My name is Grakhsh and I am my mother's seventh son. We were a strong litter. All my brothers have been sent to Sheiks and Emirs in faraway lands. All of them but me.
I wonder every sunrise if it is the day I will be sent away myself.
Omar The Keeper keeps me in his house and feeds me. I can hear the sea nearby. Sometimes, floating Palaces arrive from the sea and make a great deal of noise outside. I can only see the top of the Palaces with colourful flags flying high.
I wish I could see more. It's very boring here. I would like to run.
But Omar feeds me good food. I like Omar. If he were a Sheik, I would stay with him.
Two men came to see Omar today. They were not dressed like him. One of them had grey hair. Someone told me a long time ago that only old men have grey hair, but this one was young and his hair was grey and black. Omar picked me up and showed me to him. The Grey Man grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, like my mother used to do.
"By God, he's adorable," he said.
He was speaking a language that was not Omar's, but human languages are all the same. I tried to scratch his face, but he moved his head away before my paw reached him.
"Isn't he adorable, James?" he said again, and turned to the other man, who had hair the color of mud and who hadn't said anything since.
"He does look like a large kitten," James said.
"He is a good cheetah, sir," Omar said. "Still young enough to be teachable."
"Are you now?" the Grey Man asked me, and smiled. He moved me closer, and this time he let me touch his face with my paw. I did not scratch him. He had black hair on his cheeks. Not as soft as mine. "Oh yes, you are," he purred. "You are, you are."
I liked his voice a great deal. I purred back at him.
"Oh, don't you be silly," James said and turned to Omar. "How much are you asking?"
"A trifle for what he is, sir. This is an animal fit for Princes."
"We'll take him," Grey Man said. He drew me into his arms. His chest was very warm. I tried to bury my head inside his vest, and that was a lot of fun.
"Henry, he hasn't named his price!"
So Grey Man's name was Henry. It did not suit him, I thought. It was too short, too simple for him. He was stroking me behind the ears now. I liked it very much.
"I don't care," he said. "I want him."
I looked at Omar. He said I was fit for Princes, but these men weren't dressed like ones. I did not want to be given to lesser men, no matter how kind Henry seemed to be. But the other one, James, did look like a Prince somewhat. He had gold on his shoulders and on his chest and all over his clothes. Perhaps this was what foreign Princes looked like, and Henry was his second in command. His vizir.
"Come now, dear boy. Be reasonable. We haven't room for a cheetah on board," James said.
"Worry not for size, sir. This one will not grow to be as large as most cheetahs. He was the runt of the litter, though I've fed him well to keep him strong."
I hated Omar for saying that. I was not small. I was not a runt. I tried to leap at him, but Henry was holding me too firmly. He started scratching behind my ears. I was still angry, but that made me a little mellow.
"We'll feed him well," Henry said. "He will want for nothing. What do they eat?"
"Fresh meat, sir. Any kind of meat will do."
"We've plenty of meat. Please, James."
James rolled his eyes.
"Oh, bother. Fine, fine. But let this be the last pet, I beg you. You'll ruin me at this rate before we reach the coasts of Africa."
"It will be the last, I swear it." He rolled me in his arms to look at my face better. His eyes were also grey, like my mother's were. I liked him even more. "We will be good friends, won't we, little one?"
I licked his hands. He seemed to like it. James gave Omar some coins and I was taken outside in Henry's arms. I had never been outside. I was not afraid, but I disliked the noise. I hid in Henry's vest some more. He was scratching my back now, as if he knew exactly what I liked. But I was curious, too, so I looked outside. He was taking me inside one of the wooden Palaces. There were many men there, being loud, but they fell silent and bowed to Henry and James and me as we walked by. That pleased me.
The room I was taken to was the largest I'd ever seen. It had tall windows and a table and shelves full of papers. The inside of the ship was wooden, too. It felt nice to scratch it under my paws when Henry placed me down.
"There you go, my darling," Henry told me. I rose to scratch his trousers a little bit. I could not reach higher than his knees. "Are you hungry?"
I purred at him.
"I'll take that as a yes. You need a name."
It's Grakhsh, I told him, but he did not seem to hear me.
"Let's just call him Cheetah," James said.
"Don't be so boring. Something related to him. To his spots, maybe. Or the lines under his eyes."
It's Grakhsh, I insisted.
"Oh, I like Kohl. But see how he smiles! Cheshire?"
James laughed. "That is very you, to name a beast after a cat. Very well. Welcome aboard, Cheshire."
That was not my name. But just then, a servant brought a plate of fresh meat all for me, and I was pleased enough to accept this name that Henry saw fit to call me.
The servants call me the Captain's Cat.
I don't mind.
'Captain' is the name they give James. He is the king of this Palace, and even Henry defers to him. I have noticed he gets the best portions and his lair is the largest. The Palace (that they call 'ship') is like a large coalition. There are no females. The servants also hold Henry in high regard. They call him 'sir' and obey him when he gives orders. I am happy to belong to powerful masters.
But Henry is my master, not James. He feeds me fresh meat twice a day. If I do what he asks me, like 'sit' or 'come' or 'down', he gives me tasty treats to eat, so I humour him. He is never at rest when the sun is out, and he lets me follow him up and down the ship while he orders men around. Sometimes I spend hours playing in the sun outside. There is a rope I like to climb on called 'rigging'. I jump down to scare the men walking on deck. Some of them laugh. They should be afraid of me. I want to be strong and fierce like my brothers were.
After sundown, Henry joins James in his lair. They dine together, and Henry feeds me under the table. I don't like the taste of man-food, but I love licking his fingers. I lie on his lap while they talk after their dinner. I like his lap. It's large and warm and he always scratches behind my ears. It's my favourite time of the day.
Henry has his own lair, but we don't always sleep there. He sleeps with James in the bigger lair some nights, and there is no room for me on the narrow bed. I wouldn't want to be there: sometimes they mate with each other and they are rowdy and noisy. He's made me a corner with a soft blanket that I like tearing very much. Most nights Henry does sleep in his own lair and I always join him in bed. We spend a lot of time grooming each other. I don't understand how his hair never stays in one place over his forehead. I always lick it into place. He has a brush for me that scratches me nicely. It's warm under the covers with him.
I am very happy.
We went hunting today.
James left some moons ago, I thought perhaps forever. Henry told me he would return 'soon', but I could see how restless he was, pacing in the great lair at night because he missed him. I licked his hands whenever I could to comfort him. The ship was his: the men obeyed him and bowed to us when we walked by. During the day, they would make an awful racket with their sticks of thunder, hunting something at a distance. I did not like being on deck with all that noise. But the meat they brought me was good.
Then today Henry told me, "Say, my boy, you must be good at hunting pigs, no?"
I told him I did not know, but he would not listen. I was taken from my mother before she taught me any hunting.
A smaller ship brought us to the shore, just Henry and me. He had his noisy stick with him. It was good to stretch my legs, though the terrain was swampy and muddy. It was warm out, so playing in the mud was nice. But after a bit, Henry crouched down behind some tall grass. I crouched too and I saw what he was stalking: a herd of wild pigs, about twenty all together.
"How about it, hm?" Henry whispered. "Can you bring one for me?"
I had never hunted before, but I just knew what to do. The pigs were slow and dumb, and I was able to jump on one and bring it down. I tore her throat with my teeth and she tasted like the meat we'd been having for days. I liked it. Henry caught up with me and he was very happy.
"Good boy Cheshire!" he told me, and scratched my head. "That was such a good kill, my darling!"
There was blood on his hands after he stroked me, so I licked them. I also bit his fingers a little bit, and he laughed.
I ate most of the pig, though I saved some good pieces for Henry. His teeth are too dull to cut the meat off, so he used a knife. He had a bag with him to bring the meat back. I think he wanted to hunt some more, but I was full and tired. We walked away from the swamp and had a long nap together under the shade of a tree. When I woke up, Henry was still asleep. I rested my head on his belly and guarded the meat for him. He looked like a cheetah when he slept, slender and long and strong. A little bit like a brother, or a father, and not quite a man. When he woke up, he smiled at me.
Back on the ship, Henry told everyone what a great hunter I was and how proud he was. I puffed up my chest to let everyone admire me.
"Honestly, sir," one of the servants told him and shook his head at him. "You're in a state."
He was right: Henry was as bloody and as muddy as I was. Henry then asked him to draw him a bath. I don't know how he can stand to play around in such hot water. Water should be nice and cool. I stayed next to him while he washed in the big tub. By the time he got out, the water was at a nice temperature for me. He rubbed me with a cloth to dry me.
"We'll try hunting again tomorrow, mm?" he told me when we were both dry and ready for bed.
I searched for his hand to make him pet me.
I cannot wait for tomorrow.
James is back.
He was angry about Henry having wasted something called 'ammunition' but he mellowed out after he ate some of our hunted pig. I understand him: it really is very good.
They spent a long time mating in the big lair and they closed the door to keep me outside of the bed-room. I was not happy. I wanted to play with them. I wanted to be inside. I scratched the door so that they would let me in, but they didn't listen. I was angry when James finally opened the door. He was only wearing a white shirt, and no trousers, or any gold.
"Your cheetah ruined my door," he told Henry.
"Our cheetah, James."
"Oh, fine. He is ours, I suppose. Bad Cheshire!" he told me and wagged his finger at me. "Do not scratch my door."
I bared my teeth at him, which he did not seem to like.
"He's getting awfully big, isn't he?" he said, staring at me. He looked a little afraid.
"He is still very little," Henry protested.
"I think that man lied to us through his teeth. He'll grow as large as a lion at this rate. How are we to keep him onboard if he does?"
"He is still a baby. He will be just fine."
I liked Henry a lot more than James. I went to rub against his legs.
"Will you stay the night?" James asked.
Henry looked down at me and hesitated. "Not tonight," he said. "The men will talk."
"Bugger the men. I cannot wait until we're on land again, just you and me, and not have to worry about this."
"Me too," Henry said, and kissed him.
In his lair, Henry let me sleep on his bed like most nights. I was happy to have him all to myself. He seemed a little worried whenever he looked at me. I licked his neck to make him feel better. I don't know if it worked.
We had an 'art evening' today.
I had to stand very still next to James while Henry drew us on his sketchbook. That was very boring. But I was surprised to see how much like us it looked when it was done. James was very happy about it. He then said it was his turn to draw Henry. I was not asked to stay still again. I played with Henry on the floor while James drew us. It was a lot of fun. Henry likes rolling a great deal, and I do too.
"You are both such darlings," James told us. "My own darlings."
Henry crawled closer to him for a kiss. I moved closer too, but James did not kiss me. He only scratched under my chin, which I don't really like. I was disappointed.
They had a servant bring them tea, and they poured some on my drinking bowl. It tasted horrible.
"We should do a play soon," James said while he ate a scone. "I am dying to dress up."
"What shall you dress up as?"
"Something with Cheshire. A powerful Persian king with a pet cheetah, or something along those lines."
"A Persian princess, maybe," Henry said, and winked. "Might be easier to make that costume."
"Oh, do be quiet." James took a sip of tea and crossed his legs. He looked amused. "What would you be?"
"The evil prince from the neighbouring Caliphate, coming to ravish you?"
"My faithful cheetah won't let you. Will you, Cheshire?"
I did not understand the game, but I purred at him anyway.
"See? You will have to gain my cheetah's favour first."
"Beware, my Princess. I will give him treats and sweets and soon he will be my man. Will I be worthy of your hand then?"
"Quite worthy. Oh, let us write a play, I beg you!"
Henry laughed. "I cannot promise I won't kiss you in earnest in our happy ending."
"Who cares! It's make-believe."
I was very bored by now so I climbed on Henry's lap. I could no longer curl on it. My legs were dangling too much and some of the stuff on the table was disturbed. He stroked my belly anyway, and I fell asleep while they continued to talk.
They went on land and left me. It has been many days.
I do not like being left.
I have torn many bedsheets to let them know how bored I am.
Henry brought something called a leash today. It's a thing that goes around my neck. I hated it. I didn't mind it being on my neck, but there is a rope tied to it and it doesn't let me wander. Henry pulled on it to stop me from going up the rigging and I pulled harder until he had to let go. I really hated it. Why did he bring such a thing? I tried to gnaw it off my neck and Henry knelt down and took it off. He looked upset. I was upset too. I jumped up the rigging the moment it came off. I bared my teeth at him.
"If he cannot be leashed, he cannot come on land with us," James said, arms crossed over his chest.
Henry sighed. "Give him time. It was just the first day."
"He is too old, sir," said a man they had brought on deck. He was dressed like Omar was. I hadn't thought of Omar in a long time. "In Bahrain, he'd have been leashed as a baby."
"No one told us," Henry said. He still sounded upset. "No one told us anything. Down, Cheshire," he told me, but I did not want to come down.
"Have you trained him? Does he obey?"
"Most of the time he does. Come on, boy. Down!" He reached up for me with a hand. I felt like biting it. He must have guessed it, because he pulled it back fast. "Not today, apparently."
"That is dangerous, sir. He should be trained by now, or he will become a bigger problem later," said that odious little man.
James said, "I did think it was reckless of you to take him hunting around Muscat. Something could have gone wrong."
"Next time I feel like doing something reckless, I will be sure to consult you, seeing how you are a paragon of prudence!" Henry snapped.
I had never heard him speaking to James like that. I don't think James had, either, because he frowned and his face grew very red. I thought they would quarrel, so I came down the rigging like Henry wanted.
"Good boy," he told me, not minding James anymore. He stroked my head. "Come along now."
I followed him under deck. We went to Henry's lair, not James's. Henry sat down on the floor and sighed.
"What am I supposed to do with you, hm?" he asked me.
I did not know what to answer. I rested my head on his knees. He pulled me up and held me against his chest. I liked it.
They left me again.
I am so bored.
I came up with a fun game. If I climb up the rigging, I can jump down and scare the men for real now. They run away from me. It reminds me a little of chasing after the pigs, but I never hurt them. I pretend to bite them. I like to see them run.
It's the only fun thing to do when Henry isn't here.
Today was the worst day ever.
We were sailing for many days and everyone was bored. Even James and Henry were bored. No one wanted to play with me. I tried chasing men on deck but they all stayed clear of me. All except the cook's boy. I like chasing him. His legs are fat and pink and he is very slow at running, and when he runs from me he always screams. I could tell he did not want to be on deck or come near me so I started chasing him right away. He screamed. It was a lot of fun.
"Enough, Cheshire!" James said behind us. "Stop that now!"
I did not listen to him because there was still some room to run.
"Stop, I tell you!"
Now James joined us too: he was chasing me and I was chasing the cook. It was the best game we'd ever had.
"God-damned Henry!" James shouted. "Where are you? Come on deck at once! He only listens to you."
The cook's boy was starting to get tired. I was getting ready to jump on his back.
Then, out of nowhere, James pulled on my tail.
It was very painful and also very annoying because without my tail I can't keep my balance. All I could think was to hurt whoever was hurting me. I did not care that it was James. I whirled around and jumped on him with a roar. He was not expecting that: I knocked him down. We both fell and I pinned him down. I bit him on the shoulder. He screamed.
"Stop!" That was Henry's voice. He was shouting. "Cheshire, stop!"
James was writhing under me but I would not let go. I tried to bite him again. He moved his head just in time. Henry tried to pull me from him, but I think I was too heavy for him. All I could think was hurt him hurt him hurt him.
"Stop! Off!" Henry shouted again, and he sounded afraid. James did too. He was punching my sides.
Then something hurt my back terribly. I looked up to see what it was. Henry was hitting me with a rod. It hurt. He had never beat me before. I had never seen him angry at me.
I was afraid.
I cowered down and let go of James.
Henry stopped hitting me then, but he chased me below deck. I was afraid he would hit me again, so I ran to our lair. He locked the door and left me there.
He hasn't come back since.
No one has come for hours.
I wish James hadn't pulled on my tail. I wish I hadn't bitten him. I wish Henry hadn't hit me.
He had to, of course: James is his mate and I was hurting him.
I don't know what I was thinking.
Henry came today just after sunrise. He had a plate of fresh meat with him. No rod. I wanted to run to him, but I was still afraid.
"Bad Cheshire," he told me.
I whimpered at him. I stayed crouched down very low with my ears down so that he would know that I was not a threat. That I was sorry.
He put down the plate. I thought he'd leave, but he closed the door behind himself and sat down on the floor with a sigh. I walked closer to the plate of food, closer to him, hoping he would not send me away. He did not. I pressed my nose to his knee. He sighed again and touched my head, but very lightly, as if he were afraid of me. I wanted to cry.
"It's all my fault," he said.
No, I told him. No.
"You'd have been... happier if some prince bought you, wouldn't you? You'd have had gardens and a trainer and people to look after you."
It looked like he wanted to cry too. I pressed more into his hand. I did not want a prince or a garden. I only wanted him to stroke me.
"I'm so sorry," he said, and left.
I don't understand what happened.
I thought all was forgiven. I thought even James had forgiven me. Today on deck, he rubbed my head with both hands and said, "No hard feelings, old boy."
I licked his hands. I was excited that we were going on land, Henry and I.
"Are you certain you don't want me to come?" he asked Henry as we jumped on the smaller boat. "It is quite a long walk there."
"You had better not," Henry said. "I would be worried about you constantly."
"It's you I worry about, all by yourself. Take one of the men with you."
"I will be fine. Let us be done with it."
This land was hot and warm. Tall, yellow grass grew everywhere. Good for hiding. I thought maybe we would hunt. We walked together for a long time, Henry and I. He had a bottle of water, and he poured some on his hand for me to drink. After a while we made it to a river, a large river that spread across the land into a marshy terrain. The grass was very green here. I liked it. I slid in the water to get wet all over and be less hot. Henry sat down on the wet bank.
"Well. Here we are, I suppose."
Something about his wavering voice made me look up in alarm. He sounded very sad. His eyes were full of tears. I trotted closer to him.
"There will be plenty of game for you to hunt in these wetlands," he said. "It's too warm now, but maybe in the morning."
I glanced around. Yes, I could imagine all sorts of tasty animals coming to drink in the marshes.
"Please tell me you'll be alright." His voice broke. "Please... tell me you'll know how to hunt."
I did not understand why he was saying this. I did not want him to cry. I moved closer to him and rubbed my head to his chest. He held me tight tight against him.
"Oh, my boy," he said against my head. It was nice. "My poor, sweet, dearest boy."
We stayed like this for a long time. For such a long time I thought we might sleep. But Henry let go of me and stood.
"Good-bye, Cheshire," he said.
Good-bye? He started walking away. He couldn't mean that, could he? I followed him.
"No," he said, and waved his hand like when he wanted me to obey. "Stay."
Stay? Oh, I saw it then. He was going to leave me. Henry was going to leave me! I ran after him.
"No!" he shouted.
He pointed his noisy stick skywards and fired it. That was not fair. He knew I was afraid of its thunder. I did not dare to move any closer. Some birds of the marsh flew out in the distance, afraid too.
"Go!" Henry said. I could see he was crying now. "Don't follow me."
I was too stunned to move. I called after him, but he did not turn around. I saw him become smaller and smaller. I wanted to run to him. I wanted to follow him. But he did not want me anymore. He would fire his stick again. Perhaps he would beat me with it. Oh, it was too awful to think about.
I crouched down on the grass and cried.
It hasn't been easy.
Not for lack of food: Henry was right and there was plenty of game in the marshes - not at all difficult to hunt. But I was very unhappy and very lonely for a very long time. I met other cheetahs, but no coalition would have me. I was a stranger. I was no one's brother. I was no one. I had even forgotten what my true name was. I had to hide so that they would not fight me.
I stayed alone until I found my mate, Ayrk. We are on our third littler now. She expected me to leave once the cubs were born, but I refused to. She said, 'This is not the custom,' and yet I stayed. Where else would I go? I think this still puzzles her, at times. But it's easier to defend the cubs if we are two, when they are still clumsy and little. I would not want to leave her, or the children. Ayrk was the only female of her litter and her mother died long ago. She too has no one, but this is the way for females. She asked me once why I do not join a coalition. I told her I belonged to one, but that they left me for dead and I did not want another. It wasn't really a lie. They did leave me.
I think of Henry sometimes. I think of him when I hunt warthogs, which taste very much like pig. I am starting to forget what his voice sounded like, or what he smelled like. James is even blurrier in my memories. But when the children are sleeping and I have a moment of quiet, I do miss them terribly. I wonder where Henry is. I wonder if he thinks of me. I wish someone would stroke me behind my ears. Are they still in their floating Palace, I wonder. Is there another Henry calls 'my boy'? Does he miss me? Many seasons have passed. They must be far away from here now. They must have forgotten me.
And yet... if Henry came back for me, I think I'd be happy. I'd let him near the cubs. I'd lick his hands. I'd rub against his legs. But I don't know that I'd follow him again.
I wish he'd come anyway.
My name is Grakhsh. I have sired eleven children. Two of my sons live with me. They are good hunters who bring food to their old slow father. When I sleep, I dream of the sea. I dream of a man with grey hair who was kind to me. It's a nice dream. But I think that's all it was.