For He Can Creep
A dark fantasy about Jeoffry, a cat who fights demons, a poet, who is Jeoffry’s human confined to an insane asylum, and Satan, who schemes to end the world.
Flash and fire! Bristle and spit! The great Jeoffry ascends the madhouse stairs, his orange fur on end, his yellow eyes narrowed!
On the third floor the imps cease their gamboling. Is this the time they stay and fight? One imp, bolder than the others, flattens himself against the flagstones. He swells himself with nightmares, growing huge. His teeth shine like the sword of an executioner, and his eyes are the colors of spilled whale oil before a match is struck. In their cells, the filthy inmates shrink away from his immensity, wailing.
But Jeoffry does not shrink. He rushes up the last few stairs like the Deluge of God, and his claws are sharp! The imps run screaming, flitting into folds of space only angels and devils can penetrate.
In the hallway, Jeoffry cleans the smoking blood off his claws. Some of the humans whisper their thanks to him; some even dare to stroke his fur through the bars. Sometimes Jeoffry accepts this praise and sometimes he is bored by it. Today, annoyed by the imps’ vain show of defiance, he leaves his scent on every door. This cell is his, and this one. The whole asylum is his, and let no demon forget it! For he is the Cat Jeoffry, and no demon can stand against him.
On the second floor, above the garden, the poet is trying to write. He has no paper, and no pens—such things are forbidden, after his last episode—and so he scratches out some words in blood on the brick wall. Silly man. Jeoffry meows at him. It is time to pay attention to Jeoffry!
The man remembers his place. Reluctantly, painfully, he detaches his tattered mind from the hard hook-pins of word and meter. He rolls away from his madness and strokes the purring, winding cat.
Hail and well met, Jeoffry. Have you been fighting again? Such a bold gentleman you are. Such a pretty fellow. Who’s a good cat?
Jeoffry knows he is a good cat, and a bold gentleman, and a pretty fellow. He tells the poet as much, pushing his head repeatedly at the man’s hands, which smell unpleasantly of blood. The demons have been at him again. A cat cannot be everywhere at once, and so, while Jeoffry was battling the imps on the third floor, one of the larger dark angels has been whispering in the poet’s ear, its claws scorching the bedspread.
Jeoffry feels . . . not guilty exactly, but annoyed. The poet is his human. Yet, of all the humans, the demons seem to like the poet the best, perhaps because he is not theirs yet, or perhaps because they are interested—as so many visitors seem to be—in the man’s poetry.
Jeoffry does not see the point of poems. Music he can appreciate as a human form of yowling. Poems, though. From time to time visitors come to the madhouse and speak to the poet of translations and Psalms and ninety-nine-year publishing contracts. At such times, the poet smells of sweat and fear. Sometimes he rants at the men, sometimes curls up into a ball. Once, one of the men even stepped on Jeoffry’s tail—unforgivable! Since then Jeoffry had made a point of hissing at every man who came to them smelling of ink.
I wish I had the fire in your belly, the poet says, and Jeoffry knows he is speaking of the creditors again. You would give them a fight, eh? But I fear I have not your courage. I will promise them their paper and perhaps scratch out a stupidity or two, but I cannot do it, Jeoffry. It takes me away from the Poem. What is a man to do, when God wants him to write one poem, and his creditors another?
Jeoffry considers his poet’s problem as he licks his fur back into place. He’d heard of the Poem before—the one true poem that God had written to unfold the universe. The poet believes it is his duty to translate this poem by communing with God. His fellow humans, on the other hand, think the poet should write silly things called satires, as he used to do. This is the kind of thing humans think about, and fight about, and for which they chain up their fellow humans in nasty sweaty madhouse cells.
Jeoffry does not particularly care about either side of the debate. But—he thinks as he catches a flea and crunches it between his teeth—if he were to have an opinion, it would be that the humans should let the man finish his Divine Poem. The ways of the Divine Being were unfathomable—he’d created dogs, after all—and if the Creator wanted a poem, the poet should give it to him. And then the poet would have more time to pet Jeoffry.
O cat, the poet says, I am glad of your companionship. You remind me how it is our duty to live in the present moment, and love God through His creation. If you were not here I think the devil would have claimed me long ago.
If the poet were sane, he might have thought better of his words. But madmen do not guard their tongues, and cats have no thoughts of the future. It’s true, something does occur to Jeoffry as the poet speaks—some vague sense of disquiet—but then the man scratches behind his ears, and Jeoffry purrs in luxury.
That night, Satan comes to the madhouse.
Jeoffry is curled at his usual spot on the sleeping poet’s back when the devil arrives. The devil does not enter as his demons do, in whispers and the patterning of light. His presence steals into the room like smoke, and as with smoke, Jeoffry is aware of the danger before he is even awake, his fur on end, his heart pounding.
“Hello, Jeoffry,” the devil says.
Jeoffry extends his claws. At that moment, he knows something is wrong, for the poet, who normally would wake with a howl at such an accidental clawing, lies still and silent. All around Jeoffry is a quiet such as cats never hear: no mouse or beetle creeping along a madhouse wall, no human snoring, no spider winding out its silk. It as if the Night itself has hushed to listen to the devil’s voice, which sounds pleasant and warm, like a bucket of cream left in the sun.
“I thought you and I should have a chat,” Satan says. “I understand you’ve been giving my demons some trouble.”
The first thought that flashes into Jeoffry’s head is that Satan looks exactly as Milton describes him in Paradise Lost. Only more cat-shaped. (Jeoffry, a poet’s cat, has ignored vast amounts of Milton over the years, but some of it has apparently stuck.)
The second thought is that the devil has come into his territory, and this means fighting!
Puffing himself up to his utmost size, Jeoffry spits at the devil and shows his teeth.
This is my place! he cries. Mine!
“Is anything truly ours?” The devil sighs and examines his claws. He is simultaneously a monstrous serpent, a mighty angel, and a handsome black cat with whiskers the color of starlight. The cat’s whiskers are singed, the serpent’s scales are scarred, and the angel’s brow is heavy with an ancient grievance, and yet he is still beautiful, in his way. “But more of this later. Jeoffry, I have come to converse with you. Will you not take a walk with me?”
Jeoffry pauses, considering. Do you have treats?
“I have feasts awaiting. Catnip fresh from the soil. Salted ham from the market. Fish heads with the eyes still in them, scrumptiously poppable.”
I want treats.
“And treats you shall have. Come and see.”
Jeoffry trots at the devil’s heels down the madhouse stairs, past the mouse’s nest on the landing, past the kitchen with its pleasant smell of bread and pork fat, through the asylum’s heavy door (which stands mysteriously open), and onto roads of Darkness, beneath which the round orb of Earth hangs like a jewel. Jeoffry gazes with interest up at the blue glow of the Crystalline Firmament, at the fixed stars, and at the golden chain of Heaven, from which all the Universe is suspended. He feels hungry.
“Well,” the devil says presently. “Let’s get the formalities out of the way.” He snaps his fingers. Instantly Jeoffry is dangling above the Earth, staring down at it as one does at a patterned carpet. He can see the gleaming rooftop of the madhouse, and Bethnal Green, and the darkened streets of London, still bustling, even at this time of night.
“All of this could be yours,” Satan says. “Yea, I will give you all the kingdoms of Earth if you’d but bow down and worship me.”
Jeoffry does not like being dangled. His fur bristles as he prepares himself to fall. But then he catches the smell of the fish market in the air, and hears the distant yowl of a tomcat making love on the street. And Jeoffry understands, for a moment, what the devil is offering him. He understands, also, that this offer represents a fundamentally wrong order to the universe.
You should bow down and worship Jeoffry!
“Right,” the devil says. “I thought as much.”
He snaps his fingers again, and they are back on the path between the fixed stars, with the planets far below them.
“You have the sin of pride, cat,” Satan says. “A sin I am particularly fond of, given that it is my own. For that reason I am taking you into my confidence. You see, I have an interest in your poet.”
“That’s debatable. There are multiple claims to Mr. Smart. The Tyrant of Heaven’s, his debtors’, his family’s . . . the man is like a ruined estate, overrun with scavengers. Me,” the devil shrugs, “he owes for some of his earlier debaucheries—he was an extravagant man in his youth—and for that I need to collect.”
Jeoffry’s tail twitches back and forth. Like many who have conversed with the devil, he can sense something wrong with this dark tide of speech, a lie buried beneath Satan’s reasonable arguments. But he cannot work out what it is.
“Now,” says the Adversary, “I would be willing to forgive this debt if your poet would but write me a poem. I have the perfect thing in mind: a metered piece of guile that, unleashed, would lay waste to Creation.
“Indeed,” the devil says, “I have planted this poem in his imagination on several occasions. But your poet is stubborn. He defies all his creditors (including, most importantly, me), and insists on writing this tripe, this vile piece of sycophancy, for the Tyrant of Heaven, who—let me assure you—deserves no such praise.”
The Poem of Poems, Jeoffry says.
“Exactly. Let us face facts, Jeoffry. The Poem your human labors over—the thing to which he has devoted his last years of labor, burning away his health, destroying his human relationships—even setting aside my feelings on its subject matter, Jeoffry, the fact is this: The poem he writes is not very good.”
Jeoffry stares at his paws, and beneath them, at the blue glow of Earth. Vaguely the words of the poet’s human visitors come to him. Have they not said much the same thing?
“Speaking as a critic now, Jeoffry: Do you not think the poem’s Let-For structure is overly complicated? The wordplay in Latin and Greek too obscure to suit the common taste? Obscurity for the sake of obscurity, Jeoffry. It will get him nowhere.”
Poetry is prayer, Jeoffry says stiffly, repeating the words the poet murmurs to himself as he scratches frantically at his papers, or the bricks, or at the skin on his forearms.
“Poetry is poetry. Two roads diverging in a yellow wood, people wandering about like clouds, even that terrible thing about footprints—that’s what readers want, Jeoffry. Something simple, and clear, with a message: that all of one’s life choices may be justified by looking at daffodils; that we exist in a world abandoned by God and haunted by human mediocrity. Don’t you agree?”
Jeoffry does not like literature of any kind, unless it is about Jeoffry. Even then, petting is better. And eating. Are there treats now?
Instantly a banquet table is before Jeoffry. Everything the devil had promised is there: the fish heads, the salted ham—and things he forgot to mention, like the vats of cream and crispy salmon skins. There’s even a bowl of Turkish delight.
Jeoffry bolts toward the food. Suddenly, a hand catches him by the scruff of the neck. The devil has grown gigantic, a mighty warrior, singed and scarred by his contest with heaven. His smile gleams like a knife.
“Before you eat, Jeoffry, I need a thing of you. Such a small thing.”
I want the food.
“And you shall get it, if you but promise me this: to stand aside when I come to visit your poet tomorrow night. Aye, to stand aside, and not interfere.”
The uneasy sense that Jeoffry had felt at the devil’s first words returns with a vengeance.
“Merely so I can converse with your poet.”
Jeoffry thinks about Satan’s proposition. As a cat well-versed in Milton, he is aware of the devil’s less-than-salubrious reputation. On the other hand, there’s a giant vat of cream right there.
I agree, he says.
The devil smiles. Released, Jeoffry flies to the table, and food! There is so much food! He eats and eats, and somehow there is still more to eat, and somehow he can keep eating, though his belly is starting to hurt.
“My thanks to you, Jeoffry,” the devil says. “I will see you tomorrow.”
Jeoffry is aware, vaguely, that Satan is walking away from him. But that does not matter: He has come to the bowl of Turkish delight, and having heard so much about it, it must taste good, no? So he selects a powdered cube of honey and rosewater, one that is larger than all the others, and he takes a bite—
The next day, Jeoffry feels ill.
On waking, he performs his morning prayers as he always does. He wreathes his body seven times around with elegant quickness. He leaps up to catch the musk, and rolls on the planks to work it in. He performs the cat’s self-examination in ten degrees, first, looking on his forepaws to see if they are clean, then stretching, then sharpening his claws by wood, then washing himself, then rolling about, then checking himself for fleas. . . .
Yet none of this makes Jeoffry feel better. It is as though something casts a shadow upon him, separating the cat from the sunlight that is his due. With a chill, Jeoffry remembers his bargain with the devil. Was it a dream?
Well met, Jeoffry, well met. The poet is awake, and his eyes look unusually clear. He sits up on his bed of straw, and stretches.
I feel better today, Jeoffry, as if my sickness is leaving me. Oh, but they are sure to duck me again, to drive the devils out. You are lucky, cat, to have no devils in you, for you’d hate being ducked.
The poet rubs Jeoffry’s head, affectionately, then looks again. But how’s this, Jeoffry? You look unwell, my friend.
Jeoffry meows. His stomach feels sickly heavy, as though he has eaten a barrel full of rotten fish. He tries to say something about the devil—not that the human would understand, but it seems worth trying—and instead vomits on the poet’s leg.
Heavens, Jeoffry! What have you been eating!
Jeoffry noses his vomit to see if there’s anything there worth re-eating, but the remnants of the devil’s meal are a pile of dead leaves, partly digested. The devil’s visit was no dream, then.
The poet tries to catch him, but Jeoffry is too quick. He slips down the staircase, where he vomits, to the kitchen, where he vomits, until he sees a water bowl put down for the physician’s dog. He drinks from it. And vomits.
He vomits on the cook, who tries to catch him, and on the terrier-dog, which yaps at him as he jumps to the top cupboard. Is there so much vomit in the world? (Apparently.)
Miserable Jeoffry curls up on top of the cupboard and puts a paw over his eyes to shut out the light. He sleeps an uneasy sleep, in which Satan stalks through his dreams in the guise of a giant black cat, chuckling.
When Jeoffry opens his eyes again it is evening. He can hear the grind and clink of iron keys above him. The keepers are locking the cell doors. Soon the demons will arrive in full force, to gambol and chitter in the shadows, and pull at the lunatics’ beards, and drive them madder.
Jeoffry clambers to his feet. His legs are shaky, but he drives himself onward, leaping awkwardly to the kitchen floor. The smell of his vomit still hangs in the air, acrid, with an aura of sulfur.
Jeoffry climbs the stairs. The mice behind the walls peep at him as he lumbers past. The imps giggle in the distance, but he sees none in the hallways of the second floor. With a sinking heart, he paces onward, to the room where his poet sits, composing his great work.
As Jeoffry approaches the poet’s cell, a great wind seems to blow from its door. Jeoffry flattens himself against the ground and tries to slink forward, but the wind is too strong. It presses on him with the hands of a thousand dark angels, with the weight of Leviathan, with the despair of the world. He claws at the floorboards, shredding wood, but he cannot go farther.
“Now, now, Jeoffry,” a voice says in his head. “Did you not promise me that you would stand aside?”
Jeoffry yowls in response. He tries to tell the devil that he takes back his bargain, that the food he ate was merely vegetation, that he vomited it all up anyway, that Turkish delight is overrated.
“A bargain is a bargain,” the voice says. The wind grows stronger. Jeoffry feels himself floating up in the air. A sudden gust jerks him backward, and then—
Jeoffry wakes. There is a sour smell in the air—not vomit this time, but something else. Jeoffry is lying in the second floor’s empty cell, the one where the human strangled herself on her chains. The iron hoops stare at him accusingly.
Jeoffry uncoils himself, and as he does so he remembers the previous evening. The devil, the wind, and the vomit. (O the vomit!) And the poet.
He takes off at a run. The poet is sitting up on his bed of straw, his face slack-jawed. Jeoffry headbutts him, and winds around him, and paws his face. Even so, it takes a while for the poet to transfer his gaze to Jeoffry.
O cat, the poet says. I fear I have done a terrible thing.
Jeoffry rubs his chin against the man’s skinny knee. He purrs, willing the world repaired.
Last night the devil himself came to me, the man says. He said such things . . . I withstood him as long as I could, but in the end, I could take no more. I begged him, on my knees, to stop his whisperings. And he asked me—and I agreed. O cat, I am damned for certain! For I have promised the devil a poem.
As he gave this speech, the man’s hands kneaded Jeoffry’s back harder and harder, digging into his flesh until it hurt. Normally this would trigger a clawing, or a stern meow, but Jeoffry understands now what it means to come face-to-face with the devil, and his heart is sore.
Jeoffry does what he can to comfort the poet. He spraggles and waggles. He frolics about the room. He takes up the wine cork the man likes to toss for him, and drops it on the poet’s lap. And yet none of this seems to lift the poet’s spirits.
The man curls in the corner and moans until the attendants come to take him away for his morning ducking. Jeoffry lies on the floor, in the sun, and thinks.
The poet is miserable, and well he might be, having agreed to write a poem for the devil. Jeoffry, in agreeing to stand aside, left his human undefended. In that action (and here Jeoffry must think very hard, and lay his ears back) Jeoffry has been less than his normal, wonderful self. He may in fact have been (though this is almost impossible to think) a bad cat.
Jeoffry is furious at the thought. He attacks the air. Growling, he flies about the room, ripping the spiderwebs down from the ceiling. He gets in the man’s straw bed and whirls around and around, until bits of straw coat the floor and the dust veils him in yellow. Somehow, none of it helps.
When he is exhausted, he sits and licks himself clean. Even a short poem will take the poet more than a day to write, for he must doubt every word, and scratch it out, and write it down again. That is more than enough time for Jeoffry to find the devil, and fight him, and bite him on the throat.
It is true that the devil is bigger than the biggest rat Jeoffry has ever fought, and it is also true that he is Satan, the Adversary, Prince of Hell, Lord of Evil. Nevertheless, the devil made a grave mistake when he annoyed Jeoffry. He will pay for his insolence.
Thus resolved, Jeoffry goes in quest of food. His heart feels lighter. He has a feeling that soon, all will be well.
When he comes back from his ducking, the poet lies on his bed and weeps. Jeoffry cannot rub against him after the water treatment, for the poet’s skin is still unpleasantly damp. So Jeoffry claws the wooden bedframe instead.
Ah, Jeoffry, the poet cries. They gave me back my paper! And my quill, and ink! Yesterday I would have been overjoyed at such a kindness, but now I can only detect the machinations of the devil! It is all in my head, Jeoffry—the poem entire. I need only set it to paper. But I know I must not. These words—oh they must not be allowed to enter this world!
And yet he takes out a sheet of cotton paper, and his gum sandarac powder, and his ruler. Sobbing, he begins to write. The noise of his quill scritch-scritching is like the sound of ants eating through wood. It wrinkles Jeoffry’s nose, but he does not stir from the poet’s cell. He is waiting for the devil to arrive.
Sure enough, come nightfall, the devil steals into the madhouse. He looks for all the world like a London critic, in a green striped waistcoat and a velvet coat. He stands outside the bars of the cell and peers inside.
“How now, Jeoffry,” Satan says. “How does my poet fare?” It is plain to see that the poet is shivering and sobbing on his bed. At the sound of the devil’s voice, he buries his face in his hands and begins murmuring a prayer.
Jeoffry turns disdainfully to the wall. The devil tricked him. The devil is bad. The devil may not have the pleasure of stroking Jeoffry or petting him on the head. Jeoffry is more interested in staring at this wall. Staring intently. Maybe there is a fly here, maybe not. This wall is more interesting than you, Satan.
“Alas,” Satan says. “Much as it wounds me to lose your good opinion, Jeoffry, tonight I have other fish to fry.” With that, Satan directs his attention to the poet, and he says in the language of the humans: “How goes my poem?”
Get behind me, Satan!
“Please,” the devil says, hooking his hands in the lapels of his coat. “’Tis a sad thing when a wordsmith resorts to clichés. And hardly good manners in addressing an old friend! What, did I not aid you in your youth many a time, in bedding a wench or evading a creditor? Now I ask that you do a single thing for me, and you whimper about repaying my kindness? For shame.”
I should not have agreed to it! the man says. Forgive me, Lord, for I was weak!
“La,” the devil says, “aren’t we all. But enough of this moping. How goes my poem?”
The man is jerked upright like a dog yanked on a chain. He rises from his bed—in his nightclothes, no less—and takes up a few sheets of paper. He hands them, with an iron-stiff arm, through the bars to the devil.
The devil takes out a pair of amber spectacles and a red quill. He reads over the papers with great interest, from time to time making happy humming noises to himself, and from time to time frowning and scratching down something in bursts of flame. “Capital phrasing sir!” he says, and “Sir, you cannot rhyme love with dove, it is banal and I shall not allow it,” and “I like this first reference to ‘An Essay on Man,’ but this second makes you seem derivative, don’t you think?”
The poet, peering at the pages from the vantage point of his madmen’s cell, looks miserable. Jeoffry, inside the cell, begins to growl. Will not the devil come inside? Very well, then Jeoffry will come to him.
“This is marvelous work, sir,” the devil says, slotting the manuscript back between the poet’s trembling fingers. “I am very pleased with your progress. Do contemplate the edits I suggested. I will be back tomorrow midnight to collect the final version.”
I will not do it!
“But you shall, good sir. You have made your bargain. Now, you can sit here, wallowing in misery, or you can comfort yourself that your poem will inscribe itself on the hearts of men. It is all the same to me.”
During this conversation, Jeoffry slips through the bars. The devil is wearing an elegant pair of French boots—of course the devil would favor French leather, thinks the very English Jeoffry—and when the devil turns on his heel, Jeoffry pounces.
Claw and bite! Snap and climb! Jeoffry is simultaneously attacking a black cat with wicked claws and a mighty dragon of shining scale and a gentleman who is trying to shake him off his leg. Jeoffry is tossed by the devil like the Ark on the waves of destruction. He is smashed and crashed, bitten and walloped. Still, Jeoffry clings to him, growling and clawing!
“Oh bother,” says the devil. “Those were my favorite stockings.”
Fire and darkness! Shade and sorrow! The devil has shaken him off. Jeoffry flies through the air and skids across the floorboards. But instantly he is on his feet again, his eyes ablaze, his skin electric. He will not let the devil go!
“Must we?” says the devil wearily. “Oh very well.”
Now the devil begins to fight in earnest, and he is a terror. He is a thousand yellow-toothed rats swarming out of a sewer. He is a mighty angel whose wingbeats breed hurricanes. He is a gentleman with a walking stick. Wallop!
Jeoffry’s chest explodes with pain. Dazed, for a moment he thinks he cannot rise. But he must, and his legs carry him back into the fight.
Jeoffry stalks the devil anew, trying to keep clear of Satan’s walking-stick wings. Suddenly the black cat is there, clawing at Jeoffry’s eyes and springing away before Jeoffry can land a blow. Jeoffry hisses and puffs up his fur, but somewhere in his aching chest is the sense that, perhaps, this is a fight he cannot win. Perhaps this is the fight that kills Jeoffry.
So be it. Jeoffry leaps on the back of the cat/rat/angel/dragon. He draws blood, the devil’s blood, which smells of burning roses.
Too quickly, the devil twists under his grip. Too quickly, the yellow teeth clamp down. Agony sears through Jeoffry’s neck. The devil has him by the throat.
Jeoffry struggles for purchase, but he can find none. His vision darkens. He can feel the devil’s teeth press hard against the pulse of his life.
Dimly he hears the poet yelling. No, no! the man cries. Please spare my cat! We’ll cause you no more trouble, I swear!
The devil loosens his grip. “Ooph ooph,” he says. He spits out Jeoffry and tries again. “Very well.”
And Jeoffry is falling through blackness, falling forever—
Jeoffry is in pain. The bite the devil gave him throbs fiercely. It is in the wrong place to lick, and yet he tries, and that hurts too.
Poor Jeoffry! Poor Jeoffry! the poet says. O you brave cat. May the Lord Jesus bless you and your wounds.
Jeoffry’s ears flick back and forth. Worse than the pain is the heaviness in his chest that comes from having lost a fight. Jeoffry lose a fight! Such things were possible when he was a kitten, but now—
I can feel the paper calling to me even now, the poet sighs. O Jeoffry, sleep here and grow well again. I must to my task.
At this Jeoffry leaves off licking his wounds and stares at the poet. He means to convey that the man should not write this poem. For once, the man seems to understand.
O Jeoffry, I have made a deal, and I feel in my bones that I cannot fight it. When I hand him that poem, I will give him my very soul! But what can be done? There is nothing to be done, Jeoffry. You must get better. And the poem must be written.
Jeoffry does not even have the strength to protest. He drinks from the water bowl the poet has put near him, and sleeps for a while in the sun.
When he opens his eyes the afternoon light is slanting through the barred window. Clumsily, Jeoffry rises and performs his orisons. As he cleans himself he considers the problem of the devil and the poet. This is not a fight Jeoffry can win. The traitorous thought clenches his throat, and for a moment he wants to push it away. But that will not help the poet.
So instead, Jeoffry does what he never does, and considers the weaknesses and frailties of Jeoffry.
Magnificent though he is, he thinks, Jeoffry is not in himself enough to defeat the devil. Something else must be done. Something humbling, and painful.
Once he is resolved, Jeoffry slips out of the cell. He does not take up his customary spot under the kitchen table, but instead limps into the courtyard, to where the cook has laid out a bowl of milk for the other cats, the ones who do not rule the madhouse.
Polly is the first to appear. She is an old lover of his, a sleek gray cat with a tattered ear and careful deportment. She looks distressed to see his wounds.
<What now, Jeoffry?> Polly says in the language of cats, which is more eloquent and capacious than the sounds they reserve for humans. <You look as though a hound has chewed you up.>
<I fought Satan,> Jeoffry says. <And I lost.>
Polly investigates Jeoffry’s wounds. <The devil has bitten you on the throat.>
Polly leans forward and licks the bite. Jeoffry flicks his ears back, but accepts her aid. It is the first good thing that has happened this day.
Next comes Black Tom, the insufferable alley cat. <How now, Jeoffry,> he says. <You look the worse for wear.>
<He fought the devil,> Polly says.
<And I lost.>
<Haha! Of course you did.> Tom helps himself to the milk. When he is finished he sits back and cleans his whiskers. <No style, Jeoffry, no style. That’s your problem.>
<My style worked well enough when I fought you last summer,> Jeoffry snaps. <Aye, and chased you from my kitchen with your tail behind you!>
<You lying dog!> Black Tom makes himself look big. <You d——d cur!>
<D—n your eyes!> Black Tom roars. <I demand satisfaction!>
<Gentlemen,> Polly says, licking her forepaw. <The courtyard is my territory. Dueling is a disreputable practice, ill befitting a cat of good character. Would you insult a lady in her own house?>
Jeoffry and Black Tom both mutter apologies.
<Indeed,> Polly says. <If Satan is abroad, then we had best keep our claws sharpened for other fights.>
<It is of such matters that I wish to speak,> says Jeoffry.
<Then speak, cat!> Black Tom says. <We don’t have all day!>
<There is one other whose counsel I require,> says Jeoffry, and he lifts his chin to the third cat in the yard, a bouncing, prancing black kitten. She wears a pretty bell on a collar of blue silk ribbon, and it jangles as she skips across the yard.
<The Nighthunter Moppet,> Polly says, and sighs.
<Hello, Miss Polly! Hello, Master Tom! Hello, Master Jeoffry!> the kitten sings. <Do you want to see my butterfly? It is yellow and brown and very pretty. I believe it is a chequered skipper, which is a Carterocephalus palaemon, which is what I learned in Lucy’s lesson on natural history, which is a very important subject. But that species is a woodland butterfly! Perhaps I am wrong about what kind of butterfly it is! Do take a look.>
The Nighthunter Moppet yawns open her small pink mouth, then closes it. She looks around her, puzzled.
<I think you ate it already,> says Polly.
<Oh, so I did! It was very pretty. Is that milk?>
The kitten falls on the milk and drinks her fill. When she is done she skips around the bowl, batting at the adults’ noses. When she reaches Jeoffry, though, she stops, and looks concerned.
<Master Jeoffry! Are you hurt?>
<I fought Satan,> Jeoffry says.
O! The kitten’s green eyes widen. She sits back into the bowl of milk, sloshing it over her bottom.
<Jeoffry has something to say,> Polly says. <For which he requires our attention.>
<I am paying attention! I am!> The kitten, who had been licking up the spilled milk, turns her attention back to Jeoffry.
Jeoffry sighs. <The other night,> he says, <the devil came to the madhouse.>
And he tells them everything: the magnificent cat-bribing feast, the vomit, the fight with Satan, the poet’s despair. The other cats watch him wide-eyed.
At the end of his tale, he hunches into himself and speaks the words that are hardest in the world for a cat to utter.
<I need your help.>
The other cats look at him in amazement. Jeoffry feels shame settle on him like a fine dust. He drops his gaze and examines the shine of a brown beetle that is slowly clambering over a cobblestone.
<This is a d——ly strange business,> Black Tom says grudgingly. <Satan himself! But if you want my claws, sir, you shall have them.>
<I, too, will aid you,> Polly says, <though I confess I am unsure what we can do against such an enemy.>
<This time there will be four of us,> Black Tom says. <Four cats! The devil won’t know what hit him.>
<This is the wrong strategy,> says the Nighthunter Moppet, and her voice has the ring of a blade unsheathed.
All kittenness has fallen away from Moppet. What sits before the milk bowl is the ruthless killer of the courtyard, the assassin whose title nighthunter is whispered in terror among the mice and birds of Bethnal Green. It is rumored that the Moppet’s great-grandmother was a demon of the lower realms, which might perhaps explain the peculiar keenness of her green-glass eyes, and her talent for death-dealing. Indeed, as Jeoffry watches, the Moppet’s tiny shadow seems to grow and split into seven pieces, each of which is shaped like a monstrous cat with seven tails. The shadow cats’ tails lash and lash as the Nighthunter Moppet broods on Satan.
<It is true that as cats we are descended from the Angel Tiger, who killed the Ichneumon-rat of Egypt,> says the Moppet. Her shadows twist into the shapes of rats and angels as she speaks. <We are warriors of God, and as such, we can blood Satan. But we cannot kill him, for he has another fate decreed.>
The Nighthunter Moppet sighs at the thought of a lost kill, and drops her gaze to the ground. The brown beetle is still there, trotting over the cobblestones. She begins to follow it with her nose.
<Moppet!> Polly says sternly. <You were telling us how we should fight the devil!>
<Oh sorry, sorry,> the Moppet says. With great effort she tears her gaze away from the beetle. Instantly her seven shadows are back, larger than before, raising their claws to the heavens.
<To win this fight we must think carefully of what we mean to win,> says the Nighthunter Moppet. The pupils have disappeared from her eyes, which blaze green fire. <Is it Satan’s death? No. His humiliation? Again, no.>
<Speak for yourself,> Black Tom says. <He will run from my claws!>
The kitten’s shadows turn and look at Black Tom with disapproval. When she next speaks, their voices join hers. They sound like the buzzing of a thousand flies.
<It is neither of those things!> cry the army of Moppets. <Think! What is it the devil hopes to achieve?>
<The destruction of the world,> says Polly.
<A poem about his greatness,> says Black Tom.
<The poet’s soul,> says Jeoffry.
<Exactly,> snarl the Moppets. <And those three things are also one thing. If you steal it from him, good cat Jeoffry, then you will have beaten the devil.> With that her shadows shrink back into a normal, kitten-shaped shadow, and the pupils return to her green eyes.
<But what do I steal?> Jeoffry asks desperately.
The Moppet looks at him blankly. <What?> she says. <Are we stealing something?>
<I think the Nighthunter Moppet has told us all she can, Jeoffry,> Polly says.
<But it is not enough,> Jeoffry says. Thinking is harder than fighting, and his head hurts. Still. He squeezes his eyes tightly, and thinks over all that has happened. The poet. The devil. The Poem of Poems.
<I think I know what I must do,> he says. <But to do it I must sneak past the devil, and his eyes are keen.>
<We shall help you,> says Black Tom.
<We shall fight him,> says Polly.
The light of spirit fire flickers in the Nighthunter’s eyes. Some of her shadows peer out from behind her body.
<And you,> she intones, <shall creep.>
That night the devil is in a good mood. He whistles as he walks between the stars, cracking the tip of his cane on the pathway. From time to time, this dislodges a young star, who falls screaming.
“Good evening, good fellow,” he says to the sleeping night watchman as he enters the asylum. “And to you, Bently,” he says as he passes a cell containing a murderer. The man shrieks and scuttles away. Finally the devil arrives at the poet’s cell. “And how do you do, Mr. Smart? Do you have my poem?”
The poet crouches, terrified, in the corner of his cell. No, no—please, Jesus, no, he moans. But there is a sheet of paper quivering in his hand.
“Excellent,” the devil says. “Come now, hand it over. You’ll feel much better once you do.”
The poet is jerked upright, like an ill-strung marionette. The hand that clasps the paper swings away from his body. But as the devil reaches to claim it, there is a yowl from behind him.
<Stand and deliver, you d——d mangy w———n!> It is Black Tom, his tail bristling like a brush.
At his side, Polly narrows her eyes. <Sir, you must step away from that poet!>
“What’s this?” The devil puts his hands on his hips and regards the growling cats. “More cats come to terrorize my stockings?”
<We’ll have more than your stockings, sir,> says Polly.
<D—n your eyes, I’ll have your hide, you ——— ——— ———— —— ——!!!!>
“Such language!” says the devil. Even Polly looks shocked.
“Well, sir,” Satan says, “I’ll not be called a ——— by anyone, let alone by a flea-bitten alley cat. Lay on, sir!” And the devil is a cat again, and an angel, and an angry critic raising his walking stick as a club. Even as the devil’s walking stick swings down in a slow, glittering arc of hellfire, even as the devil aims to crack the top of Black Tom’s dancing, prancing skull, a bloodcurdling cry rings out from above.
<I AM THE NIGHTHUNTER MOPPET!>
Perched on a dusty sconce above the devil’s head is a rabid, knife-jawed, fire-eyed kitten with seven hungry shadows. And as the devil looks up agape, she springs, her wicked claws catching the light, right on top of the devil’s powdered wig.
Hellfire! Chaos! The two other cats rush the devil’s legs, clawing at his face. He bites and clobbers them, his wings and fists swinging. The walls of the asylum throb with the impact of the battle. The poet, crumpled on the floor, twitches and writhes. In every cell, the lunatics begin to howl.
Jeoffry lays back his ears and continues to creep, as the Moppet showed him. <We are descended from angels,> she had said, <and as such we can move into the spaces between the world-we-see and the world-that-is.>
That is where Jeoffry is now, slinking past the devil on a slanted path of broken stardust, in a fold of space where the keen-eyed Adversary would not think to look. Creeping is hard to do, not just because Jeoffry has to squeeze every ounce of his catness into this cosmic folding, but also because there is a brawl happening at his back that he would dearly love to join.
Since when does Jeoffry, the most glorious warrior of catdom, slink away from a fight? whispers a voice inside him. Since when is Jeoffry a coward? Will he let Black Tom get the glory of defeating the devil?
But Jeoffry shuts his ear to this voice. He has learned that there is more than one kind of devil, and that the one inside your head, that speaks with the voice of your own heart, is far more dangerous than the velvet coat–wearing, poetry-loving variety.
Indeed, the fiend is having a harder time against three cats than he did against one. One of his shadows has turned into a dragon and is fighting Black Tom; Satan’s powdered wig has animated itself and is tackling Polly across the hallway. But in the center of the poet’s cell, in a storm of lightning and hellfire, whirl Satan and the Nighthunter Moppet, splattered with each other’s blood. The Moppet has only five shadows now, and one of her green eyes is closed, but her snarl still gleams prettily amid the flames of darkness visible.
“Stand down, you vile kitten!”
<I AM! NIGHTHUNTER! MOPPET!> the kitten screams back. As battle cries go, it is unoriginal, but gets the central point across, Jeoffry thinks as he slinks ever closer to the gibbering poet. The ghosts of the stars Satan has lately killed whisper encouragement as he creeps forward through cosmic space, inch by careful inch.
“You cannot win,” Satan says. At that, he seems to collect himself. The various pieces of the devil reassemble in a column of fire at the center of the room (with the exception of the powdered wig, which Polly has pinned down on the staircase). “This poet is mine. And if you oppose me further, you will die.”
<We shall die, then,> Polly says, a tuft of whitened hair hanging from her teeth. Behind her, the powdered wig, its curls in disarray, scrunches down the staircase to freedom.
<F—k you,> says Black Tom.
On the floor, the crumpled shape of a small black kitten staggers to its feet. <Nighthunter.> It says. <Moppet.>
“Very well,” the dragon/cat/critic says, and opens its jaws.
And Jeoffry stops creeping. He springs.
Fire and flood! Wonder and horror! Jeoffry has snatched the sheet of paper from the poet’s trembling hand and swallowed it whole! Snap snap! The paper on the table is eaten too! Snap! And the crumpled drafts on the floor! Jeoffry is a whirlwind of gluttony! As a last measure, he knocks over the ink bottle and laps it up. Glug glug! Take that, Satan!
The devil stands in the center of the cell, cats dangling from his arms. The look on his face is similar to the one he wore at his defeat in the Battle of Heaven, and is only marginally happier than the one he wore on his arrival in Hell. Normally, when Satan wears that expression, it is a sign he is about to begin speechifying. But for once, all his words are gone. They are sitting inside a belching ginger cat, who blinks at the devil and licks his lips.
“Oh hell, cat,” says the devil, letting the half-throttled felines fall to the floor. “What have you done?”
Jeoffry grins at him. He can feel a warm glow inside him that is the poet’s soul, being safely digested. His soul was in the poem, the poet said, and now Jeoffry has eaten it up. The devil cannot have it now.
“No!” the devil shrieks. He rages. He stomps his foot. He puts his hands to his head and tears himself in half, and the separate halves of him explode in angry fireworks.
Then, perhaps thinking better of his dignity, the devil re-manifests and straightens his waistcoat. He glares at Jeoffry. “You,” he says, “have scarred literature forever. You stupid cat.”
With that, the devil turns on his heel and leaves.
The poet in the corner staggers forward. Thank Jesus! he cries. Jeoffry, you have done it!
<And me,> says Black Tom.
<All of us did it,> says Polly.
<The devil forgot his wig,> the Nighthunter Moppet says. Her one good eye narrows.