As I was scrolling through Facebook this morning, I came upon a very unusual post. The Cat House on the Kings has a page where cat lovers share photos and news about their beloved pets. It is not uncommon to encounter a photo of a kitty who has passed away or, in pet-lover parlance, crossed the Rainbow Bridge. What is unusual is what I discovered today: a beautiful, sensitive, and imaginative tribute that offers a glimpse into what may follow for a cat–who, after all, has nine lives.
It is my privilege to share that post with you. The author is Matthew I. Bishop; this piece honors his beautiful Luna, who passed away today. Matthew describes his work as “heavily influenced by Neil Gaiman.” When I asked him for a brief biographical statement, this is what he said:
My name is Matthew I. Bishop. I am originally from England, though I have been living in America for most of my life. My wife and I have four cats. There are few things I like more than a good turn of phrase or an interesting thought or a job well done, but the thing I like most of all is the idea that I have helped make someone’s day better. My deepest hope is to make a meaningful impact on the world and make it a better place, a place in which all people are treated like people.
You can follow Matthew on Twitter at @thunderbattle.
The Tree Between the Worlds
by Matthew I. Bishop
She opened her eyes.
Blinking with surprise at the bright sunlight, she then realized with even greater surprise that the pain was gone.
She stood up. No wobble, no strain.
Her fur was full and black again. No matted bits or patches of regrowth where she’d been shaven for procedures.
She streeeeeeetched, and she yawned all big and wide, and reached out her clawed paws all fanned out as she felt that deep deep tension fading away.
And she took stock of her surroundings.
Normally, she remembered, if she were thrust into an unfamiliar place, she would be panicked, and would want to hide under the nearest furniture. But this place was nice and it was kind and it was warm, like a sunbeam all over.
She stood atop the biggest, thickest tree branch she had ever seen, thicker than some tree trunks, so wide that she might run and jump and dart around without any fear of falling off the side, long enough that it might actually reach for miles. The sunlight she felt dappled down through the leaves of this tree, and the shadows played over the bark in ever-changing intricate designs, kaleidoscopes of light and shadow.
There was bird song in the distance. And butterflies.
And she was not alone, she realized gradually.
There were other cats here.
Big ones, ones bigger than she’d ever seen, lions and tigers, and little ones like herself.
Many of them were pacing about bewilderedly, trying to orient themselves like she was.
Some were eagerly chasing fallen leaves, or patches of sunlight, or birds or bugs, with the vigor of kittens.
Others were snoozing. One of the lions was sleeping and a few of the cats were sleeping on top of him and it was almost comical to see them rising and falling with the chuffing snores of the titanic kingly beast.
“Hello!” a squeak of a mew came from behind her, and she glanced over her shoulder to see who it was.
She found a tiny, grey-striped kitten sitting there, posture friendly, eyes without malice. “You just get here? I can show you around if you like.”
Facing him more fully, she gazed at him. He reminded her of a friend. “Around? Here? What is here? What is this place?”
“You’ve just finished a life,” the small boy cat explained. “Your first one, probably, given how high up you are. This is where we go between lives. A place to rest until we’re ready to move on. I’ve been here a little while myself. Just kind of paying the tour guide thing forward, like someone did for me.”
“Rest does sound nice,” she admitted. “But… move on? To what?”
“Yep, definitely a newbie,” the boy cat nodded, and then trotted towards the very edge of the branch, peering over.
With the first hint of trepidation she felt since arriving, she followed him, and hesitantly followed his gaze downwards.
The tree was big, and tall, tall beyond reckoning, but she could see the ground far, far below.
There were nine branches, just like this one, spaced down the trunk of the tree, and she almost thought… if it wasn’t so far… she could almost jump and reach the closest of them.
“We work our way down the tree,” the spirited little boy cat explained. “At least, that’s how it was explained to me. I haven’t tried it yet, I’m still here from my first life. And each branch, we go back to the world for another life, and we’re different cats each time, but when we come back here we look like we did in our most recent life.”
She glanced at him. “Oh. Does that mean you finished your life when you were a kitten? You’re so tiny.”
“I had a heart thing,” the kitten admitted. “But it’s okay. I had a human who really, really loved me. Even if just for a little while.”
“I got a long time with my humans,” she reflected. “I think, as these things go.”
“You’re lucky,” the little grey kitten enthused. “Did they love you, too?”
She squinched her eyes shut like cats do when they love and trust a human, and she replied with absolute confidence and assurance, not a single doubt in her mind. “Yes. Very much.”
“Good,” the kitten said. “That means you’ll remember them. No matter how many lives we have, we remember being loved. That’s a fact we all know for sure.”
She looked over her shoulder, craned her head back to look up at the sky and the leaves and the sun, and she took a moment to remember her humans. And the warmth that rose in her heart was bigger and brighter than any sunbeam.
“Then I’ll remember mine forever. They weren’t perfect, but they did their best.”
The kitten’s tail swished around him. “That’s all we can ask. There was a big black bear of a housecat here for awhile, and he said the same thing.”
She peered over the edge again, down to the next branch. “What happens when you reach the ground?”
“You rest,” the kitten murmured. “There’s endless grass for chewing and mice for chasing and sun and shade for miles and miles beneath the tree and all the butterflies you could paw at. You have your nine lives, and then you rest forever in that warm peaceful place.”
“That sounds amazing,” she considered.
“I know, I’m really excited to start heading down, I think I’m ready now,” the kitten declared eagerly. “What about you? Do you want to just chill here for awhile, or do you want to come with me?”
“I’m not sure,” she confessed. “It’s such a long way, I’m not sure I’ll make it.”
The little kitten bounded about her. “Oh, you can make it. There’s no danger here. We’ll go together.”
“C’mon,” the kitten called back over his shoulder as he sprung and made an arching leap down towards the next branch, “there’s so much more to see.”
She gazed after him, and did that math in her head all cats do before they jump.
And she remembered her humans again.
Remembered that love.
Who knows? Maybe she would see them again. If not in her next life, then the next, or the next. It was worth a shot.
She gathered herself for a leap.
And jumped to her next life, her tail arcing behind her and the wind whistling through her whiskers.
“There’s so much more to see.”