“If I were the mayor, I’d have renamed this town long ago,” announces the man beside me, his chuckle wet with old hurts.
I turn to read the scythe of his mouth, his milk-pale skin, his eyes like tatters of the noon sky. A foreigner, most definitely. Only outlanders court strangers in bus stands.
But I smile, nonetheless, a razorblade flash of enamel. Politeness mandates it.
He shrugs fluidly and lets one corner of his lips arch. His gaze flits from my countenance to my breasts, lingering where the dark fabric is stretched taut by fat. “You know the story, right? Long ago, your town let two old people get eaten alive by cats. The rest of the world certainly knows about it. Frankly, I’m amazed that this place gets as much traffic as it does.”
The man releases a silvery little laugh, as though enchanted by his own astuteness or, perhaps, the morbidity of his observation. He shrugs again, slotting hands beneath his armpits. I deliberate on an answer. There is time. The bus will arrive in precisely twenty-one minutes unless traffic robs it of precision. A rarity, but not an impossibility. Not with this season’s crop of tourists worming through the town’s gnarled streets, maggot-fat and crow-loud, staining the bricks red with their laughter.
“That story made headlines.” His voice wedges between my thoughts, like a knee between resisting thighs. “Did you know that? What with the town being thousands of miles from the epicenter of interesting.”
I hold my smile. “We have television. And radio.”
“Yeah. I was just checking, you know?” He flashes a megawatt grin, the grin of a man accustomed to success. I do not reciprocate. His enthusiasm is too grandiose to be sincere, his voice too loud. This conversation is just foreplay, announces the jut of his hips, the width of his grin. This is just a formality before we progress to coffee, to alcohol, to salt-slick-skin-bruising sex.
I glance down the vacant street.
“I’m Frederic, by the way.” The syllables of his name turn to music beneath his tongue, clothing them with an unexpected exoticism. “Like Frederick. Except French.”
A blocky, bony hand stabs forward. I look down. The fingers are scar-brindled and ridged with calluses, the palm broad and brown. A laborer’s hand. A hand I could have been friends with were it not attached to the rest of him. I run my eyes up the line of his arm and find bared teeth waiting at its end. This is more than just courtesy. This is a demand for permission, for a sanctioning of pursuit. Briefly, I consider abandoning propriety and turning to clump down the road. The walk would not be so bad. The night might be deep but it is not unfamiliar. There are no dangers crouched in the gaps between streetlamps, no alleyway mongrels to fear, nothing to rationally dread.
Frederic cocks his head. His smile drifts from arrogance to uncertainty, even as his arm wilts, sagging under the weight of doubt. “Um. Okay. We could call you Ms. Mystery instead. I—”
“Sigrid,” I supply, curt. Age has made the burden of someone else’s naming unpalatable.
“Like the Norse Goddess?”
Seventeen minutes. “Yes.”
“I see.” His eyes walk down the slant of my throat even as he purses his mouth, eyebrows crumpled together. “It’s just—”
“Sometimes,” I lie, patient, impenetrable, “a name is simply a name.”
Silence descends like the teeth of a jaguar, snapping the thread of conversation, a sudden execution that leaves Frederic staggered. I glance behind us. In a dark shop window, my reflection and I trade cautious smiles. Her eyes are amber, the brass of the ferryman’s wages, narrow and strange where the rest of her is not. She has dark curls and wide curves, a mouth like an invitation, a lilt to her hips that teases at a dancer’s bravado. In Asia, where the girls are crafted from reeds and finger bones, she would be branded as fat. But not here. In Ulthar, we prize endurance over taut geometry.
My reflection tips her chin outwards. Pay attention, she mouths.
I blink. “Pardon?”
“I said—” His eyes flick to the glass. My reflection stares back. “—We should have coffee, sometime. Before I leave. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in this place. I can’t just up and go without at least buying you a macchiato, you know?”
A contraction of ventricles, half a breath’s width of quiet. And then: “You do have Starbucks here, right?”
That laugh again: high and brittle, fishbone-sharp. “Oh, man. This is literally the hicks, isn’t it? Starbucks is great. Not the best, of course. Portland is where it’s at if you want coffee. But if you’re in a rush, Starbucks is good for breakfast bagels, lattes, and—”
“—picking up chicks?”
“Yeah!” he barks before epiphany snatches the life from his swagger. “I mean—”
Frederic shrugs and drags fingers through lank blonde hair. He steals another longing look at my chest before he frees a vaporizer from a pocket: translucent indigo plastic brimming with dark fluids. Liquid warbles when he inhales.
“My point is: Starbucks is delightful,” he announces, breath reeking sweetly of carcinogens and scalded cells. “Anyway, let me buy you a drink somewhere. Heck, tell you what. I’ve got a French Press. We could totally do it at your place.”
I consider his proposition and my mouth, unbidden, thins into a line.
“So, anyway, where are you off to?” He shortens the distance between us with a fluid step, posture and the fall of his shadow denoting ownership.
Another thin extrusion of smoke, cherry-sour and chemical. His desire is gelatinous, gorged on avarice, heavy enough to choke.
“I have a question for you in return.” I wet my lips, coax them into a smile. “If I were to tell you that I planned to walk home right now, without surrendering my phone number or a promise to see you again, would you allow it?”
Frederic scans the night. The cityline is as jagged as an old boxer’s knuckles; hard angles that tear into stuttering rooftops, a maze of winding paths scarred by war-gutted architecture. And in between the ruin and the stones walk the cats. Hundreds of cats. An ocean of eyes pouring through spaces too alien to fathom.
“Absolutely not. That would be ungentlemanly. What if you get jumped by someone?”
“Ulthar is not a place where such would happen.” An indelible truth.
He hooks a sly arm around my elbow, angles his own just so to mime gallantry. I glance up at his face and the smile that burns there, incandescent and indifferent, plump with predatory glee. “Just in case, you know?”
Physical contact extorts revelation. I catch a sliver of his life; visions of refracted color, vials of alcohol, a rainbow of pharmaceuticals, and women. So many women. Spread open, face down, white skin and brown skin tangling into perpetuity, faceless and nameless, flesh to violate over and over and over.
Ah, one of those.
There is a noise in the air that reminds me of the sea, a white hiss, as of foam breaking on the rocks or too many mouths opened in hymn. “You should leave.”
“But you’re here,” he retorts.
“You don’t take no for an answer, do you?”
His skin exposes an alphabet of petty sins when he strokes my arm, a liberty he takes with the slyest of smirks. The air shudders and just for a moment, the distant song is loud enough to drown. Frederic’s smile ascends to pleasure: “Never.”
It is said that in Ulthar we have outlawed the murder of cats.
It is also said that in Ulthar we worship pagan gods and that we conduct our businesses in threes.
Many things are said about Ulthar but as is the case with these matters, all of it is both fiction and fact. Veracity can only be found in careful dissection, a grain of sand lodged in coils of viscera. And even then, all myths stem from reality so what is truth but a lie held culpable for its existence?
I am certain that Frederic had articulated a different account of our first encounter and that, somewhere in that boundless space commanded by the dreams of machines, there are still people marvelling over his facility at orchestrating one-night stands. But we did not sleep together. Not that first night. Nor anytime during the evenings that followed, one after another, washed in the lipid-yellow glow of the college coffeehouse, a comedy of tepid conversations.
Let the records be clear: I did not tolerate him out of interest. I did so out of obligation. Duty. And, perhaps, if I am to be utterly honest, a grudging curiosity. Frederic’s fascination with Ulthar’s college bordered on grotesque. He would condemn its occult syllabus in one breath, and then author worshipful paens to our libraries in the next, reversing the order whenever whim struck him.
He did not believe any of it, of course. Not ostensibly, at least. Frederic chortled when I introduced him to Atal’s mummified remains, whose bones had been zoog-gnawed into a kind of symmetry. He laughed when we toured the temple, now a husk of itself, churning with hibernating shoggoths, unloved and uncared for in this secular decade. He was kind to the cats, at least, although he did lightly mock our generosity towards strays, convinced that overpopulation was a greater burden to the species than the judicious application of euthanasia.
“The gods are dead, Sigrid.”
It is midnight. It is always midnight when such proclamations are made. The cafe is an alcove of heat in the endlessness of the library, a triumvirate of narrow tables and a bar counter sparsely occupied by confections. I look up from my textbook and scrutinise Frederic’s features. He looks gaunt, as though the meat of him is receding into bone. “Which ones? The Elder Gods or that tortured Jesus of yours?”
“Not mine.” Frederic sniffs, indignant. “I don’t believe in that stuff. But, if you must know: all of them.”
“All of the gods?”
“Yes.” He gestures with a hand. Beyond the illumination of the oil lamps, the book shelves stretch like rows of tightly packed teeth. “They don’t exist.”
I sip my tea. It is silent save for the jangle of our cups, the hiss of moving pages. The waitress, a slip of a girl with salt-colored flesh, is nowhere to be seen. “Big words for a little man.”
The answering smile is feral. “You keep saying that, but you won’t let me prove just how big I am.”
A tongue of flame twitches, shedding odd patterns on the wall, faces and messages. Frederic’s attention darts away. He stares into the darkness like a dog who has tasted something foul in the wind, shoulders bunched, gaze stagnant. The library stares back, vast and deep and ancient.
I cough. “When are you going back home?”
“Home?” The sound is low and lonely in his mouth.
Something unweaves itself from the shadows, a sleek body with agate eyes and handsome whiskers. Fearless, the tom sashays into reach, ears slicked back as he pushes into my calf, demand communicated in the supple arching of his back. I lower a hand to stroke his throat in greeting.
“Home.” Under my fingertips, the feline thrums with impudent ecstasy. “The place where you were born. Where your family live. Where you had a girlfriend, perhaps. A wife. People who loved you.”
“Home,” Frederic repeats to himself. He seems to deflate, shrinking, spine and mouth hunched in defeat. “I don’t—I don’t—The air is so brisk here, Sigrid. So sweet, so pure. Nothing like home. I don’t want to leave.”
I gather the tom cat onto my lap and he sprawls over my thighs, contorting pleasurably, limbs whipping into frenzied configurations. He winks a gemstone eye before presenting his marrow-red abdomen, tail looping around my right arm. A flirtation or an offering, I cannot tell which. “But you can’t stay. You’re nearly broke. Ulthar is no place for a penniless tourist. No one, I’m afraid, will hire you.”
“I haven’t run out of memories yet.” Frederic cups his jaw. Then pinches the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb, face scrunched in misery. “Money, I mean. The kebab lady, she has an excellent combo deal if you come after midnight. She says I can pay her in visions of the moonless ocean. If they’re long enough, if I can enumerate the sonnet of the waves. “
“And what happens when that is gone too?”
His eyes flutter open. “I don’t know.”
The fugue does not linger. It retreats like an unseasonal fog, eeling back into mere possibility. Frederic’s pale blue regard clears, sharpens, becomes bright as a warning. He gawks at me in surprise, as though seeing me for the first time, his mouth slightly parted. Muscles tauten beneath a shirt that no longer fits and briefly, I glimpse the hard undulations of his vertebrae, a future written in calcium growths.
Frederic shakes his head and spools a tendril of blonde hair around a finger. He grins as he leans forward, audaciously pompous, alive again. Vibrant. “Anyway, I can’t leave until we’ve had coffee at your place. You know that.”
“You will be destitute before that happens.”
“I’ll work,” he declares, without regard for our earlier exchange, arrogance clutched like an emblem of office. “I’m good with my hands. I’m charming. Spent a few years being a barista. I can even make latte art. Hell, I could work here. They look like they could need the help.”
He flutters an emaciated arm, pulling my attention to nothing, to an emptiness haunted by the smell of old ink and even older stories. The tomcat growls his amusement, begins washing his stomach. Frederic lapses again into a quiet, his gaze lamplight-bright, mouth veined with something like happiness.
The texture of the air alters, softens, acquires a moistness that is not entirely unpleasant.
“You should leave.” I tell him between sips of tea, my tongue crusted with sweetness. “There is nothing for you here. There never was.”
“There’s you.” Just a sigh, so soft that it might as well have been imaginary.
My tomcat disentangles from my attentions, dropping onto the cold floor with a yowl of displeasure. Somewhere, someone answers.
I smooth my fingers over my skirt, pick out the wrinkles in the material, before I speak again. “Frederic, tell me a time when I have expressed anything but the desire to be a competent host. Tell me a memory of my lust, or a shy smile that could misconstrued as want. Tell me if I have ever exhibited anything but the ambition to see you gone.”
Slowly, delicately, like a man extricating himself from the sweetest of fantasies, he turns to study my face, his gaze split between here and whatever topography his mind now travels. His smile is radiant and a little wry, one corner of his lips raised as though in farewell. “I can’t. But you haven’t said no, either.”
“I haven’t said yes.”
“All maybes become a yes,” he counters, unctuous as only he can be. “All things are made mutable in—”
His voice stutters, skips. Frederic’s eyes swell and I stretch over the table to close my hands over his own. His skin is dry, salt-dry, bone-dry, stone-dry, dry enough to flake apart, to fall into foam and rot. “Leave.”
I find him on the rooftop of my apartment complex, disrupting the satellite reception, his longings intertwining with news broadcasting from the ’60s. Over the last few nights, my face has been replicated on a hundred television screens, contorted by Frederic’s interpretations of rapture. In these visions, he imagines my breasts more colossal than they are, my waist more tapered, my hair longer and straighter, spume-white. In his fantasies, my eyes are rich enough to ransom gods.
“I told you to leave.” I tell him.
The moon fills the sky with blood. Frederic sits in a knot of razorblade limbs, cross-legged, his shoulders like knives straining against skin. He holds a kitten cupped in his hands, a wisp of grey fluff, too small to reason.
“I tried,” he whispers, voice coarse from disuse, feathered with phlegm. “I went to the bus station where we first met but I couldn’t remember what home was. I thought it was north, but the line doesn’t go north. Only to Yian and I am not yet worthy enough to walk even its first bridge. So, I thought about it and I came back, and Mara gave me tea and it tasted sweetly of salt. Like diabetic blood, I guess. Or taffy. Perhaps, taffy.”
Frederic frowns. “I would miss you too much to leave.”
“I would not miss you if you left.”
He only smiles.
I settle down some distance from him and stretch out my arms. The kitten jolts from his embrace into mine, coiling, curling into the crook of my elbow, its body a nest of deep vibrations. I caress her ears and she mewls in reply, eyes circles of pale light. “Can I tell you a story?”
“Yes. Eternity is infinite.”
“Once upon a time, there was a kitten and a boy, both marked by the depth of their color. Together with others, they travelled through the margins of the world, a breeze, never fully touching anything but each other. One day, they came into Ulthar.”
Something is singing. Frederic is singing. It is an old song, a song inked into cartilage and marrow, a cancerous elegy, the death hymn of hares, the eulogy of squids. His voice startles with its beauty, the notes tenderly shaped despite how they abrade his flesh. The music grows wet.
“I’ve watched you make love to yourself. With your hands and your mouth and tail,” Frederic murmurs between stanzas, scuttling closer, crab-like in gait. “I’ve seen us together too. In every position, every shape. They’ve shown me how much you want me.”
I ignore him. “There was an old couple there who took pleasure in the death of cats. Not quick deaths. Slow ones, long and sensual, choked with open arteries and cautious vivisection. They made coats with entrails and fur. They read the stars in the screams.” I sigh. “These days, I think they misunderstood some of those signs they saw.”
I raise my eyes to his. His gaze is moon-bleached, the hue of old bones. “Humans see what they wish to see. I am only your Virgil.”
“You are mine,” he agrees.
“I am not,” I correct. The kitten in my grip hisses her defiance. The choir stiffens and slows, deepening to a hungry rumble. “I never was. I never will be. The same way I was never for the old couple. Not that that stopped them. They were skillful, I will say that. I was alive when they flayed me open. Alive when they opened my gut to find a cure to liver spots and aching bones. But then my boy called to The Joyous Man and he appeared and he asked me what I desired most.”
Frederic’s breath blisters, fever-sweet. “What did you want?”
“What any other creature wants: to live.”
Shadows convulse in the horizon, dividing into slick and clever shapes, to an ocean of eyes. They flit across the rooftops, one after another, on tongueless paws, their ears pinned flat against their scalps. And they are singing, all of them, that prayer we’ve carried from decade to decade, century to century, our psalm to The Joyous Man.
The cats make circles of their bodies, ring upon rings, surrounding us, connecting us. I slide onto my feet, onto claws obsidian-deep, my kitten flouncing away to join the pack. “The problem with man is that he does not know when he is unwanted and that he will do anything to impose his want on another. I have told you to leave twice already. I will tell you again: leave.”
It is not ugly, his death. The cats are careful. Frederic sings while they devour him; a new song, his own song, a sweet thing that smells of summer and rosemary. His smile is beatific. As his toes and his calves are winnowed to bone, Frederic leans forward to gather close the tide of velvet bodies and like fish, they nibble at his fingertips. It is only his stomach has been excavated, abdominal cavity hollowed into a perfect blackness, that he rests onto his back, his arms spread out, as though in imitation of the martyred deity he so loathes.
The cats do not let even one drop of blood escape.
I stay with him until he ceases singing, until two kittens flee with an eyeball each, tattered membranes dripping from delicate jaws. I stay with him until he is gone, dispersed into Ulthar, a new wraith for her coffers.
There are many things that are said of Ulthar, most untrue and some interesting, but it is never said that we are unkind.