Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Kreativity for Kats. Fritz Leiber.

Kreativity for Kats

Galaxy Magazine April 1961

They are the aliens among us—and their ways and wonders are stranger than extra-terrestrials!

Gummitch peered thoughtfully at the molten silver image of the sun in his little bowl of water on the floor inside the kitchen window. He knew from experience that it would make dark ghost suns swim in front of his eyes for a few moments, and that was mildly interesting. Then he slowly thrust his head out over the water, careful not to ruffle its surface by rough breathing, and stared down at the mirror cat—the Gummitch Double—staring up at him.

Gummitch had early discovered that water mirrors are very different from most glass mirrors. The scentless spirit world behind glass mirrors is an upright one sharing our gravity system, its floor a continuation of the floor in the so-called real world. But the world in a water mirror has reverse gravity.

One looks down into it, but the spirit-doubles in it look up at one. In a way water mirrors are holes or pits in the world, leading down to a spirit infinity or ghostly nadir.

Gummitch had pondered as to whether, if he plunged into such a pit, he would be sustained by the spirit gravity or fall forever. (It may well be that speculations of this sort account for the caution about swimming characteristic of most cats.)

There was at least one exception to the general rule. The looking glass on Kitty-Come-Here’s dressing table also opened into a spirit world of reverse gravity, as Gummitch had discovered when he happened to look into it during one of the regular visits he made to the dressing table top, to enjoy the delightful flowery and musky odors emanating from the fragile bottles assembled there.

But exceptions to general rules, as Gummitch knew well, are only doorways to further knowledge and finer classifications. The wind could not get into the spirit world below Kitty-Come-Here’s looking glass, while one of the definitive characteristics of water mirrors is that movement can very easily enter the spirit world below them, rhythmically disturbing it throughout, producing the most surreal effects, and even reducing it to chaos. Such disturbances exist only in the spirit world and are in no way a mirroring of anything in the real world: Gummitch knew that his paw did not change when it flicked the surface of the water, although the image of his paw burst into a hundred flickering fragments. (Both cats and primitive men first deduced that the world in a water mirror is a spirit world because they saw that its inhabitants were easily blown apart by the wind and must therefore be highly tenuous, though capable of regeneration.)

Gummitch mildly enjoyed creating rhythmic disturbances in the spirit worlds below water mirrors. He wished there were some way to bring their excitement and weird beauty into the real world.


On this sunny day when our story begins, the spirit world below the water mirror in his drinking bowl was particularly vivid and bright. Gummitch stared for a while longer at the Gummitch Double and then thrust down his tongue to quench his thirst. Curling swiftly upward, it conveyed a splash of water into his mouth and also flicked a single drop of water into the air before his nose. The sun struck the drop and it flashed like a diamond. In fact, it seemed to Gummitch that for a moment he had juggled the sun on his tongue. He shook his head amazedly and touched the side of the bowl with his paw. The bowl was brimful and a few drops fell out; they also flashed like tiny suns as they fell. Gummitch had a fleeting vision, a momentary creative impulse, that was gone from his mind before he could seize it. He shook his head once more, backed away from the bowl, and then lay down with his head
pillowed on his paws to contemplate the matter. The room darkened as the sun went under a cloud and the young golden dark-barred cat looked like a pool of sunlight left behind.

Kitty-Come-Here had watched the whole performance from the door to the dining room and that evening she commented on it to Old Horsemeat.

“He backed away from the water as if it were poison,” she said. “They have been putting more chlorine in it lately, you know, and maybe he can taste the fluorides they put in for dental decay.”

Old Horsemeat doubted that, but his wife went on, “I can’t figure out where Gummitch does his drinking these days. There never seems to be any water gone from his bowl. And we haven’t had any cut flowers. And none of the faucets drip.”

“He probably does his drinking somewhere outside,” Old Horsemeat guessed.

“But he doesn’t go outside very often these days,” Kitty-Come-Here countered. “Scarface and the Mad Eunuch, you know. Besides, it hasn’t rained for weeks. It’s certainly a mystery to me where he gets his liquids. Boiling gets the chlorine out of water, doesn’t it? I think I’ll try him on some tomorrow.”

“Maybe he’s depressed,” Old Horsemeat suggested. “That often leads to secret drinking.”

This baroque witticism hit fairly close to the truth. Gummitch was depressed—had been depressed ever since he had lost his kittenish dreams of turning into a man, achieving spaceflight, learning and publishing all the secrets of the fourth dimension, and similar marvels. The black cloud of disillusionment at realizing he could only be a cat had lightened somewhat, but he was still feeling dull and unfulfilled.

Gummitch was at that difficult age for he-cats, between First Puberty, when the cat achieves essential maleness, and Second Puberty, when he gets broad-chested, jowly and thick-ruffed, becoming a fully armed sexual competitor. In the ordinary course of things he would have been spending much of his time exploring the outer world, detail-mapping the immediate vicinity, spying on other cats, making cautious approaches to unescorted females and in all ways comporting himself like a fledgling male. But this was prevented by the two burly toms who lived in the houses next door and who, far more interested in murder than the pursuit of mates, had entered into partnership with the sole object of bush-whacking Gummitch. Gummitch’s household had nicknamed them Scarface and the Mad Eunuch, the latter being one of those males whom fixing turns, not placid, but homicidally maniacal. Compared to these seasoned heavyweights, Gummitch was a welterweight at most. Scarface and the Mad
Eunuch lay in wait for him by turns just beyond the kitchen door, so that his forays into the outside world were largely reduced to dashes for some hiding hole, followed by long, boring but perilous sieges.

He often wished that old Horsemeat’s two older cats, Ashurbanipal and Cleopatra, had not gone to the country to live with Old Horsemeat’s mother. They would have shown the evil bushwackers a thing or two!


Because of Scarface and the Mad Eunuch, Gummitch spent most of his time indoors. Since a cat is made for a half-and-half existence—half in the wild forest, half in the secure cave—he took to brooding quite morbidly. He thought over-much of ghost cats in the mirror world and of the Skeleton Cat who starved to death in a locked closet and similar grisly legends. He immersed himself in racial memories, not so much of Ancient Egypt where cats were prized as minions of the lovely cat-goddess Bast and ceremoniously mummified at the end of tranquil lives, as of the Middle Ages, when European mankind waged a genocidal war against felines as being the familiars of witches. (He thought briefly of turning Kitty-Come-Here into a witch, but his hypnotic staring and tentative ritualistic mewing only made her fidgety.) And he devoted more and more time to devising dark versions of the theory of transmigration, picturing cats as Silent Souls, Gagged People of Great Talent, and the like.

He had become too self-conscious to re-enter often the make-believe world of the kitten, yet his imagination remained as active as ever. It was a truly frustrating predicament.

More and more often and for longer periods he retired to meditate in a corrugated cardboard shoebox, open only at one end. The cramped quarters made it easier for him to think. Old Horsemeat called it the Cat Orgone Box after the famed Orgone Energy Accumulators of the late wildcat psychoanalyst Dr. Wilhelm Reich.

If only, Gummitch thought, he could devise some way of objectifying the intimations of beauty that flitted through his darkly clouded mind! Now, on the evening of the sunny day when he had backed away from his water bowl, he attacked the problem anew. He knew he had been fleetingly on the verge of a great idea, an idea involving water, light and movement. An idea he had unfortunately forgotten. He closed his eyes and twitched his nose. I must concentrate, he thought to himself, concentrate...


Next day Kitty-Come-Here remembered her idea about Gummitch’s water.

She boiled two cups in a spotless enamelware saucepan, letting it cool for half an hour before using it to replace the seemingly offensive water in the young cat’s bowl. It was only then she noticed that the bowl had been upset.

She casually assumed that big-footed Old Horsemeat must have been responsible for the accident, or possibly one of the two children—darting Sissy or blundering Baby. She wiped the bowl and filled it with the water she had dechlorinated.

“Come here, Kitty, come here,” she called to Gummitch, who had been watching her actions attentively from the dining room door. The young cat stayed where he was. “Oh, well, if you want to be coy,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

There was a mystery about the spilled water. It had apparently disappeared entirely, though the day seemed hardly dry enough for total evaporation. Then she saw it standing in a puddle by the wall fully ten feet away from the bowl. She made a quick deduction and frowned a bit worriedly.

“I never realized the kitchen floor sloped that much,” she told Old Horsemeat after dinner. “Maybe some beams need to be jacked up in the basement. I’d hate to think of collapsing into it while I cooked dinner.”

“I’m sure this house finished all its settling thirty years ago,” her husband assured her hurriedly. “That slope’s always been there.”

“Well, if you say so,” Kitty-Come-Here allowed doubtfully.

Next day she found Gummitch’s bowl upset again and the remains of the boiled water in a puddle across the room. As she mopped it up, she began to do some thinking without benefit of Concentration Box.


That evening, after Old Horsemeat and Sissy had vehemently denied kicking into the water bowl or stepping on its edge, she voiced her conclusions. “I think Gummitch upsets it,” she said. “He’s rejecting it. It still doesn’t taste right to him and he wants to show us.”

“Maybe he only likes it after it’s run across the floor and got seasoned with household dust and the corpses of germs,” suggested Old Horsemeat, who believed most cats were bohemian types.

“I’ll have you know I scrub that linoleum,” Kitty-Come-Here asserted.

“Well, with detergent and scouring powder, then,” Old Horsemeat amended resourcefully.

Kitty-Come-Here made a scornful noise. “I still want to know where he gets his liquids,” she said. “He’s been off milk for weeks, you know, and he only drinks a little broth when I give him that. Yet he doesn’t seem dehydrated. It’s a real mystery and—”

“Maybe he’s built a still in the attic,” Old Horsemeat interjected.

“—and I’m going to find the answers,” Kitty-Come-Here concluded, ignoring the facetious interruption. “I’m going to find out where he gets the water he does drink and why he rejects the water I give him. This time I’m going to boil it and put in a pinch of salt. Just a pinch.”

“You make animals sound more delicate about food and drink than humans,” Old Horsemeat observed.

“They probably are,” his wife countered. “For one thing they don’t smoke, or drink Martinis. It’s my firm belief that animals—cats, anyway—like good food just as much as we do. And the same sort of good food. They don’t enjoy canned catfood any more than we would, though they can eat it. Just as we could if we had to. I really don’t think Gummitch would have such a passion for raw horsemeat except you started him on it so early.”

“He probably thinks of it as steak tartare,” Old Horsemeat said.

Next day Kitty-Come-Here found her salted offering upset just as the two previous bowls had been.


Such were the beginnings of the Great Spilled Water Mystery that preoccupied the human members of the Gummitch household for weeks. Not every day, but frequently, and sometimes two and three times a day, Gummitch’s little bowl was upset. No one ever saw the young cat do it. But it was generally accepted that he was responsible, though for a time Old Horsemeat had theories that he did not voice involving Sissy and Baby.

Kitty-Come-Here bought Gummitch a firm-footed rubber bowl for his water, though she hesitated over the purchase for some time, certain he would be able to taste the rubber. This bowl was found upset just like his regular china one and like the tin one she briefly revived from his kitten days.

All sorts of clues and possibly related circumstances were seized upon and dissected. For instance, after about a month of the mysterious spillings, Kitty-Come-Here announced, “I’ve been thinking back and as far as I can remember it never happens except on sunny days.”

“Oh, Good Lord!” Old Horsemeat reacted.

Meanwhile Kitty-Come-Here continued to try to concoct a kind of water that would be palatable to Gummitch. As she continued without success, her formulas became more fantastic. She quit boiling it for the most part but added a pinch of sugar, a spoonful of beer, a few flakes of oregano, a green leaf, a violet, a drop of vanilla extract, a drop of iodine...

“No wonder he rejects the stuff,” Old Horsemeat was tempted to say, but didn’t.

Finally Kitty-Come-Here, inspired by the sight of a greenly glittering rack of it at the supermarket, purchased a half gallon of bottled water from a famous spring. She wondered why she hadn’t thought of this step earlier—it certainly ought to take care of her haunting convictions about the un-palatableness of chlorine or fluorides. (She herself could distinctly taste the fluorides in the tap water, though she never mentioned this to Old Horsemeat.)

One other development during the Great Spilled Water Mystery was that Gummitch gradually emerged from depression and became quite gay. He took to dancing cat schottisches and gigues impromptu in the living room of an evening and so forgot his dignity as to battle joyously with the vacuum-cleaner dragon when Old Horsemeat used one of the smaller attachments to curry him; the young cat clutched the hairy round brush to his stomach and madly clawed it as it whuffled menacingly. Even the afternoon he came home with a shoulder gashed by the Mad Eunuch he seemed strangely light-hearted and debonair.


The Mystery was abruptly solved one sunny Sunday afternoon. Going into the bathroom in her stocking feet, Kitty-Come-Here saw Gummitch apparently trying to drown himself in the toilet. His hindquarters were on the seat but the rest of his body went down into the bowl. Coming closer, she saw that his forelegs were braced against the opposite side of the bowl, just above the water surface, while his head thrust down sharply between his shoulders. She could distinctly hear rhythmic lapping.

To tell the truth, Kitty-Come-Here was rather shocked. She had certain rather fixed ideas about the delicacy of cats. It speaks well for her progressive grounding that she did not shout at Gummitch but softly summoned her husband.

By the time Old Horsemeat arrived the young cat had refreshed himself and was coming out of his “well” with a sudden backward undulation. He passed them in the doorway with a single mew and upward look and then made off for the kitchen.

The blue and white room was bright with sunlight. Outside the sky was blue and the leaves were rustling in a stiff breeze. Gummitch looked back once, as if to make sure his human congeners had followed, mewed again, and then advanced briskly toward his little bowl with the air of one who proposes to reveal all mysteries at once.

Kitty-Come-Here had almost outdone herself. She had for the first time poured him the bottled water, and she had floated a few rose petals on the surface.

Gummitch regarded them carefully, sniffed at them, and then proceeded to fish them out one by one and shake them off his paw. Old Horsemeat repressed the urge to say, “I told you so.”

When the water surface was completely free and winking in the sunlight, Gummitch curved one paw under the side of the bowl and jerked.

Half the water spilled out, gathered itself, and then began to flow across the floor in little rushes, a silver ribbon sparkling with sunlight that divided and subdivided and reunited as it followed the slope. Gummitch crouched to one side, watching it intensely, following its progress inch by inch and foot by foot, almost pouncing on the little temporary pools that formed, but not quite touching them. Twice he mewed faintly in excitement.


“He’s playing with it,” Old Horsemeat said incredulously.

“No,” Kitty-Come-Here countered wide-eyed. “He’s creating something.
Silver mice. Water-snakes. Twinkling vines.”

“Good Lord, you’re right,” Old Horsemeat agreed. “It’s a new art form. Would you call it water painting? Or water sculpture? Somehow I think that’s best. As if a sculptor made mobiles out of molten tin.”

“It’s gone so quickly, though,” Kitty-Come-Here objected, a little sadly. “Art ought to last. Look, it’s almost all flowed over to the wall now.”

“Some of the best art forms are completely fugitive,” Old Horsemeat argued. “What about improvisation in music and dancing? What about jam sessions and shadow figures on the wall? Gummitch can always do it again—in fact, he must have been doing it again and again this last month. It’s never exactly the same, like waves or fires. But it’s beautiful.”

“I suppose so,” Kitty-Come-Here said. Then coming to herself, she continued, “But I don’t think it can be healthy for him to go on drinking water out of the toilet. Really.”

Old Horsemeat shrugged. He had an insight about the artistic temperament and the need to dig for inspiration into the smelly fundamentals of life, but it was difficult to express delicately.

Kitty-Come-Here sighed, as if bidding farewell to all her efforts with rose petals and crystalline bottled purity and vanilla extract and the soda water which had amazed Gummitch by faintly spitting and purring at him.

“Oh, well,” she said, “I can scrub it out more often, I suppose.”

Meanwhile, Gummitch had gone back to his bowl and, using both paws, overset it completely. Now, nose a-twitch, he once more pursued the silver streams alive with suns, refreshing his spirit with the sight of them. He was fretted by no problems about what he was doing. He had solved them all with one of his characteristically sharp distinctions: there was the sacred water, the sparklingly clear water to create with, and there was the water with character, the water to drink.


Boy. That cat is so smart, you got to wonder why it never says anything. We kind of got lucky with the image. My own cat was killed by a car five years ago, and I've never had it in me to get another one. Either the thing lives for eighteen years and then dies, leaving you heartbroken, or you end up getting real sick, possibly dying, and then you're trying to find someone to take the thing and give it a good home. I saw a couple of cats by the side of a dirt road today. It always hurts to see cats abandoned like that. People think the nearest farmer will take the thing in, or that they can survive on their own in the wild. Do the right thing--take the animal to the shelter, and if you can't afford it, tell them it was a stray that started hanging around. They will rarely question it.

The image is a free download, available here.

Louis Shalako has books and stories available from Amazon. Leap of Faith is currently free with Amazon’s price-matching.

Thank you for reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment on the blog posts, art or editing.