Once or twice in each generation, a champion is born.
She may be meek or wild. He may be golden or homely. They may never be recognized for their sacrifices.
They will always face the Champion’s Choice.
On the way to the day of decision, they may howl a “sheesh” here and there.
That’s what Shishito did in his peppery preliminaries at Tabby’s Place. A pecan sandy with pathos to spare, Shish shouted for all to hear, his mouth frozen in the “O!” of a choir boy.
He had not come here to be coddled. He had not come here to be patronized. He did not have time for a three-week quarantine.
He was sent to uncage the masses from the quicksand of despair, to flavor the world with its long-lost salt, and to make the choice that defines a champion.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you follow the trail back in time, you’ll find a blistered pepper with painful peepers. If you’ve ever rubbed your eyes after dicing jalapenos, you can imagine the ache of entropion. With this mean disease, a cat’s own lashes turn mutinous, curling inward and scraping his eyeballs with every bitter blink. Surgery is the only solution, which is bad news for feral peppers without outdoor ophthalmologists.
Sheesh! His eyes burned. But the pepper remained unpickled, letting pain propel him forward.
Shishito consulted the secret map known only to cats, in which the house of every good person on the planet is highlighted in green. (I’ll bet yours is on it.) He selected his destination; he wiped the sand from his eyes; and he set foot for the future.
His future. Our future. The future of the entire world.
It always seems like a scattered pile of circumstances that carries a cat to Tabby’s Place, but every seed is planted with purpose.
Sure enough, Shishito had staggered onto the porch of a person with heart. Sure enough, the heart picked up the phone. Sure enough, Animal Control ached at the sight of the squinting sandy smudge. Sure enough, Tabby’s Place is a sanctuary for cats from hopeless situations.
Sure enough, our hero knew how to wear the “hopeless” costume, even though he knew he was anything but.
Entropion may have been his entry ticket, but the choice was all Shishito’s.
The pepper with a plan peeked around. Yes, surely this was the place. There were humans numbering no fewer than two hundred, bare hearts barely veiled in sweatshirts and swagger. There were cats of countless colors, all of them perilously pale. The whole world was a slumping salad of iceberg lettuce and unsalted egg whites.
There was great need for flavor.
The choice was clear.
The champion was champing at the bit.
But first, we had to lasso his lashes.
Sheesh! The sweatshirted sorts were stubborn chefs, insisting that the main dish here was Caring For Cats. Shishito understood that pecan sandies must be patient with persons of size. So he submitted himself to our silly surgery, admitting that heroism goes smoother when you don’t need to squint all the time.
But there wasn’t much time. The needs around him were urgent, and the world had waited long enough for his arrival. Eyes open, heart open, cookbook open, Shishito charged into Suite FIV to set the people free.
There would be trials and errors, flat souffles and over-ambitious omelets. Not even pepper-power could pierce the planet of Chicken Nugget, planted like a pontoon boat in the solarium tube. (Shishito is small, and smart, and spicy, but inconveniently a solid object.)
Not even gingerly-given cuddles could calm the red Sky at night. (Shishito is snuggly, and smart, and spicy, but inconveniently not in complete control of all creatures. Yet.)
But champions never stop at “sheesh!”
Champions choose, even when no one understands.
And so Shishito took a deep breath, took a look around the limp and lonely world, and took stock of the options.
He could choose to make everyone impressed. An uncommonly handsome cat, with flavor and finesse, he could keep his nose in the air and his peppery paws out of the potatoes. The potato people (of both species) would gaze upon him with splendor in their eyes, feeling faint and flavorless by comparison.
Or he could choose to make everyone feel safe.
The angry red-streaked Sky. The clunky, clog-boggled Chicken Nugget. The plump lady who crochets cozies for her AirPods. The translucent teenager who leans into the wall as if to melt.
The dunderheaded Development Director who is uncool, really uncool, and not in that uncool-that-means-wryly-cool flavor.
He chose to be the champion. Their champion. Our champion. The champion of the fearful, flavorless, feral world.
He chose to sacrifice the chance to be a celebrity for the dance of being our delivery boy.
And so, loving and loving and loving with every grain of pecan sand, Shishito delivered us back to full flavor.
Peppered with his purrs, the anemic egg whites turned sunny-side-up.
Sanded with his sugar, the wilted leaves regrew roots.
Spiced with something far greater than “niceness,” the nerds and nebbishes knew themselves to be…delicious.
And we realized we’ve been here before (and will be again).
We have known many Shishitos, who have un-sheeshed our sorrows. You remember them.
When you thought you were a toad under the algae, too heinous for fellow toads to behold, along came a tow truck man who offered the unsolicited exclamation, “You are breathtaking, and I don’t mean that in a creepy way.”
When you thought you were unsalted salt, the dullest of the dotards, a wrinkled manila envelope in a world of glitter birthday cards, along came a tiny nephew, straight into your lap, looking straight into your eyes and decreeing, “you’re FUN.”
When you thought the joy was over, the flavor had faded, and the years were a slog, along came a cat.
Chuffed and cheered, the champion felt fed at last (and suddenly remembered that even heroes have hungers — sheesh! where can a guy get some good calamari around here?).
But Shishito’s work had really just begun.
Because now it was time for all his precious potato people to deliver take-out trays far and wide. (He suggested that we repurpose the large metal litter pans, which are actually chafing dishes from a catering company. But not even champions have 100% good ideas 100% of the time.)
It turns out we all get to be champions.
And when our hot and spicy hero is adopted (can any of us doubt that the day is already set on the secret calendar?), we will remember the recipe.
So tell me.
Would you rather people be impressed with you, or feel safe with you?
The choice is yours.
All together now: sheesh!