MAGICATS II, page 17
You are there, lion.
You are there, lion . . .
As the afternoon wore on she began to worry about going down to milk Rose. Unmilked, the cow would start tugging at her tether and making a commotion. That was likely to upset the lion. He lay so close to the house now that if she came out that too might upset him, and she did not want to frighten him or to become frightened of him. He had evidently come for some reason, and it behoved her to find out what the reason was. Probably he was sick; his coming so close to a human person was strange, and people who behave strangely are usually sick or in some kind of pain. Sometimes, though, they are spiritually moved to act strangely. The lion might be a messenger, or might have some message of his own for her or her townspeople. She was more used to seeing birds as messengers; the four-footed people go about their own business. But the lion, dweller in the Seventh House, comes from the place dreams come from. Maybe she did not understand. Maybe someone else would understand. She could go over and tell Valiant and her family, whose summerhouse was in Gahheya meadow, farther up the creek, or she could go over to Buck’s, on Baldy Knoll. But there were four or five adolescents there, and one of them might come and shoot the lion, to boast that he’d saved old Rains End from getting clawed to bits and eaten.
Moooooo! said Rose, down by the creek, reproachfully.
The sun was still above the southwest ridge, but the branches of pines were across it and the heavy heat was out of it, and shadows were welling up in the low fields of wild oats and blackberry.
Moooooo! said Rose again, louder.
The lion lifted up his square, heavy head, the color of dry wild oats, and gazed down across the pastures. Rains End knew from that weary movement that he was very ill. He had come for company in dying, that was all.
“I’ll come back, lion,” Rains End sang tunelessly. “Lie still. Be quiet, I’ll come back soon.” Moving softly and easily, as she would move in a room with a sick child, she got her milking pail and stool, slung the stool on her back with a woven strap so as to leave a hand free, and came out of the house. The lion watched her at first very tense, the yellow eyes firing up for a moment, but then put his head down again with that little grudging, groaning sound. “I’ll come back, lion,” Rains End said. She went down to the creekside and milked a nervous and indignant cow. Rose could smell lion, and demanded in several ways, all eloquent, just what Rains End intended to do? Rains End ignored her questions and sang milking songs to her: “Su bonny, su bonny, be still my grand cow . . .” Once she had to slap her hard on the hip. “Quit that, you old fool! Get over! I am not going to untie you and have you walking into trouble! I won’t let him come down this way.”
She did not say how she planned to stop him.
She retethered Rose where she could stand down in the creek if she liked. When she came back up the rise with the pail of milk in hand, the lion had not moved. The sun was down, the air above the ridges turning clear gold. The yellow eyes watched her, no light in them. She came to pour milk into the lion’s bowl. As she did so, he all at once half-rose up. Rains End started, and spilled some of the milk she was pouring. “Shoo! Stop that!” she whispered fiercely, waving her skinny arm at the lion. “Lie down now! I’m afraid of you when you get up, can’t you see that, stupid? Lie down now, lion. There you are. Here I am. It’s all right. You know what you’re doing.” Talking softly as she went, she returned to her house of stick and matting. There she sat down as before, in the open porch, on the grass mats.
The mountain lion made the grumbling sound, ending with a long sigh, and let his head sink back down on his paws.
Rains End got some cornbread and a tomato from the pantry box while there was still daylight left to see by, and ate slowly and neatly. She did not offer the lion food. He had not touched the milk, and she thought he would eat no more in the House of Earth.
From time to time as the quiet evening darkened and stars gathered thicker overhead she sang to the lion. She sang the five songs of Going Westward to the Sunrise, which are sung to human beings dying. She did not know if it was proper and appropriate to sing these songs to a dying mountain lion, but she did not know his songs.
Twice he also sang: once a quavering moan, like a housecat challenging another torn to battle, and once a long, sighing purr.
Before the Scorpion had swung clear of Sinshan Mountain, Rains End had pulled her heavy shawl around herself in case the fog came in, and had gone sound asleep in the porch of her house.
She woke with the grey light before sunrise. The lion was a motionless shadow, a little farther from the trunk of the fig tree than he had been the night before. As the light grew, she saw that he had stretched himself out full length. She knew he had finished his dying, and sang the fifth song, the last song, in a whisper, for him:
The doors of the Four Houses
Surely they are open.
Near sunrise she went to milk Rose, and to wash in the creek. When she came back up to the house she went closer to the lion, though not so close as to crowd him, and stood for a long time looking at him stretched out in the long, tawny, delicate light. “As thin as I am!” she said to Valiant, when she went up to Gahheya later in the morning to tell the story and to ask help carrying the body of the lion off where the buzzards and coyotes could clean it.
It’s still your story, Aunt May; it was your lion. He came to you. He brought his death to you, a gift; but the men with the guns won’t take gifts, they think they own death already. And so they took from you the honor he did you, and you felt that loss. I wanted to restore it. But you don’t need it. You followed the lion where he went, years ago now.
The Color of Grass, the Color of Blood
With only a handful of elegant and intricate stories, like this one, R.V. Branham has established a reputation for himself in the last couple of years as a writer to watch, and as one of the most distinctive and original new voices in SF. Branham’s fiction has appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Midnight Graffiti, Full Spectrum, Writers of the Future, and elsewhere, and at last report he was at work on a novel. Born in Calexico, California, he put in stints as an assistant X-ray technician, a rape crisis counselor, and an engineering research consultant on his way to becoming a writer, and now lives with his wife in Lawndale, California.
In the darkly witty story that follows, Branham offers us a sly, cat’s-eye view of life with a human family—a view that, as you’ll discover, is not exactly a flattering on . . .
* * *
It is morning, and it has been a long long time since you lapped up the half and half they left out last night. A long long time.
You push that door farther ajar and step into their room. They’re asleep: Your Lady and That Shit, a male who always bullies you and feeds you after he’s fed his Seshat, your Nemesis, a fat brown and beige snotty beast whose eyes are no grey-bluer than yours, but who laid claim to this household years ago, ages ago, nearly decades/millennia/almost eons ago.
It is morning and the sun is up and Your Lady is being a shit (a lowercase shit, but a shit nonetheless), pretending to be asleep. On her side. Now you see the opportunity. She’s sleeping on her side. So you leap up and decide to crouch on her ribs. She is a heavy sleeper, but if you knead enough/if you dig your claws into her ribs enough/if you perhaps draw blood the color of grass, then maybe, maybe, you will be fed.
She groans, grunts something, and tosses over, almost crushing little you, sweet little you!
He wakes up, The Shit Turd does! He’ll feed you, after he’s fed his Seshat. His eyes open for an instant, then shut. There is a noise, an imitation of many bees buzzing buzz. He reaches over, The Shit does, and knocks over the small table, and the buzzing stops.
He gets up and you weave into and out of his steps; he thinks you’re so cute, being such a greedy guts for your breakfast . . . the condescending son of a dog. You sometimes fanta
He bends down and strokes you. You purr, involuntarily. And bite him. The bite is voluntary, diabolically so.
He laughs. The Tapered Shit Turd. The Scarab’s Delight. The condescending son of a dog-headed demon.
But, wait—? Where’s his Seshat—? She looked a bit under last night, wouldn’t budge from the sofa, even with all the racing and taunting and teasing you did last night, after Your Lady and That Shit had gone off to snore, loudly.
He leaves the room a moment—you follow . . . he’s gone to look after his Seshat, that fat slob with the funny walk and the nice fur who always cleans herself, preening/posing/dozing. Not a fun Seshat at all. Not like you with your Thai-American gramma and Calico mum, your Hokusai bandit’s mask and energy and speed and hunger. You’re hungry, where’s your breakfast?
Goodmorningoodmornin, you cry out. God, forget about that boring Seshat and feed me! That’s what you say, more or less. You also hint about how long you’ve needed a new collar. One that kills fleas, or at least drives them away.
He finally comes back, after an eternity, during the which thereof you have watched the layer of tree needles deepen another paw’s worth, watched the shadows shift, slightly, but damn if they have not shifted.
He gives you dry food. He always gives his Seshat the wet stuff, the good stuff, with gravy and cereal grain and real meat.
Not like the dried meat turds. Food pellets. Food shit.
He doesn’t give that crap to his Seshat!
But you’re hungry, so what can you do but dig in? It’s a Seshat’s life sometimes, sometimes. Like a smug pharaoh he leans to pet your ears, which sometimes you do enjoy, so you give him your second morning bite.
TWO: THE STRANGE CAGE
He opens a high door and reaches up for something, which he eats. Later, he takes the chair and stands on it. Above the cold food place are two shelves; on the top shelf is a strange cage, which smells:
—faintly of the puddles of oil under chariots, yet the cage is solid instead of liquid,
—of shredded old papers lining the cage’s bottom, reminding you of stale dead trees,
—and also of many other Seshats, including your fat Nemesis. You realize it is their fear that you smell.
You run to hide.
The last time he took you in that, you had to go in the chariot, with bright lights (and water from sky), and go to a place where they drugged you and cut you open and sewed you back together. All just because you’d wanted to out and see all the males. (Males are not Seshats, who after all are the embodiment of learning and wisdom; nor can they properly be said to be Bast or Sekhet . . . They’re just males, seed carriers.)
You’ve run to hide. But he doesn’t go after you; he puts his Seshat in the strange oblong cage.
You jump on the yellow grey table and look out at the grey blue birds and the trees which someday will bury the world in needles. Needles the color of blood or of grass.
He brings the strange cage into your room, and sets it on the table. You go to see how that fat Seshat is doing. She must be sick, she’s too tired to file a proper protest. Now, what sort of Nemesis is a very ill and very fat Seshat? You remember another time when you were put in that strange oblong cage, taken to that place again, where they poked a something that was long up your rectum, held it there, and took it out and shook it, and then had the gall to pretend to examine it.
You would have gladly feasted on their eyeballs/the balls of their feet/their testes. Anything round enough to play with while eating it. You sometimes wonder if the male seed carriers put Your Lady’s male, That Shit, up to it. Is this a male conspiracy against the Seshat?
You decide you have had enough of the strange oblong cage.
THREE: YOUR LADY’S DESK
After The Shit who lives with Your Lady has departed with his Seshat, you are all alone.
You run gleefully all over the place, finally, in your bedroom (which is only truly your bedroom when That Shit has departed) and find Your Lady still pretending to be asleep on Your Bed. (Your Lady had actually gotten up before That Shit, twice, each time getting the chair That Shit got and standing up on it and reaching for food. And each time Your Lady had ignored your requests for food.) You jump onto the bed, go up to her face, and noticing crumbs of food around her lips, begin to lick. She tosses her hands up, almost hitting you, and turns over. You go over to the other side and begin to clean yourself.
A Seshat’s ablutions are a most important daily ritual, almost as important as food and water, clean sand in a clean box, strokes and pats, and the catch of the day.
It is quite tedious, boring, really. Your Lady is sleeping despite your best efforts. Your Nemesis has been taken away by That Shit who never feeds you before his Seshat, except when his Seshat’s too sick to eat. So you take a nap, dreaming of birds to defeather/to decapitate/of balls with bells in them/of the Great River the color of grass the color of blood and of your friend Pharaoh and his temples you guarded and of granaries you also guarded and of mice/better mousetraps/of dinner.
You wake up, much later in the morning. You can tell it is later by the play of shadow and more shadow on Your Lady.
So you get up. Stretch. Clean yourself again. And go to your favorite space, a work area with two desks. Your Lady’s is the best. Stacks of paper to lounge on, drawers to hide in—although Your Lady does not like that. A strange thing happens to you, sometimes, when you are caught in a drawer: a jet of water hits you in the face. It’s not piss, not from the other Seshat. It is unfathomable, almost preternatural. Where does that water come from?
You find an open drawer, a nice enclosed space like the box your mother kept you in when you were so, so little, so helpless. You climb in and go to sleep.
You hear footsteps, coming nearer. You open your eyes. Your Lady is screaming at you out Out OUT! She points something bright, gleaming like the sun, at you, and before you can escape you’ve been squirted again by that strangely anonymous water and been grabbed by the scruff of your neck, mewling and protesting, and taken out the front door.
Then the door slams shut!
You call out for quite a while, to no avail!
Looking up at the damn tree which is deluging the world with needles, day after week after month after season, you remember the nest, the chirrupy cherubs, the tasty baby feathery morsels. Wet food.
FOUR: CATCH OF THE DAY
You are halfway up the tree, when who should show up but mama grey blue bird! She is alternately attacking you and going down to the ground to act as a decoy to lead you away from the nest. This is the most frequent tactical error that mama birds make.
You sit there, pretending to clean yourself, as though you’d already eaten!
And, slowly, you move a bit further down.
At one point, mama bird makes a fatal error. She is right below you, and just as she is about to fly, you pounce onto her, teeth into her back, kicking at her with your hindquarters, trying to disembowel her. You decide to play with her a while, instead, chewing on her wings. The left one and then the right one.
The window to your bedroom opens, as well as the curtains. You see Your Lady, and feel a welling, a surge of pride. Look, Lady, See, Mistress, A Birdie For Our Lunch! She comes out with a mallet, and you run away. That Shit who lives with Your Lady likes to take a mallet and kill your catch before you are even properly through playing with it.
She learned this treachery from him. Your mother told you of male treachery before you’d been weaned. And she was right. Mother Seshats are always right.
So, apologizing to Your Lady, you run away with your catch. Your Lady goes muttering mumble muttering back into the house. After an interval you get tired of chewing on the right wing and let go, holding her down with your paws, so you can bite into the left wing again. At that moment, the
Just then, there is a gleam of silver and a noxious oil smell, also a chariot noise, announcing the arrival of That Shit, probably returning with his Seshat.
You run through the piled detritus of tree needles and cones and dog turds, and catch your birdie. You bite into her back and hold her down.
The Shit comes around the corner, holding the oblong strange cage, which is open. How odd, strange. Did your Nemesis die? You’d feel wholly horrible if that were the case.
From your left peripheral vision, you notice a blur, an approaching something. Suddenly your fat Nemesis is before you. Faker, you knew! All along you knew! Faker!
Acting with speed—the sort of speed you had assumed could never be attained with all that fat to act as inertia—she has pounced on your birdie! The malingering faker’s taken your bird!
Furthermore, she’s stolen the trophy, torn off the head, causing a stream of blood the color of grass to darken the sidewalk.
She runs off, and hides under the house.
The Shit who brought her back from death’s door, all he can do is laugh. Laugh at you.
What can you do but take your birdie, what’s left of it, and finish it in the neighbor’s yard?
That afternoon, catching sun and ants and flies, you consider your options:
There’s running away.
There’s getting even:
—with Your Nemesis,
—with Your Lady, for giving her tacit approval to this wretched status quo. (After all, Pharaoh would have flogged someone for cruelty to Seshats.)
—with That Shit, that Essence of Excrescence who lives with Your Lady, who you might trip as he was about to get into his shiny and gleaming bath, or who you might attack after he started snoring, going for his fluttering testes and hairy eyelids; maybe you could start with small gestures, like pissing on his books or scratching them, or scratching the bookcase, or attacking his favorite wool sweater, and gradually work your way up to a lethal assault,