It was a slender, graceful animal, with large green eyes and a small pink tongue in its triangular-shaped face. It was grooming itself when I turned the corner, delivering soft, measured licks onto its shining fur. But none of that mattered: it was a cat, and it was black. That only was important.
I do not believe in coincidences. Right as I was making my way past him, the cat got up and crossed my path, all smooth motion and unstoppable omen of the providence. It did not even trouble me that much; sometimes bad luck is just that, a black cat crossing your path, your phone slipping through your hands and shattering on the floor. I shrugged it off, moved on with my day, but I was no fool. A black cat crossing your path is bad luck. I knew that. Everyone knows that.
By noon, I had seen my third cat, all ears and legs, impossibly tall, black as the darkest night. That was when I started to worry. Three is a magical number, they say, a witch’s number, just like a black cat is a witch’s companion. Bad things always come in threes. A crumbled phone, a delayed flight back home, fresh news of a cyclone. Your family will be fine, said the airport receptionist with a Colgate smile firmly planted on his face, and our job is to make sure you will be fine too by not landing airplanes with weather conditions being so extreme. I looked at him and thought about black cats and harbingers of death, of having seen three of those since I had woken up. But what could I say, really? Fairytales are for six-year-old little girls. Even I was aware of that.
I crossed the fourth cat while walking around in the airport. How it got there in the first place, I still do not know; animals aren’t supposed to wander around in airports, especially not black cats – that would be bad luck for thousands and thousands of people, that would be planes crashing to the ground to the sound of horrified, helpless cries of terror, that would be utterly unacceptable for any respectable company. Yet here it was. I didn’t see it at first, too lost in my thoughts and worries to pay much attention to what was going on around me. But it crossed right in front of me, a mere black blur that faded away to the delighted shouts of children.
Four means death in China. I knew that. I knew what the cat meant. How could I ever have accepted it? A broken phone is bad luck. A dead brother is not, however many cats you cross.
Maybe I should start back to the beginning. In the beginning, I wouldn’t have been that bothered by black cats crossing my path, be there one or four or a hundred of them. I was young and stupid, blissfully ignorant – which is perhaps the exact same thing. I didn’t know about omens, about luck and fortune and providence, or whatever the true name of the one and only god out there is. I knew only science. That was my god – that was my truth.
Believe it or not, I actually got quite far in my advanced physics studies. Most of all, I wanted to understand how the world around me worked. I wanted to decipher all of its secrets, I wanted to have certainties and assurances, I wanted to be given a little notepad with “Guidebook to life” written on the front page and I wanted it to contain the answers to life and death and everything else that had ever existed. That was the one and only promise of science. For me. For everyone.
Wouldn’t you know? Regardless of the branch of physics you’re studying, there always comes a point where your professor smiles a bashful smile, and explains that we aren’t able to explain exactly why things work like this. We have equations, for sure, they would admit, shrugging. But they’re either empirical, or purely invented – they just appear to work fine for now, so we keep them.
And thus, the world falls apart. For all our big words and brilliant inventions, for all our Albert Einsteins and Neil Armstrongs, we are still, deep down, those gullible idiots who looked up at the sky and invented gods to explain the sun and the moon, and the death of our loved ones. At the very far end of the tunnel, science is like everything else: only an act of faith.
I think I never truly accepted that. Not so much the act of faith part – it was the lie I couldn’t get around. Science was supposed to explain everything; and yet, when it encountered some big mystery, it simply stopped, sat back, and said, “well, I don’t know. I’ll try to understand – but perhaps I never will”. What good is any system of belief, if it doesn’t reveal the secret of love or the existence of the afterlife? Science was broken. It took me years to understand that.
And so, I jumped ship. I left behind statistical physics, quantum mechanics and particle physics, and all their complicated equations that led to naught but a dark void of uncertainty. It broke me – realizing I knew in fact nothing. The world was too large, too complex, too terrifying for me. Suddenly I was nothing. And who could live, thinking that they are nothing? I stand firmly convinced that men need a system of beliefs more than they need oxygen.
That was the beginning of being wary of black cats and ladders, of never having thirteen people sat at the same table, of acting careful around mirrors. For anything is better than nothing, and that, at least, was something.
It’s funny, how things start being real once you believe in them. I ate at a family dinner with twelve other people, and my mother died in a car accident only a few weeks later. Tom, with all the arrogance of a little brother, ran under a ladder three times in a row just to make fun of me – once is a bad-luck charm, twice takes back the harm, thrice summons a devil swarm – and broke his leg almost immediately after.
I crossed the path of a black cat, and my phone fell to the ground of its own accord. I saw a second one, and my plane was delayed. A third one, and the news of a hurricane moving faster than planned towards Jacksonville got my flight cancelled. And the fourth, the fourth for a brother not yet dead, but soon to be. Had I had a phone still, I would have spent hours calling him, begging for him not to leave the house with the hurricane ready to hit, not to take the car with so many people afraid on the streets, not to touch any electrical device lest an accident happen. Would he have listened? No one can cheat destiny after all; yet I would have tried all the same. Anything – anything – is better than powerlessness.
That’s why superstitions exist in the first place.
I’d like to say I stopped counting after that. I’d like to say I decided no omen could justify me thinking my brother would die, I’d like to say I made the conscious decision to ignore any black cat that I would stumble upon. But I didn’t.
I crossed paths with a fifth black cat, then a sixth, then a seventh. I broke the right wrist I desperately needed to win athletic scholarships in order to pay for college, then my landlord coolly informed me that she couldn’t let me stay for a few more weeks regardless of any problems I had encountered with my flight back home. The seventh cat, as all seventh things are, was a bit different.
She was an old, grumpy thing that stared sullenly at me while I was waiting at the hospital to have my wrist taken care of. Her fur was black, or it should have been – but age and a general lack of toileting had turned it to a deep gray that looked almost like neglect.
Cats aren’t supposed to wander around hospitals any more than airports. Yet this cat, in this hospital, looked perfectly in her place. No one seemed to question her presence here, not even the doctors and nurses running around. To be fair, she didn’t make a sound, and she didn’t move much. She seemed perfectly content watching people pass her by – her pale yellow eyes following their movements until they had disappeared. Once she had noticed me, sitting in a chair just across the waiting room, she refused to look away.
At some point, a doctor whistled as she crossed the hall. That must have been a signal of some sorts: the cat rose to her feet and made her way lazily towards her master. She made a detour by the chair I was waiting in, and her long deep gray tail winded around my ankle. She didn’t stop, she didn’t look up. It was some kind of silent acknowledgment that I couldn’t understand.
So maybe that wasn’t really crossing paths with a black cat. But then again, seven is a strange number, a number that has to do with harmony and cosmic balance more than it has to do with black cats. There are seven colors in a rainbow, seven wonders in the world. If I am to be honest, I thought that there would be seven cats to cross my path that day – six of them to bring bad luck, and a seventh to finally bring rest. That was Biblical, six days of work and one to rest – it made sense, in a way a dead brother didn’t.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Seven is not a number that has anything to do with cats, or with luck for that matter. There is only one of those. A cat has nine lives, who could pretend not to know that?
For three it plays, says the proverb. Runs around breaking phones, jumps and dives, disrupts everything in its wake. Three lives to break things with no regards to consequences, three lives to bring the storm. And once the hurricane is here, what choice is there but to grow up?
For three it strays, says the proverb. Hovers and snarls and shows its claws, and starves and fights and bares its fangs. Three lives to hurt, three lives to kill. A stray cat means loss and anger, and survival of the fittest in its most unfair dimension, a stray cat means death and homelessness and rage at being denied the things you worked so hard for.
For three it stays, says the proverb. And after such blazing stunts, really, what else is left to do? The cat stays and caresses your leg as it crosses you. The cat waits for you when you get out of the hospital, and trots past you as if only to remind you of its presence. The cat is sat at the entrance to the only cheap-enough hotel you could find, and it waits with unbelievable arrogance for you to cross him. You slip in the rainy street and your luggage ends up in the gully. The air conditioning in your room is broken and the water in the shower isn’t all that clear. It’s bad luck almost peaceful, almost soothing. It’s bad luck you can live with
So that makes nine of them. Nine cats for nine lives.
The hardest thing of all, said Confucius, is to find a black cat in a dark room.
I have to disagree. The cat was there when I got out of the bathroom, and it was the very first thing I noticed. By night all cats are gray, says a proverb – yet this one is quite distinctly black in the darkness of my room. It is looking at me, its green eyes shining with something that resembles smugness and amusement. I’m at the door, frozen, and it’s on the bed, sitting straight.
It can’t be here.
A cat has nine lives, everyone knows that. For three it plays, for three it strays, and for the last three it stays. Crossing nine cats, that means something – that has value, symbolism that can be read into. Nine cats is a cycle of life, nine cats is the beginning and the end and something greater than you orchestrating things.
Ten cats mean nothing. Nothing at all.
I take one step forward, then another – for if I believe in it enough, the cat will vanish through the open window and all of this will be an accident, something not to be dwelt on, something to forget. And then the cat does something that shouldn’t be possible: it hops down the bed in one fluid motion, and races past me, to the bathroom. And so there were ten.
I remember once, reading a quote by some idiot who stated – a black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere. It was stupid, because it was scientific. It looked at the world and decided to explain only what could be explained easily – and how are we supposed to live in a world like that?
Crossing nine black cats in a day means that Tom is dead somewhere, and my broken phone and delayed plane stopped me from ever seeing him again. It means that I’ve lost most of my chances at a scholarship and have nowhere to stay, and it means that in some other dimension, a god called providence made all of that happen and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. It means that my broken wrist was part of a plan that I couldn’t comprehend, but that existed nonetheless, it means that all of this, somehow, had a reason, had a sense.
A tenth cat means anything can happen. A tenth cat means nothing makes sense anymore. If I can cross ten black cats in a day, then I can cross eleven or fifteen or a hundred, and no one would care, and it would mean nothing.
And that is not possible. For things have to make sense – for there must be something, at least, something hidden deep beneath the surface of things, something to explain it all. Because if there isn’t, then why are we here, and what are we here for? Because if there isn’t, then what’s the point? What’s the justification beneath all those shitty things that happened wholly undeserved?
Because if there isn’t… if there isn’t, Tom could be alive today – for that fourth cat would have meant nothing – and dead tomorrow or in a year, and no one would ever have any chance at predicting it, and no one would ever have any chance at preventing it. If there isn’t, my mother would have died in that car crash regardless of whether I sat at a thirteen-settings table with her, and how could it be possible, that such things happen for no reason at all?
I’m searching, and searching and searching, for an explanation – a explanation that has to exist somewhere, because anything else would be unacceptable.
The hardest thing of all, said Confucius, is to find a black cat in a dark room. Especially if there is no cat.