"Space-time for Springers" by Fritz Leiber: An Appreciation by E. Sedia
This is a cat story. However, I wouldn't love it so much if it were only a cat story. It starts as a humorous, cute tale of a genius kitten named Gummitch, his mind full of theories of space-time, and material for many books he would write, but soon things turn very deep and very dark. Mr. Leiber writes from the point of view of a cat with stunning confidence, and after reading this story for the first time I was convinced that this is how kittens really think.
One of the main themes of this story is metamorphosis. Gummitch is convinced that when he grows up he will become a man, while human children (stupid and defenseless Baby and feral, developmentally abnormal Sissy) will become cats:
If you just rid your mind of preconceived notions, Gummitch told himself, it was all very logical. Babies were stupid, fumbling, vindictive creatures without reason or speech. What could be more natural than that they should grow up into mute, sullen, selfish beasts bent only on rapine and reproduction? While kittens were quick, sensitive, subtle, supremely alive. What other destiny were they possibly fitted for except to become the deft, word-speaking, book-writing, music-making, meat-getting-and-dispensing masters of the world?
Another manifestation of metamorphosis comes from the theme of mirrors – a classic trope, but employed with great imagination. Gummitch learns that mirror worlds, harmless for the most part, are quite conducive to spirit transfer, and fears that the mirror Gummitch "who touched paws with him so softly yet so coldly" might one day decide to take Gummitch's place. The spirit transfer, conceived by Gummitch as a wild speculation, soon becomes frightening reality.
The darkness in the story comes from Sissy, a scary child who is fond of tormenting the cats and Baby. Gummitch, out of the loyalty to his "parents," appoints himself as the guardian of Baby, and he is the one who is privy to the depth of Sissy's pathology. "Gummitch found increasing horror in this mute vampirish being inhabiting the body of a rapidly growing girl, though inwardly equipped to be nothing but a most bloodthirsty she-cat."
Sissy's nighttime attack of Baby forces Gummitch into his ultimate sacrifice – and this is what makes this story great. The utter selflessness of his decision, the fact that he knows his fate and yet trades spirits with Sissy to save his human family makes it perhaps the saddest and the most moving story ever written. The terror of his life afterwards, smothered by Sissy's black and diseased spirit, is only hinted at, but we can picture it fully: "In a last intuition, before the animal blackness closed in utterly, Gummitch realized that the spirit, alas, is not the same thing as the consciousness, and that one may lose—-sacrifice—-the first and still be burdened with the second."
The contrast between the playful beginning and the terrible end makes this story heart-wrenching, much in the same way as the contrast between the care-free kitten and the great weight of his sacrifice. We expect sacrifice from the strong and from the able; forcing it on the small and the weak, those we mean to protect, seems unthinkable. And yet when the smallest accept their responsibilities, the price they pay is the greatest. The great tragedy of this story is that Gummitch had to give up his glorious metamorphosis into a man for mirror-magic, trading spirits with Sissy: "[A]s Gummitch knew very well, bitterly well indeed, his fate was to be the only kitten in the world that did not grow up to be a man."
Even if you don't like cats, I strongly recommend this story. Daring to write a kitten as completely and with as much sympathy and understanding as a human protagonist, allowing him the full share of tragedy is the sign of impressive authorial courage. Many thanks are due to Ms. Datlow for letting me read this story–-easily the funniest and the saddest short story ever written. For this, I am forever grateful.
("Space-time for Springers": First publication in Star Science Fiction Stories #4, ed. Frederik Pohl, Ballantine, 1958.)
Link to story.