The tree has many names, in many languages: Yggdrasil, Kalpavriksha, Jian-Mu, Ashvattha. It stands at the nexus of worlds, dark matter coiling around its roots, the rim of the universe held aloft by its ever-expanding crown. Its branches bend spacetime, its cordate leaves uphold the laws of physics, and its tiny white flowers grant immortality.
Let us be more specific. One flower grants immortality, two flowers cause a prolonged and painful death, three flowers the obliteration of an entire species. It does not pay to be greedy.
But this is not a story about the tree, per se. Neither is it the story of the witch who dwells in a cottage between its twisting roots—although the witch is a caretaker of the tree and an important character. Witches always are.
No, it is Maurice we are concerned with, Maurice who is currently sprawled on the roof of the cottage, soaking in the light of the yellow star that hangs on one of the branches above. Let us call it the sun for the sake of simplicity. The sun was not essential, but the witch is wise to the ways of cats and brought one anyway. If Maurice could feel gratitude, he would be grateful to the witch, but all cats are the same, even the godlike ones. Especially the godlike ones.
This was many years ago, as the universe counts such things, but who’s counting? Time flows differently here. Maurice is not immortal, and neither is the witch. They are also not as young as they used to be. There are other cats now, milling about the cottage, meowing for the witch’s attention. One day, one of them will take his place.
But not yet. Oh, not yet. Maurice raises his head and casts a yellow-eyed glare at the tortoiseshell that has just landed on the edge of the roof. To his astonishment, she does not retreat. He allows his fur to stand up, his lips to curl away from his sharp white teeth.
“Good morning, Maurice,” she says smoothly. “Surely the roof is big enough for both of us?”
Maurice’s astonishment turns to rage. A mere kitten, challenging his territory! The roof is his. The tree is also his. He will die defending it. The witch knows this, knows how good he is at his job, and yet she has allowed these . . . these . . . children to invade his home!
He rises in all his torn-eared, ragged-furred glory and arches his back, hissing like a storm of bees.
The tortoiseshell regards him, unfazed, out of bright green eyes. “There’s chopped sardines for snack. In case you want to join us.” She turns to leave. “My name is Butterscotch,” she tosses over her shoulder. She leaps down, as silently as she came.
Maurice settles back on the roof, seething. Butterscotch. What kind of name is that for a tortoiseshell? He will try his best to forget it. (In this, he will fail.)
The sun is still blazing, but it has lost all warmth for him. His limbs ache with the ghosts of ancient injuries, battles fought balanced on the edge of the abyss, in the maw of black holes, in the heart of dying stars. There will always be monsters. But there will not always be Maurice.
He washes his paws and thinks, glumly, about sardines.
• • • •
A leaf veined with age and fatigue lets go its tenuous hold on life, and falls. Somewhere, far distant, an earthquake cleaves a world.
In the time it takes a new leaf to grow, a race of Cetaceans leave their ocean world to become spacefarers. Humans establish their first colony on Mars. A star in the Milky Way goes supernova, dimming every other star in the galaxy.
Humans and Cetaceans will not meet. The two species will pass each other by, missing by a mere million kilometers. You might think this is sad, but it is actually a deliberate move on the part of the Cetaceans, who know potential extinction when it stares them in the face.
• • • •
In the cottage between the roots of the tree, the witch requests Maurice to recount his first battle for the edification of the six—SIX!—cats gathered around the fire. The fire, like the sun, is not necessary. But the cats gravitate to it like bees to lavender.
The witch sits on her rocking chair, knitting scarves for the tree. The scarves are also not really necessary, but the tree appreciates them. Bright red, yellow, and blue patterns speckle various branches and bits of gnarly trunk, healing unseen hurts, keeping the worms of entropy at bay.
Maurice glares at the cats clustered before him. He does not wish to recount his first battle. He does not remember his first battle. But he has never refused the witch anything, not when she has asked politely.
She has always asked politely.
Like the time she said, O Valiant Maurice, I ask your leave to adopt these star kittens. The poor things are friendless and homeless. They will die if we do not take them in.
What was he supposed to do, say no, let them die? Or no, find another universe for them?
He almost did. He feels surly and ill-used.
But the witch is waiting, and Butterscotch holds him with her cool green gaze, and the fire crackles with expectation.
Maurice begins, addressing himself to the fire, for that is preferable to addressing the puny felines who have come between him and his witch.
They listen with attention, mostly. Once, when a tiny ball of white fur opens his pink mouth to yawn, Butterscotch swats him with her paw.
And if Maurice gets a few battles jumbled up and embellishes some details, well, no one’s to know that, are they? The story is what’s important.
• • • •
“Many years ago, when I was young and handsomer than any cat has ever been, I faced the greatest challenge any cat has ever faced in the entire whole history of time. I won, of course. I have always won and I will always win, because I am Magnificent.” He directs a scowl at Butterscotch.
When it is clear that she will not lower her disturbingly attentive gaze, Maurice resumes. “I had just finished my training under the great Grimalkin, and he had left on his sky pilgrimage. I was alone, patrolling the tree, when I heard a terrible sawing noise from its base. I leaped down and beheld a dreadful sight.”
The cats hold their breath, and the witch hides a smile.
“It was the tree borers of the Cyrambidae System in Andromeda.” He pauses, allowing the full horror of it to sink into his listeners. “I did not know this until later. I only knew what I saw: giant, hideous beetles with gleaming black carapaces and curved scimitar teeth, boring holes into my tree with saws attached to their limbs.” His whiskers bristle at the memory. “They planned to lay their eggs in the holes so the larvae could feed on the entire universe.”
Maurice begins to pace, his tail swishing. “A cat has three main weapons,” he says, assuming a didactic tone that does not escape the witch. “Voice, teeth, and claws. Voice is best for killing demons, teeth and claws for most natural life forms, and a combination of all three for machines. I leaped on the nearest beetle with a shriek of rage that would have deafened a demon, elongating my teeth and claws so that even an armored dinosaur could not have withstood them.
“But I did not leave even a dent on the carapace of the beetle. I was shocked! I was dismayed! How was this possible?” Maurice stops pacing and rakes his audience with ferocious eyes as if they were responsible for his near defeat.
A small black cat raises a paw.
“What?” says Maurice, irritated at the interruption.
“It is possible they were possessed by demons,” says the black cat.
“Did I ask you to tell the story?” Maurice demands. “Was it you that fought against the tree borers and achieved a glorious victory? No? Then do not utter another word!”
The black cat hides behind the witch’s skirts. Maurice resumes pacing, his fur standing on end. The witch makes a small, soothing sound, and his fur settles somewhat.
“I guessed at once they were possessed by demons,” he says, as if the black cat had not spoken. “Protected by the beetles, the demons were unaffected by my voice. Protected by the demons, the beetles were strong enough to resist my teeth and claws. It was an alliance made by the devil himself! Fortunately, I remembered that I had a fourth weapon.”
(Actually, there is a fifth weapon, but it’s not for neophyte ears, and Maurice wouldn’t dream of bringing it up, not even to boast.)
Butterscotch opens her mouth to speak, then thinks better of it.
Maurice gives a fierce grin. “I had my lives.”
The cats ooh and aah. It is an oddly satisfying sound.
“We only have nine to give,” says Maurice, resuming his lecturing tone, “so it must be an Emergency. This was an Emergency. I cut my life out with my teeth. The pain was unbearable! But did I falter? Did I hesitate? No. I ripped it screaming and groaning from my heart, until it stood in front of me, a replica of my handsome self, although not quite as solid. It bit all its fur off and hurled it at the beetles. Each hair elongated into a whip of lightning that snapped around a beetle, crushing its carapace. In minutes, every beetle had been pulverized by the whips. The demons emerged from the broken beetle bodies, ghastly and screeching. I joined my voice to my replica’s, and together we sang a song to drown them out. It was glorious! The demons clapped their hands over their ears and begged for mercy. We sang even louder! And the demons evaporated to nightmares and nasty smells that blew away on the wind. When the last demon was gone, my replica bowed to me and faded into mist. And that is how I lost my first life.”
There is a respectful silence. Then the black cat, who has emerged from behind the witch’s skirts, raises her paw again.
“What?” says Maurice, trying to control his temper.
“How many lives do you have left?” asks the black cat.
Maurice swells until he thinks he will burst. The witch suddenly finds tasks for all of them to do. Butterscotch takes the little black cat into the corner for a good talking-to.
Maurice crawls into his nest between the roof and the ceiling—a space he has made cozy with blankets and toys—and broods.
He has, of course, only one life left. One last, splendid battle, and it will be curtains for Magnificent Maurice.
• • • •
Time passes. A god arrives, determined to pluck a rare fruit from the tree. Maurice sends him on his way without too much trouble. The fruit will be a new galaxy one day, but do gods care about such things? No, they do not. In this respect, they are no different from demons.
To his annoyance, Maurice now knows the names of all the cats that infest his cottage. The little ball of white fur is Snowflake, and he has the sharpest teeth Maurice has seen in any cat, except himself. The overly curious black cat is Midnight, and she could argue a sphinx to death. Trumpet, Paws, and Destiny are the remaining three. Trumpet has a powerful yowl, Paws can cause tree-quakes, and Destiny can knit almost as well as the witch.
Butterscotch makes them take turns visiting him on the roof, bearing tiny morsels of fish or chicken, begging for stories of his battles. Mostly, he scarfs the treats and snarls at them until they leave. But sometimes—rarely—he will give them what they ask for, and tell a story. They gather round and listen, quiet as mice, until he is done. They do not ask questions, although Midnight has to hold one paw down with another to stop herself.
The witch is relieved. It is time, she thinks, for Maurice to retire. But she will never say so herself.
It is, perhaps, not too long before the witch herself must retire. This she will not allow herself to think, for caretaker witches are even rarer than star kittens. Until a new one comes along, she must continue, though her bones turn to dust within her skin.
• • • •
Another leaf falls. Far away, a world inhabited by machines is swallowed by its star. The machines predicted this catastrophic event and could have left their solar system had they wished to. But there appeared to be no point. The people who made them were long gone, and it seems a fitting end to a once-great civilization.
They leave their story encoded in a quantum riddle, beamed out in the pulses of their dying planet.
It will be thousands of years before it reaches another inhabited world, and when it does, the tree-dwelling primates who are the sole form of semi-intelligent life there will be quite oblivious of it.
• • • •
Maurice patrols the tree every day. The more hints the witch drops his way, the more grumpy and stubborn he becomes. No, he does not need to rest. No, he does not need company. No, his muscles do not ache. Not even a little bit. He can climb just as well as a kitten, thankyouverymuch.
This is a lie. Maurice groans softly when he is high enough up the tree that even Butterscotch, the cat with the sharpest ears, cannot hear him.
He will not accede to any of the witch’s requests. It’s a slippery slope to retirement, and Maurice has no intention of retiring. He will die on the job, as Magnificent as ever. The witch had best accept this. He loves her, in his own gruff way, but she’s not the boss of him. Maurice stamps on a branch and yowls defiance at the distant heavens. The branch shakes beneath him, and he leaps prudently down to another.
But this branch quivers as well, and he realizes, belatedly, that he is not alone. He puffs up his fur, looks fierce, and peers down the tree.
A helmeted human is climbing up, harnessed to a rope slung over a branch that is scarcely a few metres below Maurice.
Maurice is stunned and ashamed. How has the human climbed so high without him noticing? Most of all, Maurice is outraged. Humans are the most troublesome of all living creatures, and that is saying something. Monsters almost always follow in their wake. He leaps down to the branch over which the rope is slung and slashes it with one swipe of his claws.
The rope falls. The human utters a small scream and tumbles.
Maurice settles down to wash his paws with righteous self-satisfaction, waiting for the small, sad splat the human’s body will make when it hits the metaphorical ground.
It does not come. Instead, there is the sound of rope whipping through air. Maurice observes, to his chagrin, that the human has been saved by one of the innumerable branches that adorn the tree. She has thrown a rope over the next branch and is adjusting her harness. Even from this distance, he can sense her determination.
Maurice grins. This will be fun. He will keep slashing the rope, and the human will keep falling. Eventually, the human will hit the ground, and her atoms will disperse into the universe from whence they came.
He leaps down and raises his paw to slash the rope again.
Pow! Maurice blinks and coughs. Something heavy and sharp falls on him. When the smoke clears, he sees that he is trapped under a metallic net. He tries to move, and the net tightens, digging through his fur into his skin. He can sense the spells on it, designed to blunt his teeth and claws.
“I thought I might meet someone like you,” says the human, tucking a cylindrical tube back into her belt. “I came prepared.”
She hauls herself up with dismaying speed and squats on the branch opposite the fuming Maurice. She smells of sweat and honey, of fear and desperation. She has black hair and brown skin, and eyes that have looked into the abyss before jumping in. For some reason, she reminds Maurice of his witch.
“My name is Uhura,” she says. “I mean no harm. I want just one flower. My beloved lies at the door of death, and this is the only thing that can save her.”
Maurice has heard some version of this story countless times over his long and illustrious career. The flowers of immortality are the oldest myth in all the inhabited worlds. If he could, he’d stamp out every dark and tempting tale there is about them. Then perhaps foolish lovers would stop risking the fabric of spacetime to come here.
“Not yours to take,” he growls. “The flowers belong to the tree. And you can see there aren’t any today.”
The leaves flutter, revealing the tiny flowers hidden beneath them.
Why, Tree? thinks Maurice dismally. I’m trying to protect you.
Uhura gasps. “There are so many! And all I need is one.”
“Each one is a baby star,” Maurice tells her. “To save one human, you would destroy an entire star?”
She presses her lips together. “I would. And you cannot stop me.” Her hands reach for the nearest cluster of leaves, and they part obligingly to uncover the flower in their midst.
Why is the tree helping her? Maurice does not know, and so he does what he has never done before: he uses his fifth weapon. He cleaves spacetime to see the best possible action to achieve maximum glory with minimum effort. It’s a dangerous thing to do; after all, spacetime, once divided, gets ideas of its own. But this is an Emergency, and he only has one life left.
Choice one: He sacrifices his last life, bursts magnificently out of this shameful cage, and claws the human’s face so she topples from the tree. She dies, he dies, Butterscotch takes over his job, and they sing of his brave deeds every night for a year.
One. Single. Miserable. Year. That’s all? Why, Maurice still sings of Grimalkin in his more solitary moments! No, no, this will not do.
Choice two: He lets her take the flower. This is not without precedent. She does not want it for herself, and it will not harm her. But as for her beloved, immortality will ruin her forever. And forever is a long, long time. Centuries after Uhura is dead, her beloved will haunt the Earth, becoming less and less human, more and more like a demon, until she returns to the tree to take revenge on the universe. Okay, not an option at all.
Choice three: Distract her with a game and call for help. This goes against everything a cat stands for, but so far it is the best choice. All he has to do is stall her with a few riddles. Seekers after the flower of immortality love riddles. They seem to think that if they answer correctly, they will somehow deserve the flower and avoid any negative karma from killing an entire star. Maurice can easily summon Butterscotch with a single howl that will also temporarily deafen Uhura. Butterscotch will dispatch the interloper, and the witch will know how to remove the net. An ignominious outcome for him, but also the only one in which he gets to (a) live and (b) save a baby star.
Maurice goes with the fourth choice—the one whose path is too uncertain to see. He draws the seams of spacetime together and purrs, in his most seductive tone, “How would you like a job?”
Her hand stops. She looks at him with a frown knitting her dark, heavy brows. “Are you trying to trick me, Cat?”
“My name is Maurice,” he tells her, “and I have defended this tree for more years than you have hairs on your head. But my witch is growing old. She needs an apprentice. Someone young and strong and clever, who can learn her ways before it is too late.”
She tilts her head, surprised. “But I must return to my beloved,” she says. “I must save her life.”
“Listen to me,” says Maurice, his words dripping with sincerity. This, too, is a weapon—of a kind. “Immortality is a curse. She will never forgive you for it. It will drive her mad. Many years after you are gone, her sanity will crumble like the shore before a raging sea. Is this what you wish?”
“I cannot let her die.” A tiny wobble of uncertainty enters Uhura’s voice. She is young, perhaps no more than seventeen years. All the more impressive, how far she’s come.
“Of course you cannot,” says Maurice warmly. “She should have a chance to recover and live a normal life span. My witch can help you. She knows many secret healing potions. Trust me, you need medicine. Not the flower of immortality.”
Uhura withdraws her hand from the cluster of leaves and leans against the trunk, exhaustion and suspicion warring on her face. “I do not trust you, Cat. We are on opposite sides, you and I.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way.” Maurice is about to say more, when a branch beneath them quivers, rustling the leaves. He tries to look down without moving his limbs. “What followed you from your world?”
“Nothing. I came alone.” Uhura leans over and chokes out, “Oh no.”
“What? What is it?” Maurice stamps a paw in impatience, and the net tightens. Sharp metal digs into his throat, nearly throttling him.
A noxious smell creeps into the air, and a pale, rotting hand grasps the branch they are standing on. The wood creaks in alarm. Uhura jerks back, looking as horrified as Maurice feels.
The intruder raises the rest of its ghastly self up: a black-suited human corpse with flesh peeling away from its face, blank white eyes, and gaping holes for nose and mouth.
“Free me,” yells Maurice. “Quick!”
Uhura throws herself forward and flicks a switch. The net springs away from Maurice and back into the tube, taking a clump of his fur with it. She points it at the corpse and fires. The net lands on the creature, trapping it. It topples off the branch, limbs flailing.
“Good job,” says Maurice, recovering his voice.
Another decaying hand grasps the branch. Maurice doesn’t wait to see who it belongs to. He leaps forward and slashes the hand to ribbons. The corpse falls, its dark mouth open in a permanent grin.
Four pairs of hands clutch the branch.
“Why are there so many?” shouts Uhura, backing away. She raises her metal tube and whacks the head of the nearest corpse.
“Vampire corpse-animation,” snaps Maurice. “Something unique to your world. Thanks a lot for bringing them here.”
“You did. You opened a gateway, and they followed you through it.” Maurice extends his claws and attacks the corpses trying to climb past him. If even one of them manages to pop a flower into its gaping mouth, the entire lot will come to vindictive vampiric life. They will sink their fangs into the tree and suck the sap of the universe into their bottomless souls.
He glances over the edge of the branch. An army of the climbing dead is making its zombie-like way up the tree. Even if Maurice gives up his last life, he won’t be able to ensure the safety of the tree he is sworn to protect. He has already used the fifth weapon once. There is only one thing left to do. Maurice takes a deep breath and pushes aside his pride.
“Butterscotch!” he screams. “Help!”
Cats streak up the tree trunk as if they have been waiting for his signal. Butterscotch takes the lead, a snarling mass of teeth and fur, chomping corpses and tossing them away like confetti. Close behind her are Snowflake, Trumpet, and Paws. She meows a quick order, and Paws slams his body into the trunk.
The tree shakes like a leaf in the wind. It is all Maurice and Uhura can do to cling on. Corpses drop like flies. When the shaking stops, Snowflake and Trumpet take over, picking off the remaining corpses with a speed and ferocity that bely their age and size.
“Your team is pretty impressive,” says Uhura, thwacking another corpse over the head before kicking it away. “You must be proud of them.”
Looking down at them, Maurice realizes, to his astonishment, that he is.
• • • •
When the last corpse has been dispatched, Maurice escorts Uhura down the tree. Butterscotch goes ahead to warn the witch of their surprise visitor. Snowflake, Trumpet, and Paws remain to patrol the tree.
They climb down slowly, Uhura because she is tired, and Maurice because his limbs are cramped and achy, but he pretends he is matching her pace out of consideration.
“If I should return one day,” says Uhura, “there will be a job waiting for me?”
“Do not be too long,” warns Maurice. “If you are going to return, then do so while you are still young, still strong. Witchery is hard business.”
“But important,” she says.
“The most important job in the universe,” he assures her. “Just make sure nothing follows you next time. Learn how to close a gate before opening another one.”
Inside the cottage, the witch has taken the shape of a little old human woman, clad in faded black robes and a pointy hat. She greets Uhura as if visitors show up every week, not once in a hundred years. Uhura introduces herself and explains her problem while Destiny makes tea and Midnight asks intelligent questions.
Maurice crawls up to the sunny roof to doze. He has done his job, with the help of Team Butterscotch. The rest is up to the witch and up to Uhura. She will make a fine apprentice some day. If she returns. If the witch can hang on that long.
“Maurice?” says Butterscotch. “Sardines?”
Maurice jerks awake with a scowl. Butterscotch stands with one paw on the roof and one paw holding up a bowl of his favorite treat.
“Don’t mind if I do,” he mutters, suppressing a yawn.
She pushes the bowl toward him and leaps delicately up on the roof. “You know, I was thinking,” she begins, but we do not hear what she is thinking, for Maurice is not ready to hear it.
He raises himself to his full height and puffs up his fur, wheezing with effort. “Be silent, prideful one, and begone from my roof,” he thunders.
“Seriously, Maurice?” Butterscotch rolls her eyes, but she leaves him in peace. He settles back on the sun-warmed tiles, reaching for the sardines.
One day—quite soon—Butterscotch will take his place.
But not yet. Oh, not yet.