"And in the end the burgesses passed that remarkable law which is told of by traders in Hatheg and discussed by travellers in Nir; namely, that in Ulthar no man may kill a cat." He read aloud, a finger moving along the page.
"Hogwash," came the gruff voice behind the counter.
The boy looked up at the old man cleaning the books, his fat face red, little piggy eyes hidden behind squares of glass. He scoured at a book where the gilt was coming off.
"It was a famine," the old man said, holding it up to the light, scowling at the cracks in the leather. "Trading towns, they suffer of war, aye? Bad harvests, too. Them strange gypsies as moved through - " he eyed the boy " - and yeah, they're gypsies, what did you think they was meant to be? Stragglers out of old Egypt? No, that man was positively Victorian; we're lucky he didn't have them break out the crystal balls and tarot. Cross me palm with silver and all that."
He chortled, then stopped himself. "'course, that was the Wolf-Man. '41 or so. Long after that poor sod was dead."
The boy turned the book back a page, to a black-and-white illustration of the strange wagons, and the animal-headed procession. They did look a big like gypsies, as imagined through an Egyptian revival.
"Refugees, they was. Fleeing the war. And there was a famine on. Cats are good during a famine. Eat rats. A rat will eat a ton of grain in a year, once you get to all the breeding. Even today, something like half of all spoilage is due to rats. So they made up the story about the mousers. Good story, for the kiddies. You're a good lad, you've never had a go at a cat. Probably never even thought of it. But things was different once."
The fat old man opened the book, wincing at the sound of the spine cracking. It almost came free of its cover in his hands.
"Some lads will torture a cat, just for the fun of it. Drown kittens. When times get tough, even stringy meat is welcome at the table. Just a law won't do then, you understand. Ah, but a legend...a bit of the old superstition...that might do it."
The old man carried the book into the book, where he kept his knives and his glues and ointments. The boy looked back at the book, and read the last line again. He stared out the front window, at the fields we know, and the busy streets familiar with passing cars and traffic. Then he looked towards the back, the little side door that leads beyond the fields we know, which few customers knocked at, and fewer still came back from after having gone through it.
Out loud, the boy read the last line again, quietly, to himself. For sometimes he preferred the legend to the history.
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