Friday, February 25, 2011

Into the Darkness and Out Again

In which the Cat and the Woman travel through Darkness, a Light is born, and a Door is discovered.
Be advised, Gentle Reader, that the post you are about to read is Part Five 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  and Part Four: A Closed Door  if you have not already.

She stood at the top of the stairs, facing into darkness. She began to feel her way down, one hand along the rough stone wall of the foundation for balance; the other clinging tight to the basket her grandmother had woven so many years ago. The air was cold and damp feeling; she could see nothing. The woman feared cobwebs, and spiders, for she came down here but seldom, and never without a light. None brushed her face or ran across her arm, however; she acknowledged her gratitude. With bare feet she felt her way to the bottom of the stairs.

The wooden stairs came to an end; the soles of her feet felt cool flagstone. She stood on the floor of the basement, walls of stone and earth rising 'round her. For all she could tell, her eyes could have been closed, so dark, so lightless was the place. One hand still resting lightly on the stone wall, she glanced back over her shoulder, but the door had swung closed; not a drop of light followed her down. She inhaled the earthy scent of soil and stone; her left hand touched the roughness of stone walls, the soles of her feet rested on the smoothness of stone flags. She listened and listened for the Black Cat, but cats are quiet creatures when they choose to be. What she heard was the beating of her heart, the pulse of blood washing in her ears.

For a minute or an aeon she stood thus, paused at the foot of the stairs.

"Cat," she whispered, breath but barely escaping her lungs. "O Cat!"

No sound came from the darkness, which clung about her on all sides. She began to feel disoriented. She felt as if she floated in space. Only the cool stone beneath her feet oriented her, anchored her, told her which way was down.

She gazed at a point before her eyes, which seemed, somehow, more present than other points around her. She blinked; there in the darkness floated two round lanterns, luminous and green as if lit from an inner fire. The eyes of the cat regarded her. His black body in the lightless place was quite invisible. Closing his eyes, he disappeared entirely.

"O Cat," the woman whispered, gazing at the point where the eyes had been. The green lanterns unshuttered again.

"Madame, I am here." His voice was warm and musical. The weight of his body pressed up against her legs; she reached down to stroke his fur, drawing from the contact both comfort and courage. A loud and grinding purr began. Somehow, the darkness was less dark in the company of a purring cat.

"Come." The cat's musical voice came once more to the woman's ears. "We must continue our journey."

"Cat," said the woman, the thoughts of spiders and cobwebs returning, "I cannot see."

"I can see quite well in the dark," remarked the Cat. "There is nothing in this place to fear." A quick brush of a comforting furry tail came against the woman's legs. "Trust me to lead you."

The woman swallowed, her throat dry, her tongue thick and sticky in her mouth, but she agreed, and the two set out together. When she took her hand away from the steadying wall, the woman thought she might lose her balance and fall into nothingness, but the smooth friendly flagstones pressed their encouragement up against the soles of her feet, whence it flowed into her legs and steadied her as she took one step, then another, then another. The Cat continued his loud purr, and so they passed on, through the basement of the woman's house, together.

On and on and on they walked, and the woman had not thought to count her steps. She lost all sense of time. They had been walking for days perhaps. Perhaps it had been years. Whole worlds had been born in the night sky, lived, spawned life, died and flamed into non existence as they walked. Or it could have been only a few groping moments. She could not tell. Nor could she have told which direction to turn to retrace her steps. The cosmos had shrunk to the smooth cool flags beneath her feet, and to the sound of the Cat's warm purr ahead of her in the darkness. This was all there was. Perhaps it was all there ever had been.

After unknown ages had passed, the cat spoke. " 'Ware," he said, warning her. "We approach a wall. Do not walk into it and bruise yourself." The woman stopped where she was.

There amidst the darkness so dark she could not even see her own hand before her face, the woman reached out; her fingertips brushed foundation stone. Gratefully she reached both hands toward it, like an anchor. The stone was cool, rough and welcoming beneath her touch. She lay her cheek against the wild roughness of it. She reached down to stroke the soft fur of the Cat. His purrs were loud and full of comfort and courage.

In a moment he spoke to her. "To your left, is a bucket, hanging on a hook in the wall. It's a bit above your head, but if you stretch, you should be able to work it down. The bucket contains things with which we can make a light.

Trusting her friend the Cat, the woman did as he suggested. Although still unable to see a thing with her eyes, she searched with her hands, until her fingertips just brushed the bottom of what felt to be a small wooden bucket. Standing on tiptoe in her bare feet, the woman stretched and stretched, as the Cat encouraged. Slowly, she worked and worried at the bucket, lifting and pushing bit by bit until finally it came free and plunged down. The woman caught it tightly to her breast, there in the darkness; none of the contents fell to the floor.

"Well done," came the voice of the cat from behind the green lanterns of his eyes. "Now, let us see if you can make fire."

The woman sat herself on the flagstone floor, her back propped against the friendly stone foundation wall. The Cat came to her, and shone the unshuttered lanterns of his eyes into the bucket. By that palest of light, and by the touch of her clever fingers, the woman discerned what lay within the small bucket.

"Why, Cat!" Surprise was clear in her voice. "There are no matches here, nor candles! This is flint and steel, and a bit of dry moss.

She looked into the great green eyes which turned to her. They seemed to her like Christmas ornaments, floating in a sea of midnight.

"I've never made fire from flint before."

The eyes of the Cat blinked once in the darkness, then continued their watchful regard.

"If we are to have light," he said, "you must try." And then he sat up and began his toilett; although she couldn't see him, the woman could hear the licking of paws, the washing of whiskers and ears and nether regions. She sat in the dark dumbfounded, and a little afraid.

Well, she thought to herself, at last. We can sit here in the dark forever, and somehow she knew that to be true, or we can make the attempt. It will probably fail, but it will certainly fail if I do not try. My grandmother knew the skill, for when I was a little girl she told me of it, though indeed I have never seen it done. Well, she thought, no point fretting on that. Let us see what we may learn. And so with her fingers she examined the contents of the bucket, and tried to think what she might do.

The bucket itself, though rough wood on the outside, was lined all within with a lining of glazed crockery, a second little bucket that fit tightly and snugly within the wooden one. From that the woman discerned that, could she get the fire going, she could keep it going by letting it burn in the little crockery carrier. She had never seen such a thing before, but made no comment.

Also inside was a steel striker, and a palm sized piece of flint. She knew from her grandmother's tales that she should hold the striker in one hand, and strike it strongly against the stone. If she was lucky and skillful, a small spark would leap from that striking; if she could catch that spark and nourish it, it would grow into a little flame.

The woman set about her work. She could work only by touch, for she still she could see nothing; Cat finished his grooming and closed his eyes, though he continued to purr encouragement. She felt carefully the inside of the bucket; there was a generous supply of dry moss, which she fluffed and arranged in the bottom. There was a tiny bundle of dry twigs. This, she thought, would feed the newborn flame for a while, once it had devoured the moss, but not for long. Still, it was something with which to make a beginning, and so she did. She took the twigs from the bucket and placed them carefully by her knee. Kneeling over the strange little bucket, striker in her right hand and flint in her left, for the first time in her life the woman attempted to make fire.

At first she was not successful. If any of you have ever attempted this ancient process, you will nod your heads in understanding of her struggles. And if you have never tried it, nothing I might say can truly capture the struggle, there alone in the darkness, of coaxing flame from stone and steel. You must try it yourself sometime. It is an enlightening exercise.

The woman felt herself clumsy and ignorant and utterly inept. She considered tossing the tools back into the bucket and heading back the way she had come, back to her own Cozy house where the mere flip of a dial on her stove brought flame leaping to life for her needs: cooking, hot water, warmth. Back to the house where the Twisted-Thing-On-The-Roof spit its venom into her dreams; back to the place where the days had become long and empy and heavy as lead. Perhaps, after all, she could not go back there at all; something deep within her told her the path was closed, and she did not know the way.

"Well," she thought with a bit of the old fire that had once driven her days, "I can sit here in the dark and die." With that she tossed the flint and steel into the bucket, and covered her face with her hands, though she did not weep.

But then, she thought, perhaps Cat would die, too. This troubled her. She had felt herself so dependent on him, his wise advice and friendly companionship, she had not considered that perhaps he would die if she failed. Much more was happening than she knew, of this she was aware. She felt herself sitting in the darkness, moving along a path she could neither see nor control. She could only walk it, or stop.

Retrieving stone and steel, she began again. After more attempts than I can recount, at last a tiny spark leapt from the striking, landed in the moss, and began to burn. With great care, the woman tended the infant flame, feeding it bits of twig as it grew and became stable. Looking around by the light of her new flame, the woman perceived she was in fact still in her own cellar; far and far away, it seemed, were the steps they had descended from her cozy home above. The hook from which the little bucket had hung was fixed in a shelf, and on that shelf the woman found an old clay lamp, and oil to fill it. This she prepared, as the Cat directed her, and soon they had light to see by, even if it was a small light, and somewhat dim. After the pitch black of the time before, it seemed a bonfire.

Filling a container found on the shelf where the lamp had been, with oil, the woman placed this container in her grandmother's basket, at the suggestion of the Cat. Then, she took her small lamp, and by its light examined the back wall of the cellar to which the Cat had brought her.

Many strange and forgotten items lay about in the back of this unused cellar; I will not inventory them for you here, though the woman felt she had stumbled upon a small treasure fetched back from the days of her grandparents, and theirs before. A great door there was, barred, and this she knew to lead up by way of rugged steps to a trap door in the garden behind her house.

Vines and the roots of small trees had worked their way through into the cellar; the foundation walls were strong and hale, but there were places here and there where the foundations ended, and the structure above began, that had given purchase and opening to these botanical colonizers. Pale from lack of sunlight, the leaves of ivy glowed strangely in this underground place. One whole patch of wall was covered with the trailing things. The woman approached with her lamp, brushing them back gently with her hands.

Beneath the ivy, in the rough stone of the foundation wall, was a small wooden door, pointed at the top, but rounded like an arch. It was so small that the woman would have to stoop to get through, had it been open. The iron of its hinges twisted and curled like dark vines, or serpents, upon its surface. Like the eyes of the Cat, the door seemed to glow from within, and to emit a faint golden light.

"Cat!" The woman was startled. Holding the curtain of ivy aside with one hand, the small clay lamp in the other, she turned with wide and wondering eyes to face her guide, the Black Cat. "I've never seen this door before!"

In the light of lamp the Cat smiled, blinking his great green eyes. "Then that is the route we must take," he said.
 "Do you have the key?

The tale will continue, Gentle Reader, next Fairy Tale Friday. Thanks for reading!

 stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of short stories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjects: felines , philosophy, and folklore. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com. Thanks for reading!


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