“Come away from there. You’ll get a cold in your eye.”
“Oh, Auntie! How can you get a cold in your eye?” The kitten snorted with laughter. “Colds are in your nose!”
She remained stubbornly in the same place, sitting right in front of the mysterious black box, one blue eye pressed up against the shiny circle.
“What are you doing anyway?”
“I’m looking for the Tiny Village. I think it’s in here.”
She turned her head, surruptitiously blinking to disguise the slight squint she had developed from hours of peering into the darkness.
“I’ve heard the hoomins talking about it. The reason we’re here is because there’s this tiny village, and they’re always fussing around with this box with the shiny circle on the front and moving it around and fretting when we knock it down…I suppose because all the people would fall over.”
She reapplied her eye to the glass lens of the camera, confident that, if she concentrated very hard, she would be able to make out the tiny streets and buildings and the even tinier hoomins, who she knew for a fact were living inside.
Auntie smiled. “Sweetheart, I don’t think it’s literally a village. I think it means something else. Why don’t you come away before you do yourself a mischief.”
“Hmmmm…” mused the kitten. “Perhaps it’s night and that’s why I can’t see anything.”
“Let me see if I can explain this to you,” said Auntie. “Come and sit on the blanket and I’ll tell you a story.”
The kitten reluctantly turned away from the camera and sat down on the blanket next to her aunt. From all corners of the room, other kittens – her brothers, sisters and cousins, piled onto the blanket with her, their paws tucked under, their ears forward. They loved auntie’s stories. Auntie cleared her throat, and began.
“Once upon a time, there was a young kitten, who lived with her large, extended family on the edge of a big, dark forest.”
“What colour was she?” demanded the kitten.
“She was white. Now, settle down and let me…”
“What colour were her eyes?”
“They were blue. Now, can I continue?”
“She was a happy kitten but, amongst all of her family, she was the most adventurous and this sometimes got her into trouble.”
“Was she floofy?”
“Enough questions now. Yes, she was floofy. White, with blue eyes and floofy – very much like you in fact.”
The kitten preened a little.
“One day, when she was out playing with her brothers and sisters, she caught sight of something wonderful fluttering across the farmyard. She had never seen anything so bright or so colourful or anything that moved in such an alluring fashion. She felt compelled to follow it as it flittered and skittered through the undergrowth, occasionally alighting on a flower, then dancing away again into the air. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen and she didn’t want to lose sight of it, so she ran through the grasses and the flowers and the bushes, desperate to keep up with it. The elusive, jewel-like creature never seemed to stop for more than a second before it was off again in another direction and she was mesmerised, so she ran and she ran, trying to catch up to it. As she emerged from a thick patch of bracken, she caught sight of her quarry dancing in a beam of sunlight, before it rose up and up, finally disappearing amongst the thick canopy of the trees.”
“What was it?” demanded the kitten on the blanket.
“It was a butterfly,” replied auntie.
“Like that one?” The kitten indicated the bent and broken wire, at the end of which a replica butterfly occasionally flapped in a desultory fashion, all but defeated by the relentless onslaught of nine kittens and the occasional adult who was old enough to know better.
“Not really…” Auntie sighed. “Anyway…the kitten lost sight of her butterfly so she thought she should probably head home. She’d been gone longer than usual and they would be wondering where she was. She turned around to retrace her steps, then she realised she had no idea which way to go. She had followed the butterfly hither and thither and she hadn’t made a note of all the ways she had turned. She peered into the trees ahead of her. They looked exactly the same as the trees behind her, which were exactly the same as the trees on either side of her. She was lost…and quite alone.”
The kitten’s blue eyes were like saucers, and she gave a little gasp. Auntie loved a captive audience.
“She wandered around for a while, looking for something – anything – that looked familiar, but every mossy stone looked like every other mossy stone and every log looked like every other log and she realised it was hopeless. Sitting down under a tall tree, she began to weep.”
The kitten sniffled a little and her lip wobbled. “But, what if she never gets home…?”
“Ssshhh…” said Auntie. “Let me carry on.”
“She didn’t know how long she sat beneath the tree, or how many tears she wept but, after a while, she felt something hard hit her on the head and bounce off. Looking down, she saw an acorn near her foot. A second later, another one bounced off her skull onto the ground. Her tears ceased for a minute and she looked upwards. Above her, clinging to the trunk of the tree, its beady black eye staring directly into hers, was a squirrel. He had an armful of acorns and he was frozen in the act of aiming another one at her woolly head.
“Oy” she said, scowling. “That hurts.”
“Sorry.” replied the squirrel. “Couldn’t resist. You’re so shiny white, you stick out a mile in the forest. What the heck are you doing here?”
“Oh, I was chasing a beautiful fairy creature through the forest and it disappeared and now I don’t know which way I came and I can’t find my way home…” the tears began to flow again.
“Well, I expect I can help you.” said the squirrel. “Tell me what your home looks like, and I’ll climb the tallest pine tree and scan the horizon until I see it, then you’ll know which way to go.”
She described the place with the houses and the cosy barn where she had been born and then she described all her brothers and sisters and all the adult cats in the colony and…
“Whoa!” said the squirrel. “My eyesight isn’t that good! I may be able to spot the buildings from up here, but I can’t recognise all your relatives.” He scanned the horizon, just like he promised. “Does the house have a red roof?”
“Does the barn have a big double door and a green tractor outside?”
“OK…” The squirrel scurried back down the trunk. “Follow me.”
Together, they dashed across the forest floor, the kitten having to run full pelt to keep up. Every now and then, the squirrel would point out places of interest (to him)…”I buried some acorns under that tree there….that bush has the best hazelnuts…blackberries are really nice, but they don’t store well…” She had no idea what a hazelnut or a blackberry was, but she feigned interest nonetheless.
The forest began to get darker and there was a chill in the air. She wished she was back at home – they would be getting ready for their evening meal, then it would be after-dinner play time, then nap time all snuggled together… She wondered if they had missed her.
“Of course they missed her! I bet they were all out looking for her…” The kitten’s eyes were moist.
“Sshh,” said Auntie once again.
“After a while, the squirrel stopped in his tracks. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but it’s getting dark and I can’t find my way around at night. I have to get back to my own tree.”
“But… please don’t leave me alone out here!” the kitten pleaded.
“Of course I won’t. I can’t travel at night, but I know someone who can.”
She heard a flapping and a rustling in the branches and a huge bird descended from a tall oak tree and alighted in front of them.
“This is owl.” said the squirrel. “She will help you now.” He turned around and scurried back the way they had come.
The owl regarded her with enormous yellow eyes. “I can’t take you far…” she hooted, “as I get around by flying and you can only run along the ground, but I can keep you safe until it’s light. Follow me.”
She stretched her enormous wings and flew up into the lowest branch of the oak tree. “Come on, you can climb this far I think. Really dig those claws in.”
The kitten was tired and cold and afraid, but she made the effort and found the rough bark was easier to climb than she had imagined. She scrambled onto the branch next to the owl.
“You must be starving.” said Owl. “Here…”
She stuck her feathery head into a hollow and pulled out a dead mouse, which she laid before the kitten, who grimaced.
“Come on, eat up!” said the owl. “This is the food of your ancestors.”
Hunger overcame her squeamishness and, closing her eyes, she bit into the flesh. It wasn’t the same as the bowls of soft meat paste which she was used to, and she wasn’t sure what to do with the boney bits, but it was better than nothing.
Soon it was completely dark and very cold. The owl stretched out her wing.
“Snuggle under here.” she said. “In the morning you can continue your journey.”
So, the kitten snuggled under the owl’s great wing and slept as best she could, although she was constantly afraid she might fall off her branch. Still, she was warm and she felt safe.
At dawn, the owl yawned and opened her wings, exposing the kitten to the chill of the morning. The sudden cold came as a shock and her fur was a little damp in places, but she was ready to face the next stage of her journey.
“I don’t travel much in the daytime,” said the owl, “so I can’t guide you home and, what’s more, the eagle has been spotted hunting for his breakfast and he could easily grab a small creature like you. whose fur shines like the sun. I will hand you over to my friend here.”
At the bottom of the tree, the kitten was startled to see the ground appear to move and ripple, then swell into a small mound. Her eyes grew wide with astonishment as a shiny black head burst through the soil and spoke to her – even though the strange new creature was facing the wrong way.
“I’m mole,” he announced, to nobody.
“Ahem…” she gave a polite little cough, and the mole swivelled round.
“Beg your pardon,” he said, “I don’t see so well Follow me.”
She was shocked when the little creature dived back underground and she realised she was expected to follow.
“But my fur will get all dirty!”
“You can worry about that later. First, we have to get you home.”
Reluctantly, she followed the mole down the hole he had made and she was surprised to find herself in a perfect little tunnel – warm and dry and free of worms, with just a few odd plant roots poking through the roof. She followed the mole as he waddled along his network of tunnels, sometimes branching off into another – just as neat as the first – and turning left, then right, then left again. She had no idea how he could possibly know where he was going. At last, the mole stopped and stuck his head up, sniffing the air with his pink snout.
“This is where I have to stop. We’ve reached the river and I cannot cross, so I will hand you over to someone who can help you continue your journey. That way, please.” The mole pointed his spade-like paw upwards and she noticed a small air shaft leading back up to ground level. She emerged into the cold air to find herself on the bank of a wide river, which flowed through the forest in lazy meanders. It looked very deep and very dark, although she was fascinated by the darting silver shapes she could see under the surface. A magnificent white bird paddled serenely and silently into view and stopped in front of her.
“I’m Swan,” said the swan, bending his long, elegant neck and putting his face up to hers. “I can get you across the river, but no more. I’m a water fowl and my home and family are here, so I cannot stray too far from the banks. Climb aboard.” He turned around and moved his snowy wings aside so she could see his broad, strong back. Gingerly, she slithered down the bank and climbed aboard the swan, being careful to keep her claws retracted so as not to damage any of his pristine feathers. Gently and quietly, they sailed across the river, hardly even disturbing the water. She caught sight of the darting silver shapes under the surface once again and only just resisted the temptation to dabble her paws into the water to catch them. Her swan ride was stately and dignified – concepts previously unknown to the rambunctious kitten – and she felt that she would rather like to do this again some day. “Are we nearly there yet?” she asked, but received no reply. They reached the far bank. She thanked the swan and watched as he turned and scudded away. Another bird, just as beautiful, met him in the middle of the river, and they both dipped their heads and touched their foreheads together, forming a heart shape with their necks, before disappearing together downstream.
“Watcha.” said a voice, and she looked up to see a cheerful looking red fox regarding her with amusement, his head cocked on one side.
“Don’t I know you?” asked the kitten.
“Yep,” he replied. “I hang around your place all the time. The pickings are good and I can eat well there.”
“Is it far away?” she asked. “I’m afraid my family will be missing me.”
“They are.” he said. “They’re quite frantic. I promised them I would look for you, so I put the word out for everyone in the forest to keep an eye out for you. Now, let’s get going”
He set off at a trot, the white kitten at his heels. She was now even more desperate to get home, knowing her family was worrying about her and, besides, she missed them – even her boisterous brothers, who jumped on her back and chewed her ears.
Soon, the trees began to thin and give way to hazel and hawthorn bushes, then tall grasses, then…a familiar yard, a house with a red roof, a barn with a big double door and a green tractor…
She squealed with delight as she saw her family, all running towards her. The adult cats greeted her by frantically washing her face and head, her brothers greeted her by jumping on her back and chewing her ears – but she didn’t mind. She was home. She turned to the fox, who was already trotting away across the yard.
“Where are you going? Can’t you stay?”
“No can do.” said the fox. “I have important business to attend to, but I’ll let them know you made it home safe.”
“Tell them I’m grateful.” she called.
“They know.” he called back, as his thick red brush disappeared around the corner of the barn.
It was quite the reunion. The kitten spent the evening having the mud and soil and bits of twig bathed off her by at least three adults, then – just this once – she got first pick at the food bowl. After all the excitement, she cuddled up with her family, warm and snug, and slept the night away.”
The white kitten on the blanket heaved a deep sigh. “I knew she’d get home in the end.” she declared.
“Yes, she made it home none the worse for her adventure, thanks to lots of help from lots of very different and sometimes surprising sources. And that, you see, is how a village works. It’s not about streets and houses and churches and things, it’s about people (and animals) all helping each other in the best way they can. Maybe the kitten could have found her way home unaided, but it’s unlikely. She needed each of those other animals to help her in the only way they knew how. The squirrel could climb to the top of the tall tree, the owl could shelter her from the night, the mole could keep her safe from the eagle, the swan could negotiate the river and the fox wasn’t afraid to approach the farmyard.”
“So, there isn’t really a tiny village inside the box?” The white kitten was a little disappointed.
“No, of course not. The hoomins are simply talking about all the people who help them to help us, in whatever way they are best able. Now, nap time. The others didn’t even make it to the end of the story.”
The blanket was covered in slumbering kittens. The white kitten yawned and stretched and decided that a quick snack was in order before her nap. On her way to the dish, she couldn’t resist one last peer into the camera lens – just to make absolutely sure, you know?
On the other side of the lens, the tiny village watched silently as the turquoise blue marble seemed to fill the whole sky, shutting off the light and plunging all into total darkness. Then, it withdrew and the light flooded back.
“All clear!” shouted a voice.
And the tiny village went about its business.