As we’re buzzing towards Christmas – my second with Mum, Dad and the disapproving Tammy – the nights are once again long, wet and cold, driving me indoors for long periods of dozing on the sofa.
As I snoozed there the other day, my thoughts drifted back to a story Tammy told me last year. You may recall she never stopped talking to me of the legendary Tigger, the love of her life, who travelled with our family across several continents and asserted himself against all kinds of scary creatures, even including dogs, and therefore had many exciting stories to tell? Well, I had to listen to endless tails (sic. ed) of his adventures during those long winter nights, until I felt quite useless and inferior (thank goodness for the arrival of spring, when I was able to regain my equilibrium in the Great Outdoors...). Yet that one story sticks stubbornly in my mind, whether I like it or not, and I thought I’d buzz it to you today, exactly as Tammy told me she’d heard it from Tigger. If this delivery across three cats’ mouths, as it were, leads to slight modifications of the actual events – humans call this Chinese whispers, I believe – then please forgive me. It’s near enough true. Here goes:
“It happened while I was travelling in Darkest Peru. Mum and Dad had gone off for the day to look at some ancient stone walls, leaving me to explore the cloud forest around our hotel by myself – always my preferred way to explore. I had heard about bears living in those forests; bears who liked marmalade sandwiches (of which I’m also quite fond) and travelled long-haul (like myself). One of them, apparently, had journeyed all the way to England, where he became the hero of a story book Mum used to read to us when the children were small.
But I digress... I was hoping to find such a bear and perhaps to share his sandwich when, to my utter surprise, in between the giant lianas, tree ferns, mosses and lush green undergrowth, I came instead face to face with a very large, grey feline grinning from ear to ear (no, not the Cheshire Cat). I introduced myself politely and asked whether she’d seen any bears. She took a while to reply, in a hoarse whisper, that she hadn’t. The grin remained stuck firmly on her face as she spoke through her teeth without moving her mouth. It was all very strange. I asked whether she was perhaps in pain or had caught a cold, but she shook her head – or rather, she swayed her whole body from side to side, as though her head couldn’t move by itself – and told me she hadn’t spoken to anyone for hundreds of years, so her vocal cords and facial muscles were no longer used to exercise.
You can imagine how stunned I was. Hundreds of years? I swallowed and took a closer look at her – the grey coat, the sturdy legs, the stumpy tail that looked as though it had broken off – and suddenly I realized that she was, in fact, made of stone! You could have knocked me over with a feather at that point, but fortunately nobody did. So I just cleared my throat and continued to quiz her.
It turned out that her name was Sach’a-sach’apuma, and that her birth went back to a time when cats still retained their proper status as gods and goddesses, who were revered on account of their dexterity, cunning and hunting skills. Sach’a-sach’apuma was in fact the goddess of the productive land, the Mother Earth, and had laid the foundations to a great city, which was designed in her shape – the shape of a wild cat. She ensured peace and prosperity in the city, the fertility of the land around it, and saw to it that neither animals nor humans ever went hungry. In this she was ably assisted by her fellow felines, as the dominant race. Together they carried the heavy responsibility for the welfare of all other species on their muscular shoulders. This was no easy task, given the variety of living beings under their care, and many of the senior cats were worn out by all the worry and stress of it at an early age. Even the fact that they enjoyed great privileges, had the finest beds and ate the choicest cuts of meat and fish every day did not make their task much easier. It wasn’t unusual to see cats suffer nervous breakdowns.
Nevertheless, they were kind and generous to lesser species. Even humans, naturally at the very bottom of the hierarchy due to their hair-, feather- and scalelessness and their simplicity of mind, but who nevertheless made themselves quite useful in the city in all kinds of small ways, were well looked after. They often received leftovers from the cats’ table as a special treat, a change from their usual diet of potatoes and sweetcorn, or a friendly purr from a passing feline. All the species lived together harmoniously, everyone knew their place, and all was well thanks to Sach’a-sach’apuma and her selfless feline court.
Once a year, at the height of summer towards the end of the month of December when the Sun, a fellow god, graced the sky for the longest time, Sach’a-sach’apuma gave a special audience during which she deigned to look into the future and to answer questions from any subject who wanted a glimpse of what was to come. This was called an Oracle Session, and even though Sach’a-sach’apuma’s answers were known to be vague and on the tricky side (this mainly for linguistic reasons: gods in those days spoke Spanish, while lesser species communicated in their own native languages), the event was immensely popular and drew large crowds. Humans in particular were well represented.
Sach’a-sach’apuma’s wise eyes had foreseen many events and changes. She had predicted unusual weather patterns (but seemed to blame human children for them, in Spanish, which had had nasty consequences for some), had suggested the use of llamas’ wool for keeping the hairless humans warmer in winter (although listeners had overlooked the fact that the Spanish word llama could also mean flame, which had led to the unfortunate discovery of fire and a whole lot of bother), and had guessed correctly that a sequence of bamboo tubes of varying lengths, firmly tied together, could produce a haunting sound when specially trained humans were made to blow into them. Bamboo being near enough the same word in all languages, this invention worked wonders for the entertainment of cats at dinner time. So far, so (nearly always) good.
One year during the Oracle Session, a human lifted his paw and Sach’a-sach’apuma graciously gave him the word.
“Permit me, Wise Mother of the Earth and All Who Dwell There, to make a suggestion that would relieve some of the extreme burden you and your court have borne for so long.”
Sach’a-sach’apuma was intrigued, as were the elder felines who sat around her in the usual whisker-shaped semi-circle.
“How might this come about?” she asked.
“Mother,” the human continued, humbly lowering his eyes, “as you surely know in your great wisdom, my race has the potential to work so much harder than we currently do. We’ve had a fairly easy existence until now, and we’re ready for a challenge. Let us do the worrying, caring and planning as well as the cleaning, cooking, building, hunting and planting. We will exert ourselves day and night to ensure your comfort and pleasure, we will see to your every need and to that of all felines in this world. We will not disappoint you.”
Sach’a-sach’apuma and the feline elders looked at each other, and a wide smile spread across their faces.
“And what would you expect,” asked Sach’a-sach’apuma after a minute of reflection and consultation with her elders, “in return?”
“Just one thing,” answered the human with his hand on his heart, “as much meat and fish for our dinner as we would like.”
Sach’a-sach’apuma and her feline elders leaned their heads together in regal fashion and whispered among each other for a while. Then Sach’a-sach’apuma drew herself up to her full height, which was impressive, and made the following announcement:
“The Oracle foresees that humans will be raised to the position of Provider, that is to say planner and executor of all the work required to keep everyone fed and happy in this city and beyond, with particular regard to the feline species. Since humans are few and the power of their minds is limited, they will be entitled to ask other species to help them in their tasks – all except felines, of course, who will continue to enjoy the privileged status of Royal Rulers – though I foresee a time when they may no longer be regarded as gods by the misguided. Now go hence and take action; the Oracle Session is over.”
With that, the human race started working as hard as they could. They toiled from morning till night, and after nightfall held consultation sessions where they listened to complaints and grievances by all who had any – and there were many. They provided food, drink, shelter and entertainment for the benefit of all, and especially to the royal feline species. Soon they were so overworked that they had to ask other species for help, but as so often happens in the world, some turned out to be more useful and willing than others.
Felines, meanwhile, lived a life of unaccustomed ease. They slept in until late, congregated during the day in patches of sunlight to groom each other and tell stories, dined better than ever to the music of the bamboo flutes (played by hollow-eyed humans who had to be poked regularly so as not to drop off to sleep). Sach’a-sach’apuma herself was presented, as a gesture of appreciation, with a luxurious conveyance with the initials of Royal Ruler, RR, resplendent in solid gold on its front. Her smile was now wider than ever, and permanent.
After a while, it was clear that the humans were doing so well that the feline rulers were able to take their eyes off things altogether and do what they liked best: sleep in solitude in their favourite places. Sach’a-sach’apuma’s favourite place was the forest. And so she walked off one day, tail held high, into the cloud forests of Darkest Peru and there went to sleep, grinning all the while, until I inadvertently woke her up.
But her wakefulness didn’t last long. As soon as she had finished telling me her story and I had assured her that things were still going according to plan in the world out there for most of the time, she closed her eyes and began to purr deeply, still grinning. She had gone back to sleep. I was sorry about that, because I had been meaning to clarify further why things weren’t going to plan all the time. The astute reader will of course have noticed that Sach’a-sach’apuma in her Oracle speech omitted peace andgoodwill in her list of requirements, and consequently the human race, simple-minded as it was, forgot to maintain both. A number of undignified scuffles resulted from this omission that would perhaps have benefited from the return of the feline ruling race. But I could not rouse her again. She was off for another hundred years or so.
Fortunately, there is one time of the year – when the Sun God shines for the longest time in Darkest Peru and in all other countries of the Southern Hemisphere – when everyone at least tries to remember peace and goodwill for a little while. Better than nothing, isn’t it?”
So that was Tigger’s story, and wow, did it make me think! I won’t pretend I didn’t nod off once or twice while thinking about it (a bit like Sach’a-sach’apuma herself!), but ponder I did, and perhaps you will, too. I wish you a wonderful Christmas season, even if, like me, you live in a country where Christmas brings short days, long nights and very few visits by the Sun God!
* Sach’a-sach’apuma means forest cat in Quechua, the main native language of Peru
** As a result of Tigger’s discovery and subsequent research, Sach’a-sach’apuma was removed from her Peruvian forest bed to a stately crystal dome in the nation’s capital, Lima, where she can now be admired and worshipped by visitors to her country, as befits a Royal Ruler and a goddess. She is still asleep.