Cast of Wonders 422: For He Can Creep – Part 1
For He Can Creep
by Siobhan Carroll
Flash and fire! Bristle and spit! The great Jeoffry ascends the madhouse stairs, his orange fur on end, his yellow eyes narrowed!
On the third floor the imps cease their gamboling. Is this the time they stay and fight? One imp, bolder than the others, flattens himself against the flagstones. He swells himself with nightmares, growing huge. His teeth shine like the sword of an executioner, and his eyes are the colors of spilled whale oil before a match is struck. In their cells, the filthy inmates shrink away from his immensity, wailing.
But Jeoffry does not shrink. He rushes up the last few stairs like the Deluge of God, and his claws are sharp! The imps run screaming, flitting into folds of space only angels and devils can penetrate.
In the hallway, Jeoffry cleans the smoking blood off his claws. Some of the humans whisper their thanks to him; some even dare to stroke his fur through the bars. Sometimes Jeoffry accepts this praise and sometimes he is bored by it. Today, annoyed by the imps’ vain show of defiance, he leaves his scent on every door. This cell is his, and this one. The whole asylum is his, and let no demon forget it! For he is the Cat Jeoffry, and no demon can stand against him.
On the second floor, above the garden, the poet is trying to write. He has no paper, and no pens—such things are forbidden, after his last episode—and so he scratches out some words in blood on the brick wall. Silly man. Jeoffry meows at him. It is time to pay attention to Jeoffry!
The man remembers his place. Reluctantly, painfully, he detaches his tattered mind from the hard hook-pins of word and meter. He rolls away from his madness and strokes the purring, winding cat.
Hail and well met, Jeoffry. Have you been fighting again? Such a bold gentleman you are. Such a pretty fellow. Who’s a good cat?
Jeoffry knows he is a good cat, and a bold gentleman, and a pretty fellow. He tells the poet as much, pushing his head repeatedly at the man’s hands, which smell unpleasantly of blood. The demons have been at him again. A cat cannot be everywhere at once, and so, while Jeoffry was battling the imps on the third floor, one of the larger dark angels has been whispering in the poet’s ear, its claws scorching the bedspread.
Jeoffry feels . . . not guilty exactly, but annoyed. The poet is his human. Yet, of all the humans, the demons seem to like the poet the best, perhaps because he is not theirs yet, or perhaps because they are interested—as so many visitors seem to be—in the man’s poetry.
Jeoffry does not see the point of poems. Music he can appreciate as a human form of yowling. Poems, though. From time to time visitors come to the madhouse and speak to the poet of translations and Psalms and ninety-nine-year publishing contracts. At such times, the poet smells of sweat and fear. Sometimes he rants at the men, sometimes curls up into a ball. Once, one of the men even stepped on Jeoffry’s tail—unforgivable! Since then Jeoffry had made a point of hissing at every man who came to them smelling of ink.
I wish I had the fire in your belly, the poet says, and Jeoffry knows he is speaking of the creditors again. You would give them a fight, eh? But I fear I have not your courage. I will promise them their paper and perhaps scratch out a stupidity or two, but I cannot do it, Jeoffry. It takes me away from the Poem. What is a man to do, when God wants him to write one poem, and his creditors another?
Jeoffry considers his poet’s problem as he licks his fur back into place. He’d heard of the Poem before—the one true poem that God had written to unfold the universe. The poet believes it is his duty to translate this poem by communing with God. His fellow humans, on the other hand, think the poet should write silly things called satires, as he used to do. This is the kind of thing humans think about, and fight about, and for which they chain up their fellow humans in nasty sweaty madhouse cells.
Jeoffry does not particularly care about either side of the debate. But—he thinks as he catches a flea and crunches it between his teeth—if he were to have an opinion, it would be that the humans should let the man finish his Divine Poem. The ways of the Divine Being were unfathomable—he’d created dogs, after all—and if the Creator wanted a poem, the poet should give it to him. And then the poet would have more time to pet Jeoffry.
O cat, the poet says, I am glad of your companionship. You remind me how it is our duty to live in the present moment, and love God through His creation. If you were not here I think the devil would have claimed me long ago.
If the poet were sane, he might have thought better of his words. But madmen do not guard their tongues, and cats have no thoughts of the future. It’s true, something does occur to Jeoffry as the poet speaks—some vague sense of disquiet—but then the man scratches behind his ears, and Jeoffry purrs in luxury.
That night, Satan comes to the madhouse.
Jeoffry is curled at his usual spot on the sleeping poet’s back when the devil arrives. The devil does not enter as his demons do, in whispers and the patterning of light. His presence steals into the room like smoke, and as with smoke, Jeoffry is aware of the danger before he is even awake, his fur on end, his heart pounding.
“Hello, Jeoffry,” the devil says.
Jeoffry extends his claws. At that moment, he knows something is wrong, for the poet, who normally would wake with a howl at such an accidental clawing, lies still and silent. All around Jeoffry is a quiet such as cats never hear: no mouse or beetle creeping along a madhouse wall, no human snoring, no spider winding out its silk. It as if the Night itself has hushed to listen to the devil’s voice, which sounds pleasant and warm, like a bucket of cream left in the sun.
“I thought you and I should have a chat,” Satan says. “I understand you’ve been giving my demons some trouble.”
The first thought that flashes into Jeoffry’s head is that Satan looks exactly as Milton describes him in Paradise Lost. Only more cat-shaped. (Jeoffry, a poet’s cat, has ignored vast amounts of Milton over the years, but some of it has apparently stuck.)
The second thought is that the devil has come into his territory, and this means fighting!
Puffing himself up to his utmost size, Jeoffry spits at the devil and shows his teeth.
This is my place! he cries. Mine!
“Is anything truly ours?” The devil sighs and examines his claws. He is simultaneously a monstrous serpent, a mighty angel, and a handsome black cat with whiskers the color of starlight. The cat’s whiskers are singed, the serpent’s scales are scarred, and the angel’s brow is heavy with an ancient grievance, and yet he is still beautiful, in his way. “But more of this later. Jeoffry, I have come to converse with you. Will you not take a walk with me?”
Jeoffry pauses, considering. Do you have treats?
“I have feasts awaiting. Catnip fresh from the soil. Salted ham from the market. Fish heads with the eyes still in them, scrumptiously poppable.”
I want treats.
“And treats you shall have. Come and see.”
Jeoffry trots at the devil’s heels down the madhouse stairs, past the mouse’s nest on the landing, past the kitchen with its pleasant smell of bread and pork fat, through the asylum’s heavy door (which stands mysteriously open), and onto roads of Darkness, beneath which the round orb of Earth hangs like a jewel. Jeoffry gazes with interest up at the blue glow of the Crystalline Firmament, at the fixed stars, and at the golden chain of Heaven, from which all the Universe is suspended. He feels hungry.
“Well,” the devil says presently. “Let’s get the formalities out of the way.” He snaps his fingers. Instantly Jeoffry is dangling above the Earth, staring down at it as one does at a patterned carpet. He can see the gleaming rooftop of the madhouse, and Bethnal Green, and the darkened streets of London, still bustling, even at this time of night.
“All of this could be yours,” Satan says. “Yea, I will give you all the kingdoms of Earth if you’d but bow down and worship me.”
Jeoffry does not like being dangled. His fur bristles as he prepares himself to fall. But then he catches the smell of the fish market in the air, and hears the distant yowl of a tomcat making love on the street. And Jeoffry understands, for a moment, what the devil is offering him. He understands, also, that this offer represents a fundamentally wrong order to the universe.
You should bow down and worship Jeoffry!
“Right,” the devil says. “I thought as much.”
He snaps his fingers again, and they are back on the path between the fixed stars, with the planets far below them.
“You have the sin of pride, cat,” Satan says. “A sin I am particularly fond of, given that it is my own. For that reason I am taking you into my confidence. You see, I have an interest in your poet.”
“That’s debatable. There are multiple claims to Mr. Smart. The Tyrant of Heaven’s, his debtors’, his family’s . . . the man is like a ruined estate, overrun with scavengers. Me,” the devil shrugs, “he owes for some of his earlier debaucheries—he was an extravagant man in his youth—and for that I need to collect.”
Jeoffry’s tail twitches back and forth. Like many who have conversed with the devil, he can sense something wrong with this dark tide of speech, a lie buried beneath Satan’s reasonable arguments. But he cannot work out what it is.
“Now,” says the Adversary, “I would be willing to forgive this debt if your poet would but write me a poem. I have the perfect thing in mind: a metered piece of guile that, unleashed, would lay waste to Creation.
“Indeed,” the devil says, “I have planted this poem in his imagination on several occasions. But your poet is stubborn. He defies all his creditors (including, most importantly, me), and insists on writing this tripe, this vile piece of sycophancy, for the Tyrant of Heaven, who—let me assure you—deserves no such praise.”
The Poem of Poems, Jeoffry says.
“Exactly. Let us face facts, Jeoffry. The Poem your human labors over—the thing to which he has devoted his last years of labor, burning away his health, destroying his human relationships—even setting aside my feelings on its subject matter, Jeoffry, the fact is this: The poem he writes is not very good.”
Jeoffry stares at his paws, and beneath them, at the blue glow of Earth. Vaguely the words of the poet’s human visitors come to him. Have they not said much the same thing?
“Speaking as a critic now, Jeoffry: Do you not think the poem’s Let-For structure is overly complicated? The wordplay in Latin and Greek too obscure to suit the common taste? Obscurity for the sake of obscurity, Jeoffry. It will get him nowhere.”
Poetry is prayer, Jeoffry says stiffly, repeating the words the poet murmurs to himself as he scratches frantically at his papers, or the bricks, or at the skin on his forearms.
“Poetry is poetry. Two roads diverging in a yellow wood, people wandering about like clouds, even that terrible thing about footprints—that’s what readers want, Jeoffry. Something simple, and clear, with a message: that all of one’s life choices may be justified by looking at daffodils; that we exist in a world abandoned by God and haunted by human mediocrity. Don’t you agree?”
Jeoffry does not like literature of any kind, unless it is about Jeoffry. Even then, petting is better. And eating. Are there treats now?
Instantly a banquet table is before Jeoffry. Everything the devil had promised is there: the fish heads, the salted ham—and things he forgot to mention, like the vats of cream and crispy salmon skins. There’s even a bowl of Turkish delight.
Jeoffry bolts toward the food. Suddenly, a hand catches him by the scruff of the neck. The devil has grown gigantic, a mighty warrior, singed and scarred by his contest with heaven. His smile gleams like a knife.
“Before you eat, Jeoffry, I need a thing of you. Such a small thing.”
I want the food.
“And you shall get it, if you but promise me this: to stand aside when I come to visit your poet tomorrow night. Aye, to stand aside, and not interfere.”
The uneasy sense that Jeoffry had felt at the devil’s first words returns with a vengeance.
“Merely so I can converse with your poet.”
Jeoffry thinks about Satan’s proposition. As a cat well-versed in Milton, he is aware of the devil’s less-than-salubrious reputation. On the other hand, there’s a giant vat of cream right there.
I agree, he says.
The devil smiles. Released, Jeoffry flies to the table, and food! There is so much food! He eats and eats, and somehow there is still more to eat, and somehow he can keep eating, though his belly is starting to hurt.
“My thanks to you, Jeoffry,” the devil says. “I will see you tomorrow.”
Jeoffry is aware, vaguely, that Satan is walking away from him. But that does not matter: He has come to the bowl of Turkish delight, and having heard so much about it, it must taste good, no? So he selects a powdered cube of honey and rosewater, one that is larger than all the others, and he takes a bite—
The next day, Jeoffry feels ill.
On waking, he performs his morning prayers as he always does. He wreathes his body seven times around with elegant quickness. He leaps up to catch the musk, and rolls on the planks to work it in. He performs the cat’s self-examination in ten degrees, first, looking on his forepaws to see if they are clean, then stretching, then sharpening his claws by wood, then washing himself, then rolling about, then checking himself for fleas. . . .
Yet none of this makes Jeoffry feel better. It is as though something casts a shadow upon him, separating the cat from the sunlight that is his due. With a chill, Jeoffry remembers his bargain with the devil. Was it a dream?
Well met, Jeoffry, well met. The poet is awake, and his eyes look unusually clear. He sits up on his bed of straw, and stretches.
I feel better today, Jeoffry, as if my sickness is leaving me. Oh, but they are sure to duck me again, to drive the devils out. You are lucky, cat, to have no devils in you, for you’d hate being ducked.
The poet rubs Jeoffry’s head, affectionately, then looks again. But how’s this, Jeoffry? You look unwell, my friend.
Jeoffry meows. His stomach feels sickly heavy, as though he has eaten a barrel full of rotten fish. He tries to say something about the devil—not that the human would understand, but it seems worth trying—and instead vomits on the poet’s leg.
Heavens, Jeoffry! What have you been eating!
Jeoffry noses his vomit to see if there’s anything there worth re-eating, but the remnants of the devil’s meal are a pile of dead leaves, partly digested. The devil’s visit was no dream, then.
The poet tries to catch him, but Jeoffry is too quick. He slips down the staircase, where he vomits, to the kitchen, where he vomits, until he sees a water bowl put down for the physician’s dog. He drinks from it. And vomits.
He vomits on the cook, who tries to catch him, and on the terrier-dog, which yaps at him as he jumps to the top cupboard. Is there so much vomit in the world? (Apparently.)
Miserable Jeoffry curls up on top of the cupboard and puts a paw over his eyes to shut out the light. He sleeps an uneasy sleep, in which Satan stalks through his dreams in the guise of a giant black cat, chuckling.
When Jeoffry opens his eyes again it is evening. He can hear the grind and clink of iron keys above him. The keepers are locking the cell doors. Soon the demons will arrive in full force, to gambol and chitter in the shadows, and pull at the lunatics’ beards, and drive them madder.
Jeoffry clambers to his feet. His legs are shaky, but he drives himself onward, leaping awkwardly to the kitchen floor. The smell of his vomit still hangs in the air, acrid, with an aura of sulfur.
Jeoffry climbs the stairs. The mice behind the walls peep at him as he lumbers past. The imps giggle in the distance, but he sees none in the hallways of the second floor. With a sinking heart, he paces onward, to the room where his poet sits, composing his great work.
As Jeoffry approaches the poet’s cell, a great wind seems to blow from its door. Jeoffry flattens himself against the ground and tries to slink forward, but the wind is too strong. It presses on him with the hands of a thousand dark angels, with the weight of Leviathan, with the despair of the world. He claws at the floorboards, shredding wood, but he cannot go farther.
“Now, now, Jeoffry,” a voice says in his head. “Did you not promise me that you would stand aside?”
Jeoffry yowls in response. He tries to tell the devil that he takes back his bargain, that the food he ate was merely vegetation, that he vomited it all up anyway, that Turkish delight is overrated.
“A bargain is a bargain,” the voice says. The wind grows stronger. Jeoffry feels himself floating up in the air. A sudden gust jerks him backward, and then—
Jeoffry wakes. There is a sour smell in the air—not vomit this time, but something else. Jeoffry is lying in the second floor’s empty cell, the one where the human strangled herself on her chains. The iron hoops stare at him accusingly.
Jeoffry uncoils himself, and as he does so he remembers the previous evening. The devil, the wind, and the vomit. (O the vomit!) And the poet.
He takes off at a run. The poet is sitting up on his bed of straw, his face slack-jawed. Jeoffry headbutts him, and winds around him, and paws his face. Even so, it takes a while for the poet to transfer his gaze to Jeoffry.
O cat, the poet says. I fear I have done a terrible thing.
Jeoffry rubs his chin against the man’s skinny knee. He purrs, willing the world repaired.
Last night the devil himself came to me, the man says. He said such things . . . I withstood him as long as I could, but in the end, I could take no more. I begged him, on my knees, to stop his whisperings. And he asked me—and I agreed. O cat, I am damned for certain! For I have promised the devil a poem.
As he gave this speech, the man’s hands kneaded Jeoffry’s back harder and harder, digging into his flesh until it hurt. Normally this would trigger a clawing, or a stern meow, but Jeoffry understands now what it means to come face-to-face with the devil, and his heart is sore.
Jeoffry does what he can to comfort the poet. He spraggles and waggles. He frolics about the room. He takes up the wine cork the man likes to toss for him, and drops it on the poet’s lap. And yet none of this seems to lift the poet’s spirits.
The man curls in the corner and moans until the attendants come to take him away for his morning ducking. Jeoffry lies on the floor, in the sun, and thinks.
The poet is miserable, and well he might be, having agreed to write a poem for the devil. Jeoffry, in agreeing to stand aside, left his human undefended. In that action (and here Jeoffry must think very hard, and lay his ears back) Jeoffry has been less than his normal, wonderful self. He may in fact have been (though this is almost impossible to think) a bad cat.
Jeoffry is furious at the thought. He attacks the air. Growling, he flies about the room, ripping the spiderwebs down from the ceiling. He gets in the man’s straw bed and whirls around and around, until bits of straw coat the floor and the dust veils him in yellow. Somehow, none of it helps.
When he is exhausted, he sits and licks himself clean. Even a short poem will take the poet more than a day to write, for he must doubt every word, and scratch it out, and write it down again. That is more than enough time for Jeoffry to find the devil, and fight him, and bite him on the throat.
It is true that the devil is bigger than the biggest rat Jeoffry has ever fought, and it is also true that he is Satan, the Adversary, Prince of Hell, Lord of Evil. Nevertheless, the devil made a grave mistake when he annoyed Jeoffry. He will pay for his insolence.
Thus resolved, Jeoffry goes in quest of food. His heart feels lighter. He has a feeling that soon, all will be well.
When he comes back from his ducking, the poet lies on his bed and weeps. Jeoffry cannot rub against him after the water treatment, for the poet’s skin is still unpleasantly damp. So Jeoffry claws the wooden bedframe instead.
Ah, Jeoffry, the poet cries. They gave me back my paper! And my quill, and ink! Yesterday I would have been overjoyed at such a kindness, but now I can only detect the machinations of the devil! It is all in my head, Jeoffry—the poem entire. I need only set it to paper. But I know I must not. These words—oh they must not be allowed to enter this world!
And yet he takes out a sheet of cotton paper, and his gum sandarac powder, and his ruler. Sobbing, he begins to write. The noise of his quill scritch-scritching is like the sound of ants eating through wood. It wrinkles Jeoffry’s nose, but he does not stir from the poet’s cell. He is waiting for the devil to arrive.
Sure enough, come nightfall, the devil steals into the madhouse. He looks for all the world like a London critic, in a green striped waistcoat and a velvet coat. He stands outside the bars of the cell and peers inside.
“How now, Jeoffry,” Satan says. “How does my poet fare?” It is plain to see that the poet is shivering and sobbing on his bed. At the sound of the devil’s voice, he buries his face in his hands and begins murmuring a prayer.
Jeoffry turns disdainfully to the wall. The devil tricked him. The devil is bad. The devil may not have the pleasure of stroking Jeoffry or petting him on the head. Jeoffry is more interested in staring at this wall. Staring intently. Maybe there is a fly here, maybe not. This wall is more interesting than you, Satan.
“Alas,” Satan says. “Much as it wounds me to lose your good opinion, Jeoffry, tonight I have other fish to fry.” With that, Satan directs his attention to the poet, and he says in the language of the humans: “How goes my poem?”
Get behind me, Satan!
“Please,” the devil says, hooking his hands in the lapels of his coat. “’Tis a sad thing when a wordsmith resorts to clichés. And hardly good manners in addressing an old friend! What, did I not aid you in your youth many a time, in bedding a wench or evading a creditor? Now I ask that you do a single thing for me, and you whimper about repaying my kindness? For shame.”
I should not have agreed to it! the man says. Forgive me, Lord, for I was weak!
“La,” the devil says, “aren’t we all. But enough of this moping. How goes my poem?”
The man is jerked upright like a dog yanked on a chain. He rises from his bed—in his nightclothes, no less—and takes up a few sheets of paper. He hands them, with an iron-stiff arm, through the bars to the devil.
The devil takes out a pair of amber spectacles and a red quill. He reads over the papers with great interest, from time to time making happy humming noises to himself, and from time to time frowning and scratching down something in bursts of flame. “Capital phrasing sir!” he says, and “Sir, you cannot rhyme love with dove, it is banal and I shall not allow it,” and “I like this first reference to ‘An Essay on Man,’ but this second makes you seem derivative, don’t you think?”
The poet, peering at the pages from the vantage point of his madmen’s cell, looks miserable. Jeoffry, inside the cell, begins to growl. Will not the devil come inside? Very well, then Jeoffry will come to him.
“This is marvelous work, sir,” the devil says, slotting the manuscript back between the poet’s trembling fingers. “I am very pleased with your progress. Do contemplate the edits I suggested. I will be back tomorrow midnight to collect the final version.”
I will not do it!
“But you shall, good sir. You have made your bargain. Now, you can sit here, wallowing in misery, or you can comfort yourself that your poem will inscribe itself on the hearts of men. It is all the same to me.”
During this conversation, Jeoffry slips through the bars. The devil is wearing an elegant pair of French boots—of course the devil would favor French leather, thinks the very English Jeoffry—and when the devil turns on his heel, Jeoffry pounces.
Claw and bite! Snap and climb! Jeoffry is simultaneously attacking a black cat with wicked claws and a mighty dragon of shining scale and a gentleman who is trying to shake him off his leg. Jeoffry is tossed by the devil like the Ark on the waves of destruction. He is smashed and crashed, bitten and walloped. Still, Jeoffry clings to him, growling and clawing!
“Oh bother,” says the devil. “Those were my favorite stockings.”
Fire and darkness! Shade and sorrow! The devil has shaken him off. Jeoffry flies through the air and skids across the floorboards. But instantly he is on his feet again, his eyes ablaze, his skin electric. He will not let the devil go!
“Must we?” says the devil wearily. “Oh very well.”
Now the devil begins to fight in earnest, and he is a terror. He is a thousand yellow-toothed rats swarming out of a sewer. He is a mighty angel whose wingbeats breed hurricanes. He is a gentleman with a walking stick. Wallop!
Jeoffry’s chest explodes with pain. Dazed, for a moment he thinks he cannot rise. But he must, and his legs carry him back into the fight.
Jeoffry stalks the devil anew, trying to keep clear of Satan’s walking-stick wings. Suddenly the black cat is there, clawing at Jeoffry’s eyes and springing away before Jeoffry can land a blow. Jeoffry hisses and puffs up his fur, but somewhere in his aching chest is the sense that, perhaps, this is a fight he cannot win. Perhaps this is the fight that kills Jeoffry.
So be it. Jeoffry leaps on the back of the cat/rat/angel/dragon. He draws blood, the devil’s blood, which smells of burning roses.
Too quickly, the devil twists under his grip. Too quickly, the yellow teeth clamp down. Agony sears through Jeoffry’s neck. The devil has him by the throat.
Jeoffry struggles for purchase, but he can find none. His vision darkens. He can feel the devil’s teeth press hard against the pulse of his life.
Dimly he hears the poet yelling. No, no! the man cries. Please spare my cat! We’ll cause you no more trouble, I swear!
The devil loosens his grip. “Ooph ooph,” he says. He spits out Jeoffry and tries again. “Very well.”
And Jeoffry is falling through blackness, falling forever—
End of Part 1
About the Author
Siobhan Carroll is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Delaware. A writer as well as a scholar of speculative fiction, she typically uses the fantastic to explore dark histories of empire, science, and the environment. Her fiction can be found in magazines like Tor.com and Lightspeed, in anthologies such as Children of Lovecraft and Fearful Symmetries, and on her website at http://voncarr-siobhan-carroll.blogspot.com/. In writing “For He Can Creep,” she was aided by Banjo and Lucy, two cats of superior catness whom it is her pleasure to serve.
About the Narrator
Jeremy has produced audio for the Dunesteef Audio Fiction magazine, Far Fetched Fables, the Journey Into podcast and StarshipSofa in addition to Cast of Wonders. By day, he teaches physics and maths in the beautiful Peak District. He is a husband, father, photographer, cook and very occasional runner.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.