Authors: Hang Dong
Tabby was the prettiest kitty I'd ever seen. He was scarcely weaned when he arrived at our home, in a shoe box which served him as a king-size bed. He was a lively little thing who, at that stage, didn't seem different from any other cat. Just rather more attractive than most.
Looking at him, you might have assumed that Tabby was female, but you'd have been wrong. He was a tom, with none of the sweetness of a she-cat. He was imposing, with an acute gaze that no one dared to meet, although he seemed unaware of the effect he had on people. If he'd been a man, one would have looked at him sidelong, to avoid catching his eye. But Tabby was a cat, so there was no need to be so circumspect. When we felt intimidated, we could tell ourselves: He's just a cat, a bit of an odd cat, that's all. After all, we'd known him ever since he was a kitten.
When Tabby was little, there was nothing unusual about him. He liked playing with bits of string and little balls and skittering around the room. He'd go looking for fish bones under the dining table, and sometimes, if we accidentally stepped on him, he'd give an agonized, almost human cry. He was so small, it was easy to miss him, and he had none of the prudence he acquired later. He was carefree, even reckless, knowing no fear as he frolicked around and between the trunk-like legs of his human family.
I often lay in bed, my legs tucked up, making a mountain under the bedding. Tabby would make a mad rush at the mountain top or lie stock-still at its foot, as if he were a big cat on the African savannah. If I put my hand underneath the covers, Tabby would pounce and retreat, leap in the air and land, behaving as if my hand were some bizarre manifestation of nature. He was completely earnest and never gave up. Eventually, he made the connection between me and my hand and understood that I bore no ill will towards him, in fact I was fond of him. He and my hand were comparable in size, so he made it into a toy. When he was in a good mood, he played with it for a while, before apparently losing interest. At that point, however much my hand teased him, it was no good. Even if I collapsed the mountain of my knees, he wouldn't show any interest. He would extricate himself from the convulsing sheets, give a little shrug and a shake, and stalk off.
Tabby gradually grew into an adult cat and lost his kittenish curiosity about the world. He still liked to be on the move, but the difference was that now he paced himself.
Then, at some indefinable moment, he changed. Something must have happened to cause this change, but we never knew exactly what. It was a pity that I was away from home for some months around that time. However, the truth is that even if I'd been at home, I couldn't know everything that happened to Tabby. He was just a cat, to be found under the bed or along the walls, living a life that was completely separate from mine. Besides, he couldn't speak our language, and a cat's thoughts and needs can never fully be understood by humans, no matter how carefully they pry. Be that as it may, by the time I got back home, Tabby had become extremely, inexplicably strange.
I'd only been away about three or four months, certainly no more than six, but in feline terms this amounted to years, and this absence came at a crucial time in Tabby's life, an important stage in his personal development (if he'd been a human). As the old saying goes: Look at a seven-year-old boy and you see the man. It just so happened that at the moment when Tabby's personality was forming, I wasn't there with him. That was the point at which something happened, something that was vital to him but insignificant to us. That it had happened was beyond doubt. But quite what it was, we never found out.
Our suspicions focussed on the time when Coco, the kid from downstairs, came to borrow Tabby.
Coco was at an age when children have a natural affinity with animals. Besides, his father was my elder brother's colleague and his mother was a friend of my sister-in-law, so the two families were close and saw a lot of each other. When Coco came to ask to borrow the cat for the afternoon, therefore, my sister-in-law couldn't really refuse, even though she was uneasy about it. She solemnly handed the furry scrap over, and Coco clutched him and carried him downstairs. My sister-in-law couldn't very well go and keep an eye on themâthat would have felt too petty. She just reiterated that Tabby mustn't, on any account, be given raw fish guts and that he had to be brought back at the agreed time. Two hours later Coco came back, carrying the cat, and knocked on the door. He was early. Perhaps the kid had grown tired of the game. Tabby wriggled out of Coco's embrace, scuttled away across the living room and took refuge under the bed. He looked unscathed, although he was clearly terrified. He wasn't sick, so Coco couldn't have given him raw fish guts. Still, he hid under the bed, refusing to come out, and made a strange mewling noise they had never heard before. My sister-in-law cajoled him, to no avail; eventually, she was reduced to tears. Sniffing, she filled his bowl to the brim with milk, then, when that didn't tempt him out, with fish broth and a whole soy-stewed carp. She tapped Tabby's bowl with a spoon. Nothing worked.
We never found out what had happened in those two hours, but what was certain was that the cat's temperament had changed radically, and that it had gone in a highly unusual direction. Tabby no longer wove around our legs under the table. In fact, the family rarely knew his whereabouts, or if they did, they couldn't get at him. Everyone knew we kept a cat, but the only signs of his existence were a particular smellâthough it was impossible to trace the smell to its source. The neighbours' children were endlessly curious and searched every corner of the house. Sometimes my sister-in-law, as Tabby's owner, put on a show of joining in, but she wasn't in the least anxiousâshe knew that Tabby was unlikely to make an appearance. So as the kids ransacked the flat, even turning cupboards and drawers upside down, she smiled secretly, knowing full well that Tabby had found a safe hiding place. My sister-in-law was even unwilling to hazard a guess as to where he was. If she knew, she might betray her fear, so it was better not to know, better to have unconditional trust in Tabby. (This gave my mother an idea: Why not hide their savings book with Tabby? No burglar would ever find them.)
Tabby, strictly speaking, belonged to my sister-in-law. It was her idea to get a cat, and she was his chief caregiver. The rest of us just did the odd bit to help out, but we had no particular role. With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law's duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough in itself, but having to find the mess first made it even worse. As I said, Tabby was an expert at hide-and-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn't a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on. Every day she had to get my brother or me to move cupboards and bookshelves and lift the bed boards and frames. She swept out the turds, applied charcoal to get rid of the smell of cat urine, washed the soiled upholstery and bedding and hung them out to dry in the sun. The flat was never really tidy, in fact it got to be quite a mess. The furniture was piled higgledy-piggledy in the middle of the room, as if we had just moved in or were about to move out and the removal truck was waiting downstairs. It began to get us humans down, but Tabby was in his element. Our house had become a jungle, the air pungent with the odour of cats. Gradually, we too became acclimatized; the smell became attenuated and our noses less sensitive. This had the effect of making it more difficult to locate the puddles of cat pee, and we failed more often. My sister-in-law, conscious that her olfactory sense had dulled, worried constantly that she had overlooked something. She went around sniffing all day long, until she sounded as if she had chronic rhinitis.
Still, there were good times. Picture the touching scene: My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She's engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it in a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour or so, the surface of the water is black with Tabby's fleas.
Our cat was infested with the creatures, so his mistress had to repeat this service constantly. By this time, my sister-in-law was the only person who was allowed to touch him, and even she had raw, red scratches all over her hands from his sharp claws. She didn't care and never went to get a rabies inoculation. My brother was horrified. Rabies can stay dormant for as much as twenty years, he told her, and might flare up at any time. âBut Tabby's a clean-living cat,' retorted my sister-in-law. âHe never goes out, so he can't possibly have picked up rabies. If he bites us and behaves oddly, it's because he has psychological problems.' Tabby lay in the crook of her arm like a beautiful baby, staring at us wide-eyed, content to allow his mistress to part his belly fur this way and that. His eyes closed in blissful content and grunting issued from his throat. But appearances were deceptive: at any moment, this un-swaddled infant might leap into the air and extend his fearsome claws. Once, my sister-in-law was bent just a little too close over her task and Tabby nearly had her eye out. As it was, her nose was badly scratched, and she was scarred for life. Her cat duties were not just never-ending, they were extremely hazardous. No wonder they demanded her unwavering attention.
My sister-in-law went to work every day, came home and spent the rest of the evening caring for Tabby. As time went by, the cooking gradually devolved on my mother, who was over sixty and in frail health. Until then, the most she had done in the kitchen was lend my sister-in-law a hand, but now she wielded the ladle over the wok and my sister-in-law didn't lift a finger. My elderly mother shopped and cooked, served us and even did the washing-up afterwards. It was hard for herâshe'd been a pampered only-child, and this was the first time in her life that she'd had to take charge of the house. At the start, my mother accepted her new responsibilities with alacrity. Her daughter-in-law constantly praised her effortsâbecause she had a guilty conscienceâand so my brother and I had to follow suit. If my sister-in-law put her nose through the kitchen door, it was only to prepare food for Tabby. She stewed fish guts for him until the kitchen stank to high heaven and we had to hold our noses. But sometimes, the kitchen smells were deliciousâthat was when, on high days and holidays, she went out especially to buy fresh fish for Tabby, which she left swimming in the wash basin. These she cleaned and cooked herself, entirely for the cat. We never got so much as a taste, nor did she. She and my mother jostled for space in the kitchen, so that Tabby should get his meals on time. Sometimes the smell of Tabby's food made our mouths water. Once, my brother and I accidentally tasted a spoonful of Tabby's food and told my mother how good her cooking was; another time, I had a spoonful of the sweet and sour fish my mother was making and it was so horrible that I thought it was for the cat. Eventually, my mother's confidence in her cooking plummeted, and she no longer wielded the wok ladle with the energy of a master chef.
It was not that my sister-in-law wanted to leave my mother in charge. In fact, her constant care for the cat was largely done for my mother's benefit. If she didn't prepare the cat's food, then he would have had to eat a portion of our food, wouldn't he? Most importantly, my mother was super-sensitive to bugs. In summer, a single mosquito in the flat would keep her awake. If she got bitten, she would be scratching all night. And the mosquitos found her irresistible: in fact, she was the best mosquito-repellent for everyone else. Any mosquito would make a beeline for her and leave the rest of us alone. With fleas, it was even worse. Ever since Tabby's arrival, my mother had been covered in streaks of blood from flea bites, which were indirectly caused by the cat. My sister-in-law felt so sorry that she redoubled her efforts to rid Tabby of his fleas. But she wouldn't get rid of Tabby. Even my mother could see that her daughter-in-law treated him like her own son, and she accepted this. Both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law were highly principled women, and somehow, Tabby kept their relationship in harmonious balance.
Tabby was the pivotal point of family life, and the pivot of the pivot was the never-ending supply of fleas. One day, my sister-in-law bought him a Happy Kitty flea collar. The fleas deserted him in droves, which made him happy, but rather than disappear, they scattered to the four corners of the flat before coming together in one placeâmy mother's bedding. My mother wasn't wearing a Happy Kitty flea collar, so you can imagine the outcome. The old lady had a much harder time of it than Tabby: no flea collar and no one to spend all day picking the fleas off of her. When my sister-in-law saw the appalling devastation that my mother's continual scratching was wreaking on her body, she had to take Tabby's collar off. Once they had heard the news, the fleas returned to live on the catâalthough a few remained behind, and even one bite was enough to give my mother a sleepless night. However, she was at least liberated from the torment of hundreds of fleas inflicting thousands of bites on her. The truth is that my mother learned to tolerate the flea bites somewhat, and the sight of my sister-in-law bent assiduously over Tabby's belly made it difficult for her to complain.
After that, my brother swore to exterminate the pests. He got a can of insect repellent and directed a fierce jet at Tabby. The cat yowled and fled, not under the bed or behind the cupboard, but onto the windowsill, perhaps seeing safety in the outside world. Our flat was on the seventh floor, and luckily the windows were screened with a plastic mesh. Otherwise, Tabby would have fallen through. He dangled from the mesh, and his claws scrabbled and tore at it. Spread-eagled and silhouetted blackly against the rectangle of light, he mewed piteously. But my brother was determined to solve this problem once and for all. He emptied half the can, filling the flat with DDVP; the spray formed droplets on Tabby that dripped from his fur. His mewing grew fainter until finally he dropped, still spread-eagled, to the floor.
My brother had to adopt emergency measures to revive him. He rinsed him with bowl after bowl of clean water, finally holding him under the kitchen tap. Tabby went limp and let himself be handled. Normally, he refused to be bathed, and it took the two of them to manage it, my sister-in-law washing him while my brother gripped his back legs. This time was different: he even allowed my brother to give him two soapings and several rinses. My brother then towelled him dry and blew warm air at him with the hair dryer; he even trimmed Tabby's front claws. My sister-in-law came home from work to see a well-groomed Tabby and my tenderly solicitous brother. This gave her a gnawing, jealous feeling, but she never got the bottom of what had happened, and my brother never told her about the insecticide. From then on, however, Tabby never trusted anyone but my sister-in-law. She was the only person he allowed close to him, yet he attacked her with renewed savagery. My sister-in-law's arms were covered in a network of scratches, both fresh and old, and she became expert at dodging his attacks. My sister-in-law must have been suspicious about the cold Tabby caught as a result of the incident with the spray can, and his subsequent bath, perhaps connecting it with something my brother had done, but her woman's intuition warned her not to probe too deeply, in case it led to divorce. She didn't want thatâneither did my brotherâso Tabby's bath became a taboo subject, which they both learned to avoid. My brother simply assumed an air of guilt, as if he were a man with a mistress on the side.