Telling Tales 126
It’s Not Stealing If You Give It Back
“You were expecting someone else?” said the cat from where it lay on his chest.
The soldier was so relieved to have awoken and discovered that he was no longer the old, dying man from his dream, that for a moment he failed to grant much import to the fact that there was a large, talking cat squeezing the meager air from his lungs. It was only when he tried to answer and found that there was even less breath than he was accustomed to having that he became alarmed. He gulped for air, struggled to breath.
The cat did not move.
“Curious,” it said, pushing its head toward his mouth and sniffing in a vaguely offended manner, as if the soldier’s breath smelled worse than normal. It did not elaborate on its observation.
With a surge of effort, the soldier pushed himself over from his back to his side. With a disgruntled mraow, the cat rose to its feet and barrel-walked along with the soldier’s movement, so that when the soldier came to rest, the cat settled back down, now on the soldier’s side. “I was lying there,” it said, implying that the soldier owed it an apology.
For his part, the soldier was simply relieved not to have the weight of the cat on his chest any longer, though it seemed that something still lingered there. He gasped and choked until his breathing settled back into the shallow pants that had become his regular pattern.
“You don’t look as old as you sound,” observed the cat.
“No,” agreed the soldier. “Would you mind getting off of me?”
“Yes,” huffed the cat. “I was here first.”
The soldier wasn’t sure how that made any sense. He made another quarter turn until he lay on his stomach. He pushed himself to his knees , his arms stretched to the ground below him, and the cat stood and balanced on his back. It uttered a low growl. Reaching out to the tree, the soldier drew his body upright. Finally, and with obvious annoyance, the cat leapt to the ground. The soldier struggled his way to his feet. By the time he was fully standing, the cat had settled into a seated position and watched him with interest.
“Are you sure you’re not very old?” it asked him.
“I’ve lost my breath,” said the soldier. “I’m looking for it now.”
“Well, it wasn’t me,” said the cat.
“I never said it was!”
“Some people do,” the cat insisted. It stared at him as though it didn’t believe him. In fairness, though, that was more or less how it had been looking at him this whole time.
For his part, the soldier felt like he was in the middle of an argument that he did not entirely comprehend. “Some people do what, now?”
The cat drew itself up to its full seated height. “Say we kidnap breath. But we don’t. We only borrow it and you’ve barely even enough to bother with.”
“You borrow it.”
“We give it back.”
“When we’re done with it.”
The soldier stopped and thought. “What do you use it for?”
“This and that.”
“You said that I’ve barely enough to bother with. Does that mean you did bother with it?”
The cat looked off to one side. It looked a great deal more like the bobcat and less like a barn cat. Its ears were tufted in points. Fur grew around its face in smooth curves, joining in an angular, beard-like point under its chin. “A bit,” it answered. “But not very much.”