The Cat, The Devil and the Bridge

A Westcountry River Story

Beth Webb

Beth Webb

Author, Illustrator & Storyteller

The Cat, The Devil and the Bridge (c) Beth Webb 2017

How the Yeo got it’s name

This March we held a ‘Creative Writing and Storytelling’ event as part of our ‘Year of the Yeo’ celebrations. We were joined by local author and storyteller Beth Webb, who tells the long forgotten story of how the River Yeo got it’s name…

A long time ago, the River Yeo was just called ‘the river’. It was fast and muddy. The local people crossed its rickety old bridge every day, but no one thought about it much.

One night there was a tremendous storm. Rain pounded and thunder roared. On the banks of the river, lightning caught an old willow tree. The branches lit up, cracked and split. The broken trunk tumbled into the river, and the raging torrent carried it down to the town…

Where it smashed into the bridge and carried it away.

At dawn, the townspeople ran down to see what the noise in the night had been.

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‘Oh no!’ they cried, ‘Our bridge is useless!’ ‘How will everyone get to market?’ ‘The ford is deep and dangerous, we can’t use it.’ ‘How will we sell our cattle and our cheese, our cloth and our beer?’ they asked.

The mayor called everyone into the town hall. ‘Never fear,’ he said, ‘we will build a new bridge, the old one was very wobbly anyway. We’ll build a stone one this time – it’ll be stronger.’

Everybody cheered, but the treasurer opened his money box and counted the coins. ‘Er… Mr Mayor, we have a problem. We don’t have enough money for a wooden bridge, let along a stone one.’

But the mayor wasn’t worried. ‘We’ll think of something. Now, put up lots of advertisements saying “bridge builder wanted”.’ The days and weeks passed. Several builders came for the job, but they all asked for money in advance to buy wood, which the treasurer couldn’t give them.

Meanwhile, things were going from bad to worse. No one could get to market and the town was getting poorer and poorer.

Then late one afternoon, a skinny, mean-eyed little man with a forked beard came to see the mayor.

‘Hello,’ the visitor smiled, showing rather pointy teeth. ‘I hear you’re looking for a bridge builder?’

‘Come in! Come in! You’re very welcome!’ said the mayor.

Inside, the little man sat by the fire and stretched out his claw-like hands to the flames. ‘I am a master bridge builder, and as it happens, my workers and I have just finished a very big job not far away. We’ve plenty of stone left, which we can let you have at a bargain price.’

‘Ah,’ said the mayor, ‘I have to be honest with you, we don’t have the funds for a stone bridge – even a cheap one.’

The little man leaned closer to the fire and said, ‘Well, I can see you are in big difficulties here. How about this? My team and I will do the work for free, but in exchange, you will grant us all toll-free use of the bridge forever.’

The mayor could hardly believe his ears. He called for his counsellors, and they all agreed, this was a very fine bargain indeed.

‘Excellent,’ said the man, getting up to go. ‘But there is just one thing…’

The mayor’s heart sank. ‘Yes?’

‘It’s just, I’m sure you’ll appreciate there are many secrets to the bridge building trade, so my team and I only work at night. Tell your people that if anyone, man, woman, or child so much as looks through a window while we’re working, we will down tools, and your bridge will never be finished.’

‘We can do that,’ promised the mayor and counsellors.

‘Good,’ the man replied. ‘Don’t forget.’

‘We won’t,’ everyone agreed. ‘A deal is a deal.’

As the bridge builder left, a little stray cat who’d been sitting under the visitor’s chair went up to the mayor. ‘Me-yow,’ she said, ‘Mr Mayor, I think I should warn you, that “man” has a long black tail and stinks of sulphur!’

The mayor stroked the cat. ‘Don’t worry, puss. We humans are clever; we know what we’re doing.’

But the cat wasn’t too sure about that, and slipped outside. She knew ‘no man, woman or child’ may watch the work, but ‘cats’ hadn’t been mentioned so she trotted down to the riverbank and hid behind a bush to see what would happen next.

As darkness fell and a full moon shone, several carts piled with stone trundled up and a swarm of small workers unloaded. By midnight, the bridge’s foundations were laid and the pillars built. In the grey light of dawn, it was finished.

All night the cat sat and watched. It was clear the ‘secrets’ the little man had mentioned had much more to do with magic than stone masonry.

As the first rays of sun struck the pale stone of the bridge’s parapet, the team of workers faded into the morning mist.

The cat went up to the mayor’s door and me-yow-ed loudly. At last the mayor came out and scowled at the cat. ‘What do you want?’

‘I think you ought to come with me,’ she replied, then trotted down the lane. At the bottom, the water danced and sparked in the sunshine, very proud of the new bridge which it wore like a magnificent collar.

The mayor was delighted. He clapped his hands and yelled, ‘Wake up! Everyone wake up! Let’s have a grand opening for the new bridge. We’ll have a party.’

‘But…’ mewed the cat. BUT LISTEN! It’s not safe because…’

Only the mayor was too busy to listen to a little black and white cat.

Two hours later, everyone was dressed in their best clothes. The town band was playing and a red ribbon was stretched across the bridge. A trumpet blew a fanfare; the mayor stepped forwards and snipped the ribbon with a flourish. ‘I declare this bridge open!’ he announced.

But, then he gawped, for right in his way sat the builder in a deckchair, his cloven hooves on the parapet, and a glass of lemonade in his claws.

‘Er…’ said the mayor. ‘Good morning. It’s a lovely bridge. Thank you for all your hard work.’

‘I’m glad you like it,’ the little man replied. ‘The river looks so pretty; I could sit here all day!’

‘Er…’ began the mayor again, ‘but you can’t, you see, people need to use this bridge.’

The little man turned to the mayor, his eyes flashed red, and his tail swished angrily. ‘And I and all my workers have the right to use this bridge as much as we wish, toll-free, for ever. A deal is a deal. Go and use the ford.’

The people booed. The mayor almost wept. What could he do?

And the cat rubbed around his legs mewing, ‘I tried to tell you.’

The mayor went to see the vicar. ‘Do something,’ he roared.

The vicar blinked. ‘What?’

‘I don’t know, splash the devil with holy water, say some prayers – anything!’

The vicar thought then said, ‘Sadly, I can’t. You made a deal, and so far, the devil hasn’t broken it. The Almighty is very clear about the importance of sticking to rules. But,’ He leaned closer and whispered, ‘Just be patient, the devil has a great deal of mischief and harm to do elsewhere. He’ll soon get bored and be off.’

The days and weeks passed, but the bridge was always occupied, if not by the devil, then one of his demon ‘workers’ who also had free use of the bridge for ever.

The mayor was beside himself with worry, and the town was getting poorer and poorer. One wet morning, he plucked up courage and went to talk to the devil. Below him, the river still danced and swirled, for the bridge was beautifully built.

The Devil looked at the mayor and smiled his cold, cruel smile. ‘Have you come to admire the view?’

‘No,’ said the mayor, ‘But I was wondering if there’s any way to pay for the bridge. Can we give you gold or jewels?’

The Devil laughed. ‘You can’t give me anything I don’t have; I already own all gold and jewels in the world!’

The mayor narrowed his eyes. ‘There must be something you want…?’

The Devil thought for a moment. ‘There is, but you’d never get it.’

‘Try me.’

The Devil crossed his scaly arms and replied, ‘If somebody crosses this bridge and allows me to take their soul to hell of their own free will, then I and my demons will leave forever. And you know I keep my word!’

The mayor went pale and gulped. ‘Anybody? So a criminal would do?’

The devil licked his lips. ‘Anybody, I don’t care. All souls are delicious!’

Sadly and slowly, the mayor walked back. He called a meeting of the townsfolk and told them the devil’s terms.

People argued and wept, but no one could think of a solution, until at last, the little stray cat wove her way between the boots and shoe, then jumped onto the table at the front. ‘MEE-YOW!’ she called loudly.

Everyone fell silent. Then she said, ‘I’ll go to hell with the devil.’

‘But aren’t you frightened?’ gasped the mayor.

‘A little,’ she admitted, ‘but I’m always cold and hungry, so sitting by a warm fire forever could be heaven.’

‘If you’re sure…’

‘I’m sure,’ the cat replied. ‘All I ask is a big plate of fresh fish and a bowl of cream to see me on my way.’

‘They’re yours!’ promised the mayor, and everyone clapped and cheered.

As soon as the cat had eaten, she strode onto the bridge. There she sat by the devil’s hooves and washed her bottom.

The devil heard purring and looked down. ‘What do you want?’ he sneered.

‘I’ve come to pay the price of the bridge; you may take my soul to hell.’

‘It won’t do,’ snapped the devil. ‘I said a human soul… not a cat.’

The cat spread her whiskers indignantly. ‘I have a soul! And you didn’t say “human.” In fact, your exact words were: “Anybody will do.” I may be a little skinny, but I definitely have a body – so I’ll do.’

The devil stamped his hooves. ‘But… but you can’t have a soul. You have to have a name to have a soul.’

‘I have a name,’ she replied indignantly. ‘I’m called Me-Yow!’

The devil was livid… furious, incandescent with rage! But a deal was a deal, so scooping up the little cat, he took her away in a puff of sulphurous smoke.

The townspeople were so grateful to the cat, they named the river after her, and it’s been Called the River Me-Yow ever since. Only nowadays, the spelling has changed and it’s just called the ‘Yeo’ for short.

And as for little Me-Yow, last I heard she’s warming her paws by the fire in the devil’s kitchen, and driving him mad with her wit and wisdom.

Now read some of Beth Webb’s other books for children on her website.