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At a time now past, a cat was born. This was not so long after the first cats came to Japan, so they were rare and mostly lived near the capital city.
This cat was the smallest of her litter of four. Her fur had been dark when she was born, but as she grew it changed to black with speckles of gold and cinnamon and ivory, and a little gold-colored chin. Her eyes were gold, like a fox’s.
She lived in the gardens of a great house in the capital. They filled a city block and the house had been very fine once, but that was many years ago. The owners moved to a new home in a more important part of the city, and left the house to suffer fires and droughts and earthquakes and neglect. Now there was very little left that a person might think of as home. The main house still stood, but the roofs leaked and had fallen in places. Furry green moss covered the walls. Many of the storehouses and other buildings were barely more than piles of wood. Ivy filled the garden, and water weeds choked the three little lakes and the stream.
But it was a perfect home for cats. The stone wall around the garden kept people and dogs away. Inside, cats could find ten thousand things to do—trees and walls to climb, bushes to hide under, corners to sleep in.There was food everywhere. Delicious mice skittered across the ground and crunchy crickets hopped in the grass. The stream was full of slow, fat frogs. Birds lived in the trees, and occasionally a stupid one came within reach.
The little cat shared the grounds with a handful of other female cats. Each adult claimed part of the gardens, where she hunted and bore her kittens alone. The private places all met at the center like petals on a flower, in a courtyard beside the main house. The cats liked to gather here and sleep on sunny days, or to groom or watch the kittens playing. No males lived in the garden, except for boy-kittens who had not gotten old enough to start their prowling; but tomcats visited, and a while later there were new kittens.
The cats shared another thing: their fudoki. The fudoki was the collection of stories about all the cats who had lived in a place. It described what made it a home, and what made the cats a family. Mothers taught their kittens the fudoki. If the mother died too soon, the other cats, the aunts and cousins, would teach the kittens. A cat with no fudoki was a cat with no family, no home, and no roots. The small cat’s fudoki was many cats long, and she knew them all—The Cat From The North, The Cat Born The Year The Star Fell, The Dog-Chasing Cat.
Her favorite was The Cat From The North. She had been her mother’s mother’s mother’s aunt, and her life seemed very exciting. As a kitten she lived beside a great hill to the north. She got lost when a dog chased her and tried to find her way home. She escaped many adventures. Giant oxen nearly stepped on her, and cart-wheels almost crushed her. A pack of wild dogs chased her into a tree and waited an entire day for her to come down. She was insulted by a goat that lived in a park, and stole food from people. She met a boy, but she ran away when he tried to pull her tail.
At last she came to the garden. The cats there called her The Cat From The North, and as such she became part of the little cat’s fudoki.
The ancestors and the aunts were all clever and strong and resourceful. More than anything, the little cat wanted to earn the right for her story and name to be remembered alongside theirs. And when she had kittens, she would be part of the fudoki that they would pass on to their own kittens.
The other cats had started calling her Small Cat. It wasn’t an actual name; but it was the beginning. She knew she would have a story worth telling someday.