This is a (very short) story I wrote one Sunday evening in September of 2012. As it is too short to publish on its own, and I do not have enough material for an anthology (yet), I thought I would share it here. Considering it is the Halloween season, this strikes me as appropriate. Enjoy.
DEATH AND THE CAT
There is a saying that a cat has nine lives. This is not entirely true: no cat has nine lives, but some cats do have nine deaths. That is to say, a cat must die eight times before the final one sticks.
It wasn’t always this way. In the early days all cats had only one death apiece, like all other creatures did, and when Death came for a cat it would go quietly—they were never frightened, for cats have always been able to see Death, and are quite used to him.
This is the story of how things changed.
Death was bored. Because there are only so many ways a creature can die, the interesting parts were the circumstances leading up to the moment of death, but since that stuff happened while the creature was still alive Death didn’t have much to do with it. And when you consider just how long there have been things living and dying and living and dying, and when you consider how even much longer there have been things living and dying in an abstract way—for Death also oversees the death of planets, meteorites, stars and galaxies—you can understand that sometimes Death felt like he was just killing time until the Big One when the universe itself died and then maybe—maybe—he could have a nice metaphorical cup of tea and put his metaphorical feet up for a bit before the next big bang started the process all over again.
Point is: that is a lot of time. A lot of time to do the same bloody thing over and over again.
So Death was bored, and on his way from a public execution to a mudslide he stopped to see about the death of a tree that had been chopped down. But trees, bless them, have a way of hanging on by their roots when everything else is gone, and Death found to his surprise that he wasn’t needed after all. And finding himself in no great hurry he sat down on the freshly cut stump and listened to the wind whistle through his body. He did not see the other trees, growing, thriving, living, nor did he hear the songs of birds, or the little scuttle of insects across his bones. To Death the world was one big waiting game, and there was only one thing to do in the meantime.
“Mrrr.” said a voice from around his knees.
Death looked down.
“Mrrr-owwwow,” said Cat, rubbing up against Death’s bony knees and purring loudly.
I do not understand, said Death. It is not your time. What do you wish me to do?
“Mrroow,” said Cat, and nudged Death’s shin with her head.
And such was the universal language of cats that Death understood to bend over and stroke Cat along her back with his bony hand. Cat purred even louder.
So it was that Death, for once, lost track of time and was late to his next appointment—but he did not care; for the first time in centuries he had been entertained. Death was in a good mood.
Death was walking through a wood in winter, leaving footprints no hunter would recognize—if indeed human eyes could see them—and he came for a starving elk lying beside a frozen stream. He did not see the brilliance of the snow nor the steam from the elk’s last breath, nor did he appreciate the fractal patterns the evergreen branches made against the sky above.
“Mrr!” said Cat, climbing up Death’s robes, pulling the hood from his shiny dome and curling up in it, perched on his shoulders behind his neck.
“Prrrprrrprrrprrrrr-rrr…” said Cat, kneading at Death’s cowl.
This is most inconvenient, said Death, walking even more hunched than usual, so as not to disturb Cat. But awkward though it was, after a while Death became aware of something new seeping into his bones. Death did not feel things as living creatures do, but he knew about feelings, and this was a new one.
Warm. There was something warm behind his neck, and that warmth seeped down and down, to where his heart would have been, if things like Death had hearts.
Death is always smiling (his face cannot do anything else), but now he felt that, if he hadn’t been already, if smiling were not his default state, he would choose to smile now.
“Prrr…” said Cat.
Death was walking in a field, following a farmer reaping wheat, reaping the spirits of the wheat. It annoyed him that vegetarians claimed not to kill things; it is all very well to say you can’t kill a cabbage, but Death still has to come for that cabbage. Death does not like being taken for granted. He stalked behind the farmer, brooding on such sour thoughts, when—
“Mrrrroow!” cried Cat, darting between the wheat, chasing field mice and shadows.
Oh, hello, said Death. He paused in his reaping and bent to stroke Cat with a bony hand. Cat walked around in little circles, arching her back, her tail high. Death got so carried away with petting her that the spirits of the reaped wheat began swirling around them, not knowing what to do. Cat saw them and thought they looked much more fun than mice or shadows, and went leaping and chasing after them, batting at them with her paws. The spirits scattered, and it took Death all afternoon to chase them down; all the while Cat skipped about his feet.
The human farmer reaping wheat heard nothing, because the human ear is not capable of hearing Death laugh.
Death was on a ship taking sick men from their beds. He worked in the dank and dark belly of the vessel, bringing silence and stillness.
“Mroowww,” said Cat. She was sitting on the steps leading up to the deck, silhouetted against the pale moonlight. When Death went to pat her she turned under his hand and trotted up on deck. Death followed. Cat was sitting beside a barrel, looking expectant.
I do have work to do, you know, Death said.
Cat flicked her tail.
Death sighed and went over to the barrel and sat down. Immediately Cat leapt into his lap, turned around three times, and curled into a little ball of fur, her claws digging into the fabric of Death’s robe. Death set his scythe aside and held Cat. He scratched behind her ear and stroked her back, and when Cat’s purrs had dwindled to faint snores Death looked up at the night sky and, for the first time, saw the stars.
Death had to admit, they were very beautiful.
Death came for a mouse whose neck had been broken. Cat looked up at him sadly.
Are you going to eat that? Death asked.
Cat batted at the corpse, which flopped limply.
So Death tore a swatch from his robe and tied it to a piece of string, and he made the cloth dance and jerk while Cat leapt about, trying to catch it.
Death walked through a town stricken with Plague. Death didn’t like Plague. Plague was arrogant and made a mess with his boils and fever and oozing sores. Then Death had to come in and clean up after him.
Cat was sitting on the doorstep of a stricken house, washing her paws. Death found he had to stop and pat her for almost ten whole minutes, and by the time he went inside Plague was annoyed and impatient. Death’s grin, if possible, got even bigger.
Death sat hunched over the bed of an old crone who kept swinging back and forth between living and dying. Cat came and sat on his shoulder. Death decided that the waiting was maybe not so bad.
Death sat in the bedroom of a dying king. The king kept revising his last statement, kept thinking of new things to add to his will. His counselors were quite astonished at how he clung to life. They could not see Death sitting in the shadows with Cat on his lap.
Cat was purring again. Death waits for no man, but Death was discovering that he could be distracted by Cat, and that he liked it.
Death was taking fish from a poisoned lake. Cat watched him disconsolately.
There, there, said Death, pausing to give Cat a scratch behind her ear. There will be more fish later.
Cat looked at him with wide, beseeching eyes, and Death found himself compelled to bring them to a different lake, where a fisherman was pulling in his haul. One fish couldn’t possibly be missed from so many, and along with all the spirits Death took a body, fried it over the death of a fire, and put it on a little china plate for Cat, who ate it with much happy gobbling and gulping noises. And Death felt that warm feeling in his chest again, even though he wasn’t holding Cat.
Then, finally, one day Death came for Cat.
“Meep,” she said weakly, from where she lay in the gutter.
Death shook his head.
You know, Cat, nine times you have found me when I was at my most despondent. Nine times you have diverted me and brought me joy. Because of you I know what it means to feel happy. So I have decided to give you a gift in return: I cannot give you another life, but I can give you another death. I shall give you nine deaths, in fact, for the nine times you have cheered me. And all your children, and your children’s children, and all their descendants shall share in this gift.
And Death reached down and stroked Cat gently with a bony finger. Cat pressed her head up against his hand, and began to purr. Then she got up, licked herself vigorously, and trotted off, her tail held high.
Death kept his promise (Death always does), so Cat lived a remarkably long life and had a great many children. And even today the descendants of Cat (not all cats, but many of them) appear to have nine lives, when in fact they have nine deaths, for the nine times Cat came to Death and cheered him with her warm and happy presence.
Death still gets bored (there is a lot of time left to go), but he finds it is not so bad now. For there is a lot of Cat left in the world.
This story began with a picture. The picture above, in fact. I had wanted to paint a picture of the Grim Reaper with a cat riding on his shoulders. As I drew it I began to realize that there was a story behind the picture, so I wrote it down.
Death in this instance was heavily influenced by the Death of Discworld, as readers of Terry Pratchett have no doubt already noticed. I do not think they are the same Death, but they are certainly related.
Cat’s character is mostly modeled off two of my own cats: Nyx (who, sadly, has used up all her deaths), and Boss, who is still very much with us.
This story is set in that fuzzy, timeless land where all the best fairy tales take place.
The painting that inspired the story was done with watercolor and ink on 9″x12″ vellum bristol board.
I drew Death as a pretty straight forward human skeleton, with the addition of glowing blue eyes (again, an influence from the Death of Discworld), and the subtle elongation of his teeth. It’s not so grotesque as to be immediately noticeable, but it’s enough to make his face seem just a little bit off. His scythe was referenced from an old scythe I found in my garden shed, since googling “scyth, images” tends to bring up lots of scythes from videogames that do not look much like real scythes at all. I know it’s fashionable for Death to wield a fancy scythe, but in my mind I felt it would suit him better to have a more down-to-earth instrument.
Cat was modeled after one of my own cats, Mook, though her character was based more on Boss and Nyx.
This story and related artwork is © 2012 by Goldeen Ogawa, all rights reserved.