“I want to do burlesque,” said the hen. “A striptease. I’ll take my feathers off, one by one. Would you like me, like that? Would you think I looked tasty?”
The cat said nothing. Why did she have to say these things? It was the sacred rule of the Ark, the foundation on which everything rested – you didn’t eat your fellow passengers. Look, there was the lion, lying down with the lamb, not even drooling.
“Or a magic trick. Saw the head off the lady. I’ll keep on dancing. Oh, how beautifully I would dance, if I couldn’t think.”
“It’ll be over soon,” he said, without looking at her. “The waters are already receding. You can lay your eggs and raise your chicks and be happy.”
“Oh yes, of course. Repopulating the earth. The brood-mother of nations. What an honour.” She laughed bitterly.
“Look, we didn’t ask for this,” said the cat quietly. “We aren’t to blame for our luck or for what happened to the others. What kind of a world is it going to be if all we do in it is mourn?”
“I don’t want to mourn. I want to dance. I want to die of music.”
There were songbirds on the gunwales, blackbirds, starlings, swallows, finches, rising and calling and fluttering over each other with a constant rippling motion; below them, the sunlight dazzled on the water. There was no sail, because there was nowhere to go. Noah and his family were busy with the work of the ship, sluicing and scrubbing and tending their stores.
“I was a temple cat,” said the cat, “in the city of Uruk, at the temple of Ishtar. The front of the temple was faced with coloured tiles of white and blue and the white steps to the gate were washed each day. The statues were gilded and the temple women wore circlets of gold wire and gold rings in their ears. Men came to couple with the women, in honour of the goddess, and to make sacrifices. They killed doves and lambs. Then the bones and scraps were thrown on the refuse heaps at the back of the temple, which grew bigger every year and stank, swarming with rats and buzzing with flies. The dark ooze seeped from the rubbish and ran down to the river. There was always sickness in the city, but the people went on worshipping Ishtar, who brought them prosperity and made things grow.”
“It sounds horrible,” said the hen.
“It was a good life for a cat,” said the cat. “There was plenty to eat and the women were kind to me. There was one I remember. She would stroke me and share fish with me when she had some. She was trying to save the trinkets the men gave her so she could buy an inn when she was too old to work in the temple – she’d put them in an old oil jar she kept in the corner – but she never managed to save very much; she kept shaking the trinkets out again and exchanging them for new sandals or wine.”
“Was there music in the temple?”
“Oh yes, lots. Voices, flutes, drums, harps. Formal music for the goddess, worksongs for cooking and washing, lullabies for the babies, story-songs for the fireside. But mostly love-songs, because Ishtar is the goddess of love.”
“Will you sing me one of the songs?”
“My singing was never encouraged. But my point is, it was always going to end. They knew it. The woman I told you about knew she couldn’t live that life forever, that her youth was passing; and everyone knew that the stink and the filth were getting worse and worse. They talked about cleaning it up, they had a lot of quarrels and arguments, but they never changed anything. So, in the end, the change simply happened. And I suppose we have to make the best of it.”
“All my life I’ve loved music. I used to like to sit at roost and hear the people singing in the evenings. Entertainers would come to the village and I’d dream of all the places they’d been to that they were carrying in their music. I’m really not suited to be the mother of all hen-kind, you know. I’m dreamy and impractical, I was always quite low down the pecking order…”
“You’ll be fine,” said the cat.
“I wonder what we’ll find to eat, when we get off the boat? I just used to follow the flock, before. I guess there’ll be loads of, what do you call it, alluvial mud, and that makes things grow, doesn’t it? And bugs coming up, like after the rains? Well, it is after the rains.”
“I’m planning to stick close to the humans. There’s always something to scavenge where the humans are.”
“Yes, all the mice and little birds and things will stay around the humans. Have you ever had a bird as big as me?”
“To be honest I was more of a mouse man. And just stealing things and getting treats from the women.”
“Don’t you want me?”
“You’re a very fine hen.”
There was a silence and then the hen began to speak once more.
“It’s going to be hard, starting again. I’m frightened but I’ll simply have to try, because there isn’t any other way. There won’t be much time to think, I suppose – the humans will be building and sowing and chopping and making, and I’ll be fussing over my chicks and learning to forage for whatever there is to eat, wherever we end up living. But I want you to promise that one day you’ll come to me, when the sun is setting, and you’ll sing me the songs of Ishtar. I’ll dance for you, and then I’ll lie down, I won’t struggle at all, and you’ll eat me all up.”
“I promise. I’ll savour every bit.”
“I’m glad we’ve had this time together.”
Noah’s family had finished their chores and the sons sat down to rest on the deck while the women went below to cook the evening meal. Noah had gone into his cabin. Now he came out with a dove on his hand. He whispered in its ear. Then he raised his hand and sent it forth, and it went out to search the face of the waters, looking for the first rebirth of land.