Art by Yoni Perla
Writing by William Cheng
It was the Osaka thunder that set everything into motion. A ferocious, booming sound that shook me to my bones. It was loud enough to remind me that if I didn’t do something, my laundry was about to be ruined.
I dropped my book and ran towards the balcony door. In higher octaves, the rain pitter-pattered outside. Little drops fell across the window, running down in streaks.
Outside on the balcony, my clothesline—that was once drying—had already surrendered to the storm. All the fabrics were blowing about, soaking up the rain.
In a mad scramble, I grabbed my laundry bin and began to detach my clothes from the clothesline. Shirt by shirt. Sock by sock. The rain swept in even harder. Great, I thought. The first storm in weeks had to happen on the one day I did my laundry.
I was nearly done with folding my pajamas up when I heard the meow. At first, I thought I was hearing things. It happens more often when you get older, you know. The mind gets so used to the emptiness that it starts to make things up to fill in what’s missing. But when I heard the second mew, and the third, I began to take note of a figure at one corner of the balcony.
Still holding my pajamas—which were sopping wet and unsavable at this point—I moved in closer. Under the porchlight, I could make out the shape of a red tabby cat. It was curled up, gently mewing.
“Hello,” I ventured cautiously. The cat glanced upwards at me. It’s soft green eyes seemed to glow in the dark.
How did a cat get up here? My balcony was on the second floor of the building. It was nearly impossible for any cat to climb up here—there were no ledges, no posts to grab onto.
Nevertheless, the cat was here now. I couldn’t let it stay outside, not in this kind of weather. I removed the last of my socks from the clothesline and placed them into the basket.
Beckoning the cat, I opened the balcony door back up. On all fours, it bounded through the door and into the warmth of my apartment. It spun around and watched me curiously as if it was wondering what kind of strange environment it had found itself in.
“Listen,” I said, as if the cat could understand my words. “This kind of storm will last all night. You’ll have to stay here for a while.”
The cat licked one of its paws. It was gently shivering, its fur trembling from all the rain it soaked up. I grabbed one of the drier towels from the laundry hamper and approached the cat.
“Here,” I said. The cat sat still enough to let me dry it off with the towel. I patted it down, noting how thin and gaunt the cat was. Under the living room lights, I noticed that the cat didn’t have a collar. If I had to guess, it was some kind of stray.
“What should I call you?” I thought out loud. One of my childhood friends had named his cat Kiko. It was a name that sounded sharp on the tongue.
“Kiko?” I said. The tabby raised its head, its whiskers twitching. “Good. Let’s get you fixed up.”
What could I feed a stray cat? I opened up my fridge to reveal some vegetables, bottles of beer, and some leftover bread from the bakery. None of the options seemed edible to a cat. I didn’t know what I was expecting. I hadn’t done my grocery shopping for the week yet.
There was a pet store a few kilometers from the apartment, but at this hour it was surely closed. And even if it wasn’t, there was no way I could bike down to the store in this kind of storm. The cat, unfortunately, would have to wait until the morning.
I placed some water in a bowl and gave it to the cat. “I don’t have any food for you right now,” I said. “But tomorrow, I’ll get you something good to eat..” Kiko mewed, a bit sadly this time.
In the meantime, I stuffed a cardboard box with a soft blanket and set it up in front of the cat. The cat licked its paws and settled onto it. It curled up to rest, with its tail between its legs.
I settled down on the sofa and back into the rhythm of my book. Whenever the cat would stir, I would look up and sneak a glance at it.
I couldn’t help but drift into thinking about the cat. How did it get onto my balcony? Where did it come from? But under these questions, I felt some strange connection to the cat. It was like the pulling of the tide, the way that the cat’s presence seemed to drag my eyes off the pages of my book and onto the cat itself.
This was enough, I thought. The cat was just a cat. Nothing more.
Still, I watched the cat for another hour before heading off to sleep. I curled up in my bed, thinking that for the first time in a long time, the house wasn’t so empty anymore.
Ever since the car accident, my leg has had terrible pains. As the hospital nurse explained to me, it was because my leg had become trapped under the wreckage of my car, and the weight of the debris nearly crushed my leg whole.
“You are lucky,” she said. “If it weren’t for the quick reactions of the firefighters, you surely would have lost it.”
Yet while I didn’t lose my leg, it surely felt like I did. Even after I was released after the hospital, I would wake up at night in burning pain, clutching my leg to my chest.
After doing further exams, along with several scans on my leg, my doctor finally concluded that what I was feeling were “ghost pains”.
“It’s not actually there,” he explained. “But your body still thinks that it’s still stuck in the accident.” And so he prescribed some painkillers that ended up quelling the pains. I took the pills right before I went to sleep, and I would have undisturbed nights of rest.
Yet tonight, the pain returned, sharper than ever. An intense sensation that poked holes right through my dreams. My leg was set on fire, sending tears to my wide-open eyes.
As I sat myself up in my bed, I could have sworn that there was a catlike shape at the foot of my bed. It sat there in the dark, watching me. Aside from its flickering, twitching tail, it was a motionless shadow.
Yet when I turned on the nightstand, the shadow flickered away, revealing nothing on my bed. The pain ebbed away too, like a river slowly shriveling up. How strange, I thought. I had an ominous feeling, but I was outweighed by my fatigue.
In the morning, I awoke to find the cat still curled up asleep in the living room. The saucer of water was empty, so I filled it back up to the brim.
Outside the kitchen window, I could see that the storm had cleared. I toasted a piece of bread and ate it with some tea I brewed. I emptied my backpack and strapped it on, along with my house keys.
Before heading out, I took one last glance at the cat. It seemed so peaceful, its breathing correlating with the rise and fall of its fur. Surely a cat in this deep of a slumber could not have been watching me last night.
I locked the door behind me and retrieved my bike from the rack downstairs. Now that the weather was getting colder, fewer people were out on the streets. The restaurants and cafés on the side of the street were warm and inviting. Through the windows, I could see everyone in there celebrating after a long week of work. There was live jazz music coming from the local bar. I might need to get myself a drink after, I thought. Biking was tiring.
According to the local directory, the pet store was located between a laundromat and a flower shop. It was a small establishment, but it had a diverse assortment of pets and pet products. At least, that’s what it said in the directory.
The first thing I noticed was how desolate the pet store was. If it wasn’t for the illuminated OPEN sign, one would have thought that this was an abandoned store. Where there once was the buzzing of birds and the soft churn of the fish tanks, were rows and rows of empty containers and cages. A little bell tinkered as I entered, a vintage chime that brought the shopkeeper to attention.
“Can I help you?”
The old shopkeeper was sitting by the counter, well-dressed in a collared shirt. His scalp was bald and cleanly polished. Wire-rimmed spectacles framed his strangely coloured eyes, like the rings around a planet.
“I need a bag of cat feed,” I said. “The kind for tabby cats.”
“Cat feed…” The old man ran his eyes around the store, as if he too was witnessing how barren it was. “I think there might be a few bags in the storage room. How many do you want?”
The old man nodded and headed off to the back of the store. I took the time to look around. I could imagine that this place was crowded with families. Maybe there would be kids who would marvel at the fish in the tanks, the birds in cages, and the rabbits in the glass boxes. Now there was nothing.
There was a lurch in my stomach as I glanced around, like the dizzying feeling that one would have if they peered down from the top of a skyscraper. I just couldn’t explain it. It was as if strange emotions had risen from a deep slumber, to come awake.
I was processing these thoughts when the shopkeeper came back with a package between his arms. “You’re lucky,” he said. “This is one of my last bags of cat food left. You see, I’m closing the store in a few weeks. There quite frankly isn’t much of a demand anymore.”
He dropped the bag of cat food on the counter. I took a good look at it. It was a colorful package, with a silhouette of a cat printed on the front side of the paper package.
“Can this feed a tabby cat?” I asked.
“It can feed all sorts of cats. Tabby cats. Siamese cats. Bobtail cats. Cats with more than four paws. Cats with one eye. And so on. No matter the breed of cat, this will do the job.”
I fished a few bills from my wallet and handed them over. He counted them with his weathered hands, shuffling the bills between his fingers.
“Can I ask you something?” he asked, not looking up.
“Your leg, is it injured?”
I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly.
“How do you know that?”
He set the bills aside. “Ever since I was a child, I had a great affinity for feeling the pain of others.”
“Feeling the pain of others? Like empathy?”
“Mmm…it’s not quite empathy. The pain I feel for another is real—both physically and emotionally. If one stepped on an ant, I could feel the pain the ant is experiencing. It is terribly agonizing, so I don’t share the pain of ants anymore. But for those who have suffered injuries, just like you have, my expertise has been quite valuable. Right now, I can feel the pain in your leg, but also pain in your heart. I just didn’t want to bring up the latter.”
I gawked at him.
“Do you want to know the secret? How I became so good at detecting pain?”
I didn’t answer, but he went on anyway.
“You have to understand the shape of pain.”
“The shape of pain?”
He nodded. “All pain is shaped like an onion. A strange analogy, yes, but perfectly applicable. There are multiple layers to pain. Just when you think that you’ve hit the center, there is always another layer underneath.”
He placed both his hands on the cash register, as if he was grasping it for dear life. “So I must ask you, if the pain in your leg is only the outermost layer, then what is truly underneath?”
A gentle breeze blew outwards, drifting towards the east. Soon the wind would be carrying snow and like little birds returning to their roosts, the first snowflakes would fall and rest on the heads and shoulders of those who happened to pass by.
House key in one hand, a hefty bag of cat food in my other, I stumbled up the stairs to my house. The door swung open with a gentle push, revealing its dark and solitary contents.
“Kiko!” I called. “I’m back with your breakfast.”
There was no reply. No mews. No sounds. How long could a cat possibly sleep?
“Hey Kiko!” I called, making my way to the living room. “Where are you—”
The makeshift bed was empty. Where there once was a sleeping cat curled up, there was just a blanket and a box. Aside from a few tufts of fur on top of the blanket, there was no sign of the cat.
Maybe I left the balcony door open, I thought. But no, it was tightly closed and locked. All of the windows were shut as well.
I checked around the living room. Behind the sofa. Under the kitchen table. I checked all the crevices in the bathroom. The kitchen. The closet. Nothing.
With every room I passed through and checked, it seemed as if all signs of the cat had somehow evaporated. My apartment was quite tiny. There was quite frankly no place for a cat to hide.
Maybe Kiko jumped out a window? It was a horrifying thought, but my windows were all locked as well. Even if a window was open, Kiko would have had to jump through a wire screen. An impossible feat for a cat, right?
There was just my bedroom left to check, but quite frankly, there wasn’t anywhere for the cat to hide in my bedroom. He only could have hidden under my bed. That’s the only place with enough open space. But would a cat hide there, alone in the dark?
While on my knees, I took a good look under my bed. Nothing was there except for a pile of dust. No cat-shaped silhouettes, no meowing, it seemed…
But there was a boxy object at the corner of one of the bedposts. It was a bit lighter than the shadows that surrounded it. With one outstretched hand, I pulled it out to reveal a shoebox. The shoebox.
I knew what was inside, which is precisely why I hesitated before I removed its lid. It’s just like the shopkeeper has said. Everything comes in layers.
The bracelet came out first. A tight blue bracelet that my daughter always wore on her right wrist. Along with my wife’s handbag, it was one of the few things that they could salvage from the car wreckage.
Then the family portrait came out. I took a good look at the three faces. I remembered that day well. We must have taken a thousand pictures, yet this was one of the few pictures where none of us had blinked. I traced our smiles with my fingertips. The three of us looked so happy, so impervious to what would happen next.
The ache in my leg flared up again. It was real this time. But it wasn’t as sharp as it had always been. It was dull, like a butter knife. The kind of pain that made you feel less, not the kind that made you feel more.
I closed the shoebox and pushed it back under the bed, where it had started. Sitting myself back onto my bed, I thought of the emptiness of my house. If the cat wasn’t in my room, then it was gone for good.