It had been three days since Ojisan passed.
Legs curled, proper and quiet against the shuttered rooftops. Sora couldn’t bring himself to leave. If he sat still enough, the morning breeze, the first waft of spring and blossom, reminded him of Ojisan’s warm breath against his whiskers. He had been there all night, curled carefully within the man’s arms as he swayed against his rocking chair. For the first time since he knew Ojisan, the radio was not tuned to his favourite station, but instead packed and stowed underneath the dining table.
Did Ojisan know he was dying?
The sun rose again. He had seen the sun rise the same way three times so far. He was uninterested at the first, bored at the second, and now positively agitated at the third. How dare the sun continue to rise and fall like nothing had happened? How dare the universe continue spinning about its business when he had just lost the one person he cared for the most?
Was Ojisan happy? Did he appreciate his company, as wordless and feline as it were?
A force like lightning prickled against his spine. Twitching tail. Fleeting fur. He felt his vision narrow and ears sharpen, almost involuntarily, knowing immediately that he was not alone on this unkempt, slanted rooftop.
There were many peculiar things to pinpoint from the visitor’s appearance, from his unusually vermilion coat and bushy tail which looked like a bundle of fire. Sora however, noticed the curve of his snout first, longer and more striking than any cat he had ever seen. With piercing amber eyes which seemed to hold both ancient knowledge and a mischievous spark, there was something regal about the way he carried himself.
“Ohayou,” Sora purred reluctantly, feeling judged for having splotchy grey hair and untrimmed paws.
Sora noted the lack of a collar.
“Are you..? You’re not from here.”
“Oh my, is it that obvious?”
“No, I just know every other cat in the neighbourhood. You’re not one of them.”
The stranger tilted his head curiously, a sliver of a smile creeping upon his lips.
“You must get around often then.”
Sora thought back to the last year of his life - many months spent at the comfort of home. Ojisan’s dorayaki store was attached at the front of his residence which attracted a wide assortment of visitors, from blue collar workers needing a sweet snack before returning home and rowdy middle school kids who spent too little for how long they occupied the seats. The ingredients for pancake batter and sweet bean paste were delivered to his door by a young handsome milkman while local policemen helped with any other groceries and requests that Ojisan needed.
That was when his legs were starting to grow week.
Even then, without setting foot outside home for nearly a year, Ojisan was well-known throughout the prefecture for his sincere optimism and scrumptious dorayaki fillings.
“No, we’ve just had a lot of visitors here.” Sora was blunt in his response, realising he spent a bit too long reminiscing of simpler, warmer times.
“So you’ve been here all your life?”
“Well, not here per se,” the cat turned towards the flowers, candles, and picture frames piling against Ojisan’s front door - a faint smoky blur of incense lifting towards his nose, “but I have been here - Kyoto - a long while.”
“You must show me around then.”
“As you mentioned, I’m not from here.” The visitor remarked, “I’m new to this city. I must know what’s in it.
The morning sun seemed slower today. It crept over the horizon like a toddler reaching towards the ceiling, imposing soft rays of light against the simplicity of suburban Kyoto. For just one-and-a-half blinks, Sora could make out some kind of glimmer against the visitor’s neck, as if he were wearing a necklace or necktie of some sort. It was most assuredly yellow, possibly gold, curved like a gyoza or wedge of rice.
A brief flicker, surely. A trick of the light. After all, Sora hadn’t had proper sleep in the last three days.
“Sure, I’ll take you around.” The words tingled uncomfortably on his whiskers.
He wasn’t sure why he said it, but knew that anything would be better than sitting atop Ojisan’s now-empty adobe.
The stranger looked pleased to be catered to. “I’m Yori, by the way.”
And with that, the two cats made their way.
Sora was a slim cat, but this did not translate to athletic ability. His footwork was out of practice, his tail not as primed as it used to be. With great struggle, he wove clumsily between the stalls, ducking under hanging lanterns and dodging licks of metal and flame. Yori however, despite his considerably larger size and impressive mane of fluff, had a much easier time interweaving through the madness, like butter in a pan.
Bustling and chaotic, Nishiki Market was a long corridor of rowdy tourists, merry vendors, and lines and lines of produce. The crisp aroma of Japanese snacks and goodies - takoyaki, yakitori, curried croquettes, assorted sea treasures pierced and roasted on a stick, floated to the technicolor ceiling which flashed a brilliant red, blue and yellow. Bubbling oil and sizzling seafood, Sora had never seen so much tantalising tastes in one spot.
His attention however was ensnared by one chef in particular. A serious-looking man who reminded him deeply of Ojisan if he were at least twenty years younger and still had complete mastery of his limbs. An apron against his wide body and an outrageously unpractical hat, the man held a knife so glistening and polished it was almost a perfect mirror. It was his paintbrush, and the ruby red tuna which sat at his kitchen top was the canvas.
Fluid and precise, the fish seemed to yield willingly, as if aware of the honour bestowed upon it - to be prepared by a man so dedicated to his craft.
Sora’s mouth watered as the chef revealed the perfect cross-section of the tuna’s meat, its wagyu-like marbling a testament to its quality.
Yori sets down a plate of what could only be assorted seafood. Sora’s nose twitched with curiosity. The succulent slices of salmon and tuna glistened like jewels, the red-and-white prawn looked like candy, and there was something strange and mustard-like in the middle with such a pungent but delicious aroma.
“Uni! My favourite!” Sora yelped far too excitedly for his liking, before narrowing his eyes at his peculiar companion. “How did you get this?”
“I have my ways, but please,” Yori shrugged, before pointing his snout back at the colourful don of fishes, “Let’s dig in, Sora.”
Sora didn’t need to be told twice. Together, they devoured the bowl like they would never eat again, licking every drop of sticky juice off the plate.
Having stuffed themselves full of seafood and sake and having just about enough of the clamorous crowd, Sora and Yori retreated towards somewhere more tranquil. Their adventure led them to the Gion District, a serene neighbourhood of narrow streets lined with cobblestone pavements and wooden machiya houses. A serene and refined place, Sora couldn’t help but inhale the fresh air, which smelt faintly of damp grass and mildew originating from Kamo River.
Traditional and timeless, the outside world seemed to fade away as the two walked down the well-trodden roads, exclusive to man and animal alike.
“Sora, look at that.”
Sora heard rustling at first. Fabric against fabric. Followed by the click-clack of wooden sandals against stone. Slowly, he turned to meet the most beautiful human he had ever seen.
At least, he believed she was human, but she could very well be something else entirely. Her face obscured by a white veil. Her body enveloped by an exquisite kimono adorned with sakura blossoms, fluttering in the wind like a butterfly. Only her hands were exposed, pale and pristine and perfect, gripping a simple paper parasol that only multiplied her grace. Utterly enamoured, Sora couldn’t take his eyes off her, only regaining his senses when she turned the corner. A fleeting visit from a goddess.
“You’ve never seen a geisha have you?”
“Not in person,” Sora heaved, realising he had been holding his breath the whole encounter, “I’ve seen them on television. Also, I’ve seen them on the calendars that Ojisan buys. He always buys geisha-themed calendars.”
“Hm, your Ojisan must have good taste.”
Sora thought about Ojisan. The carefulness of his hands, the warmth of his lap, the infrequent thumps of his heart as Sora curled into his chest at night. Many evenings, dwindling away, doing nothing at all. They accompanied one another - the drone of television commercials and the rickety ceiling fan.
It wasn’t much.
But it was so abundantly enough.
“Yeah, I think he does.”
“That’s lovely to hear. It reflects on you too.”
Sora turned towards his still-mysterious companion. “What does that mean?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Pillars and sunset. A warm golden glow. Orange hues filtered through the swaying stalks of bamboo. Slender shadows cast against the granular gravel, which crumpled and crunched beneath their footsteps.
The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest was a shutter of green, taller and further out than even Sora’s keen eyes could see.
Yori shrugged. “Hm, I wouldn’t say that.”
The birds may have been asleep, but the rustling leaves continued to sing their melody - cackling like a distant applause.
“You know what it is though? It’s boring.”
“I wouldn’t call it…” Sora considered the thought - Nishiki Market was choked full of vendors and visitors and a multitude of tantalising tastes and twinges. The Gion District was a step back in time where Sora had met the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Arashiyama was an otherworldly place, but…
“…if something interesting was meant to happen. It should have happened by now.” Yori argued with a sly, almost mischievous pout.
Sora couldn’t help but notice how good the smirk looked on him - how wickedly fitting it was.
And in his brief moment of blank-mindedness, Yori nudged Sora’s body with his long snout.
“Tag! You’re it!”
Before Sora could say anything, Yori transformed into a crimson blur, darting through and across the valley of bamboos as if it were an obstacle course. “Wait!” Sora called out, noticing that his feet had also picked up in movement. Gale and debris brushed against his face as he too became a fast-moving buzz of fur, whether intended or not.
“That’s not fair!” He cried out, thoroughly outclassed and partly jealous of Yori’s natural agility and grace. If Yori was an arrow, Sora was a lobbed rock. Fast and true against inaccurate and clumsy. Fortunately though, rocks are exceedingly resilient things.
After a full minute of fearsome chase, Sora found himself at some kind of clearing. A circular, open-space away from the overgrown forest of bamboo. Judging from the lack of footsteps in the uncultured dirt, it wasn’t a tourist area either. With no sense of where he came from, Sora realised he was cleanly and utterly lost.
Instead, what stood before him was a grandiose vermilion structure.
A torii gate, he thought, recognising its towering archway and slanted roof from pictures Ojisan used to show him. Like his encounter with the geisha, it was astoundingly more magical and majestic seeing it in person.
The gate was marked with numerous ema, small wooden plaques with wishes and prayers written by visitors to the shrine… but where was the shrine? A faint bout of incense seemed to drift towards him, as though inviting him, guiding him through the gate and into a sacred space beyond.
He approached. Nervously. Cautiously. As he passed through its imposing slats, the land itself seemed to creak and groan, as though awakening from a long slumber.
Raspy. Wise. A treble that was so excitedly familiar.
Sora was in a sprawling valley. Sakura petals danced in bloom. Freckles of pink against mountains of green. The air was warm and sweet-smelling, like freshly cooked dorayaki bundled in paper.
He could sense his presence, but could not see him.
Ojisan’s weathered voice echoed across the landscape as if it were an enclosed church.
“Thank you for being with me in my last moments.”
Sora’s mind was an ocean of sentences. He had so much to say and yet, as he dipped his paws in the proverbial water, clawing desperately for the words to come out - he found them empty, wet and wanting.
“You might not remember this, but I made a promise to you on the day we met.”
“I knew that my days were limited. I knew that you would outlive me.
“And so I promised you, my little Sora-chan, to do everything I could to make sure you were cared for.”
Suddenly, Sora’s legs felt weak, as if they had turned to jelly. His balance off-centre and tipsy. This sakura-filled valley was not somewhere he was meant to be.
“Are you satisfied with your care, Sora? Did I do well?”
Yes! Of course! I’m indebted to you. I owe you everything. You are everything to me.
“I hope I did.”
Please don’t ask this, Ojisan. I know you care for me. You know I care for you. It’s everything I have ever wanted and more.
“And I hope wherever you go, you’ll be happy too. Happier even.”
Consciousness, flickering like an old light bulb. Sora knew he didn’t have much longer. He summoned all his strength. He wanted to say something! An expression of gratitude, a simple thank you, even just his master’s name.
But all he could muster was a faint meow. Low in volume, but shrill and high-pitched. It was just enough to get Ojisan’s attention. Sora could not see him, wherever he was, but sensed his head turning in his direction. His crumpled lips curling into a lovely, familiar smile.
By the time Sora regained his footing on reality, night had fallen like a blanket of snow. Thousands of stars populated the midnight blue sky, domineered by a crescent moon in a dress of clouds. Over the horizon, Sora could see gorgeous, wonderful Kyoto - modern towers and concrete dwellings punctuated by chiselled roofs and traditional pagodas.
A chill travelled through his bones. He realised he had to be quite high up to get this kind of view.
Around him, Sora noticed, was a massive array of torii gates, stretching further than even his sharpshooter eyes could see. Up to heaven. Down to earth. Gates upon gates upon gates - ad infinitum.
These torii were not as large as the one he originally walked through.
“Oh, a new friend.”
A spotted cat was perched atop one of the shrines. It watched Sora expectantly with its glistening grey eyes. Composed and collected, if not a little disinterested.
“W-Where am I?”
“Fushimi Inari Shrine.” It said matter-of-factly. “Kyoto, in case you came from elsewhere.”
“What? How did I get here?” Sora shook his head, knowing for a fact that Arashiyama and Fushimi Inari were at least an hour’s train away from one another.
The spotted cat shrugged. “Someone brought you here, surely. Do you remember a name?”
“Yeah, there was another cat - red fur, huge tail, eyes like gold. His name was…”
In the box where Sora kept his companion’s name, the cat he had spent the last twelve hours exploring Kyoto with, was utterly and exceedingly empty.
The cat acknowledged his quiet surprise.
“Hm, that’s kitsune for you. Don’t worry mate, we’re all the same.”
As if on queue, a dozen other cats walked out of hiding. They were all kinds of cats. Some skinny, some fat. Some plain, some striped. White and grey and brown and black.
None of them were red.
“What’s your name?”
“Well Sora, I hope you find yourself comfortable here. Come, I’ll show you around.”
Sora nodded reluctantly. He breathed in the chilly musk of Fushimi Inari - soil and grass and medicine. He thought of his companion, but the memory seemed smudged and hazy, like an underdeveloped polaroid. He remembered his overt courageousness. He remembered his vermilion hide.
But most notably, he remembered that he seemed to know Sora’s name before he mentioned it.