I wrote this little piece to mark the passing of Oliver, a former feral who gave up his wandering ways and moved in with my brother and sister-in-law in California. I am publishing it with their permission.
The big feral cat caught sight of his reflection in a still pool at the edge of the stream. He hadn’t really looked at himself that often, for fear that he might not like what he saw, but he was pleasantly surprised. His black bits were properly black, his white bits properly white…a few ancient scars here and there, but he was plump and glossy and his eyes were bright and alert. It was his humans who had done that. He felt a sudden pang of sorrow and longing as he thought about them. Without a second thought, they had opened up their cosy home to him, offered him food to nourish both his body and soul, provided shade from the sun and shelter from the storm. (There had been that tiny bit of unpleasantness with the vet, of course, but that had been long since forgiven.) Most of all, they had given him love, accepted him for what he was and let him continue to be himself, which was the greatest gift a human could ever give to a cat. He gazed a little longer into the depths of the pool, remembering their faces, their voices, their scent…
He shook himself out of his reverie, blinked the mist from his eyes and set his ears and whiskers to the forward position. Time to move on. A new adventure. Just a few minutes earlier, he had emerged from the bridge, through the archway formed from the twisted boughs of two ancient trees and onto the springy grass of the broad greensward that ran along the edge of the neverending chasm. There had been cats everywhere, waiting for loved-ones, greeting loved-ones …but none for him. He didn’t mind. He had always been an independent soul and he was happy to explore this strange new land alone. He breathed in the warm, scented air with its tantalising salty tang of a far-off ocean, stayed for a while to enjoy the feel of the soft turf under his paws then set off, following the same general direction as all the other cats.
He had passed through a glade of young silver birch trees, all dressed in their bright green spring finery, and had almost resisted the temptation to pounce at the dappled shadows which the afternoon sun was casting under them. He had spotted a blue, jewel-like damsel fly and had chased it to the bank of the stream where he had been taken by surprise by his own reflection…
Onwards. He hopped across the flat stones which spanned the water and scrambled up the bank on the other side. Ahead of him, a rough path wound through the grass, trodden and re-trodden by millions of paws, and now to be trodden by his own, heading towards their unknown destination. As he walked, he gradually became aware of a soft rustling, like the noise made by small, agile bodies moving through the grasses on either side of the path. He stopped. The rustling stopped. He moved on. The rustling resumed. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he caught sight of an ear, then a tail tip…. he spun around quickly and found himself – briefly – gazing at close range into the yellow eyes of a big tabby cat. The tabby ineffectually ducked down behind a tussock.
“Too late… I’ve seen you!”
The yellow eyes reappeared above the grass. “Oops…” said the tabby.
“What are you doing?”
“We’re your escort.” replied the tabby. “Everybody starts their journey here in the company of friends, but we thought you might want a little time alone before you met us.”
All around him, cats began to emerge from the grass – cats of all sizes, colours and shapes, all of them bearing the tell-tale signs of lives led on the edge. There were scars and cauliflower ears and bent tails and missing teeth – the proudly-worn badges-of-office of the feral cat.
“Where are we going?”
“To your welcome ceremony.” said the tabby. “We’ll have a bit of a party then, when it’s dark and the Moon comes up, we’ll sing to Her and ask Her to light your star. Then, we’ll party a bit more.”
“I was always told that She didn’t light stars for feral cats. Although, I lived much of my life as a family cat – maybe that’s why I’ll get a star.”
The tabby smiled. “Every cat gets a star. You may have lived half your life with humans, but in your heart and in your bones, you’re still a feral. And, for we ferals, She does something special. You’ll see.”
The by-now long and colourful caravan of feral cats resumed its progress along the path. The yellow-eyed tabby helpfully pointed out places of interest along the way – the tiny brook (good for dipping the paws on a hot day), the patch among the pines where the earth was soft (and good for digging small, essential pits), the tall pine with the gnarled bark (easy to climb for an all-round panoramic view). Eventually, they arrived at a clearing in the woods, where the ground was soft and warm with a deep bed of pine needles and where the slender, straight trunks seemed to climb forever towards the heavens. Looking up, he saw that the sky was clear above their heads and unencumbered by branches or foliage and it was currently turning from blue to pink. The setting sun sent horizontal shafts of gold between the trees, bathing the clearing with warm light, and illuminating the considerable feast which was laid out on tree stumps and flat stones. The place was alive with cats he had never met, but who greeted him like an old friend. As the sun went down, and the sky darkened to violet, then indigo, then black, they ate and drank and danced and sang songs. They also told a few jokes that made even he – who prided himself on his street smarts – lay his ears flat and spit out his sardine sandwich.
When the last of the light had gone, the crowd suddenly became quiet. All the cats finished their snacks, ceased their jokes and dances and, as one, they sat down on the pine carpet and lifted their heads. Above the clearing, the Moon appeared from behind the tops of the pines, in her demure crescent form (secretly, that’s when he thought she looked her most beautiful), surrounded by her tapestry of stars. The yellow-eyed tabby softly cleared his throat and began to sing – a little flat, but it didn’t matter. One by one, the party-goers picked up the song, until the whole wood and the whole world was joined together in singing the praises of Oliver, a feral cat who became a loved cat.
When the song was finished, there was a profound silence as they waited and watched the sky. Ollie did his best to contain his excitement, waiting for his very own star to appear, a privilege he believed would never be his. Would it be big? Would it be small? Would it be bright like a diamond or fiery like a ruby or….he gasped, and a ripple of excitement ran through the assembled ferals. A point of dazzling white light streaked across the sky, trailing behind it a glittering tail of tiny diamond chips which hung in the air for a few seconds, before fading slowly into the night.
“Like Ham the Hunter.” said Ollie, awestruck.
“We are all Ham the Hunter,” said the tabby. “While the house cats get to look down on the earth and watch their loved ones, we ferals roam through the stars, free as the day we were born, coming and going as we please. We can watch the the death of suns, the birth of galaxies, we can nap in nebulae, play catch with comets, feel the solar wind ripple through our fur…it’s her gift to us. She cares for us, but she lets us be ourselves and that is the greatest gift anyone can give to a cat.”
“And my humans…will I ever see them again?”
“If you want to. And they will see you – maybe. If, one night, they are watching the skies and they happen to see a shooting star streaking across the sky…well, they may not recognise you but they will be glad of the sight anyway.”
“I shall go there often,” said Ollie, content at last.
“I never had any humans,” said the tabby, “but if I had, I think I would have liked humans like yours. They must have been special.”
“They were the best humans.” said Ollie, and reached for another sardine sandwich