Chapter 1: The Boy Who Could Speak Cat
Duncan was a boy who could speak Cat.
He had known cat language since he was small, because the cat who lived at his house took the trouble to teach him. It wasn’t until he was a little older that he realized this was highly unusual.
Of course everyone would be able to speak Cat if they were taught at the right age. But as most cats can’t be bothered, the right age goes by for nine hundred and ninety-nine out of one thousand, and the chance is lost forever.
Duncan McKay was one in a thousand. Maybe even one in a million. Not that it was helpful to him now. He fingered the report card in his pocket nervously as he sat on the second-floor landing, watching through the window for his mother to appear on the crooked street below their house. He had gotten too many As this term, and she would be upset.
“Why me?” he asked Grizel, who was a very old cat by this time. “Why did you teach me to speak Cat?”
Grizel did not answer. She was crouched halfway down the stairs, watching a mouse hole. There had never been a mouse there, not once, but she was not a cat to neglect her duty.
Duncan kicked a heel against the old black sea-chest that served as a window seat, and gazed out over the island cliffs to the sea. He hated not getting answers to perfectly reasonable questions. He was eleven, and big for his age, and he was tired of being treated like a little boy. “Why me?” he asked again, a little louder.
“Why not?” Grizel snapped. She was testy about the subject; the other cats made fun of her because of it, and she had regretted teaching him more than once. Still, she was not a bad-tempered cat. She wouldn’t have snapped at him if she hadn’t been cranky from hunger, and disappointed about the mouse.
She turned away from the mouse hole and looked up at the boy who sat on the second floor landing. His face was shaded, but the afternoon sun streamed through the stairwell window and brightened his rough gray pants with their twice-patched knees.
A cat will hardly ever apologize for being rude. It usually doesn’t see the point. But Duncan’s lap looked warm and full of sun, and Grizel’s spot on the stairs had fallen into shadow. She butted her head against Duncan’s leg, blinked, and opened her eyes wide, with a tiny upward twist between her brows. This was Cat Trick #9: Melting Kitty Eyes. She had not been a kitten for a long time, but she could still act adorable when necessary.
Duncan took her on his lap and began to stroke her behind the ears.
Grizel kneaded his stomach with her paws. “I taught you to speak Cat because I felt sorry for you when your father died,” she said. “All in all, I think I did a good thing. I’ve been able to explain why fresh tuna is better than the stuff in a can, for instance. And you have quite a knack for purring.”
“That’s nice if you’re a cat,” Duncan said, watching out the stairwell window for his mother. “Only I’m a boy.”
“You can’t help that,” said Grizel. “I’ve never held it against you.”
Duncan didn’t answer; he was trying to remember when his father had died. Had there been a funeral? He had been very small. There had been a forest of black-trousered legs around him, and someone, smelling of pipe tobacco, had picked him up and whispered gruffly in his ear. “You’ll be the man of the house, now,” the voice had said. “You’ll have to take good care of your mother.”
Duncan had tried. While he was still too young for school, he tied an old shirt around his neck for a cape and practiced fighting evil villains. When he was a little older, he gave his mother all the copper pennies he found in the street. And when he was older still, he began to do small jobs at the houses where his mother taught music lessons. He gave her the coins he earned—at first the common five and ten-penny pieces, later the larger brass barons and even, on occasion, a silver-edged earl—and he tried hard to obey her rules, even the strange ones.
But some of her rules were very strange indeed.