It was the time at the beginning of time, when all the number of things that the world is so full of were being sorted out. The job was challenging, to say the least. Getting boulders into the mountains, trees into the forests, getting all the sand into the deserts and along the beaches. And so many problems to figure out. How to teach the winds to blow, where to make the rivers flow, when and where to make it snow. All of this and more, or else the world would be nothing but a senseless jumble of stuff.
The most challenging were the animals. All of them had a tendency to go wherever they wanted, and were as likely to pop up one place as another. Some measures had been taken to deal with what was most obvious — birds go in the trees, fish go in the water, and anything with paws or hoofs goes on dry land. But even this perfectly simple plan was going haywire from lack of cooperation. Somehow the sloths and monkeys had gotten into the trees, while the kiwis and ostriches insisted on running around on the ground. And what were the otters doing in the water? And snakes? Where did they go? They were showing up everywhere. And flying fish!
Before things got hopelessly out of control, the Great Mother decided that the animals, all of them if possible, would be put into a big meadow where they could graze away to their heart’s content while she got the rest of everything sorted out. Once the landscaping was finished, she could start placing animals where they belonged according to their nature and habits.
This was a good arrangement. The meadow was filled with grasses, grains, and wildflowers. And since winter was still being held on reserve till some use for it could be figured out, things were always growing.
There were clear running streams, thickets filled with berries, and beyond the thickets were the woods, vast and dark. The woods hadn’t all been arranged yet, but the animals were free to wander in and help themselves to nuts and fruits, as long as they didn’t go too far and get lost.
Because the animals hadn’t been around for very long, they didn’t have much to quarrel about. Once they were rounded up, most of them got along nicely. And with so much to eat all the time, none of them had been pushed to the point of thinking that they might try eating each other. With their heads down and their mouths busy, most of them spent their days quietly grazing, their thoughts going no farther than the next mouthful, which was never very far.
Still, it did get a little crowded sometimes, and some of the animals, the ones who bothered to look up now and then, had begun to take notice of each other. Some of them liked what they saw, some of them didn’t. But the ones who were naturally outgoing began to introduce themselves around.
This was how the cat and the mouse became friends. It was a chance meeting over a patch of flowers that they were both sharing with a bear who kept pushing them out of the way with his leathery nose. The bear wasn’t in a very talkative mood. The cat and mouse were.
“Good flowers, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would. Very good.”
“Yes, the flowers. Very good.”
“Yes, yes they are.”
Now, as you can see, the art of conversation hadn’t advanced very far. but once the cat and mouse got started they began thinking up things to say.
“Who’s this big fellow pushing us around with his nose?” said Cat, referring, of course, to the bear.
“Don’t know,” said Mouse. “Not much of a talker, though, is he?”
“Doesn't seem to be. But then, maybe he’s just a bit stupid.”
“That could be. And Hungry.”
“Yes, well I’m hungry too, but I’m not stupid.” the cat said.
“No, I can see that you’re not.” said Mouse. “Not at all. Stupid, that is.”
“I’m not. And it’s clear to me that you’re not at all stupid either, Mouse.”
“I would hope so, Cat.”
While this was not a huge improvement, it did establish that they had something in common. Something meaningful. They were not stupid. That was a great relief to both of them, and a good starting point for a friendship.
“I say, Mouse,” said Cat, feeling more confident now, “do you think you might be interested in playing a game?”
“Yes, Cat,” said Mouse after considering the suggestion. “I think that I would.”
And so they did. It was more fun than either of them thought was possible, so as soon as they were finished they made up another. Then another. And another.
There were daring games like Shoot the Hooves,
Man the Hump, and Beard the Bear,
Where they dashed between the legs of the cow,
Escaping from death by the breadth of a hair.
The camel’s back was a tossing ship,
They scrambled up and climbed aboard.
And they pulled the hairs on the poor bear’s chin
Till he tossed his shaggy head and roared.
Then they ran through the thickets, they rolled in the grass,
They were snakes,
They were birds,
They were clouds,
They were fish;
Then made believe they were conquering lords
Who could plunder the Heavens if that was their wish.
The fearsome Lord Cat and the bold Lady Mouse,
Look on, ye Mighty, and despair!
As together they parceled up the world,
Each their own kingdom,
Each grabbed a share.
Catsberg and Mouseland, what choice now but war!
Their two armies clash on a darkling plane.
The war cries ring out, the banners all wave,
As they battle like heros, ferocious and brave,
Till none but the two Great Commanders remain.
All thunder and lightening, laughter and mirth,
A pair beyond the pale,
And if ever their like had been known on this earth,
It could only have been in a mythical tale.
And the next day it was the same as that, and the same the day after. Until before too long they had it down to a routine.
Every morning, as soon as they were up, they would go together to graze in the richest part of meadow.
And while they ate they gossiped and talked
About what they’d learned of their neighbors and kin:
The hyena, whose laugh was so unrefined,
“And what about the jackal’s grin?”
“And who thought the zebra would look good in stripes?”
“Or that bison, whose coat came straight off the shelf?”
Then they’d laugh and they’d say:
“Yes, you’re right about that.
“And haven’t I always thought so myself.”
At night, when they were done with their games, the mouse would go to the nest she’d made in the hollow of a stump. The cat, who slept in any place it pleased him to, would lay down somewhere nearby.
And each would dream of the other and the games that they would play, and the clever things they’d talk about when they were up the following day.
For just how long this all went on, no one can really say,
Since no one knew, when the world was young, how long it took to make a day.
Or how many days to put in a week, a month, or even a year:
To parcel out time, with reason and rhyme, was a skill that still was yet to appear.
But some time did go by, until one morning the cat got up and looked around for the mouse. The mouse was always the first one to be awake and about, but this morning he couldn’t see her anywhere.
This is odd, thought the cat. He stretched himself and licked his paws and rubbed his face while he waited for his friend. But after waiting for what seemed a long time he got impatient. “Mouse!” he said, “The sun is in the sky, the day’s begun. Now hurry up with you.” But the mouse still didn’t come out, so he went and looked into the nest to see if something was keeping her. And something was.
“What are these?” asked the cat.
“Baby mice, I would say,” answered the mouse.
“I see,” said the cat. “And nice ones, I’m sure. But what are we supposed do with them?”
“I don’t really know,” said the mouse. “Look after them, I suppose. But I’m not sure what that means. I give them milk, I lick them clean, but whenever I start to go out they make a fuss. I’m afraid there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing, but I can’t imagine what.”
“Then maybe you should ask someone,” said the cat. “Do you know of anyone else that this has happened to?”
The mouse thought a bit. “It’s been happening to my cousins the rats quite a lot lately,” she said. “That’s why there are so many of them.”
“Well then,” said the cat, “why don’t you go over and talk to the rats. I’ll stay and look after this brood of yours. When you come back we’ll know what needs to be done.”
The mouse thought this was a fine idea, especially since she was tired and hungry from being kept busy all night. A snack along the way, and then a nice nap in a rat’s nest would be just the thing.
So the mouse went off to visit with her cousins. The cat squeezed himself into the nest, and as soon as the youngsters had decided that he was just as comfortable to lie against as the mouse was, they settled down and everything was peaceful.
But not for long.
At first the cat started feeling cramped, his legs began to fall asleep. And when he tried to move around it woke the baby mice, who poked his ribs and cried for food. The cat looked around but he couldn’t find any milk. I should have asked her where she keeps it, he thought. Then he thought about his own breakfast waiting for him in the meadow, and how hungry he was himself.
Maybe if I lick them clean they’ll settle down, he thought. It always makes me feel relaxed. But when he tried to lick one of them it stuck to his tongue and ended up in his mouth. He spit it back out, but it left behind a savory mousy taste that only made him miss his breakfast more.
The morning passed on. And the little mice got hungrier and hungrier. And the cat got hungrier and hungrier. And the little mice got cranky and wouldn’t stay still. And the cat thought, what’s keeping that mouse? And he tried to think of the two of them out playing together. And he wished that she were there. And he wished that he had something to eat.
The afternoon passed on, and still no mouse. By now the situation was getting out of hand. “Oh hurry up,” he said. “I’ll die without a meal.” But if he even hinted at going outside, the baby mice began to squeal.
So he tried to put his mind to work, to ponder on some question
That would keep his thoughts from dwelling on his stomach and digestion.
Like why the moon grows fat and thin, while the sun is always round?
Or why there’s fog? and where it is that opals can be found?
But still his gnawing appetite refused to give him peace,
So he put his mind on harder things to try to make it cease:
Like molecular exchanges in a chemical reaction,
Or what forces are involved in gravitational attraction?
He thought of tough equations, of Greek and Latin verbs;
The whole Linnaean system for classifying herbs.
But hunger cut through all these thoughts, demanding satisfaction.
And useless, useless, all attempts at finding some distraction.
But then he thought, I’ll make a poem! There’s nothing quite as hard,
Who but the greatest genius dares to call himself a Bard?
A sonnet to my friend the mouse, with fourteen measured lines.
Three quatrains and a couplet, with alternating rhymes.
The baby mice were huddled round in rapt anticipation,
As Cat composed his thoughts and then began his recitation.
“O Mouse,” he began.
It had always been the cat’s opinion that the best poems should begin with the vocative. That is, to address or invoke, as in:
“O Mouse… ”
Yes, he thought, it sounded very fine.
“O Mouse, Thou Elfin Mistress of the Meadow… ”
No, that isn’t quite right, he thought. The meter is there, and calling the mouse Elfin Mistress of the Meadow is sort of a metaphor, which is something all poems should have. But something is missing. He considered and tried again.
“O Mouse, my nut-brown love, my heart’s desire… ”
Yes, that was better. It was the nut-brown part that made it good. It had a pleasing, appetizing sound. And even if the mouse was really more gray than brown, that was just a bit of poetic license. Anyway, if the light was right you could see that there definitely was some brown in her fur. Besides, most important, it provided what was missing. That, of course, was food. Nut-brown made him think of hazel nuts and hickory nuts and the delicious chestnuts that grew in the woods and tasted so buttery and rich. And maybe, he thought, instead of trying to deny his hunger, he should be using it as a source of inspiration.
He went on, and with conviction now — his muse, it had awoken,
And with a will beyond his own, the words were shaped and spoken.
“O Mouse, my Nut-Brown Love, my Heart’s Desire,
My longed for Morsel, how my hunger grows
To smell the mossy fur, your soft attire,
And taste its fragrance here within my nose.
Your ears like leaves of cress, a salad thus:
With carrot snout and eyes like poppy seeds.
Your tail a shoot of new asparagus,
Your feet, the parsley garnish that it needs.
And these beside me, mouselets sweet and pink
As strawberries all gathered in a bunch.
And can I see them so, and yet not think
Of how they just might make a lovely lunch?
A thought to heed. Then quick to have it done:
I’d grab them up and eat them one by one!”
As he spoke the final line, and was overcome completely by the power of the words, he did just that. And they were very good. Better than strawberries, he thought. Even, if it was possible, better than chestnuts.
When he came back to his senses he realized that he might have gotten a little carried away there at the end. At least, maybe he shouldn’t have been quite so literal with his response. After all, poetry is supposed to be symbolic. Granted, it had solved two out of three of his problems. That is, (one) He wasn’t hungry anymore, and (two) His obligations as a babysitter were done. But as to the third problem, that is: The absent mouse… Aye, there’s the rub, he said to himself. Whatever the rats were likely to tell the mouse about rearing her offspring, it probably wouldn’t include feeding them to the cat. There was definitely going to be some tough explaining to do. Still, for whatever remorse he felt, he had to admit that they had gone down nicely.
It was just after sundown when the mouse finally poked her head into the nest. “Cat…?” she said.
“Oh, Mouse, my dear, my honeybee, my dove!”
“It’s good to be home, Cat,” she said “And you can be sure I’m happy to see you as well. Sorry I’m late. But tell me, where are the children? Have they gone out to play?”
“Well, no,” he said. “That is…, ” and he fished around for the proper words. “Well…. Now, look. You have to promise that you won’t get mad.”
“What? Why? What happened?” asked the mouse. “You didn’t eat them, did you?”
“Ah, there…. But you see, it’s not what you think.”
“What I think? I think you ate them. You did. That’s horrible!”
It was a tough spot for the cat. He could see the mouse was angry, really angry, and he hoped that his wits were up to it.
“But Mouse, dear Mouse, there was no choice.
Please listen, I’ll explain:
How being here without you
Caused my heart to yearn and pain.
And so I made a poem
And recited it out loud.
If you’d been around to hear it,
Then it would have done you proud.
A poem about your beauty,
Your softness and your smell.
But words can have a magic power,
And words can weave a spell.
And where they came from, who can say?
Or why their strange demands?
But so inspired, what could I do
But follow their commands?
It wasn’t me that was the cause,
I merely played my part,
And though it’s true, I ate them all,
I bear no blame — it was for Art.”
The mouse didn’t want to seem insensitive to the cat’s creative efforts. And she definitely didn’t want to get bogged down in some tiresome argument about what was art and what wasn’t, or what sacrifices it might justify. And anyway, the rats had told her that raising kids takes a lot of time and effort. So, maybe she could forgive him, she thought, just this once.
“Well,” she said, “I suppose if you promise not to do it again…”
The cat was delighted, “Oh, I swear, my Love, my Nut-Brown Love!”
But as soon as he said the words Nut-Brown Love, something very peculiar came over him.
His whiskers twitched, his ears went back,
His mouth began to water and his lips began to smack.
The smell of mouse made his heart start to pound,
And his eyes were like saucers, all shiny and round.
The mouse was about to suggest they go out to the meadow for a late supper, when she saw the look in the cat’s eyes. It was like nothing she’d ever seen before. And something about that look told her that it might not be a good idea to mention supper at all.
“I think I ought to go,” she said. “There’s something I needed to do.”
The cat reached out his paw and said, “But I’m not finished with you.
So stay, My Love. Please stay for awhile.”
And he framed the words with a hungry smile.
But quicker than lightening the mouse was away,
She ran like a fox when the hounds are at bay,
Ran into the thicket and hid there till day.
In the morning she went to see the Great Mother.
“Why, Mouse!” the Great Mother said when she noticed the mouse standing at her feet. “What on earth are you doing in my kitchen? You’re supposed to be in the meadow. Now don’t tell me there’s a problem.”
“Yes,” said the mouse. “Yes, there is a problem. That wild thing of a cat has eaten my children.”
“What?” said the Great Mother. “All of them?”
“To the last,” said the mouse. “He ate them one by one.”
“Oh did he, now. And how did that happen?”
So the mouse told the Great Mother everything. “And he means to eat me just the same,” she said when she was done.
“Is that so? Well, we’ll just have to see about that,” the Great Mother said. “I’ll have a word with him. Alright?”
But the mouse thought that this was awfully short shrift after all that had happened. And even if she was just a tiny rodent, it seemed to her that a Primal Deity, if that’s what the Great Mother really was, should be able to come up with something a little more compelling than I’ll have a word with him. So she stood there, looking as confrontational as she could under the circumstances. “And what about my babies?” she said.
The Great Mother gave her a stern look. “Well,” she said, “to be honest I can’t say I’m terribly impressed with the way you handled the first bunch. Going off and leaving them like that. For all that time. And with the cat!”
“But I was with the rats,” the mouse said in a peevish voice. “Don’t you see? You know how the rats are. They have so many interesting and useful things that they find all over the place, and you can’t stop by for a visit without them showing you everything and telling you all about it and where it came from and…, and I didn’t want to be rude. And the truth is it wasn’t neglect that made me stay away for so long. It was good manners.”
The Great Mother knelt down and smiled at the indignant mouse. “I can see why you and the cat got on so well,” she said. “You’re very much the same. But I’m afraid that’s finished now, and if you now what’s good for you, you’ll stay as far away from him as you can. As for the babies, I’ll see to it you get some new ones. But I’m going to expect you to be a little more responsible this time.”
The Great Mother wasn’t putting a lot of faith in that possibility, so she put a charm on the mouse to have lots and lots of children to make up for her lack of parenting skills.
“Run along now,” she said when he was done. “And pass the word around that I want to have a talk with the cat.”
The Great Mother had suspected from the beginning there was going to be trouble. She liked the cat, he was attractive and clever. But she’d had a feeling from the start that he might not end up being a grazer. And how many others? she wondered. She had her doubts about the weasel too, and the wolf. It was their teeth — they just didn’t seem designed for chewing grass. The bear seemed like he could go either way, but the crocodile…?
When the cat came in he purred and rubbed himself against her leg. “You’re looking very nice today,” he said.
But the Great Mother was in no mood for flattery. “So, I hear you’ve acquired a taste for mice,” she said.
“Oh, pl-eeeze,” said the cat. “Now you have to understand, It was something that happened on an impulse. Reckless, I’ll admit. I shouldn’t have done it. I know. But a one-time thing. I’ll never do it again.”
But the Great Mother knew the truth, she could see it in his eyes.
“Oh yes you will do it again,” she said. “And again after that. Unfortunately, I can’t make you any better than you are. But now I know what you are. And now I know what to do with you.”
Then she put a charm on the cat:
“Now listen Cat, and listen good,
Now hear your fate young Whisker-Cheeks.
From this day on you’ll hunt the fields,
You’ll scour the woods, you’ll fish the creeks.
For you no unprotesting grass,
No food that’s rooted in the earth,
But things that flee and fly and swim,
That hide, or run for all they’re worth.
You’ll have to prowl by dark of night,
Stalk your prey with padded feet.
With claws and wits you’ll earn your meals,
You’ll learn to hunt, or you won’t eat.
And don’t expect to be getting any saucers of milk from me either. Because you won’t! You’re on your own. I’m sorry to have to do this, but I think it’s in everyone’s best interest. Now scat!”
As the cat made his way back to the meadow the thought occurred to him that probably this was just a warning. After all, he was the Cat.
Of course, he thought, that’s the way she works — put the fear into him, give him a good scare. Well, okay, I get the point. Of course, she didn’t have to be quite so theatrical about it all. She could have just said that she was unhappy about the mice. And did she even want to listen to my side of it? No. She didn’t. It’s just, Bad Cat! Well, I’m sorry, and that should be enough.
And wait till I get ahold of that little rat of a mouse, I’m going to have a few things to say to her.
When he came out of the thicket he spotted the mouse eating some seeds near her stump.
“Hey, Mouse!” he called out.
As soon as she heard his voice the mouse looked around, then dove into a clump of nettles and vanished.
“That’s right,” the cat said. “Run away, you little snitch!” But then he noticed that a lot of the other animals were running too. All the little ones. When he passed by trees, the birds flew up into the highest branches. And when he passed by the stream, the fish swam under the rocks.
“Heh… , wonder what’s eating them?” he said to himself. Then he went and sat in the sun, and he licked his fur and stretched and yawned and took a snooze.
When he woke up he was hungry, so he nibbled on some grass. It tasted good, and he was looking around for some dandelions when suddenly he got the strangest feeling.
Then his eyes rolled back and his stomach turned round,
And he heaved and hacked and choked and gagged
Till he’d spit all the grass back out on the ground.
Then he tried it again, just to make sure,
And he gagged and he heaved till his sides grew sore.
He choked and hacked till his nose turned blue,
Then he sighed and he said,
“Well, I guess it’s all true!”
And that’s how the cat got to be a hunter. Actually, he didn’t mind it that much. He liked the sneaking and stalking and prowling, the chasing and pouncing. It was like a game. Naturally it lost him all of his friends — except for the Great Mother. From time to time she would invite him to drop by (and there was always a saucer of milk when he came). And they’d talk about the World, and how things were coming along. He’d remark about the sights that he’d seen, or tell her a story or sing her a song. But when her children got to pulling his tail and twisting his ears and rubbing his fur in the wrong direction, he’d scratch them and run away back to the thickets.
It’s been the way with cats ever since. And usually they’re never happier than when they’re out hunting. Of course, it doesn’t always work out. More often than not it’s a tired and hungry cat that comes back from the chase. And when that happens they recall, from somewhere deep down in their memory, a wonderful time when all the world was new, and all around them there were good things to eat.
Then, just to make sure the Great Mother’s charm is still working, they’ll eat some grass to see.
And we all know what happens then —
© Rick Fine