by Imogen Smith
A Japanese ghost story assignment for school this past 6th grade and a five and half minute read.
The Cat Isle
Sitting on a branch,
Its eyes like pale lantern light,
Waits for things unknown.
One day, in a small neighborhood in Venice, a little girl named Anna was scootering across the rough paved sidewalk. Her scooter moved in a rhythmic beat as she pushed her foot against the concrete. The chin strap for her helmet sat snugly in between the crook of her neck and her face. Anna was alone; like most days, her parents were out working. She was caught looking at a beautiful flower that was perched amongst the leaves of a passion fruit vine. It had winter white petals and a sunset melted in the middle. Suddenly, she lurched forward and lost her grip on the handle of her scooter. Anna went flying forward and landed on her tummy. Tears welled in her eyes and she tried and failed to keep them in. Between her gulps and sobs she felt a soft pelt nudge her. When looking back she saw a small black cat with fluffy fur. It pawed at the small bruise that had appeared on her knee. Anna reached her hand out and the cat licked it happily. She slowly got up and carefully retrieved her scooter. Looking at the kitten again, she saw that its ribs were showing. Feeling in her pockets, she pulled out her lunch that her mother had given her. She immediately gave it to the starving creature. The cat gobbled up the PB&J on white bread. It looked up at her and smiled. It opened its mouth with a meow, and then leaped up and over the fence into her neighbor’s yard.
Years later, Anna always remembered the small animal and the comfort it had given her. Even when she sat by her dying parents who had been in a tragic car crash, she was still reminded of the animal that had dragged her out of her pain when she had fallen. Now, Anna was grown. Her short, bobbed hair was long and waved. The youngness of her face lost. The days she spent were the same. Every day she would leave out a bowl of food and sometimes milk, outside her apartment. Every day she watched it become quickly eaten by the hungry alley cats in her neighborhood. A raccoon that lived nearby came as well. Then Anna would eat a quick breakfast of eggs and such, go to work at the local Starbucks, come home and unfreeze a mundane frozen dinner, and then sleep. Walking home from work one day, her mind in the clouds, she barely saw the motorcycle speeding straight towards her until too late. She squeezed her eyes shut bracing herself. A yowl split the air. The scream from in front of her snapped her eyes open. Seeing with astonishment that the driver was on the ground, it had seemed that the motorcycle had crashed. Meowing came from the pile of metal. She ran over and gasped. It was a cat. The cat had big brown eyes and silky gray fur. Its shoulders were tense and its tail quivering. The driver of the motorcycle climbed out and glared at her.
“That feral cat of yours just attacked me! What is wrong with it!” the man said. Anna stared at the man incredulously.“You're the one who just almost ran me over!”
The man grumbled something and started picking up his bike. Anna was inwardly outraged, but the crash had caused quite the scene and she wasn’t one for attention so she picked up the cat and walked the rest of the way home. When she got there, she could tell something was off. The wind blew the swing in the front of her apartment, nobody on it except the wind and air. Walking up the winding staircase to room #34, she turned the doorknob with her right hand and held her coffee in the other. She peered into her small living room and saw cats! Cats on her rug, on her couch, in her kitchen, cats everywhere! There were black and white ones, long furred, no furred, blue eyed, and brown eyed. Her coffee slipped from her hand and a puddle of black liquid formed at her feet. A cat with brown fur went to lick it up. “What in the-”
“Greetings Anna, you might be wondering why we are here.” A huge cat sat in the middle of her room on the small table she would sometimes eat meals on. Anna was too shocked to reply. “We are here because we wanted to repay you with a gift. Come to our world. There you will never be sad or have worry. You will have new adventures every day and have an endless amount of fun. Not this drab life you have here,” it waved its tail around the room. “All you have to do is follow me.” A million thoughts entered Anna’s head. Should I trust this cat? What if he is lying. Wait, why are all these cats in my house? But said a small voice in her head you won't have to live like this for the rest of your life. That was enough to push Anna over the edge.
“Yes, I will come with you. How?”
“Close your eyes, I will have my cats guide you.” A fluffy tail brushed against her side and she followed. She kept her eyes closed for what seemed like hours. Finally, the cat told her to open them. It took her breath away. Before her was a giant tree. Its branches stretched out and swallowed the pale, yellow sky. Small houses roped around the trunk and into the canopy. A cobble stone path wound around the base of the tree, spiraling out into different directions. She was led into the crowd of cats, all shapes and sizes. Anna bumped up against a dark tabby tom with white circles around his eyes. He nodded, then took a double take at her human form. One glare from the big cat leading the group made him shrink back in his fur. They traveled through what looked to be a marketplace. She could smell pungent fish and ripe fruit. Then they climbed up into the branches of the tree. Anna was led through a pair of double doors and into a large room. There was a shining golden throne laced with pink and yellow blossoms in the middle which the big cat settled down on.
Two cats dressed in armor closed the doors. Something shifted. The air stilled and the huge white cat on the throne smiled an oily smile. Its skin seemed to shift moving under the fur. Then the cat transformed. All around the room were dark shadows and angry hisses. They weren't cats any more, they were dark spirits! Anna clamored back trying to run, but the two guards at the door who now had thick, rough skin and flat faces held her in place. “So, we’ve tricked another one.” The spirit laughed a chilling high laugh. It seemed to pierce every part of her body. “Foolish humans, always falling for our tricks. What a shame, you are such young blood. Even better when we feast on you!” Anna’s blood was cold and she didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t run or hide or even fight. She sometimes thought about death; her parents had come so suddenly. But she never expected to be devoured by spirits. As she thought about her impending doom, the guards dragged her down into what seemed like a dark cave. The musty smell made Anna gag. She covered her mouth with her shirt and tried to breathe through her mouth. Screams and shouts came from the barred cages around her. She glanced at the one nearest her and saw a big black cat with small bits of white here and there. The one next to it held a fluffy orange cat with startling, yellow eyes. A sudden turn in the path led them to an empty cage. The two guards slowly opened huge doors and shoved her inside. They slammed the door shut. It felt like being eaten by a large creature. Thick black darkness seeped into her soul and made her feel hollow inside.
Soft mewing from the door startled her. Anna crawled on her hands and knees and found a cat. The darkness of the cage made it hard to see, but she saw patches of inky black amongst the paper white fur. She inhaled sharply. She rubbed her eyes trying to comprehend what she was seeing, but it wasn’t an illusion. It was the cat from all those years ago when she had fallen on her scooter. The cat seemed to recognize her, too. Its eyes shone brightly as it purred happily. It rubbed up against her leg and mewed. Anna sighed. “How did you even get here little cat?” The cat cocked its oval head and spoke.
“I have come to help rescue you. I am thankful that you helped feed me and my family for all those years. I wanted to repay you by helping you.” It scratched its head. “You see, this is the spirit world. They led you here without knowing. This is all an illusion.” Anna was perplexed.
“How did you know I was here?”
The cat hissed slightly.“This used to be our home, the home of all the cats. A few years ago, dark spirits took over and stole our home. They have made us slaves in our own city. The leader’s name is Akuno. He has demanded tribute from the citizens and forced us to work.” Anna was enraged. How could he do that? Imprison these poor spirits and force them to do his bidding.
“Before you help me escape,” Anna said slowly. “I want to help you.” The cat looked startled and then shook its head.
“You can’t. It’s too dangerous.”
“Please, I want to help.” She looked at the cat pleadingly. It sighed.
“Fine. The only way to vanquish the dark spirits is to paint symbols on the foreheads of the spirit, called ofuda.”
One hour later Anna was in position. The cat, whose name had turned out to be Nozomu, had placed symbols on her body so she could pass under the noises of the spirits. She saw his shadow slip under the bars of her cage with the key. “Thanks,” she whispered. Anna reached her hand through the gaps in the iron and bent her elbow to get to the keyhole. She had to twist her body in an awkward angle with her arm on the back of her waist. She felt the key click in the hole and she twisted. The door creaked open and Anna grinned. “Come on Nozomu.” She slowly peered around the door and then stepped out onto the cold cobblestone path. She pulled the door closed, cringing when it banged shut. She had arranged the blankets inside to look like she was sleeping.
“Follow me.’ Nozomu padded down the hall, pausing at each turn. Anna followed a few paces behind him. They had a close encounter with a pair of guards, but other than that they got out of the dungeon smoothly. That's where it ended. When they had emerged from the prison and were making their way into the hallway of the throne room, a large tabby cat walked up to Nozomu. “Are you one of the servants? The king needs his morning tea. Go get it.” The cat bustled back into a room. “Well? Are you coming?” She beckoned with her tail. Nozomu glanced at Anna with a pleading look. She didn’t know what to do.
“Go,” she whispered, “I’ll figure something out.” He nodded and followed the cat into what looked like a maid’s kitchen. Anna had practiced the ofuda so she knew what to write. She followed the sounds of yelling from the room adjacent to the throne room. She looked into it and saw a large common room with a throne set on an elevated platform on the side like a theater. Crowds and crowds of shadowy figures loomed. Nozonu had told her that all you had to do was mark the leader's head. She started winding her way through the figures. She saw hooded snake people and large tentacled faced creatures. She stopped when she heard her name. “-and we have captured a human. A young one with lots of energy in her bones. We shall have a feast tonight!” Akuno raised a fist and the rest of the onlookers cheered.
Anna’s heart started racing. They were going to find out soon that she had escaped. That meant she had to move fast. She looked for a way to reach the top platform and found a door that led up to a back room. She crept forward and saw a small cat with a pink nose and blue fur scamper out of a barrel. She almost screamed when she saw one of the spirits catch it in his talons and sucked the life from the creature. It licked its lips and grinned. She felt like crying.
What if one of the spirits caught Nozomu and did the same? Stifling her tears, she went into the room. It was empty except for a couple of barrels and a table. She took the stairs at the stage and froze. She was right next to Akuno. He was done with his speech and had come into the same room she was! She pressed herself against the wall and felt his armor brush her shirt. Anna had never felt a moment last this long. It was like a century later when he finally exited the room. She wanted to flee or hide, but she forced herself to follow him. She was led down a corridor that opened into a room with a large boulder in the middle. Akuno took his helmet off and then laid down on the large rock. She crept forward and pulled out the paint brush that Nozomu had given her. As if he had heard his name, Nozomu walked into the room. He was carrying a cup of boiling tea in his paws. He almost dropped it when he saw Anna creeping up on the spirit. “You're doing it?” he hissed under his breath. She nodded slowly. She put a finger to her lips in a “shh” motion. She continued forward until she was perched over the dark spirit. She pulled the brush out again and started softly painting on his forehead. For the ofuda, you have to spell out the spirit’s name. She was on the last letter when Akuno suddenly jerked up and stared right at her.
Anna stumbled back. The spirit growled. “How dare you, foolish human! I wanted to save you for later but I guess I will have to eat you right now!” He ran toward her with his claws outstretched. Then a blur ran by her side, the paintbrush snatched out of her hand. Nozodu leaped onto Akuno’s forehead and drew in the last line. Akuno roared. He started fading in and out. He dug his sharp nails into Nozomu and threw him on the boulder. A sickening crunch made Anna’s heart stop. Akuno looked like he was melting. His face was swirling into nothing. His body dissolving into the air. She could hear screaming from all around the tree house castle.
When the spirit disappeared into nothing, she hurried to Nozonu’s side. Tears came to her eyes when she saw the condition he was in. He was bleeding from cuts on his side and his leg was jutting out in a weird way. The worst thing was that he was hardly breathing. She knelt by his side just like he had comforted her when she was in pain. She was there when he took his last breath and closed his eyes. He almost looked peaceful. When she turned around, she saw all of the castle staff looking at her in awe. “You’ve freed us!”
Anna was standing in front of a huge crowd of spirit cats, all of them cheering and celebrating. A tall cat with black stripes and white fur stood next to her. Ever since she had helped free the spirit cats, it had all been a blur. Now she stood facing the population of the spirit cat world. The black and white cat reached his paws out and lifted a necklace over her head and onto her neck. “Anna of the human world, you hold the thanks of all the spirits here. We wanted to repay you for saving us. You will be able to pass through into this world when you wish and will be treated with the honor of a hero.” The cats down below cheered. The partying that followed was joyful and happy. Anna couldn’t join in. She kept thinking of Nozomu, the friend she missed greatly. He was the real hero.
Months later Anna was sitting in bed. She had visited a few times to visit Nozonu’s grave and to help rebuild the things the dark spirits had ruined. She held a mug of tea in her hands, its warmth helped calm her. She felt peaceful and at home. She stretched out on the quilted blanket of her bed and sighed. Her life was odd, but she loved it.