Also check 3 Minute Fiction for NPR (3 March 2012)
When Stevenson woke and saw the cat sitting on Pyotr’s bunk, he knew he was going to die. The cat gazed at him, then began to groom itself, lifting one white paw to rub over its black face. Its whiskers were white.
“Why did you come back?” Stevenson said. The cat stopped licking its paw. “To tell you about Pyotr,” it said.
“What about Pyotr?”
“They shot him 27 minutes after they took him away.”
Stevenson remembered. The guards came, two of them, wrapped in heavy coats, their rifles slung over their shoulders. “Come!” motioned the taller one, the one they’d labelled Mutt. Jeff, the shorter one, helped Pyotr stand up. Then they guided him tenderly through the cage door into the passageway. Jeff turned back and carefully locked the gate. The cat had watched the small procession move away, then it hopped off Pyotr’s bed, squeezed between bars out into the passage, and followed. Its tail stood straight up, the tip waving from side to side, its ears laid back.
Stevenson considered the cat’s precision. “How do you know it was 27 minutes?” he asked. There’s a clock at the far end of the passage,” said the cat. "You can’t see it from here. It showed two minutes past 6, it took me two minutes to return from where I watched the shooting. Then it showed 31 minutes past. 31 minus 4 is 27.”
Stevenson followed the cat’s calculation with some difficulty, and had to do it over in his head. He knew there had been a time when he wouldn’t have needed the cat to explain the arithmetic. But now he felt as if he was observing the world through a thick fog which occasionally thinned out and even parted for a few seconds. Thinking was an effort, like walking through soft sand that slipped away from under his feet.
The cat resumed grooming itself. After a while it occurred to Stevenson that there was something he didn’t know. “Why did they shoot Pyotr?” The cat gazed at him for a long moment. It seemed to Stevenson that she pitied him.
“They shot him because he was a traitor,” she said.
“How was he a traitor?”
“He told the truth.”
Stevenson frowned. This was a puzzle he could not solve.
The sun shoves ice from river mouths.
The mouths gape: a silence
Cries in the receding darkness,
Stains the weather.
Its memory like a dye
Colours the sudden knowledge
When spring rotates us
Into summer’s altitudes.
Though we kindle fires
In the shortest night
To confound the silence
With our fire’s light –
Though we silence silence
With the fire’s light
Kindled and deserted
In the shortest night
That silence stains
The sudden knowledge of ourselves
When spring rotates us
Into lovers’ attitudes.
(1965. Johannisnacht = St John’s Night)
Planes glide through the air like fish
Before I knew why airplanes stayed up, I thought they glided through the air like fish through water. Later I found out it wasn’t like that at all, a fish can’t fall to the bottom of the lake because it has a pocket of air inside it, but a plane stays up because it moves. Sharks don’t have a pocket of air, they must keep moving or they will fall to the bottom like an airplane falling from the sky.
We lived by a lake, whose clear water revealed the bottom six or more feet down. The fish were dark slashes against the grey green silt, or a swift gleam of silver as they turned. In the mornings and evenings, the fishers went out on the lake to set and fetch their nets.
The fishers stood up in a long flat bottomed boat, leaning and straightening as they pumped the square-bladed oar, he tall and stooped in the stern, she short and round in the bow. They’re shovelling water, I thought, I didn’t understand how that could move the boat forward. The fishers stuck the small fish onto pine splints which they ranged in the smoke house chimney. The smoked fish tasted salt and sweet at the same time when one gnawed them off the wood.
I watched the fishers mend nets, watched their hands and fingers move out and back with a twist as they fed and knotted the line with a flat, narrow piece of wood. I didn’t see how the line could make a knot with only one end free. The nets hung on frames made of pine poles, moving in the wind like waves on the water, bleached white and soft by the sun.
Many years later, in another country, I learned Bernoulli’s equations and Boyle’s law, and understood how air moving over the wing made the wing lift the plane. For a few weeks I understood the equations that defined drag and turbulence, too. Now I understand only their meaning, a lovely interplay of velocity, pressure and viscosity, with which the airplane designer and pilot co-operate.
I learned a lot of other things too, I understood the engineer’s and metal worker’s craft, their exquisite skill lavished on the bombers that glided through the sky, making death beautiful and distant.
The bombers looked like fish against the sky, gleaming silver, but not like fish, sliding across the blue air, steady and inexorable, and making a sound you felt in your bones, a sound that struck across the sky and flowed into the earth and came up through your feet and made your teeth buzz. Then black flowers bloomed on the horizon where the railway junction was. Many years later I saw pictures of black chrysanthemums, they bloomed like smoke against a blue sky. My friend’s mother died among the roots of one of those flowers, but that was before he was my friend, before we even knew of each other’s existence.
One day a plane came in low over our house, and fell into the lake, trailing a black and orange flag that stretched out behind it, longer and longer as the plane fell towards the water. My mother said my brother could see the pilot’s face, I must have seen it too as I stood next to my brother, but he can remember it and I can’t, I wonder if that’s why he hides his melancholy. I hide mine too, but not in the same way, he bursts out in sudden attacks of craziness, roaring like a monster, pretending to be Grendel, or the giant that ate an Englishman and ground his bones for bread. My Grandpa read us that story, I loved the bits where Jack steals the gold and the hen and the harp, and runs to the beanstalk along the winding cloudy road. The harp betrayed the thief, an early lesson on the deviousness of artists.
I tell people I’m fine, when they ask. I ask them, too, and they tell me they are fine. We tell each other we are fine, making up a fine story about how fine the world is, and what a fine time we are having this fine afternoon, while we eat a fine meal made on a fine barbecue in a fine garden owned by a fine neighbourly neighbour.
For several weeks, I understood the equations that explained airplanes, then we wrote a test and I forgot them. I didn’t forget what they explained. Whenever I look at a plane I see the air flow over its wings, faster on top and slower underneath, holding up the plane, a plane that weighs more than the largest steam locomotive ever built, and as the jet climbs into the sky like a man going up a flight of stairs, I know that if the air peels off the wings in unseen swirls and whirlpools, the plane will crash, but we won’t make a white splash in the water because there’s no lake under us, just grass and asphalt. A black and orange flower will bloom in the field at the end of the runway.
When the fishers pump the oar, eddies and swirls peel off it and press against the blade, and that presses the boat forward. What brings down the plane moves the boat. Nature has her ways, if you work with her, she rewards you with flying planes and gliding boats.
My cousin and I used to go into the park next to our house. The oaks and beeches and maples and pines and firs and sycamores made it a quiet place, the only sounds the rustle of the leaves high above us and the scuff of our feet in the duff. We thought of it as a secret place, known only to us, a source of treasure, a landscape of adventure. Once we saw the wreck of an airplane caught high in the branches of the trees. We took one of the transformers that had come loose and fallen to the ground, and for a long time after we had fine copper wire to play with, varnished a rich mahogany red. My cousin told me we could make snares and catch fish, or make electrical stuff, if we wanted. Just thinking about the possibilities hidden in the coils of fine, dark red wire was enough, it made us happy. We hid the transformer in the gazebo and took it out to relish the technical perfection of its windings, fine as hair.
A day or two after we found the transformer we were forbidden to go into the park, a prohibition we could not understand until we heard talk among the grownups about the dead pilot of the airplane hanging in the branches of the sycamore tree. We waited for our chance and crept back into the park but the wreck had been removed. As usual, the grownups had spoiled our fun, but we were used to it, and went about our business.
When it rained, the snails came out of the underbrush, their shells banded yellow and black and sometimes orange. The shells gleamed in the wet. I gathered up the snails and set them on the pine-log railing of the gazebo and waited for them to race each other. The snails came out from their shells, waving their antennae, testing the air for danger. They crawled over the curve of the railing and fell into the grass and disappeared.
One day the sirens moaned while I was building forts and jetties with the rocks at the edge of the water. I ran up the slope to the road, a cyclist rushing home knocked me over. The wheels of his bike scraped my bare belly, there was no other injury. My mother dressed us in two layers of underwear, and two layers of overcoats, the topmost one made from a bright red blanket. We must have looked like little red snowmen. The woollen vest itched, I cried with vexation in the cellar. We heard the bombers fly over, they seemed closer this time, perhaps the cellar magnified their sound, it came out of the ceiling and the floor and the walls. When the bombs hit the railway yards, we felt the thump, and a small cloud of dust drifted down from the ceiling. The lights flickered and went out. One of the grownups lit a candle, the light made a boundary around us like a wall. We huddled up next to Mother, and felt secure. But the vest still itched.
When I hear sirens in a war movie these days, something grabs my throat and squeezes tears from my eyes.
I visited the lake again recently. The mountains that stood on the opposite shore still stand there, self-sufficient and silent. High above them, a con trail divides the sky. I can’t see the plane, but I know it glides through the air like a fish glides through water.
The Cat on the Mat
Written by WEK after being inspired by The Rage of Alvin, a tragicomedy about a chipmunk resident in Midland, Michigan, composed by Kathryn Van der Linden Kirchmeir.
Scene One: The Living Room. The Master of the House enters. He sees the Cat leisurely disposed on the couch.
The Master recitative: What see I here? It is as I fear, the cat has assumed a posture most clear. He acts like the Master, that may not be, the Master of this House has always been Me.
The Master hurls his slipper at the Cat, and misses.
Chorus of Cushions and Old Newspapers polyphonic barbershop quartet: The Cat acts like the Master, that cannot be, the Master of this House has always been He, Has always been He, Has always been He.
The Cat opens one eye and yawns, showing gleaming teeth.
The Cat (who for purely dramatic purposes has been given a human voice) recitative: This chair it is cosy, it warms me most kind. So I will just stay here. Hello? Do you mind? Do you mind? Do you mind?
The Cat stretches out his right front paw. Long curved talons become visible. The Master is enraged by this show of defiance, and throws the other slipper.
The Master recitative: Do you dare defy me? How can this be? A mere cat you are, skin and bone covered in fur, and yet you dare, you dare to defy. But I must contain my rage, for it's bad at my age to raise the ire. 'Tis a perilous fire that will consume me.
Chorus barbershop quartet: He must contain his rage, for at his age he may not raise his ire. 'Tis a perilous fire that will consume, Oh, consume, Oh, consume, Oh, consume him utterly.
The Cat turns towards the audience and grins. He begins daintily to groom himself, as the Master storms out and
The Curtain falls.
Scene Two: The Front Porch. It is morning. The Master prepares to Face the Elements and Bring Home the Bacon.
The Master ballad: I sally forth the foe to slay this frabjous day. I sally forth the foe to kill and turn to swill. I sally forth the foe to smash and turn to ash. I sally forth, I sally forth, I sally forth.
Chorus of Fern, Hoja, two Hibisci, and a Rubber Plant canon: He sallies forth the foe to slay, and thus begins another day. We wait all morning, noon, and eve for his return. While he is gone we yearn, we yearn.
The Master leaves the House in a flourish of trumpets and swirling coat-tails.
The Mistress recitative: I languish as I water the flowers, the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la. Oh why must the Master depart and leave me each day? Why has he not retired from the fray?
The Cat recitative: Let me leave this abode for a few hours, while I go and smell the flowers.
The Mistress opens the door for the Cat, who leaves, his crooked tail flowing in the wind. She closes the door, and disconsolately pours water on the Chorus of houseplants.
The Mistress and Chorus canon: We wait all morning, noon, and eve for his return. While he is gone we yearn, we yearn. And while he’s gone, we burn, we yearn.
The Curtain falls.
Scene Three: The Living Room. Evening. The Master is discovered sitting in the Chair reading the newspaper.
Chorus of Cushions and Old Newspapers ballad, a capella, in unison: Now is it time to rest, now is the time the best for contemplation. The Master in his Chair turns not a single hair despite the international situation. Repeat twice in close barbershop harmony, softly, while the Master rustles his newspaper in time to the music.
The Master ballad: I read of frightful crimes, and topsy-turvy climes, and other things too horrible to mention. The polls are up again, the Dow is down again, and every sport is riddled with corruption. The arts have turned to porn, the farmers lose their corn, and students get a worser education. I think it's time I had a reason to be glad, and it's surely my domestic situation.
As the Mistress brings him a drink, and the Cat jumps on his lap, the Master repeats:
Methinks it's time I had a reason to be glad, and it's surely my domestic situation.
Chorus madrigal: He reads of frightful crimes, and topsy-turvy climes, and other things too horrible to mention. The polls are up again, the Dow is down again, and every sport is riddled with corruption. The arts have turned to porn, the farmers lose their corn, and students get a worser education. He thinks it's time he had a reason to be glad, and it's surely his domestic situation. It's surely his domestic situation.
The Mistress: It's surely his domestic situation.
The Cat: It's surely my domestic situation.
All madrigal: We read of frightful crimes, and topsy-turvy climes, and other things too horrible to mention. The polls are up again, the Dow is down again, and every sport is riddled with corruption. The arts have turned to porn, the farmers lose their corn, and students get a worser education. We think it's time we had a reason to be glad, and it's surely our domestic situation. It’s surely time we had a reason to be glad, and it's surely our domestic situation.
As the last joyous line is woven into a polyphonic madrigal canon, the percussion section of the orchestra ad-libs a complex alternative rhythm on the bongos and the celestina, and
The Curtain falls.
[If anyone wishes to set this masterpiece to Music, kindly communicate with the author at email@example.com.]