Once upon a time on a small farm in the Mutsu Province, there lived a large but happy family. There were so many children it was hard to keep them fed and happy, but not impossible. You see, each member of the family was unfailingly kind and also access to a small magic.
This was not so unusual as it seems. There was more magic in the world in those days. And when we speak of small magics, we do not mean the magics of those trained at Mahoutokoro or any of the legendary magic users of Japan. Instead, we speak of the small things: Father could push a plough as well as any ox, Eldest Brother could sow a field perfectly by throwing a single handful of seed, Eldest Sister was able to water the fields by squirting a stream of water through her teeth. Mother’s rice pot could always feed one more mouth, even if they had nothing to accompany the rice.
Youngest Son was a puzzle, though. He didn’t have any small magic, as far as his family could tell. He also didn’t have anything that he was really good at. He could not push a plough with any magical acumen — in fact, one would be tempted to say he could push a plough with half the strength of an average boy. He hated to be out in the fields at work, and he did not enjoy cooking with his mother. He was a clever child, but it seemed none of his cleverness could be harnessed for good work. His parents worried that he would never grow up to be big and strong, but they knew that each child must walk his own path.
Youngest Son’s path appeared to be paved in parchment. His parents never could figure out how he came by the parchment and inks he carried under his arms, but he was never without. Were he any other child they would worry that he had stolen the supplies from the scribe, but first, they knew their son to be trustworthy, and second, Scribe was a cousin and could be counted on to tell them of their son’s theft should he ever need to.
With these supplies, Youngest Son drew everything he could see, from flowers in the springtime to the falling leaves in autumn. Sometimes Mother caught a glimpse of his drawings from the corner of her eye while she prepared dinner in her never-ending rice pot. As she stirred, the leaves and the petals seemed to be shifting in a breath of wind, though the air felt still.
Eventually, after much discussion, Mother and Father decided to send Youngest Son to train to be a priest, as the priesthood lends itself to introspection, writing, and soft hands. He would live in the temple and visit the family when he could. Youngest Son was apprehensive, but knew the priest to be a good man. He was anxious to see new things to draw as well.
Youngest Son quickly learned the ways of the temple. He could sweep passably and was obedient. But he was not attentive to anything except the temple cat.
Now, this cat was just a cat, and had no magic to speak of, but it did as a cat often does, which is exactly as it pleased. The boy, if he had no instructions to the contrary, could be found trailing behind it, parchment and pencil in hand, sketching.
The drawings of cats began to seep into the boy’s temple activities. The priest found drawings of cats playing in the margins of his books, cats on the walls, cats on the paper screens separating out the rooms of the temples. Cats played in the corners by the sleeping pallets, and along the floorboards. It seemed the boy could not stop drawing cats, even when the priest admonished him, the cats would appear again. Finally, it was too much, and the priest called the boy to come speak with him.
“Boy,” he said, “you have performed admirably in many ways, but you were disobedient in one that mattered. Your drawings of cats are wonderful, and if you sell them on the street you will not starve. You must go out into the world and draw your cats where it will not cause harm to our temple.”
The boy was sad, but he understood. Before he left, the priest gave him one last piece of advice: “Avoid large places, keep to small,” he said. The boy didn’t know what he meant, but he nodded his agreement, and went to pack his things.
The boy said goodbye to the cat and left, but, as he walked out the front door, he did not know where to go first. He was not sure that he would be welcome at home, and going out into the world to seek his fortune was an even scarier thought. There was a temple in the next town, however, and perhaps they would take him in. Perhaps they would not care as much about his cats. He turned his feet in that direction.
When he arrived, however, no priest answered his knock. The temple was empty, save for a single lamp burning in the middle of the floor. Most of the walls had been knocked down, and books and papers were scattered everywhere. The boy, who was tired after walking all day, decided that he would come up with a new plan in the morning. Before the sun went down, he ate a small portion of the rice cakes the priest had given him, and gathered up a few papers. He sat in the light of the lamp and drew some cats, seven or eight of them, playing across several pages.
When the darkness could no longer be held at bay, the boy remembered what the priest had said, and set off to find a small place. He lit a candle stub in the lamp, and looked in all the nooks and crannies for a small place. He finally found a broom cupboard that was very small, but large enough to fit a small boy.
Unbeknownst to the boy, the temple was inhabited a family of goblin rats, and the goblin rat was hungry. It had not smelled anything quite so nice as the boy in quite some time. The smell of fresh meat, tender and young, enticed it.
The boy knew nothing of the goblin rat, and fell soundly asleep.
In the middle of the night, the boy was awakened by a terrible noise. Animal voices snarling, hissing, scratching, tearing, and screaming rang out throughout the temple. The boy curled tighter in his cabinet, and gave thanks for the words of the priest. He tried to keep his whimpering as silent as possible. Eventually, the noise died down, and the boy slept once more.
The next morning, the boy awoke, his nightmare of animal fighting all but forgotten. As he opened the door to his cupboard he was greeted by the sight of an enormous carcass. The goblin rat’s body lay bloodied on the floor. Bloody paw prints led from the body to the sheets of paper where the cats were drawn. He cautiously stepped over to look at his cats. They looked the same as yesterday, except for the streaks of red ink that colored their mouths and paws.
Sometimes magic does not appear until it is needed.
Time passed, as it does. The boy who drew cats became the man who drew cats, and eventually the husband and father who drew cats. Each child’s bed was decorated with drawings of cats, who stood sentry every night over their charges.