By Rahma Krambo
Marco stayed up until dawn, the night he discovered he could read. He never dared think the books would speak to him like they did for Lucy. He had been content to curl up next to her in the library, listening. At first the sound of her voice drew him in, but gradually he grew to love the stories.
Then one night, Lucy left a book open on the window seat where the bright light of a full moon illuminated the page. Marco cocked his head, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks. The rows of black lines wavered as moonlight caused the paper to ripple, as if touched by a celestial finger.
Marco could not have known about the mystical effect of a full moon on cats and books left on their own in the library. Not until he saw the lines breathe, the words unveiled.
His heart pounded when he realized that Lucy’s stories had been locked inside the books! And now he had the key!
His immediate surroundings, the rich scents of the library, mahogany, leather and brocade, receded into the background. He no longer heard the grandfather clock’s steady ticking. Time stood still while moonlight and printer’s ink transported him and four children through an English wardrobe to a place of everlasting winter. There, a majestic lion befriended them and liberated his kingdom from the spell of an evil witch.
He was hooked. He couldn’t wait to open another book. He inspected the shelves with the knowledge that books were no longer the unique property of humans. They were, like the wardrobe in the story, a portal which opened into strange and wonderful places.
And now he held a magical pass.
Where would these other books take him? And where in the world would he start? There were so many to choose from. That night he did not sleep a wink. Each one transported him into a new adventure. How amazing, he thought, that books, once opened, were so much bigger on the inside.
In the wee hours of the night, Marco became a warrior, a wizard, a wanderer, but he was always the hero. When Marco read, he forgot he was a cat.
The nights stretched out longer and colder, each one stealing warmth and light from the previous day. Marco didn’t mind. It gave him more time to read.
In the early evenings, Lucy and her grandmother played cards or watched TV in the living room. In the company of a crackling fire they sipped hot tea, and Marco had his choice of two warm laps.
Later, while Lucy and her grandma slept, Marco settled into the library and read. His armchair travels took him to exotic places full of adventure, intrigue and danger. He had a perfect life.
Many adventures passed and the days gradually outstretched the nights, until one morning the clamor of song birds shattered the chill of winter. Marco stretched and yawned. The library glowed with warm sunlight diffused through gauzy under curtains. All around him books were scattered about, and he hoped Lucy wouldn't scold him too much.
No matter, he thought, then curled up on the leather ottoman and fell asleep. He dreamed of being in a clearing in the woods. An enormous hawk took off from atop a tree, swooped down in a wide circle and Marco was suddenly flying—the hawk’s wings spread wide on both sides, almost as if they were his. Wind whooshing, flattening his ears, Marco was exhilarated, soaring high above the ground, when the bird suddenly turned and they were no longer in a sunny meadow, but a dark alley between buildings.
Together they made the descent—plummeting downward toward an unlit brick street with a single car parked in the shadows. At the last moment, Marco saw the man. He was frantically trying to unlock the car door. The hawk shrieked—just before striking the man to the ground.
Marco was startled out of his dream; the hawk’s piercing call still in his ears. But the sound didn’t go away. The shrill cry was no dream! He jumped down from the ottoman and fought the urge to run.
This was a force to be reckoned with, right? Just the kind of thing that might require the services of a hero. That ruled out ducking under the bed.
The clamor was coming from outside, so it was possible the threat could pass. He chose the writing desk beneath a library window as his vantage point and poked his nose through the sheer curtains. Screeching to a halt in front of the house was an extraordinary vehicle flashing beams of red and blue light from its top.
What a strange creature, he thought. Its cries abruptly ceased and the back end of its white shell burst open, casting two men from inside. Like prisoners escaping, they ran at full speed towards the house.
Were they friend or foe? Were they on a rescue mission or was Marco’s house under attack? And how in the world do you tell the difference? He didn’t realize being a hero required so many decisions.
Lucy ran past the library towards the front door and, in what seemed to him like a reckless moment, threw the house wide open to total strangers. She turned and dashed toward the back while the men chased after her.
Marco pursued them as they rushed towards Grandma’s room. But tailing him from behind was a metal bed on squeaky wheels, and one of the men pushing it booted Marco in the head.
His ears rang from the blow and he ducked under the chaise lounge at the end of the hallway to regroup. How would he save Lucy and her grandma from these men who had obviously come to abduct them?
How did heroes in books always seem to know the right thing to do?
He tried to stay calm. He knew a hero must look danger square in the eye and take action. Hunkered down under the chaise lounge, he was trying to come up with a plan when the ear-splitting jangle of a telephone overhead broke his resolve. He made his getaway, finding refuge on a bookshelf. He was so mortified at his failed rescue mission, he refused to budge even when Lucy called his name.
After a long silence, Marco emerged from his hiding place. The desolation of an empty house was overwhelming. It had always been peopled. Lucy, her friends. The cook, the nurse, and the gardener.
He sat on the writing desk, looking out the front window into the fading light. How could he face the fact that his humans had been kidnapped and he had done nothing to save them? He went upstairs to Lucy’s room, hoping for a miracle. Maybe she disappeared through the back of her closet, like the one in the book, he thought with a burst of optimism. But no, the wall was solid and the only thing left of Lucy was her scent. For two days, he mewed inside the vacant house and nibbled on diminishing crumbs in his food bowl.
Empty space eventually fills up with something. A void, cultivated in the aftermath of misfortune, begins to attract the wrong kind of attention. Marco knew it was time to leave when disagreeable spirits started roaming freely through the house, as if they owned the place.
On the third day he stood at the front door, which the spirits must have left open. He stared out at the clouds while they moved and stretched across the sky.
It looked so big out there. He poked his nose through the door and sniffed the air. What in the world would he do outside?
Leo Chin held the door open for a woman and her daughter while he collapsed his umbrella into a refined black walking stick and entered the Great Court of the British Museum.
As curator of Egyptian Rare Book Archives, he could have gone into the complex closer to his office, but he never tired of passing through the museum, breathing the air of ancient things. The current exhibit in the Reading Room’s enormous rotunda featured the Book of the Dead, instructions for an ancient Egyptian’s afterlife.
He was in front of the papyrus that contained a spell for help in the weighing of the heart when Arthur Nightingale, assistant curator of Roman and Egyptian Antiquities, came to stand beside him.
“What do you think, Professor Chin?”
“Superb as usual. The museum has outdone itself once again.”
“I meant the Egyptian’s view of death,” Arthur said. “They were lucky to have such potent spells to protect them in their night journey.”
“Knowledge is a powerful thing,” Professor Chin replied.
“A little magic doesn’t hurt either, does it?” quipped Arthur. He patted the breast and side pockets of his jacket, looking for something. “Do you suppose they’d work for an Englishman?”
The corners of Professor Chin’s mouth stretched into a smile. He was glad Arthur thought of him as an Englishman. “If you had enough money. Only the rich can afford to die properly, even now.”
“Yes, well…” Arthur’s cell phone vibrated with an incoming call. “That’s Croner. I have a meeting. Best be off. Good day Professor.
“Good day to you.”
Professor Chin wound his way through the Museum’s labyrinthine corridors to his department. Just as he got to his office which, was little more than a cubicle, his assistant, Oliver, approached him.
“I made your flight reservations, Professor. You’ll be leaving on the ninth, a day ahead of the conference, with the layover in Greece as you requested.”
“Very good. Thank you, Oliver.”
He entered a tiny but well-ordered world. Piles of books were everywhere, but he knew the exact location of each one. He hung his umbrella and coat and removed his fedora. On the desk was yesterday’s unsorted mail. It was the usual—catalogues, book review and trade journals—but when he picked up the stack, a postcard fell to the floor.
Professor Chin froze. The picture side was splashed with the gaudy colors of the Romanian flag and two dancing gypsies. He picked it up and looked on the other side. It had been forwarded twice.
“Leo, why don’t you write? We never hear from you and wonder if you died. Your poor mother is rolling over in her grave, worried sick about what’s become of you. Serves her right for marrying that horrible Gaje. You are full-blooded. Never forget!
Have you gotten married yet? Please, everyone here is dying of curiosty.”
It was no surprise his illiterate aunt had misspelled curiosity. Why couldn’t she leave him alone? His stomach knotted and he dropped into his chair.
"You’ve come a long way,” said a voice from an unlit corner of the room.
“You’re still here?” asked Professor Chin.
“Of course,” said the voice.
“You still need me.”
“Most people leave their imaginary friends at home when they grow up.”
“You’re not ‘most people’. And I’m not imaginary. I was your only true friend when you had none; when you were tormented by your own family and the outsiders; when your father beat you for trying to protect your mother. You needed me then and you need me now.”
Professor Chin sighed and surrendered to his lifelong companion. There was no use fighting it. He would never be a true Gaje, a non-gypsy, but he would certainly never return to ‘his people’. He had no family, no home, no country.
But he still had dreams, and there were others like him. Together, he hoped, they would create a world of their own.
“If you want your dreams to be real,” the Whisperer said, “you will need more powerful magic. Your fortune telling mother was right. You have the Gift. But you need more than herbs, runes and rituals to accomplish your dreams.”
Next to the dumpster behind a gas station, Marco found food. Hardly the tuna or crunchy nuggets he was used to, but he was in no position to complain. Gas fumes mixed with the rancid odor of rotting garbage, but his belly had been rumbling for days and he gobbled up the meager pickings. It made him even hungrier.
The smell of meat drew him to search at the back of the trash bin. His head was caught in a tight space when he heard someone behind him.
“Punk! Did I say you could eat here?”
Marco involuntarily jerked his head up, but he only succeeded in getting more stuck.
“What a cretin,” said the voice. Another voice chimed in, and Marco learned a few words he’d never read in books. He was so humiliated, he considered staying stuck, in hopes they might give up and go away. He tried crawling farther in, but to his dismay he was suddenly free.
Free to face the cats who had been cursing him behind his back. They were practically in his face and he was trapped by the dumpster and a brick wall.
“Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Uh… right. You sound like a smart guy. Where you from, stranger?”
Marco had the feeling that whatever he said was going to be the wrong answer. Besides, he didn’t know where he was from anymore.
“I’m from…” Marco looked off vaguely in the direction of his old neighborhood.
“He looks lost, like a pet. Don’t you think?”
“Then you gots to be a stray. Like us!” said the smallest one.
What a horrifying thought. Was he a stray? Was this what his future looked like?
“This is our turf, runt. And there’s barely enough food for us. So scram.”
Marco was only too glad to leave the ragtag cats to their smelly dumpster and he took the opportunity to bolt.
“What a wuss. You’re not gonna last long out here! Pet!” the cats called out behind him.
Marco trotted along deserted sun-baked sidewalks, glad to have escaped the street cats, but the heat was searing his tender toe pads. Life on the outside was harsh. He was always hungry and thirsty, and he had no training in the hunt. Now he discovered he had enemies he didn’t even know existed. Some hero he was turning out to be. He couldn’t even defend himself against a few alley cats.
He longed for a place to rest, but he was surrounded by dry scrub and empty lots. Something made him lift his head, though, and look farther in the distance. As if by magic, the promise of relief appeared. He quickened his pace until he reached the cool shade of buildings and green leafy trees that seemed to grow out of the sidewalks.
His spirits raised, he explored the streets and found a puddle of water to quench his thirst. A girl patted him on his head before she disappeared through one of the shop doors.
At the end of one street was a stone building nestled in a grove of trees. A dome sprouted from the roof, and the rounded turrets at both corners reminded him of a castle, like ones he’d seen in books.
On one side was a good climbing tree, which beckoned him to climb into its cool arms. It held him like an old friend and he curled up on a wide branch that fit comfortably. It was the perfect napping place. He fell asleep the moment he closed his eyes.
How could such an ideal napping spot bring on such a terrifying dream?
Marco was surrounded by complete darkness, the lack of light so dense it had substance, like an invisible creature. Had he been eaten by a predator? He panicked, thrashing out in all directions, but it was impossible to fight an enemy he couldn't see.
Somehow the realization came… who this enemy was. He understood that it was fear, his own fear.
A force welled up inside him, moving up into his throat and out of his mouth. He bellowed… like a lion, shattering chains he didn't know were there. He would not go down like this! Before he sprang, he recoiled and roared again; something terrible and savage in a voice he did not recognize as his own.