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WATERCATS

Dreamed 1987/9/10 by Chris Wayan

This story is true. Names have been changed, and all quotes had to be paraphrased from memory: my dream-journal entries were laconic. But the events in both worlds were as I've reported them, and stranger yet, they happened in this order--not the reverse.

Dream continuum. C22? Mall world. West Coast port district.

I'm on an Earth composed of solid city. Mostly shopping malls, so I'll call it that, Mall. Clearly parallel to my birthworld, but I suspect it's not merely a different of branch of time, but further up. The tech level looks like late 21st or early 22nd century. Of course I don't know how its time flows compared to the jiri continuum you call real. But call it the future.

Just not yours.

city skyline of the planet Mall
I live in a coastal city that runs up and over the mountains to the east. Before all the cities met and merged and airpods became the main transport mode, it was a major seaport. It was hit hard by the change; the waterfront is still an abandoned slum. I grew up there. I'm kind of short, and my hair is gray at twenty, always has been: from early malnutrition I think. I was an orphan, lived on the streets. I don't remember much of it. I got out early: a scholarship saved my life. Now I'm a researcher at a biological institute; I specialize in fieldwork on semi- and quasi-intelligent species. I've been hearing rumors from the slums that weird little creatures have been seen in back alleys; maybe it's a marooned offworld species. The creatures are supposed to be lizardy but I'll wait till I see one.

So here I am in the run-down area near the old harbor. Alleys with real brick walls. The developers would smell 24-carat quaint, but they still don't dare come down here. I'm a little nervous--gotten soft up in the suburban hills--but no one's bothered me. No one here to be bothersome, the buildings all seem abandoned.

I'm climbing around, discovering little forgotten light wells. I feel light and lithe, unnaturally sure-footed. I'm climbing barefoot as usual. I know it's eccentric but I never wear shoes. Hate 'em. Careful! A broken bottle! Even the glass scavengers must not come here--the district is really abandoned.

To tell you the truth, I'm having fun.

a girl spraying a mural in a back alley of the Animal Barrio Down a dead-end alley... to a little widened area, a turn-around from the days of ground trucks. A brick arch to the right, and in the open door... a rug? A blue rug of... lizardskin? Blue-gray, scaly-shaggy, but with a staring lizard head, jaws snarling, like those bearskin rugs in ancient vids.

Scuttle! Inside, in the shadows, three things like huge roaches skitter across the wall and freeze. I creep up to the arch... and in. They don't flee. Three... lizards, yes, but nothing like the blue skin on the floor. This species has a reptilian head and body, but with flicking furry deerlike tails. And multicolored neck frills they fan and flash...

They are talking.

You'll have to trust me; it's my field. These little creatures, the length of my forearm, with small armored heads, surely can't hold Class 6 brains, yet... the chameleon color-patterns flowing across their neckfrills are flashing messages. Language. Unmistakable.

I back off immediately, of course. I have no right to disturb them; their level of intelligence confers a right to privacy, whatever my curiosity. I'll have to make a report and the institute will send an anthro party to negotiate. Maybe they're just stranded stowaways who'd like a ride home. Or maybe they want to settle here. Who's here to complain? Not a human in sight.

Suddenly I feel disoriented... Where did they get that lizard rug? Two new species in one block? I know this district is deserted, but even so, it's crazy. I have a sudden paranoid fantasy I'm not on Mall at all; maybe I'm the alien, and this is a world where the dominant species are reptilian. I feel kind of dizzy; could I have been shanghaied without knowing?

I backtrack out to the main street. Still feel physically light and alert, but mentally... off.

A few people on the broad industrial street, built when most traffic was ground. They're all as human as I am. No, it's my world. Mall.

Why do I feel like I'm the alien? I shake off the strange feeling and try another alley on impulse. Why? The lizards are a real find, but here I am going back for... What?

Motion! Too big to be lizards. A dazed-looking catlike creature nearly my size! I grab my butterfly net and leap. The cat flails, then calms as it looks at me, smells me. Its big head suggests intelligence too, but it stays silent. Its passivity is puzzling.

Motion down the alley. Another cat slinking toward me. Come to fight for its mate! I feel the fear prickle down my spine. Don't jump to conclusions. But be ready to jump for that fire escape.

The big cat comes into the open. It's starved looking, and as my eyes flicker from it to the fire escape, it flinches at the motion. I realize it's as scared as I am. It--no, she--rears up, balancing on hindpaws and tail, and paws gently at me. Asking for help. I stoop and peel the net off her mate and sit quietly. They don't flee. I speak quietly. They make sounds--language, definitely. But I can't understand. There are human words in it, but the grammar and most of the terms are pure cat. I know who these people are instantly of course. Watercats!

I gesture--and lead them to my car. They balk but finally get in. I'm amazed they trust me so readily.

And so the last surviving watercats come to the Institute.

I discover surviving Watercats in an abandoned building
We have a few records of their written language copied from stone carvings on the walls of their coastal villages; they were once a thriving species here. We thought them extinct, when we guiltily thought of them at all. Watercats fished for a living; and as the great seaports grew, their oil spilled and trash spoiled the inshore waters.

Their villages shrank, retreated to cleaner capes. Too cold, too rough. They couldn't live without their territory. Or so we all thought. Wrong. A few desperate survivors returned secretly to the site of their ancient home in the heart of the big city. And a handful of their kittens survived, in hiding. Not fishing--they've grown up on garbage. Our garbage.

We owe them something. A waterfront cleanup, for one thing. Humans no longer need the harbor. They do. The docks now crumble where their village stood long ago.

Right now they're grateful for food and safety and kind words, as we learn their speech and build on the few human terms they've picked up in the alleys somehow. Nothing seriously wrong with them besides hunger. They aren't even disoriented; lived among human structures, hiding from humans, eating human trash all their lives.

I'm the disoriented one. How could I have been blind so long? (Oh, I know how.)

The reason the watercats trusted me, the reason I'm such a good hunter of strange species, the reason I'm lighter on my feet than any human should be, is that I'm not. Human. I was just raised human. With a hypnotic block so I wouldn't feel out of place or lonely, being the last of my kind and all. I'm a watercat.
My real appearance: a tall, slender biped cat

The block crumbles over the days, and I see myself as I am for the first time. With cat eyes. I'm not a slight young man. I'm a tall young cat, gray and cream. Tall because my foster parents fed me better than the compost bins the others raided. Except for my education, I'm no different really from the three who've come to live here--there was a third up that alley. There are a few more hiding across the slum--on my advice the Institute puts posters up that show watercats dialing us, all without human language, just pictures showing the letter sequence to reach us cats in our nest.

I live as a watercat now. At least I'm trying.

We live together by a pool, which the Institute has specially constructed for us. It's at the foot of a knoll--cost a lot to lase out I'm sure! And bulldozers beeping a week to scoop it clear. It's rocky, semi-natural, but with a level concrete walk just above the waterline for the researchers and their endless cameras.

Smoke, to translate her name, as cat sounds don't spell well in this alphabet--Smoke is already my best friend. How I must have missed my own species without ever knowing! I hope she'll be my mate--except neither of us knows a thing about our sexual biology. The other two are just learning. Should we flirt, date like humans? Would fighting stimulate bonding? Must we wait for one of us to go into heat? Which? We have to guess and experiment--make our culture up.

I've been uncomfortable in my new role, half an experimental animal my former colleagues observe for mating and social behavior, half a human research scientist myself.

Scientists don't lick their test subject's soft gray furry throat. The way I want to.

Days pass, and I'm not quite cat or human. My lifelong trance lingers; I live in a slowly thinning fog. Some days I have no tail, or from the corner of my eye I see a snake. I'm talking to my colleagues and realize I'm standing there naked.

So I've felt a little envious of Smoke, of the true watercats, who are themselves. Until one day, I notice an odd thing.

We live by the pool, wash fish in it, dab paws in the shallows. But Smoke and the others never swim.

I wonder if the pool's wrong somehow. "The doctor says you're strong enough now to swim all you like. Why don't you?"

Smoke says "Because I don't know how."

I'm puzzled and say "But you must have tried swimming in the sea. This is lots safer than that."

"Sea? That's the blue you see from the hilltop? I never saw it before meeting you. None of us did."

I'm stunned. I didn't realize how narrow and fearful their survival was. They never dared leave their slum blocks even far enough to reach the sea, half a klick away. Life gave them nothing. I got love, security, education, and even forgetfulness--kindly meant, at least. I got a lot.

All I lost was me. Smoke the watercat, slightly insulted

"But... then... why do you live by the pool?"

"We thought you wanted us to. And the pool feels friendly--like we're meant to live by water."

I translate for my human colleague Dr. A.: "The watercats never learned to swim."

She says in awkward watercat "You try swim, good." Smoke, embarrassed, licks her paw. Dr. A. coaxes "Pool shallow, water warm..." Smoke blinks. She rears up, proud little cat facing a looming human. So beautiful! I want to lean against her, but let her be. She says "We don't need the water heated! We were born to swim in the Ocean!"

"Yes, yes... but... start small. Pool is warmer, and we want learn... how you swim, come if... you trouble."

I say uncomfortably "It's true, we should learn. I only know how to swim human style, that can't be right for watercats." I feel caught between them, wanting to defend each to the other.

"Dr. A. doesn't know she sounds patronizing." "Smoke's not an animal or a child for you to coax." I don't say either thing.

Smoke and I hold forepaws, lick noses, and nervously slip into the shallow end of the pond. I expect it to feel cool, as it always did when I was brainwashed. I'd read lots of stories, after all. I knew what stepping into water felt like!

Actually, my fur traps air bubbles and I hardly feel any temperature change at all.

What I notice is the buoyancy. The tickling line creeps up my body; under it, in the water, my body stretches and loosens, luxuriating in the support. For the first time I feel fully feline. And something very sensual: a feel of slight smooth pressure, as the water squeezes me like a big cat tongue folded round me. Like Smoke licking me. Rrrrrrrr. Feels so good...

Another wisp of mental fog burns away, and for the first time in my life, I hear myself purr.

The far end of the pool is deep: it undercuts the walk, mimics a sea-cave or tunnel heading off under the cement, into green darkness, to pumps and filters I guess. In the middle of the pool the researchers drop markers trailing plumes of magenta dye, like bloodstains, curling, tracing the subtlest currents so they can see just how a watercat swims.

Smoke fears the dye. "More human pollution--like Mother Sea is sick, bleeding."

"It's harmless" I swear, then realize I know it is for humans, but can I be absolutely sure it is for watercats, a species whose biology is almost unknown? Oh. They know mine. No doubt they've discreetly studied me all these years.

"So that's where my scholarship came from!" pops into my head. My purring stops. "I always thought I got it on merit." All the bones of my life are going rubbery. Experimental animal? I've always been one! Smoke pets me and I feel better. They meant well.

"The water tastes salty!" Smoke exclaims, paddling, to see if perhaps watercats swim with their paws, or do we use our tails? "Oh--to mimic the sea."

The researcher on the rim says to me in human "No, we didn't add salt. It IS the sea. The pool's connected to the harbor--that's what that tunnel at the far end is."

"What? But we're hundreds of meters from..."

"We insisted to the Committee the extra expense was necessary. You and the others need that freedom to leave us, to come and go. You only need a sheltered pool to learn to swim, to regain your heritage. Then it's your decision where and how to live."

I feel a wash of love for them. They always respected me, whether I was human or cat. I never was just a lab animal. They may have been wrong to raise me as a man, but they didn't know how else to say "You are a person." I, we watercats, have to define ourselves from here on.

Smoke the watercat sitting crosslegged, from the back as she turns to look up.
Jiri [nondream] continuum. C20, 1987/9/11. Earth. California. Palo Alto.

My friend Belle Orinoco invites me to come by for dinner after work. We're going to check out a shiatsu-teaching program afterward.

I bike over to her apartment. Steer the bike around the pool. It looks a bit like the one in the dream. I wonder if there's a connection. I didn't know I was coming over though, so it'd have to be precognition, and it's not strong enough to be convincing.

The Orinocos have a new pet bird--suspicious of me, loud, colorful as the rainbow-lizards in my dream. Screeches like the Orinocos as they argue their way through cooking and setting the table. So unlike my silent WASP family.

We sit down for dinner. Belle's daughter Paloma glides in like a cat as we begin eating. She doesn't want any dinner of course. Belle nags her "You're so thin and small, you never eat, you won't grow up to be any bigger!" She snorts and draws herself up proudly and doesn't answer directly.

Instead, Paloma tells us this story:

"I know this boy who has a kitten. Yesterday, he decided to teach the cat how to swim. He didn't know cats don't like water. So he came over to use our pool and he put the cat in the deep end. Then he saw the cat was in trouble, so he stuck his bare foot in, so the cat would have something to hold onto. When it found his foot, it held on, all right. He started scraming and I guess he panicked from the pain, so he kicked his foot in the water, trying to shake the cat off. Of course the cat slashed him all up. I saw the blood, it curled all through the water..."

In trails. Like magenta dye.

Paloma ends her story with a strange smile. I don't know how she meant the story. A parable for her mom, I think, about the fate awaiting over-helpful figures. Like Belle. But I'm too shocked by what it means to me.

I tell them the dream--written down hours before Paloma spoke, before I knew I'd come. They stare at me so strangely. I can't tell if they believe me. I feel like I'm half a dinnerguest--and half an exhibit, a crazy. A strange creature on display.


Jiri continuum. C20, 1993/6/23. Earth. California. San Francisco. As I edit this dream years later, I want to repeat: this isn't fiction. This happened. Happens. I've recorded hundreds of predictive dreams. You meet a cat; later you have a wild dream "about" it. The second cat "refers" to the first. Dreams are movies about your life, right? But when time reverses, when waking images echo and comment on dream life, is the waking world--jiri--the symbolic one, then? The dream must be the reality--it cast the shadow, the echo. So... waking life is a movie we make to help us understand external reality--dreamtime!

The alternate answer, that you can dream the future, that time is not linear, but can be somehow swum in, like a pool, with curling currents... well, that one makes most people nervous too. For then both worlds are equally real: dreams are travel. The dream-sea's just harder to navigate in than jiri land--for nonswimmers.

But one can learn. And some of us are born to swim that sea. We've just been brainwashed to think we're human. This isn't a literary device; I'm no magic realist. This tale is straight out of my journal. Journalism. Smoke the watercat is real--or Paloma isn't. And she is.

Swirls in the time-pool! We're not what we were told.

Two watercats in a doorway


LISTS AND LINKS: a SECOND psychic dream of cats, Belle, and Paloma! - I'm Just Not Myself Today - cross-species dreams - animal people - cat people - orphans - big-city dreams - urge and impulse - malls - trance and delusion - oops! - life-scripts - transformation - sexy creatures - love - rescue fantasies - dream homes - zoos and wildlife refuges - swimming - blood - psychic dreams - precognition - self-flagging dreams - pure digital art - picture-stories

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