Fiction: Catskin Excerpt

Full story, "Catskin," can be purchased with Deathless Press Fall 2013:

Inside the bush, which felt as big as a cabin and as small as a hole in the ground, the feathers of spotted towhees, golden-crowned sparrows, and cormorants covered the walls. A woman sat by a woodstove in the center. Its chimney pipe was a crooked tube that wound its way out through leaf and branch, puffing smoke, singeing nothing. The light from the fire cast contorted shadows on the walls of limb and feather. The whole place seemed to breathe and shift like a great animal.
The woman by the stove looked up at Yew in the doorway. Her eyes were feral green flashes, her ears tipped black. She was drinking out of a tin cup that steamed. There was only this in the den: the woodstove, a corner of piled brush rabbit skins all heaped like a bed, a mobile of bones stretching out across the ceiling—bird, vole, lizard— and a narrow table lined with glass jars full of dandelion seedheads. Yew stepped all the way in, and saw that the woman’s shadow was not human. When Yew looked away, out of the corner of her eye, the woman wasn’t a woman at all, but a bobcat, with a flickering tail and ears moving every way. The woman watched Yew like a cat does, still, fixated. As if, through stillness, through complete focus, she could read her heart.
            “Sometimes the fathers, they’ll eat their own kittens,” the woman said eventually, finishing the warm drink in her tin cup. It made her teeth red. She pulled a small cast iron tray off the stove and offered Yew a purple heart, a little rabbit liver.
            “Take one,” she said.
            “I’m Yew,” said the girl, eyeing the organs.
            “No, you are not. I know this. I, however, am the Mistress of Bobcats. Take one.” It was a demand. Yew took the purple heart and swallowed it fast, after one chew.
            “Interesting,” said the Mistress of Bobcats, and she stood. In the ember-light, the woman seemed to be wearing the puff-shouldered blouse, tight at the forearms, and high straight skirt that women of high society wore to picnics and formal dinners. She was short, coming up only to Yew’s nose, and her eyes, up close, were hypnotizing. Yew thought of brush rabbits held in the gaze of a cat.
            “Come this way,” the woman who was also a bobcat murmured. Her teeth were very sharp. She grabbed a short-brimmed top-hat, waxed, and a great shawl of voleskins from a hook. Outside, Yew followed the Mistress of Bobcats on winding deer paths through the brush. The woman moved without a sound, oddly graceful in her tight, fashionable garments. It was raining lightly. From the corners of her eyes, the girl saw that the woman’s skirts changed as they went, reflecting the color of sage, then purple lupine. Sometimes, they disappeared completely, and she was only following the haunches of a sleek, speckled bobcat, her two ears flashing white at the back like lighthouse beacons.
            They came, finally, to another den, this time through the sturdy blooming branches of lupine. Inside, a wardrobe full of fur coats stood in the back corner. The coats were made of bobcat skins, spotted and tawny, all grey and gold and cream. They were fastened down the front with buttons made of rabbit bones. Beside the closet full of hanging coats, there were piles and piles of skins, folded neatly into the twisted shelves of a linen cupboard that grew out of the lupine-brush wall. A small sewing table sat in front of the shelves with a stool made of fawn femurs.
            “When they die, they pass through my dens to the underworld. They leave their skins at the door, those poor cat souls, and descend. The fungi and roots point the way. Down below, inside the ground, everyone is given a new fur of gold and silver light, the starlight from the middle of the earth. I keep these ones. I cure and clean and stitch them, and fill this wardrobe with catskin coats. They are here, waiting for the ones who walk at the edges of things, the ones with nothing to lose, the ones who are desperate to hide themselves away from their fathers, like you. Normally, they are not human.”
            The Mistress of Bobcats took the girl’s hand in her own, which looked elegant, like a woman’s, but felt like a paw. She led Yew to the wardrobe.
            “Some are ancient,” said the Mistress of Bobcats. “Some have skins sewn in from last week’s kittens and a young male shot with a rifle.”
            “One of these will hide me from my father?” Yew was cold and her stomach full of fear, remembering how he leaned, how he breathed against her.
            “Any of them will. Each has its price tag, of course.”
            “Is it my death?”
            “Oh no, no, no, nothing so mundane. You’ve already chosen, anyway. It’s your heart.” {...}

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