One day in Old Hungary, a Roman centurion was walking alone in the forest. He had strayed from his camp, to idly stroll beneath the large strange trees. He liked the coolness of it under these boughs, and the flecks of light dappling the shadowed ground pleased him very much.
Soon, he saw a cat sitting upright in the rough path before him. Its fur was coral-colored, and its eyes were like gray diamonds. The cat said, “These woods are haunted. Perhaps you should turn back, centurion.”
The soldier was surprised but quickly recovered and replied, “No cat tells me what to do.”
The cat said, “Just as you please.”
The centurion, with pieces of brass light flashing on his breastplate and with his hand on the hilt of a scabbarded sword, walked past the cat. And the cat kept staring straight ahead, unperturbed.
The confident warrior marched on and on through the darkening woods. To his left, he saw a white butterfly the size of a heathen shield float through the trees. Larger than any butterfly should ever be, it had three glowing emerald spots on each wing. The soldier drifted off the worn, vague trail and followed the odd creature as it glided slowly and drunkenly ahead.
Eventually, the butterfly disappeared into the mist that had sprung up in gradual, amorphous stages. The centurion stopped and looked around. He was lost. The mist was now becoming a fog, and from far within it, he heard the moans of unknown things.
He decided to trust in his gods and the remembered counsel of old women who gathered by the Mediterranean in his childhood: close your eyes and turn around three times, then walk with no fear. So he did. And walked ever deeper into the fog that was blending into the emergence of night.
After an hour, he was wrapped in darkness. The forest had grown denser, and small vines swept across his face. The vines also began growing thicker around him. He became entangled and could not move. So he drew his sword and began slashing his way blindly through the tightening vegetation. Finally, he stumbled into a clearing. Or what seemed to be such. It was too dark to tell if it was really a clearing or how large it might be. No moon and no stars sent any light down to the centurion.
He stood there a moment, collecting himself. But he was still not afraid. His legionnaire training had been thorough. He was afraid of nothing. Not even those distant moans that had now come much closer.
Just then, he saw two tiny coral lights glimmering about twenty paces in front of him. And he asked, “Who or what are you?”
“Oh, I'm also a cat,” came the reply.
“Well...there are a lot of cats in this forest,” said the centurion. “Why are you here?”
“No, soldier, the question is why are you here?”
“I ask the questions,” said the man, putting his hands on his hips and frowning indignantly into the dark. “Tell me how I can find my way back to my camp.”
“That is not an easy thing to answer,” said the cat. “Such things must be mulled over a long time. Directions don't mean anything in this forest. Where one is and where one should go are not really questions. Rather they are riddles. Cats know where riddles come from, but we can't speak the answers. The answers are in a magical language that only the wind and the water and the thunder can speak.”
“Nice words, cat. But I have no time for such quaintness. Stop talking like that and tell me which way to go. Now!”
“Tsk-tsk,” said the cat. “You are a nasty one, you are. Don't you know that you can't get honey-dew if you buzz too loudly?”
The centurion considered these words for several moments.
“All right, then. You will be my little captain for now. Can you see me saluting you? I am, and now I ask gently, will you tell me which way leads out of these woods?”
“Muuuch better,” replied the cat, with a grin in its voice. “Here is what you must do. Take out your sword and scratch a large circle here in this clearing. My eyes will give you the light you need.”
The man did as instructed. When the circle had been inscribed, he turned back to the cat.
“Now, get inside the circle and lie down. The circle will protect you from the moaning things that move in the night. Close your eyes. I said close your eyes!....Good. Now go to sleep. While you are asleep, I will purr the tone of the where-and-how-riddle into your dreams. This is the only way. My purring will bring the wind and the water and the thunder into your dreams. When you wake up, you will know where you are and how to return to your camp.”
Minutes went by, and the centurion grew sleepy. He nodded off.
The next morning, the soldier jerked awake and sat up inside the clearing. He looked around through dim, early eyes. The fog had vanished. The very young day was sprinkled with birdsong, and a subtle breeze freshened the leaves.
He stood up and saw the cat with coral eyes sitting upright in front of him. Its fur was light gray and faintly shimmered as if made of diamond thread.
“Good morning, centurion,” said the cat.
“Yes...well...good morning to you, cat.”
“Did you dream last night?”
“Most assuredly. And just as you said, I awoke with where and how. But I feel very strange.”
“That is a good sign,” said the cat. “Tell me more.”
“I feel that my sword hilt will burn my hand if I touch it. I feel that my armor is too heavy to bear.”
“Yes...I understand. You had the right dream. The wind and the water and the thunder are still inside you now. And will be forever. Do you know what you must do?”
“Indeed,” replied the centurion in a gentle voice. He unbuckled the belt holding his sword and scabbard. His weapon fell to the ground inside the circle. Then he took off his breastplate, and let it also fall to the ground. He looked at the cat and smiled. “Thank you, cat. For your protection and for your deep wisdom.”
The man strode out of the circle and headed into the woods, leaving the gray cat with coral eyes behind him.
The cat blinked slowly, purred softly, then scratched vigorously behind its ear with a hind leg.
After a pleasant journey through the oddly lustrous woods, the centurion found his way back into his camp. Other soldiers rushed out to meet him, and the Captain of the Guard inquired, “Where have you been?”
“I went for a walk in the forest and got very lost. Then I became found, and here I am.”
The Captain looked him over suspiciously, and the expression conveyed a dislike for the centurion's tone of voice.
“Where is your sword and where is your armor?” he demanded.
“I will fight no more forever.”
“Arrest this man!” shouted the Captain. “Forty lashes with the flagrum, then turn him out of the camp!”
Later when the punishment had been meted out, the man – now no longer a soldier – staggered into the old forest. His back screamed with blood and silent pain. In tatters but with a wild smile on his face, he made his way back to the clearing.
As he stepped into it, the brilliant sunlight of late morning caused his vision to momentarily blur. He rubbed his eyes and opened them.
Standing in front of him were two beautiful young women in white gowns. One had coral-colored hair and eyes the color of gray diamonds. The other had diamond-gray hair and eyes the color of corals.
“Are you my cats?' asked the man innocently.
“Yes,” they replied in unison. And still in one voice, they said, “Last night, we were your cats. Today, we are your spirit sisters. Follow us now. We will lead you to a camp of Gypsies farther in the forest. You will live among them, grow old, and be happy. The Gypsies will teach you how to dance in the moonlight and how to dream other magic dreams. Your life henceforth will be a peaceful riddle that spirals into the heart of time.”
The man walked forward, and a sister took a hand on each side of him. They moved out of the clearing and disappeared into gleaming shafts of light and sighing shadows.