by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Tales from the Guild: Music to Your Ears, September 2014
There is nothing better than a patch of early evening sunlight, especially with the quiet strains of an opera playing on the Red-Haired Woman’s television in the other room. There is nothing worse than watching an uncouth dog, lolling unappreciatively, in the single square of sun left on the kitchen floor, insensible to both the golden warmth and the soft singing in the distance.
Shreddy bristled the gray-striped fur along his back and flexed his claws. The day’s sunlight would soon be gone, and Cooper was wasting it. Sure, Shreddy could have stalked over and swatted Cooper on the nose. The idiot blonde Labradoodle would relinquish the patch of sunlight easily enough, but then he’d be awake. And once Cooper was awake, he would bark. Shreddy wouldn’t be able to hear the opera anyway. If he wanted sunlight, he’d have to hunt it elsewhere.
Shreddy decided to let the Labradoodle sleep in the sunlight that rightfully belonged to a cat by privilege of birth. Instead, Shreddy padded his way to the pet door, jumped through the flap, and planned to spend the tail end of the evening outside. At first, he thought to lie in the garden in his own backyard. Little purple flowers attracted the bumblebees, and it could be strangely pleasant to lie in the dirt, eyes slit shut, listening to the bumblebees buzz. He imagined their buzzing told tiny operas of its own.
Unfortunately, Shreddy found that the other dog who cursed his home — a freckle faced, curly eared spaniel named Susie — wasn’t sleeping like her lover Cooper. She was bouncing around the yard, chasing the bumblebees. Shreddy always hoped she’d catch one, but she never did. He laughed inside at the image he pictured of her yipping and whining over the sting in her mouth that she would royally deserve. Ah well. A cat can’t have everything.
As much as Shreddy enjoyed watching Susie make a canine fool out of herself, he wasn’t in the mood for her antics. He wanted a restful evening, and he wouldn’t find it in a yard graced by the prancing of a hyperactive Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
Swishing his tail impatiently, Shreddy sprang onto the fence top and walked along the border of his yard. He considered sleeping under the red-leafed bush in the next yard over, but a kid in the basement of that house played drums. Badly. Besides, a crazy calico cat lived there, and he’d heard enough of her conspiracy theories to last a long while. So he continued on to the corner of the fence, leapt down into the alley, and trotted along the gravel alley road, keeping out an eye for a quiet looking tree with low enough branches.
None of the trees spoke to Shreddy that evening, so his trot around the block brought him right back to his own home, feeling twice as grumbly as before. Shreddy decided it was time to take his anger out on someone, and Susie was the obvious target. He hatched a plan to wait on the roof until Susie’s yapping about the yard brought her in range, and then he would jump down — an angry feline bomber from above!
Yet, as Shreddy crouched, swishy-tailed against the edge of the roof, an even better target came to his attention: the sound of birdsong entered his flattened ears. High-pitched, twittery, and painfully shrill, the song danced from one octave to the next until Shreddy thought his ears would bleed. Simplistic and repetitive, it was the polar opposite of the Red-Haired Woman’s beloved operas. Shreddy tried to ignore it, but his patience had already been worn thin, and the song sounded very nearby.
Abandoning his vigil at the edge of the roof, Shreddy crept paw-by-paw towards the peak of the roof and the source of the offending song. When he reached the peak, he peered over the top and looked down to see the new satellite dish that his owner, the Red-Haired Woman, had recently installed. Inside the curve of that electronic dish a gray and yellow bird, a Yellow-Throated Warbler, perched proudly on top of a small nest.
The Warbler’s gray feathers blended into the plastic of the satellite dish, but the swoosh of brilliant yellow at its throat stood out as brightly as the sound of its voice.
A grumbly rumble of a growl broke out deep in Shreddy’s chest, and the dancing birdsong came to a sudden halt. Shreddy cursed himself with a hiss. He’d never been a good hunter. And now, thanks to his angry growl, this bird knew exactly where he was hidden.
Tiny, piercing, black eyes stared at Shreddy. The Warbler’s long, pointy beak — now tightly shut — tilted down towards its throat. Shreddy hadn’t known a lot of birds, but he could tell this one was giving him a disapproving look.
“I’ll peck your head if you come any closer,” the little Warbler chirped.
Shreddy sniffed in laughter and lashed his tail in vicious merriment. “Then I’ll claw your voice box out and eat it.”
The Warbler tilted its head to the side and chirped, “If you could do that, you’d have done it by now.”
Shreddy didn’t like having a silly little songbird call his bluff. “All right,” he hissed, “maybe I can’t catch you. But this is my house, and I can make you miserable here. So, go build yourself a nest and make that horrible noise somewhere else.”
The Warbler preened her yellow chest-feathers and fluffed her wings, pretending a casualness that Shreddy knew better than to believe was real. If he pounced on her, she’d be ready. She’d peck him on the head, and he’d look like a fool.
“I suppose you could do that,” the Warbler said. “I didn’t know this was a cat’s house when I built my nest. There are two dogs that frequent the yard, and that usually means no cats. The dogs can’t do anything to me but bark. Do you live with dogs then?”
Shreddy growled again. He didn’t care for verbally sparring with this silver-tongued devil bird. “Never you mind about the dogs.” He might not be able to get rid of Susie and Cooper, but he could certainly scare away this little stray bird. She didn’t live under the Red-Haired Woman’s protection.
To press his point, Shreddy crept over the peak of the roof, bringing himself almost a tail’s length closer to the satellite dish and the Warbler’s little nest. At that distance, he heard a ghostly echo of the Red-Haired Woman’s opera in the electric buzz of the satellite dish. This was the perfect spot for his nap. He had to have it.
The Warbler tittered nervously and then whistled, “Look! I would move to another place and build a new nest, but I’ve already laid an egg here.” The Warbler puffed up her chest proudly and shimmied back far enough on the nest for Shreddy to see the silver sheen of a large, oblong egg. “Who will take care of my little baby bird when it hatches?” the Warbler keened piteously.
Shreddy thought about that and realized he had a very simple answer. “I can do that,” he said, changing his voice from the grumbly hiss he had been using to a lovely me-yowl. He straightened himself out, raising his ears and shoulders, until he sat in what he imagined to be a relaxed yet responsible looking pose.
“You?” the Warbler chirped skeptically, tilting her head to the side again.
“Yes,” Shreddy affirmed. “I’d love to be a father.”
“A father?” the Warbler chirped, incredulously. She twisted her head so far to the side, it almost turned upside down.
“Indeed,” Shreddy intoned in a conversational meow. “House pets can’t have children, unless their masters let them.” Shreddy thought briefly of the dark, horrible days when the Red-Haired Woman used to breed Susie and Cooper for stupid, curly-haired puppies. Shreddy shuddered. “There could be nothing better than to have a tiny baby to care for.” He hoped the Warbler couldn’t hear the undercurrent of distaste in his voice. He tried to cover it by remembering that he, of course, would not care for the baby that hatched from this egg. No, he would eat it! And it would probably be very tasty. Young and fresh. Perfectly tender.
“Indeed,” the Warbler chirped, echoing Shreddy’s choice of words. She had raised several nests’ worth of eggs before, and, although she always felt obligated to stay and care for the hatchlings to the best of her ability, she had to admit the appeal of being offered the chance to fly the coop. “Well…” she trilled.
“You can always come back and check on the little fledgling,” Shreddy said, chuckling to himself on the inside about the pile of bones she’d find on the abandoned eggshell when she came.
Then, Shreddy thought of the final detail that pushed him over from conniving cat to caring surrogate father in the Warbler’s eyes: “In fact,” he meowed, “you’ll have to come back, because someone will need to teach the little fledgling how to fly.”
The Warbler’s tiny heart glowed warmly in her yellow feathered breast. She’d lost her mate recently and had been looking forward grimly to the necessity of having to face the duties of raising this particular fledgling alone. A daunting task, especially coupled with the troubled reservations she felt about this unusual, singular, clutch of eggs. So large. So silver.
The interest that the tabby cat before her showed in the well-being of her own un-hatched child won her over completely. “All right,” she whistled. “You can raise the hatchling, but I’ll be back when it reaches the age of fledgling.”
Shreddy smiled with his eyes and refrained from licking his chops.
“You’ll have to sit on the nest to keep the egg warm,” the Warbler chirped, climbing off of the egg herself. She hopped out of the nest and perched on the edge of the satellite dish. “Then, once the egg hatches, of course, you’ll have to fetch our baby insects to eat.”
Shreddy nodded solemnly, slinking closer to the nest.
“The hatchling will prefer its insects pre-chewed,” the Warbler admonished. “You can do that, right?”
“Of course!” Shreddy meowed. “Chewing on insects is a small price to pay for fatherhood.”
“Well, that’s true,” the Warbler replied, thinking about how much more freedom she’d have to fetch insects for herself to eat now.
If the Warbler still had reservations in her motherly heart, they were waylaid — although not entirely laid to rest — by the sudden, startling surge of electricity that she felt in the air. Her feathers fluffed, and she felt horribly relieved that she’d be away from the smell of ozone and the slightly audible buzz soon. She promised herself that she’d never make a nest in one of these strange, electronic dishes again. They were simply too disconcerting. She only hoped that all these electric surges hadn’t harmed her egg. She was almost certain they were why it had come out all shiny and silver.
The Warbler took to wing and flew away, hoping that the handsome tabby cat crawling into her abandoned nest behind her would take good care of her egg while she was gone.
Shreddy’s first move in possession of his very own bird’s nest was to take an extremely satisfying cat nap. The nest proved surprisingly comfortable, built more from stolen strands of hair and blades of grass than from any prickly twigs. Yes, Shreddy realized, he would enjoy keeping this tasty morsel warm until it hatched. It would be no problem escaping the drudgery of life with Cooper and Susie to take his daily catnaps in this cozy nest far removed from the stress of the ground-level world.
Shreddy purred and, for a moment, he imagined that he felt a soft answering rumble from the silver egg, smoothly nestled against his fur. But it was only the buzz of electricity and the faint sound of opera in the air.
Days passed, and the buffoonish dogs began to notice Shreddy’s disappearances. Cooper didn’t seem to care; he was too busy searching the house for socks to eat. Susie, however, was curious, but her yapping inquiries were met only with the mysterious half-smile of a cat with a secret. A cat who soon hoped to have feathers in his mouth.
On the day that Shreddy finally felt the silver egg twitch beneath him, the sun was hot on his back. He was warm and content; it was almost an irritation to be interrupted by an ill-timed snack. Yet, Shreddy’s belly growled and his mouth watered as he watched the cracks spread over the surface of the silver egg shell. Such a large egg would yield a satisfying meal, and Shreddy looked forward to crunching on the bones when all the meat was gone.
The sharp point of a black beak poked out, knocking a hole in the shell. Bright eyes stared through the hole at Shreddy. Then the hole grew, widening the cracks and splitting the egg down the middle. The creature inside stretched: a tangled mass of wet feathers, squirming to find its way out of the egg.
Shreddy narrowed his eyes. Something was wrong. In addition to talons and wings, this bird had paws. In place of tail feathers, it had a long, thin, twitching tail. The gray-striped feathers on its head and shoulders gave way to gray-striped fur. And the bright eyes — they were slitted emeralds that stared back at Shreddy like the Red-Haired Woman’s mirrors.
Shreddy’s fur fluffed out. He could feel his tail thicken into a brush. “What demon spawn are you?!” he spat. “Half-kitten, half-bird monstrosity!” His back arched, and he raised a paw to strike the hideous hybrid dead. There was no room for griffins in his world.
Then the pointed black beak opened, and a mewling call escaped the creature’s throat. Its voice was more kitten than bird. That stayed Shreddy’s paw and saved the creature’s life.
Shreddy backed away from the nest, pressing his body low to the surface of the roof. He crept backwards to the bricks of the chimney, and hid behind its corner. Safely protected, Shreddy watched the baby griffin thrash and flail, finding its way out of the egg. It took a while for the griffin to figure out that its feet went down; the head went up; and the wings stretched and flapped uselessly. All the while, it kept crying, mewing for a mother.
Shreddy flattened his ears, hoping to block the sound of the kitten’s voice — the bird’s voice. If he could see it as a bird, he could eat it.
If he could see it as a monster, he could abandon it.
It had the same vivid yellow swoosh of feathers under its throat as the Yellow-Throated Warbler who’d laid it, but it had Shreddy’s stripes.
Shreddy yowled in anger, frustration, and distress. He didn’t want this burden. He wanted a snack. But when his mouth filled with feathers, he didn’t work his jaw with the vise-like grip of a mortal blow. He didn’t crush the mewling baby’s neck between his teeth. He lifted it gently by the feathered scruff of its neck and set out to find Susie.
The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel’s floppy ears shifted slightly forward with interest when she saw the mewling creature in Shreddy’s mouth. Her freckled nose twitched as she smelled it. The she hopped backward, suddenly startled, as if she only now discovered the oddity of the writhing babe: her eyes may have seen it, but it took her nose to believe.
“It’s a cat-bird!” she woofed.
“It’s a griffin,” Shreddy grumbled, spitting the feathery mass out on the ground of the garden. The Red-Haired Woman liked to read fantasy novels, and Shreddy would sometimes read over her shoulder. He knew about griffins and all sorts of things that dogs who couldn’t be bothered with literacy knew nothing about. Somehow, none of his reading had prepared him for this.
He didn’t know how to be a mother, and he didn’t want to.
“I… uh… know how you’ve missed your puppies,” Shreddy said to Susie, doing his best to sound sympathetic and ingratiating. It didn’t suit him. “So, I found you this griffin to raise. It’s like a really, really special puppy.”
Susie tilted her head and narrowed her accepting, brown eyes. She could be so easy to trick at times. But not always. “That is not a puppy,” she said, her voice cold.
“True…” Shreddy acknowledged, thinking quickly of ways to salvage the situation, “it’s better.” Instead, he made it worse.
Susie sniffed and turned away. “Then I’m sure our master can sell it for a good price,” she woofed over her shoulder before scampering off.
Shreddy was left alone with a hungry baby half-breed. There was nothing for it but to start hunting for bugs. Shreddy didn’t relish the idea. He loathed it. But, he couldn’t find enough coldness, even in his curmudgeonly heart, to let the mewling thing starve. There was nothing for it but to begin hunting up bugs.
Shreddy dragged the mewling lump of fur and feathers with him to an abandoned lot in the next block over to begin hunting. That way, he could keep an eye on the griffin, and he wouldn’t have to explain himself to either Susie or Cooper.
Perhaps if Shreddy were more of a hunter, he’d have enjoyed the prowl, wait, pounce of catching flighted insects. But he wasn’t. So, after batting uselessly at a few butterflies while the baby griffin watched and mewled, Shreddy realized he’d need a better strategy. The griffin’s mewling had taken on a hopeless, despairing tone. Shreddy needed to catch some insects soon.
Shreddy found himself relegated to digging up pill bugs and centipedes from the dirt under rocks. Shreddy was hard pressed to think of a job more ill-suited to an intelligent, refined feline like himself. The dirt caked in his claws, and the dust raised by his digging made him sneeze. But at least the bugs were plentiful.
Unfortunately, the baby griffin turned out to be every bit as incompetent as that dratted Yellow-Throated Warbler said it would be. Instead of eating the big, juicy centipede right in front of it, the baby griffin just opened its beak and stared at Shreddy. Utterly useless. Shreddy tried cramming the centipede into that wide-open beak. For a moment, Shreddy thought that would work, then he realized the baby was choking.
Shreddy spent the afternoon grinding up centipedes and pill bugs in his teeth, a truly disgusting job, so that he could cram them into the baby griffin’s seemingly bottomless gullet. When the griffin finally fell asleep, Shreddy’s ears were flat from the humiliation of it all, and he could feel bug legs stuck between his teeth.
Not sure what else to do, Shreddy carried the baby griffin, gently by the nape of its neck, back up to the nest on the roof. Exhausted as well, Shreddy curled up beside the snoring baby half-breed. That small knot of warmth, a mere ball of fur and feathers, pressed against Shreddy’s side. His breathing slowed to match the steady, slow breaths of the griffin’s sleep. It was incredibly soothing. Almost enough to make Shreddy forget his hard day of digging up bugs.
The next few days were a blur of centipede chomping. More than a few times, Shreddy was tempted to trade the icky-crunchy bugs in his mouth for a taste of the tender morsel he was catching them for. Then the griffin would look at him and mew, sounding for all the world like a kitten, and Shreddy’s resolve would fail him again.
Fortunately for Shreddy, Yellow-Throated Warbler chicks fledge quickly. While the half-breed did not grow as quickly as a warbler, it did grow faster than a kitten. Before the end of the week, the baby griffin could eat centipedes all by itself. A few days later, it picked up the skills necessary to catch them itself, as long as Shreddy pointed it toward an appropriately upturned rock.
As the griffin babe grew more independent, it also grew larger. Its feathered body grew too big for Shreddy to carry it up to the rooftop nest before its dexterity allowed it to climb up after him. Shreddy decided they should move to a pile of old, dirty towels that the Red-Haired Woman had thrown into a corner of her garage. That way, the mysterious creature could escape the Red-Haired Woman’s notice.
Unfortunately, not everyone thought that the pile of dirty towels was beneath notice. After only one night nesting there, Shreddy found himself hounded by an irate Cooper.
“Hey Cat!” Cooper woofed when he found Shreddy in the backyard. He held his curly-haired head low in a battle-ready stance. “What were you doing in the garage last night? Your smell is all over my towels!”
Shreddy’s fur fluffed along his back, and he carefully positioned himself to block Cooper’s view of the little griffin, clawing at rocks with its talons behind him. “What?” Shreddy meowed. “Your towels?” Why would Cooper care about a bunch of old towels? His scent wasn’t on them, so he didn’t sleep there.
Cooper growled. Shreddy had rarely seen the buffoonish dog so menacing. Sure, he was an annoyance, but he was usually a good-natured one.
Most of Shreddy’s methods for dealing with Cooper involved being in a high place that Cooper couldn’t reach or hiding behind an object that Cooper didn’t fit behind. From such positions of safety, Shreddy could shout insults and threats with impunity. He had time to work his verbal, intellectual magic on the gullible canine and convince him of half-truths, plausible untruths, and the occasional ridiculously, wildly, made-up story.
(Once Shreddy convinced Cooper that cats were immature humans, and human children were adult dogs — so, eventually, Shreddy would grow up to be just like the Red-Haired Woman while Cooper and Susie would grow into imbecilic toddlers. That one still made Shreddy chuckle. And, occasionally, he could still see Cooper look very confused by the interactions between dogs and children on the Red-Haired Woman’s TV.)
Right now, though, Shreddy couldn’t afford to escape up the nearest tree or into the tight space under the back porch. He had to protect the griffin. And that meant, he had to face Cooper on even ground.
Hissing and spitting, Shreddy puffed himself up and showed his claws. The baby griffin picked that moment to lose interest in the rocks and came peeking out around Shreddy’s paws. “Who?” it chirruped, looking at Cooper and sounding for all the world like a baby owl. Shreddy could not have been more embarrassed.
“What’s that!?” Cooper barked, his ears standing up as much as floppy ears can. He snuffled his nose closer to Shreddy’s young charge than Shreddy felt comfortable with. Shreddy hissed again, but Cooper had clearly already tuned out his hissing and spitting.
Gathering all his restraint as his heart pounded for the baby griffin’s safety, Shreddy changed tacks. “It’s a very dangerous monster,” Shreddy said.
Cooper’s eyes widened and his nostrils flared in alarm. “I’m not afraid!” he woofed. “I’ll kill it to protect you, Susie, and our master!”
“No!!!” Shreddy meowled, cowering away from Cooper while keeping his body over his tiny ward. “It’s poisonous… to dogs! You have to leave it to me.”
Cooper tilted his head, skeptically. “Poisonous to dogs but not to cats?”
“Yes,” Shreddy said, feeling like he may have gained the upper paw again. “It’s like the opposite of catnip.” One of Shreddy’s most embarrassing memories involved Cooper and Susie watching him get strung out on catnip and chase his own tail like a stupid puppy. So, Cooper knew about catnip. “In fact, it’s a catnip monster. They’re called catnip monsters, because they live in fields of catnip and eat catnip. The pungency of their diet counteracts and masks their usual poison, making them safe for cats. And only cats.”
Cooper’s curly eyebrows raised in surprise. “Woah, it’s really lucky that our master has you here to save us then. You kill it.”
“I was going to…” Shreddy said, looking down at the harmless baby griffin between his paws and realizing that his own story had got away from him. “But I don’t like to be watched.”
Cooper shook his head. “If it’s as dangerous as you say, then I need to make sure you’ve done the job right.”
“Okay…” Shreddy looked up at the treetops, searching for a way to distract Cooper and give himself a chance to escape with the babe. His eyes settled on an old bird-house, hanging in the branches of an oak. A bird family had lived in it, years before, but now it buzzed with the coming and going of bees. “If you won’t leave me to my task, then maybe you can be some help. See that bird house?” If watching Susie try to catch individual bees was amusing, then Cooper trying to catch an entire hive would be that much better. Though, he supposed he wouldn’t have time to stay and watch.
Cooper turned his head, following Shreddy’s gaze. His ears flopped as his head twisted and turned until he finally spotted the bird house. “Yes,” he woofed.
“The safest way to destroy a catnip monster is to trap it inside a birdhouse. Bring me that birdhouse.”
Cooper stared at the birdhouse for awhile, then he looked down at Shreddy incredulously. “You’re not making any sense,” he woofed. “And I’m never going to attack that beehive, no matter how many times you ask me to.”
Shreddy had picked the wrong lie. He’d forgotten that he’d tried to trick Cooper into attacking the beehive before. Caring for this little creature was muddling his brain. Shreddy had spent weeks devoted to feeding, caring for, and protecting this baby griffin. He was turning into something he’d never wanted to be. A zombie. Or a parent. If there was a difference. Maybe it was time to move on?
“Well, what do you expect?” Shreddy snapped. “I’ve been hanging out with a catnip monster. You’ve seen me on catnip.”
Cooper moved forward and sniffed the baby griffin. “It doesn’t smell anything like catnip. It smells like my pile of towels.”
Shreddy sighed. “All right, you’ve caught me. It’s not a catnip monster; it’s a towel monster. I stole it from your pile of towels. It spontaneously generated there, and I didn’t want you to know about it. I wanted to keep it for myself.”
Cooper sniffed the griffin again and then looked very proud. “I knew those towels were valuable! That’s why I was saving them.” He shoved his muzzle against the little griffin and gave it a big sloppy, slurpy kiss with his tongue. The griffin purred.
Shreddy didn’t know why he’d tried to protect the griffin from Cooper in the first place. The oaf was harmless. In fact, he’d probably make a tolerable baby-sitter, and Shreddy could clearly use a break. “Look,” Shreddy meowed, “the little guy is hungry and looking for centipedes under rocks. Just follow it around and make sure it doesn’t get hurt, okay?”
“Okay!” Cooper woofed. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to go take a nap.”
Freed of his parental responsibilities for the first time in nearly a month, Shreddy went into the house and curled up on the middle of the Red-Haired Woman’s bed where he slept more soundly than a self-respecting cat should. This was no cat nap. This was the sleep of the dead or, at least, the dead tired. His ears didn’t twist about, listening for threats to his small ward. His tail didn’t twitch, keeping the rhythm of his annoyance. He didn’t dream about the Yellow-Throated Warbler, returning to sing her horrible songs at him and finally take the griffin babe off of his paws. He merely slept.
Shreddy awoke feeling deeply rested. He felt much more his usual self — a cranky, individualistic, tabby cat who wanted nothing to do with a ridiculous half-bird mongrel. If Cooper wanted the little soul-crushing bundle of responsibility, then Cooper could keep it.
For the rest of the day, Shreddy skulked about, enjoying quiet patches of sunlight, watching dust motes dance, and relaxing the way that a cat of a certain age should. When night came and Cooper didn’t join him and Susie on the Red-Haired Woman’s bed, Shreddy wondered briefly how he and the griffin babe were faring. Mostly, he enjoyed the extra space.
Though, in the middle of the night, Shreddy missed the small bundle of feathers and fur cuddled at his side.
In the morning, purely for curiosity’s sake, Shreddy decided to check on Cooper and the griffin. He looked for them in the garage, but they weren’t sleeping on the pile of old towels. He looked all around the yard, but he couldn’t find them. Finally, Shreddy heard a disturbing howl from the abandoned lot on the next block.
It sounded like Cooper’s voice, so Shreddy took off running. He told himself that if something horrible was happening to Cooper, he wanted to see it.
Shreddy ran so fast that his four legs looked like eight. As he approached the abandoned lot, a second voice — warbling and soft — joined Cooper’s howl. Shreddy slowed down. If the griffin was alive, there was no need to damage his dignity by letting Cooper see him hurry.
Among the patchy grass and bare dirt of the abandoned lot, three tree stumps stood, flat and short. Cooper and the griffin each sat on one of them, muzzle and beak turned to the sky as they howled at the pale day-face of the moon.
“Shreddy!” Cooper howled, seeing his companion cat.
In a sweet, trilling voice, the griffin echoed him, “Shreddy!”
In spite of himself, Shreddy’s heart melted like butter to hear the griffin babe call his name. “What are you doing out here?” he meowed. “Why were you howling?”
Cooper shook his curly fur out of his eyes and woofed, “I was teaching Egypt how to sing.”
“It’s short for One Hundred Percent Egyptian Cotton,” Cooper woofed. “Like the towels. Here, listen to us!”
Cooper began howling again. The tuneless wail filled Shreddy’s ears, and his claws began to unsheathe. Then the griffin babe’s voice joined in, tremulous but sweet. Shreddy recognized the song. It was the same song the Warbler mother had sung in her chirpy soprano. In her bird’s voice, it had been the embodiment of a headache codified into soundwaves. In the deeper, rounder tones of the griffin babe, Shreddy could hear joy and springtime in the song. He could appreciate the beauty of how it danced upward from one octave to the next, finally ending in a soaring crescendo.
Cooper howled on for several bars after Egypt finished. Then he woofed, “Don’t we sound fantastic?”
“Halfway,” Shreddy allowed.
“We could use a few more voices. Do you think my towels will spontaneously generate any more towel monsters if I wait long enough?” Cooper looked like he was taxing his memory to the limit in recalling the phrase spontaneously generate.
Shreddy rolled his eyes. “Egypt’s not a towel monster. She’s a griffin, and I hatched her from an egg that a bird gave me.”
Cooper stared at Shreddy for a long time, then he turned and stared at the little tabby griffin. The gears in his brain, limited though they might be, were clearly turning. “That explains why Egypt looks like you. And a bird. If the bird comes back, do you think she would give me an egg? Or several?”
Suddenly, Shreddy knew what Cooper was picturing: half-Warbler, half-Labradoodle — an annoying, curly-furred puppy with wings and a high-pitched, tuneless voice. Or worse, an entire choir of them. Such a cacophony must never, ever be. It was Shreddy’s worst nightmare.
“God no!” Shreddy yeowled. Then he remembered the buzz of electricity and the ghostly echo of opera in the satellite dish on the roof. Without that buzz, the Warbler would probably have laid a normal egg, and Shreddy would have hatched a snack rather than a responsibility.
Cooper couldn’t get up on the roof, so Shreddy was safe from puppy-griffins. As long as he was safe, there was no need lose a good motivating force for Cooper. “I mean,” Shreddy said, turning his voice back to a solicitous meow, “you’d have to ask her. She’ll come back when Egypt is ready to learn to fly.”
“She will?” Cooper woofed.
“I bet, if I told her that you were really helpful and responsible with Egypt… Well…” Shreddy didn’t have to finish baiting the hook. Cooper had already swallowed the whole fishing pole. He woofed and pranced about like an idiot for several minutes, and then he practically begged Shreddy to let him keep babysitting Egypt.
For the rest of the week, Cooper did the lion’s share of mothering Egypt. He helped her hunt bugs, slept in the garage with her at night, and continued giving her daily “singing lessons.” Shreddy was so relieved to have the burden of responsibility lifted that he barely noticed he was spending all his time skulking along, following Cooper and Egypt around. It was strangely satisfying to watch Egypt snatch a flying bug right out of the air, and her melodic caterwauling during the “singing lessons” was so pleasant, often echoing refrains from the Red-Haired Woman’s operas that he’d listened to in the satellite dish while Egypt was still an egg. Shreddy hardly heard Cooper’s moronic baying behind it.
And, at night, well, Shreddy liked knowing he had the freedom to go inside and sleep on the Red-Haired Woman’s bed any time he wanted to, but, when it came down to it, that pile of old towels was terribly comfy. And he loved the feel of Egypt’s small, striped body purring beside him.
Shreddy wouldn’t have minded his life continuing that way forever.
Griffins grow up, and Yellow-Throated Warblers come home to teach them how to fly. The silhouette of a songbird cut across the midday sky, casting a tiny, flitting shadow over the shrubs of purple flowers where bees buzzed, dodging Susie’s snapping muzzle and, less successfully, Egypt’s arrow-sharp beak.
Shreddy saw the Warbler first, and he felt a cold shell harden around his heart. He turned his back on the tableau of griffin and spaniel snapping at bees, but his ears turned sideways in spite of himself. He listened as Cooper barked excitedly, “Oh my gosh! It’s your mother-bird, Egypt! She looks just like you! Except less like a cat… And smaller. But otherwise just like you!”
Egypt trilled in her musical voice, “Mother?”
Shreddy closed his eyes, but it didn’t stop him picturing the reunion behind him. He heard the Warbler twitter to her daughter; Egypt trilled back, sounding more like a bird than she ever had before. Meanwhile, Cooper woofed a bunch of nonsense about buying eggs with a trade of some very valuable towels.
Suddenly, Shreddy felt a cold nose against his face. He opened his eyes and saw Susie staring at him, concern in her soft brown eyes. It made him want to slash her wet nose with sharp claws, but he couldn’t rally the energy.
“It’s hard when puppies leave,” Susie said.
“No, it’s not,” Shreddy said. “I loved it whenever the Red-Haired Woman sold your stupid puppies.”
Susie was used to Shreddy, so she didn’t flinch at his meanness. She just stared at him with those sympathetic brown eyes.
Behind him, Shreddy heard singing, and he recognized the refrain from one of the Red-Haired Woman’s favorite operas in Egypt’s voice. The little griffin was teaching the song to her mother. The cold shell around Shreddy’s heart crumpled a little. The bird and griffin sang together, their voices blending and contrasting, dancing in a musical whirl.
The song ended, and Shreddy heard flapping. Suddenly, both Cooper and the Warbler’s voices raised in a cheer. Egypt was already learning how to fly. She was really going to leave.
The cold shell around Shreddy’s heart melted completely. “How do you stand it?” Shreddy asked Susie. “Knowing you’ll never see your puppies again?”
Susie looked down. There was a quaver in her voice. “I say goodbye.”
Susie left. Shreddy watched her walk up to the house and hop through the pet flap in the back door. Behind him, he heard flapping, twittering, barking, and suddenly an angry buzzing. Shreddy turned around and saw his little half-kitten way up in the air, clinging with front-talons and clawful back-paws to the swinging birdhouse that had become a beehive. The bees buzzed wildly about, but Egypt merely snapped them up, so many tiny snacks in her narrow beak.
Perched on one of the nearby branches, the Yellow-Throated Warbler said, “I could never catch bees. I’m not fast enough.”
“She didn’t get it from me,” Shreddy meowed. “If I were fast, I’d have caught you instead of promising to hatch your egg, and none of this would have happened.” He never would have heard his favorite opera in Egypt’s silver tongued voice, and he never would have had to say goodbye.
“She must have got it from me!” Cooper woofed. “I’ve been giving her racing lessons as well as singing lessons!” He demonstrated his speed by chasing his tail, twirling around in tight little circles.
Shreddy wasn’t sure if he was tired from all the emotion involved in watching his little griffin grow up or whether his weeks of parenthood had mellowed him, but he didn’t even bother mocking Cooper.
For the rest of the day, Shreddy watched Egypt learn how to fly. Her gray striped wings flapped clumsily at first, but soon she was soaring and singing as she soared. Snatches of opera floated down to him from the roof, the branches of the trees, everywhere that she disappeared to in the sky. Each time that Egypt chased her tiny songbird mother off into the distance, Shreddy wondered if that was the last time he’d see her. Then her melodic voice grew louder as she flew back again.
Shreddy never did follow Susie’s advice. Not exactly. He watched the sky ripening into the gold and plum colors of sunset for a long time before he realized that he couldn’t hear the opera anymore. Egypt wasn’t coming back this time. He ignored Cooper barking at the beehive, asking the bees to join the choir he was starting. Finally, he went inside, found the last patch of sunlight for the day on the kitchen floor. He stretched out, felt the warm light on his fur, listened to the television playing opera in the other room, and, inside his heart, he said goodbye.