The following is the first part of Otsuichi's 『幸せは子猫の形』, which is in his own collection 『失われる物語』 and part of a compilation called 『きみが見つける物語』. The latter describes itself as a "十代のための新名作恋愛篇", or a collection of new masterpieces about love for teenagers. I initially wanted to get the mystery series version of the book, but I decided I would try to broaden my horizons and read some love stories, since I guess love isn't that bad now that they have mostly proven that cooties don't exist and all. They have quite a few different collections for students of Japanese who want to read something at a kind of middle level. The text is more advanced than beginner/elementary reading materials (probably more interesting too), but the kanji isn't as in your face as more complex materials. Moving onto Otsuichi's story, I'd heard of some of his stories and movies, but only had a general idea of his work (spooky, twist at the end, imaginative, bittersweet, etc). I've really enjoyed what I read so far, and I'm looking forward to Part Two, and more after that.
When I decided to leave the house and live on my own, it was simply because I wanted to be alone. What I wanted more than anything was to go to an obscure town where no one knew me and die alone. That's why I purposefully chose to go to somewhere far from home for college. I apologize to my parents for becoming the kind of person who turns his back on his hometown. But I have many siblings, so they shouldn't be hurt that they've lost one never-do-well son.
It was necessary to determine a place of residence before I began living alone. My uncle owned an old house, so I decided to rent it. The last week of March, I went to that house together with my uncle, to inspect it.
Until that time I'd never had even a single conversation with my uncle. I sat in the passenger seat of the car he was driving, and we headed for our destination, but the conversation fell flat. It wasn't just because we had no topics in common. I lack any ability to converse, so I'm not the type of person who can speak frankly with ease.
"I heard that a college student drowned in that lake over there about a month ago. Got drunk and fell in." My uncle pointed out the window with his chin as he drove.
The trees flew past and I glimpsed a large pond in the midst of the dense, thick leaves. The pond's surface was dyed grey as it reflected the overcast skies, and it gave off a lifeless, lonely impression. Around it was a field of grass.
"Really?" As soon as I said it, I thought I should have been more exaggeratedly surprised. My uncle was probably expecting me to be surprised.
"You aren't really shocked by things like people dying, then?"
"Well, no..." I'm not easily moved by the mundane deaths of strangers.
My uncle looked slightly relieved, but I didn't realize the meaning behind his expression.
Thanks to my manual-like answers, the conversation with my uncle didn't last much longer after that. My uncle fell quiet, looking bored, and as I wondered whether he thought I was tedious an uncomfortable silence rose within the car. It's a situation I can't get used to, despite having experienced it countless times, but I don't feel any anger. I've simply always been the kind of person who is unable to match up with others.
Even so, I'd already grown tired of worrying over how to connect with people. It was enough already, more than enough. From now I would refrain from meeting with people as much as possible. I would try not to leave my house to often, and live quietly. And as much as possible, I wanted to avoid doing things like walking down the middle of the street. Nothing is a greater relief than to leave the crowds behind, and be alone. From now on, I would live my life alone with the curtains closed.
The home that my uncle owned was a two-story wooden house in an unremarkable, ordinary residential area. Compared to the homes surrounding it, it seemed old as a hand-coloured photograph, and looked like it might lean to the opposite side if you pushed it. When I walked around it I was back to where I started before I knew it, so I didn't foresee any disasters. There was a neat garden, and there were traces of someone having grown their own vegetables there recently. There was a water pipe and faucet on the side of the house, and the green hose was laid out in a coil.
When I looked around I was surprised to find that nearly all the furniture and household items were still inside. I had imagined an abandoned house, but now I felt as if I'd set foot in a stranger's home.
"Had someone been living in here until recently?"
"I was renting it to a friend of a friend. That person's already died, but since they had no relatives there was no one to take the furniture and all..."
My uncle didn't seem eager to say much about the previous tenant.
It was as though life had been going normally until just a second ago, when suddenly only the people disappeared with a puff. An old movie calendar, a postcard stuck to the wall with a pin. Silverware, books, cassette tapes, cat figurines on the shelves. All of the previous tenant's things were left just as they were.
"You can use what's left. The owner is gone," said my uncle.
The room that the previous tenant may have used as a bedroom was on the second floor. It was a bright room, facing the south, and warm sunlight flooded in through the open curtains. I glanced at the furniture and the kinds of things left behind, and knew that the previous tenant had been a girl. And young.
A rose in the flower pot on the window sill. Still unwithered, still free of dust. I felt a strange uneasiness seeing the cleanliness, like someone had been cleaning everyday.
I hate the sunlight, so I closed the curtains and left the room.
One room served as a darkroom, and inside were developing solutions and fixing solutions. A thick, black curtain draped the front doorway, and choked off any chinks of light. The smell of acetic acid made me want to sneeze. A large camera sat heavily on the desk. The previous tenant must have liked to take pictures. If you develop pictures on your own, they gain a sort of power. When I looked around, pictures appeared by the dozens. Where there were landscape pictures, there were pictures that seemed to commemorate something. The people in the pictures were just as varied, from the old to the young. I put them in the bag I was carrying, to look at later.
The developed film was arranged on a shelf. Negatives, gathered in various paper cases, were dated in magic marker. I thought I might open the work-table drawer, but I stopped. "Photo paper" was written on the handle in tiny letters. If light hit them, they would be exposed and unusable.
As I left the darkroom, I realized the south-facing room I'd entered earlier was bright. The curtains I'd closed were somehow open now. Perhaps my uncle had done it. But he had been on the first floor the whole time. At that time I concluded that the curtain rod had slanted.
A few days before the entrance ceremony I moved in to the house. I only had one suitcase. I would use the previous tenant's furniture.
I first heard the kitten on the very day I moved in, as I was relaxing in the living room. I heard it meow from somewhere in the garden. I dismissed it, thinking I was hearing things, but before I knew it, the kitten had come into the living room and lazed there as if it were the owner of the home. It was a white kitten that looked as if it would fit in my hands. It came into the house and walked around as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It had a bell around its neck, which rang clearly. At the moment, I was puzzled as to how to care for it. My uncle hadn't told me I'd be getting a cat with the house. All I'd wanted was to be alone - it wasn't fair to be forced to live with a kitten. I thought I might dump it somewhere, but I decided to leave it as it was. I sat in the living room, watching the cat toddle past my eyes, and suddenly realized I was sitting at attention on my knees.
That day a neighboring housewife named Kino came by to greet me, and I was exhausted. She chatted with me as she stood in the entryway, looking me up and down. I'd wanted to eliminate this kind of neighborhood interaction.
She rode a very noisy bicycle. I could hear her brakes, like scraping metal, from tens of meters away. It was unpleasant at first, but I decided to think of it as a novel instrument.
"I wonder if my brakes might be going out!" she said.
I couldn't bring myself to say, "I'm pretty sure they're already broken."
But, when she began to move onto the topic of the tenant who had lived here before, I leaned toward her and listened. Before, the person who lived here was a young woman named Saki Yukimura. The neighbor said she often walked with a camera in hand, taking pictures of the residents. It seemed like she was very much adored by the townspeople. But then three weeks earlier, on the 15th of March, she was stabbed in front of the entry way by an unknown assailant, and lost her life. They hadn't found the murderer.
My neighbor stared fixedly at the floor of the entry way. Realizing that I was standing where the murderer had stood, I took a flustered step backward. I'd been conned. I hadn't heard a single thing about this from my uncle. At the time of the incident, just recently, the police had come to this house, and there was a big uproar.
"Ms. Yukimura's kitten must be having a hard time since she suddenly passed away. There's no one to feed it..." the neighbor said as she left.
The kitten didn't look like it was having a hard time to me. It was so healthy I wondered if someone had been feeding it everyday. There was an empty can of cat food thrown away in the house's trashcan. It looked like someone had just opened it recently. Someone must have entered the house unnoticed, and fed the kitten.
The kitten appeared to have not realized that Yukimura had died and disappeared. It licked its short white fur and lounged on the veranda, and continued its peaceful daily life as it must have for a long while. I wasn't quite convinced that this was because the kitten was stupid. I watched, and the kitten frequently acted as if there were someone it knew at its side. At first I wondered if I was seeing things, but all things considered there were many unnatural behaviours.
It would turn its innocent face toward the empty air, and prick up its ears. It would scrunch its eyes closed and purr as if it were being petted by an invisible something.
Often cats will rub themselves against a person's leg as he stands, but this kitten would try to press its body against empty space, and when it rubbed against nothing it looked confused and nearly fell over. And it walked all over the house as if following something, its little bell ringing. It was exactly as if it were following its owner. The kitten appeared to have no doubt that Yukimura was in the house even now. Instead, it found me, the one who had just moved in, to be strange.
At first the kitten wouldn't take the food that I put out for it, but it soon became able to eat. At that point, I felt as if I had at long last received permission to live in the house from the kitten.
One day, when I cam back from school, the kitten was sleeping in the living room. The kitten liked its former owner's second-hand clothes, and it always used them as a sort of bed and slept there. If I ever tried to take those tattered clothes, it grabbed them in its mouth and acted like they were so precious that it would run away with them.
In the living room was a small wooden table and a television that Saki Yukimura had left behind. It seemed like she had liked to collect knick-knacks, and when I come to this house there were various cat figurines lined up on top of the television and the shelves. I had put all of them away.
I had forgotten to turn off the television in the morning. A period drama was playing to the empty room. It was a re-run of "Ooka Echizen." I turned off the television and went upstairs for a moment.
I left Yukimura's bedroom as it was, and used another room as my own. I hesitated to use a murdered person's room. Every time I passed through the entryway, I thought of Yukimura, who had died there. There were no witnesses to see her be stabbed, but it's said that her protesting voice could be heard by the neighbors. Since the incident, police have been patrolling the neighborhood.
When I looked at the many photographs in the darkroom, I grew depressed. Yukimura had been capturing moments in the lives of the people of the town. Judging from her photographs, the fact that she was able to capture the townspeople's smiles and happy things was undoubtedly because her intuition was tuned in that direction. She was my complete opposite.
I thought I might eat. As I was preparing the food in the kitchen I eventually realized -- I could hear the sound of the television, which should have been off, coming from the living room. The power had turned on at some point. It was was strange. I thought perhaps the television was broken. "Ooka Echizen" was playing to the living room, where only the kitten lay sleeping.
This phenomenon was not limited to that single day. The day after, and the day after that, if it was time for "Ooka Echizen" the television turned on at some point when I wasn't there. Even if I changed the channel, the moment I turned my eyes away, the remote control I'd put down moved, and the channel returned to the period drama. I wondered if there was a flaw in the television. But it was unnatural, exactly as if there was someone hiding in the house, carefully choosing a moment when I was not there to turn on the television. When the time came, the kitten was always sleeping in the living room. It lay down looking like a child keeping close to its mother. I felt the presence of someone adored by the kitten, that never failed to miss "Ooka Echizen."
Since then, I'd felt someone's gaze on me when I'm reading a book, or eating. But when I turned around there was nothing but the napping kitten.
I tried hard to always keep the curtains and windows shut. If I hear something like the twitter of a small bird from a window left open, I want to stop up my ears. The only things that calm my heart are the indifference of semi-darkness, and damp air that invites the presence of bacteria. But all of the sudden I'd realize that the curtains and windows had been opened. It was like someone was warning me, "If you don't open the windows and get some air in here, you'll get sick!" Sterilizing, warm rays of sunshine and a breeze as dry as new towels came into the unhealthy room. I looked everywhere in the house, but there was no one here but me.
Once, I was looking for nail clippers. Thinking there should be some somewhere in the house, I hadn't bought any myself. There was no way someone like Yukimura didn't cut her nails.
"Nail clippers, nail clippers..."
I spoke out loud as I searched, and suddenly I realized that at some point a pair of nail clippers had been placed on the table. They hadn't been there when I looked just a moment before. It was like someone who knew the location of the nail clippers had watched me, the new college student resident, searching fruitlessly, and left them out for me. There was only one person I could think of who would know the location of something like that.
Thinking it was impossible, foolish, I debated with myself for countless hours. And I pondered the idea that a murdered person could continue to remain in this world as a bodiless entity. And then, guessing her intent, I decided to tolerate the previous tenant's refusal to leave.