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Authors: Kij Johnson

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BOOK: Fudoki
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We ascribe meanings because it is our nature to do so. The T
kaid
means mystery and wonders and adventure. We can no more see a thing without searching for a meaning than we can see a snag in a robe without pulling on the loose thread. When does this begin? With adulthood? Perhaps, for I remember when I was seven—the year before my mother’s death—when the great comet came.

I do not remember much from when I was so small. I remember I had many nightmares and liked to play in dirt. I remember touching a snake once. It felt warm and muscular, and the gardener told me, “It’s not the snake that is warm; it is the sunlight,” though I had no idea what this meant. A story my nurse told me, something about monkeys and Kannon; but because I had once seen a picture of the goddess riding a carp, I thought Kannon was the fish, and so I did not understand the tale at all. A blue robe that my nurse wore always, as far as I can recall, that reminded me of the ocean, though I had never seen anything bigger than the garden’s three ponds and the tame little brook that ran through them. That is all, really. And then the comet.

I heard of the comet before ever I saw it. The adults fretted among themselves—was it an omen? a kami falling? was it related to the drought we’d been having?—but since I had no idea what a comet might be, these statements made as little sense as all the other incomprehensible things adults said.

(
Was
the comet an omen? Had it a direction, a meaning? I did not think so then, but when I grew older I started to wonder, for we had been suffering from a great drought, and it was the year after this that my mother died. Still later, I decided that comets, like roads, have only the intentions we ascribe to them. And now I have no idea. If a comet is without meaning, it seems possible that a woman is likewise so; and I do not wish to think this of myself.)

There was one night when a terrible nightmare awakened me, and for once there was no nurse to coax me out of my tears—no one at all, and I was not used to being alone. Sniffling to myself, I pulled my robes close and padded out to the veranda to find someone who would pet me and cuddle me (and, I know now, spoil me).

It was wintertime, and very dark; either the moon had not yet risen or had already set, or perhaps it was the new moon, the beginning of the month. The garden was silver and black, all color gone. There was ice everywhere.

I saw gathered in the garden a handful of tall shadows: adults, men and women standing, talking together. (Now I realize how strange, how improper, this was: no screens, no curtain-stands.) I suddenly felt shy, for I knew that the nights belonged to adults, that here was an entire world that I was not meant to see. Still, a visitor straying by chance into the private quarters of a monastery does not immediately leave; she looks about for a moment before she returns to the public areas. Before I returned to my rooms and sleep (my rightful domain), I would see what was so special about the adults’ world.

The sky overhead was thick, furred black, spangled with a thousand stars, and dominated by the comet, which hung overhead, a blurred streak of silver as long as my hand. I thought I could see it shimmer as if it were fire, or water flowing over silk (I must have seen such a thing before, to think this); I imagined that I heard a tingling noise: the comet moving through the sky.

At least I think I remember this.

I do remember that night, the adults in the darkness; and all the talk about the comet. But the story my nurse told me of that night is quite different: she and the others had gone out into the garden to watch the comet, and heard a child’s voice singing, and found me utterly absorbed in cracking the shell of ice from a twig. When she had held me up to see the comet, I looked with polite disinterest, then returned to cracking ice from the twig in my hand. “As if you’d never seen ice before,” she said years later, “when you’d spent all afternoon cracking ice!”

A child (or a cat) is not awed by the same wonders that an adult is, because everything is equally new and therefore wondrous. My nurse (and the adult I became) sees or imagines a comet and is struck dumb by the beauty of it. A child has not seen so much that she knows that ice on the trees is common, and a comet rare and therefore precious. It is only age that tells us what is precious, what is new.

Now that I am old, I think I have perhaps come back to this perception. I cannot afford to wait for another comet, and so I watch the tiny things of each day and am amazed by them.—Or I try to do this, anyway: there are a lot of days when I watch nothing at all except my breaths, and wonder how many more I will have.

 

 

The tortoiseshell cat dreamt of voices that night, tucked in a crotch between two beams high in the Raj
gate, under the quarter-moon of the ninth month. Dreams had always been silent for her: she chased prey or slapped fruitlessly at swimming fish in a world of scent, but without noise. Sounds were too important for dreams. Awake, they warned her of things she could not see, and even in sleep her ears were pricked, listening for threats or opportunities that should not be ignored.

But this night she dreamt with sounds, a thousand chaotic noises that flooded her, threatening to overwhelm her and send her into nightmares. She fought down the fear—nothing in dreams could be as terrifying as her waking hours had been since the earth shook—and noticed that there was sense to them, that the chaos she heard was actually myriad voices, speaking at every pitch and pace. Words flickered out of the background, like sparrows launching from a wind-tossed tree:
wave’s crest, memory, heart, Tosa, rice, Why should I?

She understood little, but I see much more than she. The kami do not speak to me, but they nevertheless speak, to others and to one another, and (if they are lonely, or have secrets) to themselves. They are everywhere, of course, in everything from my family’s shrine to a dying cycad-palm on a beach in distant Satsuma province; and their voices are everywhere, all chattering or twittering or intoning at once.

Though they speak with the dead, cats hear neither kami nor Buddhas. Cats are too fierce for gods; they came godless from Korea many tens of years ago, and they worship no one. This is good, for they are free in ways men are not; but this is bad, because they are utterly alone in the world. Indeed, they seem reluctant to see any god but the living emperor, and even him they do not respect as they should. The cats at court (and there are always a few, besides the kitchen cats) seemed to disregard his presence altogether; when he was emperor, my half-brother used to laugh and tell me that the cats were his only attendants who did not bow and scrape and lie all the time. I said nothing in response, of course: the emperor may laugh at himself, but no one else is permitted to.

I cannot tell you why the tortoiseshell heard the kami—all the kami—or why she heard them now, and not yesterday, or in the fifth month, when she still lived warm against her mother’s nipples in an abandoned fox den. Perhaps her ears had been attuned by her grief, or by the echoing chambers of the Raj
gate. Or perhaps it was this: that one kami chose to speak to her, and by opening her ears to its voice, it opened her ears to all.

“What are you?” something asked suddenly, close and very loud in her mind.

The tortoiseshell knew she was dreaming, for she stood, not on a perilous ledge in moonlight, but on a broad path as clear and bright as crystal that curved off into gold-gray fog in both directions. “Nothing,” she said. “No one.”

“Unlikely,” the voice said. “You clearly exist. You must be something. And someone.”

“I am a cat,” she said. “That’s all that’s left to me.”

“A cat,” the kami repeated. “I am unfamiliar with your people. But now that I think on it, I recall that I have perhaps seen some of you before this, from the corner of my eye, as it were.”

“What are you?” she said hotly. “I see no one here.”

The road beneath her shook slightly, as if laughing. “And yet
I
also exist. I am this road, and those who walk it, and the trees and inns that line it. And I am the god who watches it all. And other things.”

She tapped at the road with a paw, and ripples formed at her touch, perfect circles growing until they slipped off the road’s edges and into the fog. “How can you be all those things?”

“How can you be a single thing, a
cat
and nothing else? You do not seem to be very creative, if that is all you’ve managed to become.”

“I have no choice,” she said bitterly. “I hadn’t yet found a place in my tale, but at least I was part of my family and my ground. My
fudoki.
And that’s all gone.”

“Your
tale,
” the kami said. “A tale contains a thousand things. I think you are more than you believe.”

“Not now,” she said. “Not anymore.”

“You would do better if you had gods,” the kami said. “Then you would have something, at least.”

“Well then, what is a god, and where do I find one?” she asked.

“I think you have already found one.” The road’s tone was perhaps a touch smug.

“I don’t see how I can carry you with me.” She tapped the road again, harder this time, her claws just bared. The road shook like a horse’s withers, and she went flying.

BOOK: Fudoki
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