Issue 172, Winter 2004
Nakata visited the vacant lot for several days. One morning it rained heavily, so he spent the day doing simple woodwork in his room, but apart from that he bided his time seated in the weeds waiting for the missing tortoiseshell cat to show up, or the man in the strange hat. But no luck.
At the end of each day Nakata stopped by the home of the people who’d hired him and gave an update on his search—where he’d gone, what sort of information he’d managed to pick up. The cat’s owner would pay him twenty dollars, his going rate. Nobody had ever officially set that fee, word just got around that there was a master cat-finder in the neighborhood and somehow he settled on that daily rate. People would always give him something extra besides the money, too—food, occasionally clothes. And a bonus of eighty dollars once he actually tracked down the missing cat.
Nakata wasn’t constantly being asked to search for missing cats, so the fees he accumulated each month didn’t add up to much. He lived on his meager savings and a municipal monthly subsidy for the elderly handicapped. He managed to get by on the subsidy alone, so he could spend his cat-finding fees as he wished, and for him it seemed like a substantial amount. Sometimes, though, he couldn’t come up with any idea of how to spend it, other than enjoying his favorite grilled eel. Going to the bank involved filling out forms, so any leftover money he hid beneath the tatami in his room.
Being able to converse with cats was Nakata’s little secret. Only he and the cats knew about it. People would think he was crazy if he mentioned it, so he never did. Everybody knew he wasn’t very bright, but being dumb and being crazy were different matters altogether.
It wasn’t so unusual, after all, to see old folks talking to animals as if they were people. But if anyone did happen to comment on his abilities with cats and say something like, “Mr. Nakata, how are you able to know cats’ habits so well?” he’d just smile and let it pass. Nakata was always serious and well mannered, with a pleasant smile, and was a favorite among the housewives in the neighborhood. His neat appearance also helped. Poor though he was, Nakata enjoyed bathing and doing laundry, and the nearly brand-new clothes his clients often gave him only added to his clean-cut look. Some of the clothes—a salmon pink Jack Nicklaus golf shirt, for instance—didn’t exactly suit him, but Nakata didn’t mind as long as they were neat and clean.
Nakata was standing at the front door, giving a halting report to his present client, Mrs. Koizumi, on the search for her cat, Goma.
“Nakata finally got some information about little Goma,” he began. “A person named Kawamura said that a few days ago he saw a cat resembling Goma over in the empty lot, the one with the wall around it, over in the 2-chome District. It’s two big roads away from here, and he said the age, coat, and collar are all the same as Goma’s. Nakata decided to keep a lookout at the empty lot, so I take a lunch and sit there every day, morning till sunset. No, don’t worry about that—I have plenty of free time, so unless it’s raining hard I don’t mind at all. But if you think it’s no longer necessary, then please tell me. I will stop right away.”
He didn’t tell her that this Mr. Kawamura wasn’t a person but a striped brown cat. That would only complicate matters.
Mrs. Koizumi thanked him. Her two little daughters were in a gloomy mood after their beloved pet suddenly vanished, and had lost their appetite. Their mother couldn’t just explain it away by telling them that cats tended to disappear every once in while. But despite the shock to the girls, she didn’t have the time to go around town looking for their cat. That made her all the more glad to find a person like Nakata who, for a mere twenty dollars per diem, would do his best to search for Goma. Nakata was a strange old man, and had a weird way of speaking, but people claimed he was an absolute genius when it came to locating cats. She knew she shouldn’t think about it like this, but the old man didn’t seem bright enough to deceive anyone. She handed him his fee in an envelope, as well as a Tupperware container with some vegetable rice and taro potatoes she’d just cooked.
Nakata bowed as he took the Tupperware, sniffed the food, and thanked her. “Thank you kindly. Taro is one of Nakata’s favorites.”
“I hope you enjoy it,” Mrs. Koizumi replied.
A week had passed since he first staked out the empty lot, during which time Nakata had seen a lot of different cats come in and out. Kawamura, the striped brown cat, stopped by a couple of times each day to say hello. Nakata greeted him, and chatted about the weather and his sub city. He still couldn’t follow a word the cat said.
“Crouch on pavement, Kawara’s in trouble,” Kawamura said. He seemed to want to convey something to Nakata, but the old man didn’t have a clue.
The cat seemed perplexed by this, and repeated the same—possibly the same—thought in different words. “Kawara’s shouting tied.” Nakata was even more lost.
Too bad Mimi’s not here to help out, he thought. Mimi’d give the cat a good slap on the cheek and get him to make some sense. A smart cat, that Mimi. But Mimi wasn’t here. She’d never show up in a field like this, since she hated getting ticks from other cats.
Other cats filtered in and out. At first they were on their guard when they spotted Nakata, gazing at him from a distance in annoyance, but after they saw that he was simply sitting there, doing nothing, they forgot all about him. In his typical friendly way, Nakata tried to strike up conversations. He’d say hello and introduce himself, but most of the cats turned a deaf ear, pretending they couldn’t hear him, or stared right through him. The cats here were particularly adept at giving someone the cold shoulder. They must have had some pretty awful experiences with humans, Nakata decided. He was in no position to demand anything of them, and didn’t blame them for their coldness. He knew very well that in the world of cats he would always be an outsider.
“So you can talk, huh?” the cat, a black and white tabby with torn ears, said a bit hesitantly as it glanced around. The cat spoke gruffly but seemed nice enough.
“Yes, a little,” Nakata replied.
“Impressive all the same,” the tabby commented.
“My name’s Nakata,” Nakata said. “And your name would be?”
“Ain’t got one,” the tabby said brusquely.
“How about Okawa? Do you mind if I call you that?”
“Well, then, Mr. Okawa,” Nakata said, “as a token of our meeting each other, would you care for some dried sardines?”
“Sounds good. One of my favorites, sardines.”
Nakata took a Saran-wrapped sardine from his bag. He always had a few sardines with him, just in case. Okawa gobbled down the sardine, stripping it from head to tail, then cleaned his face.
“That hit the spot. Much obliged. I’d be happy to lick you somewhere, if you’d like.”
“No, there’s no need to. Nakata’s grateful for the offer, but right now I don’t need to be licked anywhere, thanks all the same. Actually, I’ve been asked by its owner to locate a missing cat. A female tortoiseshell by the name of Goma.” Nakata took the color snapshot of Goma out of his bag and showed it to Okawa. “Someone told me this cat has been spotted in this vacant lot. So Nakata’s been sitting here for several days waiting for Goma to show up. I was wondering if, by chance, you may have run across her.”
Okawa glanced at the photo and made a gloomy face. Frown lines appeared between his eyebrows and he blinked in consternation several times. “I’m grateful for the sardine, don’t get me wrong. But I can’t talk about that. I’ll be in hot water if I do.”
Nakata was bewildered.
“A dangerous, nasty business. I think you’d better write that cat off. And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay away from this place.” With this Okawa stood up, looked around, and disappeared into a thicket.
Nakata sighed, took out his thermos, and slowly sipped some tea. Okawa had said it was dangerous to be here, but Nakata couldn’t imagine how. All he was doing was looking for a lost little cat. What could possibly be dangerous about that? Maybe it was that cat-catcher with the strange hat Kawamura told him about who’s dangerous. But Nakata was a person, not a cat. So why should he be afraid of a cat-catcher?
But the world was full of many things Nakata couldn’t hope to fathom, so he gave up thinking about it. With a brain like his, the only result he got from thinking too much was a headache. Nakata sipped the last drop of his tea, screwed the cap on the thermos, and placed it back inside his bag.
After Okawa, no other cats showed up for a long time. Just butterflies, silently fluttering above the weeds. A flock of sparrows flew into the lot, scattered in various directions, regrouped, and winged away. Nakata dozed off a few times, coming awake with a start. He knew approximately what time it was by the position of the sun.
It was nearly evening when a huge, black dog suddenly appeared from the thicket, silently lumbering forward. From where Nakata sat, the beast looked more like a calf than a dog. It had long legs, short hair, bulging, steely muscles, ears as sharp as knife points, and no collar. Nakata didn’t know much about breeds of dogs, but one glance told him this was the vicious variety. The kind of dog the military used in its K-9 corps.
The dog’s eyes were as glazed and lifeless as glass beads congealed from swamp water, and the skin around its mouth turned up, exposing wicked-looking fangs. Its teeth had blood stuck to them, and slimy bits of meat matted around its mouth. Its bright red tongue flicked out between its teeth like a flame. The dog fixed its glare on Nakata and stood there, unmoving, without a sound, for a long time. Nakata was silent too. He didn’t know how to speak to dogs—only cats.
Nakata breathed quietly, shallowly, but he wasn’t afraid. He had a pretty good idea he was face-to-face with a hostile, aggressive animal. (Why this was, he had no idea.) But he didn’t carry this thought one step further and see himself in imminent peril. The concept of death was beyond his powers of imagination. And pain was something he wasn’t aware of until he actually felt it. As an abstract concept pain didn’t mean a thing. The upshot of this was he wasn’t afraid, even with this monstrous dog staring him down. He was merely perplexed.
Stand up! the dog said.
Nakata gulped. The dog was talking! Not really talking, since its mouth wasn’t moving—but communicating through some means other than speech.
Stand up and follow me! the dog commanded.
Nakata did as he was told, clambering to his feet. A thought crossed Nakata’s mind: Maybe this dog has some connection with the governor, who found out he was getting money for finding cats and was going to take away his sub city! He considered saying hello to the dog, then thought better of it. No amount of time would turn it into a friend.
Once Nakata got to his feet, the dog slowly started to walk away. It had a short tail and, below its base, two large balls.
The dog cut straight across the vacant lot and slipped out between the wooden fence. Nakata followed, and the dog never looked back. As they drew closer to the shopping district the streets grew more crowded, mostly with housewives out shopping. Eyes fixed straight ahead, the dog walked on, his whole bearing overpowering. When people spied this giant, violent-looking beast, they leaped aside, a couple of bicyclists even getting off and crossing over to the other side of the street to avoid facing him.
Nakata no longer knew where they were. What was he going to do if he got lost and couldn’t find his way back? For all he knew they might not even be in Nakano Ward anymore. He craned his neck, trying to spot familiar landmarks, but no such luck. This was a part of the city he’d never seen before.
“Say, is this still Nakano Ward?” Nakata called out.
The dog didn’t respond or look around.
“Do you work for the governor?”
Again no response.
“Nakata’s just looking for a lost cat. A small tortoiseshell cat named Goma.”
This was getting him nowhere, and he gave up.