The Yggyssey: How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All the Ghosts, страница 10
Millions of Cats
While we sat in Wanda's cozy kitchen eating apple pie with cheddar cheese, various cats walked in and out. She didn't have millions of them, but she had a lot. Every time a cat turned up, she would talk to it, tell us its name, and say something like, "Look, Sweetums! We have lovely children visiting us!" I guessed Wanda was a sweet old crazy woman who lived alone and had just the cats for company. The pie was fantastic.
We told Wanda about crossing the river in a coracle and visiting the hoopies. We didn't mention that we had busted Neddie out of Juvenile Hole in New Yapyap City. That might have made us sound like desperate characters. And we told her we were going to New Old Hackensack.
"So you walked all day, poor dears," Wanda said. "You must be tired and footsore. I have lovely beds, all made up. Come, I will show you where to sleep, and in the morning, perhaps you would like to help me feed the cats?" We told Wanda we would be happy to help her feed the cats.
"Are you sure? You know, I have a great many cats." We told her we would be happy to help feed the cats, no matter how many there were.
"You are such wonderful, polite, helpful children," Wanda said. "And you will help me until all the cats are fed?"
"And you won't go until all the cats have been cared for?"
"Certainly. We will stay until every cat has been cared for. It's the least we can do after your kindness."
"Such superior children. I wish you were mine and I could keep you always. Come, and let me show you to your beds."
Upstairs in Wanda's house there was a large room, warm and dry. In each corner was a little bed with a thick, fluffy quilt. Just looking at the beds made us realize how tired we were after our long walk. We crawled under the quilts, snuggled down, and were asleep in a minute. And it felt like a minute later when we heard Wanda saying,
"Time to get up, children! Wake up, wake up! There are pussycats to care for!"
We sat up in our beds, rubbing our eyes. It was still dark outside.
"Hurry, children! Hurry and wash! Line up and take your turn! The pussycats are waiting!" When I was splashing cold water on my face, trying to wake up, I noticed something in the washstand mirror. There was a little green collar around my neck. It had a little bell on it. I turned it around and around, trying to find where it fastened, but it was all one piece. When I came out of the bathroom, I saw that the other kids had collars, too: Neddie's was red, Seamus's was blue, and Big Audrey's was yellow, all with little bells.
"What are these?"
"No idea. How'd they get there?"
"I can't get mine off."
"Come, children! Help Wanda stir up the big bowls of food for the pussycats!"
Wanda gave each of us a large metal bowl full of disgusting goo, and a big wooden spoon.
"Now mix up the disgusting goo and start spooning it into the little pussycat bowls. Hurry, children—we have millions of cats to feed."
Again, there were not millions of cats. There were only a thousand, or maybe two thousand. They were hungry, switching their tails and mewing, rubbing against our legs, and batting us with their paws.
"Faster, children, faster! We have to feed all the cats before we start scooping out the litter boxes!"
"Scooping out the litter boxes?"
"Oh, yes! And then we have to wash all the bowls, and dry them. Then we have to brush the kitties and look for hairballs. So much to do! I am lucky to have you children to help me."
All Day Long
It was ladle out goo, scoop out litter boxes, wash bowls, brush kitties, and scrape up hairballs at a rapid rate. Wanda kept encouraging us and telling us to work faster—and we worked fast. We worked faster than we wanted to. We couldn't slow down for some reason. I noticed a couple of things: all of Wanda's cats had the same kind of little collars, with bells, that we kids were wearing—and every time I thought of taking a break, the bell on my collar would jingle and Wanda would appear before me, urging me to work faster.
While Big Audrey and I were washing pussycat bowls, I whispered to her, "Am I mistaken, or is Wanda a witch?"
"I don't see how she could be anything else," Big Audrey whispered back.
"Why don't we all just burst out the door and run like the dickens?" I whispered.
Both our bells jingled, and Wanda was suddenly there. "Thinking of running away? Oh, no, no, no—that would never do. There is too much work left, and besides, Wanda is baking pies! Nice pies! Keep working, dear children!" It was night and we had fed all the cats, twice, scooped ever so many litter boxes, washed and washed and washed bowls, and we were so tired we could barely drag our feet to the table.
"It's apple pie again, dear children!" Wanda said. "Eat all you want! Then sleep. So much to do tomorrow." Wanda wandered off to mix up vats of goo to feed the cats in the morning. We were left sitting slumped in our chairs, barely able to lift a fork.
"She's a witch, you know," Seamus whispered.
"Yes. We figured that out."
"We're captives here," Neddie said.
"Knew that too."
"She's going to work us to death," Neddie said.
"Nope, she's not," Seamus said.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"Look around. Look at everybody. See anything different?"
First, I looked at Big Audrey. Except for looking like someone who had tended thousands of cats all day, she looked pretty much as usual: pretty girl, large, nice eyes, and whiskers like a cat—same as always. Only maybe she looked a little more catlike than I remembered.
Then I looked at Neddie. He had cat whiskers too!
And Seamus had them!
"Yep. You've got 'em too," Seamus said. "I expect all the cats here were kids, or people, once. She's going to work us until we all turn into pussycats."
"What? Do you mean these whiskers are the first change, and we'll all be pussycats in the end?"
"That's my theory."
"How do you know it isn't just puberty setting in?"
"If you think that, I can guess what grade you got in your health class. No, we are on the way to pussycat-hood, unless we figure out some way to escape."
All our collar bells jingled, and Wanda appeared. "No escape! No escape, dear little children. Now off to bed with you. You don't want Wanda getting pissed off at you."
"No, ma'am, don't want that," we all said, and climbed the stairs to our beds. "Don't want to get a witch pissed off at us."
I was too tired not to fall asleep immediately, though I knew I really ought to lie awake and worry. Sometime in the middle of the night, I felt a hand across my mouth. It was Neddie's.
"Don't make a sound, and try not to think," he whispered. "Seamus had an idea, and we're trying it out." I felt Neddie feel around for the little bell on my collar and whack it with a small hard object.
"It's my turtle," he whispered. "It's supposed to be some kind of magic. Seamus suggested I smack the bells with it. They're pretty chintzy and easy to smash. With the bells out of commission, maybe we can ... you know."
"Don't say it! Don't think it. Just be ready when Wanda is busy mixing up goo."
Like a Charm
"I'm thinking about escaping," Seamus said in a low voice, not to be heard over the ruckus the hungry cats were making. His squashed bell did not jingle, and neither did any of ours.
"Neat! Works like a charm," Neddie said. "Let's streak out the door!"
"Nothing is stopping us except that big iron padlock," Big Audrey said.
We hadn't noticed before. There was a big, rusty, heavy old-fashioned padlock fastening the door on the inside.
"We'll be needing the key," Seamus said.
"Of course, Wanda has it," I said.
Wanda was off in the kitchen, mixing up the goo. We could hear her talking to the cats. She woul
"We'll have to filch it," Seamus said.
"Is any one of us good at filching?" I asked.
"I can filch," Seamus said. "All I need is someone to distract her."
"I should warn you that filching things from a witch may tend to piss her off," Big Audrey said. "And I speak from experience."
"I was wondering why you already had cat's whiskers," I said. "Previous encounter with a witch?"
"I'll tell you about it another time," Big Audrey said. "Now, the traditional thing would be to stuff her into her own oven. Who's for that?"
"Why try to improve on a classic?" Seamus said. "We shove her into the oven, and as she goes in, I filch the key. Now, do we shove her into a cold oven, or wait until it's cooking?"
"It's in the stories," Seamus said. "But I assume we are going with the cold oven."
It turned out to be a relative cinch. We were in the kitchen, getting more goo, and Wanda was in the next room, spooning.
"Wanda! Wanda!" we shouted. "There's a pussycat way back in the oven and we can't get it to come out!" Wanda bustled into the kitchen and stuck her head into the oven.
"Come out, little pussycat!" she said. We all put our backs against her wide rump and pushed as hard as we could. At the same moment, Seamus filched the key off her belt. Then we slammed the oven door.
"I can't believe I fell for that old trick!" Wanda shrieked. "Wanda is really pissed off!"
"Unlock the door! Unlock the door!" we shouted to one another, and were outside and running across the fields in the next second. Behind us we could hear Wanda shrieking, and a thousand cats mewing ... and cheering ... cheering in the voices of children.
"I think the pussycats are changing back into kids," I said.
"This is good. Wanda will be chasing them every which way, once she manages to get out of the oven," Seamus said.
"But the ones she really wants to catch will be us," Big Audrey said. "We should get as far away as we can, as fast as we can."
"Then it would be good if we flagged down that car and begged for a ride," Neddie said.
There was a car coming down the road, a big car with big wheels, going fairly fast and making clouds of dust, the horn honking constantly. We spread out across the road, jumped up and down, and waved our arms frantically. The car, which was bright red, with a lot of shiny brass work, screeched to a stop.
At the wheel was a tiny, extremely ugly, and splotchy driver, wearing goggles, a thick muffler around his neck, a flat cap, a big overcoat, and big gloves. "Give us a ride! Give us a ride, please!" we shouted.
The little driver leaned over and opened the door.
"Where to, kiddies?" he asked in a croaky voice.
"Old New Hackensack ... or anywhere! Please! Please!"
We all piled in. Then he jammed the car into gear and took off so fast, we were thrown against the seatbacks. In ten minutes we were at least ten miles away from Wanda's house, with no sign of slowing down. The little driver threw the car into the curves and ground the gears. The tires squealed, and he beeped the horn every few seconds for no apparent reason.
"At this rate we'll be well clear of her in no time," I said.
"Look! We still have the whiskers," Seamus said.
"Actually, I sort of like them," I said.
"Everyone does," Big Audrey said.
Back on the Road
Except for comments like "How do you like my car?" "Isn't she a beauty?" "I just bought her yesterday," and "Beep beep!" the little driver didn't talk much. He spoke only one other word while driving the car. That word was "Drat!"
He said it when he drove the car into a large tree that was actually nowhere near the road. We were shaken up, but no one was hurt.
"End of the road! Beep beep! Cheerio!" the little driver said. Then he just hopped out of the car and took off in a series of very long, slow leaps, across the fields and out of sight.
"Everybody okay?" I asked.
"Yes—he hit the tree fairly softly," Big Audrey said.
"Was that guy a frog or toad of some kind?" Seamus asked.
"Whatever he was, he came along at the right time," Neddie said. "We're miles and miles away from Wanda's, and we must be getting close to New Old Hackensack."
"Well, let's pull ourselves together and get back on the road," Big Audrey said.
We hadn't gone very far when something happened that none of us could explain. We ran into a tree! We just, all four of us, collided with it, the same way the froggy little driver had crashed the car! Smack! We all bumped into it at the same time, and found ourselves sitting on the ground.
"How is this possible?" we asked each other. "How could we just walk into a tree?"
Then it started to rain on us. When I say on us, I mean just on us. It was bright sunshine to the left and the right, behind us and before us, and there was a small black rain cloud over our heads, drenching us. When we moved, the cloud moved with us. We tried running, and the cloud speeded up. We were getting drenched. When we bumped into another tree, we huddled under the branches, trying to shelter from the rain.
"What's going on?" I asked. "We're walking into trees, it's raining on us and nowhere else—it's almost as if..."
"Seems pretty obvious," a voice that didn't belong to any of us said. "Looks to me as though you kids have managed to piss off a witch."
There was a tall hooded figure standing just outside our circle of rain.
"Where did you come from?" we asked, surprised.
"Same as you: L.A. in its appropriate world. I'm on my way to the big supernatural whoop-de-doo on the Devil's Shoestring."
"Wait a second!" Neddie said. "I know that voice! Melvin?"
Melvin the shaman pulled back his hood and smiled broadly at us. "Hello, wet kids," he said.
"You know this geek?" Big Audrey asked.
"Yes, he's a shaman," I said.
"Can you tell us how to get out from under this rain cloud?"
"Did you piss off a witch?"
"It was unavoidable. She was turning us into pussycats."
"I noticed the whiskers. I sort of like them."
"Everyone does. How about it? Can you get us out of this?"
"Well, of course I could," Melvin the shaman said. "But, you know, a journey like the one you're taking—it's sort of a personal quest. You encounter adversity, you suffer, you overcome, you gain deep knowledge of yourselves. It's spiritual. If I were to show you some cheap trick to get you out of being as wet as a bunch of drowned rats, it might diminish the experience in some way. Would you want that?"
"Yes!" we all shouted.
"You're sure you wouldn't rather figure it out for yourselves?"
"Okay, do you want me to show you how to stop the rain only, or reverse the whole curse?"
"Reverse the curse! Reverse the curse!"
"You realize by accepting this easy expedient you're taking all the depth out of the whole story."
"We don't care! We don't care!"
"It won't be meaningful or revelatory."
"We're soaking! We're drowning! Get on with it!"
"All right. Turn your pockets inside out and dance around like idiots."
"Just do it."
We turned out our pockets and danced around like idiots, as best we could. The little rain cloud instantly vanished.
"That was all there was to it?" we asked Melvin.
"Sure, it looks easy once someone tells you how," he said. "I'm a little sorry I interrupted your authentic experience. On the other hand, I happen to know that next she was going to have you attacked by volcanos, so maybe it was for the best."
"Are you going to walk to Old New Hackensack? May we come with you?"
"I walk incredibly fast. You cou
Then, he took another stride, picked up speed, and was actually making a cloud of dust by the time he disappeared in the distance.
"That guy is some fast walker," Big Audrey said.
"Professional shaman," Neddie said. "Taught me all I know."
As we walked along, we sang. We sang "The Cry of the Wild Goose," about a guy whose heart must go where the wild goose goes, and he turns into a goose, leaving just a few feathers behind for his wife to try to figure out.
The sun dried us as we walked along, and inspired by Melvin's fast walking, we kept up a good pace. Swinging our arms, we walked four abreast along the road, singing songs as the miles went by. Besides "The Cry of the Wild Goose," we sang "Mule Train," and the song from the movie High Noon. All good walking songs.
"What is that, a church steeple?" Neddie asked, pointing to something in the distance. It didn't look exactly like a steeple. As we got closer, we saw it clearer, rising above the trees.
"It's a tower of some kind. Made of stone." Then as we got closer still, we saw another tower, and then another.
"Look! It's a whole castle!"
The road had been going gradually upward for a long time, not steep enough to make walking harder, but always taking us higher. Now we came to the crest and found we were looking down into a green valley. The castle was on the slopes of the opposite side of the valley, and it was a fancy one—it looked like an illustration in some old children's book. Below the castle were little houses, cultivated fields, and a thick forest.