Schrödinger’s Fever

After his illness, all of his toys were burnt, even the Velveteen Kitten.

"But why…?" wept little Schrödinger, when they told him. When he was well enough to wonder. "But...why?"

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But before, in fact--and here is the part that not everyone knew--before the toys were burnt, a fairy had descended, and opened the toy box.

From that box, the Fairy singled out the Velveteen Kitten. For Schrödinger had loved it best.

"You are real," said the Fairy to the Kitten, pressing the glittering tip of her wand against the Kitten’s soft brow.

"Love has made you real."

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But--and here is the part that not everyone understands: Fairy magic is leaky.

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Here is what also happened:

The Fairy was late. Just a little late. And when she opened the toy box, wand glittering, it was already empty.

"O," whispered the Fairy. And when she turned, she sensed it, in fact, the smoke, drifting up, from a pyre, at the far end of the garden. And, amid the plumes, something else--

The scent of burning velveteen.

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And capricious.

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Here is what also happened:

One night, deep into the fever, while the boy clutched the Kitten--the velveteen worn, in patches, to colorlessness, from where he had so loved it.

He burned with the illness.

He burned and burned and burned. Until...

"The fever is gone!" announced the nurse, a bit before dawn. "The fever has fled."

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And sometimes cruel.

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At the cue of this cry, Schrödinger’s parents rushed into the nursery, disheveled in their nightwear.

And they discovered, in fact, that the fever had broken. And their son’s forehead was quite cool.

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It had, yes. And it was.

Because the little boy was dead.

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Later that winter, when Schrödinger’s parents came to the Friedhof, bearing flowers, they found, not a grave, but a ragged hole, where something had been dug out.

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Or had dug itself out.

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And weirder--far weirder than anyone understands.

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"What would anyone want with a body?" demanded his mother. "A little boy’s body?"

The Friedhof’s director gave her a look of studied blankness, and a layer, beneath that, of infinite sadness.

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What indeed?

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Fairies, least of all.

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Here is what also happened:

It was a mild fever. Nothing to remember, or to remark upon.

Or to burn anything over.

"I feel fine," Schrödinger told his parents in the morning. Then, quickly, impatiently, he pushed away the breakfast things, and ran into the garden, the Kitten tucked beneath his arm, in order to play.

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"Don’t you see, Georgine?" said his father, pointing excitedly--urgently--to the open grave.

"Our son must be out there, somewhere. He must be alive."

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Did he come to them, their dead little boy? Did he want to?

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A child’s dirty handprints, pressed against the glass.

Sized, just so.

Dirty footsteps in their parlor.

Sized, just so.

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"See, Georgine?" said his father. "See?"

"No, Rudolf," said his mother tiredly. "I don’t."

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Here is what also happened:

The Fairy came in time.

But, in fact, Schrödinger’s love for the Velveteen Kitten had not been a love to end all loves. But rather: a general love, of the sort that a reasonable boy might muster.

"Enough to make you real," said the Fairy. "But not enough to make you alive."

So, when the Fairy’s wand descended, the Kitten didn’t feel much of anything.

"I am sorry," she said, giving the inert animal a regretful caress.

Very real, now.

But also: just dead.

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His parents reached a settlement with the Friedhof. But it was not the same. Because their grief, forever after, would be tainted with anger.

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Flowers left at an empty grave.

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"What is this dead cat doing here?" asked the gardener, when he came to deal with the pile.

"Don’t know," shrugged the cook. "But you’d best burn it with the rest."

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And it was no way to grieve, this not knowing.

No way to live.

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Where was he?

Where was their child?

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For years, afterwards, when Schrödinger would wander through his Vienna neighborhood, he would pay special attention to the cats.

Unsettling cats.

Cats that reminded him, acutely and heartbreakingly, of what he had lost.

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"There is a logic to love," said his father. "And a power."

"I feel that, because I loved him so, he should be alive. He should be.

Because I loved him so!

Loved him so!

Loved him so!"

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"I know," said Schrödinger’s mother, swallowing hard, and regarding her husband with bloodshot eyes. "But that is not something that love can do."

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"That is not a power that love has," the priest said carefully.

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"Love?" asked the Fairy.

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"Love!" laughed the Fairy.

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"What are you willing to pay?" asked the Fairy, and she tapped her glittering wand against her open palm, like a club.

Thump, sparkle, thump.

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In one of Vienna’s alleyways, the boy discovered a particularly strange cat. So he brought it to the local animal doctor--the Tierarzt.

After a prolonged examination, the Tierarzt lowered his stethoscope.

"I cannot," said the Tierarzt, hoarsely, for, after 40 years of veterinary practice, he found this to be a deeply uncomfortable admission.

"I cannot determine--"

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Velveteen Kittens live forever. But not so little boys.

Because Schrödinger grew up.

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"--whether this cat is even alive..."

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"Or--" and here the Tierarzt trailed off. And it seemed, at first, as if he might leave the second possibility unspoken.

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Because Schrödinger died, in 1961. Venerable, and reasonably aged.

He died.

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In his nursery, of fever, in 1893.

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Before finally stipulating: "--dead."

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And they looked together, Schrödinger and the Tierarzt, at that inexplicably uncategorizable creature--that blurry patchwork of flesh and velveteen, which lay on the examination table.

Not moving. Not meowing.

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But also: moving. And also: meowing.

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"But--" said Schrödinger, pressing the issue. For, though an exceptionally bright child, he had not yet come to appreciate that not every mind burned quite as bright as his.

"Don’t you want to find out?"

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After the fever, Schrödinger seemed to recover. But only he knew, deep inside, that something was wrong.

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"No," said the Tierarzt.

In his eyes, meeting Schrödinger’s, there was an almost violent lack of curiosity--a sort of caustic intellectual deadness.

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Schrödinger’s heart beat, yes. Usually.

But, sometimes, for minutes, he would forget to breathe.

For hours.

For days.

But it never seemed to matter.

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"I have absolutely no wish to know!"

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In later years, once Schrödinger had built a career, he often found himself wanting to confide in someone.

To share what it felt like, not to be sure if you are dead.

But he could not think of anyone suitable.

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Einstein, though?

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His parents retained the Velveteen Kitten in the old toy box, which they continued to store beside their dead son’s bed.

And they came, unduly and unhealthily, to emotionally rely upon it.

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Maybe Einstein.

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Black button eyes, which seemed to understand. Which reflected, dully and patiently, their own grief.

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And...letters? Letters are wonderfully transformative intermediates.

And what Schrödinger intended, with his half-dead heart: Thump-silence…Thump-silence…what Schrödinger wrote, laboriously, with his half-dead hands, came off, in print, as flippant and clever.

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And a soft, malleable form, which if cuddled long enough, or sleepily enough, or with half one’s attention, might seem to approximate the shape of a child.

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Cat in a toy box, real or not real.

Boy-man, in a big world. Alive or dead.

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Velveteen, which smelled like him.

Velveteen, inexplicably warm.

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"I’m thinking of a cat," wrote Schrödinger, cagily.

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"I’m thinking of a cat," wrote Schrödinger, boxily.

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Testing the waters.

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"Please take your animal," said the Tierarzt beseechingly. "Please."

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"Ah," said Einstein.

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"Hmm..." said Einstein.

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But Einstein did not really understand.

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Sometimes, children do not believe in fairies.

Particularly if they are very bright.

"You are not real," said Schrödinger to the Fairy, while extending his finger.

There is a terrible power to that--the disbelief of an earnest, clear-sighted child. And, as that anti-magic--that nothingness--emerged from the tip of Schrödinger’s finger, the Fairy clutched her heart.

"Don’t, Schrödinger!" she screamed. "Don’t--"

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"One can even set up quite ridiculous cases…" Schrödinger wrote.

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At Schrödinger’s curse, the Fairy softened. And miniaturized. And fell.

Wand, becoming dull. Her smile, reduced to stitches of thread.

Then, with a thump of fabric, she landed in his toy box.

Just a doll.

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"Ridiculous," Schrödinger said, sealing the letter up. He moistened the envelope flap with his sore-speckled tongue--"ulcerated" according to the official diagnosis, but which Schrödinger was pretty sure was rotting.

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Though, boys, of course, do not play with dolls--not female dolls. How his friends would have mocked him!

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"Perfectly ridiculous!" he said as he addressed the letter: Albert Einstein.

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So Schrödinger kept her hidden, instead, at the bottom of his toy box, smashed and tucked away, amid the other unwanted objects: chipped marbles and deflated kickballs and toy soldiers without heads.

Alone, there--essentially alone--to gather dust.

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As Schrödinger carried the letter to the post, he wept--or tried to weep--through rheumy eyes, using half-withered tear ducts, to which his baffled physicians had assigned some secondary diagnosis.

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"You are not real, Schrödinger!" shouted the Fairy, tit for tat.

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Something mumbly and long-winded and perfectly useless.

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"Am I not real?" asked the Fairy.

For years, afterwards, the Fairy’s voice would drift up, from the underside of his pillow, directly into Schrödinger’s ear, whenever he tried to sleep. The same thing, over and over:

"Am I not real?" she mocked.

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He wept, dryly, in self ridicule.

At his own ridiculous case.

Ridiculous.

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Heated by the Fairy’s voice, Schrödinger’s pillow became hot, increasingly hot.

Hotter every year.

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"O, Einstein..."

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So, with a shake of a her wand, she turned him into a doll.

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Some mornings, too, his parents would find the Kitten in their bed, curled between them, though neither could remember bringing it there.

As if it had come of its own accord.

Like a real cat, pad, pad, leap.

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As if.

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The walls of Schrödinger’s room, too, increasingly animated by the Fairy’s voice--"Am I not real?"--would also seem to press in.

And the room felt smaller.

And ever smaller.

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For years afterwards, in order to punish him, the Fairy would make the real things in Schrödinger’s life not real.

A goldfish, which he occasionally neglected, which he did not, perhaps, love enough, became increasingly and bizarrely inert, until, one day, it ceased to swim altogether.

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Because fairies are real.

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But it did not float, as a dead fish would. But sank, instead, down and down, as a clot of waterlogged fabric; as a clump--Bleb, Bleb, Bleb--of sodden velveteen, to rest on the bottom of the bowl.

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Very real.

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And there was more, of course. For fairies can be very cruel, when they wish to be. And obsessed with Symmetry.

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A school friend, too--Hans--to whom Schrödinger had not been a sufficiently good friend.

To whom, in fact, he had been cruel.

A boy with a lisp, and a certain manner of walking, whom Schrödinger had humiliated, openly, in front of all the other boys, with the aim of...what?

To feel good? To feel powerful?

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Hans, eyes welling. Hans, betrayed.

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To make them laugh? All of that pain--that terrible pain--to make the other boys laugh?

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Fairy sparkles. Not real, not real.

"Don’t!" Schrödinger screamed. "Don’t--"

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Hans disappeared one afternoon, en route to home. And the only clue they ever found, in a ditch beside the path, was a boy-sized sack of violet fabric, misted with dew.

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"Don’t!"

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It was more than a clue, of course. But who else would believe it?

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In the garden, Schrödinger and his First Mate, Kitten, played pirate.

"Arr-Arr!" cried Captain Schrödinger, while he pressed along, hobbling, with his pretend peg leg--though, in reality, of course, his own leg was perfectly well.

"Arr-Arr!" he squinted, with a patch over one eye--though that eye, too, was perfectly well.

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So Schrödinger blamed and punished and excoriated himself. Because who else would?

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And his wife, once.

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Very, very real.

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His wife.

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Whole days in the garden, just like that: the Captain with his First Mate, navigating the grasses, as if sailing the waves. The slosh, slosh of turbulent seas, as breezes brushed the flowers.

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As if.

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On his--their--honeymoon morning, 7 April 1920, Schrödinger woke to find her beside him.

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Their treasure map always led to the nursery, and to the box by his bed--their chest of buried treasure.

Inside...toys!

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"Anny," Schrödinger whispered, to the woman-sized doll. On her--it: the smell of them together, their recent consummation, just hours old. But mixed, horribly, with the still more overpowering scent of something else.

Velveteen, mostly.

Mostly just velveteen.

"Anny!" he screamed, over and over. "Anny!"

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On rainy days, though, whenever they played indoors, the toy box became their boat.

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"Anny!" he cried, unsure if she was even dead.

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In the 1944, Schrödinger published a book, What Is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell.

The book was for lay readers. For everyone, that is--absolutely everyone.

Secretly, though...Schrödinger compiled the book, not because he was hoping to impart anything to anyone. But, rather, because he hoped that someone would know. That someone, at the impetus of that title, at the suggestion of all of those chapters, would be able to tell him:

What is life?

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"Anny!" he cried.

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What is life? Schrödinger wondered. And, as he wrote that--the title of his book--a few of his fingers snapped off. So he reattached them, absently, using a few lengths of surgical twine, and some woodworking glue.

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Did anyone know? Did anyone know what life was?

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Did fairies know? What life was?

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"Yes," said the Fairy.

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"No," said the Fairy.

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"Dear Einstein..." Schrödinger would begin. And then his hand would fall.

"Kitten," he whispered, entreating the bundle in his lap. "What should I say?"

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The earliest years of the 20th century were difficult for Schrödinger--adolescent Schrödinger.

Dreams, in flesh.

Nightmares, in velveteen.

Wake, shivering.

Wake, with the sheets, twined between his legs.

The texture of Flesheteen. The texture of Velvelesh.

Man, becoming. Boy, leaving behind.

Thoughts. Reveries.

Touch.

Wake, the sheets wet.

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"Anny! Anny! Anny!"

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"Why," observed the Fairy, her beautiful face drawn up into a smirk, "You don’t even have a Nobel Prize yet, do you, Schrödinger?"

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Dreams, in Velvelesh: O, O, O!

Dreams, in Flesheteen: O, O, O!

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"No Prize!" purred the Fairy. "How you can you call yourself a real scientist?"

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And all the adolescent in-betweens--O, O, O!

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"Where is your Nobel Prize, Schrödinger?" mocked the Fairy. "Is it there?" she asked, pointing to his jacket. "Is it there?" she asked, gesturing lower, close to his manhood, though her wand did not quite touch.

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"Anny!"

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After Schrödinger died, he would occasionally claw his way out of the ground, and return to the nursery, in order to pet the Kitten.

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O, O, O!

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After many such visitations, Schrödinger’s parents began to realize: their son would never be at peace, until the Velveteen Kitten were with him.

So they decided…

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"Be dead, little boy," they whispered to him, through the dirt. "Be still."

Then they dropped the Velveteen Kitten into a hastily-dug hole, just above his grave, to help their son sleep.

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"I want to bury the Kitten!" cried the boy, dangling the yowling animal by its scruff. For the experience of fever had made him cruel and cold and ever so slightly homicidal.

How boys can be, sometimes.

But Schrödinger was colder than most.

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"Anny!"

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A small dead boy entered the house in the middle of the night, through a window that his father had left open.

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He came for his Kitten.

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Every year: smaller.

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Schrödinger’s father cradled his weightless child.

He felt a little shiver, of what might have been weeping: the dry, gray vibration that ghosts seem to engage in, when they are very very sad.

In that shiver: a deep tragedy--the deepest of all possible tragedies, of the sort that only the dead can experience. Opportunities, lost--irrevocably. Paths that could never be taken--not now.

"I so wanted to win the Nobel Prize," whispered the translucent boy.

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Hotter, every year.

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Even in the heartbreaking strangeness of this moment--in the parlor, at midnight, cradling his weeping son: his deceased, weeping son--Schrödinger’s father remained a man of a certain exactitude. And factual precision. A living man, grounded in his own time, and in the year 1893--

"What is the 'Nobel Prize'?" he whispered back.

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Every year, the walls of Schrödinger’s bedroom pressed in tighter.

And the room felt smaller.

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I will give my own life," said his father. "Fairy, do you hear me? I will give my own life, if you will only bring back my son."

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The room tighter. The room smaller.

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So his father threw himself into the pyre at the end of the garden, with the Kitten and all the other toys, and all the bedding and fabrics, which were infused with the scarlet fever germs, and the toy box, too, as kindling.

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"Anny! Anny! Anny!"

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Then, alive, again; alive, now, little Schrödinger crawled out of the pyre--a birth, of sorts, out of ash: a gaunt-eyed child, of 5 or 6, emerging from his father’s smoldering bones, and the scraps of charred velveteen.

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"No deal," said the Fairy, and watched him burn.

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Schrödinger opened the box, just an ordinary storage box--one of many that he kept in the office adjacent to his laboratory.

Inside, there was fire.

Fire, at the end of the garden, from the days that followed his fever. Where, years ago, his toys had been burnt.

Flames, licking up.

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"Anny!"

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The brightness was transfixing. And Schrödinger, the scientist, wanted to stare. To stare and stare and stare. But there was a heat, too, a sudden, searing heat.

So, he let the lid fall, with a small, anticipatory yelp, before he was burnt; he let it fall--

Bam!

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Here is what also happened:

After it had emerged from the box, the Kitten looked back. And it saw the other toys, still piled there--doomed toys, which would be burnt: simply, quickly, and all in a moment, and never have the opportunity to be made real.

"Am only I to be saved?" it asked.

"That is how this works," said the Fairy. "The boy loved you best."

"Yes," said the Kitten, both agreeing and not agreeing. "I am a creature of love."

Then, with a short, stumbling leap (still a little clumsy, for being real was new to it), it threw itself--this creature of love--into the fire.

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Smaller, tighter, smaller.

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"No," said the Fairy.

Because then, in the flash of it--at the moment of the Kitten’s sacrifice--all of the other toys became real: sailing ships and soldiers; dolls and bears. All standing up, all moving: gliding, splashing, marching. Starting to speak.

Whoosh, bark, babble.

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And, afterwards--anyway--for years, after his fever, Schrödinger found that he couldn’t be sure of anything.

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"Noooo…." moaned the Fairy. Her magic subverted; her spell turned wrong. Everything contrary to what she had intended.

The power of love--yes. But not this. Not...

And her face began to crack, and her dress to rip.

Not like this.

And, in the midst of all that motion, at the end of it all--at her end--as her wand began to shrivel, and she, too, in a smear of glitter, began to disintegrate, the Fairy stood there, transfixed at the leaping flames of the Kitten’s sacrifice.

At all the light.

All that light.

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"What are all these toys doing, running about?" snorted the cook, when she stepped into the garden.

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"Look, Rudolf," said Schrödinger’s mother, lifting, wonderingly, a toy soldier, and allowing it to march along the flat surface of her palm.

"Look, Georgine," said his father, of another creature--a chubby, polka-dotted bear, which giggled and snuggled and kicked, like a baby would, when he cradled it on his hip.

Like their baby had.

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"Aren’t they amazing?" giggled Schrödinger, and he followed the living toys, at a skip, across the paving stones.

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Smaller, tighter.

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Decades later, after his own parents had died, Schrödinger unpacked his old toy box, the one that had lain in his nursery, during all the eventful years between. And inside…

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...resting on the top, draped over a collection of childhood mementos, was a curious and unexpected document:

His own death certificate, dated to the winter of 1893.

"A mistake," he whispered, swallowing.

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And inside Schrödinger’s nursery, suddenly, there was a...a...fairy?

A fairy!

"Why are you here?" Schrödinger asked the Fairy. Whispering it, really, barely audible, for she was...

Absolutely breathtaking.

Exquisite. Vivid. Magical.

And yet...real, too. More real than anything he had ever encountered in a storybook.

More real than that.

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"A forgery!" he insisted, angrily.

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"Why," said the Fairy, with a glassy expression. Looking, perhaps, ever so slightly lost. "I am here to assist you, following your illness."

But Schrödinger hadn’t been sick. He had never been sick, really; he had even escaped the recent spate of fever, ravaging the neighborhood and--.

"Hans got the fever," he said, eyes wide. "Got it bad."

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Smaller, every year.

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And then he pointed through the nursery window, to the house--Hans’ house--across the way.

"He died."

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Smaller, tighter, smaller.

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"I have the wrong house," the Fairy admitted. "I do that sometimes."

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"Mother?" the resurrected boy tried to say. But for a moment, while he coughed, his voice sounded strained and gravelly--something like ashes.

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And then she turned, once more, just as she was about to depart the nursery, and his life, forever, and, she smiled at him, that beautiful Fairy--

She smiled.

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"They’re real," breathed the gardener, extending his hand.

"Well, they certainly are something," said the cook, who, even in the midst of this unprecedentedly magical moment--and as amazed, certainly, as she had ever been, or had any right to be--still managed to seem rather tired and annoyed.

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A smile that, achingly, Schrödinger would revisit, again and again, for the rest of his life.

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As Schrödinger, in his lab coat, looked in the box, his stomach turned with a strange possibility: Perhaps he had never left this place, where his toys had been burnt.

Perhaps he had always been here.

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And who, in Schrödinger’s imagination, could ever compare to a Fairy?

What woman, afterwards, would ever be able to live up?

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No woman, no, though Schrödinger looked and looked.

No woman, though he dreamed…

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Not even Anny.

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"Anny!" Schrödinger screamed, and the smell of her, the smell of her, turned to velveteen, holding her, and he loved...and he loved...and wasn’t that the sickest part?

Wasn’t that part of what haunted him, afterwards...

That he still wanted her?

Because she wasn’t dead, after all--

Only velveteen.

Not dead.

Not really. And...

And he wanted her--his wife. His heart, his breath, his soul, his loins, his life.

He still wanted her.

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A smile he would never forget.

"Anny! Anny! Anny!" he wept, inside of her.

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"Why?" wept little Schrödinger. "Why did you have to burn the Kitten?"

"To kill the scarlet fever germs," explained his nurse.

And maybe they did have to, and maybe they didn’t, but that’s how things were done, anyway, in the 1890s, when Schrödinger was young.

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Inside of her, one last time.

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"Why?" wept little Schrödinger "Why did you have to burn the Kitten?"

"Because," said his nurse, very quietly. Her pupils were skittery, and her whisper was thin.

"The Kitten was evil!

Evil!

Evil!"

And maybe they did have to burn the Kitten, and maybe they didn’t. But that is how things were done, anyway, in the 1890s, when Schrödinger was young.

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Just one last time.

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"We burned your Kitten," the nurse explained, "in order to facilitate your future greatness."

She stoked his hair with sooty fingers. And then, at the back of Schrödinger’s head, where his skull peaked--a node which, phrenologically, forecasted a superior intelligence--she ground the ash into his scalp.

"We did it," she said, "So that, one day, you might win the Nobel Prize."

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Just one more last time.

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"What’s the Nobel Prize?" asked little Schrödinger, for he was a boy of his time.

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One more.

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"What’s the Nobel Prize?" he wept, disconsolately, into the ashes of his only friend.

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Last time.

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"Sometimes," said the voice--and Schrödinger recognized it, with a prickle: a presence from his childhood. "Sometimes," it continued, "when boys are very good, and work hard, and love, too, love hard enough--and have a Fairy to help them--then they get the Nobel Prize."

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One very last time.

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"You deserve it," the Fairy whispered into the phone,"No strings attached."

"What?" said Schrödinger, half awake. "What?" he repeated, as the line went dead.

In another moment, the phone rang again.

And this time it was Stockholm.

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"You can have the Nobel Prize," said the Fairy, who looked a good deal older and stranger than Schrödinger remembered, as if the years had been very unkind to her.

"But you must pay," explained the Fairy.

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Pay

And she drew out...not a wand, but a knife, composed of velveteen.

"Are you willing to pay, Schrödinger?" rasped the Fairy, as she twisted the weapon through the air.

Slice, sparkle, slice.

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"Anny!"

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"What are you willing to pay?"

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And the room felt smaller.

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"I will kill my Kitten," said Schrödinger, swallowing. "The only creature that I have ever loved."

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Smaller.

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"Fine," said the Fairy. And, as she passed him the knife--as it was transferred from her hands to his--it became hard and sharp and real.

No longer velveteen.

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"Only one of us can survive the fever," whispered Schrödinger into the Velveteen Kitten’s brain, as they burnt together, delirious, in his little bed.

"Only one," agreed the Kitten.

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"No deal," said the Fairy.

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"Only one of us survived the fever," meowed the Kitten, a little maliciously.

"And it wasn’t you."

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"Anny!"

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"I think, sometimes, Kitten," said Schrödinger, face buried in its fur. "I think, sometimes, that neither of us survived the fever.

"Mrrr..." purred the Kitten, a little too slow.

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And sometimes, when he closed his eyes--years after he had been declared well--Schrödinger could still see the fever, burning in his head.

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And it became clear to Schrödinger, increasingly clear, that his room--his life?--was a box. A box, closing in.

Every year: ever smaller.

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But where was the lid? There was no lid.

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And the door the lid--the door.

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And outside: heat.

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Like a box, Schrödinger thought.

And at night, sometimes, when, against his ear, his pillow burned him; sometimes, when he squinted, if he squinted, into dream, he could see the lid, the square outline of it.

He could see…

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And sometimes, increasingly, his pillow would simply burst into flame.

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And, on the other side of that box--if a box it was--voices…

Voices.

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After he died, his mother put him on a pyre to burn, with all the other toys. On his chest, in the center, in a position of prime ceremonial importance, she placed the Velveteen Kitten.

"What are you doing?!" his father demanded.

"It’s a funeral," she said.

"Is this a Lutheran thing?" he asked, for grief had made him cruel.

"Viking," said his mother.

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"Anny!" screamed Schrödinger. "Anny! Anny! Anny!"

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Then she lit it on fire.

#

"Tell them, Rudolf," his mother said, when the Polizei arrived, and lifted her forcibly from where she knelt, amid the cinders of their son. "Tell them!"

But Schrödinger’s father’s eyes were cinders, too, all burnt down.

#

Smaller.

#

As if he did not know her.

#

Hotter.

#

After the Polezei had gone, bearing Georgine, Rudolf returned to the shadows of the nursery, to where the Fairy was waiting.

"Now, bring back my son," he said hoarsely. "Bring him back, like you promised!"

The Fairy lifted her wand. And commenced, with a slow curl of her lip, to remove Rudolf’s shirt.

Button, glitter. Button, glitter.

"Pay first," she said.

#

Boy in a box. Inert boy, smelling of embalming fluid. And flowers. Bright little boy, who would have been so much, assuredly.

Who might…

Who would have…

#

And, out of the fire, once it had burned down, Schrödinger emerged.

"I knew," his mother said, welcoming her son--still hot, still ash-bright--into her arms. "I knew you would come back."

#

"You have to open it," said the Kitten.

#

Above their son, they placed a cluster of ornamental plants--a traditional barrier, between the living and the dead.

Above: lovely petals.

Below: ugly roots, like worms.

#

Many times, in later years, that old question, from his childhood conversation with the cowardly Tierarzt, would echo back to him, like a reproof, and Schrödinger would feel ashamed:

"Don’t you want to know?"

#

Then, suddenly, his friend’s complexion took on a strange cast--purplish, and mottled, like a fabric quilt.

"Something is wrong, Hans," he said. "Something is..."

#

So he called his mother, to tell her about that honor--the Nobel Prize. "My son?" she asked, in a quavering tone, as if with a part of her voice that had been long disused.

"My son?" she repeated, and this time her voice was disbelieving and angry.

Then the line went dead.

#

"I will get help, Hans," he promised, and turned toward the door.

But the knob was hot.

#

"I want to understand what happened," said Schrödinger. " I must understand what happened--"

#

1910.

"What did you do, Fairy?" Schrödinger demanded, of the creature who appeared before the fireplace, as he sat beside it.

"What did you do when I was a child?"

#

1935.

Appeared, to him, suddenly, in a glittery flash, as beautifully ageless as she ever was.

"...after my fever...?"

#

1961.

Appeared to him, arms extended.

"I can’t remember," he wheezed. "I just can’t remember."

#

But "remember" was not the right word.

#

And, when Schrödinger looked inside that box, he could see where the wall of fire began--in the pyre the end of the garden, at a reasonable remove from the house. But he could see, now, too, how far it extended: from Vienna to Dublin, and all the decades, since the fever--through the nursery and the Friedhof and everywhere else.

#

His own heart, which paused, suspenseful.

#

"Did you save my life, Fairy?" asked Schrödinger. "Or did you damn me?"

#

"Yes," said the Fairy, with an inscrutable smile.

#

"Yes," she said.

#

But also didn’t beat.

#

"But, Kitten, if I go out there, I might be dead," said Schrödinger, holding up his mottled hands, which were half-rotting "At least now--"

#

"But I might not be real, if I go out there," said the Kitten, as it stumbled, anguished, on thick limbs of velveflesh. "At least now--"

#

"Nonetheless," said the Kitten sternly.

#

"What are you painting?" asked his nurse.

"A letter!" cried Schrödinger, with one arm about his Kitten, and the other about his brush. "We’re painting a letter to Einstein!"

"Who?" asked his nurse. For she was, as ever, was a woman of her time--a woman of the 1890s.

#

"I can’t," whimpered Schrödinger. And he clutched his Kitten--his real Kitten--to his aged chest.

#

And held it, dead, to his little boy chest.

#

And held it, velveteen, to his middle-aged chest, where the heart was still.

#

"Anny!"

#

"But we have to," said Schrödinger, berating his Kitten. And they did. For the room around them had become very very small. And very hot.

#

"Don’t you see, Schrödinger?" said the Kitten, cowering back. "That...if we never open it...that is exactly what the Fairy will never expect? That is exactly…"

#

And there was nowhere else go.

#

"Don’t you know, Schrödinger," said the Fairy, confiding through the keyhole. "That I have always--"

#

Into Heat. Into Fever. Into Death.

#

"Burn in the fire, Fairy!" Schrödinger shrieked. "Burn forever!" And he and First Mate Kitten pushed her together, off the plank, into the grass.

"O! O!" said the Fairy, agreeing to pretend. And she flailed, theatrically, amid the green stalks, between peals of laughter.

#

"That I have always loved you..."

#

Together, they pushed her, boy and Kitten, into the flaming toy box, and shut the lid behind. And they held it shut, though she struggled and cried. They wedged it and sat upon it, desperately constraining it, until the thumping ceased, and they could smell her--the smell that glitter makes (and magic, too), when it has charred.

#

Into Heat. Into Fever. Into Love.

#

"Who else could have made your Kitten real?"

#

"I don’t believe in any of this!" cried little Schrödinger, backing away. "I don’t believe--" and here he spat the word--"in magic!"

"Well," said the Fairy, lip curling, bopping his head with her wand. "It believes in you."

#

"This is all ridiculous!" shouted Schrödinger, white and austere in his lab coat. And, with his half-dead hands, he tried to wrestle her wand away.

#

But then he ceased to struggle. And, as the walls pressed in, they pressed them together--the Fairy and the man. The Fairy and the boy.

The Fairy and Schrödinger.

All in glitter. All in heat. All in a smear

All in rapture.

#

#

"I don’t believe in half-dead cats!"

#

Hide and seek.

As Hans began to count, Schrödinger and his Kitten ran to hide in the toy box.

Hans and the other boys searched for him. And then his nurse did. And then his parents. And then the Polezei.

All of them calling: "Come out! Come out!"

But they never found him, not ever.

#

"But Kitten!" protested Schrödinger. "I don’t--"

#

So, why would he ever come out?

#

"Anny!"

#

The walls pressing in. Too hot...

#

"I miss Anny, Kitten, I miss--"

#

"Something is wrong, Anny," he said flatly to the creature he had married: part-woman, part-velveteen.

"I will get help," he promised.

But against the door, outside: fire. And the knob burned his hand.

#

"I am so afraid, Kitten," said Schrödinger, as he clutched the animal, tight, tight, tight. "I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know..."

#

"Mother," Schrödinger wailed, as he hobbled over, arms stiffly askew. "I didn’t mean to die. I didn’t mean--"

#

"My son," she whispered over his body in the box, pale and still.

#

...so afraid...

#

"But I am here," whispered the Kitten. "I am--"

#

So, because it was too small; because it was too hot, otherwise, Schrödinger and his Kitten, together, as it always was: paw by hand, with a mingled cry, as they pushed out with one effort, against the wood--

#

They opened it.

Accompanying artwork by Rob of WV?
 

Rachel Rodman
Rachel Rodman is the author of the food-themed collection Exotic Meats and Inedible Objects (Madness Heart Press). Her work has appeared in Fireside, Analog, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and many other markets.