WFOL 2024 Challenge
A WINTERFEST TAIL … err … tale*
by JoAnn Baca
He’d never been known as a fast cat. In fact, Chester could be regarded as a bit of chonky slowpoke. But the lure of the forbidden lent an unusual quickness to his feet. For Chester could resist everything but temptation. How else to explain his sudden desire to slip through the sub-basement doorway separating Vincent and Catherine’s brownstone from their Tunnel access point?
The fact that he had emerged unseen and managed to dive into the shadows unnoticed by his beloved Vincent was a bit astounding to Chester, who had expected those large, furred hands to pluck him from the ground and deposit him back inside the house immediately. But as he was still free to explore, he skulked behind a rock outcropping until the humans had led the way toward a larger connecting passageway, then followed at a discreet distance, loping after his housemates between intervals of crouching in dark corners.
This was going to be quite the adventure, he was sure.
They walked a long way, and Chester was feeling the burn in leg muscles unaccustomed to much in the way of exercise other than the occasional climb up the stairs to visit his humans in their bed. Better that they should come down to see him, which they did every day. He had trained his housemates well in that regard. Now dusty paws and overworked legs were making him rethink the impulse to dart through that door.
Just as he was about to make his cherished Vincent aware of his presence…assuming he would then be picked up and carried to their destination…the humans began descending along a rock stairway riven by wind. His multicolored fur alternately ruffled and flattened in the swirling air currents, and he feared that even his sizable bulk would not be enough to keep him from being blown over the edge. But he carried on resolutely, because now he could distinctly detect the aroma of succulent meats.
He descended carefully, staying behind the feet of a crowd standing before massive oak doors. With luck, he managed to dodge exposure, finding a hollow in the rock wall which provided a semi-hidden spot to sidle into as later arrivers filled more stairs. He was quite pleased, even if somewhat surprised, that he had so far avoided detection, although perhaps the relative darkness on the stairs had contributed to his feat.
Finally, his dearest Vincent pushed open those doors, and the gathered humans, with Chester following, jostled and crowded their way inside a massive room filled with tables and music and…most importantly…foodfoodfood.
Chester hastened under a table to avoid the mass of moving feet, finding peace there, and a point from which he could explore. The food was just above him. He salivated, imagining the wonders mere inches from his hiding place…chicken, and turkey, and ham…and other aromas he could not identify but fully intended to seek out.
Patience was not his virtue, but his desire to enjoy a hearty repast without getting caught made him cautious. He got as comfortable as possible on the cold stone floor and watched from beneath the tablecloth, attentive to the passing feet. For a long while they clustered around his table, and he had to be content with snatching bits of food the humans inadvertently dropped close enough to the edge of the tablecloth to allow him to paw them quickly and surreptitiously under the table and into his mouth.
Delicious. Everything was cooked just how he liked it.
Finally, the music kicked up in tone, and the feet around the table departed. He had to take advantage of the momentary lull in gluttony of the humans now, or there might be nothing left for his poor hungry self.
That long walk had given him quite an appetite, after all.
Nose first, he emerged from beneath the tablecloth. There was a bench close by, and he ascended it adroitly. Well, he ascended it. He might have thunked a little heavily onto it, which wasn’t necessarily adroit. But he was a big boy, so…so what?
Ears perked and rotating to pick up any noises indicating discovery, he slowly lifted his head until he was eye level to the tabletop, taking in the scene. Yes! Platters of food…just within reach! Chester extended one massive paw toward a particularly large slice of ham…
Chester found himself unceremoniously swept up and into the spindly arms of a small human. Miffed at losing his chance at the ham, he hung from her grasp as dead weight, hoping his heft would be too much for her. He thought about scrambling out of her arms, but he would have to vacate the premises if he called that much attention to himself. So he could only hope his weight would cause his captor to loosen her grip very soon, freeing him to slip away and try for the food again.
No such luck.
“Where’d you find the kitty, Mandy?” another voice asked, attached to a slightly larger human.
“He was on the bench, just waiting for me, Jamie!”
Chester found himself shaken back and forth while being inexpertly cuddled by the smaller human, the one this Jamie person had called Mandy. He swished his tail in irritation, but Mandy did not notice.
Jamie laid a delicate human paw on his head and began petting him. Well, OK…that he could work with! He began to purr, rubbing his head into the Jamie person’s hand, hoping she would get the hint and take him from the smaller human. He could twist himself out of their grips during the attempted transfer.
It was all going so well. Jamie had said, “Here, let me have him” after noticing the difficulty Mandy was having with holding onto his well-muscled…well, his hefty bulk. Hands were reaching for him…and in a mere moment…between the give and the take… Chester could almost smell freedom! Then…
“Oh, dear,” a familiar human female voice said, followed by a voice in a much lower case that said, “I see Chester has made an uninvited appearance at our Winterfest celebration.”
Chester looked up into the blue eyes of his most cherished human. Drat.
He didn’t try to escape while Vincent relieved the young human of his sizable self. What would be the use? Vincent had proven himself almost cat-like in his ability to navigate quickly around objects, especially when pursuing Chester.
“How did he find us?” Catherine murmured as she and Vincent excused themselves from Jamie and her little friend.
Chester cast a jaundiced gaze in her direction. Humans were not very smart, in his opinion. You open a door and you expect a cat not to go through it?
Hands were reaching out to pet him as Vincent carried him through the assembled crowd of Tunnel family and Helpers. He was enjoying all the cooing over him and the strokes of assorted fingers when suddenly a male human with uncombed blond hair stepped in front of Vincent, frowning mightily.
“Chester can come but not Arthur? Not fair!”
Catherine put a placating hand on Mouse’s shoulder. “Trust us, we did not intend for Chester to come. But he’s such a wily old devil cat…” She glanced at Vincent and amended her description. “I mean, he’s a very nosy and stubbornly determined…” Another glance, another amendment. “Well, he’s just very attached to Vincent, and loves to be wherever Vincent is.”
Mouse was still frowning. “Like Arthur with Mouse.”
Vincent bent his head to hide the smile he couldn’t hold back. A moment later, more composed, he lifted his gaze to Mouse. “He was not invited and will not stay.”
As Vincent moved toward the Great Hall doors, Catherine murmured, “It will take you a while to bring him all the way to the brownstone and come back, and you promised me a waltz.”
He stopped and turned to her. “What do you suggest instead?”
Catherine looked around and then smiled, pointing to an old wooden chest that usually held shawls. It was empty now, as the shawls were piled upon a side table for easy access by those unaccustomed to the coolness of the Great Hall.
“That chest has lots of holes for air. It’s roomy, and we can put a shawl inside so he’s comfortable. He can just sit in there, safely out of trouble, until we’re ready to go home.”
Vincent nodded. “Excellent idea. You get a shawl, I’ll open the chest.”
Soon Chester was in a dark place, literally and figuratively. The aroma of scrumptious food wafted to him and he had no way to access it. He curled up with his unhappy thoughts, feeling utter starvation begin to pinch his poor stomach. Then… suddenly there was light! Well, a sliver of it, as the chest popped open an inch.
“Here’s a bite to take the sting out of your capture,” whispered Catherine, and something plopped down beside him before the chest was closed again. Sniffing the plopped item, Chester began to salivate. Why, it was a morsel of ham! His opinion of his female housemate became somewhat more favorable as he made quick work of her donation.
Starvation was averted, replaced by mere depthless hunger.
A few minutes passed and the chest again opened a crack. His adored Vincent muttered, “Here, you incorrigible soul,” and let a small bite of turkey fall to the bottom of the chest.
Chester was too busy devouring it to notice that darkness had once again descended with the closing of the chest.
He was cleaning his whiskers when, once again, the chest popped open – this time, enough so that he could easily escape. But the human called Mouse had a large bowl of water in the hand that was not holding the chest open, and he laid it gently beside Chester. “Arthur hates being thirsty,” he remarked, and a grateful Chester was lapping at it, escape temporarily forgotten, when suddenly the chest slammed shut.
The Jamie person slipped a bite of chicken to him, and even the small human Mandy snuck him a slice of cheese, and soon he was so full he felt he might not be able to completely enjoy more gifts…although he would strive to, if more were offered.
This was turning out better than he had expected – he was safe from masses of annoying feet that had to be dodged, his tail was not in peril of being trod upon, and there was no necessity to be crafty about snatching tidbits, as they were being delivered regularly. He was in a warm, comfortable place, served like the king he knew himself to be. Really, he was quite proud of himself. His plan had worked perfectly.
Music played, humans laughed, and conversations swirled into and out of his hearing. Chester alternately napped and stretched and groomed himself, and from time to time nibbled on the further offerings deposited into his warm little chamber throughout the evening. He was as content as could be.
When the time came to go back home, the top of the chest yawned wide and the furred hands of his darling Vincent lifted him up and into strong, suede-clad arms.
“He seems a bit heavier than when he went in,” Vincent said to Catherine.
Put out, Chester felt the human should take some responsibility for having contributed to that increased weight.
“I’d better tell the clean-up crew there’s an empty bowl in there…and some crumbs.” At least she had the grace to blush, Chester felt, thinking of the tidbits she had sneaked to him herself.
Chester yawned deeply and settled himself for a ride back to his cozy spot by the fireplace in the house he shared with his humans. He was deeply pleased with the outcome of the evening, especially in the vicinity of his stomach.
Vincent sniffed. “He smells like ham.”
“He would,” Catherine admitted, with a self-effacing smile.
Tilting his head to acknowledge her admission, Vincent confessed, “I’d have thought he’d smell more like turkey.”
Catherine laughed at that, and stopped walking in order to rub Chester’s head vigorously. “You cagey old man, you’re smarter than both of us!”
Eyes closing in ecstasy to receive his due, Chester merely purred.
*Chester first appeared in A Thanksgiving Tail…err…Tale, now on CABB – New Chambers: Tunnel Tales.