All sixty-four of its pages are yellowing, and the copyright date says 1987. It must’ve been purchased used, because there’s a stamp on the inside depicting two bears holding a “this book belongs to” sign. I never filled it in, because as a kid, I felt my garish handwriting (and name) would somehow sully the book.
I can’t remember when I first read The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth, but this book has traveled with me through two countries, ten different homes, five schools, six pets, and a marriage. If I had children, this would be the story I’d read to them every night.
Good Fortune is a cat who lives with a poor artist. She sits with him every day watching him work on a commissioned painting of the death of Buddha. But as he paints a procession of the courageous horse, the gentle snail, the noble elephant, and other earthly animals bidding farewell to Buddha, he knows Good Fortune wants to be in the painting too.
“But where is the cat?” thought the artist to himself, for even in his vision he remembered that in none of the paintings he had ever seen of the death of Buddha, was a cat represented among the other animals.
“Ah, the cat refused homage to Buddha,” he remembered, “and so by her own independent act, only the cat has the doors of Paradise closed in her face.”
The artist loves his gentle cat, but he needs the money. If he puts a cat in his painting, the temple priest will burn the sacrilegious art.
Good Fortune came out from his shadow. When she saw the tiger she trembled all over, from her thistledown whiskers to her little tail, and looked at the artist.
“If the tiger can come to bid farewell to Buddha,” she seemed to say, “surely the cat, who is little and often so gentle, may come. O master? Surely, surely, you will next paint the cat among the animals who were blessed by the Holy One as he died?”
I love this story and not just because I have three cats of my own. When I read this as a kid, I loved it because it was a story about animals. When I read this as teen, I loved it because it was about an animal who changed a man’s life for the better. My childhood dog changed my life, except I hadn’t known just how much he’d affected me until years after he passed away. When I read this story as an adult, I love it because it reminds me that the things that move us—be it cats or art—can lead us to surprisingly beautiful places.