Myth Monday: Why is a Black Cat Crossing Your Path Bad Luck? (Superstitions)

Myth Monday: Why is a Black Cat Crossing Your Path Bad Luck? (Superstitions)

By Kara Newcastle

“A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”

-Groucho Marx

Black cat by Frostdragon wikimedia commons

Imagine you’re taking a nice leisurely stroll on a bright sunny day. You’re in a great mood. Everything is right in the world, you have no worries, no problems …

And then without warning, a black cat darts across the sidewalk in front of you. It doesn’t even spare you a glance as it trots by and vanishes under a shrub, but now you find yourself frozen in place. Your jaw drops and a chill riddles its way down your spine as you struggle to wrap your mind around what just happened.

A black cat crossed your path—now you’ve been cursed with bad luck!

Okay … but why? It’s just a black kitty cat that happened to walk past you. If it means bad luck, it should only be for whatever rodent it chances upon, not you.

So why are you so freaked out?

Cats in general and black cats in particular have a hand a long and complicated relationship with humans. In Ancient Egypt, cats were sacred, believed to be protectors of the home and the people within. The sun god Ra turned into a cat every night to fight the apocalypse snake Apophis, and the goddess of happiness was the extremely popular, cat-headed woman Bastet (see my blog on her here!) The Egyptians loved their cats so much that if someone killed a cat they would be condemned to death, and it was said that the Egyptians were conquered by the Persian king Cambyses II after he ordered his soldiers to paint cats on their shields and carry live cats into battle with them. The Egyptians were so afraid of harming the cats that they surrendered.

Lately, I’ve found many online blogs and articles that claim that black cats were especially holy in Ancient Egypt because Bastet herself was a black cat. I find that claim iffy mythologically speaking, since I’ve never found any myth mentioning that specifically. However, there are many statues of Bastet in cat-form that were carved out of black basalt, so that might be where that connection comes from.

The worship of Bastet had spread into Rome, and was a popular religion for hundreds of years, eventually going head-to-head with early Christian sects. At first the Christians were fairly unconcerned with Bastet, but as their own popularity grew and members became fanatical, many primitive church leaders began to claim that worshiping deities like Bastet was evil, that she was a servant of Satan and had to be destroyed. That attitude extended to the hundreds of cats that lived pampered lives in the temples, and when the cult of Bastet died (and it died hard), it became open season on cats. Black cats were probably especially targeted since so many of Bastet’s statues were of a black cat.

Gradually memory of Bastet died out and people became mostly disinterested in cats, regarding them as at best a farm animal and at worst little better than the rats they hunted. It was not uncommon to see dozens milling around a farmstead in the country, picking off the abundance of rodents that would chew their way through a family’s food stores. Since most men worked in the field and most women stayed to care for the home, cats became more accustomed to women.

Unfortunately, this spelled disaster for both women and cats; from the mid-1400s until the late 18th century, a combination of civil unrest, economic failure, epidemic, famine and religious fanaticism gave birth to the horrifying witch hunts. Fearful and uneducated people looked for scapegoats to pin their troubles on, and all too frequently blame fell on women. The women were targeted for any number of reasons—being too opinionated, outliving too many husbands, living long past the age when most people would have died, having knowledge of medicinal herbs, living alone, being disfigured—and the accusations of witchcraft spread to their cats.

According to the witch hunters, a witch was a person who sold their soul to the Devil. In return, the fiend granted his new servants magical powers, and a monstrous assistant known as a familiar. A familiar was a demon, but it had the power to transform itself to look like an ordinary animal and then go out to help the witch commit crimes against her neighbors. With all the cats on a woman’s farm, it was easy to assume that they could be demons in disguise. Witches were also thought to be able to transform themselves into animals, and more often than not that animal was a black cat.

 It wasn’t long before the hunters’ half-assed, biased research found tales of black Bastet. Additionally, the Greek goddess Artemis her Roman counterpart Diana, both associated with witchcraft, could turn themselves into black cats (this is probably where the idea that human witches could turn themselves into cats came from.) The Greek goddess of magic Hecate was said to keep black cats, and the Viking goddess Freya was not only a goddess of love, but also of war and magic, and rode in a chariot pulled by cats (it’s interesting to note that the Vikings loved their fluffy skogskatt, but a few hundred years later their descendants were murdering them in droves.) Furthermore, both the Scots and the Irish had legends of the malicious fairy cat Cat Sith (read the blog here and its most famous story here!) that was almost entirely black. The Scots also believed that one could summon a demon in the form of a huge black cat.

This did not help cats at all.

Which brings us back to the topic at hand: why is it bad luck for a black cat to cross your path? Because the black cat might be a witch or a witch’s familiar, of course. Fear of black cats and witches became so bad that many people would have panic attacks at the mere sight of a black cat, thinking that it had come to do them harm. That cat crossed your path, cutting you off short … it might have just cut off the rest of your life right there.

It’s very symbolic and very full of crap.

By the time the plagues ended, cats were welcomed back into cities and town, albeit somewhat cautiously—though science was fast replacing superstition, many people had grown up with fears of witches and their feline sidekicks, and the superstitions remained. Not only did they remain, but they also traveled; the Puritans brought their distrust of black cats to the New World, and in the Salem witch trials, the afflicted claimed that they could see spectral cats, and the accused trying to escape death made up stories of devilish felines.

A_Black_Cat by Nino Barbieri wikimedia commons

Now, some of you might be wondering that if a black cat crosses your path and it means bad luck, would a white cat crossing your path mean good luck? Yes—depending on where you live. For reasons I’ve yet to find out, in America it’s believed by some that a black cat crossing your path is bad luck and a white cat crossing your path is good. In England the opposite is true: the white cat is bad and the black cat is good. An Irish belief states that it’s bad luck for a black cat for a black cat to cross your path in the moonlight—this means you will die in an epidemic (Ireland? Any recent reports on this?) And the Germans like to complicate it further by stating if a black cat crosses your path from left to right it’s good luck, but right to left is bad luck.

And other cultures say that if the cat is walking ­to you, then it’s bringing you good luck. If it walks away from you, then it’s taking the good with it.

Naturally, this is all a load of dirty litter. Me myself, I’m happy to see a black cat cross my path. About four years ago, I was on vacation on Cape Cod, walking along a sidewalk in Hyannis when a black cat suddenly sauntered across my path. I stopped and screamed, “KITTY!!!!” in delight. The cat took one look at me and ran off in terror.

It made me wonder if cats have a similar superstition about us?

Myth Monday: The Cat Who Loved a Man (Aesop’s Fable)

Myth Monday: The Cat Who Loved a Man (Aesop’s Fable)

By Kara Newcastle

Centuries ago on the island of Cyprus lived a young man named Stamitos. He was extremely handsome and every girl and woman he passed would pause and gaze at him longingly, but not one of them caught his interest. Stamitos, in addition to being so handsome, was also incredibly picky, and he found something wrong with every woman he met. He roamed the length and width of the island, but he could not find a woman that met his exacting standards.

Indeed, the only female Stamitos had any affection for was his pretty little cat, Euphrasia. She was perfect to him in every way, from the way she placed each of her little round paws on the ground, to the way she sat on the windowsill. Stamitos loved playing with Euphrasia, cradling her in his arms, bringing home pretty little things to entertain her with. Not once did she scratch him, treated him indifferently, or watched him judging eyes. More than once Stamitos would sigh wistfully, run his hand along her arching back and say, “You are so beautiful and so perfect. You understand me so well, and you never hide your feelings from me. If you were a human woman, I would marry you.”

Little did Stamitos know but Euphrasia understood what he said, and for a moment, her heart soared, because she loved him as well. When Stamitos would say aloud that he would marry her if he could, Euphrasia wanted nothing more than to be human.

Now, it so happens that the island of Cyprus was sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and having Stamitos living there particularly frustrated her; no matter what she did, what beautiful, graceful, talented girl she moved into his way, Aphrodite could not cause Stamitos to fall in love. Hearing Stamitos say that he would marry his cat if he could, Aphrodite was at first outraged … but at the same time, she couldn’t help but pity Euphrasia the cat, who was so in love with the man that she prayed to become human for him.

Considering it briefly, Aphrodite decided that she would like to see what would happen, and answered the youth and his cat’s prayers.

Waiting for the moment Stamitos sighed those words again, Aphrodite extended her delicate hand and granted the wish. Before Stamitos’s astonished eyes, the sleek form of Euphrasia the cat vanished before him, and in her place stood the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. It took a moment for each to come to their senses, but when they realized what had happened, Euphrasia joyously threw herself into Stamitos’s open arms. Within days they were married.

Aphrodite watched all of this with a mixture of amusement and satisfaction at having conquered the arrogant youth, but in time she began to wonder exactly how much had Euphrasia changed. Her body was different now, but what of her mind?

Desperate to know the truth, the goddess waited until the couple had climbed into bed together one night. As Euphrasia and Stamitos wrapped their arms around one another, Aphrodite chose that moment to release a mouse into their room.

Hearing the scurrying sounds across the wood flood, Euphrasia’s ears perked up. Rolling over in the bed, she saw the mouse rushing across the floor, and without a second thought, she lunged out of bed, pouncing upon the mouse with her hands and feet. Ducking her head down, Euphrasia bit the mouse through the neck, killing it.

Disgusted by what she had just witnessed, Aphrodite turned the woman back into a cat, knowing now that no matter how much a creature can change its outward appearance, its true nature would always shine through.

Myth Monday: The Three White Cats and the Spinning Wheel (French Fairy Tale)

Myth Monday: The Three White Cats and the Spinning Wheel (French Fairy Tale)

By Kara Newcastle

Once upon a time in Brittany, there was a king and queen who loved each other more than words could possibly describe, but they were saddened for they did not have any children. Wanting nothing more than a baby of their own, the royal couple became desperate and approached a powerful and wise sorceress who lived in the mountains. The sorceress listened intently to their plight and nodded slowly, gazing off into the distance.

“I do see a child in your future,” she told the elated monarchs. “It will be a beautiful baby girl, and she will be born to you before the year’s end.”

As the king and queen joyously embraced, the conjurer’s face grew dark. She reached out and caught the queen’s sleeve in her fingers, stopping her from leaving the fortress. “Take heed,” the sorceress warned. “If your daughter should ever marry a prince, she will fall down dead.”

At those words, the queen was overcome with horror and the king began to rage at the sorceress, accusing the enchantress of cursing his unborn daughter. The sorceress snapped her hand up, stopping the king in his murderous tracks.

“You do insult me,” the witch hissed, “but be assured that I have not placed a curse upon your daughter—I have no reason to do so. In fact, because I see how distraught the queen is, allow me to offer you a way to guard the princess’s health; find three white kittens—purest white, without a hair of any other color upon their bodies—and raise them with your daughter. Give the kittens three balls of linen thread, and three balls of gold. Should the kittens play with the linen thread, the princess will face no harm.

“But … should the kittens ever play with the three golden balls …” The sorceress’s face softened. “Be prepared for the worst.”

The king was not comforted by the sorceress’s advice, but the queen took the recommendation to heart. As soon as their daughter, Princess Mireille was born, the queen ordered her courtiers to comb the countryside and find three perfectly white kittens. The vassals searched diligently, and soon three kittens—perfectly white, without a single hair of different color upon them—were brought back to the castle. When she became old enough to speak, Princess Mireille named her kittens Lyonette, Leonce, and Leonelle, and all four loved each other very dearly. Mireille adored her cats, and the trio played happily at her feet, batting their linen balls back and forth to her and each other. They never once paid any notice to the three golden balls.

Princess Mireille grew into a beautiful, clever, intelligent young woman, and Lyonette, Leonce, and Leonelle spent every waking moment in her company. They were just as bright and curious as Mireille was, and when the princess learned how to spin thread, the cats sat and watched, enraptured by the furiously spinning wheel and the long strands of thread she pulled free. They would often try to help in their own way, grabbing the linen thread in their teeth and pulling, batting at the blurring spokes of the spinning wheel, gingerly placing their small paws upon the pedal.

All too soon, Mireille turned sixteen, and all the princes of the neighboring lands came to court her, as her parents had refused to betroth her at birth, for fear of the curse coming to pass. Fortunately for all, Mireille was amused by the attention, but was not interested in any of the princes that came to visit; they were too dull and haughty, and, worst of all, they did not like her cats. Mireille dismissed them all.

One morning, a prince named Taillefer came to call upon Princess Mireille. He was a handsome as many of the other princes and gave Mireille wonderful presents, but he was different from the others; he was kind and intelligent, he was polite and listened to Mireille when she spoke.

Best of all, Taillefer loved to play with Lyonette, Leonce, and Leonelle.

Mireille plunged headlong into love, and waited anxiously for the days when Taillefer would visit, and dread when he would leave. They spent so much time together—with the three white cats always close by, of course—that Mireille was sure that he loved her as well, but she worried that he would not say so out loud. One night as Taillefer prepared to depart, Mireille, hardly aware of what she was doing, grabbed both of Taillefer’s hands and pulled him close to her.

“I don’t want you to leave,” Mireille whispered. “Not now, not ever. I love you Taillefer! Please say the same. Please say you would be my husband?”

Taillefer’s eyes widened at Mireille’s words, and just as the princess feared that she had made a fool of herself, Taillefer smiled and swooped down, wrapping her in his arms. “I love you, Mireille. I will be your husband.”

At that moment, Lyonette, Leonce, and Leonelle, who had been lounging quietly nearby, all turned their attention to the three golden balls, left to collect dust in the corner.

Horror tore through the castle when Mireille’s beloved cats were seen chasing the golden balls up and down the corridors. Mireille’s parents nearly swooned with terror, but, strangely, miraculously, Mireille did not fall down dead as predicted.

Before the royal family had a chance to wonder if the curse had been wrong, a messenger arrived from Taillefer’s castle with horrifying news: Prince Taillefer had fallen ill with a strange disease the doctors couldn’t identify. They fear that he would not live much longer.

Fearful for her true love, Mireille wrapped herself in a cloak, slipped out of her castle and rode by herself into the mountains, up to the palace of the sorceress her parents had consulted before her birth. The princess barely had a chance to dismount her mare before the fortress’s gates swung open, and the sorceress strode out.

“Princess Mireille,” the sorceress said, waving Mireille’s trembling bow away. “I have been waiting for you. I learned about your betrothed, Prince Taillefer. I am deeply saddened for you.”

“I don’t understand,” Mireille blurted out. “How is it that Taillefer has taken so ill? IS there anything that can be done? How can I help him? The curse—my cats were playing with the golden balls—you said—”

The sorceress sighed. “One question at a time, Your Grace. I’m sorry to tell you that one of the princes you turned away became envious of Taillefer, and used a witch to curse him into sickness.”

“How do I break the spell?”

“There is a way …” The sorceress gazed steadily at Princess Mireille. “It will not benefit you.”

Mireille spread her hands. “Anything! I’ll do anything to save him!”

“I know. Listen—to break the evil spell, you must spin ten thousand skeins of wool thread before Christmas Eve.”

The color drained from Mireille’s face. “Ten thousand …? But … Christmas is twenty-seven days away. How can I …?”

The sorceress shook her head. “It must be done. If ten thousand skeins are not spun on your spinning wheel by that time, Taillefer will die Christmas Eve at midnight. If you do not complete this task, you will die of heartbreak.”

The enormity of the task weighed down on Mireille’s quaking shoulders, but she shook her head hard. “No. No, I can do it … I won’t sleep, I won’t eat. I’ll keep spinning—”

“And you’ll work yourself to death.” The sorceress looked at Princess Mireille sadly. “Succeed or fail, you will die, Princess. That is the curse I saw upon you. I am truly, truly sorry. There is nothing that can be done.”

Tears flooding her eyes, Mireille spun away from the sorceress, leapt back atop her mare and raced for home. Barging inside, Mireille didn’t even bother to remover her cloak. She sat down at her spinning wheel and set to work, spinning until daybreak, with her three worried white cats watching her every moment.

Morning brought new tears to Mireille; though she had worked all night long, she had barely produced two skeins of thread. She sat beside her spinning wheel with her face in her hands and sobbed. She felt Leonce and Leonelle pawing at her knees and Lyonette rubbing against her ankles, all three meowing anxiously and gazing at her with large, concerned eyes.

For a moment, their love drew Mireille out of her weeping. She looked at each of them and whispered, “If only you understood what was happening. I wish you could help.”

Leonce perked up. “We do understand,” he said

“And we can help,” Lyonette added.

“We know how to spin,” said Leonelle, nodding towards the spinning wheel. “We’ve watched you do it.”

Lyonette licked her lips eagerly. “If you can get us two more spinning wheels and wool, we can help make thread.”

“But we’ll have to move fast,” Leonce declared. “Even with all of us working, there isn’t a lot of time left.”

Mireille was astonished, to say the least, but her three white cats reminded her of what was at stake—the life of the prince, and hers as well—and the princess immediately leapt into action. She retrieved two more spinning wheels and ordered as much wool as each servant could carry to be brought up to the spinning room in the tower. Once the pile wool reached the ceiling, Lyonette, Leonce, and Leonelle ushered Princess Mireille out, urging her to rest while they went to work.

All day and well into the night the cats worked the spinning wheels, producing yard after yard of thread so fine that one was sure only a princess could have made something so wonderful. At night when the humming of the spinning wheels fell quiet, Mireille would creep into the tower to check on her devoted pets. She would find the three of them curled together, fast asleep, with an ever-growing mound of skeins stacked in a corner.

With every skein of the thread the cats completed, Prince Taillefer’s health began to improve. By Christmas Day, all ten thousand skeins of thread were finished, and the prince was well enough to get out of bed. Upon hearing of the magnificent feat, the sorceress herself visited Mireille and her three white cats and praised them all, encouraging the princess to give each cat a reward. Mireille was more than happy to do so, and at her wedding she gave Lyonette, Leonce, and Leonelle each a seat of prominence at the banquet table, perched upon velvet cushions and draped in her finest jewelry, which each of them had always admired.

The cats were overjoyed at accomplishing their feat, and Mireille loved them more than ever. As the princess and her new husband cradled their cats at the wedding feast, they began to notice a strange, throbbing hum—much like the whir of a spinning wheel—coming from Lyonette, Leonce, and Leonelle. At first Mireille was alarmed, but her three white cats told her it was nothing to worry; they had absorbed the sound of the spinning wheels, and now that they were happy, they hummed the sound in remembrance.

And that’s why cats purr.

Myth Monday: How the Cat Arrived on Noah’s Ark (Hebrew Legend)

Myth Monday: How the Cat Arrived on Noah’s Ark (Hebrew Legend)

Hunting cat by Olivier62 wikimedia commons

By Kara Newcastle

Interestingly, neither the Torah nor the Bible makes mention of the domestic cat. It’s not sure why, as the cat would have been known in ancient Israel at the time, but it’s likely that since the cat was regarded as a deity in the Egyptian pantheon, it came with some negative connotations for the Hebrews, which was summarily passed on to the Christians.

However, somebody had to explain where cats came from. Fortunately, we have legends and folklore to provide those answers … even if there are several versions and each one gets a little weirder than the last.

And they all take place on Noah’s ark.

Version 1:

Days into the voyage, as the rain continued to fall in sheets so dense that he could not see even the prow of his great boat, Noah made his rounds of all the animals he had collected. As he reached the lower levels, Noah was horrified to see two of the mice he collected speedily gnawing away at the ark’s walls and joists. The mice’s relentless chewing was weakening the supports, threatening to cause the ark to spring leaks that would rapidly sink the great boat.

Noah’s first thought was to smash the traitorous vermin with a hammer, but he dared not; he was expressly forbidden by the Lord God from harming any of the creatures aboard the ark … but he couldn’t stand by and do nothing at all. In rage and desperation, Noah ripped off one of his leather gloves and threw it at the mice with all his might.

As his glove arched through the air, it twisted over, the four fingers pointing downward, the thumb lifting up. As Noah watched in amazement, the glove shifted, lengthening, the fingers stretching, the thumb growing longer. A small round head pushed out of the top of the glove, sprouting pointed ears and whiskers.

Hitting the floor of the ark lightly on four rounded paws, the animal the world would know as the cat blinked, looked back at the astounded Noah briefly, then turned its attention to the mice gnawing away at the woodwork. The mice, sensing that this creature was not their friend, squeaked in alarm and fled into the bowels of the ark, the cat bounding after them with all speed.

That is how the cat was created, and how the cat saved the ark from sinking.

Version 2:

As Noah made his rounds of all the animals aboard the ark, he was outraged to discover that the mice, ignoring God’s orders, had multiplied wildly and were hard at work not only eating all of the ark’s food stores but also chewing the boat apart, putting the ark in danger of sinking. Knowing that he was not allowed to kill any of the animals aboard the ship, Noah pleaded to God for help. Hearing him, God directed Noah to approach the lioness and waved his hand in a circle three times above her head. Obeying, Noah went to the lioness and waved his hand three times around her head.

Once Noah was finished, the lioness snorted, then lowered her head to the floor of the ark.

“Blargh!” she growled, and spat out a cat.

(Another version has the lion spitting out a male cat and the lioness spitting out a female cat.)

Version 3:

Not wanting any of God’s creatures to survive the Great Flood, the Devil went to the mice aboard the ark and convinced them to chew through the wood, in hopes that they would eat straight through and cause the ark to sink. Discovering the plot, but knowing that he was not allowed to kill any animal aboard the ark, Noah asked God what he should do.

In response, a lion nearby shook his mane, snuffled, then wrinkled his nose.

“RA-CHOO!” it sneezed, and out of its nostrils, two cats came tumbling out: a male from its right nostril, and a female from its left.

(And yet another version has the lion sneezing out a male cat, while the lioness sneezes out a female cat at the same time.)

Version 4:

While aboard the ark during the height of the falling rain, a lecherous monkey decided he would put the moves on the lioness, wooing her away from under her oblivious husband’s snout. The lioness was apparently unsatisfied with her mate enough that she didn’t think twice about getting together with a monkey, and, as a result, cats were born.

Bonus Story!:

This is a story that comes much later, specifically from the Isle of Man. Aside from being a tiny island in the middle of the fearsome Irish Sea with one of the weirdest national flags you might come across, the Isle of Man is especially famous for its Manx cats. These cats are born either with stubby little tails or no tails at all. And the people there have their own explanation as to why their kitties look this way:

As God began to deluge the earth with forty days and nights of ceaseless rain, Noah and his family were making the final preparations for their ark. They had secured all their supplies and obtained two of every animal … except for the cats. For whatever reason, one of the cats just wasn’t willing to get on the ark. Noah and his family tried to grab it, corral it, herd it onto the ark, lure it with food, waved its mate around to get its attention, but it just would not get on.

Seeing the waters rapidly beginning to rise, Noah knew they couldn’t wait any longer. He and his sons climbed into the ark, pulled up the ramp, began pushing the heavy door shut—

And that’s when the cat decided to run inside.

Fortunately for Noah, that cat made it inside just in time, escaping the floodwaters and enabling Noah to keep his promise to God to protect his creations …

Unfortunately for the cat, it didn’t quite clear the door entirely, and its tail was snipped off. Once the floodwaters receded, the tailless cat made its home on what would become the Isle of Man.

And that’s why Manx cats don’t have tails.

Myth Monday: The Boy Who Drew Cats (Japanese Folktale)

Myth Monday: The Boy Who Drew Cats (Japanese Folktale)

By Kara Newcastle

Hundreds of years ago in Japan, there was a small village that was home to a big family. That family was headed by a hardworking farmer and his equally hardworking wife, and they had several hardworking children—except for the youngest one. His name was Akio, and he was a good boy, but he wasn’t born strong, and he couldn’t keep up with all that needed to be done on the farm. He was quite smart, and was especially talented at drawing, which is what he was often doing instead of hoeing the garden or carrying water. Akio’s favorite thing to draw were cats, and whenever he saw one, Akio dropped what he was doing and drew the cat. He drew cats in the dirt, on the walls of their house and barn, on their screens, anything that was nearby at the time.

Akio’s parents loved him as much as they loved their other children, but in time they came to realize that they no longer had the money to support their large family, and Akio was too weak to really contribute to the farm. His parents didn’t want to send Akio away, but it was his mother who suggested that they bring Akio to the temple nearby to become an acolyte. She reasoned that Akio was very smart and would learn things quickly, and the temple would provide him with a place to sleep, clothes and food. He wouldn’t be very far away, and he would be well taken care of.

Akio’s parents were saddened by the decision, but they thought it was best, and after telling their son about it, Akio agreed. The next day Akio and his parents went to the temple, where the head abbot welcomed Akio into their order. They shaved Akio’s head and gave him new clothes and food. Akio’s parents were relieved that their youngest child would want for nothing now.

Unfortunately, neither Akio’s mother nor father took into consideration just how much Akio loved to draw cats. Akio was an obedient student for the most part, but when he became bored, he drew cats. Whenever one of the temple cats sauntered past him, Akio would stop his studying or his prayers and draw the cat. He drew them all over the temple walls, in the abbot’s books, on the screens and pillars. The flustered abbot told Akio to stop drawing cats—he was at the temple to become a monk, not an artist! Akio genuinely tried to resist, but he just couldn’t help himself. He kept drawing cats.

One day the abbot set Akio to studying and left the boy at his books for a time. When the old abbot came back to see if Akio had any questions, he stopped short, horrified to see that Akio had pushed aside his texts and had spent the entire hour drawing a cat mural across one of the temple screens.

“That does it!” the abbot thundered, nearly startling the oblivious Akio right out of his skin. “I’ve asked, I’ve warned, I’ve scolded, I’ve all but begged you to stop drawing those cats, but you still do it. You have defied me for the last time! You must leave this temple—you’ll never be a good priest!”

Shaken by the rage in the old man’s voice, Akio dropped his paintbrush, ducking his head down so the abbot couldn’t see his tears. “I—I wasn’t trying to … I’m not doing it to be disobedient. I just …” He swallowed hard, his voice barely a whisper past the lump in his throat. “I just really like drawing cats.”

Grinding his teeth, the abbot glared down at the boy. The old man looked up at the screen Akio had ruined and opened his mouth to retort … but as he took in the images before him, the abbot’s anger faded. He studied each cat that Akio had painted, noting how graceful they appeared, how lifelike in their poses.

Akio might not have been an attentive student, but the abbot could clearly see how talented the boy was.

Sighing, the abbot shook his head. “Even so, it’s clear that this is not the place for you, son. You’d rather paint than study, so perhaps you should go and become a painter. But you can’t do that here.”

Akio was saddened, but he did what he was told and gathered what little he had, taking special care the pack his ink and paint brushes. The abbot was kind enough to walk Akio to the gate, and as he guided Akio through, the old monk said, “I’m sorry it has come to this, but please be safe. Remember—avoid large places and stick to small.”

With that, the abbot turned around and walked back to the temple. Shouldering his bag, Akio stood in the road, looking first to the monastery, then back I the direction of his family farm. His first thought was to return home, but he was sure his father would be furious at him for being disrespectful to the abbot, so Akio quickly decided against it. He turned in the opposite direction, towards the neighboring village. There was a temple there too … maybe he could go there and become an acolyte. This temple or that, it didn’t matter so long as his father didn’t find out.

Making up his mind, Akio started walking the twelve miles to the next village.

Now, the neighboring village did have a temple there, but what Akio didn’t know was that it had been abandoned for a long while. A disgusting rat monster had attacked the monks there and taken over the temple. A dozen different samurai had gone in to slay the yokai, but every single one of them met with a gruesome death at the rat demon’s kama-like teeth. The monster would often leave a lantern burning in the temple to attract unwitting travelers to come inside, where they would be devoured. Because there was no way to defeat the rat monster, the temple was abandoned. By the time Akio arrived in town, it was late at night, and everyone was asleep; no one was there to warn the boy.

Akio saw the silhouette of the temple in the distance, barely illuminated by the glow of a single lamp in the window. Relieved to see that at least one priest was awake, Akio hurried to the temple and pushed through the door. Inside, he found the lone lamp in the center of the temple, but no monk or abbot attending the flame.

Dropping his bag on the ground, Akio glanced around; ugh, the place was filthy! There were cobwebs hanging like sheets from the rafters, a carpet of dust all over the floor … obviously, these monks were too busy with their duties to clean. They must have been in desperate need of an acolyte. They’d take him in for certain.

Pleased with what he saw, Akio helped himself to a seat down by the lantern and waited, sure that somebody would be a long shortly. He sat and waited, and waited, and waited … and waited … but no one came. At length Akio began to grow bored. He fidgeted, looked around … and saw an immaculate white paper screen set up in a corner.

Akio just couldn’t help himself. Grabbing his writing box from his bag, Akio ground up his inks, added a bit of water, dipped his brushes, and set to work. Tired though he was, Akio was seized by creativity and drew over a dozen different kinds of cats: cats, kittens, old cats, jumping cats, fluffy cats, cats with short tails, cats sitting, cats colored like koi fish, cats licking their paws, skinny cats, fat cats, napping cats, hunting cats … cats and cats and cats!

As Akio put the finishing touches on his last cat, he felt his eyelids droop. He yawned and stretched, realizing groggily it must have been quite late now, and he still hadn’t seen anyone in the temple.

Grabbing his bag, Akio began to lie down in front of his masterpiece to go to sleep. His head was barely an eyelash-length above his bag when suddenly, inexplicably, the words of his old abbot raced through Akio’s head.

“Remember—avoid large places and stick to small.”

Blinking, Akio sat up. He hadn’t really thought about what the abbot had said until now. What did it mean?

Peering in the dusty darkness of the temple, Akio felt an odd shudder rippled through him. “Well,” he said to himself, aware of how his voice shook. “This place is so big … I’ll feel better in a small spot anyway.”

Picking up his bag, Akio stood and groped through the shadowy edges of the room until he found a cabinet with a sliding door. Pushing the door back, Akio crawled inside, and found that he fit perfectly.

“That’s better,” he said. Laying down, Akio slid the door shut. There was a small split in the door’s panel, allowing a bit of the lantern light to seep in, so Akio turned his back on it and went to sleep.

Akio didn’t know how long he had been asleep before the shrieking woke him up. It was the worst sound Akio had ever heard, cutting straight through his dreams, and shocking him awake. Terrified, Akio twisted around in the cabinet, struggling to remember where he was. The cabinet, that’s right … but he couldn’t see anything. The lantern in the center of the temple had gone out.

A second shriek ripped through the night, and now a chorus of hideous growls and hisses answered it. Something big thumped outside, and Akio felt the whole temple shake. His heart in his throat, he pressed his eye to the crack in the wood. He thought he saw two small red lights side by side each other, darting from a corner. Before Akio could register what it was, something huge rushed past the cabinet, thundering by on four feet.

Three more pairs of lights appeared at the edges of the room—yellow-green this time—and Akio shrank back from the door, choking back a gasp. He clapped his ink-stained hands over his mouth as the creatures screamed again, as another beast roared, as something slammed to the ground, as massive animals tore back and forth, making the temple shake down to its foundations. The screams and roars grew worse, louder, and faster until only one of the things was screeching, squealing, gagging …

Then it was over. All the growls and hisses stopped. Akio couldn’t hear any movement outside his cabinet, but he didn’t dare look through the crack to be sure. He sat there, trembling, rocking himself, barely able to breath for fear that the monsters would hear him. Akio stayed like that until he saw the rays of sunlight shining brightly through the chink in the door.

Slowly, Akio inched the door open, pausing to listen. Hearing nothing but the birds singing outside, Akio drew in a breath, then opened the door wider.

The first thing Akio saw was the blood. Buckets of it strewn across the floor, over the walls, up the pillars. Next, he saw that much of the temple furniture and decoration had been smashed, windows broken, walls buckled out. A fight had happened here, but between who?

Pausing, Akio looked back at his cabinet, then ahead of him, where his painted screen stood facing out. Everything had been obliterated except for that screen and his cabinet. It was like whoever was fighting was trying to stay away from where he was hiding.

Wanting nothing more than to get out of this cursed building, Akio circled around the screen—and stopped dead, a revolted, horrified scream catching in his chest.

Laying on the floor in the center of the temple was a mammoth rat, the size of his mother’s cow!

The thing was hideously ugly, made worse by the gaping, bloody wound in its throat. Akio stared at the dead monster in disbelief, scanning it from the tip of its ragged nose down to its snake-like tail …

Jolting, Akio shook his head, rubbed his eyes, then looked again, squinting at the blood around the rat’s foul body. Circling all around it were paw prints—cat’s paws! There looked to be hundreds of cat prints all around the body, trailing away and back to the …

Astounded, Akio didn’t even feel his jaw drop open as he stared at the screen he had painted the night before. All his cats were there as he had drawn them … but now every single one of them had blood smeared on their mouths. And they all seemed to have that satisfied, smug look cats would have after a successful hunt.

Akio’s cats … they had come to life that night. They had sprung down from the screen and saved him from the rat demon that was hiding in the temple!

When Akio recovered his senses, he raced down to the village to tell everyone what had happened. The villagers hailed Akio as a hero, and the temple was reclaimed and sanctified. Akio joined the temple as an acolyte …

But he never stopped drawing cats.