Copyright 1996, S Hartwell

In May 1996, I had a very disturbing, and in some ways inspirational, dream which me taught me a lot about why I love cats. The dream haunted me so much that I wrote it down. Unlike many dreams, it was completely coherent and didn't fade from memory; if anything it grew stronger over the next few days. Though I am an agnostic myself, I spoke to a number of religious friends - Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Wiccans - about the idea of a past life, especially one which seems to have affected my present one. I was brought up to not particularly like cats, yet I've always been drawn to them and cats have often been drawn to me. The parents of the child I was in the dream were very unlike my real life parents. I feel that this echo of a time before explains - in my own and very personal case - why I am who I am.

At the beginning of the dream I found myself as a young girl in a long pinafore dress and my hair in ringlets. I was somewhere between 8 and 12 years old and my costume and hairstyle felt Victorian. I lived near the Cornish coast with mama and father. My home was a stone-built cottage which had once belonged to tin-miners ; at the back was a garden area and a footpath which led to the rugged cliffs where the sea beat mercilessly against the land. The cottage was some way distant from the village where my father preached every Sunday. I had clear memories of father - an imposing figure in a dark suit and with some sort of beard, but mama was very much in the background and I had hardly any image of her at all.

The cats arrived late one summer when I was a child. Where the two cats came from I never found out; though they appeared friendly and well kept and not at all like the mangy wild strays, descendants of miners' ratcatchers, that could sometimes be seen in the village. They were of the type known today as Angora, with silky long fur rather than the long thick fur of the smoke-grey Persian cats so beloved of the Queen (my childish thoughts were very respectful of Her Majesty).

The older one, whom I called Helena after a character in a play (I felt this to be Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), was a grey-brown cat with dark grey-brown tabby stripes. The other, whom I supposed to be Helena's daughter or grand-daughter, I called Anthea. Anthea was tortoiseshell and she was my favourite of the pair; she was marked with smoke-grey and creamy-red and had the prettiest face I have ever seen on a cat.

Though amenable to my company and petting, neither attempted to enter the house which was a good thing as father disapproved of cats as pets. He said that no good would come of cossetting the creatures and would not have permitted them in the house. Instead they seemed content to live in the garden where I took them cream and scraps of meat and fish smuggled from my own plate at mealtimes. I had very vivid memories of carefully carrying a china saucer of cream out of the kitchen which had a tiled floor and a sort of stone sink.

In our garden, which had once been split among several cottages, was an old gnarled apple-tree long past bearing good fruit. One branch spread out away from the trunk, almost horizontal, and father had hung a swing made from rope and a plank on it. The two cats often joined me there, lazing in the grass, when I sat on my swing writing my journals or reading my lessons (these seemed to be mostly Bible lessons). I recall that the countryside was rugged and that there weren't very many trees around.

One morning Anthea came along without her mother. She seemed distracted so I searched the garden for Helena in case she had become trapped up a tree. Then I walked the footpath to the cliff to search for her along there. Finally I found Helena, her body caught on rocks halfway down the cliff. With no way to reach her, I tried to scare away the rooks and gulls by shouting at them, but they soon realised that I could do them no real harm and they quickly returned. Finally I could no longer bear to see them pecking at my friend's body and I went home crying.

I was inconsolable for days though my parents became quite impatient with my preoccupation with the cats. Though Helena might have slipped and fallen over the edge onto that inaccessible ledge, I suspected that my father had caught her and thrown her from the cliff, considering her a nuisance and a distraction. These suspicions were to become stronger when Anthea too met a sad end.

Anthea sorely missed her mother and I spent much time distracting her from her grief, and perhaps distracting myself from my own grief. One day I went to my swing expecting to find her sunning herself, but she was not there. She was a creature of habit and I began to search for her, first in the garden, then along the cliff and finally among old buildings which had once been used by tin-miners for storage and which my father occasionally used for the same purpose. As I peered through cracks in the planking and boarded up windows I heard a frantic mewing from one of the buildings. I immediately recognised it as Anthea's mewing. I soon found that one of the sheds, at the entrance to the mine, had been secured with a chain and padlock. The shed was built of sturdy timber and metal panels bolted together. Anthea was scratching at the inside of the secured door.

I ran to fetch my father to ask him to prise open the shed and let my playmate free, but he told me that Anthea must have gone in after rats or mice and would surely find her own way out. I tried to find a cranny through which I could push food until I found someone to prise open the shed, but it had been built to be weather-tight. I despaired for poor Anthea trapped there in the dark and even tried to pull apart the planking or dig a shallow tunnel underneath one of the walls. It was to no avail, over the succeeding days my father refused to listen to me and there was no-one else to open the shed. Anthea's cries diminished until one day she did not answer my call.

A few days later I saw father go towards that particular shed and unlock the padlock which had held shut the door. He sometimes used the shed to store wood for the fire. When he left, he took the chain and padlock with him and I recalled having seen that self-same chain and padlock being used to lock another of the "outhouses" he used. I pushed open the door and called out to Anthea, but there was no reply. Finally, after much searching among the piled wood, I found her body, so emaciated she appeared deformed. I knew then that father had engineered the death of both of my feline friends.

From that day on I developed a morbid fear of dark enclosed spaces, imagining how Anthea had felt, shut in a shed so dark that even her keen cat's eyes could not have penetrated the darkness while she searched vainly for a way to escape her captivity. The thought of her dying alone, in the darkness, of starvation deeply affected me so that from that day to this I have never been deliberately cruel to any creature lower than myself in God's design.

At that point in the dream I was no longer the young girl on the Cornish coast, but an old lady remembering her childhood. Suddenly instead of experiencing things I was remembering them. I think the old lady was quite close to her own end and maybe reliving parts of her past; perhaps particularly traumatic memories. The last fragment of dream contained the emotions of a far older person. I have no idea where the old lady was geographically. I saw only the memory she was reliving. For her, it felt like it happened "only yesterday".

That was the summer I lost all respect for my father. He had tried to bring me up in a moral and upstanding fashion according to the Lord's word. It was a summer I shall never forget for I never forgave him and I hoped that he would receive his punishment in Heaven. Though my childhood is now a distant memory and father himself long since buried, I have not forgiven him his trespasses against me and I do not believe I ever shall. When I too depart this earth, I shall not look for my father in Heaven, I shall look for Helena and Anthea, for in their simplicity they had more right to a place in God's glory than my father ever did for all his preachings and teachings.

For me it was very disturbing and very at odds with my current life. Yet it seemed to explain things about my current personality and I feel a more complete person for experiencing this "memory" or echo.

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