(Amy Hayek's "Neko Utsuru Koretoonaji" was publilshed originally in Issue 4.1 of Spork -- from time to time we'll be drawing your attention to stories published in the magazine... we know they're already there, but it's nice to point at them now and then. -Drew)
addy says that the cat is crazy. Daddy said, “The cat has to go.”
I tell Daddy that the cat is just showing us how much it loves us. I say that it’s protecting the yard and bringing in the kills so we can know what a good job it’s doing.
“No, Amy. Look at the blood here. There’s enough blood for three or four birds on the floor. That means the cat was practicing before he got this one right.”
Daddy’s right. There’s a lot of blood. I didn’t think about how much blood a bird could hold, but now I am thinking about it and the puddle’s too big for the little sparrow Chât brought me. Daddy sees carnage. What I see is that Chât, though French, or as French as a Domestic American Shorthair can be, has taken a very Japanese, very poetic approach to his offering. I was telling him yesterday about the Cherry Blossom Festival, and I can see in the arrangement of feathers in the dining room that he was listening. “He wants us to know that he doesn’t just love us, he respects us, Daddy.” Chât is appealing to us aesthetically and intellectually. How can that be crazy?
I think Daddy’s just mad because some of the blossoms are stuck to the carpet with blood. He says it’s going to take a professional to clean it all up.
“Can I take some pictures first?”
“What? No, you have to get ready for school, young beauty-san.”
“Don’t touch it!” I run up the stairs to his office. My camera’s no good for this. Daddy’s is something like ton-a-megapixel with a big big lens. Chât deserves proper documentation.
Daddy tries to scowl when I come down with his camera, but he doesn’t say anything. He hasn’t touched the work. Barts is in my photo class at school and is always telling me I need to use indirect light—he thinks he’s so smart, and he probably is, but I don’t want some kid the same age as I am telling me what to do, and he’s younger than me by like four months too—so I make Daddy hold the chandelier away and reflect it back softly with an open manila file folder. He tells everyone I’m a brilliant artist, so when I act like one, like a primadonna really, it makes him happy and he will always indulge me.
“Not san, Daddy.” And I might have said that a little harsher than necessary.
He says that whatever I may be or may not be the fact remains that I still have to get ready for school and he’s got to get ready for work and that’s all there is to it. I nod and I grunt something even I can’t understand and I take like six pictures, each from almost the same angle, and you don’t know which one’s going to work perfect so you take them all. I think they’re all going to be perfect. I don’t think that because I think I’m a great photographer like Daddy tells everyone I am, but because Chât did all the perfect work and all I have to do is record it.
“Can I take your flash to school? I’ll download it there, they’ve got a universal reader, okay?” Daddy says that it’s okay and I pop the card out and hold it in my teeth while I run up the stairs back to Daddy’s office to put his camera on his desk. Chât’s walking in small proud circles around Daddy and the bird when I come down again, and I think he knows Daddy doesn’t get it. But I think that he does get it, and maybe later today he’s going to appreciate it in full, it’s just that he doesn’t have the time right now for all the connections to connect and all the implications to fully impel themselves into the core of him, and I bet he’ll sit up straight right in the middle of some strategic planning meeting in the middle of the morning and say “Hai.” He’s playing dumb and annoyed here because he doesn’t want the cat to get cocky. He does that to me, but I see through it, and probably Chât does too. I reach down and scratch him behind his ears while he curls his tail around my legs and purrs purrs purrs. Pink tongue sticking out, lone blossom between the teeth, my Samurai cat.
I fold my fingers over the flash, kiss Daddy on the cheek and run upstairs to get dressed. White shirt, blue tie, blue skirt. White socks and shiny black loafers. The bird is in the trash when I come back to the kitchen. The outline on the carpet with some featherblossoms still stuck on it makes me want to run back upstairs for the camera but Daddy’s at the door and it’s time to go. Keiko will have cleaned it all up before I get home. I hope she gives Chât a little extra love. She’ll know what it means, and Chât won’t mind that she cleans it up, because Keiko will understand and appreciate it. Still, I hope that it will require professionals to get it all the way out of the carpet, so that maybe there’ll still be something worth a picture even after she tries to clean it up.
“Amichan,” Daddy says, backing out of the garage, “You are an immeasurable treasure to me. You know that.”
And I do. Even with the seatbelt crushing me across the chest, I bow deeply to my father.
There’s something truly barbaric about these evergreens growing so tall everywhere around here. My school sitting in the shadow of this silent army, the shadows all day no matter what time of year or where the sun is. We’ll have blue sky overhead but stand shivering under the trees wondering what arrangement the sun has struck with the trees so that they get everything and we pale and wither down on the ground. Not that pale’s such a bad thing. It works wonders on Emily, who is, incidentally—though I don’t think that incidental is the right word when you plan something, or when you plan to do something every day, and every day you execute that plan—wearing the same outfit as me. Nobody even says anything about it anymore. And we can tell that lots of the other girls want to do it too, but nobody does because they know they’d just be copying us. I wish they would. It’s not like we’re original. We’re copying too. There were some girls who tried to outdo us, dressing in plaid skirts and white shirts and black slip-on Vans with white kneesocks, but they gave it up kinda quick when one of them got in trouble walking past St. Mary of the Trees on her way to school. Someone working there pulled her in and sat her in the office for two hours until they finally finished searching all the records and determined that she did not in fact attend that school, and that she was in fact a student at our school three blocks down the street. I thought they looked cute, though. On thin silver chain, straight buttons through cotton snow, crucifix beneath.
“My dad says I can ride with you guys on Thursday. He’s got to go in early. Can you and your dad pick me up?”
I tell Emily that I’ll tell my dad and it won’t be a problem, but she’ll have to sit on my lap since we’ll be taking the Ferrari. We hold our hands up in front of our mouths and giggle, but then we take them down. This affectation’s not coming so easily as some of the others. It just looks stupid on us. Maybe we’re not bending our knees the right way. Maybe it’s one of those things that doesn’t ever look right in real life, even if you’re the ones that do it anyway instead of some American kids trying to ape it.
Thursday is Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Our dads work together and Emily’s has to go in early to do some equipment prep, so she’ll ride with us. Barts’ dad works with our dads too, but Barts isn’t anybody’s daughter, so he has to go to school on Thursday like all the other boys. He said that it’s actually daughters and sons but nobody else around here’s heard that, and even if they did Barts is a little slow in his physical development anyway, so even if it was and sons he’d still be going to school on Thursday.
“I got some great pictures this morning. I can’t wait to print them.”
Emily asks if it was Chât, and I tell her all about it. Emily’s jealous. They’ve got a beautiful boxer but he only brings in what you tell him to. “I told my dad that cats are sooo much better than dogs, but he won’t listen. Snoop’s cool and all, but the dog’s got no initiative.” Emily thought that giving him a noble name would inspire him, give him aspirations, but even after weeks of immersion in the art of his namesake, his main aspiration seemed aspiration itself and no more. Not to knock it, but mastering an autonomic function, while very zen and all, doesn’t exactly wow in a show and tell sense. And I can’t take credit for that, what I just said. That’s Emily’s. Main aspiration being aspiration and the very zen of it. I get mine in but that one was hers. We give credit freely when due. We’re a winning pair. Some loser’s going to draw himself a pathetic comic book about us one of these days. It’ll be critically acclaimed and it’ll probably make a really good indie flick, but that won’t change the fact that it’ll probably be Barts who drew it and that he’ll still be a loser.
You know how someone can be perfectly nice and all but you’ve known them so long that all you want is for them to go away? That’s Barts. I am probably unfairly biased against him, but that’s someone else’s tangle. They can unravel it if they want. Me, it’s my life and so of course I cannot be objective about it. “Emily, what happens when we’re objective about Barts?”
“Objectively? He’s a loser.”
“I feel awful about that. If we went to St. Mary of the Trees do you think we’d see it differently?”
“Like would it be some deist predestination thing?”
“And so Barts wouldn’t really have any choice in the matter?”
“Yeah. He’d still be a loser, huh?”
“Still a loser.”
The main conclusion anyone would draw from this line is that God thinks that Barts is a loser. So what are you going to do? Are you going to go against God?
There are eight steps from the ground to the door of the school, and we take them one at a time, knuckling the crash bars and sweeping into the beginning of another week, God and his opinions hanging back to stand still and pale in the shadows outside.
Stock certificate, from the branch office fallen, still such thick paper. I’ve got tons of them, so many pretty colors. And a bag full of them today. I brought them to slap onto the armature I’ve been wiring up in art for the past week. Emily suggested that I just shape the chest open, but that seems to me to kind of miss the point. That point decided just this morning, resulting in an almost total redesign of my project. I don’t leave it open, but I do leave it unwired, mostly, where the sternum would be. When the first layer of paper maiche dries I’ll snip the two wires now in place and bend them under and then paste over another layer of certificates on either side, smoothing it all out so I don’t cut my fingers on them later. Opening the chest is important, but an incision isn’t strictly necessary. I’ve shaped the whole thing so it rests on the top of its head and the tops of its wings, where its elbows would be. I’m not sure if birds have elbows, but you get the idea—a final three-point-landing bit of morbid whimsy. The beak’s open, and the eyes aren’t closed, but instead it’s like they’re not even eyes at all. It’s for some reason that seemed important to me, to only indicate eyes, as though the indication rather than existence would imply something deeper that I do not necessarily have to understand or state explicitly for it yet to be so. And oh, but it’s the feet that are really really wonderful. This is another thing I sensed more than knew, but the feet, each topping a broken Z, and too small, all out of proportion. It’s like they say, Well of course this bird’s dead! And that’s how I said it anyway, making the feet separate with too close a focus on them, the rest of the armature, still sans papers, holding place as horizon, which in this town you never see anyway so I’m not going to blame me for not being able to accurately gauge my perspective there. I will not blame myself for misjudging a thing I can’t see. What happened was there I was with my face right down on the legs, the things indicating legs, shaping and shaping and probably I was standing over the rest of the body anyway so it really was like our horizon, and me like those trees. I made them too small, and when I stepped back I said, What kind of feet are those? That bird’ll die in a week! And then there was a pause, a lull kind of thing, a lull-type, not a real one, and snap and bang, I mean BANG! what I said above. If it wasn’t my own thing I’d argue whether or not that all makes it art or simply poor craftsmanship.
But if your poor craftsmanship serves a higher purpose? “Emily?”
“Emily. What does the Blessed Tree Virgin say about poor craftsmanship that serves a higher purpose?”
“Like cooked books to benefit the bottom line?”
“You’re still going to hell, huh?”
“I believe that’s what she’d say, on a moody day. Yes.”
That’s what I figured. “What about a failure that does no harm to the overall scheme?”
“Like… I don’t know. Like what?”
“Like these feet.”
“Oh. They’re okay. I think Our Lady of the Trees’d get your back if you want to deny responsibility.”
Failure, okay. But a good failure.
The next step. “Emichan?”
“I have to make so many hearts. Help me?” I hand her a stack of certificates I dipped yesterday in red ink, for far less reason than all the implied symbolism. My angle, and why I’m not an artist, is that they’re hearts, thus they’re red. There may be all sorts of intent all over the place in every other facet of this work, but the hearts is simple. The hearts are hearts. I dyed them yesterday, so they should be dry, but our hands are bloody anyway by the time we’re done.
“A hundred enough?”
“A hundred is perfect.”
By the end of class I’ve got the final layer of certificates smoothed and the bird’s set by an open window to dry. I’ll pick it up after English.
I download the pictures from this morning and print them to film and head into the darkroom to develop it. I’m no good with the bag and I don’t have time to redo the whole process if I screw it up, so the darkroom’s the safest place for me. I’ll probably be in here all through lunch as it is. Emily will probably bring me something to eat and we’ll spend the hour missing our mouths in redlit perceptive flux.
Barts comes in while I’m swirling the solution around and around, watching the big clock tick tick tick and never tock, and I just have to ask him, so I do: “Barts.”
“Intentional or predetermined?”
“Is this another tree virgin discussion?”
“Just answer the question, Barts.”
“I don’t know.”
I nod, expecting this answer, “Predetermined then.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Exactly.” Then I add, “But I chose to say that. Understand that, Bartsan.”
If this was geared to make him leave me alone it failed. Well, only halfway. He keeps quiet for a while anyway. The ticks tick off and then there’s a ding and I rinse out the can, then string up my film to dry.
Barts comes over to look while I’m exposing the first print. “What the heck is that?”
I tell him that it’s a supernova. No, it’s a pair of twins chasing balloons in the park…
“That’s your cat’s work, isn’t it?”
I shut the light off, drop the sheet in the developer and stare.
“I don’t see why I can’t come on Thursday. You and Emily get to go. I don’t see why I can’t go. And don’t tell me it’s girls only, cause I know that’s not true.”
You want the truth, Barts? I can’t tell him the truth, but then I do. “You couldn’t do the job, and you know that, so just be happy nobody’s saying it like that.”
“You just said it like that.”
“And I’m only going to say it in here, so if you don’t want it said again, you won’t repeat it outside this room.”
“I could go along, I could be an observer–”
“Barts! Barts, you do not observe our fathers at work. Why are you being so dense?”
“Why are you being so mean?”
“Look, extended duration is duration only. I did not choose you.” I didn’t even choose those words. Mary of the Trees sticks a finger in her mouth and makes a wet hash in the air. In the pan suddenly the bird intentionally overexposed, some dodging in the hollow cavity below the beak. Barts, though hurt, still cannot contain his enthusiasm for the print. All he’s doing is standing there nodding, nodding really really quick, but I’ve seen that enough to know what it means. And whatever else he is, the kid’s smart and so I allow myself to take some pleasure in his show.
“Take that out. Take it out now.”
I jump and grab the print and drop it on the floor instead of in the fixer pan. Barts grabs it, and says sorry, then places it in the fixer for me.
“It’s a great picture.”
“I don’t want it said again, so keep your sorry.”
This time it’s me that’s hurt, so I guess we’re even. So far as this one instance in this room is concerned anyway. But I’m not hurt for the right reason. I should hurt for what I’ve done, hurt that I brought shame upon myself and really more than just me. This one goes all the way to Daddy. I need to hurt for that but I’m only hurting that Barts won’t take the apology. My consolation is that Emily was not here to see it. We know what lines not to cross and to my knowledge Emily does not cross them.
Barts leaves when Emily comes in with the expected food, even though he’s probably safer with the two of us in the room than with just me. And he probably left not because of Emily but because he was done. Both with his work and with me. I don’t tell Emily what I did. Telling her won’t make it any better, the only help for it is that I do not do it again. And I tell myself I won’t.
With Emily’s help I get the other five printed, and some alternate exposures of the best shots. This really is Chât’s best work. It’s totally off-assignment but I’m ahead on everything anyway, and with luck these are going to get me some extra credit. Our teacher’s way into this kind of stuff. He was a war correspondent before coming to our school. And even though he discourages us from doing overtly morbid stuff, I know the pictures will appeal to that part of him that spent last summer in Iraq. We’re not supposed to know he was there, but Emily and I know his professional name, and he also does some contracting now and then for our fathers’ company. This is right up the dark alley he doesn’t take to school. And besides, he’s met Chât.
“Can your dad give me a ride to kendo after school?”
Emily’s rapt, stuck in the first picture. The floor blank white, the blood overexposed like acid tracings black and looming as if the whole structure’s going to give way any minute and suck the bird down into some other place where dark and angry gods will argue who’s prettier. The beak implied by absence and where I dodged there’s a clarity that belies the brutality of what it really is. Near clinical, that’s how good he was. I nudge Emily.
“Yeah, yeah, he figured he was going to drive you anyway.” She turns back to the picture, two fingers almost touching it but trembling just a little right near the surface. “This. Amichan, this is so.”
“That cat is amazing. Show this to your dad. He’ll never call him crazy again.”
“Emichan, I show this to him and that’s exactly what he’ll say.”
When I get home with the bird under my arm there’s a red welt across my cheek and Emily’s calling still, doppled now, Sorry. Sorry. But there’s laughter in it and it’s my own fault. She was supposed to hit me. I was supposed to block it. We always connect. There are always welts, on both of us. But this one was solid. She knocked me right on my butt. I spun back up quick and touched her on the shoulder, but it didn’t make any difference as I was effectively headless by that point. My effective headlessness getting us another lecture from Sensei for not wearing the armor. The same threat again that he’ll make us spar with nerf bats. Not that it’d matter. I’ve done damage with nerf, Emily can tell you. In the mirror by the door the red stroke parallels my cheekbone and makes me for just a few seconds want to sing for some 80s electropop band.
I stow the bird, mostly dry, full of mostly dry hearts, in my closet and leave the door cracked and my window open to try for some airflow. Daddy comes home while I’m in the shower and I sing out greetings in three octaves until he pops his head into the steam and sings back his own hello.
“You want to eat out tonight, butterfly?” He usually calls me sparrow, but considering the morning, the shift to butterfly’s not entirely unexpected. Always something that flies. That’s the real constant. I like that.
“Can we get steak?”
“Aren’t you a vegetarian?”
“I’ll take that as a no.”
“I’ll be done in ten, okay?”
I hear him close the door and I turn the water to cold and put my face right in it.
Daddy didn’t change from his suit, so he’s ready when I come down twelve minutes later, dressed in short charcoal with pink thigh-high tights. He whistles and folds his hands over his heart and I favor him with a quick turn and a curtsy that’s not altogether play. I kiss him on the cheek and he pulls me close and whispers butterfly. Sparrow. I hug him hard and swear silently that I will bring no more shame to our family. He whispers winged things and I bury my smile in his tie.
An hour later at some meaty restaurant dinner’s arrayed nicely on the table, but the steak’s the only thing these people in their t-shirts or polo shirts seem to know how to do right. All the greens are grayish and soft and break and fall back to the plates when I try to pick them up with my sticks. I spoon some of each in my mouth—we ordered them after all—but nothing’s worth eating except the meat. Daddy asks if we should send them back but immediately answers himself, knowing that another few plates of pepper-specked gray stuff won’t make it any better. We can get green tea smoothies on the way home if we’re that desperate, which probably we’re not going to be.
It’s a thick New York and the plate fills with thin blood when I poke it with the knife. I try to eat slowly, but the steak’s already part of me before Daddy’s even finished his beer. He just raises an eyebrow and then cleans his plate with four monumental bites that impress me so much I actually applaud when he sets his fork down.
The waiter wants to know if we’re interested in dessert, and then asks if there was anything wrong with the vegetables. And then he, like Daddy, answers his own question. “Let’s just pretend the vegetables never happened, okay?” We thank him and tell him that we’re all set. He whips out the check—and okay, it bothers me a little when they’re always ready for you to leave like that, when everything’s all set to get you out and clear for the next top, but I remind myself that we came here for meat and not service so it’s what I should expect anyway—and Daddy gives him a card and the waiter’s back in what seems like ten seconds. I sign and we thank the waiter and we leave.
“What now?” Daddy wants to know.
“What’s playing?” Probably something stupid.
“Something not worth watching, I imagine, but there’s something to everything.”
There’s a transient theater set up in the park already a few minutes into Resident Evil: Apocalypse, so I run to the juice shop on the corner and grab us a couple green tea smoothies while Daddy grabs us a good spot on the grass. The uncharacteristic break from the usual headier fare is actually kind of bracing; someone near us says that a guy from the movie’s production crew’s a local and that’s why we’re watching it. I hand my father his smoothie and fold my legs under me and lose myself in zombies and monsters.
Emily sits down next to me. Her mom says hello to me, then to my father. He says hello and stands and someone behind us says Down in front and Daddy stands just long enough to extend a hand to Emily’s mom and help her down before sitting again.
“Where’s your dad?” I ask Emily.
“He had to work late. Some new equipment came in and he’s got to spec it for Thursday.”
I can barely control my excitement. “We get new gear?”
“Not us, stupid. Them. It’s their gear.”
I knew that already, but you know, there’s always that chance. Okay, there’s no chance. We only use what we’ve been trained on. But what we’ve been trained on is still pretty cool. “What I think,” Emily’s lips brush the raised spot on my cheek where she got me with the stick, “is Daddy just wanted to play with the stuff first before anyone else got their greasy mitts on it.”
“Can’t blame him.”
“I know. I tried to get mom to let me go down there, but it’s no go.”
Emily’s mom shushes us. “You’re going to miss something important.” She and my father laugh probably a little too loud.
Emily leans in again. “Not that it’d ever happen, but if my mom cheats, I want it to be with your dad.”
“This is not even a conversation I want to have.”
“I’m just saying.”
“I love your mom and I love your dad, so please just don’t say it.”
“Well, I love your dad too.”
“That’s only to be expected.”
“You think you’d be okay with calling me mom in a few years?”
“Oh my god! Shut up right now or you’re going to be the one with welts all over your face next time we go to kendo.”
“You keep talking like that I’ll send you to your room.”
“You gonna spank me too, Emisama?”
“You’d like that.”
“You’re right. Come on…”
This time Daddy shushes us. We watch. The next hour and however long dissolves in a blissful undead haze.
When the movie’s over Daddy and Emily’s mom say goodbye and Emily rushes over and gives my father a kiss on the cheek and a big hug, saying, “See you around big fella…”
A block down the street Daddy says, “What was that all about?”
“She wants to marry you.”
Daddy laughs so hard he has to stop walking. “I don’t know if I could be her father’s boss and call him daddy at the same time.”
I kick him, soft. “Yeah, like that’d be the only complication.”
“Her mother, though…” he looks all dreamy for a second and I don’t know how much he’s kidding.
“Oh my god. Stop.”
“Just stop. I already had this conversation once tonight.”
And he does stop. He looks so sad and serious and now I wish I’d had the conversation.
“There’s no one else, you know.”
There’s a shrine in the room off the kitchen. She’s always there. She never left us. Daddy prays to her. She speaks to me. There really isn’t anyone else.
“I understand that you’re lonely, Daddy.”
“I’m not, Amichan. I’m really not.”
And like it happens so often, in so many places, Daddy and I hold each other and cry quietly. And like always, it feels good. Duration isn’t the thing, it never is. It’s what they are and that’s forever and she really never did leave us.
I set the alarm on my mobile to buzz me at four in the morning and put it under my pillow when I go to bed. Daddy’s in the room off the kitchen, and he’ll be there a while, but I know he’ll be in bed long before four, and I figure an hour’s more than enough time.
When the phone vibrates me awake a couple hours later I get out of bed and move toward the closet. But then I notice that the clock says it’s only just after one. I pick up the phone and it says that it’s Emily.
“I’m sorry about earlier. I was just kidding.”
“Emichan, don’t worry. Don’t apologize.”
“I was insensitive.”
“No. Treating me like a cripple forever would be insensitive.”
“Go to sleep.”
“Okay. I love you Amy.”
“I love you too. You know, I’d never call you mom.”
“Then I’d never let you out of your room.”
“And then what fun could we have?”
“Okay, I’m convinced. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Emichan.” I have no trouble going back to sleep.
The phone wakes me again at the correct time and I curl my toes on the floor, reach to the closet door and it slides like it knows what I want and isn’t telling anyone. The bird’s still not dry, but I don’t think it matters. I set it on the floor and trace the walls with my fingertips and move downstairs. In the room off the kitchen is a wardrobe with my mother’s things, those few things she loved so much she’s part of them, bits of her soul like flakes of skin ground into the grain from years of use, long hairs twisted in zippers, lost fragments that keep her with us. One of these things is a blue kimono embroidered with gold orchids. I had it made for her. I put it on and tie it with the gold obi that matched her hair. The way it matches mine. I take the time required to pull my hair into a loose bun and make my makeup perfect. Already gray downstairs and I fold my hands together and I walk back up the stairs.
I take the bird from my floor and carry it into my father’s room. I set it on the floor at the foot of his bed and slip my hands in where the sternum would be. And now I’m glad it didn’t dry because I’m able to pull the halves apart and make no sound. I reach inside and take handfuls of hearts and spread them on the floor around the bird and myself. Tiny steps to the window to draw back the curtains and raise the blinds and then again step silent back to the bird and the hearts. I kneel amid them and bow my head and wait for the sun.
The sun touches Daddy on the chest and I watch it with my head still bowed but my eyes upturned as it grows across him, illuminating his skin and making him glow, his flesh holding the sun and turning it again into the living man I call my father. It touches his lips, his nose and then his eyes. They open and for a moment there is nothing. Then he sees me, he sees the bird. For some reason I meow to him.
My father rises. He crosses the room. My father bows. He kneels facing me with the bird between us and we say nothing. Each heart exploding in fire as the room dissolves in white light.
hât’s been waiting all day to be let outside. Keiko didn’t come today and I left early to meet Emily at the range so we could practice before school, so excited I forgot to let the poor beast out. I’m always excited on range mornings and always forget something. Usually nothing important, like I forget to brush my teeth or put liner on one eye. Today it was Chât. I tell him I’m so sorry and he twists between my ankles, wrapping his tail to the tip and every part of him is touching me, and he says meow, but he means I own you, don’t forget that. I. Own. You. And though he’s not really accepting my apology, he’s still good with our arrangement, and that’s enough for me. I bend and pick him up, the top of his head pushing under my chin and it’s purr purr purrrrrrr. When Daddy holds him Chât will work his whole head over the evening or morning stubble on Daddy’s chin. I’m let off with a few nuzzles and then he meows again and I let him go and he launches himself from my shoulder and lands at the door but facing me. I open the door and follow Chât into the yard.
He’s on strings, shoulders pulled up and then let go, but not like a puppet, more like he’s told someone to do it and they obey. Then he tells someone else to twist his nose and Chât spirals down to the grass and completes three smooth revolutions spun like ribbons and then he dismisses them, these ghosts serving my cat. He takes himself and throws his body on the ground and tells me to put my hands on his stomach, and I, like them, obey. He makes a bridge to touch my fingers and I bury them in the gray of his belly until he’s had enough. He curls and grabs my hands with all his paws, and his teeth tell my palm to stay put. Still purr purr. Chât rolls away and looks back at me, dismissing me now, but I stay. The cat shrugs and curves himself into the grass, a long sloping mark like watered ink on rough green paper, the first stroke of his name.
That birds are dumb is a given. That they’re really dumb is on full display in the yard behind our house. When Chât and I came outside the ones on the ground flew up into the trees, but it looks like they’ve forgotten we’re here, because they come back down while I’m petting the cat. Chât watches them and I know what he’s thinking and I try to guess which one it’s going to be. The birds are stepping all birdlike through the grass, looking for seeds or maybe getting sand for their crops—are they crops? Gullets? I could look it up but it’s not something I really care about today. Bird digestion: not terribly interesting to me. Out of dozens there’s only one that’s even a little aware there’s a cat. Right there. A cat, right there. They’re probably all aware of me, big blond giant making the earth tremble wherever she goes. Trembling the earth for birds. The one keeps looking at Chât, and Chât doesn’t move but the bird keeps flying back up into the tree, and the skittish one, this is the one. Stumble into claws, unfurl spring’s bloody blossom, stupid stupid bird.
Chât holds, the line deepening until the bird’s head ducks into the grass and then he flows into a new stroke, his tail flicks a tiny flourish, there but not showy, his body a brush touching ephemeral and presupposing a foreknowledge on the part of any observer, pale indications building upon my retina as he spells out his intent, the silent character vanishing from the grass with each new stroke.
It flies away when Chât gets within a few feet, taking a higher branch and its head swiveling like it’s wondering if it’s safer to chance it. The other birds scatter as Chât finishes writing and he ignores them all except the one. I can see Chât’s jaw moving, quick and rhythmic, he’s making some sound I can’t really make out. At this distance it sounds like nekko nekko nekko nekko… staccato but there’s a hiss under it and no sibilants but still it’s a hiss, and I don’t know what it means to the birds but it must mean something. They do not move. He keeps saying it and everything is still except for a twitching wing or a beak, open, close, open, close, and finally the one makes a break for it, but there’s no wind and when it dives Chât, my sudden dragon, meets it just off the branch and pulls it with his teeth to the ground where he can inscribe his name in the down warming its screaming heart.
I don’t know what usually comes next, but this time Chât pins the bird with a paw, then twists a tight arc and he combs the fur near his tail with his tongue. Appearance is always important. He stands, still holding the bird, and it dosen’t look like it’s hurt or anything, it’s just afraid and it’s breathing so deep it’s going to break itself, inflating itself, pumping terror like there’s too much of it and it’s got to keep spitting it out so it can swallow more. Chât sits, one paw outstretched, and he turns and looks at me. I watch the muscles of his neck pull his head back to the bird and we sit there a few minutes without moving while the bird keeps chewing and spitting, moving plate to plate down some crazy horror buffet, and no matter what, like Brando, he cannot stop eating.
I count five seconds before the bird realizes that Chât has let go. Then there’s some avian equivalent of Oh…OH! and it flips over and makes like it’s going to fly, but Chât extends his paw again, saying that thing that sounds like nekko nekko nekko and the bird goes back down, wings out flat on the grass. It stops eating now. And I’ve always wondered do they have a switch? I mean animals in general. Is there a point where they finally know it’s done and they can just shut off? Like literally give up the ghost. I’ve seen it on tv, sometimes it looks that way. I think we have that too, but we’ve got this ego thing that’s always slapping a hand over the toggles, forcing us to be there, totally there, the whole time. This bird though, under Chât’s paw, how much ego is there to a bird? I won’t lay any money on it, so don’t ask, but I’m going to say there’s probably somewhere in the region of none. Anyway, that’s what I think happened. And Chât must know it. He lifts his paw and walks back to me, curls twice through my legs and stands by the door. He says meow. My cat and I go in, and I close the door. The bird still given up in the grass and other birds are creeping stupid to it, one dipping its head and touching the other on the back. It shoots straight up, the rest now acting like a flock and following it then scattering in every direction. They converge over the trees, circle twice, then come back to the yard. Chât turns back to the door and stares through the glass at them. He says nekko nekko nekko nekko and I do hear it and in it this time the call’s frosted in a kind of disgust. I don’t know if I understand what Chât was telling me, or if he was saying anything at all. He turns away from the glass, finished, and I open up a can for him, stroking his back and singing softly while he eats.
I make noodles and beef with snow peas and lots and lots of pepper, timing it so it’s ready when Daddy gets home. I’m off by a few minutes, but I undercooked everything so it works out fine that he’s late. I make him kneel at the low table in the front room, and he smiles but doesn’t say anything about it. I don’t say anything either, I’m just gesturing and smiling and nodding and Daddy’s going along with all of it, he got it the moment he walked in. Chât sits on the corner of the table, and because I don’t shoo him, neither does Daddy.
When he’s done eating I pick up the plates, make a small bow, then back into the kitchen. I move like I’m closing doors, closing it off, leaving Daddy alone to contemplate manly things. I don’t know if he’ll contemplate manly things. I don’t know what he thinks about, not all the time anyway. With either of us you can lay pretty good odds on a few areas. I don’t know if he really wants to be left alone, but everyone needs it now and then, and now seems as good a time as any to give it to him. We have to do it, both of us, our way of fighting this tendency to spend every moment together, because spending every moment together is not good. I don’t know what happens when you get sick of someone, if that sick goes away and the love rises full into its old place, and it’s not something I feel any real need to explore. Not any amount of need really. Imagine being wrong, getting that theory all wrong and then what do you do after that? Nothing is ever undone and some things are best just to not do in the first place. I don’t buy that love should be strong enough to withstand anything, because if it really were strong enough then we wouldn’t use any modifiers. Love would just be. No good love no bad love, no puppies, no spring no summer, nothing but love. Love as absolute. But love is not that and if love could not be broken and if love could not be lost then really love wouldn’t be worth having. And if I die before I see him again, or if he keels over while I’m doing the dishes, I want it just like this. I don’t think about it as much as I used to, I don’t check every few minutes to see that he’s still there. He doesn’t do it as much as he used to. I think we’re doing okay. I think we’ll probably keep doing okay.
He’s already upstairs when I finish the dishes. I let Chât outside and turn off the lights.
Emily says her dad told her that Stephanie’s riding shotgun on Thursday. Stephanie’s in Ethics and Corporate Compliance. She is also our god. Just out of grad school at 22 and slaughtered all the competition for the position. Someone tried to make a fuss about her father being high up in the company, but he didn’t have anything to do with it, and if Stephanie were on the same hierarchical strain as him she’d actually be his boss. The fact was she’s the best and that’s the job she wanted. If I can even get in the mailroom after grad school I’ll consider that an achievement. Emily and I think maybe we should just start in the mailroom anyway, so there won’t be any fuss like when they hired Stephanie. We haven’t told our fathers that we plan on working at their company, but we doubt they’ll be surprised.
We get notes to see the photo teacher, so we leave trig and skip down the halls toward his office. He gestures for Emily to close the door when we come in and she does and then we sit before he asks us to. Normally we wait, but we know what this is all about already, so we’re being a little goofy.
He says, “As you both are aware, tomorrow is–”
Yes, take your daughter to work day, we say.
He says, “And I feel I should tell you–”
That you’ll be with us.
“Not as a chaperone or anything.”
No, just doing your job.
“Not so much my job, per se…”
Your other job. And then Emily and I collapse in uncontrollable laughter. He’s being so stiff and formal and nervous and we can’t figure out how he doesn’t already know that we already know. He’s annoyed and disturbed at first, but he looks like he’s putting it together. I say, “Sir, excuse us, but we already know. We’ve known since you came to the school.” He says that maybe he should have figured that one out on his own, but he still cannot be too cautious.
“And you want to be assured of our discretion.” Emily says it with a straight face. I nod, my own smile controlled for the moment.
I stand, give him a small bow, “Sir. You can rest assured as to our discretion, but may I also remind you that the most current rulings have not only negated any cause you may have for trepidation, but have in fact strengthened the company’s position both legally and in the public eye. And if you still find cause for concern, you need only remember that you, while on contract to our fathers’ company in this endeavor, are still technically an impartial observer, there to record events which mete recording?”
This whole routine is something we learned from Stephanie.
Emily stands and bows, maybe a little more than I did, and there might just be a little contempt in hers, but not so much that anyone but me would ever be able to tell. “And may I add,” Emily says, staring at the edge of the desk, or maybe her feet, or I don’t know what. She adds, coming up and saying to him now, “Your participation in this and other events to which our attention has been drawn of late, merits and engenders in your students now present the utmost respect, and we are proud to have the opportunity to work alongside you tomorrow.” And if that wasn’t enough, when she’s done, I’m suddenly compelled to bow, and I can see from the corner of my eye that Emily’s right there with me, and like we planned it beforehand we both hold the pose until he speaks. So. Cool. We are so. Cool.
We come up out of our bows less gracefully than we’d planned. I’m thinking that… I don’t know what I’m thinking. That’s not what I expected. And not Emily either, and we’re both a little horrified. I mean, we’re going through this very polite routine and then he gets all cowboy on us. That’s not how it’s supposed to play, but he’s laughing, he’s got a hand up to us and already tears in his eyes and he’s making a patting motion with the hand, telling us to sit down. “I’m sorry. I’m… look, I’m not all that much older than you, but ten, eleven years makes a whole huge hell of a lot of difference and… okay, okay, I can’t believe I’m saying this—I know Stephanie after all, and I’ve met your cat—but still, I mean, you’re. No. I’m not going to say it.”
He was going to say that we’re girls.
“We are our fathers’ daughters,” I say.
Then he notices that we’re not laughing with him. Not even smiling. There’s a long pause while he considers just what’s going on and we’re not insulted, not affronted, not mad or anything, but there is protocol to follow and we are not allowed to allow him to not follow it. So we wait and watch him use his ten, eleven years on us to turn some gears, spin some wheels, and figure out just what it was that changed the air in the room. One minute before we’d been giggling, that’s all he knows. I hope he figures it out quick, because this is excruciating.
Finally it’s Emily that breaks it. “Do this again?” she says.
“Yes. Do over, okay.”
We bow. He expresses his pleasure at the opportunity offered by our fathers and his certainty that we will comport ourselves admirably in whatever duties fall to us tomorrow. We bow again, and this time he returns the bow, a little awkward, but genuine anyway. And then we smile and he smiles and now everything’s okay. I curtsy, then Emily does too and he says he’ll see us in class.
“We were kind of bitchy there.”
“I know. I didn’t mean to, but…”
“Yeah. That’s what we were supposed to do, wasn’t it?”
I nod. I think it was. “He’s not our teacher tomorrow.”
“He’s always our teacher, Amy. Sensei would say that. No matter the situation or our roles in it, there is always something to learn.”
And then we bow to each other and I take her hand and we skip back to trig.
My pictures of the bird are up on the board in the front of the room when I get to photo class. The other kids grouped all around them, asking each other whose pictures they are. Barts is there but nobody’s asking him. I ask him why he didn’t tell them.
“They’re a bunch of idiots. They’re all just talking about how gross they are. Nobody gets it.”
“But you get it, Barts?”
“I don’t know. I get something. More than them anyway.” He looks at me, all earnest, “I really like them Amy. They’re beautiful.”
And then his face twists and it’s like he’s going to scream, but it’s a smile and he says,
“Oh! I forgot to tell you. I get to ride along tomorrow.”
I’m shocked by how happy I am for him. “What’s your role?”
“I get to ride support. I’ll be in your ear.”
“It’ll be good to have you along.”
“You mean that?”
Yeah. I do. “Yeah, I really do, Barts.”
“Do good work tomorrow.”
“I will.” And he’s dead serious about it. I believe him.
“Hey you seething pack of morons, that’s Amy’s so just back up off it.” Emily’s just come into the room and now everyone turns to me, their mouths twisted and all eyes confused.
“These, class, represent a perfect execution of everything I’ve been trying to get across to you this entire year. These show that at least one of you has been listening.” And because it’s our teacher saying it now the twists let go and the mouths all straighten, even if the eyes stay confused. If nothing else, they stop staring at me. I thought for a second there’d be some kind of fight. A fight they’d all lose. Barts’d have my back right along with Emily and he might be slow, but he’s solid and can take better than any of them can give. I can see it in Emily’s eyes, that she was thinking the same thing and I can’t even tell when it happened, but I know that whatever happened before Barts is now our friend. And even just a couple of days ago I wouldn’t have been able to get any part of my head around that, but today it makes me very happy. See, Barts always had my back. Tomorrow he’ll have mine and Emily’s.
We take it easy on each other in kendo. We even wear the armor like we’re supposed to. Emily doesn’t have it as easy as me, Sensei made today the day to make an example of her. And it’s not that he doesn’t think she’s been working hard enough, but because he knows she can take it and the beating she can endure is always good instruction for those in the class that can’t take it. I’ve taken a few of my own and I might feel bad for Emily, but I’m glad that it wasn’t my turn.
“I’m going to be sore tomorrow.”
I tell her we’ll do some extra stretching in the morning. “Why don’t you just stay at my house tonight? You’re riding with us in the morning anyway.”
“Your dad won’t mind?”
“He won’t mind. And neither will I as long as you keep your hands off him.”
“Just a little squeeze?”
“If you don’t mind it followed by a kick to your head.”
“Might be an okay trade.”
“Guess we’ll see then, won’t we?”
Emily’s dad thinks it’s a good idea too, so he drops us off at my house after practice. Daddy’s already home when we get there, and our fathers chat in Daddy’s office for a few minutes while Emily and I head off to shower and change. Emily’s dad calls goodbye up the stairs and Emily sings something down. He says something through the bathroom door to me and I call from the spray something about seeing him in the morning.
We order in and Daddy goes to bed early, telling us that we should do the same. He says we’re leaving at six. I kiss him, and Emily, in spite of my warnings, gives him a hug and a quick peck on the cheek. I don’t kick her. She knew I wouldn’t. I wasn’t sure.
The alarm goes at four-thirty. We’re up immediately and start stretching. Emily is sore, but moves through all the steps without complaint. The first words spoken in the house are from Daddy, telling us we’re leaving in fifteen minutes. We pull on jeans and sweaters, our hair in ponytails. We’ll change at Daddy’s office, so there’s nothing we need to do here. The next words spoken are Daddy again, telling us we’re out the door. He’s already there, holding it for us, and we both bow as we leave the house. Our bows are returned, but I don’t think any of us are even watching, nobody seeing anything. All of us on autopilot. Focused. It’s Thursday and that’s what’s expected of us.
Somebody’s laid out a nice buffet in the lobby of Daddy’s building. Tea, bagels, coffee, juice, fruit, all kinds of stuff. Even some powerbars. Powerbars means Stephanie.
“Good morning kittens.” And that’s Stephanie, talking to us. We bow to her and her smile encompasses us even more than her arms. “So good to have you two along today.”
We can’t say anything. We just nod and bow again. She gives us each a powerbar and tells us to avoid the coffee. She says it won’t do us any good. That we should stick to water and juice. She’s already suited up, and I pray that seven years does even half as much for me. Then she’s gone. We never see her for more than a few minutes, but she makes those minutes count. In the years we’ve known her we probably haven’t even spent an hour total around her, but somehow she’s managed to make us feel like we are hers. Special and protected. We want to work for her. Assuming we get the jobs, of course.
Emily and I eat quickly, carrying our juice with us as we follow a secretary back to the changing rooms. Our clothes fit us okay, we don’t look stupid or anything, but I wouldn’t say we exalt the outfits like Stephanie does. There’s half an hour transit ahead and the meeting’s set for nine, so the briefing this morning’s pretty quick. Mostly a simple rehash of details and mission statement, since we’ve all been in pretty intensive training for the last few weeks anyway. Everyone’s focused, everyone knows their roles. We run into Barts in the lobby. His suit’s different from ours. Baggier, more pockets. He’s handing out earpieces to everyone as they move toward the parking lot.
“Hey Barts,” I say. Emily says it too.
“Here. It’s live, so you wanna keep the chatter to a minimum, okay? Or at least don’t say anything you don’t want everyone else to hear.”
“Like how you look so manly in your gear? That kind of thing?” That’s Emily.
I put mine in.
No, everyone’s been saying that. That’s Stephanie. Don’t let my kittens give you any crap, Barts baby.
Emily turns a little red. But only a little. He does look a kind of manly. But then, so do me and Emily. That, hopefully, will change. Seven years. That’s not so long. We ride in the same van as Daddy and Emily’s dad. They’re both up front, and we’re back with the rest of our team, but we get smiles and thumbs-up from both of them when we get in. They’re on a private channel, with the rest of the board, so we can’t hear what they’re talking about, but it doesn’t matter. The only part that matters to us is our part, and that’s all we’re concerned with right now.
Our fathers’ company has been working on a merger with another software company for two years. Everything looked great until six months ago, when the other company’s second quarter’s numbers took a hit. They’ve now been underperforming for three consecutive quarters and a merger is no longer a viable option. That in itself is not the real problem. The real problem is that they’ve been stringing us along, giving us misleading reports while they try to get back on track. That is unacceptable. So today, as they’re in their big strategic planning meeting, trying to figure out just what the heck they’re going to do, we’re going in with a hostile takeover. And because it’s take your daughter—and/or son—to work day, me and Emily and Barts get to go along. Because we’re underage, we only get to participate in a supportive capacity, but for us, that is more than enough.
Three blocks away we’re handed our gear. We sling them over our shoulders and sit on the edge of the bench. Daddy, in everyone’s ears, says, Twenty seconds. All teams go? And everyone checks in. Everyone is go. Emily and I say, in unison, our voices an unusual and pretty contrast to all the deep tones, Go. Daddy turns and there might be tears in his eyes.
The software company’s all ground floor, so most everyone goes in through the front. Two teams set up around back, covering the rear doors. Daddy’s team in first, followed by Emily’s dad and then Stephanie, her hands crossing beautifully, palms unfolding like low wings behind her back then closing again to pull her pistols from their holsters, each pointing a thick finger, a silencer, from the muzzle, and I imagine them saying it, saying Sssshhhhh when they have something to say. Emily and I take our places just inside the doors and kneel the way we’ve been instructed, bringing our rifles to our shoulders. CO2-powered brushed aluminum beauties that spit tranquilizer darts each containing 5CCs of something with a name that has too many syllables to pronounce quick or elegantly. When we’re in place the rest of the teams stream in behind us and move quick into the halls.
In my ear I hear some small tactical chatter, then silence. Five seconds later there’s a hiss, then just under the white noise, someone whispering nekko nekko nekko nekko. Stephanie. I hear a door open, then three quick coughs: Uh. Uh. Uh. Stephanie’s gun. Accounting clear. Three programmers headed front.
It’s ten seconds tops. Safeties off and when they come into the lobby I hit the first in the leg. Emily gets the second in the stomach. We’re not supposed to hit them anywhere near the head. A shot in the neck could deliver too much directly to their brains and potentially result in coma. So we shoot low. The third programmer gets a dart from each of us, one in each leg, and that could be too much, but we’re told that it would take at least four body shots to be really dangerous, so we’re okay. “Lobby clear. Three programmers down,” I say. Lobby clear. Three programmers down. Less than .5 ms latency.
My beautiful kittens.
Twelve coughs. I wonder if Daddy’s there.
Boardroom clear. Two programmers headed front. Daddy’s voice. Amy, Emily. Aim low.
“Yes, Daddy.” Yes, Daddy.
Emily gets them both. The second one dives behind the reception desk—and I didn’t even realize it until now that there wasn’t anyone there when we came in—so my dart sticks in the wood, just missing the guy’s foot. Not that a foot shot would do much good anyway. Probably just stick in his shoe and we’d have to go get him again. Emily anticipates him and rushes the desk, leaning over and with a sound like a soft kiss the gun puts him out.
Main pool clear.
All clear. Move out. Second team in.
I stand and safety the rifle. Emily clicks her safety and we exit the lobby. Daddy meets us at the van and I hand my gun to some tech I don’t know. Daddy pulls me to him and I don’t let go. I hope he’s proud. His arms bigger than I have ever been. The sun finds a break in the trees and for a few moments we stand warm and bright where the shadows cannot touch us.
The second team moves in while we load up the equipment. Second team gives all essential personnel new employee IDs and welcome letters, then drives them all to their respective houses where they’ll wake up tomorrow a little confused but with no clear memory of what happened today. They’ll get filled in at orientation tomorrow. I see Barts over by another van and he waves. I wave back, wondering what he did. I didn’t hear him today, but there’s lots of people I didn’t hear, so there’s no way to tell. He looks happy, so he must have done all right. I didn’t see our photo teacher either. I hope he got something good. We haven’t been there five minutes and we’re already leaving. Third team arrives while we’re driving away. They’re mostly janitorial.
We drive by my school, then pass St. Mary of the Trees on the way back through town. Emily’s looking too, and I know she’s wondering if any of those girls have parents that work for our fathers now. That’s what I’m wondering. There’s always a big company picnic in the summer, so if there are we’ll meet them in a few months.