I soon began to wish that I had thought to provide myself with some sort of pastime. I took out my journal and wrote a fair account of the last day, but that was done quickly enough. On the best piece of paper I had I wrote an account of the butterfly dream, a much more detailed account than I had ever written before. I set it and my journal back on its little shelf and watched my mother’s candle burn. It was exceedingly boring. I thought back to what Wolf-Father had told me, and my promise. What had my father meant when he told me to stay here? Why, only that I must stay hidden in the wall labyrinth. I assured myself of that several times.
Then I took a bit of my chalk and wrote on the wall that my father should not worry, I had gone to explore the corridors a bit, and that I would take chalk and an extra candle and mark my way.
I went first to the peephole that looked into my room, hoping again to find some secret entrance. Again there was nothing I could discover. I had begun to understand the passages and how they wound their ways through the walls of the house. They were best in the oldest part of the house, as if a builder had planned them there. In other places they went only a short way and were almost impossibly narrow or so low that my father would have had to crawl. I worked my way through the one that went past my room and was disappointed to find that there was no peephole into the room that had been temporarily given to Shun. I pressed my ear to the paneling, but could hear little. Maybe someone was weeping in the room. Maybe I was imagining it. I wondered if she was even in the room right now. I had been a bit frightened when my father had first spoken of bringing someone into our home. Now I wasn’t frightened. I was angry. I didn’t like her, I decided in that moment, and justified it by deciding that she didn’t like me, and that she wanted my father’s attention. I wasn’t sure why that made me uneasy, but it did. I needed my father now, more than ever, and it wasn’t right for her to come into our home and take up his time.
Locating the Yellow Suite was more difficult, but eventually I made my way there. When I judged I was near I held my candle high and was rewarded by the sight of a little door that could be swung to one side. A peephole cover. But when I moved the door, all I found was a small glob of damp plaster pressed through what had been a peephole. The most recent round of repairs to the rooms had involved some plastering. They had covered over the hole. Now, I decided, was not the time to tamper with it. The plasterers might be back the next day, and I did not wish to call their attention to the hole. I would let it dry and later I would return to cut it out like a plug.
I wandered the hidden maze a bit longer. I visited my pantry exit to be sure it was still as I had left it. While I was there, I filched some dried apples and plums for my hoard. I had climbed onto a barrel to reach the pepper sausages when one of the kitchen cats wandered in. I ignored him. Stripy Cat was not really his name, but it was how he was called. I became aware of his stare as I was trying to clamber on top of the boxes of salt fish to reach the higher shelves in the pantry. I looked down from where I teetered to find him gazing up at me with round yellow eyes. He stared hard, as if I were one of the rats he was supposed to kill. His look froze me where I was. He was a big cat, heavy-bodied and thick-limbed, a cat for the ground rather than a climbing cat. If he chose to leap on me and attack me, I would not be the winner. I imagined those sharp claws sunk into my shoulders and his hind legs ripping at my back. “What do you want?” I whispered to him.
His whiskers perked forward and his ears tipped toward me. Then he shifted his gaze to a row of bright-red sides of smoked fish hanging from a string stretched across the pantry. I knew why they were hung so high; it was so the cats could not get them.
But I could reach them.
I had to stand on my tiptoes to break one free. The flaps of salt-glazed fish had been threaded onto the string like peculiar beads. Once I had my hands on one, I bent it until it broke. When it gave way, I lost my precarious balance and fell from the top of the boxes to the pantry floor. I landed hard on my hip and side, but managed to keep from crying out. I lay for a time, clutching the stolen fish and sausage while breathing past my pain. Slowly I sat up. Bruised, but not much more than that.
Stripy Cat had retreated to a corner of the pantry but hadn’t fled. He watched me—or more specifically he watched the fish that I still clutched. I caught my breath and spoke softly. “Not here. Follow me.”
I stood, hissing at my hurts, and gathered up my dried fruit and pepper sausage. Then, clutching my trove, I dropped to my knees and crawled behind and under my barricade of boxes to where my secret hatch was ajar. Once inside, I moved out of the way and waited. After a few long moments, a whiskered face appeared in the dim circle of light. I moved my candle back and beckoned to him.