Has this ever happened to you? There is a street that you have passed down thousands of times, almost every day, every week at least. Perhaps you are always on this street at about the same time of day — afternoon, say. Then one day, you walk or drive down the street at a different time. Dusk perhaps, or just after dawn. Midnight, maybe.
But wait, you think, where am I? I am in the right place? Was this block always so long? So wide? The tiny little box-like houses that line the street look so ordinary and content when you pass them at noon. Now, in a different light, they look secretive; or they glow in a way you’ve never seen them glow before.
The familiar landmarks look just slightly off. The pink light just before dusk makes everything look different. Is that the church where I’m supposed to turn? I’ve actually missed turns that I should be able to make in my sleep. The change in light threw me off that much.
The narrator of Hagiwara Sakutaro’s “The Town of Cats” (1935) would know what I’m talking about. (And I bet you thought I was going to write about Haruki Murakami’s “Town of Cats”, didn’t you? Nope, that’s a completely different story — but a good one.) Sakutaro’s narrator is a poet, a recovering drug addict, a jaded world traveler. For him, travel has become weary; every city is the same city, with the same bland, frustrated inhabitants.
Eventually, he finds another way to fill his wanderlust — it turns out our world traveler has no sense of direction. He can get lost even in his own neighborhood. Once, he circled the hedge around his own house ten times (this is in Tokyo), and couldn’t find his own gate. His family decided that he’d been bewitched by a fox.
But his lack has one beautiful advantage: the sense of dislocation that comes from approaching a familiar place at a different time can also be gotten by approaching that place from a different direction. And so our narrator regains his sense of travel-wonder by deliberately getting lost in Tokyo. In that moment when he stumbles across a “new” neighborhood — often from a different line of approach than usual, and without expecting to see it — in that moment, the neighborhood is beautiful, exotic, with all the mystery of a foreign land.
And it’s so much cheaper than plane tickets, too.
The story then shifts to Hokuetsu, to a hot spring resort where the narrator spends the summer, lingering into the fall past the end of the season. He spends his time walking the country roads, or taking the train to the nearest town to shop or have a drink. One day he decides to walk to that town.
There is a digression in the narrative here, as the author recalls some folklore that he’s collected from villagers in the region (and I loved this part of the story!). Tales of a village being possessed by the spirits of dogs, so now all the inhabitants are dogs in human form (or were-dogs, perhaps). Another village was supposedly possessed by cat-spirits. These animal-villagers held secret rituals on black, moonless nights, and woe to any stranger who stumbles upon them….
As the narrator walks along the mountain paths, thinking about these things — he gets lost. After stumbling along paths and brambles for a bit, he stumbles upon a beautiful town. He admires how harmoniously all the buildings fit with each other, and how graceful and lissom all the inhabitants are.
Graceful — and silent. Too silent? Our narrator begins to sense a profound unease among all the graceful people, as if they are afraid to make a single misstep, to speak just a trifle too loud, to cough. The beauty and elegance of this town is an artifice, maintained by the force of will of its citizens. A single mistake will bring it all tumbling down…
Suddenly, a black rat dashes across the street. And then — cats! Cats everywhere, in the street, in the shops, coming out of the tea houses, looking out the windows of the houses. Cats, cats, cats!
Well, I have to give you some reason to go out and find the story.
Should my strange tale lead you, my readers, to imagine a world of the fourth dimension hidden behind things and external manifestations — a universe existing on the reverse side of the landscape – then this tale will seem completely real to you. If, however, you are unable to imagine the existence of such a place, then [this story] will seem like the decadent hallucinations of an absurd poet whose nerves have been shattered by a morphine addiction.
In the end, the narrator wonders if he had again been bewitched by a fox. Had he stumbled into a dimension that is only visible to the fox-witched? Is all artistic vision only visible to the fox-witched?
Hagiwara was a poet, a poet interested in the themes of abnormal psychology. This was his only short story. Knowing also that he was Japanese, I think it’s interesting to compare his description of the town of cats — a town of people maintaining an impossible balance and harmony by force of will — with how Japanese culture privileges conformity and the group over the individual. But maybe that’s just my addled fox-vision, not his.
You can find “The Town of Cats” in the anthology The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories.