Sunday 25 December 2016

Christmas Day Story: Old Tom

There are many animals in the Bible; camels and donkeys and cows and sheep, locusts and frogs and even rock badgers, whatever they are. There are some dogs, too,  though they don’t usually get a good press.
But there’s one animal which doesn’t get a look in at all, not a single mention, and that is the cat. There’s not a single cat in the Bible, not one, unless you count lions. There are no moggies or mousers, although there must have been plenty around.

Madonna del Gatto. Leonardo da Vinci, British Museum
But that didn’t stop people inserting a few here and there as they retold the stories. By the Middle Ages, there were several legends doing the rounds about cats at the birth of Jesus, and I’m going to tell you a story based on those tales.

This is the story of Old Tom.

Old Tom was a scraggy old cat, with matted fur and raggedy ears from fights he’d been in in the course of his long life. Old Tom didn’t belong to anyone – no cat really does, of course – but Old Tom really didn’t have anywhere to call home, any lap that was his to sit on, any fireside to curl up beside. Once he’d had a mother and brothers and sisters, but that was long, long ago, and anyway, just like him, they’d been homeless alley cats. The people of Bethlehem tolerated Old Tom, because he was a good mouser, but they weren’t so keen when he helped himself to the meat pie they’d left out to cool, or the milk they had collected to drink. Old Tom was used to dodging the boots they threw at him, making a sharp exit when he heard shouting. That’s how he knew what his name was, from the things they shouted. “Who’s taken our supper?” “ Oh – it was that old tom again,” he heard them say to each other.

One cold night in the middle of winter, Old Tom had found himself a quiet place to curl up and sleep, in the corner of a barn, on a warm pile of straw. It was dark in his corner, out of sight. No one would notice him here, which was just the way he liked it.

But he’d no sooner settled down, when the door of the barn creaked open, and in came a man and woman, leading a donkey – Mary and Joseph, they called each other, as they made their way in. Old Tom opened one eye, but stayed quiet. The man and woman didn’t see him as they led the donkey into a stall alongside the ox who usually lived there. He was well hidden, and, besides, they had their minds on other things, because, blow me down, if the woman didn’t lie down on the straw, right there and then, and give birth to a baby!  Old Tom had been born in a barn just like this, but he knew that humans generally had their young in more comfortable surroundings, not out here with the animals.

And no sooner had that baby been born – wailing like a kitten, and laid in the animals’ feeding trough – than a whole lot of other people showed up. The first visitors were strange creatures indeed, shining things, with wings like birds – and my, how they could sing! Old Tom liked a sing-song now and then, when the moon was full and the spirit took him – that was usually another moment when boots starting flying through the air towards him – but no one would have wanted to shut these creatures up. Then came the shepherds. Old Tom was more used to them, but what they were doing here, kneeling in front of the manger? Shouldn’t they be out in the fields, watching their sheep?

It was hours before the little family  – and Old Tom – were left in peace, and he could tell that the woman was very tired, and needed her sleep. The man walked up and down with the child, while she lay down on the straw and slept. The ox nodded off, and so did the donkey. In the end, the child slept and the man laid him down in the manger, and stretched himself out wearily to rest. Old Tom relaxed – now at last he might get the sleep he had been looking forward too. Being a canny cat, though, used to the dangers of the world, and always alert for the possibility of a quick meal, he was never quite off guard and so it was he alone who spotted something moving in the straw on the stable floor.  Was it a mouse? or a rat? But no, it seemed too long a thing for that. And it was green, and smooth. Old Tom knew what he was looking at. It was a snake!

Now , Old Tom didn’t like snakes, not one bit. They weren’t good eating, and if they bit you, it was bad news – Old Tom knew that. The humans didn’t like snakes either. He’d heard them talking about a snake who, right at the beginning of everything had whispered poison into the ears of the first man and woman – not literal poison, the kind that would kill your body, but the lies that can poison your spirit. “God doesn’t love you” “ You can’t trust him” “ look out for number one!” And somehow that had spoilt everything.

Old Tom had heard them saying, too, that one day a child would be born who would show them how to live and set right what had gone wrong back then. They didn’t know who the child would be, but he would be special.

Old Tom thought about those strange visitors who’d shown up when this child was born , and the shepherds who’d left their sheep. Maybe that always happened when a human kitten was born, but somehow he doubted it. What if this child was the one who was going to put right what was wrong?
And what if that snake, slithering closer and closer to the manger, were to bite him and put a stop to that wonderful healing before it had even begun? That couldn’t be? But no one had seen the danger. Everyone was asleep – the ox, the donkey, the man and the woman, the child himself – everyone slept as the snake crept closer and closer to the manger.

Old Tom knew he’d have to do something. He stood up, slowly, slowly, the way cats do when they’re hunting. He lined himself up like cats do, slowly, slowly, so the snake wouldn’t see him. And then….voomph! – off he went, yowling and hissing and screeching straight for the snake which slithered off like greased lightning. The baby woke up and started crying, the ox woke up and started bellowing, the donkey woke up and started heehawing. The man and woman woke up and shouted “Stop, cat!” They couldn’t see the snake; they thought Old Tom had just gone mad, like cats sometimes do. But Old Tom took no notice of them. He just kept charging along after that snake, round the walls, across the floor,  across the backs of the ox and the donkey, in and out of the legs of the manger. “Quick! Grab the baby, Joseph!  before he tips the manger over”. Joseph snatched the baby up just in time as the manger came crashing down. Mary and Joseph were too busy checking that the baby was all right to notice the moment when Old Tom finally cornered the snake under the manger and, with one bite behind its head, killed it.

Tom sat down and looked up at the little family, who were desperately trying to comfort the wailing child while the ox and donkey bellowed away in the background. He waited for their thanks, but Mary just turned to Joseph and said – “that cat has to go!”. And Joseph turned to Old Tom and said “You! Out!” pointing to the stable door. Old Tom was confused. Hadn’t he just saved their child? But Joseph picked him up, marched across the stable, opened the door and slung him out into the darkness of the cold, wet night. Well! If that was going to be all the thanks he got that was the last time he was ever going to help a human! He slunk across to the other side of the road, and sat down under the dripping eaves of the house opposite, in the darkest spot he could find.  He licked himself here and there, so it would look as if he really wasn’t bothered, but inside he was furious and humiliated. He had just wanted to help, and look where it had got him.

Back in the stable, the baby was still crying. Mary couldn’t stop him. Joseph couldn’t stop him, but at least, he thought, he could restore some order. He picked up the manger from where it had crashed down onto the floor, and there, underneath it he saw – the snake. It wasn’t moving, but Joseph prodded it with a stick just to be sure. As he looked more closely he saw that there was one, cat-sized, bite mark just below its head.
“Oh, Mary,” he said. “Look at this snake. The cat must have seen it coming towards our child and killed it! And we’ve just thrown him out into the cold and the wet! “

“Look outside, Joseph” said Mary. “See if you can see him. Bring him back so we can thank him and apologise.”

Joseph went to the stable door and peered out into the darkness, but Old Tom was well hidden. “Puss, puss,” called Joseph, “We’re sorry! Please come back into the warmth.” “Pah!” thought Old Tom, from his damp dark hiding opposite. “They needn’t think they can bring me round with  a bit of ‘puss, puss, pussing…”

“It’s no good Mary, I can’t see him anywhere!”

“Maybe he would come if we gave him some food. Isn’t there some cheese left in our bags?”

Joseph rummaged around a bit and sure enough, there was a little lump of cheese. He broke it up and put the pieces in a line just outside the stable door. “Puss – there’s some cheese here if you want it – just to say thank you and sorry.”

‘Cheese!’ thought Old Tom. “Now, I do like cheese. It can’t do any harm to go over and just have a nibble. He crept back across the road and sniffed at the first piece of cheese. Smelt ok! Tasted ok too. He wolfed it down, and then the next and the next and the next. The last piece of cheese brought him to the open stable door. It looked warm and inviting to him. Surely it couldn’t do any harm if he sat just inside the door.

Mary and Joseph saw him there. Mary was sitting in the straw, jiggling the baby on her shoulder trying to stop him crying. The baby’s cries went right through Old Tom. Suddenly he could remember crying like that when he was a kitten, and just wanting someone to comfort him. He crept closer and closer. Mary stretched out a hand to him and began to smooth his matted fur. She scratched him just behind his ear, where he liked it. “Thank you for saving our son. We’ll never forget it.” she said. “If only you could send him to sleep too!” Tom put first one paw, then the other onto her lap and reached his face up towards the baby’s. The baby, fascinated by this new creature, reached out a pudgy hand and laid it on his head, forgetting to cry as he did so.

Suddenly a strange peace spread through Old Tom, from the tips of his whiskers to the end of his scraggy tail. Old Tom, who had never belonged anywhere, suddenly knew that he belonged here, with this child, to this child. He didn’t need to be wary of him, on guard. To this child, even scraggy alley cats were welcome, trust was restored, love was renewed. He was the special child – Tom knew it.

And deep within Old Tom something started to happen, something that hadn’t happened since he was a kitten. Old Tom started to purr. At first his purr was a bit rusty and hesitant, but soon it filled the stable, and lulled by it the baby dropped off to sleep, and so did his mother and father, and the ox and the donkey in their stall. And the stable was at peace once more, but Old Tom’s peace was the deepest of all.


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