by Michael Merriam
"What--what happened?" the little girl asked, staring up at the large orange tomcat.
The cat seemed to smile down at her, looming over her where he sat in a tree. He leaned further over, his large green eyes blinking owlishly at her where she lay on the grass.
"We've struck a deal," the orange tomcat said. "You said, 'I wish I could understand what cats say.' When I asked if you really would give anything, you sighed and said you would a second time." The cat's whiskers twitched in amusement. "So I granted your wish."
Jenny stood. "I can understand you!"
"Yes," agreed the cat. "All it cost was your magic."
Jenny stopped the little dance she had begun. "My magic? What do you mean, my magic?"
"I meant what I said," the cat replied. He groomed a paw, giving it several licks before turning back to her. "You won't miss it.
"But I didn't know."
The orange cat swished his tail. "It doesn't matter if you knew. A deal is a deal."
The cat jumped down from the tree and dashed away.
"Wait!" she cried out. "You can't just take my magic and leave." She chased the cat, but he slipped between some shrubs and was gone.
Jenny sank down onto the grass. "But I didn't even know I had magic," she whispered.
Jenny told her mother the tale of the orange tomcat stealing her magic. Her mother made appropriate noises of sympathy, then shooed Jenny from the room.
Her father had been more useful. He told her to find the cat and trick him into giving her magic back.
After lunch she packed a small bottle of orange juice and a dozen graham crackers in a backpack. Satisfied with her provisions, she went in search of the cat who had tricked her.
As Jenny walked toward the park, she noticed how the day, which had started out with the promise of bright sunshine, seemed grey. The petunias in her mother's flower bed looked tired and droopy. The dank smell of moldy bread filled her nose and refused to budge.
This made Jenny's own mood gloomy as she trudged along the sidewalk. She began to think it was hopeless. After all, how could she expect to find the cat again? He was probably blocks away by now.
"He's probably using my magic to make himself invisible," Jenny muttered.
"Oh, no, we don't need human magic to be invisible. We can do that on our own."
Jenny looked down at a small calico sitting at the end of a walk leading to an old house. The calico swished her tail slowly.
"What?" Jenny said.
"Cats can become invisible at will, it's part of our magic," the calico said.
"How did you know I was talking about another cat?"
"What else is there to talk about?" the calico said. "You are searching for Grimtooth."
"Grimtooth?" Jenny asked.
"The one who tricked you into giving up your magic."
Jenny sat down on the sidewalk. She pulled her juice from the backpack and took a drink. It had a sour, tart taste that surprised her. Jenny scowled at the bottle of juice, then regarded the calico. "Can you tell me where to find him?"
"No, but you should have no trouble if you look properly at the problem."
"The problem is, I've lost my magic," Jenny said.
"And now you want it back," the calico replied, standing and stretching.
"But how to find him?"
"Well, if it were my magic, I would call back what was mine, not look for who took it."
"So I should call for my magic," Jenny agreed. "But it isn't my magic anymore."
"Isn't it?" the calico asked, rubbing against Jenny's leg. "Although he tricked you out of it, it is still your magic, from you."
"So since it's my magic, I can find it?" Jenny seemed to be getting the idea.
The tiny calico purred loudly. "Very good."
Jenny took another sip of juice and pulled out the stale graham crackers. "But to call my magic I'll need my magic!" she exclaimed. "And he took my magic." Jenny's eyes started to water.
The calico climbed into Jenny's lap. "This is no time for tears, kitten. The loss of your magic makes your world seem joyless, but you must use what you have left to find the rest."
Jenny stopped sniffling and ran a small hand down the cat's back. "You mean I still have some magic?"
The calico sighed and curled up in Jenny's lap, purring. "Of course you still have magic. How do you think you can understand the language of cats? To speak to a magical creature, you must use magic." The tiny cat rolled over so Jenny could scratch her stomach. "I suppose I will be in trouble for talking to you directly. We have rules about these things. I'm supposed to talk in riddles."
"Well, thank you," Jenny said.
"You're welcome," the cat replied, climbing from Jenny's lap. "Grimtooth should never have tricked you; you're only a kitten."
Jenny stood and watched the cat walk to the house at the end of the walk and start scratching at the door.
Jenny's mood was improved, and she walked to the park with a lighter step. She found the spot where she had met the orange cat and considered.
If she did find the cat, she needed a way to trick him into giving her magic back. Jenny was worried. Grimtooth was clever. Would she trick him, or would she make matters worse? Jenny decided to consult her father.
"You will need to find the cat's weakness," her father said, "I'd start with either something you know cats dislike or something cats can't resist."
Jenny took this advice to heart. She made a list of all the things cats hated. She checked her fairy tale books and encyclopedia. She made a quick trip outside for one item, then returned to her room and sought out the second thing she wanted. Jenny placed both objects in her closet before running downstairs for dinner.
Jenny lay awake. When she could wait no more, she slipped from bed and crossed her room. She went to the closet and pulled out the items. She opened one of her windows.
Jenny took a handful of fresh catnip and rubbed it along the windowsill. She hoped it would help call Grimtooth to her.
She had read in one of the stories that the number three was magical, and in another that names held power. Combined with her magic, she thought it would enough to call him. She leaned out the window and whispered, "Thief who stole my magic, Grimtooth, Grimtooth, Grimtooth, come to me now."
She watched the darkness for the cat, but all she saw was night and shadows, and all she heard was the rustling of the trees. Jenny started to return to bed, when two glowing eyes appeared on the lawn.
"What do you want?" the cat hissed.
"I want my magic back."
"You gave it up fairly. It is mine now." The cat slunk closer to the window, his nose sniffing the air.
"I didn't give it up; you tricked me. And you didn't even trick me properly. In the stories the victim always has a chance, but I didn't understand what was happening."
Grimtooth glared at her, his nose twitching rapidly. "It doesn't matter if I did it properly or not. Good-night, kitten." The cat turned away, his tail held high.
"I'll call you again. I'll call you until you give me back my magic," Jenny whispered fiercely.
The cat spun around and stalked her direction, tail low to the ground in annoyance. "That would be very foolish, human child. You should not anger me."
"I'm not afraid of you."
Grimtooth settled under the window and bunched his muscles. "You should be. I could sneak into your room as you sleep and draw the breath from your lungs, or claw out your eyes and bite off your tongue." The cat sprang toward her.
Jenny reached for the second item and stepped away from the window.
Grimtooth landed on her windowsill, his back arched and his fur on end. He crouched and hissed.
Jenny raised the water rifle and fired.
The startled cat lost his footing and tumbled gracelessly to the bedroom floor. Jenny ran over and put her back up against the open window. She blasted him again, and Grimtooth dived under her bed. She closed the window, trapping the cat in the room.
Jenny knelt down and peered under her bed. A pair of glowing green eyes regarded her.
"I didn't want to do this, you know," Jenny whispered. "I just want what's mine."
"I shan't give it back to you," Grimtooth hissed. "You would just waste it. You don't even know what you've lost."
"I know ever since you stole it, everything seems dreary and boring. You took my happiness away."
"No, I took your magic. I took your sense of wonder." The cat swished his tail. "May I come out from under the bed?"
"Okay," she said. "I've got the doors and windows closed, so don't even bother trying to get away."
Grimtooth crawled out from under the bed. He jumped up on it and started grooming.
Jenny settled on the bed next to him. "So you took my sense of wonder?"
"Yes. That is human magic. Humans can be amazed at the world around them. Cats cannot. We have a highly developed sense of mystery, and we are more magical than most creatures, but we cannot experience wonder. A sunrise is a sunrise. One mouse tastes much like another."
"It must be terrible to live like that."
"Humans live without it all the time," said Grimtooth. "They allow themselves to believe that things are more important. They pretend to be happy. But they forget what happiness is."
"I won't forget," Jenny protested.
"Oh, but you will. The other humans will tell you it's all childish rubbish until you agree. Then you will be just like them. You'll grow up, have kittens of your own, and spend your days chasing what you think is happiness. Your magic will be wasted. That's why it's best to stop this foolishness and allow me to leave."
"You're not leaving until I have my magic back."
The cat regarded her. "I shall set up a noisy ruckus. Your parents will awake and set me free." Grimtooth jumped up on the windowsill. "Now, be a good kitten, and open the window."
"Very well," Grimtooth said. He took a deep breath, preparing to howl at the top of his lungs.
"If you wake up my parents, I'll tell them you bit my hand," Jenny said quickly. "I'll act sick and make myself throw-up. They'll think you've got rabies."
"You wouldn't," Grimtooth muttered.
She placed her fingernails against her skin and started to squeeze. "I'll do it."
"You're evil," Grimtooth said.
"I'm nine," Jenny countered.
Grimtooth locked his eyes on Jenny's. "Very well."
Jenny started to smile, but a buzzing filled her head and the world went black.
Jenny awoke on the floor of her bedroom. The sun shone through the window, warming her face. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. Grimtooth lay curled up in a ball on her bed, watching her. The cat stood, jumped from the bed, walked across the room, and leapt to the windowsill.
Jenny stood and walked to the window. She pulled it open, and the smell of fresh-cut grass and morning flowers filled her nose. Grimtooth leapt to the ground below. He turned toward her, hissed, and bounded away.
Jenny looked out at the new day and smiled in wonder at its possibilities.