The Year of the Cat
Vihanga Perera (ANU, Australia)
It was an apartment complex of twin towers, and mine was on the top-most floor of the West pillar. Four flights of stairs wound around in a spiral, and on each landing, four identical doors opened into a common square. Each home was unique in that they lacked personality. The occupants were of a variety, running jobs that would help them to dress down for the weekend. The towers were set apart by 500 yards or so, and the compound in whole was well set off from the suburban mad rush by sufficient walling and round-the-clock security. In all, we were 36 urbane and self-contained homes. By then, I had been a lone resident for five months and on one of the first rainy evenings that year, I was hurrying home through the muddy front lawn. With the warm coffee I was hoping to brew occupying my thoughts, my umbrella was barely a shelter.
Pausing just enough to fold and to shake off what water I could from the umbrella’s cover, I ascended the tower, gingerly careful and a step a time. As I was about to take the turn at the square on the second landing, a pair of startled, tremulous eyes that had been peering at me retreated hastily behind an empty clay flower pot, back to a guarded half-hidden position. Its strip of front legs were shaking as its young coat was half-soaked, while the other half was exposed to the thin film of moisture falling steadily on to the landing through the open grill. My pausing there was momentary, and I moved my eyes back to the concrete slabs and pressed on to the next stairwell, where I stopped to look back. The second landing was actually unoccupied except for the old Habib and his schoolmistress daughter. From that paused position, I actually took a couple of steps back and peered down, half squatting, just to make sure that it was indeed a kitten that I had seen. However, my vantage was out of line with the hiding of the puny four paws, and so, in cautious steps, I retreated to the second landing once more.
So, there it was: looking up at me with a face streaked with worry which I – not being an animal lover – would not have known how to read, except that on this long evening of pelting rain drops it looked quite like the face of universal suffering. We stared in that way at each other for a while, but who am I (I thought), who was neither the Buddha nor the Mahatma – who had been excommunicated by the church and had for years denied the Son of Man – to tamper with the finger of fate. It had been a long day in the office, and the promise was that it will be a longer day tomorrow. I turned, therefore, around once more, and gave its inquiring puny face a smirk, changed the hand in which I was carrying my bag, and turned my full attention to the treacherous stairs.
The bag and other office paraphernalia unloaded – raincoat drained of water and hooked, umbrella folded and placed behind the door, and a bucket placed under the raincoat to catch whatever water was left before placing the kettle to boil – I quickly stepped into the bathroom for a complete dressing down. The visual of a warm mug cut through the steam collecting in the tempered glass cubicle. Ten minutes later, I was now stirring the milk in the coffee, checking messages on the phone, calculating which ones needed response and which ones should simply be left in their majesty. For a while, I was conscious of the dribbling images the rain sketched on the window in front of me, and the far away fussy silhouette of the neighbourhood township made me think that perhaps the scenery from one’s kitchen, at least on a rainy day, ought to be better. What I felt next, however, is very difficult to translate into words or stencil into thought, but a minute later, I had already abandoned my half-stirred mug and carefully pushed the bucket under the coat-hanger on to a side, and already started out of the door down the stairs with my umbrella firmly held the wrong way front.
It was still there, half hidden behind the clay pot, and I dropped into a squat, keeping my distance as diplomatic as the occasion demanded. Then at once, it opened its mouth, I thought, as if to make a verbal communiqué; but either it was just a passing gesture or else, what sound it made was drowned by the patter of the falling rain. Of the four houses, three were vacant and Habib’s, I was quite sure, homed no lovers of kittens. In a hesitation which to any onlooker would have demonstrated my amateurishness and with little difference to its plaintive pleas, I slowly picked it from its safe moorings and nestled it on my left palm, holding it firm against my body.
A cardboard box was fished out of a corner and another smaller box was set in place to form an annex. Two layers of old rag, and a third rag to give it a thorough drying up. In that state of innocence with which I tended it you think of a kitten in terms of a human, and you want to do things right, unless your goodness may take an evil turn. In spite of my excitement of having done the unthinkable, my mind was quite clear and steady. I had texted my girlfriend, who at first, was amused, but then had quickly reverted to being her practical self. Amused, as I had had no previous story of being friendly to stray animals or cubs; and then, she began to list the difficulties of having a kitten in the top-most floor of a city apartment. I already knew that there was no such thing as a marriage of convenience, but its patience as I worked out the intricacies of its housing, its carpeting, and the direction in which it should have its light told me that in this insufferable world, at least some nameless creature was willing to appreciate the goodness of my heart.
And so we prospered. Except for the early baby-stepping days and the stepping on one’s own droppings, the kitten settled down to a quiet routine of its own. It was jet black except for its right hind leg, which was a snowflake white with errant strands of black in between. Curious, often startled, ready-to-jump out eyes. A mouth that would half-open like it did that first night, but often, without much of a noise. Google was too general in its convoluted instructions, but between technology and the instinct between man and animal perfected through centuries of trial and error, we began to get along. Of course, I was a creature of habit and I had my own intolerances and allowances in life. With time, I moved the kitten to the balcony that looked over the back compound of the complex, furbished the balcony in a way so it provided sufficient safety, let it out for the day, kept the door open in the night; kept it off my settees and my writing desk, and from other things that were not for kittens to use. My girlfriend ridiculously named it Cassandra. I simply called it, it. I didn’t know whether it was male or female. I didn’t know whether gender made sense to a cat.
One evening, in its sixth month with me, it actually didn’t return home for dinner. From the time I had come home, fixed my coffee, had my evening shower, done a bit of work, and taken a few calls, I had left the front door ajar, as I generally did. It was past six thirty now, and I caught myself looking in the direction of the door as I washed its tray and poured some milk, making sure the temperature ran down. I placed it near the box-home under the covered hood in the balcony. At a quarter past seven, I grabbed a pullover and stepped out into the landing. I looked around me and then into the deep well where the courtyard lay, four levels down. Familiar lights of the walk way, and across on the other side, the East Tower lit accordingly, floor by floor. I walked down the stairs, stopping for a few minutes on each landing. It felt ridiculous to call out for the cat; and besides, even to call out, it wasn’t trained to respond to a name.
I walked over the lawn a few times over and then, through the main entrance, I walked a few times up and down the main road. Without any sign or sound, I turned back and headed inside the complex, nodding a goodnight to the man on guard duty. I walked back up to the fourth landing. I had left the door ajar and so, I walked in and checked the balcony and its shelter, under the hood. The plastic saucer of milk had by now gone cold. I turned around and went back out through the front door, and down the stairs. Another scan across the lawn; a check under the pipes that carried the drain water. Then, not knowing what further to do, I stepped into the East Tower: a part of the layout I had never been to in my near-one year residence at the complex.
The East Tower, it was quite evident from the outset itself, was the more populated of the two provinces. Through the transparent half blinds I could catch inaudible whispers and glimpses of a dozen or so families in various stages of their evening rituals. I moved from landing to landing with scanning eyes. Once I reached the top-most fourth, I looking across at eyelevel, and for the first time I saw my own side on the West Tower. Increasingly, I was beginning to feel edgy and somewhat helpless; I did not know what next I must do.
I retraced my way back to my own quarter. I checked again the balcony; and then, the other rooms of the apartment. These, I knew, were actions born out of that sense of desperation that crowds on the dispirited soul who seeks, amidst impossibility, for the impossible; but when I finally let my weight fall on the sofa, I was ready to accept defeat. I dialled the number of the security cabin. I asked the man whether he had noticed the cat around the guard room during the day. Since there weren’t many cats in the compound, and given its rather singular hind leg and coat of jet black, I expected the security to remember. The man’s response was in the negative. He chuckled at my anxiety, and advised me to wait till the morrow. Cats are creatures of habit, he assured me, and maybe it had just strayed into the neighbourhood; and was bound to be back for breakfast. I grunted my thanks and cut the line.
I am by nature not an emotional man, and I applied the principles of detachment to the mundane ups and downs of day-to-day life. But, I now found myself wandering though the thoughts, unrelated as they were to each other, had little to do with the cat. After a difficult sleep, I suddenly awoke at a twenty past three and spent a further three hours trying to fall asleep. The first light through the curtains was a show of mercy, and I pulled myself out of bed, placed the kettle for the water to boil, opened the front door and grimaced at the first touch of the morning’s chill. I stepped out into the landing, trying to adjust my eyes to the brightness of a new day. I wonder whether I had ever been out that early, and for a moment my mind ran back to my school days, back in my village, a stripling with a heavy back pack, leaving home even earlier than this to be at school on time. And no – no sign of the confounded cat.
That evening, my girlfriend visited me. We met over coffee and she tolerated my anxiety, trying to relieve me with logical explanations drawn from her vast knowledge of knowing so many cats over the years. My earlier inquiries along the lane that led from the apartment scheme to the motorway had been unsuccessful. None of the small boutique kiosks, the bicycle workshop nor the retail store had seen a cat that fit the description. But, thankfully, nor were there reports of a cat being found dead or of one being run over by a vehicle. Cats were not creatures of routine or habit, my girlfriend explained to me. Sometimes, cats just go away – they just walk away in search of fresh homes. I had done what I can for the cat, and I had saved it from certain frostbite in its worst hour, she said. I looked at her and smiled a dismissive smile. I thought to myself: how deeply this woman must love me.
We prolonged our evening together. We even had a light dinner.
Life without the black cat reflected on my savings on milk, cat food, wipes and tuna. However, for the time being, I left the hood in the balcony and the cat cradle. I will take them down later, but, not right now. I broke the habit of routine to which I had set myself in my brief feline period and went back to taking long walks, abrupt excursions along the periphery of the town after work, and stayed out late every other day of the week. Familiar faces at the Rock Art gallery were happy to see me after my absence, and I spent more time dining out, or taking snacks, sometimes with my girlfriend, sometimes with friends. Among all these returns to familiarity, one particular morning – and for the first time in all my years, too – I found a single grey hair as I stood before the long mirror examining the fringes of my jaw. A single, long grey hair – and I smiled to myself at the thought of my hair already shaking its colour off, though I was still in my early thirties. I recalled how it ran in my family and how my father and his brother both had grey hair as young men.
One evening, leading up to the Christmas holidays, I was returning home early, – sharing a running joke with myself – when I was frozen into shock at the foot to the complex lawn. It was just a momentary shadow, but from where I stood, half way between the two towers, I could have sworn that I saw a creature with a distinct snowflake white hind leg disappear around the first landing of the Eastern block. It was just after three in the afternoon and there was not much movement around, but my instincts were suddenly alert, and in hastened strides I jogged across the lawn and up the stairs of the Eastern Tower. A quickening of the stride, two steps at a time, and I was already dashing on to the third landing with my eyes on the stairs and my heart in my mouth when I came face to face with her for the first time in my life. She was seated on the front step of one of the houses, caressing the shining coat of the cat whom she nursed with a visible touch of care and affection. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen – twelve, the most – in a simple, loose frock, feet bare and hair neatly caught in a ribbon to make a tail. As I stammered on to the landing with half-arrested puffs, she looked up from where she held the cat and smiled with me in the way strangers who have never met sometimes do.
I walked up to her, still half in shock, still not knowing what next to do; and as I came closer, she stood up slowly letting the loose frock fall and cover her up to the knees, her eyes holding me in place, and her hands still caressing the cat who seemed not to be interested or not to know. I asked her gently, so as not to alarm her, as to who was at home. Her eyes were of a rare light brown, her mouth was decisively set, and her movements were firm. It was still an early hour and naturally, none of her homefolk were back from the city, and she asked me who I was, and as to whom I wanted to see. I pointed to her across the vacant air, in the direction of the West Tower, and fixed with my finger the proximity of Level Four.
“The cat…” I said, looking at the creature nestling against her stomach, its head passively turned away from me.
“The cat?” she echoed, her inflection hanging like an island off the continent.
I asked her whether it was her cat and she said that it was; and her eyes narrowed and her voice faltered, either in bewilderment or in sensing something not quite right. Here, I ran the risk of frightening the little girl into withdrawal. So to underline my intentions, I smiled and took a step back from where I had been standing. The cat began to move in her carry, looked once my way and then in some other direction, but the girl went on caressing its coat, her eyes on me, waiting for me to speak. The Case of the Missing Cat was now immediately clear to me. Either it had lived a double existence shuttling between the East Tower and the West, or else, the girl had befriended it around the time it went missing from my place. When woken from its comfort of lethargy, my mind could process possibility at such a rapid rate that in almost fifteen seconds – no longer – I had not only understood all, but had also convinced myself what course of future action I must take.
“Has Cora been up to any mischief, Sir?” she asked, finally. Her eyes were scanning my face – each facial muscle – for an implication. Cora! My wry smile was involuntary and that name settled the matter beyond a doubt. The girl must keep the cat and my previous relations with it must not be known. At least now it had a name of its own, biblical and larger-than-life; and earlier, I had thought that the name Cassandra was as ridiculous as things may ever get. I told the girl that I had seen the cat on the lawn and once or twice on the West Tower, and that I always wanted to make the acquaintance of its fortunate owner. The girl smiled more openly now, and told me all she could tell about a black cat to a stranger she had just met. I tried to pat its head even as she carried it against her body. The cat tolerated me for a stroke or two before gingerly dodging my touch, at which the girl laughed.
Her name was Maria and she studied at the town’s most prestigious convent school for young girls. She was twelve, had just begun playing hockey, collected shells and foreign coins, read avidly, and had six fish and one black cat. She was stunningly beautiful for a girl of that age, had careless habits and was impressive without having to make an effort. She had thick eyebrows, long lashes, and her mouth was tight, lip on lip, on all occasions. She was open in a friendly but worldly way, and was firm and decisive in her movements – be it when she strode or when she bent down to pick a hair pin she had just dropped. She seemed to occupy a world of her own, unentered by a mother or a father.
On some evenings during the week, mostly between the hours of three and five, she would be on the landing or by the garden seat, either reading or playing with Cora. We waved at each other as I passed in the distance, or held a hand out high if I was up in the landing of the tower. One such day, she sat bending over a notepad, legs crossed on the garden seat, and she called out to me on the Western stairs. As I stood there, she jumped off the seat, ran up to me, and asked me to help her with a rhyme. I told her that I was weak in poetry and rhymes, but she reminded me that I worked for a publisher who specialised in poetry. She was submitting to a competition in her school and was desperately lost in search of a line that rhymed with “Or, that is what the gardener knew.” With my back to the bannister and her arms crossed, mouth in a pout, we searched our minds for rhyming schemes.
But, no beetle played among the grass,
Or that is what the gardener knew.
But, for every beetle a beetle secret has
After a while, and without success, I promised her that I will think about it more over a cup of coffee to which she agreed. Then, as I was about to mount the stairs, I turned around and asked her whether she, too, would like to have a mug. We climbed the stairs, taking the turn at every stairwell together, exchanging mundane remarks and making small talk that made the time pass. As we entered my home, I asked her whether her parents had not warned her against accepting invitations from strangers offering candy and coffee. She smiled and in a playful refusal of my suggestion remarked: “Oh yes, but you – you are not a stranger?”
Between coffee and my earnest efforts at hospitality, she spent a productive half an hour and we debated much, but to agree on “Which a secret out of a secret grew” as the fourth line for that burdensome stanza. We also wrote a further stanza together and she left in happy spirits, even encouraging me to write on as she felt I was an untapped creative writer. For some reason, her poetry – not so much the subject, but the idiom and her poetic imagination – felt somewhat adult and mature, but for myself, I felt a happiness; a rare sense of fulfilment at being able to finally rhyme.
She had sprained her ankle one evening, attempting a daring defensive manoeuvre in a hockey game. She limped four levels up the West Tower to report to me in vivid detail the misadventure. I had just come home, unburdened myself of bag, laptop, muffler, shoes and socks, and was running the water when a firm push of the front doorbell took me there to find her heavily bandaged on the right leg. I wasn’t even sure why school authorities allowed such competitive games for children of twelve and thirteen. I asked her in, but she refused, saying she had to get back. She had seen me coming home, and had felt the need to share with me the load of her misfortune.
Walking across town one noon, on my way for a lunch date with my girlfriend, I found myself awaiting the traffic lights to change at the upper end of Hospital Street. As I stood there, my eyes fixed on the timer at the other end that displayed the seconds remaining for the lights to fall, a thought suddenly crossed my mind. I swiftly turned in the direction of Convent Road, which was the smaller, uncluttered road to the left. Now, I was at the foot of the cathedral with the sign with Sunday Service times; and on the other side of the road, rising behind what looked like a medieval fortress was her school, from within which a soundless hum arose of students relaxing their discipline during recess time. The gate was closed and padlocked from the inside. From a higher elevation from within the premises, I could see the statue of the school’s patron saint looking over the valley that came under his gaze.
On Fridays, or any other odd day where I happened to come home early, it had by now become an almost involuntary scan across the lawn for the familiar sight. If the lawn was bare of her cross-legged on the seat, as I mounted the stairs, I would gaze at each corresponding level of the Eastern block until our eyes met and until we, waving at each other, shared a warm smile. Not that we were bound to score every day and each time. There were two or three days where I had passed an empty front lawn and exhausted anticipation at the end of three levels of steps to arrive on the fourth floor to find her seated on my doorstep with a smile.
Its ending, however, came as a roof falls down in the thick of the night: sudden in its giving way, leaving a deadly silence once the assault was delivered. It was the week after my mother’s funeral, for which I had been away in my village, attending to formalities and partaking in the rituals. It was late on Sunday when I returned home to the apartment, my mind caught in a tangle and more thoughts than I could bear choking my brain. My girlfriend had returned from the village three days earlier, and I felt the need for her today more than ever. The fourth landing was half lit, but I opened the door and walked in to step on two notes that had been slipped through under the door. The first was a sympathy note, written in her neat, slanted hand; and the second – dated two days from the first – a note to say that her family is removing as her father had been transferred with immediate effect to a township that was two provinces and six hours away.
I instinctively stepped out, my bag still on my back, and peered over at the East Tower, and what used to be her home was cast in an eerie silence of darkness. She had thanked me for all the coffees and all the good times spent together, and as I read the letter a second time over, I was gradually becoming aware of a smarting numbness that seemed to rake my knees. I folded the note along the centre and stepped back into the house. As I was about to close the front door, from the surrounding darkness appeared the cat, pausing at the front step looking straight at me. Opening its mouth in its soundless way, it attempted some kind of communication.
Vihanga Perera is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and English at the Australian National University, where he works on memory and the narration of conflict in a Sri Lankan context. He writes fiction, poetry and memoir.