The Boy Who Drew Cats
A Japanese Fairytale
A long time ago, in a little Japanese village, there lived a poor farmer, with his wife and family. The oldest son was strong and healthy and helped the farmer in the fields every day, planting and harvesting the rice. The two daughters worked with their mother in the house and the garden. They they had been able to work hard from the time they were very little . But the youngest son, although he was extremely clever, was also quite small and frail. He could not work in the rice fields with his father and brother.
One day the boy’s parents began to discuss his future, since he was not suited to being a farmer. His mother said, “our younger son is very clever. Perhaps we should apprentice him to the priest in the village temple. The priest is getting old and it may be that our son will make a good priest and will make a suitable helper for the old one.” The father agreed that their son’s cleverness might make him a suitable candidate for the temple. So the boy’s parents went to the village temple to ask the priest to take their son as an acolyte.
When the boy and his parents arrived at the temple, the priest asked the boy several intricate questions. The priest was astonished at the boy’s keen understanding and the imaginative answers which he gave. Then the old priest agreed to take the boy as an acolyte, with the understanding that the boy would obey him in everything. The boy tried very hard to obey and he learned many things, but he had one failing. When he should have been studying his lessons on his own, the boy drew cats instead. He could not help himself, for he was an artist at heart. He drew big cats and small cats, fat cats and thin cats, tall cats and short cats, sweet cats and ferocious cats. He drew cats on his lessons, he drew cats on the floor, he drew cats on the walls and, worst of all, he drew cats on the big, white, rice paper screens in the temple itself.
The old priest was angry at first, and told the boy that drawing cats when he should be studying was wrong. But then the priest became sadder and sadder, because the boy continued to draw cats when he should have been working on his lessons. Soon the priest told the boy that he must pack his belongings and go home, for an acolyte must obey the priest in all things. The priest said his good-byes and gave the boy one piece of advice. He said, “Avoid large places at night, keep to small.” Then the priest went into his room and closed the door. The boy did not understand what the priest meant, but he was afraid to knock on the door to ask for an explanation. He packed his few belongings into a bundle and walked down to the main road.
When the little boy reached the road, he thought, “If I go home, my parents will be angry and will punish me. Maybe I should go to the big city and see if the priests in the temple there could use a new apprentice.” He turned away from his home and headed for the city. No one had told the boy that the grand temple in the city had been closed. The boy took his time and enjoyed the walk to the city, looking at the fields and birds and butterflies.
It was dark when the boy arrived at the city gates, and everyone was in bed asleep. There was no one to tell him that an evil goblin had taken over the temple and chased all the priests and acolytes away. There was no one to tell him that many soldiers had tried to rid the temple of the goblin rat, but had failed. Boldly, he walked up to the temple door and knocked on it. Because there was no answer, he knocked several more times. When there still was no answer, he turned the handle and pushed on the door. It swung wide open, and the boy walked in calling, “is anyone here?” No one answered him, but he thought that a priest would come by eventually. The boy saw that there was a little room near the door, so he went in and sat down to wait.
Now the goblin always left a light burning in the temple in order to lure strangers in at night. But the little boy had never heard this, so he just waited and inspected the room he was in. It was very dusty and dirty, and he thought that the priests really needed an acolyte to keep it neat and clean. While he was looking around, he opened the drawer in a table and found some rice paper, pens and ink. Soon he was filling the paper with drawings of cats. When he ran out of paper, he drew cats on the floor. And then he just couldn’t help himself. He had to draw cats on the white, paper screens in the temple. He drew and drew until they were covered with cats.
When he had filled the screens with pictures of every kind of cat he could imagine, the little boy was very tired. He started to lie down next to one of the screens. But just then the words of the old priest ran through his mind. “Avoid large places, keep to small.” The temple was enormous, so the boy looked around for a small place. He found a tiny cupboard in the little room near the door and climbed into it with his parcel of clothes. He shut the cabinet door and was soon fast asleep on a shelf, with his bundle for a pillow. In the middle of the night, the boy heard a loud sound of fighting. It sounded like yowling and running and thumping and bumping and growling. He peeked out of his cubbyhole, but it was too dark. He couldn’t see anything and he was so frightened that he just closed the cabinet door and stayed inside.
In the morning the boy opened the cupboard and crawled out. He tiptoed out of the little room and peeked into the temple. What a surprise! The immense, evil goblin was dead, lying on the temple floor. Who could have killed him? Then the little boy looked at the temple screens. Each cat that he had drawn had a little circle of red around its mouth. Then the boy knew that his cats had attacked and killed the goblin. And he now understood what the priest meant when he said, “Avoid large places, keep to small.”
When the people of the city discovered that the goblin had been defeated, they proclaimed the boy a hero. The soldiers went into the temple to drag the dead goblin away. The priests of that temple would have been happy to take him as an acolyte, but the little boy had changed his mind. He did not become an acolyte or a priest. He became an artist instead, and his paintings of cats were famous in all of Japan. Perhaps the next time you go there, you will see one of his beautiful cats.
Adapted by Toni Murphy