The Dancing Cats of Mercury

Mercury is the patron god to many: businessmen, wrestlers, gymnasts, and thieves. On his first day, Mercury stole Apollo's cattle and was ordered by his father to return them. Apollo forgave him because he was seduced by the lyre's song of Mercury. This song would later become tangible and palpable as a liquid metal that would be released into the atmosphere where it would travel like sound, hugging raindrops, and falling back to the ground after traveling for up to two years.

Mercury, by his nature, was slippery - he was both dishonest and cunning. This flawed individual did not know how he wanted to effect mankind. At times, he shielded travelers and he intervened with Perseus to allow him to cut away Medusa's head. He protected Odysseus in his dealings with Circe and gave Pandora the power of persuasion as a birthday gift.

Over time Mercury, like the other gods, became bored with managing men's lives in an obvious way. He became the liquid metal of his namesake and seeped into the earth. He floated back up on the gases of volcanoes. Though he was in the atmosphere, he did not seem to threaten man. This was becoming frustrating so he appealed to his followers who, through commerce, began to release more mercury into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Mercury crept into the soil from industrial and mining wastes as well.

Mercury functions as a neurotoxin, compromising both the brain and nervous system. As with most such toxins the developing young are the first to suffer through a loss of coordination and with on-setting retardation. Wisconsin ranks high among states with the most lakes being added to the list of contaminated sites. As fishermen pull fish from these lakes and consume their boon, they pull mercury into the body. Glaucus was one such fisherman living in Port Edwards where the gods had set up a power plant, belching out more mercury than any other in the state.

Glaucus developed a tradition whereby local fishermen would reward wharf cats for a good day on the river by leaving a few fish on the dock as an acknowledgement of feline luck. The fishermen thought that the cats were thanking them by dancing after the fish feed. The more fish left in token, the more elaborate the dance became. The fishermen became worried as the dance evolved to cat screams. The cats then jumped into the river, drowning themselves to soothe Mercury and his induced mania.

Had the locales been watching, they would have noticed that the dances were preceded by tremors. The nervous system was under attack. Soon they began to see the twitching in birds, pigs, and dogs and finally the shaking was found in children. The local fisherman were convinced that their children were carriers of some infectious disease so kept news of the tremors away from the media for several years. In the mean time, dancing swept the town.

Glaucus was a man of habit and washed his boat at the same location every day. Herbs formed a thick carpet under the daily runoff of wash water and Glaucus got into the rhythm of making sandwiches from these plants. His diet began to make him agitated and crave the river water. One day he found himself performing the same cat dance and afterwards plunged himself into the river where he saw himself greeted by the river god. He was convinced that he was alive and well while breathing river water. He saw his hair turn green and the gods pour the waters of all of the world's rivers over his head.

Mercury was in the water, it was in the fish, it was in the animals, and it was in the plants. As the pregnant women ate, it was introduced into the fetus. As the fishermen ate, it was introduced into them. One summer day, as the sun was rising and a breeze wobbled the laundry on the line, every person in Port Edwards got up from the breakfast tables and danced into the river. Cows, pigs and chickens, mice, hawks, and sheep all danced into the river. Glaucus welcomed them all as the town was emptied. Mercury was the silver thread that united them all.

Mercury has affected the lives of men in many other obvious ways. In nineteenth century England, hatters, water-gilders, looking-glass makers and crafters of barometers and thermometers suffered from "the trembles" and walked in a dancing trot. This was thought to be the result of working with nitrate of mercury required in their professions. Now the dance has found its way into tuna fish cans and the Friday fish fry. Mercury has choreographed this crisis and we must practice the ars moriendi or art of dieing well.


What child does not remember finding some excuse to play with mercury in a science class? That same child probably has some memory related to fishing. We all share the image that opened the Andy Griffith Show where father and son walk a country road on the way to their favorite fishing hole. Did anyone expect that today's childhood memories would intertwine mercury and fishing in such a dangerous way? In most counties in Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources limits the consumption of fish as well as the daily catch limit.

This middle book in the series of three ars moriendi is the most obvious evidence of collaboration between two artists. But several decisions were made before getting to this point. We had to come to an agreement about size and scale, about paper and type, and about shared aesthetic components. As the project evolved, even these agreed upon elements were in flux with papers changing, type being relocated, and narratives migrating.

In a letter to Joshua Heller as this project was started, one of us wrote, "It should be the bookarts equivalent of a world wide wrestling match to get this collaboration ready but ... we will see. The subject is a modern take on the ars moriendi with contemporary content replacing the plague-center(ed) issues of the medieval version. Pray for us because we know not what we have gotten ourselves into." The challenge was more interesting and less of a battle of wills than expected.

This is from the edition of 50.

Caren Heft and Jeffrey Morin