The cat's name was Chibi, which means "little one." We could hear the boy's particularly high-pitched voice calling the cat: "Chibi!" Then we'd hear the sound of the boy's shoes running around outside, followed by the tinkling of the little bell announcing the cat's arrival.
Chibi was a jewel of a cat. Her pure white fur was mottled with several lampblack blotches containing just a bit of light brown. The sort of cat you might see just about anywhere in Japan, except she was especially slim and tiny.
These were her individual characteristics — slim and small, with ears that stood out, tapering off beautifully at the tips, and often twitching. She would approach silently and undetected to rub up against one's legs. At first I thought Chibi avoided me because I was not used to cats, but this seems not to have been the case. When a girl who often passed along Lightning Alley stopped and crouched to gaze at the cat, it did not run away. But as soon as she attempted to touch it, the cat quickly slipped off, avoiding contact at all costs. The cat's manner of rejection was like cold, white light.
Moreover, the cat rarely made a sound. As far as I remember,
when it first appeared in the alley it made some sort of sound, but since then it had never let out a meow. It looked as if no matter how much time passed the cat was not going to let us hear its voice. This seemed to be the message the cat was giving us.
Another one of Chibi's characteristics was that she changed the direction of her cautious attention frequently. This active behavior wasn't limited to her kittenhood. Perhaps because she played alone most of the time in the expansive garden, she reacted strongly to insects and reptiles. And there were times when I could only conclude that she must be reacting to subtle changes in the wind and light, not detectable by humans. It may be that most cats share the same quickness, but even so, in Chibi's case, it was acute — she was, after all, the cat of Lightning Alley. My wife got into the habit of pointing to the cat whenever it went by, extolling its virtues.
Trained by the boy next door, Chibi had become quite skilled at playing with a ball. It seemed that the boy was using a rubber ball that fit right into the palm of one's hand. Sounds of laughter and play in the alley, and the regular bouncing of the ball, elicited such pleasant feelings that gradually I began to feel like trying it out for myself, here in our little garden. Finally one day, after a period of self-reflection, I took an old Ping-Pong ball — which had been shut away in the corner of a drawer — in my hand and headed for the garden.
I tried bouncing the Ping-Pong ball on the concrete below the open veranda. Chibi crouched, her eyes locked on the ball's movement. Then she lowered her entire body and became tense — with all four legs aligned as she gently lowered
her haunches, contracting them so that they became slightly rounded like a cocked spring. From that position she leapt off the earth with a violent force, boldly pouncing on the small white ball. Then she batted the ball back and forth several times in midair between her two front paws, and next shot quickly through my legs and ran off.
Chibi's independence would manifest itself in unexpected ways, even while performing acts of incredible athletic skill. Casting aside the Ping-Pong ball, she turned about at an acute angle, yet in the next moment she had placed her tiny paw on the head of a toad concealed in the shade of one of the landscape rocks. Then just as suddenly she flew to the other side of the garden, extending one of her front legs to slip into a clump of bushes. Next, showing her white belly, she looked in my direction, twitching slightly. But there was no stopping there — without a glance at her human playmate, she leaped up and grabbed the sleeve of an undershirt swinging gently back and forth on the clothesline, then flashing through the wooden gate, she quickly retreated to the yard of the big house.
I had heard from one of my cat-lover friends that playing with a ball was something that cats only did when they are still kittens. But it seemed that Chibi, reaching adulthood, only picked up momentum.
Which brings us to yet another quality of Chibi's — in the words of our landlady, she was "a real looker." As the opinion of someone with a long history of chasing away stray cats, I figured she knew what she was talking about.
There's a photographer who says cat lovers always believe
their own cat is better looking than anyone else's. According to her, they've all got blinders on. She also says that, though she too is a major cat lover, having noticed this fact means that she is now hated by all other cat lovers, and so these days only takes pictures of scruffy-looking strays.
Chibi, who loved to play ball, gradually began to visit us on her own and would try and get us to play with her. She would step gingerly into the room and gaze intently at its occupants, then purposefully turn around and walk back out, as if to lead us to the garden. This process would be repeated until she got a response. Most of the time my wife would put down whatever she was doing, slip happily into her sandals and head outside.
Having played to her heart's content, Chibi would come inside and rest for a while. When she began to sleep on the sofa — like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug up from a prehistoric archaeological site — a deep sense of happiness arrived, as if the house itself had dreamed this scene.
Avoiding the prying eyes of the landlady, we began leaving it up to Chibi to come inside the house whenever she wanted — and with this new development I had begun little by little to understand cat lovers. Whether on TV or in all of the ubiquitous cat calendars, it seemed as if there was no cat comparable to her. But, though I had started to think of her as the best cat around, she was not really our cat.
Excerpted from The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Selland. Reproduced with permission from New Directions Publishing.