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The Tale of the Cat that Became a Man

Long ago there lived a wild forest cat who was the sleekest, fastest, and bravest of its kind. It had been triumphant in battles against the most fearsome beasts of the forest: bears and elk and charging moose. But it was said to have an uncanny intelligence and a look to the eyes that was almost human. Those who had seen it claimed that the wild cat would leap straight through a bonfire or dive into a river’s raging water to get at its prey, unlike any other wild cat known.

Legends grew up around the cat, who was known by the striped fur around its eyes, and humans sought to prove their prowess against it. But no matter how often it was hunted, the wild cat was never caught. Arrows were not fast enough and swords slid past it. The wild cat could even chew the round circles of metal from traps off of his legs. Those who rode against the legendary wild cat did not return—or returned very different men than when they had gone out.

One day, a young student of magic who had heard about this formidable wild cat decided to go into the forest to see if even half of the stories he had heard were true. He found its trail and followed it. Then with his own eyes, he saw the wild cat kill two deer in one leaping attack and defend itself against a pack of hounds that came against it, in an attempt to take its prey away. Two of the hounds were dead in the few moments it took for the rest of them to decide to retreat, and many more were injured in the battle.

But still the student watched and waited, for this only showed the cat was strong and brutal and he wanted to see if there was more.

He watched the cat carry the carcasses off with him, one after the other, to his lair. And then a strange thing happened. It was late that evening, just as the student was ready to give up that he heard a soft, wobbling sound of music coming from the place where the wild cat had gone.

Had the creature been injured?

No. It was music, of a sort.

But how?

The student followed the sound until he had reached a small cave hidden behind a waterfall. He climbed to the entrance, then poked his head inside, to see that the sound came from the wild cat playing a flute made out of the bones of one of the deer it had so recently killed. The bone had been hollowed out and the young man of magic could see strewn on the floor of the cave other similar flutes, perhaps of different tones, and even one lyre that had been made by the wild cat with strings from the intestines of another animal.

The student could hardly believe his eyes. A cat that could play an instrument stolen from a human was an amusing story. But a cat who would make the instrument, as well? That was extraordinary indeed!

And he saw in this wild cat his chance to prove himself at last to the masters of magic who still saw him as a child in his magic, still in need of supervision and assistance.

The masters taught that it is the connection between all living things that enables the use of magic. A man learns to speak with the tongue of an animal because there is commonality in all language and all creatures, if he is willing to see it. Indeed, the more one’s understanding and respect for the life of other creatures, the greater one’s magic.

It was this understanding and respect that the masters claimed that the student was lacking, and so had forbidden him the final test of his magic which would allow him to go out into the world and seek his own students. Angry, the student had determined that he would show his superior magic on the wild cat, and prove himself beyond any doubt.

He gave the wild cat no chance to say no and no warning. He spread forth his hands and let the heat of magic grow between them as the wild cat stood mesmerized. Then the student let go of his magic and let it flow into the wild cat. The wild cat made one strangled yelp before the magic overcame it, and then it felt itself begin to change in horrifying ways.

Slowly, one paw at a time, then a nose and an ear and a haunch—the wild cat was transformed into a man.

He had tawny hair that echoed his tawny fur and a striped face, especially around the eyes, that harked back to the striped fur that had made him distinct from all other wild cats. His eyes were dark and shining, his legs strong and muscular, and he stood with all the grace that only a wild cat can stand.

The young man of magic, flushed with the success of his experiment, expected the new cat-man to be pleased with its transformation. He offered a set of his own nobleman’s clothing: jacket, lace-trimmed blouse, leggings, boots. And last of all, the cat-man was given a large purse of gold coins to help him on his way.

“There is a town some miles south, past the edge of the forest,” the young man of magic expained in the language of the wild cats. “I am sure you will find all you need for comfort there. Use your coin and live happily for the rest of your life.”

He nodded to the cat-man and told himself that soon the wild cat would learn to speak as humans did and use human magic, as well. Pleased with himself and eager to tell his teachers what he had done with his magic, the student went on his way, sure of a great future in magic.

But though the wild cat had been very sleek and fast, the cat-man found the journey to the town outside the forest painful and slow. Boots on the feet, even protected by stockings, rubbed wrong and left blisters that the wild cat had only experienced once before, crossing a hot stone on a summer’s day. Now it seemed that the burning had crept all the way up his legs.

Yet he could not remain in the forest, for a man’s hands were too soft for the kill and a man’s teeth could not tear and rend flesh. He could no longer speak the language of the wild cats, for he no longer had the right shape to his tongue, teeth, and mouth. He tried to make the same sounds, but they came out tuneless and wrong.

He had no choice but to leave the cave he had made into a home and the forest where he had felt himself the most magnificent of all animals. All this, he thought indignantly, to prove the great magic of one young man!

At last the cat-man arrived at the inn he had been directed to. Here, once he showed his coin, he was cared for, despite his lack of speech. He was given food and drink, as much as he wished. A warm bed, soft blankets, and even music far more beautiful than he had ever produced himself.

He stopped longing for the forest and the life that had been his. He simply enjoyed each moment, for that is the way that a cat is, and every animal. Men might think of the future or the past, but for animals, there is only this moment, and then the next one.

But it was not long before the supply of gold coin which the student of magic had given the cat-man and intended him to use for the rest of his life was gone. The cat-man had been cheated over and over again, for he did not understand the value of coin and could not hope to learn it, without words as he was.

Evicted from the inn, he was thrown into the streets of the town and began to live as a beggar and a thief. He attacked passersby without compunction, combining a man’s clever hands with a cat’s vicious speed, and soon he was proud of as many killed in the town as in the forest.

So it was that the student, in returning to the town with his masters in his carriage, showed the proof of his magic, but not in the way that he had expected.

The cat-man leaped at the carriage with all aboard and threatened with crude words the life of any who refused him. The young man trembled as he recognized the animal that he had transformed into a man without either respect for what had been nor understanding for what he would become.

He tried to pretend that he knew nothing of the creature, that his test of magic was still to be found along the journey. He trembled as he gave the cat-man all that he owned, and the masters did the same.

But the tawny eyes and stripes gave the cat-man’s true nature away. The masters refused to offer any recognition of magic to the young man, and told him that he would never be their student again, for he had shown himself that day to be not only foolish, but greedy and unsuited for the deepest magics.

In anger, the young man turned on the fleeing cat-man and caught his legs with magic. They changed back into their animal form, though he left the rest of the cat-man as he was.

“What has become of you? How can you have done this with the great gift that I offered you?” he complained, for he was bitterly disappointed at the result of his grand experiment.

The cat-man spat and bit and scratched, but could not answer in any language.

The student stared at the cat-man and saw in him the cause of his failure.

He lifted his hands and gathered his magic. “I will turn you back into a cat!” he threatened.

The cat-man stared into the eyes of the young man and there was pleading in them. He wished only to be returned to what he truly was. He had never asked to be more than a wild cat, and he, too, was disappointed to discover that he could not be a man like other men.

But the student man lowered his hands when he saw that this was what the cat-man wished for. There would be no satisfaction in this revenge. He must think of another.

So instead, the student bound the cat-man with ropes and took him home. For many years they lived together as the man became known for one who never used magic and showed kindness to all, except for the strange servant he kept chained at his side, who did not speak nor age, and seemed to have the look of a cat about his face.

At last, the man was found dead, in his own chambers. The chains which he had used to keep his servant tethered to him had been broken, and of the servant himself there was no sign. But the man had been old, and there was no reason to suspect that there was anything to fear in the poor servant.

If some saw the strange servant roaming the forests and beyond, they said nothing of it. Nor did they connect the change in the forest itself, or in the other animals that lived within it, to the servant who had once been a cat-man.

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Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2008 all rights reserved.
Last revised January 31, 2008.