December 1, 2018

The Mountain Farmer’s Bootlace

by David Sklar


“Are you a good mouser? I have an infestation—mice or something—at the top of that mountain in the east. If you’d like to hunt them for me I’d be mighty grateful.”

Once upon a time there were three cats who lived in a boot that belonged to a giant. Now, this giant had a small farm, stretching over about half a continent, where he grew mountains. You might not think of mountains as a crop that grows on a farm, but if you are large enough and patient enough, you can grow them, and I’ll tell you how:

You start with a mountain seed, which is a special kind of stone, slightly bigger than you are, and shaped like a kernel of unpopped corn. Hold this stone between thumb and forefinger, and push the pointy end down into the rock. Keep on pressing down, down, down into the Earth’s crust, until the tip of it just punctures the mantle. The magma spills up from under the mantle, swells into gaps in the crust, and pushes the mountain up from the rock over the course of thousands of years. And that’s how you grow mountains.

* * *

Now, this giant had been working barefoot in the fields when he came home and found a small family of cats inside his boot. Curious, he shook the boot to see what would happen.

The calico cat climbed up the leather inside the boot, trying to escape—but the shaking made her lose her grip and fall. She landed on her feet in the heel, and scampered into the toe, where the tabby cat had been hiding since the giant picked them up. But the black cat saw the enormous bootlace dangling inside the boot, and she had to play. She latched her claws into this string and bit the tip of the bootlace, and when the giant pulled it up the cat came with it.

“Well, you’re a brave one,” the giant said as he pulled the cat out. “Are you a good mouser? I have an infestation—mice or something—at the top of that mountain in the east. If you’d like to hunt them for me I’d be mighty grateful.”

The cat did not want to leave her brother and her sister behind, but the infestation of mice sounded delicious. “Yum,” she said. And the giant carried her to the distant mountain and placed her gently on top to hunt the mice.

Now, giants’ eyes are wonderful for seeing large things far away—but not so good for details on mouse-sized things—or even goat-sized things, for that matter. Indeed, if the black cat had not mewed and played with his bootlace, the giant might not have realized she was a cat, but mistaken her for some other creature instead. So when the black cat arrived on the mountaintop, she searched and searched for mice, but the only creatures she found were a herd of goats.

She tried to catch a mountain goat once or twice, but she had no luck, and in the end she set off down the mountain alone. She saw a plume of chimney-smoke rising up from a house at the base of another mountain. She wandered for days until, thin and starving, she reached that house, where a farmer and his family took her in and nursed her back to health.

Meanwhile, the giant went back to his boot and shook out the calico cat and said, “Your sister has not caught the mice I sent her to hunt on the mountaintop. I see that you know how to climb. Do you think you can help?”

“Of course,” said the calico cat, who was afraid for her sister, and missed her dearly.

So the giant took the calico cat to the mountaintop and deposited her there. And the calico cat searched high and low for mice, and for her sister the black cat, but she found neither—only goats. So she walked down the mountainside and followed the chimney-smoke to the cottage, where she showed up worn and haggard, and they nursed her back to health, and the two cats nestled together on the windowbox in the sunlight.

Meanwhile, the giant returned to his boot, having no idea that a third cat remained in the toe—for the tabby cat had always hidden himself so well. So the giant put his boot back on with the cat inside.

Luckily, the boot fit him well, with extra room in the toe, and the tabby cat found a warm place to sleep between the giant’s big toe and his next one (which was also quite large but not a big toe by name), and the cat was comfortable there.

But one night the giant could not sleep because the goats on the mountaintop were bleating too loud. As patient as he could be about growing mountains, he got grumpy when someone disturbed his sleep. So he flung his boot at the mountaintop, and mumbled something about that infernal squeaking, completely unaware that there was a cat inside his boot.

Of course, being half asleep, he missed by a mile, or possibly even a mile and a half, and the boot bounced off of the crest of a neighboring mountain, and it settled even higher up, on the icy peak of a third.

When the boot was no longer moving, the poor tabby cat stumbled dizzily out of the toe, and walked up toward the opening to make sense of his surroundings. But before he could get outside, his movement shifted the weight of the boot, and the whole thing began to slip on the mountaintop ice. The cat held on for dear life as the old boot rode an avalanche down the mountainside, coming to rest at last against the backside of the cottage where his sisters now dwelt.

The cushion of snow was a fortunate thing, for it kept the massive boot from cracking the cottage in half with its weight. But it nearly buried the cottage. The farmer and his two daughters had to climb out the windows and shovel a path to the door, while his wife stayed inside and made something hot to drink, and their young son stayed in and played with the two cats.

While they were shoveling out their door, the farmer and his daughters noticed the face of a tabby cat poking out through a hole in the snow. And so it was that the tabby cat was reunited with his sisters, and the farmer and his family gained an enormous boot in their yard, which they used to store root vegetables in the winter.

And they all lived happily ever after. Or they would have, except that the giant was still out there looking for his boot.

Because the boot was covered in snow, he had walked past it two or three times already, giving the farmer and his family time to stock it completely with beets and rutabagas, turnips and parsnips, and the boot remained hidden in the snow until one day the farmer stamped snow off his boots before going in to get a parsnip for his soup, and that stamping shook a bit of snow off the ankle. So it was that, on the fourth or fifth pass, the giant noticed his boot sticking out of the snow, and he picked it up.

And what a thrill awaited him on that day! For instead of a family of cats who never did deal with his infestation, he looked inside and saw a cache of root vegetables that seemed just the right size for an afternoon snack. So he upturned the boot above his mouth and ate them all in one gulp, leaving the farmer and his family with nothing to eat for the winter.

The farmer was distraught, and he had no idea what to do. The winter stretched out long before them, and they had just enough food for a week. And his daughters and his wife felt hopeless as well.

But the youngest child said, “I will go and find the giant, and make him pay us back for the food he took.” And his father told him no, and his mother told him no, and his sisters told him please don’t, and the black cat told him, “If you go then I’m going with you.”

And when everyone else was asleep, the farmer’s son went out in the snow to track the giant, with a sandwich, a bit of kibble, and the black cat riding in the pack on his back. This did not take much skill, because the footprints were almost as big around as his house. But it still was not easy, because the giant took such large steps that the boy had to run all night just to catch up. And he still would not have made it, except that the giant stopped in the morning to plant a new crop of mountains.

“Hey, Mister Giant!” the boy shouted, and he tapped on the giant’s boot.

The giant pushed another large round rock into the ground.

“Hey! I’m talking to you!” the boy shouted.

The giant did not notice, but walked a bit further, and the boy had to sprint to keep up.

“Hey!” the boy shouted, breathless, when the large foot stopped again, but the giant continued not to notice him. The cat leaped out of the backpack and grabbed the lace of the giant’s boot, where it dangled above the ground. With the greatest leap he could muster, the young lad followed, and grabbed the bootlace as well. And they swung from it until the bootlace came untied, and the boy’s feet touched the ground.

Still the giant did not notice, but went his way, dragging the boy across the stone terrain with every step. “There are trees over there,” the cat said. To get the giant’s attention, the boy ran off to the side and wrapped the bootlace several times around a pine.  And this the giant noticed by the way the pine tree snagged his step before it toppled out of the ground.

“Hey!” the boy shouted again.

The giant turned and squinted down at him. “You’re not a cat,” the giant said. “And you’re not a rat. What are you?”

“I’m a boy.”

The giant scratched his stubbly chin. “Are you a good mouser?”

“I don’t know.” The boy shrugged. “I’ve never tried.”

“Then probably not,” the giant told him. “What do you want?”

The boy felt a quivering in his chest that nearly stole his voice away, but he answered anyway, “You took something of mine.”

The giant looked around, puzzled. “Was that your tree?”

“No,” the boy answered. “My family’s root vegetables. The beets, parsnips, rutabagas, and turnips you ate from this boot.”

“Those were yours?” the giant asked.

The boy nodded. “Uh-huh.”

The giant shrugged. “Why were your roots in my boots?”

“We didn’t know it was yours,” the boy said. “It came to us with a cat. We were using it as a root cellar.”

“Did anyone buy?” the giant asked.

“Buy what?” the boy asked back.

“The roots, from your root seller.”

The boy shook his head. “They were all we had. They were supposed to feed us all winter.”

At this point the cat tugged on the boy’s pants. “Tell him you’re a good mouser,” the cat told the boy.

“He already said I wasn’t,” the boy said back.

“Tell him you’ll try,” said the cat.

“What are you talking about?” asked the giant.

“I can try being a mouser, if you need me to,” said the boy.

“But you’ll need a tool,” said the cat.

“But I’ll need a tool,” said the boy.

“What kind of tool?” said the giant.

“His bootlace,” the cat whispered.

“Your bootlace,” said the boy.

So the giant thought a minute, then pulled out his bootlace. He then took the boy, not even noticing the cat who rode along, and deposited the boy and the cat on the mountaintop with the goats.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the farm, the boy’s family wondered if he would ever return.

“He probably got eaten by the giant,” said his mother. And she shed a tear, because as tough as she tried to be, she loved her children and she did not want to lose them.

The boy’s sisters watched the two cats play lethargically in the sunlight. The girls missed their brother, and the cats missed the other cat.

And then it was that the boy and the cat rode in on the back of a goat, with a dozen more goats harnessed behind them with a giant bootlace. “We’ll have milk for the winter. And cheese,” said the boy. “And meat, if we get really hungry.”

But his sisters and his parents only ran to him and hugged him, so glad they were to see the boy alive. And the cats ran up and rubbed against his shoes, and then they leaped up onto the back of the goat to welcome their sister home.

 

* * *


About the Author

David Sklar never learned to drink coffee until he had kids. A Rhysling nominee and past winner of the Julia Moore Award for Bad Verse, he has more than 100 published works, including fiction in Nightmare and Strange Horizons, poetry in Ladybug and Stone Telling, and humor in Knights of The Dinner Table and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. David lives with his wife, their two barbarians, and a secondhand familiar in a cliffside cottage in Northern New Jersey, where he almost supports his family as a freelance writer and editor. He’s also the creator of the Poetry Crisis Line, which features new material every Monday and Thursday at poetrycrisis.org.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *