by Carmen Welsh
She helped the merchant pack more of the crates that would be used as stands and shelves to display the wares.
She heard her father mutter the prices and the defects of a product over to himself.
“Half-price, that linen should have a repetitive pattern but they did that last part wrong. Fifty abis less, cross-stitch instead of the regular.”
She made sure to load her own stuff into the boxes.
Things she had outgrown.
Toys she no longer played with.
She was unusual in that she was the only one her parents had. There were no nest-brothers or sisters to pass things on to. No littermates to share things with.
Her father gave a deep, satisfied sigh.
“Well, that’s about it, furling. Let’s get this glazed pottery out to the booth before sunlight.”
“Because it’s basa, a soft rock from the Rainforest region, and it will change an ugly color and then we’ll have to reduce the price.”
“That’s right, my little girl!” Her father smiled, “You will be a good merchant yet! Now remember to pack the Angoran moonstone jewelry just right. Their settings sometimes chip…”
Today was a special one for her. It would be her first time in the city, at her father’s booth, helping him sell.
The day was hot and the merchants who could afford it had shade. Either stealing it from a tree or having the luxury of a pavilion.
Theirs was a tented booth and she was still hot.
With quick eyes, she made a last inventory check.
There were her dolls. Here were the shoes that used to make her ankles and toes itch.
It was important how her father stacked the tables: the more expensive products up front, least expensive in the back.
The costlier items were usually large and heavy so none could attempt a quick theft.
Something almost silken shimmered on the table of the booth next door.
Lariami fabrics. The garments of the priest caste folded tightly and stacked neatly.
“How did he get those?” she asked suspiciously to her father.
He shrugged. “Perhaps by ill-gotten means. We do not question how we each acquire our wares. Only if what another does breaks the merchant’s code by getting in the way of others selling.”
So they sat, and so they waited.
A few lookers came and they waited for a sale.
That was all they did.
Look, and stroll away.
“Where are all the people?” she asked. Her father laughed.
“Patience, small one. Do you expect them to come in droves?”
“But you bring home so much money! You always sell everything!”
“And who told you that?” Her father’s tone was more amused than astonished. “Most of the time, I think it’s the gods’ good fortune and my own savvy that I sell, but I hardly ever sell more than a quarter of the things I display!”
That was disappointing. The little girl had not expected it to be this way.
So she waited, and she watched. Her father called to another merchant on the other side, and they chatted friendly and in teases.
A woman left the street to approach the booths on the sidewalks. She came to theirs.
With a face that showed she felt repulsed, her deft fingers stiffly touched and dismissed, lingered, then discarded.
She went through the samples and merchandise quickly. Her comments dropped as the materials she let slip through her unceremonious fingers.
“Bland colors. Cross-stitch. Horrid!”
“That’s why it’s 50 abis, ma’am.” The little kitten said.
“That’s why it should sell less than that!”
The woman lifted one fabric, and her nose wrinkled when she brought it close to her face.
“Oh, what a ghastly thing. So wiry!”
“It’s Burmese-made, ma’am.”
“I’m sure.” The woman acted as if everything carried a disdainful odor.
“The merchant must be rabid to sell such a thing!”
The girl bristled. She felt her fur become furrier to make her appear larger.
Still not satisfied, the blue tabby woman stalked away.
A few more lookers came but no real customers.
“They just glance over and leave.” The girl was in disbelief.
“My daughter,” the merchant jabbed his friend’s arm, “She expects the buyers to come with bags of silver and gold to buy everything!”
The two men chuckled at her.
Then her father’s friend said under his breath,
“Arrow. Brown Point. Eager. ”
The little girl knew the merchant-talk.
Her father’s friend had just announced the direction of the arriving buyer, straight ahead, identified the breed, and in mercantile argot, the word “eager” took on two meanings: that the person looked eager to buy or carried a lot of money.
The Si’amese approached, and only when the buyer came closer did the little girl realize it was a woman.
The Si’amese made it difficult for other breeds to tell their sexes apart.
Both genders were often androgynous in their manner of clothing, and a felina could wear large pants while a tom wore many earrings.
The kitten marveled at the woman’s long neck and long hands.
She appeared unreal, like out of a daydream.
She had a diamond nose ring and more earrings than one could count, ascending her ear from larger to smaller.
Her eyes seemed as the blue gems along her neckline.
Her face became childlike when she held up one of the dolls.
It had been re-stitched with a new outfit and miniature shoes.
“How much you will sell this for?”
Her accent made her words sound as if she were speaking through water.
“The price is sewn in,” the little girl said.
The Si’amese checked if this were true.
“And is it a charm? For good fortune? A fertility item?”
“No. Just a doll,” the little girl said. “You could bring it home to your kids!”
The Si’amese woman’s face became sad.
“Oh, it’s only a toy. Not a special statue?”
“Nope. Just a plaything.” The little girl was struck by inspiration.
“I can reduce it for you!”
“No. That’s quite all right.” The Si’amese placed the doll down, looked around the booth one last time, her face forlorn. Then she left.
“Can you believe that?” her father’s friend said.
“Those Si’amese… Hmph! Want to buy out our heritage from us!”
The little girl tapped her father’s arm. “I thought you said they were good customers, daddy.”
“They usually are, kit.”
“What did she think this was?” the other merchant continued, “a shrine? Charms, fertility figurines! By my whiskers, I sell practical stuff. I don’t rob the temples!”
“Someone should tell that to our friend over yonder…”
Her father jerked his thumb discreetly towards the booth with the lariami fabrics.
This time, the little girl laughed with them.
The day had grown hotter.
The merchant and his daughter sat in their respective places.
The little girl swung her legs in her seat.
The color and design on her dress and jacket were identical to her father’s.
His was the regular jacket most Tathranese wore.
He kept a long shirt underneath and the billowing pants that cinched at the ankles.
Both wore sandals, the practical kind that covered the ankles and toes.
The little kitten was bored. Insects flew around her and she had to slap her face a number of times. Twitch her skin.
Her father’s body was in complete repose. He made his back melt into his seat, slumping as he smoked a catnip reed.
The scent was pleasant enough though she could not understand its appeal.
“Some cats go warrior-berserk for it. To a few others, it riles them.” Her father once told her,
“And to the rest, not affected at all.”
Maybe she was in that category.
She wrinkled her nose as a whorl of its smoke reached her.
Her father removed his jacket to remove his shirt. Then he put back on the jacket.
He then crossed his arms.
She knew he did this to deter thievery.
Not muscle-bound, his arms were thick enough to show he had carried boxes and loads all his life. His legs also showed he lifted many a heavy thing with his knees.
Any thief not half the merchant’s strength would think three times before they decided money or picked goods were not worth a tussle.
She remembered her mother’s first memory of her father:
“I was standing across the street. I had seen him a few times, but I hardly knew him and never thought to approach first. Some of the stray children tried a scheme one summer. These weren’t the hungry little ones who picked off food, you see. These were near tomhood boys. Their new masculinity encouraging them to challenge any older man they confronted. The thinner ones circled the booth, and the two older leaders rushed him. They landed a few scratches, and then all three were on the ground. I thought they would tear out his belly! They were taller than he was. The other marketers watched with me, and a few threw down coins on who would win. I was so terrified! Then he pinned them down and was raking them. Just raking them! You’ve never seen your father so angry! There was fur all over the street! It was finished in minutes before anyone had the sense to break it up. Both leaders were on the ground wailing like weanlings. He picked up one of the ceramic bowls and aimed it at two who were fleeing the scene. After the bowl connected with one kit’s head, he dropped and took the other down with him. The last kit had already disappeared!
“Then he got up, breathing heavily, his shirt torn, his tail puffed and his eyes like some angry spirit. All of us across the street could feel his growls rumbling under our shoes. The other merchants would not look him in the eye. They didn’t want a fight. Everyone went back to shopping, eating and selling. I crossed the street and asked if he was okay, and now he’s your father.”
The girl could not believe the story though her mother would not lie.
She turned to her father.
The merchant’s chin was touching his chest. His eyes were half-lidded, the look of a cat in contentment, ready to sleep deeply.
A fly touched his brow, and before it could land on the brow’s whiskers, his skin twitched there and he woke suddenly. He looked about him lazily, noticed her, gave a half-grin, then readjusted himself in his seat and was asleep before his chin touched his chest.
Her mother had made him out to be some mighty hunter!
Her father could become as kittenish as she. Because there were no siblings, he took their place, making faces, creating games, and becoming her loyal follower when she made up fun things for them to do.
How could he have been involved in a street brawl?
No. It was just not possible.
But, how could she explain what visiting friends said?
“Oh sure, it seems the intention of merchant life to be robbed at least a few times, but has anyone robbed your father? Not successfully. And not with all pride or body intact.”
She had asked him.
“Oh, of course I have been robbed! Who told you this? They lie. Don’t listen to those liars!”
She did not mention that these were his friends.
The little girl turned to look at him again. His face as she knew him, gentle and fun-loving.
She did not realize she was sleepy until the bells hit each other.
They hung from a worn cord, over the entrance of the tent so that breezes brought music and alerted that customers arrived.
Someone purchased the imported Burmese fabrics to be made into curtains.
A man bought the triplet vases for his mate. Each bore a relief image of the goddess, Bastet.
All were frosted glass and colored to match each of her incarnations.
One was smoked to obsidian: the Black Cat Crone.
Glazed in triplicate: the Calico Mother, and honey-colored: the Golden Cat Maiden.
The buyer was an Abyssinian just as the merchant and his daughter, and he was immensely pleased by his purchase.
“I thank you,” he said for the seventh time, bowing jerkily to the merchant.
“It’s so hard to find art that appreciates us.”
The merchant nodded.
“True. One cannot help but feel isolated in this tabby-oriented world.”
After three more ‘thank-yous’ and body jerking bows, the man left.
“What did he mean by that, daddy?”
“My kitten, you’ll learn soon, but now, I’ve made enough from those two purchases to buy a better table than this one.” He slapped his palm affectionately on the table that held most of the merchandise.
“It’s served me well, but now it must come home with us and let a newer and stronger table do its job.”
“You talk to it like it’s real.”
“It is, little one. If you want to become a merchant, you must treat all your wares and equipment as if they were persons, each with its own unique personality and duty. Now, a child mustn’t be cooped up too long. The gods and goddesses did not make children to be bored. Here.” He gave her all the coins and put away the bills in a tinderbox.
“Go buy something. They have many things in Tathran for pretty girls to buy.”
She dashed off, waving back to her father while he shouted that she must be back before midday mealtime.
She counted the coins in her paw and shoved them in the special hidden pocket sewn into her pants.
She must find a candy shop.
The shop’s door creaked loudly as it slammed behind her. She looked greedily at her new cricket lollipop.
With delight, she wondered how they managed to put the gooey sweetness under the insect’s shell.
For half an abi, she could have three honey-coated ones skewered on two sticks and spend the rest of the day trying to eat them off the sticks without getting her nose and whiskers sticky.
She remembered about midday’s meal, so she satisfied herself with the lollipop.
Only hearing about Tathran from adults, she decided that the best way to learn the city was to follow the people, so she decided that the crowds trotting carefully down the sharply descending street would be safe.
She kept inside the thickness of the crowd, holding the lollipop in her mouth with one hand, the other hand stuck casually in her pocket, walking an easy-going pace.
People swarmed around her, towering and surrounding her as so many trees, and she looked up and behind her many times. Her ears swiveled frantically just to hear these trees talk, for the breezes of conversations tousled their words as stirred leaves. And they talked in many dialects, rustling with deeper or higher sounds.
Tathran’s streets were dusty, but the lower streets were paved in flat tiles. A giant mountain goat called a suil trotted by with his rider, bareback.
The little girl understood the reason why the roads were this way rather than cobbled.
When she was again on ground level, she stuck her hands in her pockets, keeping the lollipop in her mouth. She shivered with morbid delight when the cricket’s bitter flavor mingled with the candy’s taste.
The heavy, bustling crowd had thinned as everyone dispersed into the plaza. The little girl went her own way.
The shops were pushed together and a few residents lived above the shops. Some watched her from their windows…
And she found kittens her age sitting in the cramped space between the shops.
How did they sit there? She wondered. The place was rank, and she noticed they were all blue tabbies, as the mean customer who found everything not to her taste.
The little girl could not tell if it was the children’s naturally diffused gray fur or heavy dust covering them.
Their eyes were scornful and a few hissed at her, frightened and intimidated by her clothes and her candy.
A smaller one only lifted up his forepaw to her and asked if he “cud haf a piece o’ th’ lolli?”
These were strays’ children. Their parents hailed from the lesser Blue tabby tribes and came to the city to find a worthy life. Both genders turned to roving, going from district to district, becoming what settled cats feared most: strays and dangerous.
These roving felines often reeked of foul smells, becoming flea-infested while the blue tabby men caught rabies in their territorial fights. The kittens were abandoned and their women avoided their toms, afraid of catching the illnesses.
When a blue tabby was successful, they became disdainful of their own breed and other cats.
The little girl felt bad for the clean clothes she wore and that were only dusty. She somehow felt the blue kittens’ glares towards her was something more.
She could smell it, and it grew stronger than their unclean scents.
She left that cramped place, away from a smothering that she could not understand.
The kitten found the shrines on a narrower street. She decided to find her breed’s patron. To her people, golden opportunity came with Lady Bastet’s golden form, the playful Maiden.
Among the doll-size idols, she looked for what Bast became in her third incarnation and found a beautiful mortal felina instead.
It was the Si’amese customer from this morning.
The lovely Si’amese remained sad, from what the girl could tell. Her whiskers no longer fanned her face. They drooped as she did.
The little girl could not understand why someone so regal would want to hang her head.
She followed in discreet distance, pretending to look at the different shrines in interest while keeping an eye at where the Si’amese woman went.
She followed the woman into a roadside shrine, large enough for an individual’s private use, small enough to compete with the other shrines.
There were two rows of seats on both sides. There was an altar.
The Si’amese adjusted her people’s traditional layered gown to kneel. She closed her eyes and clasped slender paws.
Speaking low, in her own tongue, when she was not trying an unfamiliar language, her voice was magical.
An accent that made her words watery seemed as a dam finally released. The words tumbled as a rolling stream over rocks. There was music, lilting and cascading. Her sentences were stringed beads moving to music. It was the most beautiful singing the kitten had ever heard.
The girl leaned more into the doorway and her lollipop dropped from her mouth.
The sound it made was soft, but to the merchant’s daughter, it was the loudest noise she could have made.
The Si’amese turned and saw.
The little girl felt her ears turn warm.
“You are welcome,” she smiled for the first time. “Do not mind my sadness. Oh! It’s you, little merchant!”
“What are you sad for?” she sat beside the woman.
“For something I cannot have.” The woman bowed her head and closed her eyes again.
“You sing lovely.”
“I was not singing. I was pleading.”
“That was pleading?! It sounded so pretty.”
The Si’amese chuckled, “You foreign cats are so funny! Thinking our words are happy even when we’re sad.”
From the folds of her gown, she produced a paper doll, colored as a Si’amese and as slender.
Her movements to tie a string around the doll and hang it over the altar seemed so solemn that the kitten decided to keep silent.
When she was finished with her tasks, she produced another paper doll, but this one was folded so, when stretched, became several dolls strung together.
When she bowed her head to pray again, the kitten followed, speaking to her patron as well.
They left the shrine.
“Allow me to buy you another candy,” the Si’amese said to her.
“That’s okay, you don’t have to.”
“But I want to.”
The woman had more money to purchase a delicious treat. They sat down as the little girl offered her a piece. The Si’amese woman shook her head and smiled.
The girl spoke with her mouth full. “To my people, the Abyssinians, we’re friends when you tell someone your name.”
“Is that what you’re called? It fits. You’re the loveliest golden kit I have ever seen!”
“Thank you.” Her ears were red now and she could feel the blush going to her cheeks.
“My name is Shen. Shen-sen Pi-kuo.”
“That’s a mouthful.”
“It is only my one name. I have more, but I couldn’t bother you with them.”
“You’re not bothering me. I think you’re very pretty. Can I call you Pi-kuo? It sounds cute!”
“You’re prettier when you smile.”
“Everyone is prettier when they aren’t so sad.”
The midday sun was at its peak, and so they sat under shade: a bench that circled a tree.
“I will have to go back. I’m supposed to eat midday meal with my dad.”
“Of course. I won’t keep you.”
When they got up, Pi-kuo decided to walk the little girl back to the merchant district since she was familiar with the area.
“How many times have you come to Tathran?” the girl asked.
“A few times. It’s a wonderful city.”
“Will you return to your home?”
“Would you want me too?” Pi-kuo looked at her.
“Not really. Not until you get what you want.”
Pi-kuo tilted her head, looking at her little friend carefully.
“Do you want to know what it is?”
The little girl shook her head. “That’s okay. I prayed to my patron that you get your wish. Now if you can get a third person to pray for you, you’re set!”
Pi-kuo laughed. “You funny girl! Is that what your people believe?”
“Sure! Good things always come in threes! I got to go, it’s getting late.”
The little girl dashed away and looked back. Her new friend waved bye, but her face was returning to that sadness that was unexplainable.
The merchant’s daughter ran back and motioned Pi-kuo to bend down. She did, and the little girl whispered in her ear.
“Now we’re friends. You told me your name and I’ve told you mine. Bye!”
This time, Pi-kuo waved with a genuine smile.
“Where have you been?” Her father’s tone was teasing, not upset.
“Around Tathran. Eating candy. Made a new friend.”
“You have been busy, little one. Help me close up the booth, and we can get something to eat.”
“Are you done selling?”
“Not for today. Tonight means more customers. You don’t mind? It will teach you more about being a merchant.”
“By understanding people?”
The merchant turned and smiled at her. “Yes. You’re finally getting it.”