My older brother told me this story when I was nine or ten years old. I don’t remember much about his version except that he relished its violent ending. “The Boy Who Drew Cats” has been my favorite fairy tale ever since. It is, I know now, Japanese in origin—but my brother told the story as if it had happened nearby and not that long ago, and so have I. I think it’s the kind of story that should always be told that way.
One day when Peter was ten he was given a sealed envelope and sent home early from school. As he left, the schoolmaster reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Good bye, and good luck to you,” he said. The schoolmaster had lectured him for a long time, but Peter hadn’t been listening, so it was only then he realized he was being kicked out of school.
He met his father as he returned from the fields where he worked. “I’m supposed to give you this,” Peter said, handing the envelope to his father, who opened the letter and read it in the dim light of dusk before they even went inside.
“You’ve been kicked out of school,” he said. “This says all you do all day long is draw cats.” He turned the envelope over. “There are even cats on the envelope.”
Peter hung his head.
They went inside and his father made dinner. Peter took the letter his father had dropped on the table, reached into his pocket for a stub of pencil he’d stolen from the schoolmaster’s desk, and drew cats on the back of the letter.
“You’ve been warned so many times,” his father said over supper. “Last time they said it was your last chance.”
“I know.” Peter had tried to pay attention in class but it was no use. The teachers were dull, his classmates slow, and the cats wanted so badly to be drawn.
“I don’t know what to do,” his father said, tears welling up in his eyes.
Peter wanted to explain about the cats wanting to be drawn, the itch in his fingers to make them real.
“Tomorrow you can come to the farm with me,” his father said. “Maybe hard work is what you need.”
They woke up early the next morning and set out for the fields. Peter’s father showed him the difference between a green shoot and a weed, then sent him off down the long row of seedlings to pull the weeds.
It was dull work and made his back ache, so Peter took a break at the end of the first row. There was a patch of mud there, and a little tree. Peter broke off a long twig and began to draw in the mud. He drew a cat. The stick was not as good as a pencil, and the mud was not as good as white paper, but he liked the fact that his cat was not constrained by the boundaries of a page. So often he felt like he was shrinking his cats down and putting them in boxes. Now he felt free to make the cat as large as it wanted to be, and free to roam if it came to life. He lost all track of time and circumstances while he worked, and put the final touches on his cat just as the sky turned orange and his father came to get him. It was time to go home.
“The farmer was watching you,” his father said. “All day long, you were idle. He won’t have you back.”
“I understand,” said Peter. He didn’t like the work anyway.
His father didn’t say another word until after dinner.
“Without school or work, there’s nothing for you to do. I will have to send you to the monastery, but I can’t bear the thought of losing you… I already lost your mother.” His father coughed and began to cry. Peter reached out to touch his father’s elbow. He couldn’t think of anything to say, and found his fingernail tracing the faint outline of a cat on his father’s arm.
The monastery was far away, and Peter and his father had to walk all day and all night. When they arrived, his father begged the brothers to take him. “He’s a clever boy and might make something of himself,” his father said. “Please give him a chance. Perhaps a quiet life of reflection and prayer is what he needs.”
The brothers accepted him, and when they found he had a talent with a pen set him to work transcribing sacred books. Peter meant to do well, but when one of the brothers came to check on him he found Peter had barely finished a single verse. The rest of the precious vellum was covered with cats.
“Wasteful boy!” the monk admonished him. Peter said he was sorry, but the harm had been done. The monastery gave him lunch and sent him home.
The journey was too far to walk in a day, but Peter thought he could take a shortcut through the woods. He soon lost his way, and as the sky grew dim he realized he would never get back to the road before dark. He came upon a stone house in the middle of the woods. It was a crude dwelling, with listing walls and no windows. He banged on the door but nobody answered.
A terrible noise sounded from nearby in the woods. Peter tried the door and found it unlocked. He went in, lit a lamp on the table, and looked around. There were bones scattered on the floor. The table was thick with congealed grease. Whoever lived here was a slob, but at least he was safe from whatever howling creatures were outside.
He searched the pantry and found nothing to eat, but Peter had taken some ink and a pen from the monastery—he’d taken it on impulse—and now set about drawing cats on the walls of the mean little house. He worked until the lamp was low on oil and the walls were covered.
There was a terrible noise from outside; the same bestial wailing he’d heard before. The creature was close by. Peter leaped across the room and shut himself in the pantry just as the door swung open.
“Who’s been in my home?” a low voice growled. “I hope he’s still here, because I’m still hungry!”
Peter heard two heavy footsteps coming towards him. There was a screeching, as terrible as anything he had ever heard or imagined, and the sound of tooth and claw on flesh. The same low voice wailed again and again over the slashing and tearing. Peter covered his ears and waited for it to end, but the terrible sounds continued long into the night.
He must have slept, because he awoke still sitting in the pantry, his body stiff and sore. He pushed the pantry door open a crack and peered out. There was fresh blood on the walls. Peter pushed the door all the way open and saw, lying on the floor, the dead body of a savage troll. Its body was ripped to shreds, its fleshed picked off of its bones. Peter picked up the club the troll used to carry, now lying a few feet from its hand.
His cats were on the walls, but not the way he’d drawn them—they seemed to have moved. There was one he’d drawn on the far wall that was now on the wall by the door. Its eye seemed both fierce and knowing.
“Thank you, friends,” he said as he left the stone house.
He found his way out of the woods and returned to the city. When the people saw him with the dead troll’s weapon, he was greeted as a hero, for the troll had terrorized the area for years, and had taken many lives. Peter was given a banquet, and given a bounty of gifts, enough to support himself and his father for many lifetimes. He returned home with his treasures, and spent the rest of his days painting. He became a famous artist, known for his lifelike portrayals of cats.