It was the afternoon of December 24th, just before Christmas Eve itself.
Beatrice had gone to play with her friend François and his little sisters, Olivia, who was five and a half, and Amandine, who was three and a half. François and Beatrice, who were both seven-year-old, lived on the same street and went to the same school.
The day was overcast and grey. The children were having fun together. All of a sudden, Amandine looked out the window and pointed out a little white cat going through the yard. The three older ones came to see.
"What a beautiful cat," Beatrice said.
"I prefer black ones," François said.
"Maybe," the girl answered, "but white ones are nice too ... even grey ones."
"Yes, grey is good," the boy agreed.
Then he sang:
"If I were a cat and I were grey, I'd catch lots of mice and purr and play."
"That rhymes!" Beatrice said, smiling. "If I were a cat and I were grey, I'd catch lots of mice and purr and play."
Towards the end of the afternoon, she went back home to her parents. She had to get ready for Christmas Eve.
That evening, everyone in the family was curious and impatient so they started by opening the presents. When they were almost finished unwrapping things, there were still four packages under the tree.
"And these ones?" asked our friend, curious. "Aren't these for us?"
"Yes, they're for us," her father answered.
"Who are they from?"
"From Aunt Louise."
"Presents from Aunt Louise!" the girl cried out with a big smile.
Aunt Louise, her mom's sister, lived in South America, in Brazil. She was very creative and generous. When she gave gifts, they were always something extraordinary. Unfortunately, they didn't see her very often.
Beatrice gathered up the four packages and handed them out.
Dad unwrapped his. He found a beautiful tie clip, set with a small gemstone. Mom unwrapped a necklace covered with rubies and emeralds. Nicolas, her baby brother, got a rattle that kept changing colour. A delight! He couldn't take his eyes off it.
Beatrice felt her little package carefully. Then she unwrapped it slowly. She saw before her a greyish plastic box. She opened it ... It was soap!
"That's not fair," our friend said. "You both got beautiful gifts. Me, I got some stupid soap, like they sell everywhere."
Louise wasn't there, or else the girl would have politely thanked her. She had good manners. But, because her aunt was not there, Beatrice could let herself express her disappointment.
"Why send something from the other side of the world if it's just going to be soap? I don't understand. Doesn't she like me anymore?"
"That would surprise me," Dad said.
"Maybe it smells really good?" Mom suggested.
"Not even," said our friend after practically gluing her nose to the soap.
She closed the box and they stopped talking about it.
After they ate, she went upstairs to wash before going to bed. Dad called up to her:
"Why don't you try the soap from Aunt Louise!"
"Yes, okay," Beatrice said, laughing. "Good idea."
"Once she was in the shower, she opened the box. She saw some paper stuck to the inside of the lid. Something was odd but Beatrice didn't know what it was. It wasn't written in any language she knew.
With the soap and her washcloth, she washed herself. All the while, she sang,
"If I were a cat and I were grey, I'd catch lots of mice and purr and play."
She thought of her friend, François.
Then she went to bed. Mom and Dad came in to give her a kiss. She went to sleep happy.
When Beatrice woke up the next morning, Mom was calling her.
"My dear, wake up."
She wanted to answer, "Yes, Mom," but, instead of that, a meow came out of her throat. Surprised and a little worried, the girl tried again, "yes, Mom." But all she managed was another meow.
She slid out of bed and went to look in the mirror of her dresser. There, she saw that she'd been turned into a grey cat! And to make matters worse, all she could do was meow.
She was so frightened she sat on the edge of her bed and didn't move. She waited for her parents to come. When she didn't see her daughter come down, Mom went upstairs and opened the door to her room.
"And, now my dear ... Oh! A cat! Get out of here right away, you nasty beast."
Our friend's parents had always refused to have a pet. Despite the repeated request of their adorable daughter, they never agreed to have an animal in the house.
"Get out of here right now! In my daughter's room, my goodness! "Scram!" Mom shouted.
Cat Beatrice ran down the stairs towards the entryway. She went down the steps so fast she could have broken a bone.
"My dear," her mom called out, "a grey cat is hanging around the front hall. Put it outside."
Dad clapped his hands and made like he was going to run after the cat, stomping his feet on the floor to scare it. Our friend ran out through the open front door. She found herself out on the street.
"This just isn't possible," she told herself. "My house! My parents! I have to make them understand that this little grey cat is me."
She went around to the side of the house and went into the kitchen by the cat door.
Even though Beatrice's family didn't have a cat, the people who lived there before them had installed a cat door as a flap covering a hole in the main kitchen door. It was so their cat could come and go as it pleased. Her parents had never gotten around to removing it...
Dad spotted our friend in the kitchen.
"Would you get out of here right now?" he said, not knowing that he was shooing away his own beloved daughter.
And, stomping his feet on the floor and clapping his hands again, he made her run back out through the cat flap. Then he took a hammer and a nail and blocked off the little door. Now it couldn't be used to get in and out.
"Where is Beatrice?" he asked.
"I was just asking myself that," Mom answered. "I don't see her anywhere in the house. I don't understand. Did she go over to play with François without telling us? I'm going to call."
Now Beatrice hadn't gone far. She was just outside the door. And she had cat ears and cat hearing. So she was easily able to hear her parents talking. When her mom said what she was going to do, she thought, "François! What a good idea! He'll recognize me. Yesterday we'd talked about a little grey cat."
Going from hedge to hedge, back yard to back yard, she soon arrived at François's. She carefully looked around. She saw a tree that had a branch that went up almost to her friend's room. Even though it was winter, the window was open a crack.
As a little girl, she'd never have been able to climb up. Now, as a cat, she scaled the tree, balanced along a branch, and jumped onto the ledge next to the window. She slipped inside and curled up on the bed to wait.
François went into his room a little before noon.
"What a pretty cat!" he said. "Hello. Did you get in by the window?"
He sat on the bed and took her in his arms. He petted and kissed the cat. Beatrice would have blushed! The boy didn't know it was his friend he was giving kisses to!
"You know," François whispered, "you can't stay here. I have a dog. His name is Oasis. He doesn't like cats much. So it's better that you get going."
He placed the little cat on the window sill and shooed her away, without realizing that it was Beatrice.
She went back down into the yard, disappointed that he hadn't recognized her. Worried, she wondered what would become of her.
What a terrible Christmas for our friend!
She walked for a long time through the streets in the neighbourhood. Sad and hungry. She still hadn't eaten anything today. It was already afternoon.
She saw a garbage bag between two houses. She opened it with a swipe of her claws, but whatever was inside smelled terrible. Some potato peels fell into the dirty water of the sidewalk. She bit into one but spit it out a second later, disgusted.
She walked here and there at random. Then she saw a black cat following her.
"Meow," the big cat said.
Beatrice walked a little faster. The other one ran after her, caught up, and pushed up against her. It mewed very softly and rubbed its fur against hers. Beatrice realized that it had fallen in love with her. That's all she needed now!
"Ah, no. Go away. I don't want to have any kittens with you," she meowed.
But the cat kept at it. So our friend gave him a little scratch. He scratched back and soon the two cats were fighting. The big cat finally left.
Beatrice knew how to take care of herself and even to fight if it came to that. But, at the moment, she already had a few injuries. A few tufts of hair had been pulled out. She cried a bit, then she lay down on the ground. She was so sad.
She looked at the houses where the children played, where families lived happy lives. She told herself that Mom and Dad were looking everywhere for her. They must have been so worried about her! They'd certainly have called the police. But the patrol cars would have been looking for a little girl, not a grey cat. She was getting more and more cold and hungry. She was wet. A little snow was falling, melting as it came down. If only she could just go inside her house! A car went by and sprayed her with dirty water.
Night was falling. If only she could make it clear who she was ...
What a sad Christmas Day ...
All of a sudden, she had an idea: her necklace!
Our friend had a little dresser with three drawers. In the bottommost one was a red box with a chain with "Beatrice" in gold letters, another gift from Aunt Louise.
"If I could make it to my room, get it from the drawer, and put it around my neck. Then my parents would have to recognize me. They'd welcome me back into the house. I have to go back home."
She stopped in the garden and looked at the back face of the house. The window to her little brother Nicolas's room wasn't completely closed. She climbed up using the rain gutter. Once again, as a little girl, she'd never have dared do that. But, as a cat, she had no problem.
She went into the baby's room. Her little brother was sleeping in his crib. Beatrice jumped up and over the railing to lie down beside him.
Nicolas woke up and smiled his marvellous smile. He stroked the cat, not knowing that it was his big sister. She slipped under the covers, next to him. She closed her eyes and fell asleep in the cozy warmth.
"You dirty thing, how did you get back in here? Now get out!"
Our friend's mother had come into the baby's room without our friend hearing. Beatrice ran out the open door but, instead of going down the stairs, she can into her own room. She went up to her dresser and extended her claws. She hooked the bottom drawer and managed to open it. She jumped in and, with a precise tap of her paw, she knocked it down to the floor. The box opened as it fell.
It was very tricky getting her head through the chain but, with some acrobatics, she finally managed. She positioned the golden letters spelling "Beatrice" right below her chin. Then she sat down on her bed.
Mom had heard noise coming from her daughter's room. She went in to chase the little cat away, clapping her hands.
Our friend realized that her mother couldn't tell who she was. She ran to her father who was in the front hall. She straightened her neck to show that she was wearing her little gold chain around her neck. But her father wasn't paying attention. He opened the door and chased her out, like some animal.
Night had now fallen.
What a sad Christmas night! Wet, hungry, cold! Beatrice wandered through the streets, keeping to the sidewalks. Through the light of the windows, she could see people eating their meals and that made her feel even hungrier. She headed to the park to find some shelter there.
Children went by and wanted to pet her. A little girl quietly said to her mother:
"Poor little kitty. Mommy, it looks really unhappy outside. Can we take it home please?"
"Out of the question," the mother replied. "And don't touch such a filthy creature. It could have fleas. Come quickly, it's getting chilly out here. We're going home."
"Poor little kitty," the girl said again. It's trembling, it's so cold."
Beatrice shivered. She was dirty. She was alone. She had no home to go to.
She gave it one last try, her last chance.
"I'm going back to François's place. I don't know where else to go. Maybe he'll see my chain and understand."
This time, all the windows at his house were closed. She had to go in by the cat door! She snuck into her friend's house by the kitchen. Silently, she crossed the room.
Where was his dog? She saw it in the living room, lying on the rug. It was asleep. "Not a very good guard dog," she thought to herself. She went up the stairs. François's door was open. Jumping up onto her friend's bed, she lay down on the covers.
Soon afterwards, the boy came in. He saw the cat right away.
He took her in his arms and closed the door.
"You poor little cat, you're completely frozen! And you're shivering. Are you hungry? Hey, what do you have around your neck? A little chain ... Beatrice... that's my friend's name. She's been missing since this morning. We have no idea where she is. The police are looking for her everywhere. It sounds like you're also called Beatrice."
"Meow ... I'm your friend ..."
François was quiet for a moment.
"I know this necklace! I understand. My friend must have been kidnapped and is locked in a cave. Little cat, she saw you going by and she put the chain around your neck so I could come rescue her. I'm going."
"No, no, you've got it wrong. You have too much imagination," the girl thought as she mewed softly. "Please recognize me. Realize that I'm Beatrice."
The boy looked at his friend-turned-cat, as if for the first time.
"Could you be Beatrice? If you're Beatrice, you'll know how to count. Meow three times."
"Meow, meow, meow."
"Incredible," François murmured. "Tap four times with your paw."
She tapped four times on the desk with her front paw.
"Cats don't know how to count! Mom, Dad," François called out, "come quick. I think I've found Beatrice. Look at this little cat!"
"What are you saying?" asked François's mother.
"Oh, what a pretty cat," Amandine said. "Can we keep it?"
"Look," said the boy. "A real cat doesn't know how to do math, right? Go on, Beatrice. Seven minus three."
She tapped four times with her paw on the coffee table!
François, his father, and our little cat friend all quickly left to go see Beatrice's parents. They rang the bell.
"Have you found your daughter yet? François asked.
"No, and we're sick with worry," Beatrice's parents answered. "We still don't know where she could be."
"I think she's in my arms," said the boy. "She has become a cat."
They looked at François like he was crazy.
"This grey cat? It came into the house twice already. This is our daughter?"
"Watch, please. A cat doesn't know how to do math, right? Go on, Beatrice. Two plus two."
She tapped four times on the table with her paw.
"My goodness," Beatrice's mother exclaimed.
She took the cat in her arms and caressed it.
"I wonder if she's hungry," her father said. "It's quite possible that she hasn't eaten anything today."
Her parents opened a packet of cat food that had come in the mail as a sample. Despite her hunger, Beatrice couldn't take a bite. It disgusted her. They were fishy smelling crackers, greasy, and cold.
"I think," François suggested, "that she's not a real cat. She'd prefer spaghetti and tomato sauce."
Her mom cooked a whole pot of spaghetti and Beatrice, famished, ate it all at once.
"How did you turn into a cat?" her parents asked her.
"Something must have happened," François said, "on Christmas Eve or sometime during the night."
François and his father didn't know the story of Aunt Louise's soap. Beatrice understood! She'd washed with that soap. And she'd been singing, "If I were a cat and I were grey, I'd catch lots of mice and purr and play." François had an idea:
"Among her presents last night on Christmas Eve, maybe she received something magic or bewitched ..."
"She got a bar of soap," her father answered. "Just a little bar, quite ordinary looking. She'd been quite disappointed."
"Maybe it wasn't so ordinary," her mother said. "When Aunt Louise gives a gift, it's always something special, quite wonderful really."
Her parents rushed to the bathroom and opened the little grey plastic box. They noticed the inscription inside the lid. It was written in Portuguese. They didn't understand the message.
"ATENÇÃO! ISTO E UM SABÃO PARA ANIMAIS. POR ISSO USAR LUVAS ANTES DE UTILISAR."
"Is that Portuguese?" Dad said. "Beatrice wouldn't have been able to understand it. From what I can understand, it looks to me like it's a soap for animals. We need to call Aunt Louise! We'll call her in Brazil. What time is it in South America now?"
Aunt Louise asked if their Christmas celebrations had been going well. Beatrice's parents answered that, yes, they had. She asked if everyone had liked her gifts. They thanked her for them. Then she added:
"Is Beatrice having fun with her soap?"
"Well, see, that's why we're calling, Louise," said our friend's mother. "She washed herself with it. And she turned into a cat."
"My good Lord Jesus!" Aunt Louise cried out. "Doesn't your daughter go to school? She doesn't know how to read?"
"Yes, of course," Mom replied. "But she's not learning Portuguese."
Aunt Louise was very sorry. She said she ought to have thought of that. She explained that it was a magic soap that could turn one animal into another.
"You have to wear gloves," she said. "Then, you take a dog, for example. You wash it with this soap and you ask for a horse. The next day, it'll be waiting for you in the yard. Or you see a mouse in your attic. You trap it. You put it in the bath and you wash it with this soap. You say, 'I would like a parrot.' The next day, you'll have one. You can turn any animal into any other one. I bought that soap for a king's ransom from a wizard in a remote village in the Amazon."
Aunt Louise went on:
"I think there's only one thing to do. Take this little Beatrice cat, put it in the bathtub and wash it with the soap. And ask that it turn into your daughter."
Catching the cat wasn't at all difficult. When they tried putting her in the water, though, her cat instincts kicked in a little. After all, for now she was still an animal that didn't like the water. They washed her with the soap. Mom had put on some rubber gloves. Beatrice struggled. The soap fell to the bottom of the bathtub. It stayed there.
Her parents dried the little cat in a big towel, then placed her in the living room in front of the fireplace. They put some candies, chocolates, and a cup of milk beside her. They hugged her and wished her a good night!
"And, tomorrow, we hope to find our little girl," they added as they went up to bed.
When Beatrice woke up, she was surprised to find herself there, lying on the carpet, in front of the fireplace. She ran to her room and got dressed. Then she went into her parents' room and gave them each a big hug.
François rang the doorbell. He saw his friend open the door.
"You're not a cat anymore!" said the boy. "That's great! Would you like to lend me your soap?"
But the soap, forgotten at the bottom of the bathtub, had washed away. There was nothing left.
"Too bad," François said. "I would have liked to try it on my little sister, Olivia. There are some days when she drives me crazy. I wanted to turn her into a goldfish ..."
And you, if you had Aunt Louise's soap, what would you do? Would you like me to give you her phone number in Brazil?
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton