Giant waves thrashed in the distance, their faraway motions forming a splattering chorus. To those sounds, the swaying of the nearby, elm-treed forest was added, as thin branches helplessly wavered against the roaring wind. The flimsy canopy shook and wobbled, letting go of the few raindrops that it had managed to catch, and now resigned to send falling down to the grass below, mimicking the violent tempest from above.
Those thrown drops fell upon the grass, the trunks and the bushes, but most importantly, upon a clustered group of great-sized rocks. The raindrops' constant landings came in the form of a series of ticks, which kept ticking- like a tickling in the ear- and ticking, each one louder than the one before, and none of them giving a single damn about the tired mother sheltering underneath the water's landing spot.
When she felt a shifting on her belly's white fur, she lowered her muscle and desperately tried to shush her litter back into its slumber, so that she herself could get some rest for once. The storm wasn't helping with that task at all; in fact, all the loudness coming from outside seemed to be calling out to the curled-up kittens. The waves clashing in the distance were like the loud meows from an awakened camp, something which would indicate to the kittens that it was time to get up too. The trembling of the woods was accompanied by the swishing of the leaf barrier that covered the entrance to the cave. Those leaves swooshed just like that when younger cats decided to slither into the cave and take curious looks at the litter, scrutinizing them, and eventually waking them up with loud purrs and coos. Worst of all, the chilling wind was making its way past the flimsy barrier, invading the cave. It rustled the spiked furs of the three sleeping bodies, and the mother sighed when she started to feel those kittens shivering against the coldness.
With all the noise and wind, it's only a matter of time...
It seemed that, for yet another night, the ones from the depths were against the idea of Maggie getting a single chance at sleeping. Days of having to care for the mewling of her litter and having to hunt for her own meals, all while still recovering from her group's long journey to reach the sea- that promised place of rest- and still, she couldn't close her eyes for more than a second without having to do something.
One full night of sleep, that's all I'm asking for.
"Momma?" Mewed the quailing voice of one of the kittens, and Maggie felt a pair of tiny paws nudging at her side. "It's cold... Real cold."
Well, there go my prayers…
Maggie looked down. It was First, the russet tomcat, who had spoken; and more unfortunately, that kitten was the one who always squealed the loudest. The mother lowered her head and pressed her chin against her son's poking head, imploring to herself that weighing him down would be enough to make him fall asleep again.
"Tuck yourself tighter, you'll be warmer," Murmured Maggie, her voice drawling and tardily longing to reach a comfortable position. "There, safe'n sound. Now go to sleep."
"But I'm still cold!" First exclaimed, shaking his head in frustration and bumping against his mother's chin.
Well, I can't control the weather, kit. What do you want me to do about it?
Maggie forced herself to take a deep breath, filling her lungs with air and her head with as much patience as she could possibly get.
Don't raise your voice, Maggie...
"Quiet down, kit," she told her son. "Your brother and sister're still sleepin'."
"Huh?" Came the mumble from Second, the white tomcat that lied beside First, as he shot his green-blue eyes wide open. Fixing his impish gaze on his mother, he rolled on the ground until his head was upside down. "Whattappened? Are we movin' camp again?" He asked with a yawn. "Can't we stay? I really like this 'un-"
"Be quiet, and don'tcha lie on your back like that! You're no dead bird," Maggie interrupted, lifting her head and using her front paws to turn Second around, forcing the tom to settle back on his belly. Then, the mother added "Besides, ain't nobody goin' anywhere, unless you two wanna' sleep out in the cold for all the ruckus you're raisin'. Can't you see that-"
Maggie cut herself off when she saw that, to her dismay, the last sleeping kitten, a tiny mix of white and light-ginger fur, was also stirring.
"Oh, y'all woke up," mutterd the mother under her breath. "Ain't that a kick..."
Third twitched her ears, opened her eyes and looked back at her brothers with curiosity.
"What're those sounds?" Third asked as she craned her head up, towards the stone roof against which the raindrops still racketed.
"Those're squirrels, piggyhead! Can'tcha hear their little paws? They're runnin' right over us!" Second mocked as he stood up and began to stalk around the cave, his tail held high with excitement. "Momma woke us up 'cause we hafta catch them! She's finally lettin' us go huntin'!"
Third sank her head in embarrassment. Seeing this, First pressed his flank against her and yowled in her defence. "She's no piggyhead! She just asked ya' sumpin'!"
"Well, I wouldn't caller that if she weren't lettin' all the prey get away. Come on, move it already!"
Second dropped his hunter act and ran up to his siblings. When reaching Third, he tried with his tiny fangs to pull her tail away from Maggie's side. The mother narrowed her gaze.
Oh no. No way I'm also dealing with them getting sick!
She stretched her neck to reach Second, snatching his scruff with her own jaws, and lifted him swiftly back towards her. When she dropped Second next to his siblings, Maggie sharply curled her tail around him, assuring all the kittens and herself that no one would be prying off from her stern grasp anytime soon.
"There ain't no squirrels up there, kits, it's just the rain fallin' outside," She told them. "Only thing outside right now is a sure way to catcha' cold."
The three looked back at her, a unanimous spark igniting deep within their six eyes. Whether that spark was of confusion or curiosity, Maggie sighed either way.
Here they come…
"That's the rain?" Second asked, ears twitching at the sounds coming from outside. "Since when did it sound like squirrels on the run?"
"D-does the storm make the wind so c-c-cold?" First followed, his teeth chattering. Somehow, his mew was still as boisterous as ever. "C-can't it be a lil' warmer in h-here?
"Momma… If we're inside, why're we wet?" Third also inquired, barely able to shake her fluffed fur while under Maggie's strong grip. "Aren't we safe from the rain?"
Storms sound nothing like squirrels, it's cold because there's no sun, and no, you're not wet, your fur is just damp.
Maggie shook her head, both keeping the unnecessary explanations to herself and shutting away all of those questions at once.
Each answer is only going to lead to more questions. I know that too well.
"Kits', just go to sleep," She told the three, soon before letting out a wide-mouthed yawn of her own. "You can ask all you want tomorrow. Right now, momma's too tired to answer in'thang."
She then rested her chin on her paws to sleep, leaving no room for any attempt at being convinced to do otherwise. The kittens expressed their disappointment in different ways. First shuddered, Second huffed, and Third puled, yet they all buried their heads against their mother's white-furred chest, equally obedient to her orders, and their conjoint breathings gradually slowed down. At once, Maggie's own tiredness sunk her entire body into a relieved rest. She closed her eyes.
She could have sworn that, at the exact second in which her mind drifted into sleep, she heard the sound of thunder cracking the sky and felt the ground tremble, courtesy of an invasive reverberation. In response, all three kittens jolted and let out terrified cries. Their drawn-out, needle-thin claws scraped on the stone ground as they scrambled to their paws and ran around the cave, their panic guiding them in random circles.
For crying out loud...
Grunting, Maggie got back up and hurried straight for the leaf barrier at the cave's entrance. Reaching it, she placed her body sideways to block the way out, so that her litter would not end up running out and waking up the cats that slept on the other improvised dens nearby. She turned to look at First and Second right as the two bumped into each other's faces and tumbled to the stone floor. Third, a few steps away, matched her mother's eye and immediately rushed to her side. With her daughter sticking to her hind legs like a tick, Maggie walked up to her sons.
First opened his eyes wide and scrambled up to his paws. "That was so loud, what'nit?" He yelped.
"The whole ground even trembled!" Second added, also getting himself back on his still-shaking legs. "A whole'nuther kinda' tremble! Like some fat badger fallin' on its belly!"
"Or like a rock crashin' on the ground!"
"Or like a roar from a giant bear!"
"Or like a-"
"Enough, you two!" Maggie growled at the kittens, cutting off their mews before they got any louder. "That sound was from a thunder. It's sumpin' ya' hear a lot when there's a thunderstorm, like tonight's."
Second looked back at her and opened his mouth, but Maggie did not let him ask yet another question.
"Right now, you're somehow bein' louder'n this whole toad-choker. All your screamin' and shoutin' is gonna' wake up the entire camp. Wouldn't be the first time you would've done so, either. Keep at it, and ya'll are gonna' be kicked out as soon as you learn how to hunt!"
She glared at her sons. Both of them shrunk against her stern words.
It's like they both want to end up like their father.
"Is that what you want for yourselves?" Maggie asked them. "To be sent away into the wilderness, where there's so many dangerous and deadly animals, that the rain is the least of your problems?"
Fear flashing in their eyes, both tomcats shakily bowed their heads .
"No, w-we don't," answered First. "Sorry."
"Yeah, we just got surprised," Second was quick to justify. "We'd never heard in'thang like that before."
Maggie sighed. "Well, those thunders will keep comin' all night, so y'all better get used to them from now on. Understood?"
"Yes momma," they muttered.
Maggie let her lashing tail slow down into a single swishing motion, with which she indicated her litter to get closer to her. Paws heavy with tiredness, the mother trudged away from the cave's entrance and dropped down to her leafy nest. First and Second soon followed, but Third hung back. She had remained seated beside the entrance, trying to peer at the outside world through the narrow slits of the leaf barrier.
Not without yawning yet again, Maggie drowsily called out to her daughter.
Third turned her head around, amber eyes seeming to glow in the relative darkness of the cave.
"Them thunders… Don't they feel like the rumbles?" She asked.
"The rumbles?" Maggie repeated, caught off-guard by that random question. But, when she felt the ears of her sons brushing against her fur as they cocked with curiosity, the mother briskly blinked herself out of her incredulity. "Yes, they do sorta' make rumblin' sounds, but they won't be that loud if you ignore 'em."
"No- I didn't mean that," Third answered with a slight jerk of her short tail. "I was sayin' that they sound like the rumbles from Ole Petrisko's stories."
Maggie's ears pricked at that particular name.
"That old tick?" She asked. "What do you know offim?"
"A lot! We know where he comes from! He told us!" Exclaimed the kitten. An unclear source of excitement had elated her mew and lightened her eyes up even further than before.
"And by that, ya' mean?"
Before Third could answer, Second abruptly leapt to his paws, startling Maggie enough for her to lose her grip on the lithe little tomcat.
"Nuttin'! She meant absolutely nuttin'!" He blurted out as he hurried to his sister's side. "She's just makin' stuff up 'cause she's tired. She better go to sleep already, before she says any more nonsense."
"But Wilbur said it was fine to-" Third tried to protest, before Second cut her off with a teeth-gritted Shut it!, all while ushering her back to Maggie's side. Unfortunately for Second, the damage to whatever his secret was had already been done. Third's mention of that second name- that very familiar name- was impossible for Maggie to ignore.
Swaying her tail, she indicated both kittens to get closer. "What did my brother tell y'all?"
"It's really nuttin', I swear!" Second refuted again.
"And how 'bout Ole Petrisko and his… Rumbles, weren't them?"
"Those? Well, uhm… They were…"
Maggie watched as her son struggled to come up with an answer. She was too tired to find it amusing or infuriating, so she just dedicated Second an impatient grumble, beckoning him to speak already. Realizing that he had been backed into a corner, the white tomcat turned to a sleeping First and began to nudge him with his muscle.
"The belly thing was just a joke Wilbur told us about Ole Petrisko, right?" Second mewed to his brother while his eyes kept darting to his expectant mother. "Y'know, since that round belly he has rumbles so much when he eats and all that."
Unfortunately, the entire time Third and Second had been speaking to Maggie, First had been gradually falling asleep. When his brother prod him awake, all that the russet kitten could let out to protect the secret was a loudmouthed yawn and a thoughtless mumble.
"Ole Petrisko's rumbles? Ya' mean… From his story?"
Second's jaw dropped, betrayed by his brother's words. His green-blue eyes flashed in Maggie's direction, and he let out a nervous chuckle.
"Heh- Y'see, momma? They're both tired, they dunno' what they're sayin'."
Despite Second's best efforts, Maggie gave him no signs of being convinced, and so, his tail dropped to the ground in defeat.
"Fine..." He sat down with bad grace, glancing at Third from the corner of his eye. "You can teller."
The little molly seemed not to be bothered at all in breaking the silent pact with her brother. She wasted no time in telling the truth, even sounding like she was about to erupt into eager yelling.
"When you were out of camp, Wilbur let us visit the old-ones' place," she explained to her mother. "Ole Petrisko was there. He told us a story of his home!"
The old-ones' place? Oh, for goodness' sake…
With a stressed sigh, Maggie narrowed her gaze and brought it down upon First and Second.
"Is that true?" She asked the two. They nodded in ascent, which only made Maggie's frustration grow bigger.
We were already on a thin line with everyone else here, Wilbur. Why would you let three loud kittens barge into the place where the grumpy lot who has a say in kicking us out sleep?
"And who exactly told Wilbur that y'all were allowed to go bother them old cats in the first place?"
The toms shared uneasy glances.
"It was… His idea?" Second answered dubiously, to which Maggie snorted, her disapproval so blunt that the kitten lowered his head in self-consciousness.
"We did, momma," First, now fully woken up, confessed. "Wilbur asked us what we wanted to do, and we said you'd let us visit the older cats… I-I'm sorry- But none of us did in'thang bad! We behaved!"
The other kittens nodded in agreement, but Maggie knew there was more to what they had said. She knew her brother better than anyone else. Though he often rellied on others' help, he was not the one to be as gullible as to trust the word of three kittens.
Well, that's unless… That's unless them asking you was enough to convince you.
Her kitten's ploy reminded Maggie of how, during the days that she had been a housepet, she had been grown terribly bored of being stuck in her four-walled home, and thought it a great idea to sneak outside and explore a nearby forest with Wilbur. Although he had warned his sister that going to where they were not allowed to go would not end well for them, it did not take long before he finally resigned and let Maggie guide his steps out of the house. In the forest, Maggie felt free, running up tree and chasing more mice than she had ever seen in her whole life. Even Wilbur joined in the fun, splashing both his sister and himself with puddles of leftover rain and hiding amongst bushes for Maggie to find him. Nightfall eventually approached and the two found their way back home, but when they reached their den, mud and water still dripping from their pelts, their owners had them sleep outside in the cold. The siblings tried to wail their way back inside, but to no avail. Eventually, when their throats grew too dry to mew any longer, they made shelter in a garden bush.
Inside that secluded space, Wilbur had turned to Maggie and fixed his glassy eyes deep on her, as if he could actually see her.
"I sorta' knew this was gonna' happen. Walk-on-two's don't like wild cats, and I'm sure we look just like that to them," he had mewed.
"Well, 'bout time they start seeing what real cats look like," Maggie had answered, as proud of her mud stains as she would have been if they had been scars from a fight with a coyote. "This'll show everyone that we ain't nuttin' like the fat gibs that walk and bath in sunshine 'round these parts!"
"You for sure sound like you belong out there, in the wild." Wilbur purred and nuzzled his sister's cheek. "Even though we'd end up freezin' out 'ere again, I don't think I would mind goin' outside more often. I for once could hear ya' spittin' out sumptin' that ain't a complaint about gibs and whantot."
Maggie still considered those same words to be a sign of why, when the walk-on-two's suddenly left without a trace, Wilbur had decided to go into the wild with her, instead of trying to find a new home.
You wanted to see me happy, even against your better judgement... Seems like softening your will like that was carried on to these three, too.
With that though, her litter's voices and the thunderstorm outside her cave buzzed back to Maggie. She became aware of how her memories had distracted her enough to allow her kittens to slip away from her grasp once again. The three of them were staring outside, like Third had been moments ago, and they were speaking to each other.
"You're both gettin' it wrong," Second was telling his brother and sister. Without warning, he gave his voice an exaggerated intonation, which tried to imitate the hoarse mew that Ole Petrisko was well-known for having. "He said: They were greait rumbles, ones that made all ground tremble like angry roar of big beast!"
First let out an amused mrrew, but Third didn't even sneer.
"Don't make fun offim!" She protested, her paws throwing her brother a blow that never landed. "That's really mean!"
"It's not my fault he sounds so funny!" Second responded as he dodged in-between purrs.
"It's not his fault his voice is different!"
"Oh, is tiny little koshechka angrey at brether?"
Instigated by the use of that strange word, Third jumped to her brother's back, sending both of them tumbling down into a ginger-and-white ball of fur. First yowled, as he too was caught in that flurry's path, and the three kittens ended up rolling on the ground between sqeuals and mewls.
So, I apparently used to be the equivalent of this chaotic mess to you? Fair enough, Wilbur...
Groaning begrudgingly, Maggie got up on her paws, although this time she limited herself to catch the attention of her litter with a loud clearing of her throat.
"Da! She really is angrey!" Second was exclaiming, still imitating Ole Petrisko while also trying to retaliate to Third's strikes. "Angrey like hungry-"
"Hey, drop it already!" First, eyes darting from his mother to his siblings, warned. "You two are gonna' make momma scream attas again."
"But it's not my fault!" Third squealed at Maggie while scrambling away from her brothers. "He was bein' mean."
"And you was bein' a piggyheaded koshechka!" Second responded as he rolled to his back to try and get First off of him. That other tomcat, in a final attempt to end the discussion, jumped off Second's exposed belly with an exaggerated use of his hind-legs' strength. The white kitten let out a loud oof, which made both First and Third giggle, and even Maggie had to make somewhat of an effort to hold back a purr.
If only that could keep them quiet all night-
Before the mother could even finish processing that thought, she felt something light pressing at her chest. She looked down to see that Third was standing on her hind legs and resting her tiny front-paws on her mother.
"Momma, can we tell ya' the story that Ole Petrisko told us?" Pleaded the kitten, eyes wide with excitement. "It's about the green-pelted stoyat's!"
Confused, Maggie backed away, making Third drop to her four legs again.
First stepped forward to explain. "They're really tall animals that have no hair, and they walk on their hind legs all the time."
Oh right, the walk-on-two's...
Maggie nodded in recognition, although not thinking too fondly of the creatures that had kept her trapped in their home and then abandoned her back when she was barely old enough to hunt- for her brother and also for herself.
I know I could've survived well on my own, but a cat like Wilbur… How could anyone just leave him to his luck like those rat-hearts did?
"Can we please tell ya' the story?" Third kept begging, her insistent mew grasping Maggie's attention once again. "It's really short, we promise!"
"This ain't story-time, kit'." To make herself clear, Maggie stubbornly narrowed her eyes against the expectant gaze of her daughter. "You can tell me all 'bout it tomorrow."
"But you'll be out huntin' all day!" Second protested, joining in his sister's pleas. "When you come back, you're gonna' to be too tired for stories!"
"Then tell that story to someone else. How 'bout you tell it to Wilbur? He'll be happy to have sumpin' to keep him busy."
"We tried tellinim, but…"
Third awkwardly trailed off, although Second did not think twice before speaking on her behalf.
"Wilbur didn't get what the story was about. He's blind, he can't even know what a green pelt looks like!"
Maggie's muscles instinctively stiffened, and her mew hardened into a stone-cold utter.
"Watch that mouth, kit'," she warned. "You shouldn't use it to speak of Wilbur like that."
Effectively intimidated, Second shrivelled himself to his haunches. His nervousness spread to his siblings like a sickness, making the kittens press themselves against each other. They formed what looked like a single, fuzzy mass with three pairs of alarmed eyes.
"No- He didn't mean to say it that way," First quickly mewed. "It's just that, when we tried tellin' Wilbur the story, he said he couldn't understand what a green pelt looked like- same for any other color."
"But he still liked the story!" Third added with a yelp. "He sat down with us and listened to it whole. He said he could almost imagine how ev'rthing looked."
That's… That's a strange thing for him to say...
Hearing her litter's apologies, Maggie sighed her defensiveness away, although a feeling of uncertainty still lingered in her mind. Wilbur usually did not like to mention- let alone talk about- his blindness to anyone, except for his sister, and maybe the more veteran cats of the group, since some of them could somewhat relate to his condition.
But now, you tell these three all about it… You've really got that soft of a spot for them?
"Momma, why is Wilbur blind?" Second asked in his innocent curiosity. "His eyes are not injured. Can't he just use 'em to see?"
"It's not that simple," Maggie answered evasively, flicking her tail from one side to the other. "He was born that way."
"Cats can be born blind?!" First half-asked, half-yowled in his astonishment.
"Keep it down!" She hushed, covering the tomcat's mouth with her bushy tail.
Her eyes shot towards the cave's entrance, trying too see past the cover of swishing leaves and catch a glimpse of the fallen log where the old ones and Wilbure were sleeping. To her relief, Maggie did not spot her brother's cream-colored pelt, or the one from any other cat, among the night's shadows. She looked at her kittens again, who had stayed completely silent, making the thunderous storm outside the only sound that could reach the resting camp.
With her litter quieted, Maggie took advantage to tell them "Listen kits', I don't want any of you askin' those sorta' questions to anyone in camp, especially Willbur."
"But why not?" Second protested. "He said that there ain't no harm in us being curious."
"Because you're too young to think before speakin'," explained the mother. Then, one by one, her stern gaze matched each of the kittens' wide-opened eyes. "You could ask all the wrong kinda' things without realizin', and oftentimes, you'd get answers you'd rather not hear."
"Really? Like what?"
Like the kind of questions that your father always asked.
That thought alone was enough for Maggie to feel the pair of light-blue eyes glistening at the back of her mind. His eyes. Those eyes that doubted, that questioned, that always felt the need to dissent. Those light-blue eyes that reminded Maggie that one night where everything fell appart, of that clear stream that flowed near a massive oak tree.
"So, you've got your priorities picked… Reckon' was never one of them, after all."
She shook her head and shuddered, attempting to push the weight of her memory away. She did so too harshly, since the kittens seemed to notice her sudden reaction.
"Are you okay, momma?"
"Yeah…" She replied numbly, without looking down at whoever had spoken. "I'm okay."
There was a long pause.
"So, uhm… What were you sayin' 'bout bad questions?" One of the toms asked tentatively.
At the expectancy of her litter, Maggie let out a regretful sigh. It wasn't the first time she had let her tongue slip when thinking of him.
Eventually, these three are going to catch on and ask something more complicated than what a thunder is…
If only to push that dreaded certainty away, the white-furred mother resigned herself to lie back down on the stone ground.
"Nuttin', forget it…" She dismissed, knowing that, eventually, the question would come up again. She decided to delay the answer, at least for that one night. "Y'know what, kits'? Y'all can tell me that story of yours, but'cha gotta' go to sleep as soon as it's over, ya' hear me?"
"Yeah, we promise!"
In a flash, all three kittens dropped to the ground and tucked themselves back against their mother's curled-up body. Maggie, in turn, firmly tucked her kittens' bodies with her tail, inviting them not to stand up for what she hoped would be the last time that night.
"Alright then, settle down, you three," She told them. "Say... What exactly is so special about Ole Petrisko's story, that y'all absolutely have to tell it to me right now?"
The litter's members shared excited glances with each other. Judging by the way that their tails eagerly swayed from side to side, Maggie was certain that those three lively minds had completely forgotten about what she had said mere moments ago.
Thank the ones from the depths for that one, Maggie. They ain't so hard on you, after all.
"Well," Third began. "He said that it began a long time ago…"