THE WORLD OF THE FIVE KINGDOMS
The times were dark. They had always been dark and they will remain so. These dark times had no beginning and they had no end. It was an unpleasant fact of life. It could not be otherwise. That was the way of the world. Self-preservation was paramount. The code of life was to devour and not be devoured. For those of us who could not devour, life was a never-ending run to avoid being devoured. The undulations of the days proceeded with the majestic monotony of sunrise and sundown. The operative word was survival at all costs. Living was a zero-sum game of conquerors and conquered. The only safety for the conquered was to expect no safety. The times were dark indeed!
My name is Miaow. I am the chief of the cats, timid by nature. I am a loyal and obedient subject of the King. I cannot but heed the fierce call of the King and I grovel to stay alive. King Roar is the terrible, almighty monarch of Our Land. His word is law. With iron fangs and claws, he had slashed his way to the throne. The roar of the throne was his as long as he lived. No other fierce feline had ever managed to out-slash him.
One dark morning, King Roar summoned me for an assignment. He ordered me to collect sheaves of leaves containing a herbal stimulant which the lions consumed in large quantities. The substance increased their muscle power, sharpened their reflexes and increased their stamina. It was a performance-boosting substance. The problem was that it was grown and harvested in an area controlled by the hyenas. They were not cooperating. I told the King that.
“You will make them cooperate and deliver it here by noontomorrow. You are dismissed. Go!” he ordered.
I humbly protested, “But they won’t-”
“But they won’t nothing,” the King thundered. He slashed my face with his sharp claws. Then, he grabbed my tail and swung me forcefully across the room. “You get them or you die. If you escape, we’ll slaughter your family.”
I hurriedly set off with a heavy heart after an hour or so. There was an air of despondency about the desolate approach to the ridge that led into the valley of the hyenas. No animals were in sight. There was a reason for the absence of non-feline animals; because on the way, I noticed a lion approaching a score of other lions who were seemingly discussing some grave matter. They ignored me, and I descended into the valley. I found myself in the midst of about fifty intimidating hyenas. I relayed King Roar’s request.
“We’ll do, what?” fumed Spotty the leader of the hyenas. “Tell Roar to go to hell. The grass is ours.”
“King Roar won’t permit it.” I said with contrived authority.
“As for you, my dear boy, you’ve just stepped into hell. You’ve no way out.” Spotty quipped menacingly. The hyenas swarmed around me. I was trapped. There was no way I could escape. There were too many of them. “That’s what you get for ordering us about, you worthless feline,” and he smashed his clenched paw into my face.
“I-I-If you do anything to me, King Roar will come in person to punish you. He wants his grass by tomorrow and he shall get it.”
“Try pulling the other leg, sonny,” and Spotty threw me into the crowd of cheering hyenas. “That’s not the way of the King. He never comes in person. He sends his platoons. Where are they? Do you see any platoons, boys?”
The mob of hyenas was whipped into a frenzy. They joined in the sport. I was mocked, jostled, pushed around, humiliated, but at least, I was alive.
Spotty raised his arms to quell the crowd. “I’ll tell you what, boys. Why don’t we play Russian Roulette with this whiskered slug?” He slowly approached me and pushed his ugly face into my petrified face. “I’ll ask you twelve riddles. If you get the questions right, I’ll pull out one of your whiskers. If you get it wrong, I’ll go for your jugular and drink the blood out of you. The rest of the boys here, will help themselves to the rest of you. What do you say, boys?” he shouted to his cheering companions for approval.
“Bang the drums, boys! Let the game commence…”
“One. What arrow is brown with a green tip?” he asked, as he lifted me off the ground and pressed me against a brown tree trunk. Spotty delivered an uppercut. During the recoil, I caught a glimpse of the green foliage above. “A tree! A tree!” I screamed.
“There’s one whisker gone, boys.” I cried with pain as he held up the loose whisker for his laughing companions who applauded loudly.
“Two.” He grabbed me and spread me on the ground. The sun was in my eyes. I was blinded, “What is the hot ball that goes up and down?” Spotty asked the second riddle.
“The sun! The sun!” I shouted desperately. There went another whisker but I was still alive.
“Three,” The hyenas shouted in unison. “Which animal has two tails?” was the third riddle.
“An elephant, one in front, one behind,” was my agonizing answer. I lost my third whisker to wild cheering.
“Four. Which animal has the most hairy face?” Spotty snarled.
“A lion! A lion!” I answered. I lost my fourth whisker.
Furious at being outsmarted, Spotty threw me face first into the ground. My face was smashed into the sand. In his frustration, he roughly overturned a broken tree trunk over me. My head was forcibly buried in the sand and I struggled to breath.
“Five.” Spotty sneered, “What is round and-”
Suddenly, the laughter and cheers stopped. There was silence. Spotty’s grip lightened. He released his paws. I heard the protracted shuffling of feet. Then, there was eerie silence. I lay in that position for about half an hour as I struggled to free myself from the tree trunk. Once I freed myself, I wiped the sand out of my eyes and off my face. I spat out the dust. I looked around. There was no one. The valley was deserted. In the distance, I noticed a heap of sheaves. I quickly loaded them onto the cart and retraced my steps to the seat of the Feline Kingdom. I could not understand why I was let off so lightly.
I made the delivery to the King in person. He stared at me contemptuously. “You look grotesque! Where are your whiskers?” He yelled. “How dare you insult me?”
He threw me across the floor and kicked me out of the room. “A cat without whiskers is no feline. You are a disgrace to the feline world. Don’t you ever show yourself in my presence until your whiskers grow.”
I tottered home. I nursed my wounds and pondered the events of the day. I could not make heads or tails of it, but at least, I was still living my first life. I was consoled by the fact that I had not yet used up my eight spare lives. It might be that I had many more. The other cats reckoned I was the cat of a hundred lives.
Why had the hyenas given in so unexpectedly? I concluded I was born under a lucky star.
I was intimated of the reality a year later by a sparrow, who had had a birds’ eye view of the episode. The lions on the ridge had come together and moved to the edge of the valley. They needed to get a better view of the distant grounds where they were planning a hunting expedition. They ignored the happenings in the hyena valley. They were not interested. Nevertheless, as soon as the hyenas caught sight of the lions, the vile canines sullenly scurried off without a word into the woods. They left the merchandise behind. The hyenas must have thought that I was not bluffing after all, when I had spoken about King Roar’s threatened retribution if he did not get the merchandise.
Many years ago in animal time, all the animals of the world lived in one large land mass. Only the western part of the land mass was inhabited. It was called Our Land. This land was bright, green and chirpy. It was a beautiful land. There were plains, hills, valleys, colourful flowers and fruit, wooded areas... Our Land had it all! There were even the ice cold, shimmering, blue lakes and the icy stepping stones bridging the gushing rivers. The larger eastern part of the land mass beyond the mountains was known as the Dark Land. No one knew what lurked there. The border between Our Land and the Dark Land was composed of two parts. In the northern part, there was the dividing mountain range. The southern part of the range merged into an immense yellow, parched and inhospitable wasteland that repelled everyone. No one had ever ventured beyond the entire eastern divide. Our Land was hemmed in at the north, west and south borders by a never ending Great White Ice Lake. No one could ever travel in this infinite white land.
Our habitat was to change in a way no one expected following the coming of a boy from another world.
There were five animal kingdoms, but one kingdom ruled them all. King Roar the lion was the omnipotent monarch of the Feline Kingdom. Everything proceeded from him and everything returned to him. The fearsome felines backed the king. They prowled throughout the land. King Roar was the centre of the circle of life. The fierce felines set the law. They conditioned the way of life of all other animals. These felines were born to kill. That was their oxygen. They killed not only for nourishment. It went beyond that. They killed for the sake of killing. It was their raison d’être. Their blood sports were particularly cruel but they derived considerable entertainment from these life games. For us animal subjects, life was distilled into a sombre matter of life and death, of good and evil.
All five kingdoms were stratified in a similar manner. A leader, in effect a virtual sub-monarch, headed each of the other four disenfranchised kingdoms. Within each kingdom, there was a ruling class and a large, heterogeneous underclass. Some kingdoms also had a middle class. The underclass was held in thraldom not only by the relatively benevolent upper class of their respective kingdom but also by the dreaded Feline Overlords. The underclass performed menial tasks. Their stewardship of the land was under the despotic rule of their Feline Overlords to whom all proceeds of the land belonged. This Feline Kingdom ruled over the other kingdoms with an iron paw. The circle of life was held together tautly in this irrevocable manner.
All five kingdoms lorded it over the other orphan and tamer animals who in some cases, were not organised enough to form guilds. These were a pathetic lot. They included the sheep, the goats, the cows, the pigs, the chickens, the rabbits and many others. These formed the large base of the animal pyramid on which all other animals preyed. Their reproductive rate was phenomenal even though their life expectancy was so short. They were incapable of one thing - a natural death. On the contrary, they always met violent, bloody ends. All other animals in the four dispossessed kingdoms had developed their survival skills. These wretched, harmless animals on the other hand, had no self-defence mechanisms. They were especially vulnerable.
One day, King Roar ordered me to clean his office. During this chore, I uncovered a vellum document entitled “The Constitution of Our Land.” It read:
“The upper-class members in the Kingdom of Felines are the lions and tigers. The king shall always be a lion. He is elected after a contest to the death with any contenders. The survivor is elected King for life or until anyone successfully challenges him. The middle class consists of the jaguars, the cheetahs, the leopards, the panthers, the cougars and their black cousins - the pumas. The servile cats constitute the underclass.
“The upper class in the Canine Kingdom includes the grey wolves and their cousins. The middle class encompasses the foxes, the coyotes, the jackals, and the hyenas. Then there are those insufferably noisy underdogs.
“The bulls, the buffalos and the bison represent the upper class in the Dairy Kingdom. The stupid cows and cattle form the underclass.
“In the Equine Kingdom, zebras and giraffes are the upper class animals. The camels, gazelles, deer, and elks are the middle class members. The filthy horses, mules and donkeys complete the underclass.
“In the Kingdom of Big Mammals, the clumsy elephants are the masters. The rhinos and overweight hippopotamuses are the middle class while those odious bears constitute the underclass.”
This was the hierarchical structure of animal society in those times. It had been like that since time immemorial and it could never change.
But, that social arrangement was about to be shattered forever.
I was, and still am, an accident of nature. Believe it or not, I had been elected chief of the cats. Even my election was shrouded in controversy. The losing candidate did not concede graciously. He alleged a selection bias in my favour, as the cats had overlooked the fact that I was afraid of my own shadow. Fate intervened though. It so happened that our convention was rudely interrupted by a stampeding cattle herd. My challenger was amongst those who were trampled to death while I escaped unscathed. The call of nature had had its say and the election was thus decided. I always thought that fate behaved in mysterious ways whenever I was concerned.
Us cats, we are the most numerous but the most disadvantaged of the dwellers in the land. Our masters treat us badly, though they do not consider us capable of being anything but loyal to them. We are their black sheep blood relations. They tolerate us because they need us. We throw ourselves at their mercy in order to survive. On the other hand, no animals trust us because of our close relations to the Overlords. In fact, they detest us. In the other animals’ eyes, we are diminutive replicas of their Overlords. Moreover, they regard us as spies or accomplices of the detested Lords of the Land. For them, we are animale non grata. Everyone holds us in contempt. We are doubly cursed.
This attitude on the part of other fellow animals was about to change following the advent of our friend, Jack.
Until then, I had always lived in fear. I developed good survival skills. I trained my eyes, ears and nose to see, hear and smell danger long before it could materialise. Mine was a suspicious, non-trusting mind. Danger lurked everywhere. I imagined it, even when it was not there and the heightened awareness served me well. This complex kept me alive. I was a fast runner; I was a good climber of trees. Besides, I had sharp reflexes. Longevity was the reason for my election as chief of the cats. I was the insignificant chief of an insignificant race in Our Land.
I had seen so many animals being sadistically devoured. I became desensitised like everyone else, until it affected my immediate family. Losing the two sisters I had grown up with, had traumatised me. They were the victims of the feline masters’ hateful game, the “Cat Run”. King Roar organised a tournament between the different fierce feline factions where three cats were released into a closed, depressed, huge arena from which there was no escape. These games were presided by King Roar who saw off the three running victims. The feline contestants relentlessly hunted them down. The two feline teams competed in amassing their grisly trophies, scoring points according to the body part, the colour of the body part and the speed with which they earned their trophies. The team that accumulated the most points won.
The loss of my beloved wife traumatised me as well. A savage group of marauding coyotes had cut her down. I was frightened and I scampered off to safety, abandoning my young family to a cruel fate. My wife struggled to shield our four newly born babies from them. I did nothing. I watched with tear-filled eyes from a safe distance. Oh yes, something I did do! I averted my gaze in shame, when she screamed my name as she desperately cried for help. I walked away before the bloody act was completed. It turned out I had used my family as bait for the predators, so I could escape. I owe my life to the self-sacrifice of my wife.
I had also lost my parents to the fury of the wolves. The wolves hated the felines, but they vented all their hatred on the weakest of the felines, us. They did not dare touch the feline masters. We regularly had to venture into the territories of the four defunct kingdoms on official business for our masters. These were hazardous journeys. Our masters made no effort to protect or defend us. My parents died on one of these tax-collecting missions in wolf territory. I remember the day clearly because it was my first birthday; so I was excited. My mother had a sinister premonition that day. She insisted on going with Dad to protect him in any which way she could. She explained that two cats stood a better chance of survival than one alone! They pledged they would return in time for my birthday party to give me a glorious birthday present. They never returned. I was sad (I wanted my present). I waited for days on end, but they never came and I never received my birthday present. To this day, I do not know where their remains are. I can only imagine the ordeal they went through in the final hour of their lives.
My whiskers had not yet grown. The collecting missions had to be done, though I still could not present myself to the King. I recruited the help of my two sons, Purr and Scratchy. One day, while on such a mission, I was walking with my two sons. On the way, Scratchy was his playful, happy-go-lucky self. There was a large group of grazing zebras. He could not resist the urge to tease them, so he departed from our path for some time. When he returned, he pointed out a nearby hollow tree trunk. He said it was the perfect hiding place when he played hide-and-seek with his friends. On the under surface, there was a large hole from which a meerkat must have burrowed an underground escape tunnel into the nearby woods. It was an ideal passage for emerging from the tree trunk, thereby victoriously outflanking his opponents. No one else knew of this secret passage. Purr, a grey tabby cat, remained silent throughout the walk. He was a good listener but he was an animal of few words. It could be because he had such a bad stutter. The demise of his mother traumatised him. He had adored her. At such a tender age, he had been completely dependent on her. Deprived of maternal affection, he never regained his confidence. Scratchy, on the other hand, was too young to remember his mother at the time of her passing.
Our mission was completed and we were walking home together. Loud screaming caught our attention. Instinctively, the three of us made our way to the top of the ridge. Below, we saw a distressing scene, which made me break into a cold sweat. It was a re-enactment of a previous traumatic scene I had witnessed. There were two cats desperately trying to protect their children from a group of marauding wolves. It was a disturbing déjà vue sight and I quickly told my sons, “Come on, let’s go home. There’s nothing we can do here. It doesn’t concern us.”
I turned to move on, but my feet remained stuck to the ground. My tear-filled, tremulous eyes were still focused on the scene, even though my body was turned in the opposite homeward direction. I could not turn away. Something was holding me back. I stared at the face of the mother cat. It reminded me of my wife’s face. From a distance, she seemed to look back at me. Our eyes met for an instant. The expression on her face said, “Will you turn away again, this time?” It was the voice of my wife. I suppressed a sob, but I remained as still as a statue.
Purr had already moved a few steps homeward, but he stopped. He stared back at me when he saw that I did not lead the way home. Scratchy, on the other hand, did not move. For once, he was serious. His gaze flitted from the scene back on to me. It rested on me for some time. He glanced away from me quickly in two different directions. He then looked behind. Swiftly, he departed from my side. The next instant, I became aware of Scratchy charging down the hill holding onto an elephant’s thigh bone. I never saw a black cat run so fast. He slammed into the dozen or so wolves. He knocked one over and the others fell over like dominoes. He bowled them all over with one swipe. Scratchy discarded the bone and darted over the plain where he disappeared into his hide-and-seek tree trunk. After the wolves realised what had hit them, they promptly gave chase. I saw them hovering hungrily around the trunk, but Scratchy was safe. After a few minutes, they gave up their search, but in the distance, they must have noticed something which tickled their imagination. The wolves immediately dashed off barking and were not seen again. They were probably chasing the grazing zebras we had seen before.
I ran down the hill. Only two cats survived the massacre. The mother was mortally injured. Her young daughter, a ginger coloured kitten, was badly shaken, but she was untouched. Purr caught up with me and he stared stupidly at the girl.
Purr took care of the funeral arrangements, while I tended the injured cat. I did what I could but it was next to nothing. In fact, it did not amount to anything at all. Or, did it? Life is full of strange surprises and opportunities. That day turned out to be a particularly eventful day.
At nightfall, we all sat by a fire. I took in the silent scene. The girl did not take her admiring eyes off Scratchy who by then had casually re-joined us. Scratchy’s restless eyes danced everywhere but not on any one of us. Undoubtedly, he was thinking of what new adventures the next day would bring. Life for him was one great adventure. Purr did not take his eyes off the girl. The mother’s tear-filled gaze was fixed affectionately on her daughter. Every now and then, she shifted her eyes on to me, when I was not looking. She seemed to be sizing me up.
The others were asleep. The mother beckoned me. I moved over to her side.
“Thank you for saving us.”
“Err! It wasn’t I. It was my son, Scratchy who saved you. I wished to save you, but I couldn’t get down to it. My courage failed me. It always does.”
“No, you saved us. I saw you give the order to your son.”
“You’re wrong. The only order I gave was to move on. It was none of our business. There was nothing to be done. I did not want to endanger my family and myself. That is the way of the world. As you know, there is no place for heroes in Our Land. There’s no honour in heroics. Long live the cowards! The future is theirs.” Future? What am I saying? What future? There is no future. There were other jarring thoughts but it’s best I say no more.
“No, you saved us,” she reiterated, never taking her unblinking bleary eyes off me. I silently shook my head in denial.
Then she said strange words, “You are heading for a great destiny.” I uttered a self-depreciatory laugh.
She turned her gaze towards the sleeping daughter. Tears streamed down her face. The mother cat was in poor condition. It was obvious she would not survive long. I looked at her daughter, but my mind’s eye saw the newborn babies I had lost in similar circumstances. I was presented with the perfect opportunity to atone for the act of omission in my wife’s death. I was hesitant. I was indecisive about the commitment that deep down, I desired.
For the last time, the moribund mother reached out for the sleeping daughter, but her severed arm fell short. Her lips moved but no words came out, only tears. She struck a chord in my heart. She slowly turned her face towards me. I looked down at her but I saw the pleading face of my wife. I shut my eyes and vigorously shook my head to dispel the vision from my mind. I could not take it anymore. It was painful - my heart strings were too taut. There was loud banging on my door inside. Was it my wife knocking? Something gave inside. I had to open up.
“Look, don’t worry about your daughter,” I reassured her eagerly.
She showed no reaction.
The knocking inside was louder. “I promise you, I will look after her,” I gushed. “She will be safe with me.”
She still showed no reaction.
The intrusive knocking was even louder. “I’m renowned for my survival skills. She will be one of the family, I promise you,” I asserted.
Her expressionless gaze remained fixed on me. She did not bat an eyelid throughout the conversation.
I paused and wondered about her facial expression for a moment. Next, I shook her clumsily, “Are you still alive?” I asked awkwardly. She winced with pain.
“Oh! I’m sorry. I-I-I thought-”
Then she said some other strange words, “It is you who will need looking after.”
“What is your daughter’s name?”
“Sabine.” She sighed and she fell into a deep slumber. Only then did the persistent knocking stop.
I returned to my place and reflected. I had always felt bad about my behaviour at the time of my wife’s death. I could never shake it off. It was a festering wound. I brooded over it. Somehow, after these latest events, the perpetual heartache I had always felt within, eased. Brusquely, I crawled over silently to Scratchy. I shook him. He sleepily awoke, eyes still closed.
I whispered a question, “Scratchy, why did you rescue the family?”
“Because you told me to,” he yawned.
“I did nothing of the sort.”
“Oh yes you did,” he mumbled indifferently.
“I did not.”
“Yes you did. Your body language pleaded with me to do so.”
I was stupefied and speechless for a moment, but then I understood.
“Thank you, son! Thank you!” I blurted out, “If only you know how happy you’ve made me. I’m so grateful. I’m in your debt, forever. What can I do for you, son?” I was effusive in my gratitude, but Scratchy was not listening. He had long fallen asleep. I could not sleep that night. There was a warm glow around me.
In the following days, Scratchy had no recollection of the conversation. I brought it up with him, but he was dismissive. He merely shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “I must have been talking in my sleep,” he said, “I didn’t know what I was saying.” Conversely, that eventful night’s conversation remained imprinted in my memory. I treasured it all my life, even though Scratchy could not understand what all the fuss was about.
How could a humbug like me produce such a bright spark as Scratchy? Both he and Purr had seen me in that confused state. Purr merely looked at me, but Scratchy looked into me. He recognised the disconnect between my verbal talk and my heart talk. He saw they were at odds. He was gifted with an incredible sense of discernment. He saw deep into my soul like no other. He not only obeyed my heart talk, but brought it to fruition in a spectacular way. In the nick of time, he had planned and executed the entire rescue operation. He did what I did not do, he did not do what I did.
At dawn, everyone, but the mother, woke up. She had died peacefully in the night. Scratchy had already left us as soon as he awoke. He was the first to wake up and he departed on another of his adventures. Sabine was distraught. Purr stood by respectfully while I clumsily tried to console her. Strangely, while in that afflicted state, Sabine asked after Scratchy. As usual, Purr took care of the funeral arrangements. He handled every detail with his customary delicacy.
I still could not get the incident out of my mind. A few weeks later I brought up the subject with Scratchy yet again. I wondered how he would have reacted had the circumstances been different.
“Why? If you had forbidden it, I wouldn’t have intervened.”
“What if you had been alone when you witnessed the lynching of Sabine’s family?”
“Oh! I’d have definitively intervened.” He punched the air triumphantly as he exclaimed, “Yes!”
“For the sheer joy of it. Nothing excites me more than rubbing those big, bad wolves up their backsides.”
For me, it was a matter of life and death. For Scratchy, it was all a game.
The family took to Sabine. She flourished under our care. Scratchy and Sabine were kindred spirits. They had the same passions and desires. They went off on adventures together. They raised hell. Scratchy used to say, “If I can’t move the heavens, then I will raise hell.” They climbed trees, they chased the birds, they teased the domesticated animals, and they created stampedes. They flew together. They were adept at concluding their missions successfully. They hoodwinked the unsuspecting animals. With their cock-and-bull stories, they twisted the arms of the King’s subjects to obtain what they requested. They always got what they wanted out of the dull animals. They both used to return, all laughs and smiles, as they related their wild exploits. These were ingenious, like when they tried to wrest concessions from the troublesome hyenas. They whipped up a stampede of buffalos which overran the hyena grounds. The hyenas never gave us any more trouble thereafter. They finally submitted. Or, when they whipped up four simultaneous stampedes - the zebras from the north, the mustangs from the south, the antelopes from the west and the giraffes from the east.
These all converged on to the central territory of the murderous wolves. After the fracas, Scratchy happily declared to us all, “Sabine’s massacred family has finally been avenged,” as he briskly rubbed his paws together with gusto. Sabine tiptoed to impishly plant a kiss on the right cheek of his beaming face.
Scratchy had mastered the art of flying. He was a phenomenal high and long jumper. He was a masterful athlete with an incredible spring in his legs. He would nose dive to the ground from one tree top and then bounce up onto the next one, and so on. He brought the ostriches to heel in that manner. The ostriches ran away from threats on the ground. It was impossible to reason with them, they were so elusive. They also evaded separate threats from the air. But they could not handle combined simultaneous threats from both the ground and the air, in the shape of high flying Scratchy. How did they respond? By staying still and burying their heads in the only medium they thought they were safe – below the ground. They were then at our mercy, we could gain any concessions the Feline Masters required of them.
Scratchy was his own master. He enjoyed Sabine’s company but he did not need her. He had bags of energy and, at times, she slowed him down. Also, her exuberance and chattiness sometimes interfered with his concentration. He was a cat of action and when in action mode, he was a cat of few words, such was his intensity of purpose. He started to go off more and more on his own. He was always in search of new experiences. Sabine, on the other hand, could not live without Scratchy. She rued the times he would go off and not return for weeks.
Once, I joined her as she was on the hill looking out for Scratchy. She was silently sobbing. I tried to console her.
“Scratchy’s like that. He is so gifted, he’s self-sufficient. He’ll always be a loner. He doesn’t need anyone.”
“But he doesn’t tell me when he’s going. He just disappears. It’s not fair. I’ve been so patient with him. I do whatever he says. He has no reason to complain about me.”
“Sabine, dear… Enjoy him while he’s here. We all do. Don’t grieve when he’s not. He won’t ever change. You’ll never get the constant security and comfort you crave for, with him. He runs on the wild side of life. He’s not a family cat. He’s not cut out for it. He’s a cat with the heart of a lion and the humour of a chimpanzee. He’ll never lay roots anywhere. He’ll keep shooting off at tangents. You should cast your eyes elsewhere. Look at Purr, for instance-”
“Purr,” I emphasized. “He worships the ground you walk on. He’d walk through hell for you.”
“Oh! Purr. Wait. Is that Scratchy in the distance? Yes, it is.” She squealed with delight and ran off in his direction.
Yes, we all loved Sabine. Twinkle, my eldest fluffy child fussed over her. Purr did his usual mundane chores diligently in between the shy glances at Sabine. He remained in the shadows. They seldom spoke, but his furtive glances said it all. As far as I was concerned, Sabine had a soothing effect on me. Her presence among us went some way in calming that vociferous voice inside that was always berating me for not doing enough.
Twinkle posed a serious problem for me. There was not a single bad bone in her. She was good-natured through and through. Her problem was that she saw only good in everyone else. That was the crux of the Twinkle problem. She was too trusting and she was my worst nightmare. Striving to keep her alive was a headache. She was hopelessly out of place in Our Land. Left to her own means, she would have approached a hyena to clean his slimy, ugly nose. Or, she would have scolded the drooling, angry wolf for soiling the beautiful land with his disgusting spittle.
I went through great lengths to deny her existence. Each head of household had to provide a census to the King about every member of the household, including all the births and the deaths. I kept Twinkle off the census. On paper, she did not exist. She was officially deceased. I ran a big risk. It was a crime punishable by death not only for me, but for all the family. She spent most of her sheltered life in her homestead. She never ventured far away from its environs. Her naiveté was such, that if she ever came into contact with a fierce feline, she would do or say something stupid that would claim her life. If her name ever appeared on the census, being the only daughter of a known feline chief, her life expectancy would have been a matter of minutes or hours. Once she commented that the King’s beard was too big and untidy. It needed to be shaved. Besides, she claimed he was in dire need of a haircut. She said she would go to the King in person and offer to trim his beard. She would not have lasted a minute in his presence.
One day, I was eating the food Twinkle had diligently prepared for me. Twinkle revealed that she had made a few small wooden containers for the wolves to spit into, rather than having them spit on the ground. She held one up for me to see and proudly called it a spit-box. I nodded vacantly and continued eating. But then she said she was going into wolf territory to gift them personally to the wolves. I doubled up, overturning my dish.
“You will do nothing of the sort,” I thundered and I banged my clenched paw on the table. “I forbid it.”
Sabine turned round startled by my violent outburst. She gave me an admonishing sidelong look which put me to shame.
She promptly interjected happily, “Oh Twinkle! What a wonderful idea. Leave it to me, I’ll distribute them to the wolves for you. It will save you the trouble. It’s no trouble for me because it’s on my way. You can stay here doing what you enjoy. You’ve got plenty to do, I see.”
I stared hard at Sabine in disbelief. She returned my cold look with a reassuring one. If only, I had her tact! The kitten had come of age under my very eyes and I had not even noticed. All this time, I had been too self-absorbed to notice.
Sabine left, leaving me in the company of Twinkle who sang her usual lullabies, “What a sweet child Sabine is!” “Isn’t Sabine the sunshine of our household?” “Where would we be without Sabine?” (up to that point I silently agreed, but then…) “Oh Dad, it was so clever of you to bring Sabine to us,” “Dad, tell me about your brainwave that brought Sabine to us?” Twinkle’s recital went on and on. I finished my meal as quickly as possible. When I was done and dusted, I took leave of her, announcing in a martial tone “Well Twinkle, thank you. I’d love to stay, but duty calls,” and I marched out (thank goodness). As I walked off, I could hear Twinkle humming sugary tunes to herself. No doubt the humming would continue all day until Sabine returned to relight the fire of Twinkle’s life.
When I related Sabine’s story to Twinkle, she was moved beyond words. Twinkle wanted to mother Sabine and she tried to smother Sabine with affection. But Sabine would have none of it. Like Scratchy, there was a fierce, independent streak in Sabine, even though she was still a child. In her endearing way Sabine battled with Twinkle. She fought Twinkle’s mothering with her own mothering, to great effect. Whenever Twinkle pampered her, Sabine always gave her the slip. She would run off on one of her adventures with Scratchy, but she always made it a point to bring a memento of her adventure for Twinkle. Twinkle relished these gifts. They were herbs, plants, flowers, seeds, whatever. Sabine would tell her some cock-and-bull story of how she could change them into something magical. And incredibly, Twinkle used to swallow the bait - hook, line and sinker - each time. She would spend her days humming silly songs in praise of Sabine while she crushed the ingredients into her creations. She produced scents and fragrances, soaps, perfumes, detergents, conditioners and even medicines, she claimed.
I could not take this quackery. There was always a strong flowery scent in the house. My eyes began watering. My nose started dripping. I was constantly sneezing. I was not feeling too well and I was having breathing difficulties. Besides, Twinkle’s heartfelt lullabies were getting me on my nerves. I could not take it anymore, so I decided to move out. I wanted to build a hut nearby and live alone. All the while, from my new vantage point, I would still be able to keep a protective eye on Twinkle. I had to make sure she did not venture into the dangerous, wild areas. Her safety was always on my mind.
As I was packing up my possessions, Sabine happened to enter the room. She observed me and she was surprised, “What are you doing? Where are you going with all those things?”
I told her everything. I confided in her and listed all my complaints and ailments.
Sabine was alarmed. She said, “Please don’t go. It will destroy Twinkle when she finds out. She’ll blame herself for your departure. She dotes on you so much. I’ll take care of it. Leave Twinkle to me. I’ll talk to her. Only promise me that you’ll delay your departure for three days. Scratchy’s waiting for me now, but when I return, I’ll deal with it.”
Three days later, Twinkle came bursting into the room in an agitated state, “Dad, you have to move out. It’s not safe for you here. Please move out, Dad. It’s for your own good. Don’t take it against me. I’ll help you build a hut close by. Anything, but move out today. I’m so sorry but I don’t want to hurt you. I promise I’ll come by every day to look after you, to clean your place and to prepare your food.”
So, I happily moved out into lodging next door and physically, I felt much better in the subsequent days. I sneezed and wheezed no more.
The next day, I found Sabine alone in Twinkle’s house, “Sabine, I’m curious. What cock-and-bull story did you invent this time, for Twinkle to do the impossible and throw me out of my own house?”
“Oh! I told Twinkle, that you weren’t well with all that sneezing. I told her, all those herbs and pollens were not doing you any good. Your body was reacting and fighting against them. You were the victim of those invisible battles and it was harming you. You were even starting to wheeze. I told Sabine, that if you stayed a day longer, the battles might become too bad and leave you defeated. You could collapse, lose consciousness, stop breathing and even die.”
“Did you need to be so melodramatic, Sabine? You scared poor Twinkle out of her wits!”
Sabine shrugged her shoulders, “But you wanted to move out, didn’t you? I didn’t want you to hurt Twinkle’s feelings. That’s all. I knew you’d have regretted hurting her afterwards.”
At that instant, Twinkle returned, “Dad,” she said glowing with pride, “Your hut’s ready. I’m sure you’ll like the way I arranged it for you.”
I was about to depart with Twinkle, but Sabine called out, “By the way Twinkle, I gave your spit-boxes to the wolves and guess what? They loved them. They told me to convey their thanks to you. They said they’ll carry it with them wherever they go, because they found it very convenient.”
“That’s wonderful, Sabine. But no, they can’t have just one spit-box. No, I’ll make many more for them and you can distribute them in my name.”
I rolled my eyes in dismay, threw my arms in the air, and went off alone to my lodgings shaking my head all the way. I left the girls behind merrily talking their flowery small talk.
If only I could be as tactful as Sabine. I just did not have the patience. Sabine had managed to relieve not only my heartache, but even my headache. Also, the nightmares concerning Twinkle‘s safety became less frequent. I was secure in the knowledge that Twinkle would be safe, thanks to Sabine’s craftiness. Twinkle would lead a long, loving and productive life, now that she had discovered her calling to motherhood. She had firmly resolved to take Sabine’s dead mother’s place. Twinkle spent most of her time at home, cooking, cleaning, experimenting and producing her quackeries. There was no limit to her creativity. All the while, she happily sang ballads in praise of Sabine and the world in general. But her happiest time of the day, was when Sabine returned home with Scratchy. It was a never ending joy for Twinkle to welcome Sabine home each time. One would have thought that each meeting was to be their last ever meeting in Our Land. Twinkle was so passionate, she wore her heart on her paw sleeve.
Sometimes, I wondered who really was the mother! Was it Twinkle or was it Sabine? In my opinion, Sabine had beaten Twinkle at my daughter’s own sparring game. Sabine had triumphed in the motherhood battle. Sabine the child was the de facto mother. Twinkle my daughter was the de jure mother, though officially of course, Twinkle did not exist.
I dreamt many dreams. I found comfort in rhapsodising. There was one particular recurring dream. I had morphed into a lion who mounted a successful challenge to King Roar. As the new king, I set the law of the land. I abolished the blood sports. I repaired relations with the other four kingdoms. Most important of all, I drafted legislation to protect the disenfranchised orphan animals. None of the Kingdoms claimed these animals. I felt for these helpless, wretched souls. I had a visceral understanding of their plight. I had experienced it myself.
One day I had an unusual dream. Was it a dream or was it delirium? Dream or not, I was being carried in two strong paws. I lay bleeding at death’s door. The cocoon shell in which I had always sought refuge had been shattered. I was about to embark on a long, painful journey of self-discovery. How scared I was! Fear ran through my veins. I was frightened of the pain. The fear of the unknown and the feeling of uncertainty distressed me. The rearward receding glimpse of the broken cocoon filled me with regret. At least, I had been safe there. Now, I was in unfamiliar territory. The future obstacles were menacing. I did not have the attributes to grapple with them. In some way, my fears were eased by the knowledge that I was in safe hands. I will never forget that day, nor the events leading up to that dream.