The Cat of Lin Villa
by Megan Chee
I did not care for Mr. Lin, the man who claimed to own the villa that I lived in. But when his new wife moved in, I found her much more agreeable. She came out to the courtyard every evening to give me treats: handfuls of coconut-scented rice, slices of stewed pork, fish steamed with ginger.
In return for the delicacies, I honoured her with my company. When she made nonsensical meowing noises at me, an offensive imitation of cat language, I made the same silly noises back at her. I even permitted her to stroke my fur. I really did spoil her.
She never realized how well I understood human speech, so she told me her secrets unreservedly. Soon I knew everything there was to know about her. I knew she was thought to be very beautiful by human standards. I knew her marriage to Mr. Lin had been a great fortune for her penniless family.
I knew he hit her when he was angry, and he was often angry.
One night, I saw her standing alone by the koi pond, and I went over to join her. I sat by the pond and looked wistfully down at the plump fish, my whiskers skimming the silvery surface of the water.
“Sorry, Cat,” Mrs. Lin said. “I don’t have any food.”
Oh. Well, that was all right. I wasn’t very hungry anyway. I’d stolen a steamed egg cake from the kitchen earlier. The cook’s shriek of outrage made it all the more delicious.
She suddenly grabbed me with both hands and hugged me hard to her chest. I yowled, but she didn’t let me go.
“I wish I were a cat,” she mumbled. “I would scratch my husband’s eyes out.”
I imagined sinking my claws into Mr. Lin’s beady little eyes; I imagined them popping like grapes.
“He’ll be sorry when I drown in the river,” she whispered, her face pressed against my fur.
I sank my teeth into her hand, tasting blood. She cursed and dropped me. I took off running, fast as the wind.
This was preposterous! I would not let Mrs. Lin take an early journey into the next world! Who else would bring me my fish steamed with ginger?
Cats and foxes were not friends, as a rule, but I was not an ordinary cat, and they were not an ordinary fox.
There were not many fox spirits in Singapore. Spirits preferred old places, untouched places that still honoured the traditional ways. My friend Fox said that one day they would go back to their home country. But not yet. They were comfortable here in Singapore; plenty of easy prey, and hardly any competition.
When I visited my friend in their den near the mangrove swamps, they greeted me in their fox form. They had fire-red fur and emerald-green eyes, and nine tails spread out around them like a skirt.
“Good evening, Cat,” they said. “Would you like to run with me?”
That was tempting. It had been a while since I had a good run with the Fox, chasing bats and mice and spirits disguised as shooting stars. But I could not be distracted.
“Not tonight, Fox,” I said. “I am here to ask a favour.”
They began to groom their whiskers. “Then ask.”
I told them about Mrs. Lin. “She is the one who brings me fish and pork,” I explained. “I do not want her to die.”
“Very well,” the Fox said. “I can make her happy.”
“You must not harm her,” I warned.
Once, a long time ago, I was curious about what the Fox did to the humans who offered them their hearts. “Come out with me, and see for yourself,” they said, and so I did. I slipped into the teahouse and lay unseen beneath a chair. A woman with glittering eyes and a sharp-toothed smile danced on a table, while the men around her whistled and clapped.
Near dawn, long after most of the men had staggered home or slumped snoring against tables, the Fox turned to the one man who remained gazing at her, slack jawed and eyes glazed. She took him by the hand and led him out into the night, the man smiling foolishly like he couldn’t believe his luck. When the sun rose, he was sitting alone by the beach, head in his hands, nothing left but a silent, staring, hollowed-out shell.
“I will not take more from her than she can stand to lose,” the Fox assured me. “You have my word.”
A thousand years of folklore have cautioned humans never to trust foxes; but I was a cat, and I knew who to trust.
Mrs. Lin always did her morning shopping in the market down the street from Lin Villa. I made my way there at sunrise, just as the Fox had instructed. I was fond of the wet market. It was full of exciting smells: the sharp pong of salted fish, the metallic tang of fresh meat laid out on ice. It was crowded with housewives doing their morning shopping, and no-one paid attention to a cat darting between their feet.
The fruit stand was usually manned by a stout, dour-faced uncle who stamped his feet whenever I strayed too close. But he was not here today. In his stead was a slender young man with wavy black hair that fell to his shoulders. He had an angular face and full, red lips. I could tell by the way the women stared that he was pleasing to look at.
It was the Fox, in one of their human forms. I wondered what had become of the real fruit stand uncle.
The Fox sold baskets of fruit to wide-eyed customers. He did not even care to count their money, but carelessly dropped coins and notes into the money pail. No one protested when he did not give them back their change.
Mrs. Lin approached the stand with her shopping basket. Her cheeks were flushed. The Fox looked up slowly, met her eyes, and smiled a sharp-toothed smile.
They spoke; I could not hear their words. Mrs. Lin laughed and stammered and stared at the floor, glancing up at the Fox’s face for just a few seconds at a time, as though it were painful to look at him for any longer than that. As they spoke, the Fox piled fruit into her basket, building a mountain of persimmons and papayas. I’d never seen fruit so plump and glossy before. When Mrs. Lin reached for her money, the Fox smiled and shook his head. She walked away as though she were in a dream.
Mrs. Lin crept out to meet him that night, and the next night after that. They danced in the dark to music no one else could hear. The Fox brought her flowers found in no human market, velvety black blooms webbed with silver gossamer. And the words they spoke in the dark, holding each other in the shadows of the trees beyond the villa walls, were not for a cat to know.
“I fear I have lost my heart,” the Fox told me one night as we ran together through the rubber plantations, chasing the small, frightened things that darted away through the trees.
I felt a swell of pride at my own cleverness. This was going splendidly well.
Since Mrs. Lin loved the Fox, and the Fox loved her too, it seemed very simple to me that they should be together. But the human world and the spirit world were both governed by inexplicable rules, one of them being that spirits could not marry mortals. So every night Mrs. Lin had to wait for her husband to fall asleep before she could slip away to meet the Fox Spirit.
I should have been content that my plan had worked. Mrs. Lin had a secret happiness now, and no longer talked about making an early exit from the mortal plane. But her husband still hit her.
The Lin family had a special room where they kept their ancestral altars. They placed bowls of rice and fruit on the altars, with tiny thimble-sized cups of fragrant tea. I knew better than to eat any food on an altar, even when I was very hungry. That food was not meant for a cat. It belonged to the ghosts of the Lin family ancestors.
I saw the ghosts sometimes, coming to claim their offerings. Most paid me no attention, but Mr. Lin’s departed grandmother sometimes stopped for a chat. We spoke about all manner of things: mortal politics and spirit politics, cat gossip and ghost gossip. Most human ghosts didn’t care to converse with cats, but Grandmother Lin understood the worth of my company. She was a very intelligent lady.
Grandmother Lin was never happy with the offerings. “Pu’er tea again,” she grumbled. “I never liked pu’er tea. Goes to show how little they cared to know me when I was alive. That boy has always been selfish.”
I jumped lightly onto her altar and began to clean my whiskers.
“He’s cruel to Mrs. Lin,” I said archly.
“That silly girl! He should never have married her in the first place. Her pretty face won’t last forever. No money, no respectable family name—and no child! Good for nothing!”
I glared at her. Then, very deliberately, reached out a paw and knocked a ceramic teacup off the altar.
“Insolent creature!” Grandmother Lin scolded. Then she sighed, relenting. “She’s a sweet girl, I suppose. Far too sweet. This family will tear her apart. She never should have come here.”
“You should discipline your grandson,” I suggested. “Visit him in a dream and give him a piece of your mind.”
“Hmm,” she said. She picked up a watermelon seed from the platter of treats and cracked it between her teeth. “Perhaps I will.”
I didn’t see her again until the next week. She was standing under the villa gate, her frail figure silhouetted against the moonlit sky. I bounded down from the rooftop to the archway and dropped to the floor by her feet.
“It’s time for me to move on, Cat,” she said.
“I visited my useless grandson in his dreams and scolded him so hard he wept like a baby. But then he called for an exorcist, claiming that evil spirits were haunting him.” She snorted. “His own grandmother, an evil spirit! Can you believe his nerve? I’ll leave of my own free will before any sham exorcist comes to chase me out of my own ancestral home.”
“But where are you going?” I was dumbfounded. Grandmother Lin couldn’t leave. Who would I talk to about the troubles of heaven and earth after she was gone?
“To the next world, where my soul will be weighed and judged, and I will be sent into the Ten Courts of Hell to be punished for my sins before reincarnation.”
I laid my ears back. “That doesn’t sound good. Why not stay here in Lin Villa?”
“Don’t worry about me, Cat,” she said, and scratched my ears with her ghostly fingers. “It is not right to linger for too long where one is not wanted. Nothing is forever. We all die, and we all are reborn.”
“Even me?” I asked.
“Yes, Cat,” she said. “Even you.”
She turned away and was swallowed up by shadows. I waited by the doorway until dawn to see if she would come back, but she never did.
The sound of raised voices reached my ears all the way from the bedroom. Mr. Lin’s rumbling baritone, low and furious. “Worthless—shameless—disgusting,” over and over again, and then there came the sound of something breaking.
Mrs. Lin didn’t come out to the courtyard anymore after that. I caught a glimpse of her through a window one day, and her face was dark with bruises. I sharpened my claws on the bark of a palm tree and pretended that it was Mr. Lin’s throat.
The Fox wanted to kill Mr. Lin, but fox spirits could not touch any mortal who did not give themselves willingly. It was only a certain kind of person who fell in love with a fox; the kind of person who dreamed of fantastical worlds and hungered for impossible things. Mr. Lin was not such a person.
“This is your fault, Cat,” the Fox bemoaned when I visited their den. They lay with their nose between their paws, disconsolate. “I curse you for ever bringing us together.”
I tried to be offended, but I couldn’t muster it. I knew they were right. I had made everything worse.
I thought as hard as I could. The days turned into weeks, and still I came up with no grand plan. The dilemma plagued me, worse than any biting fleas. I was perched on the villa’s roof one night, scratching my chin under the bright glow of the full moon, when I saw it: a shooting star blazing through the night sky. But that was no ordinary shooting star. That was a celestial goddess travelling across the heavens; I could sense it down to the tips of my whiskers.
I had to catch her.
I darted across the rooftops, then bounded onto a tree and landed in the street. I ran faster than I’d ever run in my life. I ran through the slums, where old men gathered at roadsides to drink and play cards. I ran by the river, the pungent odour of dead things and rot wafting out from its murky depths. I ran down the dirt roads that snaked through the untamed forests, through the sleepy villages. I ran until there was no breath left inside me, until my heart felt like it could burst, and still I ran, my eyes fixed on the streak of light cutting through the sky.
At last, I burst from the trees and emerged on the beach. There was only sea and sky left in front of me.
I gathered the strength in my back legs, my muscles bunching—and I leaped!
I was so swift and so strong that the force of my leap carried me straight into the sky, past the clouds, past the heavy, luminous moon. I barreled towards the shooting star and sank my claws into it.
And then I fell through the empty space between sky and earth. I fell and fell for longer than I thought possible, until quite suddenly I landed in a soft mound of sand.
I lay there for a few moments, dazed. Then I spat out a mouthful of sand—disgusting!—and looked up.
The celestial goddess stood at the edge of the water, her flowing robes and long black hair floating on the gentle waves that lapped at the sand. The moonlight reflected off her pale skin.
“You have caught me, Cat,” she said, and her voice sounded like silk and starlight. “What would you have of me?”
I stood serenely, my exhaustion fleeing before my pride. I truly was the finest cat in the world.
“I want Mrs. Lin and the Fox to be happy.”
“Ah,” the celestial goddess said. “That is no small wish.”
“But that is my wish, and since I caught you fairly, you must grant it.”
“Very well, Cat,” she said. “I will do as you ask. I will transform Mrs. Lin into a heavenly maiden. She will become a creature of the spirit world, no longer a mortal woman, and she will be free to marry the Fox Spirit. They will live together in the heavenly realm, and their love will last for ten thousand eternities. Does that please you, Cat?”
I stared at her.
“No. It does not please me. I want Mrs. Lin to stay in the Lin Villa, and to feed me steamed fish with ginger and tell me her stories. I want the Fox to run with me through the rubber plantations at night. I want things to remain as they are, except… I want them to be happy.”
“That, my dear Cat,” she said. “Is impossible. For Mrs. Lin and the Fox will never be happy, as long as things remain as they are.”
“No,” I snarled. “Go away—leave them be—go back into the sky!”
She looked at me with her dark eyes; eyes as dark as the spaces between stars. “Is that what you wish, Cat?”
I imagined catching rats and cockroaches for my dinner, no morsels of fish or pork from Mrs. Lin’s soft hand ever again. I imagined nights exploring the streets and jungles of Singapore without the Fox by my side.
I imagined the Fox curled up alone in their den, dreaming of impossible things. I imagined Mrs. Lin in her husband’s bed, her face purple and blue.
“No,” I said, very quietly. “I want Mrs. Lin to marry the Fox and live in the heavenly realm for ten thousand eternities.”
“Then it is done,” she said.
The moon had vanished behind a cloud, and the sky was stormy grey. The goddess petted me on the head.
“Don’t despair,” she said. “You have much to look forward to. In your next life, I believe you will be a tiger.”
And then she was white light, streaking back into the sky.
I walked along the beach, looking at the crashing waves and thinking about the big, lovely fish swimming in the deep. Once I was a tiger, I would catch a fish the size of a man. I would run in the jungle, and roar loudly enough to send all the birds flying in fright. And I would bite Mr. Lin’s head off his body.
There were many wonderful things I would do, once I was a tiger.
But for now, I was a cat, and the world was still full of interesting things to see and catch and eat.
I’ve been owned by various cats over the years, each of whom have made different demands of their humans. Tigger went where he pleased, but was always glad of some human back-up in a fight. Bigboy required food, just that. Frances insisted on no raised voices, ever, and took great offence at the existence of Mint. Chesney needed to meet *everyone*, and took his sentry-duties seriously, greeting all the neighbourhood kids on their way home from school, and bopping passing dogs on the nose if they came too close. Aurora, our current cat, is a small, black shadow who goes wherever I am. For small animals, they come with large characters, and there’s no denying their strength of will and tenacity.
This story’s cat has the self-confidence to achieve the impossible. They’re used to getting their own way, and the assumption that the world will shape itself around you goes a long way to making that happen. This is one of the advantages of privilege and arrogance – if you don’t fear failure, you’re free to take risks. To aim high, and do what you choose. In many cases, you’ll get lucky and won’t reap any consequences. The cat’s attitude creates openings for change. But as much as their actions are rooted in self interest, more and more over the story we see that habitual self-interest revealed as an unconscious excuse to themself for caring about other individuals… and eventually see them act for the good of the Fox and Mrs Lin. It’s definitely a more self-aware cat that returns to Lin Villa at the end of the story… though I wouldn’t go as far as to say they were any humbler. They know they’ve lost an easy lifestyle, and the companionship of the Fox, but they also have the contentment of having caught the moon goddess, helped their friends, and the knowledge that they’re still a cat with the whole world at their paws. No set-back is for ever, and there’s a Tiger in their future. We could all do with a measure of that confidence and sense of self-worth. Just a bit, at least.
About the Author
Megan Chee has lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States, and is currently based in Singapore. Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine and Athena’s Daughters: Volume II. You can find her online @meganflchee.
About the Narrator
Su Ling Chan is a professional Malaysian American voice actress who has voiced in many animations, video games, commercials, and more. When she’s not in the voice booth, she enjoys eating, cooking, cafe hopping, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Apparently, she has a world ranking in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu from a life before voiceovers. Now she talks all day and trains the next generation of fighters all night.