Stray Cats and Shadows
Yeah, life is supposed to be sustained by purpose. If I were a religious human being, maybe I would get down on my knees and pray for one. Maybe if I had any pride, I would suck it up and plead God for a more meaningful existence. If I was even blessed with the fortune of a decent self-esteem in return, maybe it would be enough for me to pick myself out of the ditch and apply for university. But I'm not any of those things—it's why I still don't have a "real job," as my mother likes to call it.
It bothers me—this idea that working in a shelter is not a good enough life goal for any human being who has the capacity to enter university—and, to be honest, I'm getting sick of having to read the pamphlets my mother brings home from work every day. As a high school teacher, I suppose it's in her best interest to send her only child to a good university and watch him graduate into a successful existence that (hopefully) will contribute to the overall value of society. I can sense that my lack of enthusiasm to pursue education further frustrates her; it radiates off her in waves. Maybe what frustrates her most is the fact that I don't value her opinion as much as I should—but then again, maybe I would make the effort to understand her if she just tried to make the effort to understand me a little better.
Just as she tires of me rubbing salt into her wounded proud, I tire of her going on and on about how I should seek to be a decent human—someone successful, realistic and productive. She says it like the fluffy, four-legged population of the world that I try so hard to keep safe has no value in the wake of human beings—like they don't deserve the luxuries that humans do, because cats are not the same as humans. I can sense that she grows weary of my attempts to be a hero to society's little critters when I could be a hero to people that apparently matter more in this world. She seems to think that running around in the rain, ferrying wandering cats to the shelter in a worn-and-torn jacket isn't a very productive use of my existence. Maybe she's right, but it's not a frame of mind I can simply grow out of. Cats deserve compassion just as much as humans do. Some people just don't seem to realise that.
Then again, the smallest people in our society have always been under-appreciated, no matter how much valuable their toils secretly are to society. For example, the builders are the ones who work under entrepreneurs and eons of sunlight to ensure that "more productive" humans are able to live sheltered lives. The mechanics are the ones who fix the things that the rest of us only have the money—not the time—to fix. The florists are the ones who sell gestures of love to humans who are too busy to grow it themselves.
Likewise, the volunteers at the cat shelters are the ones who groom the unloved for the chance to be loved by those who have hearts kind enough to go for second best.
I've always wanted my mother to understand that even stray cats need someone to love them when no one else has the heart to. I've always wanted her to understand that we are the driving force that keeps them alive for those extra few months it takes to find a loving owner for them. But I'm sure she could never come to understand me as much as I would have liked her to, just as I might never understand her the way she would have liked me to. I am not one to speak of her in such an indifferent light.
/ stray cats and shadows /
Dear God, please send me someone who'll care.
I'm so tired of running and sick with despair.
Despite what I've said of my mother, I can recognise that she has good intentions. It's taken me a while to realise that she doesn't simply want me to bring honour to the family by working an honourable job—all she wanted me to do was prove that I could look after myself; if I could do just that, maybe it would put her heart at a little more ease. Maybe if I had someone who could help to look after me, that would be even better—a someone who was reliable; a someone that was better than the someone I had last time.
I might have had the hope of finding a someone if I went outside to look for human beings rather than stray cats, but it's never been in my best interest to find someone; I prefer it to be the other way around. I'm well aware that someone who considers conversations with their boss and co-workers "social interacts" doesn't exactly have the right to say that, but I'm content with the way things are.
I'm content with a someone I already know.
There's a certain whimsical human being who seems to entertain his free time by—like me—bringing in strays off the street. Where whimsicality is concerned, he takes the cake. He takes the whole damn bakery.
"I found this stray cat."
Most of my conversations with him begin this way. I'll be in the middle of reading a newspaper, drinking the last of the apple juice from the employee fridge, and all of a sudden—a voice breaks the silence. In the pause following his announcement, the face of a furry critter will tower over the top of my flimsy paper. A particularly adventurous paw will feel its way over the top of a quirky article I happen to be reading at the time. A mew from behind the very formidable wall I hold between myself and society will break my pathetic defences, and I will lower the paper to meet the gaze of a new cat.
I will look past the cat and see Chitose.
"Shouldn't you be in school?" I ask him for the umpteenth time, closing the newspaper and setting it down on my desk. Every time I ask this question, it warrants the same response: school is an institute that stifles creativity and oppresses voices that should be free.
I've always told him that it's okay to dislike school; he doesn't have to be so pretentiously poetic about it. He just responds with his infamous half-smile.
"Well, thanks for the cat." I say. Chitose extends the bundle of grey and white fluff in my direction, and entrusts its life into my arms. The cat squirms in protest at first, but slowly, it comes to recognise that I don't intend to harm it, or do whatever its previous owner may have done to it. "Want to give it a name?"
Chitose takes a look over it, and dubs it rather... straightforwardly. "Greyfur."
My eyes wander to the bookshelf on the far side of the room, where I've been trying to lay half of the Warriors series to rest. "You want to call it Greyfur."
He grins. "It's a name for a warrior."
It's like he read my mind. "Touché."
Greyfur starts to rapidly sheathe and unsheathe its claws in an attempt to try and grab hold of my shirt. It pains me to think that Chitose, who is still just a high school student, is so much better at accommodating struggling creatures than I, a volunteer at a cat shelter, may ever hope to be.
"How many days, do you think?" I ask.
Chitose has this strange ability that he tells me he possesses because he's a tennis player. Of course I've never believed that to be true—the half-smile he always wears makes me think he's just pulling my leg—but I blindly believe in his ability all the same. It's some kind of miracle, and for someone who is as spiritually depressing as I am, miracles are always uplifting to see happen. Somehow, Chitose is able to predict how many days, weeks, months, or—God forbid—years it will take for a cat to be adopted. When he first told me he could do it, I thought he was insane. I still think he's insane, but at least he isn't a liar.
"My, my: five months." Chitose says. "It'll be a mystery to see if he'll survive that long."
"You would know better than I would." I say.
"You would know better than I would if you took this one in, too."
"I have four cats, a mother, and a father." I say. "I don't really think I have enough space at home. Don't you have space at yours?"
"Maybe, but whether or not anyone will be around to look after him is a mystery."
"That's odd. You look to me like you have plenty of time on your hands."
"Why, we're the same person, -san." He says, half-smiling at the newspaper laid out across my knees.
I stare back at him. "Are you trying to pick a fight?"
"Me, -san? No, I'm not the fighting sort. I just bring stray cats and apple juice to the local cat shelter."
"As opposed to, you know, being a successful high school student who plans to go to university and become a doctor or a lawyer or something. Because education is the only way to success." I say. "Instead of seeking out an education, though, you opt to be something of a volunteer here."
"That doesn't bother me." Chitose says. "A helper to a stray cat is a helper to a stray cat."
I blink. "But a stray helper only adds to the number of strays I already have to look after."
My boss always tells me that I shouldn't encourage Chitose to keep skipping classes—and maybe my boss is right; maybe I shouldn't so readily ask Chitose if he wants to help feed or groom or play with the cats; maybe my invitations have made Chitose more inclined to spend a rainy weekday in the shelter of—well, the shelter, rather than an institution that stifles creativity and free will. But the fact is, the shelter is already understaffed, and Chitose is more help than I will likely ever admit. He has a calming presence—the kind of presence that stray cats seem to flock to. Whenever he's around me, the cats leave me in favour of coveting him. In less than five minutes in a room of cats, Chitose is quick to disappear under waves and waves of fluff and mews. It's like they think he's their Jesus.
To me, calling Chitose "Jesus" is not so far from the truth. He always has been something of a martyr, in his own whimsical way.
My body is aching and filled with such pain;
And dear God, I pray, as I run in the rain
That someone will love me and give me a home,
A warm cosy bed, and food of my own.
"Ah, . Got a minute?"
My heart sinks.
I know what's coming. That's the tone always uses when he approaches me to bring up that topic. He always begins the conversation by clearing his throat and looking around awkwardly before venturing, "There's a cat that's just got to go."
It takes a lot of effort to remain outwardly calm. "Which one?"
"Jiai." He says. "She's getting old, and we just don't have the resources to sustain her and everyone else. She's got to go."
"But Issac and Sooty were both adopted last week. Surely that means we can be... slightly more lenient with our resources, can't we?"
"One of the other cats that some stranger brought in the other day has been a monster with the resources—poor little thing was on its deathbed, and we've been doing what we can to make it healthy again. Using more provisions than usual was the only way."
"So it's one life for another?"
"It has to be." He says. "Jiai lived a good life."
"She lived an awful life; she just made the best out of it." I say. "That's what every stray has to do. Tell you what—I'll take Jiai in. Then you won't have to support her, right?"
looks at me like I'm insane. Maybe I am. Maybe I've spent one too many days around Chitose. ", you're on minimum wage, and you already have... what, a mother, a father, and three cats?"
"So how can you even think of taking in another one?" He implores. "I only have one cat and it's enough for me. You can't save every single cat there is in existence, you know."
"Maybe." I say. "But at least I can give them a decent life for the rest of their years. I work in a shelter for a reason, you know; if I didn't like cats enough to be working here, then I might actually be at a university in Tokyo, trying to get a real job or something—in, like, economics."
gives up and leaves Jiai in my custody.
When Chitose comes by later that day, I recall to him my conversation with . Though initially I'm not certain he's listening to the words coming out of my mouth, I am proven wrong when he half-smiles and says, "I don't think that would work."
I lower my glass of apple juice and look at him questioningly. "Why not?"
"-san, you don't hold humans in enough regard to work in something like economics." He says. "That's why you're here."
He takes a sip of his own apple juice.
I squint at him. "Are you trying to pick a fight with me?"
Sometimes I think that Chitose knows me far too well.
...I wouldn't say I hate the attention.
Jiai is a more lovable companion than I could have hoped for. Three days after settling into the household, she quickly adjusts to her new setting. It's even more of a bonus that she is quick to put her motherly instincts to use.
It's easy to tell that she's been a mother before: she knows exactly how to respond to the three kittens I own—even Yano, the adoptive father of them all, seems to respect her. The compassionate tendencies that Jiai exhibits earns her the love and respect of the household in no time at all. Seeing her like that makes me wish I didn't forsake my own mother so much; past her constant ushering—"get a job, : a real job"—I can tell she means well, and I want to appreciate that fact. My mother's actions have generally always had warm undertones, even if she's nagging me or complaining about me or frustrated with me. I think that all she's ever wanted for me is happiness—that's what most mothers wish for their children, right? When it comes down to it, anyway. A lot of the time, their wishes for us are distorted by societal ideals: the "Your son must not only be healthy—he must bring health to others" and the "Your son must not only be intelligent—he must use his intelligence for the greater good" and the "Your son must not only be the best at what he does—he must put his excellence on display for all the world to see." It's these ideals that always make a mother push her child to be more. I don't agree with society on that matter. No sensible human being should.
And yet, though most mothers are in the same boat, it's amazing how some can forsake the dilemmas other mothers are having. Less than a month into caring for Jiai, my mother decides that the cat simply cannot stay. She forgets that Jiai has been through unspeakable tragedies—tragedies that people like have iterated to me, but I have chosen to forget; tragedies that people like my mother could never come close to experiencing. And yet, because Jiai is a cat, her problems are worthless.
"There are more cats in the house than people!" My mother exclaims one evening.
To that, I reply, "They're part of the family now."
My mother gives me a look. ", I know you're just trying to help these cats—and I know you're helping them at your own expense, but it can't keep going on like this. This is a house, not an orphanage."
"Most orphans are adopted in time." I say to her.
"And the rest have to wait until they come of age before they're cast off into the real world." She says. "It's the same with stray cats—some of them get adopted; the rest just have to learn how to fend for themselves."
"If I cast Jiai off now," I try to reason, "she's just going to go back to where she came from. She won't be any better off. It would defeat the entire purpose of taking her away from the shelter."
"And why did you take her in? You knew what I would say."
"They would have killed her if I let her stay! Orphans and stray cats may have the same dilemmas theoretically, but cats aren't entitled to the same kinds of luxuries that human beings are; if an orphan decided to return to the orphanage, of course they wouldn't welcome him back with open arms, but at the very least, they wouldn't seek to end his life."
For a moment, she is silent. I'm left wondering if my words are getting to her in any way, or if she's trying to come up with a compromise. Either option is favourable, though. Anything is more favourable than having to cast Jiai out onto the streets in the middle of monsoon season.
"When the monsoon season is over," my mother begins slowly, "one of them has to go. Child or mother, one of them has to go—for the sake of my own child."
I've never believed that taking care of cats would be the death of me. I've never believed that trying to be a little hero in my own little world to the little citizens of this little city would be a detriment to my existence in any way. I've never believed that cats would turn on me, because once you show someone the love and trust that they deserve, the chance that they will turn on you minimises. It's the only thing in your life that you can successfully make slimmer and slimmer—unless you're a sociopath, in which case you've wasted a lot of everyone's time.
I don't say another word to my mother on the topic of Jiai. At the very least, she's given me time to think about what I might do in this situation—for that, I'm mildly grateful—but at this point, I'm not even sure there's anything I can do to successfully resolve the problem. Taking Jiai back to the shelter is out of the question. Casting her out is out of the question. Even finding her somewhere else to stay is out of the question. She was abandoned for a reason, after all.
My last owner left me alone in the yard.
I watched as they moved, and God, that was hard.
So I waited a while, then went on my way,
To rummage in garbage and live as a stray.
I anticipate Chitose's next arrival. Thus far in my quest to save all the stray cats, I haven't required help from other people. But in a situation like this, my desperation claims that I have no choice. I have to do this for the sake of Jiai's life.
Chitose doesn't come by and visit in the whimsical hours of the morning like he usually does. I fear that he might not come to visit today, but I am proven wrong when he steps through the shelter doors at visitor closing time, drenched from head to toe, thanks to the beginnings of a storm outside. I tell him that I'm on on shift for another five minutes, so I make him wait for me on the doorstep outside. He laughs at me, but does as he is told, and steps out to wait beneath the eaves.
When I'm done, he greets me. I return the greeting, and then ask why he never carries umbrellas with him, especially in the midst of monsoon season.
"It started to rain on my walk." He says, reaching out a hand to feel the droplets break on his skin. "I'm many things, but not a magician."
"I find that hard to believe." I say. "I find it even harder to believe that you didn't just take temporary shelter from the rain. Do you only ever do things for yourself when I tell you to do them?"
He looks at me, and gives me a rather ambiguous: "A stroll through the rain is the most cleansing kind of stroll, -san—didn't you know?"
"I never liked strolling much." I say, removing my jacket and throwing it over his head. "You'll catch a cold, idiot. How are you going to go on strolls if you get a cold?"
He throws the jacket back over my head in response, and holds it in place with a steady hand. "How are you going to look after stray cats if you get a cold, -san?"
"At least share the jacket with me."
"You're a little short, -san."
"Are you picking a fight with me?"
He walks me all the way home before he accepts the hospitality of my jacket.
He offers me a half-smile, and does as I say. He's never been one to refuse an open invitation, especially where warmth and an empty house are concerned.
Chitose stays in the entryway as I fetch a towel for him from upstairs. He waits patiently, my jacket still draped over his rugged mane that he likes to call his hair. He accepts the towel, drying himself as thoroughly as possible. Afterwards, we sit down in the kitchen to eat leftover soup.
Jiai joins us at just the right time.
I am hesitant to begin. "So... I have a favour to ask of you."
"How much room do you have in your heart and home to take in a cat?"
He gives me one of his half-smiles. "How big is the cat?"
I'm not sure how to deal with his sense of humour in a situation like this. I resign to a sigh. "My mother is forcing me to throw out one of the cats. Jiai, actually." I say, my gaze falling to where Jiai sits patiently at my heels. She tilts her head at me, blue eyes round with curiosity, as if she is unable to grasp the depth of the situation. What cat would be able to? "If I take her back to the shelter, the boss will put her down. If I cast her back out, she'll be right where she started. If I do nothing, then I'm certain my mother will cast me out."
"There's not enough room in my house for you, though." Chitose muses.
But there's enough room in his heart, it seems.
"What about Jiai?" I ask. "To be honest, I... don't think she'll last much longer."
A pause. "Guess I have no choice. If she lasts beyond the rainy season, then."
With uncannily precise timing, Jiai leaps up onto his lap. Perhaps she had been able to grasp the depth of the conversation.
"You'll really take her in?" I ask as she extends her muzzle to reach Chitose's cheek. He leans down, and she brushes her fluffy cheek with his immaculate one.
"If she lasts." Chitose says again.
I open my mouth to ask what he means, but when he gives me one of his silent, forlorn looks, the ghost of a smile fading from his lips, I close my mouth. He would know better than anyone, I remind myself.
The rain gets heavier, and by the time seven o'clock rolls around, I advise Chitose not to go home. While his mind wanders off, a complacent grin attached to his face, I take his phone and text his sister—just to make sure his family knows he hasn't spontaneously died on them.
When my mother returns from another day at work, she sees Chitose laying down on the couch, and Jiai sitting on Chitose. He is freshly showered, and Jiai is freshly showering.
I welcome my mother home, point out the weight of the rain outside, and plainly ask her if Chitose can stay the night.
She looks over at him. "Haven't you brought enough strays home?" She asks.
"Don't worry." I assure her. "This one will be gone by morning."
"If you say so." She sighs. "What's this one called?"
I look back at him, and he half-smiles in our direction.
"It's Senri." I say.
She allows him to stay the night, which is simultaneously surprising and unsurprising to me. I can't tell if her motivation for allowing Chitose to stay is so she can avoid the watchful eyes of human services, or if she legitimately wants to keep me content. Rationally speaking, I guess throwing Chitose into the tempest would not be remotely beneficial to anyone in the household—the world is no teacup, after all; actions beget consequences.
Maybe, just maybe, her motivation for letting him to stay was so she could demonstrate her motherliness. Privately, I hope that's the reason Chitose is still laying down on my couch with Jiai.
My father returns home later that evening. He eats away the day's problems, washes off the day's strains with a cleansing shower (a shower inside the house, that is), and talks himself to weariness. He is quick to retire to bed, and my mother follows him soon thereafter. Once they fall asleep, all the noise in the house dies with them, leaving Chitose and me to our own devices.
We loaf around contentedly in the living room, living up the silence; not even the cats are there to share the moment with us. Most of them have already retired to my room, which they apparently love so much because it is constantly permeated with the scent of sweet alyssum.
Chitose and I remain complacently side by side on the couch until all the lights are blown out in a surprise blackout. It is around that time that I suggest we retire for the night.
"Let's find you somewhere warm to sleep." I say.
"Here is warm enough." He says, his head falling to my shoulder.
"I know of a warmer place." I say, rising from the couch.
He follows me through the darkness, both hands on my shoulders as I lead him through the darkness. When we make it to the bottom of the staircase, I open my mouth to try and warn him, but he interrupts me with a, "My, my; twenty stairs? I should have started praying to God earlier."
I hear him softly counting each step that he ascends, all the way up to the second floor.
We step carefully into my room, so as to not accidentally trample Jiai or Yano. Out of initial politeness, I tell Chitose that he can have the bed and the kittens; I would sleep on the floor with Jiai and Yano. If I could have seen his face, though, I am certain I would have seen his half-smile.
"You're not very senpai-ish, -san."
It's been a while since he's called me that. "Well, since you've given me permission to be one..."
I hear his laugh, like he doesn't expect me to do anything about the situation, despite my words. He's right.
The kittens take up a lot of space in the dead center of the bed, so Chitose and I manoeuvre around the little critters until everyone fits comfortably on the bed. I end up on the far side, closer to the window, closer to my potted alyssum (the scent is overwhelmingly sweet), and closer to the monsoon. Chitose ends up on the edge of the bed, closer to the exit of my house. All three kittens are a conjoined, fluffy mess, slumbering in between the two of us. It's a miracle we didn't wake them just trying to get into bed.
"Warm enough for you?" I ask.
"Quite. A little too furry for my taste, though."
I laugh. The last thing I remember happening before falling asleep is Chitose trying to find my hands in the tangle of kittens and bed sheets, and not letting go of them. His hands are warm.
But now, God, I'm so tired and hungry and cold;
And I'm so afraid that I'll never grow old.
They've chased me with sticks and hit me with straps
While I run the streets just looking for scraps.
I could have sworn that I woke up in the middle of the night to an arm draped over my shoulders, but when I wake up at the dawn to an empty end and Kumquat the kitten pawing at my face, mewing for food, I'm not quite sure whether or not the arm across my shoulders was just a dream, or a hazy snapshot of reality.
Chitose isn't downstairs when I go down that morning to find food for Kumquat. Maybe he went back home; maybe he went for another stroll; maybe he's actually at school, I think when I look at the clock and see that it's almost nine. Thinking about it, I never got the chance to ask him if he'd gone to school yesterday or not, since he was absent from the shelter for an abnormally long period of time. I never even got the chance to ask if he turned up to practice for the tennis club that he claims to be part of. I remind myself to ask him, if or when he comes to visit me at work today.
While eating breakfast that morning, something different catches my attention—something new, rather. It's not that anything has been physically changed, and—perhaps it's just my imagination, but it feels as though the atmosphere has changed between Jiai and Yano. Jiai strolls into the kitchen that morning, Yano trailing after her, almost protectively—usually-selfish, usually-lazy, usually-anti-social Yano, trailing after the motherly Jiai. It's no doubt that the two cats are around the same age, and it's no doubt that both of them are adoptive parents for Kumquat and the other three kittens. The two of them, as a pair, makes sense—it's just a surprise to witness it first-hand.
When my mother comes home that evening, I welcome her back and then make her stare at Jiai and Yano for five flat minutes. Though her hands are full of heavy shopping bags and paperwork, she takes the time to stare inquisitively at the new love-birds, curled up together on the couch, their purrs audible from the entryway.
"Don't you think something has changed between them?" I ask.
She pauses. "Are they going to have more kittens?"
"Oh, God no. They've been neutered—don't worry about that."
She pauses again. "This will be problematic when the rainy season ends, then. I can't end a perfectly good relationship. And I don't know how I feel about throwing a kitten out onto the streets."
"Good. I'm glad you're developing a moral conscience."
She pauses for the last time. "Most of the people we know are either allergic to cats or live in apartments."
I wonder to myself if allergies to cats are even that common.
"I'll have to ask around at work." She says. "Something has to have room for a cat. Or two cats. Or three."
"You can't take Kumquat." I say, even though Kumquat is unmistakably the most high maintenance. "I want to keep him."
When I go to work the next day, I am presented with a rather uneventful day. It's not until seven in the evening that Chitose appears at the doors to the shelter, like he did yesterday and the day before that. He's dripping wet from the storm, since—of course—he's too whimsical to be in possession of an umbrella. We step out into the storm, and I equip myself with the umbrella that I thought to bring with me for the first time in my life—more for Chitose's sake than my own. The act of opening out the umbrella is a glorious moment. I am suddenly much more comfortable strolling through the storm—a stroll, not a run—and taking my time in getting back home. It's nice. It gives me time to talk with Chitose instead of constantly sleeping with him—literally, I mean, not euphemistically.
"You seem to be actually attending classes these days." I say. "That's good.">
"Well now, it would be problematic if the school decided to take action against my attendance rate." He says, half-smiling despite the seriousness of his circumstance. "Besides, I've been told to keep coming to school for at least a few days, courtesy of a friend of mine."
"I have three more seasons to live through before I graduate."
Oh. "I keep forgetting you're graduating. Actually, I keep forgetting that you're even in school." My self-esteem starts to drown in the rising tide of my self-pity. "Are you trying to figure out what you're going to do next year? Are you... thinking of leaving Ōsaka?"
He doesn't answer me directly. "Many people have told me to go into Liberal Arts."
"The best places for Liberal Arts are Tōdai and Sōdai." I hesitate. "...Both of those are in Tokyo."
"My, my; Tokyo, is it? What a distant place to go to. I'm not sure my wandering mind can handle the commitment."
"What are you implying, Senri?"
He takes a moment to think. "I'm not implying anything. I'm just wishfully thinking."
"It would suck if you decided to leave, too."
He looks over at me, faintly inquisitive, but I try to ignore his gaze. I don't see much gain from opening up to someone who may well leave by the time next summer has come and gone. Past experiences remind me that opening up to people doesn't necessarily make them stay; it just leaves you cold, exposed and empty in the wake of their disappearance—devoid of any warmth that you thought might have existed within you.
Chitose stays over again, this time voluntarily. No one tells him to stay or go—not even the gently falling rain outside—but he stays anyway. This time there is no blackout, and there are no kittens to clutter up the bed, so Chitose takes advantage of the situation. He sleeps closer to me than he did last night, and the night before—and, even though he drapes an arm around my shoulder, it doesn't feel like he's any closer to me; rather, it feels void of warmth. His touch is cold with distance.
I'm not really bad, God, please help if you can,
For I have become just a "Victim of Man."
I'm wormy, dear God, and I'm ridden with fleas;
And all that I want is an owner to please.
In the end, my mother has no luck finding a person that could take care of one of the kittens, so all I can do is brace myself for the end of the rainy season. The fact that Yano and Jiai are getting closer and closer doesn't make my job any easier.
Still, it amazes me that Jiai's level of happiness is extending her lifespan—making it longer than any of us even anticipated. Even Chitose is surprised at how healthy she remains.
"She'll definitely survive beyond the rainy season." I say. "Maybe not by much, but I think she'll make it."
Chitose remains silent.
Whatever faint hope that had been swelling in my chest over the past few days slowly dissipated. "Look, don't worry about Jiai. I know you didn't expect her to live past the rainy season—none of us did, but she's not your responsibility: she's mine. I'll figure something out, so don't feel like it's your fault or anything, alright?" I try to reassure him with a mustered grin—a sight I expect he hasn't seen too often. "You're still just a high school student."
Despite my mildly confident words, though, I am not entirely sure what to do. Jiai is the obvious choice to cast out. Yano has been far too domesticated to be able to survive out on the streets, whereas Jiai will always remember the pain and fear of living in the shadows of humans.
Still, that doesn't mean either of them deserves to be cast out.
When the rainy season ends in July, my mother approaches me. In all my stubbornness, I still have arguments prepared for her—but she takes me by surprise. When she opens her mouth to speak, she does not demand that Jiai be thrown out. She does not demand that Yano be thrown out. She does not demand—thank the Lord—that Kumquat or any of the kittens be thrown out. Instead, she asks me, ", are you happy?"
Her out-of-the-blue question makes whatever common sense I had fall of its perch. "What?"
"Are you happy, doing what you're doing?"
I pause, but only briefly. "I think so. I wouldn't be doing it if it didn't make me happy."
She hesitates. "Working at the shelter like this... will it keep you happy?"
"I... don't know." I admit. "But I hope so. It's wishful thinking to think that I can save the life of every stray cat, but so far I feel fulfilled. So far I feel like I'm giving a loving home to these strays. I've given them the capability to love back, even though whatever they've been through has likely left them emotionally stunted."
This answer seems to satisfy her. In the end, she tells me that, so long as I care for the cats at my own expense, I can keep Jiai. Her approval fills me with warmth.
It might have kept me happy.
But in no less than a week, Jiai passed. We found her body, cold and motionless, at the foot of my bed. Yano was curled up around her, desperately trying to transfer what warmth he could muster over to her. It was no use. It was no use, but Yano wouldn't believe it. When we tried to take the body away, he raised his hackles and hissed at us—usually-selfish, usually-lazy, usually-anti-social Yano hissed at us.
We let him be. For a while.
My last wish was that Jiai passed happy. Chitose tells me that, under my wing, any cat would at least pass with half a smile plastered to its face.
I'm still trying to figure out if he was pulling my leg or not.
If you find one for me, God, I'll try to be good.
I won't scratch the carpet; I'll do as I should.
I'll love them, play with them, and try to obey.
I will be so grateful if they'll let me stay.
The day after Jiai dies, I come in to work, and my boss sends me home immediately. Suspicious of the sudden happening, I ask if he made plans to put down a cat today, and he laughs as appropriate as he can in the wake of a beloved's death.
"No." He says. "We want to do this for you, -kun. For you, it's always about the cats; you never invest any time in yourself."
"Honestly, I'm too scared to."
"Then maybe you should take the time to confront that fear." He says reasonably. "Take today off."
"What about Senri?"
"Oh—you mean your stray?"
I hesitate. "Can you send him to my house if he wanders this way?"
My boss smiles. "That's one thing we can do."
When I make it home to my four cats—four, not five—I wonder if Chitose will think to come by today. He has a right to invest more time into his education, of course; I just can't help but think how incredibly inconvenient it is that the time I need silent company most is the time he is not around to give it to me. The thought of myself, alone, in this house brings back too many memories of empty homes and loneliness.
I curl up with the three kittens on my bed. It takes at least four hours for Yano to work up the courage to join us in mourning. I get up only for the necessities—comfort food, the bathroom, comfort food, more blankets, and comfort food. I silently hope that Chitose intends to breeze in today, probably at seven in the evening again, like he has been doing lately. To my surprise, I hear footsteps throughout the house at midday. I'm more inclined to believe that it to be a burglar breaking into my house, but it turns out to be Chitose. He walks into my room without a sound and lays down on the bed next to me. He does it like he lives here. He does it like he's always lived here.
"You should be at school." I tell him.
Chitose looks up at the ceiling. "I thought enough about what I want to do."
"You know I was kidding when I said that education was the only way to success, right? I was kidding."
"Me too. I'm not sure if Liberal Arts is the right choice."
I pause, and slowly turn to look at him. It's something of a few, since Kumquat has his paws sprawled out all over my face. "You mean you're not going to university?"
"I might be more content strolling for the rest of my life."
"... You're pulling my leg."
"A bit. I might also be content to play shogi for a living."
"Yeah? How far away do you have to go for shogi?"
"You seem fascinated with distance, -san."
I hesitate. Has he seen through me that easily? "Once bitten, twice shy, I guess."
"Care to elaborate?"
"My last owner left me alone in a park."
Chitose considers this. "Uncanny. That's where I remember first finding you, shivering and alone in the rain."
"That's... a little over-dramatic. We met in the fall, Senri; it never rains in the fall." I say to him. "Anyway, we met months after the other guy left. He's not a big deal to me anymore. The point is that he's gone now, and the point is that you might soon be gone, too. Distance just sucks, okay?"
"You're forgetting that distance is also ephemeral." Chitose says, draping an arm over my shoulders. Kumquat wriggles aggressively in protest, but eventually backs down, and shuffles aside to accommodate the addition of a new stray to the cuddling party. "Distance is bittersweet. Distance is the reminder that love has worth. Distance gives love its meaning."
His words catch me by surprise. "You never struck me as the type to enjoy human philosophy."
"I never struck anyone as the type to hold fast to commitments, either." He says, a half-smile widening across his face. "I haven't made up my mind about anything yet. I might soon, though."
He pressed his forehead to mine. I remember seeing him close his eyes, and I remember hearing him fall into a deep slumber. I remember joining him eventually; I just can't quite recall when.
I don't think I'll make it too long on my own,
'Cause I'm getting weak and I'm so all alone.
Each night as I sleep in the bushes I cry,
'Cause I'm so afraid, God, that I'm gonna die.
The winter begins to close on another unsuccessful adoption season. I'm about to give up hope on the rest of humanity at the end of that year when walks into the cat pen, where I am tending to an abundance of shivering kittens.
"?" He calls, sounding a little perplexed. "You might want to come here."
I frown in response, unfamiliar with 's new greeting. The ambiguity in the tone of his voice makes me wonder whether he's about to put down a cat, or whether something good is actually about to happen to the shelter. For once. "What's wrong?"
"There's a lady that just walked in. She wants to adopt a cat."
"... For real?"
"For real. Come and see."
I walk briskly ahead of to the front door of the shelter, and sure enough, I come face to face with a middle-aged lady. She tells me that she wants to adopt a cat for her younger son, who has been in happier places before. I wait for her to finish her anecdote of how he's sunk into clinical depression, a million thoughts going through my head: She probably wants to adopt the cutest kitten. She probably wants to adopt the newest addition. Maybe she'll even ask for a recommendation of some other merit.
She catches me off guard when she asks, "Who's been here the longest?"
My mind in a haze of disbelief, I politely ask the lady to follow me.
I lead her to the cat pen, where Greyfur—who has been looking fit and healthy ever since Chitose brought him in all those months ago—is laying, surveying two balls of fluff tumbling over one another in a play fight. The lady approaches Greyfur with little hesitation, to which Greyfur responds with an indifferent amber gaze. The fact that he does not act out in hostility is a plus point.
The lady asks for Greyfur's name, and I tell her. She considers this before finally saying, "He's perfect. In his own way."
handles the adoption papers whilst I prepare Greyfur for departure. He seems rather quiet about the ordeal, and spends the duration of the preparation phase staring at me with lazily blinking amber eyes and twitching whiskers.
Once the papers are signed, I say one final goodbye to Greyfur by touching my nose to his nose. He blinks his farewell to me, and then the lady whisks him away.
And lo, Greyfur is gone within heartbeats.
"Maybe things are finally turning around for the shelter." notes, contentment touching up the weariness on his face. "Maybe it took a good five months or so for Greyfur to be adopted, but at least it happened, don't you think? Better late than never."
"Yeah." I say. "At least he didn't end up like Jiai."
"Don't talk like that." says sternly. "Jiai lived a good life."
He waits expectantly, as if he wants me to correct him, but I don't. Instead, I say, "I sure hope she did."
I've got so much love and devotion to give
That I should be given a new chance to live.
Before his final year at high school is over, Chitose decides to do an internship at the shelter. Society dictates that internships are generally supposed to be a learning experience, but since Chitose knows most of the routines already, he doesn't really learn much: he goes on whimsical strolls to look for stray cats, and when he comes back, he'll have a cat in one hand and a bag of apple juice in the other.
When it's time for my lunch break, I make Chitose join me. He agrees to, but first finds it necessary to wander off in search of lunch. He returns with food from the convenience store.
We sit outside on the curb to eat it.
"This is the first time you've visited the shelter in a while. Nowadays you usually just go to my house." I pause. "To sleep."
He gives me an innocent half-smile.
I sigh. "I never got the chance to tell you that Greyfur got adopted."
"My, my; it's been over five months."
"He got adopted after five months precisely, actually." I correct him. "Seriously, Senri, when you come over to visit me, at least be awake long enough for me to tell you important things like this. Do you just come to my house to sleep?"
I sigh again. "Forget it. Did you finally decide what you're going to do?"
"Hm? With what?"
"With your post-graduation plans. You've applied for universities, haven't you?"
"Oh." He says. I brace myself for his answer. "I decided on Liberal Arts."
Liberal arts. Shit.
"There's a university that does it here in Ōsaka."
"If I stay here, there are a few places that I can sleep at for free."
"What am I—your owner?"
"I prefer to think of it the other way around." He says, draping an arm around my shoulder.
I stare at him, but don't object. "And that's why you're staying?"
"Well now—I wouldn't be a very good owner if I left my cat all alone in the park, now, would I? I couldn't bear to think of what would happen to him if I just... abandoned him."
In a silent frenzy of relief, I let my head fall to his shoulder. He lets his head fall onto mine, and as we sit there in the curb in silence, I feel a strange warmth filling me.
I pray to God that Jiai felt the same way in the moment of her passing.
So dear God, please hear me, please answer my prayer,
And send me somebody who will really care.
When my mother returns home from work that evening, I welcome her home and say, "I got adopted."
She pauses. Then she says to me, "Good. I'm glad that you now have the emotional capacity to love again and function like a normal human being."
I half-smile at her. Touché.
/ Princo & Ribbon /
November 21, 2014.
Ribbon: First I'd just like to clarify that the constant inclusion of the 'u' in certain words is because I finally decided to start spelling like an Australian, like I'm meant to LOL. Princo was like "DUDE IT'S TOTALLY OK TO WRITE IN YOUR OWN LANGUAGE JESUS CHRIST." Also I'm using a different word processor now (a free one), and I literally just couldn't be bothered to change my spell check from Australian English to US English LOL. Anyway, I hope this was an alright story HAHA. I'M SORRY BUT I JUST DON'T EVEN CHITOSE.
Princo: /wipes a tear. Back when this was called The Ark or something like that. Something like that lmao. I intended to do this in December after I finished school, but as usual I went against my better judgment and placed this as my priority over my speech and personal statements. Funny because my speech is about animal adoption, and I'm basically bitching about euthanasia and pet stores.