When morning wouldn’t come he tried to run it down. The cars were asleep so he walked along the road’s white spine, balanced upon it, bone-bridge over the deep deep dark. His eyes were so heavy. His skin was so cold.
Why couldn’t he sleep? He’d done it so many times before. He had performed all the necessary rituals to conjure rest. His teeth were brushed. He was wearing thick socks. He had turned off all his screens an hour before bedtime. He had read a couple chapters of a book about birds.
He walked further than he ever had before. Long roads like thick flanks carved out of the night’s haunches. Moon glowing as a white iris come to chart the dim suburban labyrinth. Stolen starlight flickering in the streetlamps. What else? The remains of the rain stagnating darkly in the potholes. Owls blinking infant suns somewhere within the leaves. A hairless cat walking trepidatiously along a green fence. When the young man walked by, the cat turned its wrinkled pink head to watch him go. Yellow eyes. Like the owls. He thought to himself that the cat must have been cold. What would it do to get warm?
He couldn’t shake something he had read earlier in the evening. There’s a kind of bird who live in caves. In the daytime they sleep in the warm wet dark of the Earth’s innards. In the evening they listen for fruit murmuring sweetly into the wind and go out into that lesser temporal gloom beyond the eternal night of the cave.
They’re called oilbirds. The babies are full of blubber, like little whales with wings and beaks and feathers. Men would go into the caves dragging nets behind them. They spidered along the ledges till they found the unfledged asleep in their nests. Caught the babies in their webs. The squabs would squeal when they were shoved down into the nets and brought into the daylight.
They skinned the squabs so they were blank and smooth and soft like knobs of butter. Then they melted them in pots. The men rubbed the lard into their skin. Massaged it into the flesh of their loved ones. They built pyres to get warm and fuelled the flames with the rendered bodies of the oilbird young. When the fat sizzled on the coals it squealed like the squabs upon their rending from the dark.
The young man walked far enough so that he no longer knew where he was. A plane fluttered low overhead like a pale dragonfly, wings stiffened in the cold and plated with white ice, riddled with tiny green fires where there were lights blinking out its carapace. It passed over the Moon, devoured it, rebirthed it. Laid the Moon in a nest burrowed out of the inky celestial flesh, a colossal white egg returned to the eyrie.
What will hatch out of the Moon? A Boeing-737? Who will warm it? What does it eat?
The hairless cat was back. It was sitting in the middle of the road licking its paws. It cast a long shadow which shivered violently, like an image stuttering in and out of reality. He reached out to touch it but it hissed and it turned away and walked along the road. The young man gave chase, but it was quicker than him. The farther away it got the less it looked anything like a cat, more like an anomalous lump of pink flesh bouncing along the tarmac.
The cat led him to a hillock somewhere far from home. It sat and stared up at the sky. The young man approached.
Trouble sleeping? the cat asked.
Yeah, said the young man.
Do you want to know something?
I’m not allowed to be out right now, because it’s so cold.
Because I have no hair, so if I’m out too long I could die.
Do you find it strange that a cat is speaking to you?
Strange things happen in the cold. People act strangely.
Cats too. I am very cold right now. It makes me want to do
stuff that I would usually never even think of doing. Bad things.
I’m of two natures, you see. They made me this way.
The desire to wander, it is inextricable from being a cat.
But I want to stay warm, because I get cold so easily.
Do you see that by giving me two halves, they have robbed me
of ever being whole? I’ll be cold forever.
What about you? What makes you incomplete?
I can’t sleep. But I need to.
People will do terrible things for something they want.
They do even worse things for something they need.
Cats are the same. I’m not judging you.
The young man had grown up near so many holes in the world. They were in the tree hollows. Things lived in there, nestled between two realms. Winter had blown in. There were blackbirds whistling solstice songs somewhere from within the lattice of snow-laden branches overhead.
Deeper and deeper into the woods he had gone. His hot breath flowering in the cool air as a glass carnation. He came to an oddly large hollow, within which the darkness was shifting like flowing water. He approached it. Reached in, then recoiled with a gasp. His thumb and forefinger were bloody and mangled at the nail. He peered into the hole with caution, clicked on a torch to see better what had bitten him. There was a dog curled up in there. Maybe it had crawled in to keep warm. Five newborn pups laid down in the dark like half finished wax-figurines, eyeless, earless, so colourless as to be transparent. Their circulatory systems shone as a network of golden threads neath the young man’s flashlight. All were asleep against their mother who trembled open-eyed, teeth bared.
That same night the young man returned. The dog and her pups were no longer in the hollow. They had fallen through the world trying to keep warm. Had pushed too far into that darkness which contracts like a membrane, which had swallowed them like a hungry black tulip closing up over a bee. He reached into the hollow and tried to grab hold of the void. Climbed in.
Do you want to know something? asked the cat.
I was born into a litter of seven. We were so cozy in mama’s belly, but then we were so cold. Mama couldn’t keep all of us warm. Mama couldn’t even keep herself warm.
Mama ate one of my brothers. Put him back in her belly and mama was warm again.
Strange things happen in the cold. I told you so. Does that make mama a bad cat?
I don’t know.
Can I ask you something else?
Can you lend me your jacket?
You’ll look stupid.
That’s okay. Your socks? Your pants?
I don’t have anything to give you in return.
I wasn’t apologising. Otherwise I’d have said sorry.
Do you see now?
The purpose of this exercise has eluded you.
I guess so. Can I have my clothes back, then?
They continued on walking. The hairless cat was clad in all these human clothes. It looked like a shrunken, shaven, ghoulish circus monkey dressed up for the crowd. Beside it the young man had his arms crossed over his chest, barefoot on the tarmac, naked but for his underwear. The air was frosted and still. Then the rain came. And the thunder.
Lightning licked along the ridge of the black clouds, searing the sky with a mark like the flightpath of two birds frozen and luminous and whitehot. New rivers ran on the blacktop. Rapids raged in the gutters. There were dogs bounding through the puddles. The young man was shivering. He turned blue. The streetlights glinted off the growing deluge, forming a web of amber sparkle which plummeted and shattered against the road. Slowly, the streets and alleys began to imitate the sky above them, varnished in shimmering droplets which glowed starry as if one would fall forever into the dark if they stepped off the curb.
Once, when I was little, the young man said.
I fell through a hole in reality. It was in a tree hollow.
It was very warm, in that other world.
So dark and humid. Like being in a cave.
How did you get back out? asked the cat.
They pulled me out. Back into the cold sunshine.
The men with the nets.
Whoever found me in the hollow. Does it matter?
And then what happened?
They dragged me home in the net.
I was screaming all the way. I was squealing.
Then they skinned me so I was smooth and soft.
Like a knob of butter. Then they melted me down in a pot.
Used me to warm their house. Used me to grease wheels.
Used me to make themselves slippery.
You still have all your skin.
I’m confused. I was thinking of oilbirds.
That’s okay. Things go funny in the cold.
I said as much, didn’t I?.
Can I tell you something?
The first way anything ever became warm is through theft.
Depleting things. Absorbing them. Like how I have taken all your clothes.
My comfort has been generated only by your discomfort.
Anything which is alive knows this innately.
That to stay warm, you need to eat things.
An old man owned me, many years ago. He used to place me on his head
and use me to warm his bare scalp. Like me, he had no hair anywhere on his body.
He must have been very cold. Once, the old man told me his insides were freezing.
He wanted me to warm him up. So he sat on the couch and let his mouth hang open very wide. Back then I was only a very small kitten. I squeezed myself between his toothless gums.
Wriggled all the way down into his wrinkled old belly. There were so many things that
should not have been there. So many things the old man had eaten in an attempt to keep warm. There were the tattered collars of cats he had owned before me, all of them blue.
Fingers. Spines. Hips. Femurs. His favourite parts of his favourite people.
There was a mound of eyeballs like a slope of veiny pebbles painted white and still wet.
Everything the old man ever loved, he had eaten. Do you understand?
Things just don’t matter. Nothing exists except warmth.
The old man loved so many people. Cats too. He swallowed them all up.
Why? He was feeling very chilly at the time, and they were nearby.
We use things, when they’re there to be used. We can’t stop using things.
I don’t understand.
Me neither. Would you walk me home?
They went off the way back. It was getting light by then. At the mouth of the street the newborn sun balanced on the blacktop like an incandescent marble slowly losing heat. The burgeoning day growing pale. Overcast and sullen. Clouds moving, always moving, like an endless expanse of ash sifted through by the wind’s slender fingers. It was still raining. Children greeting dawn in their fluorescent hooded raincoats like wayward spirits aglow come to play in the puddles. They set paper boats sailing beside the curb, capsizing against the ankles of the young man and the hairless cat.
I’m so cold, said the young man.
What will you do about it? said the cat.
I just want my clothes back. I’m embarrassed.
No can do, friend. Nobody’s ever kept warm by
giving their pants away like some chump.
You’ll have to eat me.
I wouldn’t do that.
I would. It’d take me a while, though.
Why’re you like this?
It’s a tough, cold place, this world!
Especially for a cat with no hair.
Or a young man with no clothes.
This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.