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New Decameron Fifty-Three: Naomi Kritzer

A Star Without Shine

By Naomi Kritzer

Once upon a time, in a very small kingdom, there was a king with one daughter. His wife had died, and he had not remarried. This is not the fairy tale where the king decides to marry his own daughter, don’t worry. This king was a completely different sort of terrible father: he believed that his daughter should earn his love, and nothing she did was ever good enough. 

The princess, Lenore, worked unceasingly to be the daughter she thought he wanted. He said he wanted a daughter admired for her beauty; she put on the beautiful dresses from her wardrobe, brushed her hair and arranged it carefully, smiled at all who looked at her. Then she looked to see if her father was pleased, but he told her that she was vain, and thought of nothing but her appearance. She put away her beautiful gowns and dressed more simply, tying her hair back with a black ribbon and allowing her hands to become rough, and again went to see if he was pleased with her now; he told her that she was slovenly, and an embarrassment.

At night, sometimes, she would take out the locket that was all she had left of her mother, and looked at her picture, wondering if things would be different if her mother were still living.

One day her father said, “I have a quest for you to prove once and for all that you are worthy of being my daughter. Bring me three things, and I will seat you at my side, as my heir, and you will inherit all I have. If you fail, you will no longer be my daughter.”

“Yes, Father,” she said, eagerly, believing that this time would be different.

“Bring me,” the king said, “a star without shine; a flower that blooms without sun or scent; and a person with perfect loyalty.”

“I will not fail you,” Lenore said, and set out with the clothes on her back (which fortunately were some of the simpler, more practical ones) and a bag of food.

#

A star without shine. A flower that blooms without sun or scent. Lenore puzzled over those demands as she walked down the road, past fields and farms and through a forest. She stopped, finally, for a bite to eat. Her father’s cook was quite fond of her, and had made her a bag full of sandwiches. The first one was tuna salad, and as she ate, she heard a tiny, light footstep behind her.

It was a short-haired calico cat. “Hello,” the cat said.

No one had set out to create talking cats; they had been the unexpected result of trying to breed a cat that would not cause people with cat allergies to sneeze. The talking cats still triggered allergies, of course. But they also spoke.

“Hello,” Lenore said.

The cat sat very straight, alert and just out of reach. It didn’t say anything further, but studied Lenore’s sandwich with interest.

“Are you hungry?” Lenore asked.

“Yes,” the cat said.

Lenore hesitated a moment, thinking about that bag of sandwiches and how soon they all would be gone if she couldn’t quickly figure out how to bring her father a star without shine and all the rest of it. But she broke off a quarter of her sandwich and set it on the ground for the cat. “Here,” she said. “You can have some of my lunch.”

The cat tried to be dainty, but was clearly too hungry not to eat quickly or to lick up every morsel. When she’d finished, she edged a little closer to Lenore; Lenore, done with her own portion, held out her hand, and the cat rubbed its face against her fingers. “I don’t smell any other cats on you,” the cat said. “That probably means you don’t have a cat. Are you interested in having a cat?”

“I would like a cat, actually,” Lenore said. “But I would think the cat would like a proper home, and I don’t currently have one of those.”

The cat looked nonchalant at that. “I believe that home is where your human is. Besides, I can help you find a roof over your head soon enough.”

“Then I would be happy to have a cat companion,” Lenore said. “For as long as you’d like to travel with me.”

The cat moved closer to Lenore, settling next to her on the ground. Lenore stroked the cat’s head, then said, “I need to keep moving.”

“Where are we going?” the cat asked, falling into step beside her. 

“My father has sent me to find a star without shine, a flower that blooms with neither scent nor sun, and a person with perfect loyalty.”

“What is he going to do with these things?” the cat asked. 

“Have them, I guess,” Lenore said.

“Are they ingredients for a magic potion? They sound like ingredients for a magic potion.”

“If they are, he didn’t tell me that,” Lenore said.

They walked in silence for a while – past endless fields of corn, and occasional stands of trees, and twice they crossed bridges over culverts. They came at last to a train track, and Lenore sat down to rest again.

This was a track where freight trains ran – carrying corn, oil, and coal. Corn had dribbled out of one train, and was being eaten by birds, which all scattered before the cat could catch any of them. The cat poked around at the edge of the track, finding something shiny: a glittering piece of black coal.

Lenore picked up the coal for a closer look. “Could this be a star without a shine?”

“It is shiny, though,” the cat pointed out. 

“It is, but only because the sun is shining on it. It’s carbon. What are stars made out of?”

Stars are mostly made from hydrogen and helium gas, although they have various heavier elements at their core, one of which is carbon. Lenore considered her options, then slid the coal into her pocket. “I think my father will be pleased with this,” she said. “Maybe. Unless he secretly wanted something else.”

“Do you think he has something in mind?” the cat asked.

“I don’t know,” Lenore said. She had, after all, been trying to please her father for years, and had succeeded only a handful of times. They walked on.

#

Towards evening, they came to a hamlet, which in this case is not the play but a cluster of houses too small in number even to muster up the determination to be a village. Lenore looked around, feeling a little bit desperate. She had no money, and as a princess, she had not been taught any tricks of getting by.

“I’ll find you a place to sleep,” the cat offered. “Do you know how to wash dishes?”

“Of course I know how to wash dishes,” Lenore said. She was friends with her father’s cook, after all. If you hang around a kitchen and you’re friends with the cook, you’ll probably know how to wash dishes.

“Very well, then.” The cat went around to the back door of a house and returned a few minutes later. “I’ve found us supper and a night on the couch.”

The house was the home of an old woman who lived alone. Lenore washed the dishes – her hostess had let them pile up a bit, and there were quite a few – and carried out the trash, and cleaned the bathroom, which was also part of the deal. The couch was not the fold-out type but it was long enough to stretch out on, and the sheets the old woman left folded on the coffee table were clean. 

In the morning, the house was very quiet, and Lenore thought she’d leave without waking up her hostess. But there was a note on the door for her: START COFFEE & HAVE A CUP BEFORE YOU GO. She obediently turned back and switched on the coffee maker, and as if that was a summoning spell, the old woman appeared at the kitchen door a few minutes later, yawning and scratching herself.

“I didn’t ask you last night,” the old woman said. “Where are you going?”

“My father sent me to find three things,” Lenore said. “A star without shine, a flower that blooms without sun or scent, and a person of perfect loyalty.”

“I see,” the woman said, narrowing her eyes. “Did he tell you what those things are for?”

“No,” Lenore said.

“With those three things – you need a hair from the person with perfect loyalty, or three drops of blood – you can brew a potion that will grant your heart’s desire. Do you know what your father’s heart’s desire is?”

“No,” Lenore said. “I have no idea.”

“Hmm,” the old woman said, and gave Lenore three pancakes and a cup of coffee, and the cat a tin of fish, before sending them both on their way. “Good luck, then.”

#

Outside the hamlet, the cat said, “I have been thinking about the flower without sun or scent. I believe I have seen one. Do you trust me to lead you?”

“Yes,” Lenore said. The cat had been nothing but helpful so far.

“You’ll need to follow me into the woods.”

There was a small wood nearby. It was a light, friendly sort of wood, not really the kind where you could get lost; it had a paved path that ran straight through, and an overlook where you could gaze at a lake that was probably a swamp before someone brought in earth-moving equipment to dig a deeper hole for the water. The cat led Lenore off the path and into the darkest places under the thickest trees.

“I’m going to get ticks,” Lenore said.

“I’ll sniff out any ticks later,” the cat said, and squeezed past a the remains of a huge fallen tree. “I’ve found one! A flower that grows without sun or scent.” 

Growing on the trunk of the fallen tree was an enormous mushroom with rippled ridges of orange and yellow. It was the sort of mushroom that’s sometimes called the Chicken of the Woods, even though it doesn’t look at all like a chicken. It does look a bit like a flower. Lenore carefully broke it away from the tree and tucked it into a bag.

“I guess I can go home now, then,” she said. “The third thing is a person with perfect loyalty, and I think that’s supposed to be me. I think I’m supposed to show how loyal I am by finding the other two things.”

“I see,” the cat said.

They walked back the way they had come. Lenore had eaten most of the food in her backpack, a little at a time, or fed it to the cat, so her load was much reduced, and she lifted the cat up to let it ride on her shoulder. 

“What will you do if he says you guessed wrong?” the cat asked. “If he says the mushroom isn’t the right sort of flower, or the coal is the wrong sort of star?”

“I guess if that happens, I will go try again,” Lenore said. “Like I always have. Like I always do.”

“What would happen if you stopped trying?” the cat asked.

“I don’t know,” Lenore said. “I guess I would have to go out and seek my fortune.”

“You could do that right now,” the cat said. “I could help you.”

Lenore shook her head. “I have what he asked for,” she said.

#

In the late afternoon, they stopped together to rest in the shade under an overgrown apple tree. Apple trees are normally kept very short by pruning, or by grafting the sort of apples you want onto a tree that will never grow very tall, but this tree had escaped its keepers and grown like an oak. It still bore apples, but they were all far out of reach. The cat climbed the tree, bit through one of the stems, and dropped an apple down to Lenore for her to eat.

“What is that you’re wearing around your neck?” the cat asked.

“It’s a locket that belonged to my mother,” Lenore said. “Look, her picture is inside.” She opened the locket so the cat could see. “People say I look like her.”

“Humans all look the same to me,” the cat said. “You all smell quite different, but I can’t smell her from here.”

“You wouldn’t be able to smell her from anywhere,” Lenore said. “She died many years ago. If she hadn’t, I would have somewhere to go other than my father’s house.”

“Somewhere better than your father’s house?”

“Probably.” Lenore stood up, her apple finished. “We should keep walking.

#

They reached the king’s castle at sunset. In the low sun, she could see the landscaper cutting the last of the vast sweep of perfect green grass, undisturbed by dandelions or clover. The house was the sort of vast house that could not quite make up its mind whether it wished to be a romantic castle, a Tudor manor, an Ancient Greek Temple, or a modernist box. It was all four at once, depending on which angle you looked from. The combination on the entry gate’s lock had been changed, and Lenore heaved a sigh and used the intercom button. “Hello? Father? I’m back. Yes, I have what you sent me for.”

The gate opened automatically, silently, and Lenore and the cat went up the driveway.

Lenore’s father met her on the doorstep of the house. “So?” he asked.

“A star without shine,” Lenore said, and laid the lump of coal at his feet. She saw a faint flicker of approval in his eyes.

“A flower without sun or scent,” she said, and carefully took out the mushroom.

“Oh,” he murmured with interest. “Not quite what I had in mind, but very nice indeed.” He looked up, his eyes sharp and cold. “And the person with perfect loyalty?”

“I’m the person with perfect loyalty,” Lenore said.

“Are you really?” She saw her father’s eyes flicker over her – over her dusty clothes, her backpack, and the cat that she suddenly wished she’d tucked into a hiding spot outside the gate before they’d come in. “If you are perfectly loyal to me, then prove it, Lenore. Drown the cat.”

Lenore fell back a step. 

The cat, surprisingly, didn’t leap off Lenore’s shoulder and run; Lenore could feel its claws come out, but it was trying not to dig them into her shoulder. 

“Ah,” Lenore said. “So that’s it.”

“If you wish to be my heir,” her father said, “if you wish for all that is mine to be yours, you must prove your worth, your courage, and your loyalty. As I told you.”

Lenore looked at the sunset, and then back at her father. Then she picked up the coal, and the enormous mushroom, tucked them under her arm, and with the cat still clinging to her shoulder, she turned her back on her father, and went back out to the road.

#

“How do you suppose you make the potion?” Lenore asked.

She and the cat had stopped for the night in a sheltered spot a mile or two back up the road. 

“What are you going to use as the hair from the person of perfect loyalty?” the cat asked.

“I was thinking I would ask for one of your hairs,” Lenore said. “You’ve been nothing but loyal to me. You didn’t even run when your father told me to drown you.”

“It won’t work,” the cat said. “I’m a cat, not a person. It has to be a human hair. You could make the potion for me, and use your hair, and it would grant my heart’s desire, I think.”

“What is your heart’s desire?”

“All I’ve ever wanted was a human companion who cared for me. And I have that. What is your heart’s desire?”

“Much like yours, I think. But my mother is dead, and … you met my father.”

“Like you,” the cat said, “I lost my family. My mother and my litter-mates are gone, and no cat knows its father, although presumably mine had the gift of speech, since my mother did not. But I did not give up hope of a family; I found you.”

“Yes,” Lenore said. “That’s true. You did.”

The cat settled warm and soft into Lenore’s arms, and they slept until morning came.

In the morning, the cat said, “Perhaps if you go back to the hamlet where we spent the night, the old woman will know how to brew a similar potion using a cat’s hair.”

That did seem like it might be worth a try, so they walked back up the road. Lenore was almost out of food by now, other than the chicken of the woods, which is edible if you are very certain of your mushroom identification skills. Lenore was not, so she didn’t eat hers. When they reached the home of the old woman, Lenore knocked on the door herself this time. She explained that she was hoping the old woman might be willing to teach her how to make the potion, but using the fur of a perfectly loyal cat instead of the hair of a perfectly loyal human.

“Can’t be done,” the woman said, “because cats are so often loyal. But come in, there’s plenty more I can teach you,” and Lenore moved in along with the cat, and became the old woman’s apprentice.

This could be the ending of the story, but perhaps you’d like to know what became of Lenore’s father.

He had quite a bit of money, and with money, you can sometimes buy something that looks a great deal like loyalty. Even perfect loyalty. After a few more tries, he found someone who brought him a star without shine, a flower without sun or scent, and their own unquestioning obedience, and he made himself the potion to gain his heart’s desire.

The problem, however, was that I think we have established with a great deal of certainty that he had no heart.

Also, you drink the potion. And not all mushrooms are edible.

He had not intended for Lenore to inherit his property, but he’d never got around to updating his will, so once the lawyers tracked her down at the home of the old woman, who she now viewed as her adoptive mother, she inherited everything anyway. Lenore, the cat, and the old woman considered moving into the enormous house, but it was rather hideous, so they sold it instead and lived happily ever after on the money they got for it.


******************************************

"Ha, yes, oh yes," Maya says. The cat jumps off her lap and goes to curl around his feet, mewing loudly.

"Coffee," he says, in a relieved tone. "Tuna fish sandwiches. Yes, that was just exactly what we needed." 

He gives part of a sandwich to the cat, and another whole one to Maya. She bites into it enthusiastically. "Now that's a story that understands parents," she says, with her mouth full.

"Then maybe it understands how trying to please them doesn't work," he says.

"No, it really doesn't," Maya says. "She was lucky to have the cat."

"Well, we have a cat," he says. The cat says nothing as they both look at him, but continues licking the filling out of the sandwich. "Breakfast pancake?" 

Maya takes a breakfast pancake and eats it. The cat bats at the pieces of bread but shows no more interest in eating them. "You know what we should do?" she asks. "We should clean up, that's what. You aren't supposed to even eat in the library, except in the cafe, and we've been making all this mess." She gestures at the coconut bowls and cups and mugs all over the table, at the pieces of bread on the floor, at the crumpled bag that once held nuts.

"You're absolutely right," he says. "This is a library."

They take the trash to the bins in the bathrooms, where they also wash an odd assortment of cups. He even washes out his coffee bulb. The cat contributes by sitting on Maya's chair and licking his fur assiduously. When they have finished the place looks much tidier.

"What next?" Maya asks.

"How about this," he suggests. "It's an extract from the new Marie Brennan."

"Oh what fun," Maya says, and they read.

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