Daughter of the moon, that’s what my name means. I knew that long before the Sensei told me. Selene is the moon goddess of ancient mythology. –ina is ‘little one’ in Italian, the -a makes it feminine, a daughter, -o would be masculine, a son.
Only in moonlight can the enchanted swans of Swan Lake resume their true forms. That’s how my father first saw my mother: on stage as one of the swan maidens bathed in moonlight. He was as thunderstruck, he said, as Prince Siegfried confronted by Odette. He got tickets for the next performance, and the next, and the next. It was seven nights total before he arranged to meet her, through one of the ushers, I think. When he did, she recognized him at once: “The gentleman from the third box that is so fond of the ballet?” This with a sly smile that let him know she understood: it was really her he came back to see.
Hm… I’ve never let Bruce know. I can sense him that way when he’s watching me, but I’ve never let him know.
But of course with Bruce it’s an entirely different thing.
Or actually, with Batman it was an entirely different thing, but with Bruce it’s becoming more and more…
No, it’s different.
Swan Lake was my mother’s favorite ballet. Like all classical dancers she dreamed of playing the swan. The swan is, in fact, two different roles: Odette & Odile, the white swan and the black, the romantic heroine and the daughter of the evil sorcerer. They are danced, always, by the same performer, for they are identical in appearance. Odile is sent to impersonate Odette, and she fools the Prince with her deception. A metaphor perhaps; everyone has a dark side.
I haven’t gone back into the closet since it made me sick. I’m sure Alfred thinks it’s odd, the little stacks of things I’ve left around the room. Those rooms aren’t technically his concern; the suite is my territory, absolutely and completely. That was established before I would move in. But he walks through each day to bring my water to the exercise room. He knows I was cleaning out the closet, and now he must wonder why all progress seems to have suddenly stopped.
Alfred’s disapproval is hard to ignore. I don’t think I ever appreciated how stanch, resolute, indomitable, and mule-headed stubborn Batman really is until I met Alfred and glimpsed what he had to endure just to become Batman in the first place. In the beginning, Alfred did not approve of this life. He still doesn’t approve, in fact, of most of it: the danger, of course, and the indignities of the Fop. He makes no secret of it: he does not approve. And somehow, Bruce can let that all slide off.
I confess I don’t find it so easy. Alfred reminds me of Sensei.
I met Shirumare Sensei the night I left Paris. It was raining and taxis were scarce, but I simply had to get to the train station before I changed my mind. I’d already lost two taxis and resorted to an especially Parisian trick: closing my umbrella and letting the rain soak my blouse and skirt. Colette, hunkered inside my tote bag, yeowled her displeasure, but the silhouette produced by ruined silk plastered tight against my body conjured a taxi from thin air. But in the time it took to lift my suitcase, a determined Asian man of about fifty had his hand on the car door. I tried to block him with an eyeful of cleavage but he said:
“No trouble, we can share. I too am leaving town. And I would not leave you standing in weather like this; I know cats don’t like wet.”
I agreed, not really having much choice.
“How did you know I’m leaving town?” I asked once the cab was moving.
“Your suitcase,” he noted.
I felt stupid, but I figured that at least covered the obligatory smalltalk. I planned to say no more until we reached our destination, but Colette had other ideas. She peeked her head out the top of the tote, an utterly pissed off ball of very wet feline, and again she let the world know exactly how little she enjoyed soaked fur.
My companion was astonished.
“And who is this little creature?” he asked.
“This is Colette, the cat you saved from the rain.”
He laughed. “No, I meant you. I didn’t know the cat-woman in the rain had a cat-cat of her own.”
I stared stupidly but Colette decided to make friends. She crawled out of the tote and into his lap. He began petting her.
“W-what do you mean?” I stammered finally.
“You move like cat,” he said, “chasing the first two cabs. I saw at once, that woman is cat. But you have had a very bad sensei.”
Colette looked up at him angrily—not because she cared if he called Sean a bad sensei, but in doing so he had raised a finger, wagging it at me. Colette continued to stare until he returned the wagging finger to her chin.
“Your sensei taught you like wolf and bear. What is a cat doing trying to be a wolf?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but Colette seemed to be transported. She leaned into him, purring a purr so loud it could be heard over the raindrops hitting the car roof.
“All martial arts are based on the movement of animals,” he said patiently. “You are like this one, you are a cat. You are stealth, speed, climbing, poise, balance, and grace. You are coy, and sass, and wit also, but those will come later. You are cat. Yours must be the moves of a cat. Not bear, and not wolf. You will only take root and thrive when you are allowed to be what you are. It’s okay, all you do wrong can be unlearned. Will take six months to fix. We go to Fiesole. No interruptions.”
“Thank you, no,” I said firmly, “Cats don’t go off with strange men they meet in taxicabs, particularly not to ‘get fixed.’”
The taxi pulled into the train station and we said our goodbyes. I never realized until now what had happened. It was the first time I had called myself a cat.
“Shall I bring your tea in here, Miss?” Alfred asks from the doorway.
“No thank you, Alfred. I don’t want anything.”
Total waste of breath, and I know it. Like asking Batman to look the other way, just this once, about some trinkets from Tiffany’s. It’s coming up the stairs now, inevitable as a batarang: a little tray with a tiny one-serving pot, sugar bowl, milk pitcher, and plate of biscuits on a linen doily. In a minute, he’s going to lay it on the desk, exactly as if I’d asked him to bring it instead of specifically saying the exact opposite.
Like all those sandwiches going down to the cave… Why? It’s more than just ritual…
Rome was a lot like Gotham. It is a bustling modern city, despite the ruins of 2,000 years past that stand between a modern pizzeria and a luxury hotel. It’s a city that has been the absolute center of its world. And the Romans are very much like Gothamites, a bit brusquer than others, zigzagging through traffic on their scooters or bustling through a throng of tourists. They are worldlier too, never letting that bustle intrude on the important pleasures of life such as iced coffee and people-watching on a summer afternoon at the Café Dolce Vita. And through it all, they project this aura of being an absolute extension of their city.
I did NOT go to Italy because of that conversation with Sensei. I went because I needed to get out of Paris. François was gearing up to propose, I could tell. I tried to wave him off, but he wouldn’t take the hint. Men can be terribly, terribly dense about hints. I was sure Sean wouldn’t mind my leaving; he had to know it was coming. If I wasn’t the first to go, it would have been someone else. The team was destined to break up; we were too young. We had to find out what we could do on our own. If it wasn’t me, it would have been one of the others. And if I stayed until he proposed, I would have had to say no.
When I reached the train station, I had no destination in mind, anywhere would do, and I picked Rome. I was an art thief after all, and wasn’t Italy just as important to the art world as France?
I’d forgotten about the cats. My parents brought me to Italy when I was nine; we traveled all over. I was too young to understand much, consciously, but it all made an impression. Still, I’d forgotten about those cats. There are hundreds of feral cats in Rome. They prowl the Coliseum especially, but they’re in the piazzas too, and the cafes. Everywhere I went, it seemed, there was a four-footed furry reminder of that brief conversation with a stranger in a Paris taxi…
“You are cat… You will only thrive when you are allowed to be what you are.”
I went to Florence. The city is a living work of art. It is more than that; it somehow generates art… Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Donatello… the list goes on and on and on. It spews forth genius… Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi… It’s a half-day’s walk to Fiesole from Florence. There was no reason to walk, I could have hired a taxi or rented a car. But I decided to walk. Uphill. Damn hot. But I decided to walk. I’ll never know why. Up a steep winding path… past some luxurious villas I planned to visit after hours before leaving the vicinity. I was beyond exhausted after the climb, but god almighty it was beautiful.
I never learned Sensei’s name in the taxi, and Fiesole is more than a tiny village. But like any Italian city, it has one supremely important square that outranks all the others: Piazza Mino. Once the Forum when this was a Roman City, the piazza still housed the town hall, the cathedral—and most importantly, the city’s main café. The proprietor of the main café in the main piazza of an Italian city can tell you anything if he is inclined—and if you are una bella regazza he will be so inclined.
My Asian friend was Japanese, I learned. His name was Shirumare. And he lived in a little casa in Via Marri past the ruins of the old Etruscan settlement. He had left instructions at the café: When una donna della via la gatta, “a woman with the way of a cat,” came asking for him, the proprietor should tell me all of this, he said. But when it came to giving directions, Shirumare was very specific: the proprietor was to make sure he sent me by way of Via Verdi.
I didn’t ask why. By this time, I was getting used to the idea that I would seldom understand the whys with Mr. Shirumare.
In the case of Via Verdi, however, I learned the answer to my unspoken question immediately, before I’d even reached Shirumare’s house. Via Verdi had a panoramic view of Florence that was nothing short of magnificent. And it was peppered with houses—villas rather—mansions. Million dollar views are only enjoyed by million dollar houses, and million dollar houses are owned by people with millions of dollars. Million dollar houses contain million dollar prizes.
In these houses, I knew before I even knocked on Shirumare’s door, is where I would learn what it was to be a cat.
A cup of tea sits at my elbow. I pick it up and sip, then nibble a slice of pound cake. It’s Bruce’s fault that he’s this way. An ordinary butler, I’m quite sure, does not go pressing food and drink on his charges if they’ve refused it… I give Nutmeg a bite of cake… Nothing about Alfred is ordinary.
I may have overstated it when I said Alfred “disapproves” of Batman. It’s more like, well, he cares about Bruce. He’s been a teacher and a mentor and a doctor and a friend. And he’s done all of that, not because it’s his job, but because he loves Bruce. To him, the most important thing in the world is that Bruce is safe, that Bruce is happy and that Bruce is at peace. And that’s what drives him against Bruce being Batman. It’s not really a question of approval or disapproval, it’s the fact that Batman’s quest most certainly works against those other priorities. So Alfred needles him. He must know it’s pointless, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.
He must know most of the sandwiches will remain untouched. He must know most of the soup will grow cold. He must know Bruce will continue to return home close to dawn then drag himself to an early meeting at WE “just to keep up appearances.”
Alfred knows all that, and still the sandwiches come, the bowls of soup appear on the workbench, and the suit gets laid out on the bed every morning. Why? Well presumably because Alfred feels his responsibility is to help Bruce be as comfortable as possible, to help Bruce be happy. And if Alfred cannot convince him to give up his quest, then at least he can make things that much easier on him.
And okay, food being food, habit being habit, and stubborn men set in their ways being stubborn men set in their ways, I can kind of see that, living here now, I’m part of the program: If I’m anywhere in the house, under the house, or on the grounds at 5 o’clock, then Alfred is going to come find me and set a pot of tea at my elbow. It’s unfortunate that that sort of lumps me in with Mr. Grunt & Brood, but I can’t quite work up a lot of indignation about it. Cats have their pride of course, but cats are also rational. It’s a cup of tea. Cats are practical. It’s a cup of tea and plate of cake. And above all, cats know to purr and not hiss when someone takes the time to stroke their fur.
So the tea I can accept for what it is: an incidental byproduct of Alfred & Bruce’s cold war.
But that doesn’t explain those boxes.
The day began with meditation. I would meet Sensei at dawn at the ruins of the old Roman amphitheatre, the edge of the pine forest, or on special occasions, a small plateau with a breathtaking view of Florence. We would meditate for perhaps ten minutes, then run through a series of stretches and Yoga postures. Another few minutes meditation, and then Sensei would reach for a thermos and pour two small cups of Hoji-cha, his special roasted green tea.
I would then spend an hour watching Colette sleep, play, or hunt and share my observations of her with Sensei.
Then we would return to Sensei’s home and work out for the remainder of the morning. It was physically grueling, more taxing than any workouts with Sean or François, and at first I had difficulty getting through the lessons without breaks.
Sensei was very firm: “You cannot thrive until you will be what you are. You will find strength and stamina when you release the cat within you. Chinese legend says the cat is product of a lioness and a monkey. From the lioness, the cat gets beauty and dignity. From the monkey, cat gets curiosity and playfulness. You already have beauty and dignity. You must still find the playfulness.”
I couldn’t imagine how playfulness figured in to my being thrown and tossed onto the mat time after time. Sensei said I would learn to “feel the technique.” I wanted to tell him eating risotto wouldn’t make me a better cook, but one doesn’t say such things to one’s Sensei.
The afternoons and evenings were mine. I was to go into Florence and absorb.
“Absorb what, Sensei?” I asked once.
“Its life,” he answered, then he made a face like that wasn’t quite right. He looked around as if searching for a word, and made a gesture to the air, as if it was an indefinable something he meant.
“Its spirit,” I suggested, “or attitude.” He shook his head no. “Its Je ne se quoi,” I prompted.
“No, decidedly not that. Do not say it in French.” He looked very stern. I didn’t understand, but I went into town each day. I would visit the markets, or sit in the piazzas, or in the cafes. I visited the shops that make beautiful marbled paper and the leatherworking school. And of course I would wander the city’s marvelous museums, gardens, and churches.
Slowly, over the course of a month, I began to understand—not what the mysterious it was, but why Sensei didn’t want me to say it in French. The art of this city was as magnificent as that in Paris, the food was as good if not better, but somehow there was a joy in it here that Paris lacked. The Italians made it all look easy; there was a relaxed casualness.
I remembered shopping in Milan. It is every bit as important a fashion capital as Paris, but it isn’t all taken so damn seriously. In Paris, choosing a dress is a monumental decision. In Milan, it’s a kick.
Look at them. Boxes. 4 of them. They appeared here while I was downstairs having breakfast. I came back to the suite and there was Whiskers hopping in and out of one. They’re the perfect size for the stacks that remain around the room when I get back to the closet cleanup.
Not exactly subtle.
It’s so not subtle I’d be tempted to suspect Bruce rather than Alfred, but Bruce was with me in the dining room the whole time.
It’s definitely Alfred. It’s definitely not subtle. It’s definitely a nudge to finish with the closet.
I’ve scratched men’s eyes out for less. I would scratch at anyone that dared presume tell me what to do that way.
It’s just that… it doesn’t seem like presumption somehow coming from Alfred. It seems like… Bruce’s sandwiches.
It seems like Sensei’s eccentric directions.
“Today you go to Piazzale Michelangelo, wonderful view of the city, good restaurant. But is very important you go by way of Vialle Machiavelli, the main road from Porta Romana.”
“Yes, Sensei.” I didn’t ask why. There was never a why, and there was always a why. Vialle Machiavelli turned out to be just like Via Verdi, it brought me past one of the most fabulously wealthy houses in Tuscany, Villa Cora.
What’s odd is: looking back, I don’t think Sensei approved of stealing. He never said anything; there was never the slightest hint of judgment or censure. He knew how I was going to use what he taught me. He would stress the stealth and predatory skills while I studied Colette. And he sent me past these fabulous mansions full of prizes. And yet, somehow, there was…
Well, he always said I had to be what I was in order to thrive. If he knew I was a thief, then obviously that meant…
I’m more than that, aren’t I?
It took me a while to get there, but I finally nailed down that there’s more to me than stealing.
I guess maybe it was something I had to get through in order to…
Fuck, what’s the point of all this?
Those boxes are sitting there. I guess maybe…
The only way to get through it is to get through it.
Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s eerie. I really don’t know how Sensei felt about stealing. But I am forced to realize that, whether he approved or not, I really don’t know why he helped me the way he did. I suppose the closest he ever came to explaining was in Venice. Carnival. My first mask.
I’m back in the closet, and my hand is trembling. I’ve woven priceless gems through a cat’s cradle of hairline sensor beams without so much as a quiver, but the object I hold now makes my fingers vibrate. It’s my first mask: a cat, of course, papier-mâché, painted with gold leaf and silver, red enamel, highlighted here and there with an orangish-gold glitter. It only covers half the face, no whiskers, but the shape of the eye holes, and the outline of cat ears rising above the brows, there is no question what it’s meant to represent: Meow.
“You must wear mask for Carnival,” Sensei said. “Mask is not for hiding, it is for freeing what is inside. When it is not your face but this screen that the world sees, the essence of you will come forth.”
I thought he was drunk. And when the guy you’ve gone to Venetian Carnival with is drunk, he ceases to be your Sensei and becomes a friend at Harry’s Bar who is hogging the pinot noir.
“I’ll have another Bellini,” I told him, rolling my eyes, “because I’ve clearly fallen behind.”
He shook his head. “Such an American you are sometimes. The mask is like the drink, but it is different. You will see; you will lose your inhibitions, but not judgment and instinct and reflex. Waiter!” he called out, “this woman gets no more to drink unless she puts on mask, you understand?”
“Si signore, no bellini per la donna senza mascherina,” the waiter agreed. It might seem strange. In Gotham it would be—even in Italy at another time of year it might be. But during Carnival in Venice, it was accepted as a perfectly natural request. No drinks for the woman without a mask.
I did put it on. Why not, it wasn’t kowtowing; it was playing along. Humoring my drunken Sensei. I felt silly for the first few minutes and then… Free. Empowered. And just a bit aroused by it all.
I walked Sensei back to his pensione (he was a bit tipsy after all), and then I strolled through the city, my true face concealed—and revealed—by the mask.
The next day, while we did some sightseeing, Sensei said “You know Karma?”
“Karma means destiny, doesn’t it?”
“Y-yes, in a way. Karma is your path. The Universe knows what it is doing. It has plan for you. It has your path—just for you. You follow path, you will thrive; you stray from path, you get lost. True self knows the path. Understand?”
“Yes, Sensei.” I lied. He knew. He went on.
“The mask is a way to release your true self. You already knew your self was cat, but no matter. These others, maybe they not know, but they can find out their selves the same way. Once a year, to have such a party, to wear the masks, it is good. It is important, to be that true self always. Follow your strengths, do what you enjoy, do what you are good at, do what pleases you. Be with those that please you. The rest will take of itself. Understand?”
“No, you don’t.”
I was starting to get annoyed. We took a motor launch out to Murano and saw the glass blowers. I bought a sculpture of a cat and a crystal box. Then Sensei tried again.
“…do what you are good at. Be with those you enjoy. The rest will take of itself. Understand?” “Yes, Sensei.” “No, you don’t.”
We went to a second island, Burano, where they make lace and linen. I bought a tablecloth.
“…Understand?” “Yes, Sensei.” “No, you don’t.”
We had a late lunch at Torcello. “…Understand?” “Yes, Sensei.” “No, you don’t.”
That night, there was a masked ball at Palazzo Pisani-Moretta overlooking the Grande Canal.
My fighting skills improved, and Sensei said I need only come to him three mornings a week. I spent more time in Florence. Like Paris, it’s a city of museums, about sixty. I began visiting them after dark instead of during the day. I learned to defeat the security at each one and to navigate their darkened galleries as naturally as lovers strolled the Ponte Vecchio.
I strolled the Ponte Vecchio too, but not hand in hand with a dashing young ragazzo. I strolled for the jewelers, the dozens of gold-dealers in their quaint stalls. I learned to read the manner of jewelry store clerks, the way they handled better pieces, the way they sized up customers. And I learned how to glean from the daytime operations where the top quality merchandise was kept after dark.
When I was ready, I visited Villa Cora—on the Vialle Machiavelli, the main road from Porta Romana—the villa I couldn’t help but see when Sensei sent me to Piazzale Michelangelo…
In 1865, Florence became the capital of Italy and Baron Gustav Oppenheimer got married. The Baron decided to build a palace worthy of his bride’s beauty. The lavish parties became the talk of Florence, and the social whirl became so giddy that Oppenheimer began to doubt his wife’s fidelity. He filled the palace with explosives and was about to blow it up when the police talked him out of it. Oppenheimer left Florence and the Villa went to Empress Eugenia of France. There were more parties that thrilled Florentine society, but ultimately private wealth could no longer maintain the opulent and extravagant artworks Baron Oppenheimer had commissioned. The Villa was converted to a hotel, a hotel that augmented the fabulous art collection with an equally fabulous collection of aristocratic and over-jeweled guests.
I came away with four miniatures, an oil painting on wood, a small bronze statue, a ruby necklace, two diamond rings, and a bracelet.
I never said goodbye to Sensei. I knew he would understand. Colette had already become his cat.
I was only on the Italian Riviera for a few weeks. It was long enough to fence what I’d acquired in Florence. I couldn’t get much, being an unknown in the tiny world of the international black market. But the contacts I made more than made up for the lack of substantial income. I would make up the difference on future deals.
And of course I met Fabrizio. It wasn’t love, but it was certainly fun. I learned a thing or two about living on a yacht. I learned the ins and outs of offshore banking and numbered accounts, which has certainly come in handy. And most of all, I learned there are rules. Not their rules, my rules: There are things I won’t do. I could have taken a few things before I left; God knows Fabrizio kept enough useless luxuries on that yacht. But even if it wasn’t love, we were good together for a while, and to turn around and steal from him, no. Nice bad girls do not mix work and play. Absolutely not, I decided right there. Love was love, theft was theft, and never the twain would meet.
To be continued…