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The Cats of Tanglewood Forest
By Charles de Lint, Charles Vess
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2013 Charles de Lint Charles Vess
All rights reserved.
The Awful, Dreadful Snake
Once there was a forest of hickory and beech, sprucy-pine, birch and oak. It was called the Tanglewood Forest. Starting at the edge of a farmer's pasture, it seemed to go on forever, uphill and down. There were a few abandoned homesteads to be found in its reaches, overgrown and uninhabitable now, and deep in a hidden clearing there was a beech tree so old that only the hills themselves remembered the days when it was a sapling.
Above that grandfather tree, the forest marched up to the hilltops in ever-denser thickets of rhododendrons and brush until nothing stood between the trees and stars. Below it, a creek ran along the bottom of a dark narrow valley, no more than a trickle in some places, wider in others. Occasionally the water tumbled down rough staircases of stone and rounded rocks.
On a quiet day, when the wind was still, the creek could be heard all the way up to where the old beech stood. Under its branches cats would come to dream and be dreamed. Black cats and calicos, white cats and marmalade ones, too. Sometimes they exchanged gossip or told stories about L'il Pater, the trickster cat. More often they lay in a drowsy circle around the fat trunk of the ancient beech that spread its boughs above them. Then one of them might tell a story of the old and powerful Father of Cats, and though the sun might still be high and the day warm, they would shiver and groom themselves with nervous tongues.
But they hadn't yet gathered the day the orphan girl fell asleep among the beech's roots, nestling in the weeds and long grass like the gangly, tousle-haired girl she was.
Her name was Lillian Kindred.
She hadn't meant to fall asleep, but she was a bit like a cat herself, forever wandering in the woods, chasing after squirrels and rabbits as fast as her skinny legs could take her when the fancy struck, climbing trees like a possum, able to doze in the sun at a moment's notice. And sometimes with no notice at all.
This morning she'd been hunting fairies down by the creek, where it pooled wide for a spell. The only way you could cross it here was by the stepping-stones laid out in an irregular pattern from one bank to the other.
"Fairies won't go across the water," the midwife Harlene Welch told her, "but they do like to gather on the stones. Creep up on them all quiet-like and you can catch them sunning there like dragonflies."
The trouble was, dragonflies were all she ever found by the creek. She never found fairies anywhere, no matter how hard she looked, though some days she could feel them in the air around her, tiny invisible presences as quick as honeybees. The air would hum with the rapid beat of their wings, but no matter how quickly she turned and spun, they were never there when she looked.
She and Aunt lived miles from anyone, deep in the hills, halfway down the slope between their apple orchard and the creek. It seemed the perfect place to find fairies if ever there was one, and if the stories the old folks told were true. But no matter how quietly Lillian prowled through the woods, no matter how often she crept up on a mushroom fairy ring, the little people were never there.
"Don't you go troubling the spirits," Aunt told her on more than one occasion. "They were here before us, and they'll still be here when we're gone. Best you just leave them be."
"Because they're not partial to being bothered by some little red-haired girl who's got nothing better to do than stick her nose in other folks' business. When it comes to spirits, it's best not to draw their attention. Elsewise you never know what you might be calling down on yourself."
That was hard advice for a young girl.
"I'm not troubling anyone," she would tell the oldest apple tree in the orchard as she lay on the ground, looking up into its leaves. "I just want to say hello hello."
But it was hard to say hello to fairies she couldn't find.
One afternoon Lillian and Aunt were working in the corn patch. Aunt pulled the weeds up with her hoe while Lillian followed behind and put them in a basket. Aunt was humming some old tune, the way she always did. "Get Up John," maybe. Or that old, sad song "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake."
"I wouldn't hurt the fairies," Lillian said. "I just want a look at them is all. Where's the harm in that?"
Aunt broke off her humming and leaned on her hoe.
"Maybe there is and maybe there isn't," she said. "I reckon only those little spirits could tell you the one way or t'other. I just know what my pappy told me. He said, 'You be careful 'round the spirits. Once they take an interest in you ... well, sometimes they take a liking, and sometimes they don't. They're like the wild cats thataway.' "
"I like the cats."
Aunt nodded. "And I reckon they like you, seeing's how you're giving them a saucer of Annabelle's milk every morning the way you do. I don't mind 'em coming 'round. They keep the mice away. But you got to remember with a wild cat, you could be a-petting him calm as you please one day, and the next it's a-scratching and a-clawing at you for no good reason you could ever put a finger on. There's no accounting for them. No, sir. That's what the spirits are like, girl. Folks like you and me, we can't predict what they'll do."
"Maybe the fairies would like me the way the cats do."
Aunt smiled and went back to her hoeing.
"I've heard tell," she said as she worked the dirt, "that they're kin of a kind. The way a squirrel and a rat are kin, them both being rodents. Pappy said everything living in the deep woods has got a bit of magic in it, but cats have more'n most. You ask the preacher and he'll tell you it's because they all got a bit of the devil in 'em."
Lillian shook dirt from the weeds and dropped them in her basket. She liked it when Aunt talked about fairies and such. Most times she only told Lillian about practical things to do with running the farm.
"Have you ever seen a spirit?" she asked Aunt.
That earned her another smile. "Live in these hills long enough and sooner or later you'll have seen pretty much everything. Your Uncle Ulyss used to tease me something fierce, but I hold to this day that one time I saw L'il Pater crossing the bottom of the field. He was walking on his hind legs, just like a little man, with a floppy hat on his head, big black boots on his feet, and a bag hanging on a stick he had slung over his shoulder. And following on behind him was a line of cats of every size and color."
"What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything. I just stood there with my eyes big as saucers, staring and staring until the woods swallowed 'em all up like they'd never been there." She laughed. "Which is what Ulyss said was the case. But I'll tell you, I didn't see a cat around this farm for two weeks after. And when they come back, they were slinking around like they'd spent the time they were gone doing nothing but drinking moonshine and dancing, and every time they had to move, it made them ache something fierce."
Aunt went back to humming and Lillian tried to imagine what she would have done if she'd been the one to see L'il Pater.
The next morning she did her chores, just like every morning. She fed the chickens, throwing an extra handful of grain into the grass for the sparrows and other small birds that waited for the promise of her bounty in the branches of the wild rosebushes that grew nearby. She milked Annabelle, their one cow, and set out a saucer for the stray cats that would come out of the forest while she put the cow out to pasture and brought the milk in to Aunt. After a breakfast of biscuits and honeyed tea, she weeded the vegetable patch. If Aunt didn't have any other chores for her, and she was done with her lessons, the rest of the day was hers to do what she wanted.
She set off on a ramble, running up the hill to leave a piece of one of her breakfast biscuits under the boughs of the Apple Tree Man.
That's what Aunt called the oldest apple tree in their orchard gone wild. He stood near the very top of the hill, overlooking the meadow dotted with wildflowers and beehives and the other apple trees.
"Why do you call him that?" Lillian had asked the first time she'd heard his name. "Is there a real man living in the tree?"
He'd be a gnarled, twisty sort of a man, she thought, to live in that old, twisty tree. She probably daydreamed as much about him as she did fairies, especially when she was lying under his branches. Sometimes when she dozed there she imagined she could hear a distant voice telling stories that she never remembered when she woke.
"I don't know the why or where of it," Aunt replied. "But that's what we've always called the oldest apple tree. Only we didn't leave food out for him, like you do." She shook her head. "You're just feeding the raccoons and squirrels."
Lillian didn't think so—not at all. There was an Apple Tree Man, just like there were fairies and magic cats. He was shy, that was all. Private. But one day all the spirits of the Tanglewood Forest would know that she meant them no harm, and they would come to her and they'd all be friends.
So, with her chores done, breakfast finished, and the Apple Tree Man fed, she went down into the hollow. She wandered upstream from the stepping-stones to where the creek tumbled down a staircase of rocks, enjoying the change of temperature on her arms when she walked from sunlight into shadow and then out again. By the waterfall she balanced on the slick rocks and lichen, poking at the shiny pebbles underwater with a stick until she felt the weight of someone's attention upon her.
Looking up, she found herself face-to-face with a handsome, white-tailed deer. He stood on the edge of a tangle of rhododendrons, with the sprucy-pine and yellow birch rising up the hillside behind him.
Deer were almost as good as fairies, so far as Lillian was concerned.
"Hello hello, you," she said.
When he turned and bolted, she ran in pursuit. Not to catch him, not to scare him. Just for the fun of seeing how fast they both could run.
They ran uphill and down. They ran through thickets of hickory and yellow birch, across sudden meadows where the grass and weeds slapped against their legs, up rock-strewn slopes, dusky with moss and ferns, and back down into the hollow, where the creek ran with them. They ran and ran, the deer bounding gracefully, Lillian scrambling and leaping, but no less quick for that.
Sometimes she could almost touch him. Sometimes all she could see of him was the flash of a white tail, but when he saw that she was falling behind, he would pretend to catch his own breath, only to bolt away again as she drew near.
They ran through familiar fields and meadows and deep into parts of the forest where Lillian had never been before. The trees were older here, and the thickets sometimes so dense that she had to wriggle under the ones that the deer bounded over so gracefully.
That was how she finally found herself lying under that grandfather beech tree in its hidden clearing, the deer gone his own way while she collapsed in a tangle of limbs in the tall grass and fell asleep.
And that was where the snake bit her.
It was an awful, dreadful snake, like in that old song Aunt sometimes sang. Lillian never even knew it was there under the tree with her until it struck.
The snake had been sleeping when Lillian curled up in the grass, all coiled up only inches from her foot. Dreaming, Lillian moved a leg suddenly, kicking at a milkweed head in her dream, which, in turn, disturbed the snake's own drowsy nap. The bright pain from its first strike woke her, but by then it was already too late. It struck a second time, a third. She tried to rise, to call Aunt for help, but the venom stole her strength and dropped her back onto the ground, shivering and cold.
She knew she was dying, just like the little girl in the song.
The fog of pain already lay too thick for her to see the cats come out of the long grass. Some of them she would have known because they came to visit her in the morning. Others were strangers, cats no one saw, they lived so deep in the forest, but they, too, knew of the skinny, half-wild girl who fed their cousins.
The one Lillian called Big Orange—almost the size of a bobcat, with the russet fur of a fox—was in the lead. He pounced on the snake and bit off its head, snap, just like that. Black Nessie batted the head away with a quick swipe of her paw. Two of the kittens jumped on the snake's thrashing body, growling and clawing and biting, but it was already in its death throes and couldn't harm anyone else. The other cats gathered in their circle, only this time, instead of calling up cat dreams, they had a dying girl in the middle of them.
Lillian wasn't aware of any of this. She was falling up into a bright tunnel of light, which was an odd experience, because she'd never fallen up before. She hadn't even known it was possible.
She wasn't scared now, or even in pain. She just wished the voices she heard would stop talking, because they were holding her back. They wouldn't let her fall all the way up into the tunnel of light.
"We have to save her."
"We can't. It's too late."
"Unless we change her into something that isn't dying."
"But Father said we must never again—"
"I'll accept the weight of Father's anger."
"We all will."
"We'll make her one of our own—then he won't mind."
"He minded that time we gave the mice wings."
"This is different."
"This time we're saving a friend."
They turned their attention to Lillian and woke cat magic under the boughs of their old beech tree. First they swayed back and forth, in time with each other. Then their voices lifted in a strange, scratchy harmony like a kitchen full of fiddles not quite in tune with each other, but not so out of tune as to be entirely unpleasant. A golden light rose up from their music to glow in the air around them. It hung there, pulsing to the rhythm of their song for a long moment, before it went from cat to cat in the circle, 'round and 'round.
Three times the light went around the circuit before it left them and came to rest on the dying girl in the middle of their circle. The cats lifted their heads. They could see the soul of the girl floating up through the boughs of the beech. Their scratchy song rose higher and the light rose with it, chasing after the soul like a rope of golden light. When it finally caught up, the rope of light wrapped around her, pulling Lillian's soul back into her body.
The cats fell silent, staring at the rise and fall of Lillian's chest, and exchanged pleased looks with one another. But then, frightened by what they had done, by what Father might do when he found out, they retreated back into the forest.
The Girl Who Woke Up as a Cat
Lillian woke up and had a long, lazy stretch. What an odd dream, she thought. She lifted a paw, licked it, and had just started to clean her face when she realized what she was doing. She held the paw in front of her face. It was definitely a paw, covered in fur and minus a thumb. Where was her hand?
She looked at the rest of herself and saw only a cat's calico body, as lean and lanky as her own, but covered in fur and certainly not the one she knew.
"What's become of me?" she said.
"You're a kitten," a voice said from above.
She looked up to find a squirrel looking down at her from a branch of the beech.
He seemed to be laughing at her.
"I'm not a cat, I'm a girl," she told him.
"And I'm an old hound dog," the squirrel replied.
Then he made a passable imitation of a hound's mournful howl and bounded off, higher up into the tree.
"But I am a girl," Lillian said.
She started to get up but she seemed to have too many legs and sprawled back onto the grass.
"Or at least I was."
She tried to get up again, moving gingerly until she realized that this cat's body she was in knew how to get around. Instead of worrying about how to get up and move, she had to let herself move naturally, the way she did when she was a girl.
This time when she stood she saw the body of the headless snake, and it all came back to her. She backed away, the hair rising all along her spine, her tail puffing out. It hadn't been a dream.
She'd been snakebit. She'd been dying. And then ... and then ... what? She remembered a tunnel of light and voices.
Fairies, she thought. The fairies had come to rescue her.
"Squirrel!" she called up into the branches of the tree. "Did you see the fairies? Did you see them change me?"
There was no reply.
Excerpted from The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint, Charles Vess. Copyright © 2013 Charles de Lint Charles Vess. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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