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Authors: Kij Johnson

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BOOK: Fudoki
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Once, at the beginning of the tenth month, she said aloud, “Road?” and hoped it would not answer. She wasn’t aware that it was the no-gods month, when they all come to Ise and transact whatever business it is that kami consider important. In any case, we often hear what we expect. When she received no response, she decided that the road-spirit that had spoken with her was a nightmare, like the cats of fire that still haunted her sleep. The voices of the eight million kami made her uncomfortable; mostly she chose to ignore them.

At first, totally cat-like, she stayed in the brush on either side of the road and hid when people passed. Over time, she started to do as the people did. Walking on the roadway really was easier than pressing through the shrubs and fields that fringed it, and no one tried to eat her; and so she did it. People stopped and drank when they passed an occasional well, and it made sense for her to do the same, lapping water from the puddles at its base rather than feeling her way on injured feet to the bottom of the many streams they crossed. Inns and houses looked so much warmer and more pleasant than sleeping under bracken, so she learned to slip into farmhouses and inns, and curled up in dimly lit corners.

There was more rain, and the days and nights grew colder. The cold did not bother her much, for her fur grew denser, and her foot-pads were thick. The rain was more irksome; she had never liked wet feet and fur. Worse, it drove the squirrels and other small things under cover where she could not reach them. Except for flies and fleas (which are always with us), most insects vanished altogether. She developed a taste for cooked fish, which could be stolen from bowls, if one was clever.

 

 

Cooked fish:
I see now why I chose that rather than “cooked rice” or “buckwheat noodles” or “duck meat.” I have been writing on the veranda again, for the weather is scorchingly hot, which is to say just barely warm enough for my old bones, and Shigeko and several other women are bringing a little table and series of trays. I suppose I smelled the fish cooking (it is
hake
), though I was absorbed in what I wrote.

This is hardly a profound reason to prefer “cooked fish” to all the other options. I have always assumed that the lady Murasaki weighed every word in her
monogatari
tale of Genji with the focus I might have applied to the making of a water-clock, where a badly shaped element may destroy all. But perhaps it is not like this: perhaps Murasaki selected Genji’s robe combinations and the foods and trees for just such minor and immediate reasons, because she looked up from her brush and saw someone in cherry-shaded robes, and thought,
That’s lovely. I’ll use that.

I wish my half-brother (Shirakawa, I must remember that this is his name now!) were still alive, so that I could share this thought with him. I think he would have been amused. No, I will not think of him just now—it hurts too much, and there is already enough pain for one day, in my chest and bones.

Cooked fish are not lovely, not even this cooked fish, with its elegant garnish of gromwell, now drooping dispiritedly. But they are necessary. “More necessary than words,” says Shigeko, who tells me that the fish is growing cold.

 

 

There was an inn, not so far from the Omi-Owari border shrine. The tortoiseshell came to it one afternoon, when the sky was the color of old lead and had been weeping continuously since the night before, with an icy relentlessness that hinted at snow. She’d slept in an outbuilding at a little farm until an officious dog had rousted her, howling curses as she loped into the dusk. After catching an adolescent rabbit, she’d buried herself as deep as she could crawl into a mound of rice straw heaped around the base of an ancient and revered pine. But by midmorning, the dragon’s hour, a drip found her and she heaved herself from the straw and moved on. She was soaked to the skin, and splashed to her belly with sandy dirt when she came to the inn, which squatted between rice fields filled with wet stubble and the mulberry trees that crept up the hill to the north.

It was an ordinary inn: which is to say, a farmhouse with rather more room divisions than is usual. The dirt-floored area was smaller than it would have been, and the raised section larger. Mats for sleeping were rolled up in a corner, beside an empty curtain-stand much too beautiful to be of local manufacture. This inn also grew silk when it was time, so boards had been laid on the horizontal beams overhead, giving an unsettling low flatness to the rooms.

It was special in one thing, that it had a cat. Remember, this is not so many years since the first cats came to the Eight Islands. Most remained in the capital, whence they spread slowly across the home provinces, like spilled syrup in cold weather. Some cats had come farther than that, though generally not voluntarily. Someone from the country saw a cat stalking vermin while he was visiting the city, or elsewhere. Inflamed with a sense of the possibilities (no mice ever again!), the hick purchased the cat from an enterprising child, or captured one behind an inn somewhere, then stuffed his prize into a closed basket and carried it home to a backwater in the provinces. Sometimes the cat died immediately, but often she lived a long time and became the pride of her farmhouse. Sometimes the hick was lucky enough to acquire a pregnant cat, or even a female and a young male. The innkeeper had been one of the lucky ones, and his cats had been thriving for a decade and more, their population expanding to fill the countryside around.

The tortoiseshell did not know this. There were no scents in the cold rain, and the cats themselves were hidden away, sleeping off their night’s hunt. She checked for dogs when she approached the inn, but she didn’t notice the smell of a cat until she’d found a corner behind an earthen oven in the dirt-floored kitchen area. She groomed herself dry, taking comfort in the warmth of realigned fur. She was mildly hungry but willing to wait: there was a spill of some sort on the dirt floor, and she would examine it whenever the people went to sleep.

“Leave,” a voice growled. There was a cat a short leap away, a well-fed and much larger black female with yellow eyes so pale that they looked white. Her ears were flat and angry. “This is
my
place.”

The tortoiseshell responded warily, her claws half-out. “I won’t stay long. I’m just tired.”

The black cat danced sideways at her. “My
fudoki
is a dozen cats long and there will be a thousand more. And you are no part of it. Go
now.

“I have no tale,” the tortoiseshell said. “My place is dead. Let me sleep here, just for tonight.”

“Why should I?” the black cat said. “I am The Cat Who Killed a Hawk.”

Cats fight as they run, in short spurts. The black cat and the tortoiseshell fought in quick snatches of great ferocity; in the pauses they groomed themselves with a cold rage. Ordinarily, the tortoiseshell would have left immediately, but the rain-turning-to-snow depressed her, and she was cold and sick at heart, and tired of having no place to call her own. For one day at least, she wanted to sleep safe and warm.

And so she tried something she’d seen men do, when they drank wine and started pushing one another around. During one of the grooming times, she attacked without waiting for the other female to finish, and surprised her. The tortoiseshell slashed the black cat’s neck and jumped back, out of range.

Despite this, weight and experience mattered in the end. The black cat pinned the tortoiseshell, and raked her again and again: “Storyless cat!” she snarled.

She would have killed the tortoiseshell, for cats are like people: they are uncomfortable in the presence of those who have suffered disasters that might happen to them. But the cats had drawn the attention of the servants in the kitchen house, who threw water over them to stop the fighting. Soaked and bleeding, the tortoiseshell fled into the gathering dusk.

She might have hidden in another building in the inn’s compound—the stable or an unused room, perhaps—but she was thoroughly unsettled, and smelled cats everywhere now. Ears folded back and eyes half-closed against the rain, she trotted east along the T
kaid
, through wet flakes of snow as large as her paws.

She came to a small wayside shrine: a hidden inner room and an open-fronted antechamber, in imitation of the great shrine at Ise. The shrine was small, perhaps waist-high to me, though built on a mound of stones that brought the structure to eye height. (When I was a very small girl and not yet properly respectful of the gods, I would have looked at this tiny shrine and longed to place dolls in it.) She stepped under the antechamber’s peaked roof and looked around her. Wooden tablets painted with prayers hung everywhere from the roof. When she brushed past them, they clattered softly together. Bowls and packets lay scattered on the antechamber’s floor, most empty, but a few still containing grains of rice or fraying scraps of fabric. She was hungry, but everything had been fouled with birds’ droppings, and the floor was spangled black and white with them.

She pushed into the inner shrine. There was nothing she might make sense of here, only mysteries and shadows; but it was dry, and just large enough for a small cat who needed shelter. She licked clean her scratches and bites, then curled up to sleep.

She found herself on a path as clear and bright as crystal. The cacophony of voices had been with her since the night in the Raj
gate, a gabble in her mind, but she had not heard the single one, the road-kami’s. Until now.

But she was a cat, and thus stubborn. The kami had not answered when she called for it. She had wondered about this at the time, simultaneously hurt and relieved. Now, nursing her miseries, she was bitterly, proudly, alone. The kami might have shattered her loneliness, and so: “Go away,” she said, and refused to listen.

The kami’s voice faded, leaving only the gods’ chittering—
under robes, violet, Kuji district, the lit candle.
For the rest of the night, she dreamt that she walked along the road looking for a way off, and found none.

 

 

Kami are in certain small ways like people: some seek company and the admiration of friends and strangers, while others seem to be content to exist without worship, in silent corners of the world. (Perhaps the kami of my pink-and-black-and-white rock was one such, and I disturbed its rest. Perhaps this explains certain sorrows in my life.) Though she slept in its shrine, the tortoiseshell ignored the road-kami’s voice; and it is possible that she wounded it, or made it angry. There is no telling whether turning the tortoiseshell into a person was meant to be a punishment, or a lesson, or even a gift of some sort.—If the kami in fact did this thing, and not some other, unknown force. Who can tell, with kami?

When she woke, she was no longer in the inner room; and she had become a woman. She lay stretched on the ground before the shrine, a small, fine-boned woman with thick black hair to her shoulders and gold eyes under straight brows. She was wrapped in a moss-colored traveling cloak, with grass stuffed into a spare robe and rolled tightly to make a pillow. She sat upright and tipped her head first to one side, then to the other, listening to the crackling of her stiff neck. A beam of dawn’s light made the fog of her breath gleam cherry-red. She stood stiffly and brushed the thin layer of wet snow from her cloak. Her bare feet were very cold, and her hands and her nose.

BOOK: Fudoki
13.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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