••• International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Extract from Girl with Cat (Blue)
The Jewel in the Ruins
Saska heard Cat sneeze, then suddenly there was another rock fall and cat was gone. She let go and the boulder crashed down on the empty space below, causing yet more rocks to fall and opening the breach in the wall even wider.
Saska was staring at an empty space leading into an ante-chamber.
Cat was somewhere inside there in the darkness licking her wounds growling softly, deeply affronted.
Saska clamboured over the rubble and slid down into the dark recesses of the Castle. She stood with wonder that this part of the West Wing had survived the bombs intact.
‘Cat?’ She could hear her, still grumbling and feeling sorry for herself. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t make the stones fall. I told you to sit still.’
She could hear Cat pulling her long leathery tongue over her fur and the cuts. She was always fierce cleaner when stressed. Saska’s eyes adjusted to the darkness and she saw the glint of a pair of orange eyes momentarily staring at her. Cat wasn’t so good as saying thank you either. She let her be, knew not to get too close when she was angry.
Saska mounted the steps to an inner chamber, pushing on the wooden doors. They wouldn’t give. There was the metal plate in the centre and she instinctively placed her hand on it to make it open. Only residents of the Castle could use the West Wing rooms and there was magic in the plates that let the door know who was trying to enter.
‘Welcome Saska Chancellor’.
Saska jumped back. The door had spoken. It knew her name. Nothing had worked since the first bombs fell. Yet this door knew her.
‘The library is open.’ The door declared and dim lights flickered on behind the doors.
Saska glanced back at Cat who had stopped cleaning with astonishment.
‘I’m going in,’ she told Cat. The library had been her favourite place when small. Filled with gold and glittering objects, exotic paintings from across the world and all the books ever written. Her father had told her it was the Seventh Wonder of the World. (She had no idea about the other six).
She pushed the creaking doors open and entered the huge chamber, her footsteps echoed before her.
She stared at the vast empty space and immediately felt dizzy with disappointment. There was nothing. Not a book, not a painting, not a trace of gold, certainly not the millions of books. A vast empty nothingness. The bombs could fall and nothing would be lost.
A hot tear rolled down her cheek. A sudden memory of being nine sitting on a silk cushion on the red square and she’d been reading the dictionary of birds, watching each one fly about the room. How thrilled she’d been that day. The library had taught her so much and she’d come here often to enquire or just past the time of day with tigers or watch deer drinking at the waterhole. The living books, her mother had said they were called.
She advanced onto the first category square – just as she had done a thousand times before and closed her eyes, trying to conjure up a memory. Where had it all gone? Who had taken it? This was the total knowledge of the Capital. Without it they could never rebuild, no one would know anything…
‘What category, Saska Chancellor? Your ‘Book of Wild Beasts’ is overdue by 467 days.’
The Book of Beasts lay by her blankets even now, her only treasure, her last connection with the past. How could one return a book to an empty library? She remembered you were supposed to speak. What was the use in such an empty space? Who or what would listen?
‘Where is everything?’ She whispered, the whisper echoing back off the bare walls.
‘All is yours to command,’ the library assured her.
Saska took a step to ‘Art Down the Ages’. The wall behind her flickered to life. Pictures began to appear. Just as they used to. The famous portrait of Mistress D’Agneau with her golden sheep by Sir Henri Bolt appeared to fill the whole wall.
‘Please select you century.’
Saska jumped off the step. She couldn’t see them right now, it would hurt too much.
She jumped onto ‘Adventure and Romance’. Instantly the right hand wall was filled with books. Everything she remembered as a child was still here – yet not. She was beginning to realise something. The room was supposed to be empty. The books weren’t ever here, not in reality. After all, when you selected the book it would give you the option of reading it to you or showing the contents – hence the deer at the waterhole. The Book of Beasts had to be ordered, she remembered now. It came a day later from wherever the real books were stored.
She didn’t know what to choose. It had been so long that she had read a story, any story. She jumped off the step and the books vanished.
She realised exactly what she wanted to do and jumped two squares to ‘music’. ‘Symphony of the Spheres,’ she commanded.
‘Playing. Please proceed to the Red Square.’
Saska felt a broad smile appear onto her face. She was ten years old, listening to this music so loud the walls shook and her father had to be summoned.
Yes, the Library was all still here – somehow. She squatted down on the red square, no silk cushion to shield her from the cold marble this time.
The music began to play.
‘Louder.’ She commanded.
The spheres began to dance above her, driven by the rhythm of the music, the choral underscore began to swell and fill the space. Saska’s heart began to beat wildly, tears flowing now unchecked and suddenly there was Cat, pressing against her like always, seeking her love and reassurance. She hugged her close, aware that her coat was damp with blood.
She sobbed into the blue fur, her heart so strong and solid for all these years of war was suddenly breaking, shattered all that was lost. Once she had a family, a brother and a country that was the envy of the world.
‘Louder,’ she called again, wanting the music to fill up her heart and head and eradicate out all the pain and suffering. Cat stayed motionless. The music, this place, felt familiar. She’d played here when a kitten. She remembered the music. The girl was bigger now. This was the first time she had ever cried.
© Sam Hawksmoor May 2019
You can download Girl with Cat (Blue) or order the print version here
*Shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award & 'Honorary Mention' in the 26th Writer's Digest Book Awards