(C) 2014 by Diana Heyne
Floating down from the deep blackness of space he could see the planet looming below, so lush and green that it reminded him of a mossy waistcoat his mother had worn years before. He had loved to bury his face in the softness of it, drinking in the exotic fragrances of spices lingering in the fiber. Ossus thought of her now, her face brown and ridged as his boots of leatherwood, looking so fragile and ancient that he felt a sharp pang of guilt. Just this last adventure had needed the doing, had called him. Then as suddenly he was filled with exhilaration, enraptured in this drifting down, light as a wind borne seed to the beckoning luxuriance.
His boot tips landed with a crunch in the sandy gravel of a mountainous plateau where bitter winds drove a powder of snow against his back. Stark granite peaks thrust upward in violent loveliness from a valley that seemed as distant below as this changeable planet seen from space.
“Hardly what I was expecting,” he murmured huskily to himself, lashing the storm flaps tighter around his leggings and mentally fortifying the shimmering skin dancing about his body.
The great light that had flared at his comings and goings in this corner of the galaxy had begun to dim, turning the high masses of water vapor in the upper atmosphere a deep crimson. Ossus traveled west with the beckoning light, the snow piling so deep around his boots that he rose and floated a hand span above the surface. But the effort was too great after his long journey and he began to search for a shelter where he could summon the deep, rejuvenating sleep that post space required. Eventually amid the lengthening shadows he spotted a fault in the cliff face, where it deepened to black, and he made his way there, his breath a harsh rattle in the face of the wind.
The cave was sheltered with only a narrow, angled opening that baffled the wind. The space was fragrant with a musky odor Ossus found strangely pleasing, a low note below the faint biting pitch of urine. He drew himself upright in the doorway and released an inquiring flare of light from his palm. It traveled quickly around the domed hollow, revealing nothing more than a stone ledge that ran the length of one wall. It was littered with the scattered bones of small gnawing animals not unlike those Ossus had observed on his own world. He felt the faint twitch of his teeth forming to the familiar pattern of the lemhares’ incisors but stopped his mutation before it could go further. He was exhausted and would sleep now without indulging in these childish games. With a smile on his thin lips, he set the guard flares about his body and sank into sleep.
In his dream he was aware of the musky scent of his shelter, this time stronger and more insistent. He sensed a great warmth and softness encircling him, and most startling of all he felt his small, now lipless mouth hungrily sucking sweet nourishment. He plunged his blunt forefeet again and again into plush fur until his extended claws met pure muscle and he awoke to find her harsh tongue on him, rasping his eyelids, his nostrils and his round taut belly.
In her mind he read the images of a tiny limp body she had carried away from this place and the strange joy that seized her when she returned to find her living cub restored. She was young and it had been her first pregnancy---she had no way of knowing that this was not the natural order of things. Now she found herself once more with a spotted kit nestled beside her, one whose small form appeared to carry the blueprint of all her beauty and power.
So he stayed with the snow leopard for a time in his guise of cub. She marveled at how quickly he grew until at last they hunted side by side on the snowy plateau and down the surrounding slopes. Sometimes they ran for the sheer joy of feeling their powerfully fluid bodies in movement through the chill crystalline air. They were alone with the voice of the wind in the heights and only once did they observe, at a great distance, another large creature. It appeared to move effortlessly upright on two legs, floating a short distance above the earth, partially encased in a smooth skin of saffron and burgundy. The only part of it that came close to touching the ground below was the odd shimmering halo of light that surrounded its entire body. It was not so lovely as the snow leopard with her lithe grace and beautifully patterned fur. Still Ossus felt a great calm and admiration fill him as he watched the solitary monk and for a moment his adopted mother gazed in wonder at the serene, shaven human head atop the feline body of her son.
Then one day he lifted his nose to the wind and knew it was time to go. There was a new scent in the air, like her odour, only stronger, more musky and demanding. She felt a momentary pang when she sensed he was leaving, but she had been distracted for days by the scent of the other unknown male who prowled ever closer to her den.
Ossus kept his snow leopard body long enough to descend into a temperate valley but soon found the humid warmth oppressive in such heavy fur, designed expressly for life in the chilly heights. He was sorry to dissolve the artful pattern of the spotted coat that he thought one of his best efforts to date but entered joyfully into the change that brought him low to the ground in the smooth form of a long, legless being he had seen dangling from a tree near by. Fueled by his hunger for small furred things he slithered hidden among the tall grasses and stones, always alert to the scents brought to him through his marvelous, constantly flicking tongue. He reveled in the tickle of earth under his belly and the warmth that sun drenched rocks carried coursing through his blood.
He was uncertain how long he had slept when some movement sensed in his dream caused his elongated body to contract into a rough “s”. At that moment he felt the sharp vibration of metal striking stone near his head and in one movement rolled away and upward, closely followed by the old two legged’s cry as she watched him rise with the wings of a rock dove sprouting from his serpentine form. Long after the change was complete, he turned his feathered head down to see her still following his flight, a toy sized figure leaning on an ancient hoe at the edge of a vegetable patch. He could just make out the dark gap of her open mouth.
And so he again became a creature of air, some days drifting seed-like on the currents, on others winging swiftly, covered with air-filled shafts that bore him up to the brightness of the massive day star or among dark masses of grey-black water vapor that flashed and sparked with their own powerful light.
Looking down he saw green things everywhere and one day among them a flash of orange and black. It was the back of a creature not unlike the snow leopard, but larger and even more powerfully made. Ossus watched as the massive animal stalked a swift, slender creature with huge liquid eyes, one who seemed without voice until the end when the tiger bore down on its spine. A strangled, high pitched scream escaped its body and Ossus felt the beast's final terror rush through him. For a moment he was both pursuer and victim, in another body high above the earth.
Then it was too much for him to sustain the substance of all three creatures and he began to spin out of control, spiraling down among broken branches and leaves until he managed to snag with one hairy arm the thick vine of a jungle creeper. He swung hand over hand to the shelter of a large tree branch. Snuggled tight against the trunk he scratched his smooth belly skin and quickly fell into a deep sleep.
For months now he had traveled, watching them everywhere, small and large, many colored, living in jungle and desert and in the houses of the strange furless beings who walked on two legs. In many of their languages the two leggeds called them “cat,” or something else that sounded very like it. Ossus saw that these cats were sometimes feared or even hated but just as often adored and worshiped. He had learned that they were truly gods (having guessed as much from the moment he laid eyes on the snow leopard) when for a few weeks he assumed the two legged form. He was hired to work among humans with an instrument of wood and metal, lifting dry sand to uncover what was known among the two leggeds as a rock cut tomb, a place that on the outside seemed not unlike the snow leopard’s den. When the entrance was finally breeched he saw clearly that the resemblance ended there. When they opened the sealed stone and he glimpsed the interior for the first time it took his breath away for the ancient two leggeds had made it beautiful with all their magics. The walls seemed alive with color and Ossus saw scenes of humans and cats together, hunting in the tall water reeds, or a wise and powerful cat alone, slaying the serpent form that Ossus knew so well. He felt most drawn to the images of the mother cat and her young and once again felt a pang for the two mothers he had loved and left, not so very long before.
The floor and rock shelves of the tomb were filled with containers, shaped and painted to resemble the bodies of cats, patterned with colours taken from the glowing indigo and turquoise sky at dusk, side by side with the golden light of sunrise. The two leggeds in charge were ecstatic and for the moment so was he. It was one of the most beautiful sights Ossus had seen in all his many travels through as many worlds.
A few days later when all was photographed and mapped the two leggeds began to move some of the cat shaped containers to a large tent where they had made a place of study they called a field laboratory. Ossus watched entranced as one man painstakingly began to unwrap the dull ivory-brown bundle that lay within a container. It was swathed in layers of the flat, soft material humans called fabric and everywhere seemed to deem so indispensable. There was a great length of this fabric, wrapped in clever patterns and turnings but after much unwinding Ossus finally saw the thing that lay within. It was dry and hideously shriveled, the colour of dust and steeped in the cloying odour of old death. Ossus knew it for a cat, but so greatly changed he found it hard to comprehend even though on this world he knew death came differently than in his own. He thought again with sadness of his birth mother, so ancient. Yet she would choose her time and go into a changeless form, gradually becoming one with the planet over eons. Here the ancient two leggeds, in their search for eternal life, had made these things called mummies, through a process they inflicted even on the dead of their own kind. The odour made him slightly ill and he was most of all saddened by these shadow creatures, no longer lithe and beautiful.
After that he stayed only long enough to collect the metal discs that symbolized his long hours of digging in the sun. He left his pay outside one of the whitewashed shelters in a walled city of the more recently dead. He had watched an ancient, stooped two legged carrying food to the scores of cats and their young that congregated there among the tombs.
His travel across the immense blue element was long. At times he swam with a pulsing motion deep in a darkness where jets of warmth spiraled up from below and miraculous animals glowed like constellations with a light all their own. Sometimes he had a powerfully muscled tail that propelled him joyfully below a roof of turquoise shot with light and he was not alone but with others of his kind. Yet always the two leggeds were there, even on the great water, pursuing, killing, driving on. Ossus could sense their overpowering and strange need to destroy but it was beyond his experience to comprehend.
He first saw her with her four tiny kits at the back of a narrow alley. They were tucked into the lip of a low window behind a huge metal bin where the two leggeds brought bulky forms in sheaths of shiny black or dark green. At first Ossus wondered if these were carefully wrapped offerings for the cat. From a distance he watched her raid the bin daily for food, yet she was thin and seemed fragile. Her kittens searched restlessly at her side even after they had nursed, crying too often to seem satisfied. Despite this he was touched by their beauty and the way their mother lovingly washed each one and then drew them close, tucking her head and front paws protectively around them.
The female cat looked up, frightened by the approach of the muscular tiger striped male. She hissed a warning and tensed to fight, knowing in an all out confrontation he would surely win. She hoped to bluff, to frighten him enough to make him sure it wasn’t worth his trouble destroying the offspring of another male.
Then he stopped and sat back quietly on his haunches. He was the colour of the cobblestones, grey and black with streaks of cream. His head was broad and strong with huge green eyes and in his mouth he held a mouse. She stared at him for what seemed long minutes until he placed it on the cobbles and turned away. He was leaving the mouse for her. She waited tensely for a moment to see if he was really gone then shook herself free of the tiny grasping mouths and retrieved the limp rodent. It was still warm, as she liked them best, and the bones made a satisfying crunch between her small, strong jaws. Afterward, she groomed herself and half-slept with squinted eyes and a rumbling throat while eight tiny paws kneaded her side.
It became their routine. Ossus brought her food night and morning, mostly mice and small birds, once a pigeon. She grew to trust him and now came out to greet him when he arrived. They sat together, grooming each other at midday when a brief band of sunlight fell between the tall buildings. The kittens grew stronger, their eyes open now, tumbling over each other, biting ears and tails and climbing the small mountain range made by the adults cats lazing in the warm sun.
But life was not always gentle for Ossus. He was chased by the two legged young through the alleys where he tried to hunt, other male cats challenged him to battle almost daily and once a woman threw scalding water down from a window onto his back.
Trucks and buses rumbled by constantly on the adjacent streets and made Ossus long for the stillness of the high mountains where he had first arrived on this planet.
One morning as Ossus turned the corner with a fat mouse in his jaws, he was stopped short by a great roaring monster with flashing yellow lights. It pulled up beside the dumpster and its huge metal arms began to flail against the sides, making a hideous din that sent all the cats in the alley scrambling for the storm sewers and basement windows. Ossus instinctively turned to run until he realized that the beautiful cat and her young could not follow. They sat huddled miserably in the niche of a cellar window, trying to make themselves small against the cracked, filthy glass. Ossus watched as a two legged male stepped down from the noisy, odourous vehicle and approached the cat and her kittens. The man smiled and called to his partner who came slowly down from the cab, carrying a cardboard box. They scooped up the kittens and their mother followed with little resistance. The two leggeds quickly lifted the box into the truck and swung themselves up after it. Then they were gone amid a chaos of roaring and flashing. For a moment Ossus felt disoriented, then he sprang into the air, his new wings carrying him up and after the moving vehicle that held the beautiful cat and her litter.
The truck soon came to a halt and there was more of the deafening clanging, metal on metal, accompanied by the grinding of machinery. Ossus entered the open cab window as a very small winged creature that the beautiful cat didn’t recognize. She made an eager swipe with her paw through the air. Ossus was dazed by the blow and tumbled down into the forest of her fur. He swiftly became like the other living things there, even more minute and clad in hard brown armour. The salty iron tang of her blood made him feel frenzied with hunger but Ossus resisted. Instead he found that in this new form he could leap all the way from her lower back to her neck in a single startling jump.
The morning passed in a round of deafening stops and starts, although the flash of the yellow lights seemed to grow less troubling as the day grew brighter. Ossus rested quietly behind the beautiful cat’s ear where he could observe the kittens as they nursed or slept beside her.
At midday the truck stopped in front of a building with a facade of smoked glass windows overlaid with a metal grille that blocked any chance of a view inside. Before Ossus could decide what was to be done, one man was jumping down and he felt the box shift. They were being carried inside. They entered through a loading dock in a back area full of metal bins and odd chemical smells. The beautiful cat turned nervously in her box and the kittens began to mew softly, a sleepy protest against having their warm meal cut short. A male two legged opened the door and they were inside a fluorescent lit corridor with white walls and a speckled linoleum floor.
Ossus began to mutate in time to hear the two legged say “Same deal as before. Let’s see, for a mother cat and four…no five kittens. I must have counted wrong earlier or she’s been hiding one” The other man inserted his hand between two of the kittens for a better view and the first laughed a bit sheepishly.
“OK” the second replied, “Female with five young. I’ll be right back with your cash.”
He returned with a small metal cage and the box was shoved inside. Ossus saw him hand the other man some slips of paper that he knew the two leggeds considered valuable. Then the truck driver left by the way they had come, all the while making a strange shrill music with his pursed lips.
The cats were left alone for only a short time when another two legged arrived, dressed in a white garment with a small lozenge of hard material attached near her shoulder. Ossus read the letters of two legged language written there, but they made little sense to him. “J-O-Y” he noted, hoping to discover some meaning with later reflection.
They were taken up two floors to a well lighted room and placed on an apparatus with glowing numbers that changed with each cat. The female two legged used a slender tool for recording, scratching rapidly on the stacked papers to her right. She shone bright lights in their ears and eyes, squeezed their bellies and held a metal disk with tubes to each chest in turn. Lastly she stuck them all with small tubes that made him think of an insect’s sting. Osssus watched as each tube changed to a deep scarlet and “JOY” placed them carefully upright in a box. Finally the cats were carried to another windowless room and placed in a small enclosure with a metal gate and a box of dry earth in its corner. Ossus could hear the sounds of other animals around them, restless and pacing or crying softly. Once or twice he saw a paw extend from the cages on either side.
Ossus lost track of the days. The kittens grew larger and stronger and Ossus with them as one of the litter. They were visited by different two leggeds daily, but most often the one called “JOY” who brought food or carried them individually to the room where she placed them on the scale and filled the stinging tubes
Ossus saw the beautiful cat and kittens were comfortable enough, even though confined. They had a warm bed out of the rain and for once plenty of food. Still he felt uneasy and although he ventured out in the six legged form every night he was no closer to understanding the purpose of this strange white room full of cats or finding a way for them all to escape the maze of locks and elevators that only he could explore.
. A day came when the kittens were removed from their mother to individual cages. Not long after one was taken away by a male two legged and did not return. The three remaining kittens began to be visited more frequently by the two leggeds and quickly developed weeping sores on their backs and red, irritated eyes. The beautiful cat herself began to look dull and thin and barely responded when Ossus visited her at night, changing into his cat form and lovingly washing her matted fur.
Ossus was awakened by the clang of his cage door and a strong grasp on the scruff of his neck. He was lifted and shoved into a carrier on wheels and the beautiful cat tossed in beside him.
He heard the slick sound of the keycard swipe and the double doors swung open. They were rolling through the hall and then down in a back elevator while the two leggeds laughed and talked in low voices. Ossus felt a sudden wave of panic wash over him but still the beautiful cat lay staring with half open eyes, oblivious or uncaring.
They arrived at a corridor that widened into a spacious, concrete floored chamber. One end of the room was taken up by what seemed to be an oddly shaped vehicle suspended on metal arms, its single wheel barely touching a round track. Ossus and the beautiful cat were removed from the carrier and placed inside an openwork basket mounted atop the vehicle. When the two leggeds had finished securing the basket in place they climbed a short flight of steps into a glass walled room where Ossus could see other two leggeds watching the chamber from above.
He heard a whirring as the engine and hydraulics engaged. There was a brief lurch as the vehicle began to turn, slowly building speed until Ossus was overcome with dizziness and the strength of the force that seemed to suck him outward. He felt the basket begin to loosen and tilt and he tried desperately to hold the beautiful cat safe beside him but the vertigo made his body painfully slow to change.
Abruptly Ossus and the beautiful cat were flung out with an incredible force. For a moment time seemed to stand still, then they were hurtling head first into the barrier wall. Ossus heard the simultaneous cracking of multiple bones and a wet, rending sound as he bounced backward from the impact. His last conscious view was of the beautiful cat sprawled a short distance away, her lovely head split and spilling out a lake of blood and grayish pink matter. He tried to reach out to her and felt his fore limbs lengthen slightly before he was lost in darkness.
“Joy!…Joy get over here quick!”
The white coated lab technician responded reluctantly to the oddly guttural call from her fellow worker.
“Weren’t these cats from your area?”
She nodded, still keeping her distance. She could see the distinctive markings on the limp bodies from where she stood. Against her will she began to tremble, she hoped not noticeably. No matter how many times she saw this or how often she tried to convince herself it was important and necessary, the sight of the mangled crash test animals still made her ill.
“Joy! Don’t just stand there--Get over here!”
“Why? I can see enough from here.”
“Joy…” His tone had changed and he looked as if he were having trouble standing. “ I’m asking you …please…come here and tell me what you see. Tell me I’m not hallucinating. Or that I am. Come here and tell me what the hell we’ve done….”