Cats in space - and Tennessee

A friend bought me a used copy of Bill Fawcett's Cats in Space and Other Places anthology of cat stories, which clearly came from a cat-owning home, as Nekojii immediately set about rubbing his face on the pages. It's mostly famous stories by famous writers – Heinlein, Leiber, McCaffrey, Cordwainer Smith; familiar to SF readers but worth re-reading. (In fact, this anthology probably isn't the best place to discover a story like Arthur C. Clarke's "Who's There?", which wants readers to forget there's a cat in the story until the big twist, or C. J. Cherryh's "Chanur's Homecoming", a novel chapter that's incomprehensible without its context.)

But the big surprise is the lone fantasy story, David Drake's "Bullhead". The talking cat is just a walk-on character; the story's about Old Nathan, an elderly Tennessee wizard in the early 1800s, who finds it easier to talk to the animals around him than to deal with human foolishness.

"I'll tell ye a thing, though, cat," the cunning man said forcefully. "Afore King's Mountain, I couldn't no more talk t' you an' t' other animals thin I could talk t' this hearth rock."

The tomcat curled his full tail over his face, then flicked it barely aside.

"Afore ye got yer knackers blowed off, ye mean?" the cat said. The discussion wasn't of great concern to him, but he demanded precise language nonetheless.

"Aye," Old Nathan said, glaring at the animal. "Thet's what I mean."

The cat snorted into his tail fur. "Thin you made a durned bad bargain, old man," he said.

Old Nathan tore his eyes away from the cat. The tin basin was still in his left hand. He sighed and hung it up unused.

"Aye," he muttered. "I reckon I did, cat."

Turns out there's a whole book of Old Nathan stories, and while all five work as standalones, they're better read in order. A mountain community is a small place, and Nathan – already distrusted by his neighbors – makes one enemy after another as he sets larger matters right in ways they can never understand.

Old Nathan gained his magic after the Battle of King's Mountain in 1780, and the book deeply evokes that specific time and place — from the details of everyday life, like smoking catfish on a chimney shelf, to the language. ("Stick to yer own affairs, boy … effen ye have sich," Old Nathan chastises one young man.)

The magic-tinged Tennessee is such a marvelous place to visit, with its sunny fields and fragrant pines, its feuding families and its forgotten debts, its dangers and its secret sentimentality, that it's almost a shame the book ends with no hope of a sequel. Nathan has been the local wizard in these parts for decades – surely there's more to tell about him? But Drake made the right call, and the final story brings together everything that's come before in a bittersweet conclusion that's more satisfying than a purely happy ending could ever be.

Written on January 3, 2016