Once upon a time, a man, a woman and a cat were walking through a deep forest. All three had walked for what felt like a thousand miles and all but the smallest member of the party balanced precariously on blistered, swollen feet. Night had fallen only an hour ago but its polished granite blackness above the treetops seemed to hint at a stark permanence and corresponding adjustments to the way life would be lived. Just as the man and the woman felt they could not possibly walk any more, they chanced upon a stone bothy at the edge of a small clearing. The bothy showed few signs of recent occupation: the man entered first and found only a strip of dirty, unspecified cloth, a broken tankard and the decayed skeleton of an apple core on its mud floor. Its roof had a hole, but this was covered by the thick, twisted limbs of ivy, which for now would go some way to keeping out the advancing weather, which the woman could feel in her finger joints.
“Here?” she said.
“Here,” nodded the man.
They bedded down in the lone draughty room beneath an old threadbare blanket given to her by her late mother, their tunics spread on top of it for extra warmth. An enchanted dancing spell of mist rose off the cold forest floor, covering the world in doubt. The cat, who had big deep eyes that seemed to hold innumerable secrets, began the evening sitting in the doorless doorway, listening to the nearby hoot of owls, then, having spied the tunics, nestled on top of those instead. By the time night had ended, the cat had somehow commandeered 85 percent of the sleeping area while the man and woman, who were each roughly nine times the creature’s size and largely furless, were squashed into the remaining 15 percent, their limbs contorted in an awkward and painful fashion. Rising and inspecting the tunics, the man found welded to them a matted mixture of small leaves, hair and soil.
“You fucking wanker,” the man said to the cat. “We only washed those last month.”
Later that morning, the man ventured out into the forest, killed two rabbits and filled a pail with water from a clear rushing river a mile away, surrounded by mossy boulders. The cat sat and watched with wry curiosity as the man and woman skinned, cooked and ate the rabbits. Then the man threw him the leftovers, which the cat gnawed on with something approaching enthusiasm. The woman poured the cat some of the clear river water into a bowl, which he refused, instead choosing to drink the rainwater from a rusty trough behind the building, which had all manner of unidentifiable old shit in it.
They could feel the dark teeth of mid-winter gnashing at them now. Here was the final heavy push towards Solstice’s new hope. The next day the man caught three more rabbits, roasted them on a bigger, angrier fire, and offered the cat a larger portion of the leftovers than before. The cat sniffed at this, then looked up into the man’s eyes in a way that seemed to say, “Nope, I’ve gone off this stuff already. Do you have anything else?”
Over the following weeks, the man and woman worked hard to transform the bothy into a home: the man walked to the river and caught fish, which the woman took to the town, some four miles away, on Market Day and traded for crockery, tools, milk, butter and soap. The man coppiced and whittled and hammered and chiselled and extended and improved. The days were long, partly because there was endless work to do, but also because the cat insisted on waking the man and woman up before daybreak by meowing at the top of his voice and knocking stuff off the new shelves the man had built. The three of them sat by the fire at night: the woman working on a poem by the flickering light, the man so tired he could only stare blankly into the flames, and the cat cleaning himself in an officious manner that suggested he was getting ready for an important yet clandestine cat ceremony in the near future. Sometimes, while the the woman tried to write her poetry, the cat would get on her lap and stick his bottom in her face, obscuring her view and smudging her fine calligraphy with his paws. Later he would continue to dominate the bed, leaving more small leaves, hair and soil on the new blankets that had replaced the tunics as bedding. He’d also occasionally pop off into the forest to kill mice, which he would bring back and leave half-eaten on the bothy’s floor. The cat was generally very unpredictable when it came to food. Some days he preferred rabbits caught in the part of the forest to the east of the bothy, and some days he preferred rabbits caught in the part of the forest to the west of the bothy, but the man and woman were buggered if they knew why.
One morning a visitor came to call: a tall gentleman with an angular face and the tiny eyes of an untrustworthy bird. He said he worked for the Squire of the local Parish and had a proposal: if the man and the woman would concede ownership of the bothy to the Squire, who deemed it a perfect hunting lodge, he would reward them with more money than they had seen in their lives.
“Take three sunsets to think it over if you like,” said the tall gentleman, jingling some coins in a leather purse. “By the way, did you know you had a mouse’s spleen stuck to your big toe?”
That night by the fire the man and woman faced a tough decision: they had worked hard on their new dwelling and were looking forward to starting a family there, but with the Squire’s money they would be able to set up home almost anywhere they chose. By the glow of the fire, they examined their hands, which, due to a life of constant toil, were as gnarled and wrinkled as those of men and women twice their age born of more noble stock. As they did so, they knew which choice they would make.
The night before the man and the woman were due to vacate the bothy, a party was thrown there, a celebration as lavish as any small makeshift dwelling in the woods had ever known. In a gesture of goodwill, The Squire provided limitless ale, eclectic soups and a freshly slaughtered wild hog. Better still, this was not just any wild hog: this was Big John, the grandest and haughtiest hog of the forest, whom every hunter for miles around had been trying to bring down for as long as memory would allow, and whom the Squire had finally slain earlier that day. A minstrel played songs celebrating the deeds of the afternoon and the bawdy ones of outlaws of centuries past in the Green Wood, and a few of the Squire’s men danced with the woman – though not, the man was fairly sure, in a dodgy way which involved trying to cop a sneaky feel. The cat ate like a Feline King, then bedded down on the large comfortable stomach of one of the night’s early casualties: Edgar, the fattest of all the Squire’s men. Edgar was now paralytic and emitting stale odours from at least two of his orifices, but the cat was largely relaxed about odours, unless they were soapy or astringent, and Edgar did possess an unusually soft tunic. Before this, the cat had spent a good hour or so batting a button that had come loose from another of the men’s tunics around the floor. The woman saw this, and it kind of pissed her off, as she’d spent a lot of the previous week making a cloth mouse for the cat, which he’d indifferently inspected once then totally ignored.
It had been a grand night, but the next morning, when the man and woman woke up, a discomfort and self-hatred set in, compounded by their hangovers. How easily they’d given away what they’d worked lovingly to make theirs, in exchange for monetary gain. The Squire and his men were still asleep, yet the man and woman already somehow felt unwelcome in their home of many months, so they gathered their possessions and quietly set off into the cool spring morning. The cat followed a few paces to their rear, and they thought about what a good cat he was, how beautiful and plush his fur he was, and how lucky they were that he followed them from place to place like this. When all was said and done, at least they still had his love. The cat, for his part, was sort of torn, if he was being totally honest, since he could still smell the remains of the wild hog and remember how soft that tunic was. But, he concluded, the bothy would not be permanently occupied with feeders, now it belonged to the Squire, who would be using it more as a weekend place, and the man and woman were okay sorts, especially when you considered how many cat-hating scumbags there were out there.
In time, the man and the woman found a new house, made it their own, and raised a family in it. The money wasn’t quite as much as it had seemed at first and soon ran out, but they found other ways to get by. They didn’t quite live happily ever after, since people never actually do. It would be more accurate to say that existence was made more enjoyable than not by an ample sprinkling of fleeting, epiphanic moments of happiness, which were rendered more meaningful by being set against a more customary backdrop of mundanity and grey struggle. Fortunately, they lived with a cat, and living with a cat has a way of helping prepare people for life’s peaks and troughs.
The cat lived to a ripe old age. But that was no big deal for him. He’d lived numerous times previously, and had seen some dark shit you could not even dream of.
This story is from my book, Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind.
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Read my latest book, Help The Witch.
My new fiction book, Ring The Hill, is now funding for autumn 2019 publication.