Stephen Spotte’s imaginative novel, A Conversation with a Cat recounts the tales of a scroungy former alley cat named Jinx, whose memories aren’t just his own but those of other cats who existed before him, one of which was Annipe, Cleopatra’s pampered pet. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the novel:
Maybe because the palace was besieged and there wasn’t much else to do we noticed Mistress and General C knocking sandals atop the royal mattress more than usual. The three of us were usually in the room too, making it hard not to notice. Many times they were too quick to even turn down the pearl-encrusted bedspread threaded with gold and silver, an accessory putatively valued at one million sesterces by the Royal Keeper of Inventories.
Ordinarily they acted civilized and did it missionary-style on the silk sheets, but if in a hurry the general simply bent Mistress over the mattress, hiked up her tunic, and took her from behind like a tomcat. A few grunts and spasms, some grimacing and softly spoken niceties, and it was finished. Afterward they rolled over and rested a few moments before dressing, leaving the boudoir, and getting back to their jobs of ruling Egypt and Rome. The Mediterranean world was in chaos, Rome having just survived a civil war while Egypt, as a Roman protectorate, stood by nervously awaiting its fate now that General C had emerged the winner. In truth most of Rome was pissed at him for hanging out here in Alexandria toting up sack time with Mistress instead of taking care of business back home in the Senate.
Both Mistress and the general were workaholic multi-taskers by anyone’s definition. At any hour either might be dictating memorandums to an amanuensis about grain shipments, inventories, taxation, or deployment of ships and troops throughout the known world while simultaneously watching a play in one of the palace’s theaters or listening to an orchestra of royal lutists and harpists. Later there might be dignitaries to entertain, courtiers to humor, intrigues to assess, disputes to mediate, a beheading, strangling, or cryptic poisoning to arrange. The palace staff’s only purpose was to serve them, and because they slept rarely so did everyone else. Any assistant, servant, slave, or military adjutant, regardless of status or rank, might be summoned at any moment of the day or night.
Mistress—Queen Cleopatra to you—had at this turbulent time developed a keen interest in poisons, hoping to discover one that worked quickly and painlessly in case she might need it to kill herself someday. Her newly acquired hobby involved experimenting on prisoners housed in the palace dungeon who were destined for execution anyway. Each week couriers arrived from the far corners of the Orient bearing new toxic formularies and live specimens of rare poisonous plants and venomous animals. She tested them all, observing their effects dispassionately while making note of convulsions and bouts of vomiting, assessing intervals between screams, and recording time to fatality. The subjects were doomed no matter the outcome: those who survived were humanely strangled by the guards.
At the moment Mistress and General C were focused on fending off the outraged populace of Alexandria, which had joined forces with a segment of the Roman army hoping to depose Mistress in favor of Ptolemy XIII, her younger brother, legal husband, and co-regent. Considering the circumstances, aside from regularly patrolling the palace defenses and checking off the items mentioned above, what was left except fucking? Following these frequent noonies royal seamstresses giggling silently behind their hands crept in from the hall to wipe away stains left on the bedspread and make any necessary repairs.
Who is speaking? I am. My name is Annipe, which means daughter of the Nile, and I’m a cat; rather, I was one in life. I’ve since been reduced to molecules and elements and diluted to near infinity in the Mediterranean Sea, although atoms of me have subsequently fallen in tears and rain, been flushed into sewers, and even decanted as wine into goblets. I’m everywhere although all that persists from the corporeal me is this tale, which occupies space only in your mind.