Agatha the black and white tabby blinked slowly, and shrunk down into herself as the orange and white Michizane suddenly stood on his hind legs and grew four feet taller. His white paws curled into mittens with opposable pads, and he pushed a discreet series of buttons next to the metal door frame.
The glass door whispered open. Michizane slipped back into tom-cat shape, his tail proudly flipping in semi-circles, and turned to Agatha, who tried to collapse even further into the tiniest ball possible. “Miss Agatha, you understand English, yes?”
She tried to say “Mee-ow,” or even “Mee-eww,” but instead it came out, “Of course I do.” She leaped to standing, shocked at her own voice.
Michizane laughed at her in a very human way as he lowered his head and rubbed his whiskers against the side of the heavy glass door. “Come on in. This is the American Wing, the workers’ entrance. I’ll explain everything in a little while.”
Agatha looked behind her, where the cruelty and hunger and terror of the midnight streets of New York waited, and before her, using brilliant eyes to detect the subtle beauties and warmth in the low lights ahead. She darted inside.
Michizane waved a paw, and the door closed behind them again. Agatha saw variegated creamy shades of marble and huge columns. She passed below several huge, stony and sinewy human figures, and one golden form of a naked human female high above her, shooting an arrow. Michizane said, “That’s a statue of Diana, by Saint-Gaudens.”
Michizane padded with purpose, toward a wall under a gallery studded with Tiffany windows, and Agatha followed. They darted through a shadowy hole.
They wove in and out of rooms, bounded up and down stairways, all the while Michizane called out the sights of interest, “‘Cat’ by Giacometti,” and, “A Cat Stealing a Fish by Giuseppe Recco,” and of course, “Goya’s cat.” How silly and empty the humans look in that picture, Agatha thought, while the cat has all the character.
They had arrived on the second floor of the main building and were sprinting and slipping through galleries, when Agatha suddenly paused and reflexively moved her weight to her hind legs, sitting up with her front paws crossed before her as she gazed on the serene basalt faces that confronted her
“This is ancient Egypt,” Michizane said in a low purring voice.”Those are statues of Bastet, our mother. And that is a picture of a Miu as Ra, the God of the Sun, slaying evil.” Once more his feline form flowed upward, rising, rising, until he stood five foot tall, his rear paws almost feet, his tail trailing on the shiny floor. His velvety nose was lower, his forehead higher and broader — to Agatha he looked almost like a man. His fore paws also crossed in front of him. “There are many wonderful cats in these rooms, from old Egypt and other ancient empires, and we will return. But now, we have other business.”
As they moved towards the “Asian Wing” on the second floor, Michizane kept an upright stance. Agatha, still a petite tuxedo tabby, padded behind him. Suddenly there came the unmistakable echo of shoes — sharp, official human footsteps.
Michizane dropped to the floor, zipping back to tom-cat so fast that the air crackled. He started washing his private parts, sticking up a back leg, looking like a marmalade ham. Agatha saw a human male figure turn a corner into the hallway, and she lay on her side, taking her cue from Michizane, pretending to lick a paw and wash her face innocently. A flashlight beam caught the two of them squarely. “You don’t fool me,” the guard said. He approached the two cats, angry but afraid to do anything to annoy them. “I know who you are.”
Michizane continued washing a back leg, looking up at Mr. Miyagi from under his lids. The guard grunted with frustration, paused, lowered the light, and continued walking back the way the two cats had come. Michizane stopped his grooming and sprang to all four feet. “That was Sensei Miyagi. He knows who we are. But he’s afraid of us, too, because he can’t see beyond the hateful legends and false stories told about us in the home country.” He began trotting toward the “Asian Wing” once again.
Agatha leapt to keep up with him, and repeated, “Us?”
They slipped quickly through a dark entrance, into a low ante-room, and suddenly emerged into a glowing chamber filled with others. Agatha sat and lowered her head and flattened her ears. Others.
“Monsieur Botte, Le Chat Botte,” said a voice as two of the bipedal felines approached Michizane. Soon the entire group was crowding him, touching paws, touching his nose, rubbing against his shoulders, his back, his chest. They seemed all in various stages of humanity, or was it cat-ness. Some were two feet tall, others four or five. Some had toes, and others walked on large flattened rear paws and claws. Some were naked, others were wearing suits, dresses, or robes. A few wore only belts and shoes. A couple actually looked so much like people that Agatha found herself sniffing frantically to try and tell the difference.
The towered over Agatha, who remained close to the entrance.
Michizane was given a pair of exquisite thigh-high boots, their tops trimmed in red and gold, and a fine leather belt with sword, and a young lady-cat brought him his wide-brimmed hat that sported a dashing and voluminous feather waving from one side. He turned to Agatha and waved an arm, his paws shimmering and glowing and transforming back and forth between pads and fingers. “Attention, brothers and sisters, I found her. I found Ayako. She doesn’t remember, she goes by the name Agatha now.”
Agatha looked around, thought about escaping once again. “Are you referring to me,” she sputtered, still not used to speaking in English.
They all looked down at her with kindess. Michizane bent towards her and said, “Arise Agatha, arise. Join your brethren. We have lived many lives — nine is supposed to be the limit, but who is counting. We left the old country years and years ago. I lived in France for centuries and came to be known as the cat in the boots. Many of us found ourselves in the Americas. But sometimes tragedies strike, and we revert to cat, and for some reason we can’t remember who we really are. You, my dear ….” He reached out a hand-paw, “… Your name in the old country was Ayako. You have suffered much in New York. I have been looking for you for ages.”
Agatha knew she shouldn’t be thinking, reflecting, or have any kind of self-awareness. She certainly shouldn’t have been able to speak like a human on command. I am a cat, yes, I am nothing but a little tabby cat, she insisted to herself, as all the figures in the room formed a circle around her. Her body felt funny, fuzzy, like being shocked with static electricity. She felt like her skin was coming off. She felt like letting go. She shut her eyes and screamed, a heart-wrenching human sound. She threw back her head and everything was moving, pouring, shifting, expanding.
She opened her eyes. A dozen starry stares met hers, face to face. She looked down at her curvy figure, her long legs, covered with black and white fur, that ended in foot-shaped paws with pink claws. Michizane took her face between his hands and kissed her pink nose. “Welcome back, my dearest Ayako.”
She furrowed her whiskered brows, turned her golden glance on one after another of her comrades as they oozed closer and closer to the purely human. “I …. I …. ” she stuttered.
“We are bake-neko,” Michizane said softly and sibilantly. “We have lived for thousands of years, ever since the first of our kind tamed themselves for people ten millennia ago. Rudyard Kipling wasn’t half wrong, when he wrote the story ‘The Cat Who Walked by Himself.’ We came before memory to our home country, called Japan today, probably from Egypt, but no one of us alive can recall. In Japan, during samurai days, we achieved a hateful reputation, because of the dark deeds of a few. It was said we would take the shape of our masters or mistresses in order to kill them and take their place. It was said we could create fires and ghostly globes and pull all manner of tricks to steal the life force, or drink the blood of people who we had chosen to love. Nonsense, of course.
“Over the centuries as we moved around the world, we inspired legends and stories, especially in relation to our loyalty to the humans we chose for ourselves. We have a deal with people, we made this deal with the earliest mothers of the Nile lands. And it is our purpose to keep our side of the bargain, even if too often people forget theirs.”
Agatha stretched her arms high over her head and looked up, watching her own paws glimmer and shiver between pads and fingers. “I don’t … I don’t know what happened ….”
Michizane gently stroked the top of her head. “Maybe that is for the best. Welcome back, my love. This museum is our home in America because it gives us great comfort, all the antiquities and remnants of times long gone and homes left in the distant past. And because of Mr. Miyagi, of course, who both fears us and admires us, and has kept our secret.”
“I don’t know any ‘Ayako’,” Agatha said. “I’m sorry. The last name I was given was Agatha.”
All those present purred and mowwed and me-oooed and spoke words of acceptance and permission, and Agatha felt safe. She was still confused and filled with wonder, but she could smell that they cared for her. Especially Michizane — I wonder who he was to me, she thought, as she accepted his embrace and lowered her chin into the musty, silky orange-red fur of his shoulder.