Tag: fiction

Bud’s Book Club: The Man-Eaters of Kumaon & The Game of Rat and Dragon

Welcome to the inaugural post of Buddy’s Book Club, where we’ll read stories about cats and stories involving cats!

We’re going to start things off easy with a classic short story of the cat canon, which is available for free online via Project Gutenberg, and a seminal book about big cats from a man whose name is indelibly linked with them.

The Game of Rat and Dragon (1954) by Cordwainer Smith

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Read it here for free from Project Gutenberg, a collaborative effort to create a digital archive of important cultural literary works that have fallen into the public domain. For those unfamiliar with Project Gutenberg, it’s completely above-board, legal and safe for your devices, and the story opens in plain HTML with illustrations included as image files. You can read the story in a browser or download it onto a reading device, tablet or phone.

The Game of Rat and Dragon first appeared, as so much short fiction of the era did, in a digest. Although Smith had penned it the year before, the story was published in Galaxy Science Fiction’s October 1955 issue and became an instant classic among cat-lovers and science fiction aficionados. (There is considerable overlap between the two, not surprisingly: Introverts whose imaginations run wild when they look to the stars tend to have many of the same personality traits as people who prefer the more sublime antics of cats.)

The Game of Rat and Dragon imagines a far future in which humanity has become a star-faring culture, meaning we’ve conquered interstellar flight and have begun to colonize planets in star systems other than our own.

There is, of course, a problem. The dark, lonely void between stars isn’t as empty as we thought it was, and is inhabited by invisible (to the human eye), inscrutable, inexorable entities eventually dubbed “dragons.”

When dragons attack they leave only death and insanity in their wake, putting the entire idea of interstellar travel at risk. Imagine if there was a not-insignificant chance of your passenger jet being attacked by impervious creatures every time you hopped on a plane. It wouldn’t be long before the entire air industry collapsed and the world suddenly became a much bigger place, with other continents unreachable by air.

Who can help humans with this problem? Cats, of course! To say more would be to spoil the fun. Meow!

Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944) by Jim Corbett

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Available as an ebook for 99 cents from Barnes and Noble.

Jim Corbett was a sportsman, the son of a government official in the British Raj who was raised in India’s jungles and came to know them intimately. He’s best remembered as the fearless hunter who finally brought down the infamous Champawat tigress, who officially claimed 436 lives over a years-long rampage as a man-eater, and likely many more that went unrecorded.

To understand the gravity of Corbett’s accomplishments, it’s necessary to understand the effect of a man-eater on rural India. The people living in India’s tiny villages are subsistence farmers. If they don’t farm, they don’t eat.

But when a man-eater as dangerous as the Champawat tigress claims an area as its hunting grounds, everything grinds to a halt: Farmers refuse to tend their fields, villagers disappear behind locked doors, and a simple walk to a neighboring village becomes an impossibility unless escorted by a group of two dozen or more armed men. Even then it’s a risk, for as Corbett notes, when tigers become man-eaters they have no fear of humans and will kill people in broad daylight, even when they’re in groups.

And yet for all their power and predatory instincts, tigers are never deliberately cruel and don’t harm humans willingly. Tigers become man-eaters by unfortunate circumstance, usually due to negligence or stupidity on the part of humans.

The Champawat tigress, for example, was like any other big cat until a human hunter took aim and shot her in the mouth, destroying one lower canine completely and shattering another. The tiger could no longer take down her usual prey, or at least not without serious difficulty. At some point — perhaps after encountering the body of a person it did not kill — the tigress realized she could survive on human flesh.

If that hadn’t happened, those 436-plus souls wouldn’t have been lost, an entire region wouldn’t have been brought to its knees, and the tigress would have continued life as normal.

The vast majority of the time, tigers are content to let humans be.

“I think of the tens of thousands of men, women and children who, while working in the forests or cutting grass or collecting dry sticks, pass day after day close to where tigers are lying up and who, when they return safely to their homes, do not even know that they have been under the observation of this so called ‘cruel’ and ‘bloodthirsty’ animal,” Corbett writes.

Despite his reputation as the man to enlist when a man-eater terrorized a region, Corbett saw the way things were trending a century ago, and begged people to let the big cats live undisturbed.

“A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage,” he wrote, “and that when he is exterminated — as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support — India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.”

Corbett would undoubtedly be deeply disturbed by the situation today, with only some 4,000 wild tigers remaining in the entire world, and the glorious species mostly reduced to spending life in captivity, constantly sedated so that idiots can pay to take selfies with them.

The Man-Eaters of Kumaon follows Corbett on 10 hunts of man-eating tigers and leopards. It’s also a story of life in the British Raj, rural life in India, Corbett’s jungle adventures, his love for his loyal hunting dog and his turn toward conservation.

Schedule:

We can do the short story in a week, yeah? Let’s shoot for one week for The Game of Rat and Dragon, and two weeks for The Man-Eaters of Kumaon. We’ll adjourn and discuss in follow-up posts. Happy reading!

Day One: Leaping Away From Love

Buddy licked his lips, belched and rolled over, sighing as he felt the afternoon sun’s warmth on his belly.

It was his favorite time of day and he was enjoying fresh air on the balcony, sitting in his favorite chair and surveying the world below like a little king. If he’d had a belt, he’d loosen it after scarfing down every last morsel of turkey and licking his bowl clean.

He waved his tail, thinking of how he’d pass the time later. Perhaps he would have a nap, then demand that Big Buddy take out the laser pointer. With a little luck, he might be given catnip as well, otherwise he’d have to meow relentlessly for it. Failing that, there was a new plastic bottle ring he’d stashed away for later play, and if Big Buddy were to fall asleep while watching baseball, Buddy could entertain himself by repeatedly waking his human via ambush. That was always delightful.

A squeak interrupted his thoughts, too high for humans to pick up but still well within his own hearing range. He sat up and cocked his head forward as his ears swiveled, trying to pinpoint where the noise had come from.

Sudden movement on his peripheral vision snapped his eyes to the target: Down below, among the cars and trees, a tiny animal scurried from beneath the cover of one car to another.

Buddy wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but he knew he wanted to catch it.

He hopped off his throne and crouched low, poking his head through the balcony railing as he tracked the rodent.

The light box inside pumped out its usual weekday sounds: The crack of a ball against wood, the cheers of tens of thousands of humans, and Big Buddy alternately celebrating or sighing in frustration.

For all their supposed seriousness, humans were strangely invested in watching other humans play with toys.

Buddy caught movement beneath the rear bumper of a squat SUV. Two rodential faces peaked out from cover, chittering in human-inaudible frequencies.

His tail thrashed against the floor as he watched the diminutive trespassers brazenly moving about on the edge of his territory. They were mocking him, he was sure of it! He would have his revenge by ruthlessly hunting each of them down and jumping around joyfully on his hind legs, which he always did after he won at hunting games with Buddy the Larger.

The rodential duo took off, abandoning the cover of the SUV for the lower-hanging body and bumper of an old Nissan Skyline.

Bud’s tail thumped furiously. The twitchy little interlopers were getting ready to run again.

Buddy leapt from the balcony before he was consciously aware of what he was doing, meowing an “Oh poop!” as he dropped the 14 feet to the ground. He hit the ground hard but shared the impact on all four limbs. He’d be sore later, but the thought was gone as fast as it came, replaced by the primal instinct that had caused him to jump in the first place: The hunt.

His targets were now well aware of his presence, chittering furiously at each other between cars. Bud stalked the more plump of the two, crouching low so he could track its movement.

A distant subwoofer thumped the air, sending vibrations through the ground to his paw pads. The pudgy rodent took off, gunning for the fence at the far end of the lot and the safety of the trees beyond.

Driven entirely by instinct, Bud gave chase without realizing a car had turned the corner and was pulling into the lot, fast.

“Mrrrrrrooowww!” Buddy exclaimed, dashing away from the vehicle.

It was still moving, still coming toward him with that awful, furious thump from its speakers. Buddy ran and ran until he could run no more: out of the lot, away from his building, up the street, past strange houses emanating strange smells and into a park, where he hoped the car couldn’t chase him.

He collapsed on the grass and sprawled out, chest heaving. That was too close, he thought.

Now he had another problem, one he’d failed to consider when he jumped from the balcony: How would he get back inside? He couldn’t just walk into the apartment building. You needed a human to open the front door, then get past a second door that only opened via some sort of human sorcery that involved waving a little piece of plastic in front of the handle. He knew that much from his night walks with Big Buddy, when the stimulation was almost too much to bear — the smell-taste of flowers at nose level, the spiral cascade of water from the sprinklers, the far-off hum of the deathway, where thousands of cars rumbled down endless lanes of hard human-made ground.

If by luck he was able to slip inside as a human was entering his building, he’d have to cross the lobby, walk down the hallway and finally reach the door to his realm and domicile. Could he reach the door bell? If he meowed loud enough, would Big Bud hear him?

Buddy the Cat

“What do we have here?” Buddy had been so lost in his thoughts and worries that he hadn’t noticed the human walk right up to him. He suddenly felt very vulnerable and rolled onto his stomach.

It was a human boy. He wore a dark baseball cap and a wide grin that didn’t reach his eyes.

“Easy,” he said, reaching out.

Buddy hissed, arching his back. The boy took another step forward, hand still extended. Buddy retreated a few steps, cautiously keeping his eyes on the boy as the fur on his tail spiked outward.

“Here, kitty kitty,” the boy said mockingly.

Buddy took another step away, then felt a pair of human hands clamp around his belly.

“Gotcha!” said another human boy, who had approached from behind as his friend served as a distraction.

Buddy squirmed, lashing out with his claws.

“Hey!” the second boy said. “The little fucker scratched me!”

“Bad kitty!” the first boy said, slapping Buddy on the top of his head. “Ohohoho! He’s pissed!”

The boys laughed as Buddy struggled.

“Come on,” the first boy said. “There’s a pair of gloves and some beach towels in my mom’s car. We can wrap the little shit up in the towel.”

“Where we going, Spencer?” the second boy said, holding the still-struggling Buddy tight as they walked toward the car.

“We could take him beneath the railroad bridge,” Spencer said as he opened the trunk. “I’ve got half a bottle of lighter fluid. We could have ourselves a little barbecue.”

The boys wrapped Buddy in a towel, muffling their laughter. He heard car doors closing and a crystalline human voice singing through speakers. Vibrations felt through his captor’s hands told him they were moving.

“Careful,” Spencer said after they had parked. “Just hold him, don’t be such a little bitch, dude. He’s not gonna hurt you.”

Buddy didn’t understand what they were planning to do with him, but he instinctively knew his life was in danger. He went slack.

“S’okay,” Spencer’s friend said. “He’s not struggling anymore. I don’t think he has any fight left.”

“Oh, he will,” Spencer said. He pushed back the towel, uncovering Buddy’s face.

“We’re gonna have some fun with you, you little shit,” Spencer said, leaning in close. “We’re gonna…”

Spencer howled as Buddy chomped on his lip with all his might.

Spencer’s shocked friend loosened his grip, and for a second or two Buddy swung from the shrieking teenager’s face, the latter’s panicked breath radiating in hyperventilating blasts. His smirk had evaporated, replaced by flush cheeks and a mask of pain.

Buddy released Spencer’s lip, tasting blood, and ran for his life. As he disappeared into the trees he could hear Spencer sobbing hysterically.

When he was sure the boys weren’t following him, he crossed a human yard in a blur and scurried beneath a short wooden staircase leading to a porch. A lawnmower droned in a yard nearby. In a neighboring basement, someone pounded out the opening kicks and snares of a song about a prince buying flowers.

“And if you want to call me baby…” a male human crooned over the drums and guitar, “just go ahead now!”

As Bud’s breathing slowed and the fear chemicals subsided, a new kind of dread filled the vacuum. Neither his eyes nor his ears nor his nose could tell him where he was.

Day Five: The Nice Lady

Blackie scurried up a tree with impressive speed while Clyde took off like a cat possessed.

That left Buddy, who didn’t know the area, and didn’t know the gaps in fences or under-porch hideaways that would grant him temporary safety from the mountain of a dog barreling toward him.

He ran in the same direction Clyde had gone, hoping to follow the ginger tabby to safety, but he was already out of sight.

Peggy gained on Buddy, huffing like a bellows.

Buddy weaved around a rusting bike and ran for a stand of trees and brush that could afford cover. Maybe. He could feel Peggy’s breath on his back now. His little legs pumped as fast as they could, but a shadow overtook him followed by its owner.

Peggy landed on top of Buddy with surprising nimbleness, pinning him with her huge belly. Buddy’s heart threatened to beat out of his chest. Peggy opened her massive maw. Vicious-looking canines framed a row of smaller teeth like a serrated knife. Buddy closed his eyes, bracing…

…and felt a big wet tongue leave a saliva trail from the back of his neck to his forehead.

Peggy panted as she licked him, her drool shaping his fur until he looked like someone had styled him with an entire bottle of industrial strength hair gel. She barked happily, grinning from ear to ear, then began licking his left paw.

Buddy squirmed under the big pit and meowed at her indignantly.

“Untongue me this instant!” he demanded, but Peggy just kept licking.

Blackie snickered from a branch. A pair of wrens chirped, then took off from a branch above the pantherine cat.

Peggy gave Buddy’s forehead another lick, lathering on so much saliva that he had to close his eyes as it ran down his face.

“Peggy, baby!” a human voice boomed from behind the trees in a playful tone.

The huge dog raised her head, gave Buddy a final gooey swipe of her tongue and hopped off, cheerfully skipping her way home.

kittyswimming

Neither Clyde nor Blackie said anything, mercifully. They both looked at him in horror, recoiling at the layer of saliva that almost entirely encased him, but they didn’t laugh or make jokes at his expense. They pity me, Buddy thought.

Blackie led them around a shed, through a hole in a wooden fence just big enough to wiggle through, then into a well-kept backyard shaded by oak trees. Up ahead was a wooden porch. One side of it was built around a huge rectangular depression filled with motionless clear blue water.

“Crazy humans,” Blackie meowed, looking at the pool with distrust.

Nice Lady herself was sitting on the opposite end of the porch beneath a canvas green-and-white awning, her face buried in a book. The human woman didn’t see them approaching and only looked up when Clyde put a paw on the first step and meowed.

“Orange Boy!” Nice Lady said, placing the book on the table next to her. “And Panther!”

Buddy watched as the two hardscrabble strays transformed themselves into harmless little kitty cats. Clyde made a big show of uncertainty, then hopped up on the deck and approached Nice Lady, rubbing himself against her legs. Blackie followed, dropping down and showing his belly.

“Where have you little rascals been?” Nice Lady cooed. “I was worried about…Oh my, you have a friend!”

Buddy crouched a few feet away from the stairs leading up to the deck, watching her silently.

Nice Lady made kissy sounds, then stood up. “You three must be very hungry! Wait here, my little darlings,” she said, stepping through a sliding glass door.

“Ya see, kid?” Clyde meowed, hopping up and helping himself to Nice Lady’s chair.

Cicadas buzzed. A breeze shifted leaf shadows on the deck.

“I hope it’s eggs today,” Blackie said, “otherwise we’re gonna have to visit the red house after this.”

Clyde stretched and yawned. Buddy carefully climbed the porch steps, realizing with horror that his paws were leaving prints of nearly-gelatinous saliva on the wood. He reached the top and crouched, his tail flicking uncomfortably.

Clyde saw the look in his eyes and realized what he was about to do.

“No!” he meowed. “You’re crazy!”

Buddy didn’t care. He shook himself like a dog, sending disgusting little saliva missiles at both his friends — the least he could do as payback for abandoning him to Peggy’s tongue assault — then took off running and leaped into the pool.

He shivered, but his body quickly adapted to the temperature of the water. To his surprise, the water was a comfort, and most importantly he was no longer mummified in a thick layer of gooey pitbull spit. 

catpool

Nice Lady returned after a few minutes, carrying a stack of paper plates and a steaming bowl covered with a paper towel.

“Okay, boys,” she said, placing the paper plates in a row. “Eat up!”

Blackie meowed with excitement as Nice Lady removed the paper towel and scooped heaps of scrambled eggs from the bowl.

“Careful now, they’re still hot,” she said.

Blackie and Clyde dug in immediately. Nice Lady looked around for Bud and, realizing he was actually in her pool, retrieved one of those black rectangles humans love so much and held it up.

“Cheese!” she said, confusing Buddy. “A cat who likes water! Who knew?”

She retreated a few steps to her chair and resumed her reading, sipping from a wine glass.

Buddy’s stomach rumbled. He paddled to the steps leading out of the pool, then padded cautiously to his plate.

“Oh! Oh! Of all the good eatin’!” Blackie said. “You’ve gotta try this, kid!”

Buddy lapped at the eggs. They were delicious! There was cheese and little chunks of meat that Blackie called “ham.”

The three of them ate in silence except for Blackie’s enthusiastic grunts of approval. Buddy was so grateful to get food in his tummy that he didn’t even realize Nice Lady had approached them. He froze, ready to sprint, but she just crouched down and ladled more eggs onto each plate.

“So good,” Blackie mewed. “Incredible! Fantastique! Superlatives fail me!”

All three cats cleaned their plates, then sprawled out on the deck, grooming themselves with the satisfaction of full bellies.

Nice Lady had gone inside again, and when she returned she brought bowls of water, bags that crinkled and a towel for Buddy.

“I hope you boys saved room for dessert,” she said cheerily.

Buddy licked his lips.

 

“Why did you slap my paw away when I went for the Temps?” Buddy asked later.

“Because,” Clyde said, “that stuff is the kitty crack.”

“But…”

“Do you have any idea what that stuff has done to our people?” Clyde said.

“Here he goes again,” Blackie meowed, shaking his head.

The trio padded across the short grass of the backyard as the light began to fade, heading for the little shed they’d passed on the way into the backyard, where Nice Lady had installed a kitty door.

“You can’t handle the truth!” Clyde trilled to his friend.

“What truth?” Buddy asked. Blackie groaned.

“The Temps were specifically engineered by humans to get us hooked,” Clyde said, taking on a conspiratorial tone. “See, the humans don’t like how we’re independent free spirits, unlike dogs. No self-respecting cat would run panting to his human the way those eager-to-please idiots do.”

Buddy considered the orange tabby’s point.

“But what does that have to do with controlling us?”

Clyde waved a paw at a house cat watching them from a neighbor’s bay window, her body language broadcasting a mix of curiosity and annoyance.

“You think kittypet over there would ever run off if it meant no more Temps?” he meowed. “They’re all cracked out on the Temps! Those spoiled, soft-living, fat, lazy kittypets are an embarrassment to the feline kingdom.”

He looked at Buddy. “Present company mostly excluded, of course.”

“Of course.”

They filed into the shed, eyes adjusting to the gloom. There was a litter box, two wide bowls of fresh water, a plastic contained filled with dry kibble and, arranged on a small area carpet, a cozy sleeping spot ringed with pillows and blankets.

“Not bad,” Buddy said, feeling like a civilized cat again for the first time in days.

“Not bad?” Blackie asked. “Kid, this is the Waldorf of Westchester! It doesn’t get any better than this.”

After some mild haggling over the best sleeping spots, the three cats settled down. Sleeping on a full stomach for the first time since he’d left home, Buddy’s eyelids grew heavy as he mentally assembled a plan to find his way home.