I am busy watering the orchids when the Young Mistress’ wails reach my ears.
I turn off the water—a special blend containing plant food, because even the flowers in this household get to eat like royalty—and replace the hose. The garden is loved by the family, but their precious daughter moreso. A few orchids can wait.
I am well aware of the child’s source of distress before I reach her, because it is the same every time.
It is you. It is always you.
The glowing red streaks on the Young Mistress’ arm tug at my attention, and that is when I realize that you are in an especially grouchy mood today. I crouch on the driveway to meet her flooded eyes.
“Hush, there’s no need for tears. Big girls don’t cry, do they?”
She wipes an eye and nods.
She points past the big iron gate and down the road. I banish her tears with a tissue reserved for such occasions, present her with a reassuring smile, and head after you. The gate grinds across the driveway with a tug, and it would be an ear-splitting noise were I not accustomed to it. I pull it closed behind me and find myself glancing up at the window of the master bedroom, perched at the top like a great eyeball that lays scrutiny to everything below. The Master would be on his way home from work at this hour, the Mistress is indulging in one of her forty-minute late-afternoon showers, and their son, the Young Master, is attending after-school football practice. In other words, I am currently not needed in the house.
My flip-flops scrape against the concrete on my way down the road, whittling themselves down bit by bit with each step, as cheap rubbery things tend to do. They are not designer shoes like the ones the Young Master wears to school in pursuit of the next fashion trend, but they do their job and are replaceable.
Just like me.
It is a small neighborhood, so there are only so many places you can turn to in your attempts to evade me. Sure enough, you have not gone far—I turn right at the intersection to find you sitting primly at the center of the road, blissfully unaware of the hungry eyes that I have to save you from every time you do this.
You are a Persian, after all, with a coat of pure white that seems to radiate something holy, and sapphires for eyes. Who wouldn’t want to pluck your majestic body off the street and claim your beauty for their own? You are the beloved of the Young Mistress, and the Young Mistress is the beloved of the entire family. For anything to happen to you is an unacceptable failure on my part.
You lick a paw and use it to rub the back of an ear. It is a contented gesture, something you do when the children are not around to shower you with affection. It is good to see that you can afford to be bored, while others can only wish they were.
I pace over, hands poised to grab you.
You turn and run.
Of course you would do this to me. To you this is a game, but to me it is obligation, and those of us with obligations are always pining for the tranquility of fulfilling them. I march after you, content to keep a meager pace because you have slowed to a leisurely trot and I know that you will not go far. You never do. You are not ready for the world outside the neighborhood.
The neighbor's houskeeper walks my way with bags of groceries. Of course, that means her hands aren’t free to catch you as you trot by. “They ought to put a leash on that animal.”
“Maybe on a dog,” I say, keeping my pace. “I thought you went home to your village?”
She shrugs. “Master still needs me to help around the house.”
“Don’t you miss your kids?”
“I won’t miss getting a bonus, that’s for sure.” She cackles, and by then I have exited the interaction to pursue you. “Good luck!” she calls after me.
As you pad away on your little paws, tail erect to signal happiness, I think of the fellow housekeeper's words. You have never been on a leash, let alone had a collar forced upon you. Your pretty little neck is untainted, and you have been allowed to roam the house freely since you were a kitten, to play and purr and pursue your feline whims. I know because I have grown alongside you, though perhaps more in mind than in body.
You run up a slope, making sure to give a wide berth to the gate at No. 36 because the barking dog likes to scare you. It gives you a break today, but not me. I will admit that it makes me jump. What have I done to deserve this? You are the one who wants to be out here, not me.
You turn left at the apex of the slope, where the road goes downhill. The black gate at the end is where the rich housing ends and the rest of the world begins.
You wouldn’t dare go outside. No, you would never betray me like that, not after the countless baths I’ve had to give you because your owners don’t have the heart to watch you squirm, or all the litter I've had to explore to scoop out the treats you leave behind.
And yet there you go, slinking right under the security guard’s nose. He doesn’t stop you either, only smiles in amusement from his stool as he watches you escape.
My pace quickens and I am suddenly very aware of the way this skirt constricts my legs all the way down to the ankle. Like a… collar. I pause for a moment to tie up the hem, and I can feel the security guard’s gaze latch onto the bits of leg that I expose.
“Just take all of it off and you’ll catch the cat in no time!”
“Oh, shut up.”
I leave him to laugh it off. You have decided to turn left, good heavens, which leads to the freeway. I call your name as my sandals slap the asphalt, which draws in curious stares. The scent of smoke and ditchwater singes my nostrils. A car rumbles across the potholes, and I almost fall into a roadside ditch in my hurry to get out of the way. It would be unacceptable to have a road this narrow in other countries, if what I have been told is true. The Master’s firstborn is studying in England and he has reported clean streets, sidewalks everywhere, and a staggering lack of traffic jams. Not easy to imagine, but I would much rather you ran away in a place like that.
You speed on, undeterred. I cry out for anyone, anyone at all to grab you; you will be mishandled, but at this point I don’t care. My patience is wearing thin.
Hands reach out, all in futility. You are agile despite your nourishment, cunning despite your sheltered life. You know that I am here to take you home and you are determined to resist.
A ruckus of honking descends from up ahead. The freeway. The serenity of this road will open up into chaos, and the idea of you plunging into that catapults a scream up my throat.
Not that it matters. I am no match for your feline agility. A blur of metal and wheels streaks past, and my toes curl to have to watch your little paws make a beeline for the road barrier that splits the freeway in half.
You stop there, thank goodness. You glance left and right, assessing the situation, tail lowered because you finally have the sense to be cautious. I stare from across the road, waiting for my chance to dash across the madness and scoop you up. Perhaps you have finally realized the peril you are in. Perhaps you will finally let yourself into the protection of my arms.
By some miracle, everything comes to a standstill. The red eye of a traffic light winks at me from the left, so I sidestep my way past the stationary vehicles and onto the barrier.
“Got you, you naughty thing.”
Ahead are wheels that are made to squeeze your puny soul out of your puny body. Behind me, more monsters rumble to life. You have nowhere to turn, no more options.
I reach down with both arms.
Your fur is soft against my skin.
But not your claws. You screech in defiance as you rake red ribbons across my hands and arms. It hurts, but not as much as your willingness to defy me does. I release you, and you dash through traffic. You seem to prefer death over me.
My foot hesitates over the asphalt. Fear freezes the both of us as a car comes rushing in. You are not about to impede the progress of something so determined.
And yet you do. A chorus of honking erupts as the other vehicles in the lane are forced to stop. You are still frozen, the hairs on your back stiff with fear, so I rush onto the road.
Your sapphire eyes light up when you notice me. And then you are already on the other side before I am even halfway across.
A few motorbikes take the chance to slip through. My dress flutters in their wake as the roar of three engines floods my ears. Fear grips me, pins me in place in the middle of the road. A motorbike misses me by a hair; its driver lobs curses over his shoulder. The honking escalates, and in that moment the world seems to stop.
My mind travels back to a time when you were half your size and twice as energetic. Only a day had passed since you took those first tentative steps out of the pet carrier and already you were zipping around the house like a fly in a jar. You were a treasure to the whole family, and all you had to do was be yourself.
Of course, that is only because it is the side of you they wish to see. They’ve never had to fight through the scent of your excrement when changing the litter box. Nor have they ever dealt with your midnight wails of hunger. They live in their world, where you are a perfect plaything, and we live in ours.
We even share a secret—something the Masters will never know. A week had passed since your arrival, and their interest in you had waned somewhat, at least to the point where you could groom yourself out of boredom. The children were at school, the Master at work, and the Mistress in a call with one of her dozens upon dozens of friends. You had developed an inordinate fondness for the swimming pool; perhaps you were amused by the ripples made by the water jets, or perhaps it was the little insects flailing around on the pool’s surface. Just like the saying goes, curiosity killed you—or, at least, would have if I had not been there. I was the one to respond to your wails of distress, the one to pluck your soggy body out of the water and console you in the warmth of a towel.
The children played with you afterwards like nothing happened. They think you knocked the mop and bucket over to get to the state you were in. They don’t deserve the pain of knowing, because such things are exempt from their world.
But not from ours. I know what you are and what you are capable of. I simply never thought you would take it this far.
Flecks of dirt and water float in the air around me. A face twisted with rage glares at me from behind glass. I snap back to the present and stumble across the road, mouthing useless apologies along the way. Tripping over the curb reminds me to tie up my dress again.
I stand there and pant my lungs dry for a full minute. Pedestrians console me, laugh at me, berate me; they are all ghosts except you. And yet you are the one I cannot see.
I ask around. A plump cat with beautiful white fur was seen running down that sideroad over there. I follow the trail of sightings over potholes and muddy puddles, my pace uneven but my mind racing. Someone points out the dirt stains on my skirt. They don’t know that it is replaceable, just like the rest of me.
As the evening clambers across the sky, warm raindrops greet my blouse. Everyone heads indoors; children playing in the dust are ushered in while people eating at outdoor benches hold a protective hand over their bowls of noodles as they rush for a roof above their food. I stick to the roadside, but that barely shields me from the rain. As puddles grow and coalesce, the cars cruising by start to become a nuisance. I become numb to my surroundings with the knowledge that you are nowhere to be found.
By the time I reach the busy intersection, the street lights are blurry and the rain has seeped into my clothes to form a film of water between my skin and the fabric. I itch to peel all of it off and start fresh. Unlike you, I do not have the luxury of getting bathed when this is over.
Motorbikes choke the road, the night festooned with the yellow glare of their headlights. Apparently, traffic is never this severe elsewhere in the world. But perhaps that isn’t so surprising when anyone can buy a decent bike for less than a million rupiah nowadays.
A metal beast, sleek and silvery, appears to my right. The motorbikes part for the expensive car like a rock in a stream. It honks, which is intended for me, so I walk up to the passenger window.
It rolls down to reveal a chiselled face that is calm yet stern. “What are you doing here?” demands the Master.
I must look like an idiot, standing there drenched from head to toe with mud splattered across the hem of my dress. Traffic is moving so slowly that I have ample time to recount everything, after which the Master simply sighs and gives me a hard look. “You know what that animal means to my wife and kids, don’t you?”
He reminds me of the details surrounding your worth regardless. Whether you like it or not, you are a replacement. Like me. You are the second cat to grace the household, a means of lifting the grief brought about by a pedigree-related illness. The loss was deemed unacceptable; people like my Master find it difficult to tolerate misfortune because they believe wealth puts them above such things. The family took to you quickly, as if you were there from the start; you are, after all, just another price tag to the Master and just another plaything to everyone else. A gap in their happiness, stitched together with bank notes.
The Master doesn’t stop there. He makes sure I am aware of how much he invests in you; of the high-end gourmet food you live on, of the luxurious shampoo I am to apply to your fur, of the huge, intoxicating playroom that is your kingdom. Sometimes I wish I had fur and paws and could lick and scratch my way through the medical bills and debts and tuition fees of my teenage son. Instead of a playroom, I get a hard mattress in the garage. The roaches keep me company, and that’s only when the centipedes aren’t around to eat them.
The Master leaves me to rot on the side of the road. I receive no assistance, no shelter, no consolation from him. As long as you are still out there, I don’t deserve these things.
Something pulls me across the road. A thread between us, a suggestion that you will have taken shelter behind that fence with the big tree peeking over it. The contents of a pothole gets hurled onto me, but that’s fine. You are close by.
The rain peters out as soon as I slip through a gap in the fence, clearing the air for your cries of distress. I trudge through tombstones and dying grass to find you at the bottom of an empty grave, illuminated by a nearby street lamp. Well, empty besides you and the rainwater that has filled to about halfway. You scrabble at the edges with your sodden paws even though it is useless. How long could you stay afloat had I not arrived in time, I wonder?
Suddenly, you are a kitten again. Your voice is frail yet desperate. You will learn to avoid the swimming pool, but for now your actions are forgivable.
I crouch in the dirt.
Not because I want to see you safe. But because my Masters do.
Not for my own happiness. But for the Young Mistress’.
Not because I care. But because the world doesn’t.
How different would things be, had I retreated to the orchids in the garden that day, where your crying would be out of earshot? Probably not much. I’d be forced to fish your tiny, useless body out of the pool, and then another would take your place. And I would still be serving someone’s kingdom.
But perhaps I can still find satisfaction. A flicker of amusement in this world that is just so, so, so unfair.
You cry out to me from your grave.
My hands reach out.