We were, again, very graciously offered an advance copy of the latest Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the July/August issue. And while there are many enjoyable offerings in this one (a special nod to Eleanor Arnason’s “Kormak the Lucky” and Ken Altabef’s “The Woman Who Married the Snow”), one story here is alone worth the price of the whole issue: KJ Kabza’s “The Color of Sand.”
It is a story (yes, spoilers) about people becoming cats. It is also a story about the relationship between color, magic, and, well, relationships. It is about how family is a tie of blood but also how family can extend beyond species. It is about bonds that are stronger than magic, that even create magic. And it is about how the alien (“other” or even just feline) can be closer than family.
One way to put it is that the story explores family through a “post-human” lens. The story isn’t told from a cat’s point of view, at least not initially, but by the end of the story, you can’t help but see the humans as lacking what the cats now have, a bond of understanding that usually belies the image of lone, disinterested cats living a selfish and lethargic life. (Full disclosure: I don’t like housecats…but I loved these cats.) You also can’t help but find yourself feeling like the still very odd society of cats who swallow colored stones in order to do magic makes more sense than any of the very recognizable human characters and their societies in the story. The “other” here doesn’t seem more “human.” On the contrary, the “other” just comes to seem much more welcoming than anything familiar and human, even as it remains intensely strange and disorienting, even to the new cats. That’s no small feat for such a short story to accomplish.
The story: Catch and his mother Fairday live in a driftwood shack on the beach near a small village. She was exiled from the village for being an unwed mother to Catch, and she lived near but not really among the “sandcats,” who also lived on the beach. Fairday and Catch scraped by selling the odd colored stones that occasionally washed up on the shore. One sandcat, Bone, tells them they are magic, and that he can only speak by keeping one of a specific color in his “throat pouch.”
One day, Catch mischievously swallows one and becomes a giant. Bone knows little about the effects on humans, and Catch and Fairday, seeking help in the village, get a shifty ship captain (likely Catch’s father) to take them to Final Atoll where it is rumored that wise men can help them. They arrive and are abandoned by the frightened captain, but they learn that Bone, the sandcat, has stolen away with them. They enter the “Final City” and learn that the wise people did not make the stones, as she thought, but simply study them. Furthermore, they also live under a kind of curse where they don’t allow visitors to leave their small island. However, Bone makes a deal that he will stay if the wise people let Fairday and Catch leave as well as give Catch a stone that will bring him to his true form – and Bone insists that he is smarter than the two, anyway, and can help the others study the stones. They agree, and, as a parting gift, Fairday receives a stone that will bring family back together: “The blood that binds you, and the earth you share, will bring you close again.”
The two return, and Catch swallows the truth stone, only to be turned into a cat. Fairday despairs but then remembers the second stone that will bring family back together. She swallows it and is, herself, turned into a cat. Immediately Bone also appears, apparently part of their “family,” and he coughs up a rainbow of colors that the “wise” did not understand, but which he, now, knows so much more about. And the future is bright.
Told this way, the story seems like an odd fable, and it is. But Kabza has a wonderful use of understatement, particularly in the cats’ speech, which can turn very little into both implication and insinuation in marvelous ways. That understatement turns this very short and, at the plot level, very odd set up into something profound. For example, before taking the “family” stone, Fairday seeks the advice of Blood, the oldest sandcat, who seems amused at her dismay over her son turning into a kitten:
Blood said, “You live in the dunes. You have a dune. You do not want to go back to the village.” He closed his eyes, his face pinching up [which Kabza has said is the cat way of smiling]. “You are silly. Your baby is happy. We are happy. You live here with everyone who is happy. This place is the happiest.”
And that is the extent of his advice: obvious things that are in no way obvious to Fairday. They are poor, she is a mother without a husband, and they are shunned by the village. Of course they have less in common with the humans than with the cats. And, furthermore, the sandcats help them when the humans take advantage of them. What use being human when it simply brings pain? Just become a cat. So simple.
The real drama of the story is in Fairday’s reluctant admission of what she seems to know from the beginning: she and Catch must be of a different community in order to be part of a community. The villagers don’t buy her stones; only tourists do, so she doesn’t even participate in the local economy, not really. And apparently the only people she still knows (like the sea captain) are people who have already taken advantage of her. So why still look to the village? As Blood said, she lived like a cat where other cats were happy; the only thing remaining is to be happy like a cat. And it’s not until the very end, after having grieved for losing Bone, the only character to ever do her kindness, that she allows herself to be happy.
There is a connection to be made here with Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka book, not only concerning the becoming-animal or becoming-cat, but also in the sense of finding a line-of-flight, or the escape from a situation where one moves from one limiting situation through its breaks into something else. Certainly the magic stones here create a line of flight that Fairday follows. The difference, however, is that D&G see that flight as an ongoing process, similar to ways that Kafka’s strangeness continues on into more alienation and stranger situations. This story certainly borrows something from Kafka.
But the “happy” ending seems at once unlike Kafka and unlike D&G’s “lines of flight” which have to continue fleeing in order to avoid ossification. And yet, while it is true that Kabza leaves us feeling that Fairday and Catch will be happy with their new family (they doze for a bit cuddled by a fire with Bone), Bone also promises them all more magic from the stones, more strangeness. On the one hand, this is a fun way to romanticize the horizon of possibility, a “walking off into the sunset of wonder” moment. But, at the same time, the sandcats are not “naturally” smart and talkative. They have to use this weird magic in order to be what they are. Humans simply are. Sandcats are a product and a project, a community apparently of experiment and creation that is quite comfortable with not knowing what will happen when you swallow a stone of a new color. It is a community of happiness and trust, but not a community of promises and roles and status, all things that Fairday seems to resent not having from the village but which are, of course, mutable. Instead, the sandcats are a very queer society of things that know very well how tentative and changeable they are. They accept obvious things and do not try to make impermanent things seem permanent.
Being “post-human” in this story is not just becoming a cat. It’s becoming the possibility of transformation. As Bone says when he shows them the rainbow colored collection of new stones:
“I do not wear clothes,” Bone said. “I do not have pockets. I research many things in Cairnachh [the island of the wise]. I must keep all the many things in my throat-pouch.”
His eyes closed and his face pinched in pleasure.
“Thank you for bringing me home. I know things Cairnachh does not. I will tell them to you now.”
The fact that those words end the story, and we humans don’t know what he learned, seems a perfect ending.