With illustrations by Smo Ariyella
When the islet of Feles was first discovered by the globe trotter Professor Marvin Dwight and his crew of naturalists it was a glorious ornithological utopia. Within three days of arrival, the team had illustrated and named dozens of undiscovered species of bird and estimated that there were at least three times as much still to observe, easily enough to earn them a chapter in the ornithological history books.
However, within the next couple of weeks the variety of fauna and fowl had dwindled. The naturalists wondered whether their own presence had affected the eco-system of the island, however, it wasn’t as if the remaining species they saw were distancing themselves from them. The relative few that they still saw were regularly flying unafraid to an outstretched finger or would openly walk their young through the traveller’s camps and into their tents. Neither could it be that the birds were migratory, otherwise they would have seen them on the greater land masses and larger islands to the south, and the flightless species were seemingly vanishing just as rapidly as the flighted ones.
The answer came when only fifteen animals remained on the island. None of them were native. All of them were cats.
The ship had started acquiring stray cats from the ship’s cook throwing out scraps of food when they docked at each port. The cook felt sorry for the poor creatures and would often keep a little fish spare for the feline friends. The first molly that had managed to stowaway was easy enough to hide but when the adventurous young toms and the breeding pair came aboard he had think up excuses to cover the noise coming from the cook’s chamber. By the time they reached the islet of Feles he had become a master of yowling periodically in a way that could be understood as a recurrent belligerent hiccup.
The cook’s part in the farce was uncovered when he accidentally referred to a particular tom by name. When the lead explorer Dwight accosted him over it, the cook replied that if there was a chance that they could end up in the ornithological history books, it was a certainty now.
Dwight and his crew left the cook and his fifteen cats to spend the rest of their days marooned on that once exceptional islet. There is no evidence that they ever made it home. Historians believe that they most likely perished from food poisoning and scurvy after marooning the only crew-member who knew how to safely prepare food.
The cook, however, after claiming the island for himself, made a fortune renting out land to the colonists who emigrated there a few months later. The island has since become a thriving trading port with what is estimated to be the highest population density of house cats of the discovered world. It is now tradition to bring rare birds to the island to feed them to the cats. It is well known that that the more endangered the species of bird you feed the cats, the more successful your financial endeavours will be when you set sail from the island.
Much like those original fifteen cats, the inhabitants of the island are used objects of need and desire finding their way to them. That’s not to say they are lazy, as a general populous they work hard to keep stocks updated and monitor and record trade patterns, it’s just they often have little reason to go out of their way for anything.
And so, as most things eventually do, a witch had arrived at the docks of Feles. Her name was Mrs Grinn, and she brought with her magical goods and her expertise to trade to the merchants. Naturally, every islander who could time off work and many who couldn’t were queuing up excitedly to see what wares were on offer. And, at the back of the queue, negotiating his way to the front was a young trader son by the name of James.
‘Excuse me. Sorry. Just coming past. Thanks. Sorry’ said James dancing through the crowd.
He held himself with an air of authority that fled before it could be recognised as false, outrunning any rebuff that could be thrown at him for cutting in. His trendy, interblended attire marked him as a member of one of the upper families of the Feles and a bachelor as well. The upper families were neither government, royalty, nor celebrity but they were rich, which as far as they were concerned, merited just as much respect. But as James was discovering as he forced his way through the crowd, that demanding respect does not automatically mean one is given respect.
The queue ended at on the docks by a strange crooked wagon which was secured on top of a large wooden raft by a tangle of cords and knots. The witch Mrs Grinn was in conversation with a child through a small serving hatch in the side of the caravan. As James got closer he considered what had brought the witch here. The raft bore no sail, oars nor anything to control a rudder. It was as if the witch came to the island as flotsam.
‘Mrs Grinn’ he called out when she was within earshot ‘I require your service urgently.’
‘Well, you can queue up like everyone else. I’m bargaining with this little poppet here first.’
‘I’m afraid it is of upmost importance, I need to -’
‘Don’t matter’ she said, ‘urgent or not, you’ll queue up the same.’
‘I can pay you extra’ said James. ‘I have the money. I’ll happily quadruple whatever this girl paid.’
Mrs Grinn’s wrinkled eyelids folded into themselves as the witch squinted, weighing up the offer.
‘Make it twenty times as much and you have a deal.’
James cast a glance to the girl. She was of lower merchant stock, and not nearly old enough to be making a living off herself. It would be an easy amount to give.
‘Done’ he said as he opened his purse. ‘How much do I owe you?’
‘How much did you pay again me duckling?’ asked the witch to the young girl.
‘I paid with a picture of a cat I drawed.’
The witch smiled at James.
‘And how much is that drawing worth in coin?’ he asked.
‘Oh, I’m not needing coin’ replied the witch. ‘I want cat pictures.’
James waited for a moment for the witch to reveal the joke. Her smile, though laced with amusement, told him that it was not a jest.
‘If that is what you wish. There are some fine artists on this island. I shall return with the finest cat pictures Feles has to offer.’
‘Except’ added the witch, ‘the little miss here didn’t buy her picture, did she?’
‘No I didn’t, I drawed it and it took hours and hours.’
James chuckled. Surely this time she was joking. She wasn't.
‘Mrs Grinn, I am a trader, I am no artist.’
‘Can you run?’
‘Are you an athlete?’
‘If you can run without being an athlete then you can draw without being an artist.'
James knew there must be a hole in that logic, though he couldn't presently figure it out.
'Now then,' said the witch, 'off you pop.’
‘Very well’ said James after a moment to let his thoughts catch up with the situation ‘I shall return with your drawings presently.’
And so, the young trader headed into the market to buy art supplies. As soon as he had his parchment and pencils, he sketched twenty cats with reasonable effort and returned to the front of the queue with his work in hand. The queue had moved forward somewhat and the girl who the witch had been serving now perched on one of the blocks that steps that led up into the witch’s wagon.
‘There you are Mrs Grinn’ he said as he reached the serving hatch. ‘Twenty cats.’
Mrs Grinn studied the page with a frown.
‘Where’s the rest of it?’ she asked.
‘They are all there’ said James ‘twenty cats.’
‘No, no, no. Twenty times a picture of a cat means twenty individual pictures of twenty individual cats, not one picture of twenty cats. Thought you were all merchants on this island, thought you’d be good at maths.’
‘I could cut the different drawings apart?’ said James realising this may be harder than expected. ‘I’ve left space between them.’
‘And you clearly haven’t used reference, your proportions are all over the place.’
James laughed aloud. ‘In all fairness Madam, the original drawing was done by a five-year-old.’
‘Six!’ called the girl from beneath the serving hatch.
‘Exactly’ said Mrs Grinn. ‘And I could tell she used reference, didn’t you hen?’
‘I did!’ called the girl, leaping up to the window. ‘I drawed my cat Craig. And I spent hours on it.’
‘Mrs Grinn’ said James in his well-practiced come-on-now-be-reasonable tone. ‘I’ve already explained that this is an emergency. I don’t have hours to spare for drawing cats. I may as well queue up if I’m to spend that long.’
‘Then work fast and work hard’ replied Mrs Grinn. ‘If it’s an emergency, then that should give you some extra motivation shouldn’t it?’
James conceded. The queue was still long, and it would hardly take long to find a cat on this island.
‘Very well’ said James again. ‘I shall return with your drawings presently.’
And so, the young trader ventured along the docks to find a cat to draw. The first few he came across were young and spritely and did not stay in view long enough for him to take out his equipment before they scampered away. After a short few minutes chasing up through the masts and cooking smokes he spotted an older tom sat on the rooftop of one of the boathouses. He sidestepped through the crowd to get a better angle only to find a slender cat form curved round the inside of his boot. James snapped his attention downwards but didn’t manage to keep his eye on it long enough before it disappeared into a forest of legs.
‘You alright James? You look as if you’ve lost something.’
The trader felt his neck pulse with an uneasy warmth. He turned his head up to meet the sailor’s eyes and Hollie looked down at him with a mocking but not unfriendly smile. The dirt on her face made the creases of by her raised eyebrow and smirk all the more pronounced.
‘I thought I saw a cat I recognised’ he explained lamely.
‘If you almost kicked it, that’s Bertie’ she said. ‘Belongs to Mr Primrose. That cat’s been trodden on more than a doormat.’
He glanced over her shoulder up to the rooftop but the tom that was up there had already jumped down to go about its cat business. When Hollie followed his eye-line he turned his attention back to her in the hope of catching her eye before she thought him too weird.
‘What is it?’ she asked looking up to the rooftop.
‘I thought I saw a cat’ he replied.
Hollie shifted the small crate she was holding under one arm so that she could place the other on his shoulder.
‘James. Take a breath and think. Remember where you are. If you think you saw a cat, you probably saw a cat.’
‘That is a fair point. My brain must not be functioning properly today. I must have been hanging round sailors too much, I think I’ve caught scurvy.’
‘Shove off’ she retorted.
Hollie had once dumped a scurvy ridden boyfriend thinking that it was contagious. It was James who, weeks later, had explained to her that he got it from not eating enough fruit. Hollie was too embarrassed to apologise to her ex and James, who found it hilarious, had vowed he was never going to let it die.
‘I have, in fact, got oranges for days, if you must know. Just a couple more boxes to load and then I’m done for the day. Speaking of which, did you manage to get today off in the end? I was wondering if we could hang about before I sail.’
It was then that James saw a cat lying on the beach off the side of the docks. Were it not laying directly next to a campfire he would have never have seen it.
‘Yes’ he said. ‘I did. I’ve got a couple of errands to run first and then I’ll be with you.’
‘Sure thing’ she replied. ‘I need some time to clean this boat gunk off anyway. Where will I find you?’
‘I’ll find you’ he said as he sped away from her and towards the cat on the beach.
It was a weird looking cat. Not only were its eyes pointing in opposing directions, but every single strand of hair appeared to be doing the same. It wasn’t lying down like cats usually do either. Instead of being curled up and neat, it was belly down with its legs splayed outwards. It looked as if it must have been slapped onto the ground like a swatted fly.
Nevertheless, despite it looking a remarkable clumsy looking cat, and even though its intense stare it was throwing at the fire was somewhat disconcerting, it was still identifiably a cat. And it didn’t appear to be moving anytime soon.
James took out his art supplies and started on his sketches. They were far from great, but he put effort into them. With it being effectively the same drawing twenty times over, he could see clearly the improvements he was making. The volume of the fur became more evident, the proportions were growing closer to reality. Though he could never quite capture the intensity of the cats wayward eyes.
As he began his twentieth drawing the cat began to move. James reacted instantly, speeding up his penmanship, darting the outline of its gait in a smattering of loose lines as the cat ambled distractedly into the campfire. Before James could register what had just happened there was a brief silent whish of hot air and the cat was engulfed in flames. With a yelp, he threw his parchment to the ground kicked a lump of sand over the blaze causing the campfire to diminish but doing nothing to douse cat the cat. He gripped its paw and tugged it away from the pile of dry black wood and set it onto the sand. The cat stared outwards silently as its fire-licked fur receded in a red glow, James was sure one of its eyes was looking at him accusingly. Out of instinct more than thought James snatched the bag he’d been keeping his supplies in and beat the cat over and over until all hint of an ember had died away completely. A few more wallops after he was sure there were no more heat to extinguish he took a few steps away from the cloud of pungent burnt hair smoke and beat the coughs out of his chest.
The cat looked dead, he thought, still spluttering. It had looked at him before it died. Had he killed it? He urged rationality back into his system. No, it had killed itself.
He considered whether the cat should be put to rest. It was tradition on Feles to cremate cats upon their passing, but he didn’t like the idea of setting the cat on fire again immediately after coughing his lungs up to put it out. The owner should be told first anyway, whoever they were. Hollie would know who owned this cat, but James didn’t like the idea of explaining to Hollie or the owner what had just happened. He didn’t want a reputation as a cat arsonist, especially not in this town.
Anyway, he had more pressing matters to attend to. Indeed, Mrs Grinn was a foreigner to these shores, she probably didn’t see cats with the same revere as the locals did, she surely wouldn't care if the picture she was given was of a dead one. After all, it was still recognisably a cat, which was the base requirement of the payment.
He made sure that nobody was around to see him, and then picked up his drawing tools.
The queue had moved a fair amount forward when he got back to the floating shop. He had made sure to keep his last drawing in the bottom of the pile so that no-one would accidentally see it as he walked past. The girl that had been sat on the steps of the caravan was nearby, running around prodding her friends with a long esoteric, ornately carved staff, causing green sparks to occasionally burst out with fiercer strikes.
‘Mrs Grinn, I have your twenty cat drawings’ he said handing them through the window.
‘Yes, yes. Let’s have a look shall we?'
She flicked through the first couple of drawings with a furrowed brow, studying them each intently.
‘These are of my cat’ she said, mildly annoyed.
James felt his guts drop below his waist. As if to lower himself to catch them, he consciously made himself a few inches smaller. In her carriage, the witch would have numerous items that could unleash unimaginable monstrosities on both his body and his mind, should she have reason to use them.
‘These are all of my cat’ she said.
He could run, but he wasn’t sure how the witch would react to that. She would still have the picture regardless, and she would be able to track him down. It was a small island after all.
‘Why would I want twenty pictures of my own cat!? I want other cats. Cats I’ve never seen before.’
He could snatch the pages from her hand right now but then she would only want to see them more. Was there a ship leaving port in the next few seconds? Would she follow?
It was too late. Her demeanour had suddenly changed as she found the last drawing. She examined the parchment with a cold flatness that caused James heart to drop right down into the icy water below.
‘This last one’s good’ she said. ‘Okay, so nineteen more pictures then. And they all must be different cats okay? No more drawing of Mrs Berrit either, her ego is already large enough.’
James had lost all his fathoms and wasn’t able to reply.
‘Go on then’ said Mrs Grinn.
And so, the young trader ran away to draw nineteen more cats, happy to dismiss the past few minutes as an anomaly of life that he would hopefully soon forget within the next few hours.
The first few drawings came easily with the arrival fishing vessel coming into port for the evening. The cats ate contentedly making for some easy sketches, but James was well aware of the interested eyes of the fishermen and the fishmongers as they went about their business. For a while afterwards, subjects were hard to come by and James resorted to asking those who looked local whether they knew of any particularly docile cats around and where their favourite resting places were.
With a slowly growing list of addresses and cat descriptions he was able to hunt down some static willing models until his reputation caught up with him, and some of the more canny and opportunistic islanders had the nerve to start charging him for using their property in his art. He resented having to pay the extra, but he paid nonetheless, anything to make the process quicker. He was happier with the reputation of a cat fanatic than the reputation of a cat arsonist anyhow. Nope, stop thinking about that. That didn’t happen James. You must have imagined it. And all the while, he remained oblivious to the young sailor who had been trying to track her old friend down for one last meet-up.
When he finally returned to the floating wagon the queue had died down significantly. With a pang of irritation that matched the pain in his drawing-strained wrist he considered how much quicker he could have got what he needed had he just joined the queue. Not much point dwelling over that now though. He had his drawings, it couldn’t be long now.
He didn’t say anything to the witch. He just nodded with a politely pleading smile and handed over his drawings. Once again, Mrs Grinn flicked through each individual page as James... There it was... It had just jumped onto the counter next to the witch. The very same cat that had walked into the campfire on the beach hours before. That same dishevelled fur, those same penetrative mis-matched eyes, with only a subtle, lingering scent of burned hair. The very-much-alive cat judged him brazenly with as great an intensity as the witch judged the nineteen drawings in her hand.
‘Yes, these are good. Now then, how can I help you?’ said the witch as, to James’ immense relief, Mrs Berrit hopped down into the caravan and out of view.
‘It concerns a lady. A lady I’ve been courting, or at least have been meaning to court for several years now.’
‘If it’s a love potion you’re after, know that they’ll never be truly in love with you, they’ll only act like they are.’
‘Not that, no, I wasn’t thinking anything of the sort’ said James picking up on the accusatory undertones of her statement.
‘Very good, what is it you want then?’ said Mrs Grinn.
‘We’ve known each other for years’ started James, feeling delirious and childlike to say it aloud. ‘We’ve been best friends since we were children. And, as we came into adolescence I developed feelings for her, as one does. But she’s leaving soon, and I haven’t got around to telling her any of it. She’s to be a sailor you, see, like her father. That was how we met, her father sailed for mine. But it will mean I won’t be likely to see her again, at least not for a great length of time. And I know I’ve left it too long, and she’s had her mind fairly set on this a while now, so I need something big to win her back over, something special.’
‘And that is why you’ve come to me.’
‘Yes. I’ve been saving up for a while, working overtime for my father so when the perfect gift comes around I can buy it for her. When I heard a witch had come into port I thought that the gift I needed must be there.’
‘And the urgency, I guess, is because she leaves today?’
‘In less than half an hour now.’
‘So, you’re not asking me to sabotage the ship then, so it has to port longer?’
James cursed himself; he hadn’t thought of that.
‘I suppose that shows a little bit of self-restraint’ she continued, more to herself than to the young trader. ‘A good gift is harmless enough. And you’re young, bless you, I can see that now.’ She reached through the window and pinched James’ cheek fiercely smiling so widely and toothily it was more of gurn than a grin. ‘Just look at your gormless, lust-stricken, young, chubby little face!’
To James' dumfounded horror ever so slightly blushed.
‘Alright then. There’re several things I could suggest’ she turned over her shoulder to look into her store room. The inside of her caravan looked much bigger than it should have done considering how small it looked from the outside. ‘I have an eyeglass that allows you to see through cloud, wood and stone, all the way to the stars, so you can always know where you are, good for sailors. I have incenses that smell of memories, refreshing them like they were as clear as the day they came from. I have some crystallised souls of distant suns, which can really help relax your muscles if you sprinkle them in a hot bath.’
‘That last one sounds a safe bet.’
‘Maybe, but you can do better.’ She back towards him and looked down to her hands.
‘Something she can enjoy every day. Something that should remind her of home. Something, that a close friend put a lot of effort into.’
James picked up on her eye-line as she disarranged the sheets of parchment.
‘You mean my drawings.’ It was a statement, not a question.
‘Mrs Grinn replied with a coy, encouraging gurn.
‘So, if I give her my drawings, she’ll stay with me?’
‘If you give her those drawings as a gift’ she said, ‘everything will work out just fine.’
With that, he thanked the witch, bowing deeply as he did, and then ran to the other side of the harbour.
‘Hollie! Hollie!’ James hollered to the young woman as she was walking up the gangplank.
‘James!? Where were you? I’ve been looking all over.’
Her usually tousled hair was braided neatly into coils that twisted into a knot at the base of her neck. For the first time in years she was wearing make-up. She looked a different person, or perhaps just another version of herself.
‘I thought we were going to meet up before I left.’
James could tell she was hurt, but he hoped the gift would make up for it. He knew it would, Mrs Grinn had told him so.
‘I’m sorry, I am, truly’ he said sincerely. ‘I was busy making you something. Look.’
He thrust his drawings to her, anything to postpone the confession. In his trepidation, he failed to notice that she already had her hands full with a book and quill that was the inventory of the boat, and so the exchange of the drawings was inefficient and awkward. He held his tongue throughout the process.
‘What are these? Did you draw these?’
‘I did, yes.’
‘James. I appreciate this, but why didn’t you meet me earlier like-’
‘Okay, I’m just going to come out with it.’
Hollie paused to let him speak. He had cornered himself now, there was no way he could say anything else, no choice but to let it come out in all its ugly nakedness. Gradually, the noise of the dockyard subdued into a distant hum. They were alone in his mind, isolated from everything that wasn’t them. With a pressure as soft but resilient as a seed through the cracks of a stone causeway, his confession broke through, though he barely heard himself say it. Once it was out, the pressure diluted into the air and James felt as bare and invigorated and helpless as the day he was born. He waited in this world of his mind for her response.
‘Is this cat dead?’
She prized the page from the pile of documents and drawing in her arms and held it up to him with her forefinger and thumb.
‘This cat looks dead James. It’s flat on the ground and it looks all charred. There’s smoke coming off it. Did you draw and then give me a picture of a dead cat James?’
James had left ran out of the capacity for rational thought, there was no space for all the adrenaline.
‘No. I mean, not intentionally. It was alive later. I saw it. Just forget that one. That wasn’t supposed to be in there.’ He took it from her grip and tossed it into the sea, she didn’t object. It was gone. It never existed. That cat was no more than a conjuring of a half-forgotten nightmare. ‘Anyway, what do you make of the other… thing? Did you hear what I said?’
Hollie sighed. ‘I did, James. And I don’t care.’
James had nothing to say. The only thing holding him up was the blood-rush. His self-esteem was in her hands.
‘James, I just wanted to spend my last day home with my best mate. I wanted to wander around and doss about, forget all this adult stuff. I wanted to spend time with you. You’ve been busy with your pa for the last few months, I get that, I get what it means to you, but couldn’t you have just gotten this one day off, so we could hang around a bit? I got dressed up and everything.’
‘I did get the day off. I was making those for you.’ As soon as he said it he heard how hollow it sounded.
‘Yeah, well if you wanted to draw could we not have done it together? Wouldn’t that have been fun, going around the island, sketching stuff? Why’d you have to leave me to waste my day looking for you?’
James didn’t know how to reply, even if he was capable of doing so.
‘Don’t get me wrong, James. I’m flattered, and appreciate the thought, I do. But sorry James, no.’
‘Hollie!’ called the captain from the prow of the ship. It was only her name, but it rang as both an order as well as a warning. She had duties to attend to.
‘Almost done Captain!’
She ushered James into a hug. ‘We’re still friends, okay. In a few months or years, I’ll be back, and we’ll doss about just like old times eh?’
‘Yeah’ replied James earnestly.
‘I need to go. You take care James.’
And with that, she left him.
James stayed to wave her off. As the ship left the harbour and the docks were close to empty Mrs Grinn spoke to him.
‘So then duck. What did you learn?
‘Not to trust the advice of witches, that’s for one thing.’
Mrs Grinn considered it for a moment. ‘Not the lesson I was intending, but nonetheless very valuable.’
‘You told me things were going to work out if I gave her those drawings.’
‘I didn’t. At least I don’t think I did. Not in those words. To be honest I've been winging it today. A lot of my advice has been balls. No, I'm pretty sure I said things would be fine. And they will be. And they are.’
‘My best friend and the only girl I have ever loved has sailed away from me. I’m not going to see her for years. We left on worse terms than if I hadn’t told her anything at all. How is that fine?’
‘It is. It’s fine. Better than dedicated the next few years dedicated to building a relationship that isn’t there. You have your answer to the question now, and you know not to pursue it further. You can put your energy into other things. Anyway, there’s a great difference between things working out and things going as you want them to. Often, it’s the unexpected moments that turn out better in the end.’
‘Yeah, well it doesn’t feel like that’s the case here to me.’
He ambled blindly where his feet lead him.
‘Thanks for trying though’ he said, though he wasn’t entirely caring if the witch actually heard him.
Before he realised how far he had walked he came across a campfire in the sand. In the night time, he saw the beach differently. He had spent many evenings here with Hollie, skipping shells and stones towards the outlines of ships in as they bled into the glimmer of the moonlit horizon. There now, was Hollie’s ship, on the edge of his world, sinking from view. He didn’t want to miss the opportunity. He took his parchment and pen, sat down in the sand next to the fire, and drew.
Written by Calvin Lowe
Illustrations by Smo Ariyella. Find more of their art at smo_ari
Concepts and ideas from the collective stream of consciousness of Alastair Fleming and Calvin Lowe
The Vague Grinn & Berrit Chronology
Social Media Guff