There was a poor old lady who had lost her mind. She lived between the dark woods and the sea, and owned a russian blue cat. Though devoid of reason or memory, she never lost her generosity; though the cat was also in ill health, his devotion and loyalty to his mistress never faded. And thus began their descent into tragedy. For not long after she had fed him, whether it was morning, noon, or night, she would soon forget. Then, seeing his empty bowl, she would feed him again. In the beginning, the cat assumed this was the reward of retirement. He would end his days in one long, grand feast. As he ate his second or third bowl, he gratefully looked up at her now and then, thinking he was already in paradise. There is, however, no paradise on earth. As her madness progressed, so too the promptness with which she refilled his bowl. What had begun as a pleasant dream of eating now became a nightmare. Sometimes, he would delay or hide behind the cast iron stove or under the sofa, but she would sense his hesitation and begin to softly lecture him in a voice filled with hurt, worry or confusion. Was he losing his appetite? Had he fallen ill? Was her food no longer to his taste? He would try to explain, but could never bring himself to tell the full truth, for it pained him to see how her mind no longer worked and how its absence burdened her spirit. With a great sigh, the now heavy blue cat would pad over to the steel bowl, sigh again, and then lower his head to dutifully eat his meal. At least this brought joy to her; she would stroke his ears and fur, and wander off for a few minutes to iron the dishes or sew potato skins together until the next meal only moments later. The cat invented ways to gag down the now tasteless feed. First, he imagined a different kind of bird for each meal. There were sparrows, thrushes, doves, canaries, larks, blackbirds, nightingales, starlings, swallows, jays and shore birds. When he could no longer think of any more birds, each meal became a fish: goldfish, carp, eels, anchovies, mackerels, sardines, saury, fighting fish, baby salmon, trout, the cataphractus, smelts and sweetfish. The cat ate all the herbs of an imaginary garden, then the rodents, the wattle fences and telephone poles. He ate the switchgrass, silver grass, goldenrod, dandelions, cat tails, rushes and lilies. Then he began to eat the trees—yews, cypresses, cedars, elms, firs, cottonwoods, pines, horse chestnuts, linden trees, willows, black locusts, acacias, maples, and the golden larch. Through tears and cramps, he ate the gravel roads, riverside stones, the scree from the cliffs, boulders and mountains. In a moment of hallucinatory reprieve, he ate the cumulus, cirrus and nimbostratus; he ate the ocean currents, the waves, the driftwood and the glass fishing floats. Stabbing pains ripped through him as he ate comets, meteors and shooting stars. The cat ate the planets and the sun. Night and day he ate, until a great black void of stars and angels remained. The cat sighed. Then the cat whispered to nobody in particular that he would never eat the sacred stars or blessed angels. The angels heard his prayer and began to slowly glide toward him. The cat saw the stars flicker into darkness.
The marvellous tailor made cloth kites, montgolfiers, clothing for kings, tapestries for commoners and even bindings for books. Throughout his life he distrusted librarians, rodent shadows, hawkers, linguists and surgeons. One of his greatest inventions was a pair of scissors that uncut cloth; another was the needle that could close the holes stitched into fabric. Although well loved for his craft, his greatest secret was that he had not been born a swordsmith or a philosopher. To think and to wright seemed far more desirable than to deal in burnables. In the end, he sank into pyromania. Some nights, he burned carpets and mannequins in ash pits. Other nights, he burned the books he never wrote on the crafts he never mastered. One of his favourite tricks was to steel middling trees, replant them on the shore, and set them on fire. In one such fire, a white cat leaped out of the flames and stared into his eyes, enlightening him with the infinite calm of stars and silence. It is thought that he never burned another tree, but escaped reality forever on a box kite or montgolfier, forever in the company of the white cat and the secrets of scissors.
The white cat walked through the silver grass while the philosopher strolled on the gravel. A winding river followed the country road. What are words? the white cat asked. They are running water, said the master. The cat thought about it and stopped to gaze at the midautumn moon. They walked on and strayed from the road to climb a great hill. Below and beyond the other side of the hill, the coastline curved with its smokestacks, breakwaters and steamers. What are thoughts? the cat suddenly asked. They are smoke, the philosopher replied, lighting a cigarette. They strolled down the hill. The moon kept its distance. Back at the old house with steel siding, the philosopher laid out the bedding while the cat watched a late night historical drama full of swordplay on the black and white television encased in an impossibly heavy, wooden box. The master sat on the floor at a low table to smoke one last cigarette and finish his cup of low grade tea. A sound of papery wings rustled within the shade of the ceiling lamp. What are feelings? the cat asked, once the television was turned off. They are just moths. The cat yawned and stretched. The sound of waves and a gentle storm splashed against the old house. What are prayers? the cat whispered softly after the philosopher had crawled under his quilt. They are the wind. The man absent-mindedly stroked the puzzled creature’s head between its ears as he drifted in and out of sleep. The wind made the trees scratch at the sides of the house. What is the good life? the cat asked even more softly. Through a distant dream of long boats, whales and marlins, the philosopher answered. A long walk at night with a white cat.
In the empty castle, there are no mice left to eat, and sometimes the cat is hungry. Of course, it is better to eat fish, for their goodness lasts forever, and there are ways to get to the moats and the river through the cellars, storm drains, and catacombs. Nevertheless, there is the emptiness of time. Wandering the long stone hallways and climbing the infinite towers of gray stone and gray brick, the cat collects bones, wires, old keys, magnetic coils, batteries, fragments of music boxes, and glass marbles to assemble his robotic rats. The idea first came to him when, alone and sad, he drew a face and some whiskers on a pebble with a stub of charcoal, and then battered it about as if it were a mouse. Not long after, he manufactured his first mouse and wound it up. It ran here and there, trailing its rubber tail. The cat was amused and chased it at once. Then it went on to build an army of mice out of metal scraps. The engines whirred, and drew figure 8s in the dust, and the music of the mice danced throughout the castle. Sometimes, the cat forgets, and almost breaks his jaws on the steel skin of his contraptions. One day, he should venture out of the castle and search for real prey. In the meantime, the robotic mice are beautiful, and they help him to forget the hunger, the water leaking into the cellars, the rotting galleries, the broken pillars, and the sinking foundation. And sometimes the mousecraft makes the cat forget the absence of another cat whose forehead he would touch with his own forehead, until their skulls became typewritten paper, their bodies electric eels burning with one sustained prayerful, reasoning and transcendent thought of what it means to walk in the void as phantom tigers and ethereal panthers in a dream of bones and dust.
The cougar awoke into a blue night of rust and went out to investigate. All the cities were crumbling, and rivers bled ferrous water through the streets. It followed their streams, meowing but hearing no answer. All the buildings had been grayed with a film of petrified ash. It was a dirty white cougar of the ancient white mountains. It had traveled through the rock countries and had played with shards of broken glass and reams of tape, miles and miles of twisted tape and roll film left to blacken in the ever blue twilight. It did not know how long it had hibernated, but it had never imagined awakening to a world without sun and only the light of strange stars. In some of the streams, it found suspicious fish, and ate them raw. It meowed at the lampposts that still flickered, and listened intently to the automated factories still threshing and smelting and refining even though there was nobody left on the face of the machine planet. It investigated the reservoirs and shops where there were headless mannequins in lingerie or phonographs that played without end. And it stopped to listen and to scratch at things, and it wondered if everything were hiding in the music. And what did music mean?
In the other land of heretic monks who whispered of the pure nothing and crusaders who wore the black cross, the mouser guarded the long spiral staircase of hewn stone. The stairwell was as high as it was bottomless, and he lived in the shadows somewhere between vertigo and insomnia. The rats were the worst threat to the castle and cathedral tower. With his blade he fought them, through crackles of phosphorus matches, electricity and whispers of radiation and radio waves. It was the tango of life or death. Only after a fury of slashing would he find sleep on some quiet stair. The stairs ascended, descended and swirled. It would have been better if there had been circles of incandescent angels to better light the void instead of the rainfall of rats like black clouds. Sometimes, he awoke after nightmares of chasing long tails like gray eels, freefalling, being chewed by glowing teeth, or being crushed by spring-loaded iron jaws. The mouser awoke in the night to see the dead rats playing in life and in death as if he did not exist. They danced and posed. And he thought that it was possible that the rats lie. And there was too much darkness to contemplate even with the lanterns of his golden eyes. The mouser realized that he lived in a mousetrap.
The sardines, like ancient republics, are always in grave danger. The ocean is the color of their dreams, dark blue and filled with clouds of unspoken thoughts and aeolian winds trapped in bubbles passing back and forth through their gills. It is the secret life of piscatory rei naturali. Some vanish beyond the jaws of sharks and whales. Some fall sick, bloat and drift on their sides, rotting and bleeding slowly into the water. Most are lifted up, after wandering in the labyrinths of seines and weirs. Once caught and transported in brine, they continue to dream in the dark prussian blue of the other, earlier and wider sea. When they meet the air, their sense of danger evaporates like morning rain on the pavement, and their souls escape for a farewell party. They smoke cigarettes and drink sherry with the fishermen. They lay on newspapers in the good sun and listen to short wave fados and stare back at hungry gray cats. They bathe in boxes of icewater and ice cubes. The sardines swim down the cobblestone streets. There are whitewashed houses and tiled roofs. They look at porcelains with blue and white pictographs of sardines that also mirror sea and cloud. They find gentle palms and stone saints. They get lost in old cathedrals and wishing wells. Many have reported on their sidetrips through markets and restaurants, and have described frying in olive oil as something not unlike fireworks or pop candy for their scales. Being chewed has been compared to music for their skin and a massage for those parts of the body that are neither bone nor flesh. Being gutted by kitchen knives and slowly boned by forks is also therapeutic in inexplicable ways. Others have reported on the descent into digestive chemistry and the almost epicurean spaces of atomic collisions, which again are not unlike fireworks or pop candy for the mind. Invariably, their souls return to the moment of death to begin their interrupted ascent into the ether. Like lazy kites or montgolfiers, their little souls rise in elegance, not like careless flying fish, but like sardines, who are sleepy children of the gentle elements, caught up into silver nets of wind and cloud. The five oceans shrink into a black raindrop. The sky is intolerably blue.
[credit for piscatory rei naturali goes to Romanus Cessario]