Posted on October 13, 2018, 10:39:27 PM by Jubal
The Divine and the Feline
An Exilian Chain-Writing StoryBy Jubal, Sam Cook (Tar-Palantir), HanSolo, Holly S-E, La Ciguapa, Suzi (Spritelady), Andrew Conway, and Eadgifu the Fair
Mediterranean cats are an institution. Not for them the soft furnishings and barrel-guts of the lap-cat: they are slender, clever, proud. They do not so much live beside as strut above the humans – poor, blundering humans – who catch their fish, build the buildings that shelter them, give them the respect they deserve. They are daughters of the sphinx, living in state as their forebears did ever since mankind settled those jagged shores, and the buildings and the villages grew, and curled up just like cats in every inlet and every bay.
It was a warm afternoon; the cat was curled up on a low wall, waiting for the fishing boats to arrive, moving for no-one. Apollo stroked her fur with sunbeams, Poseidon yielded her dinner from the deeps, and the daughters of Prometheus stumbled past as they did every day, as they had done since people had first brought those gods to this shore. The cat stretched and yawned.
A group of travellers stopped by the little empty house. They had no bags. Three were shown into it by a suited official – a man with creased brow, a broad-shouldered son, and a girl who skipped out, squeezing her face up in the sun.
The cat opened half an eye as she grew near. Her eyes were slate, her hair a dark tangle, her skin sun-beaten. The cat opened its other eye, sleepily, and looked into hers. Mediterranean cats move for no-one.
The cat stood, and walked over to the girl.
‘Miaow’. The cat sat looking at her. ‘Miaow?’ it added again, for good measure.
The girl completely ignored it, absorbed in looking around her new surroundings.
‘MIAOOWWWW??!’ tried the cat a third time. It was quite fed up now. The human was ignoring it. What did it think it was, some kind of superior being, despite all the evidence to the contrary? Though, in this case, the girl might have a point, conceded the cat in what it thought was a gracious manner. It wouldn’t have abandoned its O-so-comfortable perch for any normal human.
This time, the strident yowling did the trick. The boy looked round and saw the cat gazing at the girl. In the manner of brothers everywhere, he promptly nudged his sister, saying ‘Look round deafy, I think you’ve got an admirer!’, before contorting his face into a leer to make the point. ‘Maybe if you kiss it, it’ll turn into a prince who can dig us out of this hole.’ he continued, before making an obscene pout.
At this point, his sister punched him. ‘Shut up, Niko!’ at which point, Niko did indeed shut up.
The girl turned round to face the cat. ‘Well, what do you want? I’ve not got any food.’
The cat, satisfied that it now had the girl’s attention, responded by coming over and sitting on her now-stationary foot in an entirely unhelpful manner, whilst purring contentedly. She needed to be observed for a while to make sure its instincts were correct.
The not-so-normal human did what a not-so-normal human would do: she sat down without moving her feet, her bare knees pointing to the sky and the cat undisturbed on her foot. Then she stared at the cat.
“So are you!” Her brother muttered, not quite quietly enough for their uncle not to hear. His creased brow creased some more but he did and said nothing.
An old local woman started creaking down the narrow street, paused when she saw the girl, made the evil eye at her, then hurried back the way she’d come.
From the other end of the street, Hera appeared and marched toward the group.
The cat spotted the goddess over the girl’s shoulder and scarpered back to her wall, ears down and tail up. Satiating curiosity was one thing, but she didn’t want to be anywhere near Zeus’ latest offspring when Hera was around!
The girl was too busy watching the disappearing cat to spot her danger so the clipboard-carrying official was the first human to spot the wrathful matriarch of Olympus. The centuries had been kind to her and of course she’d kept up with the latest Greek fashions. Her peacock-blue maxi-dress swished side-to-side through the street dust while her silver bangles jangled angrily as her arms swung back and forward. The official had never seen such a beautiful yet terrifying sight. He saw a lot less when she turned him into a weasel with a brief flick of her bejewelled index finger.
This was a feud between men and gods, or so the cat thought. The cat brushed its fur against stone walls as its paws avoided the muck of gutters; the muck of men and gods. The cat peered into the drains, disgusted by the fishless sea beneath that bred rats. The cat had no interest in rats or men or gods, but the cat was hungry.
The cat climbed to find itself on the very roof of the travellers’ new house. The straw roof scratched its stomach as it spied through a hole. The weasel was no longer with them but Hera was.
“This is to be your home,” Hera’s voice roared like a lion’s. The cat could respect a lion.
“Please, we have nothing--” The uncle began, his brow turned upwards as if to beg. The cat thought the uncle was like a dog.
“I am not speaking to you,” Hera looked up to the hole in the roof, into the cat’s green eyes. The cat’s back arched and its fur shot out like blades. It shrieked and jumped off the roof, landing on all fours before the door of the small stone house.
The girl ran to open the door.
“Zoe!” The girl’s brother called after her. Hera stood unmoved. Her eyes glared at the back of the girl’s head painted with soft yellow curls. The girl once again paid no mind to the men and the god towering behind her. She saw only the cat.
Hera examined the girl curiously as she stroked and played with the cat. Zoe's innocent laughter bounced through the air as its tail tickled her legs. Hera had endured countless bastards over the centuries. This child was just another example of her licentious husband's brazen infidelity. And yet, there was something different about this one.
She watched as the cat weaved in and out of Zoe's delicate legs before settling on her feet just as before. The cat looked up and met eyes with the towering goddess.
"This child is now under your protection," Hera declared. "Should any harm come to her you will suffer Zeus' mighty wrath... and mine."
Zoe's uncle fell to his knees and grovelled before Hera, thanking her for her mercy and generosity. She stoically raised her right hand and left the family in their hovel.
Zoe lifted her new companion up into her arms and brought her to a small chair in their new home. "I will call you Sapphira." She whispered, nuzzling her face into the cat's neck.
"Chirrrp" So this is to be my fate? Guardian to a demi-god and her family of simple mortals. So be it.
"A cat?" Niko shouted, "We're starving and all she gives us is a stupid cat!"
“Be quiet! Do you want to bring her wrath down upon us even now?”
Zoe’s uncle spoke wisely; Hera was known to be ruthless to any she considered disrespectful of her. And of course, Zeus’ philandering was the greatest disrespect of all. The cat had no doubt that Hera’s apparent mercy in giving Zoe and her family the hovel and entrusting their protection to the cat was more than it seemed. Somehow it was linked to Zoe’s father.
For now, however, the cat would begin its duty of protection by leading the family to the docks, where they would be able to find some food.
“Miaow.” The cat leapt from the chair it had been placed on, briefly winding itself round Zoe’s legs, before heading towards the door. There, it stopped, disappointed in the lack of attention the family had paid to its attempts to lead them outside. Instead of following it, they had begun discussing what they might do about dinner.
“MIAOW!” The cat tried again, louder this time. This caught their attention and so the cat began to scratch at the door insistently. When none of them moved to exit the room, the cat returned to Zoe’s legs and began attempting to headbutt her towards the door, with little success.
The cat gave up on trying to communicate with the humans. They were just too stupid to understand. She would just have to bring food to them. It was too far to bring a fish back from the docks. There were too many small children in between with stones to throw at a cat burdened with a purloined mullet. But there had been something nearby that would do for prey. She knew humans ate fish, but would they eat weasel?
She jumped to the windowsill, and looked around. The distinctive aroma of mustelidae still lingered. Was there any motion? Yes, under that rosemary bush. The cat dropped to the ground within pouncing range. The weasel sensed danger, arched it’s back, and hissed. “I am a lion among weasels,” the hiss said, “Meddle with me and I will rip your face off.”
The cat was not impressed. It crouched, nothing moving but the tip of its tail. The weasel stared at the cat. The cat stared at the weasel.
The weasel broke first. It turned to scuttle deeper into the bush. The cat leaped. The weasel turned to meet the attack. There was a flurry of claws and teeth, and the then cat had the weasel by the neck and was shaking it. There was a rumble of thunder in the cloudless sky, and then where the weasel had been stood the god Zeus, still wearing the ill-fitting suit of the rental agent, with rosemary in his hair and the cat hanging desperately from his tie.
The cat retracted her claws - carefully - and dropped to the ground, landing on all four paws, as was proper.
Forgive me, Your Divinity, she said, in that cat's way of speaking with two meanings, so that she was also saying: A weasel? Really?
Zeus could read between the lines. "I didn't choose this form," he said, rather resentfully. "You would do well to be more careful of your prey, cat."
The cat nodded her head. Yes, Your Divinity. I was trying to find food for your daughter. Between the lines, she said: Since that didn't seem to occur to you.
"My daughter deserves better food than a weasel," Zeus retorted, though he seemed less displeased. "And I will hear no reproaches from you, feline. Not by my choice did I hide my true face, and it is not by my choice that I cannot be near her."
The cat did not deign to respond to the weasel comment. Some deities simply didn't understand the refinement of the feline palate.
But Zeus' words struck her. She was a knowledgeable cat, when it came to the gods and their histories: all Mediterranean cats are. They soak up history the way they soak up the sun, from cobblestones. Zeus usually did what he could to save his paramours from Hera's wrath, but he had never showed any interest in being present in the lives of his offspring.
She is different, the cat said to Zeus, tail flicking in the air. I knew it as soon as I met her. Why? What was her mother?
Zeus' gaze grew distant, for a moment, and he suddenly looked less like a rental agent and a little more like a king among gods.
"She has none," he said. "I created her, and I bore her myself. She shares no blood with her human family."
At the cat's silence, he added: "Well, if Hera could do it with Hephaistos...!"
So that was it. He had been jealous of his wife's feat, and tried it himself - and now, being the child's only parent, felt responsible for her as he had never felt before. Perhaps that was why Hera had spared this child, too: she had sensed that no infidelity lay behind this.
The cat thought for a moment. Hera had charged her to protect the child, but she had given the cat no help, and certainly no food. Zeus, however... if Zeus was entertaining parental feelings, he might be more forthcoming.
Then she is unique, she said, playing to his vanity. A treasure. She deserves to be well protected.
Zeus’ gaze turned sharp: he knew when someone was opening a negotiation. “Are you offering? Have you not been charged with her care already?”
Yes, the cat purred, but how I am to keep her fed and protected, by myself, I really do not know, Your Divinity. Humans are very slow creatures: they cannot even be taught to hunt.
Zeus’ eyes narrowed. The cat stared steadily back, confident of her victory if a staring contest ensued.
“Very well,” Zeus said. “I will ensure you have an unending supply of fish. More – I will make you queen of the dockland cats, if you will lead them in her defence.”
The cat began to wind herself around his legs in approval. Your Divinity, I believe we have a deal.
(The cat accompanied Zoe on all her future exploits, some of which were outlandish and very heroic. But that is another story entirely.)
This is one of three stories written as part of our summer 2018 chain writing project. You can read the other two here and here, and find the project wrap-up announcement here.Editor's Note:
As the starting writer on this chain I was interested to see how it would end up - the answer was much more pleasant and indeed cat-heavy than I'd expected, and although this was logistically the chain that had all the difficulties and ended up delaying the project several weeks I'm happy with the result. I'd initially only meant the mentions of Greek deities in the early section as metaphorical, and was amused to see them taken literally in what turned out to be a very nice and gently funny piece of chain writing.The Editor Is Now Concerned About:
The damage done to the local ecosystem by Zeus' unending supply of fish. And what Poseidon has to say about the matter!