“Catskin” by Kelly Link

April 23, 2010 at 1:38 am | Posted in Short Stories | 4 Comments

This is another post in my very slow series of individual takes on stories from Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. As usual, there will be a lot of spoilers as I discuss the story, and not a lot of actual reviewing…all the stories in this collection are good.

Of all the stories in Magic For Beginners, “Catskin” is the closest to a traditional fairy tale. “The Cannon” has elements of folklore as well, but it is grounded in something like the modern world and told from a narrative distance. “Catskin”, on the other hand, while including some references to modern life with brief mentions of school buses and department stores, spends most of its time on orphans, witches, and princesses. To put it another way, while most of Kelly Link’s stories are modern stories encroached upon by the fantastic, this feels more like a fantastic story being encroached upon by the modern world. The story’s schizoid setting and narrative flourishes, talking of ants making nests in the reader’s yard and cats walking into other stories, make it feel like a traditional fairy tale being recited from memory by a parent who is making up details around the edges as they go along.

This is still Kelly Link, though, so while the story feels like a fairy tale, the content is something else entirely. There’s very little magic, and what there is takes place almost entirely off screen. In fact, beyond the setting itself, the story is concerned with a single fantastic element: everyone in the story has an unnatural fluidity of identity. Early in the story, the witch’s son Jack is said to be not a normal child, but one grown from “a little bundle of feathers and twigs and eggshell all tied up with a tatty piece of string”. At first, this appears to be just more narrative window dressing, but many more transformations soon appear: the central image of Small (and others) wearing cat skins and somehow becoming cats, the witch’s cats being forged by the house fire into gold coins, and the way the Witch’s Revenge turns out to be a cat skin wrapped around ants.

It’s easy to get caught up in the details of all this: the way Small and the Witch’s Revenge actually feed themselves for a time by licking fat off the cat-coins, the way both witches in the story emit ants when killed, or Jack and Flora’s suspiciously romantic sibling relationship (can a bundle of twigs commit incest?). But I think that would be missing the point. This is in the fairy tale mode, and the details around the story appear to be there for color rather than to present a coherent system. Perhaps someone can figure out a metaphorical explanation for the way Small’s mother gives birth to her house but Lack must construct his from his own excrement, but I’m willing to call it equal parts humorous and disturbing and leave it at that.

Through all the trappings, this is really a story about Small, a young boy whose mother has died. Right from the start, the story warns the reader there will be no happy ending, and sure enough, Small never really recovers from this loss. In a real fairy tale, a child would be sad at first, but swept away by the excitement of the adventure. The ability to become a cat, in particular, ought to be wonderful, even exhilarating. Small doesn’t seem too impressed. He obediently follows the Witch’s Revenge’s orders, but there is never a sense that this is what he wants to be doing.

In fact, the story provides several direct glimpses at what he actually wants. Upon reaching the briar patch near Lack’s mansion, Small imagines living a quiet life there with the Witch’s Revenge, but she has other ideas. When he meets Jack and Flora again, he is delighted by the reunion and hopes they’ll stay with him in the house, but they don’t want to stay. Finally, at the end of the story, he wants to see his mother again.

What Small really wants is for things to go back to the way they were before his mother died, but her magic cannot achieve this. Wearing the cat suit is a distraction, a way to temporarily submerge into the carefree identity of a cat, but this is only skin-deep. Living in the village, the Witch’s Revenge tells him not to wear the skin, because he is supposed to be growing up into a man, not giving up his humanity in favor of an animal existence. In any case, despite the magic that makes this transformation possible, he is still a boy, not a cat, and as a boy he misses his mother. That these transformations are superficial is underlined again and again in the story. When Small catches the cats in Lack’s mansion, it’s because he “had worn his cat suit longer” and thus was more agile than they were, for example. The darkly humorous discussion of what the Witch’s Revenge did with the bag of cats relies on the fact that these are really children, not cats, as does the joke the Witch’s Revenge makes later about saving the cat suits Jack and Flora’s spouses came in.

The tragedy of Small’s life is that his grief prevents him from adjusting to the life his mother has arranged for him to grow into. He doesn’t have friends, and while the story makes a joke about him being big enough not to need them, that’s not much consolation. The cat who in a fairy tale would have turned into a princess for him to marry was lost, though of course Small is too young to be disappointed, he wants a mother, not a wife. The fact that his mother is still with him, sort of, just makes this worse. The final scene hammers home the point that for all the magic of these transformations, they do not change what lies at the core of people. The Witch’s Revenge talks and thinks like Small’s mother, but she’s really a colony of ants in a cat suit, not his mother, and there’s nothing she can do to change that no matter how much Small pleads with her. Unlike in fairy tales, the realities of life cannot be escaped.


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