Myth Monday: The King o’ Cats (Scottish Folktale)
By Kara Newcastle
The sun had barely disappeared over the horizon by the time Keir MacRae got home. The gravedigger burst through the door so suddenly that his two children, his daughter Gunna and son Earvin nearly leaped out of their skins with fright. Hearing the children screech in alarm, Bradana, their mother and Keir MacRae’s long suffering wife, came racing out of the pantry to see what the fuss was about. Discovering it was only her husband, Bradana scowled. “Well, well … look what the cat dragged in.”
“For God’s sake, don’t say that,” Keir hissed as he bolted the door. Swallowing hard, he ran a hand through his oddly mussed hair and minced over to the front window, peering out into the settling dark. “Ye would not believe the night I’ve had.”
“Oh, do tell,” Bradana sniffed, arching an eyebrow as she watched her husband look this way and that. “It must be a good story if it’s kept us all waiting an hour for ye to get home so the little ones can eat supper.”
“Oh, a good story it is, all right.” Keir grabbed each of the window curtains in either hand and yanked them shut. “The house is all locked up, aye?”
“What’s this all about?” Bradana demanded.
“Just tell me the house is locked up!”
“Aye, ‘tis!” Bradana felt her ire draining away as Keir finally turned to face his family. His face was as white as the driven snow, and his eyes darted wildly about. “Mr. MacRae, what’s gotten into ye?”
“I …” His shoulders sagging, Keir ran a hand over his face, his wide, rough palm hovering briefly over his eyes for a moment. He drew in a deep breath, but it shuddered the whole way in and out. “Earvin, lad, fetch yer da an ale, aye?”
Bradana frowned as Keir shuffled towards his chair before their fireplace. “I don’t know if ale’s the right thing for ye at the present.”
“Well it can’t hurt me none.” Waving for his bewildered son to hurry on, Keir came around his chair—and stopped dead.
Mystified, Bradana hurried towards her petrified husband, following his huge eyes down to the seat cushion of his favorite chair. Seeing the black lump, Bradana slowly raised her eyes to Keir. Keir continued to stare down at the shape, his mouth slack, a gleam of sweat forming along his brow.
He looked terrified.
Hesitating, Bradana slowly reached out and gently pressed the tips of her fingers against Keir’s forearm. “Keir,” she whispered, “’tis only the cat.”
For a moment, Keir didn’t stir a muscle, didn’t respond to her touch or her voice. He stared down at the big, sleeping black cat, looking for all the world as though he were staring down the mouth of hell itself. The cat itself was unperturbed, half twisted onto its back, its neat paws tucked up in front of the white blaze on its chest.
Confused by her father’s rigid state, little Gunna edged around him, closer to the chair. “Would ye like me to move him, Da?”
Keir jerked violently at the question, his body whipping from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, as though he were fighting free of a nightmare. “No!” he shouted, the ferocity of his voice causing Gunna to gasp and Bradana to shoot a hand out, catching her daughter by the shoulder and wrenching her away from her father, pushing her behind her skirts.
“Keir, what has gotten into ye?” Bradana cried, feeling Gunna quaking even through her petticoats. “Ye’re frightening the children!”
“I—?” Blinking, Keir snapped his head up. He looked at Bradana, bewildered. His eyes fell to Gunna, who scurried further behind her mother, then up to the pantry door where Earvin stood, a stein of ale clasped in both hands. His father’s roar had startled the boy so bad that he had jumped and sloshed the ale onto his shirtsleeves.
Seeing the shock on the faces of his wife and children, Keir grimaced, looked down at the cat—who, as usual, hadn’t batted so much as a whisker in his direction—and slowly backed away. “No … no dear, leave him be. I’ll just sit myself here at the table. Earvin, the ale if ye would?”
Earvin looked as though he’d rather chew his own hand off than go near his suddenly lunatic father, but the boy summoned up a bit of courage and tiptoed forward, hastily shoving the tankard across the rough table as Keir slumped into his usual chair at the head. He sat there looking almost boneless, his neck too weak to support his head.
Bradana knotted her hands into her apron. “Well, Mr. MacRae …? Will ye tell us what happened to ye tonight?”
Keir shook his head. “Ye’ll nay believe me.”
“I’ll believe anything at this point,” Bradana snapped, motioning for bewildered Earvin to back away. “I’ll believe anything if it explains why ye’ve gone out of yer senses!”
Keir frowned. He lifted his head, gazed into the worried and furious face of his wife, then sighed. “Aye. All right, so I had just finished digging a grave—for Mr. Fordyce, ye recall—and I right difficult time I had of it too. Moving all that dirt, the stones, cutting through the roots, I wore myself out so much that when I sat down to rest inside, I dozed off.”
Bradana frowned, resisting the urge to say she wasn’t surprised.
Not noticing her sour look, Keir went on. “I fell asleep. I woke up just as the sun was almost gone. A cat’s meow woke me.”
From the chair by the fire, the MacRaes’ big black cat opened one sage green eye, stretched and said, “Meow.” It was a soft, little sound, but it was enough to make Keir MacRae jolt as though he had been struck by lightning.
Keir swallowed hard. “Aye … l-like that.”
“Ignore the wee thing,” Bradana said, waving her hand to draw Keir’s terrified face back to hers. “Ye said a cat’s meow woke ye?”
“Uh … a-aye.” Shaking his head, Keir noticed the stein of ale on the table and grabbed it, taking a deep gulp before continuing. “So, aye, I heard a meow. It struck me as odd, so I stood up and looked over the edge of the grave, and what d’ye think I saw?”
“I haven’t a clue.”
“I’ll tell ye what I saw—nine cats! Nine black cats, all with white marks on their chests, much like …” Keir faltered. His eyes flicked back to their cat, who now was fully awake, rolled over onto its paws, watching Keir through half-lidded eyes.
Keir licked his lips. “Like our cat there,” he whispered.
“All right, ye saw nine black cats like ours,” Bradana said, barely sparing their own feline a glance as she spoke. “What of it? Ye’ve seen cats in the graveyard before.”
“Not like these!” Pausing to take another fortifying swallow, Keir ran the back of his hand over his upper lip. “Nay, these cats—can ye believe it?—these cats were walking on their hind legs, like people! One big one was in the lead, and eight of them, they were carrying a coffin!”
Silence settled over the household as Keir stopped for breath. Their big black cat’s eyes widen as young Earvin asked haltingly, “A coffin?”
“Aye!” Keir exploded, making Bradana and their poor children leap with fright. “A coffin! And not just any coffin—it had a black velvet pall on it. And on top of the pall was a golden crown! A golden crown, did ye hear me? A golden crown, and every third step these cats took, they’d say ‘meow’—”
The MacRaes’ cat sprang up onto its feet. “Meow!” it cried.
His fear forgotten, Keir jabbed a finger at their cat. “Like that exactly! That’s what they did! They said meow, and their eyes were glowing green, I swear, like lanterns … Look at the cat, it’s like he knows what I’m talking about. Look at the way he listens to me!”
“Never mind that!” Bradana spat. “What happened next?”
“I’ll tell ye what happened next,” Keir exclaimed. He pointed to himself. “The big one, the one in front, he saw me, and he walked over to me and said—I swear on everything that’s holy, this is what he said—‘Tell Tom Tildrum—‘”
“I’m getting at it! The big cat said, ‘Tell Tom Tildrum that Tim Toldrum is dead.’ That’s what he said! He spoke to me like a man and told me to tell this Tom Tildrum blighter that Tim Toldrum is dead. I don’t know any Tom Tildrum, and I have no way of finding out, and I was right afraid to tell them all that, so I just nodded and lit out of there. Came straight here.” Keir flung his arms up in the air. “That’s the night I had! What d’ye all say to that?”
“I’ll tell you what I have to say!”
Her head whipping around at the voice from the chair, Bradana’s eyes flew open and she screamed in horror, grabbing her two shrieking children to her. “God in heaven—look at the cat!”
Keir was looking. They all were—they were all staring in disbelieving terror as their big black cat with the white blaze on his chest rose up on his back legs, his tail excitedly lashing through the air. Grinning in delight, the cat threw his front paws up in the air.
“Tim Toldrum is dead?” the cat cried. “By Jove, that means I’m King o’ Cats now!”
Meowing in glee, the MacRaes cat—Tom Tildrum, the new king of the fairy cats, the cat sith—sprang off Keir’s favorite chair and leapt headlong into the fireplace, scrambling up the flue and disappearing from sight forever. To be sure the creature was gone, Bradana MacRae swatted around the inside of the chimney with her broom, while her beleaguered children tried to slap Keir Macrae awake, as he had fainted away at the sight.
One thought on “Myth Monday: The King o’ Cats (Scottish Folktale)”