Signs & Portents





Chapter 16

Men Make Them Fires on the Hearth


My name is Catwood. With a name like that, I suppose you already know who I am. Catwood is my human name, of course, we of the feline race also have our true names. But even if I told you my true name, you wouldn't be able to pronounce it, so just think of me as Catwood, or Catwood O'Leary, as that fiend who calls himself a cat doctor calls me.

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The O'Learys are my family, of course, I'm proud of that, picked them out myself. They're good people. It's just that you can never trust those guys in the white coats who call themselves cat doctors, if you know what I mean. The second they get a chance, they're jabbing a guy with this and poking him with that and that's just the least of it. They're pretty slick customers. They can subvert and hoodwink a man's own family right in front of his eyes!

I remember that time I got that strange bad feeling a few years back. The next thing I knew—whammo! Miri had dumped me right on a table in front of that guy. Poke and pry, poke and pry, as if I didn't feel rotten enough. I told him straight out, "to but out." If you think that stopped him, you can think again, and me, at anything but my best. I had to let him have one right across the poker and prier. Then they ganged up on me, he had this other one in the back, and they wrestled me to the table. Then he did something really bizarre, but that wasn't the end of it. He played some weird number on the O'Learys, and they started poking those damned pills down my gullet every chance they got. It was over a week before I had them back to normal.

How did I get on a subject like that? Phah! The least said the better, If you know what I mean.

Oh yes, I remember now. I've been picking up on a different kind of strange bad feeling lately and it worries me. But it's not like the other kind at all, kind of in a different class completely, if you know what I mean. But it's big and it's bad, and it's kind of every place at once, if you know what I mean. The O'Learys can be so dense sometimes, I just don't know how I can get through to them on a complicated subject like this.

You try talking to Miri and she listens, then she says something idiotic and puts some liver on your plate. Carl's not much better and he's getting hard to get hold of now that he's older. I've tried to get through to Robert, but the guy just seems to be out-to-lunch. I thought I was reaching him the other evening, but then he just sort of went somewhere and forgot the whole thing after I'd purred myself nearly hoarse. Well, that's the kind of bind I'm in, if you know what I mean. I don't think this is the kind of thing you should ignore, if you know what I mean.

It's about time for my constitutional now, so I'll just check it out again. I'd better check out that machine, they brought here too. Did you see the size of that thing? But it doesn't fool me, it's just bigger than the other car, but it's a car all right. I can tell by the smell. And it's dangerous, I wouldn't go near it, but with the family and Robert going into it all the time, I'd better see what it's been up to lately. They tried to get me inside the thing, but I told them "no way." That contraption is nothing to play around with, I know this by feline instinct, you see. Humans find those contraptions fascinating and there's usually no stopping them.

Well, I always go down the backstairs, you just hop through the window here over the sink (Miri always leaves it open just for that reason) onto the porch and down you go. You can use the door too, if you like, but its faster this way.

"Hmmmm!"

Well, I don't feel it now. Let's hope it's taken a hike, or something, and is gone for good.

God! There's Jessup, he's a real sweet guy. I'll just go over and say hello, he always has a good word for a guy. Sometimes he has a worthwhile snack too, he's real thoughtful that way. What's he doing? Digging in the ground? God, that's fascinating! Trust old Jessup to come up with something real interesting to do.

"Hi, Farlan! How's it going?" (Stone deaf, you know, but he radiates like a house afire. Lot's of the old prana as the Hindus would say.) Nothing like a little digging in the earth to straighten out your head.

God, he thinks he's building a bomb shelter. Well, it's a wonderful excuse to dig in the ground and

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that's the main thing. Jessup's got this "only one" thing in his head, but he's a real swell guy, anyway. I really should spend more time with him, but a man like myself has a busy schedule. Ten humans in this territory and one cat, if you know what I mean.

Damn, here comes that stupid Shirley from next door! Well, too late, she's already seen me. Jessup will "kitty, kitty" her until she comes over anyway. Might as well go meet her.

"Hi, Shirl, how's the girl?"

"You won't really go!"

"Hell, I won't! If if weren't for Carl and Miri, I'd be long gone right now." (I told her yesterday that this awful feeling, I was telling you about, was getting to be too much, and that I was leaving and she ought to do the same.)

"You won't!"

"Will!" (O God, why argue? She's the original brainless nincompoop and determined to have her



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own way. She's real sneaky too, always tries hard to find a way to get in the last word.)

But she feels it too, I can tell. She just tries to pretend it doesn't bother her. Naturally, she would be the first one under the bed if it really broke loose. Ha!

Speak of the devil, it's back! Feel how it creeps and slides along the ground? It chills your spine doesn't it? It's wholly and completely "other," neither human or feline, or anything else in the known world that I've ever felt. No smell to it, but it comes and spreads out everywhere. Brace yourself, it can crawl right into your bones and gnaw at them when it's bad like this.

Look at that! It's especially raw and strong today and even Shirley is starting to swing her tail, she's giving up trying to pretend she's not nervous about it. Uh huh, and she's had enough too, she's heading for home and her human. (She's only got one.)

"You won't really go!"

"!!"


Well, she could be right, I guess. There's the problem of Miri and Carl. I think the chances on getting through to them in time are almost zilch. I hate to say this about my own family, but about some things, they just aren't very bright, if you know what I mean.

There are plenty of guys who would just leave, of course. I guess that's the half-assed sensible thing to do. But I don't know, I've been with the O'Learys a lot of years. What I mean is, I'm not sure there would be anything much left for me without Carl and Miri.

Oh, it's not that I've never been on my own like that silly Shirley. I lit out as a kid and mainly grew up

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on my own. There was this one family that I sort of stayed with for awhile, but something happened to them. What, I never knew really. It's a dangerous world out there. After that, I decided I had to work it out on my own. And I had it down to a science after awhile.

Back porches are always great for a drink. If you've never noticed, back porch faucets almost always drip, just about right for a guy to get a swig. The main thing is to be friendly, always be friendly to any human who seems at all reasonable. You get a lot of weird things to eat sometimes, but food is food, if you're hungry enough.

And keep track of where other felines live. It's not really etiquette to raid another guy's dish, but if it's a question of survival, you sometimes have to forget the niceties. Humans, who have a cat already, are also good for a meal occasionally. That's how I met Carl and Miri, actually, but don't get me started on that, it's a whole novel in itself.

And always hunt, I hunted eight to ten hours a day in those days and I was a fine figure of a hunter. I don't boast, it's in my blood. I'm a big European short hair from long generations of hunters who saved the human race during the Little Ice Age of the Middle Ages. Without us, there wouldn't be a human race today. The rats would have eaten every granary bare, and they'd have all starved to death. Those were lean times.

Well, there was an Abyssinian in the woodpile somewhere back there too, as you can see by my fur. This ticked fur is the mark of the Abyssinian, gives a guy a kind of natural, wild animal look, and it's great camouflage for a hunter.

If game were plentiful enough, I could have made it on that alone, without straining myself. But you can't depend on it today. I've known a few guys who tried to make it on that alone in today's market, and none of them are still around to give you any pointers, if you know what I mean.

God, there just has to be a way to make the O'Learys understand that we have to leave here—or maybe that Robert is the best hope. The guy seems kind of sensitive, I think he could learn a little feline lingo if he put his mind to it. I can't leave them here, I just can't. How can a guy abandon his own family?

What's that? Ah! That's a homey sound! Miri's in the kitchen now, and I hear her chopping my liver. I'm not as young as I once was, and my teeth aren't what they once were. Well, you can see why it would be a hard place to leave.

Well, I'm not doing any good here, I think I'll head home.


Men make them fires on the hearth
Each under his roof-tree,
And the Four Winds that rule the earth
They blow the smokes to me.


Across the high hills and the sea
And all the changeful skies,
The four Winds blow the smoke to me
Till tears are in my eyes.


How can I turn from any fire,
Or any man's hearthstone?
I know the wonder and desire
That went to build my own!



The Fires, by Rudyard Kipling.








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