The Cat Who Came in From the Cold by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson



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In this sentimental, didactic fable, Masson imagines how the lone, nonsocial, domesticated animal came to share hearth and home.

Billi, an Asian leopard cat, lives in a mango forest in ancient India. He enjoys his independence, but he feels pangs of loneliness and curiosity about the “two-foots.” He learns their languages - Hindi, Malayam and Sanskrit - and he can “see the appeal of south India's three major religions.”

Billi embarks on a quest to learn more about humans by discovering what their animals think of them. A water buffalo mourns being underappreciated; a parrot bemoans his cage; a mongoose tells a chilling story about human ingratitude. Billi reminds a cow that it's worshipped by humans. “Oh, great,” the cow says. “That and five rupees will get you a chapati.”

Nine months of travel and no truly good word for humans leaves Billi undeterred and, back home, he seeks out a young girl he'd often watched. It's not easy proving his good intentions or trying to be “the only animal to have a mutually satisfying relationship with humans,” but Billi makes it happen in a story that's heartwarming not only for the passionate cat fan but for all readers.

A novelette from the author of Raising the Peaceable Kingdom.

Excerpt:

Billi spent the first day of Diwali studiously avoiding humans. He’d been thinking about them far too much lately. It was time for him to reaffirm his independent ways and go birding and fishing in the mangroves.

Billi lived on the edge of the coastal Kerala backwaters, famed throughout south India for its vast network of lagoons, lakes, rivers, and canals, along which grew great tropical trees with thick prop roots. The mangroves were home to dozens of species of birds—teals, gulls, cormorants, grebes, herons, egrets, spoonbills—that Billi liked to hunt, creeping through the grasses, his back low and flat, barely making a sound. But the birds were smart, and quick! For every one that he caught, dozens escaped. Not that he cared too much. Eating was only half the fun. Just as exciting was the chase itself—the watching, the stalking, the beat of the heart, the un suspecting prey, the pounce!

The mangroves were also home to the tasty karimeen fish, one of Billi’s favorite foods. He could spend hours sitting by a river, waiting for the telltale flash of silver. And as soon as he saw it, in went his paw, down into the cold and wet. He had to remember to watch his back for crocodiles, though; it was easy to become oblivious, waiting for a fish.

Humans cruised the shallow Kerala backwaters in small passenger boats that they pushed along with bamboo poles or in bigger work boats that they used to transport dried coconut meat, cashews, and other goods. Billi liked to watch the vessels as they passed and, when near the more open lakes, kept an eye out for the sailing boats that sometimes floated in the distance.

On that first day of Diwali, Billi was in luck. He had an exciting near miss with a tasty-looking grebe, followed by a fast-paced chase after an injured teal, who flew from branch to branch before finally falling to the ground. Billi batted the bird to and fro between his paws for a good five or six minutes, giving it plenty of time to escape, and when it didn’t, he gobbled it up. Then he sat by the riverbank for a peaceful hour or two, watching the sun set while waiting for a fish. One appeared just as the last rays of the sun disappeared, and Billi snared it. Greedily, he dined on his second course, licked his whiskers, and started for home. He could hear sounds of music and laughter coming from the human villages he passed, but he refused to be tempted, not even to sneak a quick peak. He was very full. He needed a rest.

On the second day of Diwali, Billi catnapped in his cave for hours. But late in the afternoon, he broke down and headed for the villages. He didn’t want to miss the festivities altogether, after all. He wanted to see the two-foots dressed in their new holiday clothes, worn in honor of Lord Krishna’s victory over Narakasura, a legendary tyrant, and the bright village decorations. Doorsteps would be adorned with rangolis, the intricate red chalk designs, and windowsills would be flickering with oil lamps, lit to show Rama the way home from his exile. People would be passing around sweets or fish, and maybe, if Billi was lucky, one or two morsels would fall unnoticed to the ground, for him to sample later, after the humans had gone to bed.

Billi padded down his usual path, past the cave where he had been born, a grove of silk cotton trees, and the bend of the river. He was nearing his favorite mango orchard when he saw a crack of lightning, followed by thunder. The sky was thick with churning black clouds, and the air was so oppressive that he could barely breathe. The monsoons were arriving.

One or two fat raindrops landed on Billi’s nose, and then, with no other warning, a deluge began. Billi leapt up into a mango tree for cover, but within seconds he was drenched. Sheets of water were pouring from the heavens, the winds were howling as if pursued by evil itself, lightning and thunder were cracking apart the sky. Billi covered his eyes with his paws and moaned. It was the end of the world, he knew it.

The tumult went on and on. Suddenly, the branch that Billi was sitting on gave way. And before he could decide whether to stay put or jump, it crashed—into water. The whole orchard was floating. The river had overflowed its banks and was roaring through the forest, carrying trees and everything else in its wake.

Billi dug his claws into the branch with all his strength. To fall into the churning, rapidly moving water could spell his end. He had to stay on the branch.

Through his fear, Billi could hear the faint cries of humans caught up in the same terrific flood. Some were floating by him and screaming for help, others were going under. He saw a small girl child whooshing past rapidly, flailing to keep afloat. It looked like the girl he’d seen at the orchard! Other humans and a large dog were floating nearby on a piece of broken roof and screaming, “Nandini, Nandini!” But they could do nothing to save her. She was going under. At that moment, the dog leapt off the roof and swam rapidly toward her. The girl grabbed his fur and held on tight.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the storm stopped. The river retreated. The flood was over. Billi crawled out of the water and collapsed, vaguely aware of Nandini and the dog lying safely on shore farther upstream. He fell asleep.

When Billi awoke some hours later, he found himself to be within three tree lengths of a house. Built on a small hill, it had survived the flood intact. Billi dragged himself toward it, hoping to find Nandini and the dog inside. He was curious—perhaps concerned—to see if they were all right.

After leaping gracefully onto the window ledge, he peered in through the window. Inside, he saw dozens of humans crowded around a roaring fire. Many were wrapped in blankets and appeared to be in shock. Lying in a place of honor, curled directly in front of the fire, were Nandini and the dog. She had her arms around him, and he had his paws around her.

Involuntarily, Billi let out a sharp “m’-roww”—he was so happy that they were safe, he was so unhappy to be damp and bedraggled outside that cozy scene, and alone. No one had ever cuddled him like that.

Suddenly, a mass of two-foots came swarming to ward him.

“Get away, you horrid billi!”

“You filthy beast!”

“He’s looking for meat! He wants victims of the flood!”

“Kill him! Kill him!”

Pots and plates came hurling toward him, and some of the men were grabbing sticks and spears. Terrified, Billi bounded away into the forest and darted up a tree as fast as he could. He crashed from branch to branch, tree to tree, hollow to hollow, hill to hill. He had to get away, away, away from those horrible humans. How he hated them.

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