Bain's Cats and Rats, by Conrad Aiken

Bain's Cats and Rats

Quiet, and almost bashful, and seldom looking
Into the rows of eyes below and above,
He went about his work as if alone;
His cats, upon their table, sat and yawned:
Or, paws curled under, blinked their sleepy eyes.
And one by one, with deft pale hand, he lifted
Rats from a lidded box, and set each one
On a little pedestal. And then a cat,
Black, with green insolent eyes, gravely and sleekly
Stepped over them, and sniffed, and waved his tail,
And glared at the spotlight with his ears laid back,
And leapt back to the table.. The audience laughed..
Later, when one cat balked, he gave up weakly,
And let the curtain fall, with scant applause.   Ten years before this he had lost his wife.
He was a trapeze artist: in his act,
While hanging from the trapeze by his legs,
Lifted the girl up in a jeweled girdle
Clenched in his teeth, and twirled her with his hands,
In darkness, with the spotlight blazing on them.
It was a love-match.--Many had envied them.
But he was always queer, a moody man,
And things got quickly on his nerves. The girl,
Perhaps, had been too young.. But anyway,
One night before his act they heard him scolding--
"For Christ's sake, put less powder on your arms!
Look at my clothes--look here!"--And that same night
He let her fall--or anyway, she fell,
And died without a word. Soon after that
He quit the trapeze work, and got these rats..   Sometimes there on the stage, he heard himself
Saying, until the words grew meaningless,
Multiplying themselves in tireless rhythms,
"I'm sick of her. But how get rid of her?
Why don't I let her fall?--She's killing me!"
And then he'd glance, half-scared, into the wings.

poems.one - Conrad Aiken