Here are the prologue and first three chapters of Yeshua’s Loom: A Tapestry of Cats. Enjoy!
In the dark hour before dawn—at the very moment of my birth—a star fell into the sea off the rocky coast near Perga. When the sun rose and humans woke to the news, half the city bragged of having seen it, but in truth, only the sacred cats of the Mother’s temple and a paw’s count of sleepless humans saw it fall. It blazed across the sky in a great arc, glowing in the cats’ eyes like a fiery jewel, gilding their fur with the brilliance of its passing, and finally disappearing beneath the black swells. The Grandmothers pondered long over the meaning of this wonder, but the Lady spoke no word to their hearts.
“Perhaps the message was not for us,” they shrugged.
At my coming of age the Grandmothers named me “Nightfire,” for the star at my birth, my fur like a moonless night, and my eyes that burn like coals. I was born a sacred cat of the Mother, descended from the line of the Great Cats of Bubastis. Long ago, in the time before time, the Mother of Cats shared with us her understanding of human thoughts, and charged us to keep watch over their foolishness, recalling them to the great Balance when they strayed—and truly, humans often strayed after the very demons of chaos.
Although many generations have passed since our ancestors came to this foreign temple far from the Lady’s native soil, we still speak into human hearts with the voice of the Great Cat Who Is Bast. We may hiss softly at their perversity, but we do what we can to penetrate the tangled thickets of their minds.
I grew strong in the Mother’s temple, learned the beginnings of wisdom, and sired many kits among the temple females. Life was good . . . until the dreams began. I don’t know why the strange human who visited my dreams disturbed me so. He was only an ordinary human male; I didn’t fear him. But he pursued me relentlessly, night after night, day after day. Whenever I closed my eyes, he was there. He stalked me like a hunting cat. I even tried the unlikely solution of avoiding sleep altogether, but the harder I struggled, the more intense his presence grew when sleep finally overtook me.
In the end, my dreams spilled over into the Grandmothers’ dreaming, and after that there was no escape. They peered into the shadows of my dreams and perceived that this human was drawing near in the waking world. The Mother spoke through my dreams, they said, summoning me to bind my life to his like the fibers of a closely spun thread. The temple would miss me, but I’d given generously of my strength, and my blood ran true in my many kits. I must find this human male without delay.
So it was that I was crouched on a hilltop staring across the sea, feeling angry and uncertain, when a small ship appeared on the horizon. From across the water a glowing cord reached out, a ghostly echo of the birth-cord that had bound me to my mother, and touched me with a waking dream. Sitting up, I licked my fur into place, turned my back on the temple, and loped down the hill, easily keeping pace with the boat’s slow progress toward the distant harbor.
Purple Gleaming in Shadow speaks
Wind gusted, shrieking around the ship’s cabin and snapping the sail like thunder. The boat rolled down into the trough of a new wave and then wallowed up the heaving mountain beyond it. My screams rode the wind along with our frail ship until the plunging deck flung me to the end of my safety line and my jaws snapped shut. The boat spun on, cresting the next wave and hurling itself down again on the far side. Growling deep in my belly, I scrabbled at the slippery deck, digging my claws into the wooden planks and thrashing in a fury of despair, trying to free myself from the harness that bound me. It held fast. I yowled my outrage as I retreated to the wooden cabin where Aeliana, my traitorous human, and her foster mother Tirzah sheltered from the storm.
Aeliana stretched her hand out in welcome, but I hissed at her, slashed out with my claws, and bared my teeth. Hadn’t she betrayed me into this horror? Hadn’t her hands fastened these cruel ropes around me, lashing me to this pitiful bit of driftwood that carried us toward a watery grave? Was I a tottering human cub, that I should be bound with ropes to keep me from falling into the waves? And where would I be if the boat sank?
I refused to hold that thought in my mind.
Do it for me, Purple, Aeliana had begged in her soft voice. How could I bear it if you were lost?
I noticed that she hadn’t tied herself to the mast for my sake.
Then Chariton’s exultant laugh rang out from the windswept deck, dousing my rage like a bucket of cold seawater. Not for an instant did I imagine that he laughed at me. No, his laugh was filled with delight: he was enjoying himself. And he wouldn’t be enjoying himself if Aeliana were in danger. I turned and scowled at her again. Neither she nor Tirzah seemed worried. I licked angrily at the salt spray beading my fur and forced myself to think. The son of Earth’s words echoed in my ear: Listen, and choose, Purple kit!
I sighed and gave up. I hadn’t been listening. The truth was right in front of me: this horror was normal. Just a squall, as Chariton had tried to assure me. Small storms blew across the sea every day. I hunkered down against the cabin’s wall, bracing myself as the boat pitched and rolled beneath me. Finally, having nothing else to contribute, I hacked up my breakfast into Aeliana’s lap.
The son of Earth, known among cats as He Who Brings Light to the Earth, once called me clever, a scholar among cats. I often wondered if he’d mistaken me for some other kitten. True, I hadn’t had much experience with humans in those days, but I’d been standing right beside Aeliana when she’d agreed to go with Chariton to his far country beyond the great sea. I’d heard her with my own ears. Now if I’d been a clever cat—a scholar among kittens—wouldn’t I have realized that going to a far country might require travel? And since Chariton always traveled on ships, wouldn’t a clever kitten have suspected that our travel might involve ships too?
In my defense, the moon had waxed and waned many times after Aeliana gave her promise, yet still she’d remained in Aqhat’s house, weaving, dyeing and stitching in his workshop as if nothing had changed. Chariton had come and gone across the sea several times. Summer turned to winter, storms lashed our shores, and still he continued his trips, paying exorbitant sums to nervous captains who sensibly preferred their safe harbors to the treacherous open water.
He’d said little about these trips, at least in my hearing, and I allowed myself to be lulled into a cat’s simple enjoyment of peaceful days and hunting nights. After all, I’d just passed through that most wondrous door in a young cat’s life, when I was finally able to birth kittens of my own.
And that was another thing. I glowered at Aeliana again, but this time she scowled back (she and Tirzah were both working to clean my breakfast off her best wool robe). I’d had to leave my kits behind! True, Aeliana had waited until after their naming to set sail . . . but never to see them again! I’d always promised myself that if I lived long enough to bear kittens, I’d never abandon them as my mother had me. Be fair, Purple, an inner voice scolded. You didn’t abandon them. No, not exactly. I’d left them in the care of Aqhat and his many housecats. They had food and shelter and safety. And they were old enough to make their own way.
I sighed again and closed my eyes. The son of Earth had explained what it meant for a cat to bond with a human. At the very least he expected me to stay by Aeliana’s side. But more than that, I knew he was depending on me to help her find her way in this new life so far from the hills of Galilee. Like my own youth, hers had been cruelly hard. She’d been little more than a child when her father had arranged her mating with the son of a Sepphoris wine merchant. Then, within a year, her parents had died in a fire that devoured her inheritance along with their lives, and her grasping in-laws had tried to rid themselves of their now penniless daughter-in-law by driving her out into the hills to die. The son of Earth had rescued her and settled her on the Phoenician coast as a weaver’s apprentice under Tirzah’s loving eye. Fortunately for Aeliana, her worthless mate had died within the year, and she’d met Chariton, a trader from a wealthy merchant family famed for their extraordinary royal purple cloth. This pitiful ship was carrying us to his home in Miletos, where they planned to marry.*
So I was stuck. No way out. I closed my ears to the crashing fury of the sea and let my mind sink into the nowhere place, where all beasts go when life spins out of control and no more choices remain.
The calmness of the water roused me from my stupor. Aeliana and Tirzah had abandoned our shelter while I slept and now stood on the deck with Chariton, leaning over the rail and pointing at something I couldn’t see. I yawned, stretched and walked toward them as far as my rope allowed.
Land! The sun hung low, the sea was calm, and we were coming into a rocky harbor . . . docking for the night! I sighed in relief. If it weren’t for these nightly returns to solid ground, by now I’d be as witless as the flying fish that had flung itself into the ship cook’s delighted hands. Yes, here came Chariton to gather up everyone’s belongings . . . and me. Cat baggage.
“Are you feeling better now, small Purple?” he asked me with a knowing grin. “I heard about your accident . . . if accident it was!” he laughed.
I responded with stony silence. Nothing about this trip amused me, and I was in no mood for Chariton to be rummaging through my mind with his unnerving skill at reading feline thoughts.
He bent to release me from my harness, and held out his arm in invitation. I took my time climbing up, and then lurched around his shoulders, intentionally snagging his mantle with my claws each time I slipped, before circling one last time and curling around his neck where I’d begun.
“You’re in a good mood,” I grumbled, as he almost danced across the deck toward the women. “I am, aren’t I?” he laughed. “I feel like something extraordinary is about to happen . . . and we’ll be spending the night with two of my family’s oldest friends.”
He laughed again, with the same sudden burst of pleasure I’d sensed earlier. I switched my tail and slitted my eyes against the blinding rays of the setting sun. I’d had enough of humans for one day, happy or not. Maybe Chariton’s friends would have a large garden. We’d stayed in so many different houses since we’d left Acco that I’d given up trying to imagine the ones yet to come. And anyway, all the houses had a depressing sameness. Still, maybe there’d be a cat. A conversation with an ordinary cat would be a pleasant change.
That’s when I felt the strange cat’s presence, almost as if my thoughts had summoned him. But surely I wouldn’t have called a male—a powerful male, if his impact on my senses were any measure. I rose up on Chariton’s shoulder, swaying against his head as he strode across the bouncing plank to the dock where Aeliana and Tirzah waited. Chariton was tall for a human, so I could see over most of the human heads crowding the pier. Cliffs rose above us, blocking all view of the city, except for a sloping path cut into the cliff where seamen and merchants streamed back and forth between town and dock. I saw no cats.
“Hail, human stranger,” the rumbling voice of a cat broke into my thoughts. “I greet you, and welcome you to our shores.”
I spun around on Chariton’s shoulder, searching. This stranger was speaking into Chariton’s thoughts directly, as if he already knew he’d be heard.
Chariton had stopped at the unseen cat’s first words and stood unmoving at the water’s edge. He might not have sensed the strange cat’s presence at first, but now I could feel his inner eye sweeping the shore like a hunting hawk’s. Aeliana and Tirzah scanned the dock with similar intensity. But soon I felt Chariton’s search narrow to a spot halfway up the cliff. I followed his gaze . . . and felt as if the breath had been knocked from my body. The strange male sitting on the shadowed ledge was as black as I, but massively built, larger than one of the wildcats who roamed the hills above Acco. And his eyes! Even at a distance, I could see that they were neither green like mine, nor tawny, but a blazing gold with flecks of orange fire.
“Greetings, noble cat with eyes of flame,” Chariton was saying. “I am Chariton of Miletos, son of Proteas. Will you speak your name?”
I held my breath. Speaking cats—as this cat clearly was—did not share their names freely.
The black male rose to his full height, looked down at Chariton, flicked his gaze over the human females—and me—and answered. “The Grandmothers named me Nightfire. I am descended in direct line from the great cats of Bubastis, born a sacred cat in the temple of the Mother at Perga.”
He inclined his head like royalty. So this was what a real temple cat was like! I shrank against Chariton’s neck like the scruffy provincial rock rabbit I was. Various near-death experiences at the claws of brutish bullies skittered through my memory.
“What do seek from me, Nightfire, sacred cat of the Lady Bast?” Chariton inquired.
Nightfire’s eyes gleamed with approval at Chariton’s response. “For many days you have haunted my dreams, son of Proteas. Even the Grandmothers shared my dreaming. Their council decided that the Mother of Cats was calling me to join my path to yours. More than this I do not know.”
For the first time I caught a hint of nervousness in Nightfire’s manner. He’d probably never asked a human for anything in his whole life, much less what amounted to adoption.
But Chariton smiled broadly, and nodded his head. “I, too, have dreamed, Nightfire. And only this afternoon an unreasoning joy gripped my heart, on the wings of the certainty that something extraordinary awaited me here.”
He paused and bowed low, leaving me no choice but to jump down. I stalked away, fluffed my fur, and licked my tail as if the whole encounter were of no interest to me.
“Welcome, Nightfire. You shall be as my brother, and I yours,” Chariton said solemnly.
I felt the huge cat breathe an almost imperceptible sigh of relief before turning his gaze to Aeliana and Tirzah.
Chariton stretched his hand out toward them and smiled. “This is the lady Aeliana, my intended mate, and her foster mother, Tirzah. Both are animal speakers in their own right.”
Last he turned to me, where I sat near Aeliana’s feet. “And this is Purple Gleaming in Shadow, bonded to Aeliana, and descended from the sacred cats of a temple of the Mother on the Phoenician shore. Her distant Grandmothers also walked the sands of Bubastis.”
If Nightfire had possessed human eyebrows, he would have quirked one. Instead he nodded to me—not the nod of a bully to a victim, but of an elder to a young cousin. My legs felt weak with gratitude for Chariton’s kindness, and I forgave him all his recent failings. I would never be a ragged waif from the dyeing beaches of Acco in this stranger’s eyes. With one hand Chariton had adopted Nightfire, and with the other he’d pulled me in as well.
Cat threads: Purple Gleaming in Shadow
Perhaps I should explain something. The son of Earth was a prophet and healer of the One (and more than that as well). I was never sure exactly what his relationship was to the Mother of Cats. He didn’t call her names and kick her sacred cats as some humans did. I fact, he’d actually spoken with her authority in Acco. The friendship we four shared was also his doing, so perhaps he’d sent this strange cat too.
Once, in a dark dream, the Mother of Cats had pulled me back from the great Silence and into her light. She’d told me then that she was merely a bright image of the One Creator, born when the One had first imagined her feline children, and, for an instant, taken on their form. The Mother of Cats was the Earth’s memory of that moment, when the One had looked upon her newest children with the face of a mother cat. The Mother of Cats spoke with the One’s voice to all cat-kind.
Because of something ben Adamah said later, I suspected that he might be even older—and more real—than the Mother. But that remained a mystery to me. It was enough that the Mother’s love flowed through them both.
2: Unlikely Gods
Purple Gleaming in Shadow speaks
Over the endless days of our journey my humans had worked out a plan for our landfalls. Rather than shutting themselves into curtained litters as soon as they escaped the ship’s cramped space, they’d agreed to stretch their legs and walk to wherever the night’s lodgings might be. Even now Chariton was waving away the bearers who hurried toward us across the harbor square. After singling out a pair of hostlers to collect our luggage from the ship and a third to guide us to his friends’ house, he led us away from the water. I leapt to Aeliana’s shoulder to escape the press of human bodies, but Nightfire remained at Chariton’s side. He was in no danger of being trod upon! I smiled to myself as I watched the humans trip over themselves in their anxiety to scramble out of his path.
Like other sea towns, many of this city’s wealthy humans had built homes on the hills above the harbor where they could enjoy the ocean breeze. We strolled along colonnaded streets, across a market square, and under the shadows of towering public buildings identical to those I’d seen in every port we’d visited. The crowds began to thin as we approached the stone steps leading up toward the houses of the powerful, and I congratulated myself on my composure—and Aeliana on hers. How calmly we were walking among these marvels! Hardly a year ago a short walk through Acco’s streets had left us both feeling like quivering sea jellies stranded on a rocky shore. Then, as now, Tirzah’s calm spirit had steadied our steps. I glanced back to make sure she wasn’t finding the climb too difficult, but her eyes were bright with pleasure at being ashore again.
Tirzah wasn’t really Aeliana’s foster mother. In her youth Roman soldiers had sold her into slavery along with most of the humans of Sepphoris after the town’s failed rebellion. Aqhat had bought her as a common slave, but after discovering that she was a weaver from a merchant’s family, he’d given her more and more responsibility, until, by the time Aeliana had arrived with ben Adamah, she was more like Aqhat’s elder sister than a slave. Her instant bond with the son of Earth had puzzled me . . . the two of them seemed like lifelong friends. But she never spoke of it. Still, even I could sense that she was a Grandmother among humans, loving and wise with the experience of her great years, so perhaps the two of them shared something I couldn’t see. Chariton had purchased her freedom from Aqhat before we left Acco so that she and Aeliana wouldn’t be parted when he took Aeliana away to Miletos. I would have missed her, too: Tirzah might not be a cat, but she was a Grandmother nevertheless.
Slavery: there was a human habit that made my blood run cold. I’d seen slaves working on the beaches of Acco all my short life, but since I’d had little to do with humans, I hadn’t understood. Only after meeting Tirzah, and then Aqhat’s other slaves, did I learn what the word meant. To treat one’s own kind as property, creatures who looked out on the world with eyes like yours . . . surely that must be a serious affront to the Mother! Maybe you could defend treating other species so—after all, carnivores had to eat—but using your own kind like beasts of burden was almost as bad as calling them food! When the son of Earth told us that he feared human evil might be starting to spread to beast-kind like some kind of pestilence, I thought of human slavery. Was it not much like the evil that drove the savage cats of Acco to ravage their own kind? But Tirzah at least was free, and since ben Adamah’s intervention, those cats were no more. I prayed that their evil had vanished with them.*
Our evening’s guide finally stopped at the very top of the stone stairs and bowed us toward the entrance of a house occupying a huge city block. Chariton dropped a few coins into the man’s hand and entered the vestibule, where he raised a heavy doorknocker shaped like a curly-horned ram and let it fall against the wooden door. A servant opened the door immediately, and a child scurried off into the shadows to summon their master.
“Chariton!” cried a voice from the depths of the house.
Chariton stood aside for Aeliana and Tirzah to join him inside the door, and I glimpsed a white-robed figure hurrying across a columned courtyard.
“Welcome, welcome!” the man laughed as he entered the hallway, his hands outstretched in greeting. “Your father’s letter gave us no idea when to expect you. Eirene has kept servants hovering near the door night and day to be sure we didn’t miss you! Come in, come in, and introduce me to your companions! Eirene will join us as soon as she finishes harrying the cook.”
Not until our host guided us into a smaller courtyard off to the side of the entryway did I get a good look at him. He stood as tall as Chariton, but thinner, his fine white toga draped in the Roman fashion. His heavily lined face beamed with goodwill, but his eyes were sharp, sliding from Chariton to my other humans with a look of polite curiosity.
Chariton paused before making introductions, and I sensed his growing unease.
“My father didn’t tell you who was traveling with me?” he asked lightly, but with an undertone our host didn’t miss.
Narrowing his eyes, but smiling anyway, the older man said, “Never mind, Chariton, you know your father! If a thing doesn’t promise a profit he can’t hold it in his thoughts for five minutes together. Now, if you’d been overseeing one of his shipments of purple, he’d have had the details in my hands months ago!” Then he laughed, clapping him on the shoulder.
Chariton smiled tightly and turned to Aeliana. “Zenon, this is my betrothed, Aeliana, a lady of the Phoenician coast, and her foster mother, Tirzah. Also travelling with us are two cats with even longer pedigrees than your own, descended from the sacred cats of Bubastis. This is Nightfire, and this, Purple Gleaming in Shadow.”
I gave the man credit. If I hadn’t been listening for his thoughts, I’d’ve hardly noticed his shock at Aeliana’s introduction, nor his consternation at finding cats in his courtyard. He handled both tolerably well . . . bowing politely to the women and glancing in my direction with a forced smile, but averting his eyes entirely from Nightfire’s shadowy bulk. After a tense pause, he gestured around the colonnaded courtyard where we stood.
“Please, refresh yourselves after your long journey. The servants will show you your rooms.” He waved vaguely toward several doors along the wall. “The baths are at the end there. Anything you need for your comfort, you have only to ask. A servant will guide you back to us when you’re ready to join us for dinner.”
A cluster of silent household slaves bowed low. Zenon smiled tightly before disappearing back into the other side of the house. I wondered what tale he would carry to the absent Eirene. Something was happening here that I didn’t understand, and although the unexpected presence of cats might have something to do with it, Aeliana seemed to be at its heart.
Chariton took a deep breath and turned toward the servants.
“Please see that we have towels and fresh water, and then, all of you, leave us,” he said in tones that invited no discussion. “I’ll call when I wish you to return.”
For a few moments the servants bustled around the courtyard and then disappeared like so many overlarge mice into their hidden crevices. I might not like slavery, but it was everywhere—at least among wealthy humans.
Chariton sighed and turned to Aeliana. “It appears that my father is playing games with us, Lady, and I apologize, but there is little I can do. We can only move forward. I suggest you and Tirzah relax in the baths. I’ll take my turn when you’ve finished. If you need anything, call, and I’ll send a maidservant to you.”
Aeliana looked worried, but smiled anyway, and brushed Chariton’s cheek lightly with her fingers. Then after examining the different sleeping chambers, she and Tirzah settled on one, discarded their outer robes, and disappeared through a narrow door into the bath chambers. I turned back toward Chariton, mincing away from the baths with distaste. I’d encountered the steaming damp of Roman baths before.
Chariton looked down at Nightfire and me. “Well, my friends,” he spoke into our thoughts, “if I’m not mistaken, you’ll find a garden of some sort through that door by the baths. Let me know if it meets your needs. We can also have boxes of sand brought in for you, and food as well. You may sleep where you will . . . with us, or by yourselves. But I will ask you not to go outside the walls of this house. We know nothing of this city’s people or how they feel about cats. And if you’re willing, we’ll all go to dinner together. I would value your insights into our conversation.”
Then he paused briefly to inspect one of the sleeping rooms before disappearing inside it.
The silence thrummed with his anger.
“Purple Gleaming in Shadow, do you know why such tension burns among these humans?” Nightfire asked after a moment.
“I’m not sure,” I said carefully, “but I think it has to do with Aeliana. I know Chariton’s father wasn’t pleased when he decided to marry her instead of the woman his father had chosen for him, but I thought they’d reached an understanding. That’s why we’re traveling with Chariton to his home in Miletos. I think he fears that his father’s failure to mention her to our hosts is an insult, or even a sign that he’s breaking their agreement. They’ve been arguing over this marriage for a whole year. I hope he guessed true, and his father is only playing foolish games.”
Nightfire said nothing. He merely rumbled deep in his chest and picked his way among the columns toward the garden door. I suspected that he’d have a great deal to say about many things once he’d settled in.
Zenon’s house was as elaborate as every other house where we’d lodged, but at least his decorations were tasteful. The scenes painted on the walls of wealthy Roman homes disturbed me. I remembered only one house fondly: lush painted gardens had filled wall after wall. I’d almost imagined birds and beasts rustling in the foliage. But most houses displayed wild-eyed humans writhing in their death throes—or bloody animals dying in arenas. Some homes varied these themes with paintings of tragic lovers and unlikely gods. In the endless days since we’d sailed from Acco I’d seen different murals every night. Even sleeping rooms crawled with paintings. I’d finally stopped looking: I slept better that way. I sighed, remembering the simple whitewashed walls of Tirzah’s house.
What would the son of Earth have thought of such extravagant wealth? And where was he in all this confusion? Weeks had passed since I’d heard anyone mention his name. Only the night before, Aeliana had bent down to me and shared in an appalled whisper the meaning of the words set into the stone at our host’s doorstep: Hail profit—as if profit were a conquering hero, or even a god! And hadn’t Zenon excused Chariton’s father’s lapse by laughing that only profit could hold his attention for long? What kind of family was Aeliana joining?
No, it’s all right, I told myself. Ben Adamah himself had blessed Aeliana’s love for Chariton, and his for her. She wasn’t marrying Proteas.
Once the humans had bathed and changed into clothing fine enough to spatter with rich food, a servant guided us back to Zenon. Aeliana walked beside Chariton, her hand laid lightly on his arm. She looked very fine in her blue robes, but I was finding her nervousness contagious . . . and who could blame her? These people were close friends of Chariton’s family. Our other hosts had merely welcomed us in hopes of winning Proteas’ goodwill.
Zenon and his wife met us in the pillared atrium, now blazing with tall lamps. Somehow I’d expected his wife to be a female version of himself, but Eirene was a plump, smiling human with a mass of grey curls spilling out of their careful arrangement and bouncing enticingly around her face. I remembered my place—and Aeliana’s—and controlled my twitching paws as she leaned close. She welcomed us all warmly and without restraint, apparently fascinated by both Nightfire and me.
Zenon was more reserved, his mind shuttered. Did he know the reputation of the Mother’s sacred cats? Had he turned wary of what we might discover in his thoughts? I felt unease in the air as our hosts led us through the atrium into a large courtyard, where a ruddy glow from a lighted room spilled into the shadowed portico: our dining room was painted in blocks of blinding red separated by spindly black frames. At least the pictures in their centers were small enough to ignore.
The humans reclined on cushioned couches, Nightfire settled on the floor beside Chariton, and I curled up on the foot of Aeliana’s couch. As I’d feared, the meal was long, and the food impossible. Aeliana sneaked me samples of each new course, but after failing to find anything edible under the strange sauces, I set to work shredding a silk cushion to bury the remains. Only when I turned and sniffed the finished pile did I notice Eirene watching me–and summoning a servant. Oh, Purple, not good! What had Chariton kept telling me about proper dining behavior with humans? I glanced back at my tidy burial mound. I was fairly sure this wasn’t what he’d had in mind.
But then the servant reappeared . . . with two heaping bowls of chopped raw meat! One he set on the floor beside Nightfire, and the other beside me. I looked up at Eirene, my eyes wide with surprise.
“Thank you, Lady,” I spoke into her thoughts, looking her full in the face.
I sensed Nightfire staring at me in disapproval, but I ignored him. I’d spoken partly in gratitude, and partly in curiosity, to see if this generous human female could hear me—a trick I’d learned from my friend Wind on Water, who had traveled with the son of Earth. Although I wasn’t surprised when Eirene heard me, her shock was plain. She dropped her eyes quickly to hide her confusion, but not before Tirzah smiled and winked at her. I often felt her eyes on me after that.
Our hosts directed the dinner conversation into a never-ending stream of amusing tales of Chariton’s childhood. He wasn’t amused, so I won’t embarrass him by repeating them. Anyway, several brief naps left gaps in my memory. But when the sweets finally arrived, the talk shifted.
“Have you met Chariton’s family yet, Aeliana?” Zenon asked.
“No, we’ll meet for the first time when I arrive in Miletos,” she replied softly. “I look forward to that day with great pleasure.”
I thought she was hiding her fear well.
“And do you plan to marry soon after your return to Miletos, Chariton?” Zenon pursued.
“As soon as possible,” he answered stiffly. “We’ve only delayed this long to give my father time to arrange Roman citizenship for her.” He smiled across at Aeliana and took a sip of his wine.
“You’re not a Roman citizen, my dear?” Eirene asked.
“No, I’ve never heard of a woman from a frontier province with Roman citizenship” she sniffed. “We’re called peregrinae, ‘foreigners,’ you know.”
Aeliana glanced briefly at Tirzah, their eyes meeting in some shared amusement.
“Indeed, that’s what the women of Pamphylia are called as well,” Eirene nodded. “I’ve always found it insulting to call a land’s native people ‘foreigners,’ when we ourselves are the strangers. Such a foolish conceit! But Romans have always been fond of putting others in their proper place.”
Aeliana looked at her hostess in surprise. “You’re not Roman?”
Eirene laughed, shaking her head emphatically. “No, I’m Greek by birth, but some time ago our Roman conquerors saw fit to grant many of us equality under their laws.”
She dimpled at Zenon, who returned her smile with what might have been mild irritation.
“Zenon’s family comes from Italy,” Chariton explained. “All are Roman citizens there.”
“So tell me, Chariton,” Eirene grew suddenly serious. “How will your father manage this astonishing feat? Can it be done?”
“He has promised me so,” Chariton spoke softly. “I can only trust his word. He has a friend . . .”
“Ah, an Imperial connection!” Eirene laughed.
“Nearly, and one who is always short on funds, I understand,” Chariton scowled in mock disgust.
“How intriguing!” Eirene murmured. “Please, Chariton, tell us! We promise not to gossip.”
Chariton glanced toward Zenon, who shrugged and nodded.
I sat up and curled my tail around my toes in anticipation. I knew nothing of this. I sensed Nightfire rousing himself to listen as well.
Cat threads: Purple Gleaming in Shadow
Once I got over the painted bloodletting and staring gods, the strangest thing about the paintings in Roman houses was the humans’ lack of clothing. All the houses were the same. Many, if not most, of the painted humans wore only their bare skins. As a cat, I find human clothes confusing, so I wasn’t disturbed, but all the humans I’d ever known had been very fond of their clothes, and had never gone anywhere without them. Wasn’t elaborate clothing the source of all Chariton’s—and Aqhat’s—wealth? And some humans, like Tirzah and Aeliana, actually seemed offended by humans who didn’t wear clothes. They’d turned their backs and covered their heads when the sailors on our boat had stripped in the hot sun. And lack of clothes had seemed like a sign of poverty among the humans I’d seen, not a sign of wealth. Fishermen, sailors, stonecutters: these were the humans who went naked.
I must be missing something. I’d have to ask Chariton.
3: Kindness of Influential Men
Purple Gleaming in Shadow speaks
“As you know,” Chariton began, “when my father was a young man, he spent his days exploring the seas, looking for new treasures and new trading partners, much as I do now. The sons of my family have always taken pride in our early travels.”
I sensed him slipping into a storyteller’s rhythm. Humans and cats relaxed into the familiar cadence.
“Not long after my birth,” he smiled, “my father decided to try his luck along the barbarian shores beyond Ionia. Even today many fear to make that voyage. But he sailed safely through the straits of the Hellespont, past Byzantium, through the Bosporos, and into the cold waters of the Dark Sea, where he hugged the western shore in hopes of avoiding the pirates who prey on ships there. At last he reached the mouth of the great river Danubus, and dropped anchor at Tomis, confident that he and his goods would be safe under the watchful eye of the Roman garrison posted there to defend the Empire’s frontier.
“His men explored the town and rested from their trip while my father sought out the traders who ferried goods down the great river. He discovered many prizes in the warehouses at Tomis: salt and gold from distant mines, honey and beeswax, fine linen and heavy woolens, strongly plaited ropes, furs, and an assortment of salted meats and fish. And so it was that he dined that night in a tavern near the marketplace, celebrating a trading agreement with a local merchant.
“In one of fate’s strange twists, as my father was leaving the tavern, a well-dressed Roman of middle age literally fell into his arms. My father has always been a kindly man, and he could see that this Roman was too drunk to find his way out the tavern door, much less to his lodgings, so he took it on himself to see the fellow safely home. The fresh air helped revive the man’s wits, and by the time they reached his apartment, my father had discovered that his new friend was none other than the famous poet Ovid, exiled from Rome to Tomis the year before.”
“Ovid!” exclaimed Eirene. “What a scandal erupted in Rome when he was banished! Rumors flying everywhere, and no one sure why Augustus had turned on him! Did Proteas ever hear what really happened?”
“No, from what Father said, Ovid would talk about almost anything but that. Obscure hints were all he ever got—and believe me, no one can match a poet for obscurity!”
Eirene looked quite downcast, but waved her hand for Chariton to continue.
Poet? In the mysterious way that human speech translated itself into my thoughts, I knew the word, but the image that rose into my mind was of a male cat in fine voice singing to a female he admired. Somehow I didn’t think this was what they meant.
“As you know,” Chariton was saying, “my father is a great lover of poetry.”
I tried to fit this new information into my understanding, with even less success.
“Ovid was a demigod to him. My father was overwhelmed by his attentions, and he extended his time in Tomis by days, and then weeks, filling his ship with more and greater treasures during the day, and imbibing Ovid’s genius far into the night. The exiled poet was starved for ‘civilized’ company, and clung to my father like a drowning man to a last oar.”
That I understood.
“Whenever my father spoke of turning homeward, Ovid would beg him to delay . . . always for just one more day.
“Finally, as summer was turning toward autumn, and my father was preparing to tell the lonely Ovid that he must depart, an old friend of the poet’s appeared at his door—intending, he said, to while away the long winter months with him. This unexpected friend was none other than that renowned confidante of emperors, later to become proconsul of Asia, Marcus Aurelius Cotta Maximus Messalinus.”
The syllables of the name flowed on and on, like a sinuous snake of impossible length. Were all Roman names so extraordinary? But no sooner had I formed this thought than Chariton chopped off the serpent’s head and offered a substitute.
“So grateful was Maximus to my father for caring for his friend,” he said, “that he wept on his shoulder, called him his son, and begged him, as a favor, to look in on the poet as often as he could in the years to come. He vowed he would be forever in my father’s debt.”
Chariton leaned back against his couch, spread his hands, and smiled broadly. I hung down over the end of Aeliana’s couch and batted idly at the golden tassel dangling there. It shimmered like a hummingbird in the shadows.
“I’m sure you can see where all this is leading,” Chariton continued. “By the time Maximus became proconsul of all of Asia, Ovid was dead, but my father had visited him faithfully, and apparently Ovid had kept Maximus informed. My father sometimes crossed paths with Maximus during his time in Asia, but he never tried to redeem that debt of honor. Until now.”
Chariton shrugged and laughed, rather bitterly, I thought.
“The favor of a single citizenship is a small thing to ask of such a man—but Maximus made sure he profited handsomely. Even in repaying a debt to a man he claimed to love like a son, Maximus’ word in the emperor’s ear didn’t come cheap. Rumor has it that he loves his vices, and lives far beyond his means.
“When I last saw my father, he told me that the thing was accomplished, that he was only waiting for the actual documents to reach his hand. So you can understand my concern when he failed to mention Aeliana to you. I apologize for my rudeness. My father is an honorable man. He wouldn’t violate our agreement.”
I took advantage of the pause in conversation to give myself a quick bath. I was tiring of human words. My belly was full, and Zenon’s garden beckoned. I’d enjoyed Chariton’s tale, and I was glad to hear that Aeliana’s place was assured—even if Chariton seemed wary—but I’d had enough.
Fortunately, a few moments later Eirene rose to her feet and brought the dinner to a close, but not before she’d wheedled a promise from Chariton that he’d send word to the ship and make arrangements to stay a second night. Even if I’d been chained to the dining tables for the whole night, it wouldn’t have been too much to pay for another day with my paws planted on shore!
I crept out while my friends were saying their goodnights and escaped to the garden.
“A temple cat overhears the conversations of many wealthy humans, Chariton,” I said, “and I’ve heard of Roman citizens, but not what the words mean. Perhaps you could explain it to me?”
I considered the human’s face, so familiar to me from my dreams, yet so different now that I could sense the blood coursing through his flesh, and his scent sharp in my nose. He was a handsome man, I decided. Like my own fur, his hair was glossy and black. His ears sat neatly on his head, and his eyes were clear, even though they were the color of a pale sky. His chin didn’t disappear beneath his mouth, and he didn’t drool. No deformities marred his face. His body looked lean and strong, although a few more battle scars would have leant him distinction. Then his reply interrupted my thoughts, and I turned my full attention to his words.
“No, I can’t see the patrons of Artemis’ temple discussing the merits of Roman citizenship,” he agreed. “As Eirene said so charmingly, the whole idea insults provincial people and has little purpose other than feeding the vices of a parasitic upper class.”
My eyes narrowed as I considered his words, and my ears twitched at the small sounds of the female humans seating themselves behind me.
“But you asked me to explain, not stir up rebellion, didn’t you?” Chariton smiled all around, including the females in his self-mockery.
“Simply speaking,” he began, “Roman citizenship is an official document that guarantees its owner special rights that other humans don’t have—mostly to do with money and taxes. It also protects them from imprisonment and rough punishment, and entitles them to hold public office. But what we were discussing was how one becomes a Roman citizen, and how citizenship affects marriage and family.”
I nodded impatiently. He was speaking as if to a child. He must have sensed my annoyance, because both his tone and words changed after that.
“I’m a Roman citizen because my father and mother are Roman citizens. My family are equestrians, although only by virtue of our great wealth, and my father is very proud of it. But citizenship has disadvantages I’d never considered before meeting Aeliana. Legally, a citizen can only marry a woman who is also a Roman citizen. If I married Aeliana now—a free woman from one of the provinces—our marriage wouldn’t be recognized under Roman law. She couldn’t inherit my property if I died, and our children would be peregrini like her, as well as being illegitimate and excluded from my inheriting my property. Our only other choice would be for her to become my legal concubine—that is, to live with me, but not as my wife. As a concubine, she and any children she might bear would have some limited protection . . . but that choice is repugnant to her, and to me as well.”
I turned to look at the human female called Aeliana, but she had bent her head low over her breast as if studying her clenched fingers.
“But that’s not all,” Chariton was saying. “Under Roman law, as long as my father lives, he has complete authority over me. He could even kill me if he chose, although fathers don’t often do that anymore.”
This didn’t shock me. Male cats sometimes killed kittens, although only when they were very young.
Aeliana made a small noise behind me, but said nothing, and Chariton continued.
“Without my father’s consent I can’t marry, and he would never give it if I tried to marry Aeliana without Roman citizenship. As long as he lives, he owns every coin in my purse, and all the property I appear to possess. If he got angry enough, he could strip the clothes off my back, leaving me a pauper . . . and make sure I stayed one.”
When he finished speaking, Chariton slumped down like a water skin drained of its liquid. Aeliana crossed the room and joined him on his couch, nestling under his arm and murmuring words of comfort. I paused and considered my response.
The coming together of males and females and the bearing of cubs have always been the Mother’s concern, and our temple took an active role in such matters. But this absurd snarl of human law offended me. What did human government have to do with the tides of love that ebbed and flowed among the Mother’s children? At last I spoke.
“I understand, Chariton. But I think the sooner you remove yourself from such laws, the happier you’ll be, even if your mate does receive this piece of writing.”
“Remove myself?” Chariton laughed unpleasantly. “Nightfire, where would I go? Romans rule the world—unless we traveled so far into barbarian lands that the Greek language had never been heard, and then they’d probably kill us as peregrini anyway. Where would you have us go?”
But he didn’t give me a chance to reply before he continued. I hunkered down on my chair and wrapped my tail around my feet and listened.
“I’m not saying I don’t agree with you,” he added, “but I have to live here, at least for now. The law binds me in place.”
I decided that he wasn’t likely to listen to me, so I tried a different approach. “Do your rulers truly sell citizenship if someone offers enough money? That’s how you hope to marry Aeliana?”
“Yes . . . and no. If we didn’t have an influential man speaking for us, we wouldn’t have a prayer of success, even if we had a thousand chests of gold. Only the emperor himself can grant citizenship to someone like Aeliana, and without Maximus to present our request, he’d never hear of her. We could never offer money directly to the emperor: he’d be mortally offended, and we’d be dead, or wishing we were. No, we give the money to Maximus, in gratitude for his kindness. In truth, it’s no more than a bribe. He’s not being kind at all. He’s being greedy. I suppose I could say that he’s being kind in actually speaking to the emperor on our behalf rather than taking the money and doing nothing. That’s common enough.”
Chariton shrugged and ran his fingers through his hair. I waited a moment before replying, trying to control my revulsion.
“I’ve seen bribes in the temple, Chariton, and they stink like a rotting carcass,” I replied, curling my lip in distaste. “How can you join yourself to such corruption? You say you wouldn’t have a prayer without this man. Did you not pray to the Mother before resigning yourself to this evil?”
Chariton looked at me oddly. “‘Corruption,’” he repeated. “Do you know that humans use that same word for bribes, Nightfire?” he smiled sadly. “But we don’t seem to mind the stink the way you do. And, yes, I prayed long for the Mother’s aid, but she never answered, so this is the road I took. Is it really such a terrible thing? Do cats know nothing of bribery?”
I rose to my feet and allowed the rumble in my breast to deepen into a growl.
“What would you have us buy, Chariton, and with what coin?” I asked. “Shall we bottle sunlight? Fence the streams and build gates with our teeth? Teach small prey to die only for those who pay a fee? The Mother of Cats has not created the world so. Only humans twist her gifts of love into profit for themselves.”
I flicked my ears toward a slight sound outside Chariton’s door, noting my young cousin’s approach.
“The son of Earth said almost the same thing,” the young female said softly, as if uncertain of her welcome.
“Indeed, he did,” Chariton smiled. “Come, join us, Purple,” he added. Then to me he said, “I am sorry you didn’t know him, Nightfire.”
Purple Gleaming in Shadow turned to him, her eyes huge with worry. “But it’s not too late, is it, Chariton?”
Cat threads: Purple Gleaming in Shadow
I’ve always been a curious cat, a cat who had to understand. So when I met my first human—ben Adamah—and realized that I could understand his thoughts, I started digging away at how and why. But I was just a half-grown kitten at the time, running loose on the beaches of Acco, without even the wisdom of the Grandmothers to guide me. I’d only overheard bits of talk about the old temple and the Mother of Cats.
After Tirzah finally explained it all to me, I still didn’t know how it worked. I don’t yet know for sure, but I have some ideas. Take the word poet. I asked Aeliana about it after our dinner with Zenon and Eirene, and she explained what it means to humans, which is not at all what it means to cats.
So this is what I decided. Cats and humans think about everything differently, no question. But what if the One made us that way? What if the shape of a human mind is meant to be different? So when the Mother of Cats decided she wanted cats to understand human thoughts, she had to find a solution: she gave her sacred cats an instinct for making sense of the strangeness of human thoughts. So when a human thinks mother, I don’t exactly hear, or even see, the thought, but I think mother as a cat would. That’s too simple, really, but it’s close. Of course problems come up with words like poet. That’s where learning comes in. Like kittens. The older we grow, the more experience we have of human thoughts, the more our store of this is that grows, and the better we understand.
Lots of animals collect things: food, treasures, nesting materials. The Mother’s cats collect human thoughts.