been nerving myself to the excursion, thinking it might be a test I could overcome. But then—I heard them roaring, you see. In the distance. Over the trees. Lions. I knew instantly what the noise was. I screamed, as I had in my nightmares, and screaming is all I recollect after this, until I found myself at home again. I left my father’s house as soon as I was well enough to do so. I led then a quite unadventurous life. I won’t bore you with the details. They bore me, too, you see. Until that piece of luck with the recipe, the marmalade—more an orange jam, you understand. An old Scottish formula. Pure luck. Idiotic. But it made us rich, my partners and I. I can assure you, however, such good fortune doesn’t hold off loneliness. I have always found it awkward, to mix with people, to find companions. And so I have been a lonely man. Unmarried—childless—I can’t imagine such things as wedlock or paternity, for myself. Even so, I have got by. I have lived. And now,” he said. Arthur leant back in his chair as I sat down again in mine. “And now,” he repeated.

Though never having myself walked out on the boards, save in the most administrative capacity, I found myself responding as if we two, he and I, were spot-lit now at the centre of a stage. Faultless on my cue I announced, “And now it has returned.”

Arthur met my eyes. His had changed to flat dark stones. “Yes. It has come back.”

“As the gypsy said it would.”

“As he said.”

“Do you know why?”

“Oh yes. Something very ordinary.”

I leant forward. “Which is?”

“I saw the damnable picture again.”

“Good lord—where? Where did you see it?”

“Oh, not in that vile little book. No, it was reproduced in a catalogue. It seems the ghastly work is now something of an antique, and this illustration, the particular one, the one I think was fashioned in Hell, for me alone, that picture had been reproduced in the brightest, gaudiest detail. Leafing carelessly through the catalogue in the house of a business associate, suddenly it was all before me again. I had to leave the house immediately, making some incredible excuse, I can’t remember what. That night I tried to reason with myself. But it was no use whatsoever. I found myself at 2 a.m., wandering about with the whisky decanter. Afraid to go to bed, just as I had been, night after night, when a child. In the end, of course, adult common-sense propelled me to my room. I downed a final glass of whisky and fell instantly asleep. Half an hour later I woke half the servants with my shrieks. My poor housekeeper believed criminals had broken in and were murdering me. It might have been amusing, if this state of affairs hadn’t, then, continued for six further months. Yes, naturally, my doctor, and then several specialists, were summoned. They could do nothing, only drug me to a deathly moribund slumber from which—despite all the muck I had swallowed—I still woke once a night screaming in terror. The lion—” Arthur spoke the name now in a loud clear stroke, like the movement of a surgeon’s knife, “— the lion came for me, as he always had. Out of the dark hole in the arena wall, over the dirty sand, leaping, his claws raking the air, just missing me as I sprang awake.”

I too lifted my glass and drained it.

“But,” I said, “six further months, I heard you say. Do you mean you found a way again to stop the dreams?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Arthur stared downwards into nothingness. “A last specialist arrived here two months ago. In his demeanour he reminded me once more of my father, though he was younger than I am now. A strong-minded, bullying man, himself brave as—I was going to say, brave as a lion. He told me roundly I was a nervous wreck, and that the fault lay only with me. I had let this literary phantasm prey on me, and had offered no resistance. To drug myself with morphine or liquor was past the point. I must instead lie down to sleep and face the beast, in the knowledge that it was nothing. Nothing at all. It was only, he told me sternly, my own fear which had birthed, and subsequently sustained the nightmare. Forgivable, he admitted, in a very young child but in a grown man nauseating and absurd. ‘It is your cowardice,’ he bluntly said, ‘which is destroying your sleep, your health and your life. You and you alone can be rid of it. You must cast it out. Then you will be free.’ When he’d quite done with me, I was trembling like a boy. But I could see, as I can see now, that he was fundamentally in the right. My terrors had formed this curse. I must turn my back on them. And so I ate a light supper, had a couple of drinks, and went to bed. I stayed awake about half an hour, during which time I refused myself a single thought of the nightmare, and fell asleep abruptly. I dreamed of nothing at all. Since then too, the dream hasn’t plagued me once. Indeed, I can sleep at any hour of day or night without any inconvenience.”

I sat looking at him. His hands were folded down, one on each arm of his chair. He stared on into the abyss, invisible to me, which opened at his feet.

Arthur said, “I think you’ll be both too mature and too young to know the fears and nervousness, in their way not unlike those of infancy, which can come on with increasing age. I suspect, too, being so like my own father in appearance, that you yourself may never succumb to this form of trepidation, even in old age. Death may never tap you on the shoulder to expound his prologue. You may never think about it. Your kind, and please do not think I insult you, I am only very jealous, can stay impervious to most horrors and frights. Your nerve holds in battle, and if there are ever such things as ghosts or demons, you would confront them, face them down. Or produce a revolver and shoot them, perhaps, back to mortal life.”

Embarrassed by his accuracy, I too lowered my gaze. Where my glance fell then, I saw, across the fine Aubussin carpet, a curious baroque shadow, thick and black, lying oddly sidelong from the lamps. What was it? Puzzled, I turned my head and looked straight up into the corner of the room. There was a slice of darkness there also, and in the dark, something—no, two things—glittered in a sudden crushed flicker of brilliancy, now yellowish, now red.

“Ah,” he said, in a quiet, cracked little voice, almost sarcastic, almost bitter. “Is it there? Can you see it?”

I turned back and glared at Arthur. “See what, precisely?”

“Don’t you know?”

“No, frankly. Of course I’m sympathetic to what’s happened to you. But even you yourself are now calling it a form of neurasthenia. So what is there to gain from dramatizing any of it further?”

“I can’t help myself, it seems. When that clever specialist rehearsed my case before me, he mercilessly showed me exactly what I had most to fear: my own fear itself. My terrors, whether real or groundless, are my worst enemies. But I have to tell you, for such a person as myself, terror is now basic to my personality. And by refusing to let it visit me in sleep, it seems—it seems—I’ve let it out into the concrete world, at last. Where, having had me consistently elude it for so long, it has always yearned to follow me. My nightmare—has become a reality, and my terror feeds it every hour. Perhaps not even only terror, either. My accustomedness.”

“Rubbish,” I said. “Utter rot.”

Behind me, some entity stirred, a velvet sound, edged with something rasping and barbed. Like the noise of a cat, amplified.

I stood up and looked round again. Something was there. No doubt of it. In deep shadow, between the top of a wooden cupboard and the cornice of the ceiling. It looked most like a large full trunk. It hadn’t, I thought, been there previously.

My conclusion was that my Uncle Arthur had become insane, and was playing some type of bizarre, possibly dangerous, trick on me. I’ve had dealings with the unstable before—the profession on whose perimeter I work has presented to me some fine examples. To humour Arthur therefore seemed the best course.

Reluctant to stay with my back to whatever it was which had manifested in the corner, I moved my chair to a different angle, before sitting back down.

“Very well,” I said. “But you’ve got your answer to it, haven’t you? Cast out fear. Then it will go.”

“I try,” he said. “I try. It’s a war that never stops. That gypsy man who helped me in my childhood, he thought I might eventually prove the stronger, and the victory be mine. Or maybe that was only his pretense, because he could foresee what was more likely. I try, and try, and try. But the fear never goes. How can it? The evidence of what there is to fear is frequently in front of me. Besides, by now, I believe it is less fear—than how mighty that fear it has already fed on has made the—creature. How else has it done what it has? Perversely, at last, it’s only in sleep I ever evade it. Others here,” he said, with a weary, flat, matter-of-factness, “see the thing too. Oh yes, that’s how actual, despite my resistance, it has become. They see it. As you just did over there, up by the ceiling. And look now, the shadow on the carpet moving, the tail of it wagging slowly to and fro.”

I stared resolutely into the fire. Behind me, far off, vague, I heard a kind of soft grumbling guttural, that might only be some freak sound of the autumn wind in the chimneys.

“You should pack up and leave this house,” I said, lighting another cigarette.

“It would go with me,” he said. “By now it goes with me always. Sometimes it disappears, as if it has other little tasks it likes to see to about the place. Then it’s there again. My housekeeper has seen it. You can ask her. She’s decided it’s the ghost of a dog that once lived here. And my butler. The cook and maids somehow generally refuse to see it. Those that do sometimes complain of a large cat that has got into the main house from the kitchen.”

There was a long, slipping, heavy noise.

Arthur’s eyes went over above me. I saw him watch something move quickly across the upper air. His face was green again, but again he smiled. He nodded. He said, “It’s gone for the moment. I could see them then, the welts on its side. Poor thing. It must suffer. Poor damnable thing.”

I’d had enough. I got up again and said, “Sir, I have a very busy schedule, which begins quite early tomorrow. I understood you were aware of that when you invited me here. This matter, whatever it is, is beyond me. I don’t know what you expect me to do.”

“Only to listen. What else is feasible? I’d ask you to shoot it, if that were any good. But how could it be? It came out of the dark inside me. The dark where we go in dreams. It wants to take me back there, to keep me, to play with perhaps, or only to fulfill its function. Rend me. Devour me. Like the hapless Christians in the book.”

“You’ll have to excuse me,” I said. “It’s midnight. Perhaps I could ring for your man… Do you have any opiates to help you sleep?”

“Yes, go to bed,” Arthur replied. His face was icy with disgust.

I stood in the doorway of the smoking-room. The hall outside was rosily low-lit from a single lamp standing on a table. At the curve of the staircase, one of the maids was crossing, with an armful of what looked like table linen, to the baise door giving on the servants’ area. I looked at her, her trim brisk figure, and how, just before she reached the baise, something loped across her path, from shade to shadow, and she hesitated, as if to check the fall of one of the pile of linens she held, which were not slipping at all.

I saw its eyes gleam, fitfully. It glanced at me, indifferent. In its half-seen, solid shape was all the intangible presence of the night. But as he had said, it was an indoor beast, a beast of locked houses that left only one door open for it, in the frantic hope it might go out and lose itself. A beast too of the indoors of the brain, the psyche. A beast of the indoors of the human soul.

Like a scene from a play, I saw it, his dream, and how the beast leapt at him, missed him, always missing, as he fled outward to the world. And then his fear coming out of him, rejected, but still inextricably attached. Externalized.

The lion had gone around the corner and the maid passed through the servants’ door and the hall was empty.

I walked back into the smoking-room. He was sitting quietly crying, poor old child, with the welts of horror blistering on his side.

“All right, old chap,” I said. “All right.”

“I don’t,” he said, apologetically, “want to be alone.”

“Then you shan’t be. Hang the theatre. I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

After a while, we went upstairs, and along one of the corridors to his room. Nothing was about, all was silence, and in the cracks of windows, where curtains didn’t quite meet, a low moon floated on a cloud.

We had another brandy, and he went to bed, or at least lay down with the coverlet over him. His round fallen face on the pillows stared at me.

“Nothing can be done. I know that,” he said. “When it comes back—”

“I’ll wake you,” I said. “Sleep for now.”

I’d asked myself if it could come in when he slept, but of course it could, that was the whole point to it now. It was in the world, and outside of him. And his former fear of meeting it in his mind had been replaced, not unreasonably, by the fear it would eventually seize him while he slept.

The electric light on the upper floors was dimmer. I sat in an armchair in this duller glow, and midnight passed into one, and so on through two. I smoked, and watched the clock, and wished I’d thought to bring some coffee upstairs.

But even so, I was wide awake. Arthur slept, deep and dumb. He might have been dead, I couldn’t help thinking that. I had no inspiration of what I could do. Keep the creature off him, then in the morning drive him somewhere, look up any one of a number of people who dealt in fractured minds and hallucinations—God knows. The brain ticks away in its backrooms often, and we’re unaware of its secret progress. I sincerely hoped it might offer me a plan, but hadn’t much faith it could.

For I knew too, of course I did, this now was more than a dream or mirage. I’d seen it. I’m prosaic enough, and it was merely pragmatic now to admit to having seen it. To deny the situation further would be to enter myself the lists of the fanciful or mad.

It returned when the clock said a quarter past three.

It came up through the floor.

That was like a stage effect, something clever with traps and levers, but involving no dry ice to mask it.

Arrived, it shook itself. The housekeeper had convinced herself it was a phantom dog, and there was something doglike about it certainly, as there often is with the big cats; tigers, panthers, and the rest. But its face was savage and evil, its eyes two mindless sumps of decayed fire that seemed to have given off the smoke of its mane. It did faintly stink, as he’d said. How had he known, as a child, what it might smell of? But perhaps lions don’t smell of meat; it was only something he’d heard and so made this one do it. For it was all his own work—his, and that of the artist who first so luridly depicted it and its kind, in the arena of Nero.

I’d promised him I would wake him when it came back. I called his name sharply, and Arthur opened his eyes, instantly fully conscious. “Is it there?”

“Across the room by the window.”

The moon had gone, but the low-burning electric light illustrated the lion as accurately as its initial paint.

It did not look at him or me. It looked about itself at the massively furnished room. Then it padded away, across the floor, and nudging open the bathroom door, went inside.

In the total noiselessness of the night, Arthur and I listened as it drank from some trickle of water, real or etheric, issuing from the taps of the bath.

When it had finished, it returned, not through the door, but simply out of the wall. It stood, its heavy head lowered, its tail swinging.

Something struck me then. I couldn’t have described it. But abruptly I saw the cruelty in its face was only instinct, and perhaps the pain from the stripes on its side, which anyway looked partly cured. It was an animal of sorts, at least. It was hungry, and had been thirsty, and chose sometimes to use a door rather than pass through a blank floor or wall.

So then I spoke to it, by its name. “Lion.”

It made a snorting noise, and turned, and looked at me, that terrible look, the hellish eyes that were really only reflecting light.

“There he is,” I said to it. “There. Look there.”

And the head again turned as if it grasped my meaning. And I saw Arthur brace himself. I said to Arthur then, “It’s yours. You made it. You gave it life. You’re—you’re like a father to the damn thing, Arthur. Stop resisting it, do you hear? It’s your belonging now, whatever it was to start with. It doesn’t want to drag you back into the shadows—if it did it would lose all this new territory you’ve given it. I’m fairly sure it knows that, or it would have done it by now. After all, it’s had a couple of months to try. First you gave it the Roman arena to play in. But now its got a whole house—and anything outside it fancies too. Why do you think it goes off and leaves you? It goes exploring like a bloody cat. And why do you think it follows you, comes back to you? If it isn’t for violence, it must be something else. Maybe that’s where it is like a dog. It knows, if you don’t, it belongs to you.”

The lion, with no warning, sprang. It was too quick for Arthur even to cry out, even to register his fear. It landed, and balanced on his bed, at the foot of it, gazing at him, breathing.

I crossed the room in three strides and pushed it hard in its unmarked side—except there was nothing, nothing substantial to push—but with a grunt it dropped, and flopped down. It lay there sprawled.

It blinked at me, growling.

“Be quiet,” I said. “You must do as you’re told. If you want to stay, you must behave yourself.” The growl changed to a yawn.

We remained watching it, Arthur bolt upright on the pillows, I standing at the bedside, and after a while it lowered its head on to the coverlet. The horror of its eyes shut.

After that, we kept vigil till first light, talking slowly and methodically, discussing it, over its sleeping form, Arthur not moving an inch, I static in a chair. When dawn began to seep in, the lion woke and rose. It kicked its paws and jumped off the bed—and vanished.

At ten to seven some tea was brought up by a maid, and I went down to telephone the town, reporting my absence as due to food-poisoning.

The lion was standing in the echoing hallway when I turned, looking off along a corridor to a narrow, opened door. The morning smelled enticingly there, of trees and mist, and bonfires. While the open door, since the lion could utilize blank walls for exits and entrances, was presumably an aesthetic choice. Outside lay the grounds, with plenty of game—mice and squirrels, birds, rabbits and hares. Any big animal could hunt for itself if it wanted, although I doubted any of the hunted things would suffer much worse than a nasty shock. The lion, though it was visible and could create smell and sound, had no actual substance. But, like the bath-taps, which didn’t leak but had provided water, an idea was conceivably enough for it to feed from. A beast of imagination in more than one way. Arthur’s beast, very apparently. Even as I watched, it made a decision and bounded off along the corridor and out of the open door. Hungry—well, it had had to wait several decades for a meal.

Needless to say, I recounted nothing of any of this when I reached the theatre the next day. My assistant had managed pretty ably without me, and all was soon put in order. I meanwhile secured myself a room in the local hotel.

Arthur survived another twenty-five years, and died without warning, but peacefully, during a fishing holiday in Scotland with one of his partners in the marmalade venture. There had been some talk of a large ghost dog, I believe, being seen often about Blue Firs, and also in other houses where Arthur visited. A slight mythology had connected itself to my uncle, who, apparently, was once or twice spotted, as witnesses thought, throwing sticks for some large hound, in a selection of rural retreats. In Scotland, years before he died, there was a strange story of something lying on the foot of his bed, purring—but it had disappeared by the time others came to investigate. After Arthur’s death, the beast vanished completely, at least according to his housekeeper. Blue Firs is now, I rather ashamedly admit, mine, but I am seldom there. Nevertheless, those who rent the property relate nothing either of dogs, cats or lions.

From Arthur, in the years before his death, I heard very little of anything, and less of his creature. With his renewed sense of safety, our “estrangement” had recurred, which seemed to suit us both. Only a postscript appeared now and then to a rare letter: The lion is in good spirits. Anyone reading this correspondence might take it that Arthur referred sportively to himself. People told me afterwards my solitary visit had done him a power of good.

He had thrown off at once his old timidity and depression, and the recent bad nerves. Instead he took to long, hale walks, and large cuts of meat served almost raw at dinner—though these were barely touched. Sometimes, when alone, he would, it seems, laugh aloud. He informed anybody who asked him, it was at something he had read in a newspaper.

Naturally I have no knowledge of where either of them is now For myself, I assume life ends with the body. But then again, perhaps there are some mind-fashioned heavens in which certain mentally creative people continue to exist. If so, I don’t think for a moment Arthur and his lion are now locked back in any Roman arena. He freed the lion, and ultimately was set free by it. Trite in the paucity of my own imaginative knack, I see them bounding along a seaside, Arthur a gleeful kid of seven, wiry, healthy and tough, and with a great, black-maned dog, scarred a little on one flank, whose claws flash like silver hooks, and leave starry markers on the clean, unearthly sand of the shore.

PRIDE

Mary A. Turzillo

Mary Turzillo’s fiction has recently appeared in Analog, Year’s Best Lesbian Fiction 2008, Cat Tales, Space and Time, The Vampire Archives, and Sky Whales and Other Wonders. She has published about fifty stories in magazines and anthologies and her poetry is collected in Your Cat & Other Space Aliens. Her Nebula winning “Mars Is No Place for Children,” and her novel An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl have been selected as recreational reading on the International Space Station.

Turzillo says: “Like many of my stories, ‘Pride’ comes out of my life as a professor at Trumbull branch of Kent State University. Residents of Trumbull County, Ohio, love their exotic pets. Two sisters in one of my classes told me they had adopted a lion cub which liked to bask in the middle of their residential street, forcing traffic to drive around it. A philosophy professor had to give up his pet python to get custody of his young son. A little girl was mauled by a tiger cub at the county fair. A friend of my son always dreaded the part of his paper route that took him past a caged animal he never saw, but that roared terrifyingly. And of course there was Iron Mike Tyson’s fruitless suit to keep Kenya, his white Bengal tiger, plus other big cats, on his sixty-acre estate in rural Southington, only a few miles from where I lived.

“To understand Jonesy, I’ve watched countless bored, scary big cats in Busch Gardens, the Cleveland Zoo, and other zoological gardens, contemplating their casual menace. Jonesy’s roll-and-strike attack is based on speculations of the way sabertooth cats tore out the throats of their prey, but the truth is, I’ve observed my kitten, Mahasamatman, make the same move play-attacking another cat.”

The hot fur thing under Kevin’s shirt clawed at his chest. Nice going, he thought. First the bum rap for weed, and now if I don’t get caught stealing lab animals, I’ll get rabies from this freak.

Frankenlab, at Franken U, AKA Franklin Agricultural College, was messing with animals, electrodes in their brains, cloning them like Dolly the Sheep, except not regular animals. Dead animals from frozen meat. And they were going to kill the animals.

He couldn’t save them all. Those fuzzy orange-furred mice, most wouldn’t make it. Those guys from Animals Our Brethren had pried open cages, and when the mice wouldn’t come out, they shook them out, and when the mice squeed, cowering under lab tables, they kicked them until they ran into corners, and from there may God have mercy on their itty souls.

Kevin petted the little monster through his shirt, but it writhed around and gummed him. “I’m saving your life, dumb-ox!” He dashed out of the building minutes before alarms brought the fire department.

Kevin had been in trouble before. A year ago, his girl friend’s cousin Ed and he had been cruising around in Ed’s van, which had expired plates. Kevin didn’t know about the baggie of pot under the driver’s seat. When the state patrol started following, Ed asked Kevin to switch places. His license, like the plates, was expired, he said. They switched, veering madly, on a lonely stretch of 422. When they finally stopped and the cops asked to search the van, Kevin shrugged and said okay.

“And whose is this?” Ed said, not me. Kevin was too surprised to look properly surprised, and this was a zero-tolerance state. So Ed got off with a warning, and Kevin, stuck with court-appointed counsel, served thirty days.

Kevin had been looking for a job to pay for college, when local papers broke the story that some thousand-odd animals (mostly, admittedly, mice) would be killed because their experiment was over. What was he thinking of? He wasn’t an animal-rights kind of dude. Still, he felt panicked exultation fleeing the scene of the crime.

He struggled to control his Pinto while driving with the squirming thing scratching inside his shirt. He fumbled the back door key and pounded downstairs to the basement, where he pulled the light cord above the laundry tub and took the furball out of his shirt.

“Oh God, what have they done to you?” It was deformed: big head, chopped-off tail. Cat? Dog? A mix?

He deposited it in the laundry tub. Boggling at the size of its mouth, he realized it needed food. Now.

Forward pointing eyes. Meat-eater. He ran upstairs and grabbed a raw chicken breast from the fridge. He held it out to the cub.

The cub flopped down on its belly in the tub, and tried to howl. All that came out was a squeak.

He tried to stuff the meat into its mouth, but it flinched away and lay looking at him, sides heaving.

Maybe the mother chewed the food up for it. Mother? Not hardly. This thing didn’t have a mother. It was fucking hatched in Frankenlab.

Raised in farm country, Kevin liked animals. He sometimes even petted Rosebud, the town pit bull, when Rosebud wasn’t into tearing people’s arms off. If his parents had been rich, he’d be pre-veterinary at Franken U. Or a cattle rancher, or a discoverer of rare snakes.

He retrieved a knife from upstairs, hacked tidbits off the chicken breast, and put them in the cub’s mouth. The cub sucked on them, famished. It got to its feet and seized his finger with its front paws. Head held sideways, it chomped down on his finger. It did have a few teeth, it seemed.

He jerked away. “Stop it, you little monster!” Then he realized he might wake his mother.

Kevin, it’s a baby. Duh.

Where would he get a baby bottle?

He opened a can of condensed milk from the pantry, dipped a chicken chunk in it, and let the monster suck milk off the meat. Twenty minutes later it either got satisfied, or gave up. Its little belly looked marginally bigger, and the can was empty, mostly spilled on the laundry tub or his shirt.

It stretched and unsheathed claws way too big for a little guy the size of a raccoon.

Kevin thought, It’ll purr now. Instead, it washed its face, running front paws over those deformed big jaws.

And then, just when Kevin decided it was almost cute, it reached out a claw and pricked his arm, not enough to hurt, just to say, More?

“You’re beginning to tick me off,” he said. The cub’s gaze radiated adoration. It licked his hand, nearly rasping his skin off.

Its fur was golden retriever blonde, its eyes the color of river moss. Green-eyed blonde, like Sara. Dappled coat, like freckles on Sara’s sweet shoulders. Sara Jones: they were almost a couple before his arrest; now she acted distant.

The monster leapt out of the tub and landed on the floor. It shook itself, surprised at the fall.

He lay down and stared at it, eye to eye. “You need a name.”

He was furious that they planned to kill it. It was harmless. Uh, maybe not harmless. Planning to get big, judging from those paws, each the size of cheeseburgers. But innocent.

“What the hell have I got myself into?” he asked it.

Its grotesque little face shone with trust.

With the knife he’d used to cut the chicken, and thinking of Sara Jones, he tapped the little monster on each shoulder, and said, “I dub thee Sir Jonesy.”

For a week, he kept Jonesy locked in the root cellar. His mom either didn’t know, or pretended not to. Rosebud, Mr. Trumbull’s pitbull, kept getting off his chain and sneaking over to paw at the basement door. There was an article in the paper about the lab fire, but the lab animals were hardly mentioned.

The scientists downplayed it all. The animals had been slated for “sacrifice,” Dr. Betty Hartley said. Federal regulations required that animals be euthanized at the end of an experiment, she said, plus the money had run out. Cold. “Sacrifice”: nice euphemism. Like “put to sleep.” Like anything ever woke up from that sleep. Sacrifice? What, were they going to dance around an altar and beg God to protect them from weird-ass animal zombies?

Dr. Hartley said she was sad that the animals had all died in the fire, but accidents will happen.

So now he couldn’t let anybody in on his secret. It would be insane to let the scientists find the cub again and kill it. But Jonesy (the cub was female, he discovered) whined and shivered in the root cellar, so he brought it upstairs.

His mother was not pleased.

“Look, Mom. I know it’s humongous for a kitten, but that’s all it is. Pet it?”

She refused to touch it. “I don’t care what it is, I don’t want it in my house.”

“Listen, they’ll kill it if I take it back. It’s cute, see?” He held it to his chest to minimize her view of the monstrous head. Its fur was rough, not silky like a kitten’s. But it was warm and happy to snuggle.

“Cute? Kevin, I’ll show you cute. I know you stole it from Frankenlab. It’ll probably get up in the night and suck our blood.”

“Shit, mom. It eats milk, not blood. You can’t just kick it out on the street like a—like a broken TV.”

“Kevin, get a job. And get that thing out of my house.”

But Kevin’s mother was too tired to put her foot down.

The cub’s teeth started coming in. On a diet of ground meat that Kevin got from dumpster-diving, it had loads of energy. It used the energy stalking Kevin and shredding everything in Kevin’s room.

The eye teeth erupted. And erupted. And erupted. Not domestic cat teeth. Long as the fishing knife the cops had taken away from him when he was caught with the pot.

He woke up one morning to find the monster sitting on his chest, hungry or affectionate, as if you could tell even with a tame cat.

“Man,” said Kevin, peering closer. “Your mom should have sued your orthodontist.”

The cub did not laugh.

Not a vampire, but those sharp, sharp teeth—

And then his mind chewed through a bunch of information and farted out the truth. Rumors of ice age frozen flesh? Cloning? Bingo.

The damn thing, scrutinizing him with gold-green eyes, opening its huge mouth in a silent howl, was a sabertooth tiger.

“Woo, dude. I thought you were trouble before.”

It would need lots more meat.

At first he bought cheap cuts, then when he realized his money from mowing lawns wasn’t cutting it, he abstracted food from his own meals and from the refrigerator. And dumpster-dove the local supermarket.

One day, he found his mother in the kitchen, her hand bandaged. He hoped the bite was from Rosebud, but if Rosebud had bitten her, she’d probably be a mangled corpse.

He sank into a chair, while the sabertooth attacked the stinky mess he’d brought home for it.

“That’s it, Kevin. You’re my only son, the light of my life, a good smart boy although way too trusting, but that cat is out by tonight or I call the cops.” She blew her nose on a crumpled tissue. “I know where he came from.”

Kevin didn’t blame her. She was tired from overwork, just wanted to be left alone and sleep more than five hours at a time. They’d been moderately affluent before Kevin’s dad left. But Dad had a really good lawyer. The measly child support had stopped when Kevin turned eighteen. Dad still sent birthday cards with a two-dollar bill in each.

“If the boy wants a college education, a job will make him appreciate it more.”

Jobs, yeah, well. Jobs for twenty-one year old guys who’ve done even a little time aren’t easy to come by. Odd jobs, maybe shoveling walks in winter. Kevin wasn’t a drinker, so he didn’t have AA networking to fall back on.

Also, the damn cub was too mischievous to leave alone for long.

The week before the cat nipped Mom, he’d come home from helping a neighbor get her hay in and found the cub playing with a large rat. When the sabertooth saw him, she grabbed the rat in her mouth and tried to run away. Thank God it had been a rat and not those ratty-looking poodles the Parks owned.

So Mom was right. The cat needed a home

Sara. Their beginning romance had aborted, but he ran into to her sometimes at the feed store. She’d understood Kevin didn’t know about the pot. But she always said, “It’s not a good time,” if he wanted to come over to the farm, or ask her out, not that he had much money for dates.

Guess she didn’t want to be with a loser.

But, hell, he could rise again. Many great men, millionaires, politicians, had a shady past.

Sara didn’t hate him.

He put the cub in an appliance carton (it whimpered, but complied), wrapped it with pink and ivory paper and gold ribbon, and lugged it to the Pinto. The cub thrashed around inside the box on his front seat, while he drove like a maniac to Sara’s farm. Sara’s parents hadn’t really worked the family farm much since her granddad died, just kept geese and a big garden, and when they moved south to escape the winters, Sara kept the farm. Kevin used to help out, before he went to jail.

He lost his nerve and left the gyrating package on her paint-peeled porch.

The phone was ringing when he got back.

“Kevin, what is this? It nearly took my arm off.”

He breathed slowly. He’d enrolled in an anger management class while in jail, not because he had problems with anger, but because the textbook looked interesting, and he found the breathing helped calm him. “Sara, it’s a sabertooth tiger.”

“They’re extinct.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, so’s the Bill of Rights. But this thing is a clone. From frozen meat.”

“And this concerns me how?”

“It’s, uh—”

“Look, Kevin, I remember the Maine Coon kittens you gave me. I love those cats. But this is different, no? You must have stolen this thing from the college. And that’s not all. It’s going to grow up and be really aggressive. And, well, also—”

“Sorry. I’ll come and get her back. Don’t let her out, though. I’m not sure she knows how to defend herself.”

When he got to the farm, Sara acted nervous, but she kissed him, and they sat on the couch and talked, about Ed, about jail. They didn’t have sex, but he got his hopes up they could reconnect. Jonesy, meantime, tried to shred everything in her living room. She had put out a bowl of hamburger, otherwise the cub might have started shredding their clothes.

“It’s not exactly cute,” she said.

Jonesy’s whiskers were almost as amazing as her teeth. Long and delicate. She stalked everything in the room, even shadows.

Kevin watched. The cub would hunker down and wriggle her backside, then dart forward and roll upside down. The hunker/wriggle part looked like any cat, but he’d never seen an animal do a half roll while attacking. Did that have anything to do with the sword-like canines?

“Kevin, you know I love animals.”

Kevin said nothing. Their shoulders touched, and he put his hand on hers.

She left it there. “Okay. Until you get a place of your own. Don’t come visiting without calling, though.” She withdrew her hand.

Somebody was living with her. Of course.

The arrangement lasted three weeks.

When he drove over in answer to her phone call, Sara was crying. Jonesy had killed one of her geese, a real achievement, since even Rosebud was loathe to fool with the geese. But when Kevin opened the door, he boggled at how much the sabertooth had grown. Jonesy had to weigh as much Rosebud now.

Oops. What if Jonesy had attacked Sara?

“I let her run,” she said. “You can’t keep an animal like this cooped up. And it killed Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson was one of her geese. She named her geese after women poets.

“What have you been feeding her? “He felt shame that he hadn’t offered to pay for Jonesy’s food. As if he could. He had a sudden panic over the welfare of the two Maine Coon cats, but they were dozing on the sofa. The sofa was shredded, but the cats were fine.

“I feed her canned dogfood, but she’s always hungry. I haven’t seen a raccoon in the neighborhood for two weeks. Kevin, I don’t know where you can take her but she can’t stay here.”

Was Jonesy grown enough to survive on her own, on garbage, raccoons, and people’s geese? “How did she learn to eat the raccoons?”

“When I separated them, Emily kind of—split open, you know—and Jonesy stood over Emily, and then, as if she was sorry for the poor goose, she bent over and started licking her feathers, and she tasted the blood, and all of a sudden—”

Kevin had seen barn cats experience this epiphany. They discover their toy tastes good. Most learned from the mother cat, but get them hungry enough—

“She doesn’t bother the geese any more. They run away. But then there’s the deer.”

Kevin looked at his baby monster. “Jonesy couldn’t take down a deer.”

“Maybe not, but she sure knows how to chase them. And I worry about Mr. Trumbull’s cows.”

Kevin stood. “Thanks for taking care of her.”

She took his hand, then moved closer. They gazed at each other. Could he kiss her?

She stepped back. “Take her somewhere. Hey, what about your dad’s old trailer?”

The trailer featured scarcely more than a bed and a mini-dinette, abandoned on the lot near his mom’s apartment. Roof leaked, plumbing wasn’t connected. No trailer park would let him in with that wreck.

Nor with an “exotic animal.” Even if he could pass Jonesy off as a rescued bobcat or lion cub.

“I’ll call around.” He had brought a collar and leash, and he snapped these on Jonesy. Jonesy had been on leash before and didn’t like it, but she trusted Kevin enough not to fight.

Kevin was becoming an expert on smilodons. They weren’t even from the same branch of the Felidae family as lions and tigers, but still might live in families. He must seem to Jonesy like her mother or the leader of her—what did they call lion families?—pride.

He smiled at Sara, eyes full of hope.

“Go!” she said, shoving him playfully. The sabertooth bared huge teeth at Sara until she smoothed its back fur. “You can come back. Bring Jonesy if you can control her. Just call first.”

He led the sabertooth to his car. His mind roiled with possibility. Ask her! he thought. She’s got a new guy, or she doesn’t. Ask!

Too many secrets in Kevin’s life: an animal he couldn’t give up and couldn’t keep, and a girl he wanted and whose life had become a mystery.

“Cat,” he said. “We ain’t neither of us got no pride.”

Kevin’s uncle owned some unworked farmland twenty miles out of town center. He got permission to park the trailer there, planning to haul water and use cartridges for gas heat. He bought a generator and parked the trailer well back from the road.

Odd jobs weren’t enough. His mom’s restaurant needed a dishwasher. Since the owner knew him—and about the jail time—there was no background check problem. Kevin bought a cellphone that didn’t require a credit card, and the modern man out of his time and Ice Age cat went there to live their hard life.

College plans receded into mist. Maybe someday Kevin could write a book about this. He bought a cheap digital camera and started a journal of the Jonesy’s growth and behavior.

The sabertooth soon learned to paw open the refrigerator. Kevin was forced to keep only vegetables in it. To supplement the dogfood, he brought home a cut-up chicken or a chuck steak every night. Jonesy tore into these, sometimes before Kevin could get the wrapper off. Sometimes the wrapper would get impaled on the four inch-long canines, and she would run around the room trying to scrape them off. Kevin fell down laughing the first time that happened.

Kevin’s own meals were either vegetarian or eaten at the restaurant.

He bought a used copy of Born Free at a yard sale. Jonesy wasn’t any kind of modern cat, but it was a start. The librarian found him treatises on the smilodons of North America, though he wasn’t even sure that’s what Jonesy was. He had to play it cool when the librarian got nosy about his interest in cloning.

Jonesy shredded any book he brought home. To her, books, like everything else, were toys. So his reading was restricted to the library and their internet computers, and since he didn’t like leaving the cat alone when she was awake, he kept all his research in his head.

He couldn’t keep the sabertooth penned up, any more than Sara could. So, after a few weeks, he let her off the long line he’d tied to the trailer, and watched her lope the perimeter of the mowed area, where the demolished farmhouse had set. The line wouldn’t hold her anyway, if she wanted to get away. She would chew through chain, though it might damage her beautiful teeth.

She stopped periodically to smell things, and her ears perked at the passage of a bird.

Then she saw the fox, and he thought he’d have to change her name to Turbo.

Did she eat the fox? No doubt she’d caught it. No bloody carcass in the trampled down area where the chase had ended. But for two days later, Jonesy looked quite pleased with herself.

The rest of that summer, the winter, and spring. The sabertooth grew sleek and menacing, muscles moving smoothly under short tawny fur. One of her magnificent eyeteeth loosened. When it fell out, she let Kevin feel inside her mouth, and underneath where it had been, he felt a new sharp point under the gum. Which grew and grew and grew. The other side did the same, and one morning he awoke to her heavy paws on his chest and opened his eyes to see her monstrous white glistening sabers new and sharp and creamy white, each as long as the knife they used in the restaurant kitchen to hack apart beef joints.

Her inscrutable face and hot moist breath made his heart jump with terror. But she was his companion; he had held her under his shirt. He had fed her milk.

He reached up and stroked her ears, which alone of her fur retained kittenish silkiness. Then, with the greatest caution, he touched her saber fangs. Smooth, like ivory knives. This meant she was—Smilodon fatalis? Smilodon neogaeus? Or the other genus—Megantereon? He couldn’t tell: he was no paleontologist.

He called Sara, to share this experience. She picked up after two rings, and hung up. But not even Sara’s rejection could spoil that moment.

He was the first man ever to touch a living smilodon’s teeth, and survive.

Sara would call now and then to ask about Jonesy, or tell him about a job opening. He could leave the sabertooth with her during the day, she said.

But when he called, employers always knew he was the kid who went to jail for drugs. Such is rural town gossip.

Jonesy and he walked the perimeter of the farm every night, out of sight of the road. He’d been four years out of high school. College seemed much further away now. He thought, Some would say I have no life. A dumbass job. Had good grades, could gone to college, married a beautiful woman who owned land. Lost all that because I trusted the wrong person, didn’t fight the system hard enough. Could have done better. But I’ve touched the saber teeth of a smilodon, and if no other gift is given me in this life, that might be enough.

If Jonesy missed anything, she never said so.

Then Jonesy came into heat.

As she came insinuating up to him, dragging her butt against the floor, trying to hump the ragged sofa arm, beseeching him to do something, anything, he just said, “Kitten, I’d write you a personals ad, but your kind don’t subscribe to the Country Cryer.”

Neutering, but how the hell would he pass her off as anything but what she was? The vet would remember the incident at Frankenlab, and all would be up. Another jail sentence for Kevin. Worse for Jonesy: “sacrifice” at the hands of the scientists.

He tried penning her in the trailer while he slept in the Pinto, but she started chewing through the metal window frame. He let her out, and she howled to get inside with him.

Next night, his cell phone rang.

“Kevin, Keith, whatever your name is. People hear that howling, don’t know what it is. But I do.”

Kevin’s heart lurched. Caller ID said: B. Hartley. The scientist. “Doctor Hartley. You plan to ‘sacrifice’ her now?”

“No, you dolt. Do I have to spell it out for you? I incited your stupid Animals Our Brethren people to start that fire so she’d get away.”

He took it in. “She’s in heat. What should—”

“She’ll either go out of heat, or she’ll attack somebody. She may even decide you’re the lucky tom. Give her back to me.”

“Was there another sabertooth? A male?”

“Of course not, you idiot.”

He snapped the cellphone shut and threw it against a wall.

Jonesy disappeared into the woods behind French Lick Creek.

A week later she slunk back. Kevin waited, but she was not knocked up. How could she be?

He was pretty sure Jonesy was keeping down the deer and raccoon population, but nobody mentioned missing any dogs. Cats, maybe.

When he needed to go to work, he had to lock her in the trailer, and she gnawed at the door and chewed the knob. Thank God she didn’t have opposable thumbs; she was smarter than most dogs and cats. And some people.

But heaven, even Kevin and Jonesy’s twisted heaven, can never last.

He had to run an errand. The feed store, which closed in the evening, was the cheapest place to get her dogfood.

How she got out and trailed him wasn’t that hard to reconstruct. He’d been careless. As he walked out of the store, he nearly tripped over her sunning herself on the front steps.

And across the square was Rosebud. Rosebud wasn’t supposed to be out, either, but Mr. Trumbull was pretty lax too.

Rosebud hated cats. And Jonesy smelled like a big, unneutered cat. Rosebud killed cats. Smart cat owners in French Creek Township kept their pets indoors. As to farm cats, thank God Rosebud couldn’t climb trees.

Rosebud was across the square, urinating on a post. He stopped abruptly and put his leg down, tiny ears perked, nose twitching. Then he charged.

Halfway across the square, he suddenly changed his mind. Uncertain, he froze, then turned tail.

Jonesy wasn’t a long distance runner, but she was fast on a sprint.

What Kevin saw next was that weird smilodon leap. Jonesy charged and without stopping, rolled to her back, hugged Rosebud’s neck, then sank her saber teeth into the dog’s throat. The dog heaved into the air, Jonesy rolled over on top of him, and the two struggled. Rosebud had no offensive weapons but his jaws, and he’d never had to defend himself before, so his struggles turned to spasms and in seconds, he lay still.

Jonesy straddled the dog and raised her bloodied jaws in a terrifying roar.Everybody ran out of the feed store, the diner, and the gift shop.

Jonesy lowered her jaws and began to tear pieces out of the dog’s belly.

Kevin fought vertigo and nausea. Somebody yelled, “Anybody catch that on video?”

He charged across the square, screaming at Jonesy. Three guys tried to stop him, yelling, “It’ll kill you!” but he slid to a stop by the scene of carnage and yanked on Jonesy’s collar.

“He’s crazy!” somebody yelled.

Kevin realized he was crazy. Jonesy weighed maybe five hundred pounds by now. He’d read plenty of accounts of people mauled by previously docile big cats. Why did he assume Jonesy was different?

But he had to get the cat away, before somebody with a gun thought to use it.

A small, strong hand gripped his wrist.

Sara. Sara had the rifle her grandfather always carried in her truck. It had been a fixture in the truck for so long he’d forgotten about it. Nor did he wonder why she happened to be in town that day.

She gave him a serious look, then handed him the rifle. “It’s under control,” she yelled at the gathering crowd. “Back off before somebody gets hurt.”

The dog was mangled meat. Jonesy had ripped open its throat and its belly and was standing over it, sides heaving with desire, jaws quivering with hunger and triumph.

The crowd all took a step back.

“Get her in the truck,” Sara said. “You can still control her, can’t you?”

Jonesy roared again, a softer roar.

Very deliberately—he believed that crap about animals being able to sense fear, but also knew he could fake courage pretty well—he took a handful of the loose flesh at the back of Jonesy’s neck and said in a low growl, “Into the truck, bad girl.”

And it was over. Jonesy lowered her head and her stump of a tail and climbed into Sara’s truck. Kevin slammed the door.

Which left Sara and Kevin standing outside.

Sara was shaking. She reached up and grabbed Kevin’s ears and kissed him hard, tongue and all. Breaking loose, she said, “You’re an idiot! But, God almighty, you’ve got guts!”

What now? Kevin couldn’t leave Jonesy inside the truck; first, the sabertooth would demolish the inside. Second, it was a nice spring day, sunny, and heat would eventually build up and kill her.

But he could no longer predict the cat’s behavior. Jonesy’s blood was up; she might boil over.

“We have to get her out of here before the cops come,” said Kevin. He shrugged, grabbed Sara’s keys, and sprang into the truck.

Jonesy didn’t kill him. The rest of his life, he would wonder why. Because he was dominant? Because she loved him? Do top predators know love?

He let Jonesy out of the truck outside his trailer. She lingered, licking his hand and making begging grunts, so he opened one of the dogfood cans. She took it away from him and rasped the horse meat out, then lay down in the grass.

He went inside and wept.

Yes, somebody had videotaped it. Not the two animals running toward each other, not Jonesy’s karate-like attack, but the dog underneath Jonesy, thrashing, then still, and Jonesy pulling out intestines. The video played several times, always zooming on the dead pitbull, then panning to Kevin pulling the cat away. He lay on the bed staring at the ceiling

Thank God the cat looked like a female lion in the video. Some bystanders remarked on its teeth, but nobody connected it with the break-in and fire at the lab a couple years previous.

In the evening, Sara brought his car back. He didn’t know how she started it, but she came in uninvited and lay beside him on the bed.

They kissed. She said, “Lock the door.”

He did, obediently. “It won’t stop Jonesy, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Hours later, they dressed and talked about hunting for Jonesy. Did anybody recognize them from the video? It was really jerky. Nobody was knocking on the door. But Kevin’s mind roiled with possibilities: if somebody recognized Sara’s truck, they’d go to her house, then figure she was here. They’d come with guns for Jonesy. Jonesy was tame; she wouldn’t know to run.

Hellfire. Maybe Jonesy should be put down.

He said, “I always thought you still loved me a little. Unless this is just a stress reaction.”

She leaned into him, then grabbed and shook him, hard enough that he thought, she’s going to slug me next. She said, “I loved you, you jerk, but I couldn’t keep on loving somebody who was stupid enough to go to jail for what he didn’t do.”

“Ed is your cousin. I couldn’t rat out your cousin. And I never was sure the pot was his, anyway.”

“Idiot!” And she did slap him, not enough to hurt, then turned away, hiding tears. “Ed is a goddamn jerk. He got you in trouble, you shielded him. He’s my blood, but nobody I’d ever choose for family. Kevin, Kevin. I can’t be with a man who spent time in jail and who—who lives with this monster.”

“You like animals.”

She sobered. “I do. I’m not sure what you should do with Jonesy. Maybe we could get rid of her somehow? Not kill her. Find somebody who would take her and keep her safe. Would you do that if I asked?”

“And we’d be like before?” He didn’t say, And you’ll marry me, but he hoped she’d know that’s what he meant.

“We’d at least solve a problem. I have a friend who knows how to sell things on the Internet. Remember those people who tried to sell their kid on e-Bay?”

“They got caught.”

“They were stupid. E-bay’s not the option I had in mind. Listen, Ed isn’t the only shady character we know. Maybe we can find a place for her.”

He was reluctant. “Sara, don’t get her killed.”

He stayed up drinking cola after she left, but fell asleep in his lounge chair and awoke to early light and his cell phone ringtone.

“It’s happened,” said Hartley.

“What?” He thought she was talking about the attack on Rosebud.

“Sara Jones, that’s your girl, right? The cat’s over at her farm.”

“Yeah, but Sara will be okay. Jonesy loves Sara.”

“Judas Priest, boy, that cat is a top predator. Her definition of love is different from yours and mine. Big cats seem okay for years, then go off like a bomb and eviscerate somebody for no reason. For hunger. For a mate. Because a fly bit them on the nose.”

“She loves Sara—”

“Yeah, she loves you, too. And maybe she thinks Sara is a rival in love.”

That sounded crazy. But Kevin pulled his clothes back on and ran to his car.

He beat the police cruisers to the farm.

Jonesy was bashing the front door, roaring her earsplitting roar, not the roar of triumph she’d roared over Rosebud, not the roar of desire she’d yowled in heat. This was rage. And she was destroying the door.

As the first cruiser threw open its door and a cop sprang out with weapon drawn, the door imploded and Jonesy bounded inside.

Why had he thought Sara was safe? For some reason—oh God maybe it was sexual rivalry—Jonesy was after her.

Kevin bolted out of his car and up the porch stairs.

Inside, he smelled the fury of big, enraged cat.

“I’m up here!” Sara screamed.

He pounded up the stairs three at a time.

Sara’s voice came from the upstairs bedroom. Outside that closed door, Jonesy reared on her back feet, head scraping the ceiling. She clawed at the door knob, chewed at the door panels.

One door panel split and fell inward. Jonesy threw herself with renewed rage, and the door splintered.

“Here girl! Bad girl!” Why hadn’t he thought of bringing meat?

No. Meat wouldn’t work.

Sara was screaming, punching at the jammed window.

He raced up and grabbed the cat’s collar, but she turned and knocked him flat.

As he lay gasping from the blow, Jonesy lunged for Sara.

He crawled, dizzy, trying to rise despite the agony in his chest. He just reached the door when Jonesy rolled across the floor, sprang up, and sank her teeth into Sara’s throat.

Sara’s eyes went wide, green as Jonesy’s eyes. Her head snapped back. The cat ripped out her flesh together with a piece of her tee shirt, then howled, head thrown back, whiskered black nose grazing the ceiling light fixture.

Then the cat leapt through the window, splintering the frame.

Kevin crawled over to Sara. Her head was nearly separated from her body, blood gushing everywhere, in her beautiful golden hair, on her torn shirt, the cracked linoleum floor. More blood than he had ever seen.

He buried his face in the hollow between her breasts and sobbed.

Then he rose and looked out the window. Jonesy was loping into the barn.

He felt his way down the stairs, shattered. Sara was so beautiful. And Jonesy, his charge, his responsibility, his pet, had killed her. Pet? Oh, no. Not a pet. No more than an astronaut would call the moon a pet. No more than a composer would call his greatest symphony a pet. No more than a mountain climber would call Everest a pet.

He stumbled out into the light. Five police cruisers ringed the house now, and a paramedic van. One of the paramedics had the rifle from Sara’s truck.

“Cat still in there?” one cop yelled.

“Sara’s upstairs. She’s dead,” Kevin said. He sank to his knees and sobbed.

Hartley appeared. “The cat ran into the barn. I saw it.”

The paramedic raised the rifle, and another cop hauled open the barn door. He had a German shepherd with him on a short leash. Kevin pulled himself erect.

The dog strained forward, then turned to cower behind the cop. The cop broke into a run, at the same time trying to unholster his service revolver.

Jonesy exploded out of the barn. The cop with the dog fell down and Jonesy vaulted over them.

Kevin heard the sound of the rifle being cocked.

Kevin screamed, “No!” He launched himself at the rifleman.

The rifleman stumbled and the shot went wild.

A tawny streak—Jonesy—broke into the woods behind the barn and coursed out of sight.

Hartley screamed, “Why did you do that?”

“Killing the cat won’t make Sara be alive again.”

“You’re in denial! The smilodon will kill again.”

Kevin was silent. Hartley was right. He had no idea why he had pushed the rifleman. He felt his arms being jerked back, cuffs cut his wrists. But the sabertooth, the miracle from another world, was free.

“You were involved with Sara Jones,” Hartley said. “I thought you loved her.”

“I did. Not what matters.”

“This monster kills the woman you love, and you protect it?”

How could he explain?

Jonesy was never found, though attacks on domestic animals and deer increased in the county for a few weeks. Maybe the sabertooth died, maybe she went north, where the woods were thicker and the game larger.

Kevin went to jail. He got most of a college degree in there, gratis the state. He wasn’t street smart, that was obvious, but he had a talent for book learning.

His life had changed forever. He got out of jail, went to university, studied paleontology, but studiously avoided Franklin U and Hartley, though she begged him for his photos of the smilodon.

He never married.

But he had companioned a smilodon, brought back from the deeps of time. It had been like stepping on the moon. He had touched its white, saber-like teeth. And it made him immortal.

It was enough.

THE BURGLAR TAKES A CAT

Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block is a multiple winner of the Edgar Allan Poe, Shamus, and Maltese Falcon awards, is a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, and has received Life Achievement awards from France and the UK. He’s a devoted New Yorker and an ardent world traveler.

In “The Burglar Takes a Cat,” an excerpt from Block’s novel The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, the protagonist, Bernie Rhodenbarr, is a bookstore owner/burglar who features in a series of ten (so far) comic novels by Block. The author does not have a cat.

Look, it wasn’t my idea.

And it happened very quickly. One day back in early June Carolyn brought pastrami sandwiches and celery tonic to the bookstore, and I showed her a couple of books, an Ellen Glasgow novel and the collected letters of Evelyn Waugh. She took a look at the spines and made a sound somewhere between a tssst and a cluck. “You know what did that,” she said.

“I have a haunting suspicion.”

“Mice, Bern.”

“That’s what I was afraid you were going to say.”

“Rodents,” she said. “Vermin. You can throw those books right in the garbage.”

“Maybe I should keep them. Maybe they’ll eat these and leave the others alone.”

“Maybe you should leave a quarter under your pillow,” she said, “and the Tooth Fairy’ll come in the middle of the night and chew their heads off.”

“That doesn’t seem very realistic, Carolyn.”

“No,” she said. “It doesn’t. Bern, you wait right here.”

“Where are you going?”

“I won’t be long,” she said. “Don’t eat my sandwich.”

“I won’t, but—”

“And don’t leave it where the mice can get it, either.”

“Mouse,” I said. “There’s no reason to assume there’s more than one.”

“Bern,” she said, “take my word for it. There’s no such thing as one mouse.”

I might have figured out what she was up to, but I opened the Waugh volume while I knocked off the rest of my own sandwich, and one letter led to another. I was still at it when the door opened and there she was, back again. She was holding one of those little cardboard satchels with air holes, the kind shaped like a New England salt box house.

The sort of thing you carry cats in.

“Oh, no,” I said.

“Bern, give me a minute, huh?”

“No.”

“Bern, you’ve got mice. Your shop is infested with rodents. Do you know what that means?”

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to be infested with cats.”

“Not cats,” she said. “There’s no such thing as one mouse. There is such a thing as one cat. That’s all I’ve got in here, Bern. One cat.”

“That’s good,” I said. “You came in here with one cat, and you can leave with one cat. It makes it easy to keep track that way.”

“You can’t just live with the mice. They’ll do thousands of dollars worth of damage. They won’t sit back and settle down with one volume and read it from cover to cover, you know. No, it’s a bite here and a bite there, and before you know it you’re out of business.”

“Don’t you think you’re overdoing it?”

“No way. Bern, remember the Great Library at Alexandria? One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and then a single mouse got in there.”

“I thought you said there was no such thing as a single mouse.”

“Well, now there’s no such thing as the Great Library at Alexandria, and all because the pharaoh’s head librarian didn’t have the good sense to keep a cat.”

“There are other ways to get rid of mice,” I said.

“Name one.”

“Poison.”

“Bad idea, Bern.”

“What’s so bad about it?”

“Forget the cruelty aspect of it.”

“Okay,” I said. “It’s forgotten.”

“Forget the horror of gobbling down something with Warfarin in it and having all your little blood vessels burst. Forget the hideous spectre of one of God’s own little warmblooded creatures dying a slow, agonizing death from internal bleeding. Forget all that, Bern. If you possibly can.”

“All forgotten. The memory tape’s a blank.”

“Instead, focus on the idea of dozens of mice dying in the walls around you, where you can’t see them or get at them.”

“Ah, well. Out of sight, out of mind. Isn’t that what they say?”

“Nobody ever said it about dead mice. You’ll have a store with hundreds of them decomposing in the walls.”

“Hundreds?”

“God knows the actual number. The poisoned bait’s designed to draw them from all over the area. You could have mice scurrying here from miles around, mice from SoHo to Kips Bay, all of them coming here to die.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Maybe I’m exaggerating a tiny bit,” she allowed. “But all you need is one dead mouse in the wall and you’re gonna smell a rat, Bern.”

“A mouse, you mean.”

“You know what I mean. And maybe your customers won’t exactly cross the street to avoid walking past the store—”

“Some of them do that already.”

“—but they won’t be too happy spending time in a shop with a bad odor to it. They might drop in for a minute, but they won’t browse. No book lover wants to stand around smelling rotting mice.”

“Traps,” I suggested.

“Traps? You want to set mousetraps?”

“The world will beat a path to my door.”

“What kind will you get, Bern? The kind with a powerful spring, that sooner or later you screw up while you’re setting it and it takes off the tip of your finger? The kind that breaks the mouse’s neck, and you open up the store and there’s this dead mouse with its neck broken, and you’ve got to deal with that first thing in the morning?”

“Maybe one of those new glue traps. Like a Roach Motel, but for mice.”

“‘Mice check in, but they can’t check out.’”

“That’s the idea.”

“Great idea. There’s the poor little mousie with its feet caught, whining piteously for hours, maybe trying to gnaw off its own feet in a pathetic attempt to escape, like a fox in a leg-hold trap in one of those animal-rights commercials.”

“Carolyn—”

“It could happen. Who are you to say it couldn’t happen? Anyway, you come in and open the store and there’s the mouse, still alive, and then what do you do? Stomp on it? Get a gun and shoot it? Fill the sink and drown it?”

“Suppose I just drop it in the garbage, trap and all.”

“Now that’s humane,” she said. “Poor thing’s half-suffocated in the dark for days, and then the garbage men toss the bag into the hopper and it gets ground up into mouseburger. That’s terrific, Bern. While you’re at it, why not drop the trap into the incinerator? Why not burn the poor creature alive?”

I remembered something. “You can release the mice from glue traps,” I said. “You pour a little baby oil on their feet and it acts as a solvent for the glue. The mouse just runs off, none the worse for wear.”

“None the worse for wear?”

“Well—”

“Bern,” she said. “Don’t you realize what you’d be doing? You’d be releasing a psychotic mouse. Either it would find its way back into the store or it would get into one of the neighboring buildings, and who’s to say what it would do? Even if you let it go miles from here, even if you took it clear out to Flushing, you’d be unleashing a deranged rodent upon the unsuspecting public. Bern, forget traps. Forget poison. You don’t need any of that.” She tapped the side of the cat carrier. “You’ve got a friend,” she said.

“You’re not talking friends. You’re talking cats.”

“What have you got against cats?”

“I haven’t got anything against cats. I haven’t got anything against elk, either, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to keep one in the store so I’ll have a place to hang my hat.”

“I thought you liked cats.”

“They’re okay.”

“You’re always sweet to Archie and Ubi. I figured you were fond of them.”

“I am fond of them,” I said. “I think they’re fine in their place, and their place happens to be your apartment. Carolyn, believe me, I don’t want a pet. I’m not the type. If I can’t even keep a steady girlfriend, how can I keep a pet?”

“Pets are easier,” she said with feeling. “Believe me. Anyway, this cat’s not a pet.”

“Then what is it?”

“An employee,” she said. “A working cat. A companion animal by day, a solitary night watchman when you’re gone. A loyal, faithful, hard-working servant.”

“Miaow,” the cat said.

We both glanced at the cat carrier, and Carolyn bent down to unfasten its clasps. “He’s cooped up in there,” she said.

“Don’t let him out.”

“Oh, come on,” she said, doing just that. “We’re not talking Pandora’s Box here, Bern. I’m just letting him get some air.”

“That’s what the air holes are for.”

“He needs to stretch his legs,” she said, and the cat emerged and did just that, extending his front legs and stretching, then doing the same for his rear legs. You know how cats do, like they’re warming up for a dance class.

“He,” I said. “It’s a male? Well, at least it won’t be having kittens all the time.”

“Absolutely not,” she said. “He’s guaranteed not to have kittens.”

“But won’t he run around peeing on things? Like books, for instance. Don’t male cats make a habit of that sort of thing?”

“He’s post-op, Bern.”

“Poor guy.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s missing. But he won’t have kittens, and he won’t father them, either, or go nuts yowling whenever there’s a female cat in heat somewhere between Thirty-fourth Street and the Battery. No, he’ll just do his job, guarding the store and keeping the mice down.”

“And using the books for a scratching post. What’s the point of getting rid of mice if the books all wind up with claw marks?”

“No claws, Bern.”

“Oh.”

“He doesn’t really need them, since there aren’t a lot of enemies to fend off in here. Or a whole lot of trees to climb.”

“I guess.” I looked at him. There was something strange about him, but it took me a second or two to figure it out. “Carolyn,” I said, “what happened to his tail?”

“He’s a Manx.”

“So he was born tailless. But don’t Manx cats have a sort of hopping gait, almost like a rabbit? This guy just walks around like your ordinary garden-variety cat. He doesn’t look much like any Manx I ever saw.”

“Well, maybe he’s only part Manx.”

“Which part? The tail?”

“Well—”

“What do you figure happened? Did he get it caught in a door, or did the vet get carried away? I’ll tell you, Carolyn, he’s been neutered and declawed and his tail’s no more than a memory. When you come right down to it, there’s not a whole lot of the original cat left, is there? What we’ve got here is the stripped-down economy model. Is there anything else missing that I don’t know about?”

“No.”

“Did they leave the part that knows how to use a litter box? That’s going to be tons of fun, changing the litter every day. Does he at least know how to use a box?”

“Even better, Bern. He uses the toilet.”

“Like Archie and Ubi?” Carolyn had trained her own cats, first by keeping their litter pan on top of the toilet seat, then by cutting a hole in it, gradually enlarging the hole and finally getting rid of the pan altogether. “Well, that’s something,” I said. “I don’t suppose he’s figured out how to flush it.”

“No. And don’t leave the seat up.”

I sighed heavily. The animal was stalking around my store, poking his head into corners. Surgery or no surgery, I kept waiting for him to cock a leg at a shelf full of first editions. I admit it, I didn’t trust the little bastard.

“I don’t know about this,” I said. “There must be a way to mouseproof a store like this. Maybe I should talk it over with an exterminator.”

“Are you kidding? You want some weirdo skulking around the aisles, spraying toxic chemicals all over the place? Bern, you don’t have to call an exterminator. You’ve got a live-in exterminator, your own personal organic rodent control division. He’s had all his shots, he’s free of fleas and ticks, and if he ever needs grooming you’ve got a friend in the business.What more could you ask for?”

I felt myself weakening, and I hated that. “He seems to like it here,” I admitted. “He acts as though he’s right at home.”

“And why not? What could be more natural than a cat in a bookstore?”

“He’s not bad-looking,” I said. “Once you get used to the absence of a tail. And that shouldn’t be too hard, given that I was already perfectly accustomed to the absence of an entire cat. What color would you say he was?”

“Gray tabby.”

“It’s a nice functional look,” I decided. “Nothing flashy about it, but it goes with everything, doesn’t it? Has he got a name?”

“Bern, you can always change it.”

“Oh, I bet it’s a pip.”

“Well, it’s not horrendous, at least I don’t think it is, but he’s like most cats I’ve known. He doesn’t respond to his name. You know how Archie and Ubi are. Calling them by name is a waste of time. If I want them to come, I just run the electric can opener.”

“What’s his name, Carolyn.”

“Raffles,” she said. “But you can change it to anything you want. Feel free.”

“Raffles,” I said.

“If you hate it—”

“Hate it?” I stared at her. “Are you kidding? It’s got to be the perfect name for him.”

“How do you figure that, Bern?”

“Don’t you know who Raffles was? In the books by E. W. Hornung back around the turn of the century, and in the stories Barry Perowne’s been doing recently? Raffles the amateur cracksman? World-class cricket player and gentleman burglar? I can’t believe you never heard of the celebrated A. J. Raffles.”

Her mouth fell open. “I never made the connection,” she said. “All I could think of was like raffling off a car to raise funds for a church. But now that you mention it—”

“Raffles,” I said. “The quintessential burglar of fiction. And here he is, a cat in a bookstore, and the bookstore’s owned by a former burglar. I’ll tell you, if I were looking for a name for the cat I couldn’t possibly do better than the one he came with.”

Her eyes met mine, “Bernie,” she said solemnly, “it was meant to be.”

“Miaow,” said Raffles.

At noon the following day it was my turn to pick up lunch. I stopped at the falafel stand on the way to the Poodle Factory. Carolyn asked how Raffles was doing.

“He’s doing fine,” I said. “He drinks from his water bowl and eats out of his new blue cat dish, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t use the toilet just the way you said he did. Of course I have to remember to leave the door ajar, but when I forget he reminds me by standing in front of it and yowling.”

“It sounds as though it’s working out.”

“Oh, it’s working out marvelously,” I said. “Tell me something. What was his name before it was Raffles?”

“I don’t follow you, Bern.”

“‘I don’t follow you, Bern.’ That was the crowning touch, wasn’t it? You waited until you had me pretty well softened up, and then you tossed in the name as a sort of coup de foie gras. ‘His name’s Raffles, but you can always change it.’ Where did the cat come from?”

“Didn’t I tell you? A customer of mine, he’s a fashion photographer, he has a really gorgeous Irish water spaniel, and he told me about a friend of his who developed asthma and was heartbroken because his allergist insisted he had to get rid of his cat.”

“And then what happened?”

“Then you developed a mouse problem, so I went and picked up the cat, and—”

“No.”

“No?”

I shook my head. “You’re leaving something out. All I had to do was mention the word mouse and you were out of here like a cat out of hell. You didn’t even have to think about it. And it couldn’t have taken you more than twenty minutes to go and get the cat and stick it in a carrying case and come back with it. How did you spend those twenty minutes? Let’s see—first you went back to the Poodle Factory to look up the number of your customer the fashion photographer, and then you called him and asked for the name and number of his friend with the allergies. Then I guess you called the friend and introduced yourself and arranged to meet him at his apartment and take a look at the animal, and then—”

“Stop it.”

“Well?”

“The cat was at my apartment.”

“What was he doing there?”

“He was living there, Bern.”

I frowned. “I’ve met your cats,” I said. “I’ve known them for years. I’d recognize them, with or without tails. Archie’s a sable Burmese and Ubi’s a Russian Blue. Neither one of them could pass for a gray tabby, except maybe in a dark alley.”

“He was living with Archie and Ubi,” she said.

“Since when?”

“Oh, just for a little while.”

I thought for a moment. “Not for just a little while,” I said, “because he was there long enough to learn the toilet trick. You don’t learn something like that overnight. Look how long it takes with human beings. That’s how he learned, right? He picked it up from your cats, didn’t he?”

“I suppose so.”

“And he didn’t pick it up overnight, either. Did he?”

“I feel like a suspect,” she said. “I feel as though I’m being grilled.”

“Grilled? You ought to be char-broiled. You set me up and euchred me, for heaven’s sake. How long has Raffles been living with you?”

“Two and a half months.”

“Two and a half months!”

“Well, maybe it’s more like three.”

“Three months! That’s unbelievable. How many times have I been over to your place in the past three months? It’s got to be eight or ten at the very least. Are you telling me I looked at the cat and didn’t even notice him?”

“When you came over,” she said, “I used to put him in the other room.”

“What other room? You live in one room.”

“I put him in the closet.”

“In the closet?”

“Uh-huh. So you wouldn’t see him.”

“But why?”

“The same reason I never mentioned him.”

“Why’s that? I don’t get it. Were you ashamed of him? What’s wrong with him, anyway?”

“There’s nothing wrong with him.”

“Because if there’s something shameful about the animal, I don’t know that I want him hanging around my store.”

“There’s nothing shameful about him,” she said. “He’s a perfectly fine cat. He’s trustworthy, he’s loyal, he’s helpful and friendly—”

“Courteous, kind,” I said. “Obedient, cheerful, thrifty. He’s a regular Boy Scout, isn’t he? So why the hell were you keeping him a secret from me?”

“It wasn’t just you, Bern. Honest. I was keeping him a secret from everybody.”

“But why, Carolyn?”

“I don’t even want to say it.”

“Come on, for God’s sake.”

She took a breath. “Because,” she said darkly, “he was the Third Cat.”

“You lost me.”

“Oh, God. This is impossible to explain. Bernie, there’s something you have to understand. Cats can be very dangerous for a woman.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You start with one,” she said, “and that’s fine, no problem, nothing wrong with that. And then you get a second one and that’s even better, as a matter of fact, because they keep each other company. It’s a curious thing, but it’s actually easier to have two cats than one.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Then you get a third, and that’s all right, it’s still manageable, but before you know it you take in a fourth, and then you’ve gone and done it.”

“Done what?”

“You’ve crossed the line.”

“What line, and how have you crossed it?”

“You’ve become a Woman With Cats.” I nodded. Light was beginning to dawn. “You know the kind of woman I mean,” she went on. “They’re all over the place. They don’t have any friends, and they hardly ever set foot outdoors, and when they die people discover thirty or forty cats in the house. Or they’re cooped up in an apartment with thirty or forty cats and the neighbors take them to court to evict them because of the filth and the smell. Or they seem perfectly normal, and then there’s a fire or a break-in or something, and the world finds them out for what they are. They’re Women With Cats, Bernie, and that’s not what I want to be.”

“No,” I said, “and I can see why. But—”

“It doesn’t seem to be a problem for men,” she said. “There are lots of men with two cats, and probably plenty with three or four, but when did you ever hear anything about a Man With Cats? When it comes to cats, men don’t seem to have trouble knowing when to stop.” She frowned. “Funny, isn’t it? In every other area of their lives—”

“Let’s stick to cats,” I suggested. “How did you happen to wind up with Raffles hanging out in your closet? And what was his name before it was Raffles?”

She shook her head. “Forget it, Bern. It was a real pussy name, if you ask me. Not right for the cat at all. As far as how I got him, well, it happened pretty much the way I said, except there were a few things I left out. George Brill is a customer of mine. I groom his Irish water spaniel.”

“And his friend is allergic to cats.”

“No, George is the one who’s allergic. And when Felipe moved in with George, the cat had to go. The dog and cat got along fine, but George was wheezing and red-eyed all the time, so Felipe had to give up either George or the cat.”

“And that was it for Raffles.”

“Well, Felipe wasn’t all that attached to the cat. It wasn’t his cat in the first place. It was Patrick’s.”

“Where did Patrick come from?”

“Ireland, and he couldn’t get a green card and he didn’t like it here that much anyway, so when he went back home he left the cat with Felipe, because he couldn’t take him through Immigration. Felipe was willing to give the cat a home, but when he and George got together, well, the cat had to go.”

“And how come you were elected to take him?”

“George tricked me into it.”

“What did he do, tell you the Poodle Factory was infested with mice?”

“No, he used some pretty outrageous emotional blackmail on me. Anyway, it worked. The next thing I knew I had a Third Cat.”

“How did Archie and Ubi feel about it?”

“They didn’t actually say anything, but their body language translated into something along the lines of, ‘There goes the neighborhood.’ I don’t think it broke their hearts yesterday when I packed him up and took him out of there.”

“But in the meantime he spent three months in your apartment and you never said a word.”

“I was planning on telling you, Bern.”

“When?”

“Sooner or later. But I was afraid.”

“Of what I would think?”

“Not only that. Afraid of what the Third Cat signified.” She heaved a sigh. “All those Women With Cats,” she said. “They didn’t plan on it, Bern. They got a first cat, they got a second cat, they got a third cat, and all of a sudden they were gone.”

“You don’t think they might have been the least bit odd to begin with?”

“No,” she said. “No, I don’t. Oh, once in a while, maybe, you get a slightly wacko lady, and next thing you know she’s up to her armpits in cats. But most of the Cat Ladies start out normal. By the time you get to the end of the story they’re nuts, all right, but having thirty or forty cats’ll do that to you. It sneaks up on you, and before you know it you’re over the edge.”

“And the Third Cat’s the charm, huh?”

“No question. Bern, there are primitive cultures that don’t really have numbers, not in the sense that we do. They have a word that means ‘one,’ and other words for ‘two’ and ‘three,’ and after that there’s a word that just means ‘more than three.’ And that’s how it is in our culture with cats. You can have one cat, you can have two cats, you can even have three cats, but after that you’ve got ‘more than three.’”

“And you’re a Woman With Cats.”

“You got it.”

“I’ve got it, all right. I’ve got your third cat. Is that the real reason you never mentioned it? Because you were planning all along to palm the little bugger off on me?”

“No,” she said quickly. “Swear to God, Bern. A couple of times over the years the subject of a dog or cat has come up, and you’ve always said you didn’t want a pet. Did I ever once press you?”

“No.”

“I took you at your word. It sometimes crossed my mind that you might have a better time in life if you had an animal to love, but I managed to keep it to myself. It never even occurred to me that you could use a working cat. And then when I found out about your rodent problem—”

“You knew just how to solve it.”

“Well, sure. And it’s a great solution, isn’t it? Admit it, Bern. Didn’t it do your heart good this morning to have Raffles there to greet you?”

“It was all right,” I admitted. “At least he was still alive. I had visions of him lying there dead with his paws in the air, and the mice forming a great circle around his body.”

“See? You’re concerned about him, Bern. Before you know it you’re going to fall in love with the little guy.”

“Don’t hold your breath. Carolyn? What was his name before it was Raffles.”

“Oh, forget it. It was a stupid name.”

“Tell me.”

“Do I have to?” She sighed. “Well, it was Andro.”

“Andrew? What’s so stupid about that? Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Andrew Carnegie—they all did okay with it.”

“Not Andrew, Bern. Andro.”

“Andrew Mellon, Andrew Gardner… not Andrew? Andro?”

“Right.”

“What’s that, Greek for Andrew?”

She shook her head. “It’s short for Androgenous.”

“Oh.”

“The idea being that his surgery had left the cat somewhat uncertain from a sexual standpoint.”

“Oh.”

“Which I gather was also the case for Patrick, although I don’t believe surgery had anything to do with it.”

“Oh.”

“I never called him ‘Andro’ myself,” she said. “Actually, I didn’t call him anything. I didn’t want to give him a new name because that would mean I was leaning toward keeping him, and—”

“I understand.”