The Artist’s Meow (a story)

The moment was frozen in suspended animation. The inkpot hovered in the air above the map, spread out below it in all its handmade glory. Then Myu’s tail snapped forwards and the illusion dissipated; the inkpot smashed onto the table and the ink spilled all over.

Myu disappeared as quickly as the details of the map did underneath the indelible ink.

Now it was Lielle’s turn to be frozen. She was frozen with horror as she took in the damage to her beloved map. Drawn in painstaking detail over the course of half a year, under the instruction of her tutor, it was her masterpiece and her joy. She had dedicated the main table of her study to it; pinning the paper carefully to the edges of the table and making sure nobody and nothing remotely harmful came close to it.

Until now.

Now Myu, her cat, had infiltrated the study and flung a pot of black ink over it with a swish of his tail. What made it worse was that the event unfolded right in front of Lielle’s eyes. Had she come upon the disaster later, after it had already happened in her absence, she would not be eaten away by the thought that she could have prevented it. However, right there, in front of her eyes, Myu had carried out his mischief. Sinking into the beanbag in the corner of her study, Lielle dissolved into tears as she contemplated the almost deliberate malice with which Myu regarded her work of six months. He didn’t like being barred from the study, which used to be his domain before the map project started. In fact, the whole house was his domain ever since the fateful day he had appeared on her doorstep.

It was the morning of her assignment to her tutor, the revered Huoyhnhm, who did not take on any but the cream of the crop. Basking in the glory of her first lesson in the presence of this celebrated mind, she had opened the door to find a gold-flecked tan cat, sitting comfortably on the doorstep as if he owned the place. The cat looked up at her without the slightest bit of hesitation, and, taken in by his confidence, Lielle took him in. She had in her mind’s eye the perfect picture of the art student who blossomed under the watchful eye of her tutor and the inspirational company of her pet cat. How ideal, she had thought.

How disastrous, she thought now.

She finally brought herself to look at what remained of her handiwork. The intricate details lay blotted out beneath a sea of black. She wiped away her tears, unpinned the paper and folded it up. Now, instead of washing away in helpless tears, she burned with firm resolve. She clattered up the stairs into the attic, where she took out a huge roll of special paper, and, shouldering it, came back down more quietly. She unrolled the paper and pinned it to the table. Then she took out her map-making materials and arranged them on the work space.

The energy that had churned within her stilled as she considered the blank paper. She had gotten so used to continuing work already started that she had not faced the challenge of the empty page for months.

Taking out her charcoal, she began to sketch the border from memory. Golden-tan flicked past in the corner of her vision. She did not raise her head and continued working. Myu came near. He did not seem the least guilty or disturbed. On the contrary, he was alive with curiosity and watched her as she worked diligently into the wee hours of the night.

******

“What is this?” Huoyhnhm said next morning, upon seeing the new map, which was blank except for a border.

“A clean slate, sir,” Lielle answered.

“Hmm,” was Huoyhnhm’s response. He viewed the expanse of white for a minute before sitting down in his customary working position, motioning for Lielle to begin.

“But, sir,” Lielle said, slipping into her work pose and picking up her instrument, “where do I begin?”

“You have already begun,” he said, motioning towards the borders of the map. “Now you may continue.”

Lielle looked back at him inquiringly before turning back to face the blank map. She paused, put her instrument down, and said, “I must bring Myu in, sir. I want him to see me work.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Huoyhnhm.

“But—” said Lielle.

“I said,” Huoyhnhm replied firmly, “continue your work.”

And she did.

*****

The next morning before her tutor was expected to arrive, Lielle searched far and wide for Myu in order to bring him into the study before Huoyhnhm came, but he was nowhere to be found. She usually left Myu to his own pursuits while she worked with her tutor, and had no idea what he did during those times, so she did not know where he might be. Sighing, she ambled back to her study, only to find Huoyhnhm already seated. She glanced at the clock.

“You’re late,” said Huoyhnhm.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Lielle. “I was looking for Myu.”

Huoyhnhm looked back at her as if he were studying the page of a textbook. He cocked his head to the side in the way Myu did when he looked at her. Then he straightened up and motioned towards the map.

Gathering her materials, Lielle settled down to work.

******

A few map-making sessions later, Huoyhnhm said that he had something important to relate. Lielle perked up to listen.

“You have shown prowess in the face of adversity,” he said. “I have watched you grow under my tutelage. You have grown to the point where further instruction on my part is not required. I release you.”

Lielle stared uncomprehendingly back at him without replying.

“I will write a letter of recommendation to the university,” Huoyhnhm continued. “You may sit the exam and receive your qualification. After that, the world is yours. You may do with it as you wish.”

Lielle looked at the unfinished map, then back at Huoyhnhm.

“Ah,” he said. “That is something you may complete on your own. You no longer need my assistance. I have observed your response to a great setback, overcoming something like that is more important than advancing seamlessly from one achievement to another. You have what it takes to be an artist. I release you.”

Lielle finally spoke up. “You honour me,” she said. “You will always be my teacher.”

Huoyhnhm smiled.

“Before you go,” Lielle said, “I would like you to give me…I would…that is…will you give me an autograph?”

Huoyhnhm stared at her for a moment. Then he chuckled. “Of course.” Taking the pen from her hand, he signed the proffered piece of paper with a flourish. After he left, Lielle pinned the paper to her work table along with the map.

*****

Try as much as she could, she could not find Myu after that. She alternated between searching for him and sitting and wondering about him. In a way, Myu had been as supportive as Huoyhnhm, only Huoyhnhm had watched directly over her art, and Myu had been the overseer of the rest of her life. However, an artist’s art is not separate from the rest of his or her existence; so it seemed that between Myu and Huoyhnhm, she had been very well guided in her training.

Finally, she went back to the study, only to stop at the threshold, arrested by the sight within. There lay Myu, curled up on the map, apparently sleeping. She walked quietly over to him so as not to disturb him, tears of joy welling up in her eyes.

Myu’s eyes popped open, and he fixed her with an unwavering gaze. Lielle gulped at the intensity of his eyes. Moving slowly but deliberately, he slipped off the table and went to the door, where he looked back at her as if to ask her to follow him. She followed, and he led her to the front door. She opened the front door, and Myu went onto the doorstep, where he looked up at her, then down at the street, and meowed.

Lielle sighed. Would conquering one disaster mean that she would have to part with all her instructors, and find new ones? That was how it seemed. She looked out into the street, then down at Myu, and finally said, “I release you.”

As if he understood, Myu rubbed against her legs, purred, and then set off into the street, weaving in and out of the patches of sunlight that streamed through the dense trees.

When Lielle went back to the study, she observed something different about the autograph pinned to her table. There, in black ink, was a cat’s paw print, next to Huoyhnhm’s signature. It had not been there before.

She gazed at the piece of paper for a long time. Then she spoke into the silence of the room, “You were a humane cat, and a feline human. In my entire journey as an artist, I will never again find a teacher like you.” She closed the door of the study and left. Behind her, the human-cat instructor’s signature blended into the darkness of the room.


Published in Us Magazine, The News (Pakistan): http://magazine.thenews.com.pk/mag/detail_article.asp?id=9716#sthash.64vwqC1B.dpuf

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