Science Fiction & Fantasy

GENOME by Sergei Lukyanenko

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Fiction

Catskin

Catskin by Kelly Link (illustrated by Galen Dara)

Cats went in and out of the witch’s house all day long. The windows stayed open, and the doors, and there were other doors, cat-sized and private, in the walls and up in the attic. The cats were large and sleek and silent. No one knew their names, or even if they had names, except for the witch.

Some of the cats were cream-colored and some were brindled. Some were black as beetles. They were about the witch’s business. Some came into the witch’s bedroom with live things in their mouths. When they came out again, their mouths were empty.

The cats trotted and slunk and leapt and crouched. They were busy. Their movements were catlike, or perhaps clockwork. Their tails twitched like hairy pendulums. They paid no attention to the witch’s children.

***

The witch had three living children at this time, although at one time she had had dozens, maybe more. No one, certainly not the witch, had ever bothered to tally them up. But at one time, the house had bulged with cats and babies.

Now, since witches cannot have children in the usual way—their wombs are full of straw or bricks or stones, and when they give birth, they give birth to rabbits, kittens, tadpoles, houses, silk dresses, and yet even witches must have heirs, even witches wish to be mothers—the witch had acquired her children by other means: She had stolen or bought them.

She’d had a passion for children with a certain color of red hair. Twins she had never been able to abide (they were the wrong kind of magic), although she’d sometimes attempted to match up sets of children, as though she had been putting together a chess set and not a family. If you were to say a witch’s chess set, instead of a witch’s family, there would be some truth in that. Perhaps this is true of other families as well.

One girl she had grown like a cyst, upon her thigh. Other children she had made out of things in her garden, or bits of trash that the cats brought her: aluminum foil with strings of chicken fat still crusted to it, broken television sets, cardboard boxes that the neighbors had thrown out. She had always been a thrifty witch.

Some of these children had run away and others had died. Some of them she had simply misplaced, or accidentally left behind on buses. It is to be hoped that these children were later adopted into good homes, or reunited with their natural parents. If you are looking for a happy ending in this story, then perhaps you should stop reading here and picture these children, these parents, their reunions.

***

Are you still reading? The witch, up in her bedroom, was dying. She had been poisoned by an enemy, a witch, a man named Lack. The child Finn, who had been her food taster, was dead already and so were three cats who’d licked her dish clean. The witch knew who had killed her and she snatched pieces of time, here and there, from the business of dying, to make her revenge. Once the question of this revenge had been settled to her satisfaction, the shape of it like a black ball of twine in her head, she began to divide up her estate between her three remaining children.

Flecks of vomit stuck to the corners of her mouth, and there was a basin beside the foot of the bed, which was full of black liquid. The room smelled like cats’ piss and wet matches. The witch panted as if she were giving birth to her own death.

“Flora shall have my automobile,” she said, “and also my purse, which will never be empty, so long as you always leave a coin at the bottom, my darling, my spendthrift, my profligate, my drop of poison, my pretty, pretty Flora. And when I am dead, take the road outside the house and go west. There’s one last piece of advice.”

Flora, who was the oldest of the witch’s living children, was redheaded and stylish. She had been waiting for the witch’s death for a long time now, although she had been patient. She kissed the witch’s cheek and said, “Thank you, Mother.”

The witch looked up at her, panting. She could see Flora’s life, already laid out, flat as a map. Perhaps all mothers can see as far.

“Jack, my love, my birds nest, my bite, my scrap of porridge,” the witch said, “you shall have my books. I won’t have any need of books where I am going. And when you leave my house, strike out in an easterly direction and you won’t be any sorrier than you are now.”

Jack, who had once been a little bundle of feathers and twigs and eggshell all tied up with a tatty piece of string, was a sturdy lad, almost full grown. If he knew how to read, only the cats knew it. But he nodded and kissed his mother’s gray lips.

“And what shall I leave to my boy, Small?” the witch said, convulsing. She threw up again in the basin. Cats came running, leaning on the lip of the basin to inspect her vomitus. The witch’s hand dug into Small’s leg.

“Oh, it is hard, hard, so very hard, for a mother to leave her children (though I have done harder things). Children need a mother, even such a mother as I have been.” She wiped at her eyes, and yet it is a fact that witches cannot cry.

Small, who still slept in the witch’s bed, was the youngest of the witch’s children. (Perhaps not as young as you think.) He sat upon the bed, and although he didn’t cry, it was only because witch’s children have no one to teach them the use of crying. His heart was breaking.

Small could juggle and sing and every morning he brushed and plaited the witch’s long, silky hair. Surely every mother must wish for a boy like Small, a curly-headed, sweet-breathed, tenderhearted boy like Small, who can cook a fine omelet, and who has a good strong singing voice as well as a gentle hand with a hairbrush.

“Mother,” he said, “if you must die, then you must die. And if I can’t come along with you, then I’ll do my best to live and make you proud. Give me your hairbrush to remember you by, and I’ll go make my own way in the world.”

“You shall have my hairbrush, then,” said the witch to Small, looking, and panting, panting. “And I love you best of all. You shall have my tinderbox and my matches, and also my revenge, and you will make me proud, or I don’t know my own children.”

“What shall we do with the house, Mother?” said Jack. He said it as if he didn’t care.

“When I am dead,” the witch said, “this house will be of no use to anyone. I gave birth to it—that was a very long time ago—and raised it from just a dollhouse. Oh, it was the most dear, most darling dollhouse ever. It had eight rooms and a tin roof, and a staircase that went nowhere at all. But I nursed it and rocked it to sleep in a cradle, and it grew up to be a real house, and see how it has taken care of me, its parent, how it knows a child’s duty to its mother. And perhaps you can see how it is now, how it pines, how it grows sick to see me dying like this. Leave it to the cats. They’ll know what to do with it.”

***

All this time, the cats have been running in and out of the room, bringing things and taking things away. It seems as if they will never slow down, never come to rest, never nap, never have the time to sleep, or to die, or even to mourn. They have a certain proprietary look about them, as if the house is already theirs.

***

The witch vomits up mud, fur, glass buttons, tin soldiers, trowels, hat pins, thumbtacks, love letters (mislabeled or sent without the appropriate amount of postage and never read), and a dozen regiments of red ants, each ant as long and wide as a kidney bean. The ants swim across the perilous, stinking basin, clamber up the sides of the basin, and go marching across the floor in a shiny ribbon. They are carrying pieces of Time in their mandibles. Time is heavy, even in such small pieces, but the ants have strong jaws, strong legs. Across the floor they go, and up the wall, and out the window. The cats watch, but don’t interfere. The witch gasps and coughs and then lies still. Her hands beat against the bed once and then are still. Still the children wait, to make sure that she is dead, and that she has nothing else to say.

***

In the witch’s house, the dead are sometimes quite talkative.

***

But the witch has nothing else to say at this time.

***

The house groans and all the cats begin to mew piteously, trotting in and out of the room as if they have dropped something and must go and hunt for it—they will never find it—and the children, at last, find they know how to cry, but the witch is perfectly still and quiet. There is a tiny smile on her face, as if everything has happened exactly to her satisfaction. Or maybe she is looking forward to the next part of the story.

***

The children buried the witch in one of her half-grown dollhouses. They crammed her into the downstairs parlor, and knocked out the inner walls so that her head rested on the kitchen table in the breakfast nook, and her ankles threaded through a bedroom door. Small brushed out her hair, and, because he wasn’t sure what she should wear now that she was dead, he put all her dresses on her, one over the other over the other, until he could hardly see her white limbs at all beneath the stack of petticoats and coats and dresses. It didn’t matter: Once they’d nailed the dollhouse shut again, all they could see was the red crown of her head in the kitchen window, and the worn-down heels of her dancing shoes knocking against the shutters of the bedroom window.

Jack, who was handy, rigged a set of wheels for the dollhouse, and a harness so that it could be pulled. They put the harness on Small, and Small pulled and Flora pushed, and Jack talked and coaxed the house along, over the hill, down to the cemetery, and the cats ran along beside them.

***

The cats are beginning to look a bit shabby, as if they are molting. Their mouths look very empty. The ants have marched away, through the woods, and down into town, and they have built a nest on your yard, out of the bits of Time. And if you hold a magnifying glass over their nest, to see the ants dance and burn, Time will catch fire and you will be sorry.

***

Outside the cemetery gates, the cats had been digging a grave for the witch. The children tipped the dollhouse into the grave, kitchen window first. But then they saw that the grave wasn’t deep enough, and the house sat there on its end, looking uncomfortable. Small began to cry (now that he’d learned how, it seemed he would spend all his time practicing), thinking how horrible it would be to spend one’s death, all of eternity, upside down and not even properly buried, not even able to feel the rain when it beat down on the exposed shingles of the house, and seeped down into the house and filled your mouth and drowned you, so that you had to die all over again, every time it rained.

The dollhouse chimney had broken off and fallen on the ground. One of the cats picked it up and carried it away, like a souvenir. That cat carried the chimney into the woods and ate it, a mouthful at a time, and passed out of this story and into another one. It’s no concern of ours.

The other cats began to carry up mouthfuls of dirt, dropping it and mounding it around the house with their paws. The children helped, and when they’d finished, they’d managed to bury the witch properly, so that only the bedroom window was visible, a little pane of glass like an eye at the top of a small dirt hill.

On the way home, Flora began to flirt with Jack. Perhaps she liked the way he looked in his funeral black. They talked about what they planned to be, now that they were grown up. Flora wanted to find her parents. She was a pretty girl: Someone would want to look after her. Jack said he would like to marry someone rich. They began to make plans.

Small walked a little behind, slippery cats twining around his ankles. He had the witch’s hairbrush in his pocket, and his fingers slipped around the figured horn handle for comfort.

The house, when they reached it, had a dangerous, grief-stricken look to it, as if it was beginning to pull away from itself. Flora and Jack wouldn’t go back inside. They squeezed Small lovingly, and asked if he wouldn’t want to come along with them. He would have liked to, but who would have looked after the witch’s cats, the witch’s revenge? So he watched as they drove off together. They went north. What child has ever heeded a mother’s advice?

***

Jack hasn’t even bothered to bring along the witch’s library: He says there isn’t space in the trunk for everything. He’ll rely on Flora and her magic purse.

***

Small sat in the garden, and ate stalks of grass when he was hungry, and pretended that the grass was bread and milk and chocolate cake. He drank out of the garden hose. When it began to grow dark, he was lonelier than he had ever been in his life. The witch’s cats were not good company. He said nothing to them and they had nothing to tell him, about the house, or the future, or the witch’s revenge, or about where he was supposed to sleep. He had never slept anywhere except in the witch’s bed, so at last he went back over the hill and down to the cemetery.

Some of the cats were still going up and down the grave, covering the base of the mound with leaves and grass and feathers, their own loose fur. It was a soft sort of nest to lie down on. The cats were still busy when Small fell asleep—cats are always busy—cheek pressed against the cool glass of the bedroom window, hand curled in his pocket around the hairbrush, but in the middle of the night, when he woke up, he was swaddled, head to foot, in warm, grass-scented cat bodies.

***

A tail is curled around his chin like a rope, and all the bodies are soughing breath in and out, whiskers and paws twitching, silky bellies rising and falling. All the cats are sleeping a frantic, exhausted, busy sleep, except for one, a white cat who sits near his head, looking down at him. Small has never seen this cat before, and yet he knows her, the way that you know the people who visit you in dreams: She’s white everywhere, except for reddish tufts and frills at her ears and tail and paws, as if someone has embroidered her with fire around the edges.

“What’s your name?” Small says. He’s never talked to the witch’s cats before.

The cat lifts a leg and licks herself in a private place. Then she looks at him. “You may call me Mother,” she says.

But Small shakes his head. He can’t call the cat that. Down under the blanket of cats, under the windowpane, the witch’s Spanish heel is drinking in moonlight.

“Very well, then, you may call me The Witch’s Revenge,” the cat says. Her mouth doesn’t move, but he hears her speak inside his head. Her voice is furry and sharp, like a blanket made of needles. “And you may comb my fur.”

Small sits up, displacing sleeping cats, and lifts the brush out of his pocket. The bristles have left rows of little holes indented in the pink palm of his hand, like some sort of code. If he could read the code, it would say: Comb my fur.

Small combs the fur of The Witch’s Revenge. There’s grave dirt in the cat’s fur, and one or two red ants, who drop and scurry away. The Witch’s Revenge bends her head down to the ground, snaps them up in her jaws. The heap of cats around them is yawning and stretching. There are things to do.

“You must burn her house down,” The Witch’s Revenge says. “That’s the first thing.”

Small’s comb catches a knot, and The Witch’s Revenge turns and nips him on the wrist. Then she licks him in the tender place between his thumb and his first finger. “That’s enough,” she says. “There’s work to do.”

So they all go back to the house, Small stumbling in the dark, moving farther and farther away from the witch’s grave, the cats trotting along, their eyes lit like torches, twigs and branches in their mouths, as if they plan to build a nest, a canoe, a fence to keep the world out. The house, when they reach it, is full of lights, and more cats, and piles of tinder. The house is making a noise, like an instrument that someone is breathing into. Small realizes that all the cats are mewing, endlessly, as they run in and out the doors, looking for more kindling. The Witch’s Revenge says, “First we must latch all the doors.”

So Small shuts all the doors and windows on the first floor, leaving open only the kitchen door, and The Witch’s Revenge shuts the catches on the secret doors, the cat doors, the doors in the attic, and up on the roof, and the cellar doors. Not a single secret door is left open. Now all the noise is on the inside, and Small and The Witch’s Revenge are on the outside.

All the cats have slipped into the house through the kitchen door. There isn’t a single cat in the garden. Small can see the witch’s cats through the windows, arranging their piles of twigs. The Witch’s Revenge sits beside him, watching. “Now light a match and throw it in,” says The Witch’s Revenge.

Small lights a match. He throws it in. What boy doesn’t love to start a fire?

“Now shut the kitchen door,” says The Witch’s Revenge, but Small can’t do that. All the cats are inside. The Witch’s Revenge stands on her hindpaws and pushes the kitchen door shut. Inside, the lit match catches something on fire. Fire runs along the floor and up the kitchen walls. Cats catch fire, and run into the other rooms of the house. Small can see all this through the windows. He stands with his face against the glass, which is cold, and then warm, and then hot. Burning cats with burning twigs in their mouths press up against the kitchen door, and the other doors of the house, but all the doors are locked. Small and The Witch’s Revenge stand in the garden and watch the witch’s house and the witch’s books and the witch’s sofas and the witch’s cooking pots and the witch’s cats, her cats, too, all her cats burn.

***

You should never burn down a house. You should never set a cat on fire. You should never watch and do nothing while a house is burning. You should never listen to a cat who says to do any of these things. You should listen to your mother when she tells you to come away from watching, to go to bed, to go to sleep. You should listen to your mother’s revenge.

***

You should never poison a witch.

***

In the morning, Small woke up in the garden. Soot covered him in a greasy blanket. The Witch’s Revenge was curled up asleep on his chest. The witch’s house was still standing, but the windows had melted and run down the walls.

The Witch’s Revenge woke and stretched and licked Small clean with her small sharkskin tongue. She demanded to be combed. Then she went into the house and came out, carrying a little bundle. It dangled, boneless, from her mouth, like a kitten.

***

It is a catskin, Small sees, only there is no longer a cat inside it. The Witch’s Revenge drops it in his lap.

***

He picked it up and something shiny fell out of the loose light skin. It was a piece of gold, sloppy, slippery with fat. The Witch’s Revenge brought out dozens and dozens of catskins, and there was a gold piece in every skin. While Small counted his fortune, The Witch’s Revenge bit off one of her own claws, and pulled one long witch hair out of the witch’s comb. She sat up, like a tailor, cross-legged in the grass, and began to stitch up a bag, out of the many catskins.

Small shivered. There was nothing to eat for breakfast but grass, and the grass was black and cooked.

“Are you cold?” said The Witch’s Revenge. She put the bag aside and picked up another catskin, a fine black one. She slit a sharp claw down the middle. “We’ll make you a warm suit.”

She used the coat of a black cat, and the coat of a calico cat, and she put a trim around the paws, of grey-and-white-striped fur.

While she did this, she said to Small, “Did you know that there was once a battle, fought on this very patch of ground?”

Small shook his head no.

“Wherever there’s a garden,” The Witch’s Revenge said, scratching with one paw at the ground, “I promise you there are people buried somewhere beneath it. Look here.” She plucked up a little brown clot, put it in her mouth, and cleaned it with her tongue.

When she spat the little circle out again, Small saw it was an ivory regimental button. The Witch’s Revenge dug more buttons out of the ground—as if buttons of ivory grew in the ground—and sewed them onto the catskin. She fashioned a hood with two eyeholes and a set of fine whiskers, and sewed four fine cat tails to the back of the suit, as if the single tail that grew there wasn’t good enough for Small. She threaded a bell on each one. “Put this on,” she said to Small.

Small puts on the suit and the bells chime. The Witch’s Revenge laughs. “You make a fine-looking cat,” she says. “Any mother would be proud.”

The inside of the catsuit is soft and a little sticky against Small’s skin. When he puts the hood over his head, the world disappears. He can see only the vivid corners of it through the eyeholes—grass, gold, the cat who sits cross-legged, stitching up her sack of skins—and air seeps in, down at the loosely sewn seam, where the skin droops and sags over his chest and around the gaping buttons. Small holds his tails in his clumsy fingerless paw, like a handful of eels, and swings them back and forth to hear them ring. The sound of the bells and the sooty, cooked smell of the air, the warm stickiness of the suit, the feel of his new fur against the ground: he falls asleep and dreams that hundreds of ants come and lift him and gently carry him off to bed.

***

When Small tipped his hood back again, he saw that The Witch’s Revenge had finished with her needle and thread. Small helped her fill the bag with gold. The Witch’s Revenge stood up on her hind legs, took the bag, and swung it over her shoulders. The gold coins went sliding against each other, mewling and hissing. The bag dragged along the grass, picking up ash, leaving a trail of green behind it. The Witch’s Revenge strutted along as if she were carrying a sack of air.

Small put the hood on again, and he got down on his hands and knees. And then he trotted after The Witch’s Revenge. They left the garden gate wide open and went into the forest, towards the house where the witch Lack lived.

***

The forest is smaller than it used to be. Small is growing, but the forest is shrinking. Trees have been cut down. Houses have been built. Lawns rolled, roads laid. The Witch’s Revenge and Small walked alongside one of the roads. A school bus rolled by: The children inside looked out their windows and laughed when they saw The Witch’s Revenge walking on her hind legs, and at her heels, Small, in his catsuit. Small lifted his head and peered out of his eyeholes after the school bus.

“Who lives in these houses?” he asked The Witch’s Revenge.

“That’s the wrong question, Small,” said The Witch’s Revenge, looking down at him and striding along.

Meow, the catskin bag says. Clink.

“What’s the right question, then?” Small said.

“Ask me who lives under the houses,” The Witch’s Revenge said.

Obediently, Small said, “Who lives under the houses?”

“What a good question!” said The Witch’s Revenge. “You see, not everyone can give birth to their own house. Most people give birth to children instead. And when you have children, you need houses to put them in. So children and houses: Most people give birth to the first and have to build the second. The houses, that is. A long time ago, when men and women were going to build a house, they would dig a hole first. And they’d make a little room—a little, wooden, one-room house—in the hole. And they’d steal or buy a child to put in the house in the hole, to live there. And then they built their house over that first little house.”

“Did they make a door in the lid of the little house?” Small said.

“They did not make a door,” said The Witch’s Revenge.

“But then how did the girl or the boy climb out?” Small said.

“The boy or the girl stayed in that little house,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “They lived there all their life, and they are living in those houses still, under the other houses where the people live, and the people who live in the houses above may come and go as they please, and they don’t ever think about how there are little houses with little children, sitting in little rooms, under their feet.”

“But what about the mothers and fathers?” Small asked. “Didn’t they ever go looking for their boys and girls?”

“Ah,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. And after all, who was living under their houses? But that was a long time ago. Now people mostly bury a cat when they build their house, instead of a child. That’s why we call cats house-cats. Which is why we must walk along smartly. As you can see, there are houses under construction here.”

***

And so there are. They walk by clearings where men are digging little holes. First Small puts his hood back and walks on two legs, and then he puts on his hood again, and goes on all fours: He makes himself as small and slinky as possible, just like a cat. But the bells on his tails jounce and the coins in the bag that The Witch’s Revenge carries go clink, meow, and the men stop their work and watch them go by.

***

How many witches are there in the world? Have you ever seen one? Would you know a witch if you saw one? And what would you do if you saw one? For that matter, do you know a cat when you see one? Are you sure?

***

Small followed The Witch’s Revenge. Small grew calluses on his knees and the pads of his fingers. He would have liked to carry the bag sometimes, but it was too heavy. How heavy? You would not have been able to carry it, either.

They drank out of streams. At night they opened the catskin bag and climbed inside to sleep, and when they were hungry they licked the coins, which seemed to sweat golden fat, and always more fat. As they went, The Witch’s Revenge sang a song:

I had no mother
and my mother had no mother
and her mother had no mother
and her mother had no mother
and her mother had no mother
and you have no mother
to sing you
this song

The coins in the bag sang too, meow, meow, and the bells on Small’s tails kept the rhythm.

***

Every night Small combs The Witch’s Revenge’s fur. And every morning The Witch’s Revenge licks him all over, not neglecting the places behind his ears, and at the backs of his knees. And then he puts the catsuit back on, and she grooms him all over again.

***

Sometimes they were in the forest, and sometimes the forest became a town, and then The Witch’s Revenge would tell Small stories about the people who lived in the houses, and the children who lived in the houses under the houses. Once, in the forest, The Witch’s Revenge showed Small where there had once been a house. Now there were only the stones of the foundation, upholstered in moss, and the chimney stack, propped up with fat ropes and coils of ivy.

The Witch’s Revenge rapped on the grassy ground, moving clockwise around the foundation, until both she and Small could hear a hollow sound; The Witch’s Revenge dropped to all fours and clawed at the ground, tearing it up with her paws and biting at it, until they could see a little wooden roof. The Witch’s Revenge knocked on the roof, and Small lashed his tails.

“Well, Small,” said The Witch’s Revenge, “shall we take off the roof and let the poor child go?”

Small crept up close to the hole she had made. He put his ear to it and listened, but he heard nothing at all. “There’s no one in there,” he said.

“Maybe they’re shy,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “Shall we let them out, or shall we leave them be?”

“Let them out!” said Small, but what he meant to say was, “Leave them alone!” Or maybe he said Leave them be! although he meant the opposite. The Witch’s Revenge looked at him, and Small thought he heard something then—beneath him where he crouched, frozen—very faint: a scrabbling at the dirty, sunken roof.

Small sprang away. The Witch’s Revenge picked up a stone and brought it down hard, caving the roof in. When they peered inside, there was nothing except blackness and a faint smell. They waited, sitting on the ground, to see what might come out, but nothing came out. After a while, The Witch’s Revenge picked up her catskin bag, and they set off again.

For several nights after that, Small dreamed that someone, something, was following them. It was small and thin and bleached and cold and dirty and afraid. One night it crept away again, and Small never knew where it went. But if you come to that part of the forest, where they sat and waited by the stone foundation, perhaps you will meet the thing that they set free.

***

No one knew the reason for the quarrel between the witch Small’s mother and the witch Lack, although the witch Small’s mother had died for it. The witch Lack was a handsome man and he loved his children dearly. He had stolen them out of the cribs and beds of palaces and manors and harems. He dressed his children in silks, as befitted their station, and they wore gold crowns and ate off gold plates. They drank from cups of gold. Lack’s children, it was said, lacked nothing.

Perhaps the witch Lack had made some remark about the way the witch Small’s mother was raising her children, or perhaps the witch Small’s mother had boasted of her children’s red hair. But it might have been something else. Witches are proud and they like to quarrel.

When Small and The Witch’s Revenge came at last to the house of the witch Lack, The Witch’s Revenge said to Small, “Look at this monstrosity! I’ve produced finer turds and buried them under leaves. And the smell, like an open sewer! How can his neighbors stand the stink?”

Male witches have no wombs, and must come by their houses in other ways, or else buy them from female witches. But Small thought it was a very fine house. There was a prince or a princess at each window staring down at him, as he sat on his haunches in the driveway, beside The Witch’s Revenge. He said nothing, but he missed his brothers and sisters.

“Come along,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “We’ll go a little ways off and wait for the witch Lack to come home.”

Small followed The Witch’s Revenge back into the forest, and in a while, two of the witch Lack’s children came out of the house, carrying baskets made of gold. They went into the forest as well and began to pick blackberries.

The Witch’s Revenge and Small sat in the briar and watched.

***

There was a wind in the briar. Small was thinking of his brothers and sisters. He thought of the taste of blackberries, the feel of them in his mouth, which was not at all like the taste of fat.

The Witch’s Revenge nestled against the small of Small’s back. She was licking down a lump of knotted fur at the base of his spine. The princesses were singing.

Small decided that he would live in the briar with The Witch’s Revenge. They would live on berries and spy on the children who came to pick them, and The Witch’s Revenge would change her name. The word Mother was in his mouth, along with the sweet taste of the blackberries.

“Now you must go out,” said The Witch’s Revenge, “and be kittenish. Be playful. Chase your tail. Be shy, but don’t be too shy. Don’t talk too much. Let them pet you. Don’t bite.”

She pushed at Small’s rump, and Small tumbled out of the briar and sprawled at the feet of the witch Lack’s children.

The Princess Georgia said, “Look! It’s a dear little cat!”

Her sister Margaret said doubtfully, “But it has five tails. I’ve never seen a cat that needed so many tails. And its skin is done up with buttons and it’s almost as large as you are.”

Small, however, began to caper and prance. He swung his tails back and forth so that the bells rang out and then he pretended to be alarmed by this. First he ran away from his tails and then he chased his tails. The two princesses put down their baskets, half-full of blackberries, and spoke to him, calling him a silly puss.

At first he wouldn’t go near them. But, slowly, he pretended to be won over. He allowed himself to be petted and fed blackberries. He chased a hair ribbon and he stretched out to let them admire the buttons up and down his belly. Princess Margaret’s fingers tugged at his skin; then she slid one hand in between the loose catskin and Small’s boy skin. He batted her hand away with a paw, and Margaret’s sister Georgia said knowingly that cats didn’t like to be petted on their bellies.

They were all good friends by the time The Witch’s Revenge came out of the briar, standing on her hind legs and singing:

I have no children
and my children have no children
and their children
have no children
and their children
have no whiskers
and no tails

At this sight, the Princesses Margaret and Georgia began to laugh and point. They had never heard a cat sing, or seen a cat walk on its hind legs. Small lashed his five tails furiously, and all the fur of the catskin stood up on his arched back, and they laughed at that too.

When they came back from the forest, with their baskets piled with berries, Small was stalking close at their heels, and The Witch’s Revenge came walking just behind. But she left the bag of gold hidden in the briar.

***

That night, when the witch Lack came home, his hands were full of gifts for his children. One of his sons ran to meet him at the door and said, “Come and see what followed Margaret and Georgia home from the forest! Can we keep them?”

And the table had not been set for dinner, and the children of the witch Lack had not sat down to do their homework, and in the witch Lack’s throne room, there was a cat with five tails, spinning in circles, while a second cat sat impudently upon his throne, and sang:

Yes!
your father’s house
is the shiniest
brownest largest
the most expensive
the sweetest-smelling
house
that has ever
come out of
anyone’s
ass!

The witch Lack’s children began to laugh at this, until they saw the witch, their father, standing there. Then they fell silent. Small stopped spinning.

“You!” said the witch Lack.

“Me!” said The Witch’s Revenge, and sprang from the throne. Before anyone knew what she was about, her jaws were fastened about the witch Lack’s neck, and then she ripped out his throat. Lack opened his mouth to speak and his blood fell out, making The Witch’s Revenge’s fur more red now than white. The witch Lack fell down dead, and red ants went marching out of the hole in his neck and the hole of his mouth, and they held pieces of Time in their jaws as tightly as The Witch’s Revenge had held Lack’s throat in hers. But she let Lack go and left him lying in his blood on the floor, and she snatched up the ants and ate them, quickly, as if she had been hungry for a very long time.

While this was happening, the witch Lack’s children stood and watched and did nothing. Small sat on the floor, his tails curled about his paws. Children, all of them, they did nothing. They were too surprised. The Witch’s Revenge, her belly full of ants, her mouth stained with blood, stood up and surveyed them.

“Go and fetch me my catskin bag,” she said to Small.

Small found that he could move. Around him, the princes and princesses stayed absolutely still. The Witch’s Revenge was holding them in her gaze.

“I’ll need help,” Small said. “The bag is too heavy for me to carry.”

The Witch’s Revenge yawned. She licked a paw and began to pat at her mouth. Small stood still.

“Very well,” she said. “Take those big strong girls the Princesses Margaret and Georgia with you. They know the way.”

The Princesses Margaret and Georgia, finding that they could move again, began to tremble. They gathered their courage and they went with Small, the two girls holding each other’s hands, out of the throne room, not looking down at the body of their father, the witch Lack, and back into the forest.

Georgia began to weep, but the Princess Margaret said to Small: “Let us go!”

“Where will you go?” said Small. “The world is a dangerous place. There are people in it who mean you no good.” He threw back his hood, and the Princess Georgia began to weep harder.

“Let us go,” said the Princess Margaret. “My parents are the King and Queen of a country not three days’ walk from here. They will be glad to see us again.”

Small said nothing. They came to the briar and he sent the Princess Georgia in to hunt for the catskin bag. She came out scratched and bleeding, the bag in her hand. It had caught on the briars and torn open. Gold coins rolled out, like glossy drops of fat, falling on the ground.

“Your father killed my mother,” said Small.

“And that cat, your mother’s devil, will kill us, or worse,” said Princess Margaret. “Let us go!”

Small lifted the catskin bag. There were no coins in it now. The Princess Georgia was on her hands and knees, scooping up coins and putting them into her pockets.

“Was he a good father?” Small asked.

“He thought he was,” Princess Margaret said. “But I’m not sorry he’s dead. When I grow up, I will be Queen. I’ll make a law to put all the witches in the kingdom to death, and all their cats as well.”

Small became afraid. He took up the catskin bag and ran back to the house of the witch Lack, leaving the two princesses in the forest. And whether they made their way home to the Princess Margaret’s parents, or whether they fell into the hands of thieves, or whether they lived in the briar, or whether the Princess Margaret grew up and kept her promise and rid her kingdom of witches and cats, Small never knew, and neither do I, and neither shall you.

***

When he came back into the witch Lack’s house, The Witch’s Revenge saw at once what had happened. “Never mind,” she said.

There were no children, no princes and princesses, in the throne room. The witch Lack’s body still lay on the floor, but The Witch’s Revenge had skinned it like a coney, and sewn up the skin into a bag. The bag wriggled and jerked, the sides heaving as if the witch Lack were still alive somewhere inside. The Witch’s Revenge held the witchskin bag in one hand, and with the other, she was stuffing a cat into the neck of the skin. The cat wailed as it went into the bag. The bag was full of wailing. But the discarded flesh of the witch Lack lolled, slack.

There was a little pile of gold crowns on the floor beside the flayed corpse, and transparent, papery things that blew about the room on a current of air, surprised looks on the thin, shed faces.

Cats were hiding in the corners of the room, and under the throne. “Go catch them,” said The Witch’s Revenge. “But leave the three prettiest alone.”

“Where are the witch Lack’s children?” Small said.

The Witch’s Revenge nodded around the room. “As you see,” she said. “I’ve slipped off their skins, and they were all cats underneath. They’re cats now, but if we were to wait a year or two, they would shed these skins as well and become something new. Children are always growing.”

Small chased the cats around the room. They were fast, but he was faster. They were nimble, but he was nimbler. He had worn his catsuit longer. He drove the cats down the length of the room, and The Witch’s Revenge caught them and dropped them into her bag. At the end, there were only three cats left in the throne room and they were as pretty a trio of cats as anyone could ask for. All the other cats were inside the bag.

“Well done and quickly done, too,” said The Witch’s Revenge, and she took her needle and stitched shut the neck of the bag. The skin of the witch Lack smiled up at Small, and a cat put its head through Lack’s stained mouth, wailing. But The Witch’s Revenge sewed Lack’s mouth shut too, and the hole on the other end, where a house had come out. She left only his earholes and his eyeholes and his nostrils, which were full of fur, rolled open so that the cats could breathe.

The Witch’s Revenge slung the skin full of cats over her shoulder and stood up.

“Where are you going?” Small said.

“These cats have mothers and fathers,” The Witch’s Revenge said. “They have mothers and fathers who miss them very much.”

She gazed at Small. He decided not to ask again. So he waited in the house with the two princesses and the prince in their new catsuits, while The Witch’s Revenge went down to the river. Or perhaps she took them down to the market and sold them. Or maybe she took each cat home, to its own mother and father, back to the kingdom where it had been born. Maybe she wasn’t so careful to make sure that each child was returned to the right mother and father. After all, she was in a hurry, and cats look very much alike at night.

No one saw where she went—but the market is closer than the palaces of the Kings and Queens whose children had been stolen by the witch Lack, and the river is closer still.

When The Witch’s Revenge came back to Lack’s house, she looked around her. The house was beginning to stink very badly. Even Small could smell it now.

“I suppose the Princess Margaret let you fuck her,” said The Witch’s Revenge, as if she had been thinking about this while she ran her errands. “And that is why you let them go. I don’t mind. She was a pretty puss. I might have let her go myself.”

She looked at Small’s face and saw that he was confused. “Never mind,” she said.

She had a length of string in her paw, and a cork, which she greased with a piece of fat she had cut from the witch Lack. She threaded the cork on the string, calling it a good, quick, little mouse, and greased the string as well, and she fed the wriggling cork to the tabby who had been curled up in Small’s lap. And when she had the cork back again, she greased it again and fed it to the little black cat, and then she fed it to the cat with two white forepaws, so that she had all three cats upon her string.

She sewed up the rip in the catskin bag, and Small put the gold crowns in the bag, and it was nearly as heavy as it had been before. The Witch’s Revenge carried the bag, and Small took the greased string, holding it in his teeth, so the three cats were forced to run along behind him as they left the house of the witch Lack.

***

Small strikes a match, and he lights the house of the dead witch, Lack, on fire, as they leave. But shit burns slowly, if at all, and that house might be burning still, if someone hasn’t gone and put it out. And maybe, someday, someone will go fishing in the river near that house, and hook their line on a bag full of princes and princesses, wet and sorry and wriggling in their catsuit skins—that’s one way to catch a husband or a wife.

***

Small and The Witch’s Revenge walked without stopping and the three cats came behind them. They walked until they reached a little village very near where the witch Small’s mother had lived and there they settled down in a room The Witch’s Revenge rented from a butcher. They cut the greased string, and bought a cage and hung it from a hook in the kitchen. They kept the three cats in it, but Small bought collars and leashes, and sometimes he put one of the cats on a leash and took it for a walk around the town.

Sometimes he wore his own catsuit and went out prowling, but The Witch’s Revenge used to scold him if she caught him dressed like that. There are country manners and there are town manners and Small was a boy about town now.

The Witch’s Revenge kept house. She cleaned and she cooked and she made Small’s bed in the morning. Like all of the witch’s cats, she was always busy. She melted down the gold crowns in a stewpot, and minted them into coins.

The Witch’s Revenge wore a silk dress and gloves and a heavy veil, and ran her errands in a fine carriage, Small at her side. She opened an account in a bank, and she enrolled Small in a private academy. She bought a piece of land to build a house on, and she sent Small off to school every morning, no matter how he cried. But at night she took off her clothes and slept on his pillow and he combed her red and white fur.

Sometimes at night she twitched and moaned, and when he asked her what she was dreaming, she said, “There are ants! Can’t you comb them out? Be quick and catch them, if you love me.”

But there were never any ants.

One day when Small came home, the little cat with the white front paws was gone. When he asked The Witch’s Revenge, she said that the little cat had fallen out of the cage and through the open window and into the garden and before The Witch’s Revenge could think what to do, a crow had swooped down and carried the little cat off.

They moved into their new house a few months later, and Small was always very careful when he went in and out the doorway, imagining the little cat, down there in the dark, under the doorstep, under his foot.

***

Small got bigger. He didn’t make any friends in the village, or at his school, but when you’re big enough, you don’t need friends.

One day while he and The Witch’s Revenge were eating their dinner, there was a knock at the door. When Small opened the door, there stood Flora and Jack. Flora was wearing a drab, thrift-store coat, and Jack looked more than ever like a bundle of sticks.

“Small!” said Flora. “How tall you’ve become!” She burst into tears, and wrung her beautiful hands. Jack said, looking at The Witch’s Revenge, “And who are you?”

The Witch’s Revenge said to Jack, “Who am I? I’m your mother’s cat, and you’re a handful of dry sticks in a suit two sizes too large. But I won’t tell anyone if you won’t tell, either.”

Jack snorted at this, and Flora stopped crying. She began to look around the house, which was sunny and large and well appointed.

“There’s room enough for both of you,” said The Witch’s Revenge, “if Small doesn’t mind.”

Small thought his heart would burst with happiness to have his family back again. He showed Flora to one bedroom and Jack to another. Then they went downstairs and had a second dinner, and Small and The Witch’s Revenge listened, and the cats in their hanging cage listened, while Flora and Jack recounted their adventures.

A pickpocket had taken Flora’s purse, and they’d sold the witch’s automobile, and lost the money in a game of cards. Flora found her parents, but they were a pair of old scoundrels who had no use for her. (She was too old to sell again. She would have realized what they were up to.) She’d gone to work in a department store, and Jack had sold tickets in a movie theater. They’d quarreled and made up, and then fallen in love with other people, and had many disappointments. At last they had decided to go home to the witch’s house and see if it would do for a squat, or if there was anything left, to carry away and sell.

But the house, of course, had burned down. As they argued about what to do next, Jack had smelled Small, his brother, down in the village. So here they were.

“You’ll live here, with us,” Small said.

Jack and Flora said they could not do that. They had ambitions, they said. They had plans. They would stay for a week, or two weeks, and then they would be off again. The Witch’s Revenge nodded and said that this was sensible.

Every day, Small came home from school and went out again, with Flora, on a bicycle built for two. Or he stayed home and Jack taught him how to hold a coin between two fingers, and how to follow the egg, as it moved from cup to cup. The Witch’s Revenge taught them to play bridge, although Flora and Jack couldn’t be partners. They quarreled with each other as if they were husband and wife.

“What do you want?” Small asked Flora one day. He was leaning against her, wishing he were still a cat, and could sit in her lap. She smelled of secrets. “Why do you have to go away again?”

Flora patted Small on the head. She said, “What do I want? That’s easy enough! To never have to worry about money. I want to marry a man and know that he’ll never cheat on me, or leave me.” She looked at Jack as she said this.

Jack said, “I want a rich wife who won’t talk back, who doesn’t lie in bed all day, with the covers pulled up over her head, weeping and calling me a bundle of twigs.” And he looked at Flora when he said this.

The Witch’s Revenge put down the sweater that she was knitting for Small. She looked at Flora and she looked at Jack and then she looked at Small.

Small went into the kitchen and opened the door of the hanging cage. He lifted out the two cats and brought them to Flora and Jack. “Here,” he said. “A husband for you, Flora, and a wife for Jack. A prince and a princess, and both of them beautiful, and well brought up, and wealthy, no doubt.”

Flora picked up the little tomcat and said, “Don’t tease at me, Small! Who ever heard of marrying a cat!”

The Witch’s Revenge said, “The trick is to keep their catskins in a safe hiding place. And if they sulk, or treat you badly, sew them back into their catskin and put them into a bag and throw them in the river.”

Then she took her claw and slit the skin of the tabby-colored catsuit, and Flora was holding a naked man. Flora shrieked and dropped him on the ground. He was a handsome man, well made, and he had a princely manner. He was not a man that anyone would ever mistake for a cat. He stood up and made a bow, very elegant, for all that he was naked. Flora blushed, but she looked pleased.

“Go fetch some clothes for the Prince and the Princess,” The Witch’s Revenge said to Small. When he got back, there was a naked princess hiding behind the sofa, and Jack was leering at her.

A few weeks after that, there were two weddings, and then Flora left with her new husband, and Jack went off with his new princess. Perhaps they lived happily ever after.

The Witch’s Revenge said to Small, “We have no wife for you.”

Small shrugged. “I’m still too young,” he said.

***

But try as hard as he can, Small is getting older now. The catskin barely fits across his shoulders. The buttons strain when he fastens them. His grown-up fur—his people fur—is coming in. At night he dreams.

The witch his mother’s Spanish heel beats against the pane of glass. The princess hangs in the briar. She’s holding up her dress, so he can see the catfur down there. Now she’s under the house. She wants to marry him, but the house will fall down if he kisses her. He and Flora are children again, in the witch’s house. Flora lifts up her skirt and says, see my pussy? There’s a cat down there, peeking out at him, but it doesn’t look like any cat he’s ever seen. He says to Flora, I have a pussy, too. But his isn’t the same.

At last he knows what happened to the little, starving, naked thing in the forest, where it went. It crawled into his catskin, while he was asleep, and then it climbed right inside him, his Small skin, and now it is huddled in his chest, still cold and sad and hungry. It is eating him from the inside, and getting bigger, and one day there will be no Small left at all, only that nameless, hungry child, wearing a Small skin.

Small moans in his sleep.

There are ants in The Witch’s Revenge’s skin, leaking out of her seams, and they march down into the sheets and pinch at him, down under his arms, and between his legs where his fur is growing in, and it hurts, it aches and aches. He dreams that The Witch’s Revenge wakes now, and comes and licks him all over, until the pain melts. The pane of glass melts. The ants march away again on their long, greased thread.

“What do you want?” says The Witch’s Revenge.

Small is no longer dreaming. He says, “I want my mother!”

Light from the moon comes down through the window over their bed. The Witch’s Revenge is very beautiful—she looks like a Queen, like a knife, like a burning house, a cat—in the moonlight. Her fur shines. Her whiskers stand out like pulled stitches, wax and thread. The Witch’s Revenge says, “Your mother is dead.”

“Take off your skin,” Small says. He’s crying and The Witch’s Revenge licks his tears away. Small’s skin pricks all over, and down under the house, something small wails and wails. “Give me back my mother,” he says.

“Oh, my darling,” says his mother, the witch, The Witch’s Revenge, “I can’t do that. I’m full of ants. Take off my skin, and all the ants will spill out, and there will be nothing left of me.”

Small says, “Why have you left me all alone?”

His mother the witch says, “I’ve never left you alone, not even for a minute. I sewed up my death in a catskin so I could stay with you.”

“Take it off! Let me see you!” Small says. He pulls at the sheet on the bed, as if it were his mother’s catskin.

The Witch’s Revenge shakes her head. She trembles and beats her tail back and forth. She says, “How can you ask me for such a thing, and how can I say no to you? Do you know what you’re asking me for? Tomorrow night. Ask me again, tomorrow night.”

And Small has to be satisfied with that. All night long, Small combs his mother’s fur. His fingers are looking for the seams in her catskin. When The Witch’s Revenge yawns, he peers inside her mouth, hoping to catch a glimpse of his mother’s face. He can feel himself becoming smaller and smaller. In the morning he will be so small that when he tries to put his catskin on, he can barely do up the buttons. He’ll be so small, so sharp, you might mistake him for an ant, and when The Witch’s Revenge yawns, he’ll creep inside her mouth, he’ll go down into her belly, he’ll go find his mother. If he can, he’ll help his mother cut her catskin open so that she can get out again and come and live in the world with him, and if she won’t come out, then he won’t, either. He’ll live there, the way that sailors learn to live, inside the belly of fish who have eaten them, and keep house for his mother inside the house of her skin.

***

This is the end of the story. The Princess Margaret grows up to kill witches and cats. If she doesn’t, then someone else will have to do it. There is no such thing as witches, and there is no such thing as cats, either, only people dressed up in catskin suits. They have their reasons, and who is to say that they might not live that way, happily ever after, until the ants have carried away all of the time that there is, to build something new and better out of it?

© 2003 Kelly Link.
Originally published in
McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales,
edited by Michael Chabon.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Kelly Link

Kelly LinkKelly Link is the author of the story collections Stranger Things HappenMagic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters, as well as the founder, with her husband Gavin J. Grant, of Small Beer Press. A fourth collection of stories, Get in Trouble, is forthcoming from Random House in 2015.