Today’s post is a selection from Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland. A bestseller in France and the winner of the Kiyama Shohei Literary Award in Japan, the novella concerns a couple in their thirties living in a small rented cottage in a quiet section of Tokyo. They work at home and have reached a point in their relationship where they no longer have much to say to one another. The arrival of a cat changes things. Hiraide is a poet, and his writing is at once fast and delicate, attuned to the finest details in his characters’ lives. The Guest Cat will be published by New Directions on January 28.
At first it looked like low-lying ribbons of clouds just floating there, but then the clouds would be blown a little bit to the right and next to the left.
The small window in the corner of our kitchen bordered on a tall wooden fence, so close a person could barely pass by. From inside the house, its frosted glass looked like a dim movie screen. There was a small knothole in the wooden fence and the green of the bamboo hedge—which was about ten feet wide, to the north of the alley—was always projected on to the crude screen. Whenever someone walked by in the narrow alleyway, a figure formed, filling the entire window. Viewed from the dark interior of the house, sunny days seemed ever more vivid, and working perhaps on the same principle as a camera obscura, the figures of people walking past were turned upside down. Not only that, but whatever images passed by came from the opposite direction than the one in which the people were actually walking. And as the passersby approached closer to the knothole, their overturned figures would swell so large that they would entirely fill the window frame and, once they had passed, would suddenly disappear like some special optical phenomenon.
But on that day, the image of the ribbon clouds did not attempt to move past, and the image did not grow very large when it neared the knothole. Even when it should have expanded to an enlarged size, the image floating in the upper part of the window was only big enough to sit on the palm of one’s hand. The ribbon clouds hesitated, as if hovering in the street, and then the sound of a feeble cry arose.
My wife and I had decided on a name for the little alleyway. We called it “Lightning Alley.” It was about twenty minutes from the teeming Shinjuku terminal on a private line heading southwest: you got off at a little station where the express didn’t stop and walked south for about ten minutes. There you hit a bit of an incline, and then at the top of the hill you crossed the only street with any significant traffic going east and west. Once you crossed that diagonally, the rest of the way was downhill, and after about a hundred yards down a wide, rambling incline, there was a house on the left with an old-fashioned fence, its bamboo slats attached vertically all along the bottom half of the plastered wall. Just before reaching its gate you turned in to the austere little alleyway on the left, while the road continued on along the wooden fence.
Located within these same plastered walls and wooden fence, on the extensive grounds of an old estate, the place we were renting had originally been a guesthouse. A little more than halfway down the alley, a rickety gate in the wooden fence doubled as the landlady’s side entrance and the tenants’ front gate. Like an eye that went unnoticed, the knothole was located just beyond that gate.
Passing by behind the fence without knowing just how plainly your image was being projected on our window, you would first run head-on into the brick wall of the house jutting out from the left, and then you would turn to the right at an acute angle. And just as suddenly you would run into a house whose roof was concealed behind the dense growth of a huge zelkova tree, at which point the path turned sharply again to the left. The frequent, sharp turns created the lightning-bolt pattern one often sees in drawings, so we jokingly referred to it as “Lightning Alley.”
The zelkova tree shading the alley was of an advanced age. Quite likely the local district had designated it a protected tree. When the house had been built, it had been designed to provide an enclosure for the trunk of the tree. Its branches, which had been allowed to grow and spread unhindered, extended their luxuriant fingers from the east side of the landlady’s garden, to over the northeastern corner where the tenants’ cottage stood, providing all with the blessing of its leafy protection. By late autumn the yard would grow thick with fallen leaves, causing the landlady to heave many deep sighs.
It was a boy of around five from the house next door, also embraced by the great zelkova tree, who became determined to capture and keep the stray cat several days after it had first crept into Lightning Alley. Though they were our neighbors to the east, the twists and turns of Lightning Alley produced a distance between us. Despite our daily comings and goings, there was never an opportunity for us to meet face to face. The side of the neighbor’s house bordering our garden was a solid wall with just one small window for ventilation. And to be blunt, we were simply renters of the guesthouse tucked back in a small corner of the extensive grounds of the estate, so there was little sense of our actually being true neighbors.
The boy often played where the alleyway turned sharply, shouting energetically in a high-pitched voice, but since our daily lives took place in such completely different time zones (mine spent facing a desk till late in the night) we rarely crossed paths. Even so, a voice recognizably his traveled over the fence, reaching me late one morning at the breakfast table and firmly announcing the intention to keep the cat.
A few days later, I noticed the cat scurrying around our garden—no more than the size required for hanging clothes out to dry—and then I heard the boy’s voice and found myself breaking into a smile. Looking back now, I see this was a missed opportunity.
The little boy’s triumphant proclamation must have been heard by the landlady inside the big house, for that evening we heard her talking in front of the neighbor’s gate— “How’d you like to have a cat?”
The woman’s dry voice was pressing. “It’s just really too much for us,” the voice went on, chatting blithely about how cats infiltrated the premises from every corner, laying waste to the garden, raising a racket on the roof, and sometimes even leaving muddy paw prints inside the house.
The young housewife next door spoke in a voice both quiet and refined. One would think she would have been placed on the defensive, but after patiently listening to the eighty-year-old’s pleas, it appeared she had no trouble holding her own. In all likelihood she could see the boy standing behind his grandmother and assumed he was praying for dear life. And in the end, it seems it was the old woman who lost out.
I remembered that just two years earlier when we’d signed the lease to rent the guesthouse from the old woman, there was a clause appended to the agreement stating that no children or pets were allowed. Neither of us especially wanted a child at that point in our lives, even though we were on the verge of passing beyond our mid-thirties. And when it came to what are referred to as pets, neither of us especially liked cats, and the notion of owning a dog had never even come up. So you could say that based on the old woman’s terms of occupancy, we were extremely well-suited renters.
There are a few cat lovers among my close friends, and I have to admit that there have been moments when that look of excessive sweet affection oozing from around their eyes has left me feeling absolutely disgusted. Having devoted themselves to cats body and soul, they seemed at times utterly indifferent to shame. When I think about it now, rather than my not being a cat lover, it may simply have been that I felt a disconnect with people who were cat lovers. But more than anything, I’d simply never experienced having one around.
I had a dog once when I was a child. I felt my relationship with the dog was simple and frank. The tension felt through the leash between the one who obeys and the one who leads was refreshing.
I must have been right around the same age as the little neighbor boy when I was living with my family in a row house which acted as a residence for municipal workers, though the row houses looked more like tenements in a slum than public buildings. I had only just recently gotten the dog when somebody up and stole it. Most likely it was midafternoon on a Saturday or Sunday when my father noticed that the spitz, which had been tied up outside in front of the entry, was gone. “Dognappers . . .” he grumbled, then immediately began trying to counteract the event. He stormed out of the house, taking me along, and we raced around in every direction in search of the spitz, but there was no sign of either dog or dognapper.
I remember clearly feeling that I shouldn’t ask my father anything more about what had happened, seeing how he’d reacted when the dog went missing. My older sister insists I cried all night long, but I have no memory of that.
Although I myself did not especially like cats, my wife has an innate connection with all living things. From the time she was small, she would go out with her older brother to catch crawdads and salamanders and keep them in an aquarium. She says she even hatched butterflies of all kinds—they would fly around her room. She’d kept various kinds of birds, finches and canaries, and had also raised chicks. She’d cared for baby birds that had fallen out of the nest as well and even nursed wounded bats back to health.
Even now she would turn on the TV to a nature program and could correctly name all of the animals, even rare species in faraway countries. In my wife’s case, what I mean by not liking cats is something of an entirely different order than her husband’s attitude, since all her life she had engaged with a variety of animals with the same level of interest. So in other words, she did not have my sort of preference of dogs over cats.
Once the cat had become the nextdoor neighbor’s pet, it would often appear in the garden in a new vermilion collar, hung with a tinkling bell.
A simple wooden fence separated the yard of the main house and the little garden adjacent to the guesthouse—the two having originally been one. With its landscape of trees and little hills, pond and flower beds, the imposing garden of the main house was most agreeable to the cat. After first stepping into the guesthouse’s small garden, the cat would set out on its own for the expanse of the big house’s yard.
Whenever the door to our small garden was left open, the cat was in the habit of peeking inside our house on its way to and from the main yard. The cat wasn’t a bit scared of humans. But it was cautious—just a natural part of its behavior perhaps—and would gaze at us quietly with its tail standing straight in the air, yet it would never come inside. If we tried to pick it up outside, it would quickly run away, and if we tried to force it to let us hold it, it would bite. Aware of the ever vigilant eye of the landlady, we made no real attempts to tame the cat.
These events unfolded between the autumn of 1988 and the beginning of winter, during the final months of the Shōwa Period.
The cat’s name was Chibi, which means “little one.” We could hear the boy’s particularly high-pitched voice calling the cat: “Chibi!” Then we’d hear the sound of the boy’s shoes running around outside, followed by the tinkling of the little bell announcing the cat’s arrival.
Chibi was a jewel of a cat. Her pure white fur was mottled with several lampblack blotches containing just a bit of light brown. The sort of cat you might see just about anywhere in Japan, except she was especially slim and tiny.
These were her individual characteristics—slim and small, with ears that stood out, tapering off beautifully at the tips, and often twitching. She would approach silently and undetected to rub up against one’s legs. At first I thought Chibi avoided me because I was not used to cats, but this seems not to have been the case. When a girl who often passed along Lightning Alley stopped and crouched to gaze at the cat, it did not run away. But as soon as she attempted to touch it, the cat quickly slipped off, avoiding contact at all costs. The cat’s manner of rejection was like cold, white light.
Moreover, the cat rarely made a sound. As far as I remember, when it first appeared in the alley it made some sort of sound, but since then it had never let out a meow. It looked as if no matter how much time passed the cat was not going to let us hear its voice. This seemed to be the message the cat was giving us.
Another one of Chibi’s characteristics was that she changed the direction of her cautious attention frequently. This active behavior wasn’t limited to her kittenhood. Perhaps because she played alone most of the time in the expansive garden, she reacted strongly to insects and reptiles. And there were times when I could only conclude that she must be reacting to subtle changes in the wind and light, not detectable by humans. It may be that most cats share the same quickness, but even so, in Chibi’s case, it was acute—she was, after all, the cat of Lightning Alley. My wife got into the habit of pointing to the cat whenever it went by, extolling its virtues.
Trained by the boy next door, Chibi had become quite skilled at playing with a ball. It seemed that the boy was using a rubber ball that fit right into the palm of one’s hand. Sounds of laughter and play in the alley, and the regular bouncing of the ball, elicited such pleasant feelings that gradually I began to feel like trying it out for myself, here in our little garden. Finally one day, after a period of self-reflection, I took an old Ping-Pong ball—which had been shut away in the corner of a drawer—in my hand and headed for the garden.
I tried bouncing the Ping-Pong ball on the concrete below the open veranda. Chibi crouched, her eyes locked on the ball’s movement. Then she lowered her entire body and became tense—with all four legs aligned as she gently lowered her haunches, contracting them so that they became slightly rounded like a cocked spring. From that position she leapt off the earth with a violent force, boldly pouncing on the small white ball. Then she batted the ball back and forth several times in midair between her two front paws, and next shot quickly through my legs and ran off.
Chibi’s independence would manifest itself in unexpected ways, even while performing acts of incredible athletic skill. Casting aside the Ping-Pong ball, she turned about at an acute angle, yet in the next moment she had placed her tiny paw on the head of a toad concealed in the shade of one of the landscape rocks. Then just as suddenly she flew to the other side of the garden, extending one of her front legs to slip into a clump of bushes. Next, showing her white belly, she looked in my direction, twitching slightly. But there was no stopping there—without a glance at her human playmate, she leaped up and grabbed the sleeve of an undershirt swinging gently back and forth on the clothesline, then flashing through the wooden gate, she quickly retreated to the yard of the big house.
I had heard from one of my cat-lover friends that playing with a ball was something that cats only did when they are still kittens. But it seemed that Chibi, reaching adulthood, only picked up momentum.
Which brings us to yet another quality of Chibi’s—in the words of our landlady, she was “a real looker.” As the opinion of someone with a long history of chasing away stray cats, I figured she knew what she was talking about.
There’s a photographer who says cat lovers always believe their own cat is better looking than anyone else’s. According to her, they’ve all got blinders on. She also says that, though she too is a major cat lover, having noticed this fact means that she is now hated by all other cat lovers, and so these days only takes pictures of scruffy-looking strays.
Chibi, who loved to play ball, gradually began to visit us on her own and would try and get us to play with her. She would step gingerly into the room and gaze intently at its occupants, then purposefully turn around and walk back out, as if to lead us to the garden. This process would be repeated until she got a response. Most of the time my wife would put down whatever she was doing, slip happily into her sandals and head outside.
Having played to her heart’s content, Chibi would come inside and rest for a while. When she began to sleep on the sofa— like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug up from a prehistoric archaeological site—a deep sense of happiness arrived, as if the house itself had dreamed this scene.
Avoiding the prying eyes of the landlady, we began leaving it up to Chibi to come inside the house whenever she wanted— and with this new development I had begun little by little to understand cat lovers. Whether on TV or in all of the ubiquitous cat calendars, it seemed as if there was no cat comparable to her. But, though I had started to think of her as the best cat around, she was not really our cat.
First we would hear the tinkling of the bell, and then she would appear, so we began to call her by the nickname “Tinkerbell.” Whenever we wanted her to come over, this name seemed to find itself on our lips.
“I wonder where Tinkerbell is.” By the time my wife had gotten the words out of her mouth we’d hear the tinkling of Chibi’s bell. We’d realize that she was near at the point where, exiting the foyer next door (located at the second corner of Lightning Alley), Chibi would leap through the tear in the wire-mesh boundary of the property, dash along the side of the building, turn at the far end of the veranda, leap up onto the open area of the deck, and then, placing her front paws on the window frame at about the height of a human adult’s knee, stretch out her neck to peek inside.
In winter she came inside. Little by little, through the crack in the partially opened window, her tendency to visit subtly developed; her appearances were repeated until, as if a silken opening in a fabric had been continuously moistened and stretched, Chibi had entered our lives. But at the same time—call it fate if you will—something else was closing in and pressing itself against that tendency.
Photo by Flickr user Andrey Narkevich