IT BEGAN WITH AN ALMOST automatic kindness, and led to an inevitable but gracious end.
Prosatio Silban was tidying up after a somewhat slow morning when he first heard the mewing. His galleywagon was parked in the marketplace at Rathlu, the centermost of the Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell. He was standing at the sink; one by one the beefy cook selected plates, bowls and cutlery from a small pile of dirty dishes; passed them through a large, teak-mounted voonith-bone hoop; and stacked the now-clean ones on the adjacent counter. I almost feel guilty using magik instead of water, he thought, seeing how there are so few of these. Still, it’s a relaxing noonday ritual.
He cocked an ear at the open half-door. Rathlu was known for its robust feline population, and the cats he had seen that day were magnificent specimens of their secretive race: cats large and small, black, grey, striped, yellow, and white, all sleek with loving care and lavish feeding. His favorites were the tiger-stripeds, and when he opened the door’s lower half, a smile lit his face. Before him sat an ancient grey-and-brown tabby, looking up at him with one golden eye; the other was a filmed-over blue.
“By Hartiz, Protectress of Companion Beasts!” Prosatio Silban exclaimed. “What has happened to your eye?”
“Wouldn’t you instead prefer a saucer of rich cream?”
The cat coughed politely. “Some accidents cannot be avoided,” it said in a pleasant tenor. “But I can see well enough to keep the mice in line. To the point of my visit, though: do you have any fish to spare?”
The cook opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “Wouldn’t you instead prefer a saucer of rich cream?”
The cat shook its head. “That is a common misconception,” it said. “Cream is indeed tasty, but bad for the digestion. We would like to educate you two-leggeds on that admittedly generous but misguided impulse. Some fish will do instead; either fresh or tinned, please.”
“I have nothing fresh, but let me check my pantry. Won’t you come in?”
“Gladly.” So saying, the cat stood up, extending an inquisitive paw to the doorstep. Satisfied, it sauntered over to the galleywagon’s ornate braided rug, where it sat down and began kneading the soft fibers with its forepaws before fixing an expectant look on the bemused cook.
“Excuse me,” Prosatio Silban said. He dug into the capacious pantry across from the sink, searching here, rummaging there, and emerged holding a modest tin of snap-mackerel.
“This was put up by the Azonei fisherfolk,” he said with a triumphant smile. “Their methods are a mystery to me, but their tinned fish does taste better than fresh – and even better as it ages. Would you prefer a plate, or a bowl?”
“A plate, please,” said the cat. “Bowls crowd my whiskers.”
The cook selected a clean plate from the pile on the counter. Soon, the aroma of oil-preserved fish filled the galleywagon as he placed the laden plate on the rug and stepped back a pace.
“Thank you,” said the cat, and set to work. When the fish was gone, it leisurely licked first its right paw, then the left, preening its mouth in between. Curling up on the rug, it gazed at the cook with its good eye.
“How is it that you are able to talk?” asked Prosatio Silban.
“All cats can talk,” replied his visitor. “But not all two-leggeds can listen.”
“All cats can talk,” replied his visitor. “But not all two-leggeds can listen. It takes a special gift to hear our subtle and largely silent language, and you seem to be one who has it.”
“I am very fond of…of ‘four-leggeds,’” the cook said with a smile. “They have a certain charm that many two-leggeds lack, but which I find irresistible. Is Rathlu your home?”
“It is now,” said the cat. “I led a strange and wonderful life before settling here. The locals are gentle and generous, and my feline colleagues always have much to say about their kindness – in contrast to the world’s in general. It is a fine place to live out one’s sundown years.”
The cat yawned before replying. “Yes. We cats know when we are going to leave this, the most interesting of all possible worlds, and take great care in choosing our exit-place. This is why I have come to you.”
A cold knot formed in Prosatio Silban’s vitals. “To me?”
“Yes. You are not a resident of Rathlu, but you do exhibit the marks of one who is. You are also spoken of very highly by my feline colleagues, for your compassion as well as for your discretion. The former quality is greatly valued in cat society – when one is both predator and prey, one takes such things seriously – and the latter is essential to sophisticates of any species. It would be an honor to take leave of the world in your company.”
“But…” the cook faltered for words. “But I do not wish to take leave of your company. We have just met, after all, and I was hoping to extend our brief acquaintance into a friendship. I pass through here so rarely that it would be a benevolence to visit with someone dear when I do.”
“I understand your reluctance. I have no eager wish to die either. But such matters are as out of my paws as anyone’s. It is now my time, and Hartiz – and the goddess you call ‘The All-Mother’ – has allowed me my choice of place. Should I pick Rathlu’s deep surrounding forest, passing there both unseen and unmourned?”
“I suppose not.”
Finally, there came a time when he could say little more.
“Well. I hope you see the great favor you are doing me.”
“And I hope you see the great pain you are giving me.”
“It cannot be helped. Come sit next to me on the rug, and I will impart such secrets of my race as I still can…”
That is how, over the course of a quiet afternoon, Prosatio Silban became wise in cat-lore and legend. He learned why it is that they sometimes dash about the house in search of nothing humanly visible; why they feel the need to play with their (living) food; why their reflexes often result in clothing-tangled claws; why they do this; why they do that; and most precious of all mysteries, why they purr so contentedly. As the afternoon faded into dusk, the cat spoke more and more slowly, his tenor waning to a whisper, his eyes half-closing in ostensible slumber.
Finally, there came a time when he could say little more. “Do you understand all that I have told you?” he asked, barely hearable.
“Yes,” replied Prosatio Silban, suppressing a tear. “But please – please. Don’t die. I still have much to learn from you.”
But his words fell on unhearing ears as, with one final soft purr, the cat exhaled its spirit. The cook closed his own eyes, bowed his head, and gave vent to a heartfelt sob.
And to this day, if you look very carefully in the forest surrounding Rathlu, you may see at the foot of an ancient grey-and-brown oak a tiny grave-mound marked by a simple plank of wood inscribed, “To my unknown teacher: Thank you. P.S.” It is said that no autumn-felled leaf can obscure it.