I’m not exaggerating when I say she worshiped the cat. Maybe it’s better to say she served it or waited upon it. She treated it like her (our) own personal king. Girls in Asia tend to like cute things. They dote upon cats and kittens and all that. There are cat cafes where you pay just to pet cats, and half the normal cafes here in Taipei have a cat to draw in customers. If you’re walking down the street with a Taiwanese girl and a cat comes by, everything stops while she takes a million pictures of it.
This wasn’t like that. This was something else entirely. The cat ruled her life. It could communicate with her, actually communicate. I don’t know how, but it had a bond with her, and she did what it wanted. Which would have been fine except for the fact that despite their small size and cute appearance, cats are still essentially murderous creatures.
When it first wandered into our apartment, it seemed imperious enough but hardly sinister. Ah Mei and I lived on the third floor of an aging white brick and concrete building in the neighborhood of Gongguan. Until the cat showed up, the entire floor felt like ours, shared only with a nice old half-deaf lady on the other side of the stairway who rarely stepped out of her apartment.
We had been living there for two and a half years before the cat’s arrival. It was the first time I’d ever moved in with a girl. By the time the cat appeared, the apartment had accumulated enough of our lives to feel like a real, solid part of it. It was pretty spacious,with an entire room for Ah Mei to use as her studio. Sometimes when I got bored or depressed, I’d like to go to the doorway of the studio and watch her draw, thinking silently to myself that this was my girlfriend, that I had a girlfriend who had created the pictures strewn and piled in that room, that I had a girlfriend who actually made a living as an illustrator by creating beautiful things.
Her studio was next to the rooftop of a two-story building, which is how the cat got in, wandering casually through the window one day as if it already knew the place, stepping in stately with its smooth gray coat and stiff, waving tail.
Ah Mei tended to have sudden sweeping passions for things that she could never fully explain to me. I would come into her studio and discover that she’d spent two days drawing nothing but pears, or she would decide that every new item she bought should be purple, or she developed an obsession with horizontal stripes. She took to the cat in the same immediate, inexplicable way.
I didn’t have a problem with it at first, chalking it up to the aforementioned Taiwanese-girl-cat infatuation. And the cat was cute: cockily independent, but endearingly so. It came and went when it liked, and I enjoyed having a little four-legged guest who regularly stopped by. It was pleasant as both a consistency and an uncertainty: I knew it would come by, but was never sure when.
Ah Mei made a big fuss over the cat whenever it decided to pop in, although she never gave it a name. She insisted this was because the cat neither needed nor wanted one. She knew the cat didn’t want a name. She just called it mao, Mandarin for cat. I asked her if she thought cats were saying their own name like pokemon when they meowed. She didn’t get it. Then I called the cat “Chairman Mao,” but she just told me the tone was different in Chinese and the cat only wanted to be called “mao.” Saying “the cat” was also okay if I had to use English.
Everything with the cat was like this. Ah Mei would simply tell me what it wanted, and she was always right. Always. The cat would nod at her, and she would know its desire. Maybe I’d think to set out some milk for the cat, and she’d just look at it and tell me not to, the cat wasn’t thirsty. I tried setting out some milk anyway, and the cat wouldn’t touch it. Or it would wander in and she decided it needed some specific food, usually meat, which it ate right up. “Oh,” she’d say, suddenly leaping up from her chair when the cat came in, “it wants to sit here.” And it would pad right up and take her seat with a graceful, entitled nod.
I didn’t care until I came into her studio one day and found her bowing down prostrate before it. I thought she was joking around. I asked her what she was doing and she said it was what the cat wanted. Then she told me that I should join her.
“I’m not bowing down to the cat.”
“But it’s what the cat wants.” She didn’t even look up from the floor.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I told her.
“You really should. Here, just do it like me. It’s easy.” She kept her position, but now finally looked back at me.
“Look, I don’t want to be a party pooper, but I’m not bowing down before a cat.”
“It’s what he wants.”
“Why would it want me to bow down anyway?” I asked, exasperated.
“Not ‘it.’ He. And why he wants doesn’t matter. It is only important that he does.”
“Whatever. I’m gonna see what’s on TV if you want to join.”
That night she told me I really should have bowed to the cat. The cat was very special, and good things would come if we did what it wanted. The cat liked me, too. We were lucky to be chosen by the cat. Her illustrations had been really picking up lately, and it was because the cat had started visiting us. The cat could help me too, maybe help me get a better job so I wouldn’t be stuck teaching English for the fourth year in a row.
I hadn’t especially noticed her drawings being any better now or having been any worse before, but Ah Mei was very particular and perfectionist about her work in ways that she could never fully articulate. I felt like I was never too sure what exactly what was going on in her head.
The conversation we’d had about it was much more than she’d usually say on her own. Most of the time I had to pry information out of her with a series of questions. She wasn’t insanely private, but she just didn’t volunteer much on her own. Part of this might have been the language barrier. Her English was pretty good but not perfect, and there’s a big difference between being able to express things well enough and being able to express them exactly. My Chinese, meanwhile, was embarrassingly bad, especially given how long I’d been living in Taiwan.
So the cat was very important to her and she wanted us to do whatever the cat wanted. I got that. But I didn’t get why. It was good for us, it was helping her art and illustrations, okay, I guess, but something was missing for me. This intensity and devotion were inexplicable. There was some layer of connection between her and the cat that I hadn’t been able to access.
A few days later, she was out when I came home, but the cat was there nodding its head at me. I had no idea what to do with it. I laid down some water, which it didn’t touch. So I figured maybe it was hungry. We never fed it cat food, just stuff we had in the fridge. It had a preference for meat, so I laid out the insides of some pork and leek dumplings from the night before. The cat bit through them quickly and thoroughly, giving itself a few quick licks afterward. I had to admit, there was something gratifying about watching it.
But afterward when I was sitting at my desk, trying to write an email home to my parents, it popped up and started nodding at me again. It never meowed. It just gave these deep looks and moved its head. I figured it might want my chair. I switched seats and the cat settled down comfortably onto my old chair, the most comfortable one in the house.
Maybe it was all this simple. Maybe this was how it worked for Ah Mei too, just basic intuition. But Ah Mei seemed to know what it wanted so well. And then the cat kept nodding at me really persistently with this truly penetrating stare, and I couldn’t figure what else it could possibly want now that I’d fed it and given it my seat. I knew that I shouldn’t be bothered if I couldn’t fill this visiting creature’s every need, but I was. Especially given that Ah Mei would have known right away.
Finally she came back, stepping in quietly enough that I didn’t hear her until the door closed shut with a soft clang behind her.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“I was just helping Ms. Li,” she said.
“Ms. Li, the lady who lives next door.”
“Oh. That was nice of you,” I said, not really paying attention.
“Yes, she needed help to rearrange the apartment. And the cat told me that I should.”
“The cat told you to?” Now I was paying attention.
“Yes. He visits her too, from the other side.”
“Oh!” she said, upon seeing him, “he wants us to make some changes to our apartment.”
“Look, don’t you think this is going a little far?”
“No, they’re very simple changes. We just need to move some of the furniture, make more light and air in the rooms. More energy, better space.” She was completely matter of fact about this.
“You can’t seriously tell me that you’ve started believing in feng shui because a cat told you to.”
“It’s not feng shui, but it will change the space. You know people are changed by what the place is like. The cat is right.”
“Of course the cat is right.” I rolled my eyes.
“I’m serious. He can help us. He already has.”
“Look, I know you feel your drawings have been better lately, but that’s just a matter of personal feeling. The cat can’t actually make you draw better.”
“No, but he can change how I feel, how I do. He can do more than that, too. What about the cockroaches?”
“What cockroaches?” I asked, confused.
“We don’t have cockroaches now.”
“It could just be a coincidence that I haven’t seen any since the cat showed up.”
“It’s not. He killed them all. He told me. The building started to have mice. Downstairs. He killed them all too. They’re on the roof outside my window now.”
“That’s what cats do! They kill pests. It’s why people kept cats in the first place.”
“This is different. There are none left. They won’t be back to this apartment. He wants to make things better for all of us. Us and him.” She said this all in a tone of utmost sincerity.
“I can’t believe this. Fine, go ahead, but don’t make any changes that are too crazy.”
The worst part is that the apartment was nicer afterward. Probably not coincidentally, the cat had a whole row of shelves now within climbing range that were previously too high. Four days later, Ah Mei got her highest paying commission yet from a men’s lifestyle magazine for a series of illustrations. Pure coincidence, I told her.
I used the window to go out onto the rooftop next to her studio one day. It was made of blue corrugated metal that stretched out long. As I walked over it, I could begin to make out the collection of carcasses on the other end. On one side were the mice, about ten headless bodies stacked up neatly into a pyramid. One the other side were the cockroaches. Dozens and dozens of dead cockroaches, missing heads, missing legs, toyed with and carefully, precisely eviscerated. They were spread out in a very exact, elaborate pattern, their corpses forming a kind of spiraling mandala that covered a fourth of the roof. Ants marched among the bodies. I left them where they lay and walked shakily back to the apartment, hearing the roof creak under me.
This was strange, but I told myself that if it was what Ah Mei wanted to do, then she could do it. It didn’t hurt me to have the cat around, and it didn’t hurt me to have Ah Mei serve it whenever it wandered in. What it did to the roaches was creepy, but they were also roaches. I wanted them dead. If Ah Mei thought the cat was a help, then fine, she could do what she liked.
I felt this way until I came home one day and saw it feeding. Ah Mei was sitting on a chair with her arm stretched out, and the cat perched on top of it, head pressed into her flesh. At first I thought it was playing with her until I came closer and realized that it was drinking from a small incision in her arm. Never one to play, that cat.
I stood there silently, watching for a couple of beats as it lapped up blood from her arm in quick small strokes of its tongue.
“What the hell is going on here?” I finally asked.
The cat looked up from Ah Mei’s arm and over at me before hopping off the chair and striding casually out past me through the doorway.
“He wants us to go with him,” Ah Mei said, getting up from the chair.
The cat walked out to the hallway and stopped at the neighbor’s door, pawing at it slightly and looking back at us. Ah Mei took out a key and opened the door.
“Why do you have a key for the neighbor’s door?”
“I’m responsible for it now,” she told me.
We walked into the apartment, which was neatly ordered with a lifetime’s accumulation of objects: TV given a prominent place among the nicknacks and keepsakes, the walls hung with good luck scrolls written in elegant Chinese calligraphy. We walked to a door that had been sealed off with plastic, and Ah Mei opened it. The room inside was completely blank, painted white from top to bottom with no furniture and the windows sealed off. Mrs. Li lay peacefully naked in the center of the room with her eyes closed and her hands clasped over her chest. Her stomach had been entirely hollowed out, a messy cavity of red. Orderly tracks of blood radiated outwards from her open stomach, forming a series of crimson lines across the white floor. I stepped back quickly from the sight and smell.
“Jesus Christ,” I said quietly. “Jesus Christ.”
“He wanted you to see that,” Ah Mei said by my side. “He wants you to understand. It’s what Mrs. Li wanted. It’s how she wanted to die. She asked me to help her with this. Here, she even signed a statement explaining it.”
Ah Mei was brandishing a neatly hand-written piece of paper filled with small, precisely ordered Chinese characters. At the bottom were some red seals and stamps.
“I can’t even read that. It means fucking nothing to me. I can’t be in here. I can’t deal with this.” I brushed past her and back through the hallway into our apartment, with its recently rearranged furniture.
“Listen,” she said following after me, the cat at her side, “she died peacefully, how she wanted. She wanted to dedicate her body to the cat. I just helped her follow her wishes. She got what she wanted because of the cat. He wants to help us too.”
“To help us? Look at the old lady. Look at what it did to her. What do you think it plans to do to us?”
“So you admit he has power. He’s not just a normal cat. He really can do things for us.”
“It’s not right! Her body, her dead body, is just lying there!”
“If it’s what she asked for and wanted, why can you complain? She was old, she wanted to serve this purpose. We’re not. We’re young. We serve a better, longer purpose for the cat. He wants us. We both benefit. I want you to do this with me.”
She walked over to the couch and sat down, motioning for me to join her, beseeching wordlessly with her eyes. The cat looked up at me coolly, its head cocked. I looked down at it and then I looked over at Ah Mei.
I don’t understand how love works. I don’t know if I can say that I’m in love with Ah Mei, or even what love is. I just know that I don’t want to lose her, that I want to keep being around her and see her be happy. I don’t know what’s going on inside her. I always assumed that love was this kind of deep connection, that you would really feel the other person’s thoughts. But I don’t. I don’t know her feelings, not really, not truly. I can’t even communicate with her that well. I’m just bumbling my way through this, trying to hold onto her even though I can never fully feel her emotions and know her desires. All I can do is try to catch up, try to maintain what I have.
I kept my eyes on her and walked shakily over to the couch, sitting down with a soft push as I took her hand. I closed my fingers around hers and tried not to wince as the creature pressed its delicate little fangs into my flesh.
Aaron Fox-Lerner was born in Los Angeles and currently lives in Beijing. His fiction has appeared in Grimdark, The Puritan, Shotgun Honey, Akashic Books, Crime Factory, Thuglit, and other publications.