The kitten lay on his back and contemplated the ceiling, and his current situation. He didn’t know how, but he had somehow rolled into a sort of ditch where the blanket had pulled away from the edge of the bed and created a gap, and he was stuck. He flailed a little, uselessly, flapping his feet in an effort to roll himself onto his stomach. He stretched, he twisted, he flailed again, he squeaked in protest – to no avail. He ceased his struggles for a while in order to get his breath back. As he lay quiet, still contemplating the same patch of ceiling, he became aware of a low, rhythmic rumbling sound close to his ear. There was a source of heat close to his face, and some bristly fur was tickling his nose, making him want to sneeze.
“Aaaah…CHOOO!”. The strength of the sneeze startled even him, and the large, bristly, rumbling heat source suddenly rose up and turned its face towards the kitten.
“Nano? That you?” muttered the old cat, blinking sleepily, its face so close to the kitten’s that its hot breath ruffled his whiskers.
“I’m Pigpen”, said Pigpen.
“Pigpen, eh? You know, there was a pigpen near where I grew up. Wise creatures, pigs, and friendly enough, provided you keep your snout out of their swill. A little niffy, though, especially in hot weather.”
“Can you help me?” asked Pigpen. “I seem to be stuck.”
“Stuck, eh? I was once stuck too. Got the old noggin through a hole in a fence when the farmer’s dogs were loose in the yard and could’ve spotted me at any second. Had the devil’s own job pulling myself back out. It’s the ears, you see. Treacherous things, ears. What I did in the end was….”
“Er…..please?” Pigpen was becoming frustrated, and flapped his paws in a renewed effort to free himself.
“Oh…er, right.” The old cat slid his hind foot under Pigpen’s back and lifted. Pigpen popped out of his trap like a Champagne cork and landed the right way up. “Now, let me take a look at you.”
He inspected Pigpen at close quarters.
“Hmmmm…” he said. “Typical of youngsters today. Hair all over the place, whiskers sticking up, down, every which way. If I’d presented myself like that to my mother, she’d have baffed me for an hour straight with her sandpaper tongue, and trimmed my whiskers down to the nubs with her teeth, all the while sitting on my…”
“Who’s Nano?” interrupted Pigpen, as the old boy set about re-styling the fur around his ears.
“Oh… no-one.”., The old cat paused, mid-rasp, a wistful expression on his face. “You just put me in mind of a kitten I once knew – just at first. Now I see you the correct way up, you don’t resemble him at all.”
“And who are you?”
“Me? Why I am the Lord High Mason of the Fiery Palace, Prince of the Second Kingdom, The Slayer of Rats, The Scourge of Vermin, Lord of the Hayloft, Dark Knight of the Crooked Tail….”
Pigpen’s eyes were like saucers.
“…but you can call me Grandpa.”
“Pleased to meet you, Grandpa,” said Pigpen, because he was a polite kitten, except when he was hungry.
“How many moons are you, Pigsty? You seem quite small.”
“Pigpen. What’s a moon?”
“Hmmm. Then you are indeed very small. There, I have improved the fur around your ears. It is laying down flatter now, although you should probably let it dry for a while. Now I wish to nap. You should nap too.”
“But I’m too excited to nap. I want to use these.” Pigpen raised his front paw to show Grandpa his long, curving claws. “I only noticed them the other day, and they must have loads of uses, apart from looking magnificent, of course.”
Grandpa smiled. “They do indeed have many uses, young Pigsear. If you think they are magnificent now, just wait until you can do this!” Grandpa extended his claws so they were nearly touching Pigpen’s nose, then he slowly retracted them again.
“Wow…” Pigpen breathed. “I can’t wait.”
“All in good time, Porkpie.”
“Right. I tell you what, if I tell you a story, will you promise to take a nap?”
Pigpen stared at his claws, willing them to slide back into his paws as Grandpa’s had done. “OK Grandpa,” he said with a small sigh. Willpower alone was clearly not enough, and his claws remained resolutely exposed, but they still looked magnificent nonetheless. “Can I snuggle?”
“OK, you can snuggle. Not there. Up here, where I can reach you with my Kitten Flattening Paw, should the need arise. Now, are you comfortable, Pitstop? For this tale begins one dark and stormy night on the farm where I was born. Such a night we had never seen in our lives…”
At that moment, the face of a young she-cat appeared over the rim of the bed and grinned at them. “Hi, Small Fry. Who are you?” she asked.
“If you don’t mind, Miss Aura, I shall deal with the young gentleman’s education. His name is Stirfry..or possibly Stipend… oh heck – what is it again?”
“Well, Pigpen,” said Aura, “looks like you’ve still got a bit of growing to do, but when you’re ready, there’s some cool toys I can show you. There’s the butterfly on a wire, there’s the yellow whirly thing, there’s the big cheese toy – I love that one – there’s the feather on a stick…”
“Be off with you,” said Grandpa. “I’m busy with young Porkchop here. Go find a tuxie to torment.” Aura leaned over and kissed Grandpa cheekily on the nose and gave Pigpen a conspiratorial wink before she disappeared.
“I don’t know,” huffed Grandpa, “young cats today – so many toys they don’t have time to play with them all. Do you know what I had to play with when I was her age? LEAVES, that’s what! All these things that go beep and bzzz and fly around on their own and are filled with intoxicants..What’s wrong with a good stick, eh? That’s what I want to know!”.
Pigpen couldn’t help noticing that, despite his disgruntled tone, Grandpa’s eyes were full of affection as he watched Aura dancing away across the room.
“Grandpa …. the story?”
“Oh yes – dark and stormy night in the farmyard.. yaddah yaddah..done that bit..such as we’d never seen in our whole lives..yaddah yaddah.. right!”. Grandpa flopped his front leg over Pigpen’s neck, pinning him down, and resumed his story.
“The lightning was so brilliant, it dazzled the eyes and the whole farm was lit up brighter than the brightest day, and the flashes were so frequent, it was as if the whole night had been chased away. The thunder crashed and rolled and rumbled round and round the sky, sometimes so loud it hurt the ears, as if a great monster was rampaging through the forest, destroying all in its path. Even the Lady Moon was afraid to show her face that night. The rain fell in a great sheet. There were torrents of water pouring off the roofs of the buildings, filling up all the ditches and holes and spaces. A river surged through the farmyard and began to inundate the barns and trees and wood piles where we lived, threatening the nests and their tiny occupants, too small to climb to safety.
We adults all met in the largest of the barns to decide what to do. It was obvious that, even though the rain was pouring in through gaps in the roof, the hayloft was the safest place to hide and wait out the storm. We directed all the mothers whose kittens were small enough to bring them, one by one, to the ladder which led up to the loft. Then everyone had to help by picking them up in their mouths and carrying them up the ladder. Me and some of the other senior cats then fetched the larger kittens. I myself ferried seven kittens across the floor of the barn – and some even across the flooded yard – and up that ladder to the top. It was exhausting work, but I like to think my handling of the babies, even under such extreme duress, was exemplary and we saved many tiny lives that night. In fact, my kitten carrying skills are something I still like to demonstrate to this day – as you will maybe find out, young Pipsqueak.”
“Pigpen,” said Pigpen, wrigging out from under Grandpa’s restraining paw, his eyes wide. “I have never seen a storm, Grandpa. Do they happen a lot?”
“Not like that one. And you have no reason to be afraid ot them. You are all toasty warm and safe in here. Nobody will let any harm come to you. Shall I carry on?”
Grandpa flopped a hind foot across Pigpen’s back and gave his face a brisk wash. “Well, we had lifted the last of the kittens to safety – or so we thought – and we were preparing to hunker down together in the driest spot we could find, when a terrified young she-cat ran up to us, soaking wet, her face a mask of terror. “Sir! Sir! Please…. “ she cried, “I can’t find my kittens! They are very independent and they were playing out in the yard before the storm began. I have called and called, but the thunder is so loud I cannot hear them if they mew and I have searched everywhere, but it’s just too dark to see them. I’m afraid they may have been washed away by the rain, or struck by lightning, or eaten by the thunder monster!. Please, help me find them!”
“We did our best to calm down the panic-stricken mother and sent her up to the hayloft to be baffed and comforted by the others, then three of the most senior cats – myself included, touched paws, gritted our teeth and headed out into the storm, to search for the lost kittens. We decided to split up. My destination was the big open-fronted barn at the far side of the yard. The thunder was beginning to recede a little now, but the rain was still pounding and now the wind was picking up, blowing straight into my face so I could barely see. The rain had washed away all our familiar scents, so I had to rely on the lightning flashes to illuminate the yard and enable me to get my bearings. I made it into the big open barn, where I was at least out of the worst of the wind, but it was as black as pitch in there, so I had to rely on my nose and my whiskers to make my way around the walls.”
Pigpen unconsciously touched his paw to his whiskers, wondering if they could help him to find his way through the dark too. He determined to find out at the first opportunity.
“I sniffed and I called and I cocked my head to the side, straining to pick up any sound a lost kitten might make. It was very difficult, as the wind was buffeting the roof of the barn, making a fearsome clatter. However, after several minutes, my sharp hearing picked up the softest of mews, and an opportune flash of lightning revealed three sets of little round kitten eyes, reflecting from behind some tin cans in the far corner of the barn. The kittens were found, but they were huddled together against the wall, too afraid to come out.
I called to them to follow me. I promised them they would be safe, told them that their mother was frantic with worry about them, but still they would not budge. I tried to sound stern – and I can be very stern when I want, young Hamhock – and order them to come out, but still they huddled. Then, the smallest of them lifted a trembling paw and pointed into the darkness. “Monster!” he squeaked. I peered into the gloom, and could see nothing. Then, a flash of lightning illuminated the whole barn and, in that split second, I saw it. The Monster!”
Grandpa had told this story to enough kittens by now to know that a dramatic pause at that point was guaranteed to provoke quite a response in his small listeners. Not always a good one, but he figured he could always go and sleep somewhere else until the blanket dried out. Pigpen just stuffed his paw into his mouth and chewed his toes nervously.
“Was it the thunder monster, Grandpa?” whispered Pigpen
“I don’t think so. The thunder monster had gone back into the forest at this point. His booms and growls were much quieter now. This was another monster – one of enormous size. It sat, very still and brooding, in the middle of the barn. I must have walked straight past it without seeing it – but I could see its shape and bulk now. It was completely silent, but I knew it was looking straight at me – I could feel its presence and it could feel mine. There was another flash and, in that split second, I could see its soulless, silvery eye and its massive, hooked claws, poised ready to slash at its unwary prey. They were like knives, and they were stained with the red blood of its earlier victims.”
Pigpen shrank back against the side of the bed, trembling. “What did you do, Grandpa?”
“My only thought was to protect those kittens. I positioned myself in front of them, prepared to fight to the death should the great creature move towards us, but it didn’t. It just continued to squat menacingly in the middle of the barn. As the storm continued to move away, and the noise died down, I actually dozed off for a while, believing we were totally hidden in our corner behind the cans. That… (he paused again) was my biggest mistake.”
The hackles rose down Pigpen’s spine. He felt his tail begin to bush out. “Whoa – weird!” he thought, looking over his shoulder at the impressive display of puffiness.
Grandpa continued, pleased with the effect he was having on his young charge. “I was woken up shortly after by….something. It was still dark, but I could see the sky outside beginning to look more grey than black as dawn approached. I lay still, and as I did, I became aware of something wet and slimy moving along the ground beside me. It made hardly any noise. It was dark, and resembled a striped snake – I had never seen anything like it before. As I lay, hardly daring to breathe, it began to move off the floor and climb up my haunch, then it slid slowly along my back, moving from side to side as it went. It seemed to sense my feelings as, the more afraid I became, the faster the thing moved and the more it waved from side to side. Suddenly, its head rose up and it darted towards my face…”
“Did it eat you?” gasped Pigpen
“I will not even dignify that question with a response, young Pakchoi” sighed Grandpa “Now, stop interrupting.”
“But…” Pigpen thought the better of saying anything more, and stuffed his paw back into his mouth.
“Yes – I could see the snake out of the corner of my right eye. It was evil looking, covered with great brown and black scales which dripped with water and gleamed in the dim light. I could think of no other course of action. As it turned its face towards me and stared me right in the eye….”
“I screwed up my courage….”
“Prayed to the Moon to protect me….”
“And I BIT! HARD!”
“And that’s how I got these two kinks in my tail.” Grandpa flopped his bent tail onto Pigpen’s head, then he lay back. “Now young Potroast, you promised you would take a nap.”
“Oh, Grandpa…. and its Pigpen,” said Pigpen. He was still too excited to sleep, but he tried – he really did. He lay down one way, then the other way, He stood up, he turned around, then finally he flopped onto his back, rolling back into the blanket ditch from which Grandpa had rescued him earlier. He sighed, and gave himself up to his fate. Might as well sleep – it’ll be milk bar time soon anyway. But, just as he was closing his eyes, he suddenly thought of something.
“The Monster. What happened about the monster?”
“Oh, that. Well, when it finally grew lighter, we realised the monster had disappeared. All that was left in the barn was the old grey combine harvester with the red cutters. We never found out what had happened to it and it never reappeared. It remains a mystery.”
“Oh.” As he drifted off into sleep, Pigpen thought he could hear a strange, rhythmic wheezing sound coming from Grandpa’s side of the bed.
The old cat was laughing. “Good night Pigpen,” he said.
“I knew he remembered my name really,” thought Pigpen, and slept.