A reimagining of a 19th-century Japanese fairy tale called ‘Neko wo egaita shōnen’ or ‘The boy who drew cats’. (11 minute read, 2,267 words).
If you, the person reading this story, are small and weak and constantly compared by your disappointed father to your much larger and stronger siblings, then you may well empathize with our protagonist – Boy – who found himself as a child in that exact circumstance.
To understand precisely what he was feeling you would also need to be the son or daughter of a space junk scavenger living on a small carrier ship in the Black Eye Galaxy. It would also help if you were born and raised without a name.
The life of a junk scavenger was hard and there was little time in the day or capacity in the heart of Boy’s disappointed father for things that didn’t directly lead to the acquisition of more space junk for the markets, things like love, and naming your children appropriately.
Boy, as so many people do in the world, the galaxy and the universe over, had somehow managed to make do in his cruel and unusual situation. It’s one of the finest aspects of humanity, not only our opposable thumbs, abstract thinking and sense of humour, but even greater — our ability to make a life for ourselves, our ability to survive.
Boy survived by using his imagination, by creating a world for himself outside of the 16 walls of his barren space pod. Outside of the waste-filled, dead galaxy he called home, somewhere that was filled not with trash but with beautiful and fierce space cats.
His late mother had once read to him from a book called The White Lions Of Timbavati. The picture on the front cover was of three creatures, sleek and white with almond-shaped eyes. The book, along with the rest of his mother’s belongings was burned to ash by his father on the same day as the funeral and compacted into a recycled brick for sale with the rest of that week’s haulage.
The book may have been gone but the imprint on Boy’s mind lingered. The White Lions of Timbavati represented a blissfully different world, back on old earth a million miles from the suffering of his stark existence travelling through the voids between stars. He liked to imagine that he was surrounded. Not by space junk but by lions, jaguars, cheetahs and house cats. Not just ordinary house cats but magical space cats with purple eyes and blue hair and golden paws.
Boy drew his imagined world of cats onto the pages of a notebook that he had once found, along with a bag of broken crayons in the cargo hold among the weeks takings and secreted away to his room before his father noticed.
He drew himself in his notebook as well. He didn’t add in any extra muscles, or height when he drew himself. In his imagined world it didn’t matter that he was small and weak. Being small just meant he was able to ride on the back of the great white lions, and being weak was no problem because he had all his feline friends to protect him.
Boy’s father was not an evil man without redeemable qualities. Perhaps at one time he had cared. He had fathered three children after all, and one hopes that in their conception there was some spark of love, warmth or goodwill to his wife. But since Boy’s mother passed away — struck and killed by a fast-moving crate of expired mango smoothie blocks — his father seemed only to care about work.
Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how you looked at it) for his two older brothers, they had somehow managed to acquire arm strength, eye-hand coordination and a sense of direction — all of which were required traits of an able scavenger and a worthy scavenger’s son. For this reason they accompanied Boy’s father on his daily missions leaving Boy alone in an empty ship with just his crayons and paper for company.
The day that the wonderful and the terrible thing happened started like any other. Boy’s father woke Boy up by throwing a frozen mango smoothie block at him. That was his food for the day. Boy rolled over in bed, his father called him lazy and then left on the explorer pod, leaving Boy alone in the ship yet again. The smoothie pack would have begun to melt if Boy’s father allowed the ships heating system to be used. But as the heater cost money and failed to provide anything that was directly linked to scavenging he had jammed the console so that no one could turn it on, not even Boy when he was alone in the ship. And so with the air almost as cold as a freezer the day’s frozen meal sat hard and unrelenting on top of Boy’s thin blanket.
Boy fell back into and then back out of sleep. He liked to sleep in when he could so he had less time to spend being cold and hungry. He sucked on the smoothie block for breakfast until his teeth hurt and then put the rest away for later.
He retrieved his crayon stumps and his notebook from their secret place under his bed and began to draw. He drew a cat with three tails and then he drew a cat with a love heart on its face. He drew a cat with wings and a cat with eight legs like a spider.
Boy drew all day and all night and then started to draw all day again but soon stopped on the second day because he was hungry and cold and surprisingly, still alone.
It was surprising to still be alone because on every other day of his remembered life, he had only got to spend one day drawing before the sound of the explorer pod docking in the landing bay had alerted him to the arrival home of his brothers and father and a shipload of potentially profitable galactic garbage.
It had already been twice that long and Boy had heard no clunk and whir of incoming vehicles and seen no grease smeared faces of disappointed family members peering down at him with contempt.
You may think, dear reader, that our sweet and unloved protagonist would be grateful to have more time away from his less than nurturing father. But then you would be forgetting that change, even when it’s change for the better, can be a frightful and unsettling thing.
And so it was with Boy, that on this occasion, he was just as surprised as you to find himself missing his waylaid father and his strong and useful and equally vanished brothers. He was cold, he was hungry and he was alone.
And maybe it was this loneliness that led him to do the strange thing, which caused a cascade of events, terrible and wonderful. Halfway through the second day of his family’s absence, with the mango smoothie block sucked into oblivion and his tummy rumbling, Boy took his crayons and began to draw more space cats, but not in his secret notepad where he could hide his magical world away from angry eyes, instead he drew on the very ship itself pushing the crayons into the titanium hull of the vessel as hard as could and scraping the wax in great big sweeping lines across the cold metal to make thick, bright whiskers and jewel encrusted collars. He drew a whole family of cats in different sizes and colours and as he drew he felt less alone.
Then he drew the greatest, most noble, fierce, majestic and terrible cat he’d ever conceived of on the hallway just outside his door. He drew it with a great crown of rubies, long talons made out of carbonite steel and eyes that shot laser beams.
“I will call you King, as you are the king of all the space cats,” said Boy.
With his wild litter of friends living on the walls he felt less alone and with King watching over him he no longer felt scared. For the first time in a long time, Boy felt truly safe.
He had only just begun to feel truly at ease being alone on the ship when the comfortable silence was broken by a sudden clunking. The whir of the docking bay airlock signalled the return of his father and brothers.
Perhaps it was from being alone longer than usual or perhaps Boy just no longer cared, but something had changed in him in those 48 hours since his family left him. For one thing, he had drawn with his crayons all over the walls of the ship. He’d never done anything even remotely as heretical as that before. He’d never even let his father see his small notebook of drawings.
Boy’s father walked through the loading bay doors and into the hallway. He stood before Boy. For a moment he appeared to be thinking, which was something Boy was not accustomed to seeing his father attempt to do. They stood facing each other in silence. The waxy outlines of the cat kingdom surrounded them, glimmering in the dim light of the hallway.
Boy’s father was holding two roughly shaped bricks of black ash. He dropped them on the ground at Boy’s feet and told Boy that his brothers were dead.
“Your brothers are dead,” said Boy’s father “they were crushed by a packing case of tinned spaghetti”.
He pointed at the bricks.
“I swung by the funeral planet and then the brick factory on the way home. To save on gas.”
Boy stared at the bricks. Boy’s father yawned and began moving towards his bedquarters. It was then that he noticed, for the first time, the crayon space cats surrounding them on the walls of the ship.
He swung back around to look at Boy and his face was purple with anger, but not the regal purple of space cat fur, it was the purple of poisonous berries. He spat as he spoke.
“You been stealing from me Boy?”
He gestured at the walls
“What’d you doodle this with you gutter thief? We could have sold those pens at the market. Instead you sabotage my property.”
Boy started to walk backwards, away from the purple faced, angry spitting man. His father moved to close the gap between them and raised his hand to strike his son.
“Now I’m going to sabotage you,” he screamed.
Boy turned on his heel and sprinted towards his bedroom. He slid across the polished metal floor and threw himself through the doorway.
He landed on the floor of his bedroom and rolled up into a ball. He clenched his whole body, bracing for the beating that was sure to come.
But no beating came. Instead, bursting through the open door of Boy’s room came a raucous cacophony of howls, tearing flesh and breaking bones. Boy, terrified, crawled under his bed to hide until the noises stopped.
Boy waited for a long time in the silence that followed. When he felt sure that all the howling, tearing and thumping had ceased and his heart had slowed to its regular beat, he crawled out from under his bed and crept towards the doorway.
Stepping gingerly into the hallway, Boy was met with a gruesome sight. Laid out before him was the mangled corpse of his father. He looked up, unable to keep his gaze focussed on the glistening intestines and ghostly white shard of bone that stuck up at odd angles. Above Boy’s father sat King. The noble cat was just where Boy remembered drawing him. But there was something different about the drawing. Boy scanned his eyes across the artwork until he noticed the mouth. The mouth and the whiskers were red, covered in his father’s blood. Boy walked closer to the drawing and ran his finger over the crayon marks. Standing closer he could see King’s claws also were darkened with a crimson mark.
Boy eventually built up the courage to drag the body of his father into the airlock and blast him into the oblivion of space.
He was never close to his brothers, but chose to memorialize them regardless. He built a small altar on which he placed the two charcoal bricks and next to them, a piece of paper with a drawing of a white Timbavati lion to represent his mother.
Having lost the majority of his family to collisions with expired groceries, Boy decided to stay on the ship and learned to sustain himself by harnessing the magic of his art. Each night before bed he drew a loaf of fresh bread on the wall and in the morning, in the same way King had materialised into the physical realm to protect him, he would find his breakfast had materialised into the physical realm to sustain him.
Boy spent his days drawing and at night the cats he drew on the walls of the spaceship came to life. There was no-one to see his art, but it didn’t matter because boy was doing what he loved, and he was never alone because he lived with thousands of friends, hurtling through space in his own private cat kingdom.