Part Two: Parting
“But I never got to say goodbye!”
He stood stubbornly before the bridge looking back, unwilling to believe that his time had come to cross, afraid of stepping into the swirling grey mists that obscured his path, reluctant to leave it all behind.
“Walk with us, brother.” Two black cats had stopped in front of him. “There’s nothing to fear”
“But I’ve left my only friend behind. What will I do for companionship? Who will sleep beside me and tell me stories, and teach me about the moon and show me the eyes of my ancestors in the night sky?”
“Come along. It’ll be OK. You are expected.”
There seemed to be no other choice so, dejectedly, he stepped onto the bridge, flanked by the two black cats, and together they headed into the fog. The walk felt like an eternity to him. He could see nothing but grey gloom for a long time – he even lost sight of his companions, although he could feel their presence close to him. But still he felt alone – more alone than ever before, and the thoughts continued to tumble around in his head – why me? Why now? We had so many naps left to take, so many games left to play, so many things left to discuss….
Then, slowly, the mist began to grow paler and he became aware of colours dancing just on the edge of his vision and a twinkling like a million tiny shooting stars, and a tang in the air of new mown hay and a distant, salty ocean….then he stepped out into the pinkness of a summer sunset. Beneath his paws was the sensation of fresh, springy grass. Above his head a perfect sky of rose and gold and purple. In front of him, a small, unassuming grey tabby cat, who beckoned him to follow her.
“Hello and welcome.” said the grey cat, as they made their way through a small birch copse and onto a rough path leading away from the bridge. ” I am Tuffy and I have something to tell you. Some of us are lucky and know when our time is coming and we are able to prepare, but some, like you, find themselves here before they are ready and they worry for those they have left behind. So, we arrange for them to have a little company crossing the bridge, to allay their worst fears, and, sometimes, we can also arrange this…” They had stopped on a shingle bank at the edge of a wide, slow river. Around them there were stands of tall reeds and yellow irises, through which skimmed jewel-like blue damsel flies. Beneath the green water, he could see shoals of tiny silver fish darting between gently waving green fronds, and the reflection of the last rays of the sun as it sank below the horizon, briefly turning the water blood red.
“What are we doing here?” he asked
“Watch the water when the moon comes up. We will be waiting for you in the meadow”
The grey cat disappeared, and he sat down on the shingle and waited while the sky turned from blood red to purple and then to deep blue. He breathed in the cooling air, savouring the scent of earth and grass and the far-off salt tang. The inky darkness was suddenly pierced by a shaft of silver so bright that he briefly had to close his eyes. He looked down into the water just as the grey cat had instructed and there, shining and rippling and smiling up at him, was the face of the moon. Maybe it was an illusion caused by the movement of the river surface and the sound of the breeze through the leaves, but he was sure the moon was calling him by name. He bent closer to listen and, as he did so, the face of the moon began to change, its edges became blurred and soft, the silver became white, the shadow of a cloud began to resemble a pair of beautiful ginger chops….
“Yes, it’s me. I don’t know how I’m doing this and I’ve a feeling we don’t have long, but I wanted to say I’m sorry. I had no idea when I left that I would never be coming back. There was so much I would have told you if I had known.”
“It’s OK,” said Rosie softly. “I had a feeling, so I sang to the moon last night to ask her to let us meet one more time.”
“Wow! I can’t believe she said yes. Does she owe you money or something, or is my Rosie more important and mysterious than she ever let on?”
“A little of both” said Rosie with a chuckle. “Oh, George….”
“Sshhh…” said George. “There is nothing you can possibly need to say to me that I don’t already know. When I had nothing, no home, no family and no hope, somehow I found you. You taught me about wonders and mysteries beyond my wildest imaginings, you made me laugh until my sides ached, you soothed my sleep when my dreams were bad, you tolerated my terrible singing, you kept my ears quite ridiculously clean and, above all, you gave me happiness that I never in my whole life thought I deserved. Our time together may have been short, but it was rich and full and I was a better, wiser and more contented cat because of it.”
“And you, George, you showed me that a kind heart and a generous spirit was more important than all the knowledge and book learning in the world. You reminded me to appreciate the simpler things in life, a shared joke, a good vigorous baff, a long nap on a rainy afternoon. I will never forget to appreciate those things, and I will never forget you.”
“Rosie, my sweet girl – I want you to do two things for me.”
“Firstly, I know you will, but promise me you’ll take good care of them and let them know how much I loved them. Secondly….would you tell me one more story?”
Rosie sniffled a little, before clearing her throat.
“A young lioness walked the plain. She strutted along with her head held high, confident that she was the queen of all she surveyed. She was afraid of nothing, for she was part of the pride and they protected her and kept her safe and gave her love and comfort and companionship. She had recently joined the hunt for the first time and she was proud that she had helped to bring down the antelope which they had all shared, and for once she had not had to wait until last before it was her turn to eat. So confident was she in herself that she had left the pride snoozing under a tree while she wandered far from home, because she wanted to find out what was out there. She saw ostrich and giraffe and antelope and wildebeest and a troupe of noisy baboons and she licked her lips at the thought of tomorrow’s hunt and, better still, tomorrow’s dinner. So preoccupied was she with her thoughts that she didn’t realise she had stumbled right into a herd of huge buffalo. Now buffalo were the one thing she was afraid of. If buffalo ever wandered close to the pride, the young lions were under orders to scatter in all directions, so that none of them would become a target. But now she was alone, and all of the beasts were looking straight at her and snorting steam from their great nostrils. In a sudden fit of panic, she turned and ran blindly as fast as she could, with no direction or goal – anything just to get away. When she finally stopped, panting, she realised she had run into the forest and she had no idea where she was or how to find her way out. She turned this way and that, but every path looked the same. It was dark and full of strange scents and even stranger noises. Frightened and lonely, she lay down and put her paws over her eyes, trying to block out the unfamiliar sensations with which she was bombarded.
Day turned to dusk, and the lioness remained frozen with terror, until she felt the touch of a paw on her cheek. She uncovered one eye and looked up to see a she-leopard sitting in front of her, surveying her quizzically. “So, what is the mighty lioness doing in my forest, shivering with fear with her paws over her eyes?” “I’m not afraid!” retorted the lioness, still shivering, but not wanting to let her façade slip. “Yes you are,” replied the leopard, “and, what’s more, you are afraid to admit you are afraid. That will get you nowhere. I would offer to help you, but if everything is under control….” “OK, OK! I am afraid. I am lost in this dark forest and I don’t know how to get home. Everything here is so strange – there are terrible screams and shrieks, and awful, awful, smells, yet I can see nothing. I don’t know if something is going to swallow me whole, or suck out my brains, or capture me and make me dance for them at their feasts…” The she-leopard laughed aloud. “Those sounds and smells are just the inhabitants of the forest going about their business. They are not at all frightening – mostly. Come on, I will show you how to get home.” The two big cats set off side by side, pushing through the undergrowth, and the lioness noticed how the she-leopard would stop from time to time to rub her face against a small rock or the bark of a tree. “Leaving myself a trail,” she explained. “So I can find my way home.” “Aren’t your family going to worry about you, away from home at dusk?” asked the lioness. “I have no family” replied the leopard. “I haven’t seen them since I was a cub. It’s the nature of we leopards to live solitary lives.” “Ooohh…I can’t imagine what that is like!” said the lioness. “I could never be separated from my mother and my father and my aunties and my siblings. We do everything together. I feel so sorry for you – you must be lonely all the time. Maybe you can come and join our pride, then you’d never have to be alone again.” The leopard smiled and said nothing, and the cats walked on. Suddenly, the lioness squawked and jumped in the air. She had trodden on something squishy and squashy in the dark, and it had hissed at her. “What is it? Will it eat me?” she whispered. “Good evening, Mr Snake” said the leopard. “I apologise for my friend – what are you up to this evening?” “Digesting….” said the snake. The lioness noticed the huge, deer-shaped swelling in the snake’s belly. “Eewwww…” she said, curling her lip. The leopard bade the snake a polite good evening, and they walked on. A sudden rustling in the trees made the lioness jump again and, looking up, she saw a small black and white face peering at her. “Good evening, Mrs Colobus” said the leopard. “How’s the family?” “Keeping me busy” said the monkey. “The kids are into everything and now a family of chimpanzees has moved into the next tree – shrieking and yelling at all hours – I never get a wink of sleep…” “Sorry to hear that” said the leopard. “Tell you what, I’ll have a quiet word with the chimpanzees. Maybe they will move to a tree farther away. In fact, I’m sure they will.” The monkey thanked her and the cats walked on. All the way through the forest, the leopard greeted her neighbours and passed the time of day. They all seemed to like and respect her. The lioness was baffled. “But surely, these are the same creatures that you eat.” “True…” replied the leopard, “But they know that. They understand that it is my nature to eat their kind, but they accept me for what I am and just hide around mealtimes.” “We lions tend to stick together” said the lioness. “We would never think to make friends with a giraffe or an antelope or a zebra.” “Well, perhaps you should change all that. I am a solitary creature, but I don’t envy you your pride in the least. I embrace every species in the forest, and we help each other in different ways, each according to our own abilities.” They walked on in silence until, at last, they reached the edge of the forest and the plain, vast and moonlit, stretched out before them. “Would you like to come and meet the pride?” asked the lioness. “Er…not now, thanks” the she-leopard replied. “I’m sure they’ll be relieved to have you back and I’m pretty sure they won’t want me getting in the way. Besides, I’m not sure they would accept me for what I am…” The lioness had to agree. “Probably not, but I always will” So, the two cats parted, each returning to their very different lives but, from then on, they met often at the edge of the forest, and they walked together and talked about their days, and the leopard learned about the plains and the lioness learned more about the jungle and they discovered what made them different and what made them the same, and they were enriched by their relationship, which continued until the end of their days.”
“It’s only a little story, but it seemed appropriate” Rosie said
“And the moral? There’s always a moral….” said George, smiling.
“Friendship is where we find it. We might not have a big, stable family to back us up and provide us with love on tap, but if we go through life with our eyes open, and our hearts open and we are prepared to admit when we need help and to accept that others are different, there is love and support to be had all around us. We just have to embrace it. We found that out, didn’t we George?”
He smiled. “We certainly did. Oh, I’m going to miss you, girl”
“Don’t ever stop watching the sky, will you?”
“As if…I’ll be watching for your star tonight”
Loathe though he was to tear himself away from those beautiful emerald eyes and that beloved face, he felt a pull that he could not resist.
“Rosie, I have to go”
“Yes, I know.”
“Love you forever…”
He turned to leave.
“We were OK, weren’t we?”
“Yes, Rosie. We were OK”
And he turned his back on the river, lifted his head and walked through the trees towards the meadow, where a thousand friends he never knew he had were waiting to welcome him.