The Stuff of Dreams

SHAH first met Sadie Thompson in the apple tree.

He was lying far out on a branch in the sun, his taffy-colored paws tucked under his chest, his golden ruff a halo around his flowerlike little face. The red-gold plume of his tail flowed back along the limb. In all the spring morning there was no sound except the twittering of birds. The warm sweetness of the earth drifted up to him. His eyes closed.

Something scrambled under the fence at the back of the garden. Shah’s eyes flew open. He stared, incredulous. She was coming across the yard, Shah’s own yard, invading it, mincing and dainty, a half-grown black kitten with high white boots and small yellow eyes, as expressionless as marbles. She was larger than Shah and her fur was very short and sleek.

She made straight for the tree, climbed it with impressive, ripping bounds, and approached Shah on his branch, heedless of his frightened hissing. He backed away as far as the limb would permit, but she came on steadily. The orange of Shah’s eyes was drowned in black. He arched with enormous tail.

Reserve was unknown to Sadie. She loomed over him. She breathed on him. She sniffed along his quivering and appalled whiskers, her blackness very smooth beside his golden fluffiness. Her tongue rasped on his coral nose, worked along his cheek, and up to his tufted ear.

Somewhere, at some other time, another tongue had licked him so. Another paw had lain across his back. And it had been pleasant. His terror subsided and he relaxed, bowing his head to the onslaught.

When he had been washed until his bright fur stood up in long, damp spears all over his body, Sadie settled on the limb beside him and did her nails. Her tail hung down behind her, long, black, and elegant.

Shah looked at it. Sadie was n’t noticing. Her wrinkling nose was buried in the spread toes of a hind foot. Shah reached out a tentative claw and hooked the tail. Sadie nibbled on. Emboldened, Shah patted her face and shrank back when she put down her leg and rose. But she only moved along the limb, pausing to look over her shoulder at him.

‘Prrrt!’ she said.

Shah pattered after her, enchanted.

She dashed down the tree trunk, head first, and sprang to the ground. Shah was admiring but embarrassed. After a moment of indecision he peered down the vast wall of the trunk. It had a great many smooth places, and the ground was so far away! In sudden obstinacy Shah turned, lowered himself over the limb, and backed down ignominiously, clinging to the friendly bark, his furry stomach pressed close against it. The ground received him at last and he hurried after Sadie.

She ran along the garden path to a tangle of grass and bushes at the back — a dank, cool jungle. Shah’s eyes were very big as he pushed through behind her. She squeezed under the fence, and Shah, following, entered a new world of space and sun and weeds.

While he hesitated, bewildered, Sadie made a black streak into the air after a bug, missed it, came down without a sound, and melted into nothing behind a clump of grass. Shah brightened and his whiskers moved forward. He crouched and sprang, his little body an orange flame in the sun. They met, head on, and, clutching each other, rolled among the weeds. Sadie’s hind feet encountered Shah’s chin and she kicked it with steady rhythm. Her fur filled his mouth.

Sadie tore herself free at last and fled. Shah bounded after her, tail high.

The grass blurred greenly past him and gave place to low, gray mounds. Shah halted with a little bounce. Gray dust settled on him and strange odors came to his nose. Sadie was prowling, long and sinuous, on the top of one of the mounds. Her tail twitched and her whiskers quivered.

Shah sniffed and was backing away in distaste when a thin, sweet smell, drifting on a breeze, drew him forward again. He set his paws down carefully, avoiding bits of broken glass, a doll’s wig, and a heap of lemon rinds. Flashes of sunlight jumped from tin can to tin can, and something stirred under his paws. He spat sharply, but the smell drew him on, up the mound, to where a condensed-milk can lay on its side. A little trickle of milk came from it.

‘Mrrrt!’ Shah called.

Sadie came in a scrambling run. Her eyes glittered. Shah drew back graciously and waited until her round, black head was bent over the rich find. Then he joined her; red cheek against black, they lapped up the thick sweetness.

Shah withdrew first, leaving Sadie the last drop. He shook out his ruff, and, sitting down, was lifting a paw to his whiskers when his nose caught the first whiff of something which stirred him to the very tips of his toes. His paw dropped. He rose; moving with the stiffness of one hypnotized, he went straight up the mound of ashes and down the other side. His nose had not deceived him. There it lay, his for the taking, brown and shiny, dried by wind and sun, washed by rain, but still pungent — an exquisite fish head!

Shah gazed upon it in silent rapture. Never, in all his life, had such a gift been laid before him. Never before had his nose been blessed with such an odor — succulent, soul-stirring, beautiful, A high, tenor purr began in his little chest. Sadie was forgotten. His ears were deaf to the sound of a low, excited yowl. he realized nothing until Sadie shot under his chin and crouched, growling, over his treasure.

Shah’s ears flattened against his head in shocked surprise. Then they lifted and he stepped forward, confidently, to share. It was over in an instant! Claws raked his nose and he fell back, blinded with pain, his mouth opening in a soundless shriek. He shook his head and wiped at his nose with a trembling paw, but the pain would n’t come off. The sound of snarling continued.

When Shah could see, he moved a prudent distance away and sat down. His whiskers drooped miserably and his eyes were very big.

The change in Sadie was beyond belief. She was no longer the motherly little cat, nor the gay companion, but a stranger from whose body came a sickening, brassy odor of hatred. Her eyes blazed and her tail lashed the ashes into a semicircle of dust.

Even as Shah watched, her teeth sank deep into the fish head with a crackling sound. Shah’s mouth watered. Outraged, he saw her lift his personal property from the ground, saw it sticking out on either side of her head, crisp and tempting. Its fragrance almost overcame him.

Still crouching, Sadie turned with a weaving motion of her head and was gone — back along the way they had come. Her tail was not jaunty now. It slithered behind her, close to the ground. Shah hurried after her, keeping at a safe distance. She darted under the fence into his own garden and Shah cried out at the added insult.

In the middle of the garden, on the new grass, Sadie laid Shah’s fish head down with tenderness and gloating. Shah stood still. Sadie walked around the prize, glancing out of the corner of her eye at the anxious little figure beyond. Her whiskers twitched and the corners of her mouth curled upward. Then, elaborately unaware of him, she inserted a paw beneath the jewel, flipped it into the air, batted it a foot or two in Shah’s direction; and when he stepped fonvard, all eagerness, she sprang upon it, growling.

The black pools of Shah’s eyes blazed. His whiskers stood forward until they almost met before his stinging nose. The watered silk of his flanks, burning red and orange in the sun, trembled with the explosions of his breath.

Sadie danced before the fish head in curves and arabesques. She curled around it. She killed it with pomp, restored it to life with ceremony. She was a black feather, a drift of smoke, an exclamation point of delight. And all the while her eyes glittered at Shah’s agony.

He was pacing back and forth now, unable to endure that sight, unable to tear his eyes from it. The brush of his tail drooped behind him. Another drop of blood was gathering on his nose.

At that moment George, Shah’s own Scottie, came around a distant corner of the house. Shah’s tail swept upward and the furrows of anxiety on his forehead were smooth stripes again. He opened his mouth in a long wail for help. George, always the gentleman, removed his nose from the trail of his own affairs and waved his tail in response, but he had not understood, and after a moment went on his way. Shah’s tail dropped slowly down.

The game continued.

The noon sun shone in benign indifference. The little heat waves over the garden were saturated with the smell of fish, and insects, emerging from under stones, toiled through the wilderness of grass in search of it. Shah’s tongue trembled over his lips as Sadie paused in her frolicking to bite into the dream of dreams. It crunched brownly, and Shah wailed aloud.

The door of Shah’s kitchen opened and the cook’s voice issued from it. Sadie, startled, turned to look, leaving the fish head unprotected for the briefest of moments. In that moment Shah was a silent golden streak across the grass. His teeth met between bones and he fled, straight for that open door, and through it into the warm kitchen. He crept into the steamy darkness under the stove and waited there, breathless.

Presently there was a commotion in the kitchen. Windows were thrown open and the cook’s voice was shrill. Her lumps of feet shadowed back and forth in front of Shah’s hiding place with increasing rapidity. They paused. There were grunts, a thump, and heavy breathing near the floor. Shah’s heart pounded in his throat, but he remained motionless. Then his eyes and the cook’s met over the fish head.

A hand, at the end of a fat arm, came under the stove, groped, caught Shah by the scruff of his neck, and dragged him out. His treasure was wrenched from his jaws — though not before he had left long red marks on the cook’s arm. He hit the floor, hard. The kitchen door was jerked open, and the fish head sailed through it in a splendid arc. Shah raced through the door after it, but he was too late. The triumphant Sadie was already climbing into the apple tree, carrying the fish head.

He followed her grimly, but without hope.

She clambered on, far up into the topmost branches, wedged the fish head into a little crotch, and bunched herself on a limb just below.

Shah began his vigil slightly farther down. Neither looked at the other. Above them the fish head was a brown triangle against the tender green of new leaves.

Shah had eaten nothing since the few drops of condensed milk that morning and his inside was a large and drafty emptiness, but he made no move to descend. One taffy paw was tucked under his chest. The other extended along the limb, and upon this, after a while, he rested his chin. His golden whiskers lay back along his cheeks until their curving tips touched his ruff. His tail hung down, and his orange eyes were fixed, unblinking, on the brown triangle above.

Sadie was two solid black circles melting together against the sky — a large one, and a small one with ears. Her yellow eyes stared at nothing.

The kitchen door opened and a familiar and beloved voice called out words that Shah knew.

‘Shah!5 it said. ‘Come! Dinner!’

Shah’s head lifted and the emptiness inside him began to ache, but he remained where he was. He gave one beseeching little cry when the door closed, but that was all.

The shadow of the tree trunk grew longer. A breeze stirred among the leaves and blew away a swarm of gnats which had been jigging around Shah’s head. There was a sudden fluttering as a pair of robins invaded the tree, hopping from twig to twig, chattering. Shah and Sadie looked up hungrily, but continued glued to their branches. The leaves whispered above them. From far away a sound of hammering came to them on the wind. The air was sweet with the smell of grass and heavy with wood smoke. Shah’s coral nose quivered. His emptiness was a sharp pain now, and he shifted uneasily on his branch. Sadie did not move.

The beloved voice called again, from an open window, and Shah called back desperately. The porch door opened at once, and She came out, hurrying across the garden to the apple tree. Shah’s chest fur trembled with the hopeful beating of his heart. His little face, furrowed with hunger, peered down at Her.

‘Shah — my foolish! What is it? Come down! Come, Shah, dinner!

Shah did n’t wail, this time. He squalled, pink mouth wide, ears back.

Sadie stared but said nothing.

‘Come, Shah! Dinner!’

‘Eee-yow!’ Shah screamed, clinging to his branch. His emptiness roared in his ears.

After a time She went away.

The brown tree shadows slowly deepened to blue and a chill crept into the air. Shah wrapped his tail around him for warmth. The leaves hung motionless, and the robins, with a final twitter, swooped away. Sadie was a motionless black lump. In the west the wings of the sunset trailed scarlet across a lemon-yellow sky, and the breath of the fields was a white mist. Lights came on in Shah’s house.

Something moved in the gloom below. She had returned — with a ladder. Shah mewed hysterically, peeking over his branch. The ladder scraped against the tree trunk and was still, but the tree shook a little, and Her voice came nearer, speaking to Shah. At the sound of it Sadie uncoiled and stretched upward, swift and black. Shah heard the lovely crunch as her teeth met in the fish head. Unseen leaves rustled violently, higher up. Shah followed instantly.

His heart sank as he climbed, for Her voice was suddenly angry. ‘Bad!’ it said. But he went on up, little and orange and determined.

Sadie had settled down again, beside the fish head. There was no comfortable place for Shah and he was forced to lie upward along a branch and hold with his claws.

After a moment he looked down. She was on the ground again, and taking away the ladder in an unpleasant silence. Then Her feet swished across the grass. The kitchen door was a sudden oblong of light — then darkness.

The first stars were flaring above him when Shah heard, far in the distance, the terrifying wail of a fire siren. It grew louder every second. All the doors of his house opened and there was running in the driveway. Out in the road passing cars drew hastily to one side with a squealing of brakes; there was more running, and a babel of voices.

Two long cones of light swept down the highway and the screaming wail came with them. They swung ponderously at the driveway entrance and crept in, drawing behind them something long, and high, and red. It clattered. The wailing died away to a whine and ceased. An engine throbbed — stopped. In the silence Her voice spoke, alone, apologetic.

There was laughter, and more clattering. The cones of light moved, turned, and focused on the suddenly golden tree. Shah’s claws almost lost their grip.

People tramped across the grass carrying another ladder, very long, very red. Other people made a semicircle of grinning faces on the edge of the light.

The ladder reared into the air and grew longer and longer. It squeaked, and Shah’s ears pricked forward nervously. His eyes widened in terror as the uppermost prongs of it reached a level with his face and remained there, not resting against anything. A dark shape in a glaring red hat detached itself from the group below and began to mount the ladder, which swayed. The figure came steadily higher, nearer and nearer to the paralyzed Shah. It said something to the people below in a voice quite like George’s — a definite bark and the ladder squeaked again.

Just over Shah’s head there was a stealthy, frightened movement. It was very slight, but Shah heard it and looked up. Sadie’s branch was empty! She had gone only t he night knew where — and she had left the fish head behind!

Everything else was forgotten. Shah was a whirlwind among the leaves.

When a large masculine hand closed on the scruff of his neck he scarcely knew it. Crisp brownness filled his mouth, pricked his throat until his eyes bulged, drowned his nostrils with its exquisite pungency. His teeth met in crackling succulence. His ecstatic purr was strained through scales and delicious, crumbling bones.

Shah came down the ladder dangling from the hand, not hearing the cheers which burst the darkness. Into the circle of light Her hands reached to take him — Her dear hands that understood. He nestled into them, exhausted but trusting.

One of Her fingers touched his treasure gingerly. Her eyes were close, peering. Her voice said: —

‘ Good heaven! A fish head! ’

There was a pause during which Shah’s round eyes looked up at Her happily, glistening with pride.

‘So that was it!’ She said at last. And She laughed — an odd, quavering little laugh. Shah was lifted suddenly and held close under Her chin, and together they went away, out of the blinding light, to the warm shelter of the kitchen.

The fish head was buried in the hollow of Her neck — safe at last.