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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
Here’s a not-so-little something that I wrote and submitted for a different charity project. It was written at the beginning of 2016 and the characters in it are based on those I meet weekly in the feral run at the cat rescue where I volunteer. Some of you may have read it already, but I’ve never published it here before. It’s a longer read than usual, and differs slightly from my usual style, (I also think it would benefit from the attention of a good editor) but I hope you will enjoy it anyway. Since I wrote it, all the cats featured in it have crossed the bridge – most recently Norris, our old prize fighter. There will be more ferals, of course. There are always more…
He sat, crouched uncomfortably on his haunches, in a manner designed to facilitate a quick escape. All four of his feet were underneath him, paw pads to the floor, ready to provide lift and propulsion should he find himself threatened, but he had been sitting like that for many hours now and his joints were feeling stiff and sore. He doubted that he would be able to spring anywhere, even if a sudden fire were to break out right in front of him. His view of the world was small and arch-shaped, its edges defined by the small entrance hole in the front of the green plastic kennel in which he crouched. Outside his confined little world, he could hear the sounds of both cats and humans, all of them seemingly at peace with the world. But still Rupert crouched, afraid to put his nose outside, afraid of what – or who – lay beyond.
He had little idea of how he had come to be there – a scent, which he had followed, a tempting dish of food, which he had investigated, a clang, sudden darkness, movement, a strange pointy thing which had been inserted….well, never mind. And here he now was. Surrounded by cats he did not know and, to his horror, humans in close proximity. He had seen one wielding a long pole with what appeared to be a dead cat on the end and had watched, horrified, while the dead cat had been dunked headfirst into soapy water and pushed around the ground. So undignified! Such disrespect! He had sent a prayer up to the Moon for the poor dead cat’s soul before retreating back inside his green bolt-hole.
Hunger was becoming a problem. He could feel the familiar gnawing sensation starting up in his gut. Before, he would have waited until dark and then crept out of his barn, across the rubble-strewn yard and under the barbed wire fence to where the bins stood behind the noisy building. If the humans were still there, shouting to each other and making their usual racket, he would have crouched in the shadows until they had finally disappeared, before jumping on the tall bin with the ill-fitting lid. This was where the easiest pickings were to be had. If he was lucky, he would find the remains of a half-eaten meat pattie of some sort, or a morsel of sausage, maybe some sticky batter with some shreds of fish still attached. More often, though, he had to restrict himself to sad gobbets of damp bread or short, thin lengths of fried potato. However, it was better than nothing. He would drag whatever he could find into the bushes before the squirrels moved in. Once they arrived en masse, there was no chance for a cat alone to find a meal. If he was exceptionally hungry, he would lurk a little longer in the bushes until the foxes had left. They were stronger than he and worked as a team, so often they were able to tip the whole bin over to get to the treasures within and, if he was lucky, there would be some morsels left over for him.
It wasn’t much of a life, he knew that. Once, he had been part of a proper extended family and they had eked out a living of sorts in the run-down collection of sheds and huts behind the fish and chip shop. There was food to be scavenged and shelter to be had amongst the rusting hulks of old motors, empty tanks and upturned oildrums, but all too often one of them would go out to look for food and never return, or would quietly leave one day without saying goodbye….you know. Then the humans had moved in and the whole area was transformed. The sheds were torn down and the vehicles and other detritus were removed and large stacks of bricks began to appear. Worse than that, though, he had returned home one day, triumphantly dragging a brown paper bag of untouched fish nuggets to share, to find himself alone. The rest of the colony – such as it was – had disappeared. He spent several days trying to find them with no success until he had sadly resigned himself to a solitary life. It made the scavenging easier, with only his own needs to cater for, but he missed having someone to snuggle with at night or to hide with when danger lurked. And now he was here. And he was hungry.
As he sat, trying to screw up his courage to venture outside to look for food, a round face, black bisected by a broad white flash, appeared in the entrance hole. Curious round eyes peered at him from close range – slightly too close for comfort – and a chirpy voice said “Are you ever going to come out?”
Rupert growled defensively. “Oh per-lease” said the chirpy cat. “You can knock that off. There’s cats here who could squash you with a single paw, if they wanted. They won’t, of course. I’m Henrietta. And you are…?”
“Well, come out and be social. The others are dying to meet you. By which I mean they’re sort of vaguely curious – between naps, anyway.”
Cautiously, Rupert emerged, moving slowly and keeping low so as not to appear a threat to his new neighbours, and took a proper look around him for the first time. He was inside a large, paved space enclosed by a high fence. All around him were structures, shelves, seats and platforms all perfect for sitting and watching and contemplating. And on most of them, sitting and watching and contemplating him, were cats. Most of them were males and most were substantially larger than himself. Between them, they boasted the finest collection of scars, missing ears and eyes, bent tails and battered faces he had ever seen. He imagined they all had a story to tell, if they could be bothered – even cheerful Henrietta, who sported a red scar on her nose and whose eyes spoke of a long life lived close to the edge.
A large, copper-coloured tom cat stood up, stretched languidly and approached Rupert, sniffing him and studying him closely with his one good eye. The other eye was missing, as was part of one of his ears. He introduced himself as George, and his every movement and gesture exuded authority. “Trapped, were you?” asked George in a rich, fruity voice. “Came here via the vet’s, I bet – I can smell it on you. Pointy thing up the….you know…?” Rupert nodded and there was a general murmur of empathy from all the other cats. He imagined that it did not pay to upset George, so he asked the old cat how he had come to be in this place, hoping that his story would include how he came to lose his eye and ear. Rupert was in full possession of all his limbs and organs – well, almost – and the old boy’s battle scars fascinated him.
Henrietta sidled up to him and whispered in his ear “Grab a snack first. This could take some time.”
He didn’t take her advice, but instead settled down in front of the old red cat and tucked in his paws, eager to learn more about these cats with whom he would, he was now realising, spend the rest of his life. George made himself comfortable on a small wooden box, and began to speak.
“The ocean has been my life. Shanghaied as a kitten, I was taken aboard the Royal Navy Man O’ War “Rangoon” and put to work catching mice and rats to earn my keep. I was given a bunk in the cook’s stores, sleeping amongst the sacks of meal and dried goods, and there was plenty to keep me busy I can tell you, as the entire lower ship was alive with rodents. Everything I caught was mine to eat so I dined well and my boss, the ship’s cook, made sure I had fresh water from the limited supplies on board. When the water ran low, I was given wine just like the crew and I was even allowed my weekly tot of rum, for which I developed quite a taste. I always enjoyed my job on rum days, because the mice took to running around in pairs, so doubling the target. Oddly, there seemed to be fewer to eat at the end of the hunt, but I didn’t mind as I usually slept exceptionally well. As the months and years passed, I grew plump and glossy and well-muscled. My fur glistened the colour of the copper anchor lantern and my eyes shone the colour of the brass watch bell. I was, to be brutally frank, irrestistible. And so, the inevitable came to pass…
We called one August at the port of Havana to take on fresh water and supplies and some of the crew were allowed to disembark to enjoy a little leisure time in the town. Officially, I never took leave, but on this occasion the lights of the city beckoned to me and I slipped un-noticed down the gangplank and into the shadows of the dock buildings. I followed my shipmates towards an area of bustling taverns and cafes, dodging between the legs of the humans thronging the street, my nose twitching at the glorious scent of cooking fish. Ducking into an alleyway between two brightly-lit buildings, I came to an open area behind one of the cafes, where the fragrance was so intense it was almost visible, hanging in the hot night air. Light streamed from an open door and, inside, I could see two young humans, their faces damp with sweat, cooking over glowing coals. And then, I saw her. She stepped out of the shadows and stood before me, her paw to her lips. I took in her midnight-dark fur, her eyes like green fire, her fine-boned face and long, slim body. Also the large cooked prawn that she held between her teeth. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on. The prawn looked pretty good too. Smiling seductively, she beckoned me to join her behind the cafe and bade me stay quiet while she worked her considerable charms on the cooks in the kitchen. She stretched her pretty neck and gazed up at them with those emerald eyes and purred and murred in a voice like liquid gold and, without a second thought, they tossed her prawns and crab claws and fish heads and tails, all of which she surreptitiously rolled to me with her paw. What a night we had. We dined sumptuously, teasing the sweet meats from the bones and shells with our claws, lapping up the rich sauces and letting the warm butter and oils run over our chops and onto our paws. Not a word passed between us, but she smiled her sultry smile at me over a cod’s head and we both knew how this night would end. The meal over, we walked together across the walls and roofs towards the shore and, as the moon rose over the ocean, we danced a passionate dance to the music of the waves. As the dawn broke, and I had to take my leave of her, I promised that I would return and that I would bring her whatever her heart desired. Looking up at the clear sky, she said “Bring me the moon”. Then she slipped away, back into the shadows, and I rejoined my ship – a changed cat.
As the ship cast off and headed out of the harbour, I stood up at the ship’s rail, watching the lights of the city grow smaller and smaller, until they were no more than a twinkle on the horizon, then I went below to the stores to be alone with my thoughts and did not emerge on deck again. I applied myself diligently to my job and the cook remarked that my mousing skills had been improved by my short stay on dry land and he rewarded me with a little rind cut from our stores of salt pork. In other circumstances, I would have savoured the tasty meat, but my mind turned constantly to that seafood feast beneath a tropic moon with the most beautiful dinner companion in the world. I was determined that she and I would meet again and I turned over and over in my mind how I might go about catching the moon to bring to her.
About a week out of port, the ship was struck by a terrible storm. I usually rode out rough weather by tucking myself into a small void behind the timbers in the hold and hunkering down with the mice, having called a temporary truce. This storm, however, was different. The ship lurched and buffeted crazily and the barrels and sacks were thrown around the hold. Above me, I could hear terrible creaking and cracking sounds and water began to seep in, then it began to gush, then it came in a torrent. In a panic, I ran for the wooden ladder that connected the deck to my domain and, by the time I reached the top, the ship was listing so far over that the main mast was practically touching the ocean. With a huge crack that made my ears ring, it snapped and I knew that we were doomed. I found myself, along with my shipmates, floundering and flailing in the swell, water filling my ears and eyes and soaking my coat, weighing me down until I could no longer keep my head above water. I sent up a prayer to the moon, asking her to light my star in the sky to guide me across the bridge, and resigned myself to my watery fate when, by a miracle, my paw grasped something solid. A plank which had splintered off from the disintegrating hull was within my reach and, with the last of my strength, I pulled myself onto it and crouched there, shivering and terrified, while the mighty Rangoon sank beneath the waves.
For three whole days and nights, I was frozen to that plank, my claws dug deep into the soaked timber, my ears full of seawater, my eyes clogged with salt and my beautiful copper coat stiff and matted and seared by the relentless sun. Weak from hunger and thirst, I was finally jolted out of my torpor when my plank bumped against something solid. Opening my salt-crusted eyes, I beheld before me the hull of another ship. At first, I believed I was dreaming that I had found the Rangoon again, but no – this was a different ship entirely. Her hull seemed to be intact, but her mast was broken in two and her sails were spread across her deck and flapped pitifully in the wind like tethered ghosts. A rope ladder was swinging freely over the side of the ship only a few yards from me so I paddled my plank towards it and, slowly and somewhat painfully, I climbed up, pulling myself over the rail and onto the deserted deck.
I set to making a brief search of the ship, moving quickly and keeping to the places where I knew I would be out of sight, just in case I stumbled into a member of the crew driven mad by hunger and armed with a cutlass. There seemed to be nobody aboard at all. Happily, I did find a pool of slightly sour but nonetheless drinkable fresh water in the galley and there was food there too. I knew from my years on the Rangoon how to break through the seals on the barrels to reach the foodstuffs inside and, on my third try, I found salt pork, which I chewed on hungrily. Above the galley was the Captain’s cabin, with its soft bed and linen sheets. Here I finally slept. I was a cat, alone on what seemed to be a ghost ship, with no idea where in the world I was, nor if I would ever see dry land again. But, at that time, the only thing that mattered was to sleep, which I did – the longest, deepest and most peaceful sleep I had ever had.
I woke, refreshed, long after sun up and set to learning more about my situation. From the deck, I could see that we were drifting idly, making slow, lazy rotations in the now calm sea. I could also see that the anchor chain was paid out behind the stern and I concluded that this vessel had probably been preparing to sail when the storm struck, when it dragged its anchor and was carried into the open ocean. Satisfied that I was alone on the ship, I decided to explore, as much to keep my mind off the uncertainty of my future as anything else, and I headed below deck to sniff around the cabins and holds. Apart from the broken main mast, the ship seemed perfectly seaworthy and was appointed to carry a few wealthy passengers as well as cargo. And it was in one of the passenger state rooms that I found it.
Following the unmistakeable skittering sound made by a fleeing mouse, I dived under a bunk and was stopped in my tracks by something glinting softly in the farthest corner. I reached out my paw and hooked the object, drawing it towards me. It was a band of heavy gold, the size of a human finger and, set into it, was a stone – a stone so softly luminous it appeared to be lit from within. A stone which was shot through with red and gold and green fire. A stone of such curvaceous smoothness that I was tempted to sample its surface with my tongue. I stared at it for a long, long time, watching the coloured flames dance in the milky depths, so mesmerised by its beauty that I did not at first notice that it was surrounded by small, clear stones like crystals of ice, which twinkled and sparkled with their own tiny rainbows – the Lady Moon in her firmament, surrounded by her courtiers. I could have wept at the irony that I had actually found it – the earthly embodiment of the Moon herself – but I was unable to present it to my beautiful dark lady as I had promised. I could have wept, but instead I became aware of human voices, and the sound of footsteps moving through the ship. I remained perfectly still in my dark corner under the bed and listened as humans ranged through every part of the ship, opening cupboards and chests, gathering up loose objects, shouting to each other in a language which I could not understand. I remained hidden until dusk, when I decided to venture out to see what I could see. Fastening the gold band with its precious cargo around my paw, I slipped out of the state room and onto the deck. I was surprised to see that we were moving. The broken mast had been lashed to the side of the ship, the loose sails roped into rolls and we were under tow behind a handsome merchantman flying the flag of the Dutch East India Company. By daybreak, I could see the line of a distant shore and, by noon, we were approaching a familiar port. My heart leaped with joy. Providence had brought me back to Havana.
It was dusk by the time we dropped anchor a mile or so from the port and I was able to slip on board one of the small boats which took the skeleton crew off the stricken vessel and onto the shore. From there I darted into the shadows and made my way through the thronging streets, back towards the little cafe where I had first met my love. I approached the back of the building, where the same two humans still toiled over their hot coals. They flung me a few pieces of fish and, as I ate, I peered all around me, hoping to catch a glimpse of her emerald eyes or her black velvet coat somewhere in the gloom, but there was no sign of her. I was not ready to give up, though, so I made my way back to the busy street in the hope of finding someone who could give me news of her whereabouts.
In a narrow alleyway off the main street my prayers were answered, after a fashion, and I found myself face to face with three large, aggressive looking tom cats, each sporting scars across their cheeks and notches in their ears. The leader, a once-handsome Siamese, blocked my path and demanded to know where I thought I was going. I told him about my beautiful lady, describing to him her lustrous fur the colour of a midnight sky, her eyes the shape of an almond and the colour of an ocean after a storm, her elegant, sinuous body and her voice like liquid gold. The Siamese laughed and, on cue, so did his two henchmen. “She’s too good for the likes of you.” he hissed, baring some impressive teeth. “She lives up there…” he jerked his head towards an imposing looking house, high on a hill over the town, “…and she just slips out every now and again for a bit of excitement and to sample life on the wrong side of the tracks. She has no interest in tramps and rat-catchers like you.” His blue eyes looked me all over and, inevitably, they alighted on the jewel still hooked around my paw. “What is this…?” His two lackeys peered around them in all directions. “THIS, you idiots!” He pointed at the ring and I knew I needed to beat a hasty retreat, although a quick scan of my surroundings suggested that this would be easier said than done. The alleyway ran between high buildings and escape was only possible at either end. If I turned my back, these three would pounce me for sure, so I steeled myself to face them head on. I was strong, I was fit and I had cunning. I suspected the Siamese could match me on that score, but his two sidekicks had clearly been selected for their bulk rather than their brains. I sent up a brief prayer to the Moon – she had answered before, when I was floundering in the ocean, and I was hoping that my credit with her was still good – took a deep breath, and crouched, snarling.
As the three cats leapt towards me, I kept low, trying to protect my eyes and ears and, of course, the ring on my paw. A fight ensued the like of which Havana had never before seen. We rolled, tumbled, lashed, slashed, flailed and bit. One of the henchmen caught my ear in his teeth and chomped down hard. Another slashed my eye with his claw. Clumps of fur flew and so did the curses. Blood streaked the alley floor and smeared the walls as I fought for my very life. Then, suddenly, we were stopped in our tracks by a freezing cascade as a human emptied a bucket of cold water from a high window onto all four of us. As a sailor, I was inured to the effects of a sudden soaking and I was able to recover while my adversaries were still in shock, wondering what had hit them. I took the opportunity to run and I ran like the wind and did not stop until I reached the garden of the imposing house on the hill.
Many times I circled that impressive building, calling my lady love’s name, but to no avail. Despairing of ever seeing her again, I took a big risk and jumped up onto the sill of one of the large windows and there, inside, I saw her, as beautiful as ever, curled up on the lap of a young she-human. I scratched at the glass with my paw until she looked up and turned those magnificent green eyes on me, without the smallest hint of recognition in them. She was about to lower her head and resume her interrupted doze when I held up my paw and she caught a glimpse of the radiant jewel which glowed and glistened upon it. At last, she jumped up on the inside windowsill and spoke to me in a low voice. “Who are you?” she asked. Aghast that she could not remember me, I reminded her. “We met behind the cafe, we shared a seafood banquet then we danced on the beach by the light of the August moon. When we parted, I offered you whatever your heart desired and you asked for the moon. And here it is. How can you not remember me?” She sighed, a little regretfully. “But I meet cats like you all the time. Havana is a magnet for travellers, explorers, sailors, fugitives and drifters from all corners of the earth. I meet them often, they all fall in love with me and they all promise me whatever my heart desires. So, I always ask for the moon, because I know that it is an impossible request and so, unable to fulfil my wishes, they never return. Until now.”
I felt as if the bottom had dropped out of my world. I had lost my home, The Rangoon, my shipmates, including my best friend the cook, I had nearly drowned, drifted for days on a tiny plank, risked my life boarding a ghost ship then been assailed by three common street thugs just to bring her this….this trinket. I slipped it off my paw and left it on the windowsill. I saw no reason to keep it and I hoped that, somehow, it would bring her happiness. As I jumped down to begin my journey back to the town, I saw her place both her paws against the window pane. Her eyes were glassy with tears and she silently mouthed “I’m sorry” to me before blowing me a kiss and disappearing back into the bright room and the lap of her small she-human. As I walked away from the house, the earthly embodiment of the Moon shot out one last beam of pure, milky light before a twist in the path hid it from my view forever.
Demoralised, I decided that it was time to finally come home. The ocean-going life had lost its allure and I wanted nothing more than a place to settle with regular meals and a warm bed. So, I stowed away aboard a tramp steamer heading for Florida and, from there, I was able to work my passage hunting vermin aboard a packet ship bound for Southampton. I was offered a permanent position and, for a while, I was tempted, but instead I found a rusting old tub of a coastal freighter to take me east and my last leg was aboard a sailing barge hauling timber, which brought me up river to this inland port. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“So,” said Rupert, excitedly, “You lost your eye and ear in a street brawl in Havana?”
“No,” said George. “It was the other eye. But my ear certainly retained the shape of my adversary’s teeth.” He grinned with a certain amount of pride.
“So how did you lose the eye?”
“Infection.” said George. “Vet took it out. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to…erm…make myself comfortable.”
Rupert was a little disappointed about the eye, but he was thrilled by George’s tale and vowed to treat the old boy with the greatest respect from then on.
Plump Henrietta bustled into view once again. “Enjoy that?” she asked. Rupert nodded, his mind racing with images of ocean storms, tropic moons and beautiful femme fatales. “One more before dinner, then” she said, and dabbed with her paw at the sleeping face of a large, lugubrious tom, half white and half red, with weathered features and placid, yellow eyes. He woke up, a little reluctantly, and sat up, yawning. “Rupert, meet Norris”. Norris nodded at Rupert and began to settle back down again, when Henrietta said “He wants a story.”
“Which story?” asked Norris, in a dry, rasping voice that suggested a life spent in closed, smoky rooms doing unhealthy and illicit things.
“Yours, of course.” sighed Henrietta, and bustled off to do something probably very important.
Norris cleared his throat, which provoked a prolonged coughing fit, but finally he was ready and, in a cracked voice like claws on emery paper, he began.
“I was born on Midsummer’s night, or so my mother told me. She was a tortoiseshell cat of rare beauty who lived an itinerant life in a small, ornate wooden caravan which she shared with a couple who ran a travelling fair. I was one of a litter of four and my brother, my two sisters and I had an enchanted kittenhood. Our early days were spent safe and warm in a little packing case, lined with a wool blanket and tucked snug under one of the tiny bunks. Then, as we grew older and eager to explore, we were allowed outside during the day to run and play amongst the wagons, stalls and canvas tents of the fairground. Alas, we soon became too large and energetic to be housed altogether in that tiny van so, regretfully, we took our leave of our mother and the fairground boss and his wife. But we didn’t go far.
My sister Cissie had, since she was a tiny kitten, held a fascination for Gwendoline, the Bearded Lady [See the Amazing Bearded Woman! Raised by wolves in the wilderness of The North, she hunted with the pack – she howled at the moon – until she was trapped and tamed! See this amazing hybrid of human and lupine – but don’t get too close! You enter at your own risk! Entrance one penny]. Gwendoline was a large and warm-hearted woman with an ample lap and a well-stocked larder and there was never any doubt that Cissie would be safe, loved and well fed in her caravan. Cissie later confided to me that Gwendoline’s beard was actually false and that she stuck it to her face every morning with gum. In fact this seemed to be common knowledge amongst the fairground folk, although a rumour persisted that it was, in fact, made from the facial hair of a hirsuit former lover by whom Gwen had been jilted, and who had met an unspecified sticky end amongst her bright and cheery knick-knacks, but Cissie dismissed this as untrue. The beard, she declared, was made of ordinary horsehair and it doubled as a cosy bed on a chilly night.
My other sister, Hetty, was a shy little thing, although pretty as a picture. One day, when we were playing outdoors, she was frightened by a small terrier who barked at her and she fled in panic. For a long time, nobody could find her, but she was eventually located, mewing pathetically, inside the workings of the huge steam engine that was used to power the merry-go-rounds. Unable to find her own way out, she was eventually extricated by the long, sinuous arm of Nosmo the India Rubber Man [The Human Reef Knot! Is he a man? Is he a snake? Roll up, roll up and watch Nosmo roll up! Disclaimer: Do not try this at home. The Management cannot be held responsible for personal injury], who held her up in triumph to the applause of the relieved fairground folk, her fur all matted and black with grease. He took her home and bathed the dirt off her until she was once again as beautiful as a butterfly’s wing and she purred for him and snuggled in the crook of his arm and so her future, too, was assured.
My brother Sid, it’s fair to say, was not the sharpest tool in the box and inclined to laziness. If he felt tired, he would simply curl up wherever he happened to be and, one afternoon, the place he happened to be was in the red and gold canvas tent of The Mysterious Suraya [Eastern Mystic and Clairvoyant – Cross my palm with silver! Fortunes told, tuppence; The Dead contacted, sixpence; No reporters, clergy or scientists] who was better known to her friends and family as Sarah. Her clients seemed to be enchanted by the sight of a fat ginger kitten laying sound asleep with his legs in the air amongst the Tarot cards and, for the first time ever, a queue formed outside her tent and the silver coins clinked into her brass collecting pot. So, from that day on, Sid snoozed peacefully on her lap without a care in the world while The Mysterious Suraya waved her hands over her crystal ball and noisily channelled her Indian spirit guide.
And me? My future, as it turned out, lay in the noise, the heat and the sweat of the boxing booth.
THE MIGHTY MAXIMILLIAN: newly returned to these shores from the farthest corners of the Empire, his secret mission – to instruct the bodyguards of the Sultan of Ranjipoor in the art of hand-to-hand combat – completed, he is NOW READY to take on all comers. SEE the greatest pugilist in the Universe! Unbeaten in over 1,000 bouts! Try your hand if you dare! Generous cash prizes for any man who can best him! (Unsuitable for ladies or those of a delicate constitution)
In fact, Max was five feet five in his pumps and had never left these shores, except in his dreams. He was a showman to his very core. He had never known any other life, as his father had run the boxing booth before him, as had his father’s father. His mother had been the assistant to “The Great Stupendo”, conjuror and illusionist, and spent much of her working life vanishing from cabinets-of-mystery or being sawn in half whilst wearing little more than a scrap of sequined gauze and an ostrich feather. Max was born in his parents’ covered wagon, on the road between the towns of Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury, so he called the county of Somerset his home, even though we only visited the place a couple of times a year.
The kindest way to describe Max was “wiry”. He was a small man and almost comically thin, but his frail appearance disguised a physique which was one hundred per cent sinew and muscle. He was unusual amongst the fairground folk in that his bill matter was, in one small part, accurate. He genuinely was unbeaten in over 1,000 bouts. It’s true that his opponents varied wildly in size, shape and ability, and many were fuelled by the Dutch courage being purveyed from wooden barrels at the other end of the fairground, but some were genuinely formidable. Under the Marquis of Queensbury Rules, Max wouldn’t stand a chance against some of the burly farm hands and factory workers who queued up to try their hand at winning the day’s purse. But, the good Marquis’s rule book was torn to tiny shreds, stamped upon and buried in an unmarked grave in The Mighty Maximillian’s booth.
Max’s size, or lack of it, was the secret of his success. That, and his speed, athleticism and dancing skills. Oh yes! Outside of his nightly appearances in the booth, Max was an enthusiastic member of several Morris dancing troupes around the country and he could leap, wave his white handkerchiefs and brandish his ash stave with the best of them. He declared that it was the best fitness regime a fighter could follow, making no mention of the fact that Morris Men tended to be rewarded for their performance with free bread and cheese and a mug or two of the local ale. When he wasn’t dancing “Princes Royal” or “Maid-of-the-Mill”, he would practice his punching with the aid of a cloth-covered board held steady for him by Edgar “The Man-Mountain” Dixon, the fair’s strongman [See him bend iron girders! Watch him snap tree trunks in two!]. Often, he would employ a couple of the younger, fitter barkers to pretend to be challengers and jump around waving their fists in an effort to hit him, while Max practiced his best skill, which was evasion. He presented a small, fast target and he had a range of cheeky moves to get himself out of trouble, including the legendary “Maximillian Flip” which was a great crowd pleaser, but guaranteed to work his challengers up into a lather of frustration. Sooner or later, every opponent would try to floor him with an upper cut, a swift punch to the underside of his chin which, if it hit its mark, would surely knock him out cold. When he saw the punch coming – and he always saw it coming – he would leap into the air, twisting himself into an airborne back somersault, which would have the dual effect of throwing his opponent completely off guard and landing him several feet outside the danger zone.
It was my habit to attend every one of Max’s bouts as well as his training sessions – although I usually drew the line at the Morris Dancing. He considered me his lucky charm and would be reluctant to enter the booth unless he knew I was close by. When I wasn’t attending Max’s fights, I ran a little boxing booth of my own behind the tent, challenging the local tom cats to take me on. Nothing was at stake except our honour, but honour, as you know, is paramount to a tom cat in his prime. I had learned well from Max and my expertise at ducking, diving and dodging made me a legend amongst my kind – and beyond. I also took on – and bested – several dogs, a couple of foxes, a badger and – on one memorable occasion – a postman. This unwise gentleman had aimed a kick at me while I was sunning myself beside the path and he consequently spent several hours up a tree, until the fire brigade were summoned to bring him down with a long ladder. I felt a little guilty about that – wasting the time of the Fire Brigade, I mean. However, the legend that was Norris the prize fighter was cemented, and I was famed throughout the land.
And so, that was our life. For most of the year, we toured from village to village, town to town, setting up, packing up, travelling on. There were spring fairs, Mayday fairs, Midsummer fairs and Mop fairs in the autumn to celebrate the gathering-in of the harvest. But, come winter, the caravans were parked up near to a big town or city, the horses, donkeys and goats tucked up in rented barns and stables and the itinerant life ceased for a few months, although we stayed together. In the day, most of the performers, barkers and labourers went into the city to find whatever casual work they could pick up, as many had saleable skills. As for Max, he simply carried on as before, only now he challenged all comers in the back rooms of pubs at night or in market squares during the day. These winter fights were a whole lot more serious than the jolly affairs under the summer sun, and the atmosphere seemed more dangerous. Max did not encourage me to come with him, but I felt my place was by his side as his lucky charm, so every day I perched on his boney shoulder as we made our way through the narrow streets and alleys to whichever pub, lumber yard or brothel was hosting the fight.
So, one December night, when we were over-wintering in the East End of London, Max and I dodged our way past beggars, drunkards and street women as we threaded through the grimy, run-down streets of Wapping to our destination, a yard behind a brewery next to the docks where illegal bare-knuckle fights were frequently held. The punters would bet on the outcome, and the winners would take away a small share of the profits. When we arrived, the yard was full of people, mostly men, shouting, swearing and braying with course laughter. The air, though cold, was heavy with the smell of alcohol and tobacco, mixed with the smoke from several braziers which almost completely failed to give off any heat or light and, in the centre, a crude ring was marked out with lengths of rope slung between posts.
Max was one of three fighters due to compete that night. I jumped off his shoulder and tried to hide myself away from the crowd but, as a ginger and white cat, I didn’t exactly blend into the shadows. As I watched Max enter the ring and saw his opponent – twice his size and wearing studded wrist bands and two heavy leather bandoliers criss-crossed across his chest, I had a bad feeling about the outcome. These fights were no-holds-barred affairs and the crowd were baying for blood and I thought I could see several of the spectators carrying knives. I tried to push my way through the crowd to get closer to the ring but I heard a voice above the others yell “Oi! There’s a bleedin’ cat in ‘ere!”. I turned tail and ran, but many of the younger men decided it would be good sport to try to catch me and I was soon cornered behind a stack of barrels. Hands reached in and I was grabbed and lifted out. I writhed and lashed out with my claws and teeth but a coat was thrown over me so I could no longer see my target. I was carried some way before being set down on the ground and the coat was pulled off me. I found myself inside some sort of warehouse away from the boxing yard, standing in a sort of wooden pen, surrounded by four plank walls. Outside the pen stood many men, most of them young, all of them shouting and laughing and pointing at me. Inside the pen….four of the largest and heaviest dogs I had ever seen. Each dog was tethered to one of the corner posts of the pen, straining against their bonds, their dripping jaws gaping open, their lips curled back revealing teeth like sabres. The poor beasts were probably starving and I’m sure my only function was to get their bloodlust up so they could later be set against each other, but nonetheless, the crowd was determined to enjoy the spectacle of me being torn limb from limb. The dogs were untethered and I closed my eyes as they moved towards me, their stink and the heat from their breath enveloping me. I sent up a prayer to the Moon, asking her to light my star in the sky and to watch over Max, as I believed my time had surely come but, instead, a thought entered my mind, like a tiny river of silver amidst the black of my despair. All my years with Max – watching him train, watching him dance, watching him fight, was distilled into this one perfect thought, and I realised there was a way out. With the dogs only inches away, I took a deep breath, tensed every muscle in my body to nearly breaking point and, with every single ounce of my strength, I sprang straight upwards and turned in mid-air, executing a “Maximillian Flip” worthy of the man himself.
My leap landed me just outside the wooden fence and ran like I had never run before out of the warehouse. My ordeal was not yet over, though, as the dogs had broken free of the pen and were now in pursuit, desperate for the meal which they had been promised, but were now being denied. I ran away from the brewery and through the same streets and alleyways by which I had come, threading through the legs of the same beggars and street vendors, dodging under carts and over packing cases, the dogs never far behind. Unable to run much further, I came at last to a railway shunting yard close to the docks, where I spotted a small hole in the side of a wooden wagon which was large enough for me but too small for the dogs to follow, and I squeezed inside. The dogs pushed their noses through the hole and barked and whined for their lost meal and I could hear their claws scratching and scrabbling against the wooden walls for some time, until their owners finally caught up with them and pulled them away on their leashes. Exhausted, bruised and shaking I lay down on a pile of sacks in the corner of the wagon to regain my breath and – well, I didn’t mean to, but I fell fast asleep. When I awoke, the wagon was shaking and bouncing and the air was filled with unfamiliar clanking sounds and I realised that I was in motion, and moving away from my home, my family and my beloved Max. The wagon finally rolled to a halt several hours later and I emerged through the hole into the cold dawn, in a town completely unfamiliar to me. I wandered for several days, scavenging scraps wherever I could and trying to work out how I could get back to London and to Max – assuming he had survived the fight against the brute in the bandoliers, but I never could. I had been borne too far away and there was no scent trail to guide me back. Then one night, cold and hungry, I smelt food in the distance and, following the scent, I wandered into the trap that eventually brought me here.”
“How awful” said Rupert. “To lose everyone you loved like that. You must wonder about them all the time.”
“I miss them all, of course, especially Max, but I don’t have to wonder about them. Word gets around, you know, and a drifter passed through here a few years back who had heard that Max no longer had the heart for the boxing ring after he was separated from his lucky charm, and had given up the fairground life to see the world. He joined a merchantman heading for The Orient and swapped the Morris dance for the Sailor’s Hornpipe. I’m sure, wherever he is, he is doing fine and I like to believe he thinks of me from time to time. I also heard that the fairground disbanded after the boss and his wife decided to retire to a nice little cottage in Dorset with my mother, and that Gwendoline and the Mysterious Suraya took a little haberdashery shop together, so Cissie and Sid are sitting pretty amongst the yarns and laces. Sadly, Nosmo the India Rubber Man perished, and poor Hetty was bereft for a while, but was offered a home by two sisters who run the teashop next door to Cissie and Sid’s haberdashery, and I hear their meat paste sandwiches are second to none. And me? I get two good meals a day, all the biscuits I can eat, a choice of cosy beds, the attention of kind humans and – well, look around you. This is the best surrogate family a cat can wish for. I snooze away the days and remember the old times but, no, I don’t miss it so much any more. This is my home now and I am content.”
Norris yawned and put his head down on his paws and was soon snoring peacefully. While Norris had been speaking Rupert had noticed a slim tortoiseshell and white cat sitting close by, listening to the stories which she had probably heard a dozen times before. She had clearly seen better days and was a little ragged around the edges, but it was obvious that she had once been a beauty. She smiled coyly at him and introduced herself as Bonnie. Even though he had not spoken to her, she took the introduction as her cue to begin her own story.
“Me? I was a great and famous singer. My fans, all male, would journey from far and wide to attend one of my performances. And the humans too. They would open their doors and lean out of their windows and shout their praises. Often, they would throw gifts – whatever they could lay their hands on. Many of them didn’t have much, so I was flattered when they threw bottles or tin cans or boots, for I knew these things were valuable to them. Sometimes, they would throw flowers – or vegetables anyway – which, in the human world, is the ultimate compliment. I was especially flattered when they would throw their flowers still with the pots attached, so then I would give them the encore they so obviously desired and they would shout their praises all the more.
Ah…I can remember all of my greatest performances…on the Lightning Oak in the Seven-Acre Field, the red wall behind the Town Hall, the stone memorial in the Market Square under a Hunter’s Moon…
All my feline fans showed their appreciation in their own special way too and thus I created a whole generation of tiny songsmiths, destined to spread my music to the farthest reaches of this land. And then there was my beloved boy, Pan. He was born without sight and so stayed close to me long after all my other kittens had left to be independent. He was waiting for me to come home when I was trapped and brought here. I never had a chance to tell him…perhaps someone has been kind to him…or maybe he waits still…”
After a long silence, Bonnie closed her eyes and, swaying gently from side to side, she began to sing…
“When the autumn gales are howling
When the winter tempests moan
Leave a candle in your window
To light my journey home
When the midnight sky is starless
And the moon is hid from view
Leave a candle in your window
I will find my way to you
Put some food under the table
Lay my blanket by the hearth
Leave a candle in your window
So its glow may light my path
As, along the snowy highway
On silent feet I tread,
Leave a candle in your window
To show the road ahead
Like a point of purest starshine
Like a diamond in the night
Leave a candle in your window
I will see its blessed light
Though the lonely road seems hopeless
Though the night is full of fear
Leave a candle in your window
And I’ll know when I am near
I can see you in your doorway
I can hear your welcome song
And the candle in your window
Brings me home where I belong
So, when autumn gales are howling
And the winter trees are bare
Leave a candle in your window
To give light to those out there.”
When the verses ran out, she continued to hum the tune and sway gently, eyes still closed, lost in her own little world and Rupert suddenly felt his eyes sting, while his vision went a little misty.
A human voice shook Bonnie from her reverie and caused Rupert to flatten his ears and crouch down, prepared to flee if necessary. But, the voice was gentle and friendly.
“You’re in good voice today, Bonbon. Who are you singing to?”
The clatter of plates prompted a mass movement of cats from all corners of the enclosure. Rupert hung back, still unsure, until Henrietta’s cheerful face appeared, a little too close to his own.
“Dinner!” She said. “Come on, or someone else will eat it. Then you can tell us your story.”
Rupert looked alarmed. “I don’t really have one….”
“But you survived alone out there. You must’ve been a cunning hunter.” said Henrietta.
“No…I was afraid and lonely the whole time and I scavenged whatever the squirrels rejected from the bins. It doesn’t make a good story, not like George’s or Norris’s”.
Henrietta winked at him, grinning. “It’s not the story that’s important. It’s the way you tell it. Just apply a little imagination…now, eat!”
Rupert sniffed at the contents of the bowl in front of him, and a glorious waft of chicken hit his nose, then his palate, then the rest of his senses until nothing else was important. He lapped up the food, which was the best he had ever tasted in his life. After he had licked the bowl completely clean, he spotted a tempting patch of evening sunlight in the corner of the enclosure and stretched contentedly before flopping down on his side. He closed his eyes to doze, but sleep didn’t come instantly. Instead, his imagination began to work and pictures formed in his head.
In place of the broken-down buildings and rusting machinery of his former home, he saw a deep green forest, with mossy banks and a rushing stream and a startled deer springing away through the trees. He was slinking through the bracken, belly low, senses alert. Ahead of him, a large buck rabbit grazed on a patch of bright grass, its back turned towards him….
And, later that evening, when his new family gathered around, tucked in their paws and focused their eyes on him expectantly, he cleared his throat and began.
“I was once a mighty hunter…the scourge of the forest….”
* * *
POSTSCRIPT: You probably want to know what happened to Bonnie’s blind son. Well, the trappers already knew about him and were hoping to trap him at the same time as his mother, but in fact they caught him a couple of days later. After he was cleaned up, vaccinated, chipped and neutered, they decided he would not thrive in the environment of the feral run, so one of the veterinary nurses took him home, where he lives happily to this day.