Feathered Hats Don’t Work for Cats
The monster Grendel was good to his word. He had a large rucksack full of food and roughing it supplies, and grabbed the dog blanket when Hansel returned shivering from his pee break. Hansel found himself wishing he could grow a pelt.
They discussed where Linda lived, a small city on the coast. There were many miles of forest and mountain range between them. Grendel sketched out a rough map, showing how they’d have to detour around a few areas that were impassable or dangerous. Hansel didn’t argue.
“Well, let’s get going,” Grendel said, hoisting the rucksack on one brawny shoulder.
The pair walked out the cave entrance looking at the map and took a left on Grendel’s direction. They ran directly into the side of the mountain. “Slight left, I guess,” mumbled Grendel.
The morning was brisk, but trying to keep up with Grendel warmed Hansel up quickly. In fact, Hansel was exhausted after an hour. Trotting along after the much taller monster, his secret beans bouncing in his hoody pocket, Hansel was bored, hot, and annoyed. “Hey, Grendel?” he called. The monster stopped 100 yards further along and turned. “Can we stop for a minute? I’m tired.”
“Oh boy,” Grendel muttered. “This is going to be a long trip.” He probably thought he was muttering under his breath, but his volume was definitely over-the-breath in the still morning.
“Sorry,” Hansel said as he collapsed on a handy log. “I am nine, you know.”
“When I was nine, my mother took me over the bogs to show me the castle where I eventually slaughtered the nobles.”
“Cool.” Hansel didn’t invite more details. He was distracted by the largest, fuzziest caterpillar he’d ever seen. It was orange and brownish black, the length of his forearm, and twitching just slightly at the end he could see. Lying across the log about a foot away, it disappeared on the other side into a bush. Hansel thought it might go on forever, now that he was in Wonderland. He reached out to pet its fuzziness, feeling the soft hairs against his palm like a plush toy. Grendel was rooting some snacks out of the pack, apples and dried meat.
Hansel gently grasped the caterpillar to pick it up and show Grendel. Three things happened. The animal attached to what became blindingly obvious was a tail exploded out of the bush. Hansel screamed and forgot to let go of the tail, causing the animal to take off its jaunty hat and slap Hansel in the face several times. Grendel, having quick monster reflexes, chucked the apple in his hand at the hat-flapping animal full speed. Grendel did not have pinpoint accuracy.
When Hansel came to, his head throbbed and smelled like cider. It was also very sticky, a fact he discovered by putting his hand in the mess. Alarmed, he was relieved to see apple bits on his fingers instead of brains. Looking up from falling off a log, he saw two faces peering down into his.
“I guess you didn’t kill him,” said the small furry face.
“No. I wonder what he’ll think I owe him now, though,” said the big furry face.
“You did paste him a good one with a Granny Smith, that’s good for at least a hand up. He pulled my tail, though, so I don’t think I owe him anything.” The small furry face drew back.
The big furry face, which Hansel could see was Grendel now that his vision was clear, was replaced by his big, clawed hand. “Here, Hansel, let me help you up.”
Hansel allowed the monster to help him back into a sitting position. Standing across from him with his arms folded was a very large ginger tomcat. He had a bandolier across his chest and a gunbelt with a very small pistol showing. He stood erect like a person, hind feet in gaudy red cowboy boots with rhinestones decorating the stitching. He had on the jaunty hat, which Hansel could not see was of the swashbuckling style with a long, bedraggled peacock feather hanging down the left side.
“You’re Puss in Boots!” he blurted. The cat shook his head slightly and then froze, eyes left and riveted on the end of the peacock feather. His rump started to wiggle slightly, then he exploded to the left, knocking his hat off and pouncing on it. As soon as the feather was in his mouth, all the fight went out of him.
“Dammit, I’ve done it again,” he moaned, spitting out the feather and sitting back. He dusted off his hat, keeping his eyes averted, and put it back on his head before addressing Hansel. “I’m not Puss in Boots. I’m Puss Who Shoots, but everyone makes that mistake. See here.” The cat drew his little pistol and fired it at the closest tree, nicking the bark with a tiny puff of dust. “I’m a markscat.”
Hansel was still a little woozy and the shot had been loud, and he wasn’t sure what a markscat would do in the world, but it wasn’t any weirder than Grendel. “Hi Puss, I’m Hansel. Sorry about your tail. I thought you were a caterpillar.”
“No harm done. Why are you out in this part of the woods?” Puss was a straight shooter, it seemed.
Grendel answered. “I’m taking the boy to his Aunt Linda’s.” Hansel thought this was an overly abbreviated version of the story.
“He’s taking me to Aunt Linda’s because he ate my sister after my dad dumped us in the woods because my step-mom told him to.” Grendel was trying to shush him through most of that, but the cat’s whiskers slowly tightened.
“He ate your sister because your step-mom told him to?” the cat said incredulously. Grendel’s hand was over his face now.
“No, he doesn’t know my step-mom. At least, I don’t think he does.”
“He just ate your sister for NO REASON AT ALL?” Puss was aghast now. He turned sharply to the left to address Grendel, caught sight of the peacock feather, and pounced on his own hat again. Hansel and Grendel exchanged a shrug.
“Dammit,” Puss grumbled, putting the hat carefully back on his head and spitting out a few strands of feather. He turned to Grendel and straightened. “Sirrah!” he yelled. “I see that this boy is in dire need of a champion to avenge his sister’s death, and I, Puss Who Shoots, will be that champion! Prepare to die!”