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Authors: Kij Johnson

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BOOK: Fudoki
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She must have still been half-asleep, or thought she was dreaming, for it wasn’t until now that the change sank in. She dropped to her knees, staring at her hands—clearly hands, and clearly
her
hands, for they were scarred across their palms with healing burns. Her neck and sides burned from the inflamed scratches left by the black cat. She touched her face and felt eyebrows, cheekbones, soft lips. There was something snagged in her hair, and she pulled it free to see a comb carved of tortoiseshell, plain except for the character for cat,
neko,
carved into it. She clenched her hand around it and made a sound, a human sob.

It was just after dawn. The clouds that brought the rain and then snow were gone, vanished like a dream; the sky was the brilliant blue of turquoise. Grass stems and small rocks poked wet and shiny from the snow, which was barely a finger’s-width deep. The first travelers were already on the road. She heard someone whistling as he walked toward her, west on the T
kaid
. She crouched, ready to run, ready to jump up and fight. She no longer had hackles, but her shoulders and the nape of her neck tingled. She fought the temptation to hiss, afraid of what she would sound like.

It was a peasant man, dressed in sturdy hemp cloth, with a garland of teals strung by their legs around his neck. He stopped.

“My lady.” He bowed slightly, the ducks squawking at the motion. “Have you lost something in the snow? Can I help you?”

“No. Go away, please.” Surprised, she heard words coming from her lips. She scrambled to her feet and bowed back.

He smiled and then bowed to the shrine, clapped his hands, and bowed again. This made the birds squawk more loudly; he laughed at them, said, “Yell all you like; kami don’t listen to ducks,” and passed on. She watched until he was out of sight.

She looked at her hands again, and her bare feet. She was still human. “Road?” she said suspiciously, not knowing who else to ask; but there was no answer. And that was all there was to it: cat to woman.

Even for people, changes can be this arbitrary and extreme. Yesterday I was a girl, living in my foster father’s house, sneaking away from my attendants, and kilting my robes high enough to wade after frogs when he ordered the servant-boys to stop catching them for me. The sun sets, the sun rises; a palm-walled carriage comes for me, and today I put on robes in tawny yellow and violet and dark red to take my place at court, serving my half-brother the emperor. My poetry (which has always been clunky, at best) is now elegant, “modern”; my music (I play the
biwa
-lute adequately, the six-string
koto
with an almost total lack of skill) is politely praised. In a single night, I become unrecognizable, even to myself, even though I have been raised for this my entire life.

And another change: I passed through a thousand thousand days, and each was made up of hours and moments; but they might as well have been a single day, for they are all past. Yesterday I was that girl chasing frogs (unsuccessfully, I add, and just as well: frogs are better left an unattained goal). And today I am very old. And tomorrow I will die. Is this any less strange, any less arbitrary and extreme, than that a cat becomes a woman?

Still, in our minds, there are changes we expect, and those which we do not. To us, this is a miraculous thing, this change, cat to woman. But to the tortoiseshell, this was only the latest part of something that began with the earthquake, back in the capital. It was neither more nor less surprising than that the ground should move and the city burn.

She made no choice to be human, performed no magic. I do not guess whether cats will ever be tricky like foxes and
tanuki
-badgers, which change their shapes to do us mischief. It seems possible—they have the same intense desire to have things their own way. Perhaps they used to do such things when they lived in Korea, or whatever distant end of the world they originated. Here they do not; not yet.

She was not beautiful, for her hair was far too short, and her eyebrows unplucked; far from being a perfect moon, her face came to a point at her small determined chin. Still, she was lovely; to change any of these things for a more conventional attractiveness would have been to ruin all.

The cat-now-woman shook the grass from the robe that had been her pillow and pulled the garment on over the robes she’d slept in. The under robes were well made, of a high-quality padded silk in dark blue and ivory; the over robe was woven so that multicolored dyed threads made patterns like fallen leaves or a cat’s fur: black and cinnamon and russet and ivory. The cloak was simpler, dark green oiled cotton, a rice-straw knot protecting the center seam of the back. In her sash, which was the bright orange of
take
bamboo berries, was a knife with a blade the color of claws.

She stepped into the wooden clogs beside her feet and started walking east. She noticed the change most as it affected her ability to do things. Fingers and thumbs were good, as was being able to eat things other than meat. She found these both out at midday, when the sun’s warmth finally seeped through the heavy cold air. She stopped to remove the cape (and tied it into a tidy bundle she could wear over her shoulder, as easily as if she had made knots all her life), and sat for a time on a low stone divider, the perfect height for walking along, if one were a cat. An
amagaki
persimmon bush hung over the wall’s side. It had been picked over, but there were a few little orange fruits that she could pluck and did. They were smooth-surfaced and chilly, but when she bit down they popped, and juice poured onto her tongue. She’d never eaten plant matter before, except the half-digested chyme from preys’ bellies, and grass when she needed to vomit. Nothing prepared her for this odd little burst of tart sweetness, so different from the texture and warmth of animals’ blood. But she was not entirely changed: she saw a cricket on the ledge, logy from the cold, and she ate that as well.

Smell was different, she found. Things that had seemed obvious before—warm scents, like dung and the musk of other animals—were muted in her nostrils, while others—pine and cypress, distant hearth smoke—were sharper than she remembered. For a time as she walked she tried to imagine what people might gain by smelling such things so strongly; but she gave up at last, not seeing the point of smelling anything she could not eat.

Standing upright was not such an advantage. She saw much farther, but not as far as she could have in a tree. As the day passed her back ached, even though her muscles as a woman seemed better adapted to a long day’s travel than her cat’s body ever had. She had seen people pass her bearing sticks they leaned on. When she found a fallen branch, she used her knife (again, she knew just how to do this, as if she had been born with fingers) to lop off the unnecessary bits, and carried it as she had seen them do. It did not seem to help, but she liked swinging it at overhanging tree limbs to shake down pine cones and acorns.

People were pleasant to her, and this was also new. This was far from the capital, so most passersby were peasants and countryfolk, with none of the fixed stare and polite inattention of the city-dweller. And, for the first time, she noticed the strange things they carried everywhere, and knew what they were, which had not been the case when she was still simply a cat. When she was near the ocean (and as the days passed, the T
kaid
spent much time within sight of the ocean, generally a sullen eleventh-month gray), she saw men carrying over their shoulders fishing nets caught up on long poles that snagged in branches overhead if they were not careful, or strings of dried cod, or flat baskets filled with mackerel strips. Once she saw a man who led a black ox with wheat straw loaded across its shoulders in a pile so tall that it dwarfed the ox. A dog slept on top of the straw, and did not notice her.

 

 

There was a night, when she was in Owari province. The moon was new, and the nights were very dark. She was tired of sleeping wet, and eating cold food she couldn’t see properly, and so when the light dimmed with dusk, she looked for a place to stay. A path left the T
kaid
, and trailed north toward a hulking blackness capped with a dim luminous triangle, high up: firelight and smoke through an eave opening. Frosted grasses closed over the path, and she had to feel her way through, listening to them slide against her skirts. Another disadvantage: she missed her fur sometimes.

BOOK: Fudoki
5.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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