Burnt Ochre Battalions

Prologue

He thought, ‘I could get into this book I’m reading
or indulge in illicit love all afternoon.’
Not true. He lived alone with unread books
in a low-rent high-rise far out near the sea.
His penknife broke his pencil point. He wept
for as long as he’d read that heroes should. His cat
made sounds from purring care to impolite.

Together he and the cat walked to the door
and back again. And sat. They heard the wind.
They imagined hearing waves break shells and shale.

What they actually heard was moaning. ‘Let him loose,’
he told the cat. Who did. They watched the mouse,
too traumatised too long to hope, believe
it was free to go. It wasn’t. The cat struck
the last midnight for the mouse. So little blood.

The doorbell rang. The candle gutted. Wires
implanted in the carpet glowed and smoked.
‘It’s your turn,’ said the cat. He half agreed.
He threw open the door, winced and said, ‘Come in.’

The hooded creature, tall, without a face,
came in and brought the front door in behind him.
No outside left, no single place to run to.
‘I might as well,’ he thought out loud, and died.

‘Not so fast,’ the apparition said. ‘You have a task.
Your so-far clueless life acquires a mission.’
It handed him a wax-sealed parchment scroll.
He saw the cat was packing for a journey:
catnip, roach clips, goggles, tinned sardines,
and a silver whistle polished like a mirror.
‘You know more than I do, Cat,’ he said.

The apparition rubbed sand where the mouse had bled.
It said, ‘You both are criminals. That was foretold.
Get out, get out. Get out! I’m getting old.’

Outside was colder than he had remembered.
He carried the cat in both hands, like a muff.
The backpack the cat cradled weighed them down.
He walked the ridge, descended through the mist
to the shale that bore the onslaught of the sea
so easily that he said, ‘Eternity.’

‘Not ours,’ the cat said. ‘I think it’s time we read
our marching orders. Break the crimson seal.’

He tried and slipped. A rogue wave took the scroll.
The cat’s paw swiped and saved the red wax seal.

They shared the wax. As they chewed it, crimson fumes
spelled out instructions the cat read aloud:

‘Proceed to and surmount New Mountain Ridge.
Descend and commandeer a sturdy boat.
Sail to and anchor above St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Wait there for further orders. Don’t be late.’

That’s all?’ he asked the cat. ‘No how or when?’
The cat shook her head as he carried her up the beach.
New Mountain Ridge shown icily ahead
but the intervening forest was pitch dark.

Night fell further. The cat said, ‘We must camp.’
She, the cat, climbed a tall oak tree.
She let a length of coloured cord descend.
‘Tie it,’ she said, ‘to the ladder in our pack.’

He, the man, looked in the pack and found
among the catnip and the tinned sardines
and a snarl of things for which he had no name,
a ladder lashed from ropes and wooden rungs.

He tied it to the cord. The cat pulled it up
and made it fast. She called down, ‘Hurry, climb!’
With his rucksack swinging wide the man climbed slowly
until he saw red eyes below him. Then he sprinted.

From a moss-blurred branch they watched broad lowering creatures
congregating at the oak tree’s base, and sniffling
and exhaling, turning wet leaves into ash.

‘Don’t breathe a word,’ the cat joked. He said, ‘Hush.’
The no-neck creatures heard but could not gaze
upwards. He said, ‘Good you packed a ladder.’
‘And a small sword,’ said the cat. ‘But they are big.’

They watched the creatures circle. Then one stopped.
Its right side opened up. A man jumped out.

‘Those are vehicles,’ the cat said. ‘Like in old books.’
He shushed her, ‘Please be silent.’ Hours passed

in the seconds that the strange broad man below
looked up into the branches, seeing dark
and nothing else. He got back in his ‘truck’
—the word the cat kept whispering— and drove off.


The other trucks kept circling, burning leaves.

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