You learn early in life that there are benefits to having a cat who can see faeries. When they come to steal your sister, for instance, there’s Grimalkin to stand over the cradle and yowl until your mother comes to pick up the baby and relight the lamp that’s been blown out to provide convenient shadows for hiding. When they sneak into your room at night to tie knots in your hair, they find Grimalkin lying on your pillow – very much awake and ready for them. You have only had the cat for a month when his presence makes the faeries decide to leave your house alone. You are six, and although you don’t know yet that they were faeries, you’re quite grateful that the things that move around in the dark are gone.
When you are fourteen, and beginning to realize that your cat should be looking much older than he does, you take him to the hedge witch across the brook and ask her to examine Grimalkin for signs that something’s amiss with him. He regards you with untroubled yellow eyes as the old woman looks him over – he’s never spoken to you, at least, but he often seems just on the verge of it. There’s a distinctness about his face and manner that implies there is a person of some sort in there. You’ve looked enough cats in the eye to realize that they generally do not possess this air. The hedge witch tells you that he’s a special one, unquestionably, but she can’t figure out exactly why. As you carry him home, he is most definitely smirking at you. That is when you make it a life’s goal: understand your cat, who cannot possibly be only a cat. You tell him as much: “I will puzzle you out.” And he blinks in the languid way that says he is as unimpressed as a creature can be. (This, at least, is something he has in common with other cats.)
By fifteen, you have run out of resources. The hedge witch has died; her successor is too young to know much yet, and says only that “he’s a handsome devil, ain’t he, with that dappled coat.” The priests will have nothing to do with cats. The keeper of the village books has no record of any such ageless creature as Grimalkin seems to be. No one else in the village seems likely to possess any insight on the matter. You are near despair – but you will not be beaten by a brown and white tabby who snores when he sleeps. When the peddlers come in the spring, you bring Grimalkin to their camp. They’ve seen more of the world than you have, and surely one of them must know something that would help.
One of them does, after a manner. You’re seated by the fire, your whiskered enigma sprawled across your lap, listening as the oldest of the peddlers begins to spin the evening’s stories. He tells of an unearthly court, a realm whose borders touch your own and whose ill-behaved inhabitants sometimes wander beyond their native demesne. The others who listen are only half doing so, but you are rapt. You question him when he is finished: do faeries steal children? Do they cause mischief in houses? He answers, though it is plain he does not believe the tales he has told. You believe him. You believe in the laughter you once heard beneath your bed, in the light footsteps that haunted your young dreams and ceased soon after Grimalkin arrived.
You bring your cat home and stare him in the face. “Whatever you are, you frighten faeries. I’ve learned that much.” He only looks back, one ear turned sideways. He is infuriating. “Shall I go ask them about you?” you say to him. “The faeries? Since they seem to be the only ones who might tell me.” The other ear twists back momentarily; it is the most perturbed you have ever seen him look. That, more than anything, decides the matter.
The village is nestled in a satisfyingly-thick wood which seems to fit the bill for faerie habitat as described by the peddler. On the following day, you shut Grimalkin in the house and leave just as the sun is setting. Your family will have your hide for leaving your day’s work unfinished, but you cannot spend another moment with that cat while he remains inexplicable. You have never ventured so far into the forest as you do now; perhaps being lost will help you discover the creatures you seek (or help them discover you). The blue spring night begins to settle among the pines as you wander along. Should you call for them? What name should they be called by?
It is as you are wondering this that you catch your toe on a root and go sprawling to the ground. Over the resulting streak of foul language, you hear the faintest strain of giggling. It’s them – it has to be them. You lift your head slowly, but you can see very little in the gathering dark (a darkness which has descended surprisingly quickly, hasn’t it?). There’s a flickering just beyond the edges of your vision that might well be your imagination…mightn’t it? “Begging your pardon,” you say, spitting out pine needles, “but I’ve come to ask about my cat.”
The giggling persists. It isn’t particularly nice giggling, you’ve realized. It makes your skin prickle. You look around for its source, beginning to feel that even an inexplicable cat might be tolerated if it meant getting away from that sound and from whatever is making it. There is a sudden flash of eyes in the dimness. You cry out and jump to your feet – and then realize that you know those eyes and the small silhouette they are attached to. Grimalkin circles your legs once, hissing out into the trees around you. The giggling cuts off abruptly on a harsh, crow-like sound. Faint footsteps sound from every direction, retreating hastily. How many of them were there? You are very cold all of a sudden, except for where your cat is leaning against your ankles.
A voice sounds – from that same place. “Idiot. Do you know what they do to the humans they catch?”
You are not in a state of mind to be surprised by much. “Now will you tell me what you are?”
“No. Pick me up. You have a lot of walking to do.”
“I locked you in – you don’t even have thumbs—”
“I also have a diminishing quantity of patience. Do you want to get home or not?”
You pick him up, and he directs your way in tones that are exactly as scathing as you imagined a cat’s would be. At your family’s demand, you offer the truth: you were lost in the wood, and Grimalkin brought you back. From your pillow, he gives you that languid blink again, saying nothing. You glower at him briefly before climbing into bed, but you have determined that he can keep his secrets so long as he keeps the faeries away. When you fall asleep, his purring lingers in your dreams.