In the years after that wild and lonely October when my mistress Jill and I had sought to return the Elder Gods to Earth and then, in a twist of circumstance, found ourselves unexpectedly allied with the master of closing the ways (and his dog, Snuff,) I spent much time in pondering my lost friend, Cheeter.
Cheeter was a squirrel, and he had played through that dread October Game alongside Snuff and I, until the untimely death of his master. Then he begged Snuff and I to free him from the blasphemous enchantment which bound him shadowless to the fates of humankind. And after Snuff had dragged the last of the silver nails to the line of blood that kept Cheeter from his shadow, the small creature had fled wordless back to the sanctuary of the trees in which he, and all of his kind for unknown eons, had been birthed.
I had not seen Cheeter since, but unlike him, I had not chosen to abandon the concerns and dwellings of my human mistress and her kind upon our completion of the Game. Indeed I had stayed at her side, to all appearances a sleek and well-contented housecat napping tame at her hearth, except in the hours when I rose to join her in her eldritch midnight rites and incantations.
We had stayed, also, with Jack of the cursed knife (and his dog, Snuff.) Jill had formed some sort of unhallowed, indescribable human attachment to the man, and I found Snuff's company not unpleasant, for one of canine-kind. With us also, for a time, was Bubo, the rat: another of those marked by the events of that October, and indeed perhaps the greatest architect of its final culmination. But unlike Snuff, Cheeter, and myself, Bubo was bound to no human, man or woman, by any ensorcellment or obligation or ritual from obscene books of unspoken tongues, but had acted only as a rat, for a rat's purposes, within the ancient ways of rat-kind.
As a result, he lived with us afterward also in the ways of rat-kind, unchanged by unnatural sorceries; and as a result, the uncanny of us, Jack and Jill and Snuff and I, Graymalk, found ourselves, one dim spring morning, casting his stiff and aged mortal remains to their final journey on the grimy canal-waters as he had asked of us, as he twitched his white-whiskered snout in his last breaths, content still to die a rat as he had lived.
That was when I began to think much about Cheeter. For I am not one to whom contentment comes naturally: a bowl of warm meat, a mouthful of milk, a kindly lap and a purr before a fire are my birth-right as much as the dirt and the canal were Bubo's, or the oak-trees were Cheeter's, and I do enjoy them as much as any of my kind - perhaps moreso, for I know what a precious and rare birthright they are. But come the small hours and the moonlight, I will yet be stalking restlessly around the borders of my home, wherever that may be. I will always stare into the depths of space, seeing forces and colors and things beyond life, which none but cat-kind can perceive with an intact mind. I will raise myself up, on certain nights, and dance floating with my kin on the dark side of the Moon. And in the hour after midnight, I will still speak with my mistress the witch, and she will hear it as words in her own human tongue. And I will still wander the wide fields in the early morning dew, walking as a friend and equal beside Snuff, who is a dog, and Jack's.
In the days after Bubo passed forever beyond the world I called my home, however, I began to notice that less often did Jill enwrap herself in the unseelie glamour which gave her the air and visage of an aged crone, from the safety of which she had been accustomed to face the world since she first came to witchcraft in the cusp of her adulthood. Indeed, though she was far from aged in human terms, there began to be days when, for certain prescribed stratagems, she used her skills instead to cast her features back into the smooth lines of callow youth. And I began to find, now and again when I groomed my tail, a scattered white hair where there had been none before.
Jack and Snuff were ancient. They spoke of their past rarely, and in passing allusion, references shared only by the two of them among all creatures still alive, as if there was little they wished to remember in detail. But the rumors and the whispers of their doings stretched back to time immemorial, and never were they seen to grow older, though at times they won new scars, or bore more heavily under deeper curses and pains.
So Jill and Jack performed their incalculable human relationship rituals, and Snuff and I walked in the tall pasture-grass and spoke of many things. And my thoughts dwelt on Cheeter, the squirrel, and Bubo, the rat, and when the day should come when I would walk no longer with Snuff through the tall grass, and Jill and I should each in our appointed time drift forever beyond the water-gates of dream, and Jack and Snuff should stand on the shore watching us go.Thus it came to pass that I fell into catnappery on a quiet morning, and went for a visit to the High Purring One.
The fringes of the dream-realms were unsettled, and in his fetid abyss Gl'bgolyb stirred, belching up great turgid bubbles of half-born nightmare. The wailing of abominable horns echoed against nothing behind me as I dropped toward the lands of Ooth-Nargai, to Celephaïs.
Celephaïs! Fair Celephaïs, the minareted city on the shores of the Cerenarian Sea, shaded by the great snowy peak of Mount Aran. Celephaïs was undisturbed by the roilings of the Farthest Ring, for time has no power in Celephaïs.
"And here youth is eternal," returned the aged silver-gray tomcat whom I found, finally, digging in the dustbins of fluted jade and kyanite inlaid with traceries of silver, the lapidary dustbins that line the alley behind the rose-crystal Palace of the Seventy Delights. This is palace where the father of my kind dwells among the courtiers of a great king, dining upon the offerings of the citizenry and sleeping upon tumbled hangings of consecrated silk dyed in all of the brilliant colors of the perfumed jungles of Kled.
He pulled something from the depths of one of the dustbins which might, once, have been the battered carcass of a lazuline rat. Leaping down to the ground before me, he spat it out and poked assessingly at it with one manicured paw. Then he said to me, "Your heart is troubled, daughter."
I made my obeisances, though the less formal version, as he had chosen to meet me in a dustbin. "I find myself increasingly regretting the necessity of death. My own, principally, but even that of creatures such as this," I told him, nudging his trophy from the dustbin. "This seems to be a thought belonging more to men than to cats. I begin to fear that I am drifting far from your teachings."
"You begin to regret the necessity of death. As you did not regret the deaths of your kittens?"
I pondered this. My kittens had been drowned, in a sack, by a man who found them nestled warmly behind a shed he wanted for his own. That had been in the time before I met Jill, before I had ever spoken with a human and known my words understood, before I had tasted of the greater powers that lurk beyond the walls of the world. I had not so much regretted their deaths as been incandescently filled with nihilistic, clawing rage, and though, since the beginning of my new life, I had learned to appreciate my freedom from the duress of kittening, I found that old rage still ready to my mind. "Those deaths were not necessary," I hissed.
The Father of Cats cuffed me gently behind the ear, as if I was still myself a kitten. "We all of us regret the deaths of those we care about, Graymalk, be they cat or man or rat or night-gaunt on the cliffs of Ngranek."
"And regret also to die ourselves, and see those we care for left without us?"
He picked up his trophy and trotted with it down the street and around the corner, to the palaces's great formal stair of carnelian leading to the first of the onyx terraces, tail straight and erect above him, and I followed obediently after. He arranged himself in his customary place on a single slightly raised block of faceted black stone with the dead thing tucked between his paws. I sat before him, paws together, tail tucked in place, and back elegantly curved in temple pose, awaiting whatever wisdom he prepared to impart.
When he had groomed himself to his satisfaction, he said to me, "Is it the regret you would have less of? Or the death?"
I thought about this, for one must be careful of the answers one gives when in the Dreamlands. And though I found in myself some envy of Snuff and his master and for their endless twilit days, I did not envy them their curses, not even that which kept them from the sweet caresses of Time.
"There is a story which my priests tell, sometimes," he said to my silence. "Of a young human boy who was born in a trash heap in Kadatheron, and lived by begging in the gutters. And he began when yet small to tell people that he was the heir of the lost and noble city of Aira, in the valley below the falls of Kra, city of beryl and cerulean and garlands of pale flowers, and he quested to return to his homeland, before it drifted from his memory forever. And as his hair was as pale and golden as that of the princes from the lands beyond Sarnath-that-was, and his voice was sweet in song and sadness, he found, eventually, a man who believed him, a man with the wealth to have made for him a tailored robe of gold and purple velvet worthy of his supposed station.
"So that when he traveled on to the next city, in the wake of a caravan of spices and rich metals, his story was believed all the sooner; and his songs of Aira won him perfumes of myrrh and attar. And in the next city he was given a chaplet of vine-leaves of chrysolite and figured brass. And in the city of Oonai beyond the Liranian desert, it is said, the hope and sadness in his songs of ancient Aira below the falls of Kra made the blue lotus-buds drop untimely from their stems.
"And before he had grown enough that his voice began to lose its sweetness, he forgot that ever he had been the beggar child of the gutters of Kadatheron, and remembered only his dim visions and his poems of Aira, the home that had never been, not even in the Dreamlands.
"And he wandered on in endless quest of Aira of beryl palaces and cerulean fountains, the princeling who had never had a princedom. And, though he himself never spoke of it, and perhaps did not know, lost as he was in his purposeless seeking, those around him began to notice that he never grew older, maintaining always the fresh, pale face and sweet voice of the youthful prince of Aira; though his friends and supporters grew old and tired and died around him; though kings had fallen and palaces crumbled.
"One year he was passing through the countryside, on the road paved with stones of Ib that passes from Thraa to Ilarnek, and he came upon an aged man, sitting on a gate. The prince of Aira asked him, as was his custom to ask every person he should meet upon his way, if he had heard any word of the fair and lost city of Aira.
"And the old shepherd leaned upon his staff, and thought, and said finally that he had, yes, once, as a boy: he had heard his grandfather tell of a visitor in his own boyhood, a thin and dirty beggar-boy clothed all in rags, speaking with a sweet voice but in the harsh accents of the lowest of the gutter-folk of Kadatheron, who claimed to be a prince of the lost city of Aira. And as he was obviously naught but a beggar-boy trying out a greater lie, they had laughed him out of their farm.
"And the Prince of Aira went from there filled anew with hope and purpose and a great lightness of heart, for, he thought to himself, now he knew that he was no longer alone. For somewhere, wandering out of the lands of Mnar, there was another refugee of Aira, and if not quite so fair and noble as he, still kin."
I considered this while he lay curled in his high place, surveying his realm with the slit-eyed gaze of cats that is neither waking nor sleeping. Finally I said, "High Purring One, I thank you for the wisdom you have shared with me this day. What, by the dim light of Yuggoth, am I meant to have learned from it?"
He turned the lambent crescents of his eyes to me. "Do you know who is the King of the men of Celephaïs?"
I didn't, actually. I had never thought to wonder about such a thing. "No. Does it matter?"
"Not at all. And least of all to the men of Celephaïs."
I woke to Jill's voice, light and affectionate. "Wake up, you lazy sack of bones! Al-azif surely does not make for a restful pillow, and the illustrations are not in the least improved by the addition of cat hair."
I yawned at her, and stretched, but did not move from the book where I had taken my nap, which was just the right size to dangle one paw over. She flashed her damp pink tongue at me. "And whether restful or not, you are going to move, or I will dump you. Because, as you can see, Jack and Snuff have brought us some Trumpets of Death, and I think I have used my recipe for mushroom ragout as a page-marker in that book."
"You were deep in catnappery when we returned from our hunt," Snuff remarked to me the next morning, as we wandered aimlessly along the sea-cliffs, watching the inscrutable circles of scavenger birds in the distance.
"Yes," I replied.
"Next time, you must give my regards to the Purrer. As I figure it, I still owe him one."
"I will," I said, and then, a thicket of beach-roses and a small altercation with a wall-climbing lizard later, I continued, "I spoke to him of death, and age, and that which is left behind."
"And did he tell you anything useful?"
"I have not yet decided. He was being somewhat inscrutable."
"After all, he is a cat."
"After all, he is a cat," I agreed.
"Ah," said Snuff, and then, "Do you think you could make your way, in the Dreamlands, from Celephaïs, across the Cerenarian Sea, through Hlanith, with its wharves of oak, past the perfumed jungles of Kled and across the River Oukranos, beyond the gate of Deeper Slumber, to the great forest primeval which stretches there? It is in my mind that it would be, perhaps, enlightening for you to meet the old Growler."
"Enlightening for whom?" I asked.
I still cannot tell when he is smiling. But I can tell when he laughs.
That evening I catnapped again. Gl'bgolyb was feeling playful and tossed a dream-sphere toward me with one colloidal tentacle, and it engulfed me before I could dodge. Within the nightmare it encompassed I narrowly avoided the grasping claws of a two-legged cat with yellow-green eyes and skin the leathery gray of a corpse, before I scratched through to the other side and entered the Dreamlands proper.
I went not by way of Celephais, but followed the river Skai up from the Southern Sea, past Ulphar, blessed city!, where long ago the magistrates made the wise rule that no man may harm a cat, through the town of Nir, where the great stone bridge crosses the Skai, and then to edge of that great wood, where broods the Gate of Deeper Slumber, and its seven hundred steps lead up, through the tangled ceiling of the great and gnarled oaks, to the Cavern of Flame where dwell the bearded priests Nasht and Kaman-Thah on the borders of the waking world.
I did not travel up the stairs, however, having no need to consult with the great Flame. But I had never before walked into that tenebrous forest, for it is not a place where cats travel alone; there are zoogs there. As I paced instead around the base of the stairway, I noticed that in one place, the stone-work had been cut away, leaving a hinged and carven panel, just the width of my whiskers, which swung back when I nudged it carefully.
I am, after all, a cat, and death has different meanings in the dream-lands. I went through the door; and found myself on the borders of a forest.
Whether it was that Enchanted Wood which I had once seen on the maps in the palace of Celephaïs, I cannot say. I found, once I had stepped beyond its borders, that it was a cool and open place, almost parklike. The dense canopy of the trees above captured even the smallest dapple of the sunlight, casting the land below into a sepulchral halflight, but thereby starved out all but the hardiest of the undergrowth, leaving the earth moss-covered and soft, while cheerful and brightly-colored fungi decorated every fallen log or branch. And the trees were not the cathedral, ivory-trunked and golden-flowered columns of the forests beyond Celephaïs, which tinkle like bells in the breezes of evening; nor the gnarled, sinister and muttering entities of the fungi-forests beyond Leng; nor the dark and alien plants of the moon-forests; but tall, strong oaks and hickories and chestnuts like the forests I knew best on Earth.
Though there was was little birdsong, I soon began to notice the rustles of small animals moving in the branches above me, and then began to see them, peering curiously at me from the safety of high foliage. But they were not the Zoogs I had seen before in the country around the Shai, the furtive, slippery brown mutterers who pay tribute to my kin in Ulphar; nor were they like unto the jewel-colored rats of Celephaïs; but they were ordinary squirrels as I had seen in the waking world, both russet-red and gray, in every aspect the same squirrelkind that Cheeter had wished only to dwell among.
I heard the fumbles then of some large creature bounding across the land, taking no care whatsover for silence and stealth, and Snuff stopped before me, skidding a bit in the loose oak-leaves. Even more of the squirrels emerged to stare at him, clinging to narrow green twigs and scolding him in high voices.
"This forest is rather pedestrian for the Dreamlands, is it not?"
Snuff tilted his head at me, probably smiling. "Dogs have no need of perfumed jungles and rose-crystal palaces."
I sighed. "And here I was beginning to think that you were civilized."
"Oh, I can't wait for you to meet Growler," he said, and leapt forward along barely-perceptible pathway, leading us farther into the shaded depths.
Snuff, as dogs go, is not enormous; he is large enough to pose a serious threat to a human, but just small enough that he can make them forget that if he wishes to. Still, I have, in times of great extremity, ridden easily upon his back, and when he is moving quickly, the sheer length of his legs ensure that I will never match his speed. In that forest, however, the difference somehow ceased to matter. I cannot tell whether I had grown larger, or he smaller, or some strange shift of perception and the physics of dream made it so we could each be our own size yet the same, but I bounded beside him through the forest and my stride was a match for his own.
Then something large and gray exploded from behind a tree-trunk, plowed into Snuff, and knocked him over. The two of them rolled into a snarling, snapping tangle of a battle, and I was about to leap in to the fray when I realized that they fought not as enemies do, but as kittens at play; and then I sat upon my hands and waited. They rolled up, finally, against the wide trunk of an oak tree, and came to rest with the gray wolf standing over Snuff, and Snuff with his throat bared in respect. "Father," he said in greeting.
"Snuff," replied the wolf, who must have been Old Growler, as he moved away and let Snuff rise to his feet and shake out his fur. "You have brought a cat into my forest."
"This is Greymalk," said Snuff, "Of whom you may have heard. She has been a great help to me, Growler."
"A great help, eh?" growled Growler, slowly circling me. I resisted the temptation to bristle, or even nervously groom, letting only the tip of my tail twitch. "Perhaps I should test her skills as I do yours."
"There is a tree less than three feet behind me," I told him carefully. "I could be halfway up it before you had time to leap." Dream physics or not, this wolf was huge, and something in the ophidian parts of my brain knew it."
"Cats only know one trick," he said with disappointment, sitting back.
"This cat knows many," I assured him.
"Do you know of Ulphar?" he asked, as if in friendly conversation.
"Yes, and well. They are only a short trip from this forest. It is an enlightened municipality, for the men there have a law that anyone who offers harm to a cat must be killed."
"Yes. But do you know why?"
I blinked. It had always been like that: there was Celephaïs of the scented minarets, and Dylath-Leen where the black galleys sailed in and out of the harbor, and Ulphar, in which no man may kill a cat. "Wasn't it simply dreamed that way?"
"Oh, no. Once, when Ulphar was only a small village, when I walked this forest among birch and poplar rather than oak, they knew what to do with cats there: they killed them, and strung the gutted carcasses up in trees."
I forced the hair down on my neck. "I assume at some point they were taught better."
"Yes. For one day great, formless shadows of gods older than the gods of Earth passed over the sky in Ulphar, and all the cats of Ulphar disappeared, walking in formation as if following a higher command. And the next day they returned, fat and purring on their hearths, and all of those in Ulphar who had ever killed a cat were naught but bones, gnawed clean. And since that day it has been forbidden, to kill a cat in Ulphar."
I looked at Snuff. "I see, then, that your Eldest is just as given to inscrutability as He Who Purrs."
"Well, when I come here, we usually just fight and chase squirrels," he told me.
It is easy to tell when Old Growler is smiling. He has a great many teeth. "I only wanted to explain why I rarely involve myself in the business of cats," he said, and then, "You want to know how you can free yourself, in the waking world, from the bondage of decay, so that you might keep company with my Snuff beyond the limited span granted to cat-kind."
"I would never ask for such a thing, nor even go so far as wish it," I told him with fervent truth, for there is no wish that might so easily go wrong as that one.
"No. But you want it all the same," he said. "And when you have caught one of the squirrels in my forest, I may even choose to tell you your answer. But until then, in token of your friendship with my son, I grant you free and perpetual guest-right here." He leaned down and licked a sloppy, slobbery stripe right down my back. And then he stepped back under the trees, and was gone.
Snuff nudged me with a shoulder. "Wow, he's given you leave to hunt his squirrels! With you in the trees and me on the ground, I might even catch one finally."
"What, big bad Snuff can't catch a little squirrel?"
"Oh, you're going to be sorry you said that."
"If you say so," I told him, and dashed after the nearest flicker of fuzzy russet tail.
We chased squirrels, Snuff and I, all through an endless afternoon in that dark forest of dream. And Snuff was right: the closest we got to catching one, even after we started working together, was a pawful of air half a moment too late.
I spent most of the next waking day grooming the fur on my back. I knew it was clean, I had every evidence it was clean, and yet somehow I could still feel that long damp stripe where the Eldest of Dogs had licked.
Snuff spent most of the next waking day laughing at me.
But as the days went on, and then the years, I still went walking with Snuff through the tall grass and the forest paths. I still slept by Jill's kitchen fire and went dancing, sometimes, on the dark side of the Moon. And I noticed that Jill, sometimes, still, put on her illusion of youth, but she put on her illusion of age just as often, and Jack had been known to say he liked her the same wearing any of them, although when they started saying those sorts of things Snuff and I usually discreetly absented ourselves from the place.
I still go to Celephaïs in dreams of catnappery, but sometimes I also go through the small door into that enchanted wood behind the Gate of Deeper Slumber. I haven't spoken to Growler since that first time, but Snuff and I chase squirrels. I haven't caught one yet.
Once, though, in the very edge of my vision, I caught a glimpse of a great gray wolf, who must have been the Father of Dogs. And walking beside him, a small neat gray shape with tail held tall, who I am sure, quite sure, could not have been the High Purring one, for forests and dogs both are below his dignity. And above them, the squirrels scolded.