“Definitely I must have a mystic connection with cats,” Ming concluded. Otherwise, he could never understand why he’d nurtured such a strong ambivalence about the creature. On the one hand, he liked a cat’s handsome face, its quiet character, its soft and light movements as well as its grooming habit, but on the other hand, he seemed to have an innate fear of cats, though he was not born in the year, or with the psychology, of the rat, which dare not play unless the cat’s away.
It was during the summer holidays of 1969 when he’d just finished elementary school. He was visiting his step-aunt living in a faraway village. For a whole week, the weather was sizzling hot even in the evening. To get some sleep, he lied down on a door board laid flat in the front yard of her house, almost totally naked, hoping to get a bit of coolness of the night. He was dreaming about playing in the bamboo grove when he felt a sudden sharp. Between wake and sleep, he perceived a cat clutching at his left thigh. He tried to get rid of it, but each time he attempted the slightest movement, he felt the cat tightening its grasp. After many trials and failures, he decided to give up, waiting passively for the cat to loosen its grip of its own accord. During this endless process, he was nervous and stressful, overwhelmed with a sense of agony, but he had to endure the torture inflicted on him by the cat. He didn’t know why the creature had picked him and what it wanted from him, nor could he tell later for sure if this incident was just a nightmare or a true experience, but that was the time when he began to avoid the creature like an evil spirit.
Later on, he heard people say that one of the most expensive dishes in traditional Cantonese cuisine was called ‘Dragon and Tiger Fight,” a course prepared with the meat of a cat and that of a snake as the two major ingredients. In folk culture, the cat represented the tiger, while the snake stood for the dragon. “So, a cat can be cooked as a meat dish,” he felt amazed at the idea.
As if karma would have it, he had another close contact with the creature when he started to attend senior high school. It was during a field trip to a hilly village, where Ming and his classmates were dispatched to “learn farming” according to Chairman Mao’s teachings. On a dark evening, his teacher caught a wild cat somewhere and challenged all the boys to act like Wu Song, the nationally popular hero portrayed in the famous classic novel Outlaws of the Marsh, who killed a tiger with his bare hands. Partly to strengthen his guts and partly to seek revenge for the hurt he got, Ming offered to do the bloody job. With a big knife in his hand, his eyes tightly closed, he held his breath and chopped the cat’s head off. After giving him a whole pile of compliments, the teacher taught him to skin it and then cooked its meat with a lot of turnip slices. “This way, the soup and meat wouldn’t taste sour,” he told the boys. “But don’t eat the turnips, for they would have an awful taste after absorbing all the bad flavor.”
However, Ming did not like the dish at all. The meat was very special, as it contained no fat but countless thin layers of muscle tissues. Imagining how the headless cat might have looked, he couldn’t help feeling like throwing out. Worse still, he just couldn’t erase the memory of this experience though he longed to, especially after he learned that it’s bad luck to kill such “spirited” creatures as cats, snakes and turtles.
As he grew older, he learned to do good deeds like Liaofan, one of his most famous ancient ancestors who kept improving his fortune by performing a kind act on a daily basis. In following his example, Ming hoped he could also attain an equilibrium between yin and yang or maintain a balance within his life. He knew that he must do something about his murder of an innocent creature, or else he was fated to be punished in one way another, sooner or late
However, he was never sure if he could do enough to atone for his evilness, but as he realized now, the three women he had loved with his heart and soul in his life, namely, Hua, his first crush and lifelong soulmate, Yiming, his first date who caused him almost to commit suicide, and Helen, his beloved wife, each looked like a cat in a different way.
Yuan Changming grew up in rural China and has published 15 poetry collections in English. Early in 2022, Yuan began to write fiction, with short stories appearing in Bewildering Stories (Canada), Lincoln Review (UK), Paper Dragon (US), and StylusLit (Australia), among others. Currently, Yuan is working on his trilogy.