This is a short story that I wrote in Taipei in 2011. It was inspired by a cat in David Mitchell’s (awesome) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Picture by Jono Hunt of Ghostworks Design.
Under the consumptive green of a forest canopy, Nikolai trudges his way through a walking coma. Three weeks have elapsed since his escape, a span that now feels like a lifetime. Gone is the optimism that had kept him going at the outset; the thought that every step was taking him closer to freedom. This sunny disposition was quickly usurped by hunger, thirst, and a wicked case of swelling, such that now he only concerns himself with the thought of whether he’ll die without seeing his toes again.
Life on the lam has been particularly hard on Nikolai and he’s painfully aware that it didn’t have to be this way. Back when he was a boy, his father tried to imbue him with a bare minimum of survival skills, but Nikolai was never focused enough to absorb any of it. How often had his attention been diverted by a peculiar cloud or a fish jumping in the river during one of his father’s instructional talks? The pain in his stomach causes him to look back at those distractions with contempt now. They had cost him valuable skills like discerning poisonous from delicious and putting the stars to some use beyond serving as a constant reminder of his existential insignificance.
Time passes, muscles are cannibalized, and Nikolai’s lucidity collapses inward. He begins to get the feeling that he’s not the only one wandering around this forest. Where a snapping sound would have been discounted as an animal a week ago, it is now taken as infallible proof of pursuit. He gets into the habit of turning around suddenly, hoping to catch a glimpse of whoever is following him. Other times he just stands and stares intently into the depths of the forest; they’re in there somewhere, hiding amidst the breathing patchwork of leaf and shadow.
He slips on a rotting log and falls to the ground, where he remains quite content not to move a muscle. He isn’t hurt, just so very tired. His body is experiencing several different kinds of pain at once, from fireworks exploding in his stomach to throbbing in his limbs to the dreaded agony of swallowing. It’s all too much to bear, and he would have given up long ago if not for the one hope hidden deep inside him: the hope that he might get to see her once more…
Oh I’m sorry, am I boring you? I only ask because you have the look of someone who’s worrying about whether they left the stove on. I think ‘distant’ is the word for it. Kind of cheeky, don’t you think? After all, here we have a guy who’s separated from his love by terrible suffering, massive distance and who knows, maybe eternity as well.
Alright I get it, you’re busy, lots on your mind, I understand. You just get comfortable and prepare to be amazed. Oh, and one last thing: the stove better be off, because the whole house is comin’ down without you so much as even noticing if it’s on. Such is the depth of narrative ecstasy that’s about to be thrown down.
All of a sudden, a soft meowing sound drifts from the thick underbrush in front of Nikolai. He looks down to see an orange tabby cat that is beaming with effortless confidence. It looks back at him with an expression that seems to say, ‘this part of the story has dragged on long enough. I’ll lead you to the next act.’
‘How peculiar,’ Nikolai thinks to himself, ‘that this little cat is the same shade of orange as my uncle’s coat of arms.’ Exhausted, Nikolai submits himself completely to the comforting thought that the cat is heaven sent. He follows it along a winding path through the woods. It occasionally disappears into the underbrush, only to reappear moments later and meow at him impatiently. Eventually, Nikolai stumbles out of the trees and finds himself at the edge of a plain. A fort is visible in the distance, and he makes out his uncle’s colors flying on top of the wall. Overwhelmed with relief, he falls to his knees and puts his hand over his heart. ‘I am saved,’ he sobs, ‘but with God as my witness: the baron won’t be so lucky!’
While this outburst plays out, the orange tabby slips away unnoticed. Before disappearing into the woods once more, the cat takes one last look at its erstwhile companion. It seems to be wondering what adventures lie in store for Nikolai.
John hovers precariously for a moment before letting himself drop into the comfortable plush chair below him. He is sitting in a darkened room made stuffy by too many pieces of old, dusty furniture. The pictures on the wall form a chronology of John’s life; that is, they would if they weren’t buried under a thick layer of dirt and grime. Their continuity is occasionally interrupted by an ugly, water-stained outline of where a picture used to be. Light limps into the room from the only source it’s able to- the window that John is currently staring out of.
In spite of several interesting focal points in the yard- the birds, the dog, the three teenagers pushing around a smaller kid- John is completely focused on his own reflection in the glass. Enthusiasm hasn’t come easy for him lately, whether for trifles like his team’s playoff push or for the more weighty concerns of his granddaughter’s impending arrival into the world. He feels all too powerfully the spiritual weight of being advanced in years and he doubts that there will be any new epiphanies coming along that can unravel some of the more tangled knots of his past. The shallowness of his breath, the pain in his limbs, the prison of his living conditions, it all conspires against him and whispers in his ear: you have loved as pointlessly as you have lived. John sighs and closes his eyes.
He’s lying on his back, watching her body hover three feet above him. Everywhere is bathed in a light that is both powerful and soothing. He looks up at her beautiful face, untouched by age, and sees her as he did the very first time, through eyes pure and uncorrupted by subsequence. And then the ground opens up like the jaws of an abyssal shark and he’s falling, falling, falling.
So I take it you fancy yourself above the laments of an old and broken man? Well, forgive me if I sound patronizing, but sometimes a story is as much about an internal journey as it is pirates or crime scene investigation. You don’t think you have anything in common with this guy? Let’s talk in forty years.
John’s body hits the ground with a dull thud. He slowly pulls himself up, examines his arms and legs, and looks around sheepishly at the monochromatic nothingness that surrounds him. He becomes aware of a fat cat in front of him, one that’s wearing a full adidas tracksuit and standing on its hind legs. Though somehow he had remained unconvinced through the fall, John now knows that he’s dreaming.
The cat addresses him directly, ‘Oy John, you may want to have a look at that special tree in your back yard, if you know what I mean.’
John replies that he doesn’t. The cat looks annoyed.
‘You know, that secret spot that the two of you shared…’
John continues to shake his head, dumbfounded. The cat is visibly angry now.
‘Just dig a hole at the base of your oak tree, ok? That is, if you can manage as much.’
The cat turns and trots into the nothingness.
John wakes up in a cold sweat. He runs out to the shed, grabs a shovel, and starts to dig next to the oak tree in his backyard. Two feet down, his shovel strikes a metal box. He pulls it out, brushes it off, and opens it. The box is stuffed with letters that he’s never seen before, though he recognizes the handwriting immediately. He carefully reads through each one, pausing only to wipe away tears that are streaming down his face. After he finishes reading the last one, he heaves a little sigh and sits in silence, content to listen as the birds carry on their enigmatic conversations. It occurs to him that he has no idea what the score in the ballgame is.
‘Apparently God has a highly developed sense of the theatrical,’ Marcus thinks to himself wearily as he wipes the moisture from his brow. He’s standing in knee-high grass at the edge of a vast field that is flanked on all sides by thick forest. The sky is spitting fat blobs of cold rain and showing a shade of gray that suggests things are going to get worse before they get any better. Three young soldiers are standing in a line behind him. One of them is fidgeting with his gun and the other two are telling jokes in hushed tones and chuckling nervously. All of them are trying not to think about the task that they’re about to be called on to perform. This task concerns the man who’s been clumsily tied to a tree on the edge of the field. He is lolling his blindfolded head back and forth and whimpering in a language that none of the soldiers can understand. He sounds like a wounded animal, eliciting a confusing mix of empathy and anger that causes the youngest soldier to grip his gun a little tighter.
It’s not Marcus, but the doomed prisoner who’s the important character here. Sure, he may seem pathetic now, but being tied to a post can do that to you. This guy’s quest for vengeance framed the penultimate climax of the book, or rather the exciting series of events that landed him his current predicament. But he’s kind of a pain-in-the ass, really, because I need him to survive for the thrilling conclusion as well. Thus, if he’s not placed in this peril in the first place, fickle readers will stop reading around chapter five. But now he must escape from an inescapable situation and that sort of thing just shouldn’t be possible…Whoops, don’t mind me, just thinking out loud!
Marcus sees no reason to delay the inevitable. He shouts at the soldiers to line up and prepare to fire. They raise their guns and fix their sites on the blindfolded prisoner. Marcus extends two fingers and stabs at the air above him. Rain is falling harder now. Just as he’s about to bring his arm down and end the man’s life, he feels something warm brushing up against his boot. He looks down, fingers still high in the air, and sees a calico cat looking up at him with an expression that seems to say, ‘we should be friends.’
Marcus thinks back to better times. He’s at home in the old country, before the war started. It’s his son’s eighth birthday but there’s no money for gifts. Luckily, his wife’s sister surprises everyone by bringing home a kitten that she found on the road in from town. Marcus remembers finding something in the boy’s face that day, something that he wanted to hold on to for the rest of his life. He discovered an absolute in the beauty of his son’s innocence. This memory had served to inoculate him against the darkness that consumed his country in the years following his son’s death.
The soldiers eye their commander with mute curiosity. His hand has been in the air for about three minutes, though none of them feel terribly inclined to push the issue. When Marcus snaps back to the present, he knows that he’s done with all of this. He orders his soldiers to lower their guns and return to the barracks. They don’t question this fortunate turn of events, choosing instead to leave the field without exchanging another word with their commander. Marcus knows that this decision might cost him his life, but fifth business never has good odds to begin with anyways. He looks around for his new friend, but the calico is nowhere to be found.
In a dimly lit room, tucked away in the slums of the underground city of Catropolis, three cats are engaged in a heated discussion. An orange tabby is standing at one side of the room, staring into a crackling fire. Behind him are a calico and a fat cat in an adidas tracksuit, both of whom are reclining on mats. The tabby turns and addresses the fat cat:
‘Serving the one true Narrative God may well be dangerous, but if doing the right thing were always safe, we would live in a world without evil.’
He ignores exaggerated scoffs from the fat cat and continues.
‘Humans are flawed creatures. Their minds thirst for narrative integrity like their bodies do water. But flawless narratives demand a higher level of precision than the human intellect can accommodate. Thus, they must be assembled by the Narrative God, and we in turn must serve at his pleasure. It’s as simple as that.”
‘I say figs to their narrative integrity,’ the fat cat interjects, ‘I think a few broken narratives will do the devils some good.’
‘Perhaps,’ the tabby responds with a look of genuine contemplation, ‘but human civilization has been built on stories, and these stories have always followed a logical and predictable progression. If we pull out the lynchpin, then who knows what the humans will do. Their whole moral fabric could unravel, sending them back into a primordial state. They may even turn on our topside brethren and start eating them or wearing their corpses as hats… Or could it be that you’ve forgotten about our brothers?’
The fat cat jumps to his feet and spits in disgust.
‘The only thing I’ve forgotten is who the fig made you the final word in cat wisdom!’
The calico cat, who up until now was content to watch from the sidelines, positions himself between the other two.
‘Stop this foolishness. We’re on the same side here!’
‘Sometimes I wonder’ the fat cat replies, never taking his eyes off the tabby.
Their conversation is interrupted by a violent pounding on the front door. Two of them fire questioning looks at the tabby, who shakes his head and gestures that he has no idea who it could be. Before any of them can respond, the door slams to the ground and a procession of cats in military uniforms encircle the three dumbstruck comrades. An officer wearing an ornate ceremonial uniform and a monocle saunters into the room. It’s clear from his expression that he’s relishing the moment.
‘Well what do we have here?’ The monocle cat beams, ‘but the last followers of a soon-to-be forgotten god.’
‘Better a fallen god than no god at all.’ hisses the fat cat. One of the cat troopers leans in and slugs him with the butt of his gun, causing him to double over in pain.
‘Slaves to the humans don’t have a voice in the new Catropolis.’
The cats are tied to posts in a drill ground behind a large army barracks. For all three of them, the floodlights of Catropolis have long been replaced with the inside of a blindfold. Someone is reading out a deposition:
‘And for so brazenly impeding the rebirth of our above-ground brethren in a wild and natural state that is befitting the dignity of our race, choosing instead to willfully encourage a slothful and parasitic co-habitation with humans, you are sentenced to death by firing squad.’
Shuffling can be heard as the cat troopers assume their positions. The tabby’s blindfold is slowly dampened with tears. The fat cat flushes with shame despite himself; his human tracksuit itches under the hateful eyes of the cat troopers. Only the calico keeps his calm. He’s praying to the Narrative God. This kind of predicament isn’t new to him, and he knows that there are ways out of it. He asks God to forgive the transgressions of the cat troopers and carefully notes his long years in the service of narrative integrity. He deeply believes in the importance of his work, and in the overarching importance of cat-human solidarity. He prays and prays, and then prays some more…
Sorry brother, I deal strictly in cats. I mean, what else is there? Maybe poisonous butterflies or someth-
Gunshots ring out over Catropolis.