I arrive at the door of my house in the dark with lamp and spade, jungle mud caked past my ankles, thickets of scratches streaking my limbs. I set the lamp on the step, sling the sack of stinking goat’s meat off my shoulder, and reach for the knob.
And there’s that cat in the moonlight—the one I’ve been hunting since dawn. It clings by its black claws high in the pinabete tree, lashing its five spotted tails against the shadows. That same ruby bracelet hangs around its neck. Nine rubies. I shouldn’t have to count; I have another just like it.
Nine rubies rich as kisses, yet the shine on each one’s surface is paler than milk. I’ve never seen reflected moonlight sparkle so, except atop the mountain on crusted snow closer to sky than to earth.
Such beautiful jewels. How fine they would look beside the others on my Maya’s wrist. But I won’t fall for that trick twice.
I heft the shovel in my hand. The glint of it doesn’t compare. If I sharpened it, maybe. If I flattened it out with a mallet and ran the edge against a stone until it sparked like death-day firecrackers, then it just might outgleam the cat’s ruby torque.
I should have sharpened it before I left. Why didn’t I? The eyes, so round and pitying. It bewitched me. I assumed it would fall for my traps.
The spade just clangs against the tree-trunk, blind and dull, and the cat departs from the moonbeam, flicking its tails.
The last time I don’t think it had so many.
I leave the lamp, the meat and the shovel. I let the door slap closed and go in looking for the other bracelet.
It isn’t on the dresser. Maya’s rings are there, her pearl necklace. I touch them, still awed by their presence here in my house, even months after we wed. It isn’t by the basin, though her brushes and combs are there, and the bottle of cacao cream whose scent once made me so desperate and still makes me shiver.
I creep to the bed, where Maya sleeps. Her right arm lies dark on the coverlet, bare. I peel back the blanket and the sheet, wrinkled in curves around her shape like rope lava wrapping the mountainside, still supple, still cooling.
I fall down beside her, gazing stricken on the curve of her neck and her hip. At last I touch her skin; I gently draw her left wrist out from under the pillow. And there I find it: the bauble that won me her hand and all the rest of her, when my ring and my love and all my charms could not. Nine rubies, like berries of blood on a golden vine.
I took that bauble from a four-tailed cat I met at my traps on the jungle slopes, one morning when the light beneath the forest canopy was green and the sky was white. It let me stroke its spotted coat. It purred like a storm. It did not speak, though by the look in its eyes I feared it might.
I thought it a god-king’s pet, escaped. I thought it glad to be rid of the heavy jewels, of divinity’s weight. The four tails I ignored, because I was mad with love and lust for a woman I could not have, because it was convenient to do so.
I gave the bracelet to Maya on her birthday, when her father, out of cruel consolation, asked me to a feast at her family’s house. A feast where I could consume all but what I wanted most. My gift, though it was never mine to give, changed their minds about me sure enough.
Maybe I can give it back. The cat has another already. But I have to do something. Even if it means I have to give her back as well. I can’t live like this.
The bracelet has no clasp. It never had. It slipped from the cat’s head so easily. I grasp it tight; I pull. My fingers press cruel marks into her wrist. The gold digs a ring of red around her hand. It will not come free.
She wakes. She watches me burning, holding her hand. In another time, before she was mine, she would have taken me without a word, without thought for her father, her master. We would have slept and in the morning woke afraid, wondered if it was a dream, and done it again to be sure.
She pulls her hand free and rolls away, tucking it again beneath her cheek.
“What’s the matter?” she mumbles at the wall.
I rise. “Nothing.”
The goat’s meat that failed to draw the five-times-damned cat to my traps is gone from the stoop. Blood stains the stone in the lamplight. Frogs scream at the darkness. Tree shadows tilt and shamble across the maize. The cat is gone—but not far.
The lamp swings in my hand and the world spins as I search among the roots. I find the spade where it fell, take it up and flee into the house.
Our people lost the craft of making metal; this spade is all I possess. It came to me from the conquerors before they fled. I have used it digging the trenches through the jungle. I have used it cutting furrows for the maize. I have used it digging traps. It has made me what I am, as much as that thing on Maya’s wrist. Now it must serve to protect all that.
I take my shovel out to the mill-house and pound it flat. I sink the cog into the shaft that sets the millstone spinning and press the edge of the shovel-blade hard against it.
The metal rings my treachery.
There’s my Maya, standing limp and languid in the black silk nightgown the door-frame’s shadow drapes her with to hide her from the lamplight’s shame. To hide the red bracelet from mine.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Nothing, my love. Go back to bed.”
If it had been the old Maya, the real Maya, my lover from before the bracelet stole her soul and fed it like morsels of meat to the cat, she would have said... what? Something I could never expect. Something clever, playfully cruel. She would have stepped forward into the light, and that would be all of this instinctive vengeance of mine. Cat and jewels forgotten, I’d have left the shovel there on the stone and the lantern burning and followed her to bed.
But she isn’t that anymore, whatever she is—maybe no more than a body and voice. She turns, and the lines of her fade, and the last I catch is the glint of rubies.
It’s a long time before the rusty shovel-blade begins to gleam. When it does, I let the mill-wheel cease, and I go in and kiss my sleeping shadow of a wife good night. Then I come back for the lamp and the blade.
Now I have an ax, and not a spade. I have a weapon. I have hope and desperation.
I creep from the doorstep across the pinabete tree’s roots into the jungle. It waits for me there: the cat, with its friendly eyes, its tails. It purrs like a lover and a coming storm. It arches its back and begs me to stroke it.
I raise my blade instead.
Maybe if I can cut off the cat’s new tail and sew it up in a bracelet round her other wrist, she’ll go back to the way she was. Maybe I delude myself. At least the cat will be dead.
I let my ax swing. It falls between the cat’s huge, pale, liquid eyes. I turn my own away. When I look back, blood gleams in the lamplight. Brain clings sticky and gray to the blade. But the cat is gone.
When the conquerors came, they carried a weapon for use on their own kind—a scourge. After we became their servants, they turned it on us. They left, and now it is ours. One stroke and the will is broken. They call it the nine-tailed cat.
I wipe the ax on a tree and go home.
At my doorstep, all is serene. The maize barely rustles. Even the frogs don’t speak. Have I won?
It will be such relief to sleep.
In the bedroom, I throw myself down beside her. I kiss between her shoulder-blades. I kiss her head.
My lips are cut by shards of bone.
Something has shattered my Maya’s lovely head. It has stolen all her lovely blood and brains. And the bracelet is gone.
I smash the bottle of cacao cream. It splits like a skull. I sit awhile on the floor, drowning in her reek.
My life, my lust, my only soul. I would have killed for her. Her father shouldn’t have sold me her love. He should have let me take it.
I could pretend that she still lived, that I had won her soul back from the cat and all was the way it had been. I could still kiss her flesh where it remains unmarred. But Maya’s flesh isn’t all of her. It isn’t what I loved, much as I begin to hate myself for that. Otherwise, I could have lived with her shadow, invited the cat to curl at the end of the bed while we slept.
I wrap her in the sheet where we made love so many times and lift her. Maya must sleep in the mill tonight. Tomorrow I will dull my axe and pound it back into a spade. I will dig her a grave among the maize. But first I have to rest.
I hear a purr, like that of a lover. In the doorway, stretching languidly among shards of glass and globs of cream, the cat.
I count the tails: four. I killed one of its souls. And I’m sure it will find that mine is long lost. It will have to go hunting.
The doorway’s shadow tries to hide from me the nightmare I can’t help but see in the cat’s loving eyes. The axe is at my feet. The rubies gleam.