It’s been a tough few months at Tinykittens but, sometimes, wonderful things happen
Toothless was in charge, as always. He had seniority – or at least, that was what he thought. His trusted lieutenant (and occasional enforcer) was Cindy Lou and he was grateful for her back-up. Those big blue eyes and innocent face disguised a steely determination and a will of iron – Cindy spoke, the kittens listened. But, ostensibly, he was the one in charge. His style tended to be more democratic, and he was currently raising his eyes to the heavens as a cacophany of shrill voices clamoured to be heard above those of their siblings and friends. It was a mistake he made time after time – Cindy had often advised him to pick the games himself but, no. He always asked the kitten pack what they would like to play, and this was the result.
“Quiet!” bellowed Cindy. There was an almost instantaneous hush, apart from one lone voice, which squeaked “kiss chase!” before being silenced by a stern look from Cindy. She beamed at Toothless. “All yours,” she said.
“No, Okoye. We’re not playing kiss chase today. You know what happened last time. Quimby’s whiskers are still all bent on one side.. Easter – you pick.”
Easter chose to play “butterfly roundup” and she would be the one to shake the bush to make the butterflies all take off together, like a huge, jewelled cloud. The object was not to catch the butterflies, but to keep them airborne for as long as possible by gently batting them with paws or nose. It was a lot of fun, and the Eggs always won. They worked not so much as a team, but as a single unit. They were very disciplined, singling out their butterfly and guiding it in the right direction so a sibling could take over. They had been known to keep the same butterfly aloft for an hour, only backing down and letting the hapless creature alight when they realised it was dinner time. Toothless himself did not excel at this game. The last time they had played, he had lost sight of his butterfly in a matter of seconds and had run around searching for it for several minutes before Cindy pointed out that it was snoozing peacefully on his head.
He decided to sit this one out. After calling “go”, he settled down on a flat stone, warm from the sun, and tucked in his paws to watch the fun. As usual, Easter and her Egg brothers and sisters had their butterfly separated from the cloud in no time, and were ducking and weaving like tiny fireballs, their orange fur flashing like gold. The other kittens bumbled around, less focused but giggling with glee as they collided with each other and tripped over their own feet. Pretty soon, the Eggs were the only kittens still to have their butterfly in play, so round one was declared a victory for them and Toothless called time out for washing and other essential functions.
Cindy flopped down beside him, out of breath. “Don’t you want to play?” she asked.
“Not today,” he said. “I’m not really in the playing mood. I think I’ll take a walk.”
“You going to the edge?” she asked.
“Maybe,” he replied. “OK, yes. Yes I am.”
“Mind if I come too?”
The two friends left the other kittens chasing butterflies, every other flying creature in the meadow and each other, and pushed through the hedge towards the path.
From time to time, every cat and kitten would take the rough path that wound through the fields, pouncing at the moths and dragonflies that they disturbed, cross the little brook with the tiny fishes via a series of flat stones, stopping only to dip a paw into the water to make the little creatures dart away with a flash of silver, scramble up the bank and into the glade of silver birch trees, where the dappled light danced in such an alluring fashion that, sometimes, they would nearly forget what they came for. But, eventually they would arrive at the broad belt of springy grass that bordered the Neverending Chasm.
It was always busy there. There would be cats waiting by the bridge to greet loved ones, or waiting to greet strangers so they would not be alone when they first stepped off, or peering into the gloom over the edge to watch over family and friends on the other side. And, sometimes, there would be brave souls ready to set off in the other direction. It is well known that cats have nine lives, although the humans have always misunderstood what this means. Some cats content themselves with just the one, and carry the memories of it with them into eternity, but most choose to return at least once. Friends would come with them to see them off – noses would be booped, tears shed, pledges made never to forget….and off they would go, into the shimmering grey mist of the bridge, and an unknown future.
Just lately, Toothless had found himself taking the path more and more often. He would lay down at the edge and scan the swirling darkness with its billion twinkling stars until he located the right one. Then, he would focus his eyes until the confusion in the Neverending Chasm gradually resolved itself into a scene – a scene of domestic bliss. There would be one or two of his siblings – Flower, Bluebell, Walt, Thumper, Bambi, Owl, Daisy…looking sleek and beautiful, well-fed and blissfully content. He was beginning to find the scene more and more alluring.
Across the bridge, if you arrived a kitten, you stayed a kitten – which was wonderful of course with so many trees to climb and butterflies to chase and friends to play with – but he was beginning to feel just a tiny tug in his heart every time he watched his family. They had grown up. They were making memories. What would that be like? One day, he had been surprised to arrive at the edge to find Cindy Lou already there, alone, her chin resting on her paws and a wistful expression on her face. He understood, and decided to leave her alone with her thoughts.
On this day, the pair arrived together. “There you are. I’ve been waiting here for ages – I don’t have all day, you know!”. They were startled by the familiar voice and turned around to find themselves nose to nose with Quark, the stately feral who they all referred to as “Auntie”, but they secretly thought of as their mother. “Where have you been? You set off ages ago!”
Well, they had perhaps wasted a little time on the way, like when they climbed that pine tree to peer into the hole half way up the trunk and were chased away by an irate woodpecker. And then they had stopped to listen to the loud thrumming noise made by the colony of bees inside the old oak, and they each made a leaf boat and launched them onto the stream, then run along the bank to see whose boat arrived at the crossing stones first. Then there was the birch glade – well, you have to stop a little while to chase the sunbeams, don’t you, or it wouldn’t be a proper walk! And anyway, they didn’t know Auntie Quark was waiting for them. All of this went through their heads, but all they said was “Sorry.”
“What are you doing here, Auntie?” asked Toothless.
“I thought you might want to talk.” she said. “You are reaching a crossroads and you will have to choose your path. You may have questions.”
He was surprised that Auntie Quark appeared to know his innermost thoughts, but then, maybe he wasn’t. She always seemed to know.
“I have loads of questions!” he blurted out. “How do you choose? How can you bear to leave here? How can you ever leave behind your friends and your family and everything we have here? How can you be sure you will have a good life if you leave? What if you think you want to go back, but you can’t bear to leave someone special?” He glanced at Cindy Lou and tailed off.
“All good questions,” said Auntie “and the answer to all of them is that there are no answers. We all have to choose. We all reach the point where we have to decide which way our destiny lies. It is not an easy choice, and some take the easier road and some the harder, but we must all, eventually, pick a road. It is a leap of faith. Now, I had a reasonably long life on the other side, although it was cut a bit short rather suddenly. However, it was a life full of challenges, and interest and excitement and a great deal of love. I cherish the memory of it and I am in no hurry to exchange those memories for new experiences. But you… you haven’t had a life yet. You’ve never watched a thunderstorm, or felt snow under your paws, or had to use your own guile and courage to catch your next meal, or to defend your tiny babies from predators. Also, you have never sat on the lap of a loving human, or waited excitedly at a door knowing they are about to come through it, or understood what it feels like to know you are making a human life complete. Any of these things may await you on the other side. You may cross back to a city or a desert or a jungle or you may be a different shape, size or colour. The one thing that is certain is that you will always be, fundamentally, you. You will always be the same gentle, generous, optimistic Toothless that you are today. As for your desire not to leave someone special behind, well, I think Cindy may have something to say about that.”
Cindy smiled. “I have made my choice. If you go, I go too.”
“Remember, there are no guarantees. Just because you leave together it doesn’t mean you will definitely meet again on the other side – but, you may.” Quark booped his nose. “Sing to the Moon, little man. Tell her what you want and leave nothing out. And maybe, just maybe, she will be in a listening mood. Who knows?” Quark turned away from the edge and walked, in her usual dignified fashion, into the birch glade. Watching her go, Toothless was amused to see her suddenly leap into the air and spin around, before dancing off in pursuit of those elusive sunbeams.
“Are you sure, Cindy?” he asked.
“Absolutely.” she replied. “I made my mind up a while ago, but I wanted to wait and see what you wanted to do. I know there is very little chance that we will be together on the other side, but I thought, if I go and you stay, then there is no chance at all.”
“Then we’ll sing to the Moon together. I think I’m feeling lucky today.”
* * *
Everyone was there. Cindy and Toothless now understood the emotional scenes they had witnessed before at the end of the bridge. All the kittens hugged them, sniffling copiously, and the adults wished them well and whispered nuggets of advice into their ears (“it’s good to receive, but better to give”, “be there for them and they will be there for you”, “consider carefully before you step through a door that has been opened for you”, “it’s only a cucumber”).
There were many, many tears – even the normally pragmatic Auntie Quark choked back a small sob. She put her face close to his, and whispered “I will always love you. I’ll be counting the days until we meet again.” which made him cry. After he had wiped away his tears and his vision had cleared, he realised she had gone.
Toothless sought out Nano. He was easy to pick out in a crowd because, despite his tiny stature, the fur on his head still stuck up like cupboard full of brushes, even after all this time.
“Keep an eye on them, Nano,” he said. “They will look up to you – they always have, and Dove will back you up. You are very special to her.”
“It won’t be the same without you,” said Nano, his eyes bright with tears. Unable to think of anything more profound to say, he said “We’ll be two short for butterfly roundup tomorrow.”
Toothless raised his head and sniffed the air. His whiskers twitched.
“No you won’t,” he said dreamily, sniffing a little more. “Someone’s coming…”
* * *
There was a feeling of panic. It was dark, like the blackest night. He could no longer smell the warm evening air, with its scent of new grass and meadow herbs. He couldn’t see the birch trees, or the butterflies, or his friends…
Instead, there was the odour of warm bodies, the soapy tang of a freshly laundered blanket and – oh joy! – the honey sweet smell of mother’s milk. As he tried to cling on to his fast-fading memories, he let out a small cry and a gentle paw reached out and scooped him in, until his face was pressed up against the familiar heat and softness of his mother’s belly. As he nosed around for the source of the milky smell, he bumped against another small, furry body. It felt familiar and safe, as if they shared something secret that belonged to another lifetime. Locating a suitable nipple, he clamped on and sucked hungrily as, beside him, his sister did the same. As his belly filled, his anticipation and excitement grew. He was ready for anything. Ready for life.
* * *
Nano was in charge. With Dove by his side, he mustered the gang together as best he could. His attempt to line them all up to do a head count had ended in failure, when the Eggs had stood at the end of the line to be counted, then run around behind the others to be counted again at the other end. They were now rolling on the ground, helpless with laughter. He sighed. This leader thing was not going to be as easy as he thought.
“OK. What shall we play? No, Okoye – NOT kiss chase!” He looked at the two new faces, who gazed at him wide-eyed with excitement. “What would you like to play?” he asked.
“We don’t know any games.” replied one of them.
“Butterfly roundup!” shouted an Egg. “They can start it off.”
Nano showed the two girls how to shake the bush to raise the butterflies and pretty soon they were off, running and leaping and giggling with the others. The game went on late into the afternoon and, do you know? Mercy and Tesla turned out to be pretty good.