The island reeked of fish; scattered guts and oozing blank eyes littered the black beaches, and the mountains smelled of bubbling, potting fish intestines. The sky was continually dark with the smoke from the fires beneath the cauldrons, and the water had a thin film of scales and oil, all in the bays and quaysides round the island. In the deepsea around the island, the fish that were still alive avoided the inlets and told tales among their young that a bloodthirsty monster lived on the isle, with a mouthful of snatching teeth poised to take them from their beds and gnash and rip and kill.
Ione stepped from her home made of stone and breathed in deeply. Her lungs filled with that beautiful, terrible smell of cooking, rotting fish, and she smiled. Her small leather boots clicked against the stone steps that led to the ocean, and Ione waved hello to Cymbeline the cat Queen as she walked past.
Queen Cymbeline was sitting on a sunny rock, licking her black paw and periodically nibbling on a small minnow, stolen from the fish pots.
Ione wrapped her cloak around her shoulders as she walked down to the water. Obsidian-colored and shuddering back and away from the shore, the water curled and bubbled and foamed and shivered, cried and wept and showed the future and hid the past and was always there, always, for the present.
Ione loved the sea and could not bear it when she was not a step away from it, could not smell the good stench of the sea, could not feel the iron and the salt in her blood and marrow.
Ione walked along the shore and then turned to go up another set of stairs, leading away into the folds of the rocky jade mountains.
The island was a small island with many mountains, each a different patchwork color of heartwood green. The water lapping against the black volcanic sand was deep, soulful blue, and the skies above were perpetually streaked with grey and black. Ione’s steps wound all up and down the mountains and hillocks, toward the cliffs in the center of the island that divided the island like a dagger of slicing ocean, down to the black beach, toward the heart of the smallest mountain, where her stone home lay nestled.
She lived on the island alone; she and her cats lived on the island alone.
Ione was a young crow-haired girl who had lived as long as she could remember and then some; had seen the waves recede and then flood a thousand times; had seen millennia of cats ripen and birth and grow and die. Ione lived in her stone house and reaped the harvest of fish that the ocean gave her. Ione was somewhat of a mystic and somewhat of a human—she could not tell which was right, which seemed right to her in her bones.
Ione ate only fish, and kept only black cats.
She could not remember, but she thought she was at least a thousand years old.
Ione picked up Queen Cymbeline as she passed, from the stone basking in the sun. The Queen prowled up her shoulders and dug her claws deep into Ione’s shoulder. Ione scowled and stroked the Queen hardly, digging her fingernails into the flesh of the cat.
Queen Cymbeline was the cat that had come floating in on a raft of fish scales, mewing for its mother and for its milk. Ione rescued her and the Queen had immediately taken up residence among the hundreds of black cats on the island as the one who ruled. Her authority was not taken for granted.
Ione was not sure how she felt about Queen Cymbeline. The Queen was an odd creature who loved and hated Ione by turns. She would purr and rumble and rub round Ione’s ankles one day and turn right around and bite and scratch her the next.
Ione could not understand her. Ione herself was a strange creature, who loved and was submissive to the island one day, and fought and spit and hated it the next.
She had come weeping to the island, and the island had taken her in and cared for her and kept her alive these years, and now Ione was its Queen.
Queen Cymbeline was a strange cat, a fighting, fierce cat, a cat that could not be tamed.
Ione was a strange soul, a fighting, fierce soul, a soul that could not be tamed.
She made her way toward her fishing spot; the Point of Pascal, as she called it. She carried a plain canvas bag on her back.
She had no holidays, obviously, but the mountains did. It was later in the year and just about the time for the white pumpkins to appear on the slick chartreuse hill-sides, just time for the seasonal orange fish to appear in Ione’s nets, time for the black cats to reproduce, time for new small mewling black cats with red eyes to appear among the horde.
Samhain. The time of Samhain. That was what the cats called it, among themselves.
It was a cliff, and she lowered her nets into the thrashing fighting mass of trapped fish—fish trapped in the little inlet because of the fickleness of the tide and the currents. Ione called it the sea’s gift, and she never hesitated to thank the sea gods she believed gave her the fish harvest.
The cliff was the center of the island, and far below in its misty depths was the sea, trapped in rock, slicing through the heart of the island.
She cast her nets down into the deep and tied them securely to the stakes on the cliff. The Queen wormed down her shoulders and yowled in her face. Ione swatted at her, and the Queen bit her.
Bleeding, Ione yelled. “Stupid cat! Stay away!”
She sucked her wrist and watched the drops of blood fall into the oblivion below her.
Ione sat in the shade of the mountain and petted the Queen until the sun was high and she was hot and the nets were pulling. She stood and untied one of the ropes.
The cats over the island heard the scratch and the click that accompanied this action, and came swarming.
Tens, hundreds, thousands. Black cats, black cats, black cats. Richard III and Hamlet and Troilus and Macbeth and Romeo. All with names and all with hearts and all with a hunger for fish.
She counted them as they came. One, two, three… nine, ten… Ione loved her cats. She let ten—only ten—sleep in her house with her. Queen Cymbeline, Pandarus, Calchas, Banquo, Margaret Plantagenet, Iago, Desdemona, Mistress Quickly, Tybalt, and Iachimo. They were the ones she loved and the only black cats she saw daily. The only ones she really called by name.
Ione pulled until the veins stood out in her head. The rope rose slowly and reluctantly, and it was about an hour before the struggling nets came over the hump of the cliff.
No longer moving, the fish lay in the limp net. Catfish and anglerfish and tuna and swordfish and lionfish and salmon and carp and breams and pikes and mahi-mahi and zander and mackerel and bass and Tang and perch and bluegill and Wishfish and cod. Every kind of fish in the world came to this island and came into Ione’s nets.
Ione dug deep and pulled out the freshest ones and flung them into the seething mass of black cats behind her. The Queen leaped high and caught a mackerel, big and fat and brightly orange, in her mouth. Ione laughed and let the bag strapped to her back swing to the ground.
She bent and pulled, bent and pulled, her back muscles ringing and singing, moving under her skin as they had always moved and pulled and gotten stronger, each day Ione has been alive.
Ione took the tuna and the Wishfish (native to the waters round the island) and tossed them into her bag. These were the ones she ate. Tuna on Sundays, Wishfish for Mondays through Saturdays. All the other fish were for the cats.
Ione brought the canvas bag full of fish back down the steps and into her house. She steamed and dried the tuna, and let the Wishfish bake in the oven, still cindery and hot from last night’s fire.
“Queeny, come,” she called to Cymbeline. She hoisted the Queen to her shoulders again, and the cat snuggled her neck as Ione walked back up to the cliff.
Ione set the Queen to the ground and then took the nets in hand and dragged them down the steps to the plateau where she did the cooking. There, Ione spent the rest of the day skinning and gutting and tossing the limp silver bodies into the bubbling cauldrons. She would feed all of the cats at high noon, flinging ladlefuls of the fish goop into wide pink mouths until her wrist ached and there were no more hungry cats.
After her chores were done Ione would walk tiredly to her stone house to count her black cats and feed them the swordfish she had left over. Queen Cymbeline sat on her lap and purred and received the choicest mouthfuls, until the sun disappeared behind the checkerboard verdant mountains and Ione fell asleep with the Queen on her lap.