japonisme: 7/20/08 - 7/27/08

23 July 2008

A CAT A MAN AND TWO WOMEN (an excerpt)

SHOZO VIVIDLY RECALLED that time long ago when Lily had returned from Amagasaki. It was at dawn one day around the middle of autumn that the slumbering Shozo was awakened by a familiar "meow, meow.... " He was single at the time, and slept upstairs while his mother slept on the ground floor. The shutters were still closed at this hour of the morning; but somewhere nearby a cat was mewing, and as Shozo listened, half asleep, it sounded uncannily like Lily. They had sent her off to Amagasaki a whole month ago, so how could she be here now?

Yet the more he listened. the more it sounded like her. He heard the scratch and patter of paws on the tin roof outside his room at the back.... Now it was just outside his window.... He had to know. Leaping up from his quilts, he pushed open the shutters. There on the roof just in front of him, restlessly moving back and forth, was an extremely weary-looking but unquestionably identifiable Lily! Shozo, hardly trusting his own eyes, called hesitantly: "Lily."

"Meow,” she replied, looking up, her large, lovely eyes wide with happiness. She came to a point just below the bay window where he was standing; but when he reached out to lift her up, she slipped away, darting two or three feet in the opposite direction. She didn't go far. though, and at the sound of "Lily!" would give a "meow" and re-approach. Again Shozo would reach for her, and again she would slip from his grasp. It was precisely this aspect of a cat’s character that Shozo loved.

She must care for him, since she went to so much trouble to return. Yet, when she was safely back at her old familiar home and gazing up at the face of the master she hadn't seen for so many weeks, what did she do if he reached out for her? Run away. Perhaps, knowing his love for her, she enjoyed playing upon it like this; or perhaps she felt a bit awkward at their first meeting after such a long separation, and her shyness took this form. In any case, Lily kept on moving back and forth across the roof, replying with a "meow" each time Shozo called her name.

Right away he noticed how thin she’d become, and as he looked more carefully he saw too that her fur had lost its sheen of a month before. Her head and tail were covered with mud. and bits of pampas grass stuck to her here and there. The grocer who had taken her in was known to be a cat lover, so it was unlikely he would have mistreated her in any way. No, Lily’s pitiful state was obviously due to the “hardships of the road" she had suffered on her lonely journey back from Amagasaki.

She must have walked all night to have arrived home at such an early hour — but it was certainly more than one night’s journey. Night after night she must have walked, after fleeing from the strange house some days before. Losing her way, wandering down dark byways without knowing where they led. until at last she reached home....

The tufts of pampas grass proved that she hadn't come straight back along the highway, which was lined with houses and other buildings. How piercing the winds at dawn and dusk would have felt to a cat that, typically, disliked the cold. Besides. showers were common at that time of year, and she must have sometimes crept into thickets to escape the rain, or hidden in fields to evade pursuing dogs. She had been lucky to survive the journey. Imagining all this, Shozo wanted to hold Lily and gently stroke her, and so he kept reaching out to catch hold of her. Gradually Lily, though seeming still a bit shy, began to brush her body against Shozo's outstretched hands, until at last she let her master have his wish.

According to the owner of the butcher shop, the English called this particular type of cat a “tortoiseshell," and indeed the distinct black spots spreading with a lustrous sheen over the brown coat did resemble the polished surface of a turtles shell. Certainly Shozo had never had such a lovely cat before, with such a magnificent coat. European cats are generally free from the stiff, square-shouldered look of japanese cats; they have clean, chic-looking lines, like a beautiful woman with gently sloping shoulders japanese cats also usually have long, narrow heads, with slight hollows beneath the eyes and prominent cheekbones, but Lily’s head was small and compact. Her wonderfully large and beautiful gold-colored eyes and nervously twitching nose were set within the well-defined contours of a face shaped exactly like a clam shell placed upside down.

But it was not her coat or face or body that so attracted Shozo to this kitten. If it were only a matter of outward form, he himself had seen Persian and Siamese cats that were even more beautiful. It was Lily’s personality that was so appealing. When first brought to Ashiya, she was still terribly small, small enough to be held in the palm of one hand, but her wild tomboyish ways were just like those of a seven- or eight-year-old girl, a primary-school student at her most mischievous. She was much lighter than now and could jump to a height of three or four feet when her master held some food above her head during dinner. If he were seated, she could reach it so easily that he often had to stand up in the middle of his meal to make the game interesting. He began training her in such acrobatics from the moment she arrived.

From her kitten days she had a charming, lively expression; her eyes and mouth, the movements of her nostrils, and her breathing all showed the shifts of her emotions, exactly like a human being. Her large, bright eyes in particular, were always roving about; whether she was being affectionate, or mischievous, or acquisitive, there was always something lovable about her. When she got angry, Shozo found her quite funny: small as she was, she would round her back and bristle her fur as cats do; her tail would rise straight up and, prancing and pawing the ground with her little feet, she would glare fiercely at her foe. It was like a child imitating an adult, and no one who saw her could keep from smiling.

Nor could Shozo forget Lily’s gentle, appealing gaze when she first had kittens. One morning about six months after arriving at Ashiya, she started following Shozo around the house, mewing plaintively — she sensed she was about to give birth. He spread an old cushion in the bottom of an empty soft-drink carton and placed it at the back of the closet. Then he picked her up and carried her to her bed. She stayed in the box only briefly, soon opening the closet door and emerging to follow him about again, mewing all the while. Her voice was not the one he was used to hearing. It was still "meow," of course, but this "meow" had another, peculiar meaning to it. It sounded as if she were saying "Oh, what shall I do? I don’t feel well, suddenly.... I'm afraid something very odd is about to happen to me.... I've never felt anything like this before! What do you think it could be? Am I going to be all right?.... Am I?"

When Shozo stroked her head and said, "There's nothing to worry about. You're going to be a mother, that’s all." she placed her forepaws on his knee as if to cling to him, uttered one "meeoww," and looked at him as though trying her best to understand what he was telling her. Shozo carried her back to the closet and placed her in her box. "Now you stay right here, okay? You're not to come out. Okay? You understand?" Having made this little speech, he closed the door and started to stand up, when there was another plaintive "meeeoow." It seemed to be saying "Wait a moment. Don’t go away." Shozo melted at the sound and opened the door just a crack to peek in. There in the farthest corner of the closet, which was filled with a jumble of trunks and cloth-wrapped bundles, was the box with Lily`s head sticking out. "Meeooow," she cried, gazing at him. "She may be just an animal," thought Shozo, "but what a loving look she has in those eyes of hers!"

It was strange, but Lily’s eyes shining in the closet's dim recesses were no longer those of a mischievous little kitten. In that instant they had become truly feminine, full of an inexpressible sadness and seduction. Shozo had never seen a woman in childbirth; but he was sure that if she were young and beautiful, she would call to her husband with just the same pained, reproachful look as this. Any number of times he closed the closet door and began to walk away, only to go back for another look; and each time Lily would poke her head out of the box and peer at him, like a child playing peekaboo.

When Shozo heard people with no knowledge of a cat's character saying that cats were not as loving as dogs, that they were cold and selfish, he always thought to himself how impossible it was to understand the charm and lovableness of a cat if one had not, like him, spent many years living alone with one. The reason was that all cats are to some extent shy creatures: they won't show affection or seek it from their owners in front of a third person but tend rather to be oddly standoffish. Lily too would ignore Shozo or run off when he called her if his mother was present. But when the two of them were alone, she would climb up on his lap without being called and devote the most flattering attention to him. She often put her forehead against Shozo's face and then pushed as hard as she could; at the same time, with the tip of her rough little tongue she licked away at him — cheeks, chin, the tip of his nose, around his mouth — everywhere.

At night she always slept beside him and would wake him up in the morning. This too was done by licking his face all over. In cold weather she would insert herself under the top quilt near Shozo's pillow and then work her way down into the bedding. She nestled against Shozo's chest, or crawled toward his groin, or lay against his back, wherever, until she found a place where she could sleep comfortably. Even after finally settling down in one spot, she often changed her position if it became the least bit uncomfortable. Her favorite posture seemed to be to lie facing Shozo, with her head on his arm and her face against his chest; but if he moved even a fraction her rest was disturbed, and she would burrow off in another direction, looking for a better spot. Accordingly, whenever she got into his bed, Shozo had to extend one arm as a pillow and then try to sleep in an obliging way, moving as little as possible. So positioned, he would use his other hand to stroke that area of the neck which cats most love to have fondled; and Lily would immediately respond with a satisfied purring. She might begin to bite at his finger, or gently claw him, or drool a bit — all were signs that she was excited.

written by Junichiro Tanizaki in 1936.

while our artists seem to consistantly give us images of women with cats, the cat and human relationships i've seen in fiction often favor the man/cat bond. i've never forgotten this novella, and in rereading it i'm again amazed at the beauty and accuracy with which he draws his small friend and their friendship. if i recall correctly, he abandons both women for lily.

for more wonderfully related visuals, see here and here, and cat stories here.

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20 July 2008

the tabloid of scents


Mine, says the cat,
putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend,
my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest
his gesture of drawing
milk from his mother’s
forgotten breasts.

Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?

Let us rub our bodies to- get- her and talk of touch.
My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
walking round and round your bed and into your face.

Come I will teach you to dance
as naturally
as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word

of fur. I will teach you to be
still as an egg
and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.

Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy, “The cat’s song” from Mars & Her Children (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992). First appeared in Matrix 28 (Spring 1989). Copyright © 1989, 1992 by Marge Piercy and Middlemarsh, Inc.

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