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My Lady of the Hearth
The most beautiful women in the world have a cat-like quality. They slink, they purr; claws sheathed in silken fur. In the privacy of their summer gardens, in the green depths of forests, I believe they shed themselves of their attire, even to their human flesh, and stretch their bodies to the sun and their secret deity. She, the Queen of Cats, is Pu-ryah, daughter of the Eye of the Sun; who both roars the vengeance of the solar fire and blesses the hearth of the home. Given that the goddess, and by association her children, has so many aspects, is it any wonder that men have ever been perplexed by the subtleties of females and felines? Yet even as we fear them, we adore them.
When I was young I had a wife, and she was a true daughter of Pu-ryah. It began in this way.
When my father died, I inherited the family seat on the edge of the city, its numerous staff, and a sizable fortune. The estate earned money for me, administered by the capable hands of its managers, and I was free to pursue whatever interests I desired. My mother, whom I barely remembered (for she died when I was very young), had bequeathed her beauty to me: I was not an ill-favored man. Yet despite these privileges, joy of the heart eluded me. I despaired of ever finding a mate. Thirty years old, and romance had always turned sour on me. I spent much of my time painting, and portraits of a dozen lost loves adorned the walls of my home; their cold eyes stared down at me with disdain, their lips forever smiling. It had come to the point where I scorned the goddess of love; she must haveblighted me at birth.
It was not long past my thirtieth birthday and, following the celebrations, my latest beloved, Delphina Corcos, had sent her maid to me with a letter, which advised me she had taken herself off to a distant temple, where she vowed to serve the Blind Eunuch of Chastity for eternity. Her decision had been swayed by a dream of brutish masculinity, in which I figured in some way-I forget the details now.
The banners of my birthday fete still adorned my halls, and I tore them down myself, in full sight of the servants, ranting against the whims of all women, to whom the security of love seemed to mean little at all. The letter in all its brevity was lost amid the debris. I dare say some maid picked it up in order to laugh at my loss with her female colleagues.
Still hot with grief and rage, I locked myself in my private rooms and here sat contemplating my hurts, with the light of summer shuttered away at the windows. Women: demonesses all! I heard the feet of servants patter past my doors, their whispers. Later, my steward would be sent to me by the housekeeper, and then, after hearing his careful inquiries as to my state of mind, I might consider reappearing in the house for dinner. Until then, I intended to surrender myself entirely to the indulgence of bitterness.
In the gloom, my little cat, Simew, came daintily to my side, rubbing her sleek fur against my legs, offering a gentle purr of condolence. She was a beautiful creature, a gift from a paramour some three years previously. Her fur was golden, each hair tipped with black along her flanks and spine, while her belly was a deep, rich amber. She was sleek and neat, loved by all in the house for her fastidiousness and affectionate nature. Now, I lifted her onto my lap, and leaned down to press my cheek against her warm flank. "Ali, Simmi, my sweet angel," I crooned. "You are always faithful, offering love without condition. I would be lucky to find a mistress as accommodating as you."
Simew gazed up at me, kneading my robes with her paws, blinking in the way that cats show us their affection. She could not speak, yet I felt her sympathy for me. I resolved then that my time with women was done. There was much to be thankful for: my health, my inheritance, and the love of a loyal cat. Though her life would be shorter than mine, her daughters and their children might be my companions until the day I died. Many men had less than this. Simew leaned against my chest, pressing her head into my hand, purring rapturously. It seemed she said to me, "My lord, what need have we of sharp-tongued interlopers? We have each other."
Cheered at once, I put Simew down carefully on the floor and went to throw my shutters wide, surprising a couple of servants who were stationed beyond the window, apparently in the act of gathering flowers. I smiled at them and cried, "Listen for my sorrow all you like. You'll not hear it."
Embarrassed, the two prostrated themselves, quaking. I picked up my cat and strode to the doors. "Come, Simew, why waste time on lamenting? I shall begin a new painting." Together, we went to my studio.
I decided I would paint a likeness of Simew, in gratitude for the comfort she had given me. It would have pride of place in my gallery of women. I arranged the cat on a crimson cushion, and for a while she was content to sit there, one leg raised like a mast as she set about grooming her soft belly. Then, she became bored, jumped from her bed and began crying out her ennui. I had made only a few preliminary sketches, but could not be angry with her. While she explored the room, clambering from table to shelf, I ignored the sounds of falling pots and smashing vases, and concentrated on my new work. It would be Pu-ryah I would paint; a lissom, cat-headed woman. Simew's face would be the model...