The dog fox known to his friends as Loves a Dustbin lay in the late-afternoon shade of some gorse bushes on top of a Cornish headland, waiting for his old friend Sealink to make up her mind.
Long-backed, reddish, and brindled, he was strikingly handsome, until you saw that one of his flanks was completely gray, as if the fur there had somehow lost the will to retain its foxy hue. In another life, humans had shot him full of lead pellets; but for the support of his companions, his soul might have trickled away with the color of his coat. Now two of that gentle but determined company were no more, and the rest had begun to scatter. After such dangerous events, after a lifetime's service in another species's cause, it was strange for him to lie here in the sunshine and be an ordinary fox again, bathed in the warmth of the returning spring, the confectionary scent of the gorse. He rested his head on his paws and settled down, prepared to wait as long as necessary. Patience was a luxury his other life had not encouraged. He intended to explore it to the full.
His mate, a vixen from the suburbs by the name of Francine, very good-looking and therefore uninclined to give and take, sighed boredly and said, "Must we stay with her?"
"I promised Tag," he answered simply. "Anyway, she needs the company."
After a moment he admitted, "I know she's difficult to get on with."
At this, the vixen sniffed primly. Loves a Dustbin contemplated her out of the corner of his eye. She really was quite fine. And the smell of her, along the cliff-top fields in the dusk or early morning! He would go anywhere for that smell.
"It's been a long, hard road for Sealink," he observed.
"Life's a long, hard road for all of us," said Francine, unaware perhaps that life had been rather kind to her so far, "with one thing or another all the way. Why should she make so much of it?" And, tawny eyes narrowed against the sun, she stared hard at the sturdy figure of Sealink, who was sitting perilously close to the edge of the cliff and looking vaguely but steadfastly out to sea. Every so often she blinked or her ears flexed as if calibrating the onshore breeze. Other than these small, precise movements, she showed no signs of life. Every line in her body spoke of deep preoccupation. This served to further irritate Francine, who said, "I have never understood your fondness for felines. Foxes have plenty to contend with in this world without having to bother themselves with cats, too." Then she added so quietly that Loves a Dustbin thought he might have misheard her, "These cats make such a meal of it all."
"Have a heart, Francine," he appealed. "She's sad, that's all."
And she was.
A wind-rinsed sky full of wheeling gulls, sunlight glittering far out on the water, sea shooshing inexorably back and forth: the day itself seemed to be urging Sealink to forget the things she had seen and done, the things she blamed herself for and couldn't change.
Time had passed since the battle with the Alchemist had left the grass of the cliff tops west of here scarred and scorched. More time, still, since her mate, that old bruiser, Mousebreath, had lost his own fight for life in some nameless part of the English countryside, borne down by a score of alchemical cats. Most of them had been among the deluded creatures who subsequently hurled themselves off the headland to fuel their master's unnatural powers. But Sealink had felt no satisfaction in thatnot even when days later she had looked over the cliff and seen them there, a sodden mass of fur lining the shore as the tides pressed them gently but purposefully into the shingle. She had only been able to think, Where was I when he needed my help? Somewhere out at sea, bobbing up and down on a boat with Pengelly and Old Smoky the fisherman. Fulfilling some damn ancient prophecy. Helping a foreign queen get to Tintagel Head and give safe and timely birth to the very kittens who were the cause of all t his tragedy.
It had been difficult for her to mask her pain over these last weeks; but most of the time none of her companions had been watching her, anyway. They were all bursting with relief and optimism. They had, after all, defeated the Alchemist. A few domestic cats and a dog fox had prevailed against appalling odds. They were still alive! They had new lives to make! Tag and Cy, reunited, chased and bit each other like youngsters. Ragnar Gustaffson, King of Cats, cornered whoever would listen and described in considerable detail his adventures on the wild road. Francine the vixen rubbed her head against Loves a Dustbin and promised him a life filled with Chinese take-away and sunlit parkland.
And as for the foreign queen's kittens ...
One of them was the Golden Cat; one of them, when it grew up, would heal the whole hurt world. But who knew which of the three it was? No matter how hard she had stared at them, she hadn't been able to tell one from another. Tiny and blind looking, they had pushed and suckled and mewed and struggled. They had all looked the same. Like any kittens she'd ever seen...
Like her own litter, in that other existence of hers, in another country, another world. I'm still alive, she thought. Perhaps they are, too. Her own kittens! In that moment, she knew that there was only one journey she could make now. The world could never be whole again; but she would damned well recover from it what she was owed. We make our lives, she thought. There ain't no magic: just teeth-gritting, head-down, eye-watering determination. She stood up slowly, but with a new resolve, stretched her neck, her back, each leg in turn. She felt the warmth of the sun penetrate her coat.
"Okay," she said quietly.
She turned to the two foxes.
"Let's move on, you guys," she said. "No use waitin' around here. Places to go, things to do. I'm goin' home and find my kittens!"
They stared at her.
Some way down the coast, another cat sat drowsing on a warm rock while her brood played on a sunlit headland above the sea.
Her fur was a pale rosy color. Her eyes were as deep as Nile water. Faint dapples and stripes made on her forehead a forgotten symbol. She was the Maua name that, in a language no longer used, means not just "cat" but "the Great Cat, or wellspring, that from which all else issues." Only months before, she had been the pivot around which the whole world moved. Even now, when she blinked out at sea, it was as if the world was somehow peculiarly hers. The Mau's blood was half as old as time, but she was newly a mother; and her husband, who was less in awe of her than he had been in those hectic days, called her Pertelot.
Pertelot's kittens were named Isis, Odin, and Leonora Whitstand Merril"Leo" for shortand after some encouragement they had run a mouse to earth in a patch of gorse that smelled like honey and cinnamon. The mousewhich, she reflected, had so far shown more acumen than all her children put togetherhad quietly retreated into the dense tangled stems and prepared to wait them out.
"Leonora," advised the Mau quietly, "it would help if you kept still and didn't keep rushing in like that."
"I want to eat the mouse," said Leonora.
"I know, dear. But you must remember that the mouse does not want to be eaten. She will not come out if she knows you are there."
"I told you not to push in," said Odin. "Remember what the rat told Tag: 'It's your dog that chases. Your cat lies in wait.'" Then, to his mother, "Tell her she's no good at this."
"None of you is very good at it yet."
"She just wanted to get in first."
"I did not."
"I did not," said Leonora. "I'm bored with the mouse now," she decided. "It's rather small, isn't it?"
"You're just no good at hunting."
Leonora looked hurt. "I am."
"I bite your head," said Leonora.
The kitten Isis stood a little apart and watched her brother and sister squabble, making sure to keep one eye on the place where the mouse had disappeared. Isis had her mother's eyes, dreamy and shrewd at the same time.
She suggested, "Perhaps if we went 'round the back?"
The Mau blinked patiently in the sunlight. Her kittens perplexed her. They were already getting tall and leggy, quite fluid in their movements. They had no trace of their father's Nordic boxiness; and, if the truth were told, they didn't look much like Pertelot either. They had short dense fur a mysterious, tawny color. Every afternoon, in the long golden hours before sunset, the light seemed to concentrate in it, as if they were able to absorb the sunshine and thrive on it. "What sort of cats are they?" she asked herself. And, unconsciously echoing her old friend Sealink, "Which of them will be the Golden Cat?" As they grew, the mystery, much like their color, only deepened. Paradoxically, though, it was their less mysterious qualities that perplexed her most. The very moment of their birth had been so fraught with danger. The world had hung by a thread around them. Yet now ...
Well, just look at them, thought Pertelot a shade complacently: you couldn't ask for a healthier, more ordinary litter. Leonora, suiting actions to words, had got quite a lot of Odin's head in her mouth. Odin, though giving as good as he received, had a chewed appearance and was losing his temper. Claws would be out soon. The Mau shook herself.
"Stop that at once," she ordered.
She said, "Isis has had a very sensible idea."
Leo and her brother jumped to their feet and rushed off around the gorse bush, shouting, "My mouse!"
"No, my mouse!"
Isis followed more carefully. The Mau listened to them arguing for a few seconds, then yawned and looked out to sea. In a minute or two, if she thought they had worked hard enough, she might go and catch the mouse for them. For now it was nice to rest in the warm sun. She lay down, gave a cursory lick at her left flank, and fell asleep. She dreamed as she often did, of a country she had never seen, where soft moony darkness filled the air between the palm trees along a river's glimmering banks. At dawn, white doves flew up like handkerchiefs around the minarets; a white dove struggled in her mouth. Then suddenly it was dark again, and the bird had escaped, and she was alone. "Rags?" she called anxiously, but there was no answer. All around her whirled an indistinct violence, the darkness spinning and churning chaotically, as if the very world were tearing itself apart.
"Rags!" she called, and woke to the warm air enameled with late afternoon, to the sound of a voice not her own, also crying for help. Rounding the gorse bushes, she found the two female kittens distraught. There was no sign of the male. On one side short upland turf, luminous in the declining sun, fell gently away to the cliff at the edge of Tintagel Head. On the other, the dark mass of gorse smoked away inland, aromatic, mysterious with flowers. "Quickly now," she ordered the kittens, "tell me what has happened!"
They stared helplessly at her. Then Isis began to run back and forth in a panic, crying, "Our brother is gone! Our brother is gone!"
Pertelot thrust her head into the gorse. "Odin!" she called into the dusty recessive twilight between the stems. "Come out at once. It's very wrong of you to tease your sisters like this." No answer. Nothing moved. She ran to the cliff and looked down. "Odin? Odin!" Had he tumbled over the edge? Could she see something down there? Only the water stretching away like planished silver into the declining sun. Only the sound of the waves on the rocks below.
"Our brother is gone!"
If you had been in Tintagel town that early summer evening, you might have seen a large black cat half-asleep in a back street in a bar of sun. He was a wild-looking animal, robust and muscular, who weighed seventeen pounds in his winter coat, which had just now molted enough to reveal stout, cobby legs and devastating paws. His nose was long and wide, and in profile resembled the noseguard of a Norman helmet. His eyes were electric, his battle scars various.
He was Ragnar Gustaffson Coeur de Lion: not merely a king among cats but the King of Cats. No one went against him. His name was a legend along the wild roads for mad feats and dour persistence in the face of odds. But he was a great-hearted creature if a dangerous one. He exacted no tribute from his subjects. He gave more than he received. He was known to deal fairly and honestly with everyone he met, though his accent was a little strange.
Kittens loved him especially, and he loved them, pedigree or feral, sickly or well-set. He never allowed them to be sickly for long. One sweep of his great tongue was enough. He could heal as easily as he could maim. Toms and queens fetched their ailing children to him from all over town. There were no runts in Tintagel litters. There was barely a runny eye.
Everywhere Ragnar went, kittens followed him about with joy, imitating his rolling fighter's walk. Dignified sixteen-week-olds led the way. Tiny excited balls of fluff, barely able to toddle, came tumbling along behind. Slowly, like a huge ship, he would come to rest, then turn and study them and muse with Scandinavian irony, "They all can learn how to be kings from Ragnar Gustaffsoneven the females!"
This evening, though, he dozed alone, huge paws twitching occasionally as in his dreams he toured the wild roads, bit a dog, retraced some epic journey in the face of serious winter conditions. Suddenly, his head went up. He had heard something on the ghost roads, something Over There. Seconds later, a highway opened three feet up in the bland Tintagel air, and Pertelot Fitzwilliam of Hi-Fashion jumped out of nowhere followed closely by what remained of the royal family.
"Rags! Rags!" she was calling.
While Isis cried, "Our brother, Odin, is gone!"
And Leo complained darkly, "It wasn't my fault. He just had to go in there after the stupid mouse"
For Sealink, Francine, and Loves a Dustbin, the next day started innocuously enough. They awoke to the sound of wood pigeons and the cawing of crows as the first light rose over the hill to shine through the trees like a great, splintered prism.
With a yawn, Sealink uncoiled herself from the depths of her feathery tail, and, shaking each leg out in turn, went off to find some breakfast. She was filled with a sense of anticipation, the prospect of new life, a new journey. Sealink was a traveling cat. But previously she had traveled without a goal, letting her watchword be "the journey is the life," and going with the flow from America to Amsterdam, from Praguewhich she pronounced to rhyme with vagueto Budapest, Constantinople, and the mystic East. But returning to New Orleans, place of her birth, to look for her kittenswell, that was altogether another kind of venture. It was a whole new experience, and that was just what a calico cat liked best.
Sniffing lazily around among fern and nettle, dog's mercury and sorrel, she found herself daydreaming about Cajun shrimp and chicken gumbo, and thus it was more by luck than by judgment that she stumbled on a sleeping vole. She was just about to deliver the killing blow, when Francine the vixen woke up, saw that something nasty was going on, and raised her voice in disapproval.
The vole sat bolt upright, took one look at the hungry cat looming above it, and legged it down a convenient hole.
"Hot damn," said Sealink.
Francine had grown up in the suburbs, where food came neither on the hoof nor out of trash cans but was reverently placed on trimmed lawns at owl light, at close of day, by children. In that well-planned zone between the wild and the tame, no one wanted to kill foxes. Where Francine had tumbled and played as a cub, the risk was less death than photography. Even though the badgers, those untamed civil engineers, were threatening it all by undermining people's gardens and getting themselves a bad name, human beings were still out there every night with long lenses and photo-multipliers. In cubs this bred a certain sense of security, on the heels of which often followed a demanding temperament and, paradoxically, a less-than-satisfactory life. Francine knew what she wanted, and though she was aware of death, her idea of nature had never given it much room. Nature was trimmed once a week. It featured fresh rinds of bacon, orange-flavored yogurt, a little spicy sausage. It had neither the addictive jungly glitte r of the city, nor the darkness of the wild. Darkness never fell in the suburbs; and everything that was there one day was there the next day, too. You had to face things, of course, but nothing could be gained by dwelling on them. A steely will gave you the illusion of control.
As a result, Francine divided the world into the wildnastyand the tamenice. Wild foodlive prey, the sort you caught yourselfwas nasty. The scraps left out for you on lawns were nice. The people who prepared food like that were nice. People were, on the whole, Francine believed, nice. They were civilized. On the other hand, the animal roadsbeing wild by definitionwere uncivilized and nasty. The primal state was not something Francine aspired to. What she did aspire to, Sealink suspected, was matriarchy. Francine wanted Loves a Dustbin back on familiar ground, where she could encourage him to "settle down." She seemed an unlikely mate for him, given his dark history and adventurous life.
"I reckon he didn't have too much choice in the matter" was Sealink's assessment. "And once she's given him the cubs, he'll have even less. No more adventuring with cats."
Particularly with cats like herself. Sealink had a distinct intuition thatas an attractive, intrepid, and unencumbered female, albeit of an entirely different speciesshe was herself encompassed by Francine's definition of "nasty," too, with plenty of room to spare.
This morning, she wasn't disposed to be patient. She was hungry. Worse, she could hear the vole, safe underground, incapable with laughter as it boasted to its friends about her incompetence.
"Honey," she told Francine, "I'm gonna try one more time here. Read my lips: You are frightening the damn food away."
She lowered her voice.
"Okay?" she said sweetly.
"You call that food, do you?" said Francine unpleasantly.
At which point, the dog fox intervened.
"Come on," he said. "Bickering isn't going to get you to Ponders End," he told the vixen, "or you," he said to Sealink, "back to your kittens. There's a highway entrance here, and we'd better take it."
Behind his back, Francine made a face.
Bitter and icy, the winds of the highways blew their fur the wrong way no matter in which direction they faced. All around, as far as the eye could see, ashen and inimical, stretched a landscape as old as time and just as forbidding. Sealink watched as Loves a Dustbin raised his long, intelligent head into the worst of the blast and listened intently. Beside him, Francine trembled, unable to accept the descent into the wild life. One moment she was an elongated, russet-coated thing with pointed muzzle and fennec ears; the next just an ordinary vixen again, full of fear, her eyes closed tight against the wind. After a moment, though, the road took her, and she gave herself up to it. She was running.
They were all running!
Powdered snow whirled and eddied around them, lit by a preternatural moon. Outside the wild roads, glimpsed briefly through the flurries, Sealink could see fragments of countryside skim past, sunlit and fragrant, the pulse of nature as slow as the heartbeat of a hibernating dormouse. Inside, shades of gray whirled and flowed, shadows upon shadows, as their muscles bunched and stretched, bunched and stretched, and they ate the ancient ground away stride by giant stride.
Sometime laterit seemed like hours, but how could you count time in a landscape without day and night, a world in which the sun shone through a haze, and the moon, shrouded by mist, hung always overhead?Sealink could tell that they had covered a considerable distance. It was not just a sense of things shifting at speed but also a feeling of enervation, of weariness achieved by long effort. And just as she had recognized the leading edge of this fatigue, a debilitating exhaustion crashed down upon her, sweeping through her like a cold, dark wave.
The calico shook herself. She could never remember having felt so tired, particularly on the Old Changing Way, which channeled all the energy of the world. It was as if a hand had reached up through the earth and squeezed her heart. She could hardly breathe. The foxes had stopped, too.
There was a voice, too, distant yet powerful, then the stench of something fetid. The voice seemed for a moment closer, and Sealink thought she heard the words, "Got you!" Then the fabric of the wild road started to tear. Light from the ordinary world poured in like sand. The highway gave a great, galvanic convulsion, as if attempting to vomit, and suddenly Sealink and the foxes found themselves spun out of cold winds and icy plains into English woodland dappled with warm shade.
Sealink picked herself up and looked around.
"Damn! Ain't never been spit out like that before."
Twenty yards away the foxes stood, blinking bemusedly in the sunlight, looking down at something that appeared to have fallen out of the wild road with them.
It lay on its side at the foot of a beech tree, and it was bigger, even in death, than Sealink in life. Despite experience with the wildlife of fourteen countries, she had never before encountered its shaggy gray coat or striped face. She thought briefly of the raccoons of her native land. "Your raccoons, though," she reminded herself, "don't bulk up anywhere near so big. Anyhows, this thing ain't got no tail." Powerful claws lay drawn up under its body. Its face was a mask of terror, black lips drawn back defiantly from yellowed teeth. Its eyes were glazed. There was no sign of how it had come by its sudden demise. Black flies buzzed in lazy spirals in the air, and the exposed roots of the beech seemed to close loosely around the corpse like a human hand.
"Looks like it was good at life, this one," Sealink said to Loves a Dustbin, who was sitting by the corpse as if he might deduce something from the angle of its head, the slack gape of its jaw.
"Yes," he said.
"So what exactly is it?"
The fox looked up at her, but before he could speak, Francine interrupted. "It's a badger," she told Sealink. "Haven't you seen one before?"
"Personally I never liked a badger. They've ruined it for everyone where I come from. I am surprised you've never seen one before, dear, you having traveled so far and wide"
"Well, I'll know him again," Sealink promisedthinking to herself, I bet you love this. You know somethin' I don'toh, I bet you love that.
"A badger, huh?"
"Just a dirty old badger," Francine agreed complacently.
Loves a Dustbin gave her an odd look, then said, "We must have seen a dozen deaths like this since we left Tintagel."
They had lain in the unlikeliest places, always at the outlet of their customary highways, among the trees of a peaceful copse, beside benign moorland streamsthe inexplicable dead.
"What do you make of it, hon?" asked the cat.
The dog fox shook his head.
"It's the wild roads," he said simply. "There's something the matter with them. I smell the hand of the Alchemist in this."
"But the Alchemist is dead. I saw him die. Him and the Majicou, both."
The fox shrugged. "There was always the chance that his magic would dominate the highways for a while. They'll be cleansed by use." But he seemed unconvinced by this explanation. He had a fox's nose and an understanding of the Old Changing Way second only to that of his original master. Old evil has a thin, faded reek; evil newly done smells as pungent as dung. If anyone knew the difference between the two, it was Loves a Dustbin. "Perhaps it's just some disease," he said.
This caused Francine to step smartly away from the corpse.
"Oh, dear! Come along now," she advised. "It's only something dead. We know these things happen, after all. We don't have to rub our noses in them every day."
The next morning promised better things. Sunlight crept down through the ghostly breaths of mist in the river valley and burned them away to a sheen on the grass. Birds called in the ash trees. The light was pale and bright, so that everything looked brand-new, as if someone had come by in the night and retouched the reeds and butterbur, the broom and the jack-in-the-green, the golden celandines and wild thyme from a fresh palette of watercolors.
They came out onto heathland among lazy bees and rabbits that bolted at the first scent of them, white scuts bobbing away over the close-bitten turf. Thwarted by the rabbits but fueled by the warmth of the sun, the foxes took to play, ambushing each other from behind trees, chasing and biting each other's brushes.
After a while, Loves a Dustbin trotted back to the calico, his long red tongue lolling humorously out of his mouth.
"What a life, eh, Sealink? What a life!" He laughed wryly. "Bet you never expected to see me acting like this. I never expected it myself. I thought my death was waiting for me behind every tree, watching in every shadow." He chuckled. "Ironic, isn't it? You think your life's over, and it's only just beginning."
Sealink was unprepared for the misery this evoked. A protective inner shutter slammed down. Too late. Suddenly, all she could see was the gleam of a pair of mismatched eyesone an honest speedwell blue, one a wicked sodium orange. All she could smell was dusty tortoiseshell fur, aromatic, peppery.
The fox saw what was happening.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I"
Sealink stared past him, her face lit with memory and pain. She swallowed hard and opened her mouth to speak. Nothing came out. Eventually she reassured him, "It's okay, it's okay, I"
Suddenly, there was a high-pitched shriek from the rabbit runs behind them.
"Francine!" called Loves a Dustbin. "Francine!"
They found her lying on her back, her head thrashing from side to side. Wild with panic, her limbs waved in the air, and something appeared to be attached to her front foot. As she thrashed, this something glinted in the sun, and she wheezed with distress, tail thumping the ground in hard, rhythmic thuds. Blood oozed from a barely visible line above the ankle joint. A metallic line stretched away from the vixen's foot to a peg hammered into the ground some distance away beneath a twist of bramble.
Sealink stared at it puzzledly.
"What's happening here, hon?" she asked Loves a Dustbin.
"A rabbit snare," he said angrily.
He bent to lick at Francine's face, making strange, chirruping noises in the back of his throat.
Sealink inspected the snare. It looked far too simple to be a problem. She bent her head to it and bit down experimentally. It tasted cold and steely in her mouth. She applied her back teeth to it, an awkward maneuver, since cats have few molars, and rarely chew. Even after some minutes of concentrated biting, the wire remained unchanged except for a slightly more silvery sheen. She pulled at it until it came taut. At once, Francine emitted a thin, high wail that crawled under the skin and along the spine. Sealink leapt away from the wire in alarm.
"You do it!" she called to the dog fox. "You can dig, honey. You're damn near a dog, after all."
Clouds of earth flew up from the fox's paws until at last the peg came free and the wire went slack. Francine opened pain-dulled eyes. Twitching the stricken leg, she found at last that she could flex the foot without the wire's terrible pulling. She sat up and started to lick at the hurt place, but even though the peg was out the snare was still biting deep into her flesh, invisible beneath fur and welling blood. They stared at the wound.
"Try and stand, babe," Sealink urged, at the same time as Loves a Dustbin suggested, "Now just lie there, and be still."
They scowled at each other. The fox nosed at the snare. He touched it tentatively, but his nails were too big and blunt to get behind the wire. Sealink shouldered him out of the way. "Leave this to Momma: she's got the proper equipment," she asserted, and, bending her head to the wound, worked on it with a single razored claw until she had loosened it enough to get her teeth behind it. After that, it was like nipping a tangle out of fur: nip and lick, nip and lick, until her muzzle was a mask of red.
"I got to say, hon," she told Francine, looking up with a ferocious grin, "that I never expected fox blood to taste so nasty."
The wire, released at last from its bed of flesh, lay like a coiled snake on the turf, a jeweled circle of red and silver, studded with little tufts of russet fur. Once the snare was off, Francine would let neither her mate nor the calico near her or it. She snarled at them indiscriminately.
"I don't understand," Loves a Dustbin said tiredly. "She just won't part with it."
"That ain't healthy, hon."
The wheezing of the vixen's breath through the night reminded Sealink of the sea breaking on a distant shingle beach. She drifted into sleep herself on this thought and dreamed of dark clouds racing across a stormy sky, the cries of seabirds like those of a cat mourning a lost child.
The next day, the flesh around the wound had swelled and Francine found it impossible to touch the foot to the ground. Loves a Dustbin made mournful figures-of-eight around her, murmuring encouragement; but it was clear that the vixen would not be traveling for some time.
Sealink sat at a distance from them and wondered what to do. It seemed disloyal to leave the foxes to their plight; but the pull of her vanished kittens grew stronger by the day. She heard them at night, though she could barely remember their voices. In her dreams she was on the old boardwalk again, dancing under a phosphor moon, when she heard them mewing like Pertelot's litter. Whenever she thought she had found them, they were calling from somewhere else! Everything was entangled, past and present, pride and hurt and abiding loss. She had never acknowledged her real reasons for leaving New Orleans. In the middle of reveries of Mousebreath, huge chunks of her early life had begun to come back to her, as if all that was part of one thing. Sealink had lost more than a mate: she had lost her sense of who she was. New Orleans, that Mother of Cats, might tell her. Would the foxes understand?
She sat for some time, feeling the cool breeze riffling her fur, watching clouds scud high up in the sky. In the reeds at the bottom of the hill she could hear moorhens calling, and when she stood up she could see that they were shepherding errant chicks with impossibly large feet. She looked down at her own substantial paws.
"These feet was made for walkin'," she said, to no one in particular, "and that's just what they'll do ... Lord knows what will have become of those youngsters of mine without their great big momma to take care of 'em."
Not that they'd had much choice in the matter. But then, neither had she.
Ten minutes later, Loves a Dustbin looked up from his wounded mate to see the silhouette of a large-furred cat staring down on him from the hillside above, its tail tip curled and its ears flicking minutely. He could read the signs.
"Good-bye, Sealink," he said softly. "I hope you find what you're looking for out there."
Francine whimpered at his feet. He bent his head to console her, and when he looked up again, Sealink was gone.