Sister Cat

by Karen Hofmann

The following excerpt is comprised of the first few pages of
Karen Hofmann's tale, Sister Cat

Once upon a time, there were two young girls, sisters, who were
not only pretty, clever, and good, but also kind and happy, as are
all children, particularly in fairy tales. They lived in a little house
in a sunny meadow, high on a green hill, under the highest crag of
the Misty Mountains. Their father was a woodcutter who laboured
in the forest with his saw and pony, cutting up and drawing out
old trees that had died of natural causes and selling them for
timber, and to wood carvers, and their mother kept hens, and grew
a garden, and flax and oats for the family’s bread and porridge,
and a cherry tree, and berry bushes, and kept a beehive. They fed
themselves with a little left over for precious things like books and
sewing needles and other tools, and neither oppressed, nor were
oppressed by, any man. There were three brothers, also, sweettempered
boys who were as happy to sweep out the cottage or pick
blackberries as to cut and load wood, and the two girls and their
brothers learned at their parents’ sides to take care of both large and
small, indoors and out.

Now folk feared the Misty Mountains, which were believed
inhabited by cruel spirits that sent down walls of ice and rock on
travellers, or breathed chill winds that diseased and crippled. But
though the woodcutter’s family lived in the very shadow of the
mountains, they were not afraid, for they had a charm against the
evil of the mountain spirits. It was a wooden door knocker, in the
shape of a ring with magical words carved into it. Their father had
once given a woodcarver who was down on his luck a load of clear
oak, and had waited patiently through the winter for his payment,
and the woodcarver had made the door knocker as thanks. It was
much admired, and the family believed that as long as it hung
whole on the door of the cottage, no harm could befall anyone who
lived there.

But one day, the door knocker disappeared from its place. No
one quite knew how: perhaps the woodcutter had forgotten to oil
and repair it that year, and it had cracked and fallen off, or perhaps
the children had mischievously taken it down to play with. But
while the door knocker was missing, something terrible happened.
While the sisters were at the edge of the meadow, gathering wild
strawberries, and their father and brothers sitting down to a meal
after cutting wood in the forest all morning or digging the garden,
and their mother just coming in with a basket of eggs, an ill wind
whistled down from the Misty Mountains, blew open the door
of the cottage, and blasted all who were inside. When the sisters
returned with their berry baskets, they found their dear papa and
their brothers transformed into hideous monsters who gnashed
their fangs at them and tore their dresses. And their poor mother,
standing in the doorway, had been turned into stone, and if she
heard their screams for help, she was not able to come to their aid.
So the sisters fled the cottage and ran into the forest to hide,
taking with them only a little white kitten that was their pet. They
ran until they could run no further, and then they lay down on a
bed of fir needles and cried themselves to sleep. They cried out of
tiredness and cold and hunger and grief, but mostly out of despair,
for they did not know what to do. Should they return to the cottage
and see if the spell had passed? Or should stay away? And who
would gather the eggs and strawberries and feed the hens, if they
did not go back? And where could they go for shelter and food?
For many days they walked and slept, living on mushrooms and
strawberries, and every day they sensed that they were going deeper
and deeper into the forest. And then they became separated, and
the younger of the two sisters, Willow, was carried off by elves. The
elder sister, Rowan, returning to the clearing where she had last
seen Willow, saw only fading fairy lights and heard only the echo
of elfish laughter retreating through the forest. Poor Rowan! Now
she was alone, for the kitten had disappeared as well, and she could
only hope her sister had taken the kitten with her. She wandered
aimlessly, and lost track of night and day.

One day she came to a little forest pool, where she stopped to
drink. Near the pool grew an old fir tree, and on a sandy bank under
the roots of the fir tree sat a troll, mending a pair of carpet slippers
with a needle and thread. Rowan, who was very hungry, asked the
troll if she could finish mending his slippers in return for a bit of bread.
The troll was glad to let her finish the mending, for he was making
a clumsy job of it, and Rowan mended the slippers so that no stitch showed.

Then the troll declared that she was as good with a needle as
any other maiden this side of the Misty Mountains, and offered,
since she had no home, to let her stay with him in his cave under
the roots of the fir tree, if she would make him some new slippers
out of wool which he would get from the wild goats that lived on
the slopes of the Misty Mountains.

“I ought to search for my sister, who has been carried off by
elves,” said Rowan, but the troll told her that elves were dangerous,
untrustworthy folk, and she had better to stay where she was. And
because she was tired, and hungry, and frightened, she agreed to
stay, at least for a little while.

And so she stayed, and worked wonderful slippers for the troll,
out of the goat’s wool, which she carded and spun and dyed herself,
and the troll was very pleased, for trolls have tender, sensitive feet
of which they are very vain. The troll brought her bits of things –
jewels the colour of kingfisher feathers, and gold earrings with pearl
beads, and a little silver brooch shaped like a fish – and told her how
clever she was, and how precious, and how treasured, and she did
not notice that she had lost the sun, and leaves, and violets by spring
brooks, and the singing of thrushes, far underground in the troll’s
cave….

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