By Enid Kassner
Twas a fine spring day as the Prince ambled through the forest. His mind feasted on thoughts and was active as the songbirds that flitted from branch to branch in search of grubs. Light were his feet, moving automatically over boulders, crunching through last autumn’s leaves, and fording springs a-rush in clear waters. But the weight of his head was heavy, though it be small, for its contents were as gold: shiny and valuable. So absorbed was he in calculating the relative masses of stars, their distance from his planet, and their ability to support solar systems capable of nurturing intelligent life, that he nearly trampled a small cat, resting herself in a tiny patch of sunlight, and placidly licking her paws.
“Pardon me,” said the cat, “I meant not to obstruct your journey, fine Prince. I should have been more careful in choosing a resting place.”
“Well,” replied the Prince, “there is no harm done, and it is good that I, too, stop for a spell, as my head has filled so bountifully with thoughts that I must momentarily rest it upon the earth.”
Brilliant as the Prince was, he realized not that the cat’s words were cunning. For she had, of course, positioned herself precisely where the Prince was sure to tread. “I have a balm for your head,” she said. “It has proven most effective in soothing those such as yourself who carry the weight of superior intellect. Take this small sliver of my heart, and do not mind the blood, for it pains me not to give it,” she assured him.
How primitive and distasteful, thought the Prince. I will not feast on cat’s heart in the forest. But before he knew what happened, she had used a sharp claw and sliced out a small section of heart, still pumping in her open paw, squeezing out tiny scarlet droplets. “Please, do not waste my offering,” she insisted, “for it is freely given.” And, despite his innate repulsion for consuming raw flesh or blood of any animal, the morsel slid easily down his throat. To his great surprise, the Prince found he derived satisfaction from this heart-medicine and, as promised, the weight of his head felt somewhat lighter, yet no less shiny and lofty.
“You should not give so freely and indiscriminately of your heart,” cautioned the Prince, “for you know me not. What if I were to develop a rapacious taste for your sweet heart and feed upon it until I bleed the very life from you?”
“Oh, fear not fine Prince,” purred the cat. “The heart of a cat is small, but it regenerates with surprising speed. The more of it I part with, the fuller it seems always to be.”
What a strange creature, thought the Prince, and instantly fell upon the earth, cushioned by a large patch of thick, soft moss, which the cat had placed at the ready for him. Deep into slumber he fell, and as he slept the cat rubbed her whiskers and the corners of her mouth against the Prince’s lips and nostrils. She used her tongue upon his face and neck and kneaded her paws into his curly locks of silver hair. She smoothed her furry neck along his limbs and slid the sides of her body along his torso.
At length the Prince awoke refreshed, jumping to his feet and bidding the cat farewell. “I must return to my deep thoughts,” said the Prince, “and to my quest for a Princess. For I have a fine castle and require a suitable consort. You may follow me, if you wish,” said the Prince to the cat, “and though I have naught to offer you, I will accept such slices of your fine heart as you choose to offer. Be warned though,” he continued, “you may not meow in my presence, for I do not tolerate discord.”
The cat was happy to comply with the Prince’s conditions, for her heart was badly in need of release. It had been some long years and she had found no mortal to whom she could give her heart-blood. Odd though it may seem, this had made her poor heart shrivel to a hard nut. With the first slice given to the Prince, already she felt more free and fulfilled, more completely cat-like and content.
And so some years unspooled through time and the cat came to depend upon the Prince to relieve the ache in her heart. And though he had forbade her, she did in fact meow from time to time when the Prince ventured too long in thought, ignoring her, or when he fell in love with Princesses for whom he joyously yearned, though they shunned him and would not be his bride.
And when the cat meowed the Prince banished her and she retreated to the barns and the fields, and the forests. “You said your heart-slices were freely given,” the Prince reminded her, “but you must remember that I am a Prince and you are a cat. I cannot love you as I would a Princess, though you seem to expect such from me.”
The cat grew fat and discontent and even when she gave niblets of heart, they had grown bitter on the Prince’s tongue. “I wish a large Tomcat would find you,” said the Prince, “and claim you as his mate. Surely you would be happier and I have no need of you."
Now we all know that cats do not shed tears, for it is not in their nature, but they are known to howl piteously when frustrated. And howl she did. She howled, and shrieked, and showed her claws, and when she retreated to the barn she chewed on her paws and licked at her fur and consumed mice and voles and even ate large rats, though they were tough and gave her indigestion.
A tomcat indeed, thought the female cat. What tomcat could play sweet music as the Prince? What tomcat thought deeply about stars? And, though the Prince seemed almost unaware that he did it, no tomcat had hands that scratched under her chin, and petted the rolls of fat beneath the soft-as-velvet fur of her belly, as the Prince was prone to do. Oh, why do I crave these princely attentions, mused the female cat? Why can I not be content to feed the Prince pieces of my heart and drops of my blood and praise his virtues and accept his instructions for my behavior? Why must I arch my back and raise my fur and render myself a nuisance?
For his part, the Prince had become known in the land and lauded by the people, for through the manly powers of his mind he had secured for them long life with productive vigor. And he made his princedom just and fair, with its riches shared equitably among all, and harmonious, in peaceful cooperation with neighbouring princedoms. Yet he brooded, for he had not won the Princess of his dreams and he wondered if the cat was to blame. Had she placed some feline curse upon him? Had she hissed at the Princesses he wooed, left foul-smelling urine in their shoes, and spat fetid hairballs onto their favorite gowns?
Although the Prince and the cat had come to love each other – each according to their nature and ability – they both had grown weary of their struggles. For it seemed the turbulent changes in their affections cycled like the seasons. As winter sank to its coldest depth, they saw that Valentine’s Day was drawing nigh. “Let us not celebrate as we have in years past,” said the Prince. “Slice not your heart for me,” he continued, “but let us gaze into each other’s eyes and call upon Saint Valentine for a vision.”
And so her green cat eyes with their large glowing pupils joined his blue human ones like polished drops of ocean. And as they gazed the Prince realized that though his heavy head still shone with superior intellect – this alone had failed to bring him the love that all his life he’d sought. Well, the next damsel who doth truly love me shall be mine, he thought – even if she be a commoner of modest fortune and but serviceable mind.
And the cat thought, I shall attach myself to the old Crone cat and learn her ways, for she is wise and helpful to all, content within herself, though her fur be patchy and dull, her paws rough, and her whiskers many. What secrets does the old Crone know, wondered the cat?
Now as it happened, the eyes of Saint Valentine fell upon this oddly matched pair that seemed about to part ways, once and for all. No, no he mused, calling Cupid to his side. “We must help them find their way,” he said. Drawing two tiny arrows from his quiver, Cupid, with one shot, pierced the skin of both the Prince and the cat, and they fell into a trance where all was silent and still.
When they emerged, and we cannot know whether it was seconds or years, the Prince and the cat saw each other with new eyes. The cat indeed loved the Prince and understood his nature. She saw his warts and his virtues, his kindness and his meanness, his tenderness and his woodenness and she loved it all, though it was not as she had at first imagined. And she loved it not for her own need to slice out pieces of her heart and give them away, but as true love is: an open and airy space of atoms and particles circling around and inside each other and existing in all places at once and both needing and not needing each other.
And the Prince saw the cat not with the eyes of his mind but with the eyes of his heart, which had until then been blurred as though by milky cataracts. His brain-logic existed still, but in a different realm from the world of the heart. Why old cat, he thought, I never saw you as I stroked your fur and scratched your chin. How lovely and graceful you are dear cat, and how you’ve doted on me and fed me of your heart and all this time – how is it I did not see that you are me and I am you? Misled by your fur, I did not see that, all along, you were of my atoms and particles, your breath was my breath, your pulse my pulse, your mewling and hissing my own heart’s pain.
In that instant, there was no more Prince and no more cat, no more heart-blood and no more golden brain. There were only two sets of eyes, gazing so deeply inside each other that all they could see was truth. And they saw, of course, that truth was made of love.
Enid Kassner is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University writing program.