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For Always and Always and Always

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"Daughter, daughter," the Wild Cat said, her thick tail curling from one side to the other. "For now you are still a Kitten who plays by herself. But you will be a Cat who walks by herself when you are grown if you wish to be."

Her mother was a Wild Cat who had not made the bargain, so lived still in the Wet Wild Woods.

The Kitten flicked her ears to tell her mother that she had listened, then walked a ways with her own tail waving. She sat down, licked her paddy paw—a most useful way of passing the time when one is thinking—and thought.

I play by myself here, she thought. But sometimes I play with my mother—when she lets me jump after her tail. The Kitten did not jump after the tail of the Cat who was her father since if she caught it and pulled—and pulling was much of the fun of catching something—he would hiss at her. But she liked being near him in the Cave.

Also, because she was a Cat or at least growing into being a Cat she played with things that moved, even if those were only little pieces of things like crumbs of wild coriander moving in the air near the front or the Cave, or tiny dots of light from the fire at the back of the Cave.

Most times she liked being in the familiar Cave, particularly when there was that warm fire to be by. Often the Cat who walks by himself would be curled up near the fire as well, squinting at her sleepily. He always looked tidy; sometimes she still had milk on her whiskers.

 

This day when she into the Cave, Woman was singing—not singing magic, only mother singing—to the Baby. This was the new Baby, newer than when the Cat who walks by himself made the bargain. The Kitten was herself newer than that time, of course.

The Baby of the Cat's stories about first coming into the Cave was bigger now and not so round. But he still laughed at the Cat's magic of playing with the spindle-whorl, and sometimes still slept with the Cat in his arms. He was awake now, but playing with a large handful of smooth pebbles.

Later the newer Baby might be tired of singing, and want the Kitten's purring to listen to instead.

To the sound of the mother singing the Kitten stretched out on the rubbed wild horse skin. It was the one that had been hanging in front of the Cave when first the Cat made the bargain, and now was a soft place near the fire for the Cat and for the Cats who would come after him.

The Kitten licked the milk from her whiskers, closed her eyes, and stretched her front legs on the skin, her toes working—That was another useful thing to do when thinking. The Kitten was generally quite thoughtful about things, which admirable trait came, she was sure, from being one who walks by herself even if one's mother did not call her so yet.

Mothers tends to repeat things, the Kitten had observed; there was her own mother to hear, and the Woman whose Cave this was, and there was the Cow. Even with only sometimes listening to the Cow, that was more mothers than many a young person had around them for observation, especially in those early days when the world itself was still young.

 

The Kitten was good at catching sparks, leaves, and anyone's tail she was allowed to—and in the Cave that meant just her own. She was beginning to be good at catching the mice that came into the Cave. These were slower than the small animals she hunted in the Wet Wild Woods. Perhaps the mice were trying to become Tame.

"Because they keep coming into the Cave and staying," she explained this thought once to the Cat who was her father as she stood proudly over one she had caught but not eaten yet.

He must have understood the sudden worry that made her whiskers shudder.

"Nenni! There are no Tame Cats," the Cat said, then licked the Kitten's ears in reassurance.

 

The Kitten had come to notice that the Cat who walks by himself played less with the Baby than he used to, and less often curled beside him purring.

This was strange to the Kitten, who took much joy in making the magic and being useful in all the ways that the Cat's bargain had set, and in lying by the fire and drinking the warm milk and being in the Cave in all the ways that had been set for her also.

There was a mystery there. The Kitten liked best to figure mysteries out on her own, so she did not ask him, and also she was uncertain whether he would have told her. It might be that he did not know himself, and thus that her solving the mystery would be useful as well as interesting.

She would not ask the Dog who was the First Friend. He would not speak nicely to her, and anyway he was still away hunting. That was good, because when he hunted he was away with the Man, and the Kitten did not have to dodge anything thrown. Nor did she have to decide if the better place to be was a corner for the time was in the Cave, or a place under a tree out in the Wet Wild Woods.

The Horse was away as well, being ridden in the hunting.

She decided to ask the Cow. The Cow who had wise things to say about time as there was a pattern—which the Kitten was too young to understand as yet—to when Man left her to roam with Wild Bull so she would have another calf and continue to give warm milk.

When the Kitten asked the Cow what might make an animal unhappy, the Cow said placidly only, "Time passes."

The Kitten did not find much in that answer, but was distracted by some of the wonderful grass which had first brought Cow when she was Wild Cow in to be tamed. The Kitten touched her whiskers to the grass, and she touched her nose to the grass—that tickled her—and she mouthed a piece of the grass. It did not taste wonderful to her.

So instead of eating the grass the Kitten curled herself up upon it. She fell asleep to the rustling sounds made by the breezes going past, made by Cow moving in her pasture, and made by the Kitten's own quivering tail.

When the Kitten returned to the Cave she was in time to see the newer Baby was already asleep and to hear that the Woman was telling the older Baby a story. "Best Beloved," Woman finished.

 

In the end the Kitten's mother did not tell her. The Cat who walks by himself did not tell her. The Cow with her patience did not tell her. Yet gradually the Kitten realised. Somehow it was the warm feeling of the Baby's reaching hands on her side that told her.

The older Baby would be a Man in not such little time.

Once the Kitten knew this herself, she could ask the Cat who was her father.

It was not only that the first Baby was bigger, as well as rather quieter than he had first been, her father told her. First Friend was staying him more now than he used to, which meant that the Baby was coming to an age when he could go along with a hunt and be, if not of much helpfulness yet, at least not much bother.

Then according to the bargain he would throw the heavy things (and they still looked very knobby) at the Cat. In time the new Man might have a new homeplace, but the Cat who walks by himself would not be able to peacefully sleep or drink milk by the fireside there.

It would be a strange thing to be chased away by one you had purred into sleep, the same one you had made a laughing magic for by first chasing a spindle-whorl. The Kitten who walks by herself could still make that magic, twisting herself and whirling around after the rattle and gleam while the Baby laughed. But her Baby would be a Woman, so would never chase her forth from any Cave.