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Magic Words in the Palace of Desire


Patsy inhaled the salty, sweet scent of tears, shifted her weight and leaped onto the cluttered desk. Her front claws rested at the edge of a crumpled note.

Dear Lover,

I have to ask a favor. I love you, and you’re a good man, so please understand. We can’t live in the Palace forever. I want children and we need a home. I signed the papers, so it’s my duty. It can’t last forever. We’ll be together soon. Please understand. And please, please take care of the cats!

Love always,
The girl

Patsy stared at the words, trying to understand. Last night the woman had sat here writing. This morning the man sat here crying. What did it mean? She jumped off the desk and ran up the stairs to the balcony. The man was sitting alone in the back row, in the shadowy light that made humans eat popcorn and hold hands. On the torn screen, a flat man and woman stood in the rain, the woman clutching a flat baby to her breast. When the train behind them puffed smoke, the couple grabbed each other and touched lips.

Patsy smelled her woman’s jasmine perfume, felt something inside her missing. On the screen, the flat woman was running alongside her man as he boarded the train, calling out to her, “I love you. I love you.”

photo: Lou Zitnik

For humans, these words could perform magic. Patsy tried to shape the words with her mouth, managed an extended squeak, and almost instantly saw the man on the screen leap forward in time and off the train. Now he was pointing a rifle at men in mud houses while explosions kicked up dirt and smoke. Patsy did not like loud noises, so she skittered down the aisle, past rows of seats, to a narrow space behind the broken pipe organ, where she found Ernie sleeping in his favorite bed, a ragged violin case.

She stared at him, willing him to wake, so close to his tiny grey nose, she could smell his dreams of skillet-fried ‘ahi and braised ‘opakapaka. “Love,” she whispered.

Magically, Ernie opened his deep green eyes. Half in the world of flickering movie light, he blinked, half in the world of flakey white fish sautéed in red wine and butter.

Patsy tapped his nose with her paw, darted away, stopped, glanced back.

Ernie liked the chase game. Even though he could never remember the endings, he knew all the beginnings. As Patsy slipped behind the curtain, he leaped onto the stage.  Stopped. Stretched. Followed her into the darkness, down the stairs, through the hole cut in the corrugated tin. Where was she?

Moonlight and misty rain fell on an abandoned car, an overstuffed dumpster.

To cover his surprise, Ernie sat down, blinked. How could she have disappeared so quickly? Disappearing was his specialty. A shorthair, pure gray, with extra long legs, he could run faster than any cat in Hilo, blend into shadows, hide in the tiniest places. Even back in the day when he was a kitten at the Kea‘au Animal Shelter, he could make himself invisible. Only the woman had been able to find him and her only because Patsy had leaped out of her arms and refused to leave without the tiny gray shadow huddled in the corner.

Patsy was different. Part-Siamese, part-something else, she had presence. The beach cats called her a mini-tanker, because she was big enough to carry a load but small enough to crank a sharp turn. The thick brown fur on her back kept the rain off, the white underneath made her look like clouds passing, and her shadowy mask made her intense blue eyes seem even more intense. No matter where she went, the thick humans bent to pet her, to call her beautiful, or to point at the cute white spot on the tip of her tail.

But where was she?

Behind the dumpster, Patsy stopped at Angelina the Calico’s home. She was sleeping in the corner next to the drainpipe, with six tiny kittens lined up at her nipples. Patsy felt the kittens nibbling at her breasts, felt their tiny mouths sucking her skin. Where did they come from? Many times, Patsy had seen the humans at the Palace hugging and whispering and saying the magic words, and then babies would appear.

She crept close to a tiny orange female who had been pushed away from its mother’s breast, smelled its neck, its milky sweet breath, nudged her back into her mother’s thick fur. Patsy licked the glistening raindrops off the kitten’s tail.

Again, she felt something inside her missing.

In her younger days, Patsy had felt the same missing. Restless beyond belief, she had spent long nights in the bamboo forest across from the jail and in the park behind the Suisan dock, where the rats were as big as cats and the dumpsters were piled high with tasty scraps from the Hilo Hawaiian breakfast buffet. She had stolen rides in the woman’s truck, tasted malassadas in Honoka‘a and chased cats fat from beer-batter fish and chips in Kona. Trying to quench the thirst that would not leave her, she had drunk the coppery-ash water of Volcano.

In the parking lot next to St. Joseph’s, she had let the males chase her, then stood her ground, and they had backed off, went back to their humans singing about a place called heaven. She had challenged the cats behind the jail, and by the river, and in the alley behind Pesto’s, the ones who slept late and spent their nights grinning and swinging their tails to the rhythm of jazz. She preferred the big ones best, the ones who smelled of spilled wine and bacon grease, but none of them had been able to change her, to make her more than one.

Now that the woman was gone, Patsy felt the same emptiness. She leaned close to the kitten. Its breath in her ear reminded her of the woman’s whispers, saying the magic words, I love you, I love you. Patsy tried the words again, but no kittens moved inside her.

She heard him a second before. Big Brad landed on the wet concrete. He was a big cat, nearly 25 pounds. A Siamese mix, a cane cat with a huge head and stubby tail, most of his weight was in his shoulders, and his thick fur was spotted with chicken grease and tuna oil. He had a busted claw and an aching back, but he lived by the rules. This pretty female from the Palace had been touching his kittens. He had chased her before, and he would chase her again. Now his eyes searched her eyes, felt her blue-eyed stare.

Patsy darted to the nearest shadow, stopped, rubbed slowly, slowly along corrugated tin. She did not know why she did these things. She did them automatically, saying under her breath, I love you, I love you, wanting the woman back.

She felt his weight on her, felt his teeth in her neck. Saw the kittens sucking on Angelina’s nipples. Love, she said, love. Felt his weight pressing her to the wet concrete.

Invisible, Ernie slipped along the dry strip under the eaves of the Palace, a shadow moving in and out of the spaces between the rubbish cans. He was thinking about the woman’s incredibly delicate hands, and how she knew the exact spot on his neck that needed constant attention, rubbing and petting. She had impressed him with her dedication, her ability to sit long hours with Patsy on her lap. She had an endless supply of energy and could play wrestling games with the man all through the night, then wake in the morning and play wrestling with him again. Every day she cleaned the Palace, stocked the kitchen with tuna, and heated the popcorn humans liked to eat in darkness.

He was about to give up the search and go home, when he heard a female crying. At least it sounded like crying, the kind of crying Angelina the Calico had done before her kittens appeared. Then he smelled something familiar, a jasmine smell, and something oily. A scruffy black tail protruded from behind the dumpster. Big Brad’s tail. Ernie did not want to meet Big Brad in a dark alley, but as he turned to run, Patsy’s white tip appeared, tangled with the bruiser’s stub.

Still in the shadows, he stepped closer. Was this how the game was supposed to end? Patsy cried as if someone were pressing the life out of her. Even though Ernie was not a fighter, he whispered his war cry, the one he used to keep mice and small cats away from the Palace, whispered again. Then he saw Patsy pinned to the ground, under Big Brad’s huge mess of sticky hair. Ernie growled his louder, deeper, throatier territorial growl. As Patsy cried, Big Brad pressed her neck to the ground. Ernie dove for him, lost his footing, but managed to sink his teeth into the soft skin under Big Brad’s front leg. He bit and held. There was nothing else to do. Ernie was not a heavy cat. He was long and fast, with hooked claws for climbing, but now he bit down and held tight, rode the flying, leaping, twisting bundle of fur. Patsy popped free.

Ernie twisted, turned, kicked at Brad’s stomach, felt his lungs being crushed by the big cat’s weight. Was this how the game was supposed to end? To take his mind off the pain, Ernie dreamed of far-off places. At the exact moment that Big Brad managed to twist around and get hold of Ernie’s throat, at this exact moment of intense physical pain, Ernie was thinking of the dumpster behind Blane’s, two blocks up from the Palace,  where a smart cat could always find scraps of katsu chicken or gravy burger.

Was this how the game was supposed to end?

Patsy flew at Brad’s back, threw her weight at him, knocking him off balance. She had tiny claws but she had weight, that is how she killed mynah birds, crushed them. She knocked Brad against the dumpster, shoved hard until Ernie popped free.

Patsy stood her ground. Hissed. Ernie shot across the alley and landed at the door to the Palace. In a blink of intense blue eyes, Patsy twisted, slapped a claw across Brad’s nose, whispered I love you, and magically disappeared into the darkness, leaving behind only the memory of a brilliant white spot.

Ernie sat in the front row and licked his wound while he watched the humans on the screen. Long ago, Ernie had learned not to trust these flat people. They were prone to sudden movements. There was no telling what they would do, or when they would do it. Now there were two of them, a flat man and woman sitting in a movie theater eating popcorn and looking at him, as if he were the movie. This was too confusing for Ernie. He limped up the aisle to the balcony and hopped into the empty seat next to his man.

The flat man on the screen said to the flat woman, “When I was younger, I dreamed of far off places, coffee shops in Amsterdam, art galleries in Paris, doing crazy things. But I stayed at home.”

Patsy leaped effortlessly, settled next to Ernie, the two of them together in one seat. On the screen the flat humans were touching lips.

Patsy looked at Ernie. Three years old, he still had a baby face and smelled of moldy leather. The two of them had lived together in the animal shelter, had been taken together to the pet hospital for their operations. She tried to imagine him chasing her, pinning her to the ground, touching her, doing the things humans did on the screen and in the balcony after eating too much popcorn.

She heard his heavy breathing, whispered, “I love you.”

Ernie kept his eyes on the flat humans. Any second, they might break out in song or produce a flat baby. They needed constant watching.

The man leaned over and stroked Patsy’s neck, whispered, “Don’t you worry, girl. I’ll take care of you.” His hand smelled of jasmine perfume.

The screen was going black.

Patsy wondered if Ernie had tasted opihi caught on the cliffs at Onomea, the margaritas behind Reuben’s. She licked a drop of blood off his ear, whispered, “I love you.”

Ernie blinked. He liked the chase game.

More stories from our 23rd Annual HONOLULU Magazine Starbucks Coffee Hawaii Fiction Contest

Grand-Prize Winner:
"Legend of da River Street Gambler," Lee Tonouchi

"Waiting for Walden Chu," Trudi Nekomoto

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