Once, not so long ago in the ancient city of Kyoto, where shrines are as common as shopping centers, there lived a cat and her name was Brush-Tail. She lived a quiet, happy life with her beloved Mom, whose name was Nakano-Sensei. She taught calligraphy in her beautiful old house, and Brush-Tail helped by supervising her students. She sat proudly in her sunbeam on the clean tatami mats by the window, watching the children and young adults as they worked with their fine paper, ink stones, and brushes. Everybody seemed to work harder when she was watching.
Brush-Tail loved those quiet days of soft paper, scratching brushes, frequent petting by the students, and brief jaunts outside to visit nearby shrines and parks. Nakano-Sensei would brush her in the evenings, singing to her softly and praising her long, silky, three colored fur. Brush-Tail knew she was a “lucky cat”, because she had orange and black patches over brilliant white under parts. She always purred and rubbed against Nakano-Sensei, telling her how much she loved her.
She remembered how the old woman had named her when they’d first met. She’d looked at her long plumy tail, noticed the pointy black tip, and laughed. “You need to come to my calligraphy school, little kitten, because you’ve already got a brush for a tail!” From that moment on, the kitten was Brush-Tail and Nakano-sensei was Mom.
Brush-Tail had lived in the school for five peaceful years. Then, one morning, as Nakano-Sensei was getting ready for the day, she heard a great crash, a thump and a cry of pain. She ran to her Mom’s side and found her lying on the floor, feebly reaching for her phone, which was lying on the floor too, but just out of reach.
Brush-Tail meowed with worry, circling her beloved Mom.
“Little one,” Nakano-Sensai said. “Little One. Can you bring that over to me? I can’t reach it. I’ve broken something and I need help.”
At first, Brush-Tail didn’t understand. She switched her namesake frustratedly, lashing it back and forth with consternation. Then she saw her Mom reaching out again, saw the phone on the floor. Something clicked. She can call for help if I get her that, the cat thought. She batted the slippery phone over to Mom’s outstretched hand.
“Oh, thank you, Brush Tail! I think you may have saved my life,” said Nakano-Sensei. She unfolded her phone and started talking on it.
Everything was confused after that. Loud people with strange equipment and a rattling metal bed came rushing in the door, and left it open. They bustled around the house, surrounding Nakano Sensei and doing strange things to her. Brush-Tail was so worried and confused that all she wanted to do was escape, so escape she did. She ran straight out through the door. Outside wasn’t much better, as there was a big tall white car with flashing lights all over it. It smelled like hurt people, and she didn’t want any part of it. Then she heard an awful rattling come out of the house, and a scary wailing sound from the big car and it was all too much for little Brush Tail. She ran as fast and as far away as she possibly could.
When Brush-Tail finally stopped running, she found herself in a completely unfamiliar neighborhood, and it was starting to rain. She stopped and looked around. Nothing looked right. Where were her shrines and parks? It was all cold gray concrete and brick here and she didn’t see any soft green places to walk on and rest her sore paw-pads. The rain was wetting her fur and washing away any scent trail she might have left. Tired now, she still walked, ears and whiskers drooping. What will happen to me? she thought. I’m lost. I can’t find Mom, and if she’s hurt, she can’t find me. She wanted to sit down and howl for help. Then she heard a growl and smelled that nose curling smell she feared so much. Dog. Picking up her tired paws, she ran away from that smell, not stopping till she found a narrow alleyway to hide in. She hopped up on a boarded up window ledge and shivered, her soaked fur doing nothing to warm her.
If Brush-Tail could have cried, she would have. She felt homeless, friendless, cold, and now the sun was going down. She hunched in place to wait for a morning that was very slow in coming.
When the sky was light at long last, Brush-Tail hopped down from the window ledge and looked around. It had provided a bit of shelter and at least her fur was mostly dry, if matted and snarled. She wanted breakfast and a nice grooming from Mom. But her belly still growled and her fur stayed matted, bcause there were no gentle hands to pet her and comfort her. She looked around the alleyway. There was nothing here but some rubbish tips and crumpled paper, a few rat droppings but no rats. She sniffed at the rubbish tip, hoping for scraps, but there were none. Eventually she went out of the alley and found a narrow street. She looked one way, then the other.
Which way should I go? she wondered. Looking down the street, she saw a statue of a Lucky Cat, sitting up with one paw up raised in a beckoning gesture. It was sitting outside a shop. Like her, it was painted orange and black and white. Maybe people there will be friendly, she thought, because they like cats. She went to the statue, sniffed at the door. She smelled cloth and metal and people’s shoes, but the door was closed. She went on to the next door, and the next, and the next. Her belly growled louder and louder as she went. Eventually she drank from a puddle and that helped a bit but she was still hungry.
Brush-Tail wandered the street, hoping for food until she found a little place with grass and benches. A park, she thought. I like parks. She jumped up onto a bench so as to get off the wet grass, and began to wash herself. People come to parks, she thought. Maybe if I look pretty I can find someone who can help me. Then an idea came into her small, round head.
Sure enough, a young couple came into the park, looking at each other and holding hands. Brush-Tail meowed at them until they looked at her, then she sat up, just like the lucky cat, and raised her paw in the beckoning gesture.
“Oh, look at that little neko!” said the young woman, tugging at her boyfriend’s sleeve. “She’s like a live Lucky Cat! I wonder where she learned to do that?” And she came over and petted Brush Tail.
Brush-Tail purred at her. It felt good to be petted again. But they didn’t seem to have any food, and soon they went away. She’d gotten attention though, so she meant to try again. Besides, she smelled food cooking nearby. She looked, and saw a food cart being set up. Maybe she’d go over there later, but right now Brush-Tail decided to stay on her bench. If it worked, maybe she could get breakfast.
After a time, a little old man in a tweed coat came and sat down near her. His hair was fluffy and cottony white and he smelled friendly. Brush-Tail sat up and made her beckoning gesture.
“My, aren’t you a clever cat! Why aren’t you at home, little one?” he asked in a gentle voice.
Unable to answer, she walked over and let herself be petted, warming up against his coat.
“You poor thing, you’re cold,” said the little old man. “Are you hungry too? Here. I have onagiri in my pocket and you can have some of it.” He reached into his coat and pulled out a little paper packet, unwrapping a rice ball. When he broke it open, Brush-Tail smelled tuna. Her mouth watered in anticipation.
“There, Honorable Cat, you can have half,” he said. “I’ve had a good breakfast and this was just my snack.” So he laid down half of the onagiri on its paper, tuna side up.
Brush-Tail was too hungry to worry about what it was, and she devoured the whole thing, rice and all while the old man nibbled and watched.
“That’s better, isn’t it?” he asked. “If you can understand me, I want to give you a warning. There’s a mean old man around here and he doesn’t like cats. He’s very thin, and he always wears a white apron and a red cap. He probably smells like rice and wheat, because he owns the dry goods store over there.. You stay away from him, because he’ll chase you with a broom.“
Brush-Tail listened carefully as the old man spoke, flicking her ears. She didn’t want anything to do with a person like that.
“But other people will be nice to you,” he continued, petting her silky fur. “This is Cat Street, after all. Just look out for yourself. I wish I could help you find your home, but that’s the best I can do.”
He got up, brushed off his legs, and bowed to her, just as if she’d been a Two-Legged. “Good luck to you, my furry friend.” With that, he was gone from the park, walking away to his errand.
Brush-Tail felt a lot better with food in her stomach. Now she might be able to survive. She spent the day watching people. Some petted her, some gave her food. Some ignored her. She saw other strays around too but they didn’t talk to her. When darkness came she found a cardboard box to hide in, and that was better than the window ledge had been. She still missed Nakano Sensei.
Brush Tail’s life went like that for a few weeks. Some days she got enough to eat, other days she didn’t, but she survived. Then one day she saw the Man with the Broom. She was walking past the dry goods store, a place that smelled like rice and wheat and rat droppings, when she caught a strange acrid scent. She stopped to explore it with her nose, and then the front door flew open.
“Get out of here, you devil cat!” The man appeared in the door, skinny, white aproned, and with a face as red as his hat. He held a a big broom and he thrust it angrily. “Get out of here, you nasty old thing!”
Though he’d told her twice, he hadn’t needed to, because Brush-Tail was already running. Panicked, she dodged cars and ran all the way across the street, panting as she reached the other side. She stood there, looking at his store, ears laid back and tail fluffed out. Then she heard another door behind her. She was just about to flee again when she heard a gentle voice. It was the old man she’d seen a few weeks before.
“See what I mean, Honorable Cat? You stay away from his store and you stay away from him. That park is mostly safe, and so is the crepe stand nearby, but stay away from the bad old man. He’ll do worse than chase you if he catches you.”
She felt gentle fingers stroking her back. “I’ll bring you another rice ball on my walk tomorrow,” he said. “I wish I could take you in, but I can’t have a cat. Take care of yourself, Little One.”
Being called that made her think of Nakano-Sensei. Will I ever see her again? she wondered. She butted her head against his leg in thanks, then walked away when he went back through the door.
After that, Brush-Tail stayed far away from the red faced man in the white apron whenever she saw him, and she stayed away from his trail when she smelled him. She didn’t like the area around his store anyway, it often carried a strange aroma of sickness. Weeks passed, and then months, summer turned into fall, and fall turned into winter.
It was harder to survive in winter time. Fewer people went on walks, and there were fewer food carts to beg from. But the old man had his walk every few days, and she knew she’d have a meal then if nothing. She did what she could to stay warm, often sleeping on top of the propane tank in back of the crepe stand. The owner didn’t mind as long as she did her Lucky Cat trick once in a while to draw in customers. He gave her a little fish every now and then, too. So Brush-Tail survived, and wasn’t always lonely, but she missed Nakano Sensei more and more.
As winter went on, the little cat watched as people started putting up winter decorations, stringing lights, and getting ready for the holidays and the big New Year celebrations. People wore colorful clothes, and flitted in and out of the shops on Cat Street. A few more were there to see her beckoning trick, so that was good. But it was cold, very cold and snow was falling everywhere. It froze her pads and stuck to her fur.
One especially snowy day, Brush-Tail heard something familiar. There was a wailing sound, a little like the one she’d heard when Nakano Sensei fell.
Stranger still, the sound was coming from the Bad Man’s store. People were walking over there to see what was going on. Afraid, but still drawn by curiosity, Brush-Tail followed them.
By the time she got near the store, she heard excited conversation. Peeking through the forest of legs, she saw the mean store owner being brought out, and some people wearing dark blue uniforms were holding on to him. They looked angry, but their voices were quiet, and one of them was talking into a box. There was another person here, someone who looked like she came out of one of Nakano Sensei’s old books. Brush-Tail knew what she was. She was a samurai, dressed all in rich green silks, and she had two swords. She was apparently telling the men in uniforms what to do. She walked up to the mean store keeper, straight backed and unafraid, and her voice rang out clearly in the quiet winter air.
“In the name of the Emperor of Japan, you are under arrest,” she said. “What you’ve done to those cats is unforgivable. As for the other things we’ve found in your shop, I will not speak of them, but you will face justice. Your terrible acts are ended, and you are going away for a long, long time.” The mean store keeper glared at her, and he hissed something that sounded nasty. The samurai looked at the men wearing blue. “Take him away,” she said, and some other things Brush-Tail couldn’t quite hear. They did, so quickly that it was like magic, and after a while the crowds went away.
The samurai dressed in green stayed looking at the store for a long time. At first, Brush-Tail didn’t know why she stayed, but then she realized that the woman was crying. It seemed she was very sad about something. Maybe something she’d found in the shop? The little cat trotted over to her, sat up, and made the beckoning gesture.
After a moment, the samurai looked down. “Why hello, little Mi-ke-Neko,” she said, using old words meaning Lucky Cat. “What are you doing out here all alone?” Her voice was gentle and soft, not hard like it had been when she’d talked to the Bad Man. She crouched down to get closer to Brush Tail, stretched out her hand for the cat to sniff.
Brush-Tail smelled cats, and good food, and many other things when she sniffed the samurai’s hand. Though her hair was black, her eyes were the same green as the silk of her kimono. She accepted the head scratches and petting that the woman offered, and after a moment a purr rose from her.
“Are you lost, Beautiful One?” asked the woman. “You’re too thin, and your fur wants brushing. But you like people too much to be a stray. Would you like a good meal and maybe I can try to find your home?”
Brush-Tail was elated. Bursting out with excited meows, she twined around the woman’s legs and pranced to show her agreement. Then she sat up again like a Lucky Cat just to make sure.
The woman laughed through her tears, then wiped them away. “Well, if there’s something I can do to make this dark day a little brighter, I’ll be happy to do it. Come on. Let me at least warm you up.” And she stretched out her hands, slender yet strong, to the little cat in the snow.
After a moment’s thought, Brush-Tail hopped up, and found herself being cradled gently, with a silk clad arm supporting her.
“I know someone who sells good tuna,” said the woman. “Would you like some of that?”
“Mrrp,” said Brush Tail. This was almost too good to be true. It was like a dream as she was carried along the snowy street to the fishmonger’s shop. Then the dream got even better as she ate fresh, good tuna straight off the paper, not just a little in a rice ball, but a good big piece of it. She purred and rubbed against the woman’s hand to show her thanks.
“Now that you’ve eaten, Pretty One, let’s see if we can find your family,” said the woman. “Oh, I wish cats could talk!” she said to herself. “Then she could tell me where she belongs.” A frustration smell came from the woman now but Brush-Tail sensed no danger. “Come on, let’s go to my car. We can be warm there and I can use my computer to look for lost cat notices.”
“Brrrt,” said Brush Tail.
“Okay!” The woman laughed, and it was a good sound. “Let’s go.”
They walked back to where the woman had parked, and for the first time the gaily decorated street looked beautiful.
Nakano Sensei was trying to enjoy a holiday party her students had thrown for her. The school was decorated for New Year, with red and gold streamers everywhere, and paper lanterns, and their best calligraphy work on cards that they’d presented to her. She knew they wanted to help her be happy, but her heart was heavy. She still missed her Brush Tail. The cat’s bright presence had always made her life better, happier. She still missed her friend terribly. Well meaning friends had offered her kittens, but none had the beautiful markings and sweet personality that she was looking for. Finally, she’d admitted to herself that no one could replace her own cat, and she’d resolved to never get another. It had been months since her fall and she had little hope of ever seeing again. Still, she hadn’t had the heart to move her little water bowl out of the kitchen. Just now, she looked down at it sadly as she puttered about, making a tray of refreshments for her guests.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang. “I’ll get it!” called one of her students, a wise boy who knew she was still slow even this long after her hip surgery. What she heard next was nothing short of amazing.
There was a voice, a woman’s voice. “I’m here about a lost cat notice posted by Nakano Sensei,” she said, her voice calm and confident.
Nakano Sensei hobbled painfully out of the kitchen. Had her ears betrayed her? Had she really heard that? And was it even her cat, lost so long ago, or some other poor unfortunate?
As she saw the strange, green clad woman standing in her doorway, and saw who was cradled in her arms, her heart fairly burst for joy.
The cat made an improbable wiggle, squirmed out of the samurai’s arms, and ran to Nakano-Sensei. The old woman dropped her cane and caught her up, hugging her, petting her fur, and crying tears of pure joy. For her part, Brush-Tail put her arms around Mom’s neck and purred for all she was worth. All the months of hardship fell away from both of them and it was like a young girl hugging a kitten.
The samurai smiled and started to turn away. “A light in the darkness,” she said softly to herself, and was about to leave.
“Stay, stay. Won’t you come to our party we’re having for Nakano-Sensei?” asked a tall, lovely girl in school clothes, as tugged on the woman’s green sleeve.
“I don’t know if I should,” she said softly.
“No. Stay with us. It’s nearly New Year. You’ve made our teacher so happy, we want to show you hospitality.”
The woman thought for a moment, looking around the beautifully decorated, old fashioned school room. Here was clean tatami, here were beautifully polished wooden beams holding up a traditional roof, here was even an old fashioned hearth with a kettle ready to put over it. She smiled. Here, in this place of paper and ink and learning, her traditional silks weren’t out of place. She put her katana in the sword stand by the door. “Yes, and I thank you. I’ll stay and celebrate.”
She went in to join the party. Nakano-sensei and Brush-Tail were the ladies of the hour, and they reigned jointly over the little gathering with joy and good cheer. If this moment was any indication, a joyful holiday lay ahead, and a bright and hopeful New Year.