Cast of Wonders 423: For He Can Creep – Part 2
Extract from Jubilate Agno
For He Can Creep
by Siobhan Carroll
Part 1 – Part 2
Jeoffry is in pain. The bite the devil gave him throbs fiercely. It is in the wrong place to lick, and yet he tries, and that hurts too.
Poor Jeoffry! Poor Jeoffry! the poet says. O you brave cat. May the Lord Jesus bless you and your wounds.
Jeoffry’s ears flick back and forth. Worse than the pain is the heaviness in his chest that comes from having lost a fight. Jeoffry lose a fight! Such things were possible when he was a kitten, but now—
I can feel the paper calling to me even now, the poet sighs. O Jeoffry, sleep here and grow well again. I must to my task.
At this Jeoffry leaves off licking his wounds and stares at the poet. He means to convey that the man should not write this poem. For once, the man seems to understand.
O Jeoffry, I have made a deal, and I feel in my bones that I cannot fight it. When I hand him that poem, I will give him my very soul! But what can be done? There is nothing to be done, Jeoffry. You must get better. And the poem must be written.
Jeoffry does not even have the strength to protest. He drinks from the water bowl the poet has put near him, and sleeps for a while in the sun.
When he opens his eyes the afternoon light is slanting through the barred window. Clumsily, Jeoffry rises and performs his orisons. As he cleans himself he considers the problem of the devil and the poet. This is not a fight Jeoffry can win. The traitorous thought clenches his throat, and for a moment he wants to push it away. But that will not help the poet.
So instead, Jeoffry does what he never does, and considers the weaknesses and frailties of Jeoffry.
Magnificent though he is, he thinks, Jeoffry is not in himself enough to defeat the devil. Something else must be done. Something humbling, and painful.
Once he is resolved, Jeoffry slips out of the cell. He does not take up his customary spot under the kitchen table, but instead limps into the courtyard, to where the cook has laid out a bowl of milk for the other cats, the ones who do not rule the madhouse.
Polly is the first to appear. She is an old lover of his, a sleek gray cat with a tattered ear and careful deportment. She looks distressed to see his wounds.
<What now, Jeoffry?> Polly says in the language of cats, which is more eloquent and capacious than the sounds they reserve for humans. <You look as though a hound has chewed you up.>
<I fought Satan,> Jeoffry says. <And I lost.>
Polly investigates Jeoffry’s wounds. <The devil has bitten you on the throat.>
Polly leans forward and licks the bite. Jeoffry flicks his ears back, but accepts her aid. It is the first good thing that has happened this day.
Next comes Black Tom, the insufferable alley cat. <How now, Jeoffry,> he says. <You look the worse for wear.>
<He fought the devil,> Polly says.
<And I lost.>
<Haha! Of course you did.> Tom helps himself to the milk. When he is finished he sits back and cleans his whiskers. <No style, Jeoffry, no style. That’s your problem.>
<My style worked well enough when I fought you last summer,> Jeoffry snaps. <Aye, and chased you from my kitchen with your tail behind you!>
<You lying dog!> Black Tom makes himself look big. <You d——d cur!>
<D—n your eyes!> Black Tom roars. <I demand satisfaction!>
<Gentlemen,> Polly says, licking her forepaw.
Jeoffry and Black Tom both mutter apologies.
<Indeed,> Polly says. <If Satan is abroad, then we had best keep our claws sharpened for other fights.>
<It is of such matters that I wish to speak,> says Jeoffry.
<Then speak, cat!> Black Tom says. <We don’t have all day!>
<There is one other whose counsel I require,> says Jeoffry, and he lifts his chin to the third cat in the yard, a bouncing, prancing black kitten. She wears a pretty bell on a collar of blue silk ribbon, and it jangles as she skips across the yard.
<The Nighthunter Moppet,> Polly says, and sighs.
<Hello, Miss Polly! Hello, Master Tom! Hello, Master Jeoffry!> the kitten sings. <Do you want to see my butterfly? It is yellow and brown and very pretty. I believe it is a chequered skipper, which is a Carterocephalus palaemon, which is what I learned in Lucy’s lesson on natural history, which is a very important subject. But that species is a woodland butterfly! Perhaps I am wrong about what kind of butterfly it is! Do take a look.>
The Nighthunter Moppet yawns open her small pink mouth, then closes it. She looks around her, puzzled.
<I think you ate it already,> says Polly.
<Oh, so I did! It was very pretty. Is that milk?>
The kitten falls on the milk and drinks her fill. When she is done she skips around the bowl, batting at the adults’ noses. When she reaches Jeoffry, though, she stops, and looks concerned.
<Master Jeoffry! Are you hurt?>
<I fought Satan,> Jeoffry says.
O! The kitten’s green eyes widen. She sits back into the bowl of milk, sloshing it over her bottom.
<Jeoffry has something to say,> Polly says. <For which he requires our attention.>
<I am paying attention! I am!> The kitten, who had been licking up the spilled milk, turns her attention back to Jeoffry.
Jeoffry sighs. <The other night,> he says, <the devil came to the madhouse.>
And he tells them everything: the magnificent cat-bribing feast, the vomit, the fight with Satan, the poet’s despair. The other cats watch him wide-eyed.
At the end of his tale, he hunches into himself and speaks the words that are hardest in the world for a cat to utter.
<I need your help.>
The other cats look at him in amazement. Jeoffry feels shame settle on him like a fine dust. He drops his gaze and examines the shine of a brown beetle that is slowly clambering over a cobblestone.
<This is a d——ly strange business,> Black Tom says grudgingly. <Satan himself! But if you want my claws, sir, you shall have them.>
<I, too, will aid you,> Polly says, <though I confess I am unsure what we can do against such an enemy.>
<This time there will be four of us,> Black Tom says. <Four cats! The devil won’t know what hit him.>
<This is the wrong strategy,> says the Nighthunter Moppet, and her voice has the ring of a blade unsheathed.
All kittenness has fallen away from Moppet. What sits before the milk bowl is the ruthless killer of the courtyard, the assassin whose title nighthunter is whispered in terror among the mice and birds of Bethnal Green. It is rumored that the Moppet’s great-grandmother was a demon of the lower realms, which might perhaps explain the peculiar keenness of her green-glass eyes, and her talent for death-dealing. Indeed, as Jeoffry watches, the Moppet’s tiny shadow seems to grow and split into seven pieces, each of which is shaped like a monstrous cat with seven tails. The shadow cats’ tails lash and lash as the Nighthunter Moppet broods on Satan.
<It is true that as cats we are descended from the Angel Tiger, who killed the Ichneumon-rat of Egypt,> says the Moppet. Her shadows twist into the shapes of rats and angels as she speaks. <We are warriors of God, and as such, we can blood Satan. But we cannot kill him, for he has another fate decreed.>
The Nighthunter Moppet sighs at the thought of a lost kill, and drops her gaze to the ground. The brown beetle is still there, trotting over the cobblestones. She begins to follow it with her nose.
<Moppet!> Polly says sternly. <You were telling us how we should fight the devil!>
<Oh sorry, sorry,> the Moppet says. With great effort she tears her gaze away from the beetle. Instantly her seven shadows are back, larger than before, raising their claws to the heavens.
<To win this fight we must think carefully of what we mean to win,> says the Nighthunter Moppet. The pupils have disappeared from her eyes, which blaze green fire. <Is it Satan’s death? No. His humiliation? Again, no.>
<Speak for yourself,> Black Tom says. <He will run from my claws!>
The kitten’s shadows turn and look at Black Tom with disapproval. When she next speaks, their voices join hers. They sound like the buzzing of a thousand flies.
<It is neither of those things!> cry the army of Moppets. <Think! What is it the devil hopes to achieve?>
<The destruction of the world,> says Polly.
<A poem about his greatness,> says Black Tom.
<The poet’s soul,> says Jeoffry.
<Exactly,> snarl the Moppets. <And those three things are also one thing. If you steal it from him, good cat Jeoffry, then you will have beaten the devil.> With that her shadows shrink back into a normal, kitten-shaped shadow, and the pupils return to her green eyes.
<But what do I steal?> Jeoffry asks desperately.
The Moppet looks at him blankly. <What?> she says. <Are we stealing something?>
<I think the Nighthunter Moppet has told us all she can, Jeoffry,> Polly says.
<But it is not enough,> Jeoffry says. Thinking is harder than fighting, and his head hurts. Still. He squeezes his eyes tightly, and thinks over all that has happened. The poet. The devil. The Poem of Poems.
<I think I know what I must do,> he says. <But to do it I must sneak past the devil, and his eyes are keen.>
<We shall help you,> says Black Tom.
<We shall fight him,> says Polly.
The light of spirit fire flickers in the Nighthunter’s eyes. Some of her shadows peer out from behind her body.
<And you,> she intones, <shall creep.>
That night the devil is in a good mood. He whistles as he walks between the stars, cracking the tip of his cane on the pathway. From time to time, this dislodges a young star, who falls screaming.
“Good evening, good fellow,” he says to the sleeping night watchman as he enters the asylum. “And to you, Bently,” he says as he passes a cell containing a murderer. The man shrieks and scuttles away. Finally the devil arrives at the poet’s cell. “And how do you do, Mr. Smart? Do you have my poem?”
The poet crouches, terrified, in the corner of his cell. No, no—please, Jesus, no, he moans. But there is a sheet of paper quivering in his hand.
“Excellent,” the devil says. “Come now, hand it over. You’ll feel much better once you do.”
The poet is jerked upright, like an ill-strung marionette. The hand that clasps the paper swings away from his body. But as the devil reaches to claim it, there is a yowl from behind him.
<Stand and deliver, you d——d mangy w———n!> It is Black Tom, his tail bristling like a brush.
At his side, Polly narrows her eyes. <Sir, you must step away from that poet!>
“What’s this?” The devil puts his hands on his hips and regards the growling cats. “More cats come to terrorize my stockings?”
<We’ll have more than your stockings, sir,> says Polly.
<D—n your eyes, I’ll have your hide, you ——— ——— ———— —— ——!!!!>
“Such language!” says the devil. Even Polly looks shocked.
“Well, sir,” Satan says, “I’ll not be called a ——— by anyone, let alone by a flea-bitten alley cat. Lay on, sir!” And the devil is a cat again, and an angel, and an angry critic raising his walking stick as a club. Even as the devil’s walking stick swings down in a slow, glittering arc of hellfire, even as the devil aims to crack the top of Black Tom’s dancing, prancing skull, a bloodcurdling cry rings out from above.
<I AM THE NIGHTHUNTER MOPPET!>
Perched on a dusty sconce above the devil’s head is a rabid, knife-jawed, fire-eyed kitten with seven hungry shadows. And as the devil looks up agape, she springs, her wicked claws catching the light, right on top of the devil’s powdered wig.
Hellfire! Chaos! The two other cats rush the devil’s legs, clawing at his face. He bites and clobbers them, his wings and fists swinging. The walls of the asylum throb with the impact of the battle. The poet, crumpled on the floor, twitches and writhes. In every cell, the lunatics begin to howl.
Jeoffry lays back his ears and continues to creep, as the Moppet showed him. <We are descended from angels,> she had said, <and as such we can move into the spaces between the world-we-see and the world-that-is.>
That is where Jeoffry is now, slinking past the devil on a slanted path of broken stardust, in a fold of space where the keen-eyed Adversary would not think to look. Creeping is hard to do, not just because Jeoffry has to squeeze every ounce of his catness into this cosmic folding, but also because there is a brawl happening at his back that he would dearly love to join.
Since when does Jeoffry, the most glorious warrior of catdom, slink away from a fight? whispers a voice inside him. Since when is Jeoffry a coward? Will he let Black Tom get the glory of defeating the devil?
But Jeoffry shuts his ear to this voice. He has learned that there is more than one kind of devil, and that the one inside your head, that speaks with the voice of your own heart, is far more dangerous than the velvet coat–wearing, poetry-loving variety.
Indeed, the fiend is having a harder time against three cats than he did against one. One of his shadows has turned into a dragon and is fighting Black Tom; Satan’s powdered wig has animated itself and is tackling Polly across the hallway. But in the center of the poet’s cell, in a storm of lightning and hellfire, whirl Satan and the Nighthunter Moppet, splattered with each other’s blood. The Moppet has only five shadows now, and one of her green eyes is closed, but her snarl still gleams prettily amid the flames of darkness visible.
“Stand down, you vile kitten!”
<I AM! NIGHTHUNTER! MOPPET!> the kitten screams back. As battle cries go, it is unoriginal, but gets the central point across, Jeoffry thinks as he slinks ever closer to the gibbering poet. The ghosts of the stars Satan has lately killed whisper encouragement as he creeps forward through cosmic space, inch by careful inch.
“You cannot win,” Satan says. At that, he seems to collect himself. The various pieces of the devil reassemble in a column of fire at the center of the room (with the exception of the powdered wig, which Polly has pinned down on the staircase). “This poet is mine. And if you oppose me further, you will die.”
<We shall die, then,> Polly says, a tuft of whitened hair hanging from her teeth. Behind her, the powdered wig, its curls in disarray, scrunches down the staircase to freedom.
<F—k you,> says Black Tom.
On the floor, the crumpled shape of a small black kitten staggers to its feet. <Nighthunter.> It says. <Moppet.>
“Very well,” the dragon/cat/critic says, and opens its jaws.
And Jeoffry stops creeping. He springs.
Fire and flood! Wonder and horror! Jeoffry has snatched the sheet of paper from the poet’s trembling hand and swallowed it whole! Snap snap! The paper on the table is eaten too! Snap! And the crumpled drafts on the floor! Jeoffry is a whirlwind of gluttony! As a last measure, he knocks over the ink bottle and laps it up. Glug glug! Take that, Satan!
The devil stands in the center of the cell, cats dangling from his arms. The look on his face is similar to the one he wore at his defeat in the Battle of Heaven, and is only marginally happier than the one he wore on his arrival in Hell. Normally, when Satan wears that expression, it is a sign he is about to begin speechifying. But for once, all his words are gone. They are sitting inside a belching ginger cat, who blinks at the devil and licks his lips.
“Oh hell, cat,” says the devil, letting the half-throttled felines fall to the floor. “What have you done?”
Jeoffry grins at him. He can feel a warm glow inside him that is the poet’s soul, being safely digested. His soul was in the poem, the poet said, and now Jeoffry has eaten it up. The devil cannot have it now.
“No!” the devil shrieks. He rages. He stomps his foot. He puts his hands to his head and tears himself in half, and the separate halves of him explode in angry fireworks.
Then, perhaps thinking better of his dignity, the devil re-manifests and straightens his waistcoat. He glares at Jeoffry. “You,” he says, “have scarred literature forever. You stupid cat.”
With that, the devil turns on his heel and leaves.
The poet in the corner staggers forward. Thank Jesus! he cries. Jeoffry, you have done it!
<And me,> says Black Tom.
<All of us did it,> says Polly.
<The devil forgot his wig,> the Nighthunter Moppet says. Her one good eye narrows.
<Thank you, thank you, my friends,> Jeoffry says. <I am forever obliged for your help in this.> And then he winds himself around the poet and purrs.
That is the story of how the devil came to the madhouse, and was defeated (though not in battle) by the great Jeoffry. There are other stories I could tell, of the sea battles of Black Tom, of Polly’s foray into opera, and of the Nighthunter Moppet’s epic hunt for Satan’s wig, which left a trail of mischief and misery across London for years.
But instead I will end with poetry.
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the Adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of Darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For he can creep.
St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, c.1763
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.