Skip to content
Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the June 2018 issue

Puma

In the wake of loss, a woman fills her life with a mouthy and ever-growing new feline companion. 

The cat had died at dusk. The breath of that life had slipped away along with the last streaks of sunlight.

“As the body grew cold and stiff, it turned into a swamp you could easily sink into.” This was the explanation I’d always planned to give him for why the cat had left so many empty spaces in my rooms. I couldn’t wait to tell him; it was like being chased by a wild animal and trying frantically to flee to safety. But he wouldn’t open his door. He didn’t answer my phone calls, stopped answering my letters, and no longer showed up at my house or in my dreams.

Ultimately, I ended up in a situation that was similar to knitting a sweater—an excuse to be perpetually engaged in creating something in order to make up for the rapid decomposition of the cat’s body. 

“It would be impossible to vacuum up all of the cat hair that had accumulated in every corner of the apartment. That’s why, after I fall asleep and my breath becomes even, cat hair comes pouring into my nose and down my windpipe to block my lungs.” This is what I told the therapist about the origins of my growing sense that I was being suffocated. He withdrew his gaze from the window and the half-constructed buildings beyond, and as he turned toward me, he said: “You should get another cat.” He continued: “Only a new pet can help desensitize you to the allergies that you acquired from the hair of your previous pet.” He picked up a fountain pen and started tapping the nib on the desktop. It sounded like a woodpecker pecking at a tree trunk, tack, tack. “Human society has achieved such a high degree of development that people have become imprisoned in a logic of our own construction. Our distance from our natural state has gradually increased, and while the human eye cannot discern these changes, a person may have to avail themselves of a furry creature in order to compensate.” The nib of his pen had dug a pit in the wooden desktop, and the edges of that hole were spreading ever outward.

It looked like the impression left behind by my dead cat—although it looked even more like the embryonic Puma, sleeping soundly, a soft gestating body lying weak and limp on the floor not far from me, belly rising and falling, deeply and evenly, like a volcano that was about to erupt.

In the beginning, the cat’s body had been as tiny and harmless as a comma; that was before the cat had learned to walk steadily or form a full sentence.

“This is the one for you!” The cat seller was leaning against the wall. He added: “This cat was born for the moment you would enter its life.” I looked up at the man’s face and saw there a coldness verging on cruelty. There wasn’t so much as a trace of flattery, which left me wondering what he wanted from me. I don’t know when it happened, but Puma had been placed in my arms, quaking like water inside a thin membrane. If you didn’t secure it in time, it would spill out everywhere. Although this boundlessly energetic creature was sure to rampage around the cramped rooms of my flat, I knew that the same little fur ball didn’t have any survival skills. If nobody adopted it, it would die right here and probably be tossed into the gutter.

Even after the cat seller heard my decision, his expression remained implacable—nothing could chase away the gloom that clouded his face. Glancing up at the pale gray sky, he ran over to another room and brought back a nylon tote bag. He took Puma out of my hands, and as he tossed the cat inside it, he said to me: “Don’t go thinking that cat selling is a simple art. Breeding them is tough, it’s a lot of trial and error. People don’t have a clue about their own needs. Sometimes, you’ll be pressing a cat into the hands of a prospective adopter, a person the cat seems practically tailor-made for, but the guy’s eyes might still be fixed on something he can’t ever have. That’s why more and more cats are abandoned every day.” I took this as a personal affront and grabbed the nylon tote and ran away from that seaside building as if I were being chased.

Not until I was aboard the boat and the boat had left the harbor behind and reached open water did I recall the words he’d shouted at me as he’d pursued me out the door: “Nobody realizes this, but the whole purpose of breeding cats is to fill the gaps that are all around us. People misunderstand breeders, just like they misunderstand gamblers and speculators. People think we’re all just profiteers . . .” It was starting to make sense to me: his urgent tone and need to pour it all out may have come from a desire to apologize; or maybe he just wanted affirmation. I unzipped the woven nylon bag and searched its interior. Turning toward the sound of the zipper, the cat gazed out through that precious fissure, its fierce eyes and delicate body creating a powerful contrast. As I zipped up the bag again, I knew that although I’d left the cat seller behind on that desolate little island, I was not the sole perpetrator of this crime.

Puma still didn’t have a name then. When I fished the little cat out of the tote and set it down in the middle of the wooden floor, it instinctively crawled over to the containers I’d filled with food and water and began consuming it all with gusto. After that, the cat retired to a shady corner, lay down, and fell fast asleep. I squatted on the floor and watched, and I had the sense that this wasn’t a young animal and resembled instead a plant that was about to sprout, like a little bean.

I had thought of myself as dried up—I was just waiting for my life to crumble away with the passage of time, but every night the cat would get into mischief. I would hear it leaping and scampering around in my dreams, or creeping on tiptoes along the base of the walls, or maybe just licking its coat. This created for me the illusion that the wounds that had opened up all over my rooms were being torn apart at a more gradual pace, in slow motion, as if I’d been drugged. Before long, I would go back to sleep. One day, long after, I realized it had been the constant drowsiness that had enabled me to escape, if only briefly, the misery of life and death and the torture of being trapped between the two. Mornings, when I awoke, I would always see my cat stretched out along the seam where wall and floor met, and the gentle curve of its long body let me forget the dense array of windows, the noise of passing cars, and the sound of passersby cursing one other outside my own windows. I could focus on my work, or fall into a reverie, gazing at the wayward tangle of lines on my upturned palms.

When my doorbell rang, I tiptoed over to the door, lest the person on the other side become aware of my existence. I put my face up to the peephole, mindful of maintaining a safe distance from the door, and saw a slovenly looking man standing there. I could tell from his clothing that he wasn’t delivering mail or delivering food. When I turned around, I saw that the cat had arched its back in warning and was staring at the front door. “I don’t know him,” I explained to the cat. Before long, the cat had zipped discreetly back to the inner room and hidden beneath a chair. The doorbell rang again, forcefully, and for a second time I concentrated all of my attention on that little aperture. Suddenly the impatient expression on the man’s face reminded me of a long ago therapist, and I realized then that that’s who was standing outside. I’d forgotten him, or perhaps I’d forgotten the me who had needed a therapist. “Are you OK?” he asked, poking his head in. With the gaze of a man investigating something suspicious, he swept his eyes over the room, peering into every nook and cranny.

I didn’t feel as though I could keep my door closed to this unexpected guest, just as people submit to a doctor’s demands in the name of an examination and silently strip off their clothing. Soon, his shoes were walking across my floor, bringing the filth of the outside world into my rooms. I had thought of silence as the harshest form of interrogation, but he was utterly oblivious. Eyeing my face suspiciously, he spoke: “It smells like cat in here.” I tilted my chin toward the chair: “It was your idea, wasn’t it?” He dropped into a squat and stared at that spot for a long time.

It didn’t take him long to render his judgment. “It looks too strong.”

I nodded, unable to help agreeing with him: “Yes, this cat really is very healthy.” Still, I told him that after this cat died, I would never touch such a scrawny animal again. 

“An animal that’s too strong will inevitably present all sorts of dangers,” he interrupted. As he spoke, he pointed out how one could see from the bone structure and coat that the cat was still growing and was eventually going to be enormous. “It’s not a human being, it’s an animal,” he warned emphatically.

After he’d left, I couldn’t dispel his invasive looks, postures, or aura; but luckily, the cat slowly emerged from its dark corner, and it was on that afternoon that the cat began talking to me. Of course, it wasn’t human speech, and it was full of a cat’s innate attitude; but the cat was able to convey information, in fits and starts, in a way that I could take in. This couldn’t have been what the therapist had feared; rather, it must have been a seed planted by his strong desire.

The cat let me know that he was Puma, and from then on I called him by that name.

“Therapists need patients in order to affirm their own status.” He extended his right leg and vigorously groomed his fur while he was telling me this. Then he raised his head and a profound light beamed toward me, unwavering, from his big, round eyes: “The question is this—do you intend to cling to the identity of a sick person?”

That night, for the first time, he didn’t careen around the living room but instead hopped onto the bed and lay on his back beside me. That became his nightly habit from then on. He was still only long enough to reach as far as my upper leg, but he grew much faster than I could ever have imagined. In the middle of the night, when all living creatures take off their masks, we talked about so many things that at times we forgot our boundaries, and it was easy for me to imagine that we were on the cusp of becoming intimate companions. But I wasn’t the least bit afraid; he was a cat, and always would be.  

Awkwardly posed, he grew rapidly in the night. After he fell asleep, his head resting on my stomach, his trusting face enabled me to pretend that he was actually my child, especially at the times when he was immersed in a dream and his whole body was twitching. He filled my emptiness better than any kind of food. Before long, he had grown enough to reach my heart, and with his thin, cool ears fanned out against my chest, I couldn’t help weeping. A scant few days later, he had grown to be practically as long as I was tall. It was the coldest day of the year, and he held me against his belly, so that my body, which had been numb with cold, stopped shivering. He pressed on my back with his soft paw pads and licked the tears from my face: “Once it’s light out, clip my claws for me.” A low rumble emerged from deep inside him, as if an inexhaustible mountain spring was gurgling inside him. I understood that he wanted to spare me his sharp claws digging into my skin and couldn’t resist burying my face in his thick fur. I didn’t detect the slightest gamy odor on him, and I concluded that he was very fastidious.

“I’m smaller and weaker than you now.” I looked up and gazed directly into his eyes, unable to hide my fear. “Will you pounce on me and eat me in my sleep?”

He looked back at me, and his bright eyes were suddenly filled with pain. “When I was still tiny, did you want to butcher me and feast on cat meat?”

“That’s not what I meant.” When I looked down, my gaze passed over his mouth, and a different kind of worry bubbled up in my mind. I had the sense then that Puma was a partner who could share the burden of my foul moods. “So,” I asked, “do you want to look after me and make me your pet?”

“Only human beings have this notion of subordination.” He shook his head rapidly, as if trying to flick away something annoying.

I relaxed and leaned against his back, half asleep. It was as if he could fulfill the role of my lover, my mother, the friends I’d lost touch with, or the people who had hurt me in the past and whom I could not forget. But when I opened my eyes and saw Puma stretching or shaking limbs that he hadn’t moved for a time, it seemed as though he’d grown a little more, and I knew that he couldn’t be those people; but thanks to this fact, we could build a new kind of relationship.

The night had not completely melted away, but we weren’t sleepy anymore, and we stood side by side at the window and watched the streetlights blink out one by one, as the color of the sky continued to fade, and the street slowly woke up.

“I’m only going to be able to grow a little bit more before I’m too big to fit here. If the neighbors happen to catch sight of me through the windows, who knows, they might call the police.” His tail swept from one side of his body and then to the other, back and forth; he might have been happy, but he might have been sad. “Before my body gets too bulky to pass through the front door, I’m going to have to leave.”

“Where will you go?” I asked him.

“Somewhere where there aren’t any skittish people or big-game hunters.” He looked at me calmly with his wide eyes.

“Does a place like that really exist?” I had my doubts.

 “The point is, I have to get there, no matter what.” He wiped some dirt away from the corner of his eye with a forepaw and asked me, “Do you want to stay here, or will you come with me?”

I couldn’t help looking around at all of the clutter in the room—books, clothing, jewelry, cups and glasses, umbrellas, handbags, shoes . . . Puma saw it all: “No matter where you go, the only thing you’ll ever possess is yourself.”

We looked into each other’s eyes for a long time, until finally I leaned forward and unfastened his collar, which had grown too tight.

When I got to the leather goods shop, the leatherworker had just finished eating lunch. He glanced at the collar in my hand. I’m sure he thought it was a belt for someone with a rapidly expanding waistline.

I told him I wanted to have him make a longer belt that I could attach a leash and ring to, so that I could fasten an animal to it. The artisan gave me a meaningful look, then stared at the strip of leather, but he managed to observe the virtue of silence throughout. My gaze came to rest outside the shop, where people schooled like goldfish in sunlight like flowing water. Soon, nightfall appeared before me, viscous. All grew quiet, and I saw myself riding on Puma’s back, firmly secured by a rope attached to his collar. I didn’t know which direction we were headed; I had to trust his intuition, but I could be certain that Puma’s range would keep expanding, becoming ever wider and broader. He ran hard and fast, guided by instinct, intoxicated by this rare and precious freedom. Once again I buried my face in the deep gray jungle of his fur, that dark, profound night.
 

Originally published in Lost Caves 失去洞穴. © Hon Lai Chu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Andrea Lingenfelter. All rights reserved.

Read more from the June 2018 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.