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Rama the Gypsy Cat
By Betsy Byars
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 Betsy Byars
All rights reserved.
The gypsy woman sat on the steps of her darkened wagon. Her heavy embroidered skirt hung over her feet and smelled of oil and dust and the smoke of many fires. At her feet, leaning against her, was a cat.
He was a young cat, but strong, and in his left ear he wore a tiny golden earring. The gypsy woman had put this in his ear when he was a kitten, just as mothers place earrings in the pierced ears of gypsy babies.
"Now," she had said when his earring was put in place that first night, "now you are a gypsy. Never forget that. You are Rama the gypsy."
He had scratched at the earring for a while and once had caught his claw in it, but now it was part of him, and he accepted it as another animal would accept a collar.
Rama stared at the fire through slitted eyes. The gypsy woman nudged him with the side of her foot.
"You know how many fortunes I have told this week?" She slapped her hand against her knee in disgust. "Not one, my friend, not even one."
Rama yawned, lifted one white-tipped foot, and licked it.
The gypsy woman smiled down at him. "I will tell your fortune, Rama, to see if I can still do it." She picked him up with one hand and set him on her lap. She looked at his paw.
"Ah, you are going to have an interesting life, my friend. You are going to catch many mice—I see that here in your paw. And you will catch fish from many streams. And here," she bent closer, "here I see a journey, a long journey. Perhaps we shall take that together, eh, my friend?"
She leaned back against the side of her wagon where pots and strings of herbs hung from the roof. "Tomorrow we leave this place, my friend. We will go south at last. Antonio's wagon is repaired, his leg heals, and there is nothing else to keep us here, eh?"
She stroked the cat's throat with her long fingers, which smelled pleasantly of oil. "Soon snow will fall, my friend, and you will not like that. Here, let me see your paw." She lifted it again, "Anh," she said sadly, "one day you will know the cold, my friend. One day far from here, you will know hunger and cold. It is in your paw."
Tired of the game, Rama moved restlessly in her hands, then was still, waiting. He had only to show the gypsy woman he was restless and she would release him. She moved her hands, and Rama rose on her lap, stretched, and jumped lightly to the ground.
"You are leaving me already, my friend?" the gypsy woman asked. "The moon is barely over the trees."
Rama stretched first one front leg, then the other. Without a backward look, he moved like a dark shadow around the fire.
On the other side of the fire in the long shadows, a man sat strumming a guitar. "Where are you going, Rama?" he asked with a smile.
"Where is he going? Who knows?" the gypsy woman shouted from her wagon. "He is a gypsy cat. What he does, he keeps to himself." She lifted her hands. "Anh!" Then she rose and went into her wagon.
Rama walked to the gypsy man's wagon, one of ten in the clearing, and sharpened his claws against the log which served the man as a step. He dug his claws deep into the bark, and as he raked them through the wood, he could feel the fibers separate and tear. It was a good sound, and Rama's muscles felt strong and young and able to accomplish whatever he wished.
He paused a moment more to lick his bib, then moved slowly around the wagon. Quickening his pace, he entered the black-green of the forest.
Through the mosses and grasses he went, silently, steadily. Behind him, the gypsy man began to sing, a strange song of far lands and dark people, a song of longing, but it was not strange to Rama. He had heard these songs since he was a kitten, when the gypsy woman had found him on a dusty West Virginia road and taken him into her wagon. Later, in a nearby village, a young boy had seen the kitten on the wagon seat beside the woman and had cried, "That's my kitten. That gypsy stole my kitten. She stole it."
The gypsy woman had been scornful. "Look," she had said, holding up the kitten for all to see. "Your kitten has a golden earring, eh, boy? Your kitten has one of those?"
The boy had hung his head and said slowly, "No, he had no earring." Then, faster, "But that's my kitten and I know it and you stole it."
"Anh! Go find your own kitten, boy. Do not try to take the kitten of an old woman." And Rama had settled comfortably in the gypsy woman's lap, enjoying the feel of her long smooth fingers between his ears.
The song grew fainter as Rama went deeper into the forest. He knew these woods well, for the gypsies had been camped in the glen for six weeks now. This was the longest they had stayed in any one place. Rama did not know that this was because of an accident with Antonio's wagon, an accident that had wrecked the wagon and crushed Antonio's leg. Rama did not know, either, that the wagon was now repaired and that they would soon leave the forest. He only knew that it was good to walk through the shadows of the trees where he was part of the night and yet himself, alive and free.
He heard the sound of the brook before he saw it, and he went directly to the place where there was a stone, high and dry, in the center of the stream. In one long, easy motion, he jumped, touched the stone, and landed silently on the other side.
There was a rustling to the right, and Rama saw the grasses moving. It was a faint sound, almost as if made by the wind, but Rama knew it was not. He stopped, crouched, and waited. Only the tip of his tail moved, twitching slightly with anticipation, and once his paws opened and closed on the soft earth. He made no sound.
A bird called over head, but Rama did not look up. Suddenly, in the grasses ahead, Rama saw a field mouse coming hesitantly from the shelter of the grass. As he caught sight of the mouse, the tip of Rama's tail twitched again, but still he made no sound. The mouse came closer, running in short bursts. He paused suddenly with his nose in the air.
Rama did not move. The mouse's nose twitched slightly as he went up on his hind legs to reach some seeds above him. With his tiny front paws clutching at the plant, he reached higher where the seeds were fullest.
It was then that Rama sprang, his whole body taut. He was in the air only a second, and then he landed with his front paws directly on the mouse. He waited, feeling the faint movements of the mouse beneath his paws, and his muscles felt strong and good.
Perhaps it was the crisp air that made him feel more alive than he had ever felt before, or perhaps it was the mouse caught beneath his paws. As the moon came out from behind a cloud, it shone for a moment on Rama. His tail twitched happily at the fortunate way the evening had begun.
In the deep grasses where the earth smelled strong and dark, Rama settled down to enjoy his mouse.CHAPTER 2
When the field mouse had been eaten, Rama began to lick his paws carefully and then to draw them over his face.
He was not a large cat, about twelve inches in height, and his gray fur had thickened for the winter, giving him an appearance of plumpness. There was a blaze of white on his chest that pointed up to his face like a flame, and his paws were tipped with white. He finished by cleaning his bib, rose, and began to move deeper into the forest.
Usually at this time of night he would turn and go back to the gypsy camp. There he would lie beneath the gypsy woman's wagon on a ledge between the wheels until the camp began to stir. But tonight, his spirits heightened by his success with the mouse and the chill of the air, he continued to walk.
There were farms on the other side of the forest, but Rama skirted them and headed for the village beyond. Set in a bend of the Ohio River, the village had a wharf. Rama had never satisfactorily explored its mysteries. He moved in that direction.
No one was stirring in the village, and Rama walked confidently through the deserted clay streets, directly to the wharf. There he crouched by an old wooden building, suddenly on guard.
Ahead on the river a steamboat went by slowly, its paddle turning the water white with foam. The lights from the boat gleamed on the water, and in a moment, waves from the boat's wake broke on the shore and beneath the wharf.
But this was not what had caught Rama's attention. He had just seen something move beside the wharf. He waited. Once he had seen a water rat beneath the wharf, a large brown rat with whiskers longer than his own. He had crept closer, but the water rat had smelled him, then seen him, and dived from the wharf support into the water while Rama was still twenty feet away. And Rama had stood helplessly by while the water rat disappeared around the point.
Now he waited without moving. The quickening wind made a part in his long thick fur, but beneath, his muscles were tensed and ready.
He saw the movement again, a soft, easy movement like the passing of a cloud. This was no scurrying movement of a water rat. In the soft dirt, Rama's paws opened and closed, opened and closed.
The moon, low now, shone briefly in the last clear spot in the sky, and then the clouds closed in and the moon was hidden. But in that moment Rama had looked piercingly toward the wharf and had seen the form of another cat, and he knew that the cat, at the same moment, had looked up and seen him.
Slowly the other cat left the wharf and came up the slope to where Rama crouched beside the wooden building. The cat came carefully, warily, and Rama felt his muscles as tight as springs in his body.
The cat was black and brown, striped like a tiger, but there were white patches on his face and chest, and this was what Rama had first noticed in the darkness. He was a big cat, old and experienced, and there were battle scars on his face. The tip of his left ear was missing. He came steadily, slowly, toward Rama.
This wharf was his. He was the one who searched the wharf for rats. He was the one who rested on the supports of the wharf on a hot day. He was the one who got fish from the fishermen. He was the one who slept in the very building Rama was crouching against. He had defended his property against all comers, and now he welcomed the prospect of a fight.
Three feet from Rama, he went into a crouch. He paused there, his eyes staring into Rama's, and Rama stared directly back. Both were crouched in the same position. The claws of both cats were flexing in and out in readiness for battle.
The old cat made a noise then, an unreal sound that warned Rama, threatened Rama, a sound that seemed to hang in the air for a long time. He inched closer, still in a crouch. Again he made the sound, and Rama, feeling strong and powerful, uttered the same sound, deep and yet rising high like a strange Indian battle cry.
They waited, but it was a waiting charged with tension. Each looked for the best moment, for some sign of the other's weakness.
Suddenly, without any warning other than the rustling of the trees, rain began to fall. So engrossed were the two cats that neither noticed at first. They remained as they were, poised and ready, with the old cat still inching slowly toward Rama.
The rain was not to be ignored. It began with big, hard drops that struck both cats like pebbles. They could not stand this for long; and after a moment, as if by mutual consent, they both rose. They circled each other in the rain, moving apart in a widening circle. Then Rama turned and ran for the forest.
The old cat, with one backward look to make sure Rama was not going to return, entered the old wooden building through a rotted floor board and settled himself on a pile of old feed sacks. He began to lick the raindrops from his fur.
Rama ran quickly through the town, but when he had left the houses behind, he paused to take shelter in a grove of cottonwood trees. He leaped on the low fork of one tree and settled there, protected somewhat from the rain. There he, too, began to lick his wet fur.
He waited until the rain stopped and then he made his way to the gypsy camp. No one was stirring yet, but Rama was too restless to wait beneath the wagon. He skirted the wet ashes of the campfire and jumped up onto the little window-ledge at the back of the gypsy woman's wagon. He drew his claws down the side of the window and mewed loudly.
After a moment he did it again, and this time the gypsy woman came and opened the door for him.
"Eh, what's wrong with you? You wake an old woman from a good sleep? Come in, come in." Wrapped in a long woolen shawl, she waited while he ran into the wagon, pausing to rub himself against her skirt.
"This is no morning for cats and gypsies," said the woman, "eh, my friend?"
Rama leaped onto a chest piled high with pillows in the corner of the wagon. He kneaded the pillows with his paws until they were satisfactorily arranged and then he settled himself. Within minutes he was asleep.
When he awoke, the gypsy woman was up, eating her breakfast. She was having two large biscuits left over from her evening meal, and she was dipping these in coffee.
Rama stretched, lifting his back high in the air, and then he moved to the door of the wagon. He was suddenly restless. Awakening, he had remembered the strange cat, and he was eager to confront him again. At the door he mewed and looked up at the gypsy woman. Always she opened the door for him at once, but today she did not.
"No, my friend," she said. "We leave this place today, and I do not want to lose you. Stay in the warm wagon and tonight, when we camp, there will be new forests, eh?"
Arching his back, Rama rubbed against her, and then he rose and rubbed his head against her like a tiny goat. The gypsy woman had a scrap of meat she had saved, and now she set it on a tin plate and gave it to him. She watched him as he ate.
Although the meat was good, Rama stopped eating after a few bites and went back to the door. He mewed and looked up at the gypsy woman. Again he mewed, growing impatient that she did not understand him. He mewed louder.
The gypsy woman picked him up and put him back on the chest in the corner of the wagon.
"Sleep, Rama," she said, "and dream of new lands"—she smiled—"while I dream of new fortunes to tell, and many gold coins, eh?"
But Rama jumped at once from the chest and moved again to the door. Now the urge was growing still stronger in him to face the strange cat, to test himself, but the gypsy woman was firm.
"Not today, Rama, not today."
She drew a shawl about her shoulders and left the wagon, taking care that Rama was closed inside. In the pale dawn, the gypsy camp was coming to life and all the wagons were being prepared to move out. The camp was strangely quiet despite the noises of departure, for everyone was too busy to talk and the cold air had made them all eager to depart. They were lovers of the sun and the warm breezes.
Unaided, the gypsy woman hitched her horse to the wagon, and then she sat on the seat of her wagon, pulling her shawl more carefully about her shoulders. Still chilled, she jumped quickly from her wagon and walked around to the back and entered. It would be a long day and already her shoulders felt tightened with the cold. She took her heaviest shawl from the bed—it also served as a blanket—and draped it over her head. Then, in a swirl of skirts and shawls, she stepped down from the wagon. She did not notice that Rama, at the same moment, had leaped to the ground and run into the brush beside the wagon.
She climbed again to the seat, and with her shawl tight about her, she waited for the other wagons to get ready. As she waited, she thought of Rama and smiled, not knowing he was now moving steadily away from the wagon.
She had a great fondness for the cat. "Rama the gypsy," she said to herself. "He is well named."
Long ago, when the gypsy woman had been a little girl with long dark braids that swung about her shoulders like whips, her grandmother had told her a story about a prince named Rama. The brave and honorable prince had spent fourteen years in wanderings and adventures after being banished from his home. The gypsy woman had remembered the story all these long years, and when she found the cat, she had named him Rama, for he, too, had a heart for wandering and adventure.
Had she known he was now leaving, she would have jumped to the ground and called him back in her deep voice, refusing to start her wagon until he was safely inside again. But she thought him settled comfortably on the chest, by now asleep.
The first wagon moved from the clearing to the small rutted road, and the gypsy woman with a jiggle of her reins, set her wagon in motion also. Slowly, with no sun to brighten their leaving, the gypsies moved down the road, around the bend, and out of sight.
Excerpted from Rama the Gypsy Cat by Betsy Byars. Copyright © 1966 Betsy Byars. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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