My four year old nephew requested a story while in the bath. I, feeling too unimaginative to make one up that evening, and not wanting to bring a book into a potentially splashy environment, decided to tell one of my favourite tales from childhood from memory.
Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág, was one of my favourite picture books growing up. My sisters and I would recite “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats” as we read, or were read, the feline filled tale.
So I thought I knew the story of Millions of Cats really well. I started the tale with the lonely old couple, who decide to get a cat, and the old man’s journey to find one. And then he stumbles across a whole hoard of cats and kittens everywhere, and just can’t pick the prettiest cat. Each time he selects one he turns around and sees another just as pretty, until eventually he’s chosen all of the hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats. See, it’s really quite a catchy line.
My favourite part was always the journey home over the hills, the old man being followed by his hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats. They stop to eat some grass, and an entire hillside is stripped bare. They stop to drink, and after one sip each, an entire lake is gone. They return to the old man’s wife and she is shocked at just how many cats her husband has brought home with him.
Now at this point in the bathroom retelling of the tale, I forgot the ending. I just couldn’t remember how the old couple chose their little kitten. So I improvised. The old lady realised that they couldn’t possibly keep all of the cats, so she decided to pick the prettiest. And she picked up a lovely cat that was definitely the prettiest of all. But then as she turned around, she caught sight of another pretty cat, and she decided to keep that one too. And then before she got inside the house she saw another cat that was just as pretty, until she, like her husband, gradually selected every single cat. And then they both laughed and laughed, and lived happily ever after with their hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions or cats.
Ok, it’s unrealistic. Those cats would have drank the entire town’s water supply and eaten every hillside bare as far as the eye could see within the week. But it seemed like a nice ending. After my nephew went to bed, probably to dream about hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions of trillions of cats, I had a look at the old picture book, still on a bookshelf at my parents’ house, to find out how the story should have ended. And it’s crazy! They eat each other! The cats, in a fight to decide who is prettiest, eat each other up. Until just one timid kitten, who doesn’t think he’s the prettiest at all, is left alive, and lives with the elderly couple, becoming more beautiful every day.
Now, my story may have been unrealistic, but the real one is just brutal. Don’t get me wrong, I have loved this story for many years, and it’s enchantingly written and beautifully illustrated. But it’s no wonder I blanked that ending from my memory! It’s gruesome enough to give young children nightmares. And reading the book as an adult makes me really question the logic behind that old man’s decision to bring all those cats home with him. If I was his wife I’d have rolled my eyes and slapped my own forehead. “Seriously, Walt? You seriously thought we could feed hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats? On a state pension?” Is what I would have said. And then I’d have questioned whether my beloved old husband still had all his marbles, and whether it was really the best decision to send him on a solo mission to Cat Land. I would also consider calling an animal control agency of some kind to a) investigate the mysterious location that seems to be a breeding point for vain and cannibalistic yet oddly obedient cats, and b) help me clean up the mountain of cat carcases and lake of blood that must have been created in the battle between hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.
Apologies to all Millions of Cats fans who stumble across this blog post. It really is a very charming story, cat feud notwithstanding.