Monday, March 5, 2012

Stray Cat Blues

      Outside of a village nearer to Edo than anywhere else, there lived a man who made his living climbing the snaking path that led up the mountain of which his shack sat at the foot.  A cat with ivory fur, its ears and tail like wood smoke, lived with him.  Like his Master, the cat had long white whiskers that hung low past his chin and curled inward.  The little cat was proud of the resemblance, as proud as he was of his daily escort of his Master up the snaking path that led up the mountain. 
     There his Master cut bamboo, which he placed in a basket on his back to walk still further down the mountain to sell to the villagers, so that mats and blinds could be made, also to the kendo school for the making of practice swords.  The school needed many new swords and the little cat’s Master saved the choicest pieces in hope that the school would buy them, as they paid the best of all.
      So it was that one morning the little cat followed his Master, who had slung his empty basket and gathered his hatchet and walking staff.  They began the windy walk up the snaking path of the mountain, the little cat slightly ahead, in order to secure the safety of his Master from all crickets and lizards, the occasional butterfly.
      When his Master arrived at the small grove of bamboo where he plied his trade, the little cat trotted off to find a sunny spot in which to lie.  However, the air that morning was crisp, and the little cat found no solace from the chill of the breeze.
He began to wander through the bamboo thicket.  Small birds called from above, but too high for the little cat to catch them.  The great, green stalks surrounded him.  He found the further he walked the thicker they became, forming a blind of green segmented nothing that appeared endless, except for the steepening slope of the mountain.
      Soon, and to the little cat’s surprise, he found that the stalks became taller and stouter than he had seen in all his lives.  They rose high in the air and not even the birds seemed to be near.  He walked with more of a prancing trot.  The deeper he went into the bamboo grove that was made of stalks both taller and stouter than any he had seen before in any of his lives.
When it seemed as if the stalks could grow neither taller nor stouter, the little cat came upon a clearing on the crest of the mountain.  In the wide circle no bamboo grew, much like the hair on the top of his Master’s head.  Walking out into the clearing, the little cat saw a lone tree centered among the great circle of great stalks of bamboo, which were taller and stouter than any he had seen in all of his lives.
      The small tree puzzled the little cat.  The snaking path that lead up the mountain did not lead here, but wasted away some distance past Master’s cutting grove, where they daily cut the bamboo for the people of the village and especially for the kendo school, who always needed new swords and paid better than the rest of the village for his Master’s bamboo.
The little cat twitched whiskers and slowly walked around the bonsai tree.  His tail flicked back and forth.  He could smell nothing on the tree but wind and rain and the soft smell of the wood.
      Sitting down upon his haunches, he eyed the tree with his head cocked to one side.  Dead branches hung off of the tree, which split near the top,  half living, half dead.  Part of the trunk had no bark.  The tip of his tail swung and twisted.  One sprig of the tree seemed out of place to him, a small branch on the North side, more pointed and less pruned than the rest of the tree, which was scarcely larger than the little cat himself.  It seemed to point away from the tree. 
He puffed his chest and exhaled deeply.  This sprig of the bonsai tree in the middle of the clearing, surrounded by the tallest and stoutest of bamboo that the cat had ever seen in any of his lives, simply would not do.
      He walked over to the offending sprig, and with one claw extended and in a quick sweeping motion: the little cat trimmed the tree.
      There was then a noise such as the little cat had heard only on the worst of days, when his Master would shutter the house against gale and rain, stoking the fire in the center of the shack to keep the damp chill from his joints that ached from age and his daily walking the snaking path that lead up the mountain from the village to the grove where he plied his trade. 
      It rang in the little cat’s ears like the large bells of the temple his Master sometimes visited, after selling his bamboo, where he would give to the men in red and yellow robes that were balder than even his Master.  The sound shook the ground, and the little cat lay upon his belly with his ears back upon his head, his eyes closed, and his tail no longer twitching, but curled around his left side.
     When the noise ceased, the little cat opened one eye a little, then the other.  Before him stood a large, white Dragon, whose scales glowed like pearls and whose wings and face were covered by white feathers far whiter than the ivory of the little cat’s fur.  Great long whiskers hung from his mouth.  They did not curl inward, as his Master’s did, but ran straight and thick, nearly touching the ground, even from his great height.  The little cat’s eyes grew large, larger than they had in any of his lives.
      “Little cat, why have you trimmed my tree?”
      The little cat shuddered at the deep voice that shook the ground and the stalks of bamboo that circled the small bonsai tree.
     “Again, why have you trimmed my tree?”
     The cat stammered.
     “I did not know that this was your tree, thank you.  I am truly sorry if I have offended you, Great Dragon, thank you very much,” the cat said, laying his belly and head as far to the ground as he could.
     “Was this your tree?”
     “No, Great Sir, it was not my tree, thank you.  I saw only one sprig which seemed to be out of place, thank you.  I cut it in order to increase its beauty, truly, thank you very much.”
     “But it was not your tree to trim, now, was it?”
     “No, Great Sir, it was not my tree, thank you very much.”
     The Dragon exhaled deeply, sending a gale through the clearing that blew the little cat’s fur firmly against his back.
     “Have you not noticed the grove, here?  Have you seen that here grows the tallest and stoutest of bamboo?”
     The little cat tried to speak, but could only shudder against the cold ground.
     “I know of you and your Master, little cat.   I know how you daily walk the snaking path that leads to the spot where your Master cuts his bamboo.  I also know how you follow ahead of him and of the dear love for you that your Master possesses.”
     The little cat raised his eyes to the Great Dragon.  Their corners were wet.
    “Your Master is a kind man.  He is also wise.  He never cuts more bamboo from my mountain than he needs, and after selling it in the village, if he has money more than he requires, he gives it to the monks at the temple.  This pleases me about your Master.  Do you understand how this pleases me, little cat?”
     “I believe so, Great Sir, thank you very much.”
     “I would not deprive this man of his little cat, whom he loves so, but you, little cat, need to be taught a lesson.”
     The little cat could not stop the shaking of his paws.
     “Stand.  I do not require you to lie there and shiver.”
     The little cat lifted himself uneasily like a newborn faun.
     “I will spare you, little cat.  For you love your Master as he loves you.  This is a treasure which I would honor, rather than destroy.  It is a rare thing in this world to find contentment.”
     “Great Sir, thank you.”
     “However,” the dragon said, and, with a strike faster than any the cat had ever seen in all of his lives, “I will take your whiskers from you, as you have taken the sprig from my tree.  Does this seem fair to you, little cat?”
     The little cat saw his long, curling whiskers lying at his feet.  His mouth hung at the sight of them.
     “Is this fair, little cat?  For you have said yourself that you had no right to trim my tree, did you not?”
     “Yes, Great Sir, I have said as much, thank you.”
     “Now, little cat, run down my mountain to your Master.  Do not return to my grove.  Serve your Master well, for he is a wise old man, and it pleases him to have your company on his daily walks along the snaking path that leads up the mountain.  He is waiting for you.  Go.”
     “Thank you very much, Great Sir.  I shall never return to your grove, thank you very much,” the cat said.
With a sudden crash of thunder and a shake of the earth, the White Dragon was gone.  The little cat ran down the mountain, past the tallest and stoutest stalks, faster than he had ever ran in all of his lives.
     At the spot where his Master cut the bamboo that he sold in the village and especially to the kendo schools, who paid much better, the little cat found his Master swinging his full basket over his shoulder.  Green stalks rose high over his head.  Some had small leaves still attached that fluttered in the breeze.
     “There you are, little cat.  I was beginning to wonder about you.”
The little cat rubbed himself against his Master’s legs, around and around again.
     “What has happened to your whiskers, little cat?”
     The Master bent to pet the head of his cat, rubbing with his fingertips between the little cat’s ears as he often did.
     “You must have had an adventure today, eh?  If only you could tell me of it.  I’m sure that it was a grand one,” he said smiling.
     The little cat purred at his feet.
     “Come, now.   We have to go to the village and see who needs some bamboo today.  I hope the kendo school will buy some.  It has been some time since they have visited.  They are bound to need new swords by now.”
     The Master and his cat began to walk down the snaking path which led to the village.  The sun had risen higher in the sky.  The breeze had lost its chill.  The little cat trotted before his Master, his smoky tail swinging one way, then the other.

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