Here’s a little fairy tale I wrote. The story is mentioned in Menyoral more than once, and I thought it was time I wrote it.
I hope you enjoy Cat-A-Cloak.
Once upon a time, so long ago that names sounded funny and Traders’ was hardly a language at all, there was a maiden. Her name was Eadburga—see? I told you they were funny—and she was real pretty. Her arms were strong from kneading the bread and running the house for her father the miller, and she had eyes as blue as the sky and hair that shone like thick sheaves of wheat, skin so fair and freckled she looked like a dish of sweet cream with cinnamon on top, but the prettiest thing about her was the kindness that beamed from her face and warmed everything around her.
The miller had an apprentice name of Jakab, and he was small and dark. His body was whipcord-lean and stronger than it looked, from his pushing the quern-stone all the day long, but he knew Eadburga would never love him. She brought him cool mint water every day, summer to winter and back again, and he’d stop for a moment, running with sweat, to drink it. He hated mint. But the water came, always, with kind words and gentle smiles, and his heart went to her a little more every day, even though she already had the whole thing. More and more he loved her, without any hope of return or prayer for anything other than mint water.
The young men from the village, and even some of the older ones, would pass the door to the mill all the time, on their way up to the house to see Eadburga. She never did step out with any of them, except for Aethelstan the farmer’s son. Aethelstan was big and strong, fair and handsome, the kind of person Jakab couldn’t be, with a warm laugh and a smile as kind and friendly as Eadburga’s. She belonged with Aethelstan and Jakab knew it, but he couldn’t help wanting all the same, and it hurt so much he felt like his breastbone would crack and split.
Jakab had one afternoon a week to himself, and he’d go into the village and spend some of his little pay on a new pair of stockings, or maybe a beef pasty. This week he went just the same, and he bought himself a cherry pocket pie, on account of it was near Longday and the cherries were plump and sour and delicious. He sat on the edge of the green, eating it slow, thinking of Eadburga’s shining braids, and licking every bit of honey from his fingers as he ate. The three roads in the village were all busy. It was market day and people came in from all ’round, walking with their baskets and carting their wares to sell in the village.
While he sat eating he happened to see an old lady on the other side of the road struggling by with all her shopping. Mother Sunngifu was her name, and she was real old for sure, so old that her little wizened body bent over deep. At first he thought about helping her and decided not to; she seemed okay and he didn’t want her to think that he thought she was too old to do for herself. But then, right when she was turning down the track to her little house, she stumbled in a pothole. All her weight lurched to the side, and she fell. Her packages scattered everywhere.
Nobody else noticed, but Jakab hurried over to her, dodging a cart. She might’ve gotten hurt when she fell—old people were like that sometimes—and now it wouldn’t shame her at all if he helped. He rescued an onion just before a horse stomped it flat, almost losing his hand in the process, but he earned a smile for it, missing teeth, but no less beautiful for it. “Are you okay, Mother Sunngifu?” he asked.
“I’m all right,” she said, waving him off when he tried to help her up. He gathered up her shopping, only a few things, because she lived alone at the edge of the village and besides that, had a little garden. When she’d gotten up, he offered his arm and carried her things, and they went up the track to her tiny cottage—slow, but it wasn’t like he had anything better to do. She was walking funny, and wincing, and eventually Jakab made her stop. He picked her up in his arms strong from pushing that quern-stone and carried her home.
Her cottage had the most beautiful flowers planted all around it, delphiniums and tulips and marigolds and peonies all bright in the sun and filling the air with fragrance. It wasn’t as neat as some of the gardens around, but it made the little hump of a wattle-and-daub house seem wonderful. “You must work hard on your garden,” he said, and she smiled again.
“Yes, but not as hard as I used to be able to.”
“I could weed it for you,” he offered, looking around at the shaggy grasses in among the flowers as he took her up to her door. He didn’t have to be back ’til dark, and that was a long time yet, especially long since it was almost Longday.
“Will you, lad?”
“Sure I will,” he said, and he put her shopping away before he went out to weed. After a little while she came out to watch him and talk to him, and stretched her old hurt leg in front of her into the sun. She told him stories from when she was a girl, all afternoon, and it didn’t seem the least bit long with that nearby. When he finished the Bright Lady had started to hide her face, and he knew he’d better get home, but she insisted he should come inside, just for a minute.
“Bring me that chest, if you please, young Jakab,” she said, when she’d gotten settled on her stool by the hearth, and he brought it to her. It was as wonderful as her garden, carved over with animals and birds. It locked with a little brass key, and she opened it up now, lifting the lid to show more than should’ve fit inside: tiny bottles blown of real glass in different colors, a big fat green gem, and a pile of clothes and shoes that, when she reached down into it, swallowed her whole arm, even though the chest wasn’t that deep. “I have a present for you,” said Mother Sunngifu.
“I don’t need a present,” he said. “I liked hearing your stories.”
She winked and told him, “That’s why I want to give you one. Here it is!” She pulled a long cloak out of the chest, pulled and pulled until she could lay it out, with a snap, over her legs. “What do you think?”
“Oh, Mother, that’s too much,” he said. It was dark, softly-shining fur, and even though it shed hair when she ran her knobbly hand over the surface, it looked way too impressive for a miller’s apprentice.
“Take it. I want you to have it. Promise me you’ll put it on after everyone’s gone to bed—then you’ll have an adventure.”
He took it, and thanked her, kissing her cheek that was all thin skin and wrinkles, and ran back to the mill. He wasn’t sure he wanted to have an adventure, but that night he tossed and turned on his pallet out in the mill shed, and finally his curiosity got the best of him and he draped the cloak over his shoulders. As soon as it settled, he heard a little pop and saw a glittery spray, and there in place of Jakab wearing the cloak—what do you think?—was a little cinnamon cat, small but strong.
Well, that was strange, but after he ran around for a little while, he got used to seeing and feeling like a cat and came to like it. And night after night he rambled all over the village and fields. He beat up some other cats, and he ate some mice, maybe a bird or two. After all, he was a cat. The part of him that was a man thought that was a little gross, but he didn’t mind too much, because his stomach stayed full even after he took off the cloak and changed back. It wasn’t like the miller starved him, but he was hungry all the time anyways—and after he put on the cloak that changed with his body.
One bright morning a few weeks after Mother Sunngifu had given him the cloak, Eadburga was in the mill shed with him, and he’d taken a break to swig mint water and pretend he liked it. She was telling him about a bird that, lately, had been singing in the tree outside the kitchen window, and how pretty its voice was. It had, she said, the smoothest shiny brown plumage, and she loved to hear and see it. And it happened to be Jakab’s free afternoon later that day. After she left, he thought how much he’d like to get that bird and give it to her for a pet.
As a man, he couldn’t do it, but as a cat—he could do it as a cat. And it also happened, when he ran down to Mother Sunngifu’s to see if she needed anything, that she wasn’t home. He ran all the way back to the mill and sneaked into the cloak to become the little cinnamon cat. Nobody was expecting to see Jakab the man, so he could run around as a cat no problem.
The bird sang in the tree, just like she’d said, a crooked tree just outside the kitchen window with its trunk branching off here, there, all over, and shaggy-looking green leaves. The window stood open, and Eadburga’s humming along with the sweet birdsong drifted through. Jakab bellied up the tree, claws here, claws there, quiet as he could climb.
He came onto the same branch with the bird, not so very high, and hid himself in those shaggy leaves. Beautiful Eadburga worked in swirling puffs of flour, almost to the elbows in bread dough, with her strong arms kneading, and even though he was a cat, Jakab sighed inside. What wouldn’t he give her, even with no hope but mint water?
He turned his eyes on the bird and watched, watched until there was nothing but the bird and the branch and the cat, and his body coiled back, tighter and tighter, so tight his tail twitched—until a split-heartbeat moment came, a moment he couldn’t miss, and he was on the bird in the same moment, struggling wings under his paws, feathers on his tongue. Midair tumbling, and he landed on top and bit, lickety-split, right on the spine. The bird went still, not dead but still, and it couldn’t breathe. After all, he was a cat.
Jakab backed away a cat-step, blood on his chops. He stared at the limp little bird; his cat-self wanted to eat it while its insides still quivered. He dabbed it with a forefoot, and just then Eadburga came storming out of the kitchen, shouting and sweeping at him with a twiggy broom. “Oh, you bad cat!” she yelled, and his man-self knew she cried, and he ran from the broom and her tears to cower at the base of the tree.
Eadburga went on her knees next to the bird and picked up its little body, and she looked so sad his conscience ran him right through. Jakab crept toward her, slow, and put his paw on her leg—oh! touching Eadburga!—to make her look at him with her blue-sky eyes, full of rain and clouds from her weeping.
He straightened and stretched, tall, taller than the cinnamon cat could be, and let the cloak fall off his shoulders. The cat fell away to reveal the man, and while Eadburga gaped, because if she spoke he would never get it all out, he said, “Eadburga, I’m so sorry. I only wanted to give you the bird for your very own, and maybe you could have kept it in your bedchamber, and it would’ve sung all the time to make you smile; but I killed it. I killed it, and I’m sorry, but all I want is for you to always smile.” And by the end his words all tumbled over each other and he ran away, frightened because he’d almost told her that he loved her with every corner of his heart; and he left the magic cloak behind.
Jakab ran back to the quern-stone, which he knew best, and where he had a place and a purpose. He threw himself into the work and cursed his own foolishness, cursed the cloak that had made him a cat, cursed everything. He even cursed the day, so long ago, that he had met Eadburga, that first day of his apprenticeship when he was a little, dark boy and she was a fair lovely girl beginning to bloom. From the first moment he had loved her, and he cursed that moment he’d seen her with her braids shining like wheat in the morning.
There he was, pushing around and around in circles, sweat running into his eyes and soaking his shirt, when in padded a white cat with pale orange stripes. It sat and watched him for a long time out of odd blue eyes, and at last it rose—straightened—and Eadburga let the shedding cloak slide from her body. “Jakab,” she said, “why did you think I wanted to put that bird in a cage?”
“I thought you’d want to hear it sing just for you,” he said, dull and miserable, and kept on pushing the quern-stone.
“But the bird didn’t belong to me,” she said. “It didn’t belong to anyone but itself. In the winter, it would leave anyway, or some other cat would’ve killed it—sometimes beautiful things are more beautiful because they don’t last.”
Jakab slowed to a stop, pulling back on the handle of the quern, and he looked at her. “Sometimes,” he said. “Only sometimes. Sometimes they stay. And they get more and more beautiful every time you look.”
She looked back at him like she’d never seen him before, and Jakab, shaking his head, turned back to his work; but before he could get the stone moving again she laid her hand on his arm, and a slow sweet smile worked onto her face. She caught him in her strong arms, up to the soft curves of her, and she kissed him until his toes curled. “Tonight, if you make yourself into a cat, I’ll be waiting,” she said.
He did, but he didn’t wear the Cat-A-Cloak for long. And if nine months later she had a litter of triplets, well, no bother about that. They lived happily ever after.