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last and parlous hour

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In the shabby sunken bowl of the cushion she woke and, rubbing her nose with one paw, found a sock leant loosely against her mouth. "Ugh," she said. The bubble of exhale puffed out the sock. She was looking at the ceiling through argyle, white crosshairs across the balloon there, when she realized someone was speaking.

"Good morning to you, lady, good morning," the voice said. At first it was a dim and doubtful voice. Then it acquired volume and clarity, like a missile nearing her eardrum, and she winced. She pulled the sock from where it covered her face. She looked again at the ceiling—which, without the sock's influence, was green and adorned with crumbly grey things, a great green-grey dishrag—and at the creature before her. The creature was a kitten. If one could call draping an object about one's neck a manner of holding it was holding a yarn rope with frayed ends, and it was smiling.

The kitten asked if she would like to play with it.

"What's your name?" she asked back. She was instantly certain you should say this to creatures you had just met, and after a moment, thought it also appropriate to ask for herself. "What's mine?"

"You can call me Kitten," it said. It smiled again: it must have been part imp. "And yours, I don't know. Would you like to find out?"

"Yes," she said. She rubbed her right paw across her face again to adjust her vision of herself. She felt very young, and yet her paw was flecked with greying hairs.

It was quiet, quite so. She could hear her hairs bristling against each other and the tick of something under her left paw she discovered was a clock. Its minute hand arced into the back panel and added a scraping sound to the sibilance of hairs, the tick, the clack of Kitten's claws on the sanded wood under her cushion. She stood up and tried not to hear her creaking bones. Kitten hopped forward, its tail straight up. She followed it solemnly away from this little corner of things she knew, around the great green room in which she thought she had no memories.

Kitten led her over the wood, where she copied its silent padding. It led her to breakfast. It led her to a fireplace of burnished brick, where she ran her paws curiously through the ashes and became a lady of black hairs. It led her to a chair, where over the bleached spread springs she saw a place for her cushion, and they went back to return it to its place. "Don't talk to the bears," Kitten whispered as they lugged the cushion over the wood. That was easy; they were brushing each other's fur, and steadily ignoring the procession of kitten and old rabbit and cushion. They put the cushion in place.

And a trapdoor under the chair opened. Out came another kitten.

"Hello," Kitten said as it shook its whiskers, as though it were utterly unsurprised at the appearance of a creature she already knew she was bound to confuse with it. "Say, what do you want to be called?"

"How many of us?" asked the other kitten.

"Two," said Kitten—that is, Kitten-the-first—and its twin yawned with it in unison, as though intending to confuse.

"There we are," said Kitten-the-second. It turned to her. "So what shall I go by? Don't dawdle, you know, we have lots of things to play with." This as though hunted by a schedule. How strange, she thought, all these creatures had gotten up in the morning with plans going to tatters already, so tired they had to yawn, and all she really wanted was to curl up on her newly framed cushion and wake up this time with some idea of what to do. She yawned too. "Do you think Second would be a satisfactory name?"

She thought there was something incongruous about it. There was no flavor to it either, but she had had mush for breakfast and what did she know of flavor anyway. "Good morning, Kitten, Second," she said, and they glanced at each other and shook their heads.

"Why don't we play," Second said.

More exploration of the room followed, although she had the sense that the their play was more in watching her reactions than in swinging from a curtain rod, which was done by flinging Kitten's rope through a groove in the wood and grabbing onto it and a running start, and yowling grimly as they and the knot they'd tied into the end lanced through the air. She felt that was a thing young creatures did, and said so; in retaliation she was whipped by a furry tail as Kitten or Second swung by. You have to try this, they said. It's important! Kitten smiled: that was how she could recognize it, later, its cavitied teeth exposing themselves to oxidation. With no means of disagreeing she climbed onto the upturned basket they offered her, took up the rope, took up the scrap of rag Second or Kitten had left by her side, and wound the cloth over her pads and the delicate fur under her claws. "You do remember," Second said, grinning as well as one could without opening one's mouth.

"What am I supposed to remember, really?"

"How to swing," said Kitten. Sly as a cat. The rope slid into her paws. "How to scream." It thrust out one paw and pushed her from her perch, and it turned out screaming was a movement of the throat more than work of the lungs—there just wasn't air to work with, at first. By the time she recovered her breath she discovered it was fun. She swung back and forth, letting the wall paintings blur by her, the great green wall surrounding them like a meadow of wilted grass. The wood floor painted carmine, fresher than blood; Second and Kitten watching her with their young and lovely eyes. She swung for what seemed like hours, and learned how to control the velocity of her movement and how to suppress the tightening pain in her paws.

"I can swing!" she said, upon alighting again on the ground. "Are we going to play anything else?"

So. They led her to the bookshelf, where Kitten indulged in a face only described by cryptic. They taught her to play-fence with knitting needles. They showed her a box with jagged cuts in the lid. They watched her screw up her face and jiggle scraps of wood and metal into the jags until something would click and the lid could turn. They took her over to the window, where they taught her to rake up the stars, wad up their plastic backings, and shake them out against the glass. And under the light of the scattered stars they told her they were really very old, and looked offended when she brushed flat her grey-peppered-black hairs and said she must be older. They wouldn't teach her to play, they said, if she were.

"I don't think that makes any sense," she said. They glanced at each other again, and certain information passed between their eyes; but perhaps they were only comparing something they both knew, and not being one of those identical kittens it seemed unkind for her to guess what it was. There was only so much camaraderie gained from one day of playing together in the great green room.

"Well," said Second. "It's only the afternoon." They taught her to run along the wall-edges and leap horizontal to vertical and return, Kitten smiling as always. It was very wonderful, she thought, that in one day she could learn this mannerism of its and attribute it to the category of things done always. Thus they passed the afternoon. Thus came on the intimations of darkness outside the window, then black like her ashen paws. "And now," Second said, "we're going to play spin-the-clock."

That was simple. They all padded back to the clock, where Kitten placed it between their outstretched paws and grinned. "Spin either of these," it said, and she heard the sound of a wooden object bumping into another of similar composition, the rumble of a shaken frame. "Hurry!" Kitten hissed. She reached out for the banged-up second hand and made to twist it, and felt the kittens' paws both heavy and heavier on her neck—

From a voice came Goodnight room. It was the same voice as in the morning—

And—

 


 

She woke and, rubbing her eyes with her paws, found herself sprawled on a great pink rug. "Ugh," she said. One of her legs had been propped up on a stack of dirtied clothing, and the rug was the uncanniest color, the sort of color that made one think of scraping one's skin open on splinters and seeing the flesh raw and vulnerable underneath.

"Good morning air," she heard. She sucked in a breath. It tasted much better, she thought, than the breath she'd taken before she heard the voice.

"Oh, there you are!" said a creature. The creature was a kitten, and as in all rooms of this sort it had only been allocated one facial expression. This one, unlucky thing, had been given a full share of sternness. It squinted at her and unflopped its ears with a paw. "You're late, which I suppose I should have expected. You can't rotate your paw worth a damn, you know? We should practice that."

This was patently unreasonable, and there was only one first thing you could say to creatures that accosted you so. "Can't I have breakfast first?"

"Oh," it said. She had been wrong. There was a widening of its eyes like surprise, a softening. It drifted its tail softly against her ankle. It took her up by a table, where it crouched near to the wood and sprung and missed the surface by a half-foot. "Mrowr!"

Why? It had landed like she supposed kittens were supposed to land, square on its socked-grey paws. Did it hurt? She crossed her arms and found that she didn't know if it would hurt to land correctly but still, to land, to not feel the surface beneath her where it ought to be; and yet she knew it had landed correctly. "Can I try?"

The kitten sniffed. "This would be nothing for you," it said. Its whiskers gleamed in the light as it spoke, washed to white at the ends, but she could see them still against the great green wall. "You'll have to try something harder." It wended its way through chair legs and the abandoned packaging of a dollhouse, as though practicing an obstacle course. At the foot of a great green door it peeled away, and crouched on its haunches with its head listing against the doorjamb. It looked too small against the measureless expanse of door, like a spoon in her morning mush—which she hadn't eaten, had she? She was trying to hang on to the bright fixed image of spittle on her bowl and date it but the kitten came and poked her gently with a claw. "Try to reach the knob," it said, "I never can but you're so much taller, can't you?"

And that was a game. She jumped—fell—panted, and untwisted her ears—rolled about on the floor and paid no attention to the dustballs. She and the kitten played the game until she heard it again, the beautiful voice from the morning. "Goodnight light," it said.

Darkness fell: a black box, like it had tumbled out of the ceiling and wiped all below to nothing. "Goodnight red balloon," said the voice. But that couldn't be. She stared into pitch. If there was something on the ceiling its color was absent.

"Listen, follow that sound, turn it," the kitten said at her side, urgent, even perhaps afraid. She heard ticking from somewhere and another sound that clocks did not make, and the irregular intake of air of someone planning to speak again soon. Maybe she should go to the clock. She trooped across the room. She wasn't quite certain what it meant to turn it, but there was some satisfaction to stretching out in the dark touching something that made the ticking stop when she touched it. Her claw hooked over its arrow-point and some drift inside her heart made her move—

 


 

At the foot of the bed she pushed aside her bowl and said, "Can I ask you if this ends?"

They had arrayed across the bedspread an impressive collection of bowls and dishes and cutlery, many of them taken from the dollhouse while the dolls weren't looking. She was still breathing hard from the rope jumping, and the bed shook along with her chest. "End?" said Third. It lapped at its mush. Catching a disapproving glare, it began to dip its paw instead and licked off the pulpy flakes. It licked them one by one until she laughed at it and told it lapping was best. "Who said anything about endings?"

"Didn't you?"

But on second thought, Third hadn't. Third had only spoken of another activity. The cows that it wanted to take her to see were sleeping, it said, quite uncharacteristic of them. He had another thing that would leave her flat. Oh, it seemed the telephone had been disconnected. But there was the phantasmagorically lit dark outside the window, it said, and wasn't that exciting? He pronounced phantasmagorical like any string of meaninglessly eager syllables. She clambered onto the windowsill. She looked out with it under the sowereihinewozaastral stars, and only when the clock was in her hand did she wonder at how the concept of ending never existed in her mental calendar; how precisely it had been excised; how it seemed that once you remembered it other concepts would leap over the trenches and flood you with impressions—

 


 

She woke and, rubbing her eyes with her paws, noticed her sight had fallen on a kitten. "You!" she said, although she was not sure what you it was. You! was the kind of interjection suited to friends, enemies, and robbers alike. She did not appreciate the sock dangling from the kitten's mouth, pink to match its tongue. She was sure in some way that it belonged to her. "What are you doing here?"

"I can't tell you." It tilted its head back and had a conversation with the ceiling that was astoundingly expressive for the movements involved: only a grimace and a glint of teeth from the kitten, and nothing in return from the ceiling. She must have known the kitten a long time.

"That's a horrible excuse," she said, picking herself off a beaten old cushion.

The kitten swatted her foot with its tail. "If I could tell you I'd have told you already," it said. "It's your fault you've decided to continue playing, knowing I can't tell you and all."

"How did I know you couldn't tell me?"

"I am not currently in the act of telling you."

"I don't think that makes any sense," she said, and with a perfect balance of rage and logicality—rage to propel her, logicality to know asking further was no good choice—slammed her foot down where the kitten had been. It occurred to her as her foot was crashing into the floor, and oh that hurt, that someone had said something. As she was instinctively reaching for her foot to nurse it in her paws the comprehension happened too. Good morning nobody. She had put her foot through a nobody, it appeared; the kitten was scowling with its fur fluffed straight up like the noon sun, untouched by rabbit-foot.

"Just go to sleep, then," it said. She was feeling contrary and so she did, curled on a great pink rug.

Someone woke her again in the dark. "Do you want to play a game?" it asked. "If you want to play any games today, turn back the clock!"

There was a smooth bulb of metal in her hands, and the peculiar weight of inertial desire. She turned the clock over. Then she closed her eyes and spun one of the dials, and felt the easy swing of the second hand turning.

There was a smooth bulb of metal in her hands. "Goodnight kittens," she heard, "goodnight mittens." The voice suffused with the tones of classic tragedy, as though this time it were sorry. But there weren't any kittens, were there? How could that voice say goodnight to them?

The second hand was wrong, wasn't it? She should have chosen the hour hand. The hour hand was moving now, although it had yet to tick.

Good, she heard, the rest of it swept into the silent room only recently asleep. Suddenly she felt sick. She wrenched at the hour hand—

 


 

She woke with her paws pressed over her face.

It was like her paws did not want her to get up, and when she shook them and her sock away and placed them safely on the ground she learned they knew best. She did not want to get up, either, not into the shadows of bed and table and mantel already longer than her body. Still the bed beckoned. She looked at the door in its ceaseless frame, and her fingers itched to leap to the knob and swing and rip the lock from its plates, but she was not tall enough to reach it from the ground.

She had wrapped herself about the eaves of a yellowing dresser when she heard the voice again. Beautiful, again. This time she also heard the venom underneath, its hardness gold running beneath clay. "Goodnight clocks," it said, and she fell onto the bed, a disease of chronology as impairing as any of the leg or arm. "There you are. If you don't mind, old lady, I have a few more to get through."

Continued it—it being, she saw as she wrenched her head out from beneath her flopping legs, a bunny of most sober expression—"goodnight socks." It was glaring at her. She felt chilled by more than its dark severity. "Goodnight house, and mouse, comb and brush..."

She felt a pang at the loss of the mouse. Now that she had thought of it, like venom, endings, like Second and Third, she could indeed imagine loss. Like algebra where X and Y meant first a crosshair and slingshot and then, once her mother had drawn them neatly over the creases of her paper, eight and apples and the number of corsairs who wanted to sweep out on the great blue sea, the mouse meant something greater than comb and brush and only mildly less than kittens. She could imagine the space where the mouse had been and cup it to her throat, her hands closing around the air there like it would be the next to become nobody.

"Goodnight nobody," said the voice. The sensation over her throat ceased. The X dribbled away. She felt suddenly and conspicuously untutored; the bunny had its chin ensconced in its own paws, calm and perfect, its tongue not bobbing like hers in terror against the palate and the teeth. "Goodnight mush—did you really have an objection to there being no mush? What's your name? Goodnight—"

"Hush," she said, despairing. She seized at the word as it left her mouth: but too late. "Hush—"

"—to the old lady saying hush," the bunny said. And now she thought to cling to the sheets, and perhaps swing herself up to the door; but she couldn't feel her paws nor her feet nor the rapid convulsions of her heart, the last of which was almost a relief. "Goodnight stars," the bunny said. It closed its eyes. It was nearing peace.

"Hush," she cried. "You can sleep, now, it's enough—hush—"

"Nonsense," it said, gently. "We always have to have our endings. Like this: goodnight air."

She couldn't cry, now. Something in her ribcage was expanding as if obeying a law of inverse pressures to the last. She whispered with the final residue of her lungs. "Hush—"

"Good night," it said, "noises everywhere."