When you opened the door to the bookstore with no title in Little Aleppo, the bell went TINKadink, but if you didn’t, then it didn’t. The bell hadn’t gone TINKadink in several hours; it was midday and the air in the shop hovered, stationary, like it was stalking prey. From the stacks, a smell of off-brand bug killer wafted out. The bookworms had massed, been met in battle, repulsed. Nothing Mr. Venable hadn’t dealt with before.
Owning any business is hard work, a million little chores begging to be ignored so they can avalanche on top of you, but a magical bookstore presents its own peculiarities. There was a good deal of the stock that couldn’t be displayed, or needed looking after: some books couldn’t be read from aloud, some shouldn’t be near pregnant ladies, others would straight up chase you down the aisle and eat your dick.
Mr. Venable didn’t know precisely how many books he had back there. Hell, he didn’t even know how much “back there” he had back there. There was the main room’s three long aisles of books, and then the backroom which doglegged to the left, and there was a second level you needed to climb a ladder to get to, and at least one basement. At least. And the annex, and the warehouse. Lewis and Clark, Mr. Venable thought. Place doesn’t need a librarian, it needs explorers.
One time, some monks came in looking for a book by Aristotle, and they were never heard from again.
Maybe the cat had seen the end of the bookstore with no title, but she wasn’t saying. Or maybe she was: she was a tortoiseshell, and an unstoppable chatterbox. The cat meowed at customers, and went “CHHHHH!” at the mailman for some reason; when no one was around, she would prowl the stacks for mice, burbling and blipping and saying, “Plep,” and making one unique noise that went like “MlaaaAAAAhmph.” Mr. Venable knew that cats couldn’t talk to themselves, but he also knew that cat was talking to herself.
They got along fine, he and the cat, which was a tortoiseshell and not a calico, which meant she had no white fur at all, just black and rust. Mr. Venable might have enjoyed the conversations he had with the cat more than with any human, and they would chat on and off all day: he would say something in English, and then she would answer in Cat, and that would continue until one of them got bored or distracted.
He had asked what her name was a million times.
“Tell me your name, damn you.”
“Identify yourself! I insist!”
“Espanol? Como se llama?”
“Then you get no kibble!”
“Fine, you get kibble.”
And then Mr. Venable would feed the cat. This happened every day. (The conversation and the feeding.) Whenever a foreigner came into the shop, Mr. Venable would make them ask the cat her name in their foreigner’s language. So far, nothing.
Other than that disagreement, they got along, mostly through respecting each others’ territories. Mr. Venable had his desk, and the cat had everything else, including Mr. Venable’s desk if she felt like it. She was particularly fond of his recently-abandoned chair; the dark green leather, still tushee-warm, was irresistible. She could hear the springs and creaky back of his old chair from, well, anywhere (cats have very good hearing) and she would zip under the desk silently, waiting for him to rise with a groan for more coffee, and occupy the seat the instant he got up.
The cat was hesitant to give up her new perch when he returned, usually; it would turn into an argument.
“That is my chair! How dare you?”
“Don’t speak to me like I’m the mailman.”
And so on. Sometimes, Mr. Venable would find a task to do; sometimes, he would get the squirt bottle. Depended on how his day was going.
Occasionally, if Mr. Venable had not risen for a while, then the cat would pad behind him: she would retract her claws–she was missing one on her right paw–and glide with no sound, and her back straight and parallel to the wooden floor until she got right behind his chair. Then she’d leap on his shoulder and scream, “MROWF!” right into his ear; scared the shit out of him every time. Mr. Venable knew that cats couldn’t laugh, but Mr. Venable also knew that the cat was laughing at him.
Always, he would get the squirt bottle after that routine. Certain aggressions cannot stand. Passers-by on the Main Drag could see him fighting with the cat, he knew this, but he didn’t care.
“Face your nemesis: water!”
And then the cat would punch the air, like six or seven times real fast, in Mr. Venable’s direction. One more squirt and the cat was off; back into the bookstore with no title, her paws making a tiny sound like “pamp” on the floors, which were made of long plain maple boards: blonde with lines of dark tan cutting horizontally, rising and falling like an afternoon of stock market returns. At irregular intervals, the floorboards had knots in them the same shape and color, but not size, of a potato. Down each aisle, the varnish had worn off the floorboards in two stripes, one on each side, nearest the books: the browsers had carved their own paths.
The cat doglegged at the backroom, which had high church windows overlooking the shelves, which were of uneven height, and from the second floor–which was an open loft which surrounded the backroom on three sides, and was accessed by one of two ladders on the east and west of the room–the view was one of an open mouth with jagged teeth made out of stories, and lies, and pictures of birds. The bookstore with no title has an overwhelming amount of books containing pictures of birds.
All of them harshly categorized and sub-categorized by Mr. Venable: he believed that there was a place for everything, and that place was where he said it should be. Not the alphabet, not good sense, and certainly not John fucking Dewey. It wasn’t a library, first of all, and Dewey advocated for simplified spelling.
(Simplified spelling! Declawing was what it was, Mr. Venable thought. Words come from places, they have history–words have names, Mr. Venable thought–and those words brought their history to the present. The English language is good at taking. The English are good at taking. A goose and a goose are geese, but a moose and a moose are moose, and that’s because one is fucking Germanic, and the other is fucking Iroquois. Words spelled this way are Greek, and that way are Latin. Bad enough we stole the words: leave them their dignity. A language should be messy, Mr. Venable thought. Sign of character. Fuck Dewey.)
There was the section: Birds, which was a subsection itself, of Animals Neither Human Nor Imagined. Under the heading of Birds, there were many sub-heads: Birds, Talking; Birds, Threatening and Smelly; Birds, Larry; Birds, Delicious; and Birds, Actually Not Birds But Pterodactyls. A whole shelf was for books with drawings of thrushes and woodpeckers, made by white guys on vacation, and several shelves of birdwatching memoirs, also written by white guys. Down in the basement, of which there is at least one, there was a long shelf dedicated to a language that thought “bird” was a letter. That language also thought “cat” was a letter, and sometimes there were mice in the basement, and then the tortoiseshell cat would go down there and remind the mice why she was worshipped.
The cat was a fierce mouser. She was rusty on the top of her head, and all down her back and paws; the rest of her was dull black, and she used this to her advantage to blend into the ceiling and deliver what can only be described as death from above. She would perch half-off the third ledge of the bookshelf, pupils perfect circles and tail still, waiting for the mouse and when the doomed little fucker scurried across the aisle she would SPRING down, slam the mouse into the maple floorboard; its back would break instantly.
Other cats liked to play with their prey, but the cat that lives in the bookstore with no title is from Little Aleppo. Little Aleppians believe that if you’re going to kill someone, do it quick. Nothing draws more boos in The Tahitian than the part at the end of the movie when the hero throws away his weapon so he can have a fair fight. Little Aleppians thought a fair fight was finding out where your enemy slept and calling in an airstrike the night before the fight.
Anthropomorphization is as difficult to avoid as it is to pronounce: a cat isn’t a cat-shaped person. A cat is a cat-shaped cat. They aren’t offended by the mice encroaching in their kingdom without so much as a by-your-leave. The cat isn’t punishing the mice for their rudeness, and the cat surely doesn’t see his home as sacred.
She eats a little of the mice–she likes her kibble better, if she’s honest–and then leaves the corpse there, and goes upstairs and makes a noise at Mr. Venable, “GLAAAAH-mrph,” and he gets up and picks up a spray bottle, but not the one with water: the one with industrial-strength wood cleaner, the toxic and powerful stuff that’ll get blood out, and he also grabs a brush. When she had killed a mouse in the basement was the only time she made that noise, and Mr. Venable noticed that the blood never had any paw prints leading in or out, as if the cat were careful to be tidy and make as little work as possible.
Mr. Venable knew that cats couldn’t be polite, but he knew the cat was being polite, and he headed down to the basement, of which there was at least one, to scrub up the blood on the floorboards, which were blonde maple with dark-brown and wavy lines bisecting them. If someone came in, the cat would start yowling. It was quiet today, anyway, and the door to the bookstore with no title had not gone TINKadink for many hours, and no one had stamped their feet on the mat coming in from the weather out on the Main Drag, which is in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.