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from the March 2007 issue

The Bane of My Existence

“On the surface her work seems influenced by writers like Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, but according to her, she has also learned the art of fiction from many classical Western writers, such as Shakespeare and Dante . . . Can Xue doesn’t trust reason and always follows her instinct in writing fiction.”—Ha Jin

I finally got rid of my cat. I thought this would enable me to start a new life. I sat at the table, eyes shut, thinking hard. I tried to tidy up my disordered, fucked-up feelings. But that was wishful thinking: he came back. He kept wailing, the sound bloodcurdling. Not only was that sound without even a little air of begging, but it was even filled with malice. It was even threatening. He also scratched the door with his claws and gnawed at it with his teeth. He gnawed and snarled, making me tremble with fear as I thought: If I let him in, he might catch me unawares and bite me to death.

It was a freezing winter day when I saw him in the gutter at my door: tiny, brownish yellow, two white spots in his fur, tears in his eyes, his whole body shivering. He was so small that he probably didn't understand why his mother had abandoned him. Didn't understand why the world was without a place that would tolerate him. Even likelier, he pretended to be miserable in order to persuade me to let him stay. Back then, I was overcome by a baffling impulse. It seemed that I wanted to do something unconventional. It also seemed that I wanted an antagonist in my routine life. I kept him. Carried him into the room and placed him next to the stove. Fed him milk, biscuits, and fish soup. He ate very fast. He was peremptory and overbearing. After finishing the food, he even overturned both bowl and saucer with his feet. He walked around the room once, then walked over and gripped my feet. He wanted more to eat. I gave him a piece of meat. He wanted still more. This went on four or five times. Before he gave up, his belly was bulging like a drum. I wanted to play with him, so I twisted some paper into a ball and tied a string to it. I swung it back and forth in front of him, trying to please him. But, with a gloomy glance at me, he slowly walked away. He plunged into a wastebasket and stayed there. After a while, he fell asleep.

One day followed another, and month after month passed. Every day, relentless in my efforts to please him, I fed him delicious food. The result was that he grew portlier by the day and his coat became glossier by the day. His appetite also increased by the day. But he didn't show the least bit of interest in getting close to me. He just persisted in the same old ways: When he was hungry, he cried. If I was a little slow to feed him, he gripped and gnawed my foot. Luckily, the bites weren't ever very serious: they just left two tooth marks. Most of the time, he just slept in the wastebasket. Now and then, he came out and sauntered around with his eyelids drooping and his body unwieldy and lackadaisical. He seemed not at all interested in his surroundings—as though he were living in a borrowed apartment.

One day, for no reason, I felt the time was ripe: I had the fantastic idea of letting him sleep in my bed. I thought he would be touched and that our relationship would therefore grow closer. When I put him on the bed, he wasn't the least bit grateful. He resisted mightily, scratching my hand until it was dripping with blood. As soon as I relaxed my grip, he slid away like a thief and hid under the bed. His eyes were flashing, and a vaguely nasty sound came from his mouth. I was extremely uneasy and wielded a chicken-feather broom to dislodge him. But he suddenly turned strong and vigorous. In a flash, he fled to the top of the large cupboard, then fled under the desk. He was unwilling to leave that spot. I was perspiring—and reflected with a sigh that this beast actually still had a little feeling for the room. With that thought, much of my anger dissipated. I hadn't guessed that just then he would jump onto my shoulder and fiercely claw my face, leaving two bloody scratches. Then he hid under the bed again. I sat on the bed in shock, like a deflated ball. I thought it over carefully. I seemed to understand something, yet seemed also to understand nothing. At last, I tossed the broom aside and pretended I'd forgotten the incident.

On the surface, I didn't pay any more attention to him. Every day, I just did my own thing. Sure, I still fed him and didn't interfere with his activity, but I didn't harbor any more illusions about him. I told myself he was just an ordinary wild cat. I'd been too affectionate, thus complicating the whole thing. Still, was this really what had happened? Wasn't I already aware of all of his strange characteristics? For example, he had never gone out and spent time with other wild cats. He just stayed home looking antisocial. And then there was his astonishing appetite: he ate more than I did.

Three days went by like this. Then he suddenly showed his temper, because I was indifferent toward him and even ignored him. His expression told me: he certainly couldn't tolerate being slighted, and he would repay all of these slights. When I wasn't home, he jumped up on my desk and scratched my stationery and some documents into a pulpy mass. He also peed on my bed.

As soon as I came back, I smelled the urine. I was so wild with anger that I sat on the chair, unable to move. I felt queasy, too. But I didn't intend to punish him. I knew that if I did, I'd be playing right into his hands. If I hit him, he would surely cry crazily, and would retaliate even more atrociously and underhandedly. I just decided to let him pee on the bed and rebel on the desk. I locked up some important documents. So I lived with the smell of urine all day long, and took the smell of urine with me to the office, too. Luckily, no one noticed. I thought, Actually, people can get used to anything. Nothing is intolerable if you've made up your mind that you have to put up with it. When my cat saw that his destruction didn't bring any results, he just squatted silently in the wastebasket.

Just as I was feeling smug about my success, disaster befell me once again. One night, when I had just fallen asleep, a strange cry awakened me. It certainly wasn't like a cat's cry. Rather, it was eerie—supernatural. Without any doubt, this sound was in the room. I turned the light on, got up, and took a look. When I saw that my cat was asleep, I began trembling. Using a flashlight, I looked under the bed for a long time. I also shined the flashlight on the ceiling and inside the large cupboard and the buffet. I checked the door lock and the window latches. Not until I had looked in all the places where a wild animal might hide did I get back into bed with fear and trembling and turn off the light.

I let my imagination run away with me, I sighed in despair, I tossed and turned. At last—I don't know how—I fell asleep. Just at that moment, though, the crying began again. It was certainly somewhere in the room! I got up once more, turned the light on, and made straight for the wastebasket, where my cat was sleeping. I saw that he was sound asleep on his back with his four paws pointing up. Was he pretending? The more I thought back to his previous actions, the more it became clear. One couldn't keep this kind of animal. I picked him up with one hand, intending to throw him out. Just then, he bit me ruthlessly on my hand. As I let out a scream and let go of him, he immediately scurried under the bed.

That night, I was in a lot of pain from the wound. In the midst of this pain, I was surer than ever: He was the one! It was none other than he that had scared the hell out of me with his unearthly cry. This damnable beast. Since he hated me so much that he wanted to send me to my death, why did he want to stay here? Did he want to take over this apartment, drive me out? Impossible. Did he know me too well? Was he interested in me? This didn't seem the case, either. I can only say that he insisted on staying here, because he could avoid the wind and rain, because he had food to eat, because he was so comfortable here. But none of this was enough, either: He also wanted me to be concerned about him all the time. To attach importance to him. Whenever he felt the least bit dissatisfied, he looked for ways to get back at me. When I thought back on it all, if I hadn't taken him in that day, would I have avoided this trouble? But who can guarantee that never in one's life would one show an instance of mercy? And in showing mercy, who could predict each instance of trouble that would ensue? Furthermore, when I took him in that day, did this impulse derive purely from feeling merciful? Could it be that—at the end of my rope—I was subconsciously looking for spiritual sustenance? Anyhow, I'd reaped what I'd sown.

After he bit me, he didn't cry anymore that night. The wound, however, was swollen and festering. Before long, I had a high fever. I took a lot of medicine, but none of it did any good. All I could do was check into the hospital for intravenous injections. It nearly turned into nephritis. This was all thanks to his nerve! As I lay in the hospital, I thought: Now no one is home, and there's nothing to eat. If he has nothing to eat, he can't blame me. It was all his own fault. Now I wouldn't need to drive him out, but he had to find another place to live. Otherwise, he would starve to death. Maybe something good has come of this. I can have some quiet from now on. As I was thinking this, I began to spontaneously improve a lot. I felt relieved as I lay there. Each day I lay there, I felt I was retaliating for his villainy. In the end, I had to leave the hospital. After ten days, I went home.

Once back in my home, where dust had settled all over, I saw him. He had become terribly scrawny and weak. He made no sound as he staggered out from under the bed. After circling around me once, he went back under the bed. I ran my eyes over the room: Everything was intact. But the door of the fridge was open. I don't know how he managed to open it. That half-package of sausage in the corner of the refrigerator had disappeared. It seemed he had relied on that smidgen of food to survive the last several days. As I recalled how gluttonous he was, tears gushed from my eyes. I coaxed him out and fed him the dumplings that I had bought for myself. Petting him, I soothed him in my most affectionate tone. After he ate, he jumped into the wastebasket and fell asleep.

I was filled with deep regret. Did I regret what I'd done? Did I regret that ruthless idea I'd had while I was in the hospital? Or did I regret that at the beginning I had kept him? I didn't know. Perhaps I'd fallen into a trap of my own making.

I made up my mind to get along with my cat. I painstakingly fed him the food I bought. I gave him his favorite foods. Not ten days later, he had grown plump again and his coat was glossy. And his gait was once more ponderous and conceited. He came out only now and then. Most of the time, he stayed in the wastebasket, maintaining a proud silence.

Every day, I crouched next to the wastebasket, and showed him the wound on my hand. I kept talking about the pains I'd taken to be good to him and the repayment he'd given me. I even talked now and then of my burgeoning desire for revenge, and of all my kindness to—and expectations of—him. I hadn't experienced any of this with mankind for a long time. Why? Because I'd lost interest in people. I needed one confidante like this cat, one confidante that wasn't one of my species. We would depend on each other. I needed him to keep me company in this wasteland of a world. I had already changed my lifestyle for him—something I had never done for any person, because I was naturally inclined to be cranky and self-centered. Who else would be able to do as I did—work every day in the midst of the foul smell of cat urine? I said all of this, not seeking requital from him—I didn't intend requital—but because I wanted to be on amicable terms with him. I didn't want him to be hostile. I wanted him to pity me at least a little. Or to retreat a bit; if he couldn't get used to feeling pity for me, then peaceful coexistence would also be OK. I just didn't want him to torture me the way he had before.

I was alone in this world. Since I didn't have relatives or friends, the relationship I had happened to form with him had become my whole life. One could see that if this relationship turned into one of perpetual hostility, I'd be bitterly disappointed! Also, this place of ours was so small—just this one room. If we were hostile to each other, what would happen in the end? I prattled on. I spoke of my tedious life. I spoke of all the trials and tribulations I'd endured in this world. I was almost weeping as I talked. I hoped to solicit even a little compassion from him. I also hoped that at the least our relationship could take a turn for the better. The outcome? You've probably guessed. The outcome was that nothing changed. To move his heart with words was as hopeless as growing hair on a scabby head. At first, when I was pouring all this out, he didn't hide his snootiness: He listened with one eye open and one eye shut. Before long, he even fell asleep with his legs thrust out. This was his response to me!

After I'd been home a week, he became really restless and uneasy. At first, he made low snarls in the wastebasket, as if on the verge of breaking out. Later, all night long, he clawed the foot of my bed. Needless to say, that was an extremely unpleasant sound. It also gave me endless nightmares. I suspected he was feeling the urge to mate, because he was a tomcat. Generally speaking, he would have to go out. A lot of female cats were howling outside. I got out of bed and picked up a bamboo pole. I wanted to drive him out so that he could frolic, and also to lessen the tension inside the room. I didn't expect that he would stay under the bed, unwilling to leave. He wouldn't move, no matter how hard I hit him. He didn't seem to hear the excitement outside. It was as if he wasn't one of them. As soon as I went back to bed, he began clawing again. After a few days, the foot of the bed was in such bad shape I couldn't stand to look at it. He had clawed two deep holes in it. As for me, I continued having nightmares in the midst of these clawing, scratching sounds. Every day, when I went to work, my face was gray.

Probably he figured that he wasn't expressing himself enough by clawing the foot of the bed. One night, in the midst of a nightmare, I suddenly felt as if my foot had been cut by a sharp implement. Waking up with a start, I saw him fly from the bed. He had clawed a chunk out of the sole of my foot.

Had I reached the limit of my endurance? Did I have to continue putting up with this? That's what I was asking myself. The answer? I should continue putting up with it. What else could I do? Now he had already taken hold of my heart. If I killed him, the huge vacuum in my heart would certainly destroy me. Now if my body sustained some injuries and my spirit some annoyances, so what? And, too, there were always things I could do: I could wear shoes to bed, wrap the quilt tightly around me. If he launched a surprise attack on my head, I could wear a crash helmet. There were always solutions.

I really did wear clothes, shoes, socks, and a crash helmet to bed. I didn't dare turn the light off at night; I just covered it with a newspaper. He didn't claw me, but neither did he like the light on at night. Maybe it stimulated his nerves. If I didn't turn the light off, he ransacked boxes and chests in the room, dropping and breaking things like teapots and mirrors. After wreaking havoc for two nights, he jumped onto the bed again and cried. Clawed at my helmet. He intended to bite me again. I was scared out of my wits. All I could do was turn the light off.

The first night with the light off, nothing happened. The next night, he ran outside and returned with two wild cats. Those two cats chased each other around the room and fought. They tore at each other fiercely. They threw everything into chaos. And they yelled incessantly in a bloodcurdling way. It was daybreak before the two cats left. The third night, they reprised their act.

I thought: in a little over a year, my cat has customarily been a loner. He wasn't amorous: he didn't go out. It was as if he was an ascetic. Now, though, he had attracted wild cats to come in and run riot, but he hadn't joined in their mischief. Nor had he run away with them. It appeared that he had ulterior motives, and that his goal was simply to disrupt my life—to make trouble for me. He wanted to turn my home into a playground for wild cats, yet he didn't join their clique. He just stood gloating on the sidelines.

After a few days, the number of wild cats increased from two to five. I turned the light off, and saw that the room was filled with dark shadows scurrying around without stopping. It was extremely scary. Now, my cat didn't stand on the desk or bed any longer, but went back inside the wastebasket, and slept as though nothing was happening. I had no way to rest, however, because when the wild cats saw that I wasn't driving them out, they wreaked more and more havoc. In the end, they scampered onto my bed to fight, biting one another, yelping shrilly: it was simply shocking. When I was at my wits' end, I got up, turned on the light, picked up a hammer, and focusing on one black cat's head, I hammered down on it with all my strength. It fell over, twitched a few times, and died. The others were so frightened that they took to their heels. Trembling with fear, I picked up the dead cat and threw it into the garbage a hundred meters away. When I got back to the room, my head felt like a pumpkin. I wanted to pound my head against the wall. From the wastebasket, my cat was watching me coldly. He had seen everything. All of it. He was sneering to himself.

The next morning, of course, I went to work again with a gray face. These days, everyone had been talking about me, saying I was getting so thin that I looked terrible. Others joked with me to my face, saying I must have been sexually involved with some fox spirit lately. How could I tell them of these incidents? If I told them, wouldn't they think I was from outer space or mentally off? But one person in the office got a stranglehold on me, and insisted that I tell the story of the fox spirit. He said that everyone was eager to hear the story, so I couldn't disappoint them. I ignored him. He sat his ass down on my desk, and cuddled up to me, embarrassing me greatly. In that second, my face must have turned dark gray. When I thought of the source of this insult, I hated my cat even more. I would definitely get rid of him. Make it impossible for him to ever come back. I no longer had scruples about my psychological state. If there was a vacuum, OK, there was a vacuum. After all, it would be better than this kind of humiliation.

I quietly formed a plan in my mind. On the outside, my feelings didn't show. On my way home, I bought the deep-fried fish that he loved to eat. As he was eating happily, I covered him with a burlap bag, and held the opening closed. I took the bus out to the suburbs. Probably he knew exactly what I had in mind. He didn't let out a sound the whole way. I began to waver. But as soon as I recalled the insult I'd endured because of him, my resolve was strengthened again. Like the villain in a fairytale, I hung him on a tree next to the road. And then I tore off like a fugitive. I thought, Someone will come along and free him.

And so the previous act unfolded. Everything was quiet for two days, and then he came back again. All of you know: I didn't let him in. What will happen in the future? Can any of you tell me—what will happen later? All I knew was that I couldn't bear to even imagine everything the future would bring.

Copyright 2007 by Can Xue. Translation copyright 2007 by Karen Gernant and Zeping Chen. All rights reserved.

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