Friday, August 21, 2009

The Catfather

(With apologies to Mario Puzo)

The old miller had not had much of a business, so when he died there was not much to divide among his three sons. The oldest got the mill itself, as was his birthright. The second son inherited the family donkey, as it was the only other thing the old man possessed of notable value. That left the youngest of the three with only the cat from the old man’s estate.

A few days later, after the funeral and disposition of the assets, the youngest son was sitting alone in his room with the cat. The cat was idly licking the back of one paw while the young man watched him with growing discomfort.

“What am I to do?” asked the young man of no one in particular. “I am not displeased with my lot, as my father had not much to give, but what shall I do with a cat as an inheritance? After I have eaten your meat and made a muff of your fur, what benefit will I be able to gain?”

The cat looked at the boy with his slit-like amber eyes and stopped licking its paw. It scratched the back of one paw under its jaw with a brief flicking motion, almost contemplative in an off-handed way.

“What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?” asked the cat as it finished scratching. He spoke in a voice that, although having an edge, was as transparent as olive oil.

The miller’s youngest son was speechless, not so much because he had been spoken to by a cat as by what the cat had said. He watched the feline idly play with a small ball of string as it continued.

“Have you ever invited me to sit at your table like you would any other friend?” the cat said. “I have eaten your table scraps for many years now, but have you treated me as a friend? I see things, I understand. You had no need of a friend like me. That is fine. You had your human friends.”

“I didn’t want people to talk,” stammered the boy. “I didn’t know what they would say.”

The cat made a dismissive gesture with its paw. “That was your decision. I don’t begrudge you making your own choices about your friends. Let me tell you something, though.” The cat stopped playing with the string and looked directly at the boy. The vertical slits of its eyes narrowed with the intensity of the point it was about to make. “If you had been my friend, you would not now be in this situation. You would have everything you deserve, and other men would respect you, even fear you. You would not be thinking of eating me and making a muff of my remains.”

“I am sorry,” the boy said, abashed. “What can I do to make amends?”

The cat looked at him quietly, with an expression that said the boy already knew all he needed to know. Understanding the meaning of the cat’s silence, the boy did what was necessary.

“Be my friend,” he said quietly, “Catfather.”

The cat immediately got up and rubbed its back against the boy’s leg. “That’s good,” it purred. “Everything will be fine. You must do as I tell you to do now. Stay here in your home until I come for you. When I come, do as I say. Soon you will be a man of respect. I will take care of everything. All you need to do is to give me a sack, and some boots for my feet.”

“That I can do, but how will you do what you say?” asked the disbelieving boy.

“Your neighbors will be happy to give to you what should be yours,” replied the cat.

“My neighbors? They had little use for me when they needed my father to mill their grain. They will have no need of me at all now. How will you get them to do as you say?”

The cat looked at the boy. Without smiling, his face took on a placid character that spoke volumes. “I’ll make them an offer they can’t refuse.”

“I have no doubt that you can and will do all that you say,” said the boy. “I have no means of my own. How will I ever repay you?”

The cat looked at him benignly and scratched at its mouth again before speaking. “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call on you to do me a service. Until then, consider this a gift on the day of your inheritance.”

The next day the cat went to the palace of the king. In the sack the boy had given to him he carried three fine game fowl he had caught along the way. When he met the king, he presented him with the fowl as gifts from his master, Don Catleone. He continued this for several days, each day bearing more exotic game birds until the king requested to meet the great Don Catleone in person.

“Soon,” the cat said without coyness. “My master will come to you in good time.”

Later that week the cat learned that the king would be riding with his daughter in the royal carriage. The princess was renowned throughout the land for her beauty and grace and young noblemen from all corners of the realm had come forward to pledge their troth.

The cat instructed the boy to bathe in the river near the castle at the time the royal party would be passing by. He didn’t tell his young master of the schedule, or of his plan. There was no need to, and there is never any need to tell anyone else what you are thinking if there is no need for them to know.

The cat hid in the bushes near his master’s swimming place until the royal party was near. He carefully crept down to the bank and removed the youth’s humble clothes and hid them under a rock where they would not be seen. The cat then ran for the road, shouting at the top of his lungs that his master, Don Catleone, was drowning.

When the king heard that the drowning man was the same Don Catleone who had paid him so many courtesies of late he ordered his guards to save him immediately. The cat led them to the proper place in the river, where the lad did make an effort to thrash about to help to sell the cat’s story. When the guards dragged him out of the river at last, his clothing was nowhere to be found. The cat told the guards that as he was running in response to his master’s cries of dismay, he saw two men running away with the clothes. He did not go after them, as his master’s safety was his primary concern.

When the king heard of this, he instructed a fast rider to be dispatched to the castle to obtain suitable garments for his honored guest, the great Don Catleone. While the youth and his cat waited in the bushes for the clothes to be brought, the cat instructed the young man in what was to be done. Nodding silently, the youth assented to the cat’s plan. His trust has been well placed to this point and he saw no need to do other.

The clothes finally arrived and the lad was dressed. Attired in finery designed for the king, he looked every bit the young nobleman the king and the princess had expected. The king immediately requested that Don Catleone join him and his daughter for the rest of their ride. The youth looked toward his cat for advice. The cat only nodded and said softly, “You go with them. I have some work to do first. I will come to you later, when the time is right.”

As his master climbed into the royal coach, the cat took a shortcut through the forest until he came to two farmers working in a field. They were both large men, with skin and hands that bespoke of years of toil in the sun and on the land.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” the cat said conversationally as he approached.

The two men paused in their labors to see what else a cat might have to say to them.

“Good afternoon, yourself,” said the larger of the two. His voice and attitude were of a man who would have little patience for any tomfoolery from a cat. “I see that you have time on your hands to roam the countryside and disturb good men in their work. What would you have so you can be off with yourself?”

The cat took no offense at the man’s rudeness. It was of no consequence and only served to display the man’s obvious ignorance of the situation in which he found himself.

“As you are clearly a busy man, I will get right to my business. I have no wish to waste your time.” The cat paused and pointed up the road back toward the palace. “In less than an hour’s time the royal coach will approach. The king will ask you whom this land belongs to. You will tell him that it belongs to my master, Don Catleone.”

“I will do no such thing!” said the farmer scornfully. “This is the land of the ogre who lives in yon castle. I’ll not attribute it to any other, as I have no desire to feel the wrath of the ogre. Now be gone with you before I call the dogs!”

The cat did not move. Instead, he weathered the farmer’s tirade with patience and sympathy. When the man had finished, he spoke quietly, much as he had to his master before.

“I take no offense. I understand that you speak from your heart and not from your head because you do not understand why I am here. I come here today to take nothing from you. I come here to ask you a small favor, a favor for which I will remain in your debt. You may find it better to have me in your debt than the other way around.”

“Is that a threat?” said the farmer as he began to approach the cat.

“I have made no threats to you today. Your friend can vouch for that,” the cat said, indicating the other farmer as he did so. That man had remained on the periphery of the conversation, uncertain as to where it would take him. “Life takes many turns. This one has brought us all to a point where we may be able to do each other a service.” He dropped his bag to the ground and gestured toward it with his head. “Take a look in the bag.”

The angry farmer opened the bag and looked quizzically into it. Finally he withdrew an old oaken bucket with a pair of farmer’s work overalls neatly folded inside.

“What’s this, a joke?” he fumed. “Why are Farmer Brown’s overalls in the old well bucket?”

The cat continued to look at him placidly. The other farmer’s reaction was much different. The color drained from his face as water runs through a sieve. He took a step backward from the cat and said to his friend in a small, airless voice, “Do what he says and do it now!”

“What’s wrong with you? Have you lost your mind?” the angry farmer demanded. “What’s the meaning of this?”

The cat said nothing, merely looked to the frightened farmer and smiled in his feline way. It was the farmer who spoke to his friend of the implications of what they had been shown.

“It’s an old cat custom. It means that Farmer Brown sleeps at the bottom of the well tonight.”

The angry farmer looked at his friend in shock, then turned his attention to the cat.

“That’s a nice big well,” the cat said in his smoothest and quietest voice. “Lots of room down there.”

After having reached an agreement with the farmers and receiving their assurances that they would pass the word to their neighbors in turn, the cat turned to the most important task of the day. Continuing down the path, he soon found himself in front of the castle of the great ogre. This ogre ruled the surrounding area with an iron hand and a flair for imaginative punishment. The cat requested entry.

The ogre was preparing for a great feast, which was being laid on as the cat rang for admittance. His festivities at hand, the ogre was in an expansive mood and welcomed a visit from the Catfather, as he had heard of him.

Since the great hall was being decorated for the feast, the ogre took the Catfather to a smaller, more private room. There they shared a drink and spoke of their respective interests. Finally it was time for the cat to take care of his business.

“I have heard from many respected sources that you have powers,” he said to the ogre. “It is said that you can change your shape into whatever you wish at any time. I am curious to see how this is done.”

The ogre smiled and before the cat could prepare himself changed instantly into a fierce lion. The Catfather was afraid at the closeness and apparent foul humor of the great beast, but did not betray his emotions, as your emotions are your enemy if you allow them to use you, but your friend if you can use them.

“Very impressive,” he said to the ogre-lion, sipping from his cup again. “I had no doubt that you could enlarge yourself. It would seem to me to be much more difficult to change your size to be smaller. I don’t see how you could do away with the extra mass.”

Just as quickly as he had changed into a lion, the ogre changed himself into a small field mouse. Even quicker than that was the cat’s motion as he snatched the mouse up in his jaws and ate it.

Having done the job on the ogre, the cat went to the great hall where the guests were already assembling. As soon as they understood that this was, indeed, the Catfather before them, they were easily persuaded to take their evening’s amusement elsewhere.

The Catfather reached the front of the castle just as the King’s coach arrived. His young master had done his job well. The King and his daughter were very taken with this enchanting and dashing young nobleman. That a man so young could accumulate such lands and a castle, and inspire the loyalty of such a diligent servant as this cat had greatly impressed the king. The princess was taken with the boy’s charming ways and handsome countenance. That a great feast had been so quickly prepared only served to seal their opinions of Don Catleone.

And so Don Catleone and the princess were married and lived happily ever after, their wealth and power assured for generations to come. As for the Catfather, he asked for nothing more than the proceeds from loan sharking and numbers, and the labor rackets as far as the western end of the docks.


Jan Morrison said...

lovely! Thank you.

Dana King said...

Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Stop by anytime.