It was the splatter of liquid on my face that woke me. Shitty-quality beer, with a taste of loam. Awareness returned as it puddled beneath me, where the tree roots grew against my back. Feet on the ... [+]
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Through the weeping household stalked a small black cat—just past kittenhood, and more gamine than gangly. She darted past the skirts of a grieving wife as the woman buried her face in a handkerchief. Slunk past the door as the priest offered extreme unction to the dying man in the bed.
No one seemed to notice her as she leaped lightly up onto the coverlet—no one but the old man himself, who raised a shaking hand in invitation. She nudged her head under it. Let his fingers slide the length of her body, and then nuzzled closer, whiskers brushing his face.
He turned towards her, ignoring the drone of the priest's words. Looked deep into her green eyes, and whispered, "I didn't know if I'd see you again, old friend. Take what you came for. I'm ready."
With that, he exhaled his last breath into her waiting mouth. She closed her jaws on it, as if holding a kitten gently by the scruff, and hopped off the bed, leaving the house as a fresh chorus of lamentation rose behind her.
Through foggy alleys and between the wheels of moving carriages, she moved at a rapid trot, till she found a crowded, familiar tenement and leaped for a window ledge, held head high against the weight of her invisible burden. Her frame became matronly. Her fur shifted from black to white; her eyes changed from green to blue. She pawed gently at a shutter until the kind woman inside opened it, allowing her entrance to a warm kitchen.
"Don't let that cat in with the baby," an elderly woman's voice called. "You know they steal the breath of children."
She turned away from the kind woman's fingers and the offer of dried fish. While both were sincere offerings, they weren't what she was here for. Not today.
A sleek twist took her away from the grandmother's grasping, anxious hands. A flick of the tail, and she bounded through into the kind woman's bedroom, where the cradle stood beside the big bed. Inside, a child lay, gasping for breath, turning blue. The baby didn't smell right—something was wrong in her blood. She wouldn't live out the night.
The cat hopped up to the bed, then down into the rocking cradle, settling down beside the weakening child. She set her whiskers to tickling the baby's cheeks . . . and unlocked her jaws from the precious burden she'd carried here.
"Get her out of there!" came an indignant squawk.
The infant inhaled. Her cheeks turned rosy as the soul the cat had carried here settled into that young body, all the fragments of who he'd been, lifetime after lifetime, mingling with the struggling, nascent spirit that was already there, becoming one with the newborn soul. And that union gave her the strength to keep fighting.
Gave them both another chance at life.
And as the grandmother's hands reached into the cradle to evict the cat, she allowed herself to dissolve into aether and shadow, a sparkle of starshine the last reminder of her eyes . . . until she was needed once more.