Listen well, oh best beloved, for I have much to tell you before the tide comes in, and there will come a time when you are called to recite it, word for word, whether I am here or no. Listen well, and remember what I tell you:
In the long-ago, when the sea blossomed with boats, and Man was pushing ever outward, into new lands, without care or concern for who might have been there first or for how little those people and Animals might like new neighbors, there was a sailing ship. It looked, from the outside, like any other, strong of side and tall of mast, cutting across the great ocean like an arrow cuts through the sky, looking for a place to strike home.
On this ship there were many sailors, and many passengers, and many good things packed into the cargo hold. Spices and gold and potted meats; furs and velvets and other fine cloths. How many merchants would have wrung their hands and questioned their choices, upon seeing the cargo this ship carried, if they knew where it was bound! How many rich men would have wept!
But ah, treasure is not our concern. Not gold nor jewels or perfume. Our concern is for a small part of that precious cargo, a part with quick feet and wide eyes and a great watchfulness for the world. For packed into that cargo hold was a clan of Cats who looked to have been spun from seafoam and clouds, so white and fine was their fur. The Men called them “Angora,” and swore they would fetch a pretty penny when they came to land.
As for the Cats themselves, they were not kept in cages, for the Sailors had ideas about Cats and Rats and earning one’s keep, ideas which the Cats disdained, for the Rats ate the food for the Sailors and not for the Cats, and they were not common moggies, meant to work their lives away. They stayed well clear of the rail, and well clear of the stinging spray, and they watched warily as the seagulls circled high above them, crying their seagull songs. One day, as one of the Cats huddled as far as it could from the edge of the deck, a seagull came to roost upon the rail.
“Hello, Thing,” it said, not unkindly. “We have been watching you, and we have been singing our songs for you, and I have been sent to ask you what you are, for you are not like any Thing we have seen before.”
“I am a Cat,” replied the Cat, whose parents had taught her manners when she was young, before she was scruffed and puffed and tossed into a ship’s hold.
The seagull laughed a seagull’s laugh, and said, “You are a lying cloud, for never has there been a cat so white or round. You look like the tip of a wave that has been tossed onto the beach and left to come to pieces.”
The Cat licked her paw in agitation. “Men say we are very fine, and will fetch them a good price when we are come to land.”
“O, Cloud, I am sorry to be the one who tells you this, for you are very pretty to look upon, but this ship will not come to land. Mother Carey is bored and lonesome, and would call your Sailors to dance attendance upon on her. The rocks are waiting.”
The Cat lowered her paw. “But that is unfair!” she wailed. “We have sailed so very far, and we have done nothing wrong! We have not even slain the Rats who sleep in the bottom of the ship, but allowed them to play as they would, so long as they did not take our share of the fish the Men bring over the rail. Why should we be drowned?”
“Mother Carey does not care for Cats,” said the seagull thoughtfully. “We are her Chickens, and she loves us best of all. She would have to drown you, if she did not intend to keep you.”
“Or she could let us go,” argued the Cat.
“Look at you,” said the seagull, not unkindly. “You are fluffy and soft and pampered. You would not survive without your Men to care for you.”
“Let us be the judge of that,” said the Cat, and showed him her claws. “We are Cats still.”
The seagull considered her claws, oh best beloved, and said, “I will ask her, because you have asked me.” Then he was gone, wings tearing at the air, and the Cat was alone. She looked after him for a time before rising and slinking down into the hold to tell the other Cats what she had learned.
There are many gods and spirits in the sea. Some are kind and some are cruel, but most are like the sea itself: capricious, easily charmed and easily offended. They are neither friend nor foe. They are forces of nature, as accommodating as a mountain, as inescapable as the tide.
The seagull flew on smoke-tipped wings to join his fellows as they spiraled, in an ever-decreasing loop, around a woman made of water and driftwood and foam. She was beautiful and she was terrible, as is only right and proper for a goddess of the sea. She held out her hand, and the seagull came to roost there, preening his feathers with pride at being so chosen.
“Hello, Chicken,” she said. “What do you bring me?”
“News, Mother Carey,” he replied. “The ship you would have is full of Men, and they will serve you well until they fall to bones and pillow your head. But they carry Cats with them, Cats as I have never seen, like pieces of cloud stolen out of the sky, and the Cats do not wish to drown. Can they be spared?”
“Do you feel so strongly about this, my Chicken, that you would beg a boon of me?”
To ask a favor of a goddess is no small thing, as well you know, and the seagull was silent for a long while before he replied, “I would not beg a boon, for it is not my place to do so. But if you chose to spare them, I think you would find them grateful. I think you would find them, in time, amusing.”
Mother Carey nodded, pleased by both the seagull’s deference and honesty. “Tell these cloud-Cats, then, that I will not drown them; if they can swim to shore, they will be spared. If they cannot, they will be mine to keep, and I will have my ways with them.”
She tossed the seagull then, tossed him into the air, and he flew so fast as never a seagull has flown, returning to the ship, where he perched upon the rail and called, “Cat! Cat! Cat!”
“That seagull is unwell,” said one of the Sailors.
“It is a good omen,” said another.
“Cat! Cat! Cat!” cried the seagull.
“I am here,” said the Cat, trotting out onto the deck. “What news do you carry?”
“Mother Carey says that if you swim, you will be spared; she will not drown you, nor send her servants to carry you to the bottom of the sea. But you must reach the shore yourself. She will not save you. If any of your number are lost, they will belong to her forever, as do we all.”
Now, it is well known that Cats do not care for water, which flattens their fur and dampens their toes. Perhaps less known is this: that Cats care for drowning even less. So the Cat thanked the seagull—so very prettily, for she was a Cat of good manners and good graces—and returned to the hold, where she addressed her kind.
“The ship is to sink, and the Sailors are to drown,” she said. “We may survive, if we will swim, if we will be clever. Mother Carey will spare us.”
The Cats murmured in their distress. One stood.
“I do not wish to become wet,” he said. “I will not swim.”
“Then you will drown,” said the first Cat, and the other looked away in shame.
What do you think happened then, oh best beloved? A ripple ran through the whole of the ship, as if the beams had forgotten how to cleave one unto the next, and the whole thing began to crumble, piece by piece, into the waiting sea.
The Sailors shouted and the Sailors cried and the Sailors begged in the name of every god they could think of, and the sea came in, and the Cats swam away, all save for one, who sat frozen as a stone and waited for the drowning to begin. And Mother Carey, enchanted by its stillness, changed her mind and took it for her own.
It is said that if you go to the site of a shipwreck in those waters, when the light is just so, and the sea is still, you may see the shadow of a Cat, as white as seafoam, cast on the seafloor, unmoving. But that is another story, and we have Cats to follow across the sea.
How they swam, these pampered cloud-Cats, who had never worked a day before in all their lives! They swam, the eldest to the youngest, with their eyes on the horizon and their paws clasping at the sea. And when they reached the shore, their fur was no longer puffy and fluffy and cloudlike, but hung sleek by their sides, weighted down with the memory of water. Ripples and whorls covered their bodies, brown and smoke and black and beautiful, and they walked covered in the shadows of the sea.
Not all the Cats chose to come back to shore. Some stayed in the water, and swam away to be Fishers, never to meow again. But that is another story.
Yes, there are many other stories here, oh best beloved, for that is the nature of story. A tale is like a tree, rooted in one place, branching as it will. We must follow the branch we have chosen, or we will be lost, never to see the story’s end. The unwary traveler can become lost in story, best beloved, and we speak of them in hushed tones, and their mothers weep at night. So:
The Cats who had chosen the shore looked at one another, dripping and cold, and then looked out to the sea, where the wreckage still sank. The first Cat sat, wrapping her tail around her paws, and meowed to the sky, trying her best to call back the seagull. She yowled and she chirped and she trilled, until she hit upon a sound that was as much bird as it was cat, and a seagull came gliding down to land.
“What do you want, Cat?” he asked. “Why have you called?”
“I wish you to carry our thanks to Mother Carey, who did not have to spare us,” she replied. “Tell her that we are forever in her debt, and we will forever remember the kindness of the sea.”
“It is not kindness, Cat,” said the seagull. “It is only a different form of indifference.”
The Cats nodded, for they knew truth when they heard it, and they walked into the woods, which were dark and deep and nothing like the woods of home. Their coats dried, but the ripples and the weight remained.
Night came. The Cats huddled together for warmth, and the wind blew through their long, flat coats, chilling them. The smallest cried in fear and cold, until the eldest rose and said, “We have a solution.”
They pulled their own tails off—pop!—and cut them in half, distributing them among the others, until most of the Cats could wrap their tails all the way around their bodies, blocking out the wind. The Cats who had no tails rose then, and said, “Survive,” and loped away into the night, looking for a high, warm place to sleep. They remembered being mistaken for clouds; they thought the sky might treat them kindly.
They live still, high in the trees, short-tailed and big-footed. They found the warmth they sought and needed long fur no more, which is why the Lynx has a short coat, and why it shares a language with the Maine Coon. But that, as you may already have guessed, is another story.
Morning found our remaining Cats warm and cozy. They wandered the wood, and their feet grew wide and padded with tufted fur, to keep them safe from the snow. They learned to hunt, and all the small things of the forest quailed before them—although, as before, with the Rats of the ship, they remembered what it was to be lazy, to be languid, and they did not challenge the creatures that came close when their bellies were full and their eyes were heavy with sleep. They adapted themselves to the land, and if a few of them chose to adapt still more—if they asked for clever hands in place of paws and became Raccoons, or sought still more size and fuller bellies, and joined the ranks of the Bears—that, too, was only right.
Time passed. The Cats spoke to Mother Carey, chirped and trilled like birds for her delight, and she allowed them to gambol in her shallows, catching fish with their clever, padded paws.
More Sailors came, more Humans, and they built good barns with thick walls, and “This will do,” said the Cats, and moved into them, the better to hunt mice and sleep on their backs, with their short-furred bellies exposed and dry.
“What kind of cats are these?” asked a Sailor, upon seeing these vast beasts stalking through the wheat, through the corn, with their ears tufted in pine needle brush, and their coats mottled with the sigils of the sea.
“Yankee cats,” replied the Farmer, and so they were, and so they stayed, and so they loved the sea.
Now sleep, my best beloved one; close your eyes a while, and know that all stories are true, and all stories are lies, and I will never steer you falsely. So rest my dear, and be at ease. There’s a fire in the hearth and a wind in the eaves, and the night is so dark, and the dark is so deep, and it’s time that all good little stars were asleep.
Consider the Cat of the coast,
Who of tail possesses the most,
With their fur thick and warm
They can weather the storm,
And remain dry and cozy as toast.
(Editors’ Note: “How the Maine Coon Cat Learned to Love the Sea” is read by Amal El-Mohtar and Seanan McGuire is interviewed by Julia Rios in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 17A. This story was written based on a prompt provided by Kickstarter backer William T. McGeachin.)
© 2017 by Seanan McGuire