The Wild Road

( 13 )

Overview

In the grand storytelling style of Watership Down and Tailchaser's Song comes an epic tale of adventure and danger, of heroism against insurmountable odds, and of love and comradeship among extraordinary animals who must brave The Wild Road . . .

Secure in a world of privilege and comfort, the kitten Tag is happy as a pampered house pet--until the dreams come. Dreams that pour into his safe, snug world from the wise old cat Majicou: hazy images of travel along the magical ...

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Overview

In the grand storytelling style of Watership Down and Tailchaser's Song comes an epic tale of adventure and danger, of heroism against insurmountable odds, and of love and comradeship among extraordinary animals who must brave The Wild Road . . .

Secure in a world of privilege and comfort, the kitten Tag is happy as a pampered house pet--until the dreams come. Dreams that pour into his safe, snug world from the wise old cat Majicou: hazy images of travel along the magical highways of the animals, of a mission, and of a terrible responsibility that will fall on young Tag. Armed with the cryptic message that he must bring the King and Queen of cats to Tintagel before the spring equinox, Tag ventures outside. Meanwhile, an evil human known only as the Alchemist doggedly hunts the Queen for his own ghastly ends. And if the Alchemist captures her, the world will never be safe again . . .

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
While The Wild Road owes somewhat to Tolkienesque fantasy -- with its mysterious Gandalf-like figure and its cat protagonists setting out on a quest in a motley entourage that also includes a magpie and a fox -- it's saved from the more cloying aspects of many animal fantasies by the author's delightful prose and warm characterizations. The quest takes place in contemporary England, which, through the eyes of these cats, becomes a marvelous new world of wonders and danger. An engaging addition to the growing subgenre of animal-based fantasies, it's the sort of book that will appeal equally to mainstream and fantasy readers.

—Charles de Lint

From the Publisher
"Absolutely magical . . . Always intriguing."
--Richard Adams
     Author of Watership Down

"A magical quest fantasy--a Watership Down for cat lovers."
--The Daily Telegraph (London)

"A diverting fantasy tale."
--USA Today

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When a runaway kitten named Tag meets a mysterious black cat named Majicou in his dreams, he learns he is destined for bigger things. Called by Majicou, Tag enters the Wild Road, a magical highway known only to the animals, and learns that he is needed to find the King and Queen of cats and bring them safely to Tintagel. When Tag accepts the quest, he has no idea of the long and dangerous road he's begun. Prophecy says this Queen of cats, latest in a long line of feline royalty bred by a dastardly human scientist called the Alchemist, will give birth to the Golden Cat, the key to riches and power. As if the threat of capture by the Alchemist weren't enough, Tag has his paws full just finding the Queen and protecting her from the dangers of the outside world. Fortunately, he has the help of allies like the Maine Coon cat Seaklink and scarred old veteran Mousebreath, as well as a fox named Loves A Dustbin and a crafty magpie called One For Sorrow. King's parade of animal characters is presented with a keen eye for the details of animal behavior. The cast may prove a bit too precious for general fantasy readers, but cat lovers and fans of anthropomorphic fantasies such as Tailchaser's Song are guaranteed to enjoy this London-based author's enchanting debut. Mar.
VOYA - Roxy Ekstrom
Adventure, mystery, suspense, intrigue, danger, heroism, tears, horror, love, life, death, the old, and the new-you'll find them all on the wild road. When the strange dreams started, Tag lived safe and secure with his humans. Lured from home by the magpie, Tag is summoned by the Magicou, an old one-eyed cat. Power surrounds the Magicou as he tells of the wild roads, used by the felidae since the creation of the Earth by the great Cat. The Magicou gives Tag a charge: he must find the King and Queen of cats and escort them safely to Tintagel before the vernal equinox. The Alchemist, full of evil, is after Pertelot Fitzwilliam, a dainty Egyptian Mau and Queen of the Cats, for his own evil experiments. She has escaped with her consort, King Ragnar Gustafson, a massive Norsk Skogkatt better known as Rags, and the treacherous journey to Tintagel is underway. Tag relies on the Magicou's agents, magpie and fox, but he must still use all his cunning to get Pertelot and rags across the country to the ancient holy place. When they meet up with wise, loving Sealink, a huge calico, and Mousebreath, with his wonderful mismatched eyes and a passion for the underdog, the odds take a turn in their favor. You know that Tag, Pertelot, and Rags must make it to Tintagel at the end, but oh, what a journey they undertake to get there. The Magicou has chosen well, Tag proves to be a worthy successor. The fantasy works on all levels. King's characters, even the supporting humans and cats, are well drawn, and it matters very much what happens to them. The action is fast paced and moves smoothly toward the conclusion. Put this story in the hands of fantasy, adventure, and even love story readers, be they cat lovers or not. VOYA Codes: 4Q 4P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses, Broad general YA appeal, Junior High-defined as grades 7 to 9 and Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).
School Library Journal
YA--This book promises readers a fine fantasy, but delivers much more--an epic and emotionally powerful story of animals, humans, and the ethics of their coexistence. A frame tale relates the spiritual traditions of cats and the history of their relationship with humans. The Wild Road of the title is a dimension containing the memories of all animals that have gone before. An evil sorcerer has tortured cats for many lifetimes in a quest to harness the power of the Wild Road and now, as a modern scientist, he is on the verge of succeeding. With a masterful use of language and plotting, King gradually reveals the true identity of the sorcerer and the great humor, love, and resilience of the small creatures destined to oppose him. Descriptions of felines suffering in human hands are graphic and horrible, but true to life; this is a war. Yet readers will find comfort in the wisdom the characters gain and the joy they find in life despite the evil they must fight. Like J. R. R. Tolkien, King creates humble and ordinary beings who undergo great trials, find extraordinary courage, and fight the good fight against impossible odds. Like Richard Adams, King breathes life into a rich and varied cast of creatures who talk, yet remain true to their animal natures. For teens who have appreciated other books that evoke a greater universe than that described by consensual reality, The Wild Road should be equally well loved and remembered.--Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Young gray kitten Tag lives an easy housebound life with his "dulls" (people) until he's tempted to dash outside, where, distracted by a magpie, a fox, and a mysterious old one-eyed black cat named Majicou, he gets lost and must adopt the precarious life of a stray on east London's hard streets. There is, of course, a purpose to all this: Tag's task, so Majicou says, is to find the king and queen of cats and bring them to Tintagel before the spring equinox. Majicou—he's the caretaker of the wild roads, ancient energy channels used by animals to travel in space and time, and composed of the souls, or ghosts, of cats—warns Tag of the evil Alchemist (King's hint that he's really Isaac Newton, thoroughly nasty though he may have been, is hard to swallow) who's trying to gain control of the roads through magic, selective breeding, and by horrible experiments on cats. Tag soon discovers the King, Ragnar, and the Queen, Pertelot Fitzwilliam, but loses them after the Alchemist makes a magical grab for Pertelot (she's key to his plans). So, with his helpers, the magpie One for Sorrow, the fox Loves a Dustbin, Mousebreath the cockney cat, Sealink the New England calico, and poor, mad Cy, who has a spark plug implanted in her head, courtesy of the Alchemist, Tag must head for a showdown at Tintagel in Cornwall. Though in places uncomfortably reminiscent of Paul Gallico's classic Jennie, a debut with tingling ideas, respectable characters, rousing adventures, and well-versed cat lore; pity the plot makes little or no sense. Still, definitely deserving a look by fantasy-ailurophiles.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345423030
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 672,214
  • Product dimensions: 4.20 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

A lifelong cat lover, Gabriel King has shared a home with every variety of feline, from stray to pedigree. He lives in London.
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Read an Excerpt

        Among human beings a cat is merely a cat; among cats a cat is a
        prowling shadow in a jungle.
        --Karel Capek

They called the kitten Tag. They fed him, and he grew. They put a collar around his neck. They entertained him, and the world began to take on shape.

It was his world, full of novelty yet always reliable, exciting yet secure. He was a small king; and by the time a week was out, he had explored every inch of his new kingdom. He liked the kitchen best. It was warm in there on a cold day, and from the windowsill he could see out into the garden. In the kitchen they made food, which was easy to get off them.
He had bowls of his own to eat it from. He had a box of clean dirt to scrat in. The kitchen wasn't entirely comfortable--especially in the morning, when things went off or went around very loudly without warning--but elsewhere they had given him a large sofa, covered in dark red velvet, among the scattered cushions of which he scrabbled and burrowed and slept. He had brass tubs with plants and some very interesting fireplaces full of dried flowers, out of which flowed odors damp and sooty.

Up a flight of stairs and into every room, every cupboard and corner! It was big up there, and full of unattended human things. At first he wouldn't go on his own but always made one of them accompany him while he inspected the shelves stuffed with clean linen and dusty books.

"Come on, come on!" he urged them. "Here now! Look, here!" They never answered.

They were too dull.

A further flight up, and it was as if nobody had ever lived there--echoes on the uncarpeted stairs, gray floorboards and open doors, pale bright light pouring in through uncurtained windows. Up there, each bare floor had a smell of its own; each ball of fluff had a personality. If he listened, he could hear dead spiders contracting behind the woodwork. Left to himself up there he danced, for reasons he barely understood. It was a territorial dance, grave yet full of energy. Simply to occupy the space,
perhaps, he leapt and pounced and hurled himself about, then slept in a pool of sunshine as if someone had switched him off. When he woke, the sun had moved away, and they were calling him to come and eat more new things.

They called him Tag. He called them dull.

"Come on, dulls!" he urged them. "Come on!"

They had a room where they poured water on themselves. Every morning he hid outside it and jumped out on the big dull bare feet that passed. Nice but dull, they were never quick enough or nimble enough to avoid him. They never learned. They remained shadowy to him--a large smell, cheerful if meaningless goings-on, a caring face suspended over him like the moon through the window if he woke afraid. They remained patient, amiable,
easily convinced, less focused than a tin of meat-and-liver dinner. The dulls were for food or comfort or play. Especially for play. One of his earliest memories was of chasing soap bubbles. The light of an autumn evening shifted gently from blue to a deep orange. Up and down the room rushed Tag, clapping his front paws in the air. He loved the movement. He loved the heavy warmth of the air. Everything was exciting. Everything was golden. The iridescence of each bubble was a brand-new world, a brand-new opportunity. It was like waking up in the morning.

Bubble! Tag thought. Another bubble!

He thought, Chase the bubbles!

As leggy and unsteady, as easily surprised, as easy to tease, as full of daft energy as every kitten, Tag pursued the bubbles, and the bubbles--each with its tiny reflected picture of the room in strange, slippery colors--evaded him smoothly and neatly and then hid among a sheaf of dried flowers or floated slowly up the chimney or blundered without a care into a piece of furniture and burst. He heard them burst, in a way a human being never could, with a sound like tapped porcelain.

Evanescence and infinite renewal!

Any cat who wants to live forever should watch bubbles. Only kittens should chase them.

Tag would chase anything. But the toy he enjoyed most was a small cloth mouse with a very energetic odor. It had been bright red to start with.
Now it was rather dirty, and to its original smell had been added that of floor polish. Tag whacked it around the shiny living room floor. Off it skidded. Tag skidded after it, scrabbling to keep upright on the tighter turns.

One day he found a real mouse hiding under the Welsh dresser.

A real mouse was a different thing.

Tag could see it, a little pointed black shape against the gray dimness.
He could smell it too, sharp and terrified against the customary smell of fluff balls and seasoned pine. It knew he was there! It kept very still,
but there was a lick of light off one beady eye, and he could feel the thoughts racing and racing through its tiny head. All the mouse's fear was trapped there under the dresser, stretched taut between the two of them like a wire. Tag vibrated with it. He wanted to chase and pounce. He wanted to eat the mouse: he didn't want to eat it. He felt powerful and predatory; he felt bigger than himself. At the same time he was anxious and frightened--for himself and the mouse. Eating someone was such a big step. He rather regretted his bravado with the pet shop finches.

He watched the mouse for some time. It watched him. Suddenly, Tag decided not to change either of their lives. His old cloth mouse had a nicer smell anyway. He reached in expertly, hooked it out, and walked away with it in his jaws. "Got you!" he told it. He flung it in the air and caught it.
After a few minutes he had forgotten the real mouse, though it probably never forgot him--and his dreams were never the same.

That afternoon he took the cloth mouse with him up to the third floor where he could pat it about in a drench of cool light.

When he got bored with this he jumped up on the windowsill. From up there he had a view of the gardens stretching away right and left between the houses. However much he cajoled or bullied them, the dulls never seemed to understand that he wanted to go out there. It fascinated him. His own garden had a lawn full of moss and clover that sloped down toward the house, where a steep rockery gave way to the lichen-stained tiles of the checkerboard patio. Lime trees overhung the back fence, along which--almost obscured by colonies of cotoneaster, monbretia, and fuchsia--ran a dark,
narrow path of crazy paving. Cool smells came up from the garden after rain. Wood pigeons shifted furtively in the branches all endless sunny afternoon, then burst into loud, aimless cooing. At twilight, the sleepy liquid call of blackbird and thrush seemed to come from another world; and the greens of the lawn looked mysterious and unreal. Dawn filled the trees with squirrels, who chased one another from branch to branch, looting as they went, while birds quartered the lawn or hopped in circles around the mossy stone birdbath.

Transfixed with excitement, Tag watched them pull up worms.

That afternoon, a magpie was in blatant possession of the lawn, strutting around the birdbath and every so often emitting loud and raucous cries. It was a big, glossy bird, proud of its elegant black-and-white livery and metallic blue flashes. Tag had seen it before. He hated its bobbing head and powerful, ugly beak. He hated its flat, ironic eyes. Most of all he hated the way it seemed to look directly up at him, as if to say, My lawn!

Tag narrowed his eyes. Angry chattering sounds he couldn't control came from his throat. He jumped off the windowsill, then back up again.
"Wrong!" he said. "Wrong!"

But the bird pretended not to hear him--though he was certain it could--and unable to bear its smug proprietorial air, Tag sat down, curled his tail around himself, and closed his eyes. After a while, he fell asleep,
thinking confusedly, My mouse. This seemed to lead him into a dream.

He dreamed that he was under the Welsh dresser, eating something. Somehow,
the dark gap beneath the dresser was big enough for him to enter; he had followed something in there, and was eating it. The soft parts had a warm,
acrid, salty taste, and he could hardly get them down fast enough. Before he was able to swallow the tougher bits he had to shear them with the carnassial teeth at the side of his jaw, breathing heavily through his mouth as he did so. That was enjoyable too. Just as he was finishing off--licking his lips, snuffing the dusty floor where it had been in case he had missed anything--he heard a voice in the dark whisper quite close to him, "Tag is not your true name."

He whirled around. Nothing. Yet someone was there under the dresser with him. He could almost feel the heat of its body, the smell of its breath,
the unsettling companionable feel of it. It had quietly watched him eat and said nothing. Now he felt guilty, angry, afraid. His fur bristled. He tried to back out from under the dresser, but now everything was the right size again and he was stuck, squeezed down tight in a dark space that smelled of wood and dust and blood with a creature he couldn't see. "Tag,"
it whispered. "Listen. Tag is not your true name." He felt that if he stayed there any longer, it would push its face right into his, touch him in the dark, tell him something he didn't want to hear ...

"Tag is my name!" he cried, and woke up--to a loud, rapid hammering noise near his ear. While he slept, the magpie had flown up from the garden. It was strutting to and fro on the ledge directly outside the window,
screeching and cawing, flapping its wings against the glass, filling the whole world with its clamor. Now its face was right next to his, and its chipped, wicked beak was drumming against the glass and it was shouting at him.

"Call yourself a cat? Call yourself a cat?"

And he fell off the windowsill and hit his head hard on the floor.

Everything went a soft dark brown color, like comforting fur. When he woke up again, the bird was gone and he could hear the dulls preparing their food downstairs, and he thought it had all been the same dream.

Tag had lived in the house for two months. It seemed much longer, a great stretch of time in which he was never unhappy. He never wanted for anything. He doubled in size. His sleep was sound, his dreams infrequent and full of kitten things. All that seemed to be changing. Now, as he curled up on the velvet sofa, he wondered what would happen when he closed his eyes. Each time he slept, he lived another life--or fragments of it, a life of which he had no understanding.

In one dream he was walking beneath a sliver of yellow moon, with ragged clouds high up; he heard the loud roar of some distant animal. In another,
he saw the vague shape of two cats huddled together with heads bowed,
waiting in the pouring rain; they were so hungry and in such trouble that when he saw them, a grief he could not understand welled up inside him like a pain. In a third dream, he was standing on a windswept cliff high above the sea. There were dark gorse bushes under a strange, unreal light.
There was a sense of vast space, the sound of water crashing rhythmically on rocks below. In the teeth of the wind, Tag heard a voice at his side say quietly, "I am one who becomes two; I am two who become four; I am four who become eight; I am one more after that." It was the voice of a cat. Or was it?

"Tintagel," it said. "Tag! Tag! Listen! Listen to the waves!"

All the dreams were different, but that voice was always the same--quiet,
persuasive, companionable, frightening. It wanted to tell him things. It wanted him to do things.

All the dreams were strange; but perhaps this was the strangest dream of all.

He dreamed it was evening, and he was sitting on a windowsill while behind him in the room, the dulls ate their food, talking and waving their big arms about. Tag stared out. It was dark. There were clouds high up,
obscuring the waning moon, but the moonlight broke fitfully through.
Something was happening at the very end of the garden. He couldn't quite see what it was. Every night, he sensed, animals went along the path down there, entering the garden at one side and leaving at the other. They were on business of their own, business to enthral a young cat. It was a highway, with constantly exciting traffic.

In the dream there was an animal out there, but he couldn't see it clearly or hear it. For a moment the moonlight seemed to resolve it into the shape of a large black cat--a cat with only one eye. Then it was nothing but a shadow again. He shifted his feet uneasily. He wanted to be out there; he didn't want to be out there. Clouds obscured the moon again. He put his face close to the glass. "Be quiet!" he tried to tell the dulls. "Watch!
Watch now!"

As he spoke, the animal out there seemed to see him. He felt its eye on him. He felt its will begin to engage his own. He thought he heard it whisper, "I have a task for you, Tag. A great task!"

Behind him in the room, the dulls laughed at something one of them had said. Tag shook himself, expecting to wake up. But when he looked around,
he was still in that room, and he had never been asleep. As if sensing his confusion, the female got up and, putting her face close to his as if it wanted to see exactly what he was seeing, stared out into the darkness. It shivered. "You don't want to go out there," it said softly. "Cold and dangerous for a little cat like you. Brrr!" It stroked his head. The purr rose in Tag's throat. When he turned back to the garden, the one-eyed cat had gone.

Early one morning, before the household was awake, Tag saw the sun coming up, carmine colored, flat and pale with promise. A few shreds of mist hung about the branches of the lime trees. Soon, three or four sparrows and a robin had alighted on the lawn and begun hopping about among the fallen leaves. This was all as it should be. Tag hunched forward to get a better look. My birds! he thought. But then they flew up suddenly, to be replaced by his enemy the magpie, who strode on long legs in a rough circle around the birdbath, shining with health and self-importance. It stopped,
stretched its neck, opened its beak to reveal a short thick purple-gray tongue, and let forth its abrasive cry.

"Raaark. Raaark."

Oh yes? thought Tag. We'll see about that!

But what could he do? Only jump on and off the windowsill in a fever of frustration. At last he heard the dulls getting up, and there was something else to think about. He raced down the stairs and stood by his bowl in the kitchen.

"Breakfast," he demanded. Chicken and game casserole! "In here. Put it in this bowl. Breakfast!"

Chicken and game!

That was a smell he would remember later on.

Two minutes after he had got his face into the bowl, one of the dulls opened the back door without thinking. Tag felt the cool morning air on his nose. It was full of smells. It was full of opportunity. And the magpie was still out there, strutting around the lawn as if he owned it.

My lawn! thought Tag. Breakfast later!

And he was out in a flash, straight between a pair of legs, across the lawn--scattering leaves and hurling himself at the bird, who turned its sly black head at the last moment, said clearly, "Not this time, sonny," and flew like an arrow through a hole in the fence, leaving one small white body feather floating in the air behind it. Tag, enraged, went sprinting after, his hind feet digging up lawn and flower bed. He heard the dulls shouting after him. Then he was through the fence and into the garden next door. The magpie was sitting on a fence, regarding him amusedly from one beady eye. "Raaark." Off they went again. Every time he thought he had caught it, the bird only led him farther afield, until, when Tag looked back at his house, he couldn't see it any more.

He hesitated a moment.

"Call yourself a cat?" sneered the magpie, almost in his ear. "This is where you belong, out here in the wild world--not a toy cat on a windowsill!" But when Tag whirled around, ready to renew the chase, it had vanished into thin air.

Tag sat down and washed himself. He looked around.

New gardens! New gardens that went on forever. Through one and into the next, forever.

Out! he thought. I got out!

He forgot the magpie. He forgot his home. For the rest of that day he was as happy as he'd ever been. He explored the new gardens one by one, moving farther and farther away from the dulls and their house. There were gardens overgrown with weeds and elder, in which the sun barely struck through to the earth and the dusty, powerfully smelling roots. There were gardens so neat they were just like front rooms. There were gardens full of rusty household objects. Tag had a look at all of them. They were all interesting. But by late afternoon he had found the garden of his dreams.
It was wilder than his own, a narrow shady cleft between old brick walls,
sagging wooden trellis, and overgrown buddleia bushes, into which reached long bright fingers of sun. It was full of ancient flowerpots and white metal garden furniture green with moss. At one side was a bent old damson tree, its sagging boughs held up by wooden supports; at the other a well-grown holly. Tag sat in the sun between them, cleaning his fur. A
family of bullfinches piped from the branches of the damson. A bee hummed past! After it he went, whacking out with his front paws until he could clutch the stunned insect inside one of them. He put the bee carefully into his mouth and let it buzz about a bit in there. What a feeling! Then he swallowed it. "Not bad," he told himself. "Good bee." For a while he patrolled an old flower bed now overgrown with mint, in case he got another. After that, he went to sleep. When he woke up, he was hungry. It was late afternoon, and he had no idea where he was.

Two hours later, he was huddled--hungry, cold, and disoriented--on someone's back doorstep. Afternoon had given way to evening as he made his way from garden to garden, recognizing nothing. At first it had seemed like a great game. Then the fences had got higher and harder to jump, the tangled rose briars harder to push through, the smells of other cats more threatening.
Human beings had shouted at him through a window--he had run off thoughtlessly and got turned back on himself, ending up in the garden he had started from. Now he was so tired he couldn't think. He knew it wasn't his own house. But he was grateful to sit on the doorstep anyway. He was grateful for the old damson tree, spreading its branches over the white garden furniture glowing in the dusk. These things were familiar, at least. He gave a little yowl now and then, in case someone came home and let him in.

As he sat there, the light went slowly out of the sky. The sun was a great cool red ball behind the garden trees. Rooks began to settle their evening quarrels--"My branch, I think." "No, my branch!"--the whole ragged ignoble colony of them whirling up into the sky to wheel and caw before settling again, one by one into silence. Suddenly the air was colder. Shadows crept out of the box hedges. The garden seemed to change shape, becoming shorter and broader. The lawn, the shrubs in their borders, the lighted windows of the houses yellow with warmth and company--everything seemed closer and yet further away. The apple trees faded to a uniform gray.

Night had come. Tag had never been out in it before.

He knew the night only from warm rooms behind double-glazed windows. Then it had seemed exciting. Now it was only menacing and strange. As human activity decreased, the real sounds and smells of the world came through:
the sudden low twitter of a bird disturbed, the slow tarry reek of leaf mold from under the hedges, the bitter smell of a rusting iron bucket, a dog barking somewhere down at the end of the road, thickly woven odors of snails eating their way through the soft fleshy leaves of the hostas. And then, suddenly, from the gloom at the very end of the garden, came a smell that made Tag's heart race with fear and excitement! His head went up.
Almost despite himself, he sniffed the air. Something moving down there!
It was a highway, like the one that ran along the bottom of his own garden! Something was trotting down there, fast and purposeful, its paws moving silently across the broken, lichenous old flagstones as it made its way from left to right along the tunnelly overgrown path between the flower bed and the sagging board fence. Tag could barely keep still. He wanted to make himself known. He wanted to hide. Every part of him wanted to say something. Every part of him wanted to stay silent.

In the end, though, he must have moved, or made some sound, because the animal on the highway stopped. It sniffed the air for him. He heard it.
Terribly afraid, he huddled into the doorway. Too late. It was aware of him. He could see a dark silhouette, a thick black shadow with four legs and a blunt muzzle, its head turning this way and that. A single bright,
pale, reflective eye that seemed to switch itself on suddenly, like a lamp. It was looking at him. There was a long pause. Then a wave of scent,
a sharp, live, musky reek in the garden air.

"Little cat," it said in a soft voice. "Your true name is not Tag. Do you want to discover your true name? If so, you must undertake the task which lies before you."

He shrank back in the doorway until his head was pressed so tightly into the corner his face hurt. To no avail. The thing that inhabited that shadow could see him whatever he did. There was a low, grunting laugh.

"Don't be afraid," said the voice. "Come with me now."

Its owner took a pace toward him.

He cowered into his doorway.

There was a sudden impatient sigh, as if the creature had been interrupted. It paused to listen, then, purposeful and urgent, it loped off into the night without another word.

Tag huddled on the doorstep until it was light again. Exhaustion made him shake; anxiety kept him awake. Every sound, familiar or not, seemed to threaten him, from the abrupt shriek of an owl to the patient snuffling and rootling of a hedgehog in the next garden. He was afraid to make any noise of his own.

Toward dawn he fell into a restless sleep, only to dream of the animals on their highway. Tag could never be sure what he saw--what he sensed--moving along it. They were cats, certainly, although in the dream they seemed much larger than a cat should be, and they had deeply disturbing, shadowy shapes. They moved in their own powerful stink--vague, slippery,
indistinct, always angry or excited. Their voices came toward him from a long distance, in the echoing yet glutinous speech of dreams.

"A task," they told him, "a great task."

The next morning he was stiff and tired, but the sunshine made him feel optimistic. Breakfast! he thought. He sat up, stretched himself, and gave a huge yawn. "Chicken and game!" He jumped on top of a fence and looked across the gardens. They lay before him: a lawn as precise as a living room carpet, bordered with regiments of red flowers; then rusty objects propped against a shed; then bedsheets flapping on a line. He jumped down,
nosed around. There, on the concrete path as it warmed up in the sunshine,
was his own smell from yesterday, faint but distinct!

Follow myself home, he thought. No problem.

But it was a problem.

Chasing the magpie, he had taken an alarmingly random course, zigzagging,
turning back on himself, often going in circles. In the night, other animals had passed; other scents had overlaid his own. While it was a good idea, the attempt to follow himself was doomed from the start. High old brick walls, espaliered with fruit trees, blocked his path. Abundant crops of nettles forced him to divert. He blundered into another cat--or rather the insane face of another cat was thrust unexpectedly into his own,
screaming at him so loudly that he jumped in fear and ran off under some bushes and came out disoriented twenty minutes later to find himself trapped in a place that didn't even seem to be a garden. The spines of dying foxgloves mopped and mowed against a tottering wooden fence. What had once been an open space was now a jungle: fireweed seeding down to ashes, a choke of brambles and old rose suckers bound together in the dusty heat by convolvulus and grape ivy. The air was thick, still, and oppressive, full of the sleepy drone of insects. Eventually he pushed his way out. He was hot and tired and out of temper. The house in front of him had blue shutters, peeling to show the gray wood beneath, and a blue door.
Not much else could be seen through the skeins of honeysuckle and wiry climbing roses colonizing its pebble-dashed walls. Its windows were of rippled glass, dim with dirt. Compressed between the wilderness and the house, the remains of its garden--the patch of yellowed lawn on which he stood, the beds overgrown with rubbery hostas, the tottering wooden shed which had also at some point been painted blue--would soon be engulfed.

Tag sighed and sat down suddenly in the shade of some terra-cotta pots full of dead geraniums. It was already noon, and he still hadn't eaten. He crouched down, tucked his front paws neatly under him, and let his nose rest on the ground. Not knowing what else to do, he slept. When he woke,
the magpie was perched on a broken pot in front of him.

"Raaark," it said "On your own then, Kit-e-Kat?"

"Don't call me that!" said Tag.

The magpie laughed. "Call yourself a cat?" it asked. It added mysteriously, "I don't know why he bothers with you. If he could find them on his own, he wouldn't." Then it put its head on one side, regarded him with one beady eye, and said with measured nastiness, "Oh yes, you're on your own now, Kit-e-Kat!"

Tag was enraged. He jumped up and rushed the magpie. "My name's Tag!" he cried. "I am a cat, and they call me Tag, not Kit-e-Kat!"

The magpie only bobbed its head wickedly and took flight. It flapped with a dreamy slowness up from the lawn and into the rowan tree. As it flew it looked less like a bird than a series of brilliant sketches of one. For an instant--while it was still rising but almost into the tree--it seemed to wear its own wings like a black, shiny cloak. Then it perched, quickly ruffled its feathers, and looked down at Tag, its head tilted on one side to show a bright cruel eye.

"They call me One for Sorrow," it said. "And you won't forget me in a hurry."

Alone, thought Tag.

He tested this idea until sudden panic swept through him. He ran around and around the lawn until he was tired again. He licked his fur in the sunshine for ten minutes. He couldn't think what to do. He jumped up onto a windowsill and rubbed both sides of his face on the window pane.
"Breakfast!" he demanded. But clearly it would not be feeding him today.
So he jumped down and tried the same with the back door. No luck. Clearly no one would be feeding him today.

He had a new idea. He would feed himself.

Eat a bee, he thought. Eat more than one.

And he tore off excitedly across the lawn, the little bell on his collar jingling.

An hour later he had chased four houseflies, a blackbird, two sparrows,
and a leaf. He had caught one of the houseflies and the leaf. The leaf proved to be unpalatable. No bees were about. All this effort made him hungrier than before. He went back to the house and jumped up on the windowsill again.

"Yow!" he said.

Nothing. It was silent and empty in there.

He stalked a wren, which scolded him from a safe place inside a hedge. He tried it on with two squirrels, who bobbed their tails at him and sped off along the top of a board fence at a breakneck pace, vying with each other for the lead and calling "Stuff you!" and "Stuff your nuts, mate!" as they ran. Then he tried a thrush, which kept a lazy eye on him while it shelled its breakfast--a yellow snail--against a stone, then rose up neatly as he pounced, and with no fuss or fluster cleared his optimistic jaws by four inches and left him clapping his front paws silently on empty air.

"Nice technique," said an interested voice behind him.

"Pretty stupid cat, though," answered another. "Anyone could have caught that."

Tag thought he recognized one of the voices, but he was too ashamed to turn around and look. For the rest of that day, he ate flies. They were easy to catch and, depending on what they had eaten recently, even tasted good. In the middle of the afternoon he bullied some sparrows off half a slice of buttered white bread two gardens along the row. Finally, he went back to the place where he had argued with the thrush. There he caught some snails. They didn't taste in the slightest bit good, but at least, he thought, he was denying them to the thrush.

Toward evening it began to rain.

The rain came stealthily at first, a drop here and a drop there. It tapped and popped on the leaves of the hostas, where it gathered as shiny beads--each containing a tiny curved image of the world--that soon collapsed into little short-lived rivulets. The snails, sensing the rain, opened themselves up gratefully. Then, sensing Tag, they shut themselves away again. There was a kind of hush around the sound of each raindrop.

Tag watched the snails and waited. A cat with a thick coat doesn't feel the rain until too late. Suddenly it was pouring down on him, straight as a stair rod, cold and penetrating as a needle. He was surprised and disgusted to find himself soaked. His skin twitched. He stretched and stood up. He shook out first one front paw, then the other. He retreated to the back doorstep.

No good.

A gust of wind shook the shrubbery and blew the rain across the garden in swirls, right into his shelter. He sat there grimly for a bit, trying to lick the damp off his fur, fluffing up, blinking, shaking himself, licking again. But in the end he had to admit that he was just as wet there as he would have been in the middle of the lawn.

I hate rain, he thought.

He dashed out into the downpour to try the windowsill.

Wet.

He found a dry patch in the lee of the terra-cotta pots. The wind changed and blew the rain into his face.

He tried sitting under the trees.

Wet.

Soon it was coming dark. "Stop raining now," said Tag. Every time he changed position he got wetter. He was hungry again, and cold. But if he scampered about to keep warm he felt tired very suddenly. He ordered the rain, "Leave me alone, now." The rain didn't listen. The garden didn't listen. The wind was like a live thing. It was always blowing from behind him, ruffling his fur up the wrong way to find and chill any part of him that still had any warmth left. He turned around and tried to bite the harder gusts. He ran blindly about or simply sat, becoming more and more bedraggled. Suddenly he realized that he was sitting by the door of the garden shed.

Inside, he thought.

He hooked his paw around the bottom of the door and pulled hard. It wouldn't move. Open! he heard himself think. Open, now! He hooked again and pulled harder. This made him so weary he needed to sit down; but after a moment he was cold again and had to force himself to get up.

Hook. Pull. No good.

"Come on, Tag," he encouraged himself. "Come on!"

Hook. Pull. The door scraped open an inch. Then two.

That's enough! thought Tag.

For some minutes he was too worn out to do anything but sit in front of the door with his head down, looking at nothing. Then he pushed his face cautiously into the gap, and the rest of him, bedraggled and shivering,
seemed to follow of its own accord.

It rained. Days and nights came and went, and still no one summoned him for "the task." The house remained empty and the lawn filled with puddles.
Then the last leaves fell from the trees, and the nights drew in tight,
like a collar around a young cat's neck. Smoke hung low over the gardens in the late afternoon; the days began with thick mists. Winter ushered itself in, quietly and without fuss, in the voice of the roosting crows,
the raw chill in the evening air. Tag lived in the shed, and soon became familiar with its pungent smells of ancient sacks and insecticides, spiderwebs and mice. He never caught a mouse there, but it was reassuring to think that one day he might. If it was not warm, the shed was at least dry. The shed saved him.

When he felt strong, he ranged up and down the gardens, three or four houses in every direction. He ate flies. He ate earthworms. He ate anything that could be caught without a great expenditure of energy. He got up in the dawn to beat the squirrels to the scraps of bread and lard and meat that other cats' dulls put out for the birds. He became thin and quick but easier and easier to tire. He avoided confrontations. Seen in the distance in the gardens at sunrise on a cold morning, he was like a white ghost, a twist of breath in the frost. Close to, his silver coat was tangled and muddy and out of condition.

Some days it was all he could do to find the energy to crouch at a puddle and lap up rainwater, then make his way back to the shed. Eat something tomorrow, he would think; and then after a confused doze get up again in the belief that tomorrow had already come. Which in a way it had.

He never left the gardens. If he thought about his life, he thought that this was the way he would live it now. Tiredness, and the comforting sound of the rain on the roof of the shed.

Then one night everything changed again.

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Among human beings a cat is merely a cat; among cats a cat is a prowling shadow in a jungle. --Karel Capek

They called the kitten Tag. They fed him, and he grew. They put a collar around his neck. They entertained him, and the world began to take on shape.

It was his world, full of novelty yet always reliable, exciting yet secure. He was a small king; and by the time a week was out, he had explored every inch of his new kingdom. He liked the kitchen best. It was warm in there on a cold day, and from the windowsill he could see out into the garden. In the kitchen they made food, which was easy to get off them. He had bowls of his own to eat it from. He had a box of clean dirt to scrat in. The kitchen wasn't entirely comfortable--especially in the morning, when things went off or went around very loudly without warning--but elsewhere they had given him a large sofa, covered in dark red velvet, among the scattered cushions of which he scrabbled and burrowed and slept. He had brass tubs with plants and some very interesting fireplaces full of dried flowers, out of which flowed odors damp and sooty.

Up a flight of stairs and into every room, every cupboard and corner! It was big up there, and full of unattended human things. At first he wouldn't go on his own but always made one of them accompany him while he inspected the shelves stuffed with clean linen and dusty books.

"Come on, come on!" he urged them. "Here now! Look, here!" They never answered.

They were too dull.

A further flight up, and it was as if nobody had ever lived there--echoes on the uncarpeted stairs, gray floorboards and open doors, pale bright light pouring in through uncurtained windows. Up there, each bare floor had a smell of its own; each ball of fluff had a personality. If he listened, he could hear dead spiders contracting behind the woodwork. Left to himself up there he danced, for reasons he barely understood. It was a territorial dance, grave yet full of energy. Simply to occupy the space, perhaps, he leapt and pounced and hurled himself about, then slept in a pool of sunshine as if someone had switched him off. When he woke, the sun had moved away, and they were calling him to come and eat more new things.

They called him Tag. He called them dull.

"Come on, dulls!" he urged them. "Come on!"

They had a room where they poured water on themselves. Every morning he hid outside it and jumped out on the big dull bare feet that passed. Nice but dull, they were never quick enough or nimble enough to avoid him. They never learned. They remained shadowy to him--a large smell, cheerful if meaningless goings-on, a caring face suspended over him like the moon through the window if he woke afraid. They remained patient, amiable, easily convinced, less focused than a tin of meat-and-liver dinner. The dulls were for food or comfort or play. Especially for play. One of his earliest memories was of chasing soap bubbles. The light of an autumn evening shifted gently from blue to a deep orange. Up and down the room rushed Tag, clapping his front paws in the air. He loved the movement. He loved the heavy warmth of the air. Everything was exciting. Everything was golden. The iridescence of each bubble was a brand-new world, a brand-new opportunity. It was like waking up in the morning.

Bubble! Tag thought. Another bubble!

He thought, Chase the bubbles!

As leggy and unsteady, as easily surprised, as easy to tease, as full of daft energy as every kitten, Tag pursued the bubbles, and the bubbles--each with its tiny reflected picture of the room in strange, slippery colors--evaded him smoothly and neatly and then hid among a sheaf of dried flowers or floated slowly up the chimney or blundered without a care into a piece of furniture and burst. He heard them burst, in a way a human being never could, with a sound like tapped porcelain.

Evanescence and infinite renewal!

Any cat who wants to live forever should watch bubbles. Only kittens should chase them.

Tag would chase anything. But the toy he enjoyed most was a small cloth mouse with a very energetic odor. It had been bright red to start with. Now it was rather dirty, and to its original smell had been added that of floor polish. Tag whacked it around the shiny living room floor. Off it skidded. Tag skidded after it, scrabbling to keep upright on the tighter turns.

One day he found a real mouse hiding under the Welsh dresser.

A real mouse was a different thing.

Tag could see it, a little pointed black shape against the gray dimness. He could smell it too, sharp and terrified against the customary smell of fluff balls and seasoned pine. It knew he was there! It kept very still, but there was a lick of light off one beady eye, and he could feel the thoughts racing and racing through its tiny head. All the mouse's fear was trapped there under the dresser, stretched taut between the two of them like a wire. Tag vibrated with it. He wanted to chase and pounce. He wanted to eat the mouse: he didn't want to eat it. He felt powerful and predatory; he felt bigger than himself. At the same time he was anxious and frightened--for himself and the mouse. Eating someone was such a big step. He rather regretted his bravado with the pet shop finches.

He watched the mouse for some time. It watched him. Suddenly, Tag decided not to change either of their lives. His old cloth mouse had a nicer smell anyway. He reached in expertly, hooked it out, and walked away with it in his jaws. "Got you!" he told it. He flung it in the air and caught it. After a few minutes he had forgotten the real mouse, though it probably never forgot him--and his dreams were never the same.

That afternoon he took the cloth mouse with him up to the third floor where he could pat it about in a drench of cool light.

When he got bored with this he jumped up on the windowsill. From up there he had a view of the gardens stretching away right and left between the houses. However much he cajoled or bullied them, the dulls never seemed to understand that he wanted to go out there. It fascinated him. His own garden had a lawn full of moss and clover that sloped down toward the house, where a steep rockery gave way to the lichen-stained tiles of the checkerboard patio. Lime trees overhung the back fence, along which--almost obscured by colonies of cotoneaster, monbretia, and fuchsia--ran a dark, narrow path of crazy paving. Cool smells came up from the garden after rain. Wood pigeons shifted furtively in the branches all endless sunny afternoon, then burst into loud, aimless cooing. At twilight, the sleepy liquid call of blackbird and thrush seemed to come from another world; and the greens of the lawn looked mysterious and unreal. Dawn filled the trees with squirrels, who chased one another from branch to branch, looting as they went, while birds quartered the lawn or hopped in circles around the mossy stone birdbath.

Transfixed with excitement, Tag watched them pull up worms.

That afternoon, a magpie was in blatant possession of the lawn, strutting around the birdbath and every so often emitting loud and raucous cries. It was a big, glossy bird, proud of its elegant black-and-white livery and metallic blue flashes. Tag had seen it before. He hated its bobbing head and powerful, ugly beak. He hated its flat, ironic eyes. Most of all he hated the way it seemed to look directly up at him, as if to say, My lawn!

Tag narrowed his eyes. Angry chattering sounds he couldn't control came from his throat. He jumped off the windowsill, then back up again. "Wrong!" he said. "Wrong!"

But the bird pretended not to hear him--though he was certain it could--and unable to bear its smug proprietorial air, Tag sat down, curled his tail around himself, and closed his eyes. After a while, he fell asleep, thinking confusedly, My mouse. This seemed to lead him into a dream.

He dreamed that he was under the Welsh dresser, eating something. Somehow, the dark gap beneath the dresser was big enough for him to enter; he had followed something in there, and was eating it. The soft parts had a warm, acrid, salty taste, and he could hardly get them down fast enough. Before he was able to swallow the tougher bits he had to shear them with the carnassial teeth at the side of his jaw, breathing heavily through his mouth as he did so. That was enjoyable too. Just as he was finishing off--licking his lips, snuffing the dusty floor where it had been in case he had missed anything--he heard a voice in the dark whisper quite close to him, "Tag is not your true name."

He whirled around. Nothing. Yet someone was there under the dresser with him. He could almost feel the heat of its body, the smell of its breath, the unsettling companionable feel of it. It had quietly watched him eat and said nothing. Now he felt guilty, angry, afraid. His fur bristled. He tried to back out from under the dresser, but now everything was the right size again and he was stuck, squeezed down tight in a dark space that smelled of wood and dust and blood with a creature he couldn't see. "Tag," it whispered. "Listen. Tag is not your true name." He felt that if he stayed there any longer, it would push its face right into his, touch him in the dark, tell him something he didn't want to hear ...

"Tag is my name!" he cried, and woke up--to a loud, rapid hammering noise near his ear. While he slept, the magpie had flown up from the garden. It was strutting to and fro on the ledge directly outside the window, screeching and cawing, flapping its wings against the glass, filling the whole world with its clamor. Now its face was right next to his, and its chipped, wicked beak was drumming against the glass and it was shouting at him.

"Call yourself a cat? Call yourself a cat?"

And he fell off the windowsill and hit his head hard on the floor.

Everything went a soft dark brown color, like comforting fur. When he woke up again, the bird was gone and he could hear the dulls preparing their food downstairs, and he thought it had all been the same dream.

Tag had lived in the house for two months. It seemed much longer, a great stretch of time in which he was never unhappy. He never wanted for anything. He doubled in size. His sleep was sound, his dreams infrequent and full of kitten things. All that seemed to be changing. Now, as he curled up on the velvet sofa, he wondered what would happen when he closed his eyes. Each time he slept, he lived another life--or fragments of it, a life of which he had no understanding.

In one dream he was walking beneath a sliver of yellow moon, with ragged clouds high up; he heard the loud roar of some distant animal. In another, he saw the vague shape of two cats huddled together with heads bowed, waiting in the pouring rain; they were so hungry and in such trouble that when he saw them, a grief he could not understand welled up inside him like a pain. In a third dream, he was standing on a windswept cliff high above the sea. There were dark gorse bushes under a strange, unreal light. There was a sense of vast space, the sound of water crashing rhythmically on rocks below. In the teeth of the wind, Tag heard a voice at his side say quietly, "I am one who becomes two; I am two who become four; I am four who become eight; I am one more after that." It was the voice of a cat. Or was it?

"Tintagel," it said. "Tag! Tag! Listen! Listen to the waves!"

All the dreams were different, but that voice was always the same--quiet, persuasive, companionable, frightening. It wanted to tell him things. It wanted him to do things.

All the dreams were strange; but perhaps this was the strangest dream of all.

He dreamed it was evening, and he was sitting on a windowsill while behind him in the room, the dulls ate their food, talking and waving their big arms about. Tag stared out. It was dark. There were clouds high up, obscuring the waning moon, but the moonlight broke fitfully through. Something was happening at the very end of the garden. He couldn't quite see what it was. Every night, he sensed, animals went along the path down there, entering the garden at one side and leaving at the other. They were on business of their own, business to enthral a young cat. It was a highway, with constantly exciting traffic.

In the dream there was an animal out there, but he couldn't see it clearly or hear it. For a moment the moonlight seemed to resolve it into the shape of a large black cat--a cat with only one eye. Then it was nothing but a shadow again. He shifted his feet uneasily. He wanted to be out there; he didn't want to be out there. Clouds obscured the moon again. He put his face close to the glass. "Be quiet!" he tried to tell the dulls. "Watch! Watch now!"

As he spoke, the animal out there seemed to see him. He felt its eye on him. He felt its will begin to engage his own. He thought he heard it whisper, "I have a task for you, Tag. A great task!"

Behind him in the room, the dulls laughed at something one of them had said. Tag shook himself, expecting to wake up. But when he looked around, he was still in that room, and he had never been asleep. As if sensing his confusion, the female got up and, putting her face close to his as if it wanted to see exactly what he was seeing, stared out into the darkness. It shivered. "You don't want to go out there," it said softly. "Cold and dangerous for a little cat like you. Brrr!" It stroked his head. The purr rose in Tag's throat. When he turned back to the garden, the one-eyed cat had gone.

Early one morning, before the household was awake, Tag saw the sun coming up, carmine colored, flat and pale with promise. A few shreds of mist hung about the branches of the lime trees. Soon, three or four sparrows and a robin had alighted on the lawn and begun hopping about among the fallen leaves. This was all as it should be. Tag hunched forward to get a better look. My birds! he thought. But then they flew up suddenly, to be replaced by his enemy the magpie, who strode on long legs in a rough circle around the birdbath, shining with health and self-importance. It stopped, stretched its neck, opened its beak to reveal a short thick purple-gray tongue, and let forth its abrasive cry.

"Raaark. Raaark."

Oh yes? thought Tag. We'll see about that!

But what could he do? Only jump on and off the windowsill in a fever of frustration. At last he heard the dulls getting up, and there was something else to think about. He raced down the stairs and stood by his bowl in the kitchen.

"Breakfast," he demanded. Chicken and game casserole! "In here. Put it in this bowl. Breakfast!"

Chicken and game!

That was a smell he would remember later on.

Two minutes after he had got his face into the bowl, one of the dulls opened the back door without thinking. Tag felt the cool morning air on his nose. It was full of smells. It was full of opportunity. And the magpie was still out there, strutting around the lawn as if he owned it.

My lawn! thought Tag. Breakfast later!

And he was out in a flash, straight between a pair of legs, across the lawn--scattering leaves and hurling himself at the bird, who turned its sly black head at the last moment, said clearly, "Not this time, sonny," and flew like an arrow through a hole in the fence, leaving one small white body feather floating in the air behind it. Tag, enraged, went sprinting after, his hind feet digging up lawn and flower bed. He heard the dulls shouting after him. Then he was through the fence and into the garden next door. The magpie was sitting on a fence, regarding him amusedly from one beady eye. "Raaark." Off they went again. Every time he thought he had caught it, the bird only led him farther afield, until, when Tag looked back at his house, he couldn't see it any more.

He hesitated a moment.

"Call yourself a cat?" sneered the magpie, almost in his ear. "This is where you belong, out here in the wild world--not a toy cat on a windowsill!" But when Tag whirled around, ready to renew the chase, it had vanished into thin air.

Tag sat down and washed himself. He looked around.

New gardens! New gardens that went on forever. Through one and into the next, forever.

Out! he thought. I got out!

He forgot the magpie. He forgot his home. For the rest of that day he was as happy as he'd ever been. He explored the new gardens one by one, moving farther and farther away from the dulls and their house. There were gardens overgrown with weeds and elder, in which the sun barely struck through to the earth and the dusty, powerfully smelling roots. There were gardens so neat they were just like front rooms. There were gardens full of rusty household objects. Tag had a look at all of them. They were all interesting. But by late afternoon he had found the garden of his dreams. It was wilder than his own, a narrow shady cleft between old brick walls, sagging wooden trellis, and overgrown buddleia bushes, into which reached long bright fingers of sun. It was full of ancient flowerpots and white metal garden furniture green with moss. At one side was a bent old damson tree, its sagging boughs held up by wooden supports; at the other a well-grown holly. Tag sat in the sun between them, cleaning his fur. A family of bullfinches piped from the branches of the damson. A bee hummed past! After it he went, whacking out with his front paws until he could clutch the stunned insect inside one of them. He put the bee carefully into his mouth and let it buzz about a bit in there. What a feeling! Then he swallowed it. "Not bad," he told himself. "Good bee." For a while he patrolled an old flower bed now overgrown with mint, in case he got another. After that, he went to sleep. When he woke up, he was hungry. It was late afternoon, and he had no idea where he was.

Two hours later, he was huddled--hungry, cold, and disoriented--on someone's back doorstep. Afternoon had given way to evening as he made his way from garden to garden, recognizing nothing. At first it had seemed like a great game. Then the fences had got higher and harder to jump, the tangled rose briars harder to push through, the smells of other cats more threatening. Human beings had shouted at him through a window--he had run off thoughtlessly and got turned back on himself, ending up in the garden he had started from. Now he was so tired he couldn't think. He knew it wasn't his own house. But he was grateful to sit on the doorstep anyway. He was grateful for the old damson tree, spreading its branches over the white garden furniture glowing in the dusk. These things were familiar, at least. He gave a little yowl now and then, in case someone came home and let him in.

As he sat there, the light went slowly out of the sky. The sun was a great cool red ball behind the garden trees. Rooks began to settle their evening quarrels--"My branch, I think." "No, my branch!"--the whole ragged ignoble colony of them whirling up into the sky to wheel and caw before settling again, one by one into silence. Suddenly the air was colder. Shadows crept out of the box hedges. The garden seemed to change shape, becoming shorter and broader. The lawn, the shrubs in their borders, the lighted windows of the houses yellow with warmth and company--everything seemed closer and yet further away. The apple trees faded to a uniform gray.

Night had come. Tag had never been out in it before.

He knew the night only from warm rooms behind double-glazed windows. Then it had seemed exciting. Now it was only menacing and strange. As human activity decreased, the real sounds and smells of the world came through: the sudden low twitter of a bird disturbed, the slow tarry reek of leaf mold from under the hedges, the bitter smell of a rusting iron bucket, a dog barking somewhere down at the end of the road, thickly woven odors of snails eating their way through the soft fleshy leaves of the hostas. And then, suddenly, from the gloom at the very end of the garden, came a smell that made Tag's heart race with fear and excitement! His head went up. Almost despite himself, he sniffed the air. Something moving down there! It was a highway, like the one that ran along the bottom of his own garden! Something was trotting down there, fast and purposeful, its paws moving silently across the broken, lichenous old flagstones as it made its way from left to right along the tunnelly overgrown path between the flower bed and the sagging board fence. Tag could barely keep still. He wanted to make himself known. He wanted to hide. Every part of him wanted to say something. Every part of him wanted to stay silent.

In the end, though, he must have moved, or made some sound, because the animal on the highway stopped. It sniffed the air for him. He heard it. Terribly afraid, he huddled into the doorway. Too late. It was aware of him. He could see a dark silhouette, a thick black shadow with four legs and a blunt muzzle, its head turning this way and that. A single bright, pale, reflective eye that seemed to switch itself on suddenly, like a lamp. It was looking at him. There was a long pause. Then a wave of scent, a sharp, live, musky reek in the garden air.

"Little cat," it said in a soft voice. "Your true name is not Tag. Do you want to discover your true name? If so, you must undertake the task which lies before you."

He shrank back in the doorway until his head was pressed so tightly into the corner his face hurt. To no avail. The thing that inhabited that shadow could see him whatever he did. There was a low, grunting laugh.

"Don't be afraid," said the voice. "Come with me now."

Its owner took a pace toward him.

He cowered into his doorway.

There was a sudden impatient sigh, as if the creature had been interrupted. It paused to listen, then, purposeful and urgent, it loped off into the night without another word.

Tag huddled on the doorstep until it was light again. Exhaustion made him shake; anxiety kept him awake. Every sound, familiar or not, seemed to threaten him, from the abrupt shriek of an owl to the patient snuffling and rootling of a hedgehog in the next garden. He was afraid to make any noise of his own.

Toward dawn he fell into a restless sleep, only to dream of the animals on their highway. Tag could never be sure what he saw--what he sensed--moving along it. They were cats, certainly, although in the dream they seemed much larger than a cat should be, and they had deeply disturbing, shadowy shapes. They moved in their own powerful stink--vague, slippery, indistinct, always angry or excited. Their voices came toward him from a long distance, in the echoing yet glutinous speech of dreams.

"A task," they told him, "a great task."

The next morning he was stiff and tired, but the sunshine made him feel optimistic. Breakfast! he thought. He sat up, stretched himself, and gave a huge yawn. "Chicken and game!" He jumped on top of a fence and looked across the gardens. They lay before him: a lawn as precise as a living room carpet, bordered with regiments of red flowers; then rusty objects propped against a shed; then bedsheets flapping on a line. He jumped down, nosed around. There, on the concrete path as it warmed up in the sunshine, was his own smell from yesterday, faint but distinct!

Follow myself home, he thought. No problem.

But it was a problem.

Chasing the magpie, he had taken an alarmingly random course, zigzagging, turning back on himself, often going in circles. In the night, other animals had passed; other scents had overlaid his own. While it was a good idea, the attempt to follow himself was doomed from the start. High old brick walls, espaliered with fruit trees, blocked his path. Abundant crops of nettles forced him to divert. He blundered into another cat--or rather the insane face of another cat was thrust unexpectedly into his own, screaming at him so loudly that he jumped in fear and ran off under some bushes and came out disoriented twenty minutes later to find himself trapped in a place that didn't even seem to be a garden. The spines of dying foxgloves mopped and mowed against a tottering wooden fence. What had once been an open space was now a jungle: fireweed seeding down to ashes, a choke of brambles and old rose suckers bound together in the dusty heat by convolvulus and grape ivy. The air was thick, still, and oppressive, full of the sleepy drone of insects. Eventually he pushed his way out. He was hot and tired and out of temper. The house in front of him had blue shutters, peeling to show the gray wood beneath, and a blue door. Not much else could be seen through the skeins of honeysuckle and wiry climbing roses colonizing its pebble-dashed walls. Its windows were of rippled glass, dim with dirt. Compressed between the wilderness and the house, the remains of its garden--the patch of yellowed lawn on which he stood, the beds overgrown with rubbery hostas, the tottering wooden shed which had also at some point been painted blue--would soon be engulfed.

Tag sighed and sat down suddenly in the shade of some terra-cotta pots full of dead geraniums. It was already noon, and he still hadn't eaten. He crouched down, tucked his front paws neatly under him, and let his nose rest on the ground. Not knowing what else to do, he slept. When he woke, the magpie was perched on a broken pot in front of him.

"Raaark," it said "On your own then, Kit-e-Kat?"

"Don't call me that!" said Tag.

The magpie laughed. "Call yourself a cat?" it asked. It added mysteriously, "I don't know why he bothers with you. If he could find them on his own, he wouldn't." Then it put its head on one side, regarded him with one beady eye, and said with measured nastiness, "Oh yes, you're on your own now, Kit-e-Kat!"

Tag was enraged. He jumped up and rushed the magpie. "My name's Tag!" he cried. "I am a cat, and they call me Tag, not Kit-e-Kat!"

The magpie only bobbed its head wickedly and took flight. It flapped with a dreamy slowness up from the lawn and into the rowan tree. As it flew it looked less like a bird than a series of brilliant sketches of one. For an instant--while it was still rising but almost into the tree--it seemed to wear its own wings like a black, shiny cloak. Then it perched, quickly ruffled its feathers, and looked down at Tag, its head tilted on one side to show a bright cruel eye.

"They call me One for Sorrow," it said. "And you won't forget me in a hurry."

Alone, thought Tag.

He tested this idea until sudden panic swept through him. He ran around and around the lawn until he was tired again. He licked his fur in the sunshine for ten minutes. He couldn't think what to do. He jumped up onto a windowsill and rubbed both sides of his face on the window pane. "Breakfast!" he demanded. But clearly it would not be feeding him today. So he jumped down and tried the same with the back door. No luck. Clearly no one would be feeding him today.

He had a new idea. He would feed himself.

Eat a bee, he thought. Eat more than one.

And he tore off excitedly across the lawn, the little bell on his collar jingling.

An hour later he had chased four houseflies, a blackbird, two sparrows, and a leaf. He had caught one of the houseflies and the leaf. The leaf proved to be unpalatable. No bees were about. All this effort made him hungrier than before. He went back to the house and jumped up on the windowsill again.

"Yow!" he said.

Nothing. It was silent and empty in there.

He stalked a wren, which scolded him from a safe place inside a hedge. He tried it on with two squirrels, who bobbed their tails at him and sped off along the top of a board fence at a breakneck pace, vying with each other for the lead and calling "Stuff you!" and "Stuff your nuts, mate!" as they ran. Then he tried a thrush, which kept a lazy eye on him while it shelled its breakfast--a yellow snail--against a stone, then rose up neatly as he pounced, and with no fuss or fluster cleared his optimistic jaws by four inches and left him clapping his front paws silently on empty air.

"Nice technique," said an interested voice behind him.

"Pretty stupid cat, though," answered another. "Anyone could have caught that."

Tag thought he recognized one of the voices, but he was too ashamed to turn around and look. For the rest of that day, he ate flies. They were easy to catch and, depending on what they had eaten recently, even tasted good. In the middle of the afternoon he bullied some sparrows off half a slice of buttered white bread two gardens along the row. Finally, he went back to the place where he had argued with the thrush. There he caught some snails. They didn't taste in the slightest bit good, but at least, he thought, he was denying them to the thrush.

Toward evening it began to rain.

The rain came stealthily at first, a drop here and a drop there. It tapped and popped on the leaves of the hostas, where it gathered as shiny beads--each containing a tiny curved image of the world--that soon collapsed into little short-lived rivulets. The snails, sensing the rain, opened themselves up gratefully. Then, sensing Tag, they shut themselves away again. There was a kind of hush around the sound of each raindrop.

Tag watched the snails and waited. A cat with a thick coat doesn't feel the rain until too late. Suddenly it was pouring down on him, straight as a stair rod, cold and penetrating as a needle. He was surprised and disgusted to find himself soaked. His skin twitched. He stretched and stood up. He shook out first one front paw, then the other. He retreated to the back doorstep.

No good.

A gust of wind shook the shrubbery and blew the rain across the garden in swirls, right into his shelter. He sat there grimly for a bit, trying to lick the damp off his fur, fluffing up, blinking, shaking himself, licking again. But in the end he had to admit that he was just as wet there as he would have been in the middle of the lawn.

I hate rain, he thought.

He dashed out into the downpour to try the windowsill.

Wet.

He found a dry patch in the lee of the terra-cotta pots. The wind changed and blew the rain into his face.

He tried sitting under the trees. Soon it was coming dark. "Stop raining now," said Tag. Every time he changed position he got wetter. He was hungry again, and cold. But if he scampered about to keep warm he felt tired very suddenly. He ordered the rain, "Leave me alone, now." The rain didn't listen. The garden didn't listen. The wind was like a live thing. It was always blowing from behind him, ruffling his fur up the wrong way to find and chill any part of him that still had any warmth left. He turned around and tried to bite the harder gusts. He ran blindly about or simply sat, becoming more and more bedraggled. Suddenly he realized that he was sitting by the door of the garden shed.

Inside, he thought.

He hooked his paw around the bottom of the door and pulled hard. It wouldn't move. Open! he heard himself think. Open, now! He hooked again and pulled harder. This made him so weary he needed to sit down; but after a moment he was cold again and had to force himself to get up.

Hook. Pull. No good.

"Come on, Tag," he encouraged himself. "Come on!"

Hook. Pull. The door scraped open an inch. Then two.

That's enough! thought T

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 13 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 6, 2011

    It's amazing!

    I read A LOT. I love to read. I'm addicted to reading. This is one of the best books I have ever read.
    The characters are funny, interesting, deep and amusing, and the plot keeps you turning page after page. And-there are no mary-sues. Each character has a balance of good, bad, and mischief, and although Tag is the main character and hero, he isn't perfect. He makes mistakes that keep the story going and help line up the events in perfect sync.
    I'd recommend this book for people from age 13-20, mostly because it has a lot of pages for a young kid to read, and small letters. But you will not regret reading it, whatever age you are.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2004

    I want to run down the wild road!!

    I love this book I first read it in 6th grade, and I'm at the end of 7th now, and it's still one of the best books I have ever read!! I greatly reccomend this book to all of you people who wonder where your cat goes when they run off into the night... I have other reviews about Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Yu-Gi-Oh!,and Mara Daughter of the Nile

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2003

    Absolutely Brilliant

    In an astonishing work, The Wild Road and The Golden Cat, King achieves what Umberto Ecco strives (and fails) to do. He achieves a synthesis of numerous religious, philosophical and cultural schools into a wholely realized conceptual world. Amazingly, his work is quite accessable and a great story to boot with none of the strained intelectualizing games Ecco delights in. Cat lover, Philosopher, Historian, or just a fan of a well written, involving tale, any reader will be well rewarded by picking up these books. I look forward to other works by this fine and refreshing author.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Woo!

    Great book! That is way too general so I'll go into detail. Great book I just read it and it was one of the greatest books I have read! So if you like gripping cat fantasy novels, or just animal novels alone I recomend this book highly.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2005

    insert headline here

    this is a great book. it is very well written, a rarity in today's world. you need to pay attention to get the full impact.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2003

    This Book Takes Animal Fantasy to the Extreme

    This was an excellent book! It actually takes you into the cats' minds and you can see the world as they see it. The story was awesome with a number of great themes. I've read a lot of books, and this one is one of my favorites! The only reason I have to give this book 4 stars in stead of 5 is because sometimes the adventure seemed too tedious, the dangers too grave, and the villain too villainous. King seemed to be taking animal fantasy to its limits, and that's not always a good thing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2002

    Tom on books

    This novel was, superb! The tale of a courageous kitten on a mission to save the 'CAT' world. If you enjoy books read this one!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2002

    Where else can you find a treasure like this?!

    When I bought this book, I didn't think I would like it at all. I had just finishe Tailchaser's Song an I was hooked on that. Another book so soon? I rejected it at first. But, as summer went along, I fell in love again. I couldn't beleive the insight Gabriel King had! It was amazing! So, if you like cats, fantasy, or the bad guy getting what he deserves, you'll like this. (Also, if you alreay read Tailchaser's Song, this is a good next book:^)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2001

    Incredible. Absolutely awesome.

    Is Gabriel King part cat? After reding 'The Wild Road', you may wonder. This book not only gives the actions of the cats, but also the reasons behind those actions. The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams....and the fears. For there are fears. For the first time, you not only SEE what a cat is doing, but you get to know WHY. You speak Catinese, and have the ability to see inside their minds. You will laugh, you will chuckle. You'll cry, and you will curse. And in the end, you will smile through the tears, because life DOES go on. Isn't it strange that it took a band of homeless cats to remind you of that fact?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2000

    Purrrfect!

    This book was absolutly awesome! King's use of language paints a beautiful picture. He really takes you into the novel, writing like he himself was a cat. This book is definatly recommended for book and cat lovers alike.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2000

    Absolutely Fantastic

    I was sure I'd never find a cat book I liked as much as or more than 'Tailchaser's Song' but here it is. King's book is rich, his use of language is unsurpassed, he does much more than communicate, he draws intricate, beautiful pictures with words. The story is robust and mature, not just a 'cat' story, these cats are fully realized individuals with complex personalities like any 'person.' The whole book is gripping, I couldn't put it down, and immediately moved to the sequal - the Golden Cat. I hope King writes another of these, to continue the story of the characters' lives. I was devastated when I was done reading them both, and had nothing to continue on to!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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