“We’re fascinated by cats, aren’t we? Cats on the internet. Pictures, videos, memes. Cats in our homes. Ancient civilizations shaped statues of cats out of gold, ebony, and bronze. They have been associated with magic, with evil. They sometimes seem aloof and uncaring. Sometimes charming and playful. Sexy. Dangerous. Mysterious.”
The man in the cerulean blue suit at the front of the lecture hall paused. “Cats.”
The students in the lecture hall seemed to wonder if the blue-suited guest speaker and his presentation would provide any real insight or help into the mystery of cats. They likely expected that the speaker would go over some of the common myths, the nine lives, stealing breath, et cetera. Still, if there was a guest speaker, a field agent no less, he must have had something more to say than what was in the class texts, or even the basic field manuals.
Of course there was more to cats than the average person knew. Just like there was more to any particular thing—animals, plants, tools, structures— that comprised the known world. Usually not knowing what that “more” was didn’t make any difference to daily life. Sometimes it did. Sometimes ignorance could lead to not knowing how to defend oneself from something one did not believe existed but did in fact exist.
Myth and legend had a practical application. The students in this particular class were being trained to investigate, research, and even affect extraordinary things hidden within and around the fringes of ordinary life.
“Maybe I can tell you a story about cats that you haven’t heard yet,” the speaker said. “Unlikely, but maybe. It’s an old story. But one that’s still relevant today. I’d like to illustrate that by starting with a case I was recently on.”
The speaker signaled for the first slide of his presentation to be displayed, and some of the students scooted up in their seats. A gentle chuckle rippled through the hall. The first slide was a picture of a black-and-white cat with vivid blue eyes.
Sure enough, the speaker’s story began with the cat in the role of the villain. The concept presented was one that everyone in the hall was familiar with, a concept that arouse from suspicion and misunderstanding. Cats, it was said, could steal the breath, even the very soul, of a human.
The speaker began to speak.
The father of a twelve-year-old girl came home late one night and decided to just peek into his daughter’s room to make sure she was sleeping. She’d been having restless nights, unable to focus in school, because she was always tired and sleepy. Over the recent weeks, she’d been plagued by night terrors. The girl had insisted on having the cat in her room. The cat wasn’t allowed in any of the bedrooms while the family was sleeping. This rule resulted from a previous pet who’d had an accident on the carpet during the night. Once the cat was allowed to sleep in the girl’s room, she began to sleep easier. She still complained of nightmares, but in those bad dreams, her cat would come to rescue her, and it would be all right in the end. Her parents, reluctant to medicate their daughter, had put her in therapy. The girl’s therapist was convinced that she was improving and that perhaps she was going through a phase caused by uncertainties and anxieties in her waking life—normal ones like changing schools, meeting new classmates, learning new subjects. Perhaps she was even absorbing the stresses that her parents were unintentionally exhibiting.
Then came the night her father came home late. He’d started working late again, since his daughter seemed to be feeling better. He opened the door to her room only to find a disturbing sight. Their cat had climbed up onto the girl’s chest and had its mouth inches away from her mouth, which was parted. The cat’s haunches were up and it seemed to be hissing, but not really hissing. It wasn’t blowing air out, it was sucking air in. It was sucking in the girl’s breath.
A feeling of terrible dread overcame the father. He shook it off and as he did, anger replaced the dread. He stalked into the room and pulled the cat off his daughter. The cat twisted and scratched the father as it tried to wrestle itself free from his grip.
The commotion woke the girl and when she saw her father trying to take her companion away, she begged him not to. She insisted that the cat was her protector. Her pleas were so desperate, so heart-wrenching, that her father put the cat down. The cat jumped up onto the bed and into the girl’s arms. The father began to doubt what he had seen.
But he also began to worry for his daughter.
So the next night, he came home early again. He watched the cat all evening, and it seemed no more sinister than it ever had. He had never paid much attention to the creature. His wife and daughter were the animal-lovers. He was mostly indifferent. He got the strange feeling that even as he watched the cat, it was watching him, both of them warily and metaphorically circling each other all night.
The family went to bed. The little girl was still nervous about bedtime, but she became visibly relieved when her feline companion jumped up to the foot of her bed. The father eyed the cat once before leaving the room. The cat did not eye him back.
In the deepness of night, a vibration on his wrist woke the father. He’d set an alarm on his smart watch. Without waking his wife, he climbed out of bed and walked silently toward his daughter’s bedroom. He opened the door and before he could even see anything, he felt again that sense of dread overwhelming him. It froze him in place, his fear for himself overcoming his fear for his daughter. He fought past the fear and opened the door to find the same sight he’d seen the night before, with one difference. Something else was in the room with his daughter and the cat. Something that lurked in a corner. He couldn’t see it. He blinked his eyes, but couldn’t see it. He couldn’t hear it moving. He just knew that it was moving, moving toward his daughter. Her mouth was parted. The cat seemed to be drawing in the breaths that she was breathing out.
The cat suddenly leapt down. It was shivering, and the father somehow knew that it was shivering out of fear. Fear of whatever else was there with them all. His daughter tossed in her sleep, but did not wake. The cat approached the corner of the room and opened his mouth. Then he slowly backed away, toward the door.
The father stepped out of the way and watched as the cat, still walking backwards, moved down the hall and down the steps, hissing and shivering. The father did not see the thing that followed the cat. He flattened himself against the hallway wall as it passed. He only felt it, felt it in the dread that spilled across his feet, chilling him to the bone. He knew it was moving away as the dread receded, as the cat moved farther and farther away.
There was a pet door in the kitchen. He heard the cat pass through it.
The father heard his daughter calling then. She’d woken. He went to her. He held her as they both heard the sounds of a cat screaming and yowling as it battled with something out in the darkness.
It wasn’t until dawn came that the father dared to venture out and look for the cat upon his daughter’s insistence and that of his own conscience. He found what he feared was a torn and bloody carcass a few back alleys away from his home. Through patches of blood-matted fur, he saw the colors he was looking for, white and black. His heart sank and he felt a different dread as he wondered how he would tell his daughter. But when the cat stirred with the slightest of breaths, the father took hope and rushed the cat to their vet.
He lost one of his forelimbs. But he lived. He spent a few weeks shivering and fearful. But he lived. And the father, who was once indifferent, began to treat that cat, whose name was Tybalt, like royalty. He was convinced that Tybalt had saved his daughter from something unspeakably terrible.
With his own small shivering body, his will, and his cleverness, it was Tybalt who had protected her.
“After that, her father called us,” the speaker said. “He feared that whatever was hunting his daughter, whatever Tybalt drew away and fought in the back alleys, might still be out there. He’s probably right. He wanted to report it, so we could investigate. And so he could keep all of his family—Tybalt included—safe.”
The speaker took a breath. “As our investigation proceeded, we realized that the thing we suspected that hero cat fought with was something that only cats could perceive. Something whose origins date back to a myth, one that many if not all of you have never heard of before.”
When it appears a cat is stealing someone’s breath or soul, common modern knowledge is that it’s just looking for warmth and comfort. This is the case most of the time. On rare occasions, like the case I just presented, it’s actually trying to draw that exhaled breath, which the person no longer needs by the way, into itself to hide some essence on that breath. Why? To protect that person from the thing that will come after them, the thing that senses and moves towards that essence.
“The cat Tybalt appeared to have gone one step further. He actually used the little girl’s breath to draw the thing that was stalking her away from her. You may be wondering what this thing is. Well, it’s beyond the scope of this lecture. But it is important to the story I’m about to share with you. So I’ll give it a name at least. Undegris.”
The word was displayed on its own slide with no other figure or image. Just a pronunciation guide noting that the “s” was silent.
“Those of you who speak any Romance languages might recognize the construction. This name or term was given to it by a Catalan researcher from a few hundred years ago in her own language, ‘un de gris,’ which means ‘the gray one.’”
As before, the speaker began the next part of his presentation with commonly known and familiar details.
“Many natural creatures used smell and other chemical signals and signatures to identify prey, predators, members of their own kind.
Mosquitoes can detect the carbon dioxide of an exhaled human breath and follow it from far distances. Carbon dioxide means exhaled breath from a living creature pulsing with blood. Thus, the mosquito can find its way to food. While the mosquito itself cannot harm a human being, other organisms have evolved to take advantage of the mosquitoes need to feed on us, organisms that do cause us harm, as evidenced by the lengthy list of mosquito-borne illnesses. Our breaths make us vulnerable.
“It’s not just natural creatures that can sense something in a human breath however. There are otherworldy things that can do so. The undegris seem to be among those. They seem to particularly target certain children, attracted by something in their breath that few adults continue to exude. What this thing is was still unclear. It may be something that humans and cats once had in common, for one thing that research has uncovered is that the undegris once targeted the young of cats as well as humans, for some purpose that is yet to be determined.
“There may have been other animals and perhaps even some plants that emitted, and maybe still emit, a similar essence. But as I mentioned before, while the undegris were able to perceive humans, there seemed to be only one creature in all the world capable of perceiving the undegris, cats. To clarify, cats were the only creatures in the world that could perceive the undegris when the undergris were not prepared to be perceived. The keen noses of dogs could not smell it. The sharp eyes of raptors could not see it. Humans gifted with the use of their sixth sense could not sense it. It was only in the moment of attack that any other animal could sense it, usually as a feeling of intense dread or terror. As such, only cats were able to engage the undegris, to battle it, repel it.
“How this came to be has been a topic of research for many generations. Some researchers have speculated that the undegris are demons. Some believe they are aliens or trans-dimensional beings, or even future humans. There are many myths and legends of wicked creatures trying to harm children or carry them off, witches, fairies, and even worse things. With everything that researchers have tried to throw at the wall, worldwide accounts of the bogeyman seem so far to be the most likely link to the undegris. But there have been no tales linking bogeymen to cats.”
No tales, that is, save the one the speaker told.
There was a lost legend from the cradle of civilization. A myth about how dogs and cats came to be in their positions as the favored companions of humanity.
For dogs and cats once had intelligence and consciousness, even before humanity did. The cats had it first and granted it to their closest friends and allies among the animal kingdoms, the dogs. Those two cultures watched the rise of the hairless apes with interest and caution. When they saw that humanity was not content to live in the world, but wished to shape it and rule it, they believed they should intervene.
They disagreed as to how they should do this. The leaders of the dogs believed they should befriend and guide humanity. Most dogs agreed. Some did not. The king and queen of the cats, however, believed that they should stop humanity’s advance and rule over the humans themselves. They would be wiser rulers, kinder to the land and to other creatures. Most cats, who were accustomed to obey their sovereigns, were conflicted. For most cats did not seek to rule any other creatures but themselves.
As they too were predators, cats and dogs understood and did not begrudge some of humanity’s brutal ways, as when they hunted for food or killed in defense. But the hairless apes sometimes behaved in ways that dogs and cats did not understand. Wicked ways that were beginning to infect the ways of the dogs and cats. Wicked ways that were attracting the attention of wicked things.
One of those things belonged to the oldest of old stories told by the cats. It was vast and primal. It was thought to be lost to the chaos of the early days. It was hoped to be lost. It was made of malice and madness. It sought to corrupt and devour. The cats no longer had a name for it. They had forgotten its very existence, all save those among them who were tasked with remembering their past. This thing began to stalk through the golden cities and the warm sands of a bustling world that teetered on the brink between good and evil.
The cats knew something must be done. They turned to their allies and friends, their equals, the dogs.
The debate continued among the rulers of the cats and dogs. It was said that one cat ignored the debate and took action on her own, in the name of her sovereigns.
The cats had spoken of spells and tricks, but they needed no such devices. Cats are beautiful. And humans admire beauty. All the rogue cat and her followers needed do was approach and humanity was drawn in. Some might say that humanity was indeed ruled by the cats for a while, for many popular ancient deities associated with cats arose around the time the rogue cat enacted some version of both plans, the Eqyptian goddess Bastet, the Greek Ailuros. The cats guided. The cats ruled.
What the cats did not expect was that they would be equally as charmed by their human companions. They began to like and even love humanity, for the most part. They were perplexed by humanity, for whom kindness and wickedness were equally natural. What defined the nature of any particular person, it seemed, was choice. The choice to be kind. Or the choice to be wicked. Sometimes, a human born in privilege and living in comfort could be the cruelest and weakest of all. And a human born in slavery and poverty could be the kindest and strongest of all.
The cats tried to influence humanity towards goodness. But too often the cats themselves would fall under the wicked influence of their companions. Humans built statues of cats, immortalizing them. The cats fell victim to vanity. To envy. To the weakest of human emotions.
The dogs watched this. They learned. For their leaders believed it was time for them to intervene and also become companions to humans. The envy of the cats made them rivals. Sometimes friendly rivals. Sometimes not.
Humans, cats, and dogs. Something still lurked among them all. Drawn there perhaps by something that was born of the friendship among the three cultures. It was the cats who saw it and only the cats. The dogs could not see the thing. They could not smell it. The cats would later say it was because dogs, while they grew to love humanity, were not seduced by humanity’s wicked ways. The innocence that most dogs retained protected them from this thing, which could not sense them the way it sensed human beings. The way it could sense the cats.
Children and kittens went missing. Cats and humans were found dead, sometimes shriveled as if drained of blood, bones, and muscle. Sometimes lying as if in sleep, without a mark upon them, but dead all the same.
The humans feared it was a plague. But the cats knew better. They studied their enemy as best they could. They learned how to fight it, for their own sakes, and for the sakes of the humans they had grown to cherish. How the cats could wage war with an enemy that did not gather armies or converse, it was not known. But it was said there were battles.
Among those who rode out into one such battle was the prince of the cats, the only heir to the king and queen. His mother and father had given him a human name, Frederick. He was handsome, defiant, kind. He was a great friend to the dogs and sided with them on the way to help humanity strive towards their better natures. He was the pride of the cats. He fell in battle with their enemy. His death was gruesome. All cats and all dogs mourned him.
All cats and all dogs feared how the cat sovereigns would react. But few foresaw it.
In their grief and their rage, the king and queen of the cats declared war once again, this time on humanity. Their minds maddened with loss, they blamed humans for bringing the old enemy back into their midst. They declared that all the cats of the world should hunt down and kill every last human being. The court of cats was in shock.
None of the dogs agreed to the declaration of war. All swore to protect humanity from the cats should such an attack be launched. It was not. For most cats felt the same. Humanity was not their enemy. Most cats knew this. So many cats refused that the army was a small one, one that would not succeed in exterminating humans.
Grief and anger turned to fury. The king and queen of the cats renounced their own people, even those who had agreed to be in their army. They renounced their allies and friends, the dogs.
The king and queen of the cats held great power, not only the power of rule, but a power like magic passed down to them from their ancestors. They used this power to cast a spell upon the dogs, revoking the gift of consciousness that the cats had granted to their friends.
They used this power to cast a curse upon their own people, stealing all the consciousness and intelligence of every cat. They meant to dissipate it forever, but a hero among them, the one who was to be their daughter, who had been betrothed to their lost prince, managed to save most of it. She condensed it into a substance that glowed pure and white, like the moon. So it was called Moonlight. She and her allies hid the Moonlight from the sovereigns and from the dogs, who thanks to their own heroes, had retained enough of their memory and sense to start hunting cats both to assure humanity’s protection and to avenge the betrayal of friendship.
It was said this hero cat buried the Moonlight and that was how the first tree emerged. A tree that bloomed on summer nights and bore leaves of dark green and blue, leaves that contained a nectar the color of moonlight. Later generations of cats would feed this nectar to their young, and from it, those young would regain memory of their history, understanding of their world, and long lives like the long lives of their ancestors. Cats who did not drink of the nectar would live but a ninth of their allotted time on the earth.
The cats who lost their consciousness became creatures of instinct, innocent and therefore protected from the enemy that once hunted them. In that way, the king and queen had unwittingly saved their people. But there was a second part of their curse. For siding humans above their own sovereigns, the king and queen cursed the cats to forever watch over their precious humanity. To be guardians always against the enemy that still stalked humanity. In that way, the king and queen, meaning harm, instead also assured that humans—many of them in any case—were protected.
What became of the king and queen is unknown. It is believed that they sometimes tried to harm humanity, but the cats who were cursed fought them. So they went into hiding, perhaps in a remote part of the world, away from other creatures, away from those whom they once called friends, the dogs, and the humans.
The cats who remained retained enough of their intelligence to realize that they were cursed and they sometimes resented their charges, growing distant and disdainful. A reputation they still hold to modern times. Dogs too became the enemies of all cats for a while. A shadow fell upon the friendship that once existed between the two societies. A shadow that only in modern times was beginning to lift.
“Both cats and dogs were meant to be the companions of humans,” the speaker said, “as were others, such as horses, but the two were meant to be humanity’s best companions. Humanity was meant to be their best companions. It is not now as it should be. There are ways in which they were made dangerous to us. Ways in which we are a danger to them. And one way that keeps us from knowing them and them from knowing us.
The speaker swept his gaze across the lecture hall. “It may be what the undegris seek when they hunt certain children,” he said. “It may be why they no longer seem to hunt cats, because the cats have lost it. It may be why cats were able to perceive the undegris long ago. A remnant of Moonlight in the spirit of every cat born to this day might be why they can still perceive the undegris.”
The speaker smiled. “You may now be wondering what exactly Moonlight is. Is it a substance? Is it energy? Is it wave? Is it particle? I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you once again. As with the undegris, we have very little information to go on about Moonlight.” He glanced about the hall and noted the fidgeting of some, the nonchalance of others, the frustration of a few, and even a smug expression or two from those who might have stumbled upon the old myth while looking into modern ones.
They were all students of myth and legend. They were used to uncertainty, used to the vague, used to conflicting accounts, and partial accounts, and missing manuscripts. They were used to mystery.
But they were also investigators in the making, researchers in practice, hunters of facts, and seekers of truths. The speaker had a motive, a not-so-mysterious motive, in giving his presentation. Humans accepted that cats were mysterious. But some humans were called to pursue that mystery, and if not to solve it, to cast some light upon it.
The speaker had told them the story, the origin of humanity’s friendship with cats and dogs, the advent of the undegris, the first days of Moonlight. In doing so, he had left them with many questions. Where was Moonlight now? What was it, this enchanted stuff that marked the end of the civilization of cats and yet also marked their only hope of regaining the glory of consciousness? Was there any Moonlight left in the world? Was there a chance for that childhood fantasy of speaking with one’s pets to come true? Would cats cease to be pets and become true friends?
Some speculated that what cats were actually trying to draw out from a human breath was the essence of intelligence, of consciousness. That it was a selfish act, having nothing to do with protection, but meant to restore to the cats what they lost for themselves. If they could not have Moonlight, they would have whatever humans had.
What would it mean for the cats to regain their senses? Would they still be allies? Or enemies? Would they hold to ancient grudges as humans so often did? Or would they be wiser? Even as their oldest enemy sought to consume, would the cats do the reverse? Would the cats seek to preserve and even to grow what they once had, what they lost?
Were they already doing that? Somewhere in secret? Hidden from the prying, oft-well-meaning but sometimes damaging eyes of their human friends, were there cats beaming with Moonlight? Were they watching over their simpler cousins?
Or were they already moving among humanity? Were the stories of cats like Tybalt evidence of such movement? Some of the students sitting in that hall, reconciling the antics of their own cats at home with the tale they had just been told in all seriousness, would go on to seek the answers to such questions.
There was much for humanity to fear in the world, and that included cats, the wild ones. But there was also much for humanity to hope for and be comforted by in the world, and that included cats. Whether or not they remained mysterious.
Copyright © 2016. Nila L. Patel