“Well, then,” said Crooktail. He looked down at me. “I name you Fargazer. Join the–“
“Wait.” The strong voice came from behind the Elders, startling them. They whirled around, creating a gap in their line. And through that gap stepped Shadoweye.
He still looked old, and gaunt, but now there was life in his eyes, and power in his stride. I watched, with wide eyes, as he stepped up to me, and held completely still as he sniffed me carefully, from the tip of my nose to the tip of my tail. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked out over the assembled Folk.
“I, too, have a name to give this one,” he said. A stir, a shiver of reaction, rustled through the crowd, and was stilled. He was silent for a moment longer, then looked down at me, and I quailed at the pity in his eyes.
“I name you M’anchild. Join the Meeting.”
In the utter silence that followed this pronouncement, he leaned down. His age-roughened voice whispered very softly in my ear, “I am truly sorry.” Then he turned away, and slowly paced out of the clearing.
Silence finally gave way to near chaos, as Folk all began talking at once, and very loudly indeed. For a cat to be given two face names was unprecedented. For a cat to be give such a name as Shadoweye had given me was…unthinkable. I felt bewildered and lost as the mass of voices swirled around me. Finally, my mother’s complaints cut through.
“He’s old,” she kept insisting. “He must be going senile. We can’t possibly take this seriously!”
Finally, Crooktail’s caterwaul cut through everyone. “A few of us will go and find him,” he said sternly, “and ask him what he means with this.” At his nod, two of the Elders got up to accompany him. Mother went, too, after pushing my siblings at me. The four of us settled down into an uneasy heap to wait.
We didn’t have to wait long. Mother had found Shadoweye only a few moments’ walk away, lying under a clump of bushes. Dead. And with his death went the death of any hope that this would somehow pass by. It was one thing to call into question the words of an old, possibly senile cat. But the final pronouncement of a dying Oel-var’iz was something few would ignore. So while my mother and siblings insisted on calling me Fargazer, all the other Folk called me M’anchild, and avoided me as much as possible.
As we grew older, my brother and sisters did try their best to force my integration with the other young cats around. Rarely–very rarely–those others would allow me to join them in their games or hunting expeditions. Sometimes, my siblings would withdraw themselves to stay with me. Most often, though, I insisted they go ahead without me. I didn’t want them ruining their lives for my sake. I became more and more withdrawn–indeed, I was the first to leave the nest for good, and left the M’an-nest entirely, finding a hollow tree stump in the woods to make my home. My mind had latched onto the idea that if I withdrew completely, perhaps the other Folk would forget about what had happened–or, barring that, would see how little I wanted to do with the M’an-folk, and how little suited I was to the name with which Shadoweye had saddled me.
Summer waned, and autumn came and went. Not long before the first snows fell, my first time of mating came upon me. I was excited–enough time must have passed for Folk to have forgotten about me. And even if they hadn’t, surely my condition would override any hesitation. I ran back to the M’an-nest and prowled the alleyways, caterwauling and broadcasting my scent far and wide, eager for the courtship.
It wasn’t long before the first male found me. It was Proudwhisker, a young hunter of my age group, and one who had been very vociferous in denying me interaction with him and his peers. But now he was bounding forward eagerly.
Until he fully caught sight of me. He skidded to a stop, staring at me in consternation. He backed away, mumbling something, then turned and fled.
I stood in the middle of the alleyway, stunned at this turn of events. But then I walked on. ‘Surely it won’t happen again,’ I thought.
But it did. Again, and again, and again. Finally, I fled through the streets, running until I came to the wall by the Bigwater. I found a place where I could climb inside it, away from the other Folk. For three days, I stayed there, determined not to bring such humiliation on myself again, waiting out the rest of my mating time.
As I waited, I watched the ships passing to and fro, and remembered that I’d seen cats on them before. Perhaps this was an answer–a way to escape the burden of my unwanted face name. I could leave this place on a ship, and find a new life…well, wherever that ship went. So the day I was sure I was no longer in heat, I scrambled down the wall and the rocks at its base, across the beach (deserted in the chilling weather), and made my way into the docks, doing my best to stay unseen by the Big Ones.
After a few moments of searching, I spied a trio of young hunters sitting on a railing. They were all thin and rangy, and I figured them for cats already established on M’an-folk ships. “Good dancing,” I called up to them.
They looked down at me, with gazes that seemed both curious and contemptuous, and I felt my resolve waver a bit. But I gamely continued, “Is there a way for me to join one of these ships?”
“Perhaps,” one of them finally replied. “What’s your name, youngling?”
His eyes widened, and he leaned forward a little, peering down with interest. “Oh! So *you’re* M’anchild!”
I was caught completely off guard by that. “What…” I sputtered. “How…”
“You didn’t think news of such an occurrence would stay only among your own Folk?” He sneezed a laugh. “They told us ships’ cats all about it that very night!”
I didn’t wait to hear more; I basely turned and fled back through the docks, across the beach, and up the rocks to my place in the wall. If the ships’ cats knew, I knew full well they would have spread the word wherever else they went. Leaving my home would not let me leave behind my reputation.
As I lay there, curled in a miserable ball, I began to wonder if I wasn’t going about this all wrong. Perhaps I shouldn’t be completely avoiding the Big Ones. Perhaps if I studied them instead, I just might learn something that would tell me why Shadoweye had named me as he had. ‘At any rate,’ I thought, ‘doing that can’t make things any worse for me.’
And so, for the past few Eyes, that is what I’ve done. So far, though, I’m no nearer the answers to my questions than I was when I started. But it’s not been a complete loss–at least I met the Big One called Stargirl, the one who knows the Higher Singing. I should seek her out again soon…perhaps she could help me with these questions…
Well, time will tell.