Translated from Japanese by Sylvia Gallagher
My daughter and I were playing hide-and-seek at the park, and I was it. I had my eyes closed and was counting down when I heard, sharp and sudden, hisss. More than one. I opened my eyes, looking past the gray and withered sakura tree before me and the two sparrow-pee eggs (those little gray things speckled with white, shaped like eggs that gape open at the top—I’ve called them that since I was little, but what they really are I don’t know) clinging to its trunk, to see amorphous clusters of darkness shooting out from a patch of bushes on the edge of the park. All ten—maybe fifteen—of them shot off dead straight like bullets, all in different directions, swarming over the ground. A hedge rustled, a rusted swing squeaked, and something gave a high-pitched chitchit! One of the clusters brushed against me as it passed. I realized it was a cat. It, and however many other small, black cats, were fleeing the park. Every strand of its fur was standing on end and, even through my jeans, I could tell that it was freezing. Like a little tornado full of snow. A moment passed, and then all the cats had disappeared off in their various directions and, still stunned, I looked over to the camellia bushes they had burst out of to see my daughter standing there rooted to the spot, her eyes wide.
I ran over and picked her up. She must have fallen on her bottom behind the camellias, and the ground must have been wet because the seat of her thick cotton trousers was dirty and damp and cold. “Mama, it was…” “That was a surprise, wasn’t it!” I nestled her in the crook of my arm, and felt the sandy dirt stuck to her bottom crunch as I brushed it off. There were pale yellow leaves piled up on the ground. They weren’t from the camellia, so had probably been blown here from somewhere else. The moist layer beneath them was black like it had begun to rot, and a few rich pink camellia petals rested on the surface. My nose filled with the smell of excrement. “Did you see the cats?” “Cat?” My daughter gaped back at me. She wasn’t crying, but her nose had turned bright red. Her cheeks were pale. “Cat?” “Just now, you know, where you were hiding, Sah-chan, when you came over here there were some cats. Then they got a fright and ran away, see?” “Cat?” “I wonder where they went, hmm? They didn’t have to run away like that.” I looked out across the park. We had found it while out on our walk. It was small and unloved, with only a swing and horizontal bars for a playground. There was a seesaw, but it had a black-and-yellow striped rope wrapped around it with a sign taped on it that read, in hand-written letters: do not touch. danger. It was uninviting; the sort of place where you find abandoned bicycles with rusting baskets, and I’d probably never have come here if I hadn’t been wandering around aimlessly with my daughter. There was a sense of being closed off from the world, like it had been put here after the row of little square houses had been built to fill a lot left gaping and empty—which was probably what had made it a good spot for stray cats looking to avoid human notice. I wondered if there had been so many cats because there had been multiple cat families living together, or whether it was a popular spot for strays. “You got a fright too, didn’t you Sah-chan? You’re all wet. Let’s get you home.” I wiped my dirty hands on my jeans and gently rubbed my daughter’s back. She still looked anxious. “Cat?” “Your trousers got all dirty, that must feel yucky.” She twisted her body around and pushed herself away so she could look right into my eyes. “Cat? Was it a cat, Mama?” In my daughter’s eyes, I could see my own reflection. They distorted it and the world around me like a fish-eye lens, and I remembered how incredibly clear her eyes had been when she was still a baby, and how I’d looked into them just after giving birth and despaired at how ugly I’d become. I didn’t recoil like that anymore. My daughter’s eyes were no longer that clear, and I wasn’t so exhausted—but more than anything I was just used to it. A dark shape passed through my daughter’s pupils, melting into rainbow-colored rings, and I looked around, but it wasn’t a returning cat. Just a small woman, walking along the narrow road in front of the park. “Mama, Mama. Cat?” “What? Yes, it was a cat.” With pointed ears, a long tail, and black-brown fur. The perfect size to cuddle. “It was a cat—a cat.” “Cat?” My daughter looked down at where she had been on the ground, then looked at me, then back down again. Then she said, “I think it’s not a cat.” “What?” “I think it’s not a cat.” “No, no, it was. It was a cat—a cat, okay?” She was slipping from my arms. I heaved with my whole body to hoist her back up, then went over to the bench where I’d left my things. It was made of concrete and just a bit too low, so that an adult sitting on it would have to sit with their knees practically up to their chin. Maybe it was meant for children, but the rough and blocky concrete with its sharp corners didn’t seem like a child-friendly design choice. I stood my daughter beside it and shouldered my rucksack. When she was smaller, this rucksack would have held a full change of clothes, including an extra set of underpants, trousers, and socks, but lately I’d stopped carrying all that around with me. “Sorry, sweetie. If I had some spare trousers I’d change you…Do you want your coat?” My daughter shook her head and said, “But it’s not a cat.” “Okay, but then what…?” “It’s not a cat.” “Hmm.” I made a noncommittal noise and held her coat open for her so she could slip it on easily. “Come on, it’s chilly. Put your coat on.” “Listen, Mama. It’s not a cat.” “Is that right? You don’t think it was, Sah-chan? Okay, okay. Now, your coat.” I didn’t care in the least whether the animal I’d seen was a cat or not (it was, though). What mattered right now was that my daughter’s bottom was dirty and damp from animal pee, so I needed to get back to the road we’d come by as fast as possible, get home, get her undressed and into clean clothes, soak her dirty things with detergent and bleach, then get dinner going, fold the clothes I’d hung up to dry, finish cooking dinner, eat it with her, fill the bath, bathe her, heat up dinner for my husband when he got home, put the laundry on once he was out of the bath, give my daughter just the right degree of attention through all of this as she asked me to play or look at her drawings, then get her to brush her teeth and go to the toilet and if at all possible into bed by nine. Failing that, nine-thirty at the latest. Otherwise she wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning, and then we would end up late for kindergarten, and that meant having to go into the classroom after the morning session had started, and she would get embarrassed and not want to go anymore, and then there would be tears. Saturday’s mistakes always came back to bite on Monday. Everything linked together. Or rather, it was all part of the same whole. As she faffed about trying to do up the zip on her thin, navy down jacket, my daughter repeated, “But it’s not a cat.” “Do you need help with the zip?” “Cats are, are…” “Oh, you’ve got it, you got it all by yourself!” It wasn’t long ago that I’d had to do the first part, pulling the tab right down the bottom and bringing the left and right rows of teeth together, but lately she’d been hitting home about 50 percent of the time. It was smooth sailing as she slotted the zipper in place, but things got choppy when it caught as she tried to pull it up. The tips of her fingers grew redder and redder before my eyes. “Shall I help?” “I said I can do it.” “Oh, oh! There you are, that’s it, come on—Oh! You did it!” I clapped my hands together. “Look at you, big girl!” “Mama, Bunny-chan is a cat, right?” “What? Vanilla?” Vanilla was my husband’s parents’ cat. We visited them once or twice a month, and my daughter was always hanging out to play with her. Vanilla’s fur was pure white, the tip of her nose and the insides of her ears were rose pink, and her eyes were a stunning pale green. Back in the early days of my marriage I had misheard my in-laws, who called her Vanny-chan, and thought they had named her Bunny because she was white like a rabbit. “Oh, is that it? Just now, those things didn’t look like Vanilla-chan? Vanilla-chan lives with a nice family, so she’s nothing like the cats in a place like this. Cats come in lots of different shapes and sizes.” “They look different, but…” My daughter dug her chin into her jacket, dutifully zipped up all the way to the top, and bit on the zip. “Hey, don’t bite that. You’ll damage your teeth.” “So cats…” Her wide-open eyes cast about us. The wind was still cold, but the air seemed to be warming up, and the sunshine was bright. It felt like winter was over, but spring hadn’t yet arrived. Like although the days were getting longer, behind the pale blue sky, black night had already begun. The temperature seemed to have dropped. There was no sign of the cats, but then there hadn’t been any sign of them at all since they left. I could no longer smell the excrement, but I might have just gotten used to it. It felt like a long time since I’d seen a stray cat. I wasn’t sure precisely how long, but I was pretty sure that up until a few years back I’d often caught sight of strays sunning themselves on the side of the road, or the tragic aftermath when they’d been hit by cars. Maybe someone had cracked down on something, like putting pets outside, or feeding strays. That meant it had to be a good thing. “Let’s go home,” I said. As I took my daughter’s hand there was a zap of static electricity. She let out a little gasp, just as I did. “Do you need to go potty? We’ll have to use one in a shop so tell me straight away if you do, okay?” “Mama, so cats, cats are…What IS a cat?” “Well…” She was making a face like she didn’t want to go. I started off with a skip in my step, taking her hand in mine and pulling her along with me. “Vanilla is a cat, and Hello Kitty is a cat too. And there’s the ones in your picture book, Eleven Cats. Oh, there you go, if a mummy cat and a daddy cat have a baby, then it’ll be a cat.” “So if there’s no mummy and daddy you don’t know if it’s a cat or not?” My daughter kept looking back at the park and every time she did so, I looked back too, but there was no sign of even a single returning cat. I suddenly wondered if the cats hadn’t been hit by a car or something, running off like that. I hadn’t heard any screeching brakes and there wasn’t much traffic around here, so they were probably fine, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d done something wrong. “Well, if there’s no mummy or daddy, there won’t be any babies in the first place. And cats and dogs can’t get married. Oh, what was that thing? I heard of a lion and a leopard or something having a baby, but then lions and leopards are both cats…Um, what was I saying?” “Then…Then…” My daughter squeezed my hand with renewed intensity. I started to sing, making no effort to keep my voice down: “Cat-a-cat, cat-a-cat, not a cat!” It was my habit, whenever I ran out of ideas for what to do, to take my daughter’s hand and sing something to cover it up. I never imagined I’d turn into the sort of person who could walk down the street singing a made-up tune. There’d even been a time at elementary school when the idea of singing in front of people had horrified me so much that I’d moved my mouth silently like a fish until my classmates caught on and hauled me over the coals. Then there’d been the music test where I was so quiet that I had to repeat the song over and over again until the bell rang, which meant the students after me hadn’t been able to sit their test, which led to complaints being lodged and my mother getting called into the school. Now though, so long as my daughter’s hand was in mine, a few people around or a missed note were nothing to me. “Cat-a-cat, cat-a-cat, not a cat. Cat-a-cat, cat-a-cat, ca-a-at!” I hadn’t imagined I’d end up hand in hand with my own child, unable to think of what to do, either. We reached a bigger street, and five or six elementary schoolers zoomed by on their bicycles, yelling indistinctly to each other. We retreated to the side of the road and stopped to watch as they rode away. They wove from side to side, standing up in the saddle and twisting around to look back while pedaling like mad. I caught snatches of high-pitched voices—boys’ voices, not yet broken. “Listen, then—” “No way!” “Oi, look where you’re going!” As we arrived at the mailbox outside our house, my daughter suddenly shook her hand free of mine and squatted down to roll up her trousers, revealing apple-patterned socks which she tugged up before pulling her trouser legs back down—but then it seemed they still weren’t sitting right because she rolled her trousers up once more and pulled her socks down, then up, then down again. A knitted pom-pom hat of undyed yarn sat on top of the mailbox. “Oh, someone must have dropped this.” Up close I saw the stitching was uneven. There was something misshapen about it. “It looks handmade, too. I bet someone’s missing it.” “Mama, Mama.” “Mmm?” “Mama, why do you think it’s a cat?” “Why? Well, it had pointy ears and a long tail, and eyes…That’s to say, there are cats with droopy ears and short tails, too, and cats with no fur. All sorts of cats. But you can tell from the face. No matter what they look like, all cats have cat faces. Are your socks better now? Off we go.” “Then I don’t know cat faces.” She looked down, dragging her toes along the ground. “I still don’t know.” Her shoes made a nasty scraping noise. “Stop that, you’ll ruin your shoes. Anyway, you’ll probably learn soon. How cats are cats and dogs are dogs and raccoons are raccoons and people are people.” “When did you learn, Mama?” “I wonder. Probably around your age, Sah-chan. When I was three or four. Cat-a-cat!” There was no one in the house but I shouted “I’m home!” anyway, and went into a messy room—the level of mess you’d expect with a child, but without the culprit on the scene, the disarray was unbearable to me, so I took her to the bathroom and whisked her out of her trousers and underpants (the dirty water had seeped through these too—she must have been cold on the walk home) then wiped her off with a damp towel before putting her in fresh underpants and trousers, turning the television on in the living room, installing her right in the middle of the mess, and then going back and filling the basin up with water and bleach and detergent and immersing the underpants and trousers in it, whereupon they slowly exuded a cloud of pale brown filth. Something sharp stabbed under my nail and I strained my eyes but couldn’t find anything. Back in the living room, there happened to be a children’s show about cats on TV. In dark places, a cat’s pupils will expand, like this—that’s why cats can see in the dark! “There! That’s a cat. That there is a cat face!” My daughter gave me a sidelong glare, and said she knew that.
The next day, we drove to my husband’s parents’ house to pick up some hand-me-downs from his sister’s daughter. There were small, squelchy, dark-red things all over the ground of their concrete parking space. After being crushed and worked into the ground by car tires and shoes, they now looked like clumps of black blood. I could hear faint music. It sounded like someone was practicing the flute or some other musical instrument-like thing outside, and badly. Maybe that was what was making me feel agitated. As I released my daughter from her car seat, my mother-in-law came out of the house and offered me a thin, plastic sheet. “Here, put this over your car. It’ll get filthy, parked here.” My in-laws’ parking area had space for two cars, yet for some reason the roof only covered one. “The bird poo is really awful. All this—it’s the birds.” “The birds?” I looked up, but there wasn’t a bird in sight. “It’s been like this since yesterday. A big flock of them came and did their business everywhere.” “Birds?” My husband got out of the driver’s seat and began pulling the sheet over the car, looking up doubtfully at the sky. When the old picnic sheet was unfolded, there were actually two sheets—one covered with Mickey and Minnie Mouse in a polka-dot pattern, and one with Hello Kitty in the middle holding up a fork. tatsuno risa was written in a corner of the Hello Kitty sheet—the name of my husband’s little sister (though for her, Tatsuno was her maiden name). “Are there really birds?” “You’ll be able to see them better from inside the house, come in, do come in. It would be horrible if a bird pooed on your head out here.” “Whoa!” screamed my daughter. She had heard the word poo and pieced together the connection with the grime on the ground. “Danger everywhere!” “Danger?” My mother-in-law looked alarmed, so I hastily explained that my daughter had recently taken to calling dog and cat poo on the side of the road or in the park “danger.” My mother-in-law clapped her hands together as though this were incredibly clever, and said, “How funny! Your gran has lots of danger today!” “Papa, danger! Pick me up!” “Granny will pick you up.” “I want Papa.” “Dear me, is that so?” My husband held our daughter in his arms and jogged the short distance between the parking space and the house. She giggled, shouting, “Danger, danger!” My mother-in-law ran after them. I set a quick pace too, looking up at the sky as I went. Of course I didn’t see any birds. The black-and-red blobs were all over the garden, too. More so than on the concrete, the colors stood out against the earth and the trees with their new growth. They were round and slimy, of course it was bird poo.
My mother-in-law was in the tatami room, standing by the sliding glass door that faced onto the garden and pointing up. Blue sky, puffs of white cloud—and what were undeniably birds, flying around the trees in the garden. The few of them I saw were a little bigger than sparrows, but much smaller than pigeons. But there were only a few. No more than you’d see flying about on any other day. “Look how many there are!” “What?” “See the neighbor’s house—look at the roof.” Just then, the roof of a neighboring house roiled with motion. It was all birds. They were packed tight over the entire surface. “Wow, that’s crazy. Hey Sah-chan, look over there! Tweet tweet.” My daughter was already totally enthralled by the cat and didn’t reply. My mother-in-law sat down next to her, tucking her legs to one side. “Yesterday there were twice as many, you know,” she said. “This looks like a lot, but they’re actually decreasing.” As I watched, a bird rose up from the roof and came to perch on a tree in the garden, but it soon took flight again, and returned to the roof clutching some sort of fruit. They were all doing this, all repeating the same pattern at slightly spaced-out intervals. I had no idea what system they had in place ensuring that they never flocked together at the tree, but they did appear to be following some rule. “That’s a Kurogane holly tree, Hikari-chan.” “Kurogane holly, I see.” I had never heard of it before. “It produces berries in fall, and every year all the little birds come to eat them. Sparrows and pigeons and bulbuls and whatnot. I’d been wondering why they hadn’t come this year. When we got to New Years and the tree was still covered in berries, it was so odd. Frightening even—you wondered whether all the birds hadn’t died out!” “Right, yeah.” “Bunny-chan’s tummy is like mochi!” “Then, this morning—no sorry, yesterday morning—when I got up, I heard some commotion going on. I went to take a look and found all this. That flock had gathered here, and they were all eating. And then pooing…You know, at one point, it was like a shower of black rain.” The tree had to be about ten meters tall. It was the tallest tree in the garden, the top just a silhouette. And of course there were shadowy birds up there, flying in and out. Something about it didn’t seem real. “See how the berries are red? That’s why all the poo has that reddish color. There were masses of those tiny red berries—the tree was overflowing with them until yesterday.” My husband and father-in-law sat at the dining table in the room adjoining the tatami room, talking about something in hushed voices. … you’re not getting any younger, and you don’t have any assets except for a little house, this house I mean, and that’s how things get complicated, so while you’re still healthy and thinking clearly we should think about inheritance and… The topic had come up a little while back and since then, every time we visited my in-laws, they did this. “I can’t even hang out the washing, it really is such a bother. I’ll have to clean the garden and the parking space later, too.” “That’s a real hassle.” “Oh well, I suppose it’ll be over once they eat up all the berries. Just a little longer.” “I wonder where the birds will go then.” “Some other garden, probably.” My husband had a younger sister, and she and her husband had two children—a boy and a girl. My husband and I had our one daughter, and while my husband’s parents might not be wealthy, they seemed plenty well-off as far as I was concerned. Perhaps they didn’t live in a mansion, but their house was spacious and had a garden with a row of trees (apparently a gardener came to do seasonal pruning), and just looking at their crockery, and the food that they served on it, and hearing about their twice-yearly couples vacations, it was obvious that their lifestyle was worlds apart from what my husband and I could expect even if we both worked up until retirement. And this was with my mother-in-law staying home while my father-in-law worked, and sending my husband and his sister to private schools from junior high through university. “Bunny-chan, Bunny-chan…” my daughter repeated as she petted, or more like massaged, the cat. My sister-in-law lived relatively near here and often brought her children to visit, so the cat was used to children and tolerated them without ever lashing out even when they petted her a bit too hard or pulled her tail. A single bird alighted on the ground right in front of the glass door and moved as though it were trying to peer inside before flying off again. It had a greenish-yellow belly. On its head it had a proper crest, or crown, or whatever those sort of feathers are, that stuck up. Its beak was short and sharp, and its wings looked gray, or maybe brown. I might have seen the same sort of bird in any number of places before, or never. Away from its flock, it would probably be completely unremarkable. “Vanilla-chan doesn’t get excited by the birds at all, does she,” I said. “Not, not at all. We kept her indoors ever since she was a kitten, so she’s never hunted a thing in her life, our Vanny-chan.” My mother-in-law chuckled. “I doubt it even occurs to her that she could catch and eat them. She’s not interested in bugs either.” “Wow.” “I think it was last year, Ton-chan brought over an enormous rhinoceros beetle, a foreign one that Takumi-san had bought at a pet shop, in a case, to show us. It was jet black and shiny, waving its spiky scissors about.” If it had scissors, or rather if its jaw had been split open like that, it had probably been a stag beetle, not a rhinoceros beetle. “Even then, she just regarded it, Vanny-chan, and who knows what she thought of it.” “How mature.” “No, I wonder if it’s like she never grew up. Our precious sheltered daughter, forever.” If Vanilla were human, she’d have been on the far side of middle-aged. While we talked, the birds continued to snatch berries from the top of the tree and return to settle on the roof. “Are there this many birds every year?” My mother-in-law, her hair and make-up immaculate as always, shook her head. “But you know,” she said, “It’s not the first time. I’m sure I remember a few other times, getting quite the shock from all these birds appearing.” “A few times?” It had been five years since I married into this family, so I had to assume these had happened before that. “Yes, a few times. You know, it definitely feels like I’ve seen it before. But I can’t seem to remember exactly what happened. I think it was always quite a shock, though.” She said this and gave a short hah of laughter. “Reminds you of something, doesn’t it?” “I see. I guess there might be some sort of pattern.” I had seen on TV once that overseas there was a kind of cicada that swarmed in great numbers once every seventeen years. In a swarm year in that region, not just the tree trunks but the walls of houses, the ground, any animals outside, parked cars, and literally everything else would be completely covered in cicadas, and these cicadas weren’t the brown and green of Japanese cicadas, but violent black and red. “Just so long as it’s not a portent of a great catastrophe. No chance of that, I’m sure, ha ha ha.” I always thought my mother-in-law sounded young when she laughed, then in the moment I thought it, realized that meant she was old. I’d been told she’d been fairly old for her first child when she had my husband. “A catastrophe…That’s a bit scary.” “It could be, you know, an earthquake or something. What if that’s what happened those years? Animals, you know, are much more sensitive than humans to those sort of signs, they say. Perhaps I ought to have written something down when it last happened, oh, when was it…” “I’m sure that’s not it.” Vanilla, who this whole time had been allowing my daughter to play with her, suddenly stood up, and slipped out of the room. “Bunny-chaaan!” Her feet, rose pink with spots of black, made a sound like lapping ripples first on the tatami and then on the wood floor of the corridor, as she grew steadily farther away. They’re called paw pads, I remembered. I had never touched a cat’s paw pads. Honestly, I didn’t even like Vanilla very much. “I expect she’s gone to do her business. Leave her be and she’ll be back soon.” “Granny?” “What is it, Sah-chan?” “Yesterday at the park I saw a thing.” “A thing?” “Like an animal. Maybe.” I took a look at the paper bag stuffed with hand-me-downs from my sister-in-law’s daughter (she was a year older than my daughter), where it sat beside the low table. Although the hand-me-downs came every season, there was never anything well-worn or shabby, only nice things made from high-quality fabric. Some of it could have passed for brand new. Pink…Lilac…White… Then when I’d seen my sister-in-law at New Years’ and tried to thank her, she had given a knowing laugh and told me that it was because most of it had been bought by her mother, not her. I pulled items from the bag—ribbons, glittering beads, embroidered candy cane patterns, lace, flower prints (both bold and delicate), kittens and bunny rabbits… “A funny animal? Did you see it on TV?” “I told you at the park!” yelled my daughter out of nowhere. She had taken to throwing tantrums lately. She didn’t try it on me much and would never talk back to her kindergarten teachers like that, but with my husband or my mother-in-law, any time she felt she had been misheard, or got a reaction she hadn’t intended, she’d start shouting. I once overheard my mother-in-law telling my husband how Myne-chan was never like this…She ought to be past the terrible twos—might it be an emotional problem? Public daycare just wasn’t the same as private kindergarten, in the end, from the kinds of children who attended to the quality of the staff, and their family circumstances. And this period of their life is so… “Oh no, I’m scared!” said my mother-in-law, making a show of wrapping her arms around herself and pretending to shake. “Sah-chan is angry at me! How terrifying!” “I’m not angry!” “A monster! Sah-chan, little Sah-chan turned into a scary monster! I’m scaaared.” Still clutching her narrow shoulders, she opened her eyes wide and trembled. “You’re stupid! I’ll never play with you ever again!” This was a fairly advanced sentence. It was probably one of the longest she’d ever used. My mother-in-law pretended to cry, wailing, “Oh how horrible! I’m so sad, waaah.” “Sah-chan, cut it out!” I was still unfolding clothes. “We don’t talk like that.” I caught a whiff of fabric softener—a different brand from the one we used, that smelled like sugar candy. Was it my sister-in-law’s, or had my mother-in-law rewashed everything? “But Mama!” “Wah, waah! You’ve made your granny so sad! I want to play with Sah-chan!” “Now, Sah-chan. Say sorry to your Gran.” We used fabric softener with a much subtler scent. It was, in my opinion, more appropriate for a child’s clothes, and besides, my husband used it too. Sometimes, whether it was a parent at the kindergarten or someone I’d only passed in the street, I would catch the scent of their fabric softener and think, this person is forever unknowable to me. Of course all humans are probably fundamentally unknowable to one another, but I was amazed at how I knew just from the scent of fabric softener. That a thing like that really settled it. Even though scented fabric softener hadn’t even existed in the world until recently.
My daughter stamped her foot up and down on the tatami. “I won’t!” “That’s enough.” “It’s quite all right, Hikari-chan.” My mother-in-law, who had until a moment ago been holding her palms flat under her eyes and pretending to cry like a child, abruptly looked up, returned her hands to her knees, and said clearly, “Sah-chan understands just fine. She’s behaving like this because she wants to try it out, that’s all. I expect other children around her behave this way. She just wants to copy them. Granny understands. I’m sorry for getting it wrong before, Sah-chan.” My daughter gave me sullen glare, then turned to her grandmother. “I forgive you,” she said. “Oh, thank you! You’re so kind. Now, what were you telling me about?” “Listen to me, the weird thing at the park.” “Yes, yes, a weird thing.” A shadow bird was moving about on the tatami. I looked up to the roof, the tree, the roof, the tree—where had all these birds been until now? The mountains? Somewhere far off, maybe to the north? Had all the solitary birds from some larger area converged here? If so, why? “That Hatchcock movie,” my husband said, slipping into the room and looking up out of the window. My father-in-law was still at the table, crunching on something. “You know, there’s that famous horror movie about birds.” “Never seen it. I know it, though. Isn’t it Hitchcock?” “Oh, whatever. Anyway, the other day it was on TV, just a clip. It was the scene where the humans are running away from the huge flock of birds, but the birds and the town in the background—the houses and stuff—and the people running all looked photoshopped in; there was something off about it all. It was really obvious they’d filmed it all separately and stuck it together and, I mean, I’m sure they were really pushing the limits of the technology they had, but it all looked a bit cheap. How idyllic, I thought, to be a person in the past who really thought this was scary.” “What happens in the end? Do all the humans get eaten by birds and die? Do they defeat the birds?” “I don’t know. They only showed that one scene on TV, and it was only ten seconds, if that. It was part of a story about a big flock of crows causing trouble in the city or something.” “So have you ever seen this many birds in the tree before?” “Not that I remember.” “I’m sure you have,” said my mother-in-law, craning her neck round toward us from where she had been bent over next to my daughter. “You have, you just don’t remember.” “Granny! Look at me!” When my mother-in-law turned her face away, my daughter reached out and grabbed her by both cheeks to turn her back. I imagined the caked-on make-up squelching as it deformed under my daughter’s palms. “Sah-chan, cut it out!” “It’s nothing, dear. Now, what happened next?” “Then Mama said it’s a cat.” “Ah, Mama said so?” “She said it’s definitely a cat. But it’s not a cat. Mama didn’t see it right.” “Oh dear, is that so?” My mother-in-law patted her cheeks, faintly red where they had been grabbed, and smiled. “What do you think it was, Sah-chan? What was so strange about it?” “Hmmmm… I dunno.” “She doesn’t…know!” This was my husband, putting on a silly voice and pretending to stagger. My mother-in-law cawed with laughter and I couldn’t help but smile myself. But my daughter’s face was deadly serious. Upset, even. My husband kept up the act as he hopped out of the room and back to the dining table where my father-in-law sat. My mother-in-law let out another hoot of laughter as she watched him go. “Well, they say children see all sorts of things.” “What sort of things?” “Oh, you know, fairies and ghosts and whatnot.” “It’s not a ghost!” my daughter yelled again, and stood up, making herself as tall and imposing as possible. The tatami, which we didn’t have at home, had left closely packed red marks in the soft flesh on her shins. It was like the skin of some nonhuman creature had been grafted on, just on that spot, where Vanilla, reentering the room like a little white puff of cloud, rubbed herself up against with a low mrooow. “Bunny-chaaan.” My daughter sat down with a thump and put both arms around Vanilla’s uncollared neck. “Bunny-chaaan.” “That cat is a saint,” I said, and my mother-in-law chuckled. “Isn’t she? Such a good kitty. She’d have had beautiful kittens, but you never know, do you? It might have made her age faster.” “That’s true.” “Oh but I’m going to miss her when she dies. At least if she’d had kittens, don’t you think?” “Mm, yeah.” “Not that I should talk about breeding her like it’s nothing.” “Oh, mm.” My mother-in-law turned her attention to the paper bag full of little glittering outfits. “What do you think of the hand-me-downs? Will she wear them?” “Yes, it’s all lovely. We’re so grateful to you for always doing this. Really, I can’t thank you enough.” “Oh, it’s nothing, these things get passed down—and besides, having clothes around that aren’t worn is such a bother. I should be thanking you for taking them off our hands. Oh this one, look, Myne-chan wore this for her piano recital.” My mother-in-law picked up a dress made from shiny pink fabric that was sitting right on top of the pile. It had a white collar edged with fake pearls that alternated big and small, and a bright pink structured skirt with a tulle underskirt sewn in to make it poof out as though there was a pannier underneath. “Isn’t it adorable?” “Myne-chan must’ve looked wonderful in it.” “Oh, do you want to see a photo? I have some. She’s so talented, too. Her piece was the most difficult in the whole class, I think, let’s see now…” She stood up. Her trousers, made from a wrinkle-resistant fabric, slid down to cover her skinny calves. My daughter was petting Vanilla’s tummy. Vanilla’s fur flowed from her head all the way down her back in a smooth, unbroken coat, but the fur on her belly was less orderly and grew in spirals through which the pink of her flesh was faintly visible. She lay still with her eyes open and all four of her legs stretched out, so that I couldn’t tell if she was enjoying herself or simply enduring my daughter. In the white light coming through the window, her eyes looked perfectly transparent. White fur, shampooed twice a month by her favored groomer (she refused to let anyone else do it), indoor-cat paw pads that had never known rocks or dirt, then I looked up out of the window to where the birds continued to gorge on berries and poo them out. So then it won’t… No, fine, they won’t know. My husband and father-in-law were speaking in muffled voices. It’s just on paper anyway. But what if Takumi-kun… Eldest son and all that. They’ve got their own place anyway. And the younger brother, he doesn’t have kids, and besides, they get rent money, right? That much they can… “Oh here we are,” said my mother-in-law, coming into the room holding a photo album. “Whatever they say about phone cameras and data, you know our generation, unless it’s printed out… Ah yes, here’s Myne-chan.” “She’s very sweet.” “Look here, Sah-chan, this is your cousin Myne, and this dress—here, see? Isn’t it pretty? Now it’s yours. How about the piano, Sah-chan, playing in this dress?” My daughter had pulled a tissue from the box on the low table and was waving it in front of Vanilla’s face. “Bunny-chan, Bunny-chaaan.” Vanilla didn’t react, instead giving her legs a big stretch. My mother-in-law kept nodding, flicking through photos of my niece, whose arms reached out of the queen-like gown like a piglet’s forelegs. “Oh yes. Piano lessons would be just the thing. Yes, let’s have her learn.” “Buuunny-chan, play with me. Buuunny-chan. Hey, look at the flower, it’s a white flower.” The garden moved. The spherically-trimmed shrubs in my husband’s parents’ garden, the name of which I didn’t know, shook as though something was raging around inside them. “Oh, Hikari-chan!” I looked at my mother-in-law. “Yes?” She was holding the size 110cm pink dress under her own chin and swaying dreamily from side to side. “If she starts now, she’ll be able to play just about anything in elementary school—that’s how it was for Risa, you know girls, they should have something, even if they don’t have the best grades, they should have something they excel at, more than their friends. It really does help them settle down, emotionally speaking. I’ll pay any fees or whatever else you need. It’ll all be hers anyway. Yes, girls ought to play the piano, and the teacher at Myne-chan’s is wonderful. Such a kind, pretty, delightful girl. And still unmarried! I suppose she’s devoted to her music, well you know there’s piano teachers and there’s piano teachers. This one graduated from a conservatory and then spent some time living in Austria, I heard. Oh, she must play duets with Myne-chan. There are lots of girls who do duets with their sisters, and then I’ll buy them matching dresses. Myne-chan looks best in pink, so let’s say pink for her. Then for Sah-chan, yes, perhaps a pale blue?” Vanilla’s tail suddenly went thwack against my knee. I heard my daughter breathe in sharply. “Don’t you think, Hikari-chan?” “Um, yes.” “Yes, white would be lovely with pink, too, but I’d be so worried it would get dirty, you know children, they’ll spill and spit out the most unexpected things at the most unexpected times—at one of Risa’s piano recitals she—while she was waiting her turn—she got a nosebleed! And her dress—it tied with a ribbon at the back, with simple lace on the front, in pink of course, a beautiful pale pink like cherry blossoms, or maybe nasturtiums—well, the blood just dripped out all over it, and the teacher and I were panicking and then—” Mrooow rumbled Vanilla, and I started and, looking over, saw her face as she sat sphinx-like, turned back toward my daughter but looking toward the garden with her eyes on something that moved on the ground. Not a bird, but brown with four legs and fur. Yellow eyes that watched me. Pointy ears that looked moist on the inside, sharply pointed whiskers, thin lips that smiled faintly. There wasn’t just one, and each had a face a little different from the others… “Sah-chan!” screamed my mother-in-law. “Is that…!” She pointed at my daughter’s calf. Faint, fibrous red lines ran along her skin. It was almost like a cat scratch…My daughter looked uncertainly at my mother-in-law, then at me, then at Vanilla, then back at my mother-in-law, and said in a small voice: “It doesn’t hurt.” Vanilla’s eyes were closed. Only the tip of her white tail flicked back and forth. “No! No, surely not! Vanny-chan did this?” “It doesn’t hurt.” “Sah-chan! You hurt her, didn’t you!” “What?” “It doesn’t hurt.” “You pulled Vanny-chan’s fur, or—or something!” “I said it doesn’t hurt!” “Um, excuse me—” “All these years we’ve had her, she’s never scratched anyone! What did you do, Sah-chan! To poor Vanny-chan!” I followed my mother-in-law’s instructions to take my daughter to the bathroom, where I washed the cut on her leg, applied the Dettol my father-in-law pulled out, and applied a few sticking plasters. “That hurt, didn’t it!” I said, forcing myself to sound unconcerned. “That was a surprise! What was that all about, I wonder.” “It doesn’t hurt. Really. It doesn’t… Mama?” “Mm?” “They were in the garden, right?” I looked at her face. She looked down, rubbing the thick layer of glossy, flesh-colored plasters I’d stuck on diagonally, and said, “Did they look like cats?”
That evening it came time for us to head home, and with the sweet-scented bag of hand-me-downs in my arms, I stepped outside to the blue of dusk. Every last bird had disappeared from both the sky where the outline of the row of houses was turning orange, and the carmine roof of the neighbor’s house, while in the garden, amongst the heaps of poo, a single bird lay dead with its feathers scattered about it, and my mother-in-law furrowed her eyebrows and said oh dear, she’d have to call the public health center to have it sanitized. Vanilla’s two glowing yellow eyes watched us from behind the glass door, and far away someone was still playing a wind instrument badly. Cat-a-cat, cat-a-cat, not a cat, my daughter sang softly. It went strangely well with the flute melody.
NEKO NEKO by Hiroko Oyamada
Copyright © 2021 Hiroko Oyamada. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the short story collection “Kojima,” in 2021 by SHINCHOSHA Publishing Co., Ltd., Tokyo.
English serialization rights arranged with SHINCHOSHA Publishing Co., Ltd., Tokyo in care of Tuttle-Mori Agency, Inc., Tokyo.