Pete and Feather
Cat Tail: A Tale in Two Parts
The vertical size of the yellow stripe extending along the walls of the cavernous black room was approximately that of a kitty cat stretched-out by its arms and legs.
Pete spat at the wall and watched his mucusy loogie slip down the surface, bisecting the length of the yellow stripe, before eventually touching down on the dirt floor.
I wonder if they’ll notice that, he thought.
Probably not. Despite the fact that the yellow stripe was one of the few things in the room for the Grays to monitor, there was so much room that one little stream of spittle would most likely not garner their alien attention; besides, ever since Pete’s disastrous last video production one year ago to the day, the Grays didn’t really come down to visit him at all anymore.
Pete languidly ran his finger along the lower edge of the yellow stripe and sighed.
You see, Pete had one and only one objective to accomplish in the room: he was to produce a stream of videos—each video progressing in formal and conceptual complexity from the one that immediately preceded it. So, when he decided to rebel one day, producing a video that he knew to be artistically regressive, the Grays abruptly ended all contact with him, and Pete was left utterly alone.
Well, not totally utterly alone; there was still Feather, the cat that lived in the room with him, but Pete was not a cat person, so he generally ignored her and didn’t cast her in his videos.
“Shoosh, Feather,” he said, sitting down on the ground and turning away from her.
Feather shot him a dirty look.
“I saw that you gave me that look. You better watch out.”
Pete laughed heartily at that and began to eat the dirt clods on the ground that were his only form of nourishment.
That’s better, he thought, rubbing his belly with a dumb grin on his face.
A slight breeze passed over Pete’s body. “Feels good…” he commented.
Suddenly, the lights in the room flickered on and off and Pete shot straight up.
“What was that?” he asked Feather, but she was too busy cleaning her tail to take note of his question.
Maybe it was just my imagination, he thought.
Pete sat back down, gazing into the black void above his head, and then closed his eyes.
On the one hand, he was glad to be rid of the Grays and their slave-driving ways. On the other hand, though, he was lonely. The Grays at least communicated with him, and, plus, Pete sort of liked the challenge of the video-making no matter how frustratingly pointless it all was. For twenty-nine years, he diligently produced videos, resulting in a catalog that, by now, adds up to several thousand unique works. Every time he finished one, a delegate from the Grays entered the room, discussed the formal and conceptual values of the work with him in English, and then, muttering words in its own alien tongue, bent down in order for him to insert the video into a spongy growth festering on its forehead. Pete would do so and the Gray would then turn, clumsily jog for twenty feet, and disappear in a billowing cloud of smoke. Then Pete would go through the whole rigmarole all over again the next day. This was, of course, all novel and stimulating for some time, but eventually Pete grew frustrated by the endlessness of the project. There was never any clear reason for his participation. No gold stars, no pats on the back, just video after video after video without end. One day, when he couldn’t take the feeling of dread it spurred inside him anymore, Pete produced a video composed solely of shots depicting the flies buzzing around the pit toilet that he poops in. It was immature, yes, but he needed to push back.
And that was it. He hadn’t heard from them again.
“I don’t regret it. I had to make a move. I had to do it, I was going crazy…” he mumbled to himself.
Pete stared into the black void above his head.
Pete spat into the air and, before he could dodge it, the loogie landed right back down on the tip of his nose.
“Well, that’s great! Ya know what? I’m not gonna do anything about it! I’m not even gonna clean it up!” he yelled.
Pete lay there on the ground, pouting, as Feather quietly approached and began licking his nose clean.
“Get out of here, Feather! I said I didn’t want to clean it up!”
Pete shoved away the cat and scrambled to his feet.
“Oh, what do you know?”
Stupid cat, he thought.
Pete stomped off and began going deeper into the room. After several minutes he stopped, looking around at his immediate surroundings, and dwelled on a single thought. Hmm…
After several more moments, Pete dramatically nodded approvingly.
“That’s it. I’m gonna get out of here, make a run for it. This time is for real. I can’t take it anymore. I need change!”
In previous years, Pete had attempted similar sorts of stunts, venturing for hours into the depths of the room. However, he never seemed to get anywhere. It was always the same black walls, yellow stripe, and dirt floor extending forever without any significant difference. In each instance, he’d invariably give up after half a day or so and then return to the camp near the pit toilet.
“This time is different,” he told himself, shoving dirt clods into his mouth. “I’m gonna break free even if it kills me!”
He digested, burped, silently recited the mantra he learned on Earth, and then set out.
Step, two, three, four. Step, two, three, four. Pete walked. Step, two, three, four. Step, two, three, four. And walked. Two, three, four. And walked. Two, three, four. And he kept walking deeper and deeper into the room.
Minutes passed, then hours, then maybe a day.
Eventually, Pete grew weary.
“Doesn’t this place ever end?” he asked.
But, it didn’t seem to. At least there was no sign of it yet.
As a way to introduce some variety into the process, Pete started sprinting alongside the yellow stripe, running further and further into the room. Eventually, though, he lost his breath and had to stop.
It won’t end. It won’t ever end, he thought.
He looked down to his sneakers, inhaled deeply and said, “No, keep going. It’s probably just a bit further….”
He took another deep inhale, ate a dirt clod for health, and then took a step forward. And then another. And another, following the yellow stripe through the room for hours and hours more.
Pete looked at the black void above his head, hoping to see some sign of change, but it was always the same. “It’ll change soon. It’s coming soon,” he said to himself.
Step, two, three, four. Two, three, four.
Keep going, just keep going.
Pete started running at top speed, trying not to question his actions, just going, moving, hoping it would all work out. Just a bit further. Gotta get out of here. A bit furth—BAM–Pete tripped on a dirt clod that sent him flying through the air and landing with a thud on the ground.
Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. He looked at the blood oozing from the fresh scrapes on his forearms and then held his pounding head in his hands.
“Am I in Hell?” he asked himself quietly.
Pete felt like he was going to cry.
The lights in the room flickered on and off.
“Why is this happening? I just want this to be over…” he said.
Pete lay down on the ground, slept a bit, and then spent the next day trekking back to camp.
Pete re-entered the vicinity of the camp and Feather pranced up to greet him.
“There she is, just like always,” he thought to himself.
“Hey, Feather, yes I’m back and, no, there’s no way to get out of here. We’re trapped forever as far as I can tell. But, that said, all is not totally lost. I do have one idea.”
Feather curled up against Pete’s leg and he kicked her away. “Gimme a second, will you? I’m worn out and need to sit down in order to collect my thoughts.”
Feather backed away a few feet and started to clean her tail.
Pete walked to the pit toilet, took a poop, and then sat down on some nearby dirt.
He looked at the black void above his head.
“Alright, I’m ready,” he said under his breath.
“Feather, where are you? I have to tell you something.”
Feather’s ears perked up and she scampered to Pete’s side.
“Listen, on my way back here, I had some time to think and I came to a conclusion: I’m going to mount another video production.”
“Would you just listen to me? Listen, this is the one that is going to get the Grays to pay attention to me again, ok?”
Pete picked up the video camera and began holding forth:
“You see, I had hit rock bottom. All hope of ever getting out of here or ever experiencing some form of change seemed to me to be a remote possibility. As far as I could tell, there was no end to this world and even if there was, I’d never find it. Anyway, I was walking back here, sulking a bit at the thought of all of this—you know how moody I get—and then I realized something. The endlessness of the room and the endlessness of making all of those videos for all of those years is the same endlessness. In both cases, it was one step after another after another with some form of progress, yes, but no tangible direction, no sense of real meaningfulness. Do you know what I mean? Think of it as a form of Hell. Anyway, the Grays always talked to me about reflexivity, about creating a loop between form and content. With that in mind, I will no longer make videos about this or that one particular thing. Rather, I will now embark on the ultimate meta-video. The endlessness of the room will serves as a metaphor for the endless process of making videos in this world. Perhaps even the endless grind of life itself. It will consist of one endless shot, Feather! One endless tracking shot along the yellow stripe for twenty-four hours. But, twenty-four hours is not endless, you say. Well, this one twenty-four hour shot will run in a loop. A loop extending indefinitely into the future. Content. Endlessness. Form. Endlessness. Loops. Loops. Loops. Do you understand, Feather? A video about the endless making of videos. This is the one—this is the one they’ll remember me for.”
Pete held the video camera in his palm, contemplating its weight.
“So, without further ado, I shall begin.”
Pete walked up to the yellow stripe and angled his camera towards it. He took a deep breath and declared, “I will need silence in order to concentrate on the task at hand. I must keep the camera as still as possible while I walk forward so that it most accurately simulates the experience of a human being walking forward. Do you understand that, Feather?”
Pete pressed “Record” and stepped forward, following the trajectory of the yellow stripe.
“Genius…” he said.
Soon after starting, Pete was a man possessed. The focused concentration marked on his face was reflected in the steady grace of the shot. It was exactly the way he envisioned it—gliding, but with the hint of a quiver.
“Quiet, Feather. Please…”
“Feather, please, I’m almost in the zone. I really need to concentrate here.”
Wow, she is really wailing, isn’t she, Pete thought. But, I can’t let that distract me. Just keep going, keep going…
There’s something odd about the sound of her meowing.
Pete continued his path against the wall, endlessly filming the yellow stripe, but something was gnawing at him.
“I need to see what’s going on with her,” he said to himself, pressing “stop” and putting the camera down to his side.
Pete began jogging in the direction of the camp.
“Where are you?”
Pete approached the camp and noticed two little paws sticking out over the ledge of the pit toilet.
“There you are, did you fall in?”
“Ok, hold on.”
Pete walked over, shooed away the flies, and reached into the pit toilet.
He lifted the cat out of the pit toilet and set her down on the ground.
Pete waved the stink away from his nose. “My goodness, Feather, you smell like poop!”
Feather shook herself spastically, flicking pieces of poop everywhere.
“Hey, don’t get that on me!” exclaimed Pete.
Feather was shaken-up and her eyes were enormous. Pete couldn’t help but laugh.
“You are silly, you know that? Ok, now, seriously. I need total silence. The Grays will come back here and pay attention to me if I finish this video. I gotta make this count…”
Pete returned to the wall and began filming again, but he couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder to watch Feather continue working the chunks of poop out of her fur.
What a funny cat, he thought.
“Okay, now, time to film the yellow stripe for hours and hours and hours. Let’s do this,” he said, staring down the stripe as if it were an adversary.
And he began filming.
“The Grays will really appreciate this! It’s a good idea!” he exclaimed.
Just moments later, though, he started thinking about Feather.
“What’s that crazy cat doing now?” Pete asked himself. He looked over his shoulder and marveled at how clean she had gotten herself in such a short period of time.
“Wow, look at you!” he said, straining to maintain the steadiness of the shot.
“Haha, but you still have a line of poop on your forehead, just above your eyes. It makes it look like you have a unibrow!”
Feather tried to rub the poop off her forehead, but was having trouble.
“Oh, jeez, I need to film this. This is classic,” Pete said, leaving the yellow stripe and jogging over towards Feather.
When he reached her, she was running circles around herself, batting her forehead with her paw in an effort to flick the unibrow of poop off of her head.
“Look at you!” he exclaimed. “Ok, I’ll just shoot this one thing and then—seriously—I’ll get back to the yellow stripe.”
Pete kneeled down next to her and started filming. Feather wiggled around furiously and kept smacking herself in the head with her paw, but the unibrow of poop wouldn’t dissipate.
“Oh man! This is amazing. Keep going! Keep going!” he yelled.
Feather kept going and Pete kept filming and then, amidst the chaos of the moment, he had one clear, stinging thought: “You know,” he said, “the endless stripe video is cool, but I’m actually pretty into what I’m seeing right now. What if it’s just this? What if this is the next video?”
As Pete continued filming, Feather continued going crazy, rubbing her head in the dirt, flipping over onto her side, and simultaneously meowing and purring like there was no tomorrow.
And, then, he looked down at her, and, just as quickly as it all started, it was over. She had done it: the unibrow of poop was gone.
“Hey, great work, Feather! You really wiped it all off your head, didn’t ya?”
Feather had, by now, calmed down and was curled up beside Pete, purring with a contented look on her face.
Pete stopped recording, lowered the camera, and looked down at Feather. He picked up the camera again and reviewed the footage he had just shot. “Not bad…”
He rewound the tape even further back to the yellow stripe footage. “Hmm…I don’t know…”
Pete looked at the black void above his head.
The lights in the room flickered on and off.
“The cat video…yeah. It’s…it’s real…”
And then from out of nowhere: “Dah, de, de, dah!”
The sound of trumpets and a blast of smoke announced the entrance of a Gray.
“Whoa,” Pete exclaimed.
The Gray was eight feet tall with slick gray skin. Its long arms were swinging in circles.
“Hello, sir,” Pete said, kneeling before the Gray.
The Gray signaled for Pete to rise. It looked down at Pete and then over to Feather and then back to Pete again.
“Hello, Pete,” it said in English.
“I’ve been waiting for you to return, sir. I’m sorry about the last video I made. I was frustrated and needed to vent and—“
The Gray approached closer to Pete, swinging its long arms in circles. Upon reaching him, the Gray placed its palm on Pete’s forehead.
“Thank you, Pete. You’ve finally figured it out. All we ever wanted was cat videos. The simple truth of a cat with a unibrow made of feces is more powerful than any of the far-fetched conceptual shenanigans you’ve tried to dazzle us with up to this point. Humanity is often best explored through the non-human. The insight into humanity that a cat demonstrates is of more depth than any actual human could ever express. And, finally, what is often called lowest-common-denominator is also often universal. That was the artistic lesson of this level in the world. You may now enter the next level.”
The Gray muttered something incomprehensible in its alien tongue, bent over, and signaled for Pete to place the video in the spongy growth festering on its forehead.
Pete looked down to Feather, ejected the tape from his camera, and placed it in the spongy growth.
The Gray stood upright, waved what looked like a laser pointer around for several moments, and then pointed behind Pete. Pete turned to see a giant golden door that was not there just a moment before.
“Go, Pete. Go forth and good luck in the next level of the world.”
Pete turned towards the door and was about to walk through. But then he paused.
Pete looked down to Feather.
“You coming, too, little lady?”
Feather jumped up into Pete’s arms and together they moved to pass through the golden door.
“No!” shouted the Gray.
Flames shot towards Pete’s head, scorching his hairdo. “Only you, Pete. You’ll have to leave Feather here.”
Meeowww? Feather looked up to Pete longingly.
The Gray looked down at them. “It’s the way it must be, Pete. I’m sorry.”
“What’s past this door, anyway?” asked Pete.
“The next level. It is your destiny. That is all I can say.”
“My destiny. What do you mean?”
“If you don’t go forward now, Pete, you’ll never be able to do it again. This is your chance. Seize the moment, my son.”
“Feather…” Pete began to say, but she stopped him.
Feather leapt from Pete’s arm, landing softly on the ground.
“Feather…” he tried again, but Feather was going through something. Something difficult.
Her eyes were closed tightly and she looked tense, as though she were holding her breath.
After several more moments, Feather opened her eyes and released the tension in her body. She took a few steps forward, revealing her tail lying on the dirt, disconnected from the rest of her body. She pushed it towards Pete with her paw.
“Feather, what have you done?”
Pete looked to the Gray, who was silent.
“Feather, what happened to your tail?”
She pushed it closer to Pete and then backed away, resting on the dirt floor.
“It’s her way, Pete. She’s given you a piece of her to carry with you into the next level of the world. I suggest you accept it,” explained the Gray.
Pete looked down to Feather. “Is this true?”
Feather looked up to him with a contented expression. She purred.
Pete bent down and cautiously picked up the tail.
Feather looked at him knowingly.
“Alright…” said Pete, flicking the remaining poop from the tail.
He looked at Feather. He started crying.