U Phat Khat - Royal Feline
Since he first came into our lives we have suspected that our beloved Marble - the present day Astro Cat – had a long and remarkable family history. When his interest in the natural sciences, mainly astronomy and physics, became apparent, we wondered if there were any others of similar interests among his ancestry. What we have discovered, to our wonderment and delight, is the basis of the stories that follow.
The earliest of Marble's ancestors of which we have any knowledge is U Phat Khat of the ancient kingdom of Siam. He was lynx point Siamese perfection and was the favorite of Uthong the king. He was pampered and praised at the King's court as only an oriental Royal favorite can be. He never considered any life for himself other than as Great Cat of the Realm until one day, early in the 14th century Uthong the King, with regret, presented this marvelous cat as a tributary gift to Kublai Khan, the emperor of China. He had little choice in this as he was vassal bound to the emperor, but it was a choice of great pain. The emperor had been told of U Phat Khat by his ambassador who had visited the court of Siam recently. “Sire,” he said, “this cat is the marvel of the Siamese court. I feel he should belong to you. This would be a great gift and would be a needed proof of the king’s loyalty to your Serene Majesty.”
“Have this cat brought to me,” commanded the Emperor.
As the day of U Phat Khat's departure approached, Uthong decided it was time to present him with a precious gift – a gift that had been intended for the cat all along. U Phat Khat’s eyes began to dance when he saw it. It was a beautiful hat of conical shape, encrusted with strange and ancient words and symbols. “It is the shape of wisdom and of power; it is the crown and the shape of wizardry. This small pouch will carry it as it hangs from your neck as a talisman. You can see that it also is emblazoned with words and symbols.” The cat gazed at his gift and suddenly saw a great destiny unfolding before him, but before he could fully grasp it the vision was gone.
The king tried to communicate to the cat some of the powers and virtues of this hat. He explained to him that the ancient and sacred name of the hat was the “Mrrgowrrow Rraowmiaowwr” - from a language unknown to anyone - but that could be translated as “The Purple Cone”. He told U Phat Khat of the Khmer that had come before them, of the ancient and mystical people of the Indus - a civilization which produced the Buddha himself, and even of the Persians and Egyptians beyond the West, known only to the most adventurous seafaring merchants and traders of Siam. The higher knowledge and wisdom of these peoples had been distilled into this magical hat. “But alas, I do not have enough time to explain the hat to you. And it would be too much for you to grasp in such a short period of time. Therefore, you must trust the Purple Cone itself – that it will reveal its powers to you in good time.” With this, U Phat Khat’s retainers began to prepare him for the journey.
When U Phat Khat arrived in China, he quickly became the most celebrated feline in the emperor's court. He was present at state functions - where he ate the scraps only from the tables of the royal family. He was groomed seven times each day, including a belly rub. His claws were manicured and were allowed to grow an inch and a half long. He was often rendered in silk paintings by the finest artists in the realm, even the greatest of them all, Sing Miao. It was he who painted the official feline portrait which hung in a hallway of the Forbidden City for several centuries.
Then one day, a visitor came to the emperor's court. His name was Marco Polo and he and his family came from the distant western lands. The emperor proudly showed the westerner and his companions the wonders and riches of the Chinese capital, by which they were most impressed. But when Marco Polo first set his eyes on U Phat Khat, he blurted out (it was a severe breach of protocol): "I must have that cat!" The emperor's guards quickly raised their swords to slice him into the ritually required 128 pieces but the emperor raised his hand. "If our esteemed guest from the realms of the West must have this cat, then have him he will, as an offering of friendship between our people. It saddens me to lose him, but I will take comfort in the hope that he will bestow his feline blessings upon you when you return to your home."
"Your Supreme Majesty is most gracious," said Marco, as he and his companions bowed deeply to the emperor in thanksgiving. Having received many treasures from his journey and finally the supreme gift of U Phat Khat, it was time for Marco to begin preparations to travel back home.
The journey back to Italy was long and hard. They made many stops along the way and it took more than two years. As he thought back to his beginnings in Siam, U Phat Khat had no idea that he would ultimately become such a well-traveled and cosmopolitan cat. On the stops along the journey the cat would always accompany Marco and his family to see such eminences as the Rajahs of India, the Potentates of Persia and the Caliph of Baghdad.
U Phat Khat also never imagined how strenuous the journey would be. Traveling, by land or by sea, was an active life, and began to notice how trim and firm he had become. He was strong and was becoming sharp-sensed and alert like many a cat in the wild.
Finally they arrived in Constantinople, where U Phat Khat first gazed upon the majesty of Byzantine art and culture, and where the Constaninopolitans were first able to gaze upon him. He decided it was the most beautiful and impressive city he had seen since he left China. He wanted to stay longer in this marvelous city, and so did the people of Constantinople - for they had quickly grown to love him during their several weeks' stay. The Polos, however, were anxious to return to a home they had left so many years ago. They boarded a ship headed from Constantinople to Italy and began to sail around the more forbidding lands of the Saracens.
Through their journey through vast expanses of Asia, the cat had begun to marvel at the night sky and its strange lights and movements, which became much more vivid, even seeming to be alive, whenever he wore his hat. As they sailed the Arabian Sea, the sky became even wider and more brilliant than before, and U Phat Khat was often seen looking above in a seeming trance. Sometimes he would scramble even to the top of the Crow's Nest for more solitude and fewer distractions. The Polos and crew found this amusing. At times, however, Marco would see him wearing the Purple Cone while star gazing and would mark the intensity of his expression. And he wondered just what sort of cat this might be.
As the journey progressed, Marco and the others referred to him less and less as U Phat Khat and took to calling him Gianluca - which was much easier for them to pronounce. Thus began that illustrious name that carried through several generations of his line. He was now Gianluca I.
U Phat Khat in Italy
When they arrived in Italy the cities of Venice and Genoa were at war. Soon after they disembarked Marco, several of his companions, and Gianluca were thrown into jail. (Yes, such was the suspicious nature of those days that they would actually imprison a cat.) The cat found the prospect of imprisonment utterly intolerable, so after observing for a few days and determining that Marco's imprisonment would not be overly harsh and that he would be well enough treated, Gianluca decided to escape from prison - which he easily did, merely by slipping between the bars.
What he found, though, was that living on the streets and canals of medieval Venice held far more challenges than prison life. Here he was just another cat, struggling to survive, being new to the language, vying with other cats for a meal of fish bones, scraps or rodents. And, most importantly, he realized that in his haste to escape, he had left the Purple Cone behind!
Then there were the fleas! Gianluca had never been in such distress. There was nothing he could do to defend himself against them. The other cats seemed to accept this as part of street life, and he began to learn from them some ways of dealing with some of the nastier of the insects.
Even in such difficulties Gianluca found opportunities for romance. Over the next several months he courted several females until at last one of them - by the name of Elena - bore a litter of three kittens. One of the three survived past nursing, and received the name of Gianluca II.
It was during this time that Gianluca met The Master. He was Elena's brother. His name was Guido, and he was the Top Cat of Venice. He was big and strong. He was confident and self-assured. He was street-wise and canal-wise, and his talent as a catcher of rodents was unparalleled. Gianluca was drawn to him instantly and, with the kitten in tow, began to follow him around the city.
“Elena told me about your powerful hat. I don’t know if it would help you here, but there is something else powerful that belongs to you.”
“What is that?”
“It’s your feline body, and mind, and senses. They are amazing things. Sure you may have a hat that can help you, but unless you’ve mastered your own body and mind and know what they’re able to do, I don’t know if a hat will reach its full usefulness. Capisci?”
This made perfect sense to Gianluca. As he and his descendants would discover, the hat was only as strong as the cat who wore it. Even now he could sense the wisdom in Guido’s words.
“There is a certain way you can look at a rat, and bring him under your power. I will teach you this look. He is quick and furtive too, but this way you will have the advantage of him…”
Thus did Gianluca begin to learn the skills of feline survival - even with the loss of his Purple Cone. At night, after the young Gian had drifted into dreams, he would meet with Guido in a quiet nearby alley and listen to his wisdom.
“You can learn a lot by hanging around the docks,” said Guido. “I once saw one of the great cats – from Africa – that they had captured and brought to Venice. Most of the other cats fled in terror when they saw him, but I stayed, and talked to him. I was able in this way to learn just a little of him and his life in Africa. We must be ready for any chance to gain more knowledge.”
“I saw a great cat as well,” said Gianluca, “but I wasn’t able to talk to him.”
“I never tire of hearing of your travels with Polo. Such wonders you must have seen. Tell me more.”
So did the cats pass those difficult days of the Genoese - Venetian war. As the war continued there came to be fewer and fewer provisions for the people of Venice, not to mention the increasing hardships for cats. Some of them were starving, some wandered out into the countryside, all were desperate. Even as the rodent population increased fewer cats had the strength to overcome them, as they had become meaner and tougher than before.
The elder Gianluca was advancing in years and sensed that he could not continue to live for long under such strain and poverty, even with Guido’s knowledge. Unfortunately, his wizard's hat could not help him, for Marco had left it, and others of his possessions, in the care of his three daughters. Gianluca began searching on behalf of his son for somewhere in the city where he could live and be provided for. He searched and searched and searched until he was nearly overcome with fatigue, but everyone in Venice seemed to be in the same extremity. One day he took Gianluca II to an old building that seemed in need of repair. It took all of his strength to scratch the door vigorously enough to be heard. Finally the door was opened by a man in a long black robe. "Miaow", gasped the elder cat in a thick east Asian accent. And he collapsed.
The black-robed man was moved with pity to see this, and took both cats into his care. The man's name was Father Beneducci - a Dominican friar - who had always held a great love of animals, especially those who had fallen on hard times. The elder cat was nursed back to health, though his age continued to weigh upon him, while the kitten quickly recovered and began to thrive.
The Dominican Order believed that everyone should work to earn their keep, and that cats were no exception. Gianluca the Younger was assigned the job of rodent control in the Friary of San Pietro, a problem that had afflicted the entire city of Venice. He proved to be a competent mouser and was amply rewarded for his efforts. The elder cat spent his days and nights curled into a corner napping, but day by day he continued to impart knowledge to his son.
Marco Polo was released from prison in 1299. Upon his return home, he soon began a search for Gianluca, his beloved pet. He inquired among the fishmongers at the market place, and the areas surrounding the docks. He was told of a cat fitting the description but no one knew what had become of him. Saddened, Marco went to seek consolation with his confessor - who happened to be none other than Father Beneducci of the Dominican Friary.
Upon entering the friar's cell he immediately saw his beloved cat curled up in the corner. He clasped his hands and whispered: "Magnificat anima mea dominum!" Father Beneducci smiled and was opening his mouth to relate the tale of the two cats when Gianluca II entered the cell and began to curl around his ankles. Marco gasped, thinking he was seeing a feline apparition when Beneducci gently chuckled. "May I present Gianluca II. He's quite the image of his father, no?"
The cat's months at the Friary had returned him to a good, solid weight and a lustre of fur so that he could easily have passed for his sire even during the days of his glory. Marco was delighted that the line of U Phat Khat lived on, and for Beneducci's kindness, he promised an endowment for the Friary in his will. "And," he said, "I have something that belongs to Gianluca, which I will bring to you anon!" And Marco departed happily from the Friary, a great burden lifted.
Within the week Marco returned, carrying a small pouch. He presented it to Gianluca the Younger and explained to the friar: "It contains a conical shaped hat from the kingdom of Siam. He carried it with him during our journey back to Christendom, and would often wear it during times of danger or stress."
"I will most certainly keep it well for him. He will wear the pouch around his neck, if he will."
The pouch was fastened around Gianluca's neck which bothered him not at all. With a Miaow of thanks to Marco, he went his way.
The elder Gianluca had barely enough time with his son to fully explain about the hat - that it sharpened the senses, increased physical strength and agility, and gave him extraordinary leaping ability. When he first wore it he found all of these things to be true. So he used the Purple Cone to help him with his work. In a very short time he became the best feline hunter in Italy, and the brothers even started to loan him to other institutions - for promised gifts, of course - when they were beset with severe infestations. It was during these jaunts away from the citadel of celibacy that was his home, that Gianluca was able to encounter a variety of female cats, with predictable results.
Gianluca the Elder, meanwhile, lingered only a few weeks after his reunion with Marco. He was content with the knowledge that his son was in a good place among good people, and he now also had the Purple Cone. So one night in the spring Gianluca fell into a dream, never to waken again.