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COEURL

Dreamed 1980/2/26 by Chris Wayan

for Patricia McKillip


I'm sitting on the bed in an Edwardian wood-paneled room, built by my kidnappers. They were trying to be kind, I guess; they tried to fake familiar Earth décor for me. Too bad they know Earth from such old TV shows. My prison is an exact copy of the Bentinck Hotel from "The Duchess of Duke Street", a BBC show from years back. Their spy station must be lightyears from Earth, way behind! Are these low-budget aliens?

My door's unlocked; I'm free to roam the whole hotel. The windows are black, and the gravity's too weak, but everything else is authentically hideous and stuffy. When I go near the main doors, attendants swarm around me, aggressively pushing hors d'oeuvres and drinks and urgent telegrams on me--empty envelopes really--anything to keep me inside. I've been afraid to push. What if the doors are just decoration, and I'm sealed in forever? Or they open into space? I'd rather not take the chance unless things get desperate. They've gone to a lot of trouble. Why?

They even have an Irish Maid scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing. Experimenter? Prisoner? Robotic prop?

I'll test these human figures a little. Ask her "Where's the bathroom?"

She points mutely. Perhaps she can't speak, then. Robot?

At the two doors, I pause. What am I, here? I feel my crotch. Oh, I'm female. Always check your gender. Somehow I know I change now and then, depending where I am. My memory seems awfully fuzzy. Something they're doing?

I go in the women's side. Glance in the mirror. I look okay, kind of cute, but short. I'd rather be tall, cool, elegant and leggy. I'm in a hurry to pee though, so I rush into a stall after just a glimpse of my present self.

I'm sitting there with my pants down when the bathroom door opens and huge black shiny shoes clump into the stall by me. It's a man, a big man; he grunts as he sits, deliberately telling me he's invaded. I'm scared and angry and a little corner of my mind burns clear; I know what's going on here. My experimenters are playing a scene from some old black and white movie I saw where the Uncouth Man, shown sympathetically, teases and comes on to and humiliates the Repressed Woman in her bathroom, whose desire for privacy is treated as a joke. She's tied up in her propriety. Ha ha.

I don't want to cooperate with their test!

Before he can speak, I get up and run out. I feel safer in the lobby. I sink into an overstuffed chair with plastic palms overhead, and think. What were they up to? I suspect I avoided some male confrontation scene, the Big Fight in the Bathroom, by being female and going in the other bathroom. So they scrambled to implement a backup scene, a scene of sexual humiliation. But I refused to go along with the script for either sex.

Maybe I should take the initiative. I get up and go exploring--force my way into the first room I see. The Huge Victorian Closet. Seeing the plain metal walls, I know I've wandered outside the set. My mind feels a bit clearer.

In the bare closet stands the Maid. And now, outside the script's field of influence, I remember. She is an alien, one of the experimenters. But the Maid's on my side. I share a secret with her. The Maid and I are in love.

In our secret Closet, she removes her heavy wool robes, which block radiation. They all wear them, to protect me, not themselves: her species is naturally radioactive. I fear I'll eventually die from radioactive closet lesbianism, but I just can't keep away from her, I need to be held... and no one else in the world loves me. (If there is anyone else in this world. What if it's a space station? That ominous low gravity...)

We embrace, and I relax into her wonderful solid warmth, amid all the fake things here. But something's wrong, she's going soft and light like a stuffed toy, then weak and rubbery, an inflatable doll--and then a ghost, gone. The energy in the room feels terribly wrong, like an illness... Horror floods through me and I burst out of the closet, run straight across the lobby and confront the man at the desk.

"Forget the script, I'm not playing. This is real. WHAT HAPPENED TO HER?"

He looks at me a long time. And breaks character. "She died. Without the robe, the radioactivity..." He slumps, turns away into the office. And is gone. I know he's left the set for good. Quit. Perhaps he loved her too.

She's dead. From radioactivity. I should be dead too. But I'm not. I feel grieving, but I'm not sick. Just bewildered. I can't understand it. Did I kill her, by being NONradioactive? Did she need radiation?

Were her needs that alien?

I could endure this place while she was here, but now... I have to break out. I have to go home.

I snoop around. Under the moldy plush I find a dark alloy mesh, like chickenwire but much bigger, stronger. Now I'm glad I'm a small woman. Perhaps I can squeeze... No. The way out is another test, and I'm ashamed I waited so long to try the obvious. I force my way past the babbling bellhops and up to the twin front doors... A test of assertion. The doors swing open to darkness, and clamp decisively behind me. Gone in a heartbeat. The hotel fades away, like my lover, in a breath. I'm alone.

Night. Still air. A freezing desert all around. Starlit ruins. Pylons looming in the dim light, miles off. Stars clear down to the black horizon, and I'm a little dizzy--hypoxia. They even depleted the air! This is no natural wasteland. This was... MADE.

And I know just who wasted this world. I remember the story from my childhood. Out there are great black catlike things, each prowling a huge barren territory between pylon boundaries--last members of the race that gnawed their planet bare. Night tigers, brilliant, utterly amoral, survivors who hunger for energy. Life-energy.

I'm a bag of fuel in a stripmined world, a beacon radiating heat and emotion miles over the chill waste. I'm not going to get home. I was ten when I read how the first Earth explorers learned about black cats the hard way. Such a curious and magnificent tiger, that eager native who greeted them--to drink their souls, discreetly, one by one, like sneaking too many refills of hot coffee in a diner, hoping no one'll notice... His name was Couerl. Huge black cat, nearly invisible at night: Coeurl.

Imagining a sound behind me, I turn in fear. I see nothing different but a puzzling area of sky, a huge dark nebula, sharply outlined, with no stars. But two green moons. Over me they loom. Eyes. A beast has been sitting, quietly watching me, too large to see. Couerl. My knees shiver.

In his ruthless eyes is a riddle.

The black sphinx speaks. A deep whisper in this thin air. "Remember Arya of Herun?"

I know that name, I know... I knew that name.

The monster says, "Arya was a hill woman who liked animals. One day she found a tiny black beast she couldn't name. She brought it into her home, cared for it. And it grew. And it grew. Until all her other animals fled, and it lived alone with her, dark, enormous, nameless, stalking her from room to room while she lived in terror, unfree, afraid to challenge it..."

The monster waits in silence. I whisper "What did she do?"

"What will you do?" says the silhouette.

I stare at the stars outlining the vast beast. Seated, the sphinx is still taller than me. Yet he doesn't pounce and end it, suck the warmth from my bones as he longs to do.

Waiting for my answer. They wait for your answer.

What will I do?

I want to go home. This world is a ruin. Even love here kills. But how can I find my way? I can see the stars so clearly in the thin air, and the constellations look normal. Earth can't be far. I might guess which is my home sun, if I looked long enough for an unexpected bright star. That's the way out! Get a clear view of a better world and throw my mind there. My body might follow. It's the only way left off this dead world. No ship, no fuel, no love, no script. My mind has to be the riddle's answer; it's all I have.

But I'll need a stronger body. Heat of suns, radiation, the cold of deep space, the shock of whatever I land in at the far end... A survivor.

Couerl is waiting. A monster that sucks the warmth out of human hearts.

The chill stars wheel and the black tiger waits... as I recognize temptation.

"Couerl... I don't want to be like you."

"I'm not Couerl. You have misspelled me. I am Coeurl."

Curl? Oh! Coeur: "heart". That one E out of place spells the difference between my childhood nightmare and...

I'm queasy, but I take the risk; I riddle the sphinx. "What did Arya do?"

"She died of fear."

"What was the beast?"

"No one ever knew. It stood for a week on her grave, wailing such grief that no one near could sleep or eat. Then it died, too." I look across the gap from Coeurl's green eyes to mine.

Level with mine. I've chosen. I stand and stretch, look at the stars again with my new eyes, huge spectrometers in the dark. And recognize my lemonwhite Sun, the one star out of place. I crouch my black form, the shape I feared so, the only one that will do; I still my beating tail, flatten ears against the sonic boom--and leap over Coeurl and the battered pylons, out of the screaming air, off the dead world, into black-cat infinity, green eyes fixed on home.

NOTE

The riddle of Arya is paraphrased from Patricia McKillip's brilliant "Harpist in the Wind," which I read not long before the dream.

Couerl's story, "Black Destroyer", is by A.E. Van Vogt.

Dream: I'm a cat leaping across space from a desert world to Earth.



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