He hesitated on the edge, his heart full of emotions – sadness, loss, loneliness, love…. He had known this day was coming, but he hadn’t expected it to be so confusing… so difficult. Other cats were walking past him – striding out with confidence and anticipation. He could see them disappearing into the swirling mists, and he knew he had to follow. Screwing up his courage, which seemed in short supply at the moment, he took a deep breath and stepped onto the Bridge.
He was immediately engulfed in the dense, glittering fog that shrouded the Bridge. He could not see any other cats, even though he was aware of their presence close by, and there was little sound but the pad pad of soft paws and the tick tick of claws on the hard surface. Every now and then, the fog would eddy a little in a sudden breeze, affording a brief, vertigo-inducing glimpse of the Neverending Chasm below, but mostly there was just the fog, the quiet and the opportunity for contemplation.
As he walked, he began to feel better. He could feel himself letting go of the ties that bound him to his earthly life, and beginning to look forward to whatever awaited him on the other side. He listed in his head all the cats he hoped would be there – old friends, family, kittens he had never got to meet…his mother. Ooh, he had forgotten that he would see his mother again. She had been a formidable matriarch, very strict about nest discipline and a stickler for cleanliness, but she had loved him and his siblings, and protected them with every fibre of her being. She was known in the colony as a lore-master (master, even though most of the great teachers and thinkers were she-cats) and she had taught him so many things.
She loved to tell her kittens stories, and his favourite had been the one about how the Sun and Moon had, at the very beginning of the world, divided everything between them. The Sun took the day, the Moon took the night, the Sun took gold, the Moon took silver, but when it came to dividing the living creatures between them, all went well until they came to the cat, who they both wanted to possess. They both put forward their arguments as to why the cat should belong to them, and still they could not decide. In the end, the Moon offered to give the Sun all of her lands and plants and trees and most of her other creatures if only she could be allowed to keep the cat, and the Sun agreed, which is why the cat walks at night, and pays homage to the Lady Moon who loved them so much.
So many times when he was growing up, his mother had sat with him late into the night and pointed out the stars, and the patterns they formed in the sky. All these patterns had been given names by the ancient astronomer cats who had prowled the temples and palaces of their age, catching mice and rats in exchange for their board and lodgings, and studying the night sky while their households slept.
He occupied himself trying to remember as many as he could. There was Old Tom, who lay on his back and lazily contemplated the beauty of the cosmos, there was The Diamond Collar, waiting to adorn the neck of any beautiful cat able to reach out and pluck it from the sky, there was the distant cluster of tiny, pearl-like stars known as The Kittens…and then there was Ham the Hunter. Ham was his absolute favourite – elusive, rarely seen, but occasionally to be spotted streaking across the sky, his glittering tail behind him, pursuing – always pursuing, never catching – his prey as it led him a merry dance across the universe. Oh, what a life! To run free amongst the stars, the solar wind in your fur, only pausing on a nearby comet to wash a paw or adjust a whisker before taking off again on your endless chase…. if only he had the energy, he thought, smiling a little to himself.
Although… to his surprise, he noticed that the farther he walked across the Bridge, the stronger he began to feel. The stiffness was leaving his joints, he no longer felt tired or sluggish or sick. A spring started to enter his step and he felt he could just murder a huge plate of food right now. In his head, he was no longer picturing stars and constellations, but plates of chicken, hamburgers, flaked salmon, a chunky steak…his mouth tingled in anticipation. He was jerked out of his culinary reverie by a change in the air and a sudden step down. He missed his footing and stumbled a little, but recovered quickly in the way that only cats can, and coughed loudly to cover his embarrassment. He had crossed the Bridge.
Under his paws, he was aware of something he had not experienced for a long, long time – the feel of fresh spring grass. Looking up, he saw that he was underneath an archway formed by two ancient trees whose branches bent over and twisted together. The air felt warm and clean and smelled of pine forests and new mown hay, with the distant salty tang of a far off ocean carried on the breeze. He was standing on a broad belt of short grass which ran along the edge of the Neverending Chasm, and it was covered with cats. Cats were everywhere, running up to the new arrivals, hugging, washing, embracing – old friends reunited, family ties re-forged. The atmosphere of joy was palpable.
He scanned the crowds for any familiar face and saw none. He was a little disappointed at that. He had thought there would be someone there for him. He decided to sit down and enjoy the feel of the late afternoon sun on his back until the chaos died down and he could figure out what to do. At last, the reunited cats began to move off in groups and, as the green space started to clear, he became aware of a single tiny figure sitting facing him, a little way off. It seemed familiar, but it was too far away to see clearly, so he began to walk towards it. As he came closer, he saw the figure was that of an almost impossibly tiny kitten, with huge saucer eyes and an unruly topknot which resembled a bucket of brushes.
“Hello, Grandpa,” said Nano. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Together, Nano and Grandpa walked along the rough path which led away from the Chasm. Or at least, Grandpa walked, Nano had to trot to keep up. The sun was getting low, but the air was still warm, which pleased Nano as it was helping to dry the wet patch on his head, where Grandpa had tried, without success, to tame his unruly cowlick a little. Grandpa took in every sight and sound and smell of his new home. He loved the bright birch glade, and the little brook with the stepping stones and the tiny, darting fishes. He was thrilled to see that there were butterflies and bees and birds, and plenty of trees with low branches as well as patches of soft earth, which proved very useful on their long walk.
They strolled mostly in silence (well, Grandpa strolled, Nano still trotted), until Grandpa said
“Nano, where are we going?”
“Not far now,” the kitten replied
They cut away from the path and pushed through an area of long grass, interspersed with wild rhododendron bushes and prickly brambles, heavy with black fruit, until they reached the edge of a dense pine forest. It was dark and cool under those trees but Grandpa could see dancing lights in the distance between the trunks, and there was a steady low hum emanating from up ahead, which began to resolve itself into many voices, laughing, chatting and – rather tunelessly – singing.
They arrived at last in a clearing and Grandpa drew in his breath. The dancing lights turned out to be yellow lanterns strung under the branches, and the voices belonged to hundreds – maybe thousands – of cats, all standing, sitting, loafing, crab puffing and, in a few cases, dancing.
Everywhere he looked there were plates piled high with food – small fishes, slices of chicken, steaks, bowls of cream and every variety of kibble ever invented. But, he could not reach any of this bounty as he found himself completely hemmed in by a press of excited kittens – more kittens than even he had ever had to handle at one time. Nano tried to introduce them…”Grandpa, this is my special friend, Dove, and that is Rain and Sunny, and those are Prince and Quimby who belonged to Ramona and T’Challa and then at the back is Mercy and Tesla and this lot – he indicated a huddle of cheeky looking orange kittens – are Evolene’s Eggs…”
“Whoa, stop!” cried Grandpa, laughing. “So many of you. I think I met all of your mothers…maybe, and I certainly know a lot of your brothers and sisters.”
“And I’m Woodstock,” squeaked a tiny voice somewhere down by his knees.
“Oh yes, Pigpen and Peggy’s brother…” he tailed off, suddenly filled with longing and guilt. In the excitement of the day’s events, he had put them completely out of his mind – his latest charges, who had been happily scrambling all over him and chewing his tail only days before.
Nano tactfully changed the subject. “The Eggs are thinking of going back over. They didn’t really get a proper go last time, so they want to have another try.”
“Try at what?” asked Grandpa.
“Life, of course.” Nano replied
“Oh, my goodness!” said Grandpa. “Of course, there will always be kittens. Kittens who need what only a Grandpa can provide, kittens who need me. Perhaps I should go back – do I have enough lives left, I wonder?”
“Calm down, Mason. You are going nowhere – not yet at least.”
Mason spun around. Behind him, a tiny tabby cat was placing a large bowl of food on the ground. Her ears were bent and frilled, her whiskers stuck out in all directions and there was a bend at the end of her tail, but she fixed him with a gimlet stare that instantly reduced him to the status of a helpless kitten, as indeed it always had.
“Now, eat!” said his mother, pushing the plate towards him. Mason did as he was told and ate, while she critically appraised every aspect of his appearance. “Well, you could have tidied yourself up a bit. You’re looking good and plump, though. What happened to your tail? That’s quite a chunk missing out of your ear there, boy…” and so on.
When he had finished, he began to wash, as every well brought-up cat did after every meal, especially in the presence of their mother.
“Let me,” said his mother, and began to vigorously wash his face and ears. “Now, what was all that about?”
Mason screwed up his eyes as her sandpaper tongue rasped away at the fur on his face. “I think I panicked a bit.” He said. I feel like I left too soon, while there was still work to be done. I’m worried that those two little ones will be lost without me.”
“Oh, Mason, Mason…” his mother stopped washing and looked into his eyes. “You were always a worrier. You have done everything you possibly could, and it was more than most. The kittens still have Aura, and you have put a wise little head on those young shoulders. She will know what to do, but much they must work out for themselves. And they will. They all do. You should take some time and enjoy yourself here. There is no shortage of kittens who will appreciate some Grandpa love.”
He looked past her, to where a hundred or more kittens were wrestling, chasing, pouncing and giggling.
“One day,” his mother continued “it may well be the right time for you to go back over and continue your work, if that is what the Lady Moon has in mind for you, but that time is not now.”
Still watching the melée, he could see tiny Woodstock happily jumping onto the back of a much larger kitten
“Mama,” he whispered, still a little anxious, “I won’t forget them will I, my kittens?”
“Of course you won’t. “ his mother replied. “They are in your heart forever and, besides, you can always keep watch over them. Tomorrow we will go to the edge together and I will show you the best spots from which you can see them all. I have been watching Grandpa Mason and His Kittens for a long time now.” She chuckled. “I’m an expert.”
“And what about the humans?” he said. “I loved them so much, but I’m afraid I didn’t show it adequately. I must have seemed so ungrateful. Humans seem to show their love through touch, but I recoiled from human hands. I didn’t mean to, but I could never stop feeling fear when they came too close, even though I knew they would never hurt me.”
“Never regret what you cannot change, my son,” his mother said, in her usual matter-of-fact manner. “Humans are not stupid – well, some of them are, but yours were not. You gave them love in the only way you felt able, and they understood that. And they loved you in return. They loved you by letting you go on being yourself, and that is the greatest gift a human can give to a cat. So many humans could learn so much from the ones who loved you and many already have. You changed the world, you and your people, just a little bit. You should be proud of yourself, Mason.” She licked his notched ear. “Just as I am proud of you.”
A lump formed in Mason’s throat, and his eyes went a little misty. Praise from his mother had been a rare thing when he was growing up, and he had a feeling that it would be just as rare in his future, so this was a precious moment. He rubbed his eyes with his paw and sniffed a little, before realising too late that everyone else had fallen silent and was looking straight at him.
“Grandpa, it’s time.” Nano had appeared at his side, and indicated that he should look upwards. The patch of sky visible above the clearing was cloudless and a deep indigo. Everywhere, bright jewel-like stars were beginning to appear, and Mason understood.
It is something that every cat learns at their mother’s knee. A knowledge passed down through so many generations that it is almost bred in the bone. There are few certainties in life, but there is this one. Every cat will have a star. Even the unwanted ones – the throwaway cats. She wanted all of us – She sacrificed nearly everything else just so that we could be hers and She made that promise to us. Every cat will have a star.
There was a crackling sound and a rush of wind, then it came – burning white and fast, flying over their heads, its tail glittering like a million diamonds which hung in the air for a brief second before fading into the night with a sizzling sound. But, in that brief second, Mason could see that the tail had just a couple of small kinks in it. Every cat will have a star, and that one was his. Overjoyed, he threw back his head and laughed.
And just at that moment, the Moon herself made her entrance, rising above the tops of the trees, huge and pale gold, her face now turned a little away from them. But that did not matter. They were all hers, and she was theirs, and the love went both ways – and she glowed above their heads and bathed the whole forest in her silvery light, and they knew that she was listening.
And they sang. The cats and kittens around him under the pine trees sang. In every corner of the land, they sang. Back across the Bridge, in his old room, on his favourite sofa in front of the fire, they sang. Down in the kitten room, behind the Cabinet of Solitude, and over in the new building (softly, so as not to disturb the elephant), they sang. Across the continent, in their forever homes, his many grateful graduates sat in their windows and they sang. In the Happy Forest, they all gathered in the clearing where the shelters were, and in his own colony nearby, and in all the other feral colonies in the neighbourhood, they stopped eating, washing, playing, and they sang.
And, all over the world, on armchairs, in front of fires, in gardens, meadows, forests, in back alleys, on the tops of walls and behind dumpsters, in the heat and dust of the desert, in the hot rains of the tropics, in the icy chill of the northern forests – wherever there were cats, they stopped what they were doing and turned their faces to the Moon, and they sang, for a very special cat had just taken his place among the stars.
And so, Tiny Villagers, if one summer night you are out of doors and you happen to spot a shooting star streaking across the sky – well, maybe it’s Ham the Hunter, still chasing his fleeing prey into eternity. But maybe you should look more closely. Perhaps that long, glittering tail has a couple of kinks in it. If it does, then it’ll probably be Grandpa Mason, a free spirit in the prime of life, laughing as he chases after the impudent kitten who just bit his ear.