Hanging in There
Nearly every girl in the world, or at least on the continent of North America, knows of the kitten poster. You know the one: with the kitten hanging off the branch of a tree with a sad or scared expression and the words "Hang in There" written above it in the largest text possible. If you haven't owned one and had it on the wall in your room, then you've known someone who's owned one and if you've never met someone who's owned one then you've at least seen it used as a prop in movies and TV shows and such. It's quite a popular poster. What no-one knows, though, is the story behind it. How often do you hear people asking why the kitten is hanging on? How often do you hear them ask how he got there in the first place? How often do you hear them asking who first told him to hang in there? I've certainly never heard them, and I'm one of the few who could answer them truthfully. You see, my name is Timothy and I am the kitten who was originally the subject of that poster… well, I've grown up now, but we are still one and the same. That is why I (with the exception of a few of my closest friends) am the only creature who knows the truth of this story.
It began, as any good tale involving cats, with a bit of curiosity. I was young, about six months I think, and very new to the world. I had been exploring the world outside the house for about two weeks and was finally feeling confident in my ability to find my way back home after exploring. I was almost arrogant, actually. I walked through the garden and under the fence as if I'd been doing it all my life, strutting through the meadow behind the house as if I owned the whole of it. My little brown paws stepped lightly over the new spring grass and my brown and black striped tail was pointed to the sky so that everyone knew I was happy and proud to be where I was and nothing was going to change that. I felt invincible then, and even after two hours of walking I still thought the same way. The sun was about halfway through the sky, so I knew I had plenty of time to get home when I was satisfied with my exploring.
"Why hello there, Tom, out for a stroll this fine day?" I heard someone ask from a few feet in front of me. I looked up and saw a small tree whose leaves hadn't grown back from winter yet. I blinked a few times before the speaker finally came into focus. Of course it wasn't the tree, trees couldn't talk. I had to tell myself that so that it seemed as if I had known that the tiny black and white bird nestled smugly in the branches was the one who had addressed me. I stuck my nose up, thinking he wasn't a very smart bird.
"My name is Timothy, not Tom. You don't even know my name. You're just a chickadee. My big brothers eat chickadees, you know," I said in my own smug way. I didn't think for a second that he would fly down and peck me because I was smaller than my older brothers (quite a bit bigger than him, but still not the size of a full grown cat) or that he would say anything hurtful. I was invincible. So I didn't expect him to laugh. My tail fell and my ears turned down to the sides of my head in annoyance. I squinted for extra effect and asked him in my most confident voice what exactly was so funny.
"Oh-ho, kitten…. I mean Timothy! You've got spunk, haven't you? Ha-ha! Though, of course I didn't know your name, because I've never seen you or your brothers before. I've heard stories of the meadow cats, of course, of course, but I've never really seen one. Especially not one so young! Ha! But I must explain that I called you 'Tom' because you are a cat, aren't you? Boy cats are called 'Toms' and girl cats are called 'Queens'. It's just the way it is. So I was only calling you a boy cat, that's all. Of course, I'll have to call you by your real name now, won't I? My name is Chess. My parents loved to watch humans play that game in long winters, you know. It's quite a good name, don't you think? A good game, too! Ha-ha!" The chickadee quickly answered. I had to take several steps back from the onslaught of his words. He was much more talkative than I had expected. He had to have said a word a second, at least! He was more cheerful than I thought he would be, too. I wasn't exactly sure how to react for a few moments. Should I have been mad at him? Or impressed by his knowledge? Or offended? Or should I have just given in to his almost infectious happiness? I took a few more steps back, buying time to collect my thoughts.
"I… well… I suppose that's alright if you weren't calling me by my real name, but what if another 'Tom' had been here? What if one of my big brothers had been here? Then what would you have done to call my attention?" I asked haughtily, regaining my confidence as I spoke. Like I said, I was young; it was a time when everything was new and surprising, so there wasn't much that could actually surprise me for long. Chess laughed again. I felt a slight smile pulling at the edges of my mouth when he laughed, but I fought it back and tried as hard as I could to keep my serious expression.
"I guess you have me there, Timothy. Though, I don't suppose there was another cat, was there? It was just you and me and the meadow. Though you know, I've known that because I've watched you exploring this meadow for a while now. It's a nice one, isn't it?" He said, starting to ramble a little, "But I know a place, you know, that is, of course, even better than this one! It's a good place. It's a very nice, peaceful place. You would like it. It's got lots of food, the kind that kittens like you like." Again I had to stumble backwards because of how quickly and energetically he spoke. I had never encountered anything like it. He had more energy than me or my brothers had ever shown. I shook myself quickly, as if his words had stuck to me and I could somehow throw them off of my fur.
Then I sat down and tried to lick my paw as if I was taking a bath and hadn't been bothered by him at all. He hopped down to another branch and tilted his head back and forth at me a few times, waiting for a response. At first, I was determined not to give the annoying bird such satisfaction. There were, however, two things keeping me from holding my silence. One was that mysteriously joyous aura surrounding Chess. The other was, naturally, my own curiosity. What kind of food was he talking about? What kind of place would be so perfect? I suddenly realized that my mouth was full of fur from me licking my paw too roughly and snapped myself out of my reverie. I waited a few seconds longer, trying to control how anxious my breathing was getting.
At last, I broke down and jumped to my feet, asking him what exactly he was talking about. Chess tilted his head one more time and then said this before pushing off from his perch and flying away, "Wouldn't you like to know, Tim? Follow me, and maybe you'll find out." His wings made the smallest sound of feathers against the wind as he flew and my ears tilted forward to find him. I flicked my tail, annoyed, but this story is one of curiosity. I simply couldn't keep from following him, even if I had tried. I started to walk quickly at first, then a little faster, until I broke out into a full-on run. I stuck my tongue out as my legs moved almost of their own accord. It felt like we traveled that way for hours, though I've never been sure whether that was actually the case. The calculation would probably be thrown off by the rest stops that we each took, too. Chess would stop and perch somewhere to wait for me every time I fell behind and occasionally I would just stop altogether and lay down on my side until I got my breath back. Later, I would tell him that at least the adventure had been good exercise, if nothing else.
I was just about to collapse again in front of a large wooden gate when Chess happily chirped that we had arrived. "Arrived?" I asked through deep, worn breaths, "Arrived where? At a gate? I don't see how this place is any better than the meadow." I was angry and my tail flicked and I didn't lie down like I had planned to. I just stood there, trying my best to glare at the joyful little chickadee. He was just so difficult to stay mad at, though, and I was very curious about what was on the other side of the gate. Chess flew down onto the other side and I ran up to it, scratching the wooden planks and yelling that it wasn't fair for him to take me all this way and then just leave me at a closed gate. I hadn't come all that way just to look at a fence! Though, naturally, the first sound I heard on the other side was that knowing laughter of Chess's. I sighed and hung my head. This bird was clearly impossible to get along with. Then I tilted my left ear, thinking I heard the creaking of the gate… which was impossible. I tilted my other ear forward as the sound got longer and louder until finally I raised my whole head and saw the gate wide open with Chess sitting smugly on top. I looked up at him and I knew my face showed how impressed I was.
"Why thank you, Timothy. It's a nice gate, and fairly easy to move if you know just the right way. I would show you just the right way, but you're the one I have to open it for in the first place, aren't you?" he answered my expression proudly. I tried to say something angry or arrogant, but nothing came to me. Somehow, I had no words for the situation. So I just glared a little and turned to look in on the world behind the gate instead. Again, words failed me. It was the most beautiful, wonderful thing I had ever seen.
There were rows upon rows of trees in bloom, with flower petals spiraling down to earth from the branches so high above it. It was a veritable ocean of green and red and the brown of the tree trunks. I stepped forward and smelled the sweet perfume of those flowers, like the sugary apple cider that my human would drink on cold nights. I closed my eyes and took it in, the feeling of the wind running through my fur and the sound of it dancing its way through the trees and grass were as lovely as the smell and when you put it all together with the warmth of the noonday sun it was practically heaven. I sat there for a long minute, basking in it all. Then I slowly, reverently opened my eyes and whispered my question. "Chess?" I asked quietly, "What is this place?"
"Ah, so you're not interested in how it's better anymore? Well, it's called an orchard. There aren't any apples on the apple trees just yet, but I come here to eat them every now and then once they're ripe. I told you it was a nice place. Full of bugs, too, and those are just the kind of things birds and kittens like to eat, aren't they? That's why I like it so much. I know you will too. You are a kitten, after all," he answered in his rapid, rambling way. In that orchard I didn't mind his manner of speaking so much. I walked slowly onto the unbelievably soft and rich grass of the orchard and in among the trees. I chased the flower petals and wind-blown leaves and even found a few tasty bugs at the trees' trunks. It was as great of a place as Chess had said it was. I talked with Chess about my life and my brothers and about his life and his family and about humans and about meadows and orchards and how he had first come across this one. The sun moved quickly through the sky and by the time of the challenge it had to have been at least three in the afternoon.
You see, the challenge was when my curiosity became a dangerous thing. I was laying lazily on my back with my paws all curled up close to my body and my tail brushing contentedly through the grass when it started. I was staring at the deep blue sky through the ever moving tree leaves when suddenly, they stopped moving. The scent of the flowers diminished and the grass and my fur lay still as well; the wind had died. I tilted my head, disappointed, when Chess suddenly called down from the tree I had been staring at that he had a wonderful idea. I had gotten so used to him now that I didn't think for a second it could be a dangerous or unpleasant idea. He was annoying, but he certainly wasn't stupid or reckless. I asked him what the idea was, thinking it might be something fun.
"Now that the wind had died down, there is only one thing to be done if you want to smell the flowers at their peak and find the best bugs that live off of them. That is, if you are up to it Timothy, then it would be a truly glorious thing if you were to do this for me. It is not just for me, of course, of course, but for you as well. You can climb this tree with your sharp little claws and your nice sense of balance like all cats have got to have, and then you can be up here with me and see the world in a whole new wonderful way, can't you? I say you should do it. If you are up to it, that is, Timothy," He said excitedly, repeating and correcting himself perhaps a little more than usual. I turned over and got on all four paws, craning my neck to look up the tree. It was a rather tall tree… and I had never even climbed the little ones in the meadow before… so was I really up to it? I laid my ears back, determinedly this time. If Chess thought I could do it, then why couldn't I do it? I nodded like I saw my human do when she had decided something and backed up to get a running start at the trunk. One… I counted in my head… two… and… I ran as fast as I could and pushed hard with my hind legs. I felt the air pass through my fur again and unsheathed my claws as I came nearer to the trunk itself. I closed my eyes at the last second and felt my claws sink deep into the wood of the tree. My eyes snapped open again and I looked excitedly up at Chess. He sang one of those songs that chickadees sing so fast you can't distinguish the lyrics. I couldn't help but smile like my human did when she was happy, though I knew I wasn't on Chess's level just yet.
I slowly lifted one paw out of the trunk and then reached up to stick it a little farther up. I felt the gentle, pleasant pressure in my chest that meant I was purring. I heard Chess laugh as he always did, knowing that he could hear it. I couldn't hear the sound of my purring itself as I carefully climbed up the tree, but I felt it and I knew that it got stronger when I finally reached a branch and pulled myself up to stand precariously on the limb. I looked forward and walked cautiously to the middle of the branch, seeing the meadow expanding past the gate and fence. It seemed like all the world was spread out before me; I could see every bird flying in the sky, the line of trees in the distance, the tall green grass and flowers and weeds waving carelessly in the breeze. Wait… waving in the breeze? My claws came out again, involuntarily this time. I looked directly down and got a little dizzy, the grass beneath me waving in the same way and the tree seeming much, much higher from the ground than it had been before. Just what kind of dare had I accepted? I looked up at Chess again, terrified this time.
"Chess! Is the wind blowing? Will I… Will I fall?" All of my old arrogance, even the playful joking smugness I had fallen into while talking with my new friend, disappeared with that sentence; there was only desperation. If I fell, I couldn't fly like a chickadee. I tried to wrap my tail around the branch too, but it didn't work so well. Instead, I just crouched as low as I could and stuck my claws as firmly into the bark as I could get them.
"Well, well… um…that is that… I mean, of… of course…um…" I heard a little ways above my head. Then there was a long, terrible pause. Chess was at a loss for words. Chess, of all the creatures who could ever be made speechless. Now I was really frightened. I looked up and felt all of the fur on my body raise up in alarm. The sky was not the same blue it had been at the start of my adventure. It was dark gray and very lumpy with angry storm clouds. My ears laid back and I hissed reflexively. Then the rain started. It was only a soft drizzle at first, but then it got stronger and stronger until I could barely see and all of my fur was stuck against my skin again. I could feel Chess beneath my chin, trying to keep his ping-pong ball sized feathery body safe, though as a kitten I wasn't as big as my brothers and couldn't protect him as well as either of us would have liked… though I admit that there was a moment when I was tempted to eat him for bringing me to the orchard. Fast-talking fool that he was, he had led me up a tree in a thunderstorm. I did not appreciate that. I opened my mouth to say something to him about it, when a flash of lighting illuminated the dark sky and thunder crashed over our heads. I hadn't known it was possible, but my ears laid back even farther now than before.
Then, the worst part of the storm hit us; the wind. It struck like a broom would strike my oldest brother whenever he tried to sneak into the food cupboard and steal cat treats, only much harder and much faster. My claws were ripped from the wood and our bodies thrown off of the branch itself. I heard myself yowl, felt the tightness of my chest as I purred in a much different way, and screamed Chess's name in frustration. All of that sound was swept away by the wind as I grabbed desperately at the perch I had been thrown off of. At last, I felt something beneath my forepaws and stuck my claws out in the hope that it was something that would save me. I laid there, the top half of my body splayed out over the curved branch and the bottom half hanging suspended in mid-air. My eyes were shut tight and my breathing came fast and shallow because of the adrenaline in my body. My ears were still laid back and my tail was curled up tightly at my side. I thought I heard a muffled sound that was like paper being ripped, but tried hard not to think what that sound might be. I was only hoping to survive the gust.
Those several moments felt like all the months I had lived, but finally it ended and I was left gasping on the branch with rain pouring down on me. The sun poked through the clouds, but the water kept falling down on my head. It made the branch slick and my fur swept in front of my eyes so that I could barely see. I yowled for Chess, trying to at least make sure that he was okay even if my claws were about to slip out of their grip in the bark of the tree. I listened for several moments to the rain pounding against every solid surface it could find and then heard a strained chorus of chickadee song.
"Chess! Help me! My claws…! My claws are going to slip!" I screamed, scrabbling to pull myself farther up through the slipperiness of the rain-soaked branch. I tried to pull my hind legs up and have their claws latch in as well, but they wouldn't quite reach. I called for help again, but the response was less than comforting.
"Oh, I would, I would, Timothy, but how? I'm just a chickadee and you're a kitten! How am I supposed to pull on your fur to get you up here or push you from behind when I am so much smaller and more fragile than you? I cannot fly from here carrying you by the scruff of your neck, you know!" He sounded angry that he couldn't do anything and worried that I might fall. He knew the consequences of a non-flying creature falling from such heights.
One claw came loose from the bark and I made a sound like I had never heard—and would never again hear—a cat make before. It was the sound of muffled thunder and a plate braking and fingernails on a chalkboard. I'm still not sure how all of those noises combined into such a cohesive sound, but somehow they did and I heard Chess's wings as he jumped off of the branch in fear. I looked up then and saw him on the limb above my head. I asked him what to do while using all the strength in my legs to keep myself from falling down through the branches to the hard dirt underneath the deceptively soft-looking grass below. Chess hopped from one end of the branch to the next, examining my situation, then looked to the sky to see how quickly the rain was moving on. Unfortunately, the weather looked fairly steady.
Two more claws came out of the wood. I yowled again, much more high-pitched and desperately this time. I heard nervous clicking noises from my friend as well. If he was at a loss for what to do, then what chance did I have? I moaned as well as a cat can moan, losing all hope. The rain started to blur my vision again and I gently shook my head, careful not to shake myself from the tree.
"Just…!" Chess started, looking around so quickly that it almost made me dizzy. Finally, my entire left paw was dangling hopelessly away from the tree branch. With just one paw, what was I supposed to do? The chickadee continued, a frantic anxiety in his voice, "Just keep hanging in there!" I opened my mouth and looked at him, amazed. What did he think I had been doing? The stare and silence turned into a glare and a low, constant hiss in his general direction. He was being very unhelpful.
"Hang in there? Hang in there? That's the best help you can give? I'm about to fall and die! Why would you tell me to hang in there?" I asked in a voice that almost wasn't my own. It was as if I had been possessed by the spirit of the rain when that voice came from my throat, though it might have just been the fact that I was trying to yell and hiss at the same time. The two things weren't that easy to accomplish together.
"I tell you that because it's the only way, of course, of course! I said to hang in there, after all! If you're hanging by one paw and see no hope, then hang on tightly! Because you will either fall or find the strength to climb back up again, but you'll never know which would have happened if you just give up. You'll never know unless you hang in there," Chess answered passionately. It surprised me. This was no time for wisdom. Unless… "find the strength to climb back up?" I flicked my eyes toward the clouds by the sun. They were leaving. The rain was falling back to a drizzle. Then one claw came loose from my other paw.
"Oh-ho, no you don't. If I don't hang on, then I'll never know, right?" I said with a new determination. I swung my other paw up and stuck my claws as deeply into the wood as I could fit them. Then I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and pulled with all of my might. I felt my body slowly, gradually move upwards. I felt the most pleasant pressure of all in my chest: the pressure of a purr that showed I was satisfied with my victory. I did not have to see or even feel with my whiskers to somehow know when I was within range for my hind legs to come up and help me. I heard the encouraging sound of chickadee song and tried even harder. Then I felt all four of my paws on a mostly level surface and opened my eyes. There I was! I had made it! I looked up at Chess again, smiling like before. He seemed to smile back. I hadn't fallen. I had found the strength to get back up again and the rain clouds had gone away. "Um… Chess?" I asked a little nervously.
"Yes, Timothy? You did a very good job, you know. I was sure you could do something, but that was simply spectacular! You are a kitten strong beyond your years and intelligent as well! It was a tense moment, too! The sky was so dark and—" My talkative friend began, though I cut him off in the middle.
"What do I do now?" I asked, a bit more forcefully this time. "Oh. Well, well… I suppose you could simply climb down the way you climbed up in the first place? Only… ah… backwards, of course?" He "answered" tentatively. I stared at him again, but quickly realized that it was the only way. I slowly backed up to the trunk and just barely managed to haul myself down the tree without freezing in fear. The instant the pads of my paws touched the grass I collapsed and rolled onto my back, more grateful for the feeling of solid, flat ground beneath me than ever.
"Chess?" I asked in what seemed like an absent-minded, aloof kind of way.
"Yes, Timothy?" The little bird asked, having learned better than to ramble when I asked his name.
"You know orchards?" I asked, again in a way that suggested I didn't really care.
"Of course, of course, I most certainly do. We are in one now, after all, are we not? They are truly lovely places. What did you think of your first one?" He asked me, though I had a feeling that he knew my answer before I gave it to him. A day like that stays in your mind, after all. I had almost died. Not to mention the lesson I had learned.
So I replied to him with a slightly bitter but still artificially apathetic tone to my voice, "Let's never go to one again. Ever." Then I heard Chess laugh in the way that birds do and my tail whipped a little out of annoyance and amusement.
"Maybe, Tom," He said, and I've never been sure how much he meant it and how much he didn't. I started to purr contentedly again and got up on my paws. Chess flew and I walked to leave that orchard and go back into the garden, the sunset glowing pastel orange and pink over the mountains behind us. I pushed the gate closed and my friend locked it behind us and we debated whether orchards or open meadows were more dangerous all the way back to my home. I could have sworn that I heard someone say something as I was closing the gate, though.
"Did you see that? That was amazing. I'm going to have to tell that story again, though it won't be so much dramatic as just inspiring. I'll especially have to remember to use those words… 'hanging in there.'," were the words I heard while we were taking our leave of that traumatic orchard. I simply shrugged it off, though, and figured it wouldn't come out to anything. I suppose I was wrong, wasn't I?