Tom said, “Thank you.” He shook his head. “No. Not sarcastic. How do I make it sincere…? I thank you!” He stamped his foot. “To what can I… Keep it simple. How can I thank you…? Too tentative. Mean it. I’m honored…” He hissed in frustration. “This is a one shot deal. Thank YOU. THANK you. THANK YOU… No! No!”
He stopped walking and looked about. The road stretched for miles. Tom Legato couldn’t afford transportation. He walked alone. He was a simple cat. ‘Not a meerkat as some ignoramuses say.’
The occasional carriage rattled by, stirring up dust and making Tom sneeze. ‘If they only knew who they passed beside the road…’ he thought. He called out, “I’m summoned by the king! You’ll respect me then!” He would have shaken his fist at them, if he had one. He moved his paw, as if to scratch the receding carriage. It wasn’t the same.
Living by his wits, he had little to show for his efforts. But that’s not to say he wasn’t smart. Did any cat rest on the fortune he acquired? For most, it is paw to mouth subsistence. Cats don’t hoard. They have little use for savings accounts. ‘Yeah, once upon a time, I had a fortune. But it ran out like a ball of string.’
Called by the king, Tom could not refuse. The letter included an invitation for the banquet planned in his honor.
‘Why me? Esteem? For what? How can I respond to the king? How does anyone?’ Tom felt unworthy of any credit. He’d never accomplished anything. Let alone anything good. ‘I’m a cat, after all. Has any cat received such homage?’
‘Who am I to address him? Let alone to accept such grace.’ Even a discount coupon at Walt’s Fish House, from the king, would have incalculable value. He couldn’t use it. Its worth would surpass the best market catfish. ‘What if he gives me a team of race horses? Or an estate with vast land holdings? Or his princess daughter in marriage? How can I respond and not look a fool? ‘Hey, thanks! Catch you later. Let’s do lunch.’’
Tom shook his head as if awakening from a dream. ‘Get real, Legato! Even if this were a fairy tale, what king offers his daughter in marriage, to a cat?’
He shuddered, ‘It must be a case of mistaken identity. If I had done something… anything of note, I’d understand.’ But he was an empty vessel. ‘How humiliating to visit the court, only for the king to laugh in my face.’ A cat may have only his dignity, but he holds that dear.
But the king called him. Tom had a letter, bearing the king’s signet, his signature and seal. He would present it to the guard at the castle gate. They’d take him seriously. Then everyone would see what happened.
And he couldn’t be late. It won’t do to keep the king waiting. Tom walked. Dawdling wouldn’t hasten the journey.
Tom approached a bridge over the river. ‘If I don’t delay, I can make it by nightfall,’ he thought.
A scream followed by a splash, drew his attention. Jumping atop the wall, he saw a young man floundering. Obviously unable to swim, he bobbed away in the swift current.
Tom scampered downstream and onto a Sycamore branch leaning over the river. Taking a firm grip, Tom lowered himself over the water.
“Hey! You! Grab my tail! Save yourself!”
The youth responded. He lunged and grabbed Tom’s tail before the rapids carried him off.
Pain surged through Tom as the strain almost pulled him loose.
Paw over paw, working his way toward the shore, Tom sunk his claws deep into the bark. Soon the young man felt the sand beneath his feet and released Tom’s tail. He splashed ashore and knelt in the mud to catch his breath.
Tom pulled himself up, made his way to dry land and stood by.
The man saw Tom and let out a huge sigh.
“You saved me! How can I ever thank you?”
“You’d have done the same for me, if you had a tail.” They laughed. “Were the current any stronger, you’d have had mine.”
He stood and bowed. “I’m Oliver. At your service.”
Tom introduced himself and showed Oliver the king’s summons.
Oliver read it carefully. “Wow! The king is entrusting you with the ‘Order of the Felon?’”
“That’s ‘feline,’ dolt! Feline!”
“Right. Of course… Sorry.”
Tom said, “Since you’re wet, and I’m hungry, catch us a snack?”
Oliver nodded but hesitated.
“You about pulled my tail off. Provide sustenance. Or you druthers be bait?”
Tom rolled his eyes. “Make a fire. I’ll see to it.”
Chastened, Oliver prepared a fire.
Soon, Tom returned. “Catfish!”
While they ate, Tom explained his quandary.
“How does one show appreciation for a gift? From a king, no less. It’s unearned favor. Can’t buy it. Can’t earn it. I’m a cat, completely, utterly unworthy. Attempting to pay, by any means, for the recognition, is a fool’s errand. Would I insult the king? But for what will I be recognized? What distinguishes me from any other cat?”
Oliver nodded and wiped his mouth.
“I need to express the obligatory thank you, without sounding obsequious, do you follow?”
“Do you have any salt?”
Tom ignored him. “I must tell the king he’s mistaken. But how does anyone, let alone a cat, correct a king? Kings don’t suffer fools. How will he respond to an impertinent cat? Sounds like a formula for unthinkable punishments.”
“Valet for a mischief of rats, or worse.”
Tom pushed his dinner away and stood.
“We must be on. The sun sinks. Arrive by nightfall, or never. Perhaps you’ll lend me a perch on your shoulder?”
Oliver hoisted Tom up and they left.
The cat continued his musings. “I can see the headlines. ‘Itinerant cat rebuffs king’s praise.’ Already, a non-entity, I’ll become persona non grata. The best known nobody in the kingdom. Other cats would stiffen their tails at me. In no alley in the kingdom, could I twitch my whiskers.”
Oliver chuckled, “Rats would blow raspberries at you.”
Tom refused to acknowledge the thought. “I see no way out of this. How can I respond worthily?”
Oliver said, “Worthily? Meaning…?”
“Desiring worth… Sincerely willing, but lacking that virtue… acting as if…”
“Can one undo his meagre worthiness? Is cultivating unworthiness ever a useful strategy?”
Oliver pointed. The castle loomed in the distance. A flock of sheep grazed on a hillside.
“I see it. Yes. Don’t interrupt. Would the king think me prideful, for contradicting him?”
“I don’t think…”
“For instance, would the gift be forthcoming were I a lion? Or would I then be even less worthy?” Tom laughed. “That’s absurd. How can I be worth less than I am now?”
Oliver said, “A lion might feel merit in his own abilities, whereas you have none.”
“Yes! Over some puffed up lion, the king honors me for my very lack of worth. Lions trip over inflated egos.”
“Ah, I see…”
Tom said, “I have neither ability nor nobility. What a fine loser!” Oliver chuckled. “I am the epitome of unworthiness. I’ve scaled the heights of mediocrity.”
Oliver laughed. “Congratulations! Worthlessness is your virtue!”
“Yes! Hallelujah! Make haste!”
Oliver stopped. A wolf slunk across the road, toward the grazing flock.
Tom said, “I see it.” He jumped down and turned to Oliver. “Try to keep up.” At that, he dashed into the brush.
The wolf ran fast and Oliver fell behind. He entered a clearing and saw the wolf skulking toward a solitary lamb backed into a thicket. Silence followed its plaintive bleat. It cowered as the wolf inched forward, teeth bared. Its muscles tensed, preparing to leap.
The wolf howled in pain. Spinning convulsively, it appeared to chase his tail. Oliver spotted the cat clinging to the wolf’s neck, safe from its snapping jaws. Tom had pounced from a tree branch as the wolf prepared its attack.
Tom dug his claws securely. He held fast against the wolf’s frothing attempts to shake him loose. Finally, whimpering, it sunk to the ground with its paws over its eyes.
He whispered to the wolf, “You’re done here. Leave the lamb. Get packing. Now!”
The wolf groaned in submission. Tom leaped from its back. It ran away howling. The lamb bleated.
Tom called out. “Take the lamb, Oliver. We’re late.”
Oliver slung the lamb over his shoulder. They returned it to the flock. The shepherd ran over. Oliver set the lamb down and it bounded to him.
The shepherd called out, “Thanks guys!”
Tom leaped onto Oliver’s shoulder and they ran to the castle. At the gate, Tom produced the king’s summons for the guard.
“Welcome! We’ve been expecting you, Tom Legato.”
A lady-in-waiting escorted them to the banquet hall. Immense double doors swung open to reveal a lavishly decorated, main ballroom. Tom nudged Oliver and pointed to the buffet displaying every variety of fish.
As they approached, the king stood in greeting. They each bowed to him. An attendant stood by holding a pillow with a medal and ribbon for the king.
As the king placed the ribbon over Tom’s head, he said, “Tom Legato, I hear-by present you with this medallion. I welcome you, an official member of the Royal Order of the Felon… I mean Feline. The Royal Order of the Feline… Sorry.”
The sound of light laughter spread through the gathered throng.
Tom bowed his head. “Majesty, call me anything you please. I’m happy to be here. Thank you.”
The king smiled at Oliver. “I’m told you rescued a royal lamb from the fangs of a vicious wolf.”
He tried to clarify, but Tom snapped him with his tail.
Collecting his thoughts Oliver said, “Your Majesty, I do what I can. Not seeking prizes, but to explore my capabilities. What do we live for, after all, if not to make each other’s life better?”
Even the king applauded that.
The king continued. “I salute your unprecedented bravery, Oliver. At my beautiful daughter, Princess Erin’s request, I offer you her hand in marriage.”
Speechless, Oliver smiled at Princess Erin. She offered her hand and he kissed it.
The orchestra played a lively song and the betrothed danced their first dance. Everyone joined them.
Oliver and Erin soon wed. Tom Legato took and easily filled the role of the King’s Official Cat. He spent happy days dispatching any vermin daring to cross the castle’s threshold.
They all lived happily ever after.