(A French fable adapted from Emile Zola’s “Paradise for Cats.”)
Louis was a fat cat who was very fortunate. He lived in luxury. His companion, a woman named Cherie, fed him salmon and caviar. He slept on feather pillows before a fire. Still, Louis often stared longingly out the window. When he stretched his neck, he could sometimes see cats across the way, romping across slate roofs and lolling beneath the sun.
Louis wanted just one thing: He wanted to live the life of those cats on the rooftops. “Paradise!” he purred. And he vowed the moment he had the chance, he’d run away to paradise.
One day a miracle happened. Cherie forgot to close the kitchen window, and when she turned her back, Louis leaped out.
“How beautiful!” he crooned. He could smell sunshine and trees, flowers and baking croissants. He trembled with just the tiniest bit of fear when three cats meowing menacingly approached, but they laughed at Louis. “Silly goose! What are you scared of?” they asked. Louis decided he’d meow too. He opened his mouth and joined in their wailing. When the others lolled along the rooftop, Louis lolled right beside them.
Before long, an old tomcat stepped forward. “Bonjour,” he said, “my name is Tom. I see you don’t know the ways of the world. I’d be glad to teach you.”
“I accept!” Louis said gratefully. He had never had a cat friend.
Louis was soon following Tom and his gang as they darted through the streets. Like them, he drank water from gutters and it tasted sweeter than cream. Everything seemed beautiful. When a female cat passed by, Louis gasped with admiration. “Good day,” Louis said to the female, but the others bit his neck and shoved him out of the way.
“Never mind her,” Tom said. “You’ll meet lots of lovely females out in this world.”
They continued walking beneath the warm springtime sun, enjoying the sights and the smells. They languidly made their way back to the rooftop where they’d met.
Louis was starting to feel hungry. “What do you eat up on these roofs?” he asked Tom.
“Whatever we find,” Tom replied.
Louis was embarrassed; he had never hunted for food. He began to look around, but he couldn’t find a thing and feared he might starve. Then, suddenly, he saw a man preparing a meal through a window. On the man’s table, just above the windowsill, lay a juicy pork chop. Without thinking, Louis jumped through the window and onto the table. He snatched the chop, but before he could get out the window, the man saw him and reached for a broom. He smacked Louis so hard that the chop dropped from his mouth. Louis just managed to escape before the broom came down again.
Tom was standing just outside the window, shaking his head. “Food on tables isn’t for us,” he said. “We eat from the gutters and alleys. We’ll wait until dawn and find our food in the garbage heaps.”
Louis was horrified. “Wait all night?”
Tom calmly nodded his head. “You’ll learn,” he said sagely.
They left the rooftop to roam dark alleyways. Night dragged on far too slowly for Louis. The evening mist made him shiver. As rain began falling and the brisk winds blew, Louis began to think how dreary the world outside was after all. There was no sun, no warm roofs, no playing and prancing. His paws slipped on the cobblestone streets, and he began to dream of Cherie’s house and his nice pillows.
Suddenly Tom hissed, “Quick, over here!” He was gliding close to the side of a building. When they reached the shelter of a door, Tom whispered, “That man with the hook and basket out there? See him? He’s the animal catcher. If he finds us, we’re dead!”
Now Louis was shivering with fear as well as cold. Rain and wind and men with hooks? Garbage and slippery streets? What more could happen out here?
Louis heard rustling. He turned and saw three men carrying garbage out to the streets. He raced to inspect it. He longed for a nice piece of meat, a little salmon and some caviar. He rifled through the bags, but he found just three dry bones.
Tom, Louis could see, was an artist. He rifled through the garbage slowly and diligently, and he found a few strips of thin, stale meat. As the cold rain fell onto Louis, all he could think about was his warm, dry prison, where a bowl of salmon and caviar surely awaited him.
When the sun began to rise, Tom looked at him and winked. “You’ve had enough of life out here, haven’t you?”
“I have,” Louis said meekly.
“Do you want to go home?” Tom asked.
“I do,” Louis said, “but how do I find my house?”
Tom wearily shook his head. “When I saw you leave your house yesterday, I knew a fat cat like you wasn’t meant for the joys of freedom. Follow me.”
Louis followed Tom along cobblestone streets, up to slate rooftops, along paths he barely remembered. Soon they were at Cherie’s window. Tom turned to him and said, “Here you are. Goodbye!”
Louis could not bear to leave his friend out here in the wilds. “Come with me,” Louis said. “I’ll share my bed and food. Cherie is generous.”
Tom waved a paw. “I’d die in there with all those fluffy pillows and rich foods. That’s for weaklings. I need to be free!” He turned and jumped up on the roof and disappeared.
Louis slipped inside. When Cherie saw him, she screamed, “Bad boy!” But she gathered him in her arms and fed him caviar. Later, stretched out before the fire, Louis rested his head on his feather pillows and closed his eyes. Now he understood that paradise was a place where he might be locked up forever, but he would always have fresh meat, fluffy pillows and a fire.
That was paradise, after all. For a cat, that is.