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Author: Kij Johnson
Publisher: Tor, 2003

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Fairytale Fantasy
Historical Fantasy
Mythic Fiction (Fantasy)
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Enter the world of Kagaya-hime, a sometime woman warrior, occasional philosopher, and reluctant confidante to noblemen--who may or may not be a figment of the imagination of an aging empress who is embarking on the last journey of her life, setting aside the trappings of court life and reminiscing on the paths that lead her to death.

For she is a being who started her journey on the kami, the spirit road, as a humble tortoiseshell feline. Her family was destroyed by a fire that decimated most of the Imperial city, and this loss renders her taleless, the only one left alive to pass on such stories as The Cat Born the Year the Star Fell, The Cat with a Litter of Ten, and The Fire-Tailed Cat. Without her fudoki--self and soul and home and shrine--she alone cannot keep the power of her clan together. And she cannot join another fudoki, because although she might be able to win a place within another clan, to do so would mean that she would cease to be herself.

So a small cat begins an extraordinary journey. Along the way she will attract the attention of old and ancient powers. Gods who are curious about this creature newly come to Japan's shores, and who choose to give the tortoiseshell a human shape.




I am the princess Harueme, daughter of Fujiwara no Enyu and the emperor we now call Go-Sanj. More to the point, I am old and I am dying.

My life (what remains of it) does not look so different from the outside than it has anytime in the past fifty years, since I first came to court. I kneel on a straw mat laid on my oh, so familiar boxwood floors, though the padding is thicker than it was when I was young, and despite it my knees hurt rather more. I wear silk as I have since I was a child today; my robes are the susuki grass color combination, a private favorite of mine. My screens and curtains of state and eye-blinds are elegant but worn--but so they have been through all these years. I cannot recall ever having completely new hangings.

And there is a cat watching me as I write, a tabby female with green eyes whom we call Myb for her grand-lady manners. Before her there were others, but she fills the same place in my life that they did. The individuals may change, but there are always cats, there are always robes, there are always mats. These do not change.

I am old, but it is not age that kills me. There is a pressure deep in my chest, as if my liver and lungs are pushed aside by new and unknown organs. To breathe, my lungs steal back territory from these encroaching organs, and then they must do it again for the next breath. Each time they reclaim less and retreat sooner, sothat I see a day when they find the price of this war too high, and we will die, my lungs and I. I can only hope that these usurping organs will be required in the Pure Land, and my body is simply premature in generating them. Even in hoping this, I grasp for a reason, like a falling monkey catching at vines. My half-brother who was the emperor died some months ago; I follow him rather sooner than either of us expected.

I know I am dying, though my great-grandnephew the emperor and a thousand medical men--herbalists, diviners, eccentrics of every stamp--do not seem to believe me when I tell them. Or perhaps they do not choose to believe. Believing in a thing can make it so; how could they risk such a thing? If it is possible, what else might be, as well?

I cannot die here in the palace, of course--to do so would stain the purity of the sacred enclosure, and therefore it would be bad for my great-grandnephew the emperor--so I have already made my plans. Soon a priest will administer certain vows, give to me a new name and cut my long hair, and I will be a nun. It is as simple as that.

Not quite so simple: in my lifetime I have acquired and filled what seem to be a thousand trunks, and these must be emptied and removed. Their contents comprise an odd sort of midden heap: close-writ diaries; broken antiques from China or beyond, their value only in their provenance; a half-finished translation of The Thousand-Character Classic; torn robes in no-longer-fashionable color combinations; love letters twisted into the clever little knots that girls think can conceal secrets. And there are notebooks I have never gotten around to filling, their pages full of promise, or emptiness.

Pick up a biwa-lute, and you can't help but strike a note or two. Watch a cat sleep and you long to touch it (often to the cat's annoyance). A new brush begs you to grind ink. A cup makes you thirsty; dice in your hand demand to be thrown. The mind follows what the hand touches.

A blank notebook demands words. Which words? I wonder.

At a time now past, a cat was born. The emperor Ichij brought the first cats from Korea--my great-grandfather, though this was long before I was born. This was not so long after that, when cats were still rare, and all in the inner provinces near the capital.

This cat was a female, the smallest of her litter of four, and her fur was at first a blurred darkness. As she grew it changed to black flecked with gold and cinnamon and ivory, like the tortoiseshell of a hair ornament. Her eyes when they opened were gold, like a fox's. She was small but fierce: in no way but size a runt, for she lacked the gentle resignation of the weak.

She lived on the grounds of a shinden residence on Nij avenue, in the capital's west side. It filled a city block, and it had once been very fine, though that had been before even the emperor Ichij's time. The owners abandoned it to build a house closer to the heart of things (and that heart had moved east, to where the retired emperors lived); there were fires and droughts and earthquakes; there was the slow erosion of apathy. The main house with its three wings still stood, but the roofs leaked and had fallen in places; the walls were furred with mosses. Some outbuildings were no more than piles of wood and cedar shakes. The grounds were overrun with ivy and weeds, and the three little lakes and the stream that joined them were green with neglect.

Three people lived here. They called themselves servants to justify their presence, but they were no more than cuckoos squatting in a nest that did not belong to them. They lived in the north wing, what had once been the primary wife's rooms, and cooked on the pavement of what had once been the bamboo courtyard. Their trash they tossed into a heap beside the covered walkway to the west wing. A goat also lived here, too wily to catch and be eaten.

Cats have their estates, as well: their gathering places and private wings. A handful of females, fellow-wives and sisters, shared the residence's grounds, which had not inconsiderable resources viewed from the perspective of a cat's tastes. The ruined garden and the kitchen yard seethed with mice and smalledible things, and the brook and the lakes contained slow, fat frogs that attracted what seemed consistently stupid birds.

Each adult claimed her slice of the grounds, where she hunted and mated and bore kittens in solitude. These private spaces met at the center, like the petals of a dogwood bloom, and on pleasant days when the sun was warm the cats gathered at the midden heap and the space around it, matrons dozing as the kittens chased one another.

Most kittens were sired by one of two toms, each of whom claimed half the grounds (and sometimes more) and visited when their responsibilities permitted. Sometimes a strange male infiltrated, like a guardsman secretly visiting a nobleman's wife, and there would be a kitten with unusual markings or strangely colored eyes. Apart from these occasional visits, toms had no part of the cats' lives: were irrelevant, in fact.

The cats (the female cats) of the residence's grounds shared another thing, their fiudoki, which is self and soul and home and shrine, all in one to a cat. The fudoki is the chronicle of the females who have claimed a place, a river of cats that starts with the first to come to that place, and ends with oneself--when one grows experienced enough to have a tale to tell. It is also the place itself, and the cat whose story it is, and the immaterial shrine in which the household is honored. A cat may lose her tale by leaving her family and place, but then she is not the same cat. Mothers taught their daughters the fudoki; if the mother died too soon, the cousins and aunts and fellow-wives did so. Some (though not all) of the kittens would live; the tale would go on, an unbroken stream.

Though she was fairly young, the tortoiseshell cat had survived kittenhood and not run away. She had not yet earned a place in her tale, though her aunts and cousins had taken to calling her The Small Cat. This would change when she had earned a true name and a longer story. The tortoiseshell's fudoki was many cats long, and she knew them all--The Cat with a Litter of Ten, The Cat Born the Year the Star Fell, The Fire-Tailed Cat.

The Fire-Tailed Cat. I wrote those characters as my woman Shigeko came to me, to warn me of the impending visit from the latest healer my great-grandnephew has sent--a yin-yang diviner this time, with the good looks and arrogance that mean he will go far in his profession. He wasted half a day of my none-too-long life, but as I waited for his rather silly rituals to be completed I at least had ample time to ask myself why I am writing in this notebook. For the pleasure of watching the characters shape themselves under my hand? Do I distract myself from pain or boredom or fears for the future (for of course I am afraid. I am not so enlightened as all that)? I know the ending of my own story: do I long for a tale with an end I do not yet see?

I have written much before this but always notes about things I have observed. Never a tale (which is, after all, a lie, without proof or relevance). And why a cat?--Which is the easiest of all these to answer, for Myb sat beside me, sunlight in her green eyes as she stared into air, or nothing. What does she see? And when I look at her, what do I see? Cats. Who can tell?

There was a day, beautiful and very hot: summer, though autumn would begin soon enough. The first gingko leaf had turned, a surprising brilliant gold fan against dusty, dry green. Ducks slept on a pond as still as enamel, out of reach of ambitious cats. Pollen choked the air with a haze like smoke. The afternoon sky had leached to the color of tin in the heat.

The cats were gathered at the midden, five adults and a handful of half-grown kittens. There were not many, because it was not a good summer for cats: the cat distemper had killed some, and a stray dog others including the oldest female, The Cat Who Found the Jewel. Most of her kittens--too young to have earned places in the fudoki--died, but one survived, the small golden-eyed tortoiseshell. She sat on a wall, looking down at the courtyard, blinking as the sun moved into her eyes.

Adults dozed tight-muscled in the dappled shadows cast by the garden's trees, or stretched out on the gravel under the sun,looking dead. The kittens played idly with fishes' tails retrieved from the midden, pausing to rest in the shade of the raised walkway and buildings that formed three sides of the space. One cat licked clean the ears of her half-grown daughter. The fudoki rippled over them all, slow and warm as a summer brook. A wind started.

The ducks panicked suddenly: awoke and whirled up from the lake in a ragged spiral like a dust devil. The cats did not move from their places, but in a blink slipped from sleep to hunters' wakefulness. They watched the wheeling ducks, all thrashing wings and strange cries. The air had changed; or something.

A duck broke from the spiral and arrowed toward the cats. The others followed her; and when the first duck slammed into the side of a storehouse they followed her there, too, and died with her. The last broken-necked duck had not hit the ground when the earthquake struck.

It was not a large quake, nor a long one. Across the capital, screens and cooking braziers rattled or fell. Humans and animals screamed in their various ways. Tree branches tossed; leaves rustled as if in a gale. Temple and shrine bells jangled in their frames without rhythm.

The ground shuddered and gave a deep sound the cats felt through their paws. Some had experienced earthquakes and hunkered down, ears flat and eyes wide. Some bolted for safe places, under buildings or up trees.

The tortoiseshell did not know earthquakes; her fudoki (and there were quakes in the fudoki) could not prepare her for the ground moving. She jumped to her feet, teetered, and lost her balance, falling to the wall's base in an awkward heap. Plaster fell around her in heavy flakes. She staggered to the courtyard's center, braced her legs against the bucking ground, and hissed.

The residence's main house collapsed slowly, almost painstakingly. Old timbers groaned and broke like river ice. With odd musical noises, cracked roof tiles shook free, slid, and shattered on the dirt. More fell; they sloughed in sheets like snakeskin assupporting pillars flexed. A dislodged beam crashed down. Another splintered with a noise like fireworks, or thunder. Slowly, the roof crumpled in on itself, vanished into the building with a wave of white dust and a sound so loud that the tortoiseshell fell, stunned with the weight of it.

She could not tell when the shaking stopped being the earth and became instead the falling building. She streaked up the ragged bark of a binoki cedar, to an abandoned squirrel's nest she knew. She heard noises outside the grounds: shouts, cries; on the street to the west, frightened horses that had kicked down their stable doors; the frightened (or irritated) bleating of the estate's goat, fading as it bolted away. The last cat she saw was an aunt vanishing beneath the west walkway.

The bells chimed randomly for a long time after the earthquake ended.

Despite the earthquake's damage, it was the fire that destroyed the shinden residence and its grounds. The eighth month is a dangerous month: the gardens are dry, and wood-and-paper houses catch fire as quickly as brazier coals. In the capital's southeast quarter, a tipped lantern set fire to a floor mat. A length of summer gauze hanging from a curtain stand flared up and lit an old reed eye-blind, and that was the first house to burn. In the afternoon's rising breeze, flames spread to the north and west, a bright fan across the city.

Crouched in her tree, the tortoiseshell smelled the fire before she saw or heard anything. The air grew sharp and stung her eyes, made her wrinkle her nose and sneeze: a greasy, complicated smell. She shook her head to dislodge the tang.

There were more shouts outside the grounds, more hoofbeats, wagon wheels screaming under weight. Bells rang again, their discord rhythmic, in earnest this time. Behind all was a steady roar, like a festival crowd cheering.

The heart of a hinoki cedar is not a good vantage point, and the tortoiseshell crept along a limb until she could see out throughthe needles, over the broken outer walls. Through the dirty air she saw that everywhere to the south and east was smoke. Where buildings burned, thick dark plumes seethed upward; where there was grass or gardens, pale shreds crawled toward her. And there were flames.

She knew fire, convenient little blazes that the residence's people used for their mysterious purposes, but this was not the well-mannered glow of charcoal or lamplight. This was chaotic, full of angry colors: the source of the roar she had heard, the shouting crowd. A sudden gust of hot wind slammed into her. She retreated along her branch.

When she was small, she fit into the squirrel's nest, had hidden here as the dog killed her mother. But she was larger now, and it was no longer a refuge. She climbed as high as she safely could, and pressed herself into a little hollow where a branch joined the trunk. And then she waited, panting, for the fire.

We--humans I mean, peasants and nobles alike--know about the fires. I had not lived more than a few summers before I had learned of them. They always start with something small, but if the weather is dry or the wind is strong, they can destroy everything--or nearly everything; fire is as whimsical as the gods. Flames settle into one place, burning for days with choking black smoke and leaving the ground too hot to touch, mysteriously poisoned for years afterward. Across the street, they cross another residence with no more damage than black-scorched tips to the banquet field's grass. The flames disregard entirely the gardens of a third residence, happily beyond the range of the winds' vagaries. Within a few streets one may see all of these, and more besides: a thatched stable with a roof like a pillar of flame, its walls hidden in the smoke that pours downward; a storehouse half-burned, half-untouched; a garden pond filled with boiled, once-ornamental fish. One shop is abandoned, screens and grilles gaping as the owners flee with the best of their stock in a wagon pulled by their strong-legged sons. A shop next door remains open, and a woman buys gourds in a net from an old man. Except for thecloths over their mouths, they seem oblivious to the burning city.

If the wind blew safely away from where I lived, the fire became exciting, like riots in another quarter of the capital. "What is the news?" we all called to passersby. The rules were forgotten, and noblewomen (even princesses, if no one was attending closely) ran barefaced and barefooted into the street to catch at the sleeves of the guardsmen hurrying past: how many houses are gone, what streets, what lives? We ate our rice cold on the verandas where we could watch the smoke. We prayed desperately to the kami, to the Buddhas, to all the gods and demons, begging for an easy fire, begging that the wind stay kind.

We know about the fires, but the tortoiseshell did not. There were stories in the fudoki, of course, but a story does not choke you with fumes; the grass in a tale doesn't hiss like a kitten as it burns. She crouched in her tree and watched through eyes slitted against the smoke.

At sunset the wind eased, and the flames slowed. The fire seemed brighter with dusk, its movements clearer. The smoke glimmered red and amber. She heard individual noises within the roar now: a whistle like an overblown sh-pipe, low wooden sighs, an angry metallic squeal.

To the east was a shinden residence like this one, old and forgotten and dry. The main house and its wings were half-hidden from the tortoiseshell, but for a time what she could see remained recognizable and was even made beautiful by the fire. Flames defined everything, tracing the shapes of screens and supports, railings and walkways. Smoke gushed like water along the roofs, but she could not tell whether it moved up or down.

The flames hesitated at Sai avenue. Lanky weeds and half-grown trees muddled its neglected surface, but it was broad, and the border-ditches still carried water, if not much. Cinders showered up from the burning buildings and started small fires in the weeds. The neighbors' gatehouse collapsed outward, and coals caught in a young katsura tree in the avenue. Smoke oozed from the tree's crown until the fire became visible and destroyed it.

The tortoiseshell's grounds caught in a hundred places. Flying sparks settled on roofs and in dead pines and cryptomeria. Fire slipped into the ditch, leapt across the reeds that bridged the slimy trickle, crept up to the outside wall, and swarmed over it.

The residence burned for most of the night. Thatch and shingles went immediately. Woodwork took a little longer, the perfect grid of a screen or a carved phoenix over a doorway outlined for a time in light. The buildings' heavy-beamed skeletons settled in like Urabon festival bonfires as the timbers turned black and then white and cherry red. The smoke thinned somewhat, for the wood here was well aged.

The air was very hot, not quite unbearably so. When a coil of smoke curled around the tortoiseshell, she pressed her face between her paws and breathed through the fur of her inner leg, leaving tears and smears of the dirty mucus that trailed from her nose. Her claws had been out since sunset. Her muscles trembled with exhaustion.

Through the gaps left open by her second eyelids, she watched the flames flicker, quick as birds or lizards. Sometimes cats looked up through the hot, wavering air with shining eyes and glistening mouths that said things she could not hear. They might have been the cats of her fudoki, her cousins and aunts. They might have been ghosts, or flames, or illusions. She could not tell.

A live cinder settled on her shoulder: a tiny smell of burning fur. It was a moment before she recognized the pain. She screamed and scraped herself convulsively against the bark, but there was nowhere to run, nothing to fight.

Fire is not constant. Trees near her burned, but the hinoki cedar did not. Needles on the lower branches sizzled as they flared, and then smoldered like incense sticks. She smelled the changed air, and pressed herself harder against the trunk. The squirrel's nest below her remained intact, though the smoke would have been fatal. Her retreat was high enough that fresh air found its way to her, and so she lived.

We understand what fires are like, in the same way we understandabout riots and wars. We hear tales, rumors, reports from the front. They interest us, but they do not threaten us. Long before we are truly endangered our careful attendants hustle us off to some safer place: the summer house at Biwa lake, a relative's home in a quieter quarter, a temple in the mountains.

There are some who know fire (or riots, or war) intimately, who see it as the tortoiseshell did. I am not one of those (my so-careful attendants have prevented this), but I have watched bonfires and braziers and walked in a garden after a fire once. I guess what she might have seen or felt, the acid touch of scorching air in her lungs. I imagine; I dream, even when (especially when) it frightens me.

"What are you writing?" Shigeko asks me. It is afternoon, and I write out on my veranda, enjoying the sun's warmth and the low voices of my women as they put together a robe for me to wear when next I am summoned to visit my great-grandnephew the emperor.

Shigeko is my primary attendant, as old and weathered as I, and so she dares ask such a question, when other, younger, lesser women might instead remain silent. The perfect attendant (and I have had many of them in my life) asks no questions. She brings what is requested; she cleans up what is spilled; she laughs and cries appropriately, as required by her mistress's mood. Shigeko has never been the perfect attendant, despite her inarguable skills: managing the other women, overseeing my wardrobe, and intercepting unwanted visitors and letters.--Though she certainly has been the most interesting of them.

My brush was moving when she asked this, and so I have written her words and now my thoughts, quite as though they were part of this tale. Now her politeness is at an end, for she has said, her voice sharper: "My lady? " I think I must put down my brush and answer her--

"Nothing," I told her.

She frowned: she knows I lie. I am not skilled at lies, and she is expert at detecting them. Why did I not tell her, "A monogataritale"? I have written a thousand things and shared them with her: my notes on the number of legs and the wing-colors of whatever vermin I was observing, my letters, even my diaries. Why am I unwilling to show her this?

I have shared everything in my life with others. Not much has belonged to me alone.

The cat did not sleep so much as fall unconscious, and she was not aware of doing either until she startled awake, her claws still sunk deep in the bark, her burning eyes sticky with clotted tears and mucus. She was hungry and very thirsty. Dirt and ash caked her fur and clotted at the roots of her whiskers and sensing hairs. The air smelled strange, of char and ash, every scent changed beyond recognition.

The sky was pale and smoke-pillared in the southeast, smeared indigo and black to the west. Several buildings retained their shapes but were hollowed out and seared. Others were only heaps of charred timber, unrecognizable piles of smoking gray and black, red light peeking through cracks in certain logs. The fire still burned in the northern wing where the "servants" had lived, but with the idle half-interest of a well-fed cat teasing a mouse. The great trees of the garden stood, though their lower branches were charred or gone altogether. Everything else was scorched or destroyed, leaving the garden a tangle of black shapes that might have been shrubs or branches, and might not.

The tortoiseshell niyaaned softly, and then loudly. There was no response, no sound of any sort: no morning songbirds, no people swearing and spitting and clattering pottery in the north wing. No cats. The only living creature she saw was a soaked rat climbing from the stream, which was chalky with ash. Setting foot on a patch of still-smoking ground, it made an anguished noise and leapt back into the water, then swam off to vanish beneath a collapsed bridge.

She was alone. She knew this, though she could not have explained how, or even what, she knew. We, who are more familiarwith the gods of our land than she, might have said that the garden's and the residence's kami were gone--dead or angry or distracted, or something else that men cannot understand. But her people were new to the Eight Islands, and neither knew nor cared about our gods. She knew only that the heart of her home was gone.

She climbed down, carefully feeling her way along the soot-slick branches. She paused on the lowest and then dropped the final distance. The earth was hot enough that she shifted from paw to paw trying to find a comfortable place to set her feet. Around the base of the hinoki cedar was a scattering of dead birds fallen in the night, but her thirst was stronger than her hunger. Startling with every step, she walked down to the little stream. She found a place where she could crouch without burning her paws and lapped at the water. A taste like sulfur caught at the back of her throat, but she drank.

She returned to the dead birds. She pushed the closest one with a paw but it was already rigid despite the heat. She wrinkled her nose and turned away. The next bird had been badly burned, its eyes melted away, its clawed feet curled against its breast. It was unpleasantly crunchy, and she turned away from this one as well. The third was a late-season nestling, scarcely a mouthful.

The fourth she ate. The meat was smeared with ashes that ground against her teeth, but she was too hungry to care. The blood in its veins was stagnant but warm and helped ease the sulfur taste at the back of her throat. Feathers were always bitter, and she clawed them from the bird when she could; otherwise spat them out as she ate. She tried to groom the blood and feathers and ash from her fur, but her mouth was dry. After cleaning her forepaws and face, she gave up and explored her world's remains.

The continuing silence frightened her. She had always lived in a cloud of noises large and small. Leaves rustled, birds sang, water chattered over rocks in the stream; the people in the north wing had yelled and whispered and snored through their days. Now she heard noises outside the grounds, but the silence within seemed absolute. She listened to her own rasping breath and asteady fast thump like a small drum: her heart beating. She niyaaned again. The sound did not carry, muffled by ashes.

One of her aunts had slipped beneath the walkway, so the little cat searched there. She found no one, only a smoking shape that might once have been a cat, pressed into a depression in the ground. She sniffed carefully and caught the memory of a scent, the black-and-white cat, The Cat Who Talked to Moths. "Aunt?" she asked. When the tortoiseshell tapped with a paw, the shape that might have been a cat crumbled.

She searched throughout the grounds and the destroyed structures, but she found no other cats.

Beside the north wing, she found a dead woman caught beneath a beam that had fallen in such a way that half the wood was untouched and the other end burned away to a blunt point. The woman had been pinned and died there, of the smoke or injuries. A ghost knelt over the corpse, patting it as one might try to wake a child and sobbing, "Get up, get up!" Though there was no wind, its hair and clothes moved like water weeds in a storm.

Cats see ghosts, of course, and speak with them, too, when they have not yet passed on to wherever they must go. Can you doubt it? "Where are the other cats?" the tortoiseshell asked.

The ghost looked up with red-rimmed eyes. "Help me wake up."

The tortoiseshell said, "You're dead. I don't think you'll wake up from that."

"I have to," the ghost said. "Where will I go? I was a bad Buddhist, but I don't want to go to Hell. I won't have to, if I can just wake up." It shook its corpse, and ash flew from its clothes.

A flake fell on the tortoiseshell's nose, and she shook her head to dislodge it. "Where are the cats, my cousins and aunts?"

The ghost stopped shaking. The tears that fell from its eyes were blood. "They are all gone. Cats and mice, people and kami. I am all that's left."

"No," the tortoiseshell said. "I am left. You're a ghost. If my kin are dead, where are their ghosts, then?"

"Why would I know?" the ghost said bitterly. "I am no cat. If cats go to Hell perhaps I will meet them there. Unless I can wake up."

The tortoiseshell returned to the midden heap to think.

Individual cats are not important. Even if the other females were gone, she lived, and the fudoki continued. Grass and bushes would grow again, and mice would crawl from their holes or move from other, less damaged residences. Humans might or might not return, but they were of only minor usefulness. Perhaps other females would find the grounds and become part of the tortoiseshell's fudoki. Eventually, the males would visit again. If they did not, new males would take their place. She would have kittens, perhaps many litters, and some would be daughters. The tale would continue, and she would take her place in it: The Surviving Cat. She was frightened and alone, but the tale remained, and this comforted her.

There were sounds within the grounds: men's voices, heavy footsteps. The fire left a thousand new hiding spots, but they were unfamiliar and frightening, so she leapt for the top of a wall. Up had always been safe; had been safe through the night's fire.

She landed with her full weight on her front paws, driving them down onto the still-smoking top edge. She screamed and twisted sideways in the air, fell full length onto a raised stone walkway, still scorchingly hot. The pain closed down her mind, and she ran.

All through the night, when her life depended on it, the tortoiseshell had not panicked. With morning, the enemy was no longer immediate and all-threatening. It could be avoided, and so there was no longer a reason to panic. But she was weary to staggering, and queasy with the poisons of the night's unused fear. When she burned herself, the pain overwhelmed what strength she still had.

Cats do not like to run far at a time--their strength is in their patience, not their legs--but she could not stop herself. She was past the wall in a flash, and streaked south, in the shadow of theweeds along Sai avenue's western ditch. Everything was strange. The noises that had whispered at the fringes of the frightening silence were all around her now, and they were all made by things, blundering objects that moved unpredictably, any one of which might be a threat. There were horses and oxen, dogs and carts and people. Smoke still choked the streets, and she smelled fire, old and new, everywhere around her, and she could not tell what was dead and what still lived. With each step, new pain seared her feet. She jumped forward, away from the pain, but it stabbed at her with the next step. Whenever she managed to overcome the reaction caused by the pain, a noise or blundering thing would startle her, and she would run again.

In the end, the exhaustion that began her flight also ended it. She missed a step and sprawled. Because she fell on her uninjured side, for a moment there was no sharp shock of pain. In that moment, the goddess Kannon was merciful, and the tortoiseshell fainted. Small and injured as she was, she had crossed more than a mile of the capital.

It was not, perhaps, the ideal place to fall: in the center of the dog-walk, the walkway that ran alongside Rokuj avenue, which is always busy with the doings of the common people who live in the south of the capital. But she was both fortunate and unfortunate in the day: unfortunate, for had there been no earthquake, there would have been no fire and no deaths, no burned paws and terror to drive her from her home and fudoki; fortunate in that her own troubles were mirrored in those of others, and no one paid attention to the corpse of a small filthy cat in the middle of the path. People saw her and stepped aside. There are a thousand ownerless dogs in this city, but they were all busy elsewhere. It is true that a dun-and-black dog examined her, leaving a moist nose-print on her shoulder; but he was called away by his owner, who had lost much in the fire and feared to lose this last thing, his dog.

It seems I have fallen asleep over my notebook. I do not recall the shift from awake to asleep. I was thinking of this small cat and allher losses, and then I was standing naked beside a cold river, in a place so far to the north that it has no name, watching blue-green fish tremble under the water's surface. I did not seem to realize that I am old and cannot swim and have never been farther north than a visit to Funaoka hill, and that this must therefore have been a dream.

When I nodded off I trailed one of my sleeves in the ink, leaving dust on the dried ink stone and a feathery stain across my writing desk and this page. Worse, I dropped my favorite writing brush to the floor, where the wolf's fur bent into an awkward curve and then dried. I am forced to switch to this brush, stiff-bristled and narrow-tipped, though I do not like the flightiness of its line. I loved that wolf brush, which gave my calligraphy a soft elegance that it doesn't really deserve.

Shigeko woke me, entering my rooms to force the latest batch of herbs into me. Mercifully she was sidetracked into getting the ink cleaned up and replacing my outer robe with a clean and (I observe) darker one. She is no younger than I am, has been with me since I first came to court fifty? sixty? years ago; and she forgets things as much as I do. "I came to ask you"--she hovers before me, trying to think of why she came in; then guesses, incorrectly to my relief--"whether you wish to be read to?--though I see you are occupied."

"I am," I tell her, and hold up my brush, this irritating scratchy new brush. I have had to make new ink, which (since I am a princess and do not always have to suffer the effects of my actions) I am doing on a new ink stone, in preference to cleaning the old one. "Kneel. Keep me company."

Shigeko eases herself down to her knees. I hear their cracking, like twigs in a fire. "I am so sorry, I should not have awakened you."

I gesture with the brush to the floor beside me, still shining with water from the cleaning. "It's better you did. Sleeping with ink is, well, dangerous. For my surroundings, anyway."

"You shouldn't have been writing at all, my lady: the healerssay it is bad for your hands, and you need your sleep. More than writing, anyway."

"No," I say, and then smile at her, the old joke: "I can sleep when I'm dead."

After all these years, she still does not find this amusing. Worse, she remembers the herbs and so I must now drink this vile tea.

--I see that I have ruined all the pages after this one in this notebook. No matter: I have others as empty as this one once was.

Copyright © 2003 by Kij Johnson


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