Monday, November 5, 2012

Tama, the Original Japanese Lucky Cat

The next afternoon Clem carefully typed up what she had witnessed during her visit with Mohammed and Muezza.  She loved the iPad’s large virtual keys, as they made typing merely a chore rather than an impossibility.  She finished, smiling a satisfied smile.  Her writing style might not be as good as the yarn lady’s but she also didn’t have someone who could proofread her work.  And anyway, it’s not like she was going to publish this like the yarn lady did with her blog and then the books when she’d written a whole story.  She saved the file and looked at her list for the next topic to research.  One of the first ones she had found was the story of the Japanese Lucky Cat, or Maneki Neko.  They were painted decorative cats with symbols painted on their chests and one paw held up in the air as though the cat was waving at someone.  People put them in Chinese restaurants (even though this happened in Japan) because it was supposed to make the restaurant prosperous.  Clem guessed that meant a lot of customers who bought lots of food. 
Clem read the brief story.  A cat who lived at the temple had raised her paw to a feudal lord as he walked by.  The lord, who was surprised to be greeted by a cat walked over to the temple entrance and out of nowhere a bolt of lightning struck the tree next to where he had been walking and it caught fire, falling to the ground.  If the lord hadn’t come over to the temple entrance he would have been killed.  The website didn’t explain how that related to prosperity.  Maybe he’d made a donation to the temple in thanks for it being there for him to walk into the entrance and not get hit by lightning or the tree. 
So, time for more research.  This time she went directly to the site that had the cat with hypnotic eyes and the words she couldn’t read at first, since she’d bookmarked the website.  The yarn lady never used the bookmark feature on the iPad, so she felt safe saving bookmarks.  Instead of the hypnotic eyes cat, today the website had an animation of a Japanese Lucky Cat that had golden coins pouring out of its upraised paw in an unending stream.  Clem stared at the coins as they poured out of Maneki Neko’s hands…

…and found herself inside an old rickety building that looked like nothing she had ever seen, even on television or the Internet.  The walls were whitewashed with dark brown wood posts and beams along with what looked like woven wood sliding panels where she would expect doors and windows.  The floor was made of or covered with mats that looked to be woven of grass.  She was sitting in the corner on one of those mats and she tried to dig her claws into it to see if it was grass, and also to see if she could actually effect the place she found herself in.  She could feel her claws digging into the mat, but as she pulled them out, the mat looked exactly the same.  That would have not been the case if she were really there and clawing the mat.  This must be another dream, Clem thought, and set out to explore.  
Since she had been reading about the Japanese Lucky Cat, the first thing she looked for was a white cat with its paw held up in the air sitting in a doorway.  Not only was there no cat, there was no doorway that she could find.  The light in the room came from a place where one of the woven panels had been slid back partway, and it was a bit high up for her to jump.  Clem started clawing at the panels, in hope that someone would hear her, or maybe she could claw through the panel.  She’d already forgotten about her experience with the floor mats, and there was neither sound nor movement produced by her claws.  Clem was about to leap through the slit in the kind-of window when the door panel slid back and an ancient man entered.  He was simply dressed in a dark grey kimono with a faded yellow or orange kashaya robe draped over one shoulder and wrapped around his body.  He was speaking what she assumed to be Japanese, but after a moment or two she began to understand what he was saying. 
“So cold, so cold.  I would like some tea, but I have no tea and no money to buy tea.  All I have are my duties here and you, Tama.”  The priest looked around and realized he was talking to himself.  “Tama, Tama!  Where are you?  Aiee, you leave me talking to myself, you silly cat.”  The old man shook his head, shuffled off into the corner furthest from any breeze that might blow in the doorway and sank to the floor, putting his head in his hands.  He began to cry silently, but a few sobs escaped as his shoulders shook with sadness and cold. 
A grey cat with a few orange patches that almost made the cat look like he was wearing his own kashaya jumped down into the room from the window slit.  Landing lightly he ran over to the old priest and nuzzled his arms until he could worm his way onto the old man’s lap.  Tama purred loudly and rocked slowly in the priest’s lap until his arms wound around the cat in an embrace.  “Oh Tama, I have no money to buy my tea and if I were not given rice by the neighbors I would starve.  Any money I have is spent to buy bits of fish or fowl for you.  I have cared for you since you were a tiny kitten, and I a much younger man.  Can you now care for me?  Oh, help me, Tama, or I will have to give you up, and that will be my death, as I will die from sorrow.”   
Tama sat in the old man’s embrace until his sobs slowed and his arms loosened from around the cat.  “My good Tama, go and catch yourself a mouse, as I cannot even buy you a bait fish today.  Take care of yourself, my dear friend.  I will be fine.”  The cat stood up in his lap and carefully washed away the tears from his master’s face, nuzzled him a few times and carefully climbed out of his lap.  Tama walked out of the room and Clementine followed.  He stopped just outside the doorway and moved to the side.  Clem followed and scooted past as she wanted to see the outside of the building.  She figured it had to be the Japanese temple of the story, and she wanted to know what a temple looked like. 
After completing a circuit of the outside of the temple she decided that if this wasn’t a run-down specimen of a temple then Japanese building or architecture left a lot to be desired.  The peaked roof was missing tiles, and several of the beams holding up the roof where it extended out from the walls were rotting away.  The floor of the wrap-around porch was soft in spots and in the back there was a section where the floor boards had broken through and not been replaced or repaired.  If she was a Buddhist, she probably wouldn’t want to visit this temple, so it was likely the neighbors weren’t giving money gifts for its maintenance, and probably only fed the poor old priest out of pity. 
Tama, the priest’s cat was sitting on the porch looking sadly out at the neighborhood.  He began to speak softly to himself.  “Oh master, I wish I could do something to help you.  When you were young the state started telling you what priests could do and not do, and stopped any government support of our little temple.  When I was a kitten and there were more Buddhists in this area, you and I both ate well.  But now our neighbors have little money and what they have they do not give to a temple that is in such bad repair.  Only the poorest even come to you for funerals – they prefer to visit the fancier temples in better parts of Edo.”  The cat shook his head and began to groom and straighten out his rumpled and tear stained fur.  He started with his hind quarters and tail and worked his way up his back as a storm neared.  Clem sensed that the part of the story she had read might soon occur, so she crouched on the opposite side of the open doorway and scanned the street for the feudal lord.  She guessed someone like that would be dressed in very fancy clothing and maybe even carry a sword, since after all this was Japan. 
A middle-aged man dressed in a plain black kimono was hurrying up the street, obviously anxious to get to shelter before the storm broke.  As he came nearer the rain began and large heavy raindrops pattered down.  The man stopped under a tree across the road.  Clem looked at him, and figured that this was no feudal lord.  He looked like the Japanese equivalent of a business man.  Still, she looked over at Tama, and noticed that he was licking his paws and rubbing them along the side of his head to clean and arrange his fur.  The man noticed Tama’s upraised paw and stared.  Again Tama licked his paw and rubbed along his face.  The man (who had obviously never watched a cat bathe before) hurried across the road in the rain and stepped up onto the porch and ducked into the doorway to keep dry.  At the moment he entered the temple a bolt of lightning hit the tree he had been standing under and it burst into flame.  Within seconds, burning branches rained down where the man had been standing. 
The man stared at the burning tree and then at the cat, who was frozen in surprise, paw held to the side of his head and very slowly bowed to the cat.  “I owe you a great debt, sir cat.  Your beckoning me to come over to this temple saved my life.  Please…take me to your master.”  He stepped to the side of the doorway, and swept his hand to invite the cat inside. 
This was an opportunity Tama realized was not to be missed.  The man’s kimono, although simple was made of fine cloth and his voice betrayed an educated accent.  Tama stood and regally walked inside, announcing his presence with a loud meow.  He walked towards the old priest, continuing to meow loudly.  It was dark inside the temple, as the clouds had limited what light was available to come in from outside.  Tama could see his master huddled in the corner, but probably the visitor could not. 
“Tama, is that you calling me?  Have you gotten wet from the rain?  Well, if you have, come here.  I may not have any food to give you, but I do have a cloth to dry you off with.”  The priest laughed, “It is my second-best kashaya, which means it is a rag rather than an almost rag.”  He reached out with his hands swathed in the ragged bit of robe and caught Tama in his arms.  “Eh, you seem dry to me.  Please do not tell me your hunting was unsuccessful, or we may both go hungry tonight.”  He cuddled the cat close to him, seeking reassurance from its presence.
The visitor cleared his throat and spoke.  “Excuse me, kind sir.  Are you the owner of this grey cat with the orange spots?  Your noble cat invited me into your temple and by doing so saved my life.  The tree I was standing beneath was hit by a bolt of lightning and I would have been killed by either the lightning or the burning branches that fell from the tree.  I owe the owner of this cat a great debt and I am a man who pays his debts.” 
The priest struggled to his feet, also recognizing a voice belonging to a man who was well-educated and sure of his own authority and importance.  “Kind sir, please allow me to light a lamp for you.  I usually sit in the dark, as it helps my meditations….”  The old man’s voice faltered.
“And I wager because you can’t afford lamp oil if you are unsure from where the evening meal for you and your cat is to come.  Light the lamp and let me see you.  Neither you nor your cat will ever lack for food or light again.”  As the priest lit the lamp he recognized the man standing in front of him as one of the daimyo of the Kanto region.  He nearly dropped the lamp in his haste to bow to the daimyo. 
“No, please do not bow to me.  If your cat had not summoned me, I would not be alive at this moment.  Let me and my people serve you and your fine cat.”  The daimyo walked to the doorway and was met by several anxious men who gathered around him all talking at once.  Clementine was able to determine from their conversation that they were servants of the daimyo (who did turn out to be a Japanese feudal lord) who had been aware that their master had left the house without them.  When they saw the storm approaching they rushed to follow him to his destination, carrying a jacket and umbrellas for him.  He dismissed their questions with a wave and gave them instructions to bring hot food, lights, warm clothing and a full set of bedding to the temple. 
Within a half-hour the old priest was dressed in warm clothing in a well-lit room eating the best meal he had eaten in years.  The daimyo walked around the temple and discreetly poked at rotting wood or damaged wood panels while the priest ate.  When the priest lay down the bowl with a satisfied sigh the lord dropped to sit on the mat next to the priest.  “As a daimyo of one of the largest han in Kanto, I have participated in many votes regarding the support of the Buddhist temples and voted to cut money for their maintenance.  Obviously although I saw no need to support those who teach the wheel of life, the wheel of life saw fit to allow my continued existence today.”  He laughed and shook his head.  “Although I cannot restore the government money that has been taken from you, I will pledge my personal support to repair this temple and provide ongoing support for you and your cat, who saved my life.”   He stood up and bowed down to Tama three times to show his appreciation.  Clementine, who had come inside and watched all of this, found her eyes misting over with tears at the beauty of this moment. 

When her eyes cleared, Clem found herself back on the yarn lady’s bed, sprawled across the iPad.  It was no longer on, but that made sense.  She’d been asleep…or gone…for quite a while.  She quickly turned it on and cleared all of the browser windows she’d opened and then sat and thought about what she’d observed.  The cat, Tama, had brought prosperity to her owner’s temple and it was because he’d had his paw up in the air as he washed his head.  Why hadn’t she thought of that?  No matter, and she began to type her observations before she forgot any of them…and before the yarn lady came home. 

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