MAGICATS II, page 4
“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 calendars 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. We can.”
“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 musk-rat 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 II, 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-downess, 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 kitt
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
Bright Burning Tiger
by Tanith Lee
Tanith Lee is one of the best known and most prolific of modern fantasists, with well over a dozen books to her credit, including (among many others) The Birth Grave, Drinking Sapphire Wine, Don’t Bite the Sun, Night’s Master, The Storm Lord, Sung in Shadow, Volkhavaar, Anackire, Night Sorceries, and the collections Tamastara and The Gorgon. Her short story “Elle Est Trois (La Mart)” won a World Fantasy Award in 1984, and her brilliant collection of retold folk tales. Red as Blood, was also a finalist that year, in the Best Collection category. Her most recent books are the massive collection Dreams of Dark and Light, and a new novel. The Blood of Roses.
Here she takes us deep into the haunted jungles of India and even deeper into the primordial jungles of the mind, to a place where terror can reach the intensity of ecstasy, beauty can cut like a knife, and truth can be as fiery and searing as a bright burning tiger . . .
* * *
Long, long ago in London a girl of my acquaintance, finding her ginger feline asleep by the gas fire, struck a pose, one foot lightly on the cat’s back, announcing: “Shot it in Injun, y’know,” and she had so perfectly caught, in voice and stance, the pompous waking dream of the British raj, that it became a game often repeated; only ended at last by the intolerance of the cat to playing tiger’s skin. As for me, the joke summed up a basic personal attitude. I had then an allergic indifference to a type of man and his pursuits, as unlike myself and mine as those of an alien species. Later, when I learned more of the facts, some of the glibness of the joke had to be rethought. There are occasionally among tigers maneaters, which can prey on the remoter villages of the jungle-forest, cruel, maddened things that seem to hate, killing from lust rather than hunger, leaving the half-devoured bodies of women among the stalks of the fields at sunrise; by night a nightmare shadow, so a man will be afraid to go out of his hut to make water in case death has him. There is sometimes a need for a bullet, which the sneer and the attitude had formerly cloaked. Much later again, when I met Pettersun, I came to understand, unwillingly at first, maybe always unwillingly, something of what drives one hunter, something actually of the uncanny bond which can come to obtain between one who hunts, one who is hunted. Certainly to perceive the slender division that exists, always interchangeable. For the man may misfire, the weapon stall, the beaters run away, and the dark come down which is the tiger’s country, the land of night. And in the forests of the night, the golden beast with his nocturnal sight, the unalloyed weapons of his mouth, the blades of his feet, his great strength—the creature capable of eating men—that is no mean adversary. It isn’t in me to enter, to want to enter, the magic circle of any of this. Not merely that I lack the courage, though I do lack it, but because I could never kill anything either ritually or callously that I absolutely did not have to. And luckily, I never have had to kill anything, beast or man. For this reason, perhaps, I can tell my story, safe by a sort of mitigating accident. I wonder.
It was just outside the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta that I met the fat man. Part of my living comes from carrying out paid research for others, and my mind was still idling somewhere between here and the Jadu Ghar, my feet already turning toward the hotel. Softening the slums and palaces, an orange sun bled low over the Maidan. The fat man blocked the view, halting before me on the steps and introducing himself. I can’t recall who he said he was, but he knew me from an article that had carried my photograph. I was thinking with annoyance he would now engage me in argument over something I had written and forgotten, when he told me Pettersun wa
“How?” I was shocked by aptness, not surprise, and the query was half-rhetorical. It was fairly obvious what must have occurred, nor was I mistaken.
“A tiger killed him. Funny business. Damn funny. I’ve given myself the responsibility, you might say, to let people know, people who knew him.”
“I never knew him well.”
“Didn’t you? That’s all right then. But still, a funny business.” I looked at the blankness of his dark silhouette with the amber sunset crackling around the fat edges of it. He wanted to say some more. “Funny,” he said.
“You mean amusing, or peculiar?”
“Oh, not amusing. Not at all. Peculiar. Yes, that’s it.”
“Why?” I said.
“Well, he wasn’t off hunting it, you know. He was in bed.”
“Exactly. And the thing came in, right into the bungalow, and tore him in pieces. Pretty horrible, I gather. Yes, pretty damn horrible.”
It certainly sounded odd. Monkeys, rats, snakes, these come into houses, not tigers that I ever heard of. The fat man stood, gloating over his own dismay, mine. I was compelled to go on, ask questions.
“Where did this happen?”
“North,” he said, and named a small town. “About ten miles from there. A couple of villages. One of the old rangers’ bungalows. He was living there, out in the jungle. Just drinking a lot, not doing anything. Then there was a scare apparently, a maneater. They’d heard about Pettersun and came and asked him if he’d take it on, and Pettersun said, No, he was through with all that. But he started cleaning his gun—you remember that gun of his with ivory—”