Most “artists” have a chosen field or medium in which they specialize. Painting, music, sculpting, dancing, literature, etc. Some further narrow their focus to a particular discipline within the broader categories. Japan’s Hagiwara Sakutaro (1886-1942) chose poetry. I haven’t read any of his poems yet, but I was intrigued that his tale “The Town of Cats” was the only short story he ever wrote. I wondered what was so special about what he wanted to say that made him stray from his normal form just this one time. Maybe he did write poems about the phenomenon he describes in “The Town of Cats” and he just wanted to expound on the idea at length. I don’t know, but – whatever the reasons were – I’m so glad he did, as the result was this enchanting story…
“The Town of Cats”
I drew the two of spades from my short story deck Saturday morning. Since “deuces are wild” this year in my short story project, I looked for an “at large” story that fit my spades criteria (stories of a darker nature). I went to my new go-to anthology: “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories” [discovered by me via at Nina’s Blog where she once wrote a (much more eloquent post than mine will be) on this same story.] and selected this story, now perhaps my favorite thus far this year.
The narrator of the story is, like the author, a former user of psychotropic drugs who was fond of the hallucinatory journeys he used to take, saying:
“In the past, I often undertook wondrous voyages in my own personal way. Let me explain… I would reach that unique moment in which humankind sometimes finds itself able to soar – that special moment outside the chain of cause and effect – and it would adroitly navigate the borderline between dreams and reality to play in an uninhibited world of my own making.”
As he ages, his body begins to pay the price for this drug abuse, and he has to stop. He discovers, though, that his innate lack of a sense of direction affords him a capacity to undertake similar “wondrous voyages” simply by getting lost and coming upon known places from an unfamiliar direction or with a novel perspective.
This ability reaches its zenith when he is vacationing at a hot springs resort in the Hoketsu region. Already armed with knowledge of local myths and folklore (which, as you might expect from the title, included legends that “the spirits of dogs possessed the inhabitants of one particular settlement, while cats possessed another.”) the narrator predictably loses his way and becomes totally lost in an area truly unknown to him. In his searching to find his way back to the resort, he comes upon a city “so special, so unusual!” He speculates that the town’s “artistic feel had evolved naturally as the town gradually weathered and developed a elegant patina that reflected its age.” Soon he comes to an understanding that this city is like a delicate crystal, held together by the collective effort and concentration of its inhabitants, and also that “a loss of balance, even for a moment, would have dashed the entire thing to smithereens.”
This realization makes him extremely anxious, and he becomes aware that the equilibrium of the city is about to be disturbed. “Something strange was about to happen! Something had to happen!” What happens is that a small black rat dashed into the center of the road, precipitating a transformation of the towns inhabitants to cats “great packs of cats materialized everywhere, filling all the roads around me… everywhere I looked there was nothing but cats!” He is stunned and wonders if what he’s observing is part of a “real” world. The spell is soon broken, however as his normal senses return to him.
“The mysterious, perplexing town of a moment ago had vanished without a trace. An entirely separate world had appeared, almost as if a playing card* had been turned over to reveal its other side.”
This story and its ending reminded me a little of the old tale of the Chinese philosopher who fell asleep and dreamt he was a butterfly and, upon awakening, was never again sure if he was a man who had once dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly now dreaming he was a man. I suppose it’s possible that our realities are held together by our descriptions of them, but it’s just as possible that one could go crazy thinking about these things (this is why I avoid studying philosophy!). I was also reminded of what one of his Yaqui Indian friends told Carlos Castaneda (yes, I once read those books): that “There are worlds upon worlds right in front of us.”
Have you read anything by Sakutaro? I guess it’s either this, or his poetry, huh? I had never heard of him before I learned of this story, but maybe I will try some of his poetry.
*Perhaps the card Sakutaro is referring to is…the two of spades…? 🙂