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a breath or a step

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There will be other days,

there will be other voices.

You will smile alone.

The cats will know.

 

cesare pavese

 

In his first life he learns quickly to crouch on the prow of the reed skiffs and dip his paw in the water at tilapia fry to make the boys gasp. Soon he is brave enough to jump onto the bank for terns and frogs and snakes. Their salty, thin, blood drips from his chin as he proudly displays his catch.

From ahket to shemu he naps curled in the netting between the oldest son’s feet and the fisherman carries him home with his claws clinging to the lid of the weir basket on his back. 

The fisherman and his wife and his children love him. They covet his affection and rain praise on him. 

Baniti , they call him. Teacher . He is a clever cat. His tail twitches like a dowsing rod over big perch. He yowls and paces when the wind changes. His antics entertain enough to make the boys work long and hard for their father. 

Soon, they are rich. They buy him a leather band with a gold circlet. 

He courts the dam in the house next door and sires kittens with her. They are good looking sleek brown things, dark as the mud after peret , dark as the hair of his brothers. It’s a good sign.

They too quiver and stretch and talk and bring good luck.

He grows old, his muzzle grays, salting with age. He stays home with mother to look after their fortune. The days are long and lazy; grandchildren tickle him with feathers and feed him sweet grain porridge and watch him bat at flies. The servants pretend to scold him when he knocks over the clay jars for laps of milk, or leaves his fur in the fresh laundry, or trips them when he snoozes on the doorstep. Mother coos and dotes on him. 

My sweet and gentle son, Baniti , she says, scratching under his chin. Such good boy he is , staying close to her and her soft lap and chest, chasing her long skipping shadow moving up and down the stairs. 

When the water is calm the fisherman gently scoops his arthritic body into his big-knuckled hands and puts him in the old weir basket that reeks of fish and walks him carefully to the docks. Let us see our ships, Baniti , he says. His sharp brown head pokes from the basket and his purrs radiate through the old man’s back. He displays him proudly to the oarsmen on his fine boat, much bigger than the nimble little skiffs he remembers. 

My son , he proclaims. My successor . He has come to whip you into shape!

The oarsmen greet him with rubbing touches and fawning. Such a handsome cat , they say. Such a beautiful polished circlet

 

*

 

Sometimes, when he is dreaming, he is there again, skimming over Aur ; the cedar-wood slats baking under the sun-god’s eye give off their sweet incense smell. They shade him with palm branches when the heat makes him pant. They mash his lunch between their hands so it is easier for his sore teeth.

He spends the final hours under the warm gazes of his brothers, stars wheeling in his eyes from the herbal draught they give him for the pain in his broken back. They try to learn from him now, wrestling with the ways of grief, trying to greet it with peace or sobriety, but they cannot keep still in each other’s presence for long. 

For many seasons they have been separated, each on his own ship, and now they are reunited under their old names for his vigil. Ser . Kyky with his monkey’s laugh. Djau , who they call in-the-middle

They are children again, clowning for him, to make his tail flick. They eat, and talk with their mouths full, telling stories of him leaping into the reeds, of chasing millet seeds dumped on the ground, of his bold talent for catching scorpions. His pads flex instinctively. 

Boys, he learns, are this way - like kittens, like cats, they wheel and slide their arms around each other, wanting to be closer, even when they quarrel.  He longs to wind around their shoulders, to grow large enough to hold them between his own paws and bathe them with his rasping tongue, to chew on them tenderly, to carry them to the underworld one by one so they may live together.

When he his dead they shave their eyebrows and do not speak for many days and nights except to weep and work; even when they must sail the 7 river-measures from the quarries at Gebel el-Silsila all the way to the first cataract at Aswan .

 

*

 

In this (his ninth and final) life he is called Fagin . The name is the work of Mister Dickens, a mysterious deity referenced by the men who feed the big black animal that lives in the hold with him. It means beggar

The cold makes his fur stiff and prickling tight in his skin, the fine soot dusting the air forces his grooming to be compulsive and unpleasant, leaving his tongue black and dry and his nose clogged with mucus that he coughs and rasps hunched down in corners. Even the vermin he eats are sluggish and devoid of any sport, listlessly scrabbling between his claws with barely a squeak in their own defense. 

It figures , he considers. Long gone are the days of gold circlets, save the one which lives in the sky and peers down on them from time to time. The sun dog

He blanches at man’s perverse lack of common sense. The sun would never choose a dog as its avatar. Dogs are foolish, consigned to their one life tabula rasa . Eight lives deep a cat is wiser to the ways of things.

If the men of this age were more attentive he might offer it up. He doesn’t let this make him unsociable, gracing them with his presence, but he is choosy. He senses who would step on his tail for violence’s sake and those with softer hands and laps and yarn to chase.

But he is never entirely alone.

Down in the hold, his three brothers keep him company. They are pale and thin - folding themselves up into the shadows to sit quiet in the dark with him, wearing different names, but he knows them all the same. 

John and Jack and David .

When the men stop giving a care of him, suspicious and afraid, his brothers knock over cans of ripe slop from the corner of the stove for him to scarf; they chase off the taunting little ape; they pet his shivering back when he is frightened, whiskers trembling. 

They teach him there is a thing on the ice which is cat nor dog nor man. It clicks and groans and whuffs, drags its nose along the seams of the hull, scenting.

Watch close , they whisper with their wide moon eyes, with their fingers curved like Bastet’s fang. 

They show him how to make himself small, out of sight; how to be as thin and quiet and still as they are, until he is invisible. 

 

*

 

One morning he wakes to something brushing his nose. 

He opens his eyes with slow blinks and sees the heavy tassel of a rope being swung before him. He yawns. Stretches with a roll. 

It is a warm day. The boat shifts and the scent of water is all around, silky with silt and algae. 

He reaches up to pluck at the rope with his paws, watches it swing back and forth in John’s hand. He leaps to gnaw at the end, back feet scrabbling. 

His brothers laugh. 

Such a fine ship she is , they tell him, cooing. The fine ship Erebus all your own.