A Life Below
I was born on a ship, the runt of a six-litter. I didn't mind hearing myself called a runt, as that's what I was. And besides which, being smallest turned out to be my good fortune. My mother was a ship's cat to Captain Nicholas Natick, and she had spent a good many of her days on board the Melissa Rae--his ship named after his own daughter. The Melissa Rae was in port in Liverpool on the stormy gray day when my three sisters, two brothers, and I were born in the year 1847.
This was not my mother's first litter, and some of the sailors say she knew how to time herself to the docking of the ship, so as to not give birth on a stormy sea or interrupt her work as a captain's cat, which she took very seriously. Captain Natick dubbed my mother Mrs. Tibbs; he was a man who believed that those given a Christian name had a soul, and he wasn't one to partake of nicknames. So although the sailors sometimes called my mother Mrs. T., and later called me just Tibbs for short, you'd never hear the captain call us by anything other than our proper names.
For this reason, as soon as my siblings and I could open our eyes, the captain set about naming us as well, with the help of his daughter, Melissa. I'm sorry to say I was too young at the time, and many years have since passed, for me to remember everyone's name, but I do recall that I had one sister called Samantha, another named Butterscotch, and a brother of the name Moxie. I was called Jacob, which was Melissa's idea. She said if she'd been lucky enough to have had a brother, she would have wanted him to be called Jacob, and so it was.
The Melissa Rae was a sound ship, with a square stern and three masts. She was not a pretty craft, like the turned-out clippers with sails full up, but a working vessel, making the journey between England and America to deliver mail, packages, and whatever else she was hired out to carry. She traveled well, and the sailors on board gave due credit to my mother for their good fortune. My mother was no ordinary cat-o'-sea; she had a reputation that preceded her. And thus Mrs. Tibbs's kittens were regarded as lucky cats to have on board any seagoing vessel. So, after our naming, news traveled fast around Liverpool, and all the way to Manchester, that Mrs. T. had delivered a healthy litter of superb kittens. And since many other boats were in dock, waiting out the same weather as the Melissa Rae, we had quite a few visitors. Our fame was such that my siblings and I would probably all be claimed many days before we could even leave our own mother.
Of course, we were unaware of the bidding that went on above our heads, and those first days below deck were splendid. I thought our basket in the galley--what we sailors call the kitchen on the ship--was the whole world. The captain saw to it that my mother had plenty of fresh fish, and as a result, my siblings and I had plenty of milk. We napped in the sway of the great ship and played in the gray light below quarters. The sailors who came to look on us brought lanterns, for they could not see in the dark as we could.
During the day, the captain's daughter, Melissa, would sit with us for hours, petting us each in turn and bringing new bits of cotton and wool for Mrs. Tibbs's basket. When we were barely a week old, Melissa brought a piece of cloth, a calico, for us. Being so well washed and worn, it was nearly as soft as my mother. "Here you are, Mrs. Tibbs," Melissa said, tucking it around us. "I've brought you my favorite dress. I'm too big for it now, so I thought your little ones might have use of it." This cloth not only smelled of Melissa--a clean scent of some flowery soap--but made for a warm and cozy bed, especially when Mother had to leave us unattended for any length of time.
Melissa and Mrs. Tibbs got on quite grand, and they would spend a good spell of time in each other's company when we were in port. Melissa was a frail child and had a rattling cough that was aggravated by too much physical activity. Sitting in the galley of the ship with Mrs. Tibbs and us kittens brought her joy without putting a strain on her health. Captain Natick worried for her a great deal, and could be heard to say that for a girl without a mother, Melissa certainly had a soft hand with God's creatures. He would look on and sigh, and his ice-blue eyes would get a bit watery watching his daughter with us.
Our other visitors in port were the sailors from nearby ships, and some captains, as well, who came to purchase us from Captain Natick. These men were big and loud, and smelled of the sea. Like Captain Natick, most of them wore a captain's hat, and those who had hair wore it in a small braid at the back. They were not gentle with us and inspected us quite roughly. They would come, each in his turn, and talk a bit to Captain Natick before they were led below the deck--with lanterns lighting the way through the narrow passage--to our basket, which was tucked behind the stove in the galley. "Ah, Mrs. Tibbs, you've outdone yourself, haven't you?" they could be heard to say. My mother would purr and lift her head to be scratched behind the ears. Even at this early age, it made me proud to see so many great men show my mother such respect.
Butterscotch was the first to be spoken for. She was the biggest, and resembled my mother a good deal with the same white stripes, but instead of my mother's warm yellow fur, Butterscotch's was a rich orange. I remember her to have a mark on her forehead, yellow fur in an M shape over her eyes. A handsome mark for any cat, and as one sailor who saw her said, "She's got the M of Mrs. T. on 'er head; she's a lucky one there!" I hope her life was happy and long, though I never did hear of her again.
Samantha was the next to go, spoken for by a sailor on errand for his captain. "We'll take the gray, the frisky one." And Sam was indeed frisky! Always first to nurse and last to nap, she was bound for a life pacing the deck of a fine ship, I have little doubt.
A bearded captain called Mr. Russ took one brother and one sister with him; their names escape me. At the steep prices Captain Natick could ask, this was quite an investment. But Captain Russ had two ships, and he needed a new cat for each. "None better than those born of Mrs. T.," he said, then added with a cough, "Mrs. Tibbs, I mean to say. No disrespect, ma'am." Then he tipped his cap to my mother and strode away with my brother and sister tucked in the pockets of his greatcoat, their mewing to be heard as he climbed the ladder between decks.
It wasn't until I was left with my mother and my brother Moxie that I began to know there was something different about me. Mind you, I had never been above deck, and I had not seen my own reflection yet, so I had no idea how I appeared to others, except through snips and bits of what the sailors said when they came to see us. I had thought myself unique, especially since Melissa seemed to favor me over my brothers and sisters. "Poor tiny Jacob," she would coo. "Such a bitty kitty you are." She would hold me to her and let me sleep in her lap, especially when the roughhousing of my bigger brothers and sisters proved to be too much for me.
My mother seemed to favor me, too. When the sailors came to have their look at us, she would scoot me behind her or wrap herself around me--hiding me from their large hands and rough ways, I thought. But I was almost never handled. The sailors would reach for the largest kitten first, and that was always someone other than I. That is, until it was just me and Moxie left in the basket.
My brother was a funny sort of cat, a bit odd about the face, and with ears too large for his head. He was black and white, with two white paws in front, markings that my father had as well. I learned this from one captain who stopped by. "He's got socks on, like his old man!" he chuckled. "Won't be able to catch mice with those, now, will you?" he asked Moxie, scratching him beneath the chin. Then he turned his eyes to me and said, "Better luck than your brother here, though. A runt, and four white mittens to boot. You'll be lucky to give that one away." As he spoke, my mother's tail began to swish, and her purring stopped. This escaped the notice of the man, though, as he lifted Moxie from the basket and began to talk price with Captain Natick.
I watched the money change hands, and the large man walk away with Moxie, my last sibling. Now it was just me in the basket with Mother. I hadn't given much thought to what might happen to me, but now I did. Would someone come and tuck me into a greatcoat pocket as well--carry me away? I could hardly bear the thought, and I burrowed under Mother's paws to hide. She purred and licked my face, and it occurred to me that her own sadness must outweigh mine. How selfish of me to worry only for myself, when my poor mother had watched, without one mew of complaint, as all of her kittens, save one, had been taken off by strangers.
A light again made its way across the darkness of the galley toward us, and I saw, as it approached, that the captain's long arm held a lantern out before him. I shuddered; this must be it--my time had come. Then I saw that with him was only Melissa. What did this mean for me? If no other captain had claimed me, what was to be my fate?
"Daddy, please, can't we keep Jacob? No one wanted him. And poor Mrs. Tibbs needs to keep just one of her babies. Please, Daddy?"
The captain didn't answer, but continued to hold his lantern out over our basket. My mother looked up, I observed as she licked the tip of my ear just once, but kept her eyes locked on the captain.
"That's what it is to have a mother," said Melissa. "Mrs. Tibbs doesn't care that he's a runt, or that he's got four mittens on." Melissa covered her mouth with a white cloth and coughed again, holding on to her chest. The captain's eyes got that watery look, and I knew then that whatever Melissa wanted, she was bound to get. "She just loves him all the same," Melissa said quietly, kneeling to our basket.
With those words, my fate was sealed. The captain took off his hat, pushed back a lock of fair hair, and came down on one knee. He laid a hand on my mother's head and scratched her roughly behind the ears, as was his style. "Batten down, Mrs. Tibbs. We'll be leaving port in the morning. And it looks as though we'll have a stowaway by the name of Jacob Tibbs on board as well."
A Loading-To Day
In the still-dark dawn of the next morn, my mother woke me with a gentle nudge and a swish of her tail. I clung to my warm spot in our basket until I remembered, all at once, that this was the day we would be leaving port. Until now the whole of my world had been below deck, in our basket in the galley, and I'd made the acquaintance of only a few sailors. But this would be the first day my mother would let me join her topside. I knew it to be an important day, so I roused and gave myself a quick bath.
Mother looked me over, as she did every morning, and tidied up my fur where I'd missed a spot. I noticed that her short yellow-and-white hair, which resembled my own, was all in place. Our markings were nearly identical, save for our paws--where mine were a milky shade of white, mother's were a warm, solid yellow. I thought my mother a very handsome cat, but on this morning she had clearly taken extra care. With her ears perked and her white whiskers straight, the M on her high forehead stood out in dark orange. She turned on her back paws and made her way to the ship's pantry. I knew to follow close behind.
Though the sun was not yet up, there was a great deal of fuss and bother going on. Big, loud sailors were everywhere, men I'd never laid eyes on, moving about with parcels large and small. I'd never seen so much activity, and I stopped in my tracks and watched in wonderment. The sailors had formed a line, and each passed a parcel to the man next to him before turning to catch another, and so on, all the way down the galley row and into the pantry--a closet of a room that would store all of our food for the journey we were about to undertake. This line of men went right out the ship through a small hatch at the side, the port door, through which a chill breeze was blowing. The men chanted a kind of song as they moved their goods: "Heave!" one would say as he tossed a bag of flour, "Ho!" the man catching the thrown parcel would call out, and on down the line like that.
The smells that filled the ship were divine: dried meats, fresh breads, bright fruits and vegetables, barrels of salt and sugar, and huge bags of flour. And oh, they had such a way to stow things! Sailors find every nook and cranny in a ship and stash things in places the likes of which you could never imagine. Up high were rows of cupboards, and down low barrels lined the walls. Bags and bins were hung from ceiling hooks and strapped to the inside walls of the ship. Anything that didn't fit into the small pantry was stowed into the galley, wherever space could be found. All the food and drink we would need for our journey was loaded on and stored in this way. It was an amazing scene to behold, and in the confusion I lost sight of my mother. I regret to recount that it did not take me long to find myself in trouble without her.
Copyright © 2016 by Cylin Busby. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.