When I called my mother from the settling dark of the cold November night, she was unprepared for the news. She rushed down forty floors of cold apartment steel with the tiny shovel and gloves in her hands, ran across the cold dead rubber of the playground floor in her purple rain boots. All I could do was point with shaking eyes and strained fingers at the cold box in the kudzu. I remember my cold fingers all but digging through my shirt, watching my mother trudge over the undergrowth like she had done every night for over a year, bending over to push apart the bushes like she had done every autumn night. The dead leaves crunched under her feet.
I remember being sent to wash my hands- wash the scent of deteriorating mammal from my pores. I remember looking into my own eyes and telling myself over and over, this was bound to happen, this was bound to happen. When I returned, my mother was holding a small, stiff bundle wrapped in a red blanket. And as she lowered the cold form into the hoary ground, the tears finally burst from my eyes- I crumpled in front of the small hole, unable to form words but begging his name over and over in the small prison of my clenched hands.
His name was Mang-gae. I named him on a malingering summer evening, crisp and clean as the first bite of an apple. I named him for a wrinkled, ugly traditional rice-cake- didn’t the orange kitten look a lot like a rice-cake, rounded and scrunched up? I named him for longevity-the ugliest names will go the longest. I named him first. Out of the litter of five, he was the first to venture out into the open air, buttery and clean and yet infused with the limber grip of summer. He hissed at me as he ate snacks from my hand- then came back for more. I recall that one evening he swiped at me and left a bloody gash on my left palm, but was forgiven with the slightest brush of his whiskers against my mosquito-bitten calf the next day. I loved him as one would love a younger brother- complaining yet with a ferocity impossible to hide.
When he was named, it was as if he sprung up from a bed of identical kittens as a fully grown tiger- his face popped out at me like a flashlight from the box his family lived in. I learned his features. The pink nose, the high forehead, the delicate stripes on the back of his head. I learned his habits- the quirk of the tail when he was pleased, the negligent hiss when he pretended to turn his back on me. My father would watch him jump in and out of the same cardboard box for hours on end, almost purring with him when he settled down. I squatted in front of his closed eyes, wishing every day to speak to him.
Sometimes these days, I wonder what a year meant in the life of a fun-sized ginger cat. Was it an expanse of time he didn’t dare to encompass with a single flick of his paw? Or did the year he spent with us fly past like his baby-faced meow? I suppose I never will know. But if Mang-gae asked me the same question, asked me my bulksome human opinion on our shared year in broken yowls and hisses, I would tell him it meant more than any bond I had ever shared, whispering sweet nothings to him as if he had never left. Every summer night I spent with him seemed rosy with the remnants of the evening sun, but now I know that light was never the verdant vermilion of a summer day but his blooming warmth leaning against my hand. To look into the eyes of a creature unable to speak and enjoy its company was unbelievably precious, precious beyond conversational frippery and dated gestures. He changed my world solely with his acknowledgment of its existence.
To be able to look at a feather and think of someone who won’t be able to remark on it- to look at a torn sleeve and automatically see the night it ripped play out in front of your eyes. To trace an old scar on your finger, so faint you can barely see it, and forgive the claw that ripped it a thousand times over. To wonder if the small furry mind thinks the same. To wonder out loud to a bare grave, wonder if the hours I spent with you meant the same to you and know the answer before the tears hit the earth. To indulge in the vivacity of a living being during its short tenure on earth. To see it flown, escaped from its shallow prison of clay. I pushed my feet against the ground and begged the name that now meant nothing but a wrinkled, cheap rice-cake. Why had I ever named you for longevity? The dirt kept settling over the red blanket, over and over and over.
When my mother prompted me to say a few words for you, I could not. How could I ever let fly in a few words a bond that had never been expressed in words? Sobbing, I stammered out a generic prayer. I wish for you to be happy, I wish you all the things I could never give you, I wish for you to live in a haven with all the small things that make you happy- pureed cat snacks, inexpensive neon toys, cardboard boxes rimmed with cheap yellow tape and God knows what else. Certain things can only be said in words, clumsy and awkward. Some nights I have wanted to call after you, wherever you live now in the clouds. Most nights I did not know what to call, and now I think I may understand. You were many things- none of them spoken, many of them simply felt. And when I leave as you took flight, I should like to linger as you did- not as a broken call malingering in the kudzu, but as the fading light of a summer day, inexpressible in words yet blooming in syllables of faint touch.
Min Lee is a sophomore at St Georges School in Rhode Island. She enjoys reading fiction and creative nonfictions. Her interest in the field of neuroscience will lead her to pursue the study in college.
Visual Art by: Rita Yiting Ruan