Tailchaser’s Song: Excerpt

For I will consider my cat…
For at the first glance of the glory of God
in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven
times around with elegant quickness…
For having done duty and received blessing
he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see
if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon the stretch with
the fore-paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may
not be interrupted on the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food…
For when his day’s work is done his business
more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night
against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by
his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death,
by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun
and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel
Tiger…
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace
when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life
when in motion…
For God has blessed him in the variety of
his movements…

For he can tread to all the measures upon
the music…
–Christopher Smart

INTRODUCTION

In the Hour before time began, Meerclar Allmother came out of the darkness to the cold earth. She was black, and as furry as all the world come together to be fur. Meerclar banished the eternal night, and brought forth the Two.

Harar Goldeneye had eyes as hot and bright as the sun at the Hour of Smaller Shadows; he was the color of daytime, and courage, and dancing.

Fela Skydancer, his mate, was beautiful, like freedom, and clouds, and the song of travelers returned.

Goldeneye and Skydancer bore many children and raised them in the forest that covered the world at the beginnings of the Elder Days. Climbfast, Wolf-friend, Treesinger, and Brightnail, their young, were strong of tooth, sharp of eye, light of foot and straight and brave to their tail-ends.

But most strange and beautiful of all the countless children of Harar and Fela were the three Firstborn.

The eldest of the Firstborn was Viror Whitewind; he was the color of sunlight on snow, and full of swiftness…

The middle child was Grizraz Hearteater, as gray as shadows and full of strangeness…

Third-born was Tangaloor Firefoot. He was as black as Meerclar Allmother, but his paws were red like flame. He walked alone, and sang to himself.

There was rivalry among the Firstborn brothers. Whitewind was as fast and strong as a cat could dream of being — none could overmatch him at jumping and running. Firefoot was as clever as time; he solved all puzzles and riddles, and made songs that the Folk sang for generations.

Hearteater could not match his brothers’ exploits. He grew jealous, and began to plot the downfall of Whitewind and the humiliation of the Folk.

So it came to pass that Hearteater raised up a great beast against the Folk. Ptomalkum was its name, and it was the last spawn of the demon-hound Venris, whom Meerclar had destroyed in the Days of Fire. Ptomalkum, raised and nurtured with Hearteater’s hatred, slew many Folk before it was itself slain by the gallant Whitewind. But Viror Whitewind received such wounds that he soon wasted and died. Seeing the downfall of his schemes, Hearteater was afraid, and crept down a hole and disappeared into the secretive earth.

There was great lamentation in the Court of Harar at the death of Whitewind, the best-beloved.

Firefoot his brother fled the Court in heartache, renouncing his claim to the Mantle of Kingship, and wandered the world.

Fela Skydancer, Whitewind’s mother, was ever after silent, all her long life.

But Harar Goldeneye was so full of rage that he wept, and swore great oaths. He went howling into the wilderness, destroying all before him in his search for the traitorous Hearteater. Finally, unable to bear such great pain, he fled to the bosom of the Allmother in the sky. There he still lives, chasing the bright mouse of the sun across the heavens. Often he looks down to earth below, hoping to see Viror running once more beneath the trees of the World-Forest.

Countless seasons turned and the world grew older before Firefoot again met his treacherous brother Hearteater.

In the days of Prince Cleanwhisker, in the reign of Queen Morningstripe, Lord Tangaloor came to the assistance of the Ruhue, the owl-folk. A mysterious creature had been pillaging their nests, and had killed all the Ruhu hunters who had come against it.

Firefoot laid a trap, clawing away at a mighty tree until it was near cut through, then lay in wait for the marauder.

When the creature came that night, and Firefoot felled the tree, he was astonished to discover that beneath it he had trapped Grizraz Hearteater.

Hearteater begged Firefoot to free him, promising that he would share the ancient lore that he had discovered beneath the ground. Lord Tangaloor only laughed.

When the sun came up, Hearteater began to scream. He writhed and screeched so that Firefoot, although fearing a trick, liberated his suffering brother from beneath the pinioning tree.

Hearteater had been so long beneath the earth that the sun was blinding him. He clawed and rubbed at his steaming eyes, howling so piteously that Firefoot looked about for a way to protect him from the burning of the day-star. But when he turned away, the blinded Hearteater dug himself a tunnel, more swiftly than any badger or mole. By the time the startled Firefoot bounded over, Hearteater had disappeared back into the belly of the world.

It is told that he still lives there, hidden from the eyes of the Folk; that he works foul deeds underground, and aches to return to the World Above…

CHAPTER 1

…make no mistake
We are not shy
We’re very wide awake,
The moon and I!
–W. S. Gilbert

The Hour of Unfolding Dark had begun, and the rooftop where Tailchaser lay was smothered in shadow.

He was deep in a dream of leaping and flying when he felt an unusual tingling in his whiskers. Fritti Tailchaser, hunterchild of the Folk, came suddenly awake and sniffed the air. Ears pricked and whiskers flared straight, he sifted the evening breeze. Nothing unusual. Then what had awakened him? Pondering, he splayed his claws and began a spine-limbering stretch that finally ended at the tip of his reddish tail.

By the time he had finished grooming, the sense of danger was gone. Perhaps it had been a night bird passing overhead… or a dog in the field beneath… perhaps…

Perhaps I am becoming a kitten again, Fritti thought to himself, who bolts in fright from falling leaves.

The wind ruffled his newly groomed fur. Piqued, he leaped down from the roof into the tall grasses below. First he must attend to hunger. Later it would be time to go to the Meeting Wall.

Unfolding Dark was waning, and Tailchaser’s belly was still empty. His luck had not been dancing.

He had held motionless, patient watch at the entrance to a gopher hole. When an eternity of near-silent breathing had passed, and the inhabitant of the burrow had still not presented himself, Tailchaser had given up in frustration. After pawing in annoyance at the hole mouth he had gone in search of other game.

Luck had been completely absent. Even a moth had eluded his pouncing attack, to fly spiraling up into darkness.

If I can’t catch something soon, he worried, I shall have to go back and eat from the bowl that the Big Ones put out for me. Harar! What kind of hunter am I?

A faint wisp of scent brought Tailchaser to an abrupt halt. Absolutely motionless, all senses straining, he crouched and sniffed. It was a Squeaker — downwind, and very close.

He moved as delicately as a shadow, carefully picking his way through the undergrowth, then froze again. There!

A jump and a half before him sat the mre’az he had scented. It squatted, unaware of Tailchaser, and pushed seeds into its cheek-nose twitching nervously, eyes rapidly blinking.

Fritti lowered himself to the ground, his upraised tail lashing back and forth behind him. Hunkered, he drew himself up on his hind legs and poised for the strike — unmoving, muscles tensed. He leaped.

He had misjudged the distance. As he landed short, paws flailing, the Squeaker had just enough time to give a chirp of terror and then drop — floop! — into its hole.

Standing over the escape route, Fritti bit his own foot with embarrassment.

***

As Tailchaser licked the last scraps from the bowl, Thinbone bounded onto the porch. Thinbone was a wild tabby, gray-and-yellow patchwork, who lived in a culvert across the field. He was a little older than Fritti, and made much of it.

“Nre’fa-o, Tailchaser.” Thinbone leaned over and sharpened his claws lazily on a wooden pillar. “Looks like you’re being fed well tonight. Tell me, do the Big Ones make you do tricks for your supper? I’ve often wondered how it worked, you understand.” Fritti pretended to ignore him, and began cleaning his whiskers.

“I notice,” Thinbone continued, “that the Growlers seem to have some sort of arrangement: they carry things for the Big Ones, and leap around a great deal, and bark all night for their dinner. Is that what you do?” Thinbone stretched nonchalantly. “I’m just curious, you understand. Some night — oh, I admit it’s not likely — some night I might be unable to catch dinner, and it would be nice to have something to fall back on. Is barking very difficult?”

“Be quiet, Thinbone.” Fritti snarled, then gave a sneeze of laughter and leaped on his friend. They wrestled for a moment, then broke apart, batting at each other with their paws. Finally, tired out, they sat for a moment reordering their fur.

When they had rested, Thinbone sprang away from the porch and bounded into the darkness. Fritti put one last patch along his flank straight, then followed him.

The Hour of Deepest Quiet was just starting, and Meerclar’s Eye was high in the sky above, remote and unblinking.

The wind shivered the leaves on the trees as Tailchaser and Thinbone made their way across fields and over fences-pausing to listen to night sounds, then galloping across wet, glimmering lawns. As they came under the eaves of the Old Woods that flanked the dwellings of the Big Ones, they could smell the fresh scents of others of their kind.

Over the top of the rise and past a stand of massive oak trees lay the entrance to the canyon. Tailchaser thought happily to himself of the songs and stories that would be shared by the crumbling Meeting Wall. He thought also of Hushpad, whose slim gray form and arching, slender tail had been on his mind almost constantly of late. It was fine to be alive and of the Folk on Meeting Night.

Meerclar’s Eye cast a mother-of-pearl light on the clearing. Twenty-five or thirty cats were assembled at the base of the Wall — rubbing against each other in greeting, sniffing the nose of a new acquaintance. There was much mock fighting among the younger Folk.

Tailchaser and Thinbone were greeted by a gang of young hunters who stood casually about on the edge of the throng.

“Great you’re here!” cried Fleetpaw, a young fellow with thick black-and-white fur. “We’re just about to have a game of Hop-in-the-Air — until the elders arrive, that is.”

Thinbone jogged over to join, but Fritti lowered his head politely and moved toward the crowd to look for Hushpad. He could not locate her scent as he slid through the milling group of cats.

A pair of young felas, barely out of kittenhood, wrinkled their noses at him flirtatiously, then ran away, sneezing merriment. Ignoring them, he bowed his head respectfully as he passed Stretchslow. The older male, who lay majestically prone at the base of the Wall, dignified him with a lazy blink of his huge green eyes and a desultory ear-wiggle.

Still no Hushpad, thought Fritti. Where can she be? Nobody missed a Meeting Night if he could help it. Meetings were only on those nights when the Eye was completely open and at its brightest.

Perhaps she will come later, he thought. Or perhaps even now she was walking with Jumptall or Leaf-rustle-extending her tail languidly for them to admire….

The thought made him angry. He turned and cuffed a juvenile tom who had been prancing and capering at his heels. It was young Pouncequick, who gave him such a look of dismay that Fritti immediately felt sorry he had done it — the rambunctious kitten was often a nuisance, but well-meaning.

“I’m sorry, Pouncequick,” he said, “I didn’t know it was you. I thought it was old Stretchslow, and I was going to teach him a lesson.”

“Really?” gasped the young one. “You would have done that to him?” Fritti regretted his joke. Stretchslow would not find it very funny.

“Well, anyway,” he said, “it was a mistake, and I apologize.”

Pouncequick was charmed at being treated as an adult. “I certainly will accept your apology, Tailchaser.” he said gravely. “It was an understandable mistake.”

Fritti snorted. Giving the young cat a playful bite on the flank, he continued on his way.

***

Halfway through Deepest Quiet the Meeting was well under way, and Hushpad had still not made an appearance. While one of the Elders regaled the assembled multitude — now swollen to almost sixty — Tailchaser sought Thinbone, who was sitting with Fleetpaw and the others. The Elder was describing a large and potentially dangerous Growler who was running wild in the area, and Thinbone and the other hunters were listening intently as Fritti approached.

“Thinbone!” he hissed. “Will you come over and talk to me for a moment?” Thinbone yawned and stretched before ambling over to Fritti’s tree-root perch.

“What is it, then?” he inquired amiably. “Is it time for my barking lessons?”

“Please, Thinbone, no games. I can’t find Hushpad anywhere. Do you know where she is?”

Thinbone considered Tailchaser as the Elder droned on. “So,” he said. “I thought you seemed a little preoccupied. All this over a fela?”

“We were doing the Dance of Acceptance last night!” said Fritti, stung. “We didn’t have a chance to finish before the sun came up. We were going to finish tonight. I know she was going to accept me! What could have made her miss the Meeting?”

Copyright © 1985 by Tad Williams

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