It was a perfect sunny afternoon for a catnap and the old farm cat lay sleepily in a pile of straw near the barn door. The sun warmed her tabby coat and she stretched and flexed her claws and yawned pinkly. The bees droned in their pursuit of pollen, birds twittered in the trees and lulled the cat called "Mother" into a deep sleep. She dreamed of stalking mice in the dark corners of the barn, and her whiskers twitched and teeth chattered in anticipation - although if the truth be told, her mousing days were long over and her ribs showed from hunger. She curled up more tightly as if to protect the kittens who had been so much a part of her life for over a dozen years. It was her hundred children, and their children, and theirs, that caused her to be called "Mother," and it had been many generations since anyone remembered her given name.
A gentle breeze played against her fur and her slow breathing rasped back and forth in the rhythm of deepest sleep. She never heard the stealthy pawsteps as they approached and she was only awakened when a shadow passed in front of her and blocked the sun. "Mew?!" she awoke with a start, and blinked heavily at the silhouette of a large cat standing before her. She sat up stiffly and squinted into the sun as a small gasp escaped her.
Before her sat the most beautiful cat she had ever seen, with a pelt like burnished gold, stripes of tawny brown, large sapphire colored eyes, and tall ears with tufts. Around her neck she wore a chain of gold from which an amulet hung, and from her brick red nose to the dark wild markings around her tail, she was the image of feline beauty.
Mother was too stunned to speak. The golden cat turned her gaze from Mother and surveyed the surroundings, and then she spoke.
"Blessed cat" called 'Mother', you are old and tired, and I have come to take you home. I have known of you for many years, and of your trials and tribulations. As of today, that will all be forgotten and you will dwell in my temple, where you will want for nothing. My servants will care for you. You will have a couch in the sun, fresh fish, and the love and respect of all."
Mother struggled to find her voice, not quite understanding if this was a dream or not. "And who may I ask are you, and where in the world did you come from?!" Mother finally managed to stutter.
The beautiful cat smiled slyly. "I am Bast and I am from another time and place. I dwell in the Temple of Bubastis near the River Nile - which is rather nice, as temples go - and I am the chosen of Ra, the sun god, the protectress of mothers and children, the goddess of fertility ... and several other things which I don't recall at the moment."
"What would you want with me, and why would I want to leave here?" Mother asked. "This is my home."
Bast looked at the barn door hanging on one hinge, the pile of manure nearby, the junked and rusted vehicles of Man, and she sniffed. "Home? It's not much of a home, is it?"
Mother followed the golden cat's gaze around her world and hung her head. "I know it isn't much to an outsider, but it's all I've ever known."
"Dear cat," Bast said softly. "Leave this place. Your children are mostly gone now, run over on the road, dead from starvation, riddled with disease and suffering, their young stolen by hawks, shaken by dogs, tormented by human boys - and the few who remain healthy are breeding out of control. All of you barely manage to scratch out an existence. The Man and Woman here don't appreciate you. When is the last time they held you, or stroked you, or tended to your wounds, or buried your dead and mourned the loss? They throw you a few crumbs on occasion, but even on the coldest nights you must burrow into the straw for warmth. Come with me to my home, where you can warm your old bones on a hearth, where you will never again know the gnawing of hunger."
Mother blinked and the truth somehow made the world she called home seem barren and dilapidated. She swallowed hard before answering.
"Your Most Beautifulness, I can't deny that what you say is true, but I am needed here. Who will make sure the kittens don't stray into the fields and lose their way, or fall into the stream? What if a rat should appear, or a coyote - who would warn my family? What if the Man should fall ill or die? - maybe the Woman would need comforting."
Bast looked at her and narrowed her eyes to slits. She was more accustomed to commanding than conversing.
"Dearest Mother. You have earned a better place. You have nursed kittens until your breasts ached. You have watched the young you worried over die. The Humans are fools! They are blind to beauty and hardhearted. If they truly loved you, would you sleep here in the straw alone, without so much as a kind word or a caress? Come away with me to my temple of gold and live for all eternity in paradise."
Mother slowly shook her head "no." "I am sorry, Most Gracious Cat, but I cannot. This is my home, such as it is. I forgave the Man and Woman long ago. I belong here to these hills - these are my trees, my stream, my barnyard. My children and their children and their children need me. Please don't think me ungrateful, but I am, in my own way, happy."
Bast swished her tail. Not being obeyed was a new experience for her, but in deference to such honesty and loyalty, foolish though she thought it, she spoke kindly.
"It is clear, Dear Mother, that I cannot change your mind, but neither can I leave without rewarding you in some way. Surely there is something you want for yourself?"
Mother pondered a moment. She'd never had very much, that was true, but she also didn't have much of an idea of what else a cat could have, or would want.
"Well, I suppose I'd like to keep my claws - I've heard some cats have theirs chopped off by Humans and I can't imagine life without my claws."
It was Bast's turn to shake her head. Was there ever a cat less demanding than this one called Mother?
"Keep your claws you shall Mother. But there should be more...let me think. Yes! All tabby cats will wear the mark of my amulet around their necks to commemorate this meeting. Still, that's not much. Let me think some more. "I have it! From now on, all cats, if only so faintly, will wear the mark of "M" on their forehead, in honor of the cat called Mother. Hmmm...that still doesn't seem like much." Bast closed her eyes and twitched her tufted ears. She lashed her tail back and forth in thought, and stamped her paw with impatience.
"I know!" she announced and licked her paw in satisfaction. "From this day forward, even after you leave this earthly 'home' of yours, your spirit will always be present. At the edge of the forest and field, Man will see a brown tabby cat from the corner of his eye. As he rides in his motorcar, he will spy you by the side of the road. As he turns the corner on a dark night in the city, there you will be. Under lamplight, against fence posts, in the alleys, on doorsteps, you will be there as a constant reminder to Man of what he has foolishly ignored - the simple, quiet, loyal and forgiving heart of a brown tabby cat. That, Most Honored Mother, beloved of Bast, will be my gift to you."
With that pronouncement she shook gold dust from her luxurious fur and strode imperiously out of sight. Mother nestled into her straw, and began licking her paws. She hadn't any understanding of what had transpired and wondered if it had been some sort of waking dream. The sun shone, the bees droned, and the birds resumed their twittering. Mother slept soundly away.
The days passed one after the other, and all was as it was before, or so it seemed. It was nearly dusk one day, a short time later, when the Man returned home from the fields. He leaned heavily on the back door frame of the house as he removed his work boots and allowed them to drop with a thud. The Woman was occupied with setting the table for their supper and a fire blazed in the grate.
"I thought you said you found the old mother cat dead yesterday?" he said to his wife.
"I did, indeed," the Woman replied. "I set her out this morning with the trash."
"Odd. I just thought I saw her next to the woodpile as I came in," he said.
"Funny you should say that. I was walking up from the mailbox this morning and I could've sworn I saw her at the edge of the field."
In her temple, in a land and time far away, Bast smiled.