The Black Cat’s Sign

Colleen steps down from the mural into the golden syrup of a late September afternoon, and puts forth a hand to steady herself. There are hands to hold her up (six, with between four and seven fingers each: ninety-three dactyls all together). The wall behind her is all eyes — Argus, the ever-vigilant, closes now one, now another, and watches the seven points of the compass equally. The painted sun in the painted sky is a crown pierced with a sword.

She wanders lost down familiar streets, knowing the bones but learning the skin. How tall the buildings are now! She marvels at the byzantine growth of walls, the renaming of avenues. Rutger has become Powell, and Havard, Wada. Japanese streets now run through Japantown, and Portuguese through Brasilia, but still: the architecture is pressed into her clay. She could no more forget her coming and her going than she could lose count of the hairs (236) on her palm.

“Report,” the Devil says, and she feels one long-boned finger (five dactyls) pressed against her cheek, holding her head from turning. She shivers, and leans into its touch, humming tunelessly. “What have you learned, and what have you made?”

 

Cedar

There is one path into the city called Cedar, and Cedar takes it, wriggling her way through the narrow canyon walls, dizzy and breathless with the high mountain air. She comes to a high place overlooking the plains, and she stops to roll a cigarette, blunt stained fingers wise around tobacco, paper, spittle.

High blue skies, and a windless day. Far, far off to the west is the glimmer of water, peering from the curving throat of the earth. Behind her are the mountains, weeks and days of mountains, barren of people, just her and the rocks and the furs. Months since she saw a bath, and her pants are filthy enough to stand on their own when she climbs out of them at night. She is laden with trapping for her namesake city below; maybe she’ll take a husband to clean for her when she’s home, some soft-limbed, dreamy poet she can keep in luxury for three days of balling the jack. Down in the city they know little of the mountains, and less of the woods; she spins a figure of romance for them, once she’s cleaned and oiled to their taste. Always good money in lecturing; enough to keep her out in the wilds for months at a stretch.

She twists fingers and thumb together to give the butt to the wind, and descends.

 

Encyclical

What with one thing and another he’d been separated from his hunting party and brother knights and though they were no more than a morning’s ride from King Mark’s castle Sir Gawain (of Arthur’s knights the very paragon of gentility) found himself lost yet again. “Some strange adventure is this,” quotha, “and dark these woods.” He spun a tale and eke another to himself before coming to the other side, and marveled to see a vast plain spread out before him and a court thereon assembled. “I will assay it, and bear report to Mark the king of what passes in his domain,” and, so saying, descended unto the court.

A strange court indeed. A young man of the most unaffected simplicity, whose face was the very index of his mind, sat a high bench against a woman of twenty-six or twenty-seven, bound hand and foot like a criminal, with the most noble, the most agreeable, the most interesting visage, rendered yet a thousand times more piquant by that tender and touching air innocence contributes to the traits of beauty. Sir Gawain marveled at the abuses piled upon her by the young man, and vowed in his heedless heart to rescue her, an he could.

“Oh, Monsieur,” she sobbed, “unbend, I beseech you; be so generous as to relieve me without requiring what would be so costly I should rather offer you my life than submit to it!”

“Tell us,” commanded the young man, “why so strange an animal as man was made? and if the Emperor of the Ottomans concerns himself with the comfort of the mice on board his ships?”

“I pray you, tell me what this means,” said Sir Gawain of a good old man standing off to the side, “and why she cries so.”

“I do not know,” answered the worthy man, “I am entirely ignorant of the event you mention; I presume in general that they who meddle with the administration of public affairs die sometimes miserably, and that they deserve it; but I never trouble my head about what is transacting at Constantinople; I content myself with sending there for sale the fruits of the garden which I cultivate.”

And Sir Gawain was sore perplexed, and not a little outraged.