Ulthar and Skai, town and river, became a different jigsaw. Even the words themselves contained other words like rat and kat. A krazy kat because it was never correctly spelt that way. All the cats had hats, as ancient jokes had it. But the rats were bigger than the cats, even when the cats had their hats on.
However, the town and river, Ulthar and Skai, had long slipped back into deeper fears and ways of dream. The river was now more like the sky, especially as the sky had darkened into a rich purple, day and night. Ever since the cats – all those years ago when the future looked more antique than the past to those who prophesied it – gnawed the flesh from the human bones of anyone that sheltered dusk in their hearts, yes, ever since those thralls of time, the town and river, Ulthar and Skai, had ripened into hotbeds of gossipy and wicked tongues.
The cats wore hats to disguise themselves. The burgesses of Ulthar wondered why the cats were so shy. It was certainly not in fear of the rats, because rats were never a common foe; in the old days, rats had not even existed, as those trading between Hatheg and Kadath would attest to any ears that would welcome hearsay upon their itching drums. The rats were simply shadows of the cats with hats, elongated and terrifyingly ineffectual. The rats were, in this shape of blurred foreboding, reminiscent of the outer gods to which the Ulthar folk prayed, ever since the dictum about not killing cats took sway. Most folk, you see, had always feared the cats, those dreaded cats of Ulthar. Vengeance was sweet in any feline’s green eyes, against the welkin’s backdrop of panoplied purple folds.
The river wound in these purple heavens: a silver, sluggish trail to the gods that wanted to incarnate as rats. Or simply as jokes. There was a couple of sweethearts, though, in Ulthar amid the indeterminate durations of our tale. The boy was big-boned; he was also tender-hearted, and many called him, half-paradoxically, Hulc. The pretty girl was a home-maker, but lacked ambition as to where their eventual married life might end up. She they called Hut. Despite this, she kept her choice curls away from thatch.
Hulc, one day, watched the sky. He and Hut had undergone a ritual lover’s tiff. Which sweethearts didn’t? He had been dreaming of the past and the past was disguised as the future. Hut had fathomed quite different durations from Hulc. Hulc needed convincing that he had the durations the right way round. Ever since the legendary cat mauls in Ulthar, of which another storyteller once spoke, he knew the cats were still crazy in Ulthar but sometimes he thought he must be even crazier himself.
Judging by the sky, there was much to fear as well as much mystic beauty with which to be engorged. It was crawling with a veritable map of rivers, like prominent veins in flesh: ruby red, moon yellow, petal mauve, sunbreezy and pastel-tinged beyond the banks of such rivers. A frisson of emerging cosmic anxiety lay behind the beauty like a sense of disease. One of the rivers must be Skai, he thought, next to which sat the real town of Ulthar and its manifold bossy cats. Ever since freeing the streets of low life, the cats had set about making any residual human townees fit to be more than just pets. Only the people with saving graces and loadlustre looks would suffice to live alongside the feline finery. Hulc and Hut were two such survivors. Their wondrous looks and love of labour stood this couple in good stead. The cats indeed encouraged the couple’s romance, in the sense of potentially breeding them. Stroking love, even stoking it.
Yes, a simple couple, Hulc and Hut. They prayed to simple gods. They accepted the way up had become the way down, and down up. They had accepted, too, that then had become now, now then. And will be would always be was. They vowed to spend their honeymoon in Kadath and prayed for the cats’ complicity. The rest of the townsfolk were simple, too. Some were even simpler with even simpler gods to worship.
The cats’ own gods, though, were complex with darkening brows. Pointed ears and whiskers on gods were not very becoming. Whatever the case, Hulc and Hut decided to upgrade their prayers to these less simple gods, unfearful of the terror that this might bring to their souls before the consummation of marriage. To run such risk was like leaving empty circus bowls for hungry tigers. Never to run such risks was probably selling oneself short in the search for happiness across the Skai’s raging margins.
Hulc an Hut thus prepared to leave Ulthar and prayed that any new god that became their god would perk up its tail upon them stroking from its tail’s root to tail’s end. Meanwhile, they managed to convince the advance guard of dustbin scavengers that it was only a honeymoon they planned rather than a wholesale escape to less foreboding realms.
Hulc said something to Hut in a whisper so that even sharp ears could not catch the thrust of his intention.
Hut heard him say: “A honeymoon can stretch into forever once we’ve fled their claws.”
Hulc heard her reply: “But do they not read our minds?”
Whether they were the exact words, only the mysteries of storytelling could ever hope to fathom. When gods themselves conspire, one can often judge this by the landscape subtly moving where being static would be more normal – and being static when moving would be more normal. The river, indeed, when they attempted to cross it – for example – was like sluggish crushed ice audibly crunching to a halt, despite the sweaty atmosphere with which Ulthar had been condemned in the recent mix-up of durations.
Eventually, Hulc and Hut managed a good part of their journey away from Ulthar. The terrain was quite unexciting. The sky had cleared of clouds as well as of rivers. The sun was a borehole right into the core of their being. Plain and simple, like the gods. But no gods were present. Hulc was the first who heard the herd of cats. That was what he childishly called their collective threat sensed in every fibre of his body. The sound was like a huge engine – but engines had, of course, not been invented in Hulc’s past or even in his envisageable future – yet in his present there was this strong droning horse-power, deep and relentless – and he quickly guessed this was the manifold purring of the cats…
But, no, there was more a snoring tone to the underlevels of the sound. Snorting, even. Hut – in her pretty innocence – had often spoken between dreams, between slumbers, too, of the monster that resides in everybody’s sleep. Her voice was ever timeless, yet she spoke now, with winning sincerity.
“My own mother,” she whispered, “ whom I loved more than all the money in the world plus sixpence – she in whose lap I sat amid the gods of nursery rhyme and mother comforts – yet when I saw her actually asleep, she became a monster mother, the lips twitching, the throat with a wild apple up and down, the nose clogged with snotty snores … a monster was more a monster simply the more I saw the monster was my mother…”
She kissed Hulc on the cheek. They had never before kissed at all.
Hulc nodded and added his own thoughts: “Sometimes, when I am asleep myself, I feel I’ve become a monster, too, my own snores making a loud sound that almost wakes me. Just like those cats, now, no doubt. Then half-dozing makes the rusted nostrils bear the brunt of the snuffling - and the grating of the breath which I cannot control…”
As their conversation wound down, they rounded the bend in the river and they saw the sea of cats, like millions of black roses, an ill-fitting jigsaw of coiled slumber … the purrs and snores now deafening and frightening. Beyond these cats was a seeming sea of resting rats. Beyond them a mountain of chimneys like hats. A city or something worse.
A letter sea – making Culthar.
“I love you,” said Hut.
“I love you,” said Hulc.
They held hands amid the fear of something far more cosmically lonely than they could ever envisage between the shuttling durations. They joined hands to defeat such despairing loneliness and joined bodies each to each, joining the names of their bodies as well as the flesh of their bodies. Cthulhu it spelt amid the punctuation of the purrs.