Chasing Cats

For Hiro, it started in the fifth grade, on the mountain paths of Tonodake.

Bored and restless, he began throwing stones at passing hikers. In a fit of rage, his parents left him at a small wooden bench between rest stops, some three hours up the mountain.

The plan was to return an hour later and collect their tearful, repentant son. Instead, Hiro wandered into the forest, believing himself abandoned and alone.

He was found three days later, dehydrated and delirious.

He said he was following a white cat.


For Sachiko, it started in junior high, in the bedroom of Eriko Takahashi.

Sachiko participated in the bullying of Eriko, a transfer student from a country town in Shikoku. The group of girls ignored Eriko in class, berated her outside of it, and drowned her in a deluge of abusive messages and emails.

Eriko was found on the morning of the first day of second semester, hanged in her bedroom. She was in her school uniform. Her school bag was packed. A small key ring — a white cat — dangled from the zipper.

The last message to her phone read, “die.”

It was from Sachiko.


The week after Hiro was found, local talk shows were full of heated discussion. Education, parental responsibility, technology, television, manners, religion, culture.

The talk shows asked lots of questions, and when they didn’t find answers, they returned to celebrity gossip and fad diets.

Hiro’s three days in the mountains had left him branded. He was the weird kid who got lost in the mountains chasing an imaginary cat. It was a ghost that followed him wherever he went.

For his part, Hiro maintained the cat was real.


The week after Eriko was found, local talk shows were again full of heated discussion. Overcrowded schools, suicide, herd mentality, peer pressure, abuse, compensated dating, hikikomori, depression.

Sachiko and her friends were promptly expelled, and Sachiko was transferred to a public school closer to home. Rumors quickly spread.

In this way, Sachiko became a ghost of Eriko, and she never spoke a word about the incident.

She developed an obsession with video-games.


High school and university were uneventful for Hiro, but his relationship with his parents remained forever stilted.

When he talked to his mother, looking into her eyes was like swimming in a pool of regret. Her words were like tendrils stretching out in search of a desired and yet unattainable forgiveness.

When he talked to his father, he thought of a giant wall; one built with bricks of disgust and disappointment. He sometimes wondered if there was a door along that wall, but he was never able to find it.

Upon graduation, Hiro moved into a small one room apartment in Asakusa.


High school and university were also uneventful for Sachiko. She made a few friends and sometimes went out, but years as a ghost made communication awkward and difficult.

Sachiko learned to be polite, and prepared a variety of masks for social occasions. They were beautiful masks, and she wore them well, but all the same she avoided large groups and spent her free time with her Nintendo DS.

Upon graduation, she moved to a small apartment complex in Kichijoji.


Hiro worked as a salesman for the NHK. The job involved knocking on doors and politely demanding people sign up for mandatory payments to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation.

Most people simply didn’t answer the door. People with families called him a thief. Foreigners pretended they didn’t understand Japanese. Students attacked his inability to get a better job. Elderly people shook their heads in disappointment.

In a word, the work was soul crushing.

But it also felt in-line with Hiro’s life until this point.

It felt like atonement.


Sachiko worked at a small trading company.

Her job involved making tea, smiling politely, laughing politely, making photocopies, sending faxes, and talking about marriage and children.

The workplace was an awkward fit. Even with her mask on, Sachiko was bad at making tea. She quickly tired of smiling and laughing, disliked menial tasks, and assumed she would never get married.

One day in the spring, Sachiko was told to smile more. It was an offhand comment with little weight, but it was heavy enough.

That day, after lunch, Sachiko didn’t return to work. Instead, she gathered her things, moved back in with her parents, and began raising a kitten on her Nintendo DS.

She called it Kuro.


Hiro spent his evenings feeding a group of stray cats in a small alleyway, between an abandoned apartment building and a vintage furniture shop.

It took a month for the cats to feel comfortable around him, but long before that Hiro had named each them: Ryouma, Hinoka, Takumi, Sakura, Suzukaze, Setsuna.

But Hiro was especially protective of a small white cat with only one eye. It was timid and gentle. Bullied. It was not designed for life on the streets — perhaps life at all — and yet somehow it survived.

Hiro thought of it as a reflection of himself.

He called it Shiro.


Sachiko spent her days playing with Kuro and reading books. Unless absolutely necessary, she never left home.

Occasionally she wrote stories in an old notebook. She wrote about witches and black cats fighting demons, and sacrificing themselves so others might live.

Her stories were the ghosts of her past, given shape in letters, words, and sentences. But in her stories, she was the one who died.

Somehow that felt right.


Hiro often ate alone, and he rarely cooked.

He grew a deep appreciation for ramen, beer, and books.


Sachiko got lost in the games she played.

She often simply forgot to eat.


Outside of his collection of stray cats, Hiro didn’t have many friends. He didn’t spend time with his coworkers, and he didn’t have a girlfriend.

He was often struck by the curious sensation that if he were to grow close to someone, they would eventually abandon him, and it would always be his fault.


Sachiko spent her days almost entirely alone.

Though she wrote stories and played games, she rarely had need to speak.

This blanket of silence felt natural. Safe.

Sachiko felt that the less she spoke to people, the less likely she was to hurt them.


In this way, Hiro and Sachiko fell into separate rhythms of a lonely, everyday life.


Hiro knocked on the door and waited.

The door opened a crack.

“What.”

“I’m from the NHK,” he said.

Silence.

“Do you have a television in your house?”

“…No.”

“Does anyone in your household have a cellphone?”

Silence. Hiro pulled a small pamphlet from his shoulder bag.

“Look,” he said, “if you have something that can receive video transmissions, you’re required by law to pay the NHK on a monthly basis. We can start right now if you like, it’s a very simple process.”

“No.”

“No?”

“We don’t… we don’t have a television. We don’t have… we don’t have phones.”

“You mean to say you don’t even have a…” Hiro paused for a moment. Sighed. Shook his head. “Okay. Okay. I’ll be back again soon. Thank you for your time.”

He lifted his bag, put the pamphlet away, and turned to leave.

“Wait.”


“What.”

“I’m from the NHK,” the man said.

Sachiko watched him from behind the sliver of open door. Something about him was familiar, but she couldn’t place it.

“Do you have a television in your house?” he asked.

“…No.”

“Does anyone in your household have a cellphone?”

Sachiko remained silent. Her eyes combed his face for clues, and found nothing. She watched him pull a small pamphlet from his shoulder bag and wave it.

“Look,” he said, “if you have something that can receive video transmissions, you’re required by law to pay the NHK on a monthly basis. We can start right now if you like, it’s a very simple process.”

“No.”

“No?”

Sachiko felt heavy and worn out. Talking to people made her tired.

“We don’t… we don’t have a television,” she said. “We don’t have… we don’t have phones.”

The young man looked tired. It was nostalgic somehow. Sachiko thought of a bedroom in the summer. A school bag. Two legs dangling in the air.

“You mean to say you don’t even have a…” The man paused for a moment. Sighed. Shook his head. “Okay. Okay. I’ll be back again soon. Thank you for your time.”

Sachiko watched the man lift his bag, put the pamphlet away, and turn to leave.

And then she noticed the key ring dangling from his bag. A white cat.

“Wait,” she said.


Hiro sat at a small table in a crowded Denny’s, and watched Sachiko stare at her ice-cream.

He noticed that she flinched at passing servers and customers. She was uncertain. Anxious. Lost.

She reminded him of a stray cat.

Sachiko asked questions. Where he lived. What he did. Where he grew up. How old he was. Hiro answered succinctly and politely.

After a time, they fell into a comfortable silence. Sachiko ate her ice-cream, and Hiro sipped at his coffee. He thought of Shiro.

“You have lonely eyes,” Sachiko said eventually.

Hiro thought about this for a time.

“Oh,” he said. And then, “I should go.”

Sachiko nodded. She looked down at her empty bowl.

“Can we meet here again?”


Sachiko sat on the couch and thought about the young man.

She thought about his key ring. The white cat with an eye missing. It made her think of summer and lost dreams. Irreperable fates. Fragility and solitude.

She wondered if he was haunted too.

And she wondered why, after she gave him her cellphone number, that he didn’t ask her to pay the NHK fees.


On Mondays Hiro and Sachiko met at Denny’s.

Sachiko ordered ice-cream, and Hiro ordered coffee.

Talking didn’t come easy to either of them. Their meetings were padded in long silences. Questions that went unanswered. Sentences that trailed off into nothing.

Still, something about each meeting was comforting.

Hiro found himself waiting — hoping — for Sachiko to ask the same thing at the end of each encounter.

“Can we meet here again?”

And she always did.


Little by little, Sachiko opened up. She talked about Kuro, and her parents, and life at home.

She learned to speak again because Hiro always listened. He didn’t think badly of her past, didn’t judge the life she lived, and didn’t question her future.

He simply sipped at his coffee, and listened.

Sachiko found herself waiting — hoping — for Hiro to open up and speak, and share a little of the life he lived.

But he did not.


One night after work, Hiro took Sachiko for ramen.

The restaurant was a small, unassuming place down a sidestreet in Kappabashi. There was a ticket machine by the entrance, a long counter, and a small kitchen.

Hiro stood before the machine and thought a moment. Then he put some money in, made a selection, and passed a ticket to Sachiko.

She stared at it for a time, looking at the words — tonkotsu ramen — as though to draw extra meaning from them.

They ate in silence, two diners lost in a soundtrack of slurping noodles, Spitz on the speakers, and the rhythmic shouts of restaurant staff.

Afterwards, they walked slowly to the bus stop. When the bus arrived, Sachiko bowed politely.

“Thank you for the meal,” she said.

Hiro nodded and smiled. He paused for a second, as if to say something, and then thought better of it.

“Good night,” he said.


On the bus home, Sachiko thought about dinner.

She thought about the way Hiro’s expression relaxed when the bowl was placed before him, and the quiet air of happiness that drifted from him as he ate. A simple, unfettered satisfaction.

But it was also a tiny sliver of who he was, and a tiny glimpse into a world he kept almost entirely to himself.

And he’d let her see it.


As he knelt in the alleyway feeding his cats, Hiro thought of Sachiko.

He thought of the way her eyes lit up when she ate. The way she savored the experience from start to finish, like a last meal.

He told the cats about it while he watched them eat. None of them listened, and none of them cared, but he didn’t mind.

Hiro realized he was happy.

And this happiness terrified him.


That night, Sachiko dreamed of Hiro’s feet. She saw them dangling in the air, in a simple bedroom near a small desk. On the desk she saw a bag with a key ring on the zipper. A white cat with sad eyes.

Sachiko remembered seeing those eyes long before she met Hiro.

She’d seen them as a junior highschool student, on the face of a lonely young girl before the start of the summer holidays.


Hiro was surprised to hear the question. It felt sudden and out of character.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“Why does your key ring only have one eye?” Sachiko asked.

Sachiko hadn’t touched her ice-cream. She simply stared at Hiro, waiting. There was something in her eyes he hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

Hiro looked at his watch, and nodded.

“Come,” he said. “Let me show you something.”


Sachiko stood at the edge of an alleyway between an abandoned apartment building and a vintage furniture shop. She watched as a group of stray cats emerged from the shadows.

“They might not come close,” Hiro said. “They aren’t used to new people.”

The cats eyed Sachiko with suspicion. They took careful steps. Threw cautious glances. They were guarded in a way that reminded her of Hiro sipping coffee at Denny’s.

And yet there was something different about Hiro as he crouched to meet his feline friends. He seemed confident and relaxed. At ease.

Sachiko realized he was safe here in a way he was safe nowhere else.

When she looked down and saw the black cat by her feet, the moment felt dreamlike. It was like the alleyway was a portal through which fantasies might cross into reality.

Sachiko reached for the cat.

“Kuro,” she said.


“Wait,” Hiro said.

But it was too late. Ryouma had lashed out, scratching Sachiko across her hand.

She fell backwards, and the cat escaped into the shadows.


Sachiko looked at her hand. The cut was deep. She stared at the blood pooling on her hand. Watched it trickle down her fingers onto asphalt.

The pain came suddenly, like a message.

This is what you get.

She felt herself trembling as she stood. Tears pooled at her eyes. She felt embarrassed. Ashamed. Foolish.

She ran.


Hiro watched Sachiko’s figure fade into the distance.

He was overwhelmed by a heavy feeling like a lonely pallor cast across the city.

He stood among the remaining cats, trying to think. A feeling welled up in his heart like a message.

This is what you get.

It felt very much like being a fifth grader all over again, sitting on a bench along a mountain path, entirely alone.


The darkness of Sachiko’s room was illuminated by her DS.

She watched Kuro wander the screen, and she cried.

She cried because the cat loved her. Because no matter who she was or what she did, if she opened her DS, he was happy to see her.

But Kuro didn’t know her, and Kuro never would.

That was why he loved her, and that was why it hurt.

Sachiko closed her DS, and packed a small bag of things. The next morning, she left the house without saying a word.


Each day after work, Hiro did the same thing. He went to Sachiko’s house, then to Denny’s, and then to the ramen restaurant.

And each day, nothing.

Sachiko’s parents were confused and worried. The staff at Denny’s apologized and gave him free drink vouchers. The ramen restaurant was now tinged with a very particular feeling of solitude.

Hiro wandered through the week like it was a dream. He saw himself lost in a dense forest, following the trail of a white cat.


Hiro thought a lot about the natural order of things.

He had always expected Sachiko to one day leave him on a metaphorical bench in the forest of Tokyo city, and yet he still felt unprepared.

His heart ached with the past.

But eventually, Hiro gave up and returned to routine. Though it was heavy with heart break, it was all he had left.

So he went to the convenience store and bought a bag of cat food.


“They still don’t like me.”

Hiro blinked. He looked at the girl standing in the alleyway. Her hands were a patchwork of scratches and bandaids. By her feet was a can of cat food.

It was Sachiko.

“I don’t think they trust me,” she said.

Hiro knelt down to pet Shiro. He looked at the moon for a moment, and then Sachiko.

“I think I’ve been bringing them too much food,” she said.

Hiro thought for a moment, and shook his head.

“You can’t just bring them food and expect them to like you,” he said. “And you can’t push them to change their nature. They’ve gone too long without trust. They’ve forgotten what it is.”

Hiro glanced at Sachiko’s hands.

“The only thing you can do with these cats,” he said, “is show a consistent kindness over time, and hope they accept you.”

“That’s it?”

He nodded.

“Any more than that is impossible.”

“Like you,” Sachiko said.

Hiro paused. He realized she was right.

“Like me,” he said. “And like you.”

“Can… Can we meet here again?” she asked.

The words were like a compass — or perhaps a white cat — guiding Hiro out of a dense forest. He smiled.

“We can.”

— -

Music

All original artwork by Fern Choonet (websiteinstagram — and thanks!)

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Snippets

Fragments of the everyday in Tokyo, as written by Hengtee Lim.

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