A Hong Kong family contends with stray cats and serial killers in this short story by cult Chinese writer Xi Xi.
One Sunday morning a year ago, Erwin Chan opened his apartment door with the intention of buying a newspaper and saw a little cat approaching him, meowing and looking warily about. It had a delicate, pretty face and was golden brown from head to tail. Erwin offered it some milk, but it refused to drink and ran beneath the bookcase. When he failed to coax it out, Erwin peeked under the bookcase and saw the little cat was sleeping.
Erwin and his mother adored little animals and, though his sister-in-law insisted that stray cats were a nuisance, his mother said they brought good luck and decided it should stay. Although its head and torso were golden brown, its belly was white, and so they called it “Whitey.” The little cat loved to keep itself clean and would lick its coat for hours until it was soft and smooth. Erwin never had to bathe it, for it seemed no more affected by the grime of urban life than a lotus flower by the mud from which it rises. Erwin bought it bags of food and an assortment of hair brushes, nail trimmers, and other grooming supplies, and not a day went by that he didn’t check it carefully for lice or spend a little time playing with it. The cat was a source of much joy. It was especially fond of Erwin’s mother and rarely left her side. It would squat on its haunches next to her chair until she lifted it up into her lap and the two would watch television together.
The apartment was infested with ants and cockroaches. One day Erwin’s sister-in-law suddenly bolted from her chair, ran into the kitchen and then out into the hallway, stomping her feet and shouting all the while. She had spotted a large cockroach and was trying to kill it, but it managed to scurry behind the bureau in the living room. In a desperate attempt to kill the creature, she threw all caution to the wind and doused the back of the bureau with a perfect torrent of bug spray. By chance, Whitey, who had been trying to help her catch the roach, got a large dose of the insecticide directly in the face. The little cat frantically clawed its mouth and nostrils and violently sneezed, then began panting for air and salivating profusely. Its tongue hung from its mouth as it withdrew into Erwin’s room. There was no one else in the apartment besides Erwin’s mother, but she was in the middle of her afternoon nap and was oblivious to what had happened. By the time Erwin returned from work and saw Whitey sprawled out on the chair in his bedroom, the little cat was at the end of its tether: its eyes failed to open, it could barely breathe, and its faint moans were all but inaudible, and though Erwin rushed it to the vet the glum expression on his face when he returned made it clear that Whitey had been past all remedy and was gone.
A week later, what appeared to be a large photo of Whitey was found propped up on the bureau in the living room. It was actually a collage made of hair Erwin had clipped from Whitey’s coat, but it looked so lifelike that you could hardly tell the difference. Whitey was so amusing, said Erwin’s mother. O, how I miss that cat! A few days later, Davin, Erwin’s older brother, took him aside and said: Uh, Erwin, would you mind keeping Whitey’s picture in your room?
A week later there appeared yet another object on the Chans’ living room bureau: it was a gourd-shaped hourglass that was pinched at the waist and flattened at both ends, and when you turned it over, the sound of the sand flowing slowly from one end into the other was like the rustling of the wind in the trees. Erwin was constantly turning the hourglass over and the sound of the trickling grains never seemed to end. One day, he said to the others: Can you hear Whitey calling? He never stops moaning. Moaning where? Erwin’s sister-in-law asked. Right here, in this hourglass, replied Erwin. He explained that he had arranged to have Whitey’s body cremated by a pet store that provided this service, and had bought an hourglass and replaced all the sand with Whitey’s ashes. Erwin’s sister-in-law cried out in astonishment and fled into her bedroom and would not come out even to watch television. The next day, Davin took Erwin aside and said: Uh, Erwin, would you mind keeping the hourglass in your room? That was when Erwin’s sister-in-law began hectoring Davin to find them an apartment of their own.
She and Davin did in fact eventually move out. This was because Erwin’s sister-in-law felt that she could no longer continue living on Kwei Chow Street. Apart from the episode with Whitey, the four of them—Erwin, his mother, brother, and sister-in-law—had lived together fairly peacefully. Who could have imagined that Kwei Chow Street would be the scene of something infinitely more dreadful than the collapse of the tenement building in To Kwa Wan? The newspapers gave the story full-page coverage and their largest banner headlines for many weeks and milked the story for all it was worth: Serial Murders! Dismemberment! Victims Young Women! Knockout Drugs! Breasts and Pudenda Displayed in Jars!
The murderer turned out to be a cabdriver who worked nights. Every evening he would prowl the streets in search of fares and, somewhere along the line, no one knew exactly where, he began preying upon young women who hailed him from the curb. He would drive them to some out-of-the-way place, where, by the time they realized something was wrong, it was much too late; resistance proved futile, for he would slam on the brakes, then quickly turn and clamp a chloroform-soaked cloth over the woman’s mouth and nostrils until she ceased to struggle. He would then drive his unconscious victim to his apartment on Kwei Chow Street. The street was but a few blocks long and, halfway down its length, just next to where he lived, there was a taxi stand that was invariably empty late at night. The street ended at a seawall park, which was virtually deserted after sunset, and though the other end of the street abutted To Kwa Wan Road, pedestrians were few and far between at such a lonely hour. Anyone who did happen to notice the cab parked at the taxi stand would hardly think it unusual. These were indeed dark and stormy nights when the “Rainy Night Butcher,” as he came to be called by the Chinese press, pulled his unconscious victims from the cab and lugged them up to his apartment on the third floor of the tenement building across the street.
What was the fate of these unconscious women? The newspapers described the killer’s methods in lurid detail, as if the reporters had personally witnessed the murders. Safe inside his apartment, the cabbie would immediately remove the woman’s clothing and have his way with her. Then, with the aid of a scalpel, he would dismember the body for disposal but save the woman’s breasts and pudenda. He would place these “souvenirs” in glass medicine jars, which he lined up on shelves like specimens. Everyone said he must have been psychotic to have carried out these murders in such a cold and calculating way, but Erwin’s sister-in-law said: He’s definitely crazy as a loon, but if he was so calculating how could he have been so stupid as to take pictures of his dismembered victims to a local photo shop for development? It was the photos that gave the cabbie away. In all, he murdered six women using exactly the same procedure: late night, out-of-the-way place, chloroform, taxi stand, dismemberment. He was always very cautious, so much so that no one had the least suspicion of what he was up to. Even his neighbors failed to sense that there was something fishy going on.
The taxi stand where the killer always parked was right below the Chans’ apartment. The only thing that separated the two was the width of Kwei Chow Street. Erwin’s sister-in-law’s bedroom window directly faced the killer’s window. As she stood there, the newspaper clutched in her hand, her entire body trembling, she cried: “O O O. . . to think of what went on behind that window! How horrible!"
“And we didn’t hear a thing,” Davin added.
“But didn’t you hear Whitey moaning woo, woo?” Erwin asked.
Erwin’s sister-in-law decided she was moving out come hell or high water, and if Davin refused to go with her she would move back in with her folks. Davin had no choice but to find the two of them a new place to live.
Shortly after they moved out Davin gave Erwin a gift. It was a tiny little kitten only three weeks old with thick, fluffy black hair that made it look like a ball of yarn. Its little paws were as white as if they had just stepped through snow, its tail looked like a whisk broom, and its features were barely a blur. Erwin was delighted and took out the basket, litterbox, hair clippers and other accessories he had bought for Whitey. He tried to place the kitten in the basket, but it put up such a fuss it nearly turned the basket over, and so Erwin let it loose. The kitten made a quick tour of the apartment and finally hid beneath the bookcase and fell fast asleep. At nighttime it leaped up on Erwin’s bed and pressed up close to him as though Erwin were its mother. No matter how many times he put the kitten back down on the floor, it leaped right back up, even though the bed was many times its height. This went on all night until Erwin finally gave in.
When Davin moved out, he said to his mother, Mom, I’ll be back to see you often, and he did. Every week he came at least once or twice to share a meal with her, but Erwin’s sister-in-law rarely accompanied him. She said she was afraid of cats, that when she was a child her younger brother and sister had brought a cat home and when she saw it sitting on the window sill she screamed so loud that the cat lost its footing and fell to the street below.
Erwin decided to call the kitten Blackie. As it grew older, its face began to look more and more like a flattened oval and increasingly reminded him of “Mister Presumptuous Nobody,” a clownish, incompetent Ming Dynasty magistrate in a famous television series based on a Henan comic opera. Whitey had been adept at everything and would never use the litterbox without covering its poo with a layer of sand and would always meow or purr when it wanted to express its opinion about something. Blackie was quite the opposite and had apparently never had a mother to teach it the proper way to conduct itself, for it never bothered to cover the little black banana-shaped stools it left behind and would sometimes even bat them about until they wound up in some place they did not belong. The only thing the kitten seemed to know how to do was amuse itself and eat. It loved to eat and grew fatter and fatter until, at seven months, Erwin had it neutered. All day long it would just sit there with its giant tail erect. At first glance you would have mistaken it for a squirrel. Erwin’s sister-in-law was always threatening to move out and finally succeeded in doing so. But by then it had nothing to do with cats.
Translation of "Chen Dawen banjia." Copyright 2000 by Xi Xi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Steve Bradbury. All rights reserved.
Read Chihoi's graphic version of this story, "The Cat's Coming (in a Left-Handed Version)"