The Ninth Life Donald J. Mitchell
I was born that day. This has just occurred to me. I was born that day he found me, or I found him—no—better to say that we were found. We were found together deep in a long hole through a hill, each of us having come from the light shining far away at opposite ends. I was making my way to someplace where I thought I could belong, or was it that I had been chased? I can’t remember. I do recall the terrible noise and the lights and the air that was suffocating and poisonous. I went as far as I could, half-way in fact, before I froze. My life ended there: I understand that now.
It was seventeen years ago almost to the day and I had lost myself in Nagasaki. I had already experienced some strange things in that city: there was that boy in a park who claimed to live in a huge cemetery; that Swedish man in the hostel who took my photo because he thought I was the reincarnation of his sensei. Maybe it’s true, then: I was fleeing and that tunnel seemed my only way out.
And so there I was, in the middle of it, dead, so to speak, looking at the ground, which was frozen. And on that dirty cement I saw him; at first he had appeared only to be a bag with nothing in it, shoved up against the wall by the wind-pressure of the relentless traffic. I suppose, to people in those vehicles, I appeared to be just an empty coat pressed up against the tunnel wall, but in that moment, he and I, we weren’t either of these things. I was a wanderer and he was too, except that we had come to the end of it, both of us. I know now that we could not have studied long enough or kept our tools clean enough or lived honestly enough to have gone any farther. He was more certain about this than I was; he had buried his head in his paws to shut out the horror of that afterlife and was as still as a child’s tombstone. At the time, I could not imagine how and why he had come so far into that horrible tunnel, but I completely understood his unconditional surrender to it. He had simply realized his utter insufficiency to deal with the impenetrable wall on one side, the mad dash of cars on the other, and the two distant half moons of light—as if God’s head was bent all the way around us and His sight had pinched everything from opposite ends of infinity.
I knelt down. He was likely feral, I surmised, diseased, crawling with lice and though his fur appeared healthy, he was hardly breathing. Of course, I couldn’t stay in that tunnel, and I couldn’t leave him there. I’d seen a woman walking far ahead of me as I’d entered—she must have stepped over him, or squeezed around him. I shed my coat and wrapped him up and started walking again, toward one of the two eyes that was least familiar to me. When we emerged from the tunnel I had already gone over and over what I should do with him. Should I take him back to the states? Or at least find a vet? I barely knew enough Japanese to order soup, how could I explain to anyone my intentions? I was never very good at explaining my intentions—at any given moment I never knew what they would be. So at the mouth of the tunnel I sat down on a cement stairway with the cars and lorries rushing by and the bundled coat on my lap. He made no movement at all underneath it. He was absolutely no help.
I guess I knew something had changed then, though I didn’t want to admit it. I was twenty-seven, or thought I was, and I’d only managed to stumble onto some truth here and there. And there in my lap was another truth giving me no comfort, you know, the way truth is supposed to do. I pulled my coat away from his head. His face was still buried in his paws. I’d given up being worried about lice or rabies or other such things so I stroked his head and ears. He was as stiff as a stick but I kept petting him. I’m not sure how long I petted him and thought about truth until, very gradually, I began to feel a little rattle on my legs and then began to hear the fragile, nearly inaudible purr. After a few minutes of this he pulled his nose up from under his bad dream, stared and blinked. He didn’t look around much and I don’t believe he even looked at me. He seemed to know in his bones that all was well and would not chance losing face by needless investigation. He just loosened his muscles a bit and relaxed into the nest I’d made for him.
He fell asleep. Not a death-sleep, but an easy, thanksgiving sleep. I imagined that he’d already comprehended that he was newborn into a new world: my coat would have smelled like nothing he’d ever smelled before, but he accepted it fully. It made my heart ache how trustingly he understood himself and his own good senses.
I let him sleep maybe a half an hour before I became restless, stood up and started walking again, carrying him in my arms as if he was a baby. I don’t know where I thought I was going; I suppose I was conjuring a whole new life too, something completely different. Really, I even started in that direction, thinking that he and I would find some island to the south and live there together. I’d grow persimmons and those tiny oranges and write poems, and he would find his way into many of those poems. But, before I could even fantasize the quaint Basho-hut I would build and the strange fish I would catch from my Dogen-boat, something made me stop. There, to my left, was a little side street with little houses leaning against each other carefully. I simply turned and walked down it. There was nobody anywhere in sight, just little houses and their little doors. I didn’t go far before I felt him struggle in my arms and, for the first time since I’d scooped up his corpse-like body in the tunnel, I put him down. He stood up with perfect dignity and symmetry, his tail held high, staring at a particular house. I remember that the house seemed a bit more run down than the others, a little more suspended by all the rest. Then he looked up at me, mewed, pressed his chin against my calf and circled my legs three times, quite slowly, his face, body and especially long tail caressing them as he turned. And then he just leapt away, disappearing into a modest door that happened to be propped open.
I stared after him for a few minutes to see if he would return, then walked back to the main road. I headed toward my fantasy island for maybe a mile or so before it dawned on me that a new life doesn’t always mean forsaking the old. Besides, I realized that I didn’t want to live on a Japanese island without him. So I turned around and walked back to the city, to the park and hostel, to the trains and planes—through how many lives? Doesn’t matter. All the way home.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.