“Mittens,” Hari thought to himself, “it’s happened again. I should probably see a doctor about those blackouts.”
“Yes, you really should get a grip on yourself,” the voice said when his mind was back to where it seemed to have been before it snuck off.
The thoughts had been flowing like water through a funnel – upside down. Yet he could not tell for how long they had been flowing.
He stood in the middle of the living room, on a carpet that looked like snow on the ground of a mountainside forest. The time on the clock did not make any sense. The hands were looking alright but the numbers were all scrambled up.
“I can’t remember there being a time like 42:42,” he whispered in order not to wake anyone. “Or was there?”
“Heavens,” he thought, “maybe my eyes are failing.” Panic took immediately hold of his reason. “What am I going to do if I can’t see anymore?” He would have to see his GP about that, too, at some point. Preferably before the tumour got to him. It could be a tumour. Or avian flu. Nasty things those, but fun to catch. Worst of all would be anthrax. There was no escaping anthrax; everybody knew that.
“Sure,” he said eventually, “just give me a minute.”
“You obviously have all the time you need,” said the ficus benjamina.
“I wonder where they’ve all gone,” Hari asked, as if the miniature fig tree on its pedestal would know an answer and, moreover, provide one. It had a skinny, sinewy trunk and drop-shaped leaves. The trunk was surrounded by a handful of seashells that seemed to be arranged in a Fibonacci sequence – as if there was a perfect ratio between the size of each shell and the distance to the next one. The scenery was set in something resembling an upturned lid of a wok.
“Well,” the mini tree said after some thoughtful silence, “they went where they are now. And if you’re going to ask why, please spare me. I’m only a tenth of the size I should be were I outside, in a forest.”
“So, what’s your point?” Hari asked. To himself, he thought that the tree had been developing a little bit of an attitude recently.
“We do have business you should attend to,” the fig replied, instead of answering the question.
Hari ventured to continue, “Why is actually a good …,” but was cut off mid-sentence by the tree.
“The sun is going sideways,” it said, a little worried. “Don’t you want to do something about it?”
Hari had been standing with his back to the window and now turned around to look outside, when he realized it was already night. It was pitch black all around the window and yet he could even see into the corners where the moonlight did not reach. The moon was shining into the living room, as if it were expecting someone or something to happen. It did not seem to move, either. It just hung there, big round and blueish white. As if one could reach out across the balcony to touch it.
“Yes, right,” he said, “I really need to be going.”
The fig tree agreed, “Exactly.”
Hari stared at it for a moment. There were small pieces of coral between the seashells. It looked like a photograph of a small island or a painting with a metal plaque next to it which would say something like ‘Life surrounded by Death’. It smelled rather nice, though, like a sunny beach and lots of food. He opened his mouth to say something but before the words came out Hari heard the fig’s voice again, “I think he’s hungry.”
At that moment, Hari noticed the little ginger cat strolling in over the light yellow laminate into the living room with a playful grin on its face, its tail shaped like a question mark.
It sat down on the carpet just opposite Hari, without paying him any attention and licked one front paw, then the other. Both paws cleaned, it looked with sudden intensity – ears pricked and eyes wide open – towards the aquarium which was standing on a table against the wall, opposite the desk, as if there had been a noise coming from within. For a second, the cat arched its body stiff. The next instant, it loosened up again and walked idly to the table, jumped onto the platform and seemed to enjoy the hasty swimming of the fish inside the aquarium.
“I’m sure they haven’t seen you coming,” Hari thought with a little smile. The mini tiger, in turn, was focusing on the pool of potential prey, food or toys. The biggest one had a broad mouth with antennae on each side. The cat had gotten on its hind legs and was making a few attempts to fish one out, without success. The water was still wet, like last time. Maybe they had seen him coming after all. Then, seemingly frustrated, it jumped back down on the floor again and came towards Hari, brushed against his leg and disappeared through the right-hand corner of the room.
The tiger had been bathing in a pond next to the road. It was now sitting in the middle of it, getting dry in the sun. The road was an unpaved dirt trail that led through a forest of giant carica figs. The air was moist and hot but the ground was dry.
“I’m grateful for the rain,” the tiger said. “The pond was empty and I like it better when it’s full. I can swim in it when I’m hot and drink from it when I’m thirsty. I also enjoy playing with the water.”
“I don’t like the rain,” Hari replied, looking at the slightly clouded, but otherwise blue sky. Probably last night or yesterday, he thought.
Although the tiger was sitting, it appeared to be disproportionally tall and massive. Hari could not help thinking that it would seem even more impressive from afar – and become smaller, yet infinitely more complex the closer one came to it – as if the tiger were as large as the forest itself and at the same time the trees, the light, the shadows and the stripes were each a tiny recursion in its overall design. It looked almost stately, he thought.
“I know,” the tiger said. “There are a few other things your kind doesn’t like, while mine does,” it went on. “We prefer deer to fish, for instance and we like playing with water. We also look each other into the eye to see who blinks first,” the tiger added. “Can you do that, little one?”
Hari felt puzzled and slightly patronized.
“You have to look into my eyes,” the tiger insisted, with calm determination.
Hari thought about that and sat down, not sure what answer to give. So they stared at each other for a while. Hari noticed the leaves of the trees around them waving in the wind. It was blowing from the mountains and carrying the smell of snow with it. The fractal cat seemed to be sitting peacefully and dozing off. Remembering that there had been a pending question – and which one it was – Hari eventually asked, “Why?”
The tiger blinked and replied, “Because I’m a tiger.”
After another while of staring silently at each other, Hari noticed that the tiger was having a cup of tea with some fudge on the side of the saucer, and also that it was wearing a tuxedo jacket and nothing else. Judging by its tail, slowly moving from one side to the other, the panther seemed to be enjoying both. Hari watched it use one of its claws to carve small, spikey mountaintops into the fudge bits and began to wonder how long this was going to continue. A tiny striped fish jumped a loop in the cup.
“It’s for the taste, really,” the tiger said.
The dark forests around them seemed to be shifting again. The air went solid and colder. The tiger was looking at the mountain range beyond the rainforest when, suddenly, Hari realized that it was not enjoying itself. It was annoyed by something. It was swishing its tail from one side to the other in swift, fast movements. A vision of a rat running through a maze without an exit began to take shape in Hari’s mind – followed closely by another one, of cattle on their last trip, not realizing that they were not returning to the stables. Hari sensed that something was not right.
“Have some tea before it gets cold,” the tiger said to Hari, who was now standing rather uneasily. “Or some fudge?”
“You’re tall and wise and strong and fearsome, and you know I don’t believe in tea,” Hari said respectfully, “I have been imposing my presence and will cease now.”
“Yes, I am and I do,” the tiger said calmly, “but you know it believes in you. Have it your way, then,” it said. “I have bathed and played and talked. I have drunk and eaten. I won’t eat you. Now, I don’t have any need for you and will leave, as you will, too.” The tiger lifted its massive body on all fours and left the road disappearing into the fig forest.
Thick clouds were hanging low over the nightly forests and mountains. Something dark and foreboding hung in the air. A mountain lion was smothering the life out of a shark. It had its teeth tightly clenched around the throat of its prey, which was still breathing. The air coming out of the lion’s nostrils emerged in thick, heavy clouds of burning ice.
The snow was deeper here, when Hari realized he was witnessing the worrisome scene from next to a banyan. The shark had been strong and looked as if it had been much more so than the mountain cat that was half standing above it. Its striped body lay motionless in the white snow, surrounded by a pool of red. Hari wondered how it had got there.
“I … should have stuck to my lobster … diet,” it said, breathing heavily.
The puma’s body was still tense, from the ears to the tip of its tail. Through its teeth it said, “I have two cubs to feed.” Then she dropped the fish and began licking blood off her whisker pads, before cleaning the rest of her face and ears.
“How did it come to this?” Hari asked in concern. With each breath, the cold was creeping inside his body like a poison, making its way to the vital organs.
“You know how it is,” she explained. “The fish know the rules. This one was old and sick and alone; and then it was in the wrong place at the right time.” She paused. “I have two cubs to feed and winter … is cold.
“Don’t be sad,” she went on, noticing the worried look on Hari’s face, “It could have been you.”
“Erm, how’s that?” Hari said surprised.
“Either way,” the puma replied, “You could have been the prey or the hunter, a lamb or a tiger. But you’re just there.” The statement appeared to be quite true.
When the cougar was finished washing, she took a set of cards out of the small belt pocket she had attached around her neck and spread a handful of cards right side up on the cave’s floor. It was actually more of a den, Hari thought, set in the ground between the roots of a tall banyan fig tree which resembled a giant Kali bent forward and resting on her multiple hands and feet with the crown growing out of its back. The large oval leaves provided protection from rain, sun, and snow.
“Do you play?”
“Sometimes,” Hari said. “Which game?”
“It doesn’t matter. You’ll get it when it comes to you.”
She stared at the cards for a while, as if she were trying to remember something. After a moment, she suddenly hit one card with an owl on it. Hari had not been paying attention to what she was doing and, instead, was looking at the walls around. There were a dozen skulls of presumably great but unfortunate – Hari thought – hunters and some family portraits. Four, maybe five generations, he thought.
“What does it mean?”
“It means that I’m allergic to feathers,” she said. “We never aspired to be like them. Our folk like the sun but we prefer the night.”
In the back of the cave, two cubs were playing with what appeared to be fish bones and only made themselves noticed by the occasional growl and squeaking noises they were making. Noticing that Hari was looking in their direction, she said, “The big one’s Tree and the girl’s name is Leaves.” They were now rolling in a bulk of fur and groans towards the entrance. “She’s smaller than him and he’s stronger, for now. But next summer, she’ll be as strong as him and have enough strength to give anyone a piece of her mind, if she has to.”
Hari mused at the names and asked, “How does one decide on names like that?”
Looking at her cards again, she answered absently, “Well, he came first, so he’s Tree. She came after him, so she’s Leaves.”
The cat’s logic returned Hari’s attention back to her and he was now listening closely. As it seemed a logical question, he asked, “What’s the father’s name?”
“Root,” she said drily. “He’s gone.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Hari said and continued without any real pause, “And what’s your name, then?”
The cubs chased each other through the den’s entrance into the open. Ground said to Hari, “Go look after them for me, will you?”
Hari nodded at her in silence and went after the cubs. Just before he left the den, he looked back and said, “Maybe you can tell me more about your family, later”, before he stepped out into the light.
Outside, the air was warmer. The snow was gone and the tide was low. Small waves stroked lazily over the clear, light yellow sand. When Hari came through the giant fig trees, it appeared that a catfish lay stranded on the shore.
“You’re obviously a fraud,” Hari said to the catfish.
The marine feline seemed appalled at this remark and flapped its tail in disdain. “And what is your business?”
“How can such a confused creature exist that is a cat and a fish at the same time? Cats eat fish.”
“That’s true,” nodded the catfish. It was lying with its head and most of its body on the wet sand. The lower part and the tail were regularly covered with sea water by every other wave.
The catfish continued, “But you really shouldn’t take advantage of people not knowing the first thing about cat-fishing since 1980. And if you think of it, a cat can be many things; a furry, carnivorous mammal of course, but also a person – a man or a woman – and even someone who’s really into Jazz. In the past, they were essential for making musical instruments and I’ve heard accounts of people using cats at sea – for no good reason, if you ask me. Some have a huge number of tails but you’d better stay away from them.”
Hari pondered over this information, visibly amazed, while the catfish continued his lecture in a slightly condescending tone.
“It’s really the same for fish, you must know. Apart from aquatic vertebrates, they can be a military device or a person, too, although I don’t know whether they’re male or female.” The catfish paused, seemingly lost in thoughts. “There even was one called Wanda, I think…”
At this, Hari realized that this was all going too far for his taste and decided to gear back to questions he could expect an understandable answer to – such as: “Why, what happened?” he asked.
“Well, fishing became an Olympic discipline in the Feline Games that year.”
Hari sat down where the sand was dry, waiting for more. Seeing that he was not going anywhere, the catfish continued.
“Cats and fish have been friends since the dawn of time, you must know. We invented the games together because we shared common interests.”
Hari’s astonishment grew with each passing second.
“There were a lot of things our families have learned from each other. Fish have taught cats how to fish. We are quick under water and hard to capture but we don’t like to be in the open air. Cats are also quick and like fish but they don’t like to be wet. They like the play, and so do we. Most of the time, the fish wins and doesn’t get caught and the cat loses and leaves without its prey. And sometimes the cat catches a fish because it’s gotten pretty good at being observant, patient and quick. On the other hand, cats have taught us fish how to become better at not getting caught. Even if it’s part of the game, we don’t like to be caught. Our friendship lasted many ages and countless romantic alliances emerged from that friendship, too.”
“Are you trying to tell me that…” Hari began.
“Yes, dear friend,” the catfish replied. “There are quite a lot of things both families have in common. We all like small game, for instance. And thread. Most of us despise hooks, though, and have very little affinity with the rain.”
“I don’t like the rain,” Hari said, as if it were the answer to a question that had not been asked – which the catfish ignored.
“However,” it continued, “It is the offspring of one of these romantic alliances who actually decided that the ways of cats and fish were no longer compatible, that each family would have to lead their separate lives and not be friends with the other again. Bodhi the Fell, he was called. He was the last true catfish and had barbels like a dragon’s. Little do they know to whom they owe their glamour.”
“You mean there was also something with dragons?” Hari was in awe.
“Lizards, yes, but that was before cats. It’s a completely different story altogether.”
“And then, what happened?” Hari asked expectantly, all ears.
“Why, then cats went into the forest,” the catfish said. “And fish went into the sea. Since that time cats hardly ever come near the water and we fish don’t often leave it anymore.”
“So what happened to Bodhi?” Hari wanted to know. “Why didn’t anybody tell him that fish and cats might just as well keep living together, as they had before?”
“He disappeared. No one knows where or why. Some say he went to the moon. You must have heard of the fish in the moon. But the cats tell a story of a tree, a holy fig tree that Bodhi met one day while he was tending to his barbels. They say the tree spoke to him and that because of what it told him he decided to separate the two families forever. It’s a holy tree for cats. It has very little soil around its roots and pieces of broken coral near the trunk and it talks to anyone who is close enough to reach and falls asleep near it.
When Hari woke up, he yawned thoroughly. His limbs felt numb and he thought, “I should stretch”, and stretched himself as thoroughly as he had yawned. Feeling nimble again, he looked around the living room. He was still standing in the middle of the carpet. A cat was sleeping on the chair under the desk. Opposite the desk, a corydoras catfish with long barbels on each side of the mouth was swimming comfortably in an aquarium.
“I should probably check out the couch, see if my spot still smells nice,” and Hari went onto the couch, sat down for a moment and looked around the room from this perspective. The moon was shining through the window on a small, silent fig tree with drop-shaped leaves.
“I mean, what’s the point,” Hari said to himself, “in being a predator if one does not hunt? Humans hunt, chase and prey upon other species and even each other. But they also experience empathy. Why should they know both – hunting and empathy? Nor do they seem to be able to distinguish when to use which, like, appropriately: Hunt when you’re hungry and empathize when you’re not. It must be too confusing to do both – maybe it creates a sort of unfinished symmetry in their minds. Nobody needs both. Apparently they don’t hunt or eat the cat on the chair or the fish. Been trying for ages to figure them out, but all I could find is that they must be a pretty backward species of cat.”
With these thoughts on his mind, Hari hopped off the couch and went to inquire if the weather was still broken – when the water comes from above and not from a bowl, a glass, a puddle, an old plant pot or a pond. It had been quite broken, earlier that night. He tiptoed through the dark corridor towards a door that was ajar. In the room, he peered at an open window and listened. The rain had stopped.
As he leapt onto the windowsill, he felt on his face a warm, gentle breeze blowing into the room.
“Now, it’s alright again.”
Satisfied about the rain having stopped, Hari let himself out through the window, the same way he had gotten inside in the first place. Halfway outside, he noticed someone right next to him – but on the other side of the window. Yet Hari could not remember having seen anyone inside the room he had just left. The reflection was staring back at him, fairly intrigued. It was a cat, on its four legs, and shaping a question mark with its tail.