Hello there,” the old man called out.
The large, elderly black tomcat raised its head a fraction and wearily returned the greeting in a low voice.
“A very nice spell of weather we’re having.”
“Um,” the cat said.
“Not a cloud in the sky.”
“… for the time being.”
“Is the weather going to take a turn for the worse, then?”
“It feels like it’ll cloud up toward evening.” The black cat slowly stretched out a leg, then narrowed its eyes and gave the old man another good long look.
With a big grin on his face, the man stared right back. The cat hesitated for a time, then plunged ahead and spoke. “Hmm… so you’re able to speak.”
“That’s right,” the old man said bashfully. To show his respect, he took off his threadbare cotton hiking hat. “Not that I can speak to every cat I meet, but if things go well I can. Like right now.”
“Interesting,” the cat said simply.
“Do you mind if I sit down here for a while? Nakata’s a little tired from walking.”
The black cat languidly rose to its feet, whiskers atwitch, and yawned so tremendously its jaw looked almost unhinged. “I don’t mind. Or perhaps I should say it’s not up to me. You can sit anywhere you like. Nobody’s going to bother you for that.”
“Thank you kindly,” the man said, lowering himself down beside the cat. “Boy oh boy, I’ve been walking since six this morning.”
“Um… I take it, then, that you’re Mr. Nakata?”
“That’s right. Nakata’s the name. And you would be?”
“I forget my name,” the cat said. “I had one, I know I did, but somewhere along the line I didn’t need it anymore. So it’s slipped my mind.”
“I know. It’s easy to forget things you don’t need anymore. Nakata’s exactly the same way,” the man said, scratching his head. “So what you’re saying, Mr. Cat, is that you don’t belong to some family somewhere?”
“A long time ago I did. But not anymore. Some families in the neighborhood give me food to eat now and then, but none of them own me.”
Nakata nodded and was silent for a time, then said, “Would you mind very much, then, if I called you Otsuka?”
“Otsuka?” the cat said, looking at him in surprise. “What are you talking about? Why do I have to be Otsuka?”
“No special reason. The name just came to me. Nakata just picked one out of a hat. It makes things a lot easier for me if you have a name. That way somebody like me, who isn’t very bright, can organize things better. For instance, I can say, On this day of this month I spoke with the black cat Otsuka in a vacant lot in the 2-chome neighborhood. It helps me remember.”
“Interesting,” the cat said. “Not that I totally follow you. Cats can get by without names. We go by smell, shape, things of this nature. As long as we know these things, there’re no worries for us.”
“Nakata understands completely. But you know, Mr. Otsuka, people don’t work that way. We need dates and names to remember all kinds of things.”
The cat gave a snort. “Sounds like a pain to me.”
“You’re absolutely right. There’s so much we have to remember, it is a pain. Nakata has to remember the name of the Governor, bus numbers. Still, you don’t mind if I call you Otsuka? Maybe it’s a little unpleasant for you?”
“Well, now that you mention it, I suppose it isn’t all that pleasant… Not that it’s particularly unpleasant, you understand. So I guess I don’t really mind. You want to call me Otsuka, be my guest. I’ll admit, though, that it doesn’t sound right when you call me that.”
“Nakata’s very happy to hear you say that. Thank you so much, Mr. Otsuka.”
“I must say that for a human you have an odd way of talking,” Otsuka commented.
“Yes, everybody tells me that. But this is the only way Nakata can speak. I try to talk normally but this is what happens. Nakata’s not very bright, you see. I wasn’t always this way, but when I was little I was in an accident and I’ve been dumb ever since. Nakata can’t write. Or read a book or a newspaper.”
“Not to boast or anything, but I can’t write either,” the cat said, licking the pads of his right paw. “I’d say my mind is average, though, so I’ve never found it inconvenient.”
“In the cat world that’s to be expected,” Nakata said. “But in the human world if you can’t read or write you’re considered dumb. Nakata’s father-he passed away a long time ago-was a famous professor in a university. His specialty was something called theery of fine ants. I have two younger brothers, and they’re both very bright. One of them works at a company, and he’s a depart mint chief. My other brother works at a place called the minis tree of trade and indus tree. They both live in huge houses and eat eel. Nakata’s the only one who isn’t bright.”
“But you’re able to talk with cats.”
“That’s correct,” Nakata said.
“Then you’re not so dumb after all.”
“Yes. No… I mean, Nakata doesn’t really know about that, but ever since I was little people said You’re dumb, you’re dumb, so I suppose I must be. I can’t read the names of stations so I can’t buy a ticket and take a train. If I show my handycap pass, though, they let me ride the city bus.”
“Interesting…,” Otsuka said without much interest.
“If you can’t read or write you can’t find a job.”
“Then how do you make a living?”
“I get a sub city.”
“The Governor gives me money. I live in a little room in an apartment in Nogata called the Shoeiso. And I eat three meals a day.”
“Sounds like a pretty good life. To me, at least.”
“You’re right. It is a pretty good life. Nakata can keep out of the wind and rain, and I have everything I need. And sometimes, like now, people ask me to help them find cats. They give me a present when I do. But I’ve got to keep this a secret from the Governor, so don’t tell anybody. They might cut down my sub city if they find out I have some extra money coming in. It’s never a lot, but thanks to it I can eat eel every once in a while. Nakata loves eel.”
“I like eel too. Though I only had it once, a long time ago, and can’t really recall what it tastes like.”
“Eel is quite a treat. There’s something different about it, compared to other food. Certain foods can take the place of others, but as far as I know, nothing can take the place of eel.”
On the road in front of the empty lot a young man walked by with a large Labrador retriever with a red bandanna tied around its neck. It glanced over at Otsuka but walked on by. The old man and the cat sat there in the lot, silently waiting for the dog and his master to disappear.
“You said you look for cats?” Otsuka asked.
“That’s correct. I search for lost cats. I can speak with cats a little, so I go all over tracking down ones that have gone missing. People hear that Nakata’s good at this, so they come and ask me to look for their lost cats. These days I spend more days than not out searching for cats. I don’t like to go too far away, so I just look for them inside Nakano Ward. Otherwise I’ll be the one lost and they’ll be out looking for me.”
“So right now you’re searching for a lost cat?”
“Yes, that’s correct. Nakata’s looking for a one-year-old tortoiseshell cat named Goma. Here’s a photo of her.” Nakata pulled a color copy out of his canvas shoulder bag and showed it to Otsuka. “She’s wearing a brown flea collar.”
Otsuka stretched out to gaze at the photograph, then shook his head.
“No, ‘fraid I’ve never run across this one. I know most of the cats around here, but this one I don’t know. Never seen, or heard, anything about her.”
“Is that right?”
“Have you been looking for her for a long time?”
“Well, today is, let me see… one, two, three… the third day.”
Otsuka sat there thinking for a time. “I assume you’re aware of this, but cats are creatures of habit. Usually they live very ordered lives, and unless something extraordinary happens they generally try to keep to their routine. What might disrupt this is either sex or an accident-one of the two.”
“Nakata’s thinking the same thing.”
“If it’s sex, then you just have to wait till they get it out of their system and they’ll be back. You do understand what I mean by sex?”
“I haven’t done it myself, but I think I understand. It has to do with your weenie, right?”
“That’s right. It’s all about the weenie.” Otsuka nodded, a serious look on his face. “But if we’re talking about an accident, you might never see her again.”
“Also, sometimes when a cat’s on the prowl for sex it might wander off and have trouble finding its way back home again.”
“If Nakata went out of Nakano Ward, finding my way home wouldn’t be easy.”
“That’s happened to me a few times. Course that was a long time ago, when I was much younger,” Otsuka said, eyes narrowed as he searched his memory. “Once you’re lost, you panic. You’re in total despair, not knowing what to do. I hate it when that happens. Sex can be a real pain that way, course when you get in the mood all you can think about is what’s right under your nose-that’s sex, all right. So that cat-what was her name? The one that’s lost?”
“Do you mean Goma?”
“Yes, of course. Goma. I’d like to do what I can to help you find her. A young tortoiseshell cat like that, with some nice family taking care of her, wouldn’t know the first thing about making her way in the world. Wouldn’t be able to fight off anybody or fend for herself, the poor thing. Unfortunately, however, I’ve never seen her. I think you might want to search somewhere else.”
“Well, then, I suppose I should follow your advice and go to some other place to look. Nakata’s very sorry to have interrupted your nap. I’m sure I’ll stop by here again sometime, so if you spot Goma in the meantime, please let me know. I’d like to give you something for your help.”
“No need-I enjoyed talking with you. Feel free to drop by again. On sunny days this is where you’ll mostly find me. When it rains I’m generally in that shrine over there where the steps go down.”
“Well, thank you very much. Nakata was very happy, too, to be able to talk with you, Mr. Otsuka. I can’t always speak so easily to every cat I meet. Sometimes when I try the cat is on his guard and runs away without saying a word. When all I ever said was hello.”
“I can well imagine. There’re all sorts of cats-just like there’re all sorts of people.”
“That’s exactly right. Nakata feels the same way. There are all kinds of people in the world, and all kinds of cats.”
Otsuka stretched and looked up at the sky. Golden sunlight filled the vacant lot but the air held a hint of rain, something Otsuka was able to sense. “Didn’t you say that when you were little you had an accident, and that’s why you’re not so smart?”
“Yes, that’s right. That’s exactly what Nakata said. I had an accident when I was nine years old.”
“What sort of accident?”
“Nakata can’t really remember. They don’t know why, but I had a high fever for about three weeks. I was unconscious the whole time. I was asleep in a bed in a hospital, they told me, with an intra venus in me. And when I finally woke up, I couldn’t remember a thing. I’d forgotten my father’s face, my mother’s face, how to read, how to add, what my house looked like inside. Even my own name. My head was completely empty, like a bathtub after you pull the plug. They tell me before the accident Nakata always got good grades. But once I collapsed and woke up I was dumb. My mother died a long time ago, but she used to cry about this a lot. Because I got stupid. My father never cried, but he was always angry.”
“Instead of being smart, though, you found yourself able to talk with cats.”
“Besides that, I’m always healthy and haven’t been sick once. I don’t have any cavities, and don’t have to wear glasses.”
“As far as I can tell, you seem fairly intelligent.”
“Is that so?” Nakata said, inclining his head. “Nakata’s well past sixty now, Mr. Otsuka. Once I got past sixty I was quite used to being dumb, and people not having anything to do with me. You can survive without riding trains. Father’s dead, so nobody hits me anymore. Mother’s dead too, so she doesn’t cry. So actually, if you say I’m pretty smart, it’s a bit upsetting. You see, if I’m not dumb then the Governor won’t give me a sub city anymore, and no more special bus pass. If the Governor says, You’re not dumb after all, then Nakata doesn’t know what to say. So this is fine, being dumb.”
“What I’m trying to say is your problem isn’t that you’re dumb,” Otsuka said, an earnest look on his face.
“Your problem is that your shadow is a bit-how should I put it? Faint. I thought this the first time I laid eyes on you, that the shadow you cast on the ground is only half as dark as that of ordinary people.”
“I ran across another person like that once.”
Mouth slightly ajar, Nakata stared at Otsuka. “You mean you saw somebody like Nakata?”
“Yes, I did. That’s why I wasn’t so surprised that you could talk to cats.”
“When was that?”
“A long time ago, when I was still a youngster. But I can’t remember the details-the person’s face or name or where and when we met. As I said before, cats don’t have that sort of memory.”
“That person’s shadow, too, looked like half of it had gotten separated from him. It was as faint as yours.”
“What I think is this: You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow.”
Nakata tugged a few times at the bill of his hat in his hands. “To tell the truth, Nakata’s had that feeling before. That my shadow is weak. Other people might not notice, but I do.”
“That’s good, then,” the cat said.
“But I’m already old, and may not live much longer. Mother’s already dead. Father’s already dead. Whether you’re smart or dumb, can read or can’t, whether you’ve got a shadow or not, once the time comes, everybody passes on. You die and they cremate you. You turn into ashes and they bury you at a place called Karasuyama. Karasuyama’s in Setagaya Ward. Once they bury you there, though, you probably can’t think about anything anymore. And if you can’t think, then you can’t get confused. So isn’t the way I am now just fine? What I can do, while I’m alive, is never go out of Nakano Ward. But when I die, I’ll have to go to Karasuyama. That can’t be helped.”
“What you think about it is entirely up to you, of course,” Otsuka said, and again began licking the pads of his paw. “Though you should consider how your shadow feels about it. It might have a bit of an inferiority complex-as a shadow, that is. If I were a shadow, I know I wouldn’t like to be half of what I should be.”
“I understand,” Nakata said. “You may well be right. Nakata’s never thought about it. I’ll think about it more after I get home.”
“An excellent idea.”
The two of them were silent for a while. Nakata quietly stood up, carefully brushing away stray bits of grass from his trousers, and put on his threadbare hat. He adjusted it a few times, until he got the angle just right. He shouldered his canvas bag and said, “Thank you very kindly. Nakata really values your opinions, Mr. Otsuka. I hope you stay happy and well.”
After Nakata left, Otsuka lay down again in the grass and closed his eyes. There was still some time before the clouds would come and the rain would start. His mind a blank, he fell asleep for a short nap.