Peter sat on a log on the fringes of the meadow and watched while Honey and her kitten companions chased each other in and out of the long grass, disappearing behind the tussocks and reappearing, laughing, sometimes bobbing their heads up above the stalks to get their bearings and to check whether their companions were within pouncing range. He smiled at their antics. It looked like a good game, and it was one in which he often enjoyed participating but, today, he was content to sit in the warm sunshine on the hollow log and watch.
He took a deep breath in. The air, as ever, carried the scents of new-mown hay, lilac, damp earth and that familiar, far-off salt tang. The sun was exactly as warm as he liked it – warm enough to heat the fur but not so hot as to sap the energy. Sometimes, he liked to bake under a hot sun, so he would just remove himself to where the sun was hottest. Sometimes, he had a fancy for watching the rain, and there was somewhere he could go to do that too. There were napping spots which were soft and napping spots which were firm. Indoor beds where he could be cosy and outdoor beds where he could lay and watch the stars. There was never any shortage of food – which was the tastiest and most succulent food any cat could imagine, or water – which was as sweet and pure as nectar and could be sipped from any number of rivers, rivulets, streams, fountains, waterfalls, pools and puddles.
In this place, there was no pain or sickness, no physical discomfort, no want or hardship, but there was still free thought. There was emotion too. Sometimes, someone would feel unhappy, or homesick for a past life, or they would feel the need for solitude or companionship and, for a kitten who overstepped the mark, there was discipline. Peter himself had often been on the receiving end of a squeak from an angry playmate or a cuff from an irritated adult. He had a way to go before he reached Honey’s total though. That girl was incorrigible.
The game of chase had morphed into a giant bug hunt. He could see his friends spotting their targets, flattening themselves against the ground and shifting their weight from foot to foot in preparation for the deadly pounce. The bugs always got away. Honey was flying through the air, trying to bring down a dragonfly – which also got away – and laughing her tinkling laugh. There was rarely a time when Honey didn’t laugh. Nothing seemed to dampen her high spirits.
Yes, life here was good. It was better than good – it was wonderful. But, every now and then, Peter felt a tiny tug in his heart that he did not quite understand. It had begun the night of his birthday party, when he had looked down to see his two brothers, now fully grown, sleek and handsome and so clearly loved by their human family, as well as by their own mother – Peter’s mother. He had thought at the time that maybe, just maybe, it would be nice to experience life as a grown-up and to try out the actual growing up part, too. He had also thought that it would be nice to live alongside a loving human family. He had a faint, residual memory of his short time in a human household. He remembered the feel of a human hand, the sound of a human voice and now he was curious – a little. It was just a thought that popped into his mind every now and then, while sunning himself on a log for instance, or sometimes just as he was falling asleep under the stars. The thought never persisted long, and it would disappear from his mind as swiftly as it had appeared, and he would go back to sunning himself or dozing without any worries…until the next time.
Honey came bouncing over to him, eyes shining, her grey fur stiff with burrs and a dandelion clock stuck to the top of her head like a fancy hat.
“Aren’t you going to join in?” she demanded, trying to dislodge the dandelion clock with her back foot.
“I’m happy to sit and watch.”
“What are you thinking about?” He knew by her tone of voice that “Nothing” was not an acceptable answer.
“Do you ever wonder what life would’ve been like if we hadn’t – you know, come here?” he asked.
“Yes, of course” she said, to his mild surprise. “I think everyone thinks about it, especially we kittens. It’s not the same as the old cats – they miss their old homes and their old hoomins, but at least they have memories to cherish. We kittens never had that. We missed out on a lot.”
Peter felt comforted to know that he was not the only one to ponder about “what if”. He stood up and stretched, a full arched-back stretch – standing up right on his tiptoes and turning his spine into an upturned U. That was the best sort of stretch. Feeling the muscles unwinding from his nose right through to his tail, he felt suddenly re-energised and leapt off the log and ran to join in the bug hunt, flattening, wiggling and pouncing along with the rest of the kittens. The bugs still got away.
Later that day, as the air began to cool and the sky began to pinken, they were making their way back along the path to where they knew they would find a good meal, a brisk baff from one of the adults – someone was going to have fun picking out those burrs – and the comfort of their companions, when they were stopped in their tracks by two cats who they did not recognise.
“You’re wanted,” said one of them, “back in the meadow”.
The two kittens turned around, mystified, and headed back to the meadow where they had been playing moments earlier. When they arrived, they were startled to find a sizeable assemblage of cats, familiar and unfamiliar, all sitting round in a semi-circle. Their escorts ushered the kittens to a spot in front of the crowd and bade them sit down. They looked at each other, baffled and a little nervous.
“Don’t worry,” said a voice, “you’re not in trouble for once.” The voice belonged to Truffles, an old cat who had arrived after them, but who was treated with much respect by all the others. She was a quiet, polite lady but, when she spoke, others listened. She was accompanied everywhere by the enormous, shaggy Loki, who had been her friend on the other side and who was rarely far away from her. The kittens adored Loki. He was like a big, benign uncle who tolerated having his whiskers pulled, his tail chewed and trying to sleep with three or four of the smallest kittens snuggled up in his long fur, squeezing their tiny claws into his flesh.
“What’s going on?” asked Honey.
“Well, for you and Peter, the time has come to make The Choice”
“What choice?” asked Honey.
“May I suggest,” Truffles replied, firmly, “that you stay quiet for once and let the adults talk?”
Honey slumped a little, deflated, until she caught a glimpse of Loki’s twinkling eye winking at her. Truffles began again.
“The Choice is offered to all who live here, cat or kitten, provided they have lives left to live. You will have heard it said that we cats have nine lives – even the hoomins have heard this, but they do not understand exactly what it means. When our earthly lives are over, we cross the bridge and we live in this place, healthy and happy and with everything our hearts desire. The one drawback is that we never change over here. Kittens remain kittens, the old remain old. For some, this is a happy state of affairs, but for others – especially the young – it is unsatisfying. They often yearn for another chance at earthly life, to experience new things or to complete a journey which was cut short before. We all have nine chances to do that, to go back, and I know you have both been thinking about it.” Honey and Peter looked at each other, wide-eyed. How did she know? Had they been talking in their sleep? Best not to ask. Truffles went on.
“Please know that you are not obliged to return. You can stay here for as long as you wish. Forever, if you like, or you can choose to return later rather than sooner. However, the time has come for the two of you to make The Choice. You both have eight further lives to live and you can choose to do so the other side of the bridge if you wish. Now, we understand that your previous lives were cut short very early and you don’t have many experiences to draw on when trying to decide. So, some of our friends here have agreed to tell you of their experiences on earth. The one thing that is certain is that, if you return, it will be to the world of the hoomin. Listen to their stories and then think carefully about what they tell you of the hoomin world, it’s benefits and its drawbacks. Now, sit down and make yourselves comfortable. And don’t interrupt…” she looked directly at Honey when she said this. “You may ask whatever questions you wish at the end…when there will also be snacks.”
Still a little bewildered, but placated by the promise of snacks, the kittens settled down as instructed and prepared to listen.
A pale cat stepped up. She was one of the unfamiliar cats who had waylaid Honey and Peter on the path and only now did they notice how exotically beautiful she was. Her fur was the colour of cream, shading through gold to russet on her flanks and legs. She was tall and fine boned, with chiselled cheeks and a long, sharp muzzle. Her eyes were the colour of a setting sun and the shape of almonds, sweeping upwards towards her large, magnificent ears. She spoke in a voice like melted chocolate.
“My last life on earth was spent in a land of dust and sand, which lay parching under a blazing sun. Beneath the azure sky, the very horizon would shimmer in the heat and the eyes would be tricked into seeing things that were not there. In the middle of the day, the sand would seem to be transformed into a silvery lake, although there was no water to be found for miles. The air would be full of the whine of the relentless, hot wind, the strange echoes of the sand dunes as they shifted and the occasional, piercing shriek of an eagle as it scoured the land, searching for something – anything- to eat.”
The kittens closed their eyes, transported in their minds to the burning, empty desert.
“Running through this land, however, was a great river. Every year it broke its banks and the land was flooded for many, many miles and it was this flood that transformed the fringes of this river into a fertile plain where plants and trees grew and animals and birds thrived and, naturally, it was ripe for exploitation by humans. They came in abundance and multiplied and cultivated their crops and raised their animals and built villages and towns and cities with great temples and statues. They had powerful kings who believed themselves to be gods and they had priests who grew fat by encouraging the kings to believe they were gods, but, for the people, life was good, food was plentiful and the climate benign and so a great civilisation flourished. These people, and their priests and their kings, had the good sense to include some animals amongst their pantheon of gods, such as the bull and the hawk and…well, let’s face it….me.
I was born in a village outside the capital city, close to the site where many men laboured to build a great stone temple to the beautiful cat goddess Bastet. I was one of many kittens, but it was the general consensus that I was the most beautiful. I was housed and fed by a stonemason and his family. It was he who was responsible for creating a great statue of the Goddess to stand in the hall of the temple on a huge sandstone plinth and, as I grew from kitten to cat, he made many images of me, using pigment made from powdered rock mixed with lamp oil. He painted me from every angle and in many poses, laying asleep, standing alert, sitting with my paws tucked under, but mostly he drew me sitting as I am now, my head proud and my eyes gazing towards the horizon.”
By way of a demonstration, the cat sat neatly, paws together, tail curled round her feet, and then drew herself up so that her body formed a silhouette the shape of a teardrop. Lifting her chin, she gazed into the distance with a haughty expression. So noble did she look that Honey and Peter almost felt compelled to bow down in worship before her, but instead she relaxed, smiled and winked at the two kittens, before resuming her speech.
“When most of the fabric of the temple was complete, my stonemason set to work. He had shown the images he had painted of me to the priests who were overseeing the design of the temple and they had indicated their approval and so, taking a great slab of black basalt rock and his trusty wooden hammer and bronze chisel, he began to tap, tap, tap away at the stone. First he incised some guidelines to indicate a rough shape and then, with the aid of his two sons, began to chip away the unwanted surfaces until, gradually, little by little, a shape began to emerge from within. My shape. Over the course of many months, the three worked away at the stone, shaping and refining until, at last, instead of the crude black rock pillar, there stood a magnificent cat. She still needed to be polished smooth, and that task took several more months but, by the turn of the year, the statue of Bastet was ready to be moved into her final position inside the great hall of the temple. She was moved with great care by many men using wooden sledges, then ropes and pullies. At last, our beloved goddess of love, motherhood, war and justice stood upon her plinth, looking out between the columns of the great hall, towards the mighty river. There she stood for century after century, tended by priests and priestesses, visited in secret by many cats seeking aid or comfort, and worshipped by all who passed by the temple. Thereafter, the same image appeared over the years in infinite forms – in pictures, statuettes, jewellery…. all of them me. I spent my life both as a humble but beloved house cat and as an object of worship for an entire civilisation. For me, earthly life could not give me more than that – any future life would only disappoint, my expectations having been raised so high, you see. So, I will not be returning. My future lies here.”
The exotic cat bowed low to the two kittens and to Truffles before withdrawing into the crowd. They could still see her, standing as she did half a head taller than most of the others. Another, very different looking cat took up position in front of them. She was tiny, black and somewhat ragged. Her ear was notched and she sported scars around one of her eyes. Her tail had a sharp, angular kink towards its tip and her whiskers splayed in all directions. Her earthly life had clearly been very different from that of the temple cat. When she spoke, it was in a small, breathy voice that the kittens had to strain to hear.
“My last life on earth was on a small island in the north of Europe during what the hoomins refer to as the Middle Ages. It was a dark and primitive time. Most of the people were desperately poor and barely scraped enough from the land to feed their families. Most of the food they laboured to produce had to be handed to the local baron, so the peasants went without. They were oppressed by the nobility, oppressed by the church and oppressed by life in general, so I guess I can’t really blame them for turning to supersition and witchcraft as a way to explain their lot. It was a bad time to be a cat. It was an especially bad time to be born a black cat. We were persecuted as being the familiars of witches, who were themselves considered to be the servants of the Devil. Many were slain by some terrible means in order to rid the world – so the hoomins thought – of evil.
My hoomin mistress was an old widow lady who lived in a hut made of dried mud and straw at the edge of a village on the eastern side of the island. It was a flat land of marshes and creeks where, even in the summer, the wind blew relentlessly from the sea, so that the trees and bushes grew bent over, as if they were trying to escape its constant howl. The local people toiled away digging great ditches to drain away some of the water so that they could cultivate the soil and grow grain and vegetables, even though most of these were given as tithes to the manor house and to the church. Ah…the church. It was a great building of men, which rose out of the flat landscape and towered over the huts and hovels of the peasants, as if to remind them daily of their position in the grand scheme of things. On Sundays, the whole village walked, limped, or shuffled in a convoy to the church to listen while the priests shouted hellfire and damnation at them, told them they would all go to hell for their sins and that they should repent their ways if they did not wish to be personally responsible for bringing about the Apocalypse. They even had to stand outside the church and peer in through small windows in the walls to be threatened and terrified like this. They were too lowly and insignificant even to be allowed through the doors. So ignorant and uneducated were they, that they believed all of this and so tried at all times, out of fear, to do whatever they were told to do by those they considered their betters. It made me sad.
My mistress, though, was one of those who saw the truth. She did not attend the church, she did not pay their tithes and she did not fear God or the devil. Unable to work the land due to her frail old age, she would dispense crude medicines made from herbs in exchange for bread and, sometimes, she would wave around a small bundle of bound hazel twigs and utter incantations for young women anxious to conceive a child, or to lure a certain neighbour’s son into marriage. For this, my mistress received maybe a couple of eggs or some turnips. She would cackle quietly at the gullibility of some of her “clients”, but at least she ate. Then, one night, a party of villagers arrived at the hut bearing flaming brands, which they used to burn the place down – we did not know why. Maybe one of the young women gave birth to a daughter instead of a son, or the neighbour’s boy married someone from the next village instead, but thereafter we had to tramp the countryside together, barely surviving on the food she could gather and I could catch. She would still dispense her herbs and chant her incantations, but when she had finished, instead of receiving bread, the local children would run us out of the village, hurling insults and rocks at the same time. Crouched in the shelter of a hedgerow one freezing winter’s night, she took me in her arms and said to me that her time had come to depart this earth, and that she was not afraid as the great Mother Hecate was waiting to receive her and would avenge her soul in this life and the next. I did not understand what she meant, but I did not want to be left alone in that cold and hostile world so, when my mistress uttered a last incantation and cast herself into the freezing river and I watched, with my own eyes, pale hands come up and catch her and bear her down into the depths – or maybe it was my imagination – I threw myself in after her.”
The kittens were mesmerised and wide-eyed with astonishment and shock at the black cat’s tale. Honey could think of a million questions to ask her, but she was still speaking.
“And yet, I have chosen to return. I had the misfortune to live in a hostile world, but I knew love from my hoomin who, I realise now, was unusual in that she could speak to me in my own language. But, anyway, I have faith that there is a better world to be found now and I wish to know the love of a hoomin once again. But maybe not a witch, this time…”
The black cat bowed and withdrew, leaving the kittens confused. “But….” stammered Honey, “…the cat who had the wonderful life wants to stay here and the cat who had the terrible life wants to go back….”
“Nothing is straightforward, you see,” said Truffles. “You must follow your hearts. You will know if you have made the right choice, I promise. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m starving…”
Confused though they were, the kittens’ appetites were unaffected, and they tucked into the considerable spread with gusto. Loki sat down beside them, smacking his lips after consuming a plate of pilchards. Peter looked up at the big, shaggy cat and asked “If we went back, would Honey and I still be together?”
“I don’t think there are any guarantees,” he replied. “If you opt for another life, you get what you get, if you see what I mean. The cats who spoke to you had experienced both extremes, good and bad. For most, though, life is more mundane. Take me and Tuffy, for instance. Our home was just an ordinary house, in an ordinary suburb, but it was better than the temple of Bastet to us, and our hoomins were just ordinary people who loved us – as we loved them, but they were better to us than priests or kings or witches. They made us happy, and I don’t think there is any finer state on that side of the bridge or this than to be happy. Tuffy and I don’t need any other memories. The memories of that life are sweet enough but, maybe one day…who knows? You, on the other hand, have yet to acquire any memories. I can’t imagine what that must be like.” Loki turned his attention to washing his face and paws and the images continued to whirl in the minds of the kittens.
It was dark by the time the meeting broke up, and the moon was on the rise. It was a warm night and the breeze was gentle and fragrant. The two kittens walked in silence to the place where they usually liked to sleep ignoring, for once, the fireflies that danced around their heads. Usually, they would find a good spot – a soft mound of grass, an indentation in the earth underneath a bush, or maybe a flat rock still warm from the sun, and they would settle down together and chatter, play and snooze the night away. On this night, though, they went their separate ways and each curled up alone – although still within sight of one another – both feeling that they needed solitude and silence in which to ponder the evening’s events.
Peter lay on his back in the grass and watched the stars – there was his and Honey’s, tiny diamond chips seeming to almost touch each other. There was Tuffy’s emerald star and beside it Loki’s amber one, there was Jaguar’s and Siberia’s sparkling like fire and Keiara’s and Sheba’s, soft like pearls…he idly wondered what happened to these stars if you went back. Did they disappear for a while, to reappear again on your return? He sniffed the scented air. Tomorrow would be another perfect day and he and Honey could spend it chasing bugs in the meadow with their friends if they wanted, or they could dip for fishes in the stream or climb trees or just bask in the sun, but…. there it was again. That tiny tug in his heart, as if an invisible thread connected him to the earth on the other side. This was impossible! How did anyone ever choose? He yawned and rolled over, tired of thinking. It was unlike him to be unable to sleep, but something was keeping him awake…something not quite right. He heard a soft rustle in the grass beside him and felt a warm, familiar body – still a little lumpy with burrs – lay down close to his. The Choice could wait for now. They snuggled up and drifted into sleep.
It was warm and dark in the nest, and safe. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, just the comforting scent of mama and the soothing vibration of her purr. And nothing to do but eat, sleep and grow. Nothing to sense but the reassurance of another heartbeat close by…and the trace of a memory, faint, like a tiny star in the farthest reaches of space..
The young woman sat on the sofa, smiling as her son dangled the feather on a stick just out of reach of the kittens, giggling as they leapt into the air to grab for it before landing with a thud, feet splayed out on the wooden floor.
“He’s good with them.” the older woman said. “Not everyone is, but he’s a natural. They’re really comfortable around him.”
“He loves animals,” his mother replied. “He’s just never had any of his own before. His dad wasn’t keen, what with us moving around so much. But, now it’s just the two of us….”, There was a short silence which spoke a thousand words.
The boy was laying on his stomach, laughing as four of the kittens swarmed all over him, grabbing his hair and licking his face and ears. The fifth kitten hung back a little, preferring to play alone and he was chewing experimentally at the boy’s sock, in the hope that it tasted like chicken.
“You know these four are already spoken for,” said the older woman, “and their mother. The only one still looking for a home is that little guy.” She detached the small, cream-coloured kitten from the boy’s foot.
“He’s really cute,” said the mother. “I’m surprised he hasn’t been snapped up.”
“Well, we encourage people to adopt in pairs, but when there’s a litter of five, it means one will be adopted alone. It’s a shame, but they usually adapt.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t be alone,” the mother said. “We adopted another kitten about a month ago – it was on our application form. She’s very sweet, but she seems bored and a little depressed, if that’s possible. She sleeps a lot. We thought a playmate might cheer her up.”
“Well, it would certainly cheer me up to think he would have a friend,” said the woman. “What does your son think?”
“Do you like this little guy?” she asked
“Well, he’s not as much fun as the others,” said the boy, “but maybe he’s a bit overshadowed by his brothers and sisters. Let me hold him for a bit.” The boy took the kitten in his cupped hands and lifted him up to his face. A pair of placid blue eyes looked into his. They looked deep into his. And they spoke to him. And he knew.
“If you don’t want him, we can keep on looking.” said his mother.
“No. This one’s mine.” said the boy, solemnly. “He told me so.”
“Sometimes they do that.” said their foster mother, and she was absolutely serious.
The women shook hands and said their goodbyes, and the boy clutched on tightly to the cardboard carrier containing it’s oh so precious cargo. In the car on the way home, He peered in through the air holes at its tiny occupant, who clung with all his claws to the towel at the bottom of the box, his eyes closed tight in fear.
“Mum, can I call the kitten after Dad?” the boy asked.
Involuntarily, she bit her lip. “Why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t know. It’s a nice name and it suits him, and…well, I think this kitten is special. He’s going to look after us.”
His mother smiled. “OK. I think he’s pretty special too.”
The boy peered into the box again and whispered to its worried little occupant, “Don’t be frightened, Peter. We’re going to have such fun!”
Late that night when the house was quiet, Peter the kitten sat alone in the small box room which was his temporary home. He had everything he could possibly need – bowls of food and water, a litter box, a scratching post, a comfy bed and lots of toys – but an odd feeling was keeping him awake. He felt as if, just maybe, he had been here before. Or somewhere similar. Try as he might, he couldn’t make his memory stretch back further than the last ten weeks.
A tiny sound near the door caught his attention.
“Pssst…” There is was again. He went to investigate.
“Hello.” said a muffled voice from the other side of the door. “Are you going to live here?”
“Yes,” he said. “Who are you?”
“I live here too. I can’t wait to meet you – it’s been a bit lonely here on my own.” A small grey paw appeared beneath the door, so he pressed his own against it.
And there it was again. The trace of a memory, faint, like a tiny star in the farthest reaches of space…. For a second, his head was full of visions of butterflies exploding in swarms out of the long meadow grass and night skies full of stars.
“Do you feel that?” said the grey kitten, “It’s like we were meant to be together. Oh, we’re going to have such fun!” She laughed, and her laugh was like the tinkling of a tiny bell.