in progress

Bedtime Stories for the Boy Himself, Perhaps, a novel in progress. See here for now, and the following annotated fairy tale, which may or may not make it into the book. (Apologies for my lack of HTML mojo sufficient to backlink from the footnotes.)


How a Cat Domesticated a Man

Transcribed, transliterated, and translated from recitations of Master S______ of the College at Fayniëssë.

Long ago, before there were cities or oceans in the world[1], cats lived on the plain and people in the forest. The cats lived in tribes or alone, hunting the beasts of the plain for their food, loving and singing and playing, following the seasons, as was meet. In the darkness of the forest the people led nasty, short, brutish lives, in families or larger bands, eating the fruits of the trees, insects[2], grubs, whatever unpalatable fare they could scavenge, for, having no names for themselves or any other thing, no language, they knew no better.

There was a plains cat whom we know as Ssassho[3], although this was not the name she called herself. Since kittenhood she had chosen to be solitary and to haunt the fringes of the forest, whence from time to time darted little animals she found toothsome: woodmice, smaller and tastier than their cousins of the plain; woodpigeons; shrews; voles; weasels. When a desire for companionship struck her, as it did from time to time, she seldom had to wander far in search of a tribe that would share her meat and listen to her stories, with kittens she might boss around and play with, with young male cats to admire her. But more often she preferred to prowl the shadowy edges of the forest, alone.

There was a young human person, a boy. Climbing a tree after a handful of fruit, he had fallen and broken his leg. Possessing no language and therefore no sentiment, his family left him behind when the time came to move on.[4] He tried to follow but the injured leg would not support him and, creeping on his elbows, he could not move quickly enough. And yet the boy survived: when he could drag himself no farther, the place he fell was near water, and a rotted stump nurtured grubs he needed no legs to dig out and feed on. When he exhausted that nest, he crept along the bank of the stream until he found another. Eventually, as all streams do, it led him to the verge of the forest where he saw for the first time the plains and the vast expanse of star-pinked sky above and the great yellow eye of the moon. The vision terrified him.

Gibbering, he tried to hide himself beneath the water. Coughing and choking, nearly drowning, he was carried a few yards into the great emptiness and deposited, unconscious, on the bank.

There Ssassho found him when she came to drink. His harsh breathing, his unfamiliar scent alerted her at some distance but she feared little and merely approached more cautiously than otherwise she might. When she reached the stream’s bank and saw the boy, she paused, hidden in a tussock of tall grass, the shadows of which mimicked her own tabby stripes. She had heard of these strange hairless animals with their long hind legs and peculiar front paws but never expected to encounter one, believing the stories untrue, meant only to frighten naïve kittens. Yet here one lay, crumpled in a litter of branches and pebbles, unmoving.

She wondered if it would be good to eat. Not that she considered attempting to kill it—it was appallingly large—but perhaps it would die on its own. An entire tribe could feast off that carcass for several days.[5] (Briefly, pleasantly, she recalled a fallen antelope of her childhood.) As it happened, she had eaten well not long before. She picked a way down to the stream, drank, and then returned to her tussock where, curious as any cat, she waited.

The sun, rising above the grasses and weeds that shaded him, woke the boy. He had never before felt so warm. Never before had there been anything so brilliant that he could see it through closed eyelids. When, opening his eyes, he saw the great burning orb—so much larger, brighter, more terrifying than the moon—he shrieked, pawed helplessly at the brilliant burning in his eyes. Lacking language, he also lacked effective memory: he pulled himself to his feet as though his leg had not been broken.

In all the time that he had crept downstream, the snapped bone had healed. His legs were weak from disuse and the one was twisted and hurt terribly, but he was able to scuttle the short distance to the forest he had left behind. Once within the comforting shadow, he collapsed, whimpering.

Intrigued by the boy’s peculiar method of locomotion—why would any animal not use all four of the legs it was born with?—Ssassho followed him, slipping silently from tussock to weed clump to bush to tree shadow. She saw him fall. She saw him, still terrified by the flaming eye in the vast sky just beyond sight, lose control of bladder and bowels where he lay. She shuddered with distaste and spent some moments cleaning herself.[6]

The sound of splashing water reawakened her interest. Apparently the hairless animal did not lack all nicety, although he seemed not to know how to wash himself properly with his tongue.

Wet and shivering, the boy clambered out of the stream. He glanced back the way he had come and moaned when he saw the brightness just beyond the forest eaves, turned, staggered deeper into the shadows. A little way on, he stopped again, sniffing. Ssassho had detected the stench well before he did, understood what it was, expected him to detour around it. Much to her surprise and disgust, he hunted for it, stooping through the undergrowth, pushing leaves aside with his forepaws, searching and scavenging until he found the decomposed corpse of a tiny forest deer. When he crouched over it, bending low to inhale, she looked away. Then she heard him champing, chewing, and despite herself looked back.

It wasn’t the decayed deer flesh he was eating. Worse, in a way: digging into the rotten matter with his peculiar paws, he fished out fresh little white maggots and stuffed them wriggling into his mouth.

Outraged—Ssassho was a fastidious cat who had never known real privation—she stalked forward full into his view and shouted, “No! Stop that! Dirty beast!”

The cat’s angry voice, her blazing eyes terrified the boy all over again. Slipping and clumsy, he tried to run away. His weak leg would not bear him far and soon betrayed him completely so that he fell. Agony and terror overcame him: he fainted.

Ssassho of course had followed him. She felt a certain remorse for having scared him, a certain sympathy for his obvious pain and a hunger so fierce it made him eat maggots. When he did not move for some time, she walked a circle around him, singing softly, and then another, retracing her steps the opposite way ’round, placing him under her protection.[7] Then she slipped away into the further shadows of the interesting forest, hunting.

She took down and ate herself a pleasant little woodmouse, then spent some time tracking down something a bit bigger for the boy, an unfamiliar bird[8] nearly her own size whose hot blood was quite tasty. With considerable difficulty, she dragged it back to where she’d left the boy.

In her absence, he had awakened. He had tried to run away but could not pass Ssassho’s circle. When he saw her returning he moaned and scrabbled back as far away from her as he could—as her magic allowed. She let the bird fall and sat down neatly outside the circle, regarded him calmly. “I do not intend to harm you,” she told him, although she felt sure he could not understand. “I have brought you proper food.”

With that, she got a grip on the bird’s neck again and tossed it over the barrier only she could see. The boy leapt up onto his hind legs, but the circle prevented him from falling over backwards. Instead, he fell to his knees.

“Food,” said Ssassho. “Eat.” Then, delicately, she withdrew, melting—she knew—into the thick shadows until he could no longer see her.

It took him some while and several more attempts to escape to raise courage enough to approach the dead bird. “Don’t wait for it to rot,” Ssassho muttered under her breath, watching. At last the smell of its rich blood overcame his fear and he fell on it ravenously. Ssassho felt a kind of satisfaction as she watched him feed. She was fascinated, too, by the way he used his forepaws to tear the bird’s carcass apart and lift the fragments to his mouth. It seemed to her quite apt that a creature so oddly made, so ugly, clumsy, and weak, should be recompensed with those oddly talented paws. She wondered what she might do with such paws; then, thoughtful—for her own sleek shape pleased her quite well enough—what he might do with them under her patient instruction.

After he had gnawed every sticky sliver of flesh from the bones of the bird, the boy tried again to pass the circle of Ssassho’s protection. He went around and around, gibbering senselessly to himself, moaning, panting. He was thirsty, she realized. Again, she approached him—again, he backed away as far as he could go. When she broke the circle for him, he tumbled backward, shrieking, and she, considerate, hid herself from his sight.

The boy staggered off into the forest. She followed, unseen. It was not long before he found a stream—the same, or another. He drank from it, ready at any moment to flee, then scuttled on. The weight in his belly told on him and not long after he burrowed under a thick bush to sleep. Once again, Ssassho traced a protective circle around him, before allowing herself to sleep.

For more days and nights than she bothered counting this went on: she brought food to the captive boy, he ate, she released him to find water, and then sooner or later she penned him up again. It was not so many days or nights before he came to understand she meant not to harm him, before he ceased shrinking away when she approached, before he began to make happy, slobbery noises instead of fearful shrieks when she brought his food. She was patient. She was kind. She remained intrigued.[9]

Finally, one afternoon when he lay sleeping peacefully, she judged him ready. Breaking the circle around him, she stepped into it and then reformed it around them both. She sat. She washed. She waited. The boy awoke. Seeing her watching, he sat up on his haunches, unconsciously imitating her posture as well as his malformed body would allow.

Ssassho rose to all four feet. “I will not harm you,” she said—he had grown accustomed to her voice. She felt quite confident he had no understanding of how easily he might harm her. Moving slowly, she stepped forward. The boy did not flinch until she rubbed the top of her head against his forelimb, but even then did not pull away. For his comfort and her own pleasure, she allowed herself to purr. She rubbed the length of her flank along the limb, turned, did the same in the other direction, nuzzled his knee with her nose, dabbled at it with her tongue. He was still—trembling but unmoving. She wound around the thick columns of his hindlimbs, back and forth, back and forth, until he began to utter strange, stifled noises and lifted one of his paws to scrub at his nose and mouth and eyes.

Ssassho retreated a few paces. The boy made another noise, a different noise. Looking down at her with very wide eyes, he extended his huge forepaw toward her. Understanding, Ssassho moved under it, felt the odd weight lightly on her skull, pushed up.

He stroked her for a long time, wondering in his simple way. Only once did she have to nip him. At last, worn out by sensations he could not understand, the boy yawned. He curled up on the ground, secure in the affection and protection of his master, and fell asleep. Ssassho herself, contented, slept comfortably against his warm belly until nightfall, and then she woke, stretched, and slipped away to hunt.


Notes

1. Conventional phrase meaning a very long time ago indeed.

2. The cats of Fayniëssë traditionally prefer not to acknowledge their own taste for insects.

3. Directly translated, Human Tamer. It seems unlikely all the deeds attributed to Ssassho refer to the same figure (there is, indeed, evidence the protagonist of some stories was originally male): hence the Master’s waffling.

4. In an aside, the Master acknowledges this action on the part of the human family, particularly the boy’s mother, is unlikely.

5. The tabu against eating human flesh is of great antiquity—the Master’s feline auditors can be guaranteed to shudder in delicious horror at this suggestion.

6. Human tolerance for filth vs feline fastidiousness remains a prominent trope in folklore. See also also Ssassho’s admonishment of her boy for eating maggots.

7. In addition to being the Human Tamer, Ssassho is always credited with being the first cat to practice magic.

8. Probably a pheasant.

9. Her patience and, as humans say, stick-to-it-iveness are the qualities most admired and least comprehended by other cats. Contrarian philosophers who advocate (without, let it be noted, deigning to practice) primitive feline virtues and a life less wound up in or dependent on the affairs of humans condemn Ssassho as the great betrayer of catkind.