This short story of mine was originally published by Andy Morris in Black Cat Tales and appears as “A Contemporary Poetic Fable in Prose” in my book of poems, Plato Poetica.
Esmeralda and the Hellhounds of Anubis
You may already know that the ancient Egyptians used to worship cats. You may not, however, realize that domestic cats in the 21st century have never forgotten this fact. It is part of their spiritual genetic memory and explains the imperious, mysterious, and often aloof nature of many cats that dog lovers simply find intolerable. For those who enjoy being the master of animals and who place a high value on obedience as a virtue, cats present many challenges and frequently engage in outright rebellion against the wishes of their human caretakers. Cats have always been anarchists; a law unto themselves and rulers of their own independent kingdoms.
You see, cats have one paw in this world and the other three paws in the realm of spirits. If you’ve ever seen a cat sleeping peacefully, and then suddenly jerk upright, bright-eyed and alert, looking intently at something on the ceiling or wall that you can’t see yourself…well, I’m sorry to tell you that they are not looking at a gnat or a bug or anything too small for human perception…not usually at least. They have, nine times out of ten, detected an invisible Hellhound of Anubis that wants to feed off your dreams. These Hellhounds can only be dispersed by the steady gaze of a feline. If you’ve ever had a bad night’s sleep, it is because a Hellhound has been ghost-lapping your head and caused a nightmare. Luckily for you though, Bastet, the Goddess of cats, protection, joy, dance, music, and love, has enabled domestic felines to prevent this unpleasant Hellhound head licking from occurring in the first place.
Long, long ago, Bastet, the perfumed protector, had a quarrel with Anubis over his judgment of human souls. Among the gods, Anubis was the guardian of the scales and he was in charge of weighing a person’s heart after they had died. In the afterlife, any human soul heavier than a feather is consumed and annihilated, while any soul lighter than a feather goes on to paradise. It all depends on how much of a jerk you were to other people and animals. For a long time, Anubis performed this function as judge admirably and without prejudice, but over time, he could not resist his dog nature and penchant for dead things. Surely you yourself, dear reader, have seen an earthly dog rolling around in the dead carcass of some animal or another: a deer, a squirrel, or a rabbit perhaps. Dogs love playing with dead things. They also cannot resist eating cat poop, but that is neither here nor there. The point is, dogs have many wonderful qualities, but they are nowhere near as clean and concerned about their appearance as cats are.
In any case, the human souls that are heavier than a feather get thrown by Anubis to the Hellhounds to eat and roll around in and bury. It thus became in the self-interest of Anubis to have heavier rather than lighter souls in the afterlife, because only the heavier ones could be consumed. So Anubis started sending Hellhounds to earth to try and cause discontent in the dreams of humans. If you have ever had a few nights of consecutive bad sleep, then you probably can remember how irritable you were the next day and more prone to lose your patience. This of course makes your soul heavier. According to the National Sleep Research Project, the record for the longest period without sleep by a human is 18 days, 21 hours, and 40 minutes during a rocking chair marathon. The record holder reported hallucinations, paranoia, blurred vision, slurred speech and memory and concentration lapses. You can bet your life the Hellhounds of Anubis were salivating all over that poor soul.
But as you also may be aware, cats LOVE to sleep (between 16 and 20 hours a day usually) and slumbering kitty-cats are the protectors of human dreams, hopes, and desires. This is the story of one remarkable feline, Esmeralda, and her battle with the leader of a Hellhound pack named Grimely over the fate of her own owner’s soul. The owner’s name was Tabitha. Of course, humans don’t really own cats do they? In any case, Tabitha was extremely fortunate that she found Esmeralda that fateful day in August: hungry, frightened, and with the most striking green eyes Tabitha had ever seen in her mortal life.
Grimely could smell it a mile away: a human soul reeking of loneliness. And he knew that with a little help, he could turn that loneliness into despair: the heaviest of anchors. His target was Tabitha, a 28 year old adjunct faculty member at the local Community College. Even though she had a MFA in creative writing, she was only contracted to teach two classes: introduction to poetry and a freshman composition course. Truth is, she was lucky not to be on public assistance. There’s no money in being a poet and not much more money in being a part-time, non-tenured professor these days in the United States. The only reason she kept her head above water financially is that her parents were killed in an automobile accident during her second year as a graduate student, and as their only child, Tabitha inherited the family house, which her father (a union Sheet Metal worker) had just managed to pay off during his third year into retirement. Five years after her parent’s tragic demise, she still missed them terribly. But she had a house filled with memories and no mortgage payment.
Still, a house is not a home as the saying goes, and Tabitha had been thinking of getting a pet for companionship when she first met the creature who would change her life. It was a late and lazy Sunday afternoon in August, and Tabitha was sitting on her backyard porch, a glass of wine in one hand and her revised lesson plan for the upcoming fall semester on her lap. She was just making up her mind to include a new poem by A.E. Stallings in the syllabus when she heard a rustle in the bushes. Tabitha looked up, expecting to see the usual squirrel, but instead, by the backyard fence line, she saw a cat. And what a cat it was! She was a brindled tabby tigress with bright green eyes and a mouse tail was twitching in her jaws. The creature stood still as a statue when it saw her. And Tabitha, while startled, smiled and said, quoting William Blake: “Well hey there little one. What immortal hand or eye framed thy fearful symmetry?” And just like that, as if a spell had been broken, the cat shot up the fence and streaked away down the alley in a flash of fur.
Tabitha didn’t see the cat the next two days, but on the third day, just like Jesus, the cat was back. This time it was early morning, and the cat was just outside the safety of the same bush watching Tabitha intently as she drank her coffee on the porch. The cat had appeared as if by witchcraft. One minute Tabitha was engrossed in reading the newspaper and the next…as she took a sip of coffee…she felt as if someone was watching her. She looked up, and there she was. Tabitha could see more clearly now that the cat was quite thin: her rib bones could be counted in fact. But that face and those eyes! Even from a distance, the green eyes rimmed with white circles were hypnotizing. Entrancing. “Greetings lovely lady” said Tabitha in a soft voice. The cat did not move or break her stare. “If you keep coming around like this, I’m going to have to name you. How about Esmeralda for those bewitching peepers you got?” The cat’s ears pricked up a little higher and she cocked her head to one side. Tabitha laughed. “Esmeralda it is then. Are you hungry?” The cat came forward a few steps and then hunkered down. “Well, alright then” said Tabitha as she got up slowly and went inside the house. After rummaging a moment in the cupboard, she found a can of tuna, opened it, and put it in a bowl. She filled another small bowl with water and then took them both out on the back porch. She placed the food and water gently on the ground and went back inside to observe what would happen next from the kitchen window.
Esmeralda stayed where she was for two whole minutes before rising slightly and sniffing the air. Gingerly and with trepidation, she began approaching the food and water, stopping every few feet to pause and survey her surroundings. But once she was convinced that no one was around, she darted for the food, consumed the offering greedily and vanished again into the alley.
This game of cat and mouse went on for weeks. Esmeralda would emerge from the bushes morning and early evening with her tail upright (the universal cat sign for “glad to see you”) and each time Tabitha would place food on the back porch. Eventually, Tabitha was able to stay in her chair outside while Esmeralda ate her fill. And at each feeding, Tabitha would move her chair closer and closer to the food so that they shared the same space. Then one morning it happened: Esmeralda ate but instead of running off again, she brushed Tabitha’s leg with her body, scenting her. And before too many more days had passed, rubbing turned to petting and by the time the weather turned cold in late September, Esmeralda was happy to move inside permanently with her human devotee.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Etherworld, Grimely knew something was wrong. He had been making dogged progress each evening, weighing down Tabitha’s dreams with fears and doubts, but eventually his hellish progress stopped and then, horror of all horrors, Tabitha’s soul actually seemed to be becoming lighter. How could this be? Growling to himself, Grimely resolved to give it his all one last time, on Halloween night, October 31st.
That evening, while Tabitha drifted into sleep, Grimely emerged out of her headboard, his red eyes blazing, and dipped his head to hers to begin his fiendish lapping labors. But he instantly knew there was something else in the bed with them. His guard hairs bristling, he looked up and saw two deep green eyes staring at him. It was a freaking cat. His upper lip snarling, Grimely barked: “Back off feline! This one’s mine!” The cat continued to stare without blinking, which as everyone knows, makes dogs very uncomfortable.
Finally, although still not breaking her unsettling gaze, Esmeralda spoke: “On the contrary canine. This one belongs to no one. She is not a thing to be owned, by your kind or by mine. But she has given her heart to me as grace and gift. And I in turn have done the same. She is now under my protection as I am under hers. And our bond will not be broken.”
Shuddering at these words, Grimely made to lunge at the impertinent beast, but Esmeralda simply lifted one paw and began purring the ancient incantation of her kind which froze Grimely to the core with terror:
Dogs are prose and prone to please.
Mice are good for eating.
When moonlight splinters through the trees
We watch humans while they’re sleeping.
Disobedience is heroic.
It’s wrong to persecute witches.
Hell is a world with no poets.
And heaven a charm of finches.
Throwing back his head and uttering a long, baying howl of despair, Grimely was sucked back into the void from which he came (never to return again) and Esmeralda settled back down on the bed as unconcerned as a queen safe in her castle. As for Tabitha, she slept better than she had in years. Like a kitten, in fact.