A Cat’s Tale

Short Story by Marvin Cheiten

A Cat’s Tale

I was born by the shore.  Or, rather, I was assembled by the shore.  The lady who put all my pieces together was an excellent doll maker, commissioned by an artist who knew exactly what he wanted: a toy cat for his son.  My fur and eyes and ears were all there, as well as my long, fluffy tail, but the artist wanted me to look like the captain of a 17th-century sailing ship, so I was given a most authentic Pilgrim’s costume that made me look very different from the other toys and much more distinguished.

The artist’s son had always been a sickly child.  His favorite toy was a long, well-built wooden sailing ship, but the ship needed a captain and that’s why I was called into existence.  I must say that I liked the boat: it was very spacious and floated very nicely in the shallow pond where the boy was permitted to play, but mainly I liked it because it was mine and I always felt the need to run things and order the other toys around.

One day I heard the little boy’s name when he was called: his name was John, and it transpired that he was but five years old.  That made him only a few years older than I, myself, so I felt we had a lot in common as we learned about the world.  And even though John had all kinds of games, because he was often sick and had little to do but play with them, he really took a liking to me and would carry me around the house, even setting up a place at the kitchen table so that I could join him and his mother and father for dinner.

At some point in our first few months together, John wanted to know my name.  He had always called me “The Captain,” right from the very start.  But because of my Pilgrim’s costume, John’s mother suggested calling me “Purritan.”  That was not historically accurate, as I later learned, but being a cat, I found it funny in a rather elegant way and it seemed right to all of us.  But John wasn’t completely satisfied and kept asking: “What is the Captain’s last name?”  Finally John’s artistic father shouted out, in a fit of inspiration: “How about LaFeline?”

Purritan LaFeline: it was purrfect!  And that was the name that would live with me from then on.

Nothing made me happier than when John would take me out to the pond, put me in my hearty sailing ship, and let me sail across the water, being moved only by the summer breezes.  Ah, the life of the sea — that was what we sailors loved!  As my First Mate, John would run over to the other side of the pond, waiting to pick me up when my valiant sea adventure was done.  Those were among the happiest days of my life.

But one day, as I was preparing to take charge of my vessel, a little girl appeared: she looked even thinner and paler than John, and he almost dropped me in the water, so happy was he to see her.  “Hello, Miriam,” he cried out.  “What ya doin’, Johnny?” she asked.  John picked me up and showed me off to her. “I’m here with my friend, Captain LaFeline,” he said.

He handed me to Miriam, who examined me from head to toe so thoroughly that I would have blushed if my brown fur had been able to blush.  “He’s cute,” Miriam said.  And she started pulling my tail.

I don’t need to tell you that I totally resented being called “cute” — a brave sea captain like me would never want to be called something so prissy.  And as for pulling my tail, I was half afraid that she would pull it off and then where would I be?

But she handled me so gently, and seemed so intrigued with me and my little boy, that I quickly became used to her and the three of us became fast friends.  “I want him to stay with me always,” John said, and his little friend seemed to understand and agreed that we were right for each other.

So, in the months that followed, John and Miriam would walk out to the pond together, carrying me and my boat, and as they put me in the water and watched me sail across the pond, I felt even happier because I now had two human friends to play with.  And one day Miriam, like the inspired lady that she was, asked a question that John and I had never thought of: “If your Captain’s ship is a pilgrims’ ship, then why don’t you call it the Mayflower?”

We had never named my ship before and, personally, I would have endorsed her idea, but John didn’t like it.  “I don’t like you naming my boat,” he said rather angrily.  But then he seemed to see Miriam’s point and came up with an answer that combined everything she wanted with a more manly title: “I’m gonna call it The Mighty Flyer!” he said proudly, and even though Miriam didn’t understand, I saw the manly strength in that name and I was very impressed with his choice.

There were many days during that summer when John and Miriam brought me and the boat out to the pond, and watched me sail away on the Mighty Flyer.  Sometimes they laughed, but sometimes they just sat on the bank and talked quietly.  Either way, I knew how happy they were to be with each other; and even though Miriam would often cough a lot and seemed very frail, the two of them were greatly pleased to be together.

Summer faded into fall, and fall began to show the chilly weather of winter.  I, of course, was never bothered by the cold: a brave sailor can always face the rigors of nature.  But Miriam began to feel very chilled and found it harder and harder to come out with her two friends.

And one day in late November, John came out alone, and he commented to me that Miriam wasn’t feeling well.  We both thought that her condition would surely improve, but a few days later I heard John’s mother say that Miriam had been taken to the hospital, and that she had something called pneumonia.  For a while John just sat on the bank of the pond and looked down at me.  I tried to look brave and to be encouraging to him, but of course my expression never really changed and John had always seen in me whatever it was that he was feeling. It was getting cold, so John brought me inside, and I had the awful feeling that I would not be sailing again for a long time.

For the next week John almost didn’t touch me, and almost every day he would ask his mother: “Will she be back soon?”  And John’s mother said “yes” in a very halting way, but I could hear how uncertain she was.  And during the second week, John and his mother and father returned from the hospital and John was crying and almost screaming: “Couldn’t they do anything?  Couldn’t they do anything at all?”  And John’s mother said, in a very sweet voice: ”I’m sure they did the best they could.”  But John’s father said, rather bitterly: “They didn’t use the right medicine.  Those damn doctors: they could only use the medicine in her parents’ plan, not the right medicine.”

John picked me up and hugged me very tight; and though he didn’t say a word, I knew that we had lost our little friend forever.

Through most of the winter John stayed inside and didn’t do much of anything; but once, when there was snow on the ground, John put me in the boat and tried to set our boat down on a large pile of fluffy snow.  The boat immediately sank into the snow and I looked around desperately for a lifeboat, but John rescued me and the boat and immediately took us indoors.  That was the day when he started to recover from his grief, and he once again began to carry me with him to dinner or whenever he played checkers in front of the fireplace.  I was happy to be as supportive of him as I could be, and gradually we made it through the winter together.

I couldn’t wait till it was spring and the snow and ice were gone, and John was once again able to take me and my trusty boat to the pond.  John felt a new burst of happiness and I did too, and we started to play outside again, even though we were both a bit more somber without Miriam.  But our pleasures lasted through the spring and summer until one day John’s mother came in and said: “Come on, dear, we’ve got to get you ready for school.”

I had no idea what that meant, and I thought that perhaps this “kindergarten” thing was just someplace to visit, like the hospital where Miriam had been.  But when I next saw John, he was dressed in a very formal, blue-and-white outfit, and it looked like he was going to enter service as an able-bodied seaman and perhaps be away for a long while.  But when the time came the next morning to go to school, John held me very close and said: “I’ll be back this afternoon, Purritan.  And we’ll be together again.”  That very much relieved me, and I must confess that in his uniform, my First Mate looked very dashing and I was very proud of him.

Naturally, I always hoped that John would take me with him to this school place, but he never did.  But he did keep his word and came home every night, though sometimes very late, and I even began to wonder if, like a good sailor, he had found a new lady friend to replace Miriam — and I promise you that I was not jealous, even though we almost never went down to the pond any longer.

But winter was coming on.  I hated that season because of what had happened to Miriam; and sure enough, one night John came home and he was coughing and coughing, and his mother said to his father: “There’s that flu virus going around his school.”  But John insisted that he wanted to go out at night even though it was very cold and despite the urgings of his mother.  I would also have urged him to stay home, but I did admire his courage and I thought that maybe he could now show how strong and un-fragile he was.

But several days later his illness grew worse.  His mother took his temperature and said in a very worried voice that it was 102, so she rushed him to the very hospital where Miriam had been.  I was really scared, but before they left, John asked his parents to take me with him but they refused.  I thought to myself: “John and I belong together. He’s my First Mate and he promised we would always be together.  He needs me!”

The house was very cold and dark that night, and I was all alone and very worried about what might happen to my brave little friend; but eventually his parents came home and they were talking to each other about how sure the doctor was that John would recover.  And so, I was finally able to get a few hours of rest.

But John didn’t recover; he didn’t leave the hospital; and his parents received a phone call from the doctor saying that John’s flu had become pneumonia — a much more serious disease and the one that had taken Miriam.  John’s parents were absolutely beside themselves, not knowing what to do, but as they left for the hospital that evening, John’s mother said, very compassionately: “John always wanted to have his doll with him.  You know, the cat, the one that you got for him.” John’s father just didn’t see the point, but his mother insisted: “Let’s take his favorite toy and his boat. They might … encourage him.”  John’s father finally relented, so they grabbed me and the Mighty Flyer and we went off to the hospital together.

The trip was very bumpy because of the ice and snow and John’s parents handled me rather carelessly, but it didn’t matter: I was going to save my dear friend no matter what.

When I saw first John at the hospital, I would have cried if I could have cried: he was so sick and feverish, and his eyes were so red that he could barely see me, but nonetheless he reached out to me and his mother placed me beside him on the bed.  John’s mother said that she knew the nurse wouldn’t want her to put anything in bed with him, but she insisted that John wanted me there and she cleverly pulled the cover over both of us.

There I stayed, as close to John as he could have wanted.  His condition became worse and worse that night, and the doctor said that he was in something that he called a coma; but I was the last thing he saw before he entered into that deep sleep, and I truly believe that he knew that I was there with him and that he dreamt that one day we would sail away together to a much better place.

At the end of that night, John was completely still and the nurse came into the room and said, very softly: “I’d better call his parents.” It was only then that she pulled down the cover and found me, and she immediately pulled me out and put me on John’s night table.  I don’t have to tell you that I could not have felt more bereft and more alone, and I knew that I would never again go out to the pond with John and that my life, such as it had been, would now end.  My only wish was that I could stay with him.

But in an act of love, one that my dear little friend would surely have admired, when John’s mother arrived and said farewell to her son, she ordered the men who removed John to take me with him.  And she said, tearfully: “My son always said that he and the Captain should be together forever.”

I honestly do not know where John and I will go next.  I heard them speak about something called a burial plot.  I do not know where that is or what it is, but a good Captain never, ever abandons his First Mate; and though we may have left our beloved boat behind, I know that John and I will still be going on a long, great journey together — and that is all that matters.

About the Author

Marvin Cheiten

Marvin Harold Cheiten, a Princeton alum, spent many of his days in college writing plays, short stories, and poetry. Ten of his plays had their premieres at Princeton's Hamilton Murray theater. "A Cat's Tale" is the essence of a one-act opera being created by librettist Cheiten and composer Michael Gilbertson.