Let’s start with the story.
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Yukiko. She was employed as a servant in the house of a proud, heartless noblewoman who treated her like dirt. Yukiko’s only joy was a little cat who lived in the house, a tiny thing with a brown-spotted white coat who ate scraps from the kitchen, and loved to roll on her back so Yukiko could scratch her belly.
One day, the cat disappeared, leaving Yukiko heartbroken. What was she to do? She could not believe her cat had simply abandoned her. One early morning, she took all her belongings in a bundle, stole a few rice cakes from the kitchen and set out to find her.
She walked for days, barely resting. One evening, she came to the top of a mountain and found a cave. ‘I could sleep here,’ she thought, ‘at least I’ll be safe from the rain.’ But when she walked in, she saw a great big gate guarded by two huge, wild, ferocious cats! She hastily apologised and tossed them the last of her rice cakes. As they stopped paying attention and started to eat, she slipped past the gate and let it close behind her.
What a sight awaited her! The cave was so large you could not see it end, and there were cats everywhere, resting on cushions, eating fish and mice and grooming themselves. As they noticed her, some started to hiss.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you,’ she stammered. ‘I was only looking for my friend, the little cat from the proud noblewoman’s house. Please, have you seen her?’
‘Yukiko, is that you?’ said a voice from behind.
And there Yukiko saw her friend; and how changed she was. Her coat was lustrous and thick, and she looked healthy and better-fed than ever. She mewed happily, and rubbed herself against Yukiko’s shins.
‘I’m so happy to see you,’ she said. ‘I was old and tired and this was no life for me, stealing scraps and getting kicked every time I was in the way. I had to come here instead.’
‘But where are we?’ Yukiko asked.
‘We’re in Cat Paradise,’ her friend said. ‘This is our secret place, where we can come when life becomes to painful. Here we never want for anything. There is food, and sunlight, and cushions, and friends. This is the place where cats come to be happy forever.’
It looked like a fine place indeed.
‘Could I stay there too?’ Yukiko asked.
‘I’m afraid not,’ the cat said. ‘Not all cats here are tame. They will tolerate you as long as you are with me, but when they get tired of you, you will be in grave danger. Besides, this is no place for humans. Could you spend your life sleeping on a cushion and eating raw fish?’
Yukiko had to admit that she could not. Her friend had her sit down, and had some fish and tea brought, and they chatted for a while, the cat purring and Yukiko scratching her belly and head. They made fun of their proud mistress and remembered the fine food from the kitchens, until it was time for Yukiko to leave.
Then the cat gave her a bag.
‘If any cat threatens you on your way out, shake this in their face,’ she said.
And Yukiko went back, holding the bag in front of her and shaking it every time a cat hissed at her. Even the two sentinels, who were none too happy to have been made fools of, grudgingly let her go. Then she walked back down the mountain. Sadly, she reflected that she would never see her friend again, but she was happy to know what a good life she had. Only then did she think to look into the bag. Inside was a magic picture of a fearsome lion, holding a dozen solid gold coins in its paws.
So Yukiko walked to the nearest city and bought a little shop where she sold rice cakes, and she never wanted for anything anymore.
In the part that’s not a story, I had a little cat named Mathilde. She was a Birman, white with dark brown legs and face, but after a few surgeries her white coat had grown back dark in places. She was tiny, and cross-eyed, not very bright and quite foul-tempered, but when she decided that she wanted your affection, she would follow you around purring for hours, sleep by your side or on your chest and on your keyboard. She tried to hunt when she was young, but we prevented her, to spare the birds and because she would be no match for the magpies if they decided to attack her. She also ran around the house so carelessly that she would sometimes bang her head in furniture, but that never bothered her. She loved to have her belly scratched for hours, and her eyes as well. For some reason, she was also very fond of green beans.
My dad called me last week, just a few days before I was scheduled to go back to France. She had been ill for a while, and one night she had gone to sleep in her favourite armchair and never woken up. I was grateful he had waited for me to be out of the lab before he called. Better avoid the people who will berate you for crying over a cat, and the people who will express condescending sympathy only to remind you later how ridiculous you were to make a fuss, and those who may have lost a family member and will understandably feel little patience with you. Besides, you don’t need the world to stop on your behalf. You just need to take a moment to yourself. So I waited until we were back home and took the time I needed. It’s the fourth time it’s happened, and it does not really get easier, only more familiar. One part of you loses words and reaction and just sits there bewildered, the other part has got all the words but none of the feelings, and it observes, sets a patient count of the number of days that should go by before you feel fine again, reflecting that it’s only like having a huge hole poked inside your flesh and waiting for the scar for form, after all one tender scar and a couple of miserable days are a small price to pay for fourteen years of beautiful happiness, and isn’t it funny that I never realised before that if your face bloats up when you cry, that must be because your blood vessels have to bring so much fluid to your eyes to make the tears.
I like to think that time is only linear because our brains perceive it so. That our living perceptions and actual time are like two curved planes rolling against each other, and the only moment we can experience is the point where those planes contact; but every moment, past, future and unrealised possibilities, is real somewhere, only too far and distorted for us to still live in it. Somewhere along the universes where my grandfather lived on for some more years in the house by the sea, where my grandmother taught me about her cooking and knitting and where my grandaunt still recognises me, there is one where I came home to hold my little friend one last time before we said goodbye. In all those universes, there is grief, but the moments of happiness are also there, playing out in eternal bliss. And somewhere in that infinity of worlds, my little Mathilde is contentedly eating green beans, even though she’s out of my reach.