Birth Moon reared its head over Black Mountain. It waxed nearly full as pale light spilled down the steep ridges, creeping among the dark forest. Wan light managed to flash in the cat's eyes, like a beacon turning on and off. Fearing discovery, the animal darted into dense, blooming laurel covering the mountainside.
The feline slunk down the slope toward the cabin. It took a shortcut through low, thick brambles, heavy with ripening blackberries, seeking further cover. A rabbit flitted from the tangled thicket, fleeing the cat's ominous presence. The night aged rapidly. Over the eastern ridgetops the moon showed itself much later than in the river valley on the far side. The journey across the ridges to this destination had been uninteresting, but a sense of urgency remained palpable for the animal. No danger would be too great because Master was indomitable, and his will must be done. Nothing deterred it from the appointed hour. The cat felt invincible.
Though summer had not quite arrived, the evening was unseasonably warm. Not even cold light from the nearly full moon seemed to change the night air. The cat paused on the hillside to observe the homestead. Soft loam beneath its padded feet released earthly odors of decomposed leaves and sharp, tangy roots. It sensed the worms tilling the soil and drew strength from the death and decay below. Shaken from its reverie, the feline's ears perked up as the baby's cry arose from the house below; it listened intently, making its way toward the sound.
Because of the hot, humid evening, windows of the small home were left unshuttered. From time-to-time a slight warm breeze rattled the curtains. The cat, ears fully forward now, attended to the mother's soft, youthful voice comforting her babe. As the cat crept ever closer to the window, it focused on the soothing voice. The young one cooed in response before resolving to suckle at the mother's breast.
The cat, placing itself below the window outside, waited patiently for the nighttime feeding to end. When the mother finished, the cat heard her rocking the baby to sleep before putting it in the crib. The mother settled herself into bed and soon began the breathing of deep sleep. The cat pounced upon the window sill to gaze into the humble cabin. The moon offered enough light to survey the room. The baby slumbered in a wooden crib not far from the mother's bedside. The cat dropped silently to the hard-packed dirt floor, creeping to the place where the baby slept. It leapt onto the crib, which began to swing back and forth. The cat moved with the crib's rhythm to maintain silence and balance.
Ahhh, the child wasn't as old as it had assumed. The babe would certainly contain more of The Breath of Adam than Master first perceived. This endeavor would be a glorious undertaking!
The cat lowered its muzzle over the baby's face, its whiskers just an atom's width from touching the downy skin. The baby's tiny chest rose and fell gently. The cat recalled Master's words. Closing its bright green eyes, it began to inhale the milky breath from between the infant's open lips, its fur tingling as the sweetness filled its lungs. The room seemed to glow. The world stood still. The babe made not a sound.
Once satiated, the cat vaulted through the open window, scuttled across the small moonlit clearing, and disappeared into the woodline at the base of the ridge. It would be far, far from here by morning never to endure the grief of the young mother when she awoke to find the innocent babe was no more.
The cat, however, now endured an onslaught upon its senses from a singular awareness of new life within. The night seemed charged with electricity, everything more intense and alive: cries of katydids and crickets pounded in its ears; tree frogs beat a resounding rhythm; a nearby stream thundered between its banks. Focus. It needed focus. The cat stopped to follow an inward path where curious sensations led deep into its core being. The Essence, submerged in its lair, awaited at the center of that journey like a coiled snake. The heightened sensibilities whispered of untold dangers that lay in wait beyond this moment–dangers that lurked in places of darkness and in open spaces where pale moonlight exposed committed sins. With this sudden awareness, the cat regained purpose. Eagerly, it would return to Master. Remaining cautious during the steep ascent, the cat slipped along the edge of the mountaintop. A meadow provided the fastest route along the ridgeline to a spring that became a stream, which then descended into the river valley on the other side. It would be exposed here, but the urgency of Master drove it forward.
In a moment of distraction, the attack occurred. An owl, on silent wings, swooped down to strike, talons raking the cat's ribs. The cat rolled, its sharp claws answering the challenge. They wrestled in the muted tones of moonlight struggling among scrub pines, broom sedge, and burgeoning wildflowers. The cat managed to find the throat of the owl with its teeth and continued to slash with its claws. The nocturnal raptor, exhausted and battered, released its prey and flew high into a locust tree. The cat pulled itself into the nearest undergrowth. Blood seeped from slashes down both sides of its body. It licked its wounds, the metallic taste lingering in the back of its throat. The Breath of Adam and its Essence, would be protected at all costs. These wounds were inconsequential to the greater need. It moved onward.
When the cat discovered the spring, it slaked its thirst and washed the taste of blood from its mouth. The presence of The Essence contained in The Breath of Adam was exhilarating. The wounds, though burning, didn't ache as much as expected. In fact, it seemed healing had begun. The spring fed a small stream on the other side of the ridge, which became a sizable creek by the time it joined the river. The cat followed the water courses to the river where the moon's reflection created silvery diamonds in the current. Arriving at the ford, the cat prepared to cross the river.
A black bear snuffled around a cooling campfire upstream from the shoals. Wisps of smoke drifted from bits of wood and ash smoldering on the bank in a firepit constructed from a ring of river rocks. The bear scavenged bits of fish carcasses and other scraps discarded nearby. The cat, wary, veered toward the shoals hoping the bear would be distracted by the abandoned campsite. The cat stuck one paw into the shallow water. Time was crucial to The Master's bidding. Fear must not gain a foothold. It would struggle through the shallows but would not have to swim. After the cat took a few steps into the river, the bear turned. The cat picked up its pace across the stony shoal, splashing water in its wake. The bear lumbered in pursuit, finally pinning the cat on a sandy area of the shoals just beyond the middle of the river. The cat would not be deterred. Arching its back and hissing, it poured every ounce of its fury and vitriol into the display. The bear paused. Then, reaching out with a large paw, the bear swatted the cat downstream into the swift current. Sputtering and floundering in the water, the cat paid no attention to the growls and posturing of the bear on the sandbar. It fought to keep its head above water. The pain in its ribs was made worse by the sudden intake of air from submersion in the frigid water. Struggling in the river's flow, the cat was pushed into the cutbank and lodged in a fallen hemlock. Using the tree to pull itself free of the water, it shivered on the muddy bank. The bear soon lost all interest in the prey and returned to the easy pickings of the campsite.
The cat made its way along the river bank with trepidation, shaking itself periodically to rid itself of the water in its fur and to conjure warmth. Pain in its ribs diminished after a few moments. The moon, revealing its crucial timeline, continued in its inevitable arc. The journey must soon be completed.
Finding a familiar deer path and following signs it left earlier, the cat adjusted its bearings. It now knew for certain how far it needed to travel to complete this grave task. It traversed the river valley and followed its markings to retrace its steps back to Master. The cat, knowing in its mind that it was hungry, injured, and weary, allowed The Essence within to sustain its body with renewed vitality.
The cat pondered the completion of its mission. Master would be proud. Perhaps he would allow it to move from the corn crib to the cabin, where a warm bed and plenty of food would be part of a daily ritual. It would rub itself against Master's shins as Master sat to read his dull pages by firelight. It desired to stretch in the sun and to waylay birds and mice that encroached upon its territory. Rival cats would envy the change in its station. It looked forward to many beautiful days ahead. This feeling increased its desire for those amazing rewards. For life.
Allowing itself to become preoccupied by many possible futures, the cat wandered, adrift in the present without an anchor. It didn't sense the pack of coyotes until it was too late. The alpha female stood in the middle of the path. The remainder of the pack converged from all sides. The cat fled to the nearest shelter with the coyotes yipping, barking, and howling in pursuit. At times, the coyotes were, literally, on its tail, even nipping fur from it. At one point, a member of the pack grasped the cat by its neck, but infighting among the brood allowed the cat to drop from the coyote's maw and regain freedom.The chase lasted for nearly an hour with the cat struggling through dense honeysuckle, wriggling among wild grapevines, and hiding in stands of river cane for short periods of time as it made its way along the river valley toward home. As a final evasive maneuver, it took to the trees but knew it could not tarry long from the appointed task. It must return to Master.
A rabbit, flushed by a straggler of the pack, distracted the rest away from the cat's roost high in a large sycamore. It listened and waited for the coyotes' cries to diminish in the distance. Climbing down, it knew home and safety was just minutes away. Still, a new type of anxiety took root in its consciousness. These attacks seemed no mere happenstance. Some deeper malevolence had purposely clouded its awareness. Dark forces were afoot to keep the task from completion. So close now. It would not be deterred but must heighten awareness. It paused once again to call upon The Essence to clear its mind and to guard against any further distractions in order to cover the final stretch between here and home.
It finally arrived at the last clearing. Smoke floated from Master's chimney. The moon descended toward the western ridge as the cat made its way to the cabin door and began its plaintive cry. Master appeared at the door, allowing the feline to enter at once into the one-room shack. Compared to the warm summer night, the cabin held a discernible chill. The cat shivered. The fire and bed were inviting.
Master was a thin, unremarkable man with dark, leathery skin, yet his blue eyes shimmered in the firelight. His aged demeanor was reflected in each of his movements, but he held a spritely countenance and a lilt in his voice.
"Ah, my weary traveler! I see you have endured quite the ordeal by the extent of your wounds. I will fix this directly."
Master's bed was pushed into a corner between the wall and the fireplace with an old trunk that seemed to support the foot of the bed. A rocking chair was placed on the other side of the hearth facing the hovel's only window. A table rested against the opposite side of the cabin from the chair and fireplace near the door. On the table the remains of Master's evening meal languished on a tin plate. A small bench provided a place to sit at the table. Shelves and cabinets lined the remaining wall. The cat made its way to the bed near the fire, making itself comfortable upon a tattered and faded quilt while the man rummaged among dried herbs, ginseng, small ivory boxes, and bottles of tinctures on the shelves.
Master lowered a dark wooden box from the top shelf, carrying it to place upon the table. He removed an ancient silk cloth with strange embroidered symbols that seemed to be wrapped around an object. He also withdrew a honey-colored agate affixed to a golden chain. The cat recognized the bauble from before it began the quest to seek the child, but the cloth was something new. Master had let it play with the weird stone on a chain before. It hoped he would again. The man picked up a piece of fatback bacon that had been left on his plate and sat on the bed next to the cat. He tossed the bacon on the quilt and rubbed the cat behind the ears. It grabbed the bacon in its teeth and chewed, greedily.
"My dear kitten. What a service you have done for us! Now, I have a play-pretty for you."
Purring, the cat licked the remaining grease from its mouth. The bacon seemed even more delicious than imagined. Master dangled the agate in front of the cat, which, amused, commenced pawing at it. Master started a pendulum motion with the stone. Beguiled, the cat stopped playing and followed the agate's clockwork movement. Master uttered strange sounds that seemed like words, but the cat had never heard these before. The sounds rose and fell with intonation. The stone swayed in its course. The shiny gold chain, the mesmerizing lines within the agate, and the rhythmic mutterings disguised another object: the sudden silvery flash of a blade in the firelight.
The knife whipped, snake-like, across the cat's larynx. The old man dropped the amulet, grasping the beast in an iron grip with a sudden slight-of-hand. The cat, it's eyes widening in fear, attempted to squirm but discovered it couldn't move no matter how hard it tried. Setting the knife on the bed, the man placed the silk cloth over the gash and began a new chant. The cloth absorbed the miasma of The Breath of Adam from the incision in the cat's throat. The old man's words pealed in rapid succession until he was sure the cloth captured the entire Essence. Satisfied with the transfer, he balled the cloth in his left hand, gripping it tightly in the fist. It would not escape.
He carried the cat's carcass to the door, opened the door, and threw the remains into the darkness. The coyotes soon arrived to claim their prize, hauling the corpse into the blackness of the forest as the moon disappeared behind the topmost western ridge.
After closing the door, the man stared at his clenched left hand. He whispered to himself:
"And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."
He shuffled to his bed. Lying on his back and draping the cloth over his face, he took The Essence into himself with regular, deep inhalations. The Breath of Adam wafted from the cloth and seeped into his lungs, rejuvenating his entire inner being. Soon he fell into a sound, dreamless sleep. He would need this repose and even more Essence for battles yet to come.