the town of cats

Excerpt from 1Q84 by Hurami Murakami:

Carrying a single bag, the young man is traveling alone at his whim with no particular destination in mind. He goes by train and gets off at any stop that arouses his interest. He takes a room, sees the sights, and stays as long as he likes. When he has had enough, he boards another train. He spends every vacation this way.

One day he sees a lovely river from the train window. Gentle green hills line the meandering stream, and below them lies a quiet- looking, pretty little town with an old stone bridge over the river. The scene attracts him. Tasty river fish should be available in a place like this. The train stops at the station, and the young man steps down with his bag. No one else gets off there. As soon as he alights, the train departs.

No workers man the station, which must see very little activity. The young man crosses the stone bridge and walks into the town. It is utterly still, with no one to be seen. All the shops are shuttered, the town hall deserted. No one occupies the desk at the town’s only hotel. He rings the bell, but no one comes out. The place seems totally uninhabited. Perhaps all the people are off napping somewhere. But it is only ten thirty in the morning, way too early for that. Perhaps something caused all the people to abandon the town. In any case, the next train will not come until the following morning, so he has no choice but to spend the night here. He wanders around the town to kill time.

In fact, however, this is a town of cats. When the sun starts to go down, many cats cross the bridge into town – cats of all different kinds and colors. They are much larger than ordinary cats, but they are still cats. The young man is shocked to see this spectacle. He rushes into the bell tower in the center of town and climbs to the top to hide. The cats go about their business raising the shop shutters or seating themselves at their town hall desks to start their day’s work Soon , still more cats come, crossing the bridge into town like the others. They enter the shops to buy things or go to the town hall to handle administrative matters or have a meal at the hotel restaurant or drink beer at the tavern and sing lively cat songs. One plays a concertina and others dance to the music. Because cats can see in the dark, they need almost no lights, but that particular night the glow of the full moon floods the town, enabling the young man to see every detail from his perch in the bell tower. When dawn approaches, the cats close up shop, finish their work or official business, and swarm back across the bridge to where they came from.

By the time the sun comes up, the cats are gone, and the town is deserted again. The young man climbs down, picks one of the hotel beds for himself, and goes to sleep. When he gets hungry, he eats the bread and cooked fish left in the hotel kitchen. When darkness approaches, he hides in the top of the bell tower again and observes the cats’ activities until dawn. Trains stop at the station before noon and before evening. If he took the morning train he could continue his journey, and if he took the afternoon train he could go back where he came from. No passengers alight at the station, and no one boards here, either. Still, the trains stop at the station for exactly one minute as scheduled and pull out again. He could take one of the trains and leave the creepy cat town behind. But he doesn’t. Being young, he has a lively curiosity and boundless ambition and is ready for adventure. He wants to see more of the strange spectacle of the cat town. If possible, he wants to find out when and how it became a town of cats, how the town is organized, and what the cats are doing there. He is probably the only human being who has ever seen this strange sight.

On the night of the third day, a hubbub breaks out in the square below the bell tower. “Hey, do you smell something human?” one of the cats says. “Now that you mention it, I thought there was a funny smell the past few days,” another chimes in, twitching his nose. “Me too,” says yet another cat. “That’s weird. There shouldn’t be any humans here,” someone adds. “No, of course not. There’s no way a human could get into this town of cats.” “Still, that smell of theirs is definitely here.”

The cats form into groups and search the town from top to bottom like vigilante bands. Cats have an excellent sense of smell when they want to use it, so it takes them very little time to discover that the bell tower is the source of the smell. The young man hears their soft paws padding their way up the stairs. That’s it, they’ve got me ! he thinks. His smell seems to have aroused the cats to anger. They have big, sharp claws and white fangs. Humans are not supposed to set foot in this town. He has no idea what terrible fate awaits him if he is discovered, but he is sure they will never let him leave the town alive now that he has learned their secret.

Three cats climb to the top of the bell tower and sniff the air. “Strange,” one cat says, twitching his whiskers. “I smell a human, but there’s no one here.”

“It is strange,” says a second cat. “But there is definitely no one here. Let’s look somewhere else.”

“I don’t get it, though.”

The three cats cock their heads, puzzled, then retreat down the stairs. The young man hears their footsteps going down and fading into the dark of night. He breathes a sigh of relief, but he doesn’t get it, either. He was literally nose- to- nose with the cats in this small space. There was no way they could have missed him. But for some reason they did not see him. He brings his hand to his eyes and can see it perfectly well. It hasn’t turned transparent. Strange. In any case, though, when morning comes, he knows he should go to the station and take the train away from this town. Staying here would be too dangerous. His luck can’t last forever.

The next day, however, the morning train does not stop at the station. He watches it pass by without slowing down. The afternoon train does the same. He can even see the engineer seated at the controls. The passengers’ faces, too, are visible through the windows. But the train shows no sign of stopping. It is as though people cannot see the young man waiting for a train – or even see the station itself. Once the afternoon train disappears down the track, the place grows quieter than ever. The sun begins to sink. It is time for the cats to come. He knows that he is irretrievably lost. This is no town of cats, he finally realizes. It is the place where he is meant to be lost. It is a place not of this world that has been prepared especially for him. And never again, for all eternity, will the train stop at this station to bring him back to his original world.

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