I hated my mother for the curse she bore.
In this cold rocky land, the huldufólk leave strange imprints upon us, curses molding souls as a cup does water. My mother angered one of these hidden people—how, no longer matters. She was cursed to live as a cat until she did a good deed that had never yet been done.
I have since heard of curses stranger, but this is the one that affected me, for she was pregnant when the curse fell.
Mother was a companion to Thurid, the Chieftain’s wife. She had gathered mosses and lichens for Thurid as a human; as a cat she wept because she did not have hands to help her lady. She killed the mice and insects that crept over the twig floor, and Thurid laughed and petted her.
Thurid had a daughter, Ingibjorg, and we grew side by side. Or yet—we did not. Though we played together, though we slept curled together, kid and kit in a pile of shredded moss, all too quickly the difference in our births showed itself.
As Ingy learned her letters, I learned the trundle of insects.
As she combed her golden hair, I licked my mackerel fur.
As she pressed through linens with sharp needle, I speared mice with a claw.
I tried to take pride in my catly skills, but how could I? If not for my mother, I would know the delights of fingers. I would not be a soul squeezed black and twisted into a kitten shape, a soul overflowing kitten ears.
I rejected the skills of my body and watched blackly from a corner as Ingy studied cooking and my mother did unimportant, everyday deeds for Thurid. She was weak, my mother. Weak and toadying. What good deed could she do that had not been done a thousand times before?
The pettiness of her deeds made them insignificant, and I resented her for it.
If there had been any act of my mother’s bold enough to have broken that spell, it should have been the one that happened when Ingy and I were nine.
That day, Ingy was marching towards the forest, the gentle boy Osvif and I trailing her. She had woven sticky purple butterwort into her tangled curls and it attracted gnats, which she batted. The end-of-spring chill was just lifting, and now that her morning chores were finished, Ingy was determined to pack the afternoon with excitement. Usually that meant climbing grey-brown cliffs after birds’ eggs or acting out great adventures with Ingy directing who was to say what. She would not let me play a human girl’s part as often as was fair, and I refused to play any of the trolls or fairies’ parts that littered her inventions. Osvif often had to moderate between us.
But today Ingy’s thoughts tended towards the forest. “I want to see the giant,” she said.
Osvif stopped dead still and I faltered. I knew what tangling with huldufólk—the hidden ones—could mean.
“No, Ingy,” Osvif said.
“Yes, Osvif,” mimicked Ingy. “The giant’s home is in my father’s territory. Which makes himmy subject.”
“Don’t say that,” said Osvif.
“Why not? It’s the truth. Besides, how could he hear me? Giants have sharp noses, not sharp ears.”
“They smell feelings the way you hear a tone of voice,” said Osvif. “Your words carry on the wind to his nose.”
“Do not!” said the chieftain’s daughter.
“Do so!” said Osvif, and he tickled her nose with a curl of her hair. “He can smell pretty girls, too.”
“Oh!” said Ingy, and she giggled.
I felt funny watching them. Ingy had already forgotten about her mission. And forgotten about me the moment my tail dropped from view, as though I were a simple cat in truth and not a girl in spirit.
Maybe that’s why I said, “I can find the giant.”
“Kisa!” said Ingy. She turned from Osvif. “Can you really?”
I wrapped my tail around my paws. “Cats can. Our senses aren’t troubled by the hidden turnings on the way to his house.” Instinctively I knew it was true of this body I bore, though I had never tried it.
“You can’t,” said Osvif, and his joking was gone. “You shouldn’t encourage her, Kisa. The giant’s dangerous.”
“She’ll encourage me if she wants to!”
“This could bring trouble to the whole village,” said Osvif soberly. “Let’s turn back.”
“I will see the giant,” said Ingy. She was always very obstinate. “I will remind him of his allegiance to me. And I’ll take him a present, cause that’s what you do. Osvif, run and fetch me that cheese we had at dinner last night.”
Osvif looked torn, but for Ingy, he went. And I, glad that a cat always looks brave, even when she’s not, said “Come on, then.” I turned my nose to the north and headed into the birch forest by the trail only I could see.
Ingy plunged behind me. “I’ll leave a trail of petals for Osvif to follow,” she said. “That’s what chieftain’s daughters do in stories. The others will be sorry they missed this!”
The shadows between the trees were dark and I stood between two birches, sniffing out the right way. My tail was high. This was no headless mouse. This would impress Ingy.
Left past the bent birch, straight towards the two skinny birches. We went more slowly as the trail grew harder to find. The loose canopies of the birches were tight-woven here, dark all around. I sniffed again. The air was thick with quiet.
“Kisa,” said Ingy. One finger skritched my head. “Have you ever seen the giant?”
“No.” My ears were on high alert.
“How does it feel to be under a curse?”
One ear flattened in discomfort. She would despise me if she knew how I sat and dreamed of being her human friend. “I’ve never known different.” I wondered if she wanted to turn back. If so, then what else could I show her?
But she stood. “Let’s keep going.”
Further in we crept, on the path-that-didn’t-look-like-a-path, until I knew the giant’s house must be near. There was a clearing with a bit of sun, and we crept out into it.
My cat senses realized something else before my human wits did. The giant, himself. Suddenly the stink of giant was all around us and I didn’t know how I’d missed it a moment before.
I was looking into his ankle, then there was a frightening jerk on my tail and I was peering into his long wide face. I spat and shrieked, clawing at his nose. He grabbed me, dropped me. I flew back into the undergrowth to Ingy.
But impetuous Ingy had run towards the giant, trying to save me, and now he had her dangling by an arm.
“Help!” cried Ingy. “Help!”
I shrunk into the twigs and moss. I was not a quarter the size of Ingy; I had no fingers to wield a knife. I was just a useless cat.
That was when Osvif stumbled into the clearing, wide-eyed, his shock of hair on end. I didn’t know how he’d found us—Ingy’s petal trail was laughable—but then I saw my mother, her spine and tail bristling.
“Put her down,” shouted Osvif.
The giant set Ingy on the ground, holding onto her hair with a fist as large as her torso. “Don’t like intruders.” He spat a big glob towards me, a mound of silver and white that smeared the brush.
He picked Ingy up by the waist, raised her as if to bite off her head. Gentle Osvif rushed forward with a fish knife—a suicidal undertaking. But before he reached Ingy, another form flew past. Flew up the side of the giant, scratching and hissing.
The giant dropped Ingy in surprise, and she tumbled, clutching her ribs, coughing. Osvif ran to her, the rest of us forgotten. The giant roared as my mother’s claws tore his skin, his face.
Too quickly he caught her. Too quickly he squeezed.
The giant leered and flung the body of my mother to Ingy’s feet. “Don’t disturb my home again,” he said. He turned and vanished into the swaying white forest.
A moment ago I had thought my cowardice when Ingy was grabbed was the low point of my life.
Until now, when the first thing I did upon my mother’s death was look down at my furry body, expecting it to change.
“Oh, Kisa,” said Ingy. She reached for my scruff but I backed away and hissed. She crawled towards me, coughing again, and I pelted through the birch, hurled myself through the forest till I couldn’t run anymore. We cats are made for speed, not stamina. I had barely come a hundred bounds. There was a cairn of rocks there and I sunk panting to them, eyes glazed, breath shallow. My sides were raked and bleeding from his nails, some part of my ribs were broken, and for the first time in my life I thought I might die.
I huddled on the rock I do not know how long. Until a voice said, “What’s all this bleeding in my home about?”
Something that looked like a smaller rock unfolded itself and looked down at me with beady black rock eyes. “Why, I know you,” it said. “At least, I knew your mother. I suppose she’s still a cat?”
I said nothing. I would be dead soon, and this hidden one would be gone. My mother, Ingy, everything would be gone, just like they wanted. Why couldn’t I weep? Real humans could cry. Real humans didn’t run away.
“Oh,” it said softly. “I see.” It reached under an outcropping and scraped out a blue-green moss I was not familiar with. It patted my wounds with it; my tail, my ear, my flanks. Strange to say, as it covered me in moss my body healed; though I knew of nothing that could effect such a swift change.
“I can’t help you with the lost blood,” it said. “Rest yourself a few days, get some sleep.”
I listened, but as its hand came towards me with more moss I snapped at its craggy fingers.
It jumped. “I suppose from your point of view I deserve that,” it said. “I can’t remove the curse from you, and I think it would do you good, anyway. But I will give you a gift. Steady.” It folded some moss into a neat pocket and tucked it into my ear before I could bite its fingers. “You will be half-deaf till you need it, but I assure you that’s a fair trade. Goodbye, little cat.” It tapped my ear, and then there were only rocks once more.
I crawled into a dirty cave and hid. But no matter how long I huddled there, my cat body would not weep for my mother.
A week later I set out around the coast. He must have wits who wanders, they say, and I learned that in short order. The summer was fine and sunny and it was a fine time to learn surviving by myself, though in my cold determination I thought I knew everything. I set forth and did what Mother had not thought to do, systematically performing one good deed after another, out in the wide world. Now the weight of breaking her curse had fallen to me, and I was determined to wrest free and find a place among humans.
I caught baby puffins for old women to eat; I speared brown trout for beggars. After every good deed I looked at my body.
But nothing changed.
Winter came and I felt my first taste of real cold, cold with no one to curl up against, cold day-after-day with galing winds that could blow a kitten straight up a birch tree. The mice and voles vanished into their dirt homes and I thinned, till my ribs poked my knees. I was caught in a blizzard and almost froze, except a kindly shepherd boy took pity on me, fed me scraps of mutton and let me lay against his side through those long winter nights. I did eleven good deeds for him before I left that spring, but none of them were new.
That summer I turned my attention to the cliffs. Surely in the desolate heights, among the goat herders, I would strike upon new good deeds. But the hidden one’s curse was a good one, and I could do nothing that had not been done before. Before the next winter came, I found a farmer’s family to adopt me, and I passed that winter in a lovely thick turf house, parceling out the rats and mice till spring.
Another year came, and the good deeds I tried were fewer. What use catching baby puffins for some old hag if it didn’t make me human? I rescued a woman’s mutton chop from being stolen by a fox, but when I didn’t change, I took the mutton with me and ate it myself. Dragging it was hard with my kitten jaws, but that’s what I still was, even though in human terms I must have been finally nearing adulthood.
Another year, and the thought of having clever hands and a pretty face grew hopeless. I found a pack of adolescent cats and fell in with them. To them, I was a strange runty kitten, but I knew more about mousing than cats much bigger in body. They were long-legged and had torn ears and broken tails and we all had fleas. I didn’t speak like a human to them and they didn’t startle from me.
Maybe they didn’t know I had a human soul inside.
Maybe I never really had.
Such brooding was useless. The cats accepted me; one of the youngest males groomed me and the oldest female got my back when a frothing rat attacked. I had a place at last.
And in their company, I finally started to grow.
My legs lengthened, my body changed, and overnight, it seemed, I was grown-up. I looked like the mangy stray I was.
I looked like my new family.
A year later and the pack was on the west of the island. Few of the individual cats were the same, but the pack was still a unit. We were dashing from a bunch of nasty kids when I veered to lose myself in the market by the bridge. The rest of my pack scattered.
I passed by the boy with his cheeses and the wet men hauling writhing fish. There was a woman with a makeshift stall of baskets and table and I ran there, ducking behind a sharp-smelling basket till the boys went by.
I sneezed and looked up. Herbs dangled around me.
I had chosen well.
Apothecaries liked me. Much of their good stuff wouldn’t grow in this cold and blowy country. It had to be brought by ship, and the price showed. I looked around for a rodent on which to show my skill, but before I found one, the woman grabbed my scruff. There was a strange foxy glint in her eye as she popped me in one of those baskets. I yowled and tried to break free. But she had tied it closed.
I was there till the market faded with the sun. I fretted—a day or two and the pack would think I was dead and move on without me. I was picked up and I complained some more. When she opened the basket we were at the hot springs outside the little town. A strong hand closed on my scruff and she dunked me in the water.
Worse, she scoured me raw with a wire brush that hung from her belt. The water and the bristles fizzled on my skin as the brush yanked through years of matting and dead fleas. I swung for her with long claws but she said “Stop it,” in a terrifying voice and her grasp on my scruff tightened. I only hissed after that, even when she ran her fingers around my eyes and down into my ears.
After an eternity she yanked me out and ran her other hand down my hide, wringing the wet from my fur. At last she sat me on flat rock and I shook myself, splattering her.
She grinned. “I’ll wager no one’s done that to you before.”
“Come off it,” she said. “I know what you are. You’re under a curse, but that don’t mean you have to be thick with fleas. I bet you can hear better, too. Right?”
I shook my head again, loosing more water and mites. Icould hear better. But I was grouchy and chilly in the cooling spring night. And who knew what else this far-seeing woman had in store for me?
The woman kicked off her shoes, dangled her tough feet in the hot springs. “I’ve seen a lot of curses in my time,” she said. “Distinctive things, each as unlike as water hemlock from wintergreen.” She studied the air around me and I licked my damp shoulder. “Rock fairy?” she said. “From the south?”
I was both annoyed and curious. One ear flattened, and her sharp eyes picked up on that telltale sign.
“I hear word from down south,” she said. “The giant is on the move again. He’s raging around the woods of—what was that orphan girl’s name? Ingveldur, Athalbjorg? Something very like....”
“Ingibjorg?” I croaked. I had not used my voice in five years, but that word came right back. “But what of her parents?”
“The giant killed them,” said the woman. “And she’s got no brothers, so the place is in turmoil, all fighting over who’ll be the next chieftain. Poll’s boy two stalls down, him what’s tired of making candles, set off to try his hand at winning a village over. Fat lot of luck he’ll have, with no gold to win their trust. A leader’s naught without gold. But what do you care? You’ve got your own mission to fulfill. Which is...?”
I thumped my tail. “Have to do a good deed that’s never been done before. It’s a stupid impossible quest. But how did you know I wasn’t just a cat?”
The wrinkles around her eyes deepened as she narrowed her eyes at me, examining. “I didn’t at first,” she said. “And usually I can tell. Human souls take up too much space for a small animal. They look different. Squeezed, or stuffed, somehow.” She picked at a callus on her toe, her eyes on me. “But you look almost like any feral cat.”
A night breeze pricked up the hairs on my spine.
“Then I saw this hanging from your ear,” she said. “Not long and it would’ve fallen out completely.” From her sleeve she extracted a packet of blue-green moss.
I stared. Memories of bleeding on a rock flooded me.
“Forgot you had this, did you?” she said. She unfolded it and it sprang open, seemingly more than the packet could hold. “You won’t begrudge me a small portion, for the information I have given you.”
The small portion was half, and I rumbled dislike at her.
She folded the other half and stuffed it back in my ear. “You better hurry, little cat. Or there won’t be enough left of you to become human.”
It took me two months to pad to the southern part of the island, and when I got there I found that the old woman was accurate in her depiction of the town. The fields hung heavy with fear. Acrid smoke rose from the birch woods. Even the white trunks of the birches were stained black with it.
I crept into the great house. Those villagers who were left were gathered in the hall, and a small crowd they made. Many of them were so young. Across the way Ingy was speaking with passion to a group of young men, stirring them to fight once more in a hopeless battle. The voices around me rose in different murmurs, and I heard one boy say that the village was cursed and it should be abandoned to the giant, and another, in quieter tones—that Ingy should be left in the forest as an offering. I hissed at that, but when the boy looked down he saw only a cat.
I sidled towards Ingy. She was grown-up now but otherwise just as I remembered, just as I always wanted to be. Silly kitten dreams, wanting fingers and golden hair. Why pine after that when claws and teeth are so much more useful?
Next to her stood gentle Osvif, also full-grown. He was not as tall as some of the doggish young men, not as wide. But when he spoke those around him quieted to listen. He put a comforting hand on the princess’ shoulder, telling everyone that they should withdraw from the attack and burnings, that the giant would fade away if they did so. They couldn’t ever find the giant, he said, for he knew how to stay hidden. They were only making him madder. They should stop seeking revenge. Ingy leaned into him.
I felt more alone than I had since I found my pack. These were not my people. They had grown, the village had changed, and I was still a cursed cat. They were doing human things like falling in love and fighting wars and I was catching mice and getting forcibly bathed by old hags.
I bit Ingy’s ankle.
Gently. But I bit it, and darted. She looked down and followed the green eyes she saw, coming over to examine.
I do believe that if she had acknowledged me for who I was, I wouldn’t have done what I did next. I would’ve swallowed my loneliness, and bid her follow Osvif’s advice.
But Ingibjorg the chieftain’s daughter said, “What a darling little cat.”
I didn’t owe her anything. It was she who had gotten my mother killed. “I can find your giant,” I said.
“You can talk,” she said. “I used to imagine that my cat could talk. Or did I?”
I rumbled dislike. “I’m sure I don’t know what you imagined, my lady,” I said. “Leave a fish head at the door if you change your mind.”
“Nothing to change,” she said. “We’ll go right now, and I’ll take my mother’s kitchen knife. If you dare find the giant for me, I’ll dare face it.”
I put one ear back at that, because I knew what the giant was like, even if she’d forgotten or didn’t care. If she could forget such an important incident anyway, I didn’t care what happened to her.
We slipped out of the great house. “One of your ears is back, Kisa,” she said. “That means you’re conflicted about something.”
“Oh, so you do remember me,” I said crossly. I couldn’t get the ear to go up, so I put the other one down as well.
“I know there was a horrible day where we met the giant,” she said softly. “And then you disappeared. I cried for weeks.”
“Truly?” I said. “Then why are you blithely trotting after me now?”
“Because,” said Ingy. “If I hadn’t disturbed the giant’s home in the first place, he would never have come after the town. All this is my fault, and now you’re here to help me face it.” She sounded quite cheerful. The massacre must have made her crazy.
“Turn here,” I said. I led her through low-hanging branches, which she ducked. After all these years I could still feel the twists and turns into the giant’s heart. The woods grew darker, the stench of soot and bone harsher. “Have your knife ready.”
“I do.” Her footsteps were tense behind me. The silence got thicker, each paw padded slower. Guilt almost made me turn and lead her out of the forest, but no, she wanted to face the giant and I wanted her to face it. Still my steps slowed, till I was no longer leading her.
I hissed as she trod on my tail.
“Sorry,” she said quietly. Then, “Kisa? Do you ever think you’ll get your curse lifted?”
My ears were belled out, quivering. “I don’t think I’ll ever try again.”
“But—” she said, and then the giant towered in front of her. He was bigger than I’d remembered. Had he grown? I was bigger and stronger than five years ago, and yet the sight and stench of him widened my eyes and froze me to the ground. There was a smoke-stained birch concealing me from him; I couldn’t seem to move around it.
Ingy rushed at him with her kitchen knife. She hacked at his shins, his fingers as he tried to deflect. He bellowed as she aimed for arteries—for a second I thought she might have a chance. But the giant wrested the knife from her weak wrist, tumbled her, pinned her to the ground. With one stroke he swung the knife and chopped through her ankles like they were carrots. Ingy screamed. Fell silent, unconscious.
Then she was laying there, her feet all separated from her body, the shell of her completely unlike the vibrant Ingy I had known.
The giant put her pink feet in his pouch. He hoisted her to his shoulder so I saw the stumps of leg—oddly quite bloodless. He swung around and set off, Ingy’s hair whipping around and her pink smooth face blank, vanishing behind black peeling trunks.
For one horrid instant all my cowardice rushed back upon me and I thought of running away. Running to the west, finding my cat pack again. I needed no part of human affairs.
But in the dark woods I heard Osvif, tearing madly and randomly about, calling for Ingy. My last shameful thought vanished like hot breath into frozen air. I raced forward, along the giant’s footfalls, quick and calm as only a cat can do. When I reached the clearing of his cabin I halted, for I know how keen the giant’s smell is. But Ingy was there and so in one bound I jumped in the nastiest, smelliest thing nearby to hide—the giant’s midden.
I crawled in the nasty tunnel underneath the house wall, peeked up into the house. The smell inside was interesting and acrid; burnt bones and hair and the strong musk of giant. There was a cooking pot at one end and a chest of gold coins at another. The giant sat brooding in the middle of the room. And there—Ingy, dumped on a heap of moss and peat ash, her feet thrown down next to her.
I waited and waited, probably a short time in reality, but it seemed endless. At last the restless giant picked up his water buckets, heading for the river. He peered out of the cabin, drew his head back to smell the air for human, for fear. But either because he wasn’t looking for cat or because his own stench hid mine, he didn’t sense me.
The instant his tread lumbered off, I sprung from my hiding place. I lugged each of Ingy’s feet over by biting their toes, lined them up with her ankles. “You could help me, you know,” I said, but I might as well have been talking to rock. With the back of my paw I dug the last of the moss from my ear; the packet fell on a bruise and the purple faded.Oh no you don’t, I thought, and I hurried before the moss wasted its power on scrapes. I nudged the moss with my nose to her ankles, tore and laid it around them, nudged the feet to the legs by pressing my back against them.
Then I hopped onto her chest and, yowling, kneaded her neck. Her eyelids fluttered. “Wake up, Ingy,” I said. But my kneading did no good. “Wake up!” I said again. There were strange drops of water falling on her neck.
But I couldn’t wake her. I couldn’t move her. I was just a cat. I swallowed my rivers of pride and guilt. I left Ingy there and flew back to the forest to where clumsy human Osvif was still searching. I did not want to talk to him, but he, unlike Ingy, recognized me—or admitted to recognizing me—instantly.
“Why, I know you,” he said. “I’d know that mackerel coat anywhere.” He dropped to one knee, lowered himself to me. “Have you seen Ingy?”
And so I lashed my tail and turned and walked a few paces, looked back. When I was sure he was following me, I set off at top speed to the giant’s house, leading him through trails that only I could find.
His face paled when he saw her.
I took pity on that and spoke. “Careful of the ankles. Keep the moss on them; keep her off her feet.” I did not really know, but I guessed, based on what I knew of the moss and the apothecaries’ sayings.
He nodded, worried but calm. A careful, solid man. A strong-souled human.
My ears stayed upright and steady. “And Osvif,” I said. “Take the gold.”
Osvif looked at me sharply. Then he took a mere three handfuls from the chest, filling his pouch. He swung the unconscious Ingy to his shoulder, just as the giant had done, and hurried out of there, back through the forest.
He walked into the great house with poor half-dead Ingy on his shoulder, and in a louder voice than any I’d ever heard him use, he bought the men off of their anger with gold. He rallied them to his strange cause of non-aggression, and because of the giant’s gold, they followed.
I followed him back to the village slow and unstopping—a test of endurance for an energy-spent cat. I often thought of laying down and sleeping forever, but Osvif chivvied me again and again until we made it home. She will reward you, he repeated, but I spat when he said it. Much I cared for that. Not with Ingy hanging from his shoulder like a dead deer.
Her body was cold and shaking by the time he laid her in the sleeping loft of the great house. I padded up the stairs after them, one red paw print after another. I was bone-tired, my tail dragging, my pads bleeding, but I saw one last thing I could give the girl who had everything. I jumped onto her pallet and curled around her shivering feet, feet with blue toes and bits of moss still sticking around her ankles like fetters.
I kept her feet warm until she fell asleep, and in the morning I was human.
A good deed that had never been done before. I don’t know what moment tipped that balance. It worked, anyway, for I am human, and isn’t that what I always wanted?
But now that I am human I am never satisfied. Ingy and Osvif are married, and he is the chieftain now, though he bids everyone call him Osvif. Ingy can walk, though now that she has her own princess on the way, she stays off those delicate ankles and keeps to the bench near the hearth. They gifted me one of the abandoned turf houses and a servant girl to help me adjust to buttons and mending and cooked food.
Sometimes I go up to the great house and sit with her. But sitting is not the same as running through the forest. Needlework is not the same as a wild chase after a giant.
And I am no more her equal than I ever was.
I feel strangely hollow these days. Lost between worlds; I can’t curl up with my pack of cats, nor can I feel at ease with these large-souled humans. Osvif and Ingy overflow with generosity to me. But I seem to have used up my humanity in my quest to become one.
Ridiculous longings! The dreams of a kitten. I knew where my soul was, once. It fit right between the ears, in a little fuzzy body.
Once I had a right-sized soul, the soul of a cat.