Author’s Note: This story was first published in Write Lovecraft Like Gaiman (Jersey Devil Press, July 2013).
“Whispers to the Moon Are Always Heard By Cats”
by Jason Andrew
“It is a very distinct tribute to be chosen as the friend and confidant of a cat.” — H. P. Lovecraft
The old man watched his youngest son read yet another swashbuckling adventure novel by the light of hearth. His hands ached with age and his knees buckled, but delight on the faces of his children eased any such burdens. Etienne the Miller had lived a long and prosperous life and now that he had reached his twilight years he was most concerned with settling the affairs of his estate and providing for those he would leave behind.
It had been almost a year since Esme died blissfully in her sleep. She had been his loving, devoted wife for almost thirty years. He still missed the soft jab of her artic toes pressed against his legs each night in bed. Soon they would meet again in Heaven, but until then he had the matter of their four children to consider.
Esme had previously arranged for their daughter Colette to marry a young lawyer in Avignon. His first grandchild was due that winter.
Jacques, by tradition and law, inherited the mill. He was a stern, industrious man and Etienne had little doubt as to his success in life and the future grandchildren that would bear his name. Michel, the middle son, was very crafty and wise. Etienne gifted unto him a full team of mules to start a shipping business. The problem that kept Etienne pacing at nights lay with his youngest son, Renault. It was not that Renault was a bad son. He neither drank too much nor slacked in his duties at the family mill. Renault was a dreamer content to simply work for his brother in a daze and, if Etienne did not intervene, would surely lead a quiet life of daydreams and die alone. He wanted better for his all of his children, but he lacked the wealth to properly provide for his youngest son.
Frustrated, Etienne finished his evening glass of wine and then smiled at his youngest son. “It is a beautiful night, Renault. Come walk with me under the stars and moon.” Renault marked his place in the book and smiled. They ventured forth along the river near the orchard where the stars twinkled and the moon was pregnant with all of the possibilities of tomorrow. “Son, I worry for your future. Is there not something that I can provide for you?”
Renault shrugged and waved to the night sky. “It is summer and I am young. What more could I want, Father?”
“Perhaps, you would have a chance to shine outside of the shadow of your brothers.” Etienne considered the matter carefully. What other trade would be suitable for his son? He lacked the means to provide for his son a proper education matching his love of reading. Renault’s only other love was that of cloth, leather, and fashion. His son watched the styles of the young nobles and imitated them as closely as the family could afford. “I could arrange for you to apprentice with the cobbler. He owes me a favor and learning such a trade could take you far. In time, you could have your own shop and create your own shoes.”
“That would be quite nice, Father.” Renault bowed before his father and then embraced him, clearly finding the possibility more appealing than the grueling work at the mill. “Thank you for thinking of me.”
“I wish I had more to give you, Son.”
“You have given me life, Father.” Renault shrugged gaily and looked up at the moon as though to ask an invisible man looking down upon them. “What more could I ask of you? Except that I have always wanted a pet.”
Etienne blinked. Esme disliked animals in the house and had forbid any of the children from owning pets, but what could it hurt now? “What sort of pet would you want?”
“A cat so that I might learn savoir faire.”
* * * *
Renault was presented to Master Cobbler Alphonse the very next day at the shoe shop in Avignon. Alphonse was a stylish older gentleman that had never married and thus quite pleased have an apprentice to pass along his trade. Renault found the work enjoyable and less painful than grinding away at the mill. Alphonse noted that Renault had quite the sense of style and would one day design magnificent shoes of his own.
He worked until late into the evenings and finally sleeping at the shop dreaming of masquerade balls and dancing with elegant ladies. It was almost a month since he whispered his wish to his father when he was awoken by the touch of soft fur and a rumbling purr.
Renault shook himself awake to see a wild-eyed gray cat staring at him, purring happily. He couldn’t help but pet the wild cat. “Hello, Monsieur! Have you come to teach me savior faire?”
The cat stood proudly on his hind legs, brought his paws just under his white beard, and then made a sweeping bow. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Grimalkin Fortunato at your service, Master Renault.”
The youngest son of Etienne smiled certain that this was an amusing dream. “Monsieur Fortunato, if only I had a saucer of milk to feed you. Alas, I am but a poor apprentice cobbler.”
“You are a kind master, this I can see.” Grimalkin bowed once more quite pleased to have the proper respect due to a cat. “I have traveled all the way from Ulthar to assist your cause.”
“I’ve never heard of Ulthar. Where is it?” Renault asked, enjoying the mystery.
“That is the question you ask?” Grimalkin sighed. “I come from the land Ulthar near the unknowable River Skai. I crossed the snowy poppy fields of Leng to reach the moon-bridge that would bring me to you.”
“Why? I am no one special.”
Grimalkin leaned forward as though he were going to share a secret. “The moon heard your wish and has granted it.”
“I am here to teach you savoir faire, but I will make you a better deal. You are a kind man that understands the value of a cat as a companion. If you will cobble a pair of good boots for me, I promise you that you will achieve all that you might dream.”
“I dream quite a lot. How could you possible know all of what I dream?” Renault protested. He stood over the cat, his hands akimbo, to glower at the dream that would dare mock his fondest wish. “I dream of having a large home, a beautiful wife, children of my own, and a fat cat that wants for nothing and chases mice only for sport.”
Grimalkin lowered his head and his ears twitched slightly while his eyes narrowed to slits. “A dream worth fighting for, Master! Will you make the bargain?”
“But why would a cat want boots, however nice that they might be?”
“A cat, and a man, has to make his own way in this world.” Grimalkin’s posture relaxed. He sauntered on Renault’s bed and slowly swished his full tail from side to side. He licked his front paw and began to groom his ears. Renault smiled.
He was a sucker for good advice, even from a cat. “Sometimes the clothing makes the man, but always a good pair of boots will take him far.”
It is silly to argue with a dream, Renault knew. He measured Grimalkin and then went about to start work on the boots.
When he woke in the morning, his head was buried amidst scraps of leather and excess string. His hands were stained with black polish.
Master Alphonse opened the door to the shop and was quite surprise to see his apprentice already working. “Were you working all night? I thought we filled all of the pending orders.”
Renault blinked and then remembered Grimalkin Fortunato. Had he actually made the boots in his sleep? Master Alphonse shook his head and growled. “We have other work to complete. Clean your mess.”
The hours of the day passed quickly without incident or the appearance of a cat clad in magnificent boots. He prepared a new set of hunting boots for the Count. Night came and the moon waned and there was no sign of Grimalkin Fortunato. Night by night, the moon would slowly shrink in the sky night after night until it disappeared and then grow once until it was pregnant with possibilities.
He had almost forgotten about the dream of a cat that could talk. Renault awoke with a start to discover the grey cat batting him gently in the face with a paw. “Good evening, Master? Do you intend to sleep the entire night?”
“Grimalkin? I thought you were only a dream?”
The wild cat laughed. It was then that Renault realized Grimalkin wore black buckled boots like a mad corsair. He had made those very boots in a dream. “Nothing is only a dream,” the cat explained. “I have been hard at work carrying out your orders as per our bargain.”
The cat’s tail lowered straight back and flicked slightly at the end with excitement. Renault felt like a tiny mouse at that moment. “I promised that if you made me boots that I would use them to make you exceptionally wealthy and happy. You would have children and a beautiful wife. And that you would spoil me so that I had milk every night and I only chased mice for sport.”
Renault tilted his head. He tried to imagine such a world. “How could that be possible?”
“As it turns out, the exiled Marquis of Carabas has been hunting in strange lands and gifting onto the Count a number of rabbits, a mighty stag, and just last evening a magnificent wolf.”
“How does this help our lot in life?” Renault asked.
The cat shook his head. “Always trust a cat to act in your best interest when it leads to sensual petting and endless saucers of milk. The next part is important. You must prepare a new set of shoes of devastating beauty for the daughter of the Count.”
“I have never made such a thing!” Renault protested. The thought of attempting to design such a pair of shoes for the famously beautiful daughter of the Count made him sick to his stomach. “They would laugh at me and then throw me in the Bastille. And I would deserve it.”
“You might not have done such a thing in this world, but you have dreamed it. I can show you how to access your great potential.” Grimalkin raised a paw to his heart. “Trust me, I am a cat and know more about dreams than most.”
Grimalkin fished along the edges of his bucket boots and finally produced a small leather pouch that contained a number of large black and white pearls of an unusually high quality. Renault examined them and felt them with his teeth.
“These are real pearls, though I admit that I’ve never seen any such as these. Where did you get them?”
“Dylath-Leen.” Grimalkin’s voice grew faint speaking of the dread city. “It is a city on the edge of the Dreamsea carved from the side of an ancient volcano where the unknowable moon-beasts rule. I ventured there in search of the information required to bring you your dreams.”
“And now you want me to make a shoe from these pearls?” Renault already imagined what he might do with such raw materials. “But what about the size of her feet?”
“I measured the lady in question just this evening.” Grimalkin passed along a thin piece of rolled leather with the outline of the princess’ foot. “Be exact. This lady is very particular about her shoes.”
“Why are you doing all of this?” Renault asked. “You are far too kind.”
“You praised us before the moon. She heard your words and it pleased her. It is not possible for a man to be as suave as a cat. That is our burden to endure, but we can shine our radiance upon those that make us happy. I have spoken to Boudicca: She That Topples Empires and we are in agreement that this will be an excellent match for everyone involved.”
“Who is this Boudicca?” Renault asked, confused.
“Boudicca is a lovely Persian whose ancestors were once properly worshiped as the gods and goddess they were.” Speaking of this lady cat seemed to bring a bit of tears in his eyes. Could it be possible that Grimalkin was also in love? “She owns a lovely girl that is quite perfect for you with hair of spun gold and eyes of a blue sky. She is quite the reader and awaiting a hero of her own. A princess born that can be won if her father approves.”
The idea of winning the heart of a princess appealed to him. “How would I take care of her?”
“You’ll have the funds from the lands and you will be a good master. I’ll advise you.”
“I don’t have any lands,” Renault argued.
“Not yet.” Grimalkin tapped the foot tracing. “You have three weeks. No more, no less.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“I have made a cat promise before the moon. Nothing is more sacred.”
Renault worked feverishly over the next three weeks on the project. The nights and days seemed to blur together. Every second not eating, sleeping or working on the assigned projects from Master Alphonse he spent crafting the exquisite shoes.
He presented a small wooden box to Grimalkin Fortunato when he returned three weeks later as promised. It was first time that he had seen the cat by daylight and now he wore a fashionable hat. Grimalkin opened the lid and peeked under the tissue paper to discover an elegant pair of shoes made from lavender satin with a buckle embellished with small uniform white pearls. “Magnificent! We must fly or we shall miss the carriage!”
Grimalkin had not left time to chat. Instead, he led Renault out of the village towards an old road not often taken by the village folk. It led to the old Carabas estate that was whispered to be controlled by a hideous ogre. The people that worked there were a strange quiet people that rarely spoke to outsiders and only the great barrels of wine ever left the estate
They walked down the dirt road several miles until at last they reached a crossroads. “This will do nicely.”
“Do for what?” Renault asked.
“Do you trust me, Master?”
“It seems that I must.”
“You must strip off all of your clothing, now.”
Grimalkin Fortunato drew a blade and growled. “We have no time. Strip!”
Renault did as commanded. Grimalkin cut the clothing into shreds. His clothing had never been rich, but it was all that he had. “Why?”
“We all have a part to play.” Grimalkin explained and then pushed Renault into the ditch.
He fell into the muck of the ditch. His legs and feet were caked with mud. It took several minutes to claw his way out and onto the road. He managed to scavenge just enough clothing to cover his dignity.
A carriage lead by four stout black horses raced towards him on the road. He lowered his eyes hoping that he did not offend the nobility inside with his nakedness. The coachmen drew back the horses and the carriage stopped before him. A guard quickly covered him with a blanket and knocked twice on the door. It opened quickly and a large man dressed in fine robles with a large curly black wig waved him closer. “Marquis Carabas! Thank God your servant found us when he did.”
It was the Count. Renault bowed quickly, wondering if he should correct the noble. “Sire, surely you can see that my master is still frightened by the shock of the savage attack.” It was a familiar voice. Renault glanced inside of the carriage looking for Grimalkin. “Would it be possible to impinge a little more on your hospitality in order to clothe him, Count?”
“Yes, yes. We cannot allow such a good man to be shamed thus.” The Count snapped his fingers and the guards quickly snapped to attention. “See to it immediately.”
The coachmen and the guards took him aside and cleaned him and dressed him fine clothing. He was allowed into the carriage and surprised to see the Count, his beautiful daughter, and Grimalkin Fortunato sipping champagne.
“Marquis Carabas allow me to introduce you to my daughter, Marie-Terese.”
The daughter of the Count giggled bashfully. She was everything that Grimalkin had described and more as though she were his dream of beauty cast into flesh. He noted with a slight blush that she was proudly wearing the shoes. “Thank you, Marquis. Your servant explained that the dream pearls will protect us from the ogre that inhabits your estate.”
Renault knew better than to correct nobility. “Of course.”
The Count offered him a glass of the champagne and he leisurely drank it while the Count clapped him on the back. “It is good that the last son of the estate has come to claim the lands. And that you have brought us such wonderful gifts. I came this very night to offer you my sword to fight the ogre!”
What had Grimalkin promised the Count in his name? “Your sword, Sire?”
“It is alleged to have been blessed by the Merovingian,” the Count explained. “Please forgive your servant but I commanded him to tell me of what you needed to kill the monster that killed your family.”
Renault eyed the cat. “I might forgive him.”
“Marquis, you might well be my son should you survive. I consider it an honor to assist you this night.”
He coughed, spilling his drink. “Your son, Sire?”
The jovial countenance of the Count dropped for a moment revealing menace. “My daughter is unwed and if you gave her such a gift without intentions then you dishonor us both.”
“No. Not at all,” Renault replied weakly.
“My master is still dazed from the sneak attack.” Grimalkin explained smoothly.
“Forgive me, Marquis!” the Count pleaded. “Surely your mind is set upon the battle like a hunter that thinks of nothing but the prey. Perhaps you should rest before pressing the attack.”
“No!” Grimalkin said a little too forcefully. He recovered quickly. “The moon is ripe this night and the beast will be weak. My Master must attack tonight or risk losing his advantage.”
The carriage stopped outside of the dilapidated estate. It was dark by the time they arrived. Marie-Terese kissed him chastely upon the cheek. The Count gave him the blade solemnly. It looked like a sword stolen from a fairytale ready-made to slay a dragon.
They stood in the fallow fields until the carriage had disappeared into the horizon. Renault looked down at the cat. “What is going on, Grimalkin?”
“Only one creature has ever dared to harm a cat in Ulthar. He slew our kittens and ate our flesh. We swore revenge, but the monster fled across the nine worlds. Here he is called ogre, but in the land of Ulthar, we knew his true nature. It is a ghoul spawned from the eternal hunger of the maelstrom of forever where souls burn. We discovered him here, but were unable to strike at him. Your wish brought me over. And now I shall give us both what we want most.”
Renault shook his head. “I’ve never fought with a sword except in my dreams.”
“Yes, that is our advantage. This night is special to the moon. The walls between the realms shall be quite thin. If you can dream it, you can become it.”
They ventured forth onto the estate. Servants had locked themselves into their quarters. The land had withered under the care of the beast as though the very color had been slowly drained to feed its monstrous appetites.
The ghoul stood before them on the steps of Carabas Manor the manor named and filthy challenging them to battle. It was a colossal monstrosity with strange canine features that had once been human. Eons of feeding upon the bones of the dreams had bent its misshapen flesh. It growled flashing wicked fangs and glowing red eyes.
Grimalkin cheered his master forward. “You worked with the pearls for weeks. They inoculated you with their powers.
The ghoul cannot drive you mad with a glance nor sap your will! Draw your sword. Fight!”
Renault drew the sword clumsily. It was heavy in his hand. “I don’t know how to duel.”
“You have fought countless battles in your dreams and won every one,” Grimalkin encouraged him. “Fight for your love and the future!”
The ghoul was strong. He leapt high into the air and drew down claws and fangs against him shredding his new clothing, but not wounding him. It was strange as though his hands and arms almost knew what to do.
The moonlight burned down upon them. White light enveloped them. “Welcome, brothers and sisters!” Grimalkin cried. “Seize forth our vengeance. I call upon you, Puck the Lord of Chaos.” A slender beautiful cat, black as midnight, appeared from the white light next to Grimalkin. As he continued to call additional names, more cats appeared. “Nuit. Datum. Vladimir. Meekah. Gideon. Isis.”
The murder of cats battened down their ears and hissed at the ghoul. Renault started remembering his dreams and in them he was a great warrior, mighty and true, a knight of the realm.
His grip on the sword became was certain and his aim fierce. They exchanged wild blows, but Renault had the strength of all of his heroes in his muscle and faith in his bones. With a mighty blow from the Count’s blade, Renault slashed the ghoul’s neck completely, decapitating it. The ghoul dropped dead on the floor. The head rolled near Renault’s feet frozen in a horrific scream.
The white haze began to fade as though it was only a dream and Renault had been caught in that special moment when a man is both dreaming and awake. One by one, the cats sailed back to the moon via a beam of shimmer light. Grimalkin said goodbye to each of them. “Farewell, my friends.”
Puck, the Lord of All Chaos, stopped and turned his head towards them. “Grimalkin, if you do not return with us, you may not ever find another moon-bridge to return to glorious Uthlar.”
Grimalkin shrugged. “I made a promise, brother, and there are no more secrets there for me to explore.”
“Live well brother.”
* * * *
The engagement between Renault and Marie-Terese had been short, but sweet. The Count insisted that he fund Renault’s attempt rebuild the lands destroyed by the ghoul. Grimalkin ensured that the monster was drawn and quartered and then buried in the grape fields so that it might never return.
Renault quickly grew into the role as the Marquis of Carabas. His wife Marie Terese bore him three daughters. One of them was a bookish dreamer named Belle, but that is a story for another time. He kept his promise to his favorite cat.
In the years that followed Grimalkin grew a mighty belly. Boudicca birthed a lovely litter of seven wily kittens that everyone on the estate adored. Most nights children and kittens gathered around the hearth and listened to Renault read from his favorite books.
Grimalkin always had plenty of milk and never had to chase mice except for sport.