Night in the City
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents and in the great city no one was abroad who could have stayed in shelter. Only the poor and the unfortunate were outside and even they had sought shelter of some sort if they could find it. But as in any vast city there were those who had no choice, one of whom was a child, a girl of around nine, named Vanda. She huddled under a low wide arch that had once been part of a thriving network of railways on the edge of a far-flung port, until the bombers came and much of the city became a fireball: its citizens bones and ash.
“Good cats, aren’t you glad we’re out of the rain?” The cats made no sound. “Of course you are. It’s not even cold under here, and we have our den, look, there’s no one around, we’ll go there now.”
She scrambled high up under the arch and vanished from view, a small scrabbling sound, a soft crunching, and she was gone into the cavity in the inner-side of the ancient brick pillar that upheld part of the arch. Someone long ago had covered the cavity of a half-hollowed pillar with a metal plate and fastened it to the brick with bolts, and someone later still had discovered that if three of the bolts were removed the plate would pivot to reveal a warm dry hiding place. A bolt could then be inserted in the plate from the inside and whoever was within the cavity was unlikely to be found.
Vanda settled into her home and tucked her cats beside her. “See? It’s quite nice in here,” her sudden smile was mischievous, “and it’s too small for any one really big to get into, not when they’d have to swing around between the arch and the pillar like we do.” She remembered the man who’d chased her two days earlier and shivered. But she was safe here, the plate was hidden from anyone on either side or before it. You had to know it was there and then you had to know there was a den behind it and how to open the wedged plate.
“And no one does, not now that he’s dead.” Her face screwed up in sorrow. “Him, and everyone else, there’s just us now, cats. Me and you; Mischa, Catya, Sasha, and Memra. But I can remember.”
She could, she thought. They’d had a house the family had owned in the city, she’d had a mother, father, two younger sisters and an older brother. And then one day she’d been permitted to go to the market with their old manservant. They’d been looking for fruit for mother who was unwell and with the food shortage the fruit she craved was hard come by, and they’d walked far. They found a withered apple and two soft pears and a bruised plum, and they had just started back when the air was filled with a roaring, crashing, clouds of dust and tumbling bricks, and Johan threw her to the ground. When, coughing they stood again the city was changed. Where their home had been was rubble, even digging in that they found nothing but her cats and they went with her.
She reached out to hug them gently, “You did, didn’t you? You came with me and having you gave me courage, father talked about you to me and even now that Johan’s friend is dead and Johan too, I’m alive. “Although, she thought, it wasn’t likely she’d live through the worst of the coming winter. It was bad enough now with the rain and the thunderstorms, food was scarce and becoming scarcer and she was outgrowing her clothes.
She’d been warmly dressed that day, and Johan, once he’d seen that his master and mistress and all the family were gone, had taken charge.
“We’ll get away from here.”
“I have a friend, he lost his job when things got hard for workers but he has friends and he knows things. He’ll help us.”
He had. He’d grown up around this tangle of railway lines with the steam trains and docks where the steamships came and went and he knew every place where one could hide and be at least half-safe. He’d patiently taught Vanda and Johan, and he’d shown her this place in the brick pillar under the arch.
“How did you know?”
“My father had a friend, an old man whose master threw him out because he was too old to work. He helped someone and they told him about it. He told me, it’s a bit too small for Johan or me, but it’ll do you fine as a place to wait any time we need to be away.”
And it had been her refuge ever since, a cave in which to be warm and safe ever since that day she’d lost almost everything, and again when she lost, first Johan’s friend and then Johan. She hugged her cats and wept as she remembered.
“They only wanted to get work, they wanted a job and the men trampled them with the horses then they shot them.”
Johan escaped, injured but alive, and thinking of their survival he’d stayed long enough to grab his friend’s good coat, and with that the few coins in a pocket of the coat, an old watch that had belonged to a grandfather, and a warm woolen scarf. Johan had sold the watch and that and the coins had fed them frugally for weeks, but the money ran out and he took a job he knew was dangerous. But it was that or starve, and while he might have accepted hunger, Vanda would have starved with him.
He’d sat under the arch, explaining it to her. “My grandfather worked for yours, my father for yours, and I’m your man to my death, little one.”
“I can’t pay you?” she’d said doubtfully, even at her age she knew there was a medium of exchange.
“You’ll have money one day maybe, if we can save enough I can petition the court for your property. I know the house fell down but the land is still there, if we get it you can sell it and pay me then.”
“I will, I promise.”
But that day would never come now. Johan had gone to work and come home scowling. “I don’t like it, I take parcels from one man to another, they’re sealed so I can’t look inside, but there’s passwords I have to hear an’ say, an’ I don’t think it’s honest. That’s dangerous.”
“Stop working for them then?”
“They pay me, enough to feed us and save a coin here and there, we need the money.”
So he continued to leave each morning until one night three weeks ago he didn’t return. She’d waited, waited, waited, holding the cats, an unarticulated prayer to anyone who might listen sent out into that void where Johan had been, until she crept out to listen, to ask here and there and someone, a rat-faced starveling boy no older then she, had muttered at her.
“Don’t ask no questions, kid. Law took him, he won’t be coming back.”
“But they have to let him go…”
His sneer had stopped the protest in her mouth. “Naw, I said he won’t be coming back, but it’s can’t, they kilt him, see?”
Vanda hunched a shoulder, a year after the loss of everything she’d learned not to show weakness. “I see.”
“You could come wi’ me, I know a man as’d be kind to you.” He leered. “Real kind, and he pays well.”
“No,” Vanda said politely. “Thank you.”
She noticed that he was watching after her and went home by a circuitous route, it was as well, for two days after that she noticed men who seemed to be searching the area but they were astray in their search and she made sure that they saw nothing of her comings and goings. She and Johan had been saving, a coin here, a coin there, but even spending so little she was always starving as the small store dribbled away and who would give her work, save the kind that the boy had offered and she’d die before…
She fell asleep at last, her cats cuddled into her and when she woke while it was still dark she couldn’t sleep again so she lit the stub of a candle and studied her cats as the storm raged, thunder shaking the old arches. And then, from outside she heard a savage barking and a wail, a thin desperate cry that seemed to implore her. Help me or I die, and despite everything she could not ignore that plea. She pivoted the door-plate, peeped out and a tiny shivering scrap of fur flung itself towards her. She allowed the door-plate to swing shut behind it and gaped at her visitor. The kitten sat up, washed the storm from her fur and demanded food. Vanda wrinkled her face at it.
“I don’t have anything to give you, I’m sorry.” She remembered, “Oh, but I do, if you don’t mind bread. I found half a loaf behind the restaurant last night and there’s gravy soaked into it. I had half of it for dinner but there’s still a bit left. Here.” she broke the last part of the loaf and offered the kitten a small piece. It ate hungrily and asked for more so that she shared in the end, half for her, half for her guest.
It washed again then prowled, staring at Vanda’s cats until she introduced them. “This is Misha, that’s Catya, that’s Sasha, and that’s Memra. My father went away once to help a man he knew. He was gone for months and when he returned he brought the cats back for me.”
The kitten touched noses with each cat and looked at her. “I know, sometimes I pretend they’re real too, they’re all I have now.” She recalled something her mother had said once in another context and smiled, reaching out to stroke the kitten. “They’re a comfort to me in times of trouble.”
The kitten purred and Vanda lay down again. “Maybe I can find something for us to eat in the morning, but I wouldn’t count on it, you had the last food here and no one gives it away. You have to buy it, fight for it, steal or scavenge it, and you’ll have to do your share if you stay.”
The kitten crept closer, settling against her and Vanda slept, to dream of a place that was forever warm in the day, cooled by light winds at night, a vast complex of stone buildings where cats roamed freely and in an inner room One stood, smiling at her and asking questions while Vanda answered them, and the kitten she’d fed spoke for her. There was a decision, and an offer made with due consideration for difficulties.
“Not as you are, that is not permitted even for Me. But accept the change, and you may enter My House. Your choice, your choosing, lost one, who fed your last mouthfuls to the hungry, who opened your refuge to one in fear for her life. Events have besieged you but as yet you have not broken, there is still compassion and I in turn may return that within the Balance, if you choose?”
Vanda smiled in her sleep. “I choose, can I bring my cats and the kitten?”
“Of course, are they not Mine as you shall be?”
The storm passed by, day came and the rain ceased. But within the brick pillar no one and nothing stirred, had any looked they would have found it empty of all but ragged bedding, a small pool of candle wax, a tin plate and mug, and a limp pile of a child’s worn-out clothing. No one thought to look, no one living in the city now knew of the cavity – and who knew or cared about some orphan brat?
But in another place in a great stone complex of buildings four small new statues of the Lady of Cats in an array of poses stood on a shelf in a place of honor near the main statue, it had not been quite a prayer to Her through them, but it had been sufficient.
Vanda was gone to a place where she romped and played with the kitten, where it was always warm, and there was food and clean water, a comfortable bed, loving hands, and a deep respect that now and then edged over into real worship so that Vanda purred often during her new, rewarding, and, for her species, very long life – with seven more to come, during all of which, she would be happy. Balance achieved.