Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Cat On The Fence: A Fairy Tale


There was once a prince who banished his minstrel wife for deceiving him with a cat. It's a fine story, but this story begins where that one ends. The cat was also an enchantress who had once imprisoned the prince in a tower for seven years. That was a fine story too, although the prince didn't think so.

Because the prince's minstrel wife tricked him into releasing the cat from the bag in which she was imprisoned, the prince cast his bride outside the the thick stone walls of his castle, to survive as best she could in the harsh winter of his land.

But no sooner had the prince sent his minstrel wife away than he began to pine for her. "What ails you, my son?" asked the Queen. "Your hounds grow restive in their kennels and the hog roast shrivels on its spit."

"Mother," said the prince, "If I had not sent my wife away, but put her in irons for a time, that would have avenged me just as well, would it not?"

"My son," said the Queen, "I wish you luck if you ever hope to receive love again from a woman you have cast in irons."

"But mother, she tricked me, and released my foe from imprisonment!"

"Child," said the Queen, "You released your foe yourself, and if you would punish any woman who can outwit you, then your bride has done well to flee these walls."

The prince thought on his mother's words, and went to his father the King. "My Lord," said the prince, "I wish to ride out in search of my bride and bring her home."

But the prince's father did not wish to lose his son a second time, after seven long years without him, while his son was imprisoned in a tower. "Son, you may ride out by day, but each night you must return to the castle by sunset."

So each day the prince rode out in search of his minstrel bride, and each night he returned to the castle unsuccessful.

Meanwhile it so happened that the cat, who was also the enchantress who had once imprisoned the prince in her tower, was roaming the prince's kingdom, and heard tell of the prince's quest to find his bride. The cat would return each night to whichever inn the prince's minstrel bride was to be found in earning her bread by playing her instrument, and would curl herself at her feet before the fire.  The cat listened to the minstrel's songs of loss and yearning, but the cat kept her counsel, and did not tell the minstrel of the prince's change of heart, nor did she tell of the prince's daily quest to search his kingdom for his lost bride. Yet, whenever the minstrel talked of leaving the kingdom, the cat would dissuade her. For the cat had all the wiles of her feline nature as well as all the powers of an enchantress, and even though the prince had kept her trapped in a bag for seven long years, the cat had not tired of him yet.

And so the cat began to put her plan into action. She began to stalk the prince each day on his search for the minstrel, and would listen in to find out where he planned to search the following day. Then the cat would persuade the minstrel to go the next day to the place where the prince had searched the day before. And so the prince could never find the minstrel, though he searched his kingdom high and low.

At the same time, the cat began to boast to the minstrel about her wonderful cat life. While the minstrel struggled to sing for her supper, and sometimes went hungry in towns where music was not loved, the cat grew sleek and fat on the mice she caught beneath the inn's floorboards, and on the treats given to her by the innkeeper in exchange for the mouse-kill she presented. The cat would curl up, purring, by the fire, while the minstrel shivered in the farthest corner, and sleep on a fine pillow while the minstrel suffered hard floor.

"How I envy you," said the minstrel to the cat at last, "For although you come and go as you please, you are welcomed where I am shunned. I wish that you and I could change places."

"So be it," said the cat, "For I am not only a cat but also an enchantress, and need only your wish to make it so." And there was a crack, as of thunder, and the minstrel looked out through the eyes of the cat and saw her own human face looking back at her. The minstrel tried to protest that she had meant it only in jest, but when she tried to speak only mewing sounds came from her throat.

"Only an enchantress can make a cat speak," said the enchantress, in the minstrel's own voice. "Enjoy your new life. I must go."

The enchantress hurried from the inn and began her journey to find the prince. The minstrel-cat was left alone in the inn.

The innkeeper picked up the cat by the scruff of her neck. "Enough lazing by the fire, cat," said the innkeeper, "Earn your keep and catch me some mice!" And the innkeeper threw the cat out into the street. The cat looked along the road and saw her own former body walking away in the distance, so instead of catching mice she followed the enchantress.

The enchantress walked through the night until dawn, then she cast herself down by the side of the road and lay quite still. Shortly after dawn the sound of horses' hooves approached, and the prince rode up. He saw the crumpled body of his minstrel wife by the side of the road and jumped down from his horse to attend to her. The enchantress groaned and held her head. When the prince spoke to her she tried to speak, but seemingly could not.

"My poor dear wife," cried the prince, "You have fallen and you are wounded!" And the prince lifted the enchantress gently onto his horse. Now when the cat-minstrel saw the prince she was so full of joy that she forgot she was not in her own body, and ran towards him. The prince saw only the cat enchantress who had one imprisoned him for seven years, and who he hated, so he grabbed the cat by the scruff of her neck and threw her far from him. Then he carried the woman he thought was his bride away on his horse, back to the safety of his castle, leaving his true bride behind.

The minstrel-cat wanted to sing of her pain, her longing and regret, but when she opened her mouth, all that came out was a cat's yowl. The enchantress, in exchange for the minstrel's help in freeing her from captivity, had exiled the minstrel from hearth and husband, then stolen her very minstel's art from her, leaving her with nothing. The enchantress had imprisoned her as surely as she had once imprisoned her prince, and now she had stolen him from her too. The minstrel-cat turned her limping paws towards the castle, for she had no heart left to go anywhere else.

The prince had already returned with his bride to the castle, where he laid her upon her bed. His mother came to nurse her son's returned bride, but even though the enchantress did not speak, feigning sleep, the queen knew at once that this was not the same bride her son had first brought home. Yet her son would not heed his mother's words.

Now it so happened that the queen had a secret herb garden outside the castle walls, where she went to be alone. Only the king, the prince, and the prince's minstrel bride knew about the garden and how to enter it. So the queen told her son to send his bride to her in her herb garden as soon as she awoke.  The prince gave the message to his bride as she was rising and dressing. The enchantress did not know the way to the secret garden, so she walked out through the castle gate and began to search.

The enchantress saw the minstrel-cat sitting outside the castle walls, staring up at the prince's chamber window. She offered her a deal: "Show me how to get into the queen's secret garden, and I will return you to your own body." The minstrel-cat turned and led the enchantress down a long passageway to a door. The enchantress eagerly opened the door and stepped through - only to fall into a cess-pool. For the minstrel-cat had tired of the enchantress's bargains, and preferred to remain a cat for the rest of her days than strike one more deal with the deceitful enchantress.

The minstrel-cat jumped onto the top of the wall and down into the secret garden on the other side, where the queen was waiting on a bench As soon as the cat approached her, the queen picked her up and carried her into the castle to the prince. For she had known love for more years than her son, and she knew that it is not always with the eyes that we recognise our beloved.

"This is your bride," said the queen. "She has been enchanted to look like a cat, but it is more than looks by which a good husband knows his true wife." The queen turned to the cat and spoke to her as if to a woman. "You have been wronged by my son, who has cast you from him, and who does not know you now. But if you will forgive him then I would be glad to welcome you back to this hearth." The cat twined herself about the legs of the queen, then she climbed onto the prince's lap. The prince stroked the cat that looked like the enchantress he hated, and as soon as the cat began to purr, he recognised the music in her voice as the music of his minstrel bride. He said her name out loud in recognition, and by naming her he broke the enchantress's spell. At once the prince found his true bride sitting on his lap, in her own true form.

Outside in the cess pit a cat yowled as she struggled to swim out of the liquid filth in which she was mired. But none came to her aid, for none heard her cries over the shouts of joy and celebration that rang through the castle for the return of the prince's minstrel bride.


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