Stacie McCall Whitaker - Stone Coast, Maine

The Cat-eyed Man and the Brass Woman

Written By: Charlie Allison

If you ever visit New Valencia-on-the-Water, about an hour’s train ride from the capital, you’ll see a mighty strange thing. Course, it’s normal for the folk populatin’ the town—I reckon that people can get used to anything with enough time.

I may as well tell you about it—or at least why the lightning is suspended in the middle of New Valencia, even though it won’t thunderstorm within fifty miles of the town. My stoop-struck grandpappy says this all started with the Cat-eyed Man. See, the Cat-eyed Man was only ever cheated twice in his whole existence. And this here story is about one of those times.

Now, around these parts, people used to say the Cat-eyed Man—he of the nine lives, squared and cubed—takes the souls of the decadent and wicked to perdition. And those who’ve annoyed him, of course, or made a deal for momentary profit, he sends to hell trapped in a bolt of lightning.

The Cat-eyed Man used to run a Hellbound Express down through the mangrove swamps and bayous—or so I hear—all black and proper fancy, windowless as a coffin during the Troubles. He carted off the greedy, the dumb, and the gullible—their souls tithed as they passed the final ebon boundary, granting their one-time benefactor a long life and a suite of unnatural skills.

The first time the Cat-eyed Man got himself taken, he had to fold up his operation for a spell. The damned and the foolish would have to be ferried to the Ever After another way—and the Cat-eyed Man hit upon the idea of sending the dearly departed to their end through lightning bolts. They hit the earth fast as light—no time to finagle a fancy escape before the bolt struck home and payment was collected.

For a while, the Cat-eyed Man was doing brisk business in his trade of souls, dispensing good luck, women, men, and coin to whoever asked prettily enough—provided they were willing to sign on the dotted line. Desperation drew the Cat-eyed Man like blood in the water.

Everything was going back to how it should have been, until young Miss Olivia Alder returned from the capital, with big ideas and shiny city-clothes.

Now, Miss Alder the Tinkerer was the daughter of a poor couple that lived out near the edge of New Valencia. To be fair—and I always try to be—their home was less a shack, and more a losing battle with various molds, rampaging ‘diles, and the very swamp itself. Miss Alder managed to pull herself up by her crooked teeth and nails and get educated at the big university, studying electro-magnet something or other. She’d talk anyone’s ear off about the dawning of a Glorious New Era or somesuch—but there was no harm in it.

Miss Alder even brought back a whole train car full of brass wire and rods—lightning sticks, she called them. She told the mayor, and anyone else who would listen to her, about these lightning sticks or whatever having the power to save our town from the occasional spiteful soul who wanted to go out with a bang and hit a building on their way to hell. Something about grounding and copper—my grandpappy didn’t pretend to understand it. She even had a waist-high brass woman marching around, tirelessly hauling her luggage and boxes off the train. Gathered quite a crowd. Nobody’d ever seen anything like it—a little machine with glowing blue eyes that clanked when it walked.

Anyway, the way I heard it told, Miss Alder offered to install all these sticks atop the roofs of the town for a nominal fee. The mayor agreed, though not without some mumbled reservations about it being unnatural. Miss Alder had a certain way about her that helped her get what she wanted most times.

So, Miss Alder began her work, setting up every building higher than a story with a lightning stick on the roof and bronze wire running down to the ground, to make the inevitable lightning bolts harmless. At first, that funny little brass woman clanked along next to her, glyphs glowing in the afternoon light, until Miss Alder shooed it off with a whistle and a snap of her long twiggy fingers.

All was going well till she got to the steeple, around mid-afternoon. To her credit, Miss Alder had just finished installing her final little doodad when she lost her balance and fell three stories straight down to the cobbles.

You could hear her spine break like a bit of kindling when she hit the ground, nearly drowned out by her scream. Of course, no self-respecting citizen of New Valencia would ignore one of their own, so in a short time she was lying in the hospital. There, the doctors, after some poking around with metal instruments, told Miss Alder that she would never walk again. But of more importance was the blood clot moving through her system. It would kill her within a day.

Miss Alder said nothing. But she must’ve gotten desperate at some point during her last night on earth, because, to hear my grandpappy tell it, she was paid a visit.

“I do beg your pardon,” the Cat-eyed Man said that blustery night, feigning surprise as he stepped through the locked door to Miss Alder’s room. He adjusted his three-piece suit—dark as the night sky, his cufflinks glistening like stars in the gaslight. “I happened to hear that you were in need of my assistance, Miss Alder. I have an ear for tragedy—and opportunity. You and yours know me, always willing to help.”

He smiled, a gesture as empty as a dead man’s eye. Too long in the tooth to be human.

Miss Alder wasn’t the crying type. Tough as a birch rod, and skinny as one, she was sharper than the wrong end of a swordfish. But the way the story is told, after some hesitation, a single tear stained her cheek.

“Now, now,” the Cat-eyed Man purred, voice as dark as silt. “No need for that. Just tell me what you want, and it will be so.”

There was a pause, the air heavy. Miss Alder was doubtless deep in thought, toying with impossibilities. But I imagine that didn’t last long. Above all else she might have been, she was ferociously practical, and so discarded entertaining but impossible wishes on the altar of necessity.

Miss Alder named terms. “I want, for one night, full use of my body,” she said, “so I can enjoy the finer things in life one last time—get in a last dance, warm a bed to my satisfaction. Then, at dawn, I wish to die and guide my thunderbolt personally into the ground near the steeple.”

The Cat-eyed Man clicked teeth and tongue together.

“Is that to your liking?” Miss Alder asked, a quaver in her voice. Some even say her hands shook.

“Well, it’s not unheard of,” admitted the Cat-eyed Man with a shrug. “Some souls like to make a statement as they tumble earthward. Let the conflagrations conflagrate, I always say. I don’t see why I shouldn’t extend you the courtesy of choosing the destination of your final journey. All roads lead to perdition, after all.”

Miss Alder let another tear fall and raised one skinny hand to sign a paper that the creature had produced from somewhere. The Cat-eyed Man produced a pen in similar fashion and handed both to Miss Alder. He’d done this countless times—mostly for the desperate and wobbly drunks by the docks, and the occasional rogue alchemist—and watched as Miss Alder, with her city-bought glasses, read the contract, humming to herself.

Something occurred to the Cat-eyed Man in that moment, as the starlight seemed to dim, and the air grew oppressive with humidity. The edges of the document blackened, though no match had been lit. Miss Alder failed to conceal a smile.

“Let’s not be hasty,” the Cat-eyed Man purred, noticing how Miss Alder’s eyes widened and her brow furrowed as she read the diabolic compact. So few bothered to actually read the damned thing, I imagine he was thinking. What if he’d made a legalistic mistake in there somewhere?

Miss Alder bit her lip, doubtless having found a way to weasel out through a careless clause or subclause.

“Written contracts lack a certain panache,” the Cat-eyed Man rumbled, and the starlight returned with renewed force. “Too many ways to wriggle, like a speared eel. A simple handshake ought to do it. Your soul in exchange for your legs and faculties for a night.”

Miss Alder bit her lip again. Paused. The Cat-eyed Man banished the paper and pen, extended one sooty hand.

Miss Alder shook the outstretched hand, and, with a snap of the Cat-eyed Man’s fingers, she made a miraculous recovery to full ambulation, her death sentence suspended for one night. The Cat-eyed Man bowed and vanished into the shadows, leaving only the impression of a smile behind.

Any other person would have despaired over the bargain she’d struck, the odd looks from her townsfellows, the vague whispers and suspicions. But Miss Alder, she wasn’t the despairing type. As I heard the story, she went around fiddlin’ all that last night while New Valencia tried to sleep—a big spool of city-bought bronze wire perched on her hip, clippers and ties on her belt, a crowbar in her off hand, a shovel peeping out from her wheelbarrow, and a dolly wheeling a big oak box into the middle of the town square, the words “Test Wear” barely visible by lamplight.

She must have dug up half the town that night, pulling up grounding wires and whatnot and rearranging them into an arcane pattern. Her hands bled from weaving new wire extensions to the old ones. Days of work undone in hours, frenzied movement. Pulling all the wires toward a central point, chipping strange sigils onto them with a tiny knife—city-folk signs, queer things that wriggled and twisted.

As she worked, she kept a wary eye on the lightning bolts splitting down from the western skies at regular intervals. A trio of the doomed—gamblers who’d mortgaged their souls for the right roll of the dice, or perhaps desperate smugglers hoping for a darker night, to avoid the spotlights of patrol vessels—thudded to the earth. The bolts came down every fifteen minutes, sans thunderous accompaniment. The Cat-eyed Man was on a collection spree, gathering up his debts. As long as the lightning flashed in the distance, Miss Alder knew she was safe—at least for the moment.

Hours passed. Miss Alder bled from popped callouses, and her eyes grew salty with tears and badly blinked-back sweat. The arrangements were completed just in time. Dozens of wires clipped to the metal feet of a strange statue she’d erected in the town square—the contents of the oak box—like some brassy tree. The lightning bolts, growing ever closer, stopped. There was a muggy silence that seemed to stretch on just a touch too long.

“I see you’re not much of a drinker—or a dancer for that matter,” the Cat-eyed Man whispered into Miss Alder’s ear, appearing as silently as smoke behind her. “But you’ve been busy. Is this what passes for fun for you?”

Miss Alder didn’t say much of anything, only nodded. Her formerly strong legs buckled, and she sank to her knees, trembling.

“Nothing to say, Miss Alder?” the Cat-eyed Man drawled. “Usually I get a whimper or two, a plea. Some are even unwise enough to attempt violence upon my person.”

Miss Alder continued to say nothing.

“Ah, well. No matter. A deal is a deal, a handshake a handshake. A pleasure doing business.” The Cat-eyed Man snapped his fingers—a thunderclap.

Miss Alder dropped, lifeless, to the cobbles.

The Cat-eyed Man smirked, snapped his fingers again, then looked down at the design in the town square. Too late he recognized, in the vaguest of senses, what she’d done. The lightning bolt holding Miss Alder’s soul was already streaking down from the dawning sky.

Even for the Cat-eyed Man, catchin’ a lightning bolt in mid-flight with just your mind is hard work. I reckon it took seven of his many lives to hold that bolt motionless in the air as long as he did, just above the steeple’s lightning stick. His eyes bulged, his fingers with their expensive rings grew swollen, and something like a hiss escaped his throat. But even the Cat-eyed Man couldn’t hold on forever—especially not when, trying to get his bearings, he tripped over one of the bronze wires leading from the steeple to the center of the town square.

It was enough to knock loose his concentration. It was enough for the bolt holding Miss Alder’s soul to kiss the lightning stick with a shriek. It raced downwards, through the copper lattices and into Miss Alder’s hollow brass woman. Dead center of the web of wire and all the lightning sticks in the town. They formed a lily around the strange statue—made it thrum and surge with power. Light poured from the automaton’s eyes, and its triple-segmented jaws opened. More odd sigils and designs flared to life on the arms, torso, and legs, only to vanish in the next flash of light. Her new limbs creaked into movement, the sound of joints flexing into a more humanoid shape, shoulders squared, feet widened.

Miss Alder’s laughter poured out like a tide.

The folk of New Valencia who hadn’t shuttered their windows did so now. The bolder ones, like my grandpappy, peeking their eyeballs between the slats.

The Cat-eyed Man, I imagine, got to experience the sick feeling of surprise at being cheated a second time. His eyes glittered with foreign fires,    and the sickening wind that blew through New Valencia at that moment carried the faint cries of the damned. He raised one ringed hand, and the world seemed to slow. There was a long moment where the Brass Woman and the Cat-eyed Man exchanged a look. Then the Cat-eyed Man smiled his too-sharp smile. Lowered his hand.

“Nice trick.” He purred like a thundercloud. His teeth glinted with soul-bought vitality. “Congratulations on your…suspended sentence. I’ll see you at the end of the road.”

And with that, the Cat-eyed Man vanished into the morning mist. Back to scheming in the bayous and swamps. But something had changed. Everyone in town could feel it. Something had shifted in the air—the ozone particles, perhaps. The Cat-eyed Man had been bested, in public, by one of the town’s own. From that moment on, my grandpappy told me, there were fewer rituals to appease the walking shade. These days, hardly anybody even speaks his name, lest in jest. He faded from New Valencian consciousness like a nightmare—not easily, no, but steadily. His mystique disappeared, and with it, his major marketing and intimidation tools.

The way my grandpappy told the story, there was chorus of clicks over the next hour. People slowly unfastening their windows, then doors. The statue didn’t move—not at first, anyway—until the crowd, hesitant, approached her, and as if by unspoken decree, fell to one knee in a circle about her.

The Brass Woman, who had been Miss Olivia Alder, became New Valencia’s mascot of sorts. She wanders the swamps, helping those in need. Thanks to her, a lone lightning bolt decorates the steeple, frozen in the ether—a monument to her triumph.

About the Author

Charlie Allison / Stonecoast Review / Issue 7 / Summer 2017 / Fiction / Cat-eyed Man and the Brass Woman

Charlie Allison is a writer and recovering complexity addict based in West Philadelphia, where he works as a storyteller, cat-minder, and swimming instructor. When he isn’t scrubbing chlorine from his body or the antics of his role-playing group from his forebrain, he can be found re-learning how to cook, standing on his head, and perfecting his Nahuatl compound words. He recently received his MFA from Arcadia University’s creative writing program.

Charlie helps run a writing board called Fits of Print offering free proofreading, critiques, support, and line edits, alongside copious nerd references.

You can find him online at Fits of Print and on Twitter @cballison421.

He is currently overindulging in primary sources on in Nahuatl, German, and Mongolian mythologies. His work has previously appeared in Podcastle and Bride of Chaos.