Once upon a time, in the Kingdom of Inglewood Hamlet, there was a very serious young girl who worked very hard at being a witch.
Her name was Cleo and she was very curious. She was often sloppy in her potion work, enthusiastic in her spell work and didn’t have a very good hand on incantations. Her mother said not to worry, that she had lots of time to grow into her powers.
One night shortly before the Winter Solstice, she had woken from a dream. In it, her mother had been trying to feed her rhubarb pie for dinner at the Yule celebration, even though she didn’t like rhubarb. She had kept saying things like “Try it, it’s good for you.” Or: “Promises are made of piecrust. Easily made, easily broken.”
She woke, shaking her head. Her mother was full of all kinds of sayings like that. Her father said that Cleo’s mother should write them all out and publish them in a book, but her mother was too busy leading the local coven. Cleo’s mother was a very wise woman, but she was always busy solving problems. Being one of the coven leaders within the village of Inglewood Hamlet was sometimes difficult work, but her mother found much joy as well. “Life is all about balance, dear heart.” Her mother told her.
As Cleo lay there, the dream still fresh in her head, she began to hear a humming sound.
She looked at her alarm clock. It was tick tock ticking, but it did not hum. She looked up towards the window, where her pet crow was perched looking down at Cleo with interest. The crow was shaking her wings, making a sound that went whip thwip whip, but it did not hum.
Then she saw the shadow that fell across her bed. It was tall and long, and Cleo could make out the movement of a tail. Cleopatra looked at her window her eyes wide with wonder. The curtains had been left open so that the moonlight shone through and she there sat a cat, looking down at her, its green eyes glowing softly.
Cleopatra realized that the sound was not humming but purring. The cat was purring loudly, and the sound was muffled by the pane of glass. Its shadow tail swished back and forth as Cleopatra watched the cat. Its eyes glowed down at her like embers from a fire. The cat had one green eye and one yellow. It was white with black spots as if someone had spilled ink all over him.
When the cat saw that Cleopatra was watching him, he purred louder still. He rubbed his head against the pane of glass frosted with snow and meowed at her.
Cleopatra smiled. She sat up and put her hand against the pane of glass. It was cold against her skin. The Yule lights from the village tinkled in the distance but their light coloured everything a lovely shade of gold.
The cat rubbed its head against the window where her hand was, which made her laugh softly. “I would let you in,” she said. “But Mother doesn’t allow cats in the house. She says she is allergic to their fur. And that her curtains are allergic to cats’ claws.”
The cat stopped purring and meowed in response. Cleopatra had the distinct impression that the cat could understand her. But that was silly, wasn’t it? A cat that could understand people, could it? Cleopatra shook her head and laughed softly again. “You go find some place warm to be,” she told the cat. “It’s going to snow, you know.”
Cleopatra put her head back on her pillow and watched the cat for the few moments before sleep claimed her again. Before she closed her eyes for the final time, Cleopatra looked at the cat and saw him wink at her.
But cats don’t wink at people, do they? She closed her eyes and felt herself drift away to sleep.
Unbeknownst to her, the cat remained on the windowsill for the whole night, watching over her and purring softly.
The next morning at breakfast, Cleopatra’s father was making flapjacks.
Her father was forever fooling around in the kitchen. He cooked food for the people that needed it around town and even had his own small restaurant that he called The Ivy and the Horn. It was a small pub that sat thirty people. It was always full of people who were there not because his wife led one of the coven’s in Inglewood Hamlet but because his food was beyond compare. Many said that his food must be made with magic.
Cleo knew that there was no magic in the food, only heart. Also, he was horribly accident-prone. Cleopatra could see three red burn marks on his hands from the cast iron pan already and he had only made four flapjacks. “Morning.” She said.
Her mother was sitting at the kitchen table reading her a stack of papers. Cleo knew that these papers contained anything from spells to complaints and predictions about the weather. Putting down her papers, she smiled at her daughter. “Morning Cleo dear. Your father’s making flapjacks. I made some blackberry syrup to go with them.”
“That sounds lovely.” Cleo said. She knew that her mother had concocted the syrup as one would mix a spell. She wondered what effect it would cause, whether joyfulness or hilarity? You had to be careful with whatever her mother made. Cleopatra turned to her father. “Did you want any help dad?”
Her father looked over his shoulder at her, pouring some more batter into the pan.
“A frying pan is not a toy Cleo; you’re too young. You might burn yourself.”
“You’ve burnt yourself.” She pointed out. “And besides, I’m nine. That’s pretty old.”
Her father chuckled at her. “Maybe so, but I’ve got it all under control, thanks.”
Except that he didn’t have it under control. He had poured the batter for the flapjacks all over the counter while he had been talking to her. Grumbling, he found a cloth and began to mop up the gluey mess.
“Why don’t you make up your wish list for Father Christmas?” Her mother said. She smiled at her and Cleo felt all warm. Father Christmas! The very thought of him excited her. She got a paper and a pen and began writing a letter to him. Cleo knew that the likelihood of Father Christmas coming to their house was slim, that her parents put out the presents every year. But she pretended anyways. She didn’t want her parents to be disappointed.
There was a scratching noise at the door and Cleo went to answer it. She opened the door and found two cats sitting there, watching her. She recognized the one from last night with white fur and black spots but the second one was new: it had a black body with a white tail and its nose was painted white, like someone had dribbled milk on it’s face.
“What are you doing here?” Cleopatra whispered. She heard her father swear as he burnt himself and her mother chuckle in the kitchen. “I told you I can’t keep you, Mum’s allergic.” She sighed. “Hold on a second.” She went into the kitchen and got out two bowls. She filled them with milk without her parents noticing and brought them to the cats. “Here,” she said. “This should keep your tummy’s happy.”
She took one last look at the cats and closed the door behind her.
That evening, she helped her parents decorate the tree. They always decorated their tree the night before the Winter Solstice. Her mother said that this was to honour old traditions. “The winter solstice was then people used to celebrate the changing of winter and the days that slowly began to lengthen again.”
Cleo nodded, wondering where her father had hidden the presents. She went to sleep wondering what her parents had gotten her this year. Late in the night, she was woken from a dreamless sleep once more by the sound of purring. She opened her eyes and went to her window.
This time there were three cats. There was the black one with white spots and the white one with black spots. The third one was different: this one had honey coloured fur and blazing blue eyes. It licked its mouth with a pink tongue and meowed at her.
“Where do you all come from?” Cleopatra asked them. “Do you need something from me?”
The third cat meowed softly, and Cleopatra heard her parents outside her bedroom door. “Cleo,” her mother called. “Father Christmas knows when you’re not asleep.” Cleo smiled to herself; they must have hidden the presents upstairs this year.
“Dear Father Christmas,” Cleopatra whispered. “If you bring me one thing this Christmas, let it be the cats. I want to give them some place warm.” She paused and thought on what her mother had said about using her magic and the power of wishing. “Father Christmas, I wish for those cats to be warm. I truly do.” She looked over at the window where the cats were still watching her and she let her heart fill up with hope.
Taking one last look at the trio of cats, she closed her eyes and went to sleep.
When Cleopatra awoke in the morning, the sun was coming through her window. She looked to see if her cats were there, but they had gone.
She knew from looking outside that it was still early. She ran down to look at the presents before they woke. There was just something magical about it for her. She relished the quiet of the morning before her parents awoke; she loved going through her stocking, imagining what lay in wait for her.
When she looked at the presents, there was something there that made her gasp: under the green boughs of the tree, she saw thee little kittens. They were nestled in a small wicker basket. A note was pinned to the front with a ribbon: For Cleo, your wish granted.
She looked down at them and knew they were the kittens she had seen: a black one with white spots, a white one with black spots and the honey coloured one. She petted each of them and listened to their little squeaky meows.
These cats were a lot smaller than the ones she had seen outside her window, but she looked at them and knew that they were the same ones. She just knew they were. As they played in front of her, Cleo saw that all three cats had the same markings as the ones she had seen before.
Her parents came down shortly afterwards and were startled to find her playing with the kittens. “Where did those come from?” her mother asked softly.
“I thought you got them for her.” Her father said.
“If you didn’t get them and I didn’t, who left them here, who wrote that note?”
Cleo, petting her new kittens, knew exactly who had given them to her. She had asked Father Christmas to find them some place warm and he had. Her mother had often said that cats are spirits of witches that have passed before. Some say that the cats that run around the neighbourhood are wishes given solid form. Other say that the cats are actually magic that has yet to find a home. Cleo knew both of these thoughts were true.
Cleo also wondered if this was her magic, finally taking form and growing in strength. Looking at the cats, she believed in magic. Maybe, she thought, there was magic left in the world after all. You just have to wish for it.
Or so the story goes…