Armi was a beautiful cat with shining black and white furs, fierce eyes. He was discovered as a starving kitten, about several weeks old, by my grandmother’s neighbor, lying next to a ditch after a rainstorm. It’s said Armi was discovered too late by humans and couldn’t establish the kind of bonding a normal pet can. After several years living as a house cat, he still refused to let anybody touch him and would hide himself in a corner or on an overhead horizontal beam whenever humans came near. However, he’s a skilled hunter and mouse catcher, which explained his better coat than other cats in the neighborhood.
In those days when I was young, my grandparents lived in a big city in one of the old rundown two story wooden houses, many of which lined up the alley ways. The houses were so close to each other that they might as well share a common wall and the alley way was so narrow that two people couldn’t walk side by side without difficulty. The house my grandparents lived was built for one family of four but ended up accommodating five families of about twenty people. It’s a typical house of the subtropical area of East Asia constructed around the time of one hundred years ago. In its heyday, it must be decent looking, but the climate, the economic vicissitude, the population growth were all working against its upkeep. It looked better than a ruined house by the time my grandparents lived in it, but not much better. Still my grandparents were proud of their abode since they occupied the best two rooms upstairs, the big one as the living room and the sleeping quarter, the small one as the dining room. In the living room, a parade of windows tall and narrow occupied more than half of the walls, with no ceilings but visible beams under the gabled roof. There’s a big adjustable awning outside the window, extending seven to eight feet far and a bamboo curtain as an attachment at the end, which can shield sunlight but still accommodate the air flow. The best part is that it allows windows to be opened when raining. If a typhoon comes from Philippine, the awnings and bamboo curtains could be folded up and fixated underneath the roof for protection. The best moments of my childhood came when I sat in the cool wicker chair, enjoying the cool breeze from the open window while the rainstorm was pounding the roof so loud that I was afraid that the roof would give away, but it didn’t. There’s a communal kitchen on the first floor, each of the five families occupying a portion of it. Quarrels about boundaries often happened, and was resolved by instant negotiations before a new quarrel started again soon afterwards. Now when I look back on those days, I no longer see poverty and survival instincts as much as I saw before, but rather I see how good-natured people were in their cramped living conditions, how they actively negotiated with each other, how rarely petty theft happened, how vigilant people, especially my grandmother, were about the minutest details in order to avoid infringing on others while taking care of their own life.
My mother called the place a slum, and I have to say if it was a slum as she said, it was a high end slum that my grandparents were quite proud of. Even slum has a hierarchy–every concept human beings have ever created has a hierarchy, including equality. I was about twelve at the time and I often thought Armi couldn’t even be considered a pet, not only because he didn’t allow people to pet him, but also because his owner only gave him very meager meals with half a bowl of rice mixed with little scraps of fish. In those days, there were no pet food to speak of and pet owners could go to the market at closing time to get fish or meat scraps and pay very little money. Armi didn’t really care for his rice meal or probably he complained bitterly but nobody understood his cat meows. He hunted all the time. My grandmother often marinated meat in soy sauce and hooked them up under the open beams of the house to air dry them into meat jerky pieces. Armi was there for hours and hours, upon the beam, eyes half open half shut. He never once got the chance to bite the hooked meat underneath him–I guess Armi is a good hunter but still not a gymnast with skills to flip around a high bar– but he certainly tried with unbelievable patience. Sometimes I would cut a piece to entice him, which my grandmother would later scold me softly and resignedly. The five families living in the house all had their doors opening wide most of the time and even the front door was often unlocked. At any given time, the cat could come and go and stay anywhere.
One day, it was first rumored and then confirmed that my grandmother’s neighbor was moving to an apartment in a high rise building. The economy was moving forward and people’s lives were changing. The neighbor was intending to sell Armi to one of the neighbors since Armi’s a good hunter and would be useful to safeguard the old house. Everybody laughed at this idea. “If he wants to leave the cat here, he is welcome to do that. Selling it? forget it.” People would say.
We were having dinner, for which my grandmother cooked the most delicious soup I ever tasted with fermented fish, pork, and vegetable. When the topic of what our neighbor fed to the cat was brought up, I said we had carps, eels, frogs everywhere in our place that a cat won’t need to eat rice ever. At the time my grandparents lived in a big city, but my parents and I lived about 800 miles away in a rural area near a big lake where my father worked in a big coal mine. We came to visit my grandparents once every three or four years when my mother lay enough money aside to pay for the trip. It’s true that fish were abundant in our place and frogs were everywhere. During the night, the sound of frog calls was so overwhelming that if one was not used to it, one wouldn’t be able to sleep.
The morning after the dinner, my mom suddenly announced that Armi would be our pet and we were all astonished. My mom was not a pet person to begin with–I had never seen her showing a minimum interest to any animals in real life or on our nine-inch black and white TV—and I couldn’t imagine that she would go about to adopt Armi. This was on top of the fact that we would have to travel 800 miles soon afterwards. I couldn’t ask my mom, who disliked it whenever I became too curious. Life had not been easy for her. As the eldest of nine children, she had to start taking care of her younger siblings when she was hardly out of cradle herself. She had been very pretty, athletic, good with languages, but all her dreams ended with the marriage, the kid, the job of teaching English in a night school for employees from a coal mine–English had become a requirement among those exams one must take for career advancement. Over the years, I only once heard her talking about her achievements in her career, not in the number of her students mastering a foreign language, but rather in the number of couples she brokered into dating and marrying each other between her students–five couples. What an achievement. At first I guessed that she thought the best way of getting over her frustration about her own marriage is getting more people into marriage. Then I thought those students met in her class and started to date themselves. My mom was probably just a passive witness rather than an active enabler. Witness or enabler, it helped her go through the uninspiring job which, together with the equally unexciting responsibility of house chores, had weighed her down for years and years. I tried not to be more of an inconvenience that I had already been to her–asking questions would be the most common way to bother her–but I had to investigate how my mom got Armi. So I asked my grandmother, who unfortunately spoke a tongue of her fishing village, which I didn’t understand. It was said in certain regions, especially in the area my grandmother grew up, people living on two sides of a mountain can speak so differently that their dialects are mutually unintelligible. My grandmother told me what had happened, and through repetition, guessing, and making associations, I pieced together a probable story. The neighbor said to my mom, “So I heard a cat can eat eels, carps, and frogs all day long in your place. The poor thing is eating rice every day at my place.” Obviously he somehow heard our dinner conversation. I couldn’t imagine him eavesdropping outside of our door, but on the other hand, the door was always open and my high pitched voice–I didn’t think my voice is too high but my mother said so–probably reached his ears without him making special effort to listen in. My mom was embarrassed and had to apologize. Then they started to talk. The next thing she knew, she bought the cat. My mother always said that people in the big city have a way with things and people like us, who live in the rural areas for too long, cannot match. If they wanted to unload a cat on you, you couldn’t escape it.
I imagined all the fish, eels, frogs that I will feed the cat at home and felt wonderful. Our lake area is a much better place for the cat and our apartment is so much bigger than my grandmother’s.
My mom and I took the night train, which ran twelve hours and arrived at our destination in late morning. In those days, there’s no cat carrier available. My mother had a basket and the cat stayed under a little blanket. She mixed crushed sleeping pill with fish scraps (but without rice), which Armi swallowed happily, unaware of the fact that she was being drugged. Somebody told my mother that sleeping pills’ effectiveness correlates with body weight. If an adult requires two sleeping pills for a night, then a cat needs about 8% of it, supposing that a cat is 10 pound and a human is about 120 pounds. So my mother somehow managed to get the cat weighed in a local herbal store, calculated the appropriate amount of pills, achieved the feat of carrying a sleeping cat onto the train without incident.
Since we couldn’t afford the sleeping train, we had to on the sitting train, me at the window and my mother next to me with the basket on her lap. When I woke up after dozing off, the train was filling up, the corridor crowded with people. In those days, only people getting on from the initial station have their seats. For the people coming on from the rest of the stations, they had to stand there until somebody got off. Suddenly, a scream was let off from somewhere in the carriage and another scream followed. I stood up to look behind me and my mother woke up too. “It’s a damn cat. It eats my roasted chicken. Look, a leg was bitten off.” Somebody yelled. “Who brought a cat? Is a cat allowed on a train?” That’s when my mother and I realized that Armi went missing–the sleeping pill must have been wore off–and was mostly likely causing the mischief as the chicken thief. My mother stood up and went to see what was happening after warning me to take care of our seats. That meant I had to guard out seats until my mother came back and screamed at anybody who tried to sit down at where my mother vacated. I heard them arguing and I could only make out a portion of what they were saying. From where I was seating and then standing up, I could see a couple, seating on a big luggage about two feet high which they carried in and put down on the floor of the carriage, a convenient seat for them. The woman accused my mother of bringing a cat, and my mother counter accusing the couple of blocking the corridor. “And who knows, you might have brought in live chickens, ducks, geese, or even goats.” My mother said. It is true in those days farmers brought their livestocks onto trains regularly. After a while, I guessed my mother paid for the leg of the chicken, found the cat, and brought it back to our seating place. Though Armi was hard to handle, my mother learned from the previous owner to hold his scruff to subdue him.
My mother tried to administer the sleeping pill. She brought the pill and some spam with her. However the cat was showed no interest in eating anything. Somebody nearby came up with a brilliant idea of opening the cat’s mouth, shove the pill in, and force some water to wash it down. The problem was nobody knew how to open the cat’s mouth. We tried, but couldn’t manage it. I guessed that the reason the cat was not interested in my mother’s spam was because everybody brought food to eat on the train since to buy boxed meal on the train is expensive. The cat, with a much keener smell than human, must be intoxicated with so much food from roasted chicken, cured ham, to fermented fish surrounding him. How could he be interested in the spam? In my grandmother’s communal kitchen, food were well guarded and cleaned up quickly since everybody was vigilant of rats, cockroaches and other vermin. Armi didn’t stand a chance in the communal kitchen and had to hunt in the neighborhood for birds and mice. Armi had never been in a train where everybody carried food.