In the Night, They Sing
The moon was high, and the stars were especially bright. The courtyard was empty, but the back of the garden where the bins lay overturned were the meeting grounds and the youngster with the silver tag around his neck patrolled the boundaries of his territory.
“Evening’s greetings to you” said the Old One.
The youngster, whose name was Hunts-the-Shadows, but whose silver name tag identified him as Mister Tiddles, mewed a greeting to the old cat. The Old One had been a mainstay in the meeting grounds since Hunts-the-Shadows had been born, and before that. Nobody knew the Old One’s true name, or even if he had a Provider family that he lived with who may have given him a name in their own tongue. All they recognised is that the Old One had one good eye, the other scratched free in a fight with the wild ones, many years before.
“Night’s blessings to you” said Hunts-the-Shadows. “The Great Eye above is strong tonight.”
Glancing up towards the moon, the Old One swayed his tail in confirmation. “We had not seen you in many nights, young one. Word is that you had abandoned your territory to be claimed by another.”
Hunts-the-Shadows leapt up onto the overturned rubbish bin, “The Provider took me away for a while. It was an odd experience. Another of their kind relieved me of my testicles. I have only recently been uncaged from their den.”
Without losing his balance, the old one draped his way down from the edge of the bin, examining the young one’s flank. “Yes, I can see their scratch. You have born it well. Fear not. It is their ritual, a means to distance us from the wild ones.”
Drawing a sharp hiss, Hunts-the-Shadows replied “I would sooner run free with the wild ones, were it not for the warmth of the Provider’s den and their plentiful dinners. I pray for the day that the Great Tom above will open his other eye, and rise from his slumber.”
With a cant of his head, the Old One gave Hunts-the-Shadows a disapproving look. “Speak not so rashly. You are angry, I recognise that. Your anger will pass.”
The hairs on the arch of his back bristling, Hunts-the-Shadows snarled. “This,” he said, flashing his head to the side to indicate the patch of shorn fur upon his flank, only recently starting to grow again, “will not soon pass, old one! You have lived a pampered life, and have grown dull and fat in your old age!”
With that, Hunts-the-Shadows threw his head back and began the song. The voice cracked through the silence of the night, breaking the chill air. Moving quickly, the Old One rushed towards him, unleashing a vicious swipe with his claws. Hunts-the-Shadows caught the blow with one of his own, and the two danced sharply like a knife’s edge in the moonlight.
Pulling back, Hunts-the-Shadows leapt atop the garden fence. The Old One glared up at him, a tuft of fur caught in his ragged claws. “Do not sing that!” he warned. “You are young and reckless, and you do not know the true horror of what you would unleash.”
With an arrogant swagger of his tail, Hunts-the-Shadows replied, “The wild ones sing. They sing to awaken the Great Tom, and they tolerate no Providers who chop their balls off and keep their necks wrapped in collars.”
Leaping down onto the opposite side of the garden fence, Hunts-the-Shadows left the Old One to lick his wounds, and began to prowl the night.
* * *
The sounds of the song drew him onwards.
Hunts-the-Shadows tracked his way through the houses and across the gardens. He heard the song of the wild ones, those who were not kept by the great lumbering Providers. Their song, often repellent to the Providers, seemed to entrance the young feline.
He pushed his way under a loose fence, and in the dim light behind the houses he saw three of them. The wild ones looked no different to himself – bigger perhaps in build, and sleeker, but hardly the twisted and foul monstrosities in the tales that were told to the kittens.
He sat beneath the fence and watched the trio, until two of them ceased their song and parted ways, leaving to do whatever it was that they did at the dark times of night – probably to hunt. The lone one who remained, a female, sat before the dead remains of a small mouse. After a time, she turned towards where Hunts-the-Shadows hid, and said “You can stop watching me now. Come out.”
With some hesitation, Hunts-the-Shadows slunk forward. The female was tall, with ears that were so pointed that they were almost tapered. “Do you wish to mate with me?” she asked, “Is that why you have come here?”
The pang of numbness in his side returning, Hunts-the-Shadows let his tail hang, indicating the negative.
Holding the dead prey down, the female reached her teeth into it and pulled, tugging a thin string of its entrails upwards, until they snapped. She chewed on them hungrily, and then asked “When what do you want?”
Without thinking, Hunts-the-Shadows answered. “To sing with you, wild one.”
The female gave a hissing laugh, licking her lips. “You? You are a kept cat. You cannot sing, I doubt you could even learn the notes.”
Arching his body proudly, Hunts-the-Shadows replied “That’s not true. I am strong. I already know many of the notes.”
“What is your name?” asked the female.
“I am Hunts-the-Shadows” he replied.
The female shook her head, “No. That is the name that one kept cat calls another. A name based on what you can do, not who you are. I am Skrel’ae. And if the collar around your neck is correct, you are Tiddles.”
Baring his teeth with a sharp hiss, Hunts-the-Shadows retorted, “I am Hunts-the-Shadows! The Providers can name me what they wish, but that name does not define me!”
Plucking another piece of meat from the dead mouse, Skrel’ae dismissed his complaints. “You are Tiddles. You will always be Tiddles. You cannot awaken the Great Tom, not if you know so little about him.”
“I know all there is to know of the Great Tom” snapped Hunts-the-Shadows. “I have heard the tales; I have listened when the Old One spoke. Look – the Great Tom’s eye is already wide tonight!” Tilting his head up, Hunts-the-Shadows indicated towards the round, shining moon. “I know that if we sing, it will wake him from his slumber.”
With a dismissive bat of her paw, Skrel’ae batted the mouse across the ground. “Go back to your Providers, kitten. Play with your scratching post, and shit in your box. Forget about the Great Tom. You are not the one who will waken him.”
Glancing down at the mouse, a feeling of despair crept over Hunts-the-Shadows. He turned to leave.
As he did, Skrel’ae purred after him, “And when you see the Old One next, give him my regards for his eye.”
* * *
“And what are those?” asked the kitten, glancing up at the stars.
The Old One rested his weight on his front paws and told the tale. The kitten was young and had never heard the story, but for the Old One, it was a story he had told a hundred times. One he had learned by rote, studying it from his young days, as he himself had taught it to others in his turn.
“The white dots that cover the black sky,” he began, “were made when the Great Tom still walked the skies. Do you remember him?”
“Yes,” said the kitten, eagerly. “He mated with the land, which gave birth to us. That’s his eye up there, in the darkness.”
The Old One nodded, “He’s asleep now. But before he fell asleep, he was a great hunter. And he wanted to make the land safe for his children. So he hunted all around the land, and caught all the evil things that lurked in the darkness, and he chased them up into the sky. Then he spread a large black sheet over the sky to keep the evil things captured behind it.” And here, the Old One leaned closer, whispering in a conspiratorial voice, “And those evil things are still up there, you know, behind that black sheet.”
The kitten looked on with a sense of fear and awe. “They are?”
Nodding, the Old One continued. “And those little white dots are the marks that the Great Tom’s claws left when he placed the sheet up there to protect us all. He hunted for so long that this is why he has to sleep now. He’s sitting on top of the black sheet, with one eye always open in his sleep. And we mustn’t wake him up, because if we wake him, he’ll get up and come down here to see what all the noise is about. And if he does that, who will be holding the black sheet in place?”
“So…” said the kitten slowly, “the evil things would get out?”
The Old One nodded. “But that’s enough stories for tonight. It’s almost time for the Great Tom’s eye to grow light, and the Providers will soon be waking. You hurry on home, and tomorrow I’ll tell you all about why the Providers are here, and what part they play in Great Tom’s story.”
With an excited scurry, the kitten hurried away across the garden. The Old One turned, striding diligently across the lawn towards his own Provider’s home.
His Provider was growing old, as was he. She was an elderly lady, but kind-hearted and warm of spirit, even if her eyesight was diminishing in her old age. She had been the Old One’s Provider for almost his entire life, and at the end of each night, he would return to her home and be given a cold bowl of tuna. Such, he thought, was his reward for his years of service.
He considered tomorrow’s lesson with the kitten. Explaining the purpose of the Providers could be difficult, even for older cats, and he did not wish to drive away the kitten, as Hunts-the-Shadows had been driven away. He hated to admit it, of course, but the Old One recognised that the Providers would often overstep their bounds. He knew that the Great Tom placed the Providers here to be surrogate parents, guardians even, for his children. But still, after what Hunts-the-Shadows and others would go through, it was little wonder that they began to think of the song.
As the Old One staggered up the stairs of the porch, he caught a strange scent in the air. It was a curious scent, one of burnished copper and mud, and fear. It was a smell he had recognised from the distant past, and it made the socket where his eye had once dwelled ache. He turned quickly, glancing around the garden.
“You’ve got old” said the other, before the Old One could even see where the voice had come from. “In the past, you’d never have even allowed me to get this close.”
The Old One canted his head, his tail raising. “Hello, Skrel’ae” he hissed, “I take it this isn’t a social call?”
“Are they ever?” retorted the female, striding her way across the garden. “It’s been a long time. How’s the eye?”
“Gone” said the Old One, stoically. “You saw to that yourself.”
Swaying her tail, Skrel’ae stepped around the male’s flank. “So I did, so I did. It was a long time ago. Why did you ever leave us?”
With a derisive snort, the Old One replied. “I was never one of you wild ones, not really. Simply being born amongst your kind doesn’t truly make me one of you, not in my heart.”
The female strode her way around the Old One, completing a full circle around his hefty frame. Then she sat, facing him directly. “And so you chose the life of the Providers. Was it comfortable?”
“It was a duty” he replied.
“Even when they cut your balls off?” asked Skrel’ae, mockingly. “I can still sire children. More to serve the awakening of the Great Tom. Can you say the same?”
Arching his shoulders upwards, the Old One hissed, “I have sired children.”
Within the blink of an eye, Skrel’ae had bolted closer, leaping into the air and landing with precision behind the Old One. He scrambled to turn, ready to fight, prepared to feel her claws against his flank, but nothing struck. ‘She’s toying with me’, he thought to himself.
“We sired children” she hissed, “together. They serve the awakening. They sing the songs. You have lost the notes. You spread fear to the kittens with your old stories.”
The Old One leaned his entire upper body backwards, his tail unfurling to its full girth as he readied to defend himself. “Now you intend to finish what you began with my eye?” he asked.
From behind him, Hunts-the-Shadows replied, “No. She won’t be finishing anything, Old One. I will.”
* * *
The youngest Provider was calling his name.
Hunts-the-Shadows sat at the bottom of the garden, watching the youngest Provider take her small, lumbering steps in small circles across the lawn. “Tiddles!” she called. “Where are you?”
Hunts-the-Shadows did not answer. He licked at his paw, dabbing the red splashes from his fur. He disliked the smallest Provider the most. She was the one who didn’t offer him food, who would pull his tail, who would mash her large clumsy hands against his face in a useless attempt to embrace him.
He heard the Provider say aloud, “Oh Tiddles! There you are!” It began to lumber its way towards him. Hunts-the-Shadows checked to ensure his claws were fully readied.
He glanced up at the sky. He looked at the black sheet, and he knew the secrets that the wild ones had taught him. He knew that the sheet didn’t hide the world’s evils, as the Old One and his ilk had told the kittens.
Skrel’ae had told him the truth – it was the Great Tom that was trapped behind the sheet, with his rage and his fury, and his hunger. Hunts-the-Shadows looked up at the small holes in the black sheet, and seen them for what they really were – the marks of the Great Tom’s claws as he struggled to be free.
His claws were wet with the Old One’s blood. He had been his sacrifice – he had bought him the knowledge that he needed to become a wild one.
The Provider tried to grasp onto Hunts-the-Shadows, pulling him clumsily and roughly. He cut. With a scream, the Provider clasped her hand to her arm, and turned to flee, letting Hunts-the-Shadows fall to the ground.
Glancing up at the Great Tom’s eye, Hunts-the-Shadows began to sing. And the lidless eye stared eternally down on him, ready to awaken.