Girl, Cat, Wolf, Moon

Content Note: Child Abuse and Assault


Lila found the cat market when she was seven. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say the cat market found her.

It was the night of the Harvest Moon, and the maize and the soybean were almost in. The villagers had gathered around a crackling fire, the men drinking arrack, the women singing folk songs, the children dancing. The beats of a dholak clashed with the twanging of a sarangi. It had been a good year, an excellent monsoon season. Nobody had died.

Lila gorged on peanut brittle, popcorn, and sesame candy until her mother told her not to be a pig. Sulkily, she retreated from the fire to a cool spot on the grass further away. Her two older sisters laughed and whispered to each other. Lila watched them, feeling left out.

The moonlight stroked her skin, its touch like silk. Such a lovely moon tonight, fat and silver. But one end was bitten off, like a monster was nibbling the edge, swallowing it in slow motion.

Before she had time to get worried about this, a large black cat materialized in front of her, making her jump. Delighted, she reached out a tentative hand to pet it. Cats were a rare sight in the village of Rampur, which was overrun by a pack of pye-dogs.

But the cat shrank back from her, its topaz eyes gleaming with disdain.

Lila stuck her hand in her pocket and came up with a few crumbs of popcorn. “Here, kitty,” she said hopefully, holding out the crumbs.

The cat shot her a scornful look and stalked away, tail held high in the air like a pennant.

Lila followed, of course. It was a cat that was meant to be followed. She rounded a bush, caught sight of the proud tail behind a sheaf of maize, and picked up speed. The sounds of music and laughter faded away. She arrived in the fields bordered by the forest, and a frisson went through her. Why was it so dark? She glanced up at the sky and froze.

The moon was nearly half-gone. Hadn’t she heard stories about nights like this, stories of monsters with bloodshot eyes, knife-like teeth, and excessively long claws?

The cat gave a sharp meow. Hurry up, it seemed to be saying.

Lila’s feet propelled her forward, quite independently of her brain. Stop, she scolded herself. Turn around. Ma will be looking for you.

But that was a blatant lie, and her feet refused to listen. Lila followed the cat across the shadowy field, over the irrigation ditch, and round the massive banyan tree that marked the end of the cultivated plots and the beginning of the forest.

A tunnel of arched trees stretched before her, glimmering with fireflies. As the cat trotted into the tunnel, the fireflies settled on its fur, making it glow.

Stop, warned the prudent part of her brain. This isn’t what the forest normally looks like.

But—the fireflies! gushed the imprudent part.

It was an unequal fight; prudence had never been her strong point. Lila walked into the tunnel, goosebumps prickling her skin as the fireflies alighted on her. The fragrance of jasmine permeated the air. She sniffed deeply, wishing she could bottle it up and take it home.

Abruptly, the scent of jasmine was replaced by a strong aroma of fried fish. An explosion of light and noise and color hit Lila. She lurched to a halt and blinked.

The tunnel had vanished. Instead of trees, lamplit stalls and vendors’ carts clustered before her. Cats of every size and type strolled before the stalls, perched on the awnings, and crowded the shop counters. Black, white, ginger, tabby, calico, even tortoiseshell cats—dozens and dozens of them—argued, talked, bargained, sang, and snarled at each other. Not a single human was in sight. Even the shops were manned—catted?—by cats.

I’m dreaming. I fell asleep beside the fire, and Ma will shake me awake any second, and all these beautiful cats will be gone.

But no one shook her awake. The cats, if anything, increased in number. The smell of fried fish was quite overpowering. Could you dream smells? Lila edged closer to the stalls and stared, her eyes nearly popping out of their sockets.

Iridescent birds sang in painted cages, mounds of strange fruit glistened on creaky old carts, ancient books teetered in unsteady towers, whimsical clocks ticked on wooden peg tables, golden masks glared down from walls, and clockwork mice ran hither and thither, chased by delighted kittens.

“Rat got your tongue?” came a smooth, indisputably masculine voice.

Lila started. The black cat sat beside her, washing his paws. “You spoke!” she squeaked.

“You heard,” he remarked in acid tones.

“Who are you? Where am I? Is this a dream?” The questions tumbled out of her, the words running into each other.

“Figure it out,” said the cat. He stretched and yawned, revealing sharp white teeth in a pink mouth. “Come on.” He sauntered into the midst of the stalls, and Lila hurried after. Cats parted before them like a river. She could have sworn she saw some of them bowing. She bowed back, but they took no notice of her.

A tough, muscular-looking tabby stalked up to them and meowed. The black cat hissed. The tabby hissed back. The conversation seemed to be mostly the black cat growling, “Mine, mine!” and the tabby going, “Oh yeah? Oh yeah?” Eventually the tabby spat, “Not my problem,” and backed away.

“What was that about?” asked Lila.

“Never you mind,” said the black cat.

“Why did you bring me here?” she tried.

The cat bristled. “I didn’t bring you. You practically chased me. But if you must know, the spot where you were sitting was unsafe.”


“No more questions,” said the black cat crossly.

“At least tell me your name.”

The cat threw her a reproachful look. “We’ve barely met, and you’re already asking my name? How rude.”

“Sorry,” said Lila, bewildered. “I didn’t realize it was rude to ask a cat their name. It’s quite normal among humans.”

Humans,” said the cat, in the tone in which one might say turds. “Rule number one of the cat market: do not ask anyone their name. There are cats who would have clawed your eyes out for this insult.”

Cat market, thought Lila in delight. Aloud she said, “I’ll remember.”

“Don’t tell anyone your name,” he continued. “Don’t eat or drink or steal anything. Leave between moonset and sunrise—unless you never want to go home.” The cat tilted his head and regarded her out of half-shut eyes. “Think you can manage all that?”

She nodded, her gaze straying to a cart groaning under the weight of hundreds of wooden toys and mechanical contraptions.

“Try not to get into trouble.” The cat turned away.

“Don’t leave me!” she cried in a panic.

He made a huffing sound that could have been a laugh. “I’ll be back soon.” He vanished into the crowd before she could say anything else.

For a moment, she was petrified. Then the proprietor of the cart with the wooden toys—an elderly Siamese—began to demonstrate his clockwork mice to a pair of white kittens, and she forgot her terror.

His mice could not only crawl, run, and hop, they could also sing in squeaky voices and dance the Kathak. And they were edible. The Siamese demonstrated by popping one wriggling mouse into his mouth. “No, no, mercy!” shrieked the mouse while Lila and the kittens watched in morbid fascination.

The next stall had bottles full of miniature huts and fields in its display counter. Lila bent down to peer at them. Why, this one was just like her village. And those tiny people—were they not replicas of her own family? One of the figures turned and waved at her, and she got the most dreadful shock. That was her.

She snapped upright and glared at the stall owner—a handsome, blue-eyed Persian. “That’s me in there!”

The Persian tut-tutted. “Don’t be silly. My models are one inch tall, and you are such a great big girl.”

“But it looks like me,” she insisted, bending down to stare at herself again. The tiny Lila gave her another cheeky wave.

“Are you buying?” asked the Persian with asperity. “No? Then please leave. You are blocking customers. Paying ones.”

Lila withdrew reluctantly. The next several shops were all stocked with various delectable food items. Fish of every kind sizzled on pans, leaped haplessly in reed baskets, and lay in glassy-eyed stupor on the counters. Chickens turned on spits, and sweet white kheer bubbled in iron pots. And the laddus! Lila had never seen so many different kinds, not even during festivals. They rose in tier after tier of golden glory, making her mouth water.

“See something you like?” came a honeyed voice next to her ear.

The speaker was the tough-looking tabby who had argued with the black cat earlier.

“Um, it’s all very nice,” she said.

“Choose something,” said the tabby. “Go on.”

Lila shook her head, although she was dying to taste one of the laddus on display. “The black cat told me not to eat or drink anything.”

The tabby grinned. “He’s in enough trouble without you eating anything. But I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“Why is he in trouble?” she asked.

“He shouldn’t have brought you here,” said the tabby. “Humans are not allowed.”

Was she supposed to be talking to him? Lila scanned the market, wondering where her black cat was.

“Looking for Prince?” The tabby’s tail swished from side to side. “He’s been summoned by the council.”

“You know his name!”

The tabby looked at her askance. “Not his real name. He might be my colleague, but we don’t have that kind of relationship. What do you take me for?”

“Sorry,” she said, abashed.

“Absurd alias, if you ask me,” said the tabby. “There are five brothers between him and the throne. Now me, my unreal name is Veeru.” He paused expectantly.

“Oh, er, mine’s Dolly,” said Lila, giving the name of her eldest sister. “What do you mean, there are five brothers between him and the throne? He’s a real prince?”

“Barely,” said Veeru. “He’s the youngest of six and the queen’s least favorite. She’ll disown him before the night’s out. She knows why he broke the rules, but that won’t help him. It only happens once in several years, thank Shashthi.”

“What happens once in several years?” asked Lila.

“The Harvest Moon passes into the shadow of the earth, and the doors between our worlds thin,” came a cold voice. “Why are you doing this, Veeru?”

Prince stood behind them, his fur erect, his hackles raised.

“You’re the one who kidnapped her,” said Veeru. “I am merely making conversation.”

“I’m the one who saved her,” snapped Prince. “Go away.”

“The queen will have your tail for this.” Veeru nodded to Lila and strolled away.

“Let us walk,” said Prince.

Lila fell into step beside the black cat, staring at the stalls they passed, each more eye-popping than the last. “Are humans really forbidden here?”

“There are exceptions,” said Prince. “Tonight is an exception.”

He stopped in front of a shop full of mirrors: little heart-shaped mirrors framed by metal roses, gilt-edged rectangular mirrors as big as doors, round mirrors framed by ornately carved wood, mirrors in pairs, mirrors in trios, mirrors which threw Lila’s reflection back at her a thousand times until it seemed there was an infinity of her trapped within their cold walls.

In front of the shop, leaning against the counter, was an oblong mirror framed by old black wood. Lila peered into it, expecting to see herself and Prince, but it was obscured by clouds and shadows.

The clouds parted, and a red moon peeped out, illuminating a massive, snarling, crimson-eyed creature.

Lila reeled. The moon darkened, and the mirror was opaque once more. “What—what was that?” Like a hyena, with its thick, misshapen head and stripy skin, only much more terrifying.

“Corocotta,” said Prince. “Did I not say the doors are thin tonight? You have a narrow window between moonset and sunrise to leave the cat market and return safely home.”

Corocotta. The word sent a shiver through her, as if the act of naming had brought to life all the monsters that had existed so far only in stories heard around the fire.

She looked back the way she had come, at the arch of trees which led to her world. The tunnel seemed ghostly somehow, less real than the market itself. Her home seemed ghostly too, far away and unimportant. She had a family; she knew that. Two older sisters, both prettier than her. A mother who hadn’t wanted her. A father to whom she was just one more mouth to feed.

But the knowing did not bring hurt. It was as if she was remembering someone else, a stranger who inhabited her life in that other world.

“What would I find if I were to go now?” she asked.

“The creature you saw in the mirror is one possibility,” said Prince. “I suggest you do not go now, unless you wish to be eaten.”

She shuddered at the memory of its dripping fangs. “Such creatures should not exist.”

“The corocotta have as much right to exist as you and I. There are things which are even worse. Don’t worry,” he added, “I’ll tell you when it’s time to go, wake you up if you fall asleep.”

“I won’t sleep.” How was it possible to sleep when she was having the most amazing night of her life?

They continued their promenade down the market. It had become even more crowded and clamorous. She stepped on a calico’s tail and apologized profusely. A brown kitten hopped down from an awning onto her shoulder, thrust its cold nose into her ear, then leaped down and trotted away.

“Rudeness,” commented Prince with a sniff. “I apologize on behalf of my youngest cousin.”

“That was your cousin?” Lila craned her neck, but the kitten had vanished into the throng.

As they walked deeper into the market, the offerings became stranger: a spell to immobilize a thief, a whistle to trap a dog, a song to milk a cow, a brush to change appearance, a drink to become larger or smaller, a dream to float above the trees, another to take root in the earth, and—most delightful—wings to fly.

Lila halted in front of the wings shop. There were all kinds: white with black tips, black with white tips, sweeping and elegant, soft and feathery, rough and wild. Her heart gave a swoop of longing.

“No,” said Prince, his voice implacable.

“I didn’t say anything,” she protested as he chivvied her away.

“You didn’t have to,” he said drily. “Your thoughts were as loud as a scream. It hurt my ears.”

She tried to yearn more quietly after that.

A little later, they arrived at what Prince told her was the heart of the cat market. A large space had been cleared in the middle, and cat musicians were playing the dholak, the sarangi, the flute, the iktara, the dilruba, and many other instruments she had never seen before and could not name. Several cats swayed and danced in a large circle around the musicians. The music was fast and lively, and Lila tapped her feet, wishing she could join them.

To her enormous surprise, Prince stood up on two feet and whirled her away into the crowd of dancers.

It should not have been possible to dance with a cat, but she did. Either she had shrunk or the cats had grown, for there no longer seemed much difference between her and them. Standing on two feet, Prince was as tall as her, and a most elegant dancing partner. She laughed and said breathlessly, “Prince, you are the handsomest cat in the world.”

He bent his beautiful head to her ear and whispered, “My name is Prince-Tranquil-Light-In-The-Endless-Dark.”

He’d told her his real name! And how impressive-sounding it was. “Mine’s Lila,” she whispered back, wishing there were more than four letters to her name.

“Lovely,” said Prince with perfect seriousness, twirling her.

Lila wanted the dance never to end, but after a while her head felt heavy, and her eyes began to close. When she collided with the cat playing the sarangi, Prince led her away from the dancers’ circle and into a quieter area of the market, toward a cart draped with silk scarfs. He had a word with the cat selling the scarfs, and a bright gold coin changed paws. She curled up on the grass beneath the cart, tucked her hand beneath her head, and fell fast asleep.

She dreamed bright, lucid dreams filled with the shapes and sounds of the market. But the cats themselves stayed away. Why was she not dreaming of the cats? It seemed unjust.

A paw shook her awake. She sat up blearily, bumping her head on the cart. Prince crouched before her, his whiskers quivering, his fur standing on end. “Time to go.”

She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. “Why didn’t I dream of you?”

“Cats do not dream each other,” said Prince, which didn’t make any sense.

She crawled out from under the cart. It was very early in the morning, barely dawn yet. Most of the shops and stalls were gone; cats were busy dismantling the rest, loading them onto caravans pulled by strange animals that looked like a hybrid of a donkey and an ostrich.

“Where are they going?” she asked, a sense of loss welling up inside her.

“Not for you to know.” Prince poked her with a paw. “Get up.”

There was such urgency in his voice that she scrambled to her feet, although she was a bit fuzzy about where she ought to be going and why.

Prince pointed toward the arch of trees. “Run. And do not try to return.”

His words hurt, but his anxiety was a flare that ignited her own. She ran toward the arch of trees, nearly tripping in her haste. When she reached the tunnel, she turned for a last look behind.

There was nothing but forest, dark and impenetrable. The cat market was gone. Gone.

“Prince?” she shouted, but no one answered. A wind rustled through the trees, whispering go go go.

No. No, I don’t want to.

You must.

Lila ran back to the forest. Perhaps Prince had hidden behind one of the trees? She called his name as she stumbled through the underbrush, trying not to cry. Branches whipped her face, thorns pricked her arms, and tree roots poked her bare feet.

At last, she gave up and turned around. Home. A place where she was expected, even if not wanted. She walked through the tunnel of trees, her heart heavy. Not even the fireflies had remained to keep her company. She emerged into the familiar landscape of denuded fields just as the sun peeped into the sky. Would she ever see Prince again? Would anyone believe what had happened to her? Could she even tell anyone what had happened to her? The events of the night blurred like a dream. Had it been real?

Yes. Realer than anything in the world. Fiercely, she clung to her memories, went over them one by one. She recited Prince’s true name in her mind, again and again, like a talisman. She would not forget him. She would not forget any of it.

No one was working in the fields yet—not surprising, considering the late night revelry. But no one was drawing water at the well either, or washing clothes by the pond, and that was unusual. The cows were lowing in their sheds, sounding like a rebellion. They hadn’t been milked. What was going on?

As she neared her family’s hut, a keening sound rent the air, making the hair on her neck stand on end. She pushed open the door and tiptoed in. Her mother and sisters were gathered in a circle on the straw mat in the middle of the room. The keening sound was coming from her mother.

Her mother took one look at her and screamed, “Lila!” She leaped up and grabbed the bewildered Lila by the shoulders. “Where were you? What happened to you?” She shook Lila until her teeth rattled.

“I was with the cats.” The words tumbled out of Lila’s mouth.

“Cats?” Her mother glared at her, the tears drying on her cheeks. “What cats?”

“In the forest,” said Lila, although a voice inside warned her to be quiet, “there were many, many cats.”

The slap came from nowhere, like a lightning strike. Lila stumbled back, her cheek stinging.

“Liar,” said her mother, massaging her hand.

“Do you know how worried we were?” It was Dolly’s turn to shout. “We thought you were dead.”

Lila didn’t dare ask why. She kept her eyes lowered and her mouth shut, and after a while, they lost interest in her. She slunk to the kitchen and helped herself to a glass of water from an earthen pot. Her throat was parched, her stomach a hard, empty knot. She wished she was back in the cat market.

“There goes any chance of compensation,” said her mother.

“At least she’s alive and well,” said Dolly.

Her mother grunted. “Shilpi, go find the men. Tell your father she’s come home. No need to waste time searching for her body, at least.”

There was a current of disappointment in her voice, as if she’d been cheated out of her rightful share of the money.

Lila got the story piece by piece over the next few days, some from gossip she overheard, some from the constable who questioned her—and whom she managed to fob off by acting vacant and dull—and some from shadowing the district policemen as they combed the village and surrounding fields.

Two men and two women had disappeared on the night of the Harvest Moon. Vikram, the son of the village priest, was taken while he was sleeping with his parents in a charpoy outside their hut. Dhiraj, a toddy-tapper, was grabbed while he and his wife Arunima were returning from harvest celebrations the next village over. Deepti, the wife of a local farmhand, vanished when she went to the outhouse in the middle of the night. And Hasina, the tailor’s daughter, disappeared a short distance away from the fire—right where Lila had been sitting. Out of all the possible witnesses, only Arunima got a glimpse of the attacker, and she was too shocked to give a coherent account of what she saw.

Lila heard rumors of a huge animal with a misshapen head, striped like a hyena, with teeth as long as a man’s forearm. Another rumor said the victims had been taken as sacrifice by tantriks who had disguised themselves as wolves. The only thing everyone agreed on was that this had happened before. Twenty-three years ago, five people had vanished. That night, too, had been Harvest Moon.

The police found large paw prints at the crime scenes, which supported the wild animal theory, but no drag marks, which supported the human theory. Lila, trailing the police at a discreet distance, knew they were both wrong. The creature she had glimpsed in the cat market mirror was neither a wild animal nor a human. It was its own monstrous thing. It defied classification, because it was not of this world. What had Prince called it? Corocotta.

The police summoned the elite Corps of Detectives and a dog squad. The dogs found a torn bit of sari—Deepti’s—and a finger—Vikram’s. The scent led them to a cave on a hill two hours away from the village. Inside the cave was a skull that was too old to belong to any of the recent missing people. It was sent to a lab in the state capital for analysis, but Lila knew what they would find: that it belonged to one of the people who had vanished twenty-three years ago.

A detective noticed Lila following them and called her over. She came forward unwillingly, wishing she had hidden herself better.

The detective crouched in front of her. “Why aren’t you in school?”

No one had ever asked her that before. The village had an elementary school, but attendance was desultory and the schoolmaster often absent or drunk. Besides, only boys got sent to the secondary school in the district capital. Lila hung her head and said nothing, the best policy to adopt when confronted by uniformed authority of any kind.

“Did you know the missing people?” he asked.

Lila nodded. Everyone knew everyone in Rampur, population two hundred and fifty-six. No, two hundred and fifty-two now.

“Where were you the night they disappeared?”

She debated whether to lie, but if he’d singled her out, he likely recognized her as the girl who’d been reported missing and then turned up alive. “I followed a cat into the fields,” she said. “And then I fell asleep on the grass.” That was all she’d admitted to the constable.

“Did you notice anything out of ordinary at all?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, except the moon was being eaten, and the fields were dark.”

He regarded her with disappointment. “The moon was not being eaten. It was a lunar eclipse. It’s when the earth’s shadow blocks the sun’s light from falling on the moon. See, this is why you need to be in school. Cat, you said? You’re sure it was not something…bigger?”

“It was a cat,” she said firmly. “I followed a cat and then I fell asleep and when I woke it was morning so I returned home.”

A huge black police dog snuffled her neck, and she shrieked. The detective laughed and rose, and the dog’s handler pulled it back.

“Sultan says he would like to see where the cat took you,” said the detective.

Sultan—the dog? Several excuses rose in Lila’s mind. She could pretend to faint, she could say she forgot, or she could simply run away. But the dog would probably catch her, and the detective would think—would know—she had something to hide.

Lila led the detectives and their dogs out of the village, across the fields, and toward the banyan tree. Midway through, the dogs got hold of a scent that excited them, and they dragged their handlers toward the forest. Lila watched them, heart in her mouth. Suppose Prince was still around, hiding in the trees? Those dogs would tear him to pieces.

But the dogs did not find Prince. They found an arm, bitten off at the shoulder. The detectives speculated on the identity of its owner, and Lila quietly vomited behind a bush.

The detectives left a week later, case unsolved. For a while, the villagers were afraid. Mothers kept their children close, and people slept indoors. It’s okay, Lila wanted to tell them. The corocotta are gone. For now.

Every full moon night, she slipped out of her hut to scout the village and check if the moon was being eaten by the earth’s shadow. Once, she thought she saw a piece bitten off, and a thrill ran through her. Would she find the cat market again? Would Prince be waiting for her? Or would the corocotta find her first?

But the bitten piece soon regrew, and the moon shone whole again. Hollow with disappointment, she returned home.

But she didn’t give up. She grew better at moving unseen, catlike. As long as people didn’t notice her, she could slip away, pretend to be somewhere else, someone else. She could run across the fields, imagining monsters behind her and fireflies ahead.

When ten full moons had come and gone, her eldest sister Dolly was married off to the son of a moneylender from the next village. It was a good match and a lavish wedding. For her dowry, Dolly got thick gold bangles, richly embroidered sarees, fine clothes for her new in-laws, a scooter for the groom, a full set of cooking utensils, and two hundred thousand rupees. The in-laws had wanted more, but Lila’s parents managed to negotiate more reasonable terms. Dolly was attractive, after all, and the moneylender’s son liked her. Still, Lila’s father had to take a loan to meet the wedding expenses.

“It’ll take three years to pay off, if the crops do well,” he told them when the wedding was over and the food was eaten and the guests were gone. He gazed at Shilpi and Lila with bitterness. “And then it’ll be your turn. Why didn’t God give me sons?”

“You could pretend we’re sons,” said Lila, staring at the floor, her face hot. “You could send us to the district school, and we could get jobs when we graduate.”

“Foolish girl,” said her father after a moment of shocked silence. “We don’t have money to waste sending you to the district school. What’s the point? You’ll have to be married in a few years anyway.”

“If we can find someone to marry her,” said her mother. “Such a plain, dark face. Not like her sisters.”

Lila tuned her out and thought of Prince. Did cats marry? Were their weddings grand affairs with lots to eat and drink? Did they have dowries?

Surely not. If cats gave each other gifts, it was because they wanted to, not because they’d been presented with a list, like an ultimatum. And dark-colored cats were just as pretty as wheat-colored ones.

The night of the Harvest Moon arrived. It was a subdued affair. The events of last year were still too fresh in the villagers’ minds.

But they’ll forget, thought Lila, watching them play mournful tunes around the fire. In five years time, or ten, or twenty, when the doors are thin again, they’ll forget.

She crept away from the fire, out of the village, and across the harvested fields. The moon shone bright in the sky, not a shred of darkness marring its silver face. Still, it was the night of the Harvest Moon. Perhaps the doors were slightly thinner tonight?

She arrived at the venerable old banyan. No arch of trees was in evidence. An owl hooted, and leaves rustled. She walked into the forest, pushing branches away from her face, taking care not to trip on exposed roots.

“Prince?” she called, but no one answered. Had she really expected him to? The trees were only trees, bereft of cats or fireflies.

She trudged home, unable to form words for what she was feeling. Could you be homesick for a place you’d only visited once?

Do not try to return, he’d said.

She should never have left.

It was hard to say when Lila lost faith. Perhaps it was the night of the midsummer moon three years later when it fell into the earth’s shadow. She ran across the fields as the moon turned blood-red, heart beating with excitement. She’d never seen the moon look like that before, except in the cat market mirror. It was a night for magic if ever there was one.

But when she arrived at the banyan tree, there was nothing of note except a small deer, crashing through the undergrowth. She sat below the tree and cried, but the forest remained unmoved, and no voices whispered in her ear.

Or perhaps it was the day Shilpi was married off to a farmer’s son in the next district. It wasn’t as good a match as Dolly’s, but it wasn’t bad either. The groom was the eldest son and would inherit his father’s land, as well as half his father-in-law’s. That was the deal they’d struck. There was no money for a dowry or expensive gifts, but land was forever. Except when you mortgaged it for a daughter’s wedding. Lila’s father still hadn’t paid off his debts, and the interest kept piling up. Shilpi was not happy about the wedding, which was less splendid than her sister’s, or the groom, who was a dour, unremarkable young man.

“Let’s run away,” said Lila, the night before the wedding.

“Silly, there’s nowhere to run to,” said Shilpi.

“We could go to the capital,” said Lila. “I could work as a maid.”

Shilpi laughed, a thin, ragged sound. “We wouldn’t last two days.”

Or perhaps it was later still, when Lila’s usual catlike reflexes failed her, and she was caught wandering in the fields by the village leader’s son and his friends. They tied Lila to a peepal tree, pawed her and pulled her hair and ripped her clothes and said, later, they’d only been teasing, and why had the freak been out so late at night anyway. Which was exactly what her mother screamed while slapping Lila until her head spun and her jaw ached.

That was when Lila stopped going out on full moon nights to look for the cat market. It had been a decade, after all. She was no longer a child, and magic had not saved her.

A few months after the tree-tying incident, Lila’s mother told her they had arranged her marriage to a forty-five-year-old widower with two grown sons who lived in the same village as her sister Dolly.

“He owns a shop and is a respectable, well-known man in the community,” said her mother. “You should be grateful to your sister for arranging this match. He doesn’t even want much dowry.”

Lila listened, too numb to respond. A few days later, the prospective groom himself visited with a box of sweets, accompanied by his sisters and his eldest son. Lila, decked in a red sari, sat with her head bowed while the women chattered and the men sat in judgmental silence. Just before they left, she peeked at her husband-to-be.

He was a tall, hefty man with thinning hair and small blackbird eyes that promised violence. His mouth smiled, and she stared at the ground, clenching and unclenching her hands.

The date for the wedding was set for the Harvest Moon. “The most auspicious time for the girl to start a new life,” announced the village astrologer, pouring over star charts.

Harvest Moon, thought Lila. New life. Because hope was a treacherous flower that would bloom even in the mud of her darkest despair.

On the night of her wedding, just before her sisters and cousins were to lead her outside to the mandap, Lila asked for a minute alone so she could pray for strength. They gave her strange looks, because she wasn’t the praying sort, but a girl got married only once after all. They filed out of the hut, giggling and gossiping among themselves.

Lila kicked off her beaded sandals (borrowed), tore off the heavy wedding dress and imitation jewelry (rented), and slipped on her faded gray salwar kameez. She donned her canvas slippers and climbed out of the window at the rear of the hut just as her mother was coming in the front door.

“Lila!” screamed her mother.

Lila dropped out of the window and ran. She ran like she had never run before, not even when she was trying to escape the village leader’s son and his friends.

“Lila, come back!” roared an uncle in hot pursuit.

Of course, they couldn’t let her get away. Better a dead girl than one who brought dishonor to her family, her village. What would they do if they caught her?

No, better not to think of that. She redoubled her efforts and left the village behind. The fields were empty; the harvest was almost in, and everyone was at the wedding, expecting a feast. A double celebration: the marriage of the village freak and the Harvest Moon festival. The disappearances eleven years ago had been forgotten.

A furious voice shouted, “There she is.” Was that her would-be-groom?

Lila flew across the fields, her chest burning, her hair falling out of its tight bun. She couldn’t let them catch her, she couldn’t, she couldn’t.

And what will you do in the forest, love? The voice of the wind, heard after so long, was an icy whisper in her ear.

I’ll live in the trees. I’ll eat berries and mudapples.

There was a breathy laugh. But there are things here that would eat you.

The field darkened. As the men chasing her drew closer, she risked a quick glance up at the sky.

One edge of the moon was smudged, as if someone was trying to rub it out. Was it an eclipse? Would it last? Would it be enough, this time?

An anonymous hand made a grab for her shoulder. She slipped out of its grasp, putting in an extra burst of speed.

The quality of the air changed, becoming thinner, sharper. Far ahead, the trees arched into a dark tunnel, spangled with pinpricks of light. Fireflies.

There was a terrible scream behind her, abruptly choked off. Lila kept running, willing herself not to look behind.

A second scream, and a third. Please oh please, thought Lila in desperation.

The sounds of pursuit died.

Run faster, the voice whispered. And don’t look back.

Of course, Lila couldn’t help herself. She looked back.

In the dim red light of the eclipsed moon, she saw a hulking beast looming over one of the bodies strewn on the field. Corocotta. It seized the head of the corpse in its powerful jaws and tore it off. Blood fountained out of severed arteries, drenching its muzzle.

The gorge rose in Lila’s throat. She swallowed it down and shut her eyes.

A growl thrummed the air, setting her teeth on edge. Once again, she was running, her legs aching, her breath coming in short gasps. The field was endless. Space had stretched; the tunnel of arched trees with the beckoning fireflies appeared no closer than before.

A blast of hot, fetid air enveloped her. Behind her, the growl became louder, savage, and triumphant. Something sharp and heavy hit her between the shoulder blades, and she stumbled. Knifelike claws ripped her back open, and she bit back a scream.

Ah, said the voice, sounding regretful. Only death can save you now.

No. She hadn’t waited all these years for a Harvest Moon eclipse only to die. She kept running, sobbing with pain, her eyes on the arch of trees ahead.

 Huge paws knocked her to the ground. She scrabbled to get up, tasting dirt in her mouth, crying at the unfairness of it. She was close, so close. Jaws of steel clamped over her arm and shattered it.

She screamed in agony. And from the depths of her agony, something twisted, something small, sleek, and sinuous. It wriggled out of her bleeding, broken body just as the jaws snapped around her neck and crushed it.

Lila leaped out of her ruined skin and sped across the moonlit field. Behind her, the corocotta howled in frustration and sprang after her.

But Lila was fast now, faster than the monster, faster than the wind. She raced into the arch of trees, leaving her fear and pain behind. The fireflies settled on her fur, curious, delicate, welcoming.

Well done, the voice whispered. Oh, well done.

A babble of feline voices rose in the air, arguing, laughing, bargaining, singing. Lila burst out of the tunnel and into the noise and color of the cat market.

Shops, everywhere. Cats, everywhere, some turning to look at her askance, some leaning forward to sniff the air, as if at a dubious new treat. Lila threw herself on the ground and trembled, dazed and exhausted.

“Move along folks,” came a familiar, beloved voice. “Nothing to see here.”

Cats turned their bewhiskered faces away, back to the business of the market.

Prince stood above her, his topaz eyes warm and bright. “Lila-Soul-Of-Cat, welcome home.”

Lila shook and cried. Prince laid a calming paw on her back. “Cats are usually not so emotional. But today, it is allowed.”

“I died,” she said, remembering the jaws around her neck. “I died.”

“Yes,” he said. “You have to die to be reborn.”

Shakily, she got to her feet. Her four feet. “How…how do I look?”

Prince gave her a knowing grin. “Would you like to see yourself before we meet the queen?”

She swallowed. “Will she allow me to stay?”

“Of course. You belong here now.”

“Why did you tell me not to return?” she asked.

“Because it was dangerous. I saved you once. The second time, you had to save yourself.” He nudged her with his nose. “Shall we?”

The market was even bigger and grander than Lila remembered. Fireworks exploded in the sky, and a toy train full of excited kittens trundled past, nearly treading on her paws.

At the mirror shop, she saw reflected back at her a pretty black cat with a white snout, amber eyes, and a bottle brush tail. She laid a paw on the mirror, afraid the illusion would break and she’d find herself plunged into the human world once more. “Is that me? Really and truly?”

“It has always been you,” said Prince.

She thought with a pang of the poor, broken body she’d left behind. “And the girl?”

“Is also you. Do you think you need the skin to make you what you are?” He strolled away. “Come. The queen awaits. And then we will fly.”

She trotted after him, giddy with anticipation. As they walked, the moon slid out from the earth’s shadow. It rose over the many worlds, and it saw terrible things. But in the cat market, a small black cat with a bottle brush tail danced to the tune of a different song.


(Editors’ Note: Rati Mehrotra is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)



Rati Mehrotra

Born and raised in India, Rati Mehrotra now lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of the science fantasy novels Markswoman (2018) and Mahimata (2019) published by Harper Voyager. Her YA fantasy debut novel Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove will be published in October 2022 by Wednesday Books. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for The Sunburst Award, nominated for The Aurora Award, and has appeared in multiple venues including The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

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