by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in ROAR Volume 5, July 2014
The scraggly white kitten crouched, trembling, behind the crates of fish. The smell was thick, but the scraps were thin. She’d been skittering from one stall to the next at Fisherman’s Wharf all day, mewing for bits to eat. Few of the vendors favored her with more than a glance. One had chased her off with a broom.
Mari wasn’t sure what had happened. Yesterday, she’d had a warm box to live in and littermates to cuddle with. The man who owned them had fed her and her littermates kibble and dangled a string for them to chase. Mari didn’t know that the man had scrawled “KITT3NS $15” on the box, or that he’d given up on selling her. In only one day at the Wharf, all her littermates had sold, but she was a broken kitten. Her left back leg was deformed. She hopped to make up for it, and her limp didn’t bother her. But it did mean that while her littermates sold for fifteen dollars apiece and went home with happy children, as souvenirs from Fisherman’s Wharf, she’d been dumped out on the street. Left to fend for herself.
Mari scratched at the crate of fish, hoping to claw out a piece of the delectable flesh she smelled inside. However, her claws were too small to rend the fish flesh effectively, and the fish were too large to pull out, unaltered, between the slats of the crate. She pressed her muzzle against the gap in the crate. The smell of the fish became nearly overpowering, but her teeth touched only splintery wood.
Frustrated, Mari hopped away from the crates. She continued on down the street, leaving the closed up stalls of the evening behind. She’d spent her first cold night and lonesome day as a street cat among the vendors of Fisherman’s Wharf. It was time to move on.
Mari’s mother had been a housecat, but she had told her kittens stories of catching mice and living free, as any self-respecting cat should. So, while Mari had no practical experience, she knew the basic idea behind surviving on the street. It was only a question of building up her mouse-catching skills before hunger overtook her.
If Mari had been a less patient kitten, she might have failed. As it was, the race between her slowly growing skills and her rapidly growing hunger was a close call. She hunted all night and day, stalking tiny, skittering prey. The second night, Mari was faint from hunger. Her paws felt like phantoms beneath her, and she was probably within an hour of laying down to rest — a rest that would have turned into the deep sleep of death. But the mouse she had stalked to its hole in the corner of a house’s foundation emerged. Mari had waited so long and so patiently, the mouse was sure she had given up.
Claws against warm body and soft fur. The slap of her paw on the mouse’s back felt so satisfying to Mari; she struck the dead mouse again and again. Finally, she settled to feast, discovering the pleasure of fresh mouse flesh and flavorful organs, including the tiny, stopped heart.
She savored that first mouse, but she learned quickly not to treat mouse flesh like a rare and valuable treat. It was the life blood she was to live on, and, as such, it had to become routine. A lot of things became routine for Mari — sleeping on cold, hard ground; hunting until her body was exhausted; and watching the people of the Wharf with a supreme loneliness. The occasional tourist would notice her, kneel down, and offer to give her head a scritch, but no degree of mewing motivated any of those people to pick her up and carry her home, whisking her away from the hard life of a stray.
Mari tried making friends with the other stray cats on the Wharf, but they were all much older than her and not very friendly. The black cat with the mangled ear — called Flamond by his ragtag gang of followers — hissed curses at her whenever she approached and instructed his gang to do the same. He believed her gimp leg was an omen of ill luck, and he didn’t want her air of misfortune to rub off on him. He was ironically superstitious for a black cat.
The brown tabby, a loner, was more tolerant. She wouldn’t speak to Mari, turning her nose away superciliously whenever Mari mewed to her. Mari didn’t even know her name. However, she would let Mari approach her, and the two of them could share a silent hour or two, napping on the same sun-warmed square of concrete.
If Mari got too close, however, daring to press her shaking body against the motherly presence of the brown tabby’s girth, then she found the end of the tabby’s tolerance. As quick as a fat cat can, the brown tabby would leap to her feet and trot away, stomach swinging under her. Mari wondered how the tabby found enough food to maintain her formidable size. Perhaps one of the Wharf vendors had taken a liking to her and become her benefactor? Or perhaps she was simply a better hunter than a small, hobble-legged kitten.
Mari grew larger as she entered the lanky stage of kittenhood, but the skin stretched tight over her bones. She took to following the brown tabby on her rounds, hoping to learn a few secrets. All she did was alienate the only cat that had hitherto deigned to tolerate her. After two days of letting Mari follow her around like a little white shadow, the brown tabby had had more than enough. She screamed profanities at Mari that made Flamond’s language seem tame, and chased her, claws out, all the way to the very end of a slimy old wooden dock.
Mari cowered, but the brown tabby left a bright line of red blood on her nose as a reminder before leaving.
“Don’t follow me,” she meowled in a higher voice than Mari would have expected, trotting back down the dock. Then her caterwaul turned into a song of the night, joining with the yeowling voices of Flamond’s gang in the distance. Mari listened in silence as the voices of the street diverged from song to screaming fights. Then they died away, entirely, and all that was left was the slapping sound of the waves.
The white face of the moon broke into strips of silver on the breaking wavelets of the bay. A gull cried, and Mari heard harbor seals barking to each other in the distance. She wished she could swim out to them. She would even brave water, if it would bring her to animals that wouldn’t revile her like the Wharf cats. But she wasn’t a seal. And the gulls, gathered on the top of an arch over the dock, wouldn’t welcome her, even if she could sprout wings from her back and fly up to join them.
She’d give anything to get away from her life on the Wharf.
As Mari watched the waves, she noticed the tell-tale splashes of fish jumping in the water. Her life was suffused with the smell of fish, but their taste was expensive and rare. Catching mice was faster and more reliable than begging for scraps by purring at tourists. Besides, Mari hated to beg. She hated the tourists’ transient pity.
Mari wondered if she could catch a fish. She would have to get closer to the water, so Mari followed the dock back inland. There was a metal grate fence to keep the tourists away from the water, but Mari was still small enough to squeeze under it. On the other side, large shadowy rocks lined the land, leading down to the water. Mari clambered over and down them until she set her paws on a flat-topped rock close enough to the surface of the water that lapping wavelets left it wet on top.
The dampness under her paw pads made Mari shiver, and a sudden gust of wind over the bay ruffled her white fur. If she meant to catch a fish, she would have to be patient. And ready. If ever a fish jumped close enough for her short paw to reach it, she would have only an instant to react. Mari crouched, muscles tensed, and prepared herself for a long dull night, hopefully to be followed by one bright moment of adrenaline.
Cats don’t dream when they nap, but the world turns hazy seen through slit shut eyes.
The water began to glow. At first Mari thought she’d drifted into a doze, waiting to see a splash. Then a ringing started in her ears to match the silvery cast of the bay water. The ringing grew deep and rich. Mari twisted her ears, skewing them side to side, but she couldn’t figure out the ringing’s source. Then the ringing was broken by the sound of splashing, and a flash of light blinded Mari.
White ears flattened, and golden eyes blinked. When Mari’s eyes opened again, there was a vision before her.
A human might have noticed the graceful curve of the mermaid’s waist as her porcelain skin gave way to silver scales, or the stunning set of her emerald eyes. But Mari saw only the tip of her tail. The mermaid’s body disappeared beneath the glassy surface of the water and reappeared where the very tip of her tail broke the surface. That tiny net of silver fin twitched just enough to create circles of concentric ripples.
After an embarrassment of water and horrible wetness, thrashing and coughing, Mari found herself lifted by careful hands. She slashed a paw clawfully to protect herself, but the hands squeezed her middle — a pressure halfway between comfort and warning. Mari staid her claws.
“Silly kitten,” the mermaid said.
“Silly fish!” Mari countered.
The mermaid’s soft laughter let Mari know her mewing had been understood. It also rankled her pride. Dismissive amusement was barely better than pity. The water in Mari’s fur didn’t help with her pride, and, as soon as the mermaid set her down on a rock, Mari set to work cleaning her wet fur with her little cat’s tongue.
As she bathed, Mari sneaked glances at the mermaid, lounging in the shallow water beside the rocky shore. Her hair was long and silver, though her face was young. It fell over her shoulders and tumbled down to the water, moving with the slightest tilt of the mermaid’s head. The movement captivated Mari, though she tried not to give her feelings away by staring at it.
When her bath was done, Mari’s fur was still damp, but at least it was smoothed and clean. She sat herself neatly on her haunches and looked the mermaid in her eye. She was ready to speak with this vision, fully in command of her own dignity again. Then the mermaid turned her head to look back out to sea, and a strand of her flaxen hair whipped along the rock in front of Mari.
Mari pounced and found herself playing with the silken strands like an uncouth kitten. All dignity gone. Laughter reached her ears, but she couldn’t care. Her paws and claws were too busy scrabbling at the surface of the rock, trying vainly to capture the living strands.
“Hey fish-bringer,” said a familiar high-pitched meow.
Mari looked up, eyes wide, to see the brown tabby on the far side of the metal fence. Remembering the sting on her nose from earlier, Mari darted between two of the rocks, disappearing in the chasm between.
A quick jump hoisted the tabby’s girth to the top of the fence and over. Looking out from her hiding place, Mari could see something gleam in the brown tabby’s mouth as she awkwardly scrambled down the rocks. The tabby placed her rectangular burden on the ground, before speaking to the mermaid again. “I brought your bitter milk bar. Where’s my fish?” the tabby spat.
Mari’s golden eyes followed the tabby’s gaze to the mermaid’s face.
Emerald eyes narrowed, and the mermaid said, “You can be more polite than that, Buttercup.”
The tip of Mari’s tail twitched in mirth at learning her fellow stray’s name, but she knew better than to reveal herself with any sound. She didn’t need any more scratches today.
The brown tabby — Buttercup — flattened her ears and lowered her eyes. Then she meowed in even tones, “Lady Elayne of the Mer-Country, may I please have my fish?”
A smile graced the mermaid’s lips like warm rain on a summer day. She reached toward Buttercup as if to pet her. Mari felt her back arch up as if to meet a phantom mirror of the mermaid’s hand, but the striped brown girth of Buttercup’s back arched downward. Her furry brown belly brushed the ground, and the mermaid’s hand stopped short. Sadness touched the mermaid’s smile, but her slender fingers drew back. She reached for the rectangular offering instead — a foil wrapped bar of the darkest chocolate.
Mari recognized the scent from her early days, living with her littermates in a warm cardboard box. The man who owned her then liked chocolate, but the scent of this chocolate was much stronger, darker, richer. His chocolate had been weak and sugary in comparison.
The mermaid examined the bar, tracing her fingertips along the ornate script that read Ghirardelli. Her eyes rose from the bar and stared into the broken darkness of the night. The garish lights of the San Francisco skyline stretched out on the hill, glittering above them. “I wish I could go to the magical place where they make these,” she said.
Buttercup hissed. “It’s horrible.”
“Describe it to me,” the mermaid pressed.
Buttercup’s ears flattened, and her whiskers turned down. Mari recognized the look from shortly before Buttercup scratched her.
“Do you want descriptions,” Buttercup meowed, “or bitter milk in trade for your fish?”
The sadness on the mermaid’s lips was replaced with resignation. “You’re a cantankerous old cat,” she said, but she reached under the water and pulled out a string. Dangling from the end was a wriggling, gleaming fish. It’s scales were dull gray compared to the mermaid’s gleaming silver, but it looked delectable to Mari nonetheless.
Mari flexed her claws and licked her chops. It took all the restraint she had to keep from pouncing out of her hiding place. She wanted to feel her claws in the flesh of that fish, but she didn’t want to feel Buttercup’s claws in her face.
Mari watched Buttercup bat the tempting treat senseless and then crouch over its corpse, devouring every last morsel of its sweet smelling flesh. Mari hoped that Buttercup would finish and leave the bones, leave the shore, leave the mermaid for Mari to talk to again. Perhaps the Lady Elayne would reach to pet her as she had reached toward Buttercup…
But Buttercup crouched over the remains of the fish, licking her chops and chewing on bones, long after the mermaid took her bar of chocolate and left. Her final act before sinking under the surface of the water was to draw a gnarled, twisted piece of twig from a belt of seaweed at her waist, and bestow a shimmering gleam of light on the oblivious, feasting tabby.
Mari stayed hidden, shivering between the rocks, marveling at what she’d seen and wishing she were Buttercup.
Over the next few days, Mari came to one definite decision: she must make her own deal with the mermaid Elayne. Thus, she must learn how to steal chocolate like Buttercup to offer in trade. However, trailing Buttercup had not worked out well for Mari, so she needed to locate the chocolate herself. Fortunately, that part was easy. Her nose led her to it. Up the hill from the Wharf was a shop that absolutely reeked of the bitter brown substance. The hard part would be breaking in and acquiring it.
Surely, Mari reasoned, Buttercup must have secret strategies for making it past the glass walls, through the crowds of feet, and into the chocolate soaked air of the shop. Mari’s spiteful side told her to blackmail Buttercup with the frou-frou, flowery truth of her name. It must be worth something to Buttercup to keep that truth from Flamond and his gang. But, when it came down to it, Mari was too afraid.
Instead, she lurked outside the shop, peering through the windows. She watched the humans sit at their tables, spooning fluffy whipped cream and melting, dripping ice cream out of metal bowls filled to heaping with scoops of the colorful confection. She licked her chops, dreaming of the creamy taste, but when the craving for it cramped her stomach, Mari had to give up her vigil and hunt plain street mice for her supper.
At night, Mari returned to the rocky edge of the bay where she’d met the mermaid, and stared out over the black, star-studded water, hoping to see that glowing vision again. Not that she’d have anything to trade her for the gift of a succulent fish… Mari would have to try harder.
The next day, Mari haunted the sidewalk in front of Ghirardelli Square, miaowing prettily at the shop’s customers. She purred and pranced, smiling at them hopefully, but they spared her only patronizing scritches and pats. No bars of chocolate. No invitations to join the humans at the tables inside. She would have to slip in, uninvited.
Mari waited for the right group to open the door. Groups with small children were too erratic, and Mari was sure she’d end up stepped upon. So, she waited for a group of gangly college students. Mari timed her dash through the glassed door carefully, scampering through as quickly as she could with her gimp leg, hidden among the sneakered-feet of the college students.
Once inside, Mari slunk close to the wall, fast-walking so that she looked like she had at least eight legs. She daren’t run outright without knowing where she was heading. The tables, on their central poles with forests of chair legs around them, offered little concealment.
Feet were everywhere! Mari’s claws slipped on the tiled floor as she scrabbled to keep out from under the hard soles of all the shoes. An island counter with shelves under it, lined with shiny bags, cellophane-wrapped boxes, and jars of chocolate, seemed like a temporary refuge — but too many eyes were on the chocolate; too many hands reaching for it. And the jars, bags, and boxes themselves were too large for Mari to steal and carry off in her small mouth.
The noise and bustle of all of the crowding humans already had Mari’s head spinning when she suddenly found herself face to face with the glaring, frowning, hissing visage of Buttercup. Her brown ears were flat; her angry eyes narrowed; and her paw was drawn back to strike, claws bared.
A strangled squeak escaped Mari’s throat. She turned tail and ran, haphazardly scrabbling into ankles and catching her claws in shoelaces on the way. She didn’t stop when she got outside. She fled, limping, all the way down the hill to the Wharf, her sad and lonely home. But her home, no less.
Mari watched the bay that night, disconsolate. Her hopes of stealing chocolate had been dashed, and her hopes of running into the mermaid again were fading. As the moon sank into the waters of the bay, Mari felt her heart sink as well.
She could hardly believe her eyes when the water before her began to shimmer and glow. Her last comfort had been to believe that her failure in the chocolate shop didn’t really matter. The Lady Elayne was a vision — unreal or, at least, unrepeatable. But now she was faced with the sight of the lovely lady rising from the water.
Mari’s whiskers drooped. Buttercup would surely be here soon to slash the nose of any young cat in the way. And Mari had nothing to offer the mermaid, but she felt herself drawn past the metal fence and down to the wet rocks at the water’s level anyway.
“I tried to steal chocolate for you,” Mari mewed. Her eyes traced the cascading flow of the mermaid’s silver locks. Her head tilted in fascination, ears askew, but she restrained herself from pouncing this time.
“Brave kitten,” Elayne answered.
“As brave as Buttercup!” Mari blustered. Though, she remembered turning tail to run, and her ears dipped. “I couldn’t figure out how Buttercup does it,” she admitted. “I spent days studying the shop.” Mournfully, Mari told Elayne everything she had seen. The chocolate shop was a fortress, designed to keep out stray cats, admitting only humans.
As Mari told her story, however, wrought with details of the chocolate shop’s layout and design, Elayne’s eyes began to shine. She clasped her hands and sighed.
“Thank you, kitten,” she said, when Mari’s story of woe was through. “I have wished for ages that I could go to that chocolate shop, but I don’t have magic strong enough to let me walk on land.” She took the gnarled old twig that was holstered to the belt of braided seaweed tied about her waist and held it out, pointing toward Mari. “Buttercup brings me chocolate, but she won’t bring me tales. If I give you the same glamour that I’ve given Buttercup, will you brave the chocolate shop again? And bring me more stories?”
“Glamour?” Mari mewed, crouching low at the thought of Buttercup. Surely that big, brown tabby would be here soon to make her trade with Elayne. Mari didn’t care to run into her again, nor to spend the whole night hiding behind a rock.
Elayne raised the gnarled old twig her forehead. With a flick of her wrist, there was a flash of light.
Then Mari narrowed her eyes at the strange sight she saw: instead of a mermaid, reclining in the water, there was a silver kitten, much like herself, treading her paws to stay afloat. The kitten laughed with Elayne’s musical voice. Then Mari blinked at the sight of the mermaid’s body, superimposed like a reflection on a window, over the kitten. The illusion ended, and the Lady Elayne was herself again: a beautiful, silver-tailed and silver-haired mermaid. Mari felt dizzy.
“That’s how Buttercup steals the chocolate for me,” Elayne said, “without anyone stepping on her tail or rushing her off with a broom. I give her a glamour.”
Mari’s gold eyes were wide. “The people see her as… another one of them?”
Elayne smiled and lowered the twig toward Mari. “Will you go back to the shop and explore it for me?”
Mari forgot her pride: “Every nook and cranny!” she exclaimed, lifting herself to her haunches to bring her nose closer to the magical end of Elayne’s gnarled twig. Her whiskers fetl a vibration in the air near it.
Elayne flicked the twig again. There was another flash of light, but Mari didn’t feel any different. She poked her head over the surface of the water, hoping to catch sight of the glamour in the glimmer of the water’s reflection.
She saw only a small white cat with a skeptical look in her yellow eyes.
Then she heard the sound of Buttercup meowling in the distance. Mari could stay no longer. She scurried off before Elayne could tell her when to come again. Or give her the fish she’d earned by telling stories of Ghirardelli Square.
In the harsh light of day, Mari began to wonder if it wasn’t all a dream — the mermaid, the magic wand, the glamour, and the promise of fish. Sometimes when she was hungry, she could see mice dance before her. They taunted her with waltzes and jigs, but when she swatted them, her claws touched only air. Hunger visions.
The Lady Elayne was a much more detailed and elaborate vision, but, surely, she was also a vision?
Mari decided to put the mermaid and her promises out of her mind and go about her normal life. As the day progressed, however, Mari noticed strange things happening. People walking toward her stepped to the side instead of treading relentlessly on, unaware of the kitten who must scurry out of the way or be trod upon. This change was subtle, and Mari wondered if she was imagining it until a person — a tourist with a camera in his hand — walked right up to her, knelt down, and held the camera forward.
“Would you take our picture?” the tourist asked, gesturing back at his family.
Mari twisted her ears around and glanced from side to side, looking and listening for who the tourist could mean.
He smiled encouragingly and waggled a shiny silver rectangle at her enticingly. It was almost enough to convince Mari she should take it… but she had no hands. This tourist was mad.
As Mari stared at the madman with flattened ears, another tourist came by and offered to take the desired picture. Mari was freed of the ministrations of the madman but not the mystery that caused his behavior.
Everywhere she went, Mari found this strangeness in people’s behavior toward her. They were deferential, respectful, aware of her, without condescension or pity. Mari wasn’t sure what to make of this change. But she liked it.
A few times Mari experimented with mewing at people, but she invariably received confusion in response. “I’m sorry, what was that?” “Say that again, I couldn’t quite make out what you said?” Always coupled with contorted, displeased faces.
Whatever magic the mermaid’s glamour had clothed Mari with, clearly, did not extend to her voice.
With a renewed faith in her nighttime visions, Mari set out to complete the task Lady Elayne had set her. She limped up the hill, back to the chocolate shop in Ghirardelli Square. This time, though, she walked right up to the front door. And, as she passed the large windows, she could see herself reflected in their glass — except, her reflection was strange to her.
A scrawny human girl dressed in plain clothes with short blonde hair and startling yellow eyes stared back at Mari from the murky mirror world of reflections. That was what the humans saw. Mari felt a surge of empowerment seeing the magical avatar that Lady Elayne had created for her. In that form, Mari was an equal with all the people of the Wharf. In that form, Mari was able to walk right into Ghirardelli Square.
Except, she had to wait for a real human to open the door. And, once she was inside, she couldn’t speak to the workers wielding their ice cream scoops behind the counter to order a milky, creamy sundae. Nor could she pay for one, even if she could have ordered it.
Mari sighed. The reflection in the window may have shown a human girl, and the real humans might see one — but she was only a hungry kitten.
Mari was still deciding how to proceed when she saw Buttercup, tail high, strolling past the windows toward the entrance of the shop. The mist-like shape of a heavy-set, bob-haired brunette woman clung to Buttercup like the smell of too much perfume. Mari could hardly believe she hadn’t seen the effect of Elayne’s glamour on Buttercup before.
Not wishing to encounter her foul-tempered friend, Mari scurried toward the back of the shop, hoping to stay out of sight. On the other side of all the tables, occupied by happy humans eating ice cream, there was a low wall partitioning the shop. Taking a calculated risk, Mari poised herself, wiggling her tail, and leapt up, up, over the wall.
On the far side, she found herself staring at great vats with giant wheels pouring, stirring, mixing an endless current of milky, liquid chocolate in their machinery. Mari stared transfixed, forgetting that her glamour was not nearly as well hidden as her own small kitten’s body.
Buttercup passed by without seeing her young rival for Lady Elayne’s affections. A young man working the ice cream counter, however, saw Mari’s glamour — seemingly a grade school girl, standing in a part of the store where she didn’t belong.
“Hey, you!” he said, leaving his post at the counter behind. The other ice cream scoopers took over his role seamlessly, allowing him the freedom to pursue confronting Mari. “What are you doing back here?” He looked around the shop; “Where are you parents?”
Mari stared at the shop boy with wide golden eyes. She miewed an answer, but he couldn’t understand her.
“Look,” he said, scratching his head beneath the crisp white hat he wore as part of his uniform. “You can’t be back here. We need to find your parents.”
Mari miewed again, and the shop boy frowned. He couldn’t have explained it, but there was an endearing, pitiful quality to the girl he saw. Mari’s kitten-nature shone through the glamour, pulling at his heartstrings, and compelling the shop boy to help her.
“Just come with me,” he said. “I’ll fix you some ice cream, and you can eat it while I look for your parents.”
Mari felt a glow inside that threatened to overflow her small body in purrs.
The shop boy fixed a simple bowl of vanilla ice cream for the little lost girl and set her up at a table close to the front counter where he could keep an eye on her. For Mari’s part, she jumped right up on the table next to the bowl of ice cream, hoping her glamour body would continue to sit nicely on the chair. The magic obliged.
The shop boy set to work, speaking to his supervisor and then checking the rest of the shop for anyone missing a little girl. Meanwhile, Mari set to work eating the first ice cream she’d ever tasted. It was sweet and cold. Smooth and creamy. The intensity of the experience nearly overwhelmed her.
After licking the last smears of melted ice cream from an almost clean bowl, Mari brought a paw to her face and began washing her sticky whiskers. Then she saw Buttercup: her nemesis in this game of mermaid glamours was still in the shop, standing in a line of waiting humans. At the end of the line stood one of the shop workers, holding a silver platter and handing out samples. When Buttercup reached the front of the line, the shop worker knelt down and held the platter toward her. Buttercup’s glamour reached out with a hand to grab a chocolate square; Buttercup herself took it in her teeth. She trotted out of the shop, a shiny foil wrapped square dangling from her mouth.
Aha! That was how Buttercup got her chocolate.
Mari jumped down from her table, leaving the empty ice cream bowl behind. She trotted toward the man with the samples, tail held high. Unfortunately, her own shop boy intervened. She tried to get past him, but he knelt down, holding his arms out, and blocked her. He explained to her that they couldn’t find her parents. He seemed confused and frustrated. Mostly, he wanted Mari to stay put until a guardian for her could be found.
But none would be found. Although Mari had wandered through the Wharf all morning, no one had troubled themselves with whether she was alone. Not until she broke a rule — jumping behind that wall, standing too close to the machines mixing chocolate.
Mari felt frustrated by her kitten’s tongue. She couldn’t explain herself. She couldn’t behave the way the shop boy expected. His demeanor and rising concern was drawing more and more attention. Mari wasn’t sure how this would play out, but she decided it was time to run. So, she made a dash, as quickly as she could, for the front door.
The shop boy cried out, and customers jumped aside startled as a young girl seemingly ran right through them, ghostlike and insubstantial. In reality, it was only a small white kitten, darting deftly between their feet.
Mari disappeared into the crowd of tourists. Agitated, she wandered among them, wondering whether any more humans would confront her. At first, it had felt empowering for the people to treat her like one of them. But she was not one of them. And it turned out that it made her feel even more lonely and isolated to be misunderstood than to be ignored.
Mari missed being anonymous, too small to notice at the people’s feet, and she hoped the glamour would wear off soon.
The sight of an unaccompanied young girl drew more and more attention as the day darkened, waning into evening. So, Mari gave up on mousing, after hours of fruitlessly dodging workers on the Wharf who scared away her quarry with unhelpful questions: “Hey, little girl, are you lost?” “Where are you going?” “Where are your parents?” Everyone was against her.
Mari ducked behind one of the seafood restaurants and ensconced herself behind a foul smelling brown dumpster. No one could see her — or her glamour — there. No one bothered her while she waited for the fullness of night.
Shaky with hunger, Mari came out from her hiding place well after midnight. The bowl of ice cream she’d eaten earlier in the afternoon, while delicious, was not sustaining. In fact, the richness of the milk had long since turned into a twisted, aching knot in her belly.
Before she could focus on the concerns of her stomach, however, Mari needed to know if the Lady Elayne was there. She was filled with a confusion of emotions that told her to scold the mermaid for betraying her with this glamour that kept her from mousing — but, also, she hoped, deep in her heart, that the Lady Elayne would be pleased with her.
She wanted to share the story of that glorious bowl of ice cream, reliving it in the retelling, and she hoped — so secretly that she hardly admitted the hope even to herself — that Elayne would reach out to stroke her, as she had once reached out to pet Buttercup. Mari would not shrink away.
Quick-footed as she could, Mari lopsidedly ran to the rocky edge of the bay. To her surprise, Elayne was already reclined in the water, this time under the wooden walkway of the pier, brushing out her long silver tresses.
Mari crouched at the fence and stared through the metal grating. She watched, mesmerized, while the mermaid divided her hair into strands, separated by her nimble fingers. Deftly, Elayne wove the strands into a long braid, then another, and another. Then she wove the braids together, and coiled them over her head, pinning them in place like a crown. Only curling tendrils were left unbound to frame her face.
Mari found herself purring. Something about the quick, snaking motion of the strands of hair stirred a feeling of excitement deep inside Mari. It made her heart beat fast like hunting. It reminded her of being a tiny kitten, safe and warm, surrounded by love, and playing with a dangled string.
Before Mari could present herself to the mermaid, she heard the ominous sound of growling come from behind.
The sound grew and multiplied. Twisting her ears about, Mari could hear it from several directions. She crouched low, flattening her body as close to the ground as she could. Then, she crawled forward, under the metal fence, and crammed herself into a crevasse between several of the large rocks lining the bay’s edge. With her ears flattened, Mari could still hear the growling; peering out from between the rocks, she could see several of Flamond’s gang strutting across the pavement, tails swishing wildly. Preceding them, with a frantic, haggard look, Buttercup spat and cursed around the shining square of foil, hanging from her teeth.
“Hey, Dirt-Stripes!” one of the gang yowled.
Another called out, “Whattaya got there, Fat Cat?”
Melting out of the shadows as if he were made of them, Flamond appeared among his followers. “Yeah, Plumpy-Puss,” he said, with a snide hiss, “that don’t look like yours. It looks like mine.” His tail curled at the tip, showing how safe and confident he felt.
Buttercup’s tail was a brush of fright. “This is mine,” she hissed. “I caught it.” She dropped the square of foil on the ground and crouched over it, like a mamma bird protecting her egg.
Buttercup hissed and snarled for all she was worth, but when two of Flamond’s gang — both fit, young cats, sporting the strong, developed upper bodies of unneutered, feral males — got within striking range, she scrabbled back and away.
The square of foil lay unprotected on the concrete, gleaming bright with reflected light from a nearby streetlamp. Flamond snickered. His guards backed respectfully out of his way as he came to examine his prize.
Flamond stared at the square of foil. He touched his nose to it. Gingerly, he batted it with a paw. Then, he tested it with his teeth. His ears skewed in confusion. “This is your secret?” he hissed. He tried chewing on it again, but the distaste on his face was clear.
“Don’t ruin it,” Buttercup miewed pitifully.
“Why not?” Flamond asked. “It’s mine now. What do you do with it, anyway? It don’t taste very good.” He kept gnawing on the foil anyway. Probably out of simple spite.
One of Flamond’s guards meowled, “If she don’t tell ya, Boss, can we scratch ‘er?”
“Yah, let’s kick ‘er eyes out,” yowled the other one.
Mari could see Buttercup’s demeanor sagging.
Mari might not have been treated well by the fat, brown tabby, but they had spent many afternoons in the sun together. And they shared the secret bond of Lady Elayne. And Mari admired Buttercup for protecting that secret, in spite of the growing threats from Flamond’s gang. No one deserved to be bullied by them.
With her heart beating a mile a minute, Mari crawled out of her hidden crevasse, back under the fence, and up to Buttercup. She crept past the brown tabby’s girth, daring to let the side of her body brush up against Buttercup’s. Her fur felt smooth next to the fluffed bristle of Buttercup’s coat.
For a single moment, Mari locked eyes with Buttercup. She could see sorrow and terror there. Then Mari turned to Flamond, and meowed as bravely as she could, “It’s for me. She brings them for me.”
The heckling voices of Flamond’s gang quieted down, and Flamond himself narrowed his eyes at Mari. His voice cold, he asked, “And, what, pray tell, do you want with them?”
Mari’s mind raced. She knew Flamond was afraid of her malformed leg, so she stepped forward with an exaggerated limp and false bravado. “I eat them,” she said.
Flamond’s ears flattened at the nearness of the gimp kitten. In a hiss, he asked, “Why.”
Trying to quell her own fear and exacerbate Flamond’s, Mari said, “They feed the demon living in my leg.” She hopped a little, as if she couldn’t keep balance with her gimp let. “If I don’t eat them, the demon will eat the rest of me.”
Flamond stayed crouched over his foil prize, superstition battling with reason inside him.
“And once it eats me,” Mari said, pressing on, “it’ll need a new cat to eat.” Although it made her heart trip to do it, Mari forced herself to step closer to the powerful black cat. He could strike her down with one paw. She had no doubt he could kill her in less than a minute. But, she terrified him with her invented demon.
Flamond’s tail began to bush out. Trying to hide his fear from his followers, Flamond spat the foil square out and batted it with a paw, sending it skidding across the concrete towards Mari. “Keep your demon food,” he hissed. He turned to his guards, “Come on. Let’s leave Dirt-Stripes here to mammaing her broken kitten. She’s not worth our time.”
Flamond turned tail and stalked away with only a line of fur along his spine fluffed up. His two guards hesitated a moment, but then they followed suit. They cackled at Buttercup, taunting her as they left. The rest of the gang echoed the guards’ laughter, but one by one they shrank into the shadows, disappearing as well.
Mari and Buttercup crouched on the pavement, alone in the darkness. As her heart slowed, Mari dared to step forward and pick up the foil square with her teeth. It swayed, hanging from her mouth, as she brought it over to drop beside Buttercup.
The brown tabby made no move toward her prize.
“Don’t you want it?” Mari asked, pawing at the foil square. “To give to Elayne?”
Buttercup’s ears were still flat, and her eyes wide and stricken as she looked up at Mari. “You’re not taking it?” Buttercup meowled.
Mari remembered the feel of Buttercup’s claws across her nose. It seemed like she should feel triumphant now that Buttercup was deferring to her, but she only felt uncomfortable. “It’s yours,” she miewed. “I have my own gift to bring the Lady.”
Buttercup scoffed. She’d recovered from her fright quickly, but she didn’t entirely return to her usual chilly demeanor toward Mari. “Thank you,” she meowed. Then she picked up the foil square, wiggled her tail, and leapt straight into the air. Her feet barely touched the top of the metal fence on her way over it.
Mari followed after her, squeezing beneath the fence. As she clambered down the rocks, she saw Buttercup ahead of her.
Buttercup dropped the square of foil on a rock at the edge of the water and meowed to the Lady Elayne, “This bitter milk was unusually hard to come by. I think it’s worth two fish.”
The Lady Elayne laughed and said, “Fine, I’ll bring you another fish tomorrow, and you don’t have to trade me anything for it.”
Buttercup meowed, “I think you have two fish on you tonight.”
“I might,” the Lady said. “But one of them is promised to another.”
Buttercup grumbled, but she took the single, wriggling fish held out toward her anyway. Gleefully, she batted it senseless, playing and murdering simultaneously. When she finally settled down to the important work of eating, the Lady Elayne reached out and stroked Buttercup’s brown fur. Buttercup’s body flattened, but she was too busy with the fish to entirely escape.
Mari watched with jealousy in her heart. Then the Lady Elayne turned toward her, and the jealousy inside twisted around, turning into a glowing warmth. She rushed to the edge of the water and began telling the mermaid all about her day in words so fast they ran together into a drawn out caterwaul.
“Slow down, Little Cat,” Elayne said. “How can I savor the story you’ve brought me when you tell it so fast?”
Buttercup looked up from her viscerated fish, and said through bloodied whiskers, “The humans gave you a bowl of ice cream? I’ve clearly been doing this all wrong.”
The Lady Elayne chuckled and reached to scratch the fat tabby’s ears, but Buttercup shrugged away from her hand. So, instead, Elayne held her long, slender fingers out toward Mari.
The white kitten raised her head, pressing it into the mermaid’s hand. Smooth fingernails scratched deeply against the base of her ear. So satisfying. Purrs rose from Mari’s body, pulled out by the rhythmic scritching.
Tourists might scritch Mari’s ears if she danced and meowled for them, but it didn’t mean anything. They didn’t know her, and she would never see them again. If she told stories of ice cream to the Lady Elayne, maybe she would keep coming back. Maybe she would keep scratching her ears, every night, if the stories Mari told her were good enough.
Mari pressed her head so hard against Elayne’s hand that her whole kitten’s body toppled over, rolling her into a melted mess of purrs. Her paws curled in the air above her, and her eyes closed in contentment.
Buttercup snorted at Mari’s display of indignity, but Mari didn’t care anymore. When the scritching ended, Elayne dangled the second silvery gleam of fish above Mari who batted it delightedly with all four paws. Finally, she grasped it tightly with the her front claws, and she kicked it soundly to death with her feet before rolling off of her back to begin eating it.
The fish’s smell was pungent, but the taste was sweet. It had a much deeper more complicated flavor than the ice cream. It tasted cool and oily, salty like the ocean air, and delicately flaky against her teeth. It was everything she’d dreamed it would be.
Once Mari’s belly was full, she felt much better. She hadn’t realized how badly the hunger had been gnawing at her stomach until it was gone.
“Now, Little Cat, can you tell me about the ice cream more slowly?” Elayne said.
Mari settled comfortably on her paws, wrapping her tail around her loaf-like body, and began retelling her tale. She was brave and clever in her story. The ice cream was guarded by towering walls, dangerous mechanical vats, and sphinx-like shop boys who assaulted her with their riddling questions. Yet, through it all, she prevailed, tricking the humans into setting a feast before her, and serving her like a queen.
Buttercup chuckled. “If that’s how you describe the ice cream shop, I’d love to hear how you describe me.” Buttercup had finished eating her fish as well, but she hadn’t left, instead being drawn in by the story. “Were you attacked by a gigantic brown bear, wandering lost through the streets of San Francisco?”
Mari glared at Buttercup. “Yes,” she said. “But then the bear was attacked by a pack of wolves, and I had to rescue her.”
Buttercup twitched her tail tip, but there was a smile in her eyes. She liked seeing herself as a bear.
At the sound of movement in the water, both cats looked back towards their mermaid. The Lady Elayne had shifted herself, sinking deeper into the water, until it came midway up her shoulders. “I have to go soon,” she said. “But thank you for the stories. And the chocolate. Do you want another glamour, so you can do it again?”
Mari crept to the edge of the rocks and peered into the water. She didn’t see the reflection of the young human girl, and she felt relieved. “No,” she said, reluctantly. She feared she was giving up fish and ice cream and love, but she couldn’t stand the idea of that hideous ghostly glamour clinging to her again. “I don’t like pretending to be something I’m not.”
“I do,” Buttercup meowed. “I’m getting a bowl of ice cream tomorrow. I need to try that stuff for myself.” As an afterthought, she added, “And I can tell you about it. I guess.”
“See if you can get a different flavor?” Elayne asked, lifting her twig-like wand out of the water to touch the delicately striped fur on Buttercup’s forehead. The air shifted around Buttercup, and Mari could see the ghostly shape of her human glamour reflected on the water.
“Now, I have to go,” Elayne said.
Mari meowed, with all the fervency of youth, “I wish I could come with you.”
The Lady Elayne hesitated. She’d already sunk so low in the water that the surface lapped against the bottom of her chin. She stared at Mari with a puzzled expression, and, rising a little out of the water, said, “Do you mean that?”
Mari remembered belonging to the man who had dangled string for her and made her a cozy nest in a cardboard box. She had felt safe and loved then. Ever since, she’d wandered the streets of the Wharf feeling like an outcast, sent into exile. Sometimes, she saw cats sitting behind the windows of buildings that were closed to her. Those cats looked safe and happy, like she remembered feeling.
The water that Elayne threatened to sink behind felt like another pane of glass, separating her from a home where she could feel safe and belong.
“Oh so much,” Mari sighed with a purr. “I wish I could go with you, down into the ocean, and be your swimming cat, and you could be my mermaid.”
The Lady Elayne placed her hands on the rock beside Mari and drew herself higher out of the water. She looked down at the little cat, narrowing her eyes in thought. The white kitten before her smiled with golden eyes and purred with her entire body.
“I can grant that wish for you, Mari,” Elayne said. “I don’t have enough magic to change my own body into one that can walk on land, but I have enough to change your small body into one that can swim down to live in the Mer-Country with me. And I would like to have a swimming cat.”
Buttercup scoffed and hissed, verily sputtering in horror at the idea of so much water. “You’d be wet all the time!”
Mari assured Elayne that she wouldn’t mind, and the mermaid drew out her wand again.
The changes started at Mari’s nose. Her nostrils narrowed, growing the muscles necessary to let them close against water. Then, her ears grew smaller and rounder, developing valves inside to protect them against water too. Her fur thickened, and webbing grew between her toes. Her tail broadened like a rudder, and her spine grew longer. Other changes happened deep inside, invisibly altering her body chemistry to let her breathe like a mermaid, both from air and water in turn.
Mari sat back on her haunches and held her newly webbed paws in front of her. She twisted her ears, but they didn’t move as freely. Her spine, however, now let her twist all the way around and see her broadened tai.
For all the world, she looked like a little albino otter, except for her golden eyes which hadn’t changed.
Mari dove into the water of the bay, and took her first strokes as a swimming cat. She played in the water, delighting in the new sensation. Mari’s left back leg was still malformed, but she found it didn’t matter as much while swimming.
Buttercup scowled, backing away from the edge of the water to avoid getting splashed. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” she meowled. “With more stories of ice cream.”
“So will we,” the mermaid said, looking at her new swimming cat. “And I think Mari will have stories for you of chasing fishes under the ocean.”