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Monday, January 4, 2010

The enchanted library

    It had been a long day and it felt good to be going to my ancestral home. It had been a cloudy sky when I had left home many hours back and I expected a downpour. During my journey, the sky cleared up a bit and looking up I saw a sickly yellow full moon leering back at me. The pale yellow moon still hung in the sky and it always gave me a chill whenever I saw it hanging there as if following me around. Being a superstitious man, it gave me chills as it was a bad tiding moment. These long drives on long dusty back roads always wore me out and the unexpected car problem in some back road surrounded by a corn field added to my woes. Opening up the hood, I looked inside and could not figure out what was wrong. Slamming the hood down, I went back inside and turned the blinkers on and waited for some passerby to lend a hand.

    It was a lonely stretch of land where nothing could be seen for miles upon miles. The moon still seemed to glare at me through the clouds and at other times through the tops of houses as I walked through the field looking for a house where the folks were still awake. Looking up, I cursed at it telling it to go away and leave me alone and not add anything to my misery. It seems like I’ve been through this area many a times yet something was different. I could feel it in my bones, but I could not put my finger on it. I felt like a leaf caught in the gently flowing river called time which gets swept along vainly struggling to find it own path as it gets swept along at ever increasing rate until all control is lost.

    A huge patch of dense trees in the distance caught my attention. I could see some flickering light there and I changed my course hoping some help could be found. It was an old forest and if it could talk, it might have a tale or two to tell the passerby. I looked around and it seemed like it was alive and could sense me looking at it and walking around. I swore I saw many pairs of large yellowed eyes some distance away staring at me which disappeared when my attention turned towards them. A soft breeze started to rustle the leaves and ruffled my hair ever so gently, yet died down as quickly as it had risen. In this enchanted forest, it seemed like a thousand voices talking to each other and I could not name the source. The voices seemed everywhere. As I walked deeper into the woods, my uneasiness grew in the near total darkness broken at times by the moon peeking through the tree canopy every so often. I heard the sound of water gently flowing down some creek and the sound of a startled deer hoping away.

    Off to a side I saw what seemed like some lanterns going by while some people were whispering to each other. I called out and the voices died as quickly as they had appeared and the lanterns were turned off. I could not make out what was happening as total darkness engulfed me once more. After what seemed like eons, the lights came on once more and the bodiless voices with lanterns seemed to chase each other through the shrubs, weave through the trees and finally disappear some distance away. As the voices fade away, I wonder how so much time in this timeless forest has flown by and how do I find my way home.

    In near total darkness which is intermittently lit by moonlight, I stumble across the forest until I come across a creek. The strange gurgling sound draws me closer and I kneel down to wash my face and fill my water bottle. Yet before I could do so, the sound of hoofs drew my attention. Soon a black buck appears from the dense forest clearing as if being chased by something or someone and races across the open field. As it nears the stream, it slows down and seems to hesitate and finally heads back towards the darkness from where it came from. A shrill cry emerged and the forest was till once more. Startled by the site, I drop my water bottle into the stream. The flowing water seems so black even in this dim moonlight. The splashing and rippling caused by the water bottle subside soon yet I hesitate to pull it out as I see strange lights in the water of what seems like reflections of star constellations even though the sky is covered by forest cover. Losing interest I back off and greatfull that I have an extra water container.

    Discovering a beaten dirt track alongside the stream, I start wander down it hoping to find the end of this forest. I eventually come to the end of the dirt road after what seemed like an eternity and discovered myself at the end of the village. A small patch of land with a boundary wall around it drew me as if I was in a trance. There were dried leaves all over the place and a crunching sound was heard as I walked across the path. As I near the faded bronze gate which has a lion head emblem, a gentle wind rustles through the dried leaves and opens the gate.

    Upon entering the compound, I notice an old wooden door partially open. Bright yellow light was spilling out. As I entered, I saw a large room with a blazing fireplace at the far end. Wooden book shelves filled with ancient books lined one end of the wall while there was a large window at the opposite end looking out at the interior of the house from where I had come. Out of curiosity, I walked up to the book shelf and pulled a book out at random and I started to read the

    “The Cats of Ulthar

    It is said that in Ulthar, which lies beyond the river Skai, no man may kill a cat; and this I can verily believe as I gaze upon him who sitteth purring before the fire. For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroe and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.
    In Ulthar, before ever the burgesses forbade the killing of cats, there dwelt an old cotter and his wife who delighted to trap and slay the cats of their neighbors. Why they did this I know not; save that many hate the voice of the cat in the night, and take it ill that cats should run stealthily about yards and gardens at twilight. But whatever the reason, this old man and woman took pleasure in trapping and slaying every cat which came near to their hovel; and from some of the sounds heard after dark, many villagers fancied that the manner of slaying was exceedingly peculiar. But the villagers did not discuss such things with the old man and his wife; because of the habitual expression on the withered faces of the two, and because their cottage was so small and so darkly hidden under spreading oaks at the back of a neglected yard. In truth, much as the owners of cats hated these odd folk, they feared them more; and instead of berating them as brutal assassins, merely took care that no cherished pet or mouser should stray toward the remote hovel under the dark trees. When through some unavoidable oversight a cat was missed, and sounds heard after dark, the loser would lament impotently; or console himself by thanking Fate that it was not one of his children who had thus vanished. For the people of Ulthar were simple, and knew not whence it is all cats first came.
    One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the South entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk who passed through the village twice every year. In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, and bought gay beads from the merchants. What was the land of these wanderers none could tell; but it was seen that they were given to strange prayers, and that they had painted on the sides of their wagons strange figures with human bodies and the heads of cats, hawks, rams and lions. And the leader of the caravan wore a headdress with two horns and a curious disk betwixt the horns.
    There was in this singular caravan a little boy with no father or mother, but only a tiny black kitten to cherish. The plague had not been kind to him, yet had left him this small furry thing to mitigate his sorrow; and when one is very young, one can find great relief in the lively antics of a black kitten. So the boy whom the dark people called Menes smiled more often than he wept as he sat playing with his graceful kitten on the steps of an oddly painted wagon.
    On the third morning of the wanderers’ stay in Ulthar, Menes could not find his kitten; and as he sobbed aloud in the market-place certain villagers told him of the old man and his wife, and of sounds heard in the night. And when he heard these things his sobbing gave place to meditation, and finally to prayer. He stretched out his arms toward the sun and prayed in a tongue no villager could understand; though indeed the villagers did not try very hard to understand, since their attention was mostly taken up by the sky and the odd shapes the clouds were assuming. It was very peculiar, but as the little boy uttered his petition there seemed to form overhead the shadowy, nebulous figures of exotic things; of hybrid creatures crowned with horn-flanked disks. Nature is full of such illusions to impress the imaginative.
    That night the wanderers left Ulthar, and were never seen again. And the householders were troubled when they noticed that in all the village there was not a cat to be found. From each hearth the familiar cat had vanished; cats large and small, black, grey, striped, yellow and white. Old Kranon, the burgomaster, swore that the dark folk had taken the cats away in revenge for the killing of Menes’ kitten; and cursed the caravan and the little boy. But Nith, the lean notary, declared that the old cotter and his wife were more likely persons to suspect; for their hatred of cats was notorious and increasingly bold. Still, no one durst complain to the sinister couple; even when little Atal, the innkeeper’s son, vowed that he had at twilight seen all the cats of Ulthar in that accursed yard under the trees, pacing very slowly and solemnly in a circle around the cottage, two abreast, as if in performance of some unheardof rite of beasts. The villagers did not know how much to believe from so small a boy; and though they feared that the evil pair had charmed the cats to their death, they preferred not to chide the old cotter till they met him outside his dark and repellent yard.
    So Ulthar went to sleep in vain anger; and when the people awakened at dawn—behold! every cat was back at his accustomed hearth! Large and small, black, grey, striped, yellow and white, none was missing. Very sleek and fat did the cats appear, and sonorous with purring content. The citizens talked with one another of the affair, and marveled not a little. Old Kranon again insisted that it was the dark folk who had taken them, since cats did not return alive from the cottage of the ancient man .and his wife. But all agreed on one thing: that the refusal of all the cats to eat their portions of meat or drink their saucers of milk was exceedingly curious. And for two whole days the sleek, lazy cats of Ulthar would touch no food, but only doze by the fire or in the sun.
    It was fully a week before the villagers noticed that no lights were appearing at dusk in the windows of the cottage under the trees. Then the lean Nith remarked that no one had seen the old man or his wife since the night the cats were away. In another week the burgomaster decided to overcome his fears and call at the strangely silent dwelling as a matter of duty, though in so doing he was careful to take with him Shang the blacksmith and Thul the cutter of stone as witnesses. And when they had broken down the frail door they found only this: two cleanly picked human skeletons on the earthen floor, and a number of singular beetles crawling in the shadowy corners.
    There was subsequently much talk among the burgesses of Ulthar. Zath, the coroner, disputed at length with Nith, the lean notary; and Kranon and Shang and Thul were overwhelmed with questions. Even little Atal, the innkeeper’s son, was closely questioned and given a sweetmeat as reward. They talked of the old cotter and his wife, of the caravan of dark wanderers, of small Menes and his black kitten, of the prayer of Menes and of the sky during that prayer, of the doings of the cats on the night the caravan left, and of what was later found in the cottage under the dark trees in the repellent yard.
    And in the end the burgesses passed that remarkable law which is told of by traders in Hatheg and discussed by travelers in Nir; namely, that in Ulthar no man may kill a cat.”

    The shrill cry of many hawks on the hunt woke me up from a horrible dream and I woke up with a gasp and I realized that it was late in the afternoon and the sun was burning away the last remnants of the dream I was caught in. Sweat was pouring down my face and into my shirt which was soaking wet. The dream was persistent and still seemed to pursue me into this world and I toppled backwards and fell out of the chair. Not wanting to linger in this haunted forest anymore, I trace my footsteps back to my car in the corn field patch. On the return journey, I see the same houses and yet they seem more alive than the previous night. I walked slowly back towards the houses and the sound of activity was evident even from a distance. The sound of children playing in the streets and smell of food was gently carried over to my general area.

    As I neared the houses, a solid permanent black top road started and my pace quickened. My body was tired yet my mind wanted to go on. Reaching the first door, I knocked on the door. A short while later it opened and an old man stared back at me. He just stood there and gave me a long hard stare as I stood frozen to the spot. After some time, he finally asked if I had been in the woods. Looking back over my shoulder and then back again, I stuttered back yes and asked how he knew. As I was pulled inside, I was told what a fool I had been to venture to those woods and was lucky to come back whole. As I stood in front of the mirror, I saw a white haired wrinkled man who had the haunted look in his eyes. A hot steaming plate of food and some coffee was offered and I was told that I could stay till my car was fixed. The old man went off to the field and I was left on my own to dwell on what happened last night. I found my way to a room upstairs and took a long shower to wash off all the mud, leaves and filth off me.