The Cats of Istanbul: Chapter Twenty-Four

The Song of Swans

Imagine now that you are Izmir. Melchior, the keeper of the prophecy, has just disappeared before your eyes in a flash of white smoke. You are the saviour of the cats, you have the proof of this under paw; you have the scroll, you saved the kittens, you expect to unite the three treasures of the cats for your wife, who you imagine as very beautiful. Istanbul awaits, jewel amongst cities, capital of the cats and indeed of planet earth, and all that now remains before fulfilling this most fabulous of fates is to set off on your way.

Would you be able to turn it down? You have just days of experience outside the confines of the prison camp in which you grew up. The only alternative you have is to now deny that you are a hero, deny that you are the saviour of the cats, and go off to live in the countryside, forever wondering whether you had forsaken the chance of ultimate happiness. Why not find out?

For Izmir then, as no doubt you well understand, there was no choice but onwards. It was only that he was so enjoying savouring the moment that stopped him from dashing off immediately. He sat waiting for Fatma or Ahmet to take the initiative and announce the next stage in their adventure.

Fatma meanwhile sat in sorrow, staring at the ground, lost for words and entirely at odds with the world she saw before her. It seemed so obvious to her that something was seriously wrong. Although she could not well describe the whole or define its essence, all the signs of malfunction and malevolence were apparent in the situation into which they had been dragged. 

On the one paw, before her eyes, there lay the evidence that they had travelled to Karendir to find the prophecy of Izmir, and that they had indeed found the prophecy and then been saved by Izmir. That Izmir was here was undeniable, for truly he was a cat of heroic proportions, well-built and handsome, and with a wonderfully resolute look in his eyes. 

Nevertheless, on the other paw, Fatma could not quell the rise of horror within her chest at the idea of continuing along this path. The worst, she could not stop Ahmet and Izmir from carrying on with it. It was simply a question of whether she wanted to go with them or not. She was almost tempted to leave them there and then, but they were anyway going back to Istanbul, to Galata Tower, only a stone's throw away from her own home, so really it seemed silly to travel on alone. And anyway, on their way back, she might try one last time to change their minds.

'To Istanbul then' said Fatma.

The journey began quietly. Izmir was wrapped up in visions of glory, whilst still there was tension between Fatma and Ahmet. Fatma eventually summoned the nerve to dissuade Ahmet and Izmir from the doom that she was sure the prophecy would lead to.

'Ahmet, Izmir, I want to talk to you about something. I just want you to listen, I don't want you to interrupt, just let me explain something to you. Suppose for a moment that the world is just much more complicated than you've ever considered. Suppose that despite it all, despite the scroll we found and the name of the cat that saved us, suppose that the prophecy is not true, suppose we are being set up, and that all these things were faked deliberately to lead us to a certain point, that is not advantageous to us at all, but really very damaging. Can you accept that this might be the case? Can you at least accept that you cannot disprove my theory?'

'I will go to Galata Tower' said Izmir. 

'Fatma, for the last time' said Ahmet, snappily and without thinking, 'it is out of the question that we do not fulfil the prophecy.'

'Since when was anything beyond question can I ask Ahmet Arap? I am ashamed of you. You just don't want to listen. Observe the facts. Suddenly in Istanbul all sorts of rumours crop up about a long-lost prophecy that foretells the coming of Izmir, hero of the cats. All the Izmirs are arrested. We are provoked tirelessly. We decide to go and look for the prophecy. About the same time, the alley cats, who arrested all of the Izmirs in the first place, release one of them to save us. On that basis we decide that it is unquestionably true that the prophecy is real and we are about to go on to change cat civilisation forever.'

'Yes' replied Ahmet, 'I don't see what your problem is.'

'Alright, why then did the alley cats release Izmir?' asked Fatma, incredulous at her friend's response.

'Because they decided that ours is the more righteous cause. Mr Caring told us that before the docks' replied Ahmet.

'Do either of you really believe that they are on our side?'

For a moment both Izmir and Ahmet's mental adventure ground to a halt, the wheels were punctured, their egos deflated by the sheer impossibility of accepting such foul creatures as the alley cats as their friends.

'I will go to Galata Tower' insisted Izmir.

Ahmet was gifted with a response, 'And you say the world is complicated Fatma. Of course the alleys have got their own interests, but we can take advantage of that. I mean so what Fatma if they did us a favour, more fool them.'

'Ahmet I have never heard you talk in such a way. Where can these ideas have come from?' 

Fatma was growing more and more suspicious about her friend's behaviour. Ahmet had always been unreasonable to a point, but never cynical.

'Well anyway' he replied, with a slight sneer on his face, 'Izmir and I are going to Galata Tower. I'm going to give you one last chance. Melchior said we can't have this anymore. If we're going to succeed we'll need to focus, and we can't have you distracting us all the time, so this has got to be your final decision. Are you on our side or not Fatma?'

'I will go to Galata with you' said Fatma, 'but I am not going anywhere near the alley cats and I'm not having anything to do with a magical swan. I'm sorry but I think you are both insane. Mightn't we have noticed Ahmet that there was a magical swan at the top of Galata Tower?'

'Did you ever check?´hit back Ahmet.

'No but please Ahmet can't you see that this is utterly ridiculous, it is just too extraordinary to believe.'

'Well anyway I'm pleased you've made your mind up Fatma, you've abandoned the quest. Izmir and I will get the wings of the cats without you.'

'Please stop' said Izmir, for he could see that their argument was making no progress. 'I am pleased you are both coming with me to Istanbul, and I would be happy if you would show me the way to Galata Tower, but remember, the prophecy says nothing about two kittens. If you want to come along then of course I would not forbid it now, after all we have already been through, but if you want to do something else then that is your right. Neither of you are bound to the other, nor to me. But understand one thing, I intend to meet my fate.'

Amazingly, both Fatma and Ahmet were silenced. The situation was now clear. Izmir, both kittens noted, had an air of authority that made their choices seem simple. The kittens then relaxed.

'Now' Izmir continued, increasingly pleased by the world before him, 'will you tell me a little something about Istanbul, and about the gutter cats that live there. I've never been before.'

'Of course' said Fatma, 'with pleasure.'

And so thereafter the journey continued more happily. Before long the cats came across a small town, only an outpost for coaches to stop at on their way back and forth between West and Eastern Turkey, but enough of a place to provide them with a meal and water. Here they boarded a cart for Istanbul and there sat talking, almost without interruption for the entire duration of the journey, only pausing two or three times each to take naps. 

Fatma managed to sweep herself up in the conversation, and after only a few minutes of explaining the world to Izmir found that she had forgotten all about their plight. Izmir was too delighted. He immediately liked Fatma and Ahmet. Indeed, he considered them as perhaps his first real friends. But more, to hear of life, to hear of the world beyond the camp, to hear of friendly cats and fat cats, mean cats and thin cats, clever cats and stupid cats, to hear of all the various shades of nature, to him it was like attending a banquet of the gods. 

Most cats, and indeed most humans too, discover life in small increments, so small in fact that often the beauty of each addition is barely noticed, but Izmir had been denied so much that now joy poured over him. Learning was for him not a series of dribbles from disinterested parents and teachers, but instead the most beautiful of waterfalls, a torrent of academic ambrosia, for he was being given his education by Fatma.  

She decided to prioritise and so first recounted all of what she considered the basics of knowledge. The cornerstone of course was the history of the cats. The beginning of civilisation she explained, really, was the end of the first war with the humans, which most people referred to as the final war, but she supposed, given their current predicament, there was sure to be another one soon. Following on from that there had been no real contest for the cats but amongst themselves, and from a position of luxury, they were able to focus on the higher disciplines, art, music, literature, philosophy and performance. 

Quickly she said the cats had understood that they were not superior to nature, or the universe. The only question then was how best to live as part of their environment. This exploration she understood had resulted in the hierarchy that they were all so familiar with today. The argument most cited, and the one that she was most comfortable with, was that the humans had to be enslaved to prevent them from destroying everything. It was however not an easy relationship, for the humans were not supposed to know that they were enslaved, lest they complained too much. It was true, this did limit the ability of the cats to manage the world, but as the extinction of humanity seemed inevitable, there was little point in worrying too much about it. She personally was prepared to admit that the eventual absence of humanity might be problematic for the economic model of the cat world, for the availability of free labour would decrease enormously, but she had been assured by the elders that it was a zero-sum game, and that without the humans, there would be so many less problems in the world, that the cats would not miss the output of their slaves.

Subsequent to the first ordering of animal life, history had been something of a dream for the cats. Their civilisation had flourished almost without upset or error, beyond that it was just a question of how much one cared about the lesser species. The food groups of course might well have history, but the gutter cats of Istanbul cared little about it. Dogs were another question entirely, for their existence consisted only of bark, woof, wag and rut. Clearly their contribution to the universe was a negative, and in truth there was no clear agreement on why such a thing should have happened. Typically cats resorted to some sort of philosophy to explain the existence of dogs, for example, that without evil there could not be good, or that the equilibrium of the universe was a complicated matter, and given the nuances of the cats, it was physically necessary for there also to be dogs, as an opposite, and therefore the cats should only be grateful that they were themselves and not otherwise. Some cats blamed the humans, and insisted that there was clear evidence that dogs had been bred against the grain deliberately, to aid the humans in their downfall. Fatma gave some credence to the idea, but observed that wolves weren't any better, and indeed lacked the decency of the common dog to live in open inferiority, so it didn't seem likely to her at least that their fundamental substance allowed degradation, ultimately base as it was.

After history, Fatma moved on to culture. It was important for Izmir to note, if he had not picked it up in the prison camp, that all signs of a sophisticated society were banned before the humans, and as their world had grown ever so populous over the last hundred years, much of the great works were kept under lock and key so that they might never be disturbed by the collapse of mankind. The flow of new work had not dried up entirely, but certainly Fatma considered the older stuff generally also the better. With singing and poetry it was a different matter, for all of this was done in miaow, but painting, tapestry, ceramics and all other forms of visible art had suffered terribly since the advent of modernity. She admitted that she still preferred singing to poetry, although Zeynep had suggested that her tastes might well change, but it was simply that the classics of gutter cat balladry were so rousing that it caused her to quite forget about such things as prompted fretting, whereas poetry she still found trying, mostly she supposed because thematically little of the material widely recited interested her. Recently it was true she had found herself humming some more exotic numbers, her taste for which she had acquired whilst wandering around the streets and listening to the travellers that had arrived in Istanbul over recent months. She doubted that he had heard much music, although in truth the prison camp Izmirs had not forsaken singing, but anyway she insisted perhaps before they arrived she would have time to attempt a thing or two from amongst her favourite and most-practised renditions. 

Philosophy was the thing that she most wanted to talk to him about, for although she didn't doubt his intentions, or quality, she really was concerned about the strength and specificity of his circumstances. Really he had little grounding for such trials as those that had been pre-supposed for him, and might they not apply to all of his name daring enough to make an attempt. She really didn't want to imply that he wasn't the real Izmir, but just in case things turned out differently from his expectations, it would be worth remembering that he was first and foremost cat, not Izmir, and no matter what the scroll said, he was not obliged to do anything he didn't want to. Life flowed from the bottom upwards, something which was observably true in physics, meaning that truth existed more in the generic, those things common and shared, than it did in the specific; the word specificity itself, according to her own sense of emotional metaphysics, might well be substituted for temporality or transience, and he should not forget that the majority of happiness was to be found only by being in harmony with nature.

Finally, performance and athletics would best be covered by Ahmet, who was the champion of his age in most disciplines. Here Ahmet's smile shone through his previously overcast state. Ever since Izmir had suggested that his presence was not necessary on the quest he had been hurting, for in truth he felt under-appreciated. How could Izmir not want him to come along? He had been convinced that his performance in the caves guaranteed him a place amongst the canon of cat heroes, and this was yet to be acknowledged by either Izmir or Fatma. However as with Fatma, the chance to explain his favorite topics to Izmir was a rare pleasure that set his mood apart from everything else. 

Ahmet chatted merrily then for some time about the nature of athletics in the cat world. He listed the disciplines (street running and sky running, the high jump and long jump, climbing and skydiving, cat fighting and the hunting of prey) and then the competitions associated with each, not forgetting to mention all of those in which he had competed and won, including wherever possible his moments par excellence, those movements that separated him from the average cat. 

He was uncontested in street running and sky running, and he was more than a little sad that there was not more competition. He often wondered whether anyone else was really trying, but it occurred to him that the rest of the field was simply depressed by the gap in ability and so had given up. Izmir he noted wasn't a bad build for most of the disciplines but he imagined that the martial arts would be his forté. He would however be only too pleased to have a race with him if they found a suitable moment. Later, after they had fulfilled the prophecy together, he would show him his favorite courses, and along the way Istanbul, his home.

Something here seemed to strike Izmir and he felt suddenly obliged to compliment Ahmet on his fighting in the caves. His brain was somewhat inclined to say that 'he couldn't have done it without him' but Izmir found it difficult to admit such a thing, for in fact he could have done, and after all he had gone there to rescue them, not be helped by them. Instead he simply said that he admired his efficiency in dispensing with the enemy. It was a truly impressive display. Was it normal however for a kitten to have killed so many rooftop guards? It didn't matter to him of course, and he himself felt that he had no choice but to proceed, but he didn't want Ahmet to ruin his life by going too far, without at least understanding the consequences.

Here Fatma shuddered, for it was true, there was bound to be serious trouble back in Istanbul for killing Longshanks' guard. Whilst in the cave it just hadn't seemed to matter, but now thinking of it again, Ahmet had committed acts that might forever change his position in society. Of course Longshanks would hear of what happened at Karendir, and on that basis Ahmet would be considered a criminal, a terrorist even perhaps.

Ahmet found himself once again upset. Why couldn't they just say well done? What about Kadir? How many cats had he killed?

'I will be with you until the end Izmir' was all Ahmet could say in response.

Fatma decided to take back control of the conversation and so moved on to the current condition of cat society in Istanbul. No doubt Izmir understood that there were three cat tribes, and that each of them had defining characteristics: the rooftops their riches; the alleys their scheming; the gutters their even temperament and good-natured poverty. She thought however that it might be useful to understand more of the context in which he had arrived, so then she explained all that Zara had told them on the ship, about the death of King Richard and of how the streets suspected Longshanks, who had assumed the role of protector until Izabel, princess of the cats, was old enough to rule, but also of how Zara suspected the alley cats. Then she recounted how life in Istanbul had deteriorated under the rule of Longshanks, with first the graffiti and then the patrols, and after that the prophecy, the restrictions and the raids. That led her up to the conference and then their decision to go looking for the scroll. 

Izmir was clearly fascinated, but she could see too that it was stressful for him to learn of all the forces that surrounded his story. To him she imagined there was something very simple about saving kittens and recovering lost treasures, but the idea of a society in which expectations had long been formed concerning his future must have been overwhelming. Soon after that then she changed the topic again and just talked her way through the tangents of normal life: domestic life in the gutters, the daily fare of the average cat, fresh fish and sunshine, a conversation or two with one character or another, freedom beneath the stars, and of course, Istanbul and all the wonder that it contained. 

Eventually the adventurers fell asleep one final time. In the morning when they awoke the cart had reached the outskirts of Istanbul. Izmir of course had never been to Istanbul, and the kittens took no small delight in pointing out whatever landmarks they passed upon the way. There was the Bosphorus, and that was Küçüksu Palace. This place was called Beşiktaş, and the next would be Beyoğlu, at the bottom of which they would find Galata Tower.

Moving away from the water and up into the hills, the cart passed through a maze of narrow cobbled streets in a neat series of twists and turns that made Izmir's head spin. This was the city. He was desperate to get a better look but Ahmet insisted that he keep his head down. After all, this was the heartland of gutter cat town, and it would only take one gossipy mother to spot a strange looking cat in a cart and then the whole city would be roaring with speculation. Soon enough he assured him they would go on a tour. For now, they must stay focused, soon they would be there, and then forced to pit themselves against a challenge of immense difficulty. 

Galata Tower, our pearl-white pointer to the heavens, emerged some minutes later, gleaming in the sunrise at the bottom of a long sloping street. Fatma's heart began to heave, for here she knew that she had to part company with them. She was desperate to get back to life in the gutters. 

'Ahmet, Izmir' she said, 'I have made my mind up. I am going home. I will jump off the cart in a moment or two. I wish you the best of luck with the adventure but I cannot continue on this path.'

Ahmet only nodded and turned away.

Izmir however suddenly realised the implications of Fatma leaving. 

'But what will you tell your parents?' he asked. 'You can't tell them that I am here. What will you tell them about Ahmet?'

Ahmet's face fell. They were depending on her going along with it.

'Fatma' he said, 'we'll have to talk about this after we've dealt with the swan. Will you just wait around the edges of the square while we get the treasure, and then we can see what might be done?'

Fatma sighed. Was it ever going to be possible to escape this madness? Of course if she saw the Araps then she would not be able to lie to them about what had happened to Ahmet. She couldn't possibly go back to the gutters without the whole of Istanbul finding out about Izmir and the prophecy, and that would endanger their quest.

'Okay' she said, 'I will wait outside a cafe.'

In only a few moments more the cart had stopped before the tower. To all three cats the sight was something of a shock, and so it should have been, for Galata Tower is the property of my family, and guarded night and day by trained soldiers, on account of the amount of gold that we store within its safety. Outside the door stood two such guards, both armed with swords, knives and guns. Fatma and Ahmet had known of course that Galata Tower was guarded, but for some reason neither had spared such things a single thought. On seeing reality, they suddenly felt very differently.

Fatma gave Ahmet and Izmir one final look, a look of reproachment and regret, and then walked off to find a cafe where she might refresh herself whilst waiting. 

Izmir looked ruefully at the tower before him. It was certainly possible to deal with the guards by himself but it wouldn't be an easy move. There was always the risk that whilst he dealt with the first, the second would attack him, or worse, more might appear from behind the door. Climbing the tower from the outside might be an option, but once half way up he would be exposed. 

'Wait here' he said to Ahmet, 'I am going to walk around the tower. I want to see if there is anywhere I might climb without being seen.'

Ahmet nodded. He knew that there was probably not, and that they almost certainly faced a direct encounter with the guards. He too expected Izmir to be able to deal with them, but it would be good to have a little help. His brain moved to explore the idea of help and immediately a vision of Mr Caring appeared. All he had to do was ask, and Mr Caring would come.

'Say no more.'

He turned to his right and was astonished to find that Mr Caring was stood right next to him.

'Mr Caring!' he exclaimed, 'but how did you know? I didn't even open my mouth.'

'Say no more Ahmet' repeated Mr Caring, 'I know just the cat for this sort of job.'

Ahmet felt another cat stood to his left. He looked and was again astonished to find another cat stood on his other side.

'Allow me to introduce Mr Security' said Mr Caring. 

'Then attack' said Mr Security.

He gave a nod and two enforcers scuttled out of an alley to the side. They walked towards the guards at the door, who were immediately delighted that two cats had come to say hello, and bent forwards to stroke them, as humans are trained to do. When suitably arranged, the two enforcers jumped up and slit their throats. The guards fell down dead. 

The two enforcers then walked off and disappeared back into the alleys as if nothing at all had just happened.

'Don't tell me we never helped you' said Mr Caring. He and Mr Security then also walked off, leaving Ahmet alone.

Izmir came back around the tower and saw that the guard were now lying on the floor. Instinctively he dashed forwards into the tower and flew up the stairs.

Once inside, Izmir sprinted up the tower steps as though carried on the tempest's breath. He was going into battle. There was only one thought in his mind, he was going to destroy a magical swan and recover the wings of the cats. 

'Haraghhhh!' cried Izmir as, finally, he sprang out of the staircase and onto the roof. He was standing on an open platform that encircled the tower's top. Strangely, there was nothing there.

Bang! 

The beak of the swan smashed downwards into the floor, just inches shy of catching Izmir in the head. The swan was clinging to the pinnacle, just above and behind him. 

He swung round and could see, behind the white thrashing of the swan, a pair of wings perched right on top of the peak.

'Waarggghh! Waaarghh!' screamed the angry bird, swinging her neck around wildly in an attempt to knock him from the platform. 

Izmir composed himself and began to retaliate. Whoosh! He swept at the swan's feet with his tail. The swan tripped and started to slide down the sloping roof of the tower pinnacle. Izmir jumped over and climbed up. The wings of the cats were in his reach, but no sooner had he placed his paws around them then he felt the floor go from beneath him. The swan had somehow clung on and had caught Izmir with her flailing neck. The wings of the cats tumbled into free air. The swan dived after them and so did Izmir, and together they plunged towards the floor. It looked as though both swan and cat would surely die.

'Nooooo!' screamed Ahmet from the ground. 

But then, a miraculous sight. Izmir had flipped around and now was standing almost upright on his tail, levering himself off the chest of the swan, desperately trying to reach the wings which fluttered above them lightly on the breeze. 

He gave one final jump, using all of his might, and that was it, the swan was pushed downwards and Izmir up. He caught hold of the wings in his mouth and then flipped backwards so that his legs came through their straps. 

'Ha!' he roared into the air. The wings of the cats were on his back. He had done it, and now he could fly. He whooshed up and away into the diamond sky. 

Ahmet cheered from the ground, dancing his way around the base of the tower, watching all the time in absolute glee as Izmir soared into the distance, soon becoming just a speck above the mosques and minarets of Istanbul.