How Cats Got Their Purr
There once lived a king and queen who longed for a baby daughter. Finally, just as they were giving up hope, the queen bore a girl child and the king and queen were the happiest people on earth. Only one thing marred their contentment. A gypsy witch had read the queen’s fortune in return for some food from the royal kitchen and she had predicted that the child would be a girl. The gypsy had given the queen a dire warning and in anger the king had driven the old crone from his land. The old woman’s warning weighed heavily on their hearts.
The old witch had said: “You will bear a daughter and she will be strong and healthy. However, she will fall dead if she ever gives her hand in marriage to a prince. Heed my advice. Find three pure white cats, with not a single non-white hair upon them, and let them grow up with your child. Give the cats balls of two types to play with – balls of gold and balls of linen thread. If they ignore the gold and play with the linen, all will be well, but should they ignore the linen and choose the gold, beware!”
The king sent out a royal decree and his subjects offered him cats and kittens of all types – tabby cats, ginger tomcats, tortoiseshell mother cats still nursing their kittens; he was offered black kittens, grey kittens and ginger kittens. All of these he sent away again, being only interested in three pure white cats. After years of searching, three white cats without a single non-white hair were duly found and though they came from different places, they became good friends. The three cats loved their young mistress and she adored them. As the months turned into years, the linen balls continued to be the only toys the cats chose to play with. The gold balls lay dusty and forgotten.
When the princess grew old enough to learn how to spin the cats were happy as she was. They leaped at the wheel as it turned and at the thread as the princess spun it, behaving like kittens. She begged her playful cats to leave things alone but they ignored her and continued to play gaily. The queen was so happy that the cats played only with the linen balls and never with the gold balls that she simply laughed at their antics and frolics.
At sixteen years old, the princess was very beautiful. Princes from neighboring kingdoms and further afield asked her hand in marriage, but she remained indifferent to them all. She was content to live with her three beloved cats. One day, however, a prince arrived who was good and charming, wise and handsome, kind and virtuous and the princess fell deeply in love with him. Though he brought her gifts and visited often, he never once asked for her hand in marriage. One day she could bear it no longer and she confessed her love for him. Delighted and surprise, he expressed his own love for her.
The three white cats were in the tower room playing with the linen balls, but no sooner had the prince and princess professed their love for each other, than the cats seemed to notice the gold balls for the first time ever and began to play with them. In horror, servants reported the dire news to the king and queen. However, it wasn’t the princess who was struck down but the prince. He became gravely ill and nothing the physicians did could ease or cure whatever malady had struck him down.
In desperation the princess sought the gypsy who had made the prophecy about the cats and balls. The gypsy witch told her that there was only one way to save the prince. The princess must spin ten thousand skeins of pure white linen thread before midwinter’s day. It was an impossible task – only 27 days remained before midwinter’s day. No hand but hers could spin the thread and if she span but one skein too few, or one too many, the prince would die at midwinter. The princess rushed to her spinning wheel and worked steadily day after day, but after only a few days she knew she could never spin ten thousand skeins. She burst into tears and her three cats sat by her feet to comfort and console her.
“If you only knew what was wrong I know you’d help me if you could,” she said to the three silent white cats at her feet.
To her amazement, one of the three placed its front paws on her knee, stared into the princess’s face, opened its mouth and spoke to her: “We know what is needed and we know how to help you,” it said. “Cats have no hands, only paws, so we can do the spinning for you and it will not break the terms of the prophecy. Now we must get to work for there is little time left.”
And so it was that the three white cats began to spin, each at a wheel provided for it. Each spun rapidly and beautifully. All day the three wheels hummed and when they were silent as evening came the princess looked into the room to find her beloved cats sound asleep next to hundreds of skeins of thread. The days passed and the skeins increased in number. Each time a skein was finished, the prince’s health improved and the princess grew more hopeful. On midwinter’s eve ten thousand skeins were ready and the prince was almost well.
The gypsy was amazed and pleased at the cats’ work though she had been cheated of a life. She told the princess to be sure and show her gratitude to her faithful cats.
The princess loved her cats well and wisely and she gave them all her glittering jewels, which they had always loved to play with. On her wedding day, they sat in places of honor on magnificent velvet cushions, each cat with a necklace of precious stones around its neck. As the feast continued, the three cats curled up contentedly on their cushions and – as cats are wont to do – fell asleep. From all three came loud, contented purring. This was the reward the cats had received for their work. Though no cat would ever again speak, all cats would purr like the whirr and hum of a spinning wheel.
From that day to this cats have continued to purr whenever they feel contented.