China the Church Cat’s Christmas
by Bill Imbornoni
China is a church cat, which is only to say she belongs to Father Francis and has the run of the rectory, the hall from the rectory to the little church, and the little church itself.
Why the name “China”? A friendly parishioner had given China to Father Frank for company. Father hadn’t felt it right to ask a saint to share her name with a little beasty, so couldn’t find a name to call the cat. While waiting for divine inspiration on this subject, Father Frank would often be heard to say “You’re a fine cat” and “What a fine feline you are.” Fine this and fine that. Hearing Father’s list of fines, a precocious altar boy suggested the cat be called “China,” as in “fine China.” The name stuck.
China was a good cat. She loved her church cat life with Father Frank. She loved Sundays the most. She sensed the way that mass with Father Frank made Sundays seem sunnier for all the people. Father would give a simple sermon full of love and wit. He would loudly lead the congregation in song—his heart hitting those notes his voice could not reach. (In the shower, Father Francis was among the greatest of Irish tenors. Dry he was never quite as good.)
Mrs. Clark played the organ high in the back of the church. China liked to be there when Mrs. C. was piping that organ. When the organist’s feet were not busy working the pedals, China would rub against her legs. China could tell that Sunday was Mrs. Clark’s favorite day, too. The music was Mrs. Clark’s special thing that she could give to God. China saw a feeling in the kind lady’s face, a warm feeling from the inside breaking out, a Sunday glow.
China wished that she could make Sunday special the way Father Frank and Mrs. Clark did. She did what she could. She stayed outside the little church after mass, letting the children stroke her smooth fur, forgiving the naughty ones who would sometimes pull her tail. Still, she wished for more—especially given the time of year. Christmas was coming, and even a cat could tell that Christmas was something very extra special.
It had been a mild December, which was good news for Little Bird. Little Bird was a little bird who had made a big decision: she would skip the flight south this winter. This little bold bird wanted to see what living in a snowy season was like. Little did Little Bird know what was in store for her.
It was two Sundays before Christmas when the weather decided to turn icy cold. Sitting in a crook of a barren tree and beginning to regret her brash decision, Little Bird watched people going through the large doors of what she didn’t know to be the little church. The people looked happy. They must be happy, she thought, because they are going into someplace warm. Chilled past her feathers to the bone, Little Bird decided to fly a loop then do a swoop, then go in for a look.
Little Bird swung in low through the doors, then flew up, up, and up. What a place! There was warmth—and color and sound and something else that Little Bird couldn’t describe (it was the feeling of love all around). She flew ‘round and ‘round the high ceiling, taking it all in, giving the children (and the adults, who were children at heart) such a show. It was as if the circus had come to church.
China was among the first to see the flying bird. The sight momentarily made her stomach rumble, but she decided to put away un-Christian thoughts. When Father Frank marched out to the altar, he, too, took notice of the bird. He welcomed the little bird to his mass and even worked a mention of her into his sermon, saying that he was grateful for the added attraction and wondering what other creature the Lord might provide next week for comment.
Not noticing how noticed she was, Little Bird just flew ‘round and ‘round and ‘round and ‘round, her wings seemingly held up by the prayers that from below were rising toward heaven.
When the people had all left for the day, Father Frank and China walked through the little church together. With the little bird in mind, Father reminded China that she always was given plenty to eat—so no flying snacks, please. China was a little hurt by this almost accusation for a crime not committed, but understood that Father was only trying to protect that little bird. Father asked China to let the bird be; the winged wonder would find a way out of the church and back to the sky.
Little Bird decided to alight in the loft, to watch Mrs. Clark put her sheet music away. Despite her to this point brief stay, Little Bird had made the connection between Mrs. Clark and the music. Little Bird thought of Mrs. Clark as another bird, one apparently unable to fly but able to make music as sweet as any birdsong she had ever heard.
As Mrs. Clark left, Little Bird took notice of the small openings of the organ pipes. She flew up into one and decided immediately that this would be a perfect place for a nest.
Little Bird spent the rest of that day gathering the kinds of bits and pieces a bird uses to build a nest, among them a scrap of paper from the weekly bulletin, the unused tissue of a sniffly parishioner, a few fallen leaves from the altar poinsettias, the lost hanky of a little girl’s doll.
Little Bird packed the pipe until her new nest was in there good and tight.
Her task complete, Little Bird was famished for some food. She flew ‘round the church, not finding much but assorted crumbs left by children who during church had been made to chomp instead of chirp. Looking still the more, she flew up a winding staircase that led to the mostly unchimed church bell. The small bell’s tower was open to the chilly outside air. Here was a way for Little Bird to fly out to forage, then return to her cozy new nest. Upon her return, in celebration, a happy Little Bird flew ‘round and ‘round her newfound home.
China carefully noted each of the Little Bird developments. Though China had successfully fought her instinct to try to make a meal of the little bird, she still indulged her hunter’s eye for detail. She knew just where the nest was. During that week, she occasionally purred a friendly “meow” up toward it. Not knowing a friendly meow from a threatening one, Little Bird decided to keep to herself.
A crisp beautiful Sunday came. As they entered the church, the boys and girls with long memories looked to the ceiling to see if Little Bird was still about. They were disappointed to not see her—though the disappointment would be short-lived. When Mrs. Clark struck some premonitory notes before the opening hymn, Little Bird was startled out of her nest and into flight.
As she played, Mrs. Clark said to herself a silent “oh dear.” It was clear to her as she noodled the keys that she was not hitting one note as she should. She couldn’t know that this was the nest note, that Little Bird’s newly nestled nest was plugging the pipe enough to mildly muffle the sound. No one noticed that note that was not quite, no one but Mrs. Clark. China, who was in the loft with Mrs. C., could see the look of pain and panic on the old woman’s face as she played. China, knowing of the nest and being a more acoustically attuned cat than most, somehow knew that that nest was the source of the problem.
When mass had ended, Mrs. Clark sought out Father Frank and apologized for her poor performance. The Father said it was “not to worry”; he’d not noticed a note out of place and he was sure that no one else had. He would have someone in after the holidays to have a look. Seeing still the upsetment on her face, Father offered Mrs. Clark a spot of tea. China, who had come down from the loft with Mrs. C., was concerned as well, rubbing her softest, most sympathetic rub against Mrs. Clark’s leg. Mrs. Clark was too frazzled to take any tea, too upset thinking of sour notes on Christmas. On Christmas! This most special day was the day she wanted best to play.
Mrs. Clark left church that day with a heavy heart. China knew in her cat heart that something had to be done about that little bird.
But what to do? Christmas was one week away, falling on Sunday that year. China had one week to come up with a plan.
As the week went by, China watched Little Bird, watched everything she did. China didn’t know more about birds than any other cat, but as she watched Little Bird she got the feeling that this was a happy little bird, as happy in this new church life as China was in hers. Little Bird would have told China that herself, if only a bird could talk cat. Yes, that bird sure looked happy in her new home.
New home—that was it! China would build Little Bird a new new home, a new nest somewhere else in the church. She could build a nest, of course she could. If a bird could build a nest, a cat certainly could. (Despite her good intentions, China was after all a cat and couldn’t help but have a bit of an attitude, call it a “cattitude,” where birds were concerned.)
Where to build this nest? The little belltower would be a good place. China had seen the little bird come and go from there. The warmth of the church rose up through that tower and it was close to the outside. A perfect location. On top of that, China could do her nest-building work out of sight of Father Frank and the other weekday worshippers.
Much as Little Bird had done, China gathered materials from the church—more fallen leaves from the altar poinsettias, more paper from discarded bulletins, any this-and-that that the cat could find. The centerpiece of this cat bird nest was a lonely lost mitten that China had found in one of the pews. She knew this would make for a warm cozy nest. (When Little Bird finally would settle into this nest, even she would have had to agree that China had done a pretty good job—for a cat, that is.)
The nest building was hard work. With her cat claws, China was able to climb up the chimneylike tower to the crevice like a ledge where she was working. Once China had even lost her grip and fallen. She saved herself by grabbing onto the bell rope that hung down the tower. No one noticed the small cling-clang of the bell that resulted when China caught onto that rope. China decided that the rope would come in handy—or should I say paw-y—when she put her plan into action.
By Thursday the nest was complete. Little Bird had not noticed China’s efforts at all. She had made it her habit to be wherever China was not, fearful in the way that birds fear ordinary cats. By the next day, China would show herself to be no ordinary cat. For on Friday evening, Christmas-Eve eve, China’s plan would play out.
Friday night’s food was always fish for Father Francis. He’d cook up some fish fillets in a skillet while some favorite music played. The music was important to China’s plan. It would be loud enough, especially if Father Frank was singing along as he often did, that Father would not hear the noise that was going to come.
China always shared Friday dinner with Father Frank ‘cause Father Frank always shared his fish. Father knew there was never a need to call for China on Fridays, on Friday evenings she was a kitchen cat, rubbing against Father’s legs as he cooked, lingering around her bowl waiting for the tasty treat.
As China had hoped that particular Friday, Father did have music playing, a crooner’s holiday tunes to which Father Francis could not help but croon along. China needed Father’s music as cover because she would be making some music of her own in a very short while.
Father scraped first the feline share of the fish into China’s bowl, then onto his plate what remained in the skillet. When Father turned around from placing the skillet into the sink, he was surprised to see that China was gone from the kitchen, and the fish from her bowl as well. Father thought to himself that that was one hungry cat, but besides that thought nothing much of it. He sat to his grace and his meal and his music, pausing for a moment to savor the goodness of it all.
China hurried toward the church with her bait clutched in her mouth, resisting the temptation to bite. She clawed her way up the churchtower, placing the fried fish that she’d taken from her dish into her nest, soon to be Little Bird’s nest.
China now jumped to the rope that hung down the tower, digging in with her paws before beginning to bounce in the air, dangling on the biggest piece of string with which ever a cat had had to play, ringing the biggest dinner bell that ever had been rung for a little bird.
“Ding-dong,” heard the bird. “Ding-dong,” heard the bird. That ringing bell made Little Bird curious, not as curious as a cat, but mighty curious. She decided she would take a short flight up the tower to see what all the racket was about.
China lowered herself down the rope, continuing her bell-ringing bouncing as she did so. She needed to be out of that tower before the little bird arrived. When she was low enough as not to be so high, China jumped off the rope to the floor below, landing on her paws as a cat always will.
Just in the instant China jumped down the tower, Little Bird flew up. Little Bird thought for a second that she’d seen a flying cat, but a flying cat is too frightening a thing for a bird to think about, so she instantly put it out of her mind. Flying up the tower, Little Bird spied the piece of fish in the unknown-to-her nest. What a feast! She flapped above the nest for a moment, wondering how she had never noticed it before. Oh well. Dinner was in the nest, and the nest, with that wooly mitten at its center, looked rather cozy. So Little Bird landed and settled down to eat.
China took a peak up the tower and saw Little Bird pecking away. Her plan was working.
Next came the musical part of China’s plan. As I have said, China was a cat more musical than most: she somehow knew that wind blew out the organ pipes when one pressed the keys of the keyboard. So, China went to the organ, jumped from its bench to the keys, then began to do as she pleased.
It was a dance, it was a prance, it made a wild song. China cha-cha’d back and forth across the keys, making her music in the hope that her paw playing would blow Little Bird’s nest out of the organ pipe. Father Francis, eating the dinner he did not know he was sharing with a bird and singing songs of Christmas as he chewed, never heard China’s song. Little Bird as well did not let herself be distracted from her feast. She was one hungry bird.
China played on, not knowing, though she was hoping, that Little Bird’s little nest was being pushed up the pipe, inching and scrinching its way toward the outside. Like a monkey typing Shakespeare, China did manage to hit some sweet sounding chords in her walk on the musical side. She had to admit to herself that, though she was doing this for a good cause, this musical run was just plain fun.
China continued pussyfooting around on that keyboard until fatefully, finally the nest was blown clear of the pipe and that pipe’s full note came home. It sounded. It sounded like . . like Christmas, clear and pure.
Several blocks away, Mrs. Clark looked up from her hot cup of tea, thinking she heard something, something a little bit in her ears and a little bit in her heart, something that made her feel a little bit less down about going up to church on Sunday to play that organ.
China continued to dance across that keyboard for a bit, dancing a dance of joy. Then with a four-paw flourish she ended her musical career, knowing that her cat caper was a success.
Little Bird was surprised later to see that her home in the pipe had been blown, but so smitten with her new mitten nest was she that she did not nearly mind.
China returned to the kitchen to find Father Francis just as she had left him, eating and singing. China was empty in her belly, but for the good deed that she had done felt filled-up everywhere else. Even Father could see this in China, this twinkle in her eyes, a good sort of cat-that-swallowed-the-canary look about her. Seeing this made Father Frank do something that he had never done before. He got up from the table and cooked another piece of fish for China. He scraped it down into the bowl, then stroked China’s head.
“You’re a fine cat, you are,” he said. “A Merry Christmas to ya.”
Christmas morning came soon enough. Mrs. Clark came to the church, wearing her red holiday dress and not knowing what to expect when she played her first song of the feast.
Father Francis entered the church, walking up the aisle and seeing the joy of young and old, the joy of Christmas—the joy of children who now knew what had been in Santa’s bag and the joy of all who knew that on this day a Savior had been born.
Feeling, too, that joy, Mrs. Clark began to play and—miracle of small miracles—all notes rang true. She beamed as she shared her music with the people and with her God.
Little Bird soared throughout that Christmas service, happy with her new nest, wanting never to leave this place that she had found.
Father Frank’s sermon that day tried to explain the feeling they were all feeling, that feeling that made the heart fly like that little bird above them. Father concluded that the feeling could not be explained, that that did not matter, that it was enough just to feel it.
China, up in the choir loft, shared, too, the feeling of the day, rubbing up against the more-than-happy Mrs. Clark, as soulful a cat as ever there could be.
Father’s final blessing sent the people back to their homes knowing that they had another home, and in it lived a little bird and a fine cat.
Copyright Bill Imbornoni, 2009