THE ADVENTURES OF THE LITTLE GREY CAT
Hope you’ll indulge me a little. This story is not cam-related but more personal than that. In early March, I lost my old cat, Edward, who I took in after my mother died. Shortly after, I adopted an eleven year old girl from the shelter where I volunteer. I felt I wanted to give Eddie a proper send off and at the same time to welcome Sybil, a Little Grey Cat.
Once upon a time, there was a little grey cat. She was not, by any conventional measure, a beautiful cat. Her fur was not sleek, nor was it shiny. In fact, it was kind of bristly and somewhat thin, exposing in places the chalky white skin underneath. Her paw pads were grey, but her nose leather was brick red and she had the blackest of black lips, which framed the pink tongue which she often forgot to put away, giving her a slightly comical air. And she was not grey like polished slate, nor grey like burnished steel. No, she was grey like an autumn rain cloud, or a patch of damp fog in the late afternoon of a winter’s day. In fact, it was only her tabby stripes which were grey at all. Her underparts, by contrast, were luxuriantly furred and the colour of a ripe peach, and she kept them clean and spruce with frequent and thorough washes. To the world, though, she was a Little Grey Cat.
Her life thus far had been, for the most part, fairly uneventful – boring even. After she left her mother and siblings, she had lived for ten years with a gentleman who she loved dearly and who fed her well and provided comfy spots in which to sleep. However, he lived in a small apartment, there were few toys and the view from the window was little more than the side wall of the building next door and only the smallest patch of sky. This, for a cat of her status, was a constant source of frustration. Even on the clearest night, she could only see a small handful of stars and only the light reflected against the clouds told her when there was a full moon. On those nights, she sat on the back of the armchair, which was as close as she could get to the window, and sang her song to the Moon and she murred her lowest murr in the hope of getting a response from some other cat – but none came. Over the years, she learned to suppress her disappointment at being unable to fulfil her destiny, according to her status, and she contented herself with being a good companion to her elderly hoomin.
Then, one day, her hoomin disappeared and she found herself bundled into a dark box and bumped and rattled around for what seemed like the longest time, then disgorged into an unfamiliar location, which smelt of unknown cats, hygiene and unhappiness. For so long, she had lived a solitary life with just a single hoomin for company, and no other cats to talk to – even at the full moon – and now she found herself cheek-by-jowl with two strange cats, competing for the best bed, competing for the bowls of crunchies, competing for the attention of the hoomins who visited. She realised that she did not like it. Her tail was constantly puffed up, she found herself growling involuntarily, and she discovered that she had a strong territorial streak of which she had been previously unaware. She and her room-mates were forced to come up with a compromise, which is not a thing that comes naturally to cats. The Little Grey Cat declared that she would have seniority (which was only fitting, considering her status), which gave her dominion over the plastic garden chair in the outdoor area, plus the basket nearest the heater in the indoor bedroom. The others could fight over the best of the rest. They also reached an accord – eventually – regarding the distribution of crunchies. However, it was every cat for themselves when it came to attracting the attention of the visiting hoomins. Now this was something with which the Little Grey Cat had no trouble. She had learned many years ago that the best way to get noticed by hoomins was to shout at them. She had a wide vocabulary and she had noticed that, if you repeated yourself often enough (hoomins being somewhat slow on the uptake) they would eventually understand what you meant. It was hard work, but her hoomin had at last been able to distinguish “food, please” from “treats, please” and “pet me, now!”.
Names, however, were a different matter. Her mother had named her Fahi (pronounced “Prrrrrrtttttmroww”), which meant “Little Shadow”. Her hoomin had named her Sheba, which meant nothing at all and, no matter how many times she had shouted her correct name at him, her hoomin had never, ever used it, so she had given up. Obviously, hoomins were only capable of a rudimentary grasp of language, but she forgave them on account of the fact that they were pretty handy with a can opener.
In the tiny chalet, the days stretched to weeks, the weeks to months. During the day, there was much hustle and bustle, with people bringing food, cleaning floors and fluffing blankets. On some days, other hoomins came in and administered strokes and cuddles and ear scritches, which was a most pleasant interlude, but it didn’t last for long. Then there were the nights, after all the people had left. The Little Grey Cat would sit in her plastic chair and listen to the lamentations of her neighbours, most of whom were confused and lonely, missing their old homes and their old people. She tried hard not to let melancholy overwhelm her, as she realised that those cats who gave up, who curled up in their bedrooms and refused to greet their visitors, were the cats who never left. And plenty of cats did leave. They would pass by her door in their carriers, nervous and apprehensive, off to new lives. She quietly wished them well. But, more than that, she wished that she could be one of them. And she sang to the Moon whenever She was full to ask if that might be possible.
And, after ten long months, the Lady Moon finally granted her wish. The Little Grey Cat found herself back in a carrier being bumped and rattled around, this time not for very long – although she sang the Song of Her People all the way in protest – before she was disgorged into another new location. This one was very different. It didn’t smell of other cats (well, it did slightly), it didn’t smell of unhappiness and it certainly didn’t smell of hygiene. There was a big comfy hoomin bed and big comfy armchairs and a scratcher and a litter box and food and crunchies and…..oh, joy! A huge window, with a wide sill for sitting, and a view of trees and grass and birdies and, best of all, a large expanse of sky. Her new hoomin was one already familiar to her, being one of those who had occasionally come in to administer snuggles. The Little Grey Cat declared herself satisfied with the accommodations, and settled in for the duration.
A few weeks passed, and life for the Little Grey Cat was proving decidedly above average. The meals came regularly, the litter box was kept fresh and clean, there were occasional treats and even a roast chicken dinner from time to time. She and her hoomin spent quality time together, snuggled on the sofa or sleeping on the big bed, and there was even the completely new experience of cat TV, featuring strange cats who didn’t steal her bed or her crunchies, and comical kittens who rolled and tumbled for her amusement, all behind the safety of a small, shiny screen. She had taken to this novelty instantly. But, the thing she liked the most was the big window with the broad sill, where she could sit at night, alone with her thoughts, and count the stars in all their myriad colours and configurations. One night, she even spotted Ham the Hunter, streaking across the sky from west to east, his glittering tail behind him, in pursuit of some unseen celestial prey. From time to time, she was aware of soft sounds in the house – the odd creak, the rustle of fabric, a sound like the padding of soft paws across carpet – all of them just on the very edge of hearing. She dismissed these as the workings of her imagination. But, sometimes, the sounds were accompanied by the smallest breath of wind, as if someone or something had passed close by her face. Despite herself, she would feel her whiskers stiffening and the sparse bristles on the back of her neck beginning to stand on end.
One night in late March, she heard the sound of stealthy paws accompanied by the familiar movement of air near her face, but this time she was certain something had touched her – a tail, maybe, or a whisker…. She peered into the gloom and was certain she could make out a dark shape descending the stairs. Gathering her courage, she followed it as it passed through the carpeted dining room (pad, pad, pad), into the tiled kitchen (click, click, click) and out through the cat door into the back garden. This was odd, because she knew the cat door was locked. She tried to push it with a paw and it did not budge. Mystified, she sat down, trying to see through the transparent plastic door into the dark garden, but she could see nothing. Taking a deep breath, and willing her tail to return to its normal size, she turned to go back up the stairs and stopped dead…. Laying across the threshold between the kitchen and dining room, effectively blocking her way, was an enormous tabby cat. Instinctively, she stood up on her tip-toes, arching her back, her fur stuck out in all directions. She let out a low growl. The tabby cat continued to lay there, regarding her passively with calm, olive eyes.
“What the…. who the….where the….?” The Little Grey Cat was not at her most articulate at this time.
“Hello,” said the tabby. “Don’t mind me.”
“But…but…you’re in my house!” she squeaked, uncertain whether to be frightened or outraged.
“It’s my house, too.” said the tabby. “Or, it was….”
She peered closely at the big cat. Was it her eyesight, or did he look a little fuzzy around the edges? Was his form really wavering slightly, or had she eaten something which disagreed with her?
“I don’t understand.” she said.
“Oh. Well, I’m Edward. I lived here before you. Still do, in a way. I thought I might as well wait here.”
“Wait for what? Shouldn’t you have crossed The Bridge by now?” The Little Grey Cat was aware that there had been a previous occupant in the house. She was also aware of the cardboard box on the kitchen counter which contained his last earthly remains.
“Yes, I suppose so. But I’m not ready yet. Something has to happen first.”
“What?,” she asked.
“Don’t know,” replied the tabby, “but I’ll know when it happens. Until then, I hope you won’t mind if I stick around.”
“Er…no. I suppose not. Perhaps you can answer some questions for me.”
But answer came there none, which was unsurprising considering Edward had completely disappeared.
He did not return the next night, even though she waited up for him, nor the night after that. She began to wonder if his appearance had been nothing more than a protracted and vivid dream after all. On the third day, she was temporarily distracted by an interesting development. As she sat on the kitchen floor giving her paws their post-breakfast wash, she realised that the back door was open. She approached cautiously, and peered outside. The sun was out, although there was a stiff breeze which ruffled her fur and whiskers in an unfamiliar way. It had been so long since she had felt grass under her paws and the wind in her fur, that she felt a little apprehensive. However, her hoomin was not far away, pegging out damp washing on a long line, so she gathered up her courage and stepped out.
Oh! The assault on her senses! Her ears were filled with the roar of the wind and the cheeping and squawking of birds, the drone of human voices and the distant “whoosh, whoosh” of traffic across the fields. And the smells! She immediately set off, anxious to take it all in and create a mental map of her new territory. She sniffed at everything. She could tell where the birds had been, and the mice; there were unfamiliar cats in the vicinity, too – she made a note to find out more. There was the scent of fresh grass and the herby odour of young nettles and tree bark and the distant tang of the ocean, mixed up with the oily fumes drifting in from the road. There were bushes, shrubs and small plants all densely packed together, forming dark, cat-sized highways to a world of wonder. There were wooden fences on which she could perch and scan the horizon for….oh, for anything. Then, she looked up. The blue sky above disappeared into infinity in all directions, uninterrupted by walls or buildings or tall trees. Next full moon, she thought….maybe.
Excited by her outdoor adventures, she ate a hearty meal that night and soon fell asleep on the chair in the dining room, until she was jolted suddenly awake by something touching her nose. As her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, she could make out the shape of the big tabby cat standing in front of her, his front paws resting on the seat of her chair.
“You’ve been sprung, then…” he said.
“Given your freedom,” he translated. “The cat door is unlocked – I’ve tried it. Come outside with me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been outside after dark before.” said the Little Grey Cat.
“It’s magical,” said Edward, heading across the kitchen floor.
She followed, feeling a little nervous. It was true – in all her years, she had never once set foot outside after dark, even though she knew that, in her bones, she was a creature of the night. She wasn’t confident that her eyesight would be up to it, nor that her whiskers would be sensitive enough, nor her sense of smell discerning enough. Still, she had an overwhelming need to please the old, spectral cat – she didn’t know why – so she followed.
Edward was right. The night garden was a world of wonder. As her eyes adjusted, she realised she could see every detail as different shades of grey and silver – she could even see a hundred different shades of black. The scents she had explored earlier that day were tonight magnified a hundred times, and she discovered that her whiskers could tell apart the nettles from the daffodils, the wood of the fence from the bark of the trees. Her whole body felt as if it was charged with electricity. She had never seen or sniffed or felt anything so exciting in her whole life. She could see Edward waiting for her at the end of the flower bed, so she pushed her way through, feeling every grain of earth and every dried leaf and pebble through her paw pads, and gaining in confidence with every step.
She emerged from the flower bed to find herself at the very end of the garden. In front of her was a battered wire fence, behind that, a deep ditch bordering a large field, which seemed to stretch away to infinity. She was startled by unfamiliar animal shapes moving in the distance with strange, grass like tails which flicked incessantly – “Horses,” explained Edward. Then she flinched as something whooshed over her head, screeching eerily – “An owl,” explained Edward. So much to learn, she thought, recovering her composure.
“Look,” Edward turned his face to the sky, and the Little Grey Cat followed his gaze. Laid out above them was a tapestry of dark blue velvet, woven through with silver and golden threads and studded with a million tiny, sparkling jewels. The Little Grey Cat sighed deeply with satisfaction. All this – on her own doorstep.
For many nights after this, Edward and The Little Grey Cat met at the bottom of the garden. They would look up at the sky and she would share her knowledge of the constellations and history and mythology although, it must be said, he seemed to be quite well versed in these subjects already, which was unusual for a he-cat. Someone must have taught him. In return, Edward told her about the other animals with whom she would have to share her garden, and where to find the best napping spots, and he told long rambling stories about his brother and his mother and other cats who he had known in the past. Sometimes, her eyelids would start to droop during these, then she would have to shake her head vigorously to wake herself up again. She didn’t want to insult the old boy, although he probably wouldn’t have noticed.
Then, one night towards the end of April, they met as usual at the end of the garden. Instead of launching into a lengthy anecdote or repeating a joke he had once heard from that siamese who used to live along the road, Edward indicated to her a stout fence post at the very corner of the garden. She had seen it before, of course, but it had never seemed very remarkable. It was leaning slightly, and there were nails protruding from the wood where the wire fencing had become detached at the top. At its foot, there was a small pile of stone slabs which appeared to form steps.
“This was Lia’s place.” said Edward.
“Lia. She crossed the bridge about a year ago. Nobody knew how old she was, least of all Lia herself. She was tiny and bent and wizened and had hardly any fur left, but she was the queen in these parts. Even though her voice was only a dry rasp, like the sound of a wheel rolling over straw, she came here on every full moon – sometimes more often – and she led The Circle from this fence post. She called, the others listened.”
“I thought there was nobody out there,” said the Little Grey Cat. “I’ve called before, but I’ve never had a response.”
“They are waiting for a new queen to lead them. Isn’t that why you’ve come? It is your destiny, after all…as befits your status.”
She gulped, and her vision went all misty for a second. Her mother before her, her mother’s mother before that….
“That’s your place now,” said Edward, nodding towards the fence post, “and there’s something I’d like you to do.”
“This is my last night in this place – the thing that I was waiting for is about to happen. This is not my true home – not the home of my heart. I lived most of my life in another place with my brother and some different hoomins. My brother crossed the bridge a few years ago, then the last of my hoomins followed him. The hoomin’s kitten took me in and we came here because my old home was not hers to keep. Oh, don’t get me wrong – life has been very pleasant here and the hoomin kitten is kind and generous, but I never stopped missing my old house and my old family and my old friends. I missed my sleeping bush and the pond with the big fishes and the little deer who used to visit me and my neighbour cats, Katie and Rufus…but, tomorrow, I am finally going home.”
“I’ll miss you,” she said, and meant it.
“Then remember me,” he said, “for tomorrow night, I’ll cross the Bridge and my brother William will be waiting to greet me and so will Lia, I hope. But, I have nobody left here to sing to The Moon and light my star.”
“But…” She was unable to find any words.
” If you lead, they will follow….don’t forget to tell them your name.”
“It’s Fahi, which means….”
“No. I mean the name the hoomin gave you. The name you go by now.”
“Sybil. My old hoomin called me Sheba, but this one has….”.
“Then tell them you are Sybil. They’ve been waiting for you.”
The following morning, the hoomin kissed Sybil on the top of her head and left the house. Under her arm, she carried the cardboard box containing the last earthly remains of Edward.
So, that night, Sybil slipped through the cat door and pushed her way through the flower bed to the clearing near the fence, and hopped up onto the fence post. For a while she sat, still and quiet, feeling the breeze ruffle her fur, hearing the call of the owl in the distance, the soft crunch, crunch of the horses cropping grass and the distant whoosh of the traffic over the fields, and then she raised her eyes to the sky. Ham the Hunter streaked over once again, this time pursuing his elusive quarry away to the north. She fixed her eyes on the moon as She emerged from behind a wisp of cloud and bathed the whole universe in liquid silver. Clearing her throat, Sybil began to sing, and it was a song she had known her whole life – a song known to every cat in every land under the Moon. And, one by one, other voices began to join in, some far away, some close at hand. The song was soft at first, like the hum of wires on the wind, then gradually more and more voices took it up until the sound filled the whole of the land and sky. Across the fields, across the night, they all lifted up their voices in praise of Edward – a gentle and noble cat.
Much later, Sybil sat indoors on the windowsill, washing her face and arranging her whiskers. What a night! She felt warm and contented, her destiny fulfilled at last, as befitted a cat of her status. Never mind that her fur was sparse and bristly, nor that her tail was thin and undistinguished, nor that she was the colour of damp fog. No – she was the queen around these parts and life was good. Glancing up one more time to where a new star danced, like a bright copper coin, next to its brother, she turned away from the window and jumped onto the bed where the hoomin lay asleep and curled up at the bottom corner.
Then she thought the better of it, and stretched herself out right across the middle.
The Little Grey Cat slept.
The boy sat at the small table in the kitchen, ruminatively eating his cornflakes whilst reading the list of ingredients on the back of the packet. Making a mental note to Google “thiamine” and “niacin”, to find out what they heck they actually were and whether their presence in his breakfast cereal was beneficial to his health and well being, he put down his spoon and reached for his tea mug. He liked to survey his domain over the rim of his red mug – the small, neat kitchen, his mother making his lunchtime sandwich and, in the corner of the room, two young cats tucking into their own breakfasts.
At least, one of them was tucking in. The fluffy tabby ate with gusto, her eyes closed in pleasure, a soft purr trying to make itself heard over the sound of her smacking lips. Her elegant companion looked sideways at her, one eyebrow raised, then continued with his mission to fastidiously remove every last scrap of sauce from the bowl without disturbing any of the meaty chunks.
“Honestly, Peter,” said Honey, between mouthfuls, “I don’t know how you became such a picky eater. The chunks are the best bit – the bit that gives you energy!”
“I’ll come back to them later.” said Peter. “I subscribe to the theory that grazing is a healthier dietary choice than just scarfing it down.”
“They’ll go all dry.” said Honey, her tongue making a rasping noise as she licked clean the bottom of her plate.
“I like them like that,” he lied.
The boy, having finished his breakfast, pushed back his chair and stood up. He took his school bag and coat off the peg on the wall, collected his packed lunch from the counter and headed for the front door. In accordance with what had become their daily routine, Honey sat on the windowsill washing the detritus of her meal off her paws and face, while Peter trotted at the boy’s heels to the front door, where the pair exchanged nose kisses before he left the house to run to the bus stop. A few minutes later, the ritual was repeated, but this time it was Honey who followed the mother to the door and kissed her goodbye as she left to go to work.
Peter and Honey had learned a lot in the months since they’d arrived at their forever home. They had learned that they couldn’t both fit through the cat door at the same time, that the lady next door liked kittens, that the lady at the other next door didn’t, that a sheep cannot be reasoned with, that the meadow behind the house reminded them of somewhere….
They had also learned that some things that are broken cannot be mended. The jar with the mayonnaise, for instance, and the wine glass which Honey knocked onto the kitchen tiles with one swish of her magnificent tail. Also, the green vase, the pile of empty plant pots, next door’s hideous plaster gnome, the blue vase and the big sponge cake – although the creamy bits still tasted good even when licked off the door of the fridge. All of these infractions had been tolerated with good grace by their humans. Except for the picture. Honey hadn’t meant to do it. She was just playing at “the floor is lava” with Peter and the picture – a framed photograph of a good-looking young man dressed in uniform – fell from the mantlepiece onto the hearth and the glass cracked. The mother shouted in anger and jumped up so suddenly that Honey took fright and ran out of the room to hide under the bed. Much later, the mother coaxed her out with a treat and picked her up and held her tight, burying her face into Honey’s fur. Honey could feel a touch of damp on the back of her neck – not for the first time – and knew what she had to do.
For sometimes, the kittens had learned, human hearts could be broken too, and there was a hole in this home which, at times, threatened to suck all of the light and air and joy so far down into it that it could never return. They sincerely believed, however, that it was possible to mend a home and a human heart, one piece at a time. What’s more, they believed that this was their mission, so they set about it with a will.
Whenever the mother was alone in the house, and she would put down her book, or her whisk, or her needle and retreat to her bedroom and curl up on her bed, Honey would make it her job to jump up beside her and to trill in her prettiest voice and roll onto her back and make air biscuits and to purr and to purr until, instead of weeping bitter tears into her pillow, the mother would run her hands over Honey’s fur and lay her head next to the woolly belly and doze off listening to the safe, comforting rumble, and the mother would remember a little what contentment felt like.
And whenever the boy sat alone in his room on a fine day, instead of joining his friends outdoors, Peter would make it his job to push his way in through the door and to pounce at the sunbeams and jump at the dust motes and to stalk imaginary prey and to chase his own tail until, instead of sitting and staring aimlessly into space, the boy would reach for the feather stick and the two of them would leap and spin and run and laugh, and the boy would remember a little what fun felt like.
One piece at a time.
* * * * *
It was early spring when the subject of birthdays came up.
“What do you want this year?” his mother asked.
There were plenty of things he needed, and a few things he wanted, but he knew money was tight and he had to keep his expectations low.
“I don’t really know. I’ll have to think about it.” He really needed, and also wanted, new trainers, but the ones he’d set his heart on were hideously expensive and, let’s be honest, better no trainers at all than the wrong ones. So, he didn’t mention them and asked for time to consider instead.
“Maybe we can go out somewhere this year,” she ventured.
“We don’t have a car. It failed its MOT.”
“Tom has a car….”
She knew even as she said it what his reaction would be. The boy’s face reddened, he jumped to his feet and stomped off to his bedroom, slamming the door.
Peter instinctively followed, sensing that his services would be needed. Honey, likewise, moved to sit beside the mother’s feet, ready to jump into her lap should things escalate. Finding the boy’s door closed, Peter mewed quietly. It opened a crack, and he quickly snaked through the gap before it was slammed shut again.
The boy lay on his back on the bed, with Peter sitting on his chest, paws tucked in, in a tidy loaf position. He kept his steady, cornflower blue gaze on the boy’s face as he ranted, through gritted teeth.
“I don’t want him at my birthday…he’s always here…hanging around mum…crashing about the place…him and that lolloping dog…you don’t like the dog either.”
Peter inclined his head. Actually, the dog was pretty civilised, considering. She’d always been polite to him and Honey, anyway. However, her body language was unpredictable, so both cats tended to keep out of her way.
“…and his stupid red sports car and his stupid green Landrover and his filthy gumboots and his beard and his stupid posh voice…”
He tailed off, temporarily devoid of any more things to hate about “The Man”. The Man had begun to show up about a month previously. Firstly, he had called in with a trailer load of firewood for their wood burning stove, then he had called in with packets of chops and sausages for their freezer and mum had invited him to stay for coffee, then he had called in with some bottles of his home-made elderflower cordial and mum had made him lunch, then after that he had just begun to call in. The boy would sometimes come home from school and there would be The Man, sitting at the kitchen table like he belonged, with that lolloping dog laying on the floor and the kittens nowhere to be seen.
“If he thinks he can replace dad, he’s got another think coming!” The boy spat out the words, teeth still gritted, face still red. “He’s not my dad…what does he even do?” He pushed his balled up fists into his eye sockets, in a vain attempt to stop the tears from flowing.
“My dad was a soldier….” he told Peter, who already knew this. “He was always away, but it didn’t matter ‘cos he always came home, and then it was brilliant. He’d bring loads of presents and we’d have a big welcome home party and after that we’d go for bike rides and play football and go to the beach and play chess and we’d talk and talk…. and then…he didn’t come home.” The boy opened his eyes to find himself gazing into the blue depths of Peter’s. “I named you after him, Peter. I don’t want a new dad…if I can’t have the old one, I’d rather have no dad at all.”
Peter extended his claws in a gesture intended to offer comfort. “Ow! That hurts!” The boy brushed Peter onto the floor and turned on his side, facing the wall. Peter, finding the bedroom door shut, exited via the open window.
“He hates him!” said Peter, later that evening. “We have to get rid of him!”
“No,” said Honey. “She likes him and he helps her. We can’t just get rid of him.”
“But you always run under the bed when he arrives.”
“So do you…”
“Hmmm…. more research needed.” The kittens agreed.
* * * * *
The Man came again the following day. He arrived in the late afternoon in the stupid red sports car, carrying a large box of tools, which he used to make various unpleasantly loud and unwarranted noises by hitting and scraping them against parts of the mother’s car. To get a better view, Honey screwed up her courage and jumped onto the bonnet of the stupid sports car – which was toasty warm and very comfortable. She was unable to resist the urge to lay down and gently grill first one side, then the other, all the while keeping one eye (if that) on The Man and his activities.
“There you go, cat.” She awoke from her doze to find him speaking directly to her. “New brake shoes and some filler for the hole in the exhaust – what do you think?” His hand came towards her and her ears flattened automatically. She couldn’t help it – that fur on his face startled her every time. His hand kept on coming, and it tickled her behind the ears. She was surprised at his gentleness. She noted it down.
The man came again the following day, this time in the stupid green Landrover. From out of the back, he extracted a large orange machine which began to roar and clank and judder, sending Honey flying through the cat door to the safety of the kitchen. Peter was feeling brave that day, but he retreated underneath a dense shrub, from which vantage point he could observe in relative safety. Up and down, up and down the man marched, pushing the noisy machine before him. Once, he paused, bent down and waggled his finger in the grass just in front of the machine’s fearsome blades. A tiny mouse shot across the lawn and disappeared into a flower bed. Then, he continued until he had pushed the machine over every inch of the grass. “There you go, cat.” His face appeared, upside down, in front of Peter. “Could be Versailles, eh?” He reached in and tickled Peter under the chin in a friendly fashion. Peter made a note.
By the end of a week, Peter and Honey had plenty of notes to compare.
“He fixed the car,” said Honey
“He saved the mousie,” said Peter
“He dug in the flower bed to make it easy for the robin to find insects,”
“He cut a hole in the fence so the hedgehogs can get through,”
“He made a little house out of wood just for the bees,”
“He planted catnip in pots, just for us,”
“He did? Where?” demanded Honey.
“So, what’s our conclusion?” asked Peter
Both of them agreed that The Man was probably not so bad and at least deserved a chance. They would spring into action immediately. After dinner…and a nap.
* * * * *
The weekend of the boy’s birthday dawned bright and clear. Spring was very much in the air and both he and his mother sat in the garden – she on the bench at the bottom end, he on an upturned bucket outside the kitchen door. It had been a difficult week. There had been arguments, prolonged silences, slammed doors and tears on both sides. The kittens had been busy, offering comfort to both their humans and, occasionally, taking refuge under the bed when the arguing threatened to get out of hand, but still no agreement had been reached. The boy didn’t want The Man spoiling his birthday. The mother insisted that The Man was coming anyway. The kittens had formulated their strategy, which was simple.
“You take the dog, I’ll take the him…” Peter had said. Honey had grimaced a little, but accepted that this was the way it had to be.
The Man duly arrived, driving the stupid green Landrover, and strode into the garden. The boy kept his head down, refusing to meet his eyes. The lolloping dog – actually a mostly-white Staffie with bright button eyes and a cheery demeanour, followed at his heels and rolled comically onto her back on the grass as he sat down next to the mother. Peter watched as Honey approached the dog. He saw her plant her nose on the dog’s exposed pink belly, causing the dog to roll onto her front, startled. The two animals were nose to nose….Peter hoped for the best. Meanwhile, he approached his young human, rubbed himself round his ankles, then jumped up onto his lap as he sat morosely on his bucket. In the way that only Peter could, he gazed into the boy’s eyes. Deep into them. A thought entered unbidden into the boy’s head and, despite his determination to ignore The Man at all costs, he felt compelled to look across the garden to where Honey was happily licking the white dog’s ear, while the mother and The Man giggled at the sight.
Peter hopped off the boy’s lap and walked down the garden. The mother reached down to caress his ears as she often did but, to her surprise, Peter walked straight past her and sprang instead onto the lap of The Man. The boy watched, taken aback and somewhat jealous, as his cat blatently nose-kissed and scent marked this most unwelcome of visitors. Peter turned in his direction again and a new thought popped uninvited into the boy’s head. He got up from his bucket and found himself walking down the garden, towards the bench, the dog, Honey, Peter, his mother and The Man.
“Hi. Happy Birthday,” said The Man.
“Thanks,” said the boy. He sat down on the bench alongside his mother and Peter immediately moved in to make himself comfortable on his lap. Briefly, boy and cat locked eyes once more. For some reason, the boy felt a little less hostile to The Man – he wasn’t sure why.
“I’ve got some errands to run,” said The Man. “Would you like to come with me?”
“Why?” asked the boy.
“I think you’ll enjoy them.”
His mother smiled and nodded. “Er…OK.” He was rather dubious about this.
He climbed reluctantly into the passenger seat of the stupid green Landrover. The lolloping dog, whose name he learned was Sally, jumped into her compartment behind the seats and they drove off.
“I remember this place!” the boy said, as they arrived at the gate of a forested area a few miles outside the village. “We came on a nature walk when I was at junior school.” He didn’t remember much about it, except that it had been cold, his feet had got wet, but it had been fun to escape the classroom for a couple of hours.
“It’s a nature reserve,” said The Man. “I’m the warden here – that’s my job.”
“Wow!” said the boy. “I thought you were a builder or something.”
“Never assume….” The Man laughed. “Come on – I’ll introduce you to some of my neighbours.”
For the next two hours, boy and man walked around the woods, Sally at their heels, stopping at a rickety looking barn to check on the barn owl who was nesting in a special box near the roof, then peering underneath it with a flashlight to spot the vixen who lay under there, calm but watchful, awaiting the birth of her cubs, then inside the hollow tree, where the light revealed a cluster of what appeared to be small leather drawstring purses stuck to the wood by their strings.
“Horseshoe bats,” The Man explained. “They’re a secret – you must promise never to tell anybody they are there.”
“They’re a protected species. You need a special licence even to view them, let alone handle them. I have to count them regularly to check that the colony is thriving.”
“Wow! What a great job.” said the boy, genuinely impressed.
They carried on with their walk, taking in the badger sett (no badgers to be seen at this time of day) the wooden nesting boxes nailed high up in the trees, a magnificent stag beetle hidden under some damp leaves and plenty of squirrels scuttling about on the forest floor. “Trying to remember where they hid their nuts…” said The Man, laughing.
The boy returned home much happier than when he left. His mother and the cats were still in the garden, but now there was also a big cake and a parcel wrapped in fancy paper on the garden table. The cake turned out to be chocolate, while the parcel contained the longed-for trainers.
“It’s OK,” whispered his mother. “I just moved a few things around…we can manage. How was the nature reserve?”
“Brilliant!” he said. “I’d love to go again some time and see if the barn owl has her chicks and the fox has her cubs and…”
“I hope you will come again,” said the man. “And, to make it a little easier for you…”. He disappeared round the side of the house and returned, wheeling a sturdy looking bicycle. “Look, it’s not new, but I’ve fixed it up and put heavy duty tyres on it and decent gears. It should make a good off-roader.”
The boy was genuinely lost for words. He had long since outgrown his old bike, and there hadn’t been enough money for a new one. His dad had promised to buy him one, of course, but….
Peter hopped up onto the boy’s lap and they touched noses, causing a sharp snap of static.
“Look,” said the man, quietly. “I’m not trying to replace your dad. I can never do that. But, well, grown ups get lonely sometimes and me and your mum – we’re both on our own, so we’re just keeping each other company. And you and me…I reckon we could be good mates. That’s all. Think about it.”
The boy’s vision misted up and he gave a small sniffle. “Thanks for the bike, Tom.”
“You’re very welcome, David.”
* * * * *
The sky was changing from pink to purple as the kittens sat on a small mound of soft grass in the meadow behind the house. They loved to sit here at dusk whenever they could, watching the stars appear one by one in the darkening sky.
“They say that the stars are the eyes of our ancestors.” said Honey, not for the first time.
“Not just our ancestors,” added Peter, “but of all the cats and kittens who have crossed over the bridge.”
They were waiting for their favourite stars to appear.
“Do you think we did good today?” asked Peter.
“Yes, pretty good.” replied Honey. “It wasn’t all us, of course, The Man and his lolloping dog helped..”
“Sally. Her name is Sally.”
The kittens fell silent as familiar stars began to peep through the velvety blueness. They watched for these every night because, fanciful though it probably was, they had the feeling that, somehow, these stars were watching them back. There was the small one that shone with an emerald light and, close by, its larger companion, amber like the flare of a match (the kittens believed that these two were close friends, never to be separated), the tiny twin stars like fiery ruby chips, the glittering diamonds that seemed to dance around each other, full of joy, the cluster of soft pearls that seemed to be the centre of things (wise lady cats, Honey thought)…
“Look,” said Honey, “there’s one more lady cat tonight” and, sure enough, a new star glowed with an inner fire, like an opal. “I wonder who she was….”
The lights were on in the house and the lure of a meal and a comfy spot on the sofa was strong. The muffled sound of laughter drifted through the dusk as the kittens pushed through the gap in the fence and trotted across the garden to their cat door. Far away, just for a moment, the stars seemed to burn a little brighter.
* * * * *
“There you are,” said Tuffy, as they leaned over the edge. “Yes, it’s true that we can leave broken hearts behind us when we leave, but it’s also true that we can help to mend them while we are there. That family still has a long journey ahead of them, but they will have good companions along the road.”
“One piece at a time….” said Peaches, and the two old cats turned their backs on the bridge and walked together through the twilight to the meadow.
We’re really glad you’ve come to stay
Just think of all the games we’ll play.
And how much fun we’ll have together,
I know we’ll be best friends forever.
They’ve sent me here to take you back.
I’ve promised I will stay on track,
So we mustn’t wander off or stray,
Or waste time playing on the way.
Here – put your ear against this tree –
That humming sound’s a bumble Bee.
He really is a dapper fellow
In his velvet coat of black and yellow.
He’ll let you chase him but, if caught
His temper runs a little short.
And so we let him stay ahead
And chase the dragonflies instead.
Then later, when the sun goes down
The moths come out, all plain and brown.
They dance beneath the stars all night
Their wings reflecting silver light
And with them dance the fireflies,
Like tiny golden kittens’ eyes
Around our heads they glow and spark
A fiery ballet in the dark.
Now look at how these dead leaves curl
You can take them to the stream and hurl
Them in the water, where they float –
A fleet of tiny kitten boats.
And if you bend your head and blow,
Away across the stream they go,
Until they reach some distant shore –
An unknown country to explore
And claim for all of Kittenkind
(And anyone we’ve left behind).
Now, this is how we cross the stream,
All roped together as a team,
Battered by the churning foam
Which tries to fling us off this stone
And drag us down into the depths…
No, really we just use these steps.
Across these little rocks we hop
And on the middle one we stop
To skim a stone and make a wish,
But careful not to scare the fish.
And now we’re on the other side
A great savannah, vast and wide
Where lions slink, hyenas lope
And cheetahs chase the antelope,
The zebras graze, the vultures soar
And we must cross – but not before
I’ve scaled the mighty look-out tree
To check it’s safe – what can I see?
A slightly angry Auntie Quark
Who said we must be home by dark
I think we might be slightly late
The other guests won’t want to wait
For potted shrimp and seafood paste
And sardine sandwiches that taste
Like salty oceans on your tongue
And drip with oozy oils that run
Into your fur and make it sticky
(Which can make cleaning up quite tricky.)
Then, after games and cake and pie
We’ll chant your praises to the sky,
And, once she’s sure of who you are
The Lady Moon will light your star.
A tiny point of diamond light
To comfort mama every night.
We’re nearly home – there’s Cindy Lou
And Taps and Rain and Toothless too.
We’re all your sisters, all your brothers,
Uncles, aunties, cousins, mothers…
All here to welcome you with love..
Me? I’m your favourite sister, Dove.
Klondike sat on a flat stone on the edge of the meadow, soaking up warmth from above and below. The sun was high and there was no shade nearby, but he was enjoying the sensation of being slowly and pleasantly cooked from the ears down. He imagined he could hear his fur quietly sizzling. The residual heat from the stone warmed his underside at the same time – he would be done to a turn, he mused, yawning. A honey bee hummed past, followed closely by Ladybug, her tiny legs going full pelt to keep up. All morning, she had been galloping about the meadow, squealing and laughing in delight as she completely failed to catch butterflies, wasps, and damsel flies. Catching them wasn’t really the point. The fun was in the chase. Klondike grinned as she whizzed past again, going in the other direction, having given up on the bee and now intent on bringing down a fat, noisy maybug. For a while, it looked as if Ladybug might actually catch up to her quarry, slow and clumsy as it was, so she stopped her pursuit and flopped down next to her brother, panting slightly from her exertions.
“Do you know?” she said, “If I’d been born in Britain, I’d be called Ladybird.”
“Who told you that?” asked Klondike.
“Er…..a British cat!” she declared. “Ladybugs are called ladybirds in Britain.”
“But you’re named after a card game.” he reminded her.
“Oh…well, maybe card games are called different in Britain too.”
“Maybe. Come on, we’re going for a walk.” Klondike hopped off his stone onto the cool grass and had a good, invigorating stretch – front paws together first, then back paws one at a time.
“Where are we going?” asked Ladybug, eyeing a juicy looking moth as it skittered past.
“To the Bridge.” said her brother. “Keep up, or you’ll get lost.” He strode off, out of the meadow and onto the little rough path that lead to the edge. Neither kitten had been back to the Bridge since they had arrived weeks earlier, tiny and lost, to be greeted by a crowd of cats and kittens who all seemed to be expecting them. The journey from being frightened and lonely to feeling safe and loved was exactly the same length as that taken from the Bridge to the party meadow. Ladybug had made it borne on the back of a huge, shaggy, cream coloured cat, as the welcome committee were afraid that her petite frame and extremely small legs would delay them reaching the sumptuous tea which awaited them. Klondike was proud that he had made the journey on his own feet, but then he was almost twice the size of his sister.
“Why are we going to the Bridge?” asked Ladybug, trotting briskly to keep up with her larger brother.
“Not sure,” he replied. “I just think it’s time we went. We’ll be able to see them, if we dare to take a peek.”
“Our family, of course.”
Ladybug sat down on the path, wide-eyed. “Really? I think that might make me sad.”
“Well, you don’t have to look, but I think you should. I don’t think it’ll make you sad at all.”
They continued on their way, pausing to drink at the little brook, then hopping onto the big stones to cross it, then up the grassy bank which led to the birch glade with its velvety turf and dancing shadows. Bug cheered up when she felt the springy grass under her paws, and pounced and leaped after the fluttering leaves. Seeing her spinning and jumping, full of glee, Klondike was unable to resist the temptation to join in the game, allowing himself, just for a while, to drop his persona as the sensible, responsible one. He was a thoughtful kitten, with wisdom beyond his years and he was very protective of his little sister but, every now and then it did him good to just be a kitten. Eventually, when their leafy prey had all been duly despatched, they emerged from the glade onto the broad greensward which ran along the cliff edge. Right in front of them, they could see the ancient trees whose gnarled and leafless boughs had twisted together to form an archway and, beyond that, the bridge itself, disappearing as always into swirling fog.
Above the chasm, the sky appeared dark, even though it was a bright afternoon where the kittens stood. In that midnight blue expanse they could see a million twinkling stars, one for every soul who had crossed the bridge. They could see their own, like tiny ruby chips close together, red and silver sparks shooting back and forth between them. As usual, the ground close to the bridge was crowded with cats, some awaiting the arrival of friends and loved-ones, some checking up on the homes and families they had left behind. Ladybug and Klondike approached the edge with caution. The ground dropped away vertically like a sheer cliff face and there was nothing below but darkness – it was a scary sight, even though the kittens knew they were safe.
“There!” Klondike pointed excitedly. After several minutes of peering into the void, Ladybug could finally see where he was pointing. “Look, there’s Tommy and Deuces and Diplomat too. And the hoomin!”
“Where’s mama?” asked Bug, craning her neck.
“There she is, behind the boys.”
“What’s happening?” The scene looked unfamiliar. There was light and noise and the room was full of people and bright objects and other cats. Klondike was unable to answer his sister.
“It’s adoption day.” The kittens turned to see an adult cat, whose face was familiar although they couldn’t recall her name right now. “Keiara” she reminded them. “I come here often – usually I come to check up on two young friends of mine who went back over recently. But I also come for adoption days. They make me so happy.”
“What does it mean?” asked Klondike.
“It’s when a kitten or a cat gets to go home with a special hoomin. They live together and they take care of each other and have wonderful lives. Your mama and brothers are being adopted today. Each of them will go to a new home with a hoomin who really wants them, and they will get good food, warm beds, lots of toys and lots of love. It’s just the best life. It’s lovely here, but sometimes I miss my hoomin.”
“Will we still be able to see mama and our brothers after dopshun?” asked Ladybug, her lip wobbling a little.
“Of course. You can watch them grow up and become big, handsome boys.”
“I wish we were being dopted…” Ladybug’s lip continued to wobble. “It sounds lovely.”
For a long time, the pair watched, fascinated, as their family crouched patiently in their cage while the people milled around them, occasionally reaching in to pet them. Then, one by one, they were lifted out and each was handed to a hoomin to cuddle. Even though the kittens had little experience of people, they could see the joy and love written on their faces as they held their new babies for the first time.
“It must be wonderful to have hoomins love you so much…” Klondike mused.
“Yes, it is.” said Keiara. “Maybe one day…..who knows?” She smiled at them, then blew a kiss over the precipice to her own special person, before turning and walking back towards the birch glade.
The family were all gone. Dopshun day was over, but the kittens continued to watch and wonder what it must be like to be loved so much by creatures so different from themselves. But then…something else was happening. Someone was speaking…and handing something to the big hoomin…..
“Listen, Bug,” said Klondike, “We’ve been adopted.”
“What? Who? Who dopted us?”
“Lots of people. Even though they could never meet us and hold us and have us scratch their furniture and bite their toes…they still wanted us.”
“Yay! We’re dopted!” Ladybug hopped and bounced and chased her own tail in celebration. “Hoomins are wonderful!”
“Yes, they are aren’t they?” Klondike gazed with awe as the little presentation concluded. He closed his eyes and he truly believed he could feel their love washing over him.
It was two satisfied kittens who made their way back that evening. Ladybug was full of excitement as usual, bursting to tell their friends that they were now dopted kittens with a huge hoomin family over on the other side. Klondike pondered. He wanted to say thank you somehow, but he wasn’t sure how. Maybe it didn’t matter – such caring hoomins would surely understand… He looked up to the now darkening sky and smiled. That would do.
So that night, when the moon was at her highest, if those special hoomins had cared to look upwards (as many like to do), they would have seen two stars, like tiny ruby chips, flashing red and silver fire towards them as two contented kittens curled up to sleep, happy in the knowledge that they were remembered with love.
Peter sat on a log on the fringes of the meadow and watched while Honey and her kitten companions chased each other in and out of the long grass, disappearing behind the tussocks and reappearing, laughing, sometimes bobbing their heads up above the stalks to get their bearings and to check whether their companions were within pouncing range. He smiled at their antics. It looked like a good game, and it was one in which he often enjoyed participating but, today, he was content to sit in the warm sunshine on the hollow log and watch.
He took a deep breath in. The air, as ever, carried the scents of new-mown hay, lilac, damp earth and that familiar, far-off salt tang. The sun was exactly as warm as he liked it – warm enough to heat the fur but not so hot as to sap the energy. Sometimes, he liked to bake under a hot sun, so he would just remove himself to where the sun was hottest. Sometimes, he had a fancy for watching the rain, and there was somewhere he could go to do that too. There were napping spots which were soft and napping spots which were firm. Indoor beds where he could be cosy and outdoor beds where he could lay and watch the stars. There was never any shortage of food – which was the tastiest and most succulent food any cat could imagine, or water – which was as sweet and pure as nectar and could be sipped from any number of rivers, rivulets, streams, fountains, waterfalls, pools and puddles.
In this place, there was no pain or sickness, no physical discomfort, no want or hardship, but there was still free thought. There was emotion too. Sometimes, someone would feel unhappy, or homesick for a past life, or they would feel the need for solitude or companionship and, for a kitten who overstepped the mark, there was discipline. Peter himself had often been on the receiving end of a squeak from an angry playmate or a cuff from an irritated adult. He had a way to go before he reached Honey’s total though. That girl was incorrigible.
The game of chase had morphed into a giant bug hunt. He could see his friends spotting their targets, flattening themselves against the ground and shifting their weight from foot to foot in preparation for the deadly pounce. The bugs always got away. Honey was flying through the air, trying to bring down a dragonfly – which also got away – and laughing her tinkling laugh. There was rarely a time when Honey didn’t laugh. Nothing seemed to dampen her high spirits.
Yes, life here was good. It was better than good – it was wonderful. But, every now and then, Peter felt a tiny tug in his heart that he did not quite understand. It had begun the night of his birthday party, when he had looked down to see his two brothers, now fully grown, sleek and handsome and so clearly loved by their human family, as well as by their own mother – Peter’s mother. He had thought at the time that maybe, just maybe, it would be nice to experience life as a grown-up and to try out the actual growing up part, too. He had also thought that it would be nice to live alongside a loving human family. He had a faint, residual memory of his short time in a human household. He remembered the feel of a human hand, the sound of a human voice and now he was curious – a little. It was just a thought that popped into his mind every now and then, while sunning himself on a log for instance, or sometimes just as he was falling asleep under the stars. The thought never persisted long, and it would disappear from his mind as swiftly as it had appeared, and he would go back to sunning himself or dozing without any worries…until the next time.
Honey came bouncing over to him, eyes shining, her grey fur stiff with burrs and a dandelion clock stuck to the top of her head like a fancy hat.
“Aren’t you going to join in?” she demanded, trying to dislodge the dandelion clock with her back foot.
“I’m happy to sit and watch.”
“What are you thinking about?” He knew by her tone of voice that “Nothing” was not an acceptable answer.
“Do you ever wonder what life would’ve been like if we hadn’t – you know, come here?” he asked.
“Yes, of course” she said, to his mild surprise. “I think everyone thinks about it, especially we kittens. It’s not the same as the old cats – they miss their old homes and their old hoomins, but at least they have memories to cherish. We kittens never had that. We missed out on a lot.”
Peter felt comforted to know that he was not the only one to ponder about “what if”. He stood up and stretched, a full arched-back stretch – standing up right on his tiptoes and turning his spine into an upturned U. That was the best sort of stretch. Feeling the muscles unwinding from his nose right through to his tail, he felt suddenly re-energised and leapt off the log and ran to join in the bug hunt, flattening, wiggling and pouncing along with the rest of the kittens. The bugs still got away.
Later that day, as the air began to cool and the sky began to pinken, they were making their way back along the path to where they knew they would find a good meal, a brisk baff from one of the adults – someone was going to have fun picking out those burrs – and the comfort of their companions, when they were stopped in their tracks by two cats who they did not recognise.
“You’re wanted,” said one of them, “back in the meadow”.
The two kittens turned around, mystified, and headed back to the meadow where they had been playing moments earlier. When they arrived, they were startled to find a sizeable assemblage of cats, familiar and unfamiliar, all sitting round in a semi-circle. Their escorts ushered the kittens to a spot in front of the crowd and bade them sit down. They looked at each other, baffled and a little nervous.
“Don’t worry,” said a voice, “you’re not in trouble for once.” The voice belonged to Truffles, an old cat who had arrived after them, but who was treated with much respect by all the others. She was a quiet, polite lady but, when she spoke, others listened. She was accompanied everywhere by the enormous, shaggy Loki, who had been her friend on the other side and who was rarely far away from her. The kittens adored Loki. He was like a big, benign uncle who tolerated having his whiskers pulled, his tail chewed and trying to sleep with three or four of the smallest kittens snuggled up in his long fur, squeezing their tiny claws into his flesh.
“What’s going on?” asked Honey.
“Well, for you and Peter, the time has come to make The Choice”
“What choice?” asked Honey.
“May I suggest,” Truffles replied, firmly, “that you stay quiet for once and let the adults talk?”
Honey slumped a little, deflated, until she caught a glimpse of Loki’s twinkling eye winking at her. Truffles began again.
“The Choice is offered to all who live here, cat or kitten, provided they have lives left to live. You will have heard it said that we cats have nine lives – even the hoomins have heard this, but they do not understand exactly what it means. When our earthly lives are over, we cross the bridge and we live in this place, healthy and happy and with everything our hearts desire. The one drawback is that we never change over here. Kittens remain kittens, the old remain old. For some, this is a happy state of affairs, but for others – especially the young – it is unsatisfying. They often yearn for another chance at earthly life, to experience new things or to complete a journey which was cut short before. We all have nine chances to do that, to go back, and I know you have both been thinking about it.” Honey and Peter looked at each other, wide-eyed. How did she know? Had they been talking in their sleep? Best not to ask. Truffles went on.
“Please know that you are not obliged to return. You can stay here for as long as you wish. Forever, if you like, or you can choose to return later rather than sooner. However, the time has come for the two of you to make The Choice. You both have eight further lives to live and you can choose to do so the other side of the bridge if you wish. Now, we understand that your previous lives were cut short very early and you don’t have many experiences to draw on when trying to decide. So, some of our friends here have agreed to tell you of their experiences on earth. The one thing that is certain is that, if you return, it will be to the world of the hoomin. Listen to their stories and then think carefully about what they tell you of the hoomin world, it’s benefits and its drawbacks. Now, sit down and make yourselves comfortable. And don’t interrupt…” she looked directly at Honey when she said this. “You may ask whatever questions you wish at the end…when there will also be snacks.”
Still a little bewildered, but placated by the promise of snacks, the kittens settled down as instructed and prepared to listen.
A pale cat stepped up. She was one of the unfamiliar cats who had waylaid Honey and Peter on the path and only now did they notice how exotically beautiful she was. Her fur was the colour of cream, shading through gold to russet on her flanks and legs. She was tall and fine boned, with chiselled cheeks and a long, sharp muzzle. Her eyes were the colour of a setting sun and the shape of almonds, sweeping upwards towards her large, magnificent ears. She spoke in a voice like melted chocolate.
“My last life on earth was spent in a land of dust and sand, which lay parching under a blazing sun. Beneath the azure sky, the very horizon would shimmer in the heat and the eyes would be tricked into seeing things that were not there. In the middle of the day, the sand would seem to be transformed into a silvery lake, although there was no water to be found for miles. The air would be full of the whine of the relentless, hot wind, the strange echoes of the sand dunes as they shifted and the occasional, piercing shriek of an eagle as it scoured the land, searching for something – anything- to eat.”
The kittens closed their eyes, transported in their minds to the burning, empty desert.
“Running through this land, however, was a great river. Every year it broke its banks and the land was flooded for many, many miles and it was this flood that transformed the fringes of this river into a fertile plain where plants and trees grew and animals and birds thrived and, naturally, it was ripe for exploitation by humans. They came in abundance and multiplied and cultivated their crops and raised their animals and built villages and towns and cities with great temples and statues. They had powerful kings who believed themselves to be gods and they had priests who grew fat by encouraging the kings to believe they were gods, but, for the people, life was good, food was plentiful and the climate benign and so a great civilisation flourished. These people, and their priests and their kings, had the good sense to include some animals amongst their pantheon of gods, such as the bull and the hawk and…well, let’s face it….me.
I was born in a village outside the capital city, close to the site where many men laboured to build a great stone temple to the beautiful cat goddess Bastet. I was one of many kittens, but it was the general consensus that I was the most beautiful. I was housed and fed by a stonemason and his family. It was he who was responsible for creating a great statue of the Goddess to stand in the hall of the temple on a huge sandstone plinth and, as I grew from kitten to cat, he made many images of me, using pigment made from powdered rock mixed with lamp oil. He painted me from every angle and in many poses, laying asleep, standing alert, sitting with my paws tucked under, but mostly he drew me sitting as I am now, my head proud and my eyes gazing towards the horizon.”
By way of a demonstration, the cat sat neatly, paws together, tail curled round her feet, and then drew herself up so that her body formed a silhouette the shape of a teardrop. Lifting her chin, she gazed into the distance with a haughty expression. So noble did she look that Honey and Peter almost felt compelled to bow down in worship before her, but instead she relaxed, smiled and winked at the two kittens, before resuming her speech.
“When most of the fabric of the temple was complete, my stonemason set to work. He had shown the images he had painted of me to the priests who were overseeing the design of the temple and they had indicated their approval and so, taking a great slab of black basalt rock and his trusty wooden hammer and bronze chisel, he began to tap, tap, tap away at the stone. First he incised some guidelines to indicate a rough shape and then, with the aid of his two sons, began to chip away the unwanted surfaces until, gradually, little by little, a shape began to emerge from within. My shape. Over the course of many months, the three worked away at the stone, shaping and refining until, at last, instead of the crude black rock pillar, there stood a magnificent cat. She still needed to be polished smooth, and that task took several more months but, by the turn of the year, the statue of Bastet was ready to be moved into her final position inside the great hall of the temple. She was moved with great care by many men using wooden sledges, then ropes and pullies. At last, our beloved goddess of love, motherhood, war and justice stood upon her plinth, looking out between the columns of the great hall, towards the mighty river. There she stood for century after century, tended by priests and priestesses, visited in secret by many cats seeking aid or comfort, and worshipped by all who passed by the temple. Thereafter, the same image appeared over the years in infinite forms – in pictures, statuettes, jewellery…. all of them me. I spent my life both as a humble but beloved house cat and as an object of worship for an entire civilisation. For me, earthly life could not give me more than that – any future life would only disappoint, my expectations having been raised so high, you see. So, I will not be returning. My future lies here.”
The exotic cat bowed low to the two kittens and to Truffles before withdrawing into the crowd. They could still see her, standing as she did half a head taller than most of the others. Another, very different looking cat took up position in front of them. She was tiny, black and somewhat ragged. Her ear was notched and she sported scars around one of her eyes. Her tail had a sharp, angular kink towards its tip and her whiskers splayed in all directions. Her earthly life had clearly been very different from that of the temple cat. When she spoke, it was in a small, breathy voice that the kittens had to strain to hear.
“My last life on earth was on a small island in the north of Europe during what the hoomins refer to as the Middle Ages. It was a dark and primitive time. Most of the people were desperately poor and barely scraped enough from the land to feed their families. Most of the food they laboured to produce had to be handed to the local baron, so the peasants went without. They were oppressed by the nobility, oppressed by the church and oppressed by life in general, so I guess I can’t really blame them for turning to supersition and witchcraft as a way to explain their lot. It was a bad time to be a cat. It was an especially bad time to be born a black cat. We were persecuted as being the familiars of witches, who were themselves considered to be the servants of the Devil. Many were slain by some terrible means in order to rid the world – so the hoomins thought – of evil.
My hoomin mistress was an old widow lady who lived in a hut made of dried mud and straw at the edge of a village on the eastern side of the island. It was a flat land of marshes and creeks where, even in the summer, the wind blew relentlessly from the sea, so that the trees and bushes grew bent over, as if they were trying to escape its constant howl. The local people toiled away digging great ditches to drain away some of the water so that they could cultivate the soil and grow grain and vegetables, even though most of these were given as tithes to the manor house and to the church. Ah…the church. It was a great building of men, which rose out of the flat landscape and towered over the huts and hovels of the peasants, as if to remind them daily of their position in the grand scheme of things. On Sundays, the whole village walked, limped, or shuffled in a convoy to the church to listen while the priests shouted hellfire and damnation at them, told them they would all go to hell for their sins and that they should repent their ways if they did not wish to be personally responsible for bringing about the Apocalypse. They even had to stand outside the church and peer in through small windows in the walls to be threatened and terrified like this. They were too lowly and insignificant even to be allowed through the doors. So ignorant and uneducated were they, that they believed all of this and so tried at all times, out of fear, to do whatever they were told to do by those they considered their betters. It made me sad.
My mistress, though, was one of those who saw the truth. She did not attend the church, she did not pay their tithes and she did not fear God or the devil. Unable to work the land due to her frail old age, she would dispense crude medicines made from herbs in exchange for bread and, sometimes, she would wave around a small bundle of bound hazel twigs and utter incantations for young women anxious to conceive a child, or to lure a certain neighbour’s son into marriage. For this, my mistress received maybe a couple of eggs or some turnips. She would cackle quietly at the gullibility of some of her “clients”, but at least she ate. Then, one night, a party of villagers arrived at the hut bearing flaming brands, which they used to burn the place down – we did not know why. Maybe one of the young women gave birth to a daughter instead of a son, or the neighbour’s boy married someone from the next village instead, but thereafter we had to tramp the countryside together, barely surviving on the food she could gather and I could catch. She would still dispense her herbs and chant her incantations, but when she had finished, instead of receiving bread, the local children would run us out of the village, hurling insults and rocks at the same time. Crouched in the shelter of a hedgerow one freezing winter’s night, she took me in her arms and said to me that her time had come to depart this earth, and that she was not afraid as the great Mother Hecate was waiting to receive her and would avenge her soul in this life and the next. I did not understand what she meant, but I did not want to be left alone in that cold and hostile world so, when my mistress uttered a last incantation and cast herself into the freezing river and I watched, with my own eyes, pale hands come up and catch her and bear her down into the depths – or maybe it was my imagination – I threw myself in after her.”
The kittens were mesmerised and wide-eyed with astonishment and shock at the black cat’s tale. Honey could think of a million questions to ask her, but she was still speaking.
“And yet, I have chosen to return. I had the misfortune to live in a hostile world, but I knew love from my hoomin who, I realise now, was unusual in that she could speak to me in my own language. But, anyway, I have faith that there is a better world to be found now and I wish to know the love of a hoomin once again. But maybe not a witch, this time…”
The black cat bowed and withdrew, leaving the kittens confused. “But….” stammered Honey, “…the cat who had the wonderful life wants to stay here and the cat who had the terrible life wants to go back….”
“Nothing is straightforward, you see,” said Truffles. “You must follow your hearts. You will know if you have made the right choice, I promise. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m starving…”
Confused though they were, the kittens’ appetites were unaffected, and they tucked into the considerable spread with gusto. Loki sat down beside them, smacking his lips after consuming a plate of pilchards. Peter looked up at the big, shaggy cat and asked “If we went back, would Honey and I still be together?”
“I don’t think there are any guarantees,” he replied. “If you opt for another life, you get what you get, if you see what I mean. The cats who spoke to you had experienced both extremes, good and bad. For most, though, life is more mundane. Take me and Tuffy, for instance. Our home was just an ordinary house, in an ordinary suburb, but it was better than the temple of Bastet to us, and our hoomins were just ordinary people who loved us – as we loved them, but they were better to us than priests or kings or witches. They made us happy, and I don’t think there is any finer state on that side of the bridge or this than to be happy. Tuffy and I don’t need any other memories. The memories of that life are sweet enough but, maybe one day…who knows? You, on the other hand, have yet to acquire any memories. I can’t imagine what that must be like.” Loki turned his attention to washing his face and paws and the images continued to whirl in the minds of the kittens.
It was dark by the time the meeting broke up, and the moon was on the rise. It was a warm night and the breeze was gentle and fragrant. The two kittens walked in silence to the place where they usually liked to sleep ignoring, for once, the fireflies that danced around their heads. Usually, they would find a good spot – a soft mound of grass, an indentation in the earth underneath a bush, or maybe a flat rock still warm from the sun, and they would settle down together and chatter, play and snooze the night away. On this night, though, they went their separate ways and each curled up alone – although still within sight of one another – both feeling that they needed solitude and silence in which to ponder the evening’s events.
Peter lay on his back in the grass and watched the stars – there was his and Honey’s, tiny diamond chips seeming to almost touch each other. There was Tuffy’s emerald star and beside it Loki’s amber one, there was Jaguar’s and Siberia’s sparkling like fire and Keiara’s and Sheba’s, soft like pearls…he idly wondered what happened to these stars if you went back. Did they disappear for a while, to reappear again on your return? He sniffed the scented air. Tomorrow would be another perfect day and he and Honey could spend it chasing bugs in the meadow with their friends if they wanted, or they could dip for fishes in the stream or climb trees or just bask in the sun, but…. there it was again. That tiny tug in his heart, as if an invisible thread connected him to the earth on the other side. This was impossible! How did anyone ever choose? He yawned and rolled over, tired of thinking. It was unlike him to be unable to sleep, but something was keeping him awake…something not quite right. He heard a soft rustle in the grass beside him and felt a warm, familiar body – still a little lumpy with burrs – lay down close to his. The Choice could wait for now. They snuggled up and drifted into sleep.
It was warm and dark in the nest, and safe. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, just the comforting scent of mama and the soothing vibration of her purr. And nothing to do but eat, sleep and grow. Nothing to sense but the reassurance of another heartbeat close by…and the trace of a memory, faint, like a tiny star in the farthest reaches of space..
The young woman sat on the sofa, smiling as her son dangled the feather on a stick just out of reach of the kittens, giggling as they leapt into the air to grab for it before landing with a thud, feet splayed out on the wooden floor.
“He’s good with them.” the older woman said. “Not everyone is, but he’s a natural. They’re really comfortable around him.”
“He loves animals,” his mother replied. “He’s just never had any of his own before. His dad wasn’t keen, what with us moving around so much. But, now it’s just the two of us….”, There was a short silence which spoke a thousand words.
The boy was laying on his stomach, laughing as four of the kittens swarmed all over him, grabbing his hair and licking his face and ears. The fifth kitten hung back a little, preferring to play alone and he was chewing experimentally at the boy’s sock, in the hope that it tasted like chicken.
“You know these four are already spoken for,” said the older woman, “and their mother. The only one still looking for a home is that little guy.” She detached the small, cream-coloured kitten from the boy’s foot.
“He’s really cute,” said the mother. “I’m surprised he hasn’t been snapped up.”
“Well, we encourage people to adopt in pairs, but when there’s a litter of five, it means one will be adopted alone. It’s a shame, but they usually adapt.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t be alone,” the mother said. “We adopted another kitten about a month ago – it was on our application form. She’s very sweet, but she seems bored and a little depressed, if that’s possible. She sleeps a lot. We thought a playmate might cheer her up.”
“Well, it would certainly cheer me up to think he would have a friend,” said the woman. “What does your son think?”
“Do you like this little guy?” she asked
“Well, he’s not as much fun as the others,” said the boy, “but maybe he’s a bit overshadowed by his brothers and sisters. Let me hold him for a bit.” The boy took the kitten in his cupped hands and lifted him up to his face. A pair of placid blue eyes looked into his. They looked deep into his. And they spoke to him. And he knew.
“If you don’t want him, we can keep on looking.” said his mother.
“No. This one’s mine.” said the boy, solemnly. “He told me so.”
“Sometimes they do that.” said their foster mother, and she was absolutely serious.
The women shook hands and said their goodbyes, and the boy clutched on tightly to the cardboard carrier containing it’s oh so precious cargo. In the car on the way home, He peered in through the air holes at its tiny occupant, who clung with all his claws to the towel at the bottom of the box, his eyes closed tight in fear.
“Mum, can I call the kitten after Dad?” the boy asked.
Involuntarily, she bit her lip. “Why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t know. It’s a nice name and it suits him, and…well, I think this kitten is special. He’s going to look after us.”
His mother smiled. “OK. I think he’s pretty special too.”
The boy peered into the box again and whispered to its worried little occupant, “Don’t be frightened, Peter. We’re going to have such fun!”
Late that night when the house was quiet, Peter the kitten sat alone in the small box room which was his temporary home. He had everything he could possibly need – bowls of food and water, a litter box, a scratching post, a comfy bed and lots of toys – but an odd feeling was keeping him awake. He felt as if, just maybe, he had been here before. Or somewhere similar. Try as he might, he couldn’t make his memory stretch back further than the last ten weeks.
A tiny sound near the door caught his attention.
“Pssst…” There is was again. He went to investigate.
“Hello.” said a muffled voice from the other side of the door. “Are you going to live here?”
“Yes,” he said. “Who are you?”
“I live here too. I can’t wait to meet you – it’s been a bit lonely here on my own.” A small grey paw appeared beneath the door, so he pressed his own against it.
And there it was again. The trace of a memory, faint, like a tiny star in the farthest reaches of space…. For a second, his head was full of visions of butterflies exploding in swarms out of the long meadow grass and night skies full of stars.
“Do you feel that?” said the grey kitten, “It’s like we were meant to be together. Oh, we’re going to have such fun!” She laughed, and her laugh was like the tinkling of a tiny bell.
“Peter! I’ve been looking everywhere for you…”
Honey came bounding across the grass to where Peter was laying, sprawled on his stomach, peering nervously over the precipice into the void.
“I don’t know why you look so nervous. You can’t fall off,” she laughed.
Peter slid back from the edge and sat up. “I dunno. It’s weird. It seems such a long way down.”
“What are you looking at, anyway?”
“Mum and my brothers. I always like to check in on our birthday, but I can’t see them. The house seems to be full of boxes.”
Honey leaned over and squinted through the mist. “Perhaps they’ve moved. Oh no – there’s your mum, perched on the top of that pile by the stairs. Wow! That’s impressive!”
“What is? Let me see!” Peter flattened himself on the grass again and slid himself gingerly to the edge. “Hold on – those are all birthday presents? What’ve those two louts done to deserve so many? I haven’t had anything…”
“Don’t be daft,” said Honey. “Those gifts are not all for Ray and Egon. They’re donations for the shelter. Remember, they did it last year too?”
“And anyway,” said Honey, “who says you haven’t had anything for your birthday?” From behind her back, she drew a red balloon on a string, and a small cake, with two layers – one tuna and one chicken – slathered with fresh cream frosting. Stuck in the top was a small, burning candle.
“Happy birthday, Peter” she said.
“Thank you. How do I eat it?” He was entranced by the tiny candle with its dancing flame, but felt it was a little impractical to set a fire on top of food he was about to eat. His whiskers were definitely at risk.
“You blow the candle out.” Honey told him. She’d done her research.
“But you only just lit it…”
“It’s a hoomin tradition. You blow out the candle and make a wish. And don’t tell me about it.”
“Ah, I see.” said Peter, not seeing in the least. He blew out the candle and made his wish.
“What did you wish for?” asked Honey.
“Hey! You told me I wasn’t to tell you….”
She sighed – it had been worth a try – and handed him his balloon instead. He reached out a paw to grab it, claws extended to get a better grip on the smooth surface and, with a loud pop that sent them both scurrying behind a small shrub, it completely disappeared.
“Where did it go?” asked Peter, mystified, as his tail began to return to its normal size.
“I don’t know,” replied Honey, peering behind a rock, just in case. “Hoomin customs are weird. Better to just stick to our own. What did you wish for?”
Peter ignored this, and went back to watching his family. “They’ve grown so big.” he said, a little envious.
“And handsome….” said Honey, which did nothing to allay Peter’s envy. Life on the other side meant perpetual kittenhood, which was wonderful, but sometimes he wondered what it would be like to grow up.
He didn’t ponder for long, as a rustling in the nearby bushes prompted him to look around. Heading towards him, bows round their necks and fancy hats on their heads, were about a hundred cats and kittens – all of his many friends. They were carrying toys and treats and platters of food and more cakes – no candles, sadly – and more balloons (he made a mental note to keep his claws tucked away this time), ready to start the best birthday party a kitten could ever want.
While they set everything up in the silver birch glade, laying out blankets and tables and hanging lanterns in the branches of the trees, he took one last look at the box-filled house, his big and – yes, he had to concede – handsome brothers and his beloved mama. Next to him, something caught his eye in the grass. The candle from the cake was alight again, its tiny flame dancing like a firefly. So, birthday wishes did come true after all….
He carefully placed the little wax stick with its dancing flame on a rock at the very edge of the void. “This is for all the lost and lonely kitties down there…” he whispered, “…a light to guide you home.”
And down in the house, among the boxes, Janine gazed at the darkening sky. She knew exactly where to look – she looked every night – but on this one, she couldn’t help but notice that his little star was twinkling more brightly than usual. “Looks like you’re having a good party, darling” she whispered. “Happy birthday, Peter.” And, blowing him a kiss, she hopped down and went to find her big (and handsome) sons.