Hello, everyone! I’m Meriwether, age fourteen. As a personality profile, I’m terrified of the dark, adore dogs and wolves, conduct often failed cooking experiments, and–to introduce the content of this post–I love writing. LOVE. Writing, along with my art, is a vital outlet for me, and when I have writers’ block (as is too often the case) I feel like I can’t do anything. ANYTHING I TELL YOU.
Today my mom, who is awesome, has given me permission to publish for you all a version of my latest novella, complete with art that I completed to accompany it, while she works on formatting updates on the puppies and we all stare at their faces for hours on end waiting for their eyes to open.
And so, without further ado…
Once a kitten was born, a tiny runt of a kitten, the size of a red maple leaf. Her mother hated her and hid her away for a day or so, not even feeding her. After a little while she tossed the runt into a stream.
An old dog whose pups had died found the kitten in a pool at the end of a stream, frozen through and scrawny but alive. The dog nursed her for some time, but after a while the old creature had no milk left and was very tired, and one day when the kitten woke she found her caretaker asleep and couldn’t wake her.
So the kitten set off on her own, looking for something, something she had lost when her mother had thrown her in the stream and lost again when the old dog had died.
She was a very special kitten. She had a plumy white tail, soft ears that flapped a bit in the wind, and white spots on her orange coat. No one in the wide wood had ever seen a kitten like that and they thought she must be an odd creature, so they left her alone.
The kitten decided her name was Plum, but she didn’t tell anyone that, because she couldn’t speak for a long time. She was also so young that she couldn’t feed herself, but the chipmunks in the wood, seeing that she was kind and harmless, brought her almonds and showed her how to crush them and make milk to drink. She drank acorn-cups full of the milk, which gave her the strength to talk and walk about the world, all the while asking the good chipmunks questions. These were odd questions for a kitten to ask, but the chipmunks loved her and knew that she wasn’t familiar with the world as they were. So each day as she walked on further and further toward the end of the forest, a chipmunk or two would scurry along with her, sometimes riding on her back and sometimes walking beside her.
“What is death?” she asked.
The chipmunk she was with paused and looked at her curiously.
“Oh,” said Plum shyly, “I think it happened to a dog I knew, except I thought she was sleeping, but she didn’t wake.” Death made Plum sad and she didn’t understand it. The world must be very cruel, to put its inhabitants to sleep and not let them wake up.
The chipmunk smoothed the fur away from Plum’s eyes fondly. “A lot of little chipmunks ask that,” he said. “Well, death is usually danger. Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of animals are afraid of it, but it’s not an evil thing, unless the animal who dies is a bad animal.”
The nest day another chipmunk was sent from the wood. Plum asked as they went along, “What is hurt?”
The chipmunk shook its head as if a fly was bothering it. “Hurt is evil.”
“But I thought death was hurt,” said Plum in surprise, “and death isn’t evil.”
“Death isn’t hurt,” said the chipmunk. “Death is rest when you’re old. Hurt is very different. Hurt is bad people and claws and teeth and fear and blood. Sometimes it’s tears.” Plum felt the chipmunk’s cool, gentle paws cup her face. “You must promise you won’t hurt things. A lot of cats don’t promise that.”
Plum was very afraid, so she promised.
The next day when she passed a big maple tree, a young chipmunk scuttled down and joined her, humming. “What is cat?” asked Plum.
“You are cat!” said the chipmunk.
“I am cat?” said Plum. She was very quiet and then began to cry. “Cats hurt. I am hurt?”
“No!” The chipmunk hugged her fiercely. “Don’t be hurt. You’re not hurt. If you keep walking on your journey like you’re supposed to, I will tell you about cats.”
Plum knew that many chipmunks were wise and clever, and even though they were fearful they rarely cried. So she was brave and walked on like she knew she was meant to, and let the chipmunk talk.
“Cats hunt,” the chipmunk began. “That means they eat little animals. That’s not bad. Lots of animals do that.
“Also, cats are very beautiful. They have fantastic coats of all different colors and big, smart eyes. They never smile, but they make a beautiful noise called purring.”
“Chipmunks are afraid of cats because sometimes cats eat chipmunks,” said the chipmunk. “But you’re different, because you’re small and sweet and you can’t kill anything yet.”
“But cats are hurt,” said Plum.
“Sometimes they hurt things,” admitted the chipmunk, “but that’s because they don’t know how to be gentle like you.”
“One of my friends made me promise never to hurt things,” said Plum worriedly.
“That’s a silly promise,” said the chipmunk bluntly. “Everyone hurts something, sometime, in ways we don’t even know or understand. It doesn’t mean we’re evil. You make me a promise, all right?”
“Are promises hurt?”
“Not if you’re careful. You promise me that you grow up to be a big, brave cat, and never stop your journey for the sake of crying. You can be good and be a cat at the same time.”
Plum tried to understand. She nodded but didn’t reply.
When the little kitten left the wood, she left the chipmunks. There was a huge river for her to cross to continue her journey over the world, but she found rocks to jump on. When there were no more rocks, she remembered that she was a big brave cat who made promises and didn’t hurt things and wasn’t afraid of death, and how could water be bad? So she jumped in and swam. She climbed out shivering but triumphant and went on.
Soon she was hungry, but she didn’t know what or how to eat. She traveled on, though, until she found a dense green forest full of vines and strange sounds. It was hot and damp and odd. The kitten felt very alone and miserable, and wished for company. She found a big leaf and curled up under it.
When she woke up the next morning, a face was staring at her. “Cat!” said the face. “Little cat!”
Plum screamed and ran backwards until she fell on her back.
“Scared?” said the face. “Funny! Scared of me?”
“Who are you?” asked Plum.
“I’m mongoose,” said the creature, scurrying toward her with a big smile.
“And you are cat. Never seen cat. Can you make cat noises?”
Plum tried purring. The mongoose looked delighted.
“Heard of cat,” he said. “You’re in stories. But you’re very small. You’re smaller than me. Funny!”
“Can you help me get to where I’m going?” asked Plum, standing up and brushing herself off.
“Where are you going?” asked the mongoose.
“Over the wide world to find something, I think,” said Plum. “And I need food, but I don’t have any almonds. Can you tell me where I am?”
“Rainforest!” said the mongoose proudly, lifting his head and laughing. “Beautiful small rainforest.” His smile faded and he regarded her seriously. “But you’re far from where you want. I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take you to Sandy. She’ll take you to a boat, and then you can go over the world! But tonight you stay with me and Mami.”
He took her to an earthy den that she barely fit in, but it was dry and good. The mongoose’s mother appeared from a tunnel and offered her some food. It was disgusting and seemed to have legs, which made Plum think of insects; but Plum knew that she was a big brave cat who made promises and didn’t hurt things and wasn’t afraid of death and was a good swimmer, and how could bugs be bad? So she ate them very quickly and slept.
The next morning the mongoose passed her on to Sandy, another mongoose, who grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and dragged her over a beach and up a long ramp. The next thing Plum knew, she was in a little dark space between boxes, and a number of feet were running about.
Sandy crouched next to her. “Stay here and stay safe until you get across the sea,” she whispered. “There’s good crumbs and things to find down here. You just have to explore.”
“I’m good at exploring,” said Plum.
Sandy liked Plum, and kissed the top of her head for luck before pattering out. “Look out for the big feet, and don’t let the humans touch you,” she called over her shoulder.
Soon Plum felt as though she were moving. She heard water splashing quietly against the walls of the hold and suddenly felt very sick. She ducked into a little ball until she felt better. When she raised her head it was utterly dark, and something behind her was growling.
She whirled around, rocking on unsteady legs. In a crate in a corner, staring between thick bars, was a huge dog.
“Who are you?” mewed Plum.
“I am Fangs,” growled the dog. “Why are you here? You don’t belong here!”
Plum struggled to talk through her fear. “I-I am going over the wide world to look for something,” she said. “It’s what I was meant for.”
The dog gave a bellowing bark of laughter. “Where do those words come from?”
“The chipmunks and the mongoose.”
Another great bellow from Fangs. “Silly creature.” He stretched out in his crate and rested.
Slowly, Plum came closer. Fangs glared at her. “Why aren’t you afraid?” he growled.
“Because I am…a cat,” said Plum shakily.
“Cats are cowards,” said Fangs.
“Not me. I’m different. I’m…” Plum thought of the chipmunks. “I’m small and gentle.”
Fangs laughed. “Coward!”
“And I’m big and brave,” said Plum, lashing her plumy tail. “And I’m beautiful and I can swim and crush almonds. And I can eat bugs and I’m good at exploring. And I can make promises and I don’t hurt things and I’m not afraid of death. I’m different.”
Fangs looked at her in surprise. His eyes glimmered between the bars. “What are you called, cat?” he asked.
“Plum,” said Plum. “But it’s a very little name.”
“A little name for a little runt.” A hot sigh blew between the crate’s bars. “You are very free for a kitten. I have spent my life fighting in rings and sleeping in cages.”
“Oh,” said Plum. She felt her way slowly over to the crate, bumping into boxes and bags in the dim light, and sat down near it. “I will tell you about the wide world. I don’t know all of it yet, but I know a lot. I had help.”
While Fangs listened, half-asleep, Plum told him a little part of her story, about an icy stream and an old dog whose pups had died and who fell asleep and wouldn’t wake up.
“More,” Fangs growled.
“All right,” said Plum. “The chipmunks.”
She told the story of walking, walking and walking, through a wood full of eyes that stared at her and feet that backed away, and chipmunks who found her and loved her and fed her almonds and taught her many things. She told about death, and about hurt. When she was done she was crying, but then she stopped.
“Why did you stop?” asked Fangs.
“Because you should never stop your journey for the sake of crying,” she said.
“You don’t understand much, runt,” said Fangs. “Death is a sad thing, not for kittens to know about.”
“I’ll try to understand, anyway,” said Plum. “Do you want to hear more? I have a bit about a rainforest, but most of it’s in a den with a mongoose.”
Fangs grunted, so Plum told the story of being alone with no one else and feeling very different and sleeping under a leaf. Then she introduced the mongoose who was so kind and cheerful, and his mother who had fed her bugs, and Sandy who had dragged her up a ramp and then kissed the top of her head.
“Then there was a dog,” she went on, “who was angry. The end.”
Hours passed and the dark space was very quiet. Plum curled up on a soft bag and slept.
Suddenly she realized that it was lighter. Fangs growled from his crate, “Hide, cat!”
Plum jumped off the bag and wriggled behind it. Great footsteps rang on the floor. A human bent in front of Fangs’ crate and shoved in a plate of food. Then it was gone.
Plum’s belly rumbled. She padded out toward the smell of food, but Fangs growled. “Mine!” he said.
Plum turned away and began to sniff around. A mouse scuttled into a hole with an unintelligible shriek. A rat glared at her and snarled something she understood even less than the mouse. She found little to eat besides a withered old sausage someone had left there, a few dried peas, and a crumb. It was enough to fill her belly for now, but no matter how hard she searched the corners of the hold there was nothing else to eat.
“Cat,” said Fangs from his crate, “is there more of the story?”
Plum wobbled over and sat down near him again. She had told most of the story, so she tried to describe herself. An odd little kitten the size of a red maple leaf. Who asked questions about death and hurt. Who was on a journey over the wide world for no particular reason except that it was her special journey.
“It’s what I was meant for,” she said.
“It’s what God made you to do,” Fangs corrected her. He beckoned her closer and pressed his neck against the front of the crate, showing her a crude silvery cross etched on his collar.
“What’s that?” asked Plum.
“A good thing,” said Fangs. “Keep it in your heart.”
Another day passed—Plum knew it by the changing light in the hold—and the human came to feed Fangs again. Plum stared at his dish, wondering how her small stomach could feel so big and empty.
After a moment she felt Fangs’ eyes on her. He took a morsel of food in his mouth and swallowed it. There was a pause, and he swallowed more. Then he picked up a piece from the dish and, sticking his nose through the bars of the crate, dropped it on the floor. Plum hurried to it and licked it. It was a good-sized piece. She ate it all and was full.
“How long has your journey been?” asked Fangs.
“My whole life,” she responded immediately. Her traveling in the woods seemed like forever, the rainforest was one day and one night, and the boat trip so far was two days.
“How long has your journey been?” she asked Fangs.
“My journey?” he echoed. He sat back on his haunches as if thinking hard. “My journey. Three long years.” He bent his head and finished his food.
“What is a year?” asked Plum.
“A year is something beautiful,” said Fangs slowly. “Something to keep track of. If you count out almost four hundred sunsets, that’s a year.”
“That must be a lifetime!” exclaimed Plum.
“No, little one. Four hundred sunsets is a small gift compared to some.”
The dog and kitten shared two more days in the hold, sharing food and sleeping. Plum wondered when she would be able to count sunsets. Down here there was no sun.
On their sixth day Fangs asked, “What is it you’re looking for, cat?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Plum. “A home, maybe. A mother. Someone to stay close to me. Maybe…maybe the end of my journey will be when I die.”
“Don’t say that! I’ve killed enough not to hope for it, foolish cat.”
“But death isn’t evil,” said Plum, “and I’m not afraid of it.”
“I’m sure you aren’t,” said Fangs gruffly. “You said that you make promises, cat.”
“Yes,” said Plum, “but you have to be careful about promises.”
“You make a promise to me, little one, that you don’t search for your death. Try to find something rather than nothing.”
Plum looked at him through the crate bars. “All right, I promise,” she said, and purred.
After a week of travel Plum felt the movement begin to lessen. Then a door opened, light flooded the hold and humans hurried in. Plum peeked out from behind a box as Fangs was led out. “Good-bye,” she called in a tiny voice. “Good luck.”
Before the door closed she crept out.
The new world that she would travel over loomed before her as she padded down the ramp. Tall buildings where humans lived rose in long lines, with cats and dogs and children milling about them. It was surprisingly cold after the mongoose’s rainforest. A little place that smelled of grass and trees beckoned to Plum, and she went toward it.
A few browning trees and an elegant little fence separated this park from the rest of the wide world. Plum looked around with interest. A squirrel pattered out to the end of a branch and watched her with clever dark eyes before scrambling down.
“Who are you?” asked Plum.
“A stranger,” said the squirrel simply. “You, too, I see.” She raised a paw, very like a chipmunk’s paw, and touched Plum’s face.
“You’re very little,” said the squirrel.
“I’m Plum,” said Plum. “I have a journey to go on, but I’m not sure where to go from here.”
“Where do you need to go?” asked the squirrel.
“Over the world.”
“That’s a grand thing, little cat. Stand still a minute.” Plum stood still and felt the small paws pattering over her body, fluffing her tail, smoothing creased hairs, straightening her ears, brushing mud off her white paws. “You must look presentable for your journey, yes?”
“Thank you,” said Plum.
“I’m not much help to you now, though,” said the squirrel. “Go to the third house in the square, a red brick one with a young dog in the yard. There’s a cat on the fence.” She pushed Plum gently away.
Plum went to the house. A dog slept in the yard and a beautiful white cat looked down haughtily from the fence.
“Kitten,” she said, “you don’t belong here. Run off and play in some dirty alley. That’s what you’re meant for.”
“No,” said Plum. “I have to go over the world. That’s what I’m meant for. It’s what God made me for.”
“Tsk, child,” said the cat.
Plum stared. “I’m Plum.”
“Hardly,” said the cat in a bored voice. “Plums are round. A more appropriate name would be Stick, but that’s hardly a creditable discussion. I am Errand, and you clearly need help.”
“Yes,” said Plum. She was quiet for a moment, and then asked, “How did you get up there?”
“I jumped,” said Errand coolly.
Plum backed up, leapt at the fence, and clawed her way to the top.
“Needs work, child,” said Errand, “and you need work. If you really endeavor to trek over the globe, this isn’t the place to do it. Go to the mountains. Learn to climb. Meet someone.”
“Can’t you help me more than that?” asked Plum as she cat stretched luxuriously.
“Why should I care, child? I think it’s a madcap pursuit. The train out of here is around the corner. I’d wish you luck if I thought you credited it.”
Plum turned away, clambered back down the fence, and padded off around the corner to the train station. She was afraid and once again felt alone. Errand hadn’t helped much; Plum had hardly understood those big words the white cat used. But she was on her way, and she was a big brave cat who made promises and didn’t hurt things and wasn’t afraid of death and was a good swimmer and had befriended a dog, so why should the mountains scare her?
A tiny boxcar rattled at the end of the train. Plum climbed on through an open door and huddled in a corner until the train began to move.
The train with the kitten on it moved for hours, mostly up. It was freezing and snow whistled into the boxcar. Plum curled herself tightly and puffed out her coat. Awful memories of an icy current pulling her were invading her mind. She burrowed into the warmth of her own coat and tried to sleep.
When the train finally stopped, Plum jolted awake and jumped up, waiting for the tide of human feet in the boxcar to stop, but she had no opportunity to escape. Straw was thrown on the floor of the boxcar, along with bales of hay and a trough, and then up the ramp into the car came a number of cattle. Plum stared at them from her corner. They looked lovely, with soft eyes and gently tilting ears, but they were enormous. Bigger than Fangs. Bigger than the humans.
When they had all been loaded in, Plum darted for the door, a draft of cold air hitting her in the face—but then the door slid shut abruptly. Plum tumbled backwards, over and over herself as the train began to rumble uphill again. A cow lowed softly and took up a wisp of hay, but the livestock seemed unbothered.
Plum fell flat in the same corner she had sat in before. The train was moving swiftly uphill; there was no chance of getting out now. Plum stared up hopelessly at the silhouettes of the cows, lit dimly by a lantern on the wall. The crowded boxcar was warm and the straw was soft, but it wasn’t what Plum wanted. It wasn’t what she was made for. She was utterly friendless.
A snowflake drifted in through a gap between the boards and landed on Plum’s nose. She sniffled, and one by one tears began slowly working their way down her face. She buried herself in the straw and sobbed in defeat.
“Hello,” said a gentle, rumbling voice with a touch of an accent. “I know that sound. There’s a little one in here somewhere. Have we got a calf with us, or did a barn cat come along with a kitten?”
There was a soft murmur from around the boxcar. Then Plum felt the straw being moved away from her head.
“Here we are,” said someone. “What is it, little child? Now, you’re all right.” The voice was sweet and slow. Plum looked up blearily at a red cow, which smiled at her as it chewed.
“What’s this, kitten?” asked the cow in a soothing tone, rubbing her broad nose against Plum’s face. “You’re a brave barn cat, aren’t you? You shouldn’t cry so.”
“What’s a barn cat?” sniffled Plum.
“Well, a barn cat is a good creature who catches mice,” said the cow with a chuckle, “but I see now you’re not one. What are you doing here, kitten?”
“I’m journeying over the world,” said Plum feebly, sinking back into the straw, “but I don’t know why I should anymore.”
“Why, dear little one?”
“Because I’m alone and my friends are so far away, and I have no mother.”
The cow shuffled the straw around so that Plum couldn’t hide in it. “We can’t have this,” said the cow gently. “How far have you come?”
“Well,” said Plum, “I lived in a wood with an old dog, but that was a very long time ago, and she died. So I walked along for a long time and the chipmunks looked after me and they’re very wise and told me I was on a journey. And I was. A grand journey. So after ever so many days or weeks I crossed a river and got to the rainforest with this mongoose, and he had a friend named Sandy who brought me to a boat and kissed me on the top of my head, here.” Plum touched her paw to the spot between her ears. “And Fangs, a dog, was in the boat and he listened to my stories and told me to promise him…and then a squirrel showed me where a cat was, a white cat called Errand who said I belonged in an alley, and she told me to run off to the train and now I can’t get off and I’m alone.”
“Such a long trip for a little kitten,” murmured the cow. “Here, little one, climb up onto my horns.”
Plum looked up, put her forepaws uncertainly on the cow’s broad head, and climbed softly up with a little slipping and sliding to the horns, and from there to the cow’s warm, wide back.
“The chipmunks told me never to stop my journey for the sake of crying,” said Plum, “but I don’t know what to do now, and they’re so far away, and I don’t even know what to look for.”
“Never fear, little one,” said the cow. “You’ll finish your journey and find a place. That’s what you’re looking for, I think.”
“A place?” sniffed Plum.
“Yes, a little home with someone who can understand you. That’s never an easy thing to find. For some people, it’s right here.” The cow flicked an ear at Plum’s chest where her heart beat. “For others it’s hidden, over the world. You sleep now, dear kitten, and stay warm. The train will be moving for a long time, and it’s best for us all to sleep now.”
So Plum settled on the cow’s warm withers and slept.
Three days passed in the boxcar, which was always warm from the cluster of bodies. The lantern flickered and grew dimmer but didn’t go out, and there were many bales of hay for the cows to eat. When Plum’s belly rumbled, the cow she rode on showed her how to get milk from her full udders.
“You have a calling, little one,” said the cow in her gentle voice, “something you know you should do. For you it’s a journey. For me, it’s to have calves and give milk. It’s a special thing.”
“Everyone says it’s different, though,” mewed Plum softly. “The chipmunks said it was what I was meant for. Fangs said it was what God made me for. And it’s my calling, too.”
“Just different ways of saying the same thing.” The cow looked up, lowing softly. “We’re going up a slope, kitten. The train will be slowing down.”
Plum glanced over at the sliding boxcar door. It rattled, open a crack. The sound of it jittering in its frame had become familiar in the three days Plum had been riding in the boxcar.
“Oh,” said Plum quietly. “I think it’s time for me to go now.”
The cow lowered her head, and Plum slipped down her neck. Plum made her way between the cows’ feet to the door and slipped her head outside through the little open space.
The hillside rushed past, white with snow, and a bitter wind nipped at Plum’s whiskers. She looked up the train and saw a fuzzy line where the top of the mountain was, seeming to change dauntingly as the snow blew over it.
Plum turned back to the warm boxcar. “I’m going to jump out at the top,” she said. “Thank you so much for helping me. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, little one,” said the cow. “Be safe.”
Plum looked out the door again. The train was grinding slower and slower as it crested the hill. The boxcar inched toward the top, and the engine, already on the other side of the hill, sped up.
And Plum jumped.
Plum had never seen or felt snow before. She had been born in springtime woods. Up here, in the high mountains where the snow rarely melted, it was freezing and wintry, and when Plum hit the snow it was as if she had been thrown into the stream all over again. Suddenly she was drowning in cold.
And it was pulling her! Like the stream’s current, it was dragging her downhill.
Plum plummeted down and down through the awful cold, the wind ripping at her coat, the snow burning her skin beneath the fur. She rolled to a stop at last on a ledge, in a thick layer of snow. She floundered up, gasping for air.
Plum was battered and bruised and the snow stung every sensitive part—her eyes, her nose. Her lips began to burn from the cold. She struggled out of the snowdrift, creeping through the thick whiteness with her legs fully submerged. She knew she had to find shelter.
At last she felt a deep hollow in the hill beneath her, covered with snow. She turned, running her tongue around her burning mouth, and began to dig. Her joints were frozen and painful, and it took her longer than it should have to dig through the snow and find the hollow. At last she got to it, an earthy den of sorts, with airholes poking up in various places. It was obviously abandoned, and not a comfortable place to stay, but Plum crawled in to wait out the storm. After a few minutes the air in the den grew thin; the airholes had been plugged up with snow. Plum held up a shaking paw and opened one up. She barely slept that whole dark night, for every few minutes she had to sit up and make another airhole.
At last she noticed a thread of pale light worming into her shelter. She dug up and out and gulped the empty air of the mountainside. There was still wind but no storm. Plum found the tracks of the train that she had been riding on only a few hours before—long gone now—and crossed them, into the snowy waste.
The mountains were totally unknown to Plum. She had only this direction in her head to guide her—keep going, over and on. So she did.
She came to know the creatures that roamed her new territory. She noticed the leopards first, noticed their eyes. It was as if they were nothing but eyes. She felt them staring at her from the bleak slopes, and when she turned to look she saw nothing, except a vanishing flash of silver or a trail of pawprints bigger than she was.
The hawk introduced himself by snatching her up and carrying her for miles as she wailed at the sight of the earth disappearing below her. She was saved when another hawk dove out of the air to snatch her, and the bird carrying her let go out of surprise. Plum landed with a flump in the snow far below, and couldn’t even stop to recover from her pain and shock; if she lay still too long, she would soon freeze.
To drink there was nothing except melted snow. When she was hungry, she dug miserably in the drifts, hoping to find some frozen dead animal or even a worm or bit of a shrub. After a week of trying to cross the mountains, trying to survive, she was lean and sickly. The white, white world darkened suddenly, and Plum collapsed.
She woke with a leopard’s jaws closing on her neck, and screamed. “Get away!” she cried, floundering in the snow.
“Stop that, now.” A massive paw encircled her. “Calm down. You’ll die of hysterics.”
Shivering, Plum looked up at the leopard. It wasn’t as big as she had thought. “Who are you?” she said through chattering teeth.
The leopard’s yellow eyes stared. They were curious eyes, not vicious.
“Sasha,” the leopard said.
“Plum.” The leopard nodded. “You don’t belong here in the cold. Why did you leave your house, your milk and cushion?”
“I d-d-didn’t. Never had th-them. I’m on a journey.”
“A journey? To where?”
“Ov-v-ver the world.” Plum looked up at the leopard and realized she couldn’t feel her paws. “Help me. Please.”
Sasha bent and picked her up by the scruff, gently. Her warm breath washed over Plum. The kitten gave a shuddering sigh.
“I used to have kittens,” said Sasha through her mouthful of Plum’s fur. “Like you. Very tiny. I would have to carry them over the snow.” The leopard bounded uphill. Plum’s teeth rattled in her head.
Sasha brought her to a little den, a burrow beneath a cliff with an overhang of frozen dirt and stones over it. It was lined with soft fur that smelled of leopard. Sasha placed Plum in a little nest, where she shivered helplessly and couldn’t get warm.
A silvery head rose at the back of the burrow. “What’s this?” said a measured male voice. Plum guessed it was Sasha’s mate.
“A runty kitten on a journey,” said Sasha.
Plum looked up at them both. “You’re like big cats,” she murmured faintly. “The chipmunks said cats were big and brave and beautiful but they never smiled.”
The male leopard’s whiskers twitched. “Where did you pick this one up, Sasha?” he asked.
“She ran away from home, I think,” said Sasha, sniffing Plum.
“I didn’t,” rasped Plum. “I don’t have a home. I think I’m looking for one. Maybe. I’m looking for something.”
The leopards looked at each other. “Could this be your home?” asked Sasha.
Plum shook her head. “It’s v-very nice, but no, I don’t think it’s my home.”
“No,” said Sasha sympathetically. “We couldn’t care for you anyway.”
Plum settled as much as she could in the nest, but she couldn’t get comfortable. She felt as though she were floating in a little bubble of cold and sickness. She felt Sasha prod her belly and sniff her all over. “Open your mouth,” said Sasha.
Plum did, and Sasha sniffed her tongue. “You’ve been eating all the wrong things, little cat,” she said, “and you’re very sick. I can get you warm right now, but you need others to look after you. Most importantly, you have to get out of these mountains. They’re too cold for you, Plum.”
Plum let Sasha lick her roughly, until the friction of the leopard’s big tongue warmed her a little. Sasha put a little cocoon of leopard fur around her and picked her up again.
“Hurry, and be safe,” said Sasha’s mate as Sasha went bounding onto the dark mountainside.
“Where are we going?” asked Plum.
“A day’s journey, usually,” Sasha answered through her teeth, “but it’s beginning to storm. I’ll take you to one of the trains, nearby on the level ground. When you get off the train in three days you have to get to a warm place, to someone who will care for you. Do you understand, little cat?”
They traveled two days in the storm. Plum had been helpless in a gale, but Sasha didn’t seem afraid of anything. Plum thought she could never forget those two days, struggling onward through the whiteness, but she could never fully remember them. She just remembered the snow and the cold and Sasha carrying her.
At sunrise on the third day Plum was drifting on a black sea, her eyes closed. When she opened them she was on the train, sharing a boxcar with a young sleeping horse. She looked up, blinking, and saw Sasha crouched over her, tucking a bed of warm, sweet-smelling straw around her. “You finish this journey, little cat,” said Sasha, and gave Plum a kiss on the head, between her ears, where Sandy had kissed her. Then Sasha was gone, and Plum, in a nest of leopard hair and straw, was on her way in the train again.
A fever in Plum’s head made her sleep fitfully, on-and-off, for the three-day train ride. The snow was always blowing in and landing on the horse, but the animal just shivered its skin and didn’t give it another thought. It was different for Plum. The heat of her fever and the lack of food and coldness of her body, despite the nest Sasha had made, made her feel sicker. She didn’t get up at all.
The horse seemed to notice her at last and asked her what she was doing in the boxcar.
“Going over the world,” she said weakly.
“Oh,” said the horse. “Like a race. Like a grand gallop.”
“Something like that, I suppose,” said Plum, “but I don’t feel much like galloping.”
“Why don’t you get up and stretch your legs?” asked the horse.
“Because I’m sick and I’m saving my strength for when the train stops.” Plum closed her eyes and whimpered in her sleep.
The train began to slow down, and Plum opened her eyes as the boxcar door slid open. She stumbled out through the rush of human legs. A house. She had to find a house.
A stream flowed over an icy bed next to the path where Plum walked. She stopped to get a drink, hoping the cold water would take away some of the heat of the fever, and suddenly a grayish head poked up from the stream.
“Is it safe?” asked the head, looking around cautiously.
“Who are you?” asked Plum.
“I’m an otter.”
“Oh…” Plum swayed. “An otter?”
“Yes! A European otter.”
Plum tried to make her eyes focus. “Is there a warm place nearby?”
The otter, seeing that she needed help, put out a cool webbed paw and steadied her so she could look at him. “Here—go up the path and into the little hut. There’s a furnace and a basket full of old blankets. I’ve heard it’s a bit crowded, mice and cats and the like, but if you crawl under the very bottom blanket you’ll be fine.”
Plum looked dizzily up the gravel path. She couldn’t see anything more than ten feet away. “I might need help,” she said.
“Not from me, kitten! Too many humans about for me. I can’t stay long.”
Plum looked at him as he slid back into the water. “Please,” she said.
But he was gone.
Everything was dim and hazy as Plum staggered over to the hut. She could barely manage the steps, and kept reminding herself that after all she was a big brave cat who made promises and didn’t hurt things and wasn’t afraid of death and was a good swimmer and had befriended a dog and crossed snowy mountains. She needed those thoughts.
The door was ajar, and a rat peeking out from behind it made a nasty sound that sounded like a curse at Plum before scuttling away. To Plum’s fevered eyes the entire inside of the hut seemed to glow gold from the furnace. In a wide, empty bookshelf was a wiry little she-cat with two newborn kittens curled near her; in a hole in a chair cushion a mouse’s ear poked out; on a stool in front of the furnace was an old woman, warming her hands, with a lop-eared dog at her feet. Plum, feeling tiny in this creature-filled hut, stumbled in and felt her way over to a basket next to the furnace. A heap of woolen blankets was jumbled inside. Plum crept in, swaddling and burying herself in them, and slept. There was nothing else to do. She could get warm, but she had no way of getting food. For now, the only thing for her was to sleep.
She slept a long hard sleep for a day and a night and awoke to a paw prodding her. It was the mother cat whose kittens were on the bookcase.
“Here,” whispered the cat, nudging a morsel of food toward Plum.
“Thank you,” said Plum. The cat returned to the bookcase as Plum ate.
The mother cat was Plum’s main source of food while she recovered, with an attitude drastically different from Errand’s. Like all cats, the mother cat never smiled, but she was quiet and kind and reminded Plum of the chipmunks. Plum watched her and the kittens with interest. What a wonderful world, where a cat could be kind. What a cruel world, where an otter wasn’t.
After a week Plum was well enough to leave the hut. As she padded off in the early morning toward her journey, away and away and away, thinking great thoughts, she turned back once. The mother cat was looking at her from the bookcase. Plum nodded a silent thank-you, and suddenly felt warm and good even though it was a wintry day. She was alone, but with all these kind things in her heart, she was ready.
Off went Plum, over the world.
A sailing boat moored at a dock took her to a place called Scotland. For a month she rode on the shoulder of a sailor. He had a journey, too, and seemed to understand her well, and when she left she knew he understood.
A shaggy old barn dog pointed the way toward the sea, and Plum hitched a ride on a ship, all the way to England, where rain flattened her ears and dogs chased her and the streets were wide and noisy and wonderful.
So Plum traveled, for two years, into Russia and Asia and Italy. She learned more about hurt and death, and about other, better things, beautiful things. She learned about parades and carnivals and parks. She saw people and animals in love. She watched through a schoolroom window as children learned too. Her heart grew with the rest of her. The world was so great and big, and yet for her it still centered on a wood full of chipmunks, a boxcar full of cows, a dog in a crate, a mongoose in a rainforest. There was so much to learn! So many places to go! So many things to find!
Plum grew up strong and wiry and pretty with huge eyes, all the better to see the world. She determined to keep the promise she had made to Fangs. On the eve of her third year, she took one more boat ride.
The boat coasted near a great river that Plum knew. She wriggled from a porthole, splashed into the water and swam to shore. The wood stretched before her, a forest tingling with memories and love.
“I’m home,” said Plum with a shiver of delight. “This is home. My home.”
All that day, the ginger-and-white cat sat very still in the grass and let the sun dry her. She watched the forest and went without meals until nightfall. When the sun went down a small, sleek chipmunk waddled toward her.
“Cat!” it cried. Like the mongoose and Fangs had.
“Hello,” said Plum. “Do you know me?”
“Do I?” said the chipmunk slowly. “Why aren’t you chasing me?”
“I don’t eat chipmunks.”
“Ridiculous. I thought all cats ate chipmunks if they wanted to.”
“I don’t want to,” said Plum. She gazed up and around her, at the trees and the night sky, at the cruel, beautiful world. Her great eyes shone. “I’m different,” she whispered.
“Ah,” said the chipmunk. It sat back and looked at her with its wise little eyes. “You have a story. Tell me. But don’t come too close.”
Plum began, “Once there was an icy stream in a wood, and an old dog who rescued a tiny kitten from it. But the dog died, to teach the kitten about death. The kitten was hated by everyone and decided to go on a journey over the world, to see if everyone she met was so hateful. But the chipmunks in the forest loved her and taught her many things. They were very wise.
“The kitten sailed the ocean with a dog who knew nothing but fighting. She went to the mountains and nearly died, but a beautiful leopard named Sasha rescued her and sent her off on her journey, though the rest of it didn’t seem as important as those things—a river, an ocean, a mountain.
“The kitten had a place deep in her heart where she kept everything. In this heart-place she kept funny things—bugs, straw, milk, sunsets and leopard hair. She kept love in there, and memories, and promises, and a collar with a silver cross on it. She kept her name in there, in a large empty corner, to remind herself how small and unimportant and precious it was. And she kept her journey there, a journey she was meant for, a journey God had made her for, a journey she was called to. It was a journey she never understood and could never name. She always said she was looking for something, but she never said for sure what it was. What she did find, at last, was the world, which was awful and cold and warm and wonderful and full of strange things.
“And the kitten came back to the wood and called it her home, because there it was, the place she had loved and missed most, right in front of her.
“She never really understood. She didn’t need to.
“Her name was Plum.”