One of the wonderful things about writing is that we can connect concepts however we like, simply because we think it would be cool, or beautiful, or fitting. There are a variety of reasons that our Friday nights writing together is such a high point in my life. This is a story of one of them.
Lauren and I were at the Nelson Atkins back when we were working on Book II: Carcosa. We were wandering about, being enraptured and intrigued as one generally is at a museum, and discussing spirit guides and animal spirits. We had been batting different ideas back and forth like two cats playing with a landed goldfish, since one of the characters has to go on a spirit journey stoked to the gills on hallucinatory fungi.
Horse? Powerful, graceful . . . but not quite right. Frog? Traditional, but probably not. Anteater? Snake? Mmmm . . . no. And so on. We had been working on the problem for a while, in fact. Something fitting for Kate, though, probably something with water.
We were meandering conversationally from topic to topic, as we will, when in the Asian Exhibit we saw this beautiful Chinese scroll.
It was long, spread out under glass, obviously a river with banks and trees and occasional calligraphy. In the artist's elegant simplicity of line and form, waves and sages with their walking sticks were beautifully rendered. But what stood out most of all were the huge, huge fish that guided them through the foam.
In any visual medium where the eye travels from event to event, space equals time. So we had no way of knowing if there was one fish, or many. Or maybe both. It didn't matter. We spent a few minutes, looking at this magnificent fish, with its huge eyes and shining scales, swimming the Immortals across the churning river. Then we looked at each other across the glass . . .
And so, Kate’s spirit animal became a catfish. It was a moral imperative. Frogs could continue singing out for their beloved mud and ooze, and anteaters could go back to dragging away automotive accident survivors. We had our guide.
In the story, the catfish swims up to Kate as she stands on the banks of her unconscious, where dream, memory, and magic meet. She has to cross the river, of course. And she must face what awaits her alone, because that is how such things are done. So, being a spirit guide, it helps her get across. But nothing in magic is free.
She walked until mud suddenly squelched under her feet.
Before her was the edge of a broad river. The current seemed deceptively slow, almost sluggish across that broad expanse, the surface silvered in the failing light of an autumn afternoon. The opposite shore was distant and hazy. The water was dark brown and green. Nearer to the banks, she could see the murky bottom, lined with flat, heavy stones.
As she watched, the surface of the water bubbled and rose and finally broke a few yards away from her, revealing a speckled back. Expressive eyes regarded her from behind long, twitching barbels as the wind blew cold across them both.
“Welcome back,” the catfish said. It was not enough that the catfish was speaking. Its voice was somehow both smooth and rough, dissonant and sonorous. It was a voice meant for crooning, for grooving, for singing songs about good men going through bad, sad times.
“Back?” Kate echoed.
“Don’t you know, girl? This is The River.” The catfish moved its tail luxuriously, like a whip in slow motion, as the sound of the water and the wind gave way to a slow guitar, with just a hint of drums to back up the catfish’s talking-blues style.
“This is where you started
So why don’t you
Hooold onto my back
Put your laigs round my sides
Don’t you worry
I’ll bring you to the other side.”
It swam closer, and Kate waded into the water to meet it. The current was strong, but she was able to take hold of its fin and pull herself on. Its body was broad and slippery and almost soft, but she could feel the ripple of muscles beneath its flesh. She squeezed her legs tight and held on as the channel cat started to swim across. Cold water crested up to her thighs and goosebumps broke out on her skin.
The music rose, and the catfish spoke again, almost as if it were giving her the only warning she’d be receiving:
“I’m not a holy man
I’m not a boat-man
I’m not a reptile
I’m not an amm-phibian
‘Cause I’m mad
Like Jesse James.”
As they neared the farther shore, she saw objects floating in the water. Books. Dozens of them. Some were spread open, floating face-down like drowned birds. Some were tossed gently on the current, their black-and-white pages waving feebly beneath the surface. Others simply floated along like tiny, leather-bound rafts.
When they came to the shallow place near the banks, Kate climbed off. “Thanks,” she said.
“Whoa,” the catfish said. “We gotta settle up now.”
“There’s a price, girl. There’s always a price. You know that.”
Kate looked at the fish, dumbfounded. “But . . . I haven’t got anything.”
The round, black eyes regarded her for a moment. Then, without warning, one of the barbels shot out and stung her across the thigh, just beneath the hem of her shorts.
Kate leaped back with a cry. “Ow!”
The catfish chuckled. “Now we’re square,” it drawled, and sank back down into the muddy waters.
Kate stared at the flurry of bubbles that marked where the fish had disappeared, rubbing the wound on her left leg.
A book bobbed up against her right leg, then another. More bumped against her backside—insistent little reminders that there was something waiting for her on the banks.
She turned and limped up onto the rocky embankment, littered with more books.
The mist had not diminished, and she couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of her, but she did not have to go far before the ground rose sharply. Rocks gave way to limp, saturated river grass. Then a wide set of stone stairs appeared that looked very familiar to her.
Rising out of the mist, in the side of a green hill, was the public library where she worked, a four-story stone building with pillars in front.
And, being a catfish talking to a Midwest girl with a love of music, it of course sounds exactly like John Hooker. Because John Hooker has one of the coolest voices in the universe. Ever. And because, well, it’s a catfish. Dig it.
Book III is continuing to progress, do not despair. For those of you who have read books I and II, and have waited so patiently (or even impatiently) for Book III’s release, we do say thank you.
And for those of you who have not yet read the first two, well, it’s never too late to start. Christmas is coming up, and books always make great presents. And, if you have kids or just like faery tales, Lauren has written a couple of beautiful ones: The Winter Prince and The Ice Dragon even take place on Christmas.
To order a paperback copy of The Order of the Four Sons or Carcosa (O4S Book II) from Createspace.com, click on the link below:
Downloadable versions of all these, including Lauren’s Christmas tales, can also be reached via the links in the upper right margin. We have copies in my house, and I highly recommend them.
(The Thinker is by Auguste Rodin, courtesy of nelson-atkins.com; the Catfish painting is by Guan Shanyue. All rights reserved to those who rightfully reserve them.)