Happy Ides of March. In honor of this day I though I would share a story that I made up long ago when my boys were little, in the off chance that some readers might have kids in the three to five or six range to run it by and see if they like it too. It might not be much of a story, but little kids seem to really love it if we bother to make up stories… and although I made up a lot of them when my guys were small, I know it can get exhausting and so it can be good to have an extra one lying around when we can’t think about anything but our pillow and how it calls to us.
Brutus the Cat
Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, in Ancient Rome, lived a cat named Brutus.
That there was another Brutus that everyone disliked is not the point of this story. Brutus the Hero Cat was an entirely different and likable creature.
Brutus lived with his family near the Coliseum – a huge stadium where the people of ancient Rome would gather and watch all kinds of serious roughness.
The roughest of the rough were the Gladiators; they were all about fighting. They would fight wild animals and they would fight each other. These were pretty rough times.
Brutus was small. And he had to be careful not to get accidentally squished by Gladiators who were always walking around with heavy weapons and skirts and not looking where they were going.
But Brutus was fast. Really fast – even for a cat. In fact, he took pride in being a great mouser – that is, a cat who catches mice. But when Brutus would catch mice, he wouldn’t hurt them, mostly because he knew what it was like to be small. Still, the mice didn’t like to be caught and they would do their best to get away, which, of course, is the basis for any satisfying chasing game.
Brutus liked to tell his family that he was the greatest mouser in Ancient Rome. Most people at that time just said they lived in Rome, but Brutus called it Ancient Rome because he had a sense of history. And also because even though everything around him seemed really modern, Brutus knew it wouldn’t always be the same and that one day he’d be bigger and things would be different. And in this way Brutus knew that the days of his kittenhood would one day most certainly be Ancient History.
One day there was a big commotion around the Coliseum. Wild animals from all over the world were being brought in big cages. To Brutus these fierce creatures looked like gigantic monsters.
The cages were brought to a secret underground passage which disappeared into the darkness below the Coliseum. The passage lead to a hidden maze of tunnels that zig zagged under the Coliseum, complete with trap-doors for letting wild beasts in the arena from the floor as if by magic.
That day Brutus heard a hired hand complaining about how much work it was to throw a birthday party. Some other workers reminded him that it wasn’t just any birthday party – it was Julius Cesar’s Birthday Party.
By listening carefully, Brutus was able to figure out who this Julius Cesar person was. Obviously he was important, but Brutus had never seen him. It turned out that Julius Cesar was the person totally in charge of ancient Rome. They called his job the Emperor, which is like a mega-king – not just in charge of a country, but in charge of a whole Empire which is a lot of different countries and fortresses and kings and armies that all ended up having to listen to Julius Cesar.
Clearly Julius Cesar was very powerful, but Brutus thought he sounded a little bossy.
And when Brutus heard the workers talking about what might happen to them if Cesar didn’t like his party, Brutus thought Julius Cesar didn’t sound very nice either.
But since there was nothing that Brutus could do to help the workers, he found a safe sunny spot and curled up and took a nap.
He awoke with a fright as a loud ROAR made his hair all spike out to make him look bigger – which still left him looking like a frightened and fairly small kitten, but which was nature’s way of trying to help him out as best as it could.
Fortunately the roar was coming from behind bars – but it was coming from a real lion. No one in ancient Rome had ever seen a lion before and the lion was a big secret – a surprise for Cesar. It was only because a big cloth over the cage fell off for a second that Brutus was able to see him – or maybe have to see him since he was worried that having seen such a scary thing might give him bad dreams.
Brutus did have bad dreams sometime, even though he never told anyone he had them. The worst ones were where gladiators accidentally squished his mom and dad. But every morning when Brutus woke up and kneaded his paws on his mommy, she would wake up and give him breakfast and be not squished at all. His dad was never squished either when he woke up.
The weird thing about the lion that Brutus couldn’t get out of his head was that even though it was clearly a monster (the workers said it came from a jungle all the way across the sea), it looked more than a little bit like a cat.
Brutus couldn’t figure out how anything remotely like a cat, which he was, could be a monster, which he knew he was not. If Brutus knew anything he knew that even though he wasn’t that big, he was definitely nice. And if he was nice, than he was certainly nothing like that monster of a lion he had seen.
The next day Brutus heard thousands of people singing “Happy Birthday To You” and he snuck through a narrow crack in the wall of the Coliseum that only a skinny cat holding his breath and making himself as skinny as possible could fit through.
Inside, every seat was filled with all the noble citizens and their fancy wives and richly dressed children. Even workers, dressed up for the occasion sat in the high up seats where it was hard to see what was going on.
Everyone stood up as they sang to Cesar who sat on a very fancy throne right at the edge of the arena – the place where all the roughness happened that ancient Romans liked to watch. He had the best seat in the house and he was ready to watch some really rough roughness, so he gestured to his guards that he had heard enough singing and the fighting should start.
And so everybody got pretty nervous and all the gladiators were hurried onto the field with their big swords and shields and other weird looking but clearly very dangerous weapons.
And then, a secret door opened up and out of the blackness leaped the gigantic lion! Not only was it a lion, but it was the biggest lion Cesar’s army could find in all the jungles of Africa.
The lion looked around at the crowd and each person in the whole stadium felt frightened. But then the lion looked down and saw a mouse who was looking up at him from a crack in the floor of the Coliseum.
This particular lion just so happened to be terrified of mice. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way it was. And so the lion yelped with fright and ran back into the dark tunnel.
And the entire crowd thought this was the funniest thing they had ever seen. But they knew they weren’t supposed to laugh unless Cesar laughed and he wasn’t laughing. But then they couldn’t help it and when thousands of people get the giggles at the same time it’s a lot of laughing.
But Cesar was not amused – partly because when people laughed he was never sure if they were laughing at him. This was only made worse by the fact that he always took himself so seriously. People who are able to laugh at themselves rarely want to be emperor, because it’s a pretty hard job, believe it or not – and not always very safe.
The guards knew they needed to get the show going and to do this they needed to get that pesky mouse out of the way. And so the head of the Gladiators ordered the Gladiators to get that mouse.
But the gladiators were so big and the mice so small and fast that the Gladiators weren’t able to catch the mouse or even get close to it. This was only made worse because the floor of the coliseum had lots of little places to hide if you were a mouse.
And it turned out there were an awful lot of mice in the Coliseum. Mice loved the Coliseum because there were lots of little plants and seed of all sorts that came from all over the world, stuck in the fur of animals and even in their poop.
In fact, years later, scientists would study the plants at the Coliseum because there were so many different kinds from all the countries of the world – even rare plants that didn’t grow anywhere else any more.
But the mice didn’t think much about botany, which is the study of plants; they just liked to eat the seeds.
And when the mice noticed that they could play a chasing game with the Gladiators, all of them got into the game. This was great fun for the mice, but it was starting to make the Gladiators really frustrated. They were supposed to be great fighters, but they couldn’t even catch a little mouse, which was really embarrassing for them.
The crowd was now laughing uncontrollably, and Cesar was starting to get pretty mad. Brutus could see that Cesar was not just mad, but that he was also really sad that his birthday wasn’t going very well. It even looked to Brutus, who was really good at noticing things, like Cesar was trying really hard not to cry. Brutus had sometimes gotten angry so as not to cry – and he knew it wasn’t a very good feeling.
So Brutus leaped out into the middle of the Coliseum like the hero he secretly knew he could one day be. And the heroic way he stood poised in the bright sun surrounded by giant but bumbling Gladiators, only made everyone laugh even harder.
The guards rushed to get Brutus off the field, but in looking at Brutus and his pride in himself, even Cesar felt like he might laugh. He silenced his guards and bellowed out to Brutus in the sort of voice that makes you nervous: “Who are you?”
“I am Brutus – the greatest mouser in Ancient Rome. And I can catch the mice for you.”
Cesar didn’t believe him but said, “Then catch them, Brutus the greatest mouser in Ancient Rome.” And Cesar gestured to his guards to let Brutus try.
The Gladiators moved their swords out of the way and Brutus took off in a blur of claws and fur – zigzagging like crazy and throwing up a trail of smoky dust in his wake.
At first the crowd was still laughing, but they started to pay attention as Brutus the cat dashed back and forth – crouching, leaping, diving, springing, snaking, rolling and lunging… and at every turn snagging yet another mouse.
Even though Brutus was moving at blinding speed, he still took the time to gently place each mouse in a big cage. It was actually the empty lion cage with its thick iron bars. And the truth was the bars were close enough to keep a lion in, but so wide that armies of mice could pass right through. The mice stayed in the cage because Brutus was their friend and the rule in their chasing game that day was that the empty lion cage was safe. But to the crowd it looked like Brutus had cast a spell on the mice or something.
A whisper was going through the crowd now, from mouth to ear all up and down the endlessly curving stone benches, and the whisper was, “This is a hero cat – a magic cat – a lucky and special cat!” And the more the hero cat idea was whispered, from the chalk-dusty front row to the cloud-tipped very top edges of the Coliseum, the more it held Brutus in a loving force field of glory.
Brutus was on his last mouse. He’d passed through the rusty lion bars so many times his black coat had a glimmery red sheen on the sides and his movements had reached the height of poetry, of timeless grace, of super-hero power, of a beauty so fine it’s almost sad…
It was the perfect moment – the rare moment every one or two thousand years when time seems to stand still. When nobody is thinking of anything they did yesterday, or this morning or last year. And nobody is thinking about what they’re going to do after the Coliseum or even if they can have another hot-dog right then. Nobody was missing anything. Even the lion, watching from the shadows, had a smile on his face – proud of Brutus and proud to be a cat – even a very big cat.
Now Brutus gently dropped the last mouse into the almost-totally full but for one mouse lion cage and turned to look up at Cesar with a calm but proud face. Cesar slowly gave his most Cesarly symbol of approval – a solemnly, but movingly put forward majestic thumbs-up. And as the crowd saw Cesar’s muscled forearm and his decisive thumb glinting in the dusty bright sun, they were free to express their happiness. And so the crowd exploded into the loudest cheering, clapping, whistling and shouting anyone had ever heard up until that point in the history of cheering crowds.
Now Cesar gave the signal that all should fall silent and so they did. Just the sound of gentle wind swirling little spirals of yellow dust as slender boat-clouds drifted overhead in their super-bright azure sky-sea. The slow but noticeable creep of shadows let everyone know the afternoon was inevitably seeping toward evening.
Brutus looked at Cesar who said, with a slightly wicked twinkle, “Go ahead and do what you want with the mice.” Cesar expected Brutus to hurt and eat the mice but Brutus surprised him by saying, “Can I use one of your big boats?”
Cesar could not refuse a hero cat of Brutus’ stature a simple favor. And next thing everyone knew, the entire crowd was crowding around to watch as the gladiators pulled the heavy lion cage full of mice down to the harbor. The crowd watched from the rocks as Brutus guided the mice over a thick rope and onto one of Cesar’s fancy war ships.
The crowd wondered what Brutus was up to as he set sail into the setting sun. But they were even more surprised when he dropped anchor just a little ways out. There was a little island in the harbor that was so small that no one had ever really noticed it before.
Brutus named it Mouse Island, a place that would be forever safe for mice. And he gave the mice some small boats to come and go as they pleased and sailed back to Cesar who was still waiting with the entire crowd.
Cesar helped Brutus off the boat and invited him to his private birthday party back at his house – the fanciest house in Ancient Rome.
As they ate their cake, with Brutus sitting right on Cesar’s lap, Cesar petted Brutus’s head and rubbed his chin until Brutus was purring with a buzz like a hive of contented bees.
Suddenly Brutus realized that he had not brought a present – as he’d been so busy all day he’d never had a chance to think about it, much less buy or make something. He said he was sorry, with his best cat manners – but Cesar told Brutus that what he had done that day was the best present he had gotten (and he had gotten things like gold chariots, and a sword and shield set).
Cesar said that he was touched by Brutus’ kind nature that he was able to combine with great speed and skill. He was so touched in fact that Cesar realized that he wanted to give Brutus a present. And so Cesar thought about it for a little while as everyone waited with excitement and a little jealousy to see what Brutus would get.
Then Cesar declared that Brutus should from then on and forever have the honor of keeping the Coliseum clear of mice. Brutus was now in charge of the Coliseum and would live right there in any part of it he chose – and his whole family and all his friends could live right there with him.
Brutus and his family lived happily ever after. And to this day, if you go to Rome and visit the Coliseum, even though it’s half in ruins, you will still see hundreds or even thousands of cats who are of course Brutus’ great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grand-kittens, still taking care of the Coliseum as best as they can.
So, let’s dedicate today to story-time—in the service of all our collective children.
p.s. if anyone of any age wants to draw any pictures to go with this story, email me the art and I’ll be able to add what always turns out to be the best part of any story