THE ADVENTURES OF THE LITTLE GREY CAT
Hope you’ll indulge me a little. This story is not cam-related but more personal than that. In early March, I lost my old cat, Edward, who I took in after my mother died. Shortly after, I adopted an eleven year old girl from the shelter where I volunteer. I felt I wanted to give Eddie a proper send off and at the same time to welcome Sybil, a Little Grey Cat.
Once upon a time, there was a little grey cat. She was not, by any conventional measure, a beautiful cat. Her fur was not sleek, nor was it shiny. In fact, it was kind of bristly and somewhat thin, exposing in places the chalky white skin underneath. Her paw pads were grey, but her nose leather was brick red and she had the blackest of black lips, which framed the pink tongue which she often forgot to put away, giving her a slightly comical air. And she was not grey like polished slate, nor grey like burnished steel. No, she was grey like an autumn rain cloud, or a patch of damp fog in the late afternoon of a winter’s day. In fact, it was only her tabby stripes which were grey at all. Her underparts, by contrast, were luxuriantly furred and the colour of a ripe peach, and she kept them clean and spruce with frequent and thorough washes. To the world, though, she was a Little Grey Cat.
Her life thus far had been, for the most part, fairly uneventful – boring even. After she left her mother and siblings, she had lived for ten years with a gentleman who she loved dearly and who fed her well and provided comfy spots in which to sleep. However, he lived in a small apartment, there were few toys and the view from the window was little more than the side wall of the building next door and only the smallest patch of sky. This, for a cat of her status, was a constant source of frustration. Even on the clearest night, she could only see a small handful of stars and only the light reflected against the clouds told her when there was a full moon. On those nights, she sat on the back of the armchair, which was as close as she could get to the window, and sang her song to the Moon and she murred her lowest murr in the hope of getting a response from some other cat – but none came. Over the years, she learned to suppress her disappointment at being unable to fulfil her destiny, according to her status, and she contented herself with being a good companion to her elderly hoomin.
Then, one day, her hoomin disappeared and she found herself bundled into a dark box and bumped and rattled around for what seemed like the longest time, then disgorged into an unfamiliar location, which smelt of unknown cats, hygiene and unhappiness. For so long, she had lived a solitary life with just a single hoomin for company, and no other cats to talk to – even at the full moon – and now she found herself cheek-by-jowl with two strange cats, competing for the best bed, competing for the bowls of crunchies, competing for the attention of the hoomins who visited. She realised that she did not like it. Her tail was constantly puffed up, she found herself growling involuntarily, and she discovered that she had a strong territorial streak of which she had been previously unaware. She and her room-mates were forced to come up with a compromise, which is not a thing that comes naturally to cats. The Little Grey Cat declared that she would have seniority (which was only fitting, considering her status), which gave her dominion over the plastic garden chair in the outdoor area, plus the basket nearest the heater in the indoor bedroom. The others could fight over the best of the rest. They also reached an accord – eventually – regarding the distribution of crunchies. However, it was every cat for themselves when it came to attracting the attention of the visiting hoomins. Now this was something with which the Little Grey Cat had no trouble. She had learned many years ago that the best way to get noticed by hoomins was to shout at them. She had a wide vocabulary and she had noticed that, if you repeated yourself often enough (hoomins being somewhat slow on the uptake) they would eventually understand what you meant. It was hard work, but her hoomin had at last been able to distinguish “food, please” from “treats, please” and “pet me, now!”.
Names, however, were a different matter. Her mother had named her Fahi (pronounced “Prrrrrrtttttmroww”), which meant “Little Shadow”. Her hoomin had named her Sheba, which meant nothing at all and, no matter how many times she had shouted her correct name at him, her hoomin had never, ever used it, so she had given up. Obviously, hoomins were only capable of a rudimentary grasp of language, but she forgave them on account of the fact that they were pretty handy with a can opener.
In the tiny chalet, the days stretched to weeks, the weeks to months. During the day, there was much hustle and bustle, with people bringing food, cleaning floors and fluffing blankets. On some days, other hoomins came in and administered strokes and cuddles and ear scritches, which was a most pleasant interlude, but it didn’t last for long. Then there were the nights, after all the people had left. The Little Grey Cat would sit in her plastic chair and listen to the lamentations of her neighbours, most of whom were confused and lonely, missing their old homes and their old people. She tried hard not to let melancholy overwhelm her, as she realised that those cats who gave up, who curled up in their bedrooms and refused to greet their visitors, were the cats who never left. And plenty of cats did leave. They would pass by her door in their carriers, nervous and apprehensive, off to new lives. She quietly wished them well. But, more than that, she wished that she could be one of them. And she sang to the Moon whenever She was full to ask if that might be possible.
And, after ten long months, the Lady Moon finally granted her wish. The Little Grey Cat found herself back in a carrier being bumped and rattled around, this time not for very long – although she sang the Song of Her People all the way in protest – before she was disgorged into another new location. This one was very different. It didn’t smell of other cats (well, it did slightly), it didn’t smell of unhappiness and it certainly didn’t smell of hygiene. There was a big comfy hoomin bed and big comfy armchairs and a scratcher and a litter box and food and crunchies and…..oh, joy! A huge window, with a wide sill for sitting, and a view of trees and grass and birdies and, best of all, a large expanse of sky. Her new hoomin was one already familiar to her, being one of those who had occasionally come in to administer snuggles. The Little Grey Cat declared herself satisfied with the accommodations, and settled in for the duration.
A few weeks passed, and life for the Little Grey Cat was proving decidedly above average. The meals came regularly, the litter box was kept fresh and clean, there were occasional treats and even a roast chicken dinner from time to time. She and her hoomin spent quality time together, snuggled on the sofa or sleeping on the big bed, and there was even the completely new experience of cat TV, featuring strange cats who didn’t steal her bed or her crunchies, and comical kittens who rolled and tumbled for her amusement, all behind the safety of a small, shiny screen. She had taken to this novelty instantly. But, the thing she liked the most was the big window with the broad sill, where she could sit at night, alone with her thoughts, and count the stars in all their myriad colours and configurations. One night, she even spotted Ham the Hunter, streaking across the sky from west to east, his glittering tail behind him, in pursuit of some unseen celestial prey. From time to time, she was aware of soft sounds in the house – the odd creak, the rustle of fabric, a sound like the padding of soft paws across carpet – all of them just on the very edge of hearing. She dismissed these as the workings of her imagination. But, sometimes, the sounds were accompanied by the smallest breath of wind, as if someone or something had passed close by her face. Despite herself, she would feel her whiskers stiffening and the sparse bristles on the back of her neck beginning to stand on end.
One night in late March, she heard the sound of stealthy paws accompanied by the familiar movement of air near her face, but this time she was certain something had touched her – a tail, maybe, or a whisker…. She peered into the gloom and was certain she could make out a dark shape descending the stairs. Gathering her courage, she followed it as it passed through the carpeted dining room (pad, pad, pad), into the tiled kitchen (click, click, click) and out through the cat door into the back garden. This was odd, because she knew the cat door was locked. She tried to push it with a paw and it did not budge. Mystified, she sat down, trying to see through the transparent plastic door into the dark garden, but she could see nothing. Taking a deep breath, and willing her tail to return to its normal size, she turned to go back up the stairs and stopped dead…. Laying across the threshold between the kitchen and dining room, effectively blocking her way, was an enormous tabby cat. Instinctively, she stood up on her tip-toes, arching her back, her fur stuck out in all directions. She let out a low growl. The tabby cat continued to lay there, regarding her passively with calm, olive eyes.
“What the…. who the….where the….?” The Little Grey Cat was not at her most articulate at this time.
“Hello,” said the tabby. “Don’t mind me.”
“But…but…you’re in my house!” she squeaked, uncertain whether to be frightened or outraged.
“It’s my house, too.” said the tabby. “Or, it was….”
She peered closely at the big cat. Was it her eyesight, or did he look a little fuzzy around the edges? Was his form really wavering slightly, or had she eaten something which disagreed with her?
“I don’t understand.” she said.
“Oh. Well, I’m Edward. I lived here before you. Still do, in a way. I thought I might as well wait here.”
“Wait for what? Shouldn’t you have crossed The Bridge by now?” The Little Grey Cat was aware that there had been a previous occupant in the house. She was also aware of the cardboard box on the kitchen counter which contained his last earthly remains.
“Yes, I suppose so. But I’m not ready yet. Something has to happen first.”
“What?,” she asked.
“Don’t know,” replied the tabby, “but I’ll know when it happens. Until then, I hope you won’t mind if I stick around.”
“Er…no. I suppose not. Perhaps you can answer some questions for me.”
But answer came there none, which was unsurprising considering Edward had completely disappeared.
He did not return the next night, even though she waited up for him, nor the night after that. She began to wonder if his appearance had been nothing more than a protracted and vivid dream after all. On the third day, she was temporarily distracted by an interesting development. As she sat on the kitchen floor giving her paws their post-breakfast wash, she realised that the back door was open. She approached cautiously, and peered outside. The sun was out, although there was a stiff breeze which ruffled her fur and whiskers in an unfamiliar way. It had been so long since she had felt grass under her paws and the wind in her fur, that she felt a little apprehensive. However, her hoomin was not far away, pegging out damp washing on a long line, so she gathered up her courage and stepped out.
Oh! The assault on her senses! Her ears were filled with the roar of the wind and the cheeping and squawking of birds, the drone of human voices and the distant “whoosh, whoosh” of traffic across the fields. And the smells! She immediately set off, anxious to take it all in and create a mental map of her new territory. She sniffed at everything. She could tell where the birds had been, and the mice; there were unfamiliar cats in the vicinity, too – she made a note to find out more. There was the scent of fresh grass and the herby odour of young nettles and tree bark and the distant tang of the ocean, mixed up with the oily fumes drifting in from the road. There were bushes, shrubs and small plants all densely packed together, forming dark, cat-sized highways to a world of wonder. There were wooden fences on which she could perch and scan the horizon for….oh, for anything. Then, she looked up. The blue sky above disappeared into infinity in all directions, uninterrupted by walls or buildings or tall trees. Next full moon, she thought….maybe.
Excited by her outdoor adventures, she ate a hearty meal that night and soon fell asleep on the chair in the dining room, until she was jolted suddenly awake by something touching her nose. As her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, she could make out the shape of the big tabby cat standing in front of her, his front paws resting on the seat of her chair.
“You’ve been sprung, then…” he said.
“Given your freedom,” he translated. “The cat door is unlocked – I’ve tried it. Come outside with me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been outside after dark before.” said the Little Grey Cat.
“It’s magical,” said Edward, heading across the kitchen floor.
She followed, feeling a little nervous. It was true – in all her years, she had never once set foot outside after dark, even though she knew that, in her bones, she was a creature of the night. She wasn’t confident that her eyesight would be up to it, nor that her whiskers would be sensitive enough, nor her sense of smell discerning enough. Still, she had an overwhelming need to please the old, spectral cat – she didn’t know why – so she followed.
Edward was right. The night garden was a world of wonder. As her eyes adjusted, she realised she could see every detail as different shades of grey and silver – she could even see a hundred different shades of black. The scents she had explored earlier that day were tonight magnified a hundred times, and she discovered that her whiskers could tell apart the nettles from the daffodils, the wood of the fence from the bark of the trees. Her whole body felt as if it was charged with electricity. She had never seen or sniffed or felt anything so exciting in her whole life. She could see Edward waiting for her at the end of the flower bed, so she pushed her way through, feeling every grain of earth and every dried leaf and pebble through her paw pads, and gaining in confidence with every step.
She emerged from the flower bed to find herself at the very end of the garden. In front of her was a battered wire fence, behind that, a deep ditch bordering a large field, which seemed to stretch away to infinity. She was startled by unfamiliar animal shapes moving in the distance with strange, grass like tails which flicked incessantly – “Horses,” explained Edward. Then she flinched as something whooshed over her head, screeching eerily – “An owl,” explained Edward. So much to learn, she thought, recovering her composure.
“Look,” Edward turned his face to the sky, and the Little Grey Cat followed his gaze. Laid out above them was a tapestry of dark blue velvet, woven through with silver and golden threads and studded with a million tiny, sparkling jewels. The Little Grey Cat sighed deeply with satisfaction. All this – on her own doorstep.
For many nights after this, Edward and The Little Grey Cat met at the bottom of the garden. They would look up at the sky and she would share her knowledge of the constellations and history and mythology although, it must be said, he seemed to be quite well versed in these subjects already, which was unusual for a he-cat. Someone must have taught him. In return, Edward told her about the other animals with whom she would have to share her garden, and where to find the best napping spots, and he told long rambling stories about his brother and his mother and other cats who he had known in the past. Sometimes, her eyelids would start to droop during these, then she would have to shake her head vigorously to wake herself up again. She didn’t want to insult the old boy, although he probably wouldn’t have noticed.
Then, one night towards the end of April, they met as usual at the end of the garden. Instead of launching into a lengthy anecdote or repeating a joke he had once heard from that siamese who used to live along the road, Edward indicated to her a stout fence post at the very corner of the garden. She had seen it before, of course, but it had never seemed very remarkable. It was leaning slightly, and there were nails protruding from the wood where the wire fencing had become detached at the top. At its foot, there was a small pile of stone slabs which appeared to form steps.
“This was Lia’s place.” said Edward.
“Lia. She crossed the bridge about a year ago. Nobody knew how old she was, least of all Lia herself. She was tiny and bent and wizened and had hardly any fur left, but she was the queen in these parts. Even though her voice was only a dry rasp, like the sound of a wheel rolling over straw, she came here on every full moon – sometimes more often – and she led The Circle from this fence post. She called, the others listened.”
“I thought there was nobody out there,” said the Little Grey Cat. “I’ve called before, but I’ve never had a response.”
“They are waiting for a new queen to lead them. Isn’t that why you’ve come? It is your destiny, after all…as befits your status.”
She gulped, and her vision went all misty for a second. Her mother before her, her mother’s mother before that….
“That’s your place now,” said Edward, nodding towards the fence post, “and there’s something I’d like you to do.”
“This is my last night in this place – the thing that I was waiting for is about to happen. This is not my true home – not the home of my heart. I lived most of my life in another place with my brother and some different hoomins. My brother crossed the bridge a few years ago, then the last of my hoomins followed him. The hoomin’s kitten took me in and we came here because my old home was not hers to keep. Oh, don’t get me wrong – life has been very pleasant here and the hoomin kitten is kind and generous, but I never stopped missing my old house and my old family and my old friends. I missed my sleeping bush and the pond with the big fishes and the little deer who used to visit me and my neighbour cats, Katie and Rufus…but, tomorrow, I am finally going home.”
“I’ll miss you,” she said, and meant it.
“Then remember me,” he said, “for tomorrow night, I’ll cross the Bridge and my brother William will be waiting to greet me and so will Lia, I hope. But, I have nobody left here to sing to The Moon and light my star.”
“But…” She was unable to find any words.
” If you lead, they will follow….don’t forget to tell them your name.”
“It’s Fahi, which means….”
“No. I mean the name the hoomin gave you. The name you go by now.”
“Sybil. My old hoomin called me Sheba, but this one has….”.
“Then tell them you are Sybil. They’ve been waiting for you.”
The following morning, the hoomin kissed Sybil on the top of her head and left the house. Under her arm, she carried the cardboard box containing the last earthly remains of Edward.
So, that night, Sybil slipped through the cat door and pushed her way through the flower bed to the clearing near the fence, and hopped up onto the fence post. For a while she sat, still and quiet, feeling the breeze ruffle her fur, hearing the call of the owl in the distance, the soft crunch, crunch of the horses cropping grass and the distant whoosh of the traffic over the fields, and then she raised her eyes to the sky. Ham the Hunter streaked over once again, this time pursuing his elusive quarry away to the north. She fixed her eyes on the moon as She emerged from behind a wisp of cloud and bathed the whole universe in liquid silver. Clearing her throat, Sybil began to sing, and it was a song she had known her whole life – a song known to every cat in every land under the Moon. And, one by one, other voices began to join in, some far away, some close at hand. The song was soft at first, like the hum of wires on the wind, then gradually more and more voices took it up until the sound filled the whole of the land and sky. Across the fields, across the night, they all lifted up their voices in praise of Edward – a gentle and noble cat.
Much later, Sybil sat indoors on the windowsill, washing her face and arranging her whiskers. What a night! She felt warm and contented, her destiny fulfilled at last, as befitted a cat of her status. Never mind that her fur was sparse and bristly, nor that her tail was thin and undistinguished, nor that she was the colour of damp fog. No – she was the queen around these parts and life was good. Glancing up one more time to where a new star danced, like a bright copper coin, next to its brother, she turned away from the window and jumped onto the bed where the hoomin lay asleep and curled up at the bottom corner.
Then she thought the better of it, and stretched herself out right across the middle.
The Little Grey Cat slept.