Notes from Japan

The Boy and the Cats: A Love Story

By Suzanne Kamata

My son wanted a dog, as boys often do.

But one day, my husband said, “How about a cat?” His high school friend, who was a veterinarian, had an American long-haired kitten to give away. His children had found it abandoned by the side of the road, scared and shivering, and brought it home. It was black – an unpopular colour due to its bad luck connotations. The colour of a witch’s familiar.

“Yes!” my son, now fifteen, said. By this time, he would have been happy with a hedgehog or a salamander – any pet at all.

Although I love cats, I was more reluctant. After all, I’d just bought a brand-new sofa and love seat with some book money I’d gotten. I could just imagine what a cat’s claws would due to those leather cushions.

Nevertheless, my husband and son set out for the vet’s office. They came home later with the kitten cuddled against my son’s chest and all the accoutrements – food dish, cat toys, scratching post, and a multi-tiered tower that my husband immediately assembled.

From the beginning, like a duckling that imprints on the first thing that it sees, the kitten, which we named Sumi (the Japanese word for the black ink used in traditional calligraphy) liked my son the best. My early rising husband may have been the one to fill his food dish every morning, and my daughter sometimes coaxed him into her room for sleeping, but my son was his favourite. Sumi would leap from my lap to greet him at the door when he returned from school, and mew plaintively and persistently at his bedroom door until he was admitted. Sumi was skittish and inclined to hiss at strangers. He’d run away and hide under a bed when my sister-in-law dropped by for a visit. But he crooned a greeting when my son walked into the room. They bumped their heads together with mutual affection.

Of course, I grew to love Sumi as well even though, predictably, he clawed the new sofa, scratched the wallpaper, and regurgitated his food on our freshly installed tatami mats.

My husband tried to discipline Sumi, sometimes by holding him immobile and roaring at him, but instead of becoming docile and obedient, Sumi began avoiding him or hissing in his presence. My husband began to grumble that a dog would have been better.

One afternoon, a couple of years later, my son came home with another kitten. She was a tiny, mewling thing with blue eyes and white fur, with a smudge of black on her face – a Siamese, by the looks of her.

Jio (Suzanne’s son) & Mii. Photo courtesy: Suzanne Kamata

“She followed me,” my son said. He’d been down by the riverbank, pitching a baseball against a brick wall, when the tiny creature had found him. “I couldn’t just leave her there.”

Apparently, she’d been recently abandoned, her trust and innocence still intact. She wasn’t skittish and shy like Sumi. She was adorable, but we all knew that Sumi wouldn’t welcome her, and one cat was really enough. How much more violence could our sofa and wallpaper endure? Besides, my son, a sophomore in high school, was taking off the very next day for a four-day school trip to Tokyo. Who would deal with the kitten?

However, she quickly grew on us humans (though Sumi, now quite large, was terrified of the little ball of fur). We ended up keeping her, and she quickly adapted, co-opting the litter box, happily eating kibble – and tomatoes! And broccoli! — from the same dish as Sumi and hopping up onto the nearest warm lap. My daughter named her “Mii.” But she, too, had a special relationship with my son, her saviour. He taught her to fetch – like a dog! And she came when he called her, like a dog.

We tried to keep her safely indoors. But one day, she managed to escape. Hours later, she turned up, limping. We took her to the vet, who said that she had gotten into a fight. He gave her some antibiotics. For a couple days, she lost interest in going outdoors.

But a week later, she got out again! This time she was gone overnight, I searched all over the neighbourhood, calling her name, but she didn’t come.

That evening, rain started to fall. Suddenly, we heard her distinctive mewling. My son grabbed a flashlight and we went in the direction of her voice. We found her stranded on the tile roof of a nearby house and pounded desperately on the door. Finally, it creaked open to reveal an elderly woman in her nightclothes. I wonder what she thought, seeing two foreign-looking strangers on that rainy dark night.

“Our cat’s on your roof,” my son explained. “Can we go into your yard?”

The woman kindly provided us with a ladder, and we got the kitten down.

As my son began his last year of high school and began thinking about applying to universities in distant cities, we couldn’t help but think about the cats. They’d be so lonely without our boy.

“You should take Sumi with you,” my husband joked, as if any student apartment would allow such a pet. As if a cat would be happy confined to a tiny college dorm.

When he was accepted into a university in the far north of Honshu, in a city without a direct flight to our own, my husband ordered our son to get rid of all the stuff he didn’t need.

“You’ll be gone for good,” he said, “and we don’t want to have to deal with all of your junk.”

I knew that my husband’s gruffness was a front meant to conceal his sadness at our son’s departure. Our daughter would be leaving, too. Our nest would be empty. He was gearing himself up for grief.

“We’ll take Sumi off somewhere and dump him,” my husband said darkly. Sumi glared at him from underneath the table as if he’d understood, but I knew that the threat was empty. The cats would stay. They would keep us company after our children had left.

Already I was imagining the anxious queries from the north about Sumi and Mii, the photos that I would send by smartphone, the joyous meows at the beginning of university breaks.

“We have to keep the cats,” I told my husband, “so that our son will come back.”

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.


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