Friday, February 18, 2011

A Closed Door

In which the first day of summer arrives, and the Cat instructs the woman on how she must proceed. A threshold is crossed.
Be advised, Gentle Reader, that the post you are about to read is Part Four in a serialized tale. You might want to read Part One: The Coming of the Cait Sidhe and Part Two: The Lands Beyond the Lands We Know  and  Part Three: The Cat Speaks   if you have not already.

"Soon it will be the first day of Summer," the Cat noted, smiling at the sun which shone in at the window. "I can only stay until the elderberry harvest, so you see the time is short. Nevertheless, it may be time enough to do what we must."

The woman nodded gravely. Gazing with great trust into the eyes of the Cat, she said at last,

"What is it then, that we must do?"

The Cat looked thoughtful, but said no more, only purred upon the woman's lap in the morning sunshine. At length he wriggled, letting her know he wished to be let down, so she loosened her hug. More elegant than the finest gazelle, the Cat leapt from the woman's lap to go  prowling about the cozy if somewhat chaotic kitchen. He sniffed into corners;  he examined the close places under the furniture, and swatted with his paws at motes dancing raucously in the sunbeams.  The woman watched him for a time, holding the warm mug of her morning tea in her hands, smiling. She got up and tidied the kitchen, then went upstairs to bathe and dress herself for the day. When she returned, the Black Cat had made himself into a perfect circle, and was sleeping the contented sleep of cats in a bright patch of sunshine.

For several weeks the Cat stayed with the woman, though he never spoke again. If she found this strange, she made no comment,
trusting that when he had something again to say to her in human speech, he would do so. Together they would go out to feed the cats who lived next door in the ramshackle house, the Black Cat and the woman together. Although he twined between her legs, tail held high like a flag, purring, as she carried food and water to her neighbors, he always hung back at the end, respectfully, and did not enter the territory of the great ginger tom who was patriarch and king to the cat tribe. It is a ritual of tom cats, which we, not being one of them, may not fully understand. Let us merely note that the forms were followed, honour satisfied, and peace maintained.

At night the woman's dreams were less fevered, for the great Black Cat lay watchful by her side, purring loudly. The foul twisted thing kept its post on the rooftop, watching, always watching, and listening with its great leathery ears, though it made no overt move of aggression, biding its time with sinister intent.

The woman's spirits lifted somewhat during this time; she went about her tasks with a bit more vigor, smiling when her eyes fell on the form of the cat who had come to befriend her. Still, to anyone who had eyes to see, she stood like a lone tree, sere, dry, and leafless, whose sap had not reawakened from its winters sleep, while all around the other trees and plants were bursting into vivid life. She was become brittle; when the winter ice burdened her branches and the wind from the north blew fierce, she would break. This the thing on the roof knew; being old and patient it bided its time, waiting.

The days passed, growing warmer and longer. Eggs hatched in the nests of the robins, and babies were born in the nests of the squirrels. The paw of the Black Cat healed under the woman's tending; he grew sleeker and fat with her feeding. One evening, having just finished a particularly fine meal and tended to the grooming of his face and whiskers, sitting by a small, sweet smelling fire in the fading light, the cat turned a luminous and solemn gaze upon the woman and spoke again.

"Tomorrow is the first day of summer," he observed gravely. The woman, rocking and knitting by the fire nodded agreement.

"Indeed it is, Sir Cat," she replied.

For a very long time, the Cat regarded the woman in the unblinking way of cats. She felt his regard upon her, and smiled a small smile, knowing he would speak in his own good time.

"You are a wonderful Cat and a dear friend," she told him at last, not looking up from her knitting. "Your companionship has meant a great deal to me these past weeks." She sighed deeply and happily, something very like contentment wrapping itself around her heart. The Thing on the roof lashed its tail and listened.

Cat came smiling, rubbing against the woman's legs, then went off on a prowl around the house, pouncing at dust bunnies and chasing his own tail, eyes wide and bright and alert. It's an evening ritual of cat-kind, the evening frolic, as many of you may know. He stopped abruptly before a closed door leading off the kitchen, a door that was never opened, and said,

"Madame, where does this door lead? What lies beyond?"

The face of the woman became pale. The Cat noticed the slight tremor in her hands as she paused in her knitting. He sat down before the door, sat up tall and straight and dignified in the elegant way of cats, ears perked politely in her direction.

"It leads to a cellar, O Cat," she replied, drawing a deep breath to do so. "Only to an unused cellar." The woman drew another deep breath, steadying her hands, and resumed her knitting.

For a long time, her friend the Cat gazed upon the woman where she sat knitting by the sweet smelling fire in the lingering twilight on the last day of spring. Anyone watching might have thought it was the yarn and the flashing needles which held his eye, for the affection of cats with regard to string of all kinds is well known in the world of men, and indeed in other worlds besides. But it was not the string which held his attention. With his great green eyes which shown like lanterns, the Cat gazed on the woman's heart. At length he spoke.

 "It is true what you say," he said in his deep, melodious voice, "that the door leads to a cellar." The Thing on the roof gnashed its teeth, listening, and its venomous drool dripped on the roof, hissing. "But it leads not only to a cellar," the Cat remarked with calm, "nor is that cellar entirely unused."

The woman's busy hands ceased their movement; fell to her lap. She raised her head to gaze into the great round eyes of the Cat, who did not look away. A log from the fire popped on the hearth;  a brilliant shower of sparks went dancing upward into the chimney. "Tomorrow is the first day of summer," said the cat.

Bundling up her knitting and putting it carefully away, the woman went to sit next to the cat on the little three legged stool she kept in the kitchen. Her own eyes had grown large and luminous in the descending dark. She reached down and stroked the silky fur on the back of her friend. "Yes," she said at last. "The first day of Summer."

"I have spoken to your neighbor across the lane," said the Cat. She is wise and good, and will see to the feeding of the cats next door while we are gone.

"You need have no concern on their account, for the Thing-on-the-Roof will not try to harm them. Indeed, if it did, Ginger Tom would put up a fierce fight, and the Thing-on-the-Roof might not like the outcome." The Cat continued to speak in quiet and gentlemanly fashion, though his eyes never left the woman's face.

"What do I need to do?" asked the woman, her voice steady, though certes the Cat knew her heart beat rapidly against her ribs. Inwardly he applauded her pluck.

With great wisdom he advised her. "You must pack a small package," he told her, "but only a small one, for you will not have the strength to carry a heavy load. Pack a loaf of bread for yourself, and a bit of cheese for me, and tie them up in a large clean handkerchief woven and sewn by your own hands. Fill with water from the well the old earthenware flask which you have in the very back of  your cabinet. There is a basket, woven by your grandmother, on a shelf in the pantry; take it down and place the food and water within it. Go to your garden, collect some branches of sweet smelling rosemary, to cover over all in the basket. Refresh yourself, bathe if you like, and dress in clean clothes of your own making, from cloth you wove yourself, from yarn spun of your own spinning. Wear nothing and carry nothing that is not from your own garden, or made by your own hand. Heed my advice, carry no more nor less. We must depart when the fire on the hearth burns down to ash."

If she thought these strange instructions, the woman kept such thoughts to herself, and did as her guide the Cat had bidden her. From her linen drawer, smelling of sweet lavender, she took a large, clean white handkerchief woven and stitched by her own hand, made of thread of her own spinning. Into this she placed a fresh loaf of bread she had baked just that morning, and a generous bit of cheese for the cat. On a high shelf in the back of her pantry, long forgotten, she found the large well made basket the Cat had described. Into this she placed the bread and cheese, tied up in the linen cloth. She began to search for a knife to put in the basket as well, but paused under the watchful eyes of the cat, who nevertheless said nothing and made no movement.

She thought, "The Cat did not say to take a knife to cut the bread and the cheese," and so she ceased searching for a knife and instead sought out the earthenware flask the Cat had mentioned. She found it where he said she would, and, taking her scissors with her, went to the garden, where she cut an armload of rosemary from the tall hedge, and to the well, where drew up a bucket of cold, clean water, and filled the smal flask.

"It seems a small flask for a journey," she thought, but nevertheless did not seek out a bigger water carrier, since the Cat had specifically asked for this one. When the basket was all packed, the woman went up stairs, unbound her hair, and bathed in the fresh clean water she had brought from the well. It was cool, and she shivered slightly in the light of the moon, which had now risen. She dressed as the Cat had advised, only in clothes of her own manufacture, including her knitted stockings. But when she came to the matter of shoes, she faltered. Nowhere in her possessions were there shoes of her own making. She went downstairs to inquire of the Cat what she should do.

"Nevermind," he told her. The night is not too chill; you can go barefoot, so as not to ruin your stockings." To this the woman acquiesced. Removing her stockings, she stood barefoot before the fire, her graying hair falling in waves to her knees, unbound.

"What shall I do with these?" she asked the Cat, indicating the stockings she had just removed. "Shall I leave them here?"

The Cat got up from where he sat next to the closed cellar door, and came to examine the stockings. They were finely wrought of white wool, with vines and flowers of red and blue and rich green worked into the knitting, twining up the leg. "They are fine workmanship," commented the Cat, admiringly. "Tuck them in amidst the rosemary in the basket. It may be they will find a use."

When all was done and prepared, the Cat and the woman sat companionably before the sweet smelling fire, each dozing a little, the woman more deeply than the cat. She woke to find the ashes dead upon the hearth, the moon vanished, and the Cat, his forepaws upon her knees kneading gently to wake her.

"Madam," he said, "It is time." The woman nodded and stood, smoothing down the folds of her skirt. The Cat stood before the closed cellar door. She understood she must open it.

Heart hammering against her ribs for reasons she scarce discerned, the woman took up her grandmother's basket, carefully packed as the Cat had instructed, and walked in her bare feet across the cool slate of the floor to join him. She placed her right hand on the latch. Hesitating only a moment, she lifted the latch,and tugged at the door.

It was stiff, from long disuse, and hard to open. She tugged again, and again, yet again, stumbling back a little as the door finally gave way, swinging abruptly open. She stood on the threshold, panting a little. Wooden stairs, painted blue, led down into the darkness. The cat blinked once at her, blinked the great green orbs of his eyes, then dived into the darkness, and was gone.

Alone on the threshold, in the almost total darkness, the woman hesitated. "Cat!" she called. "O Cat!" but there was no answer. She scanned the darkness below her for sight of two great round eyes, floating in the darkness, for the shadowy outline of a graceful feline form, but there was nothing. The darkness of the cellar and the darkness of his coat hid the Cat completely, and he offered no answer of any kind to her calls.

She considered getting a candle; indeed, she lifted one small bare foot to take a step back into her cozy if chaotic kitchen. The Thing-on-the-Roof laughed with delight. Perhaps she heard it, perhaps not. "The Cat," she thought to herself, "made no mention of a candle." And so, though she wanted one sorely, she abandoned the thought of a friendly light, and plunged forward into darkness.

Of what befell the Cat and the Woman in the not-quite-unused cellar and beyond, Is will taken up again, Gentle Reader, in Into the Darkness and Out Again;  But join us on Monday for more Colony Chronicles.

Thanks for reading!

stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, now this I liked very much. :) Taking things made only by her own hands, or passed down from her ancestors seems to be of the utmost importance, and has a fine history in folklore and other traditions. The woman also had many opportunities to do other than she was instructed, or to step away from the difficult task at hand, but yet she finds the strength to continue on.