The Parable of the Bereaved Kittens 

Amy Chan
What an ugly cat you are, the child thought, and picking up a stone hurled it at the feline.

The argument had been ongoing since breakfast. That was two hours ago. Enough was enough. Sorry boys, but no means no. She wasn’t going to give them any advance from next week’s pocket money. And certainly not for spending on a copy of Jay-Z’s ‘Big Pimpin’ on vinyl. Or come to that, in any other format either. She swiftly silenced any further argument with a sharp look.
Two pairs of dark eyes glowered back at her.
‘Fine. I’m not doing my homework tonight then.’ one of them declared.
‘Suit yourself. I won’t be the one who’ll be given detention.’ she said and turned to leave the room.
‘Come Sol,’ he nudged his brother, ‘we’re gahhin’ owt.’
‘Pardon? You’re “gahhin owt”?’
‘All right, we’re going out! Happy now?’ 

The door slammed with deafening resentment leaving a bruised resonance that shook through the house. Lest she dare forget that this respite from the tedious battle-of-the-day with her children was just a temporary one. Silence but no peace. Feeling like a deflated balloon, she flopped onto the bed. The cat jumped up beside her, purring in anticipation of some physical attention. She let out a sigh and absentmindedly caressed the warm silky bundle. Some days she even forgot which battle she was supposed to be fighting, there seemed to be so many on the boys’ agenda. She reached over for a cigarette. ‘Sorry puss.’ she said, exhaling.

As she lay there, she remembered the billposter she’d seen the other morning. Against the greasy, blackened brick walls, egg-streaked with dried up bird droppings and above which rumbled the North London Line. Three words bellowing out in a blast of pink - ‘MIRACLES HEALING FAITH’. Maybe that was what was needed, a miracle to heal her faith with. Even if hers had only ever been patchily formed in the first place. Two summers ago she had finally agreed to formally adopt her mother’s religion. Partly to give her aged mum one less thing to worry about, and partly because she felt the time was right, or at least as right as it ever would be.

The philosophies behind the Tao were abstract and complex but when religion had purloined them, FAITH had usurped much of the abstraction. Plus adding a peppering of superstitious ritual and alchemy. She didn’t have a lot of time for that side of things but what she had held onto was the basic doctrine that good and evil deeds are duly repaid. For her that had to be so, otherwise life was a fraction too random, without purpose, lacking an accepted way forward. However, doubts still lurked in her mind about all your debts being carried over in reincarnations. Sounds more like Recrimination, she thought wryly.

As she watched the cigarette smoke dissipate into the air, the story of the kittens drifted into her mind. Was it a tale her mother had ferreted out from the temple priestess especially for her, or just coincidence? She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.  It was the day after she’d gone to the temple with her mother to take the Tao. They were sitting in the kitchen preparing vegetables and chatting idly.
‘Ah-Leen, there’s a story I want to tell you.’ her mother said. ‘We heard it at the temple last Sunday. I think you should hear it too.’
She would always come to remember this as The Parable of the Bereaved Kittens

It all happened a long time ago, in a village in China. A young woman, recently widowed, had sunk to the depths of despair. Her husband’s death had been a sudden one, abandoning her to poverty and isolation, without any living family to offer her support. She had two sons who treated her cruelly as if they were not of kin. Standing at the monastery gates, the woman started wailing and beating her chest. ‘Why? Why? Why has my life fallen into this pitiful state?’

A priest hearing the disturbance, hurried over and eventually managed to becalm her. He knew of her situation and said that if it would help to mitigate her suffering, he could answer her question.
‘In your previous life, you were the only child of a rich widower from Guangdong province. Your mother had died in childbirth so you were especially precious to your father. A child of bewitching beauty but possessing a heart marred by petulance and a cruel arrogance. One day, after a row with your amah, you were feeling cross and bored. Looking down from your balcony, you espied a stray cat with her two kittens. The poor creature looked starved, its ribs protruded through the patchy and matted fur. What an ugly cat you are, the child thought, and picking up a stone hurled it at the feline. Just then, hearing your father arrive home, you jumped up and ran to greet him, in the hope that he had brought you something back which would sweeten your sour mood. You forgot all about the cats. You were never to know that your act of impulsive cruelty had left those kittens orphaned.”
The woman started to cry again but softly now. A crying from within, one that would cleanse and lighten her heart with understanding.
The priest continued. ‘You departed from that life childless but you had a debt to repay. Those two kittens whose mother’s life you so viciously snatched away, have returned to you in this life as your children, to right the wrong. It is also your chance to do the same.’
Her mother paused for a moment.
‘What happened to them all then?’
‘The priest told her to have compassion for her sons and to treat them with understanding and patience. This she did and as the years passed, their relationships with each other improved and her sons looked after her well into her old age.’

Her mother glanced over at her and smiled. The story had sent a frisson through her veins but strangely, it had also been a comforting tale. As she leant over to stub out her cigarette, she saw the small black and white photograph lying on the floor. It must have slipped off the mirror frame. Three seafaring comrades stand relaxed by the deck rail. Arms resting on one another’s shoulders. Broad smiles glinting in the afternoon sun. Behind them, like sentries on watch, three white funnels with cavernous mouths agape. Calling voicelessly into the salty air. And far beyond lies the horizon. A constant and perfect horizontal extending across the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. The photograph was taken in 1940. And the figure in the middle was her father, just 27 years of age.
After many years at sea, he had decided to settle over here, securing himself a more sedentary job on dry land with the Blue Funnel Line shipping company. His first wife had been lost to the ravages of war. He had been at sea when she died and had failed to overcome the devastation of his loss in order to return home. Not even to see his ‘number-one’ son. He went back only once, years later, to seek a new wife and to collect the son he had never set eyes upon, a stranger of 13 years. He brought them both over from Hong Kong, promising them a secure future in the western world. And a big house with an apple tree in the garden.

After a gruelling month’s voyage by cargo ship they finally docked on the River Clyde, with wife and son feeling bewildered and unsure. But he did fulfil his promise to them, 10 months on. In time for the arrival of their baby daughter. Undoubtedly welcomed, but born without that sense of belonging, a native of no land. But here she had remained. And on a bad day, still feeling like the stranger in a strange land.  

She had her own children now, whose place of birth did not match their diffused racial identities either. But they seemed to be no strangers to their domicile. They had slotted themselves into their environs and culture as smoothly as an ice-lolly slipping in between one’s lips. Sometimes she liked to imagine that their self-assurance came from the ancestors of not just one, but two ancient civilisations. In the less romantic light of reality, they were just kids. So confident of their looks, intelligence and barefaced charm. So unlike herself at their age. Well, she thought, at least some things had turned out better.

The three of them shared a constantly shifting relationship, like unanchored magnets all vying for domination. Which obviously wasn’t right. She, the parent, was meant to be at the helm, any fool knew that. Mind you, she thought, weren’t Taoists supposed to endeavour to
“…Just surrender to the cycle of things,
Give yourself to the waves of the Great Change,
Neither happy nor yet afraid…” ?

Well maybe not in the case of raising kids into the 21st century. Just going with the flow didn’t appear to be the appropriate tenet to adopt. Doing nothing resulted in a precipitous loss of control, much like an avalanche gathering horrifying momentum.
Right, no more ‘supine cogitation’, she told herself firmly, otherwise she’d be headed straight down the one-way street to the Slough of Despond. She gave a shudder, swung her legs off the bed and got up rather abruptly. The poor cat, who’d been having a pleasurable snooze on her chest, received a very ungracious awakening.
Oh shit, she thought, I can see it coming now. ‘In my next life – you’ll be back as a baby who suffers from chronic insomnia.’ she muttered, shaking her head at the cat. 
© Amy Chan 2001

Amy is a library assistant at a University in London and amongst other things, ex-musician, interior decorator... Born in Glasgow, she has a Masters degree in Philosophy and Psychlogy and she started writing short pieces about a year ago. She aims to document her life in form of 'faction'.

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