Friday, March 4, 2016

The Girl Who Drew Cats

The Girl Who Drew Cats
Bobby Derie

Follow the wind off the river in Zauana, down the half-paved, half-brick streets of the historic district, through the shady parks planted every few blocks with their somber memorials and the old signs celebrating heroes of the Revolution and the Civil War, and commemorating taverns long defunct and houses long demolished, past the graveyard with the wrought-iron fence and the old red-brick tombs, and opposite McDonough's Pub you will find a small flight of steps going down to an old green door fitted with dark, rippled glass on which is written in flaking gold:

Old Books, Made New

The front shop is manned by a smart young man with spectacles and a waistcoat, his beard and mustache carefully trimmed, a grey tie against a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up past the elbows, and black jeans that end in black sneakers, which find easy purchase on the warped and creaking wood floor. The books, for their part, are arranged in piles and stacks, rich chocolates and brilliant reds, subtle blues fading to muted greys, forest greens and sickly bright yellows that stand out against bowed shelves.

The smart young man smiles and nods at the little foot-traffic they get from the walking tours and convention-goers; the sweaty-faced tourists and the emaciated students from the local college of design, and with the flourish of an antique key on a black ribbon tucked into a front pocket, is pleased to open up the glass-fronted cabinet to display some of the older, rarer, and much more expensive books - the originals, as he likes to call them, to distinguish them from all the other fare.

Because each of the books in this shop is old, no less than a century, according to the rule; and each has been carved and remade. Old ratty covers shorn off, dog-eared pages cut down to be sharp and fresh, pages ironed and corners straightened, rips and illustrations repaired as best as could be, or laid in with new hand-made paper where they could not be, and then rebound in cloth or leather as the owner would have it.

And on the endpapers of many books, or in the margins or curled around the title page, were drawn cats. Though this was not always so.

The little girl had joined the shop as a cat might; she wandered in one blazing afternoon, black hair streaming down to her waist, and curled up in the great leather armchair to sleep. She left, and returned, and stayed longer and longer. She wandered through the narrow alleys of books to the toilet, and shared half the young man's lunch without asking, and one morning the owner came early and found her still curled up on a chair, a charcoal-grey edition of Lafcadio Hearn clasped to her breast.

Now the old man who owned it had a slate-grey beard, cropped short to only an inch about his jaw, and blue eyes that could pick out a book worm from a hundred paces; he stood at a stooped six feet, and might have been the terror of some early basketball court, with knobby elbows like clubs and a deceptively long stride that graced past idle walkers on the broad sidewalks of the city. He gnawed at the sleeping child, and when she awoke under his stare, he resolved to put her to work.

So she had a little bed, in the Hospital of Books - they had to pass through a ragged portal, where the old man had taken a sledgehammer between buildings, and left the raw broken bricks to frame the passage from the cramped underworld of the store to the high-ceilinged workshop - once part of a factory, he said, though he never said what kind. There the patients waited on tables and benches, piled high and stacked into sturdy shelves and boxes, where loose pages might be framed if they had prints, or stacked in musty files if not. The tools were heavy scrapers, knives, even chisels and snips for cutting and tooling wood and leather; great sewing machines stood silent with their spools of thread, industrial models that could have soled boots for an army, and tucked away here and there were small lathes and more exotic articles: a card catalogue filled with scraps of leather, arranged alphabetically; a collection of small Japanese hammers, next to a tiny anvil, furnace, and small buckets containing cheap gold rings, or sections of copper pipes; long straight segments of bone used for spines, and an alchemist's corner of inks, dyes, glues, and unguents in their stopped flasks and pots.

The little girl was tasked, at first, with the sharpening of tools. Food was brought to her, and she ate; and work was brought to her, and she worked. She seldom left the shop after that, but wandered about all day, reading books at random, talking with the young man or the old man. It was a long summer which turned to a stormy fall, and a colder winter, during which the owner more often than not found she had moved her cot close to the little furnace in the shop, where the coal burned in orange and black embers. When she awoke he would have her wash her coal-blackened fingers in the sink in the little bathroom, before she touched anything else, because he scowled at any little black fingerprints on wall or chair, and would have been cross indeed if he saw them on anything resembling paper.

Yet it was in the winter the young man first noticed the little cats that appeared - elegant lithe figures drawn out in black ink, tucked away here and there on an endpaper. Over the next few weeks they appeared more frequently, and on occasion a customer would show them to him and comment, but the young man only smiled and reminded them that the books were all a century old, at least, and often contained marginalia from previous owners - indeed, though he did not say it, he knew the old man would sometimes add his own comments in fine crabbed hands in ink or pencil, and was known to amend certain books with spare pages from incomplete copies.

The old man, if he noticed them, said nothing; but he began to teach the girl how to clean and cut pages, to scrape off the old glue, and how to sew with silk. He laid out too, a kind of course of education for her - for she could not even speak French or Latin, which he said would never do, nor read Ovid or Rabelais, which caused him to frown. So her reading was more directed in the afternoons, and her work busier during the day, and perhaps fewer cats appeared on end papers and in margins.

There came one dark winter afternoon, when the young man with spectacles and waistcoat had stepped out, and the old man was on a buying-trip - and an old woman came in. She was bright and brilliant, with streaks of white in golden hair and high eyebrows, and wore emeralds and jade rather than diamonds, for they matched her green eyes, and she knew her books. The old woman wanted, especially, to look at one of the originals on the top shelf of the glass-fronted cabinet, but the girl did not have the key on its black ribbon. The woman laughed a hollow cackle, but behind her smile she looked greedily at the old book, and she jabbed with questions that the girl did not want to answer, on how much business they did and how much in cash, on how expensive all the books were, especially those in the glass-fronted case, and finally about who the girl was, and how she was, and who were her parents and why was she not in school. The old woman with the hollow laugh did not stop until the young man returned from lunch, and did not leave until she heard the stomp of the old man's boots as he entered the Hospital in the back.

That night was the first moonless night, and in the morning the owner came down the steps with breakfast in his hands only to find the door ajar, the brass handle loose, a chunk of wood gauged out of the frame. Breathless he pushed it open, saw the girl sweeping up shards of glass with a little dustpan and brush. The case of "originals" stood open, the contents askew, and as he looked the old man saw much of the furniture was out of order, piles of books askew, some even damaged. On the floor by the desk where the young man was wont to sit, he noticed a small black revolver and a heavy black flashlight, one of those that could double as a club.

He did not ask her what happened right away, but said that he had brought breakfast, and that she could finish sweeping up later. So they retired to the Hospital and ate croissants and hot chocolate, and he asked her to finish her lessons in math and Latin for the morning, and he would see to setting the front shop in order. The automatic he disposed of in a small book safe; the flashlight went back among the tools. The furniture and books were righted in a few minutes' work, and he finished the sweeping and took the damaged books into the back, to see what could be done with them. His mind was on a repairman for the door, new glass for the case, and perhaps a security system - though he loathed such things, for once he worried about the girl sleeping alone at night in the back room.

Then the old man turned to inspect the damage on the book - and on the front page the familiar cat was drawn in black ink, like a Japanese glyph; but unlike any other he had found this one was not sleek and thin, but fat and lazy, a round-belled alley-lion reposing after a meal, a fleck of brilliant scarlet about its muzzle.


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