Sa-sa Says

by Laurel Hickey


The only light in the cavern-like room comes from a street-lamp shining through a single high window. Just when I decide I’ve been taken for a fool, I spot him by the flick-flick of his tail. Without the movement, he could be one of the broken squares of linoleum. Even now, what I see could be bundle of rags. A bucket. A string mop. A trick of the light and the breeze from the open door.

Even now, the idea of going home occurs to me, of accepting this entire episode as a momentary lapse of judgment. Or more, the idea of home invades my mind as the physical sensation of being wrapped in wool and silk and with the sense of music just finished playing.

I can smell him now. Separating out from the soap and chlorine are proteins specific to cat hair and skin and glands. And different than any I’ve sensed before. He’s real, he must be. I keep very still, wondering if he can see more than I can, if he hasn’t shared in the species’ shift from nocturnal to diurnal. And, wonder if I can adapt. My companion once said that my eyes are flowers that open with the sun. Nothing else wakes me.

Sight and scent and a whishing sound as his tail continues the flick-flick sweep. He rocks back and forth on his hind legs as though he might at any moment spring forward. I pedal my hindquarters the same way and try the same tail flick and find each separate motion has to be deliberate.

My failure is unexpectedly poignant. My companion Simon and I had attended his sister’s daughter’s school concert, a family favor that turned into a media circus regardless that our attendance was supposed to be a secret.

The MC was trying to involve the audience in the music with stomps, claps and finger snapping, ignoring the photographers pushing in along the sides to get a clear shot of where I was sitting.

“Perhaps they could get the cameras to flash in time instead,” Simon said, chuckling as he tried to snap his fingers. Coarsened from working with the stone that was his chosen instrument, his fingers had slipped too slow across the thumb to a dull landing on the flesh at the base.

Sitting next to him, Simon’s sister appeared to have eaten something sour.

Claws barely extended, I jumped on Simon’s lap and into the curl his arm had taken. I looked up until we almost touched noses, his breath warm against my face. We were bathed in a flickering glow. The music had died with the odd toot and drumbeat and one young girl playing her recorder several seconds past any other notes.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said. “I think we can run faster than they can.”

“But not faster than your sister.”

Simon’s laughter is what I feel curled in my stomach as I crouch here in the dark. The dark has the body-warmed cotton smell of the jumper he wore that night. He had left his studio, brushed flecks of marble from his hair, and said he was ready.

Simon. We shared a taste in music.

I know I haven’t been tricked — and yes, it had occurred to me — but there is an unmistakable lack of consciousness, of artifice, in the male cat. If I spoke to him, what would he hear? How would he react? I feel like a species alien to him and for a moment, my resolve falters. Can I do this?

I keep thinking he should know I’m there, watching him, but facing forward, his broad head shivers ever so slightly, his concentration total.

Is he watching for a mouse?

A mouse is a small mammal, a rodent. A cliché.

Along the wall he faces, the doors of the commercial dryers gape open, flat silver wire-framed lenses or velvet-shadow winks. No movement. No mouse. Just dust and lint and hair rolled up by the now vanished breath of the machines.

The idea of eating a mouse makes me nauseous. The first bite. Arterial blood. Warm raw meat. Grass and seeds from the gut in a digestive stew.

Except it wouldn’t really be a mouse, but a creature filling the same ecological niche here as it had on Earth.

It didn’t matter what it was, mouse or not. Go on instinct, I remind myself. Small and warm and when it moves, I’ll see it and not have to think, just do.

“Surely you can easily learn what was so recently innate,” whispers the voice of irony.

Like I can learn tail flicking? Or like I can learn finger snapping?

My species’ neural augmentation extends the length of the spinal cord, that route to intelligence determined by human esthetics so as not to detract from the cat form. I have the wedge-shape head and long nose and lean body of my Siamese ancestors.

I’m a musician; my voice is my instrument.

And there are no wild cats. And no male cats at all.

A phone rings. From somewhere near comes the sliding-open sound of a loading bay door. Morning shift, moments after midnight. Another sliding door and the whine of a truck engine. Voices. The male cat’s ears swivel to find each sound, then, in a heartbeat, he jumps only to land in a nail-out skitter that has nothing to say about mice, bounces sideways and runs.

More used to human reaction time, he’s startled me. I retain a single last image: ears back, bristled whiskers, the light behind his eyes. Tabby stripes, tear lines that break away from the roundness of his eyes to a flesh colored nose. Human flesh. Nipple-brown and rose. Virginal.

I’m alone. In a stiff-legged rage and over the approaching voices I start to sing. Concrete walls and dryer doors and metal drums. The Ecstasy of Rinaldo. I’m transported; I’ve never sung it better. I push my voice to a howl just as the door to the room opens and the light flashes everything white, white, white.

“... this desire to revert to a simpler form...” the doctor continues, hands waving as though finger-painting the air. With her puffy fingers, and no waist or neck, she could be an immense child.

The pink walls look beige to me. If I was human, I’d find them soothing, instead, I purr. A feline mantra. Some instincts remain.

“...a degree of infantile regression is to be expected...”

I’m lying on a towel in a wicker basket, front paws tucked under my chest. I make sure the tip of my tail is hidden. I’ve sucked the tip raw, swallowing the fur. I don’t know how long I’ve been in the clinic; I have the sense of days passing in a drugged haze.

“Doctor Winston,” I lisp, hating the mutilation of the words. When I sing, the notes rise from chest and throat but words are trapped by fangs in a palate never meant for speaking. “Should I deny what I am? A cat. Feline, of the family Felidae. I don’t need to regress to go for a walk at night as a cat will.” I resist the urge to rub my chin against the wicker — this basket isn’t me, it isn’t my territory. Except I don’t feel possessive of the space, or need reassurance of where I am, my chin is simply itchy.

She bends over to peer at me directly. “What you are feeling is normal, the expression magnified by the artistic imagination.” Graying nose hair and garlic breath. Large pores. A polished chocolate moonscape of a face. I close my eyes and let the words paint the pictures her fingers couldn’t. “Maestro, this cat you think you saw...”

In shock, I open my eyes.

She’s still staring at me. “There was no feral cat.” She straightens with a sigh. “There are no cats like that here. None. None. If... and I’m not suggesting... if there was a homeless cat, feral if you wish, it would of course be female. There are no male animals of Earth origin here.”

Except humans. Besides, I hadn’t said there were feral cats, male or female. I hadn’t said anything about that night. There would have been an investigation, I suddenly realized. Questions asked of whom I had talked to; whom I had paid.

The doctor sits, squares a notebook with the lines of her desk, then speaks. “Maestro, you were with Simon Barnet for seven years; he cosponsored the implantation application you have before the genetics board...”

Only when she hesitates do I realize I’m growling.

“Maestro, how can I put it... there are people who will take advantage of another’s grief. You were led on, taken in by someone acting out what you wanted to see.”

I can see she thinks she’s being brutally frank, but it’s nothing I haven’t said to myself.

“Maestro, the mind is fertile to all manner of suggestion and desire, and strong emotion and stress can momentarily break down the barrier between imagination and reality. You can think you see someone you love who has died. She consulted the open notebook, wrote several words, then closed the cover. “Or create an escape from where it is likely you could. Or need to.”

I shake my head. “I’m not crazy. The only pathology here is an overreaction by the authorities to my trespass.”

She sighs again. “No one is implying you are mentally ill.”

In my mind, I’m there again, surrounded by the eerie glow of walls and floor, the winking glass doors of the dryers, the smell of cotton and detergent and bleach and his scent. “Then I can go home.”

“Maestro, our only wish is to help you to start the healing process.” She touched a button on the console at the edge of her desk. “Andrew, arrange grief counseling for Maestro Samna... five group sessions...”

Her voice rises to make it a question and from that I know I really can go home. “Have him call my secretary.”

Berna, my secretary, had buried the copy of the Inquirer inside the Music Quarterly three down in the stack of magazines. She is too compulsively acquisitive to have destroyed it, too unimaginative to put it plainly on top. The subscription was Simon’s; he said he bought it for the horoscopes. After the accident, I found paparazzi shots of the two of us in the back of his chest of chisels, the sheets rolled up and fixed with an elastic.

The picture of me in the Inquirer was a year out of date: I recognized it as from the pre-performance reception for the charity concert put on by the Daughters of the Landing. Senator Guilford was holding me, her amble bosom swathed in black velvet, a backdrop to my milk-white body fur and light points.

Beside that picture was one of Simon standing with one of his sculptures. The camera’s focus was the artwork. A bird, the raised wings sharp angles against the pale blur of her shirt and face. There are no more birds on this world than there were mice.

My concert tour had originally been timed so that I could attend the opening of his exhibition at the Colony Gallery, the charity event that kept me from it was a last minute addition by my manager. I had bought Simon a suit for his opening, dark brown to match his hair and eyes. The exclusive Tillpen label. He never wore it.

The Inquirer’s headline: Suicide Watch for Grief-Stricken Samna.

The hole in the cement block wall is behind the dryer at the far end, and hidden by cables and wire wrapped hot air exhaust pipes. That the hole is both deliberate and unfinished is obvious to someone familiar with the progress of chisel on stone. And on the rough edges are several long guard hairs and one tuft of softer brown fur.

A lifetime of going through doors and I hadn’t know this world existed: the insides of walls, tunnels through rubble and dust. Actual burrows into dirt. Nests of dried grass and leaves and fur.

He has a territory and an order and a time for everything.

“Sa-sa,” he whispers as he rubs against me, waking me to the constant dusk of where we live. “Go now.”

He does talk, a few words, but not enough for me to learn where he came from. He exists in a dynamic flux between the innate trust and need for company of a well-treated pet, and the fear of one whose trust has been breached. When he’s afraid — or aroused — he bites.

“Not yet,” I tell him. “Later.”

I’m getting too awkward in my pregnancy to keep up with him, but I worry he won’t come back.

He rubs again, becoming insistent. “Mou Sa-sa.”

“Say mouse.” I draw the word out past any hope of recognition.

Unsure, he blinks at me. “Sa-sa,” he repeats and walked several steps towards burrow entrance, then hesitates until I join him.

I find scraps enough in the garbage. Crusts of sandwiches. Fruit peelings. He won’t touch any of it. A memory of being poisoned at one time perhaps, but I don’t know and he can’t tell me. He’s here; he’s survived. He’s a whisper in the alleys and the bars.

The machines are an almost constant backdrop of noise, a sliding symphony as one dryer stops, is unloaded, loaded and reset, then the next, the voices always changing, cotton sheeting to towels, from wet slapping canvas to the pitting rustle of shirt buttons. I sing with them, a soft lullaby of sound.


Copyright © 2006 by Laurel Hickey

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