English Folktales: The Curious Case of Johnny Reed’s Cat

Image by Gorkhs from Pixabay

There is a very curious tale that comes from a village in the north of England just outside Newcastle-upon-Tyne.   It is called Johnny Reed’s Cat and comes from a collection of folktales garnered by Charles John Tibbits, in a book titled Folk-lore and legends: English. Presented here is a retelling of that tale.

Johnny Reed’s Cat

Johnny Reed was the sexton of the village looking after the upkeep of the church and the churchyard.  Sometimes he rang the bells and sometimes dug the graves and kept everywhere tidy and in order.  

He lived in a small cottage nearby that belonged to the church and went with his job.  He had a good wife who kept their home clean and tidy but they had no children.  However, they did have a cat and a very well behaved one at that.  It was a very beautiful cat with a most luxurious jet black coat and as cats go it was as friendly and as loving as any such creatures could. Like all of its kind it kept a fascination for anything that moved or wriggled and could get up to the craziest antics.  Although he could be very playful displaying great bursts of energy at short intervals he would often spend his time sitting and gazing into the fire.  

The cat had been with Johnny and his wife since it was a kitten and they had watched him grow to maturity into a most handsome feline.  He would sit with them in the evenings  keeping them company and gazing into the fire with half closed eyes as if in some distant dream.  

Johnny thought he knew everything there was to know about him but cats can be very whimsical changing with the wind and then back again leaving onlookers baffled.  There was always a faint air of mystery about Johnny’s cat.

Nevertheless as cats go Johnny Reed was more than satisfied  and very fond of him and the cat appeared very loving towards Johnny more so than his wife.  The cat lived contentedly with the couple for many years until a very strange thing happened.

Digging A Grave

Johnny had spent the day digging a new grave for someone who had suddenly and unexpectedly died and was to be buried the next day.  This meant he had to carry on working in the dark so the grave was ready for the morning.  Nevertheless he carried on working by the light of a lantern until he had finished digging and the grave was ready to use the next day.  At last he finished and packed up his tools taking them to store in the shed in the far corner of the churchyard.  He was tired and glad to have finished and looking forward to his supper and a warm fire in his snug cottage with his wife and his cat beside him.  Storing the tools and locking the shed he turned and walked briskly home in the cold dark air.

Nine Black Cats

He did not have to go far but it necessitated him passing by a gate which opened into a field.   It was dark and as he walked towards it he thought he saw dark shadows and lots of small gleaming fires dancing about.  They seemed like little flashes one might see of a fire through a window at a distance but these moved.  

Johnny was a steady man and perhaps because of his occupation was not one to be frightened easily by queer things that might unsettle others easily.  Therefore, he walked up to the gate and leaned on it peering into the blackness at the dancing lights.  Now that he was nearer the shadows were much blacker and the lights much brighter but as his eyes became more accustomed he realized he was looking not at shadows and lights.  Instead the lights were the eyes of nine black cats and the shadows were their bodies. 

They looked like they were holding court over some important matter.  The largest feline was positioned in the middle of the baseline of a semicircle of black cats sitting before him.  Thinking they were up to mischief he thought to scare them off and made a loud “wssshhhing” sound while clapping his hands loudly.

The cats took no notice whatsoever and carried on their business.  Annoyed by their indifference he sought a stone to throw, not to hurt, but to scare, but it was too dark to find one.  As he searched in the dark he was shocked to hear someone call his name, “Johnny Reed!”

The Black Cat’s Request

Johnny looked but could see no one other than the cats.

“Johnny Reed!” said the voice.

Who is there?” demanded Johnny, not a little vexed.

“Johnny Reed!” repeated the voice.

Image by Schmidsi from Pixabay

“I am Johnny Reed!” replied Johnny, perplexed and growing a little nervous and added jokingly, “Why, it must be one of you cats that is calling me.”

“Yes, indeed Johnny Reed,” said the largest of the cats who appeared to be their leader, “It is I calling you.”

Realizing it was the cat speaking Johnny was bewildered.  Although his own cat could be very expressive in its own way he had never before heard a cat speak in English as plain as any human.  Thinking that these were extraordinary circumstances that he could not explain and did not know how to react he thought a bit of courtesy would not go amiss.  

Therefore, taking off his cap he bowed slightly  to show respect and said politely, “Well sir, pardon my bewilderment you have plain taken me by surprise.  Is there anything I can do for you?”

“It is not much I ask of you but it is important you do as I request,” replied the cat.

“And what might that be?” asked Johnny civilly.

“I ask that you tell Dan Radcliffe that Peggy Poyson is dead!” answered the cat.

“Yes sir, I will certainly do that.” replied Johnny totally bemused but sensibly wishing to seem amenable. After all he had no way of knowing what strange power this large black cat and his friends may wield.

With that answer given all the cats disappeared into the darkness leaving Johnny alone in the night wondering who in the world Dan Radcliffe was?  He had never heard the name before, or that of the poor deceased Peggy Poyson.  

Who is Dan Radcliffe?

He ran home getting all hot and flustered in the process.  Rushing through the door to find his good wife sitting by the fire with his supper on the table.  His cat with its eyes half closed sat next to her staring dreamily into the fire.

Bursting in he gasped, “Wife, tell me if you can, who is Dan Radcliffe?”

“Why,” says she, “I have never heard of any such person from these parts or from anywhere else, why do you ask and why are you all a fluster?”

“I must find him and tell him some important news I been given for him!” He replied then told her of his strange meeting with the black cats.  As he told the story his own cat sat staring into the fire looking as snug and cosy as only cats can look.  

When he came to the part where the black cat said, “Tell Dan Radcliffe, Peggy Poyson is dead,” his own cat suddenly jumped up and exclaimed in plain English,  “What? Peggy Poyson dead?  Then I must go!”  With that he dashed out the door that Johnny had left a jar and vanished into the night never to return.

For a long time Johnny pondered the meaning of the black cat’ s message but neither he or his wife could fathom it.  All they could think of was that Dan Radcliffe was none other than their very own cat but who Peggy Poyson was they had no idea.

Mysterious Creatures

Johnny Reed and his wife never did see that cat again although being fond of it they searched all over the neighborhood to no avail. Johnny also searched for Dan Radcliffe to tell him the sad news about Peggy Poyson as he had promised.  Although he asked in his own and neighboring villages no trace could he find of Dan Radcliffe or Peggy Poyson and eventually he gave up.

Indeed, cats are very mysterious creatures! We think we own them and give them names of our choosing but know little of what they get up to at night or while we are absent. Moreover, we know nothing of what goes on in those minds even while they sit dreaming through half closed eyes before the fire.  It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that they may have their own names for themselves and indeed, may have names they give to us. Now I wonder what they call us and I wonder what you think of that?

If you do hear of anyone by the name of Dan Radcliffe do drop Johnny Reed a line so he can fulfill his promise, assuming he has not already done so.

© 26/11/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 26th zteve t evans

10 thoughts on “English Folktales: The Curious Case of Johnny Reed’s Cat

  1. Well told. Have heard another version, told scarily by storyteller ffranses Ingram, as ‘The King of the Cats’ Must tell this one to my Moggy. Hope her real name isn’t Peggy Pyson!

  2. Love this story Zteve, I do not have a cat but have always had dogs. I have always said that animals are far more intelligent than we give them credit for, and I swear they can tell the time.

    • Yes, animals can definitely tell the time especially dinnertime but, seriously I do think they are far more intelligent than we give them credit for. Thanks for commenting greatly appreciated!

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