Rinka was so cold her stomach didn't hurt from hunger any more. As night shadows fell and the stars began to shine with almost painful brightness, the gray-and-white tabby cat became almost invisible. Her white paws could be mistaken for four more tiny patches of frost already on the freezing ground. The distant sound of Christmas Eve caroling floated down from a church on the hill. But it didn't mean anything to Rinka except that the feared voices of humans were far away, safely far away. Her dear mother had taught her that greatest fear - the fear of humans. Mother taught Rinka, her brother and sister many things as the kittens played and grew and lived in the woods. The kittens learned to stalk and catch prey, and to escape from deadly predators like dogs and humans - especially humans. Humans didn't just kill, Mother said. They hurt and hurt. Her terror at the sound or even the distant scent of humans told the kittens all they needed to know. Life was happy for the little wild family, or ferals, as humans would have called them. Even though they were sometimes hungry, sometimes frightened, they were happy, except for one thing. Rinka couldn't count, but she knew her beloved family was getting smaller. The little brother didn't wake one morning. He was different and still. Mother, the sister and Rinka tiptoed away, sadly leaving him behind, forever. Another day, her dear sister failed to return from hunting. Only Rinka and Mother were left. One morning Rinka and Mother were hunting separately, when Rinka heard Mother scream horribly. Rinka ran and found Mother, bleeding and panting, tangled with some pieces of metal that stank of humans. Rinka tried to lick the blood from Mother's crushed body, but before she could, both cats heard footsteps - human footsteps. "Run," gasped Mother, with her last breath, then she breathed no more. Rinka fled to a nearby thicket. She saw a human pull her mother's body from the trap and throw it into nearby bushes, with a curse. "Thought I had me something worth catching," he grumbled, with a curse. After that, something went out of Rinka. She didn't try as hard to catch the mice, moles and lizards that fed her. Soon, she became too slow to hunt well. The weather grew colder. Rinka slept as much as she could. In sleep there was no pain from hunger or cold. But that night, as she dozed in the deepening, freezing dark, she awoke with a start of terror. A human voice, near her! No, it wasn't exactly a _human_ voice, but a warm, friendly, safe-sounding voice, saying, "Ho ho ho, what have we here? A little wild kitty? And so cold and hungry?" Rigid with terror, Rinka found herself being lifted by gentle hands and - cuddled! But the smell wasn't human. It was something else. Something - nice. A gentle hand stroked Rinka and tucked her into the warm corner of a soft, cuddly arm. "Come with me, little friend," said the voice. "Your pretty fur coat can't keep you warm enough tonight, lady cat" And the strange, non-human-smelling person stepped up into some kind of vehicle. Rinka was suddenly sleepy - warm and happy and sleepy. She heard the friendly, safe- sounding voice call, "Okay, Dasher, Dancer, all you guys. Come on, hit it!" And Rinka dreamed she was flying. The next morning, Rinka woke up, still in the arms of the friendly-sounding-but-not- human person. He got out of the sleigh, calling to the deer, "Great run, guys! Extra oats all around!. I'll be back in a minute." He pushed open a door and entered a warm, spicy-smelling kitchen. "Good morning, Mrs. Claus, and a Merry Christmas to you!" Another not-quite-human put her arms around the first one, gave him a big hug and said, "And a Merry Christmas to you, Santa, dear. Welcome home, and I hope you're ready for a big Christmas morning breakfast - what? What's this?" Santa gently laid Rinka in mrs. Santa's arms. "Here's a Merry Christmas morning gift, my dear," he said. "For my sweet one who has everything, and is everything to me, it's just another way to say, 'I love you.'" Mrs. Claus held Rinka gently. "A precious kitty. And so happy. Hear her purr? You go feed those reindeer while I make a nice big breakfast for this pretty little girl. A new friend- what a lovely gift." As Santa left to care for his deer, Mrs. Santa gently placed Rinka on the floor, then poured rich cream into a bowl and set it in front of her. "When you get to know me better, maybe you'll tell me your name. This is your home, now, sweetheart." Rinka sniffed the cream, suspicious at first, then lapped it carefully. When she tasted how delicious it was, she lapped quickly and happily. Home. A new word for Rinka. A beautiful word. "Rinka?" said Mrs. Claus. ."What a pretty name. Welcome home, Rinka, and Merry Christmas."
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