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The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles
By Kij Johnson, Goñi Montes
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Kij Johnson
All rights reserved.
At a time now past, a cat was born. This was not so long after the first cats came to Japan, so they were rare and mostly lived near the capital city.
This cat was the smallest of her litter of four. Her fur had been dark when she was born, but as she grew it changed to black with speckles of gold and cinnamon and ivory, and a little butter-colored chin. Her eyes were gold, like a fox's.
She lived in the gardens of a great house in the capital. The gardens filled a city block and the house had been very fine once, but that was many years ago. The owners moved to a new home in a more important part of the city, and left the house to suffer fires and droughts and earthquakes and neglect. Now there was very little left that a person might think of as home. The main house still stood, but the roofs leaked and had even fallen in places. Furry green moss covered the walls. Many of the storehouses and other buildings were barely more than piles of wood. Ivy filled the garden, and water weeds choked the three little lakes and the stream.
But it was a perfect home for cats. The stone wall around the garden kept people and dogs away. Cats could find ten thousand things to do — trees and walls to climb, bushes to hide under, corners to sleep in. There was food everywhere. Delicious mice skittered across the ground and crunchy crickets hopped in the grass. The stream was full of slow, fat frogs. Birds lived in the trees, and occasionally a stupid one came within reach.
The little cat shared the garden with a handful of other female cats. Each adult claimed part of the gardens, where she hunted and bore her kittens alone. The private places all met at the center like petals on a flower, in a courtyard beside the main house. The cats liked to gather here and sleep on sunny days, or to groom or watch the kittens playing. No males lived in the garden, except for boy-kittens who had not gotten old enough to start their prowling; but tomcats visited, and a while later there were new kittens.
The cats shared another thing: their fudoki. The fudoki was the collection of stories about all the cats who had lived in a place. It described what made it a home, and what made the cats a family. Mothers taught their kittens the fudoki. If the mother died too soon, the other cats, the aunts and cousins, would teach the kittens. A cat with no fudoki was a cat with no family, no home, and no roots. The small cat's fudoki was many cats long, and she knew them all — The Cat From The North, The Cat Born The Year The Star Fell, The Dog-Chasing Cat.
Her favorite was The Cat From The North. She had been her mother's mother's mother's aunt, and her life seemed very exciting. As a kitten she lived beside a great hill to the north. She got lost when a dog chased her and tried to find her way home. She escaped many adventures. Giant oxen nearly stepped on her, and cart-wheels almost crushed her. A pack of wild dogs chased her into a tree and waited an entire day for her to come down. She was insulted by a goat that lived in a park and stole food from people. She met a boy, but she ran away when he tried to pull her tail. At last she came to the garden. The other cats called her The Cat From The North, and as such she became part of the little cat's fudoki.
The ancestors and the aunts were all clever and strong and resourceful. More than anything, the little cat wanted to earn the right for her story and name to be remembered alongside theirs. And when she had kittens, she would be part of the fudoki that they would pass on to their own kittens.
The other cats had started calling her Small Cat. It wasn't an actual name; but it was the beginning. She knew she would have a story worth telling someday.CHAPTER 2
One day, it was beautiful and very hot. It was August, though the very first leaf in the garden had turned bright yellow overnight. A duck bobbed on the lake just out of reach of the cats, but they were too lazy to care, dozing in the courtyard or under the shadow of the trees. Small Cat wrestled, not very hard, with a orange striped male almost old enough to leave the garden. A mother cat held down her kitten with one paw as she licked her ears clean, telling her the fudoki as she did so.
A wind started. The duck on the lake burst upward with a flurry of wings, quacking with panic. Small Cat watched it race across the sky, puzzled. There was nothing to scare the duck, so why was it so frightened?
Suddenly the ground heaved underfoot: an earthquake. Small Cat crouched to keep her balance while the ground shook, as if it were a giant animal waking up and she were just a flea clinging to its hide. Tree branches clashed against one another. Leaves rustled and rained down. Just beyond the garden walls, people shouted, dogs barked, horses whinnied. There was a crashing noise like a pile of pottery falling from a cart (which is exactly what it was). A temple bell rang, tossed about in its frame by the earthquake. And the strangest sound of all: the ground itself groaned as roots and rocks were pulled about.
The older cats had been through earthquakes before, so they crouched wherever they were, waiting for it to end. Small Cat knew of earthquakes through the stories, but she'd never felt one. She hissed and looked for somewhere safe to run, but everything around her rose and fell. It was wrong for the earth to move.
The old house cracked and boomed like river ice breaking up in the spring. Blue pottery tiles slid from the roof to shatter in the dirt. A wood beam in the main house broke in half with a cloud of flying splinters. The roof collapsed in on itself, and crashed into the building with a wave of white dust. Small Cat staggered and fell. The crash was too much for even the most experienced cats, and they ran in every direction.
Pinecones and needles rained down on Small Cat from a huge cedar tree. It was shaking, but trees shook all the time in the wind, so maybe it would be safer up there. She bolted up the trunk. She ran through an abandoned birds' nest tucked on a branch, the babies grown and flown away and the adults nowhere to be found. A terrified squirrel chattered as she passed it, more upset by Small Cat than the earthquake.
Small Cat paused and looked down. The ground had stopped moving. As the dust settled, Small Cat saw most of the house and garden. The courtyard was piled with beams and branches, but there was still an open space to gather and tell stories, and new places to hunt or play hide-and-seek. It was still home.
Aunts and cousins emerged from their hiding places, slinking or creeping or just trotting out. They were too dusty to tell who was who, except for The Cat With No Tail, who sniffed and pawed at a fallen door. Other cats hunched in the remains of the courtyard, or paced about the garden, or groomed themselves as much for comfort as to remove the dirt. She didn't see everyone.
She fell asleep the way kittens do, suddenly and all at once, and wherever they happen to be. She had been so afraid during the earthquake that she fell asleep lying flat on a broad branch with her claws sunk into the bark. When she woke up with her whiskers twitching, the sun was lower in the sky.
What had awakened her? The air had a new smell, bitter and unpleasant. She wrinkled her nose and sneezed.
She crept along a branch until she saw out past the tree's needles and over the garden's stone wall.
The city was on fire.CHAPTER 3
Smoke streamed up across the city: thin white smoke where grass sizzled, thick gray plumes where some great house burned. The smoke concealed most of the fire, though in places the flames were as tall as trees. People fled through the streets wailing or shouting, their animals adding to the din. Even at this distance the fire roared.
Should she go down? Other cats in the fudoki had survived fires — The Fire-Tailed Cat, The Cat Who Found The Jewel — but the stories didn't say what she should do. Maybe one of her aunts or cousins could tell her, but where were they? Smoke drifted into the garden.
She climbed down and meowed loudly. No one answered, but a movement caught her eye: one of her aunts. The Painted Cat trotted toward a hole in the wall, her ears back and tail low. Small Cat scrambled after her. A gust of smoky wind blew into her face. She squeezed her eyes tight, coughing and gasping, and when she could see again, her aunt had gone.
She retreated up the tree and watched houses catch fire. At first smoke poured from their roofs, and then flames roared up and turned each building into a pillar of fire. Each house was closer than the last. The smoke grew so thick that she could only breathe by pressing her nose into her fur and panting.
Her house caught fire just as the sky grew dark. Cinders rained on her garden, and the grass beside the lake hissed as it burned, like angry kittens. The fires in the garden crawled up the walls and slipped inside the doors. Smoke gushed through the roof. Something broke inside the house with a huge crash and the flames shot up, higher even than the top of Small Cat's tree. The air was too hot to breathe. She moved to the opposite side of the tree and dug her claws into the bark as deep as they would go, and huddled down as small as she could get.
Fire doesn't always burn everything in its path. It can leave an area untouched, surrounded by nothing but smoking ruins. The house burned until it was just blackened beams and ashes. Small Cat's tree got charred, but the highest branches stayed safe.
Small Cat stayed in the tree all night long, and by dawn, the tall flames in the garden were gone and the smoke didn't seem so thick. At first she couldn't get her claws to let go of the tree or her muscles to carry her, but at last she managed to climb down.
Much of the house remained, but it was roofless, hollowed out and scorched. Other buildings were no more than piles of smoking black wood. With their leaves burned away, the trees looked like skeletons now. The pretty bushes were all gone. Even the ground smoked in places, too hot to touch.
There was no sound of any sort: no morning songbirds, no people going about their business on the street. No cats. All she could hear was a small fire still burning in an outbuilding. She rubbed her sticky eyes against her shoulder.
She was very thirsty. She trotted to the stream, hopping from paw to paw on the hot ground. Chalky-white with ashes, the water tasted bitter, but she drank until her stomach was full. Then she was hungry, so she ate a dead bird beside the stream, burnt feathers and all.
She caught something stirring from the corner of her eye, inside a storehouse. Maybe it was an aunt who had hidden during the fire, or maybe The Painted Cat had come back to help her. She ran across the hot ground and into the storehouse, but there was no cat. What had she seen? There, in a window, she saw the motion again, but it was just an old bamboo curtain.
She searched everywhere. The only living creature she saw was a soaked rat climbing from the stream. It shook itself and ran underneath a fallen beam, leaving nothing but tiny wet paw prints in the ashes.
She found no cats, or any signs of what had happened to them.CHAPTER 4
The Burnt Paws
Cats groom themselves when they're upset, so Small Cat sat down to clean her fur, making a face at the bitter taste of the ashes. For comfort, she recited the stories from the fudoki: The Cat Who Ate Roots, The Three-Legged Cat, The Cat Who Hid Things — every cat all the way down to The Cat Who Swam, her youngest aunt, who had just taken her place in the fudoki.
The fudoki was more than just stories: the cats of the past had claimed the garden, and made it home for the who lived there now. If the cats were gone, was this still home? Was it still her garden, if nothing looked the same and it all smelled like smoke and ashes? Logs and broken roof tiles filled the courtyard. The house was a ruin. There were no frogs, no insects, no fat ducks, no mice. No cats.
Small Cat cleaned her ear with a paw, thinking hard. No, she wasn't alone. She didn't know where the other cats had gone, but she saw The Painted Cat just before the fire. If Small Cat could find her, there would be two cats, and that would be better than one. The Painted Cat would know what to do.
A big fallen branch leaned against the wall just where the hole was. She inched carefully across the ground, still hot in places, twisting her face away from the fumes wherever something smoked. There was no way to follow The Painted Cat by pushing through the hole. Small Cat didn't mind that: she liked sitting on top of the wall, watching the outside world. She crawled up the branch.
There were people on the street carrying bundles or boxes or crying babies. Many of them looked lost or frightened. A wagon pulled by a single ox passed, and a cart pushed by a man and two boys, which was heaped high with possessions. A stray flock of geese clustered around a tipped cart, eating fallen grain. Even the dogs looked weary.
There was no sign of The Painted Cat. Small Cat climbed higher.
The branch cracked in half. She crashed to the ground and landed on her side on a hot rock. She twisted upright and jumped away from the terrible pain; but when she landed, it was with all four paws on a smoldering beam. She howled and started running. Every time she put a foot down, the agony made her run faster. She ran across the broad street and through the next garden, and the next.
Small Cat stopped running when her exhaustion got stronger than her pain. She made it off the road — barely — before she slumped to the ground, and she was asleep immediately. People and carts and even dogs tramped past, but no one bothered her, a small filthy cat lying in the open, looking dead.
When she woke up, she was surrounded by noise and tumult. Wheels rolled past her head, and she jumped up, her claws out. The searing pain in her paws made her almost forget herself again, but she managed to limp to a clump of weeds.
Where was she? Nothing looked or smelled familiar. She didn't recognize the street or the buildings. She did not know that she had run nearly a mile in her panic, but she knew she would never find her way back.
She had collapsed beside an open market. Even so soon after the earthquake and fire, merchants set up new booths to sell things, rice and squash and tea and pots. Even after a great disaster people are hungry, and broken pots always need to be replaced.
If there was food for people, there would be food for cats. Small Cat limped through the market, staying away from the big feet of the people. She stole a little silver fish from a stall and crept inside a broken basket to eat it. When she was done, she licked her burnt paws clean.
She had lost The Painted Cat, and now she had lost the garden. The stories were all she had left. But the stories were not enough without the garden and the other cats. They were just a list. If everyone and everything was gone, did she even have a home? She could not help the cry of sadness that escaped her.
It was her fudoki now, hers alone. She had to find a way to make it continue.CHAPTER 5
The Strange Cats
Small Cat was very careful to keep her paws clean as they healed. For the first few days, she only left her basket when she was hungry or thirsty. It was hard to hunt mice, so she ate things she found on the ground: fish, rice, once even an entire goose-wing. Even sad as she was, she found interesting things to do as she got stronger. Fish tails were fun to bat at, and she liked to crawl under tables of linen and hemp fabric and tug the threads that hung over the edges.
As she got better, she began to search for her garden. Since she didn't know where she was going, she wandered, hoping that something would look familiar. Her nose didn't help, for she couldn't smell anything except smoke for days. She was slow on her healing paws. She stayed close to trees and walls, because she couldn't run fast and she had to be careful about dogs.
There was a day when Small Cat limped along an alley so narrow that the roofs on either side met overhead. She had seen a mouse run down the alley and vanish into a gap between two walls. She wasn't going to catch it by chasing it, but she could always wait in the gap beside its hole until it emerged. Her mouth watered.
Someone hissed. Another cat squeezed out the gap, a striped gray female with a mouse in her mouth. Her mouse! Small Cat couldn't help but growl and flatten her ears. The stranger hissed, arched her back, and ran away.
Small Cat trailed after the stranger with her heart beating so hard she could barely hear the street noises. She had not seen a single cat since the fire. One cat might mean many cats. Losing the mouse would be a small price to pay for that.
The stranger spun around. "Stop following me!" she said through a mouthful of mouse. Small Cat sat down instantly and looked off into the distance, as if she just happened to be traveling the same direction. The stranger glared and stalked off. Small Cat jumped up and followed. Every few steps the stranger whirled, and Small Cat pretended not to be there; but after a while, the stranger gave up and trotted to a tall bamboo fence, her tail bristling with annoyance. With a final hiss, she squeezed under the fence. Small Cat waited a moment before following.
She was behind an tavern in a small yard filled with barrels. And cats! There were six of them that she could see, though she knew others would be in their private ranges, prowling or sleeping. She meowed with excitement. She could teach them her fudoki and they would become her family. She would have a home again.
Excerpted from The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles by Kij Johnson, Goñi Montes. Copyright © 2009 Kij Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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