A cat really can play the fiddle. Only it has to be a cat fiddle. And a cat fiddle can only be made by an Old Cat Master.
Every so often, a cat’s whisker will simply fall out. To an ordinary cat, this is nothing. He’ll go straight back to napping or batting at a ball of fluff. But to an Old Cat Master, ah, it’s a special moment. He’ll scoop up the dropped whisker and whisk it to one of his secret hiding spots (you see, it isn’t just leopards that have spots).
And while the crafty cat waits for the next whisker to fall out, he isn’t lazy. He might seem lazy and sleep half the day, waking up only to scratch at a tree trunk. But sleeping and scratching are critical things to an Old Cat Master. For when he’s scratching at a tree, he’s chipping off bits of wood, which he’ll hide in another hiding spot. And when he’s sleeping, he’s dreaming of the splendid fiddle he’ll make, at last, when his hiding spots are jam-packed with whiskers and wood.
When that glorious time finally comes, he’ll lick the wooden bits all over (cat spit is as good as any glue on earth), and fit them together until the body of the fiddle is finished and done. Then he’ll retrieve the whiskers from their hiding place. Those become the strings of the fiddle and the bow.
Now comes that moment, that moment of wonder, that all Old Cat Masters live for. That sparkling moment when he lifts the fiddle, swivels the bow, and strikes the very first note. If the sound makes his fur stand on end, well, he tightens the strings and tries again. But if the sound makes him meow without meaning to, well, then, he purrs (and means every word of it).
There are Old Cat Masters all over the world, but the greatest of these is Cativarius. He only scratches at certain trees and eats a species of bird that makes his whiskers sing. I can’t tell you which trees or what species, because I don’t know. Only Cativarius knows. Of all the Great Cat Secrets, that is the greatest. And of all the legends about Cativarius, the best and best known is this.
When he was only a very young cat, Cativarius had a nemesis–an enemy. This was Bartolomeow, a black puss with cream-colored paws. Each hoped to one day become an Old Cat Master, and to that end practiced his fiddle-making every day. And though they were both very talented cats, you never saw two felines who were less alike. For Bartolomeow, oh, he was a swaggerpuss, and a hollerpuss, and as proud as a dog. He thought his fiddles were the best in existence and let everyone know about it.
“Hey, Cativarius!” he cried one morning, skipping along, a fiddle in his paws. “Silly kitten! Give up! You might one day make an okay instrument, but it will never, never sound as good as this.”
Pouncing onto a trash can, he played a bit of “Hickory Dickory,” and truly, it did sound very good.
Then he blew a kiss to all the girl-kittens–there were always plenty of those whenever Bartolomeow was around–and skipped back down the alley.
“What a nincompuss!” said a cat to Cativarius. “Your fiddles are at least as good as his. You should brag about them, too.”
“My fiddles are good,” answered Cativarius. “And I could spend half the day bragging about them. But I’d rather spend all day working on them and improving them, with room, of course, for a nap or two.”
His friend thought that sounded reasonable, especially the nap part.
The following afternoon as Cativarius sat diligently licking bits of wood and sticking them together, Bartolomeow again skipped up to him.
“Still at it?” He laughed. “You know what they say: all work and no play. And speaking of play, Cativarius, feast your ears on this!”
Bouncing onto a fencepost, the bratty cat lifted his fiddle, playing a pinch of “Old King Cole,” and truly, it did sound very, very good. Then he took a bow and skipped down the alley, a dozen girl-kittens tripping along behind him.
“What a kittwit!” said a cat to Cativarius. “If I were you, I’d chase him out of town!”
“I could chase him,” said Cativarius, tossing aside a bit of wood that wasn’t just right. “But I’d rather spend that time making fiddles. For my dream, Gingerly,” (that was his friend’s name), “is to make the greatest fiddle ever made. I may not succeed. But one cannot succeed,without at least trying.”
Gingerly thought that sounded very wise and would have written it down, but she didn’t have a pencil.
Evening is a magical time for cats. Beneath the yellow moon, the whole feline world comes alive. In the daytime, the alley where Cativarius lived was a quiet place (except, of course, for when Bartolomeow showed up). But at night, ah, it changed. It filled up with cats like a bathtub filling. And all of them, all night, every night, chatted and sang, and fought with dogs (well, cats will be cats). It was wild.
One especially wild night when the moon was round and full, Bartolomeow wound his way through the crowd toward his nemesis.
“What!” he cried. “Not working?”
“I have finished for the day,” said Cativarius.
“And that’s your latest?” Bartolomeow pointed to the finished fiddle at Cativarius’ side.
“It is. It is my very best, I think, to date.”
Bartolomeow only laughed.
“That good, eh? Then you won’t mind proving it. I challenge you, pussir, to a fiddle duel.”
The crowd gasped. A fiddle duel, after all, is serious business to cats.
“Well?” said Bartolomeow. “Do you have the cat-guts?”
“Ignore the ignorampuss,” said Gingerly, swishing her tail in anger.
And normally, Cativarius would have. But this time, his eyes–it was a trick of the moonlight, no doubt–seemed to smile. And then he said, very softly, “I accept your challenge.”
The crowd meowed.
Bartolomeow climbed the Great Scratching Post (people would call it a “tree”), and hopped onto the stage (or “rooftop,” in people-speak).
“Friends!” he cried. “Attention! You are about to witness the greatest cat-battle in history! It will be me, the great Bartolomeow” (a hundred girl-kittens sighed), “versus Cativarius. For the sake of fairness, we will both perform the same song. And it is my pleasure to tell you that tonight’s song will be that great cat favorite “Hey Diddle Diddle.”
The crowd purred. It really is a lovely tune.
“As for which is the best-sounding fiddle,” Bartolomeow went on, “only you, my friends, can decide!”
Then with a great flourish, he began dancing on the roof as he played, pausing, now and again, to blow a kiss at some lucky kitten. And truly, it was a fine-sounding fiddle. After he’d finished and taken his bow, there was so much clapping, meowing, purring, and angry barking (dogs will be dogs), that it was almost deafening.
“If you’d like give up now,” said Bartolomeow to his rival as he leaped out of the tree, “and save yourself the embarrassment, I for one wouldn’t blame you.”
But Cativarius didn’t give up. Instead, he climbed onto the roof. He placed the fiddle under his chin. And without a word, he began playing.
It’s difficult to describe music. But try imagining the tune of the song, and the music that goes with the words. Imagine the fiddle….
Hey, diddle diddle, played Cativarius, in his best style by the light of the yellow moon.
The crowd was so noisy and busy congratulating Bartolomeow, they may not have even heard him.
The Cat and the fiddle.
The animals quieted down a little. Though someone–probably a dog–snickered.
The Cow jumped over the moon.
Very quiet now. Almost … silent.
The little Dog laughed to see such sport.
No dog laughed this time. Though a tear ran down the muzzle of more than one.
And the Dish ran away with the Spoon.
Silent. It was now silent in the alley. No one could remember it ever being as quiet as it was that moment, that special moment, on that famous night.
Then young Cativarius took his bow, and it was silent no longer. For every cat in the alley took to his feet and cheered. Every dog howled with emotion. Gingerly clapped until her claws ached. So beautiful was the sound of the fiddle, truly, that no one really cared about the duel and such a silly thing as picking a winner and a loser. No, there was only joy and celebration all evening.
Cativarius was called back many times to play another song, and another, until the yellow moon sank back down, and the night came to an end. But before that, Bartolomeow shook Cativarius by the paw. He too had a tear in his eye. Though he’d be a swaggerpuss and a hollerpuss all his life, he never was quite as big a swaggerpuss or hollerpuss after that night. He and Cativarius remain friends to this day. Gingerly and Cativarius became parents to six little kittens, all of them fiddle-makers.
And that is the legend and the reason the Cativarius fiddle is valued above all. For its is a music so beautiful, so elegant, truly, that it made dogs cry and every last cat in the alley stand on its back legs and dance.
1. Who can make a cat fiddle?
2. What does he use for the strings?
3. What is a nemesis? Who was Cativarius’ nemesis?
4. What did Bartolomeow challenge Cativarius to do?
5. What did the dogs do as Cativarius played his best fiddle?