One cold rainy day when my father was a little boy, he met an old alley cat on his street. The cat was very drippy and uncomfortable so my father said, “Wouldn’t you like to come home with me?”
This surprised the cat — she had never before met anyone who cared about old alley cats — but she said, “I’d be very much obliged if I could sit by a warm furnace, and perhaps have a saucer of milk.”
“We have a very nice furnace to sit by,” said my father, “and I’m sure my mother has an extra saucer of milk.”
My father and the cat became good friends but my father’s mother was very upset about the cat. She hated cats, particularly ugly old alley cats. “Elmer Elevator,” she said to my father, “if you think I’m going to give that cat a saucer of milk, you’re very wrong. Once you start feeding stray alley cats you might as well expect to feed every stray in town, and I am not going to do it!”
This made my father very sad, and he apologized to the cat because his mother had been so rude. He told the cat to stay anyway, and that somehow he would bring her a saucer of milk each day. My father fed the cat for three weeks, but one day his mother found the cat’s saucer in the cellar and she was extremely angry. She whipped my father and threw the cat out the door, but later on my father sneaked out and found the cat. Together they went for a walk in the park and tried to think of nice things to talk about. My father said, “When I grow up I’m going to have an airplane. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to fly just anywhere you might think of!”
“Would you like to fly very, very much?” asked the cat.
“I certainly would. I’d do anything if I could fly.”
“Well,” said the cat, “If you’d really like to fly that much, I think I know of a sort of a way you might get to fly while you’re still a little boy.”
“You mean you know where I could get an airplane?”
“Well, not exactly an airplane, but something even better. As you can see, I’m an old cat now, but in my younger days I was quite a traveler. My traveling days are over but last spring I took just one more trip and sailed to the Island of Tangerina, stopping at the port of Cranberry. Well, it just so happened that I missed the boat, and while waiting for the next I thought I’d look around a bit. I was particularly interested in a place called Wild Island, which we had passed on our way to Tangerina. Wild Island and Tangerina are joined together by a long string of rocks, but people never go to Wild Island because it’s mostly jungle and inhabited by very wild animals. So, I decided to go across the rocks and explore it for myself. It certainly is an interesting place, but I saw something there that made me want to weep.”
“Wild Island is practically cut in two by a very wide and muddy river,” continued the cat. “This river begins near one end of the island and flows into the ocean at the other. Now the animals there are very lazy, and they used to hate having to go all the way around the beginning of this river to get to the other side of the island. It made visiting inconvenient and mail deliveries slow, particularly during the Christmas rush. Crocodiles could have carried passengers and mail across the river, but crocodiles are very moody, and not the least bit dependable, and are always looking for something to eat. They don’t care if the animals have to walk around the river, so that’s just what the animals did for many years.”
“But what does all this have to do with airplanes?” asked my father, who thought the cat was taking an awfully long time to explain.
“Be patient, Elmer,” said the cat, and she went on with the story. “One day about four months before I arrived on Wild Island a baby dragon fell from a low-flying cloud onto the bank of the river. He was too young to fly very well, and besides, he had bruised one wing quite badly, so he couldn’t get back to his cloud. The animals found him soon afterwards and everybody said, ‘Why, this is just exactly what we’ve needed all these years!’ They tied a big rope around his neck and waited for the wing to get well. This was going to end all their crossing-the-river troubles.”
“I’ve never seen a dragon,” said my father. “Did you see him? How big is he?”
“Oh, yes, indeed I saw the dragon. In fact, we became great friends,” said the cat. “I used to hide in the bushes and talk to him when nobody was around. He’s not a very big dragon, about the size of a large black bear, although I imagine he’s grown quite a bit since I left. He’s got a long tail and yellow and blue stripes. His horn and eyes and the bottoms of his feet are bright red, and he has gold-colored wings.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” said my father. “What did the animals do with him when his wing got well?”
“They started training him to carry passengers, and even though he is just a baby dragon, they work him all day and all night too sometimes. They make him carry loads that are much too heavy, and if he complains, they twist his wings and beat him. He’s always tied to a stake on a rope just long enough to go across the river. His only friends are the crocodiles, who say ‘Hello’ to him once a week if they don’t forget. Really, he’s the most miserable animal I’ve ever come across. When I left I promised I’d try to help him someday, although I couldn’t see how. The rope around his neck is about the biggest, toughest rope you can imagine, with so many knots it would take days to untie them all.
“Anyway, when you were talking about airplanes, you gave me a good idea. Now, I’m quite sure that if you were able to rescue the dragon, which wouldn’t be the least bit easy, he’d let you ride him most anywhere, provided you were nice to him, of course. How about trying it?”
“Oh, I’d love to,” said my father, and he was so angry at his mother for being rude to the cat that he didn’t feel the least bit sad about running away from home for a while.
That very afternoon my father and the cat went down to the docks to see about ships going to the Island of Tangerina. They found out that a ship would be sailing the next week, so right away they started planning for the rescue of the dragon. The cat was a great help in suggesting things for my father to take with him, and she told him everything she knew about Wild Island. Of course, she was too old to go along.
Everything had to be kept very secret, so when they found or bought anything to take on the trip they hid it behind a rock in the park. The night before my father sailed he borrowed his father’s knapsack and he and the cat packed everything very carefully. He took chewing gum, two dozen pink lollipops, a package of rubber bands, black rubber boots, a compass, a tooth brush and a tube of tooth paste, six magnifying glasses, a very sharp jackknife, a comb and a hairbrush, seven hair ribbons of different colors, an empty grain bag with a label saying “Cranberry,” some clean clothes, and enough food to last my father while he was on the ship. He couldn’t live on mice, so he took twenty-five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and six apples, because that’s all the apples he could find in the pantry.
When everything was packed my father and the cat went down to the docks to the ship. A night watchman was on duty, so while the cat made loud queer noises to distract his attention, my father ran over the gang-plank onto the ship. He went down into the hold and hid among some bags of wheat. The ship sailed early the next morning.
My father hid in the hold for six days and nights. Twice he was nearly caught when the ship stopped to take on more cargo. But at last he heard a sailor say that the next port would be Cranberry and that they’d be unloading the wheat there. My father knew that the sailors would send him home if they caught him, so he looked in his knapsack and took out a rubber band and the empty grain bag with the label saying “Cranberry.” At the last moment my father got inside the bag, knapsack and all, folded the top of the bag inside, and put the rubber band around the top. He didn’t look just exactly like the other bags but it was the best he could do.
Soon the sailors came to unload. They lowered a big net into the hold and began moving the bags of wheat. Suddenly one sailor yelled, “Great Scott! This is the queerest bag of wheat I’ve ever seen! It’s all lumpy-like, but the label says it’s to go to Cranberry.”
The other sailors looked at the bag too, and my father, who was in the bag, of course, tried even harder to look like a bag of wheat. Then another sailor felt the bag and he just happened to get hold of my father’s elbow. “I know what this is,” he said. “This is a bag of dried corn on the cob,” and he dumped my father into the big net along with the bags of wheat.
This all happened in the late afternoon, so late that the merchant in Cranberry who had ordered the wheat didn’t count his bags until the next morning. (He was a very punctual man, and never late for dinner.) The sailors told the captain, and the captain wrote down on a piece of paper, that they had delivered one hundred and sixty bags of wheat and one bag of dried corn on the cob. They left the piece of paper for the merchant and sailed away that evening.
My father heard later that the merchant spent the whole next day counting and recounting the bags and feeling each one trying to find the bag of dried corn on the cob. He never found it because as soon as it was dark my father climbed out of the bag, folded it up and put it back in his knapsack. He walked along the shore to a nice sandy place and lay down to sleep.
My father was very hungry when he woke up the next morning. Just as he was looking to see if he had anything left to eat, something hit him on the head. It was a tangerine. He had been sleeping right under a tree full of big, fat tangerines. And then he remembered that this was the Island of Tangerina. Tangerine trees grew wild everywhere. My father picked as many as he had room for, which was thirty-one, and started off to find Wild Island.
He walked and walked and walked along the shore, looking for the rocks that joined the two islands. He walked all day, and once when he met a fisherman and asked him about Wild Island, the fisherman began to shake and couldn’t talk for a long while. It scared him that much, just thinking about it. Finally he said, “Many people have tried to explore Wild Island, but not one has come back alive. We think they were eaten by the wild animals.” This didn’t bother my father. He kept walking and slept on the beach again that night.
It was beautifully clear the next day, and way down the shore my father could see a long line of rocks leading out into the ocean, and way, way out at the end he could just see a tiny patch of green. He quickly ate seven tangerines and started down the beach.
It was almost dark when he came to the rocks, but there, way out in the ocean, was the patch of green. He sat down and rested a while, remembering that the cat had said, “If you can, go out to the island at night, because then the wild animals won’t see you coming along the rocks and you can hide when you get there.” So my father picked seven more tangerines, put on his black rubber boots, and waited for dark.
It was a very black night and my father could hardly see the rocks ahead of him. Sometimes they were quite high and sometimes the waves almost covered them, and they were slippery and hard to walk on. Sometimes the rocks were far apart and my father had to get a running start and leap from one to the next.
After a while he began to hear a rumbling noise. It grew louder and louder as he got nearer to the island. At last it seemed as if he was right on top of the noise, and he was. He had jumped from a rock onto the back of a small whale who was fast asleep and cuddled up between two rocks. The whale was snoring and making more noise than a steam shovel, so it never heard my father say, “Oh, I didn’t know that was you!” And it never knew my father had jumped on its back by mistake.
For seven hours my father climbed and slipped and leapt from rock to rock, but while it was still dark he finally reached the very last rock and stepped off onto Wild Island.
The jungle began just beyond a narrow strip of beach; thick, dark, damp, scary jungle. My father hardly knew where to go, so he crawled under a wahoo bush to think, and ate eight tangerines. The first thing to do, he decided, was to find the river, because the dragon was tied somewhere along its bank. Then he thought, “If the river flows into the ocean, I ought to be able to find it quite easily if I just walk along the beach far enough.” So my father walked until the sun rose and he was quite far from the Ocean Rocks. It was dangerous to stay near them because they might be guarded in the daytime. He found a clump of tall grass and sat down. Then he took off his rubber boots and ate three more tangerines. He could have eaten twelve but he hadn’t seen any tangerines on this island and he could not risk running out of something to eat.
My father slept all that day and only woke up late in the afternoon when he heard a funny little voice saying, “Queer, queer, what a dear little dock! I mean, dear, dear, what a queer little rock!” My father saw a tiny paw rubbing itself on his knapsack. He lay very still and the mouse, for it was a mouse, hurried away muttering to itself, “I must smell tumduddy. I mean, I must tell somebody.”
My father waited a few minutes and then started down the beach because it was almost dark now, and he was afraid the mouse really would tell somebody. He walked all night and two scary things happened. First, he just had to sneeze, so he did, and somebody close by said, “Is that you, Monkey?” My father said, “Yes.” Then the voice said, “You must have something on your back, Monkey,” and my father said “Yes,” because he did. He had his knapsack on his back. “What do you have on your back, Monkey?” asked the voice.
My father didn’t know what to say because what would a monkey have on its back, and how would it sound telling someone about it if it did have something? Just then another voice said, “I bet you’re taking your sick grandmother to the doctor’s.” My father said “Yes” and hurried on. Quite by accident he found out later that he had been talking to a pair of tortoises.