Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by TCA Lakshmi Narasimhan from India. Narasimhan is an engineering student who grew up with Tolkien, Asimov and a generous dose of Role Playing Games. His short-term goal is to create a Steampunk universe set in old Calcutta.
This is the story’s first publication.
Clay Cast Cats
TCA Lakshmi Narasimhan
It was a terribly gloomy Saturday morning in Park Street. We were standing right across from the evacuated Flury’s, looking at the charred remnants of Stephen’s Court. Any other Saturday would have seen us inside the pink restaurant having their deliciously creamy and cheesy omelette. Today, we had come to pay tribute to it and wish it a speedy recovery, before going elsewhere for our breakfast.
Kay-Kay was nervously fidgeting with his camera. While on a shoot, his fingers would quickly and precisely focus the 50mm lens on the subject as I wrote a short paragraph about the madman that he was shooting. We’d come home, change, and connect the photos and paragraphs to start our story.
It was part of our new Saturday project—”The Madness of the City.”
It was going to be different today, though, and for a few weeks more. Our tummies would not be as full when we’d get home. Well, we had to get used to living like that. I looked at Kay-Kay. He was still lost in the blackened walls of the building.
Then his eyes focused on something else and his fingers became very still.
I saw what he was looking at and instantly knew why his fingers were still; they had found a new subject.
The Animal Woman of Park Street was quite the phenomenon. She was a wiry, thin woman, probably of Armenian or Jewish descent, and always wore a faded dress as she went about asking—even demanding—money for her animals. Apparently, she had quite a few in her house and she fed them using money collected from passersby. She would put all that money in her frayed little leather purse like a bus conductor, before looking out for other bewildered victims.
The two of us knew that she was really crazy; nevertheless we usually gave money to her whenever she came to us. We had heard horror stories about her harassing couples on the road. So she counted us as her friends.
She had been on our list for quite a while, but she usually was nowhere to be found on an early Saturday morning. She was one of those insane people who had a sane biological clock. Or, her animal friends kept her busy in the mornings.
“What are you two lovebirds doing here?” she called out to us from across the road.
Kay-Kay and I had the same embarrassed grin on our faces when she practically ran to us. She was grinning from ear to ear as she asked us what we were doing in Park Street so early and said that she usually spots us in the evenings on Fridays and Saturdays.
My boyfriend was getting slightly jittery—he did not like this woman and it was only my coercion that made him donate small amounts to her dubious claims of animal love. Nevertheless, he was the first to answer.
“Well, we usually have our breakfast here after a small photo walk. We could only come and see what happened to the building today.”
“Oh yes, sad thing what happened on Tuesday. I was here myself, looking for some people with a heart.” She excitedly poured out her mind. “But no one is like the two of you, really. Is that a camera?” She was a very scatty woman.
“Er…yes,” Kay-Kay said uncertainly.
“Will you take a picture of me and my dear friends at home? I’ll give you tea and make some omelettes for the two of you!” She looked hopeful.
Before he could answer, I said yes. It was very rare for the madmen of the city to have houses, still less for them to know how to make tea and omelettes. Granted, this woman could be dangerous and her animals could be feral (if they did exist), but this was quite a chance. I could almost feel a story forming in my head as I gave Kay-Kay a reassuring squeeze.
He shrugged, and took a half-hearted picture of the burnt building before following the Animal Lady. Her name, she told us, was Martha Arakiel.
Martha was a chatterbox. She had grown up entirely in Calcutta in the old bylanes of Park Street. She was old too, older than our parents, even. She had seen the city progress and stagnate and progress again slowly through the times. She had not been out of Calcutta except to visit the church at Chinsurah with her parents, and sometimes with Mr. Arakiel. Sadly, he had died a few years ago and that was the time when Martha was very silent.
Kay-Kay glanced at me and then at her. He wanted me to change the topic.
“How much further, Martha? This place looks so old….”
“Well my dear, no one cares for an old woman and her animal children these days, but here, at one point of time they used to.” Martha went tangentially away from the question, safely away from her husband’s death. She started randomly pointing out the names of the colonial-era buildings and their inhabitants.
“Ah yes, the Goodlads used to live there. Quaint people, they were. Agnes was quite the generous woman.
“There—the Wardens used to live there. William was a promising sailor, you know? Oh yes…kept dreaming about the time he would command a ship in the Bay of Bengal. Sadly, he died along with his ship….
“Ah, the poor poor Dennisons. What happened to Erwin was quite tragic. So tragic….”
Martha kept doing this with most of the houses. She told us happy stories and sad stories. The entire area was filled with old, dilapidated houses that had once housed the commoners of the Raj, and later their descendants.
Before long we ended up at her house. It did not seem out of place. The walls had long forgotten that paint used to clothe them, instead preferring erratic moss and some trees as skimpy dresses. The roof was probably leaky, and the large door was made of an elegant kind of wood that you rarely get these days. It was a short walk from the Park Street Cemetery and I’m pretty sure Kay-Kay would’ve been delighted to spend the night there with his camera. He was that sort. He had already clicked a hundred pictures on the way and was probably going to click a hundred more inside.
Martha took a large key from her purse and opened the humongous old lock. There was a nervous twitch from Kay-Kay and I felt it too; we were going inside this crazy woman’s house, which was near a cemetery and in a block with mostly old and possibly abandoned houses. It looked pretty creepy.
She disappeared inside and called out to us, “Do come in and make yourselves comfortable! I’ll bring the water to boil!”
I shrugged and walked in. Kay-Kay followed me.
Her house was fairly large inside with the hall taking up most of the space. The bungalow was a duplex adorned with several ornate windows. The windows were mostly shut and the musty smell of rotting wood could not escape our noses. Strange, considering that there were a few animals inside the house.
She wasn’t lying at all.
We counted seven cats (there were probably ten to twelve—you know how cats are with visitors, right?), three dogs—one of them a regal Alsatian—and several ferrets and parakeets along with two marmosets. The were scurrying around the furniture, clawing at the sofa, skidding on top of a dusty wooden dining table, flying from one curtain to another, and peeking out of old cupboards. There were also many rats.
Lots of rats.
In fact, the first thing that greeted us was an old picture of three rat kings. They were arranged to form a smiley. So detailed was the photograph that I could see exactly where the tail had been cut to make the mouth.
I felt nausea drown my stomach as I looked at Kay-Kay for reassurance.
He hadn’t noticed. He was already taking photos of the length and breadth of the bungalow, smiling at the cute antics of the little cats and the rats and the ferrets and the birds. He disregarded the dogs—he hated dogs.
I decided against telling him about the photograph. It was terrifyingly disgusting.
I told him I’d go look at what Martha was doing. He smiled and told me to go ahead, taking an instant picture of me giving him a vague smile and laughing at my expression.
I wanted to go to the bathroom and wash my face. There were too many animals here.
“Martha, where is the washroom?” I called out towards what I guessed was the kitchen.
“Oh, it’s just towards your left, child!”
There was nothing towards my left. I walked towards the kitchen, taking in all the dusty air I could to calm myself down. I needed some water, too.
I walked into the kitchen and stopped short. She was measuring some tea for the kettle. Beside her, a large number of rats was breaking open eggs for the omelette. That is about how easily I can describe what they were doing. They had coalesced into some sort of a gestalt organism, coordinating the cracks, holding the egg, holding the spoon at an angle. So many things being done by the rats, completely disregarding the human being next to them.
“What is it, dear?” she asked me. The evil, rat-controlling Animal Lady of Park Street asked me this innocuous question as if she was expecting me to ignore that unnatural hideousness I saw next to her.
“…why don’t you tell me, Martha? What are these rats doing?”
“Making omelettes of course, silly girl!”
I slipped out, tears of fear trembling out of my eyes. This was a bad, crazy place. There were monsters here.
Kay-Kay was poking a sleeping cat with his long fingers. He looked up at me, terrified with guilt. I had never seen guilt in his eyes before.
“Sarina? I think this cat is dead…I just petted him and well….”
He looked at me hopelessly, his camera hanging limply by his side.
“I think we should leave now, before Martha comes back. This is a bad place.” I told him about the rat king photograph and the gestalt rats in the kitchen. I was tugging at his shirt, asking him to leave.
He sprang to his feet, looked at the dead cat through his large glasses, then walked across to the door, holding my hand. He thought I had gone crazy with nervousness—I had to tell it all to him again. I could not see the photograph anymore.
“Breakfast’s here—oh my! Where are the two of you going in a hurry?” Martha called out to us.
Kay-Kay could not contain his guilt, and all that shirt-tugging was in vain.
“Well…I was patting this cat you see, and well he kinda became all limp and….” he trailed off.
Martha had a look of concern on her face as she carefully placed the tea and the rat-prepared omelettes down on the wooden table.
“Well…that usually happens, you see. They aren’t used to strangers touching them. They’ve forgotten everything but my hands. No matter, I’m pretty sure Red will wake up!”
She beckoned Kay-Kay as she lifted the little dead cat, then climbed the winding staircase. He was fidgeting and glanced at me several times. It was obvious that he wanted to tell me something, but better judgment was holding back his words.
The upper floor was much smaller than the large ground floor. So much smaller that “attic” would have described it better were it not for the bedroom that we stood directly in front of. Sunlight streamed on the bed, illuminating a mushroom-cloud of dust that exploded when she placed Red the dead cat on the shabby sheets. The bedposts creaked as she sat down as well, releasing a fresh new batch of dankness around the room. This place was so, so old. She started humming an old croaky tone and dusted the cat with a feather.
Four cats and the Alsatian had followed us and now brushed against our feet as we entered the bedroom. The animals nimbly pounced onto the bed and took up various positions around her. It was so naturally rhythmic that Kay-Kay automatically began taking pictures of Martha, the four cats and the dogs. And eventually of the stream of rats that surrounded her.
He was definitely taken aback, but the concentration of the woman on the ritual was unbroken. The rats were steadily preparing the cat, spreading his paws, cleaning out his claws and patting his ear. They reminded me of the elven slaves of Santa the tyrant, working like zombies to his crazy, rotund whim.
The little rat paws had finally arranged Red into a regal, prowling cat. His jaws were open and his muscles were tense. Were it not for his blank, lost eyes, he would have looked very threatening.
And then the most unlikely thing happened. A very tiny rat, helped by four rather fat ones, grappled onto the dead cat’s jaws and squirmed inside the mouth.
It took us a while to digest this bizarre act by the rat, more so because a moment later Red, now a living cat, squawked a meow and jumped into Martha’s lap.
We were petrified.
Martha sighed and the Alsatian nudged a small cupboard open. A bundle of stuffed animals fell out of it. A host of different creatures of various shapes and sizes, once curated by many museums and veterinary colleges and once owning a life with a soul of their own, now stared blankly at walls.
“You know, these animals wanted real life inside them, not stiff stuffing. These rats give it to them now—they suck the life out of the dead in the graveyard nearby, and I give them some purpose. That’s what Joseph taught me before cholera took him.” She let out a slight sniffle.
Joseph Arakiel, she told us, had always wanted to take care of animals. He had graduated from the Bengal Veterinary College and was performing some experiments on the rats near his house when cholera took him. She let out long moans and sniffles and the glassy-eyed Alsatian looked at her with a look that is usually accompanied by a low whimper. Nothing escaped his vocal cords, though. No blood flowed through his stuffing-veins. Only his rat’s slow burn of life kept him awake.
“I lie to everyone every day in that street. I don’t need money to keep my dear animal friends alive. I just need it to bait the rats out of the cemetery. Eugene came to me the other day, telling me how kind it was that I was doing him a favour and….” she was rambling.
Before I knew what was happening, Kay-Kay had picked me up and deposited me outside the long wooden door. He was trembling a little, but he knew he had a story in his hands.
When we were near the civilized hustle and honking of Park Street, he took out his camera and started looking at all his pictures. He was taken aback by some and showed them to me, shading the LCD display from the sun.
Every photograph that froze the animals looked as if it had been taken at the museum. The glassy eyes, limp fur, and faux dentures looked like they had been placed there by human hands years before the pictures were taken. Burst shots looked like a stop-motion movie of cuddly cat-dolls and marmoset action figures. The birds seemed to have wires on their backs, reaching towards the ceiling.
The rats were the only things alive, outside the frame, or blurred out (Kay-Kay had not found them interesting until the end). Their dirty pink ears feigned an experienced hearing and their eyes glowed with sentience.
But I noticed the one thing that he did not. Mrs. Martha Arakiel held Red in her arms limply, her stiff sides looking subtly unnatural as she smiled without wrinkles at the psuedo-life of the cat.
And her eyes. Her eyes were glassy, and they focused at infinity.