“So it’s agreed, if we see a cat—any cat—we flee.” The brown rat with the black spot upon her pink nose nodded at her two partners.
The black rat with the long swishing tail nodded his head in return. The rat with fur the color of storm clouds twitched her whiskers.
All three boarded the little ship made of twig and stone, bound by fibers, sealed with resin, and thrice-blessed by their elders.
The ship was named for what its crew desired to be, Invisible.
The three rats were explorers. They had ventured into deep caverns, climbed to the chilly summits of a mountain, and mapped the darkest depths of the forest.
When the three were young rats, their urge to venture away from their colony was common among their cohorts. But while the rest settled and started families and nestled into safe spaces, there were among those, like the three, who continued to feel the pull of wild places.
Spotnose had convinced their elders that purposeful exploration was needed to find more safe spaces for their growing colony, and new sources of food and building material. And perhaps even the odd shiny bauble, or some other treasure now and then.
When the elders, both fearful and wise, refused her proposal, Stormfur had come storming in to defend her friend.
And Longtail had later joined in that defense, on one condition.
Long had he longed to cross the great lake that lay at the outer edge of their colony, providing them water, and a small measure of food. But beyond that, nothing more but eerie and forbidding legends.
His patience was as long as his tail, for the three brave rats set upon many adventures in the many years that they were partners and friends.
The three grew older, leaving youth behind, and entering the prime years of their maturity, their bodies still strong, their minds now tempered with knowledge, and their spirits resilient from the experiences of both terror and triumph. They had indeed found precious resources and treasures for their people.
Then, one day, it was time for them to try the great lake.
Longtail had among his many other friends, a pair of sparrows, who reported to him of a lush island near the center of the great lake. Fruits and nuts there were, sweet and rich. And even a leaf that dripped a milky sweet nectar. As proof, they had even brought samples back to him. And he shared them with his friends and his elders.
The elders approved, but warned the three rats to take the appropriate time and effort to prepare for the most daunting journey of their lives.
The three rats heeded their elders well.
Longtail told his friends of the dangers he learned of in the legends and stories of the birds.
They gathered one night around a small fire, to start the making of their plans.
“The lake has three levels, they say,” he told his partners, relaying the story told to him by one of his sparrow friends. “The surface level is for the living. It is where fish swim and the ducks paddle about. And you would never know as you watch from shore that there is anything to fear. But at the very bottom of the lake, where even sunlight cannot pierce, the waters are blacker than my fur, and quieter than the falling of a feather to the ground. But these waters churn, my friends. They churn with the unquiet souls of all those poor beasts who drowned in the lake, and even some who died upon the shore or in the surrounding wood. They are trapped in eternal torment.”
Stormfur shivered. “It’s almost enough to make me rethink our newest endeavor.” Then she smirked and winked at her friends. “Almost.”
In the flickering flames of the fire, Longtail’s grin appeared wicked, purposely so. “That is not all there is to know about the bottom of the lake,” he said. “Sometimes, the souls succeeded in rising up and up through the deep waters, all the way back to the surface, to the living waters. From there, they could return to a living body, live another life, and escape eternal torment by dying a peaceful death.”
Spotnose’s whiskers twitched. “But…every living body is already occupied by a soul.”
“What happens to that soul if a dead one takes possession of the body?” Stormfur asked, her smirk now faded.
“Did Thornbeak tell you of any spells or talismans we could use to ward these unquiet souls away?” Spotnose asked.
Longtail shook his head. “The birds need not fear the unquiet souls. They can just fly out of reach.” He leaned closer to the crackling fire. “But there is something that lurks in the lake that can reach even the highest flying bird.”
He tossed a twig into the fire. “Imagine the biggest cat you’ve ever seen,” he said. “Then imagine her bigger and much, much stronger. Along her back is a ridge of hard plates. Her eyes are sharp enough to see in the air and in the darkest depths of the water. For she resides in the middle of the lake, between the living and the dead. She guards the bottom, making sure the unquiet souls do not rise and return to the living waters. If they try, and she catches them, she strangles with her long tail. It’s said the tail is beyond measure, winding back and forth, over and over itself, and across the lake, like a net to trap wandering souls.”
Spotnose picked up a pebble and rolled it between her fingers, as she often did when she was thinking, or when she was nervous.
“This tail,” Stormfur said, “is long enough to reach the birds in the sky?”
Longtail nodded. “And that isn’t all the birds must fear. The cat can summon storms from sky. And for any who risk the waters of the lake, she can stir up waves and whirlpools with that winding tail.”
“Beyond measure, you say.” Spotnose stared into the fire.
Stormfur’s stormy fur bristled. “Maybe this monstrous cat and these unquiet souls can keep each other busy until we find ourselves on the isle of fruits of nuts.”
“Even if all the bird’s legends were true, the elders have decided that the journey is worth the risk,” Spotnose said. “But the final decision is still ours to make.”
“Are we not yet ready to make it?” Stormfur asked.
Spotnose smiled. “Not yet.”
Longtail and Stormfur exchanged a bracing look.
Spotnose held up the pebble in her paw. “I have measurements to make.”
For one year, Spotnose made her measurements and calculations.
She tied rocks of varied sizes and weights to ropes of woven fiber, and plumbed the depths of the lake, asking for and receiving the help of Longtail’s curious sparrow friends, some suspicious surface-side fish, and even a very patient turtle. From a piece of wood, she had Stormfur carve with her sharp clever teeth, a rough disc with even marks upon one surface. To this disc, Spotnose affixed a flat stone so that the stone’s edge sat upon the disc. When the sun shone, she observed the shadow cast by the stone, and in this way, could measure the passage of time more precisely.
Stormfur was charged with arranging for the construction of their ship. When the ship was built, Spotnose asked to sail it upon the safe and still waters of a deep pond within the borders of their colony. She had weavers make a great length of rope affixed with knots at the same intervals, and to this she attached a plank of wood, specially carved by Stormfur again. When cast out into the waters, the plank of wood floated in place as the ship sailed away, and as Spotnose let out the rope.
“And why does our ship have a tail?” Stormfur asked.
Spotnose laughed. “By counting the knots against the time that passes, I can measure the ship’s speed. It will help me calculate how long our journey will take.”
Stormfur slapped a paw on her friend’s back. “I’ll trust your word on that.”
“Where did you learn of all these wondrous devices?” Longtail asked Spotnose. He then turned to Stormfur. “And where did you learn how to build a ship?”
Stormfur slapped her other paw upon his shoulder. “You always seem to forget. You’re not the only with friends beyond rats.”
It was true, however, that among the three, Longtail was the most gregarious.
From the lake-dwellers, he gathered even more tales and accounts of the fearsome cat that haunted the lake. These tales too, Spotnose figured into her calculations.
“The cat has a twin,” Longtail said one day over dinner.
The two cats were at war. As the fearsome cat sought to hunt all those who sailed over the waters, the protective cat sought to guard such sailors.
The challenge was in telling them apart. Accounts were varied and unreliable, because few who encountered the fearsome cat escaped with their lives, and even those who did were too terrified to count the number of ridges upon her back, or even note the color of her eyes. And those who encountered the guardian cat were too terrified at the chance that she might be the other one that they too fled in fear.
Some beasts would make offerings to both cats before they attempted to sail the lake’s waters. But whether either cat accepted such offerings could not be known for certain.
“Then it makes sense to run first, and then guess later at which one we encountered,” Stormfur said.
Longtail swished his long tail. “There are some who believe there is no guardian cat. That rumors of her existence are spread by the fearsome cat to confuse sailors into hoping for just a moment, and taking that moment of hope to fall upon them and drown them.”
“So it’s agreed, if we see a cat—any cat—we flee.” Spotnose nodded at her two partners.
Longtail returned the nod. Stormfur twitched her whiskers.
And all three boarded the Invisible.
Spotnose had mapped out the safest route for them to travel to get across the lake and land upon the isle they sought to reach. Not directly across, but a weaving route that followed the shallowest waters. For this lake did not dip from shallows to deepest depths going from shore to middle. There seemed to be strips and islands of shallow land beneath the waters. They would sail above such shallows as much as they could. Though they risked staying upon the waters for longer, they might avoid the greatest dangers by sailing only above the living waters.
When they set out at last, choosing the mildest season when the waters and the skies were at their calmest, Longtail still had a new tale or two to tell about the monster lurking in the lake.
“Thornbeak said she saw her at last,” he said one evening.
Longtail was a water rat and accustomed to the heaving of the waters. But Stormfur and Spotnose were mildly queasy despite sailing upon their ship many times over the past months. The evening air held a chill that helped ease their discomfort, even as Longtail sought to cast them back into unease.
“She couldn’t say which one it was—assuming there are two,” he continued. “But she was stunned at how clearly she saw the great beast from high above. She has sharp eyes, but from that distance, she should not have been able to see the dark speckles upon the ridges on the beast’s back. She was scared, but you know sparrows. Her curiosity drew her back to the spot and she circled above. She said the cat was lounging upon a great rock in the middle of the lake—a spot that our route does not pass by fortunately. Well, she said that the creature’s tail was lashing up and down in the waters, and each time it moved, it glinted, a warm color, like the sun. Then, as if the creature sensed her watching, that large head turned upward, and Thornbeak saw her eyes. They were green, a wild green. And then the tail whipped around and around. A wind blew up, gathering clouds. The tail rose. Thornbeak flapped her wings, but the wind swirled about her, trapping her, holding her there.”
“So the tail could rise up and grab,” Stormfur said, her gray shoulders tensed.
Longtail nodded. “It was luck, she said, that she veered to the side and caught a pocket of air that did not swirl with fierce winds. Her muscles ached already, and she feared her wings would lock and she would drop through the sky, straight into the gaping maw of that terrible monster. But somehow, she summoned the strength to fly up and up as high up as she could, and then away, only daring to glance down once or twice, until she was over land again.”
“Ha!” Stormfur cried, clapping together her paws in joy at the sparrow’s escape.
Spotnose smiled. “That she was in danger, I do not doubt. But for all of Thorn’s virtues, she does have a habit of exaggerating such stories.”
Longtail drew in a deep breath. “You might say the same about me. It is a habit of many of us tale-tellers. But this time, I believe every word. She was still full of fright. Her feathers quivered when she told me the tale. Never did she smile or chirp. She spoke in quiet whispers. And when she was done, she dropped her gaze when she told me that she would not be able to help us for a while, perhaps never again, with our endeavor upon the lake. For she never wished to fly above it again.”
The three were silent for a long while.
Then at last, Spotnose spoke in a low quiet voice. “The cat must have a weakness.”
If the monstrous cat who haunted the great lake had any weaknesses, it was not spoken of in any of the many stories that Longtail had gathered. But soon enough in their journey, the cat became a distant worry.
The Invisible sailed well for many days, but upon the first night of the full moon, the ship sprung a leak.
The ship’s crew tried to repair the hull as they sailed, but at last were forced to weigh anchor and light lanterns to search for the source of the leak. They found two holes, close together. The repairs took all night, leaving the three tired and in need of sleep by the following dawn.
But when they sailed on, they found their repairs were sound. Spotnose made a note in her log.
And for many more days after, the sailing was smooth.
When they were halfway to the isle, Longtail reminded them that they had agreed to share a wheel of fine cheese they had brought with them, as a minor celebration. The true feast would await their landing upon the isle.
But none of them were of a mood to celebrate. It seemed a tempting of ill luck to do so. Though the waters grew rougher at times, they had encountered no other great obstacles after fixing the leak. Spotnose had devised a system of checking the ship’s hardiness. They each took turns checking, and making repairs, before a loose stone led to a leak, or a weak plank led to the collapse of the ship altogether. They checked their speed, the depth of the water. They exercised their limbs and their minds as best they could.
And they sailed on.
But it was not just common caution that halted them from celebrating what was truly a feat worthy of celebration—for no other rat in their colony had ever traveled so far upon the waters.
All three had been suffering nightmares of the monstrous cat.
Longtail had told no more stories since the first days of their voyage. And yet…
None had told the others until one morning when Spotnose noted that none of them were sleeping well, and she told the others why that was so for her.
Then they all shared their own nightmares.
Stormfur dreamed of a vast maw, sharp teeth, rising up from below them, and swallowing them before they even knew what was happening. She would wake with her heart beating, her skin burning, and her throat gasping for air.
Longtail dreamed of a scaly tail glinting like the sun, lashing around and around the waters surrounding their ship. They and their ship were invisible, just as they wished to be, but the monstrous cat sensed they were in her waters somewhere. She summoned a whirlpool. Their ship capsized and they were thrown into the waters. They drowned, and they sunk and sunk eternally, never reaching the lake’s bottom, for there was no bottom.
Spotnose dreamed of a storm. And the clouds were not the soft silver-gray of her friend’s fur. They were an angry gray, slashed with lightning, shuddering with thunder in their rage. Down came the rain in drops so hard and heavy they punched holes through the ship. The ship shattered around them, casting them into the waters. Longtail pulled himself up on a plank, and whipped his tail through the waters. Stormfur caught hold of it and pulled herself toward him and onto the plank. With her keen eyes, she spotted Spotnose, then grasped Longtail’s tail, tied it in a loop and tossed it toward her friend. Stormfur caught Spotnose within the loop and pulled her toward them. Doomed they still were. But they were together. Then, upon the water’s surface, there hung a pair of glowing green eyes. She could see them now. Without their ship’s protection, they were visible.
“She said something.” Spotnose frowned and shook her head. “I can’t recall. I heard it clearly, despite the storm. The way you can hear things in a dream, even a whisper. She whispered. And she looked away for some reason.” She slammed both fists against the hull. “I can’t remember.”
“Are they just dreams,” Stormfur asked, looking at Longtail, “or does she have the power to haunt and taunt us in our sleep?”
Spotnose pulled out her logbook as she glanced up at the clear skies above them. “Our dreams are messages from our minds,” she said. “Apparent they may be, reflecting our fears. But there may be some useful clue among the chaos. I will record them if you allow it.”
Stormfur and Longtail agreed.
When the clouds first began to gather—not in a dream but in the skies above them—they did not appear angry. They crowded together and lazed in the sky, creeping closer and closer to the sun, until at last they blocked him out altogether.
The air grew chill, and the wind picked up.
The isle was not yet in sight. Spotnose had figured they should expect to see it in a few more days.
They had encountered no storms till that moment.
But already their noses could smell it approaching.
Spotnose stowed away her sun-disc. They had fortified the ship with all their remaining stores of resin. It was reckless. They expected no storm in that season. And if the ship needed more repair, they would have no resin left. But their nightmares drove them to do it.
The clouds did not idle for long.
Stomachs lurched as the waters lurched, when the three found themselves beneath angry gray clouds, slashed with lightning, shuddering with thunder in their rage.
Down came the rain in drops so hard and heavy they might have punched holes through the ship. Perhaps it was the fortifying resin that held the ship together. Perhaps the ship would have held together anyway.
The waters heaved, and the ship was tossed to and fro. They did not weigh anchors, for it would not have held them still, and the anchors themselves might have whipped about, shattering the ship.
The rats had no time to despair. The only task that remained to them was holding fast to the ship. And to each other.
Inspired by their nightmares, Longtail tied his tail around the tails of his two friends, so that if they were tossed overboard, they would remain bound together, whatever fate they faced thereafter.
But even after a countless time of storming, they remained aboard a ship that held together.
When the rain began to lessen, and when the waters stopped heaving, but were still tossing, they saw a mass ahead.
“Could that be the isle!” Stormfur cried, for the rain still pounded steadily upon the deck, drowning all but the loudest of sounds.
Spotnose shook her head. She did not even know what direction the ship was now facing. And she could not yet quite see what her sharp-eyed friend could see. “I can’t say, but we’re days away from it!”
“Turn!” Stormfur cried again. “We have to turn!”
The ship was tossed forward toward the mass.
Through sheets of rain, they all now saw the dark form that floated upon the water. Waves surged toward it, and were swallowed inside it.
Ahead of them was Stormfur’s nightmare.
A vast maw lined with sharp teeth. It was not below them. It was before them.
“Is it a cave!” Longtail asked.
But they all knew it was not.
Two of them began to row, the third was at the rudder. They turned the ship with all their might.
The Invisible turned and turned, until they were facing away from the dark cavern behind them.
Lightning burst over their heads, and thunder cracked the air.
The sky was dark now, dim as dusk. But in the brightness brought by the lightning, they had all seen something glinting upon the waves. Not the cool glinting of water. But a warm yellowy orange glint.
Ahead of them now was Longtail’s nightmare.
A scaly loop of tail, glinting like the sun, rose out of the waters and splashed down, then another and another, around and around the waters, surrounding them. They waters around them began to whirl.
And the ship began to spin.
“There is no escaping this!” Stormfur said. Her rain-soaked face was fierce. “We will die soon! Our souls will sink!”
Spotnose looped one forelimb around Stormfur’s, and another around Longtail’s. “Let’s spend our eternity making her miserable!”
Longtail grinned wickedly. “She will regret killing us!”
Stormfur laughed. “We should try and take her with us!”
The water’s whirled. Their ship, the faithful Invisible, held fast.
Ahead of them at last was Spotnose’s nightmare.
There, upon the water’s surface, there hung a pair of glowing green eyes. She could see them. For their ship was not truly invisible.
The eyes rose, like ghastly twin moons, and they saw now the cat’s immense snout and her head, her ears flicking off gobs of water that splashed to the surface.
This was different from the dream. Spotnose always woke before she saw the cat’s whole head. She only ever saw the sickly glowing eyes. She only ever heard that eerie shivering whisper saying—
What a long tail you have!
She remembered what the cat said in the dream, when she saw the three rats floating among the wreck of their ship, and Longtail’s tail, even longer in the dream, tied in a loop.
Spotnose unhooked her limbs and untied her tail.
“What are you doing!” Longtail cried.
Spotnose scampered toward the chest on the deck where they kept their tools. She yanked out the length of rope with the knots upon it, the “measuring tail,” Stormfur called it.
The others helped her set up the line. Spotnose tossed out the plank of wood. In the whirling waters, there was no need for sails or rowing. They were caught in the whirlpool’s edge now. The rope, thin as can be, barely visible in the foaming waters, extended behind them.
They all looked at the cat.
Longtail tied their tails together again.
For those glowing eyes still stared down at them. Spotnose let out the line, seeing it come to its end.
The knotted rope went taut and whipped up in the waters.
The great green eyes shifted. They caught the movement of the knotted line.
What a long tail to you have!
The whirling waters slowed, growing choppy, as if the waters were confused.
The cat did not speak as she had in the nightmare. But her head lowered in the water, bringing her eyes level to the whipping rope.
The rainfall had eased as well, only a scattering now.
“Raise the sails,” Spotnose said to the others.
They did, and she cut the line. She scrambled over to the rudder, and directed the ship away from the cat.
The monster’s reach was long, as long as her tail, and none knew how long her tail was.
Doomed they still might be.
For how much longer might the cat be distracted by the false tail?
The waters no longer whirled, and the rain had all but ceased, but the winds still blustered. The all but flew over the water, leaving the sight of the ghastly green eyes behind.
“We’re going too fast,” Longtail warned. “We’ll tip over!”
Stormfur checked the sails. “We have to risk it. We can’t let her see us.”
The waters began to heave again.
Behind them, they heard a thundering yowl.
The rain quickened.
“She’s coming!” Stormfur cried.
A wave rolled toward them. It seemed to chase so slowly that they might easily escape it, but they knew they couldn’t. The wave was too big. And it was coming with the wind. They couldn’t sail away.
The wave loomed over them and crashed onto the ship.
The Invisible was surely a lucky ship.
The water slipped off the deck and the ship bobbed upon the wave.
“Land ahead!” Stormfur called. She pointed ahead of them. The others saw nothing. But they trusted her eyes.
And whether the land was the treasured isle of fruits and nuts, or their own land again, or some other place full of troubles and wonders, they hove toward it.
The waters churned about them. They caught flashes of glinting light and the whipping of great loops of tail. But they no longer bothered to look anywhere but to land. They saw the waves crashing upon sand and rock.
They tossed out the anchors as soon as they were in the shallows. And they jumped out of the ship as one, their tails still tied together. They swam and swam toward the shore, still chased by waves, still fearing that they would be caught by a loop of the cat’s tail, dragged down and drowned.
But their feet touched the sand and they scrambled forward, farther and farther forward, until the water no longer touched them.
They turned and saw their ship still floating, anchored in the shallows. A glinting loop of tail loomed over the little ship. But a sudden wave surged beneath the ship and tossed it up so high, the anchors swung in the waters. The wave heaved toward land, sailing the ship onto the sand, and then the waters retreated back to sea.
There was no sign of a tail or of ghastly eyes or gaping maws.
The mainmast had snapped, the sails now drifting over the deck in the breeze.
But the Invisible was still whole, and lying solidly upon the beach.
The three friends had watched all this as they lay upon the shore, still shivering from toil and terror, from cold and hunger.
It would take more than a few moments for them to gather themselves. It would be more than a matter of days for them to recover their bodies, minds, and souls. And some part of that journey each would have to travel alone.
But for now, they were still tied together.
“Do you suppose the feast foods are still onboard?” Stormfur asked quietly.
Spotnose sniffed. “We haven’t yet checked if we’re on the isle.”
“I find I no longer care about that,” said Longtail. “I say we celebrate that we’re still alive.”
Stormfur’s whiskers twitched. “Are we?”
A quiet growling answered her question, the welcome growl of a stomach complaining of hunger.
All three kissed the sand upon which they lay before making their way to their ship.
Their tails came loose as they walked beside each other, making their next plan, a simple endeavor to eat food, and to rest, far, far away from the waters.
Copyright © 2023 Nila L. Patel