I started going up there the week after your funeral. The first days since you left, your sisters kept an eye on me at all times. I guess they feared I was going to kill myself and they were right on that one. Life without you made no sense at all and all I could think about was going after you. That day, something happened to one of your nieces (nothing serious, don't worry about it) and your sisters had to go. They insisted in taking me with them but I assured them I was all right. I suppose they believed me. In fact, I didn't feel just all right, I was euphoric. I would be able to reunite with you once and for all. I'd already chosen the way. I was just waiting for the right moment and they'd just given it to me. Your older sister was not so sure about the whole business and I noticed her doubt before they left me for good. I waited until the cars went down the entire driveway. When the engines sounds were barely a distant buzz, I started to get ready.
Pills and weapons were almost automatically discarded. There was only one plausible way to go: Fly like a bird. Fly the hell away from this ingrate earth. In life, we are bound by gravity. I was about to defy that old bitch before I die. Remember the mountains we could see from the backyard? We always wanted to go up there and discover the landscape beyond. But somehow there was always something in the way. That day, I decided I was going to climb one of those peaks no matter what. I would go up, take a look at the (I was sure it was going to be) beautiful scenery and then I would jump in search of my true and only love. But somehow I didn't jump. Through that whole week I hadn't thought of anything other than doing it and while I was climbing, my heart pounded with excitement just imagining how close I was. I wasn't scared in the very least. If anything, I was impatient. In my head there wasn't room for anything else. However, something happened that day, up there. Something happened, and from then on, I never thought about killing myself again.
Half way up, I realized something. I hadn't completely lost the will to live. That wasn't the reason why I wanted to put an end to everything. Right now, you must be very angry about the whole suicide thing, but you have to understand: I missed you so much. Just a few days without you seemed like damn eternity. You understand, right? Can you forgive me, hon?
No, I hadn't lost the will to live. I suppose that's why I climbed so eagerly. I went up and up in good big strides showing strength I sure didn't remember having. Our house got smaller and smaller in the distance and the valley showed itself little by little. You can't possibly imagine the amount of magical corners you could spot from there, just a few miles around our place. Corners we never got a chance to turn. In that moment, I thought that if we could make it all the way back from the other side, maybe we could visit them together.
In the mountainside, at first, I found myself surrounded by a thick forest of small trees. I walked and walked and walked, but it seemed like I was never going to see the sky again. Then, little by little, it began to clear, leaving the bare, stolid rocks with no place to hide. The worse part was about to begin. The slope got steeper by the minute. I wasn't wearing any kind of special footwear and some of the stones made my ankles bend in all sorts of unpleasant ways. Every now and then, some pebbles got inside of my tennis shoes. My answer to all that: Go faster.
It took me five hours to get to the top. A healthy person should have needed at least eight hours to get there. But that day, I was in a fever, possessed by something I haven't yet come to fully comprehend. When I finally reached the peak and took a look at the other side, the first thing I thought was that I was hallucinating due to lack of oxygen.
At the other side there wasn't a precipice or a gorge. There wasn't even a slope like the one I had just climbed. What extended before my eyes was a valley above the clouds. Whatever direction you looked, no matter how much you strained, there was no way to distinguish its limits. That was partly because of the yellow mist that surrounded everything, but mostly because the place was huge. I mean really really huge. My brain said that it just wasn't possible; a valley of that size couldn't possibly fit there. My senses, though, disagreed with a (close to) painful vehemence. They seemed to be saying: You haven't seen anything so real in your entire life, my dear friend.
I'm not sure how long I was there, deciding if I was dreaming or not, but eventually, something must have convinced me because I started to walk towards the valley. I took a narrow path full of gravel that descended briskly in a straight line. Gradually, the terrain began to get flat. Groups of undergrowth were all over the place. I'd never seen that kind of vegetation before. I suppose that in any other place you could call them bad weeds. But, up there, they were something completely different. They all belonged to the same species as far as I could tell, but their colors changed from pale green to a ridiculously lurid purple. The overall image was spectacular. It felt as though I was listening to a symphony and the director spanked me with the baton from time to time, just to remind me how beautiful it was the piece he was conducting. It was a painful experience but the last thing in my mind was getting out of there. In the middle of a spot where the undergrowth was particularly thick, a big rock stood out like an amorphous gigantic sprout. I climbed the rock and looked for a comfortable place to sit. When I found it, I sat and took another look around. I smiled. Then I cried for a while, my mind a spotless blank canvas. When I was done crying, I got up and gave a shout. Then another and another and another until my vocal chords gave up on me. I sat and smiled again. This time there were no tears. I didn't need them anymore. I was sitting there till the sun started to set. Then I got up and retraced my steps toward home. When I was on the slope again, an unbearable guilt filled my entire being. I had forgotten all about what I wanted to do up there on the first place. But even more unbelievable: I had forgotten all about you. It was not the kind of forgetfulness you get during a mental lapse or when you are focusing all your attention on something in particular. I had forgotten all about you, because up there, you didn't exist. Up there, there was only room for the place itself and me. I thought about looking for a nearby cliff, jump out and finish that business. But deep down, I knew I wasn't gonna do it. I just didn't have it in me anymore. Something had moved, something had changed. I still had a couple of things to take care of. While I was thinking about all that stuff, the evening grew darker and darker. The night was really close. I'd never make it back home. The moonlight wouldn't be enough to find my way back.
I took out my cell to call your sisters. The screen said there was no coverage. Following an impulse, I retraced my steps to the rock that had changed my life. I climbed it and looked at my cell again: Six full bars. I called your sisters and told them the less insane story I could come up with. Then, I went down as fast as I could until I reached the end of the forest track where I had told them I'd be waiting for them. Some twenty minutes later I could see the lights of the 4WD.
On the way back, we barely said anything. Later, after dinner, I finally convinced them that I was all right and just needed to be alone for a while. Eventually, they surrendered, but not without putting up some fight.
The next day, I went up there again, and the day following that one, and the day following that other one. Weeks went by and I eventually resumed my duties as a factory worker. Everyday, when I finished my shift, I would go home, fix myself a quick meal and then would throw myself up the mountain. Normally, I took the car half way up to avoid having to go back in the middle of the night. I was always very careful not to get the car too close to the valley. That kind of machine didn't belong there. It was a feeling I cannot put into words, kind of similar to that time when I made you get rid of the green typewriter. Remember how I spent a whole week tormenting you, telling you about the bad vibes that thing gave me? You finally threw it away with that expression of sorrow in your face. Oh honey! You always were so patient with me! In some ways, the mountain is patient too. But there's a difference: Trying to convince her of doing anything outside of her will is an absolute waste of time.
As summer was coming to an end, two of my coworkers developed a strange malady. For a week, at the very least, I would have to do double shifts. The moment I found out, I panicked. For weeks already, I'd been going up there everyday and with this double shift business it would be impossible to make it in time. At first, I was completely unable to focus my attention. I almost got hurt two or three times in a row. Then, little by little, an idea began to take shape in my mind. After all, I was going to go up there. There was really nothing stopping me from doing it. In fact, when I looked inside my heart, I saw that I had no options. I hadn't the slightest bit of freedom left. And I couldn't care less.
When I got home, I gulped a couple of sandwiches and half a pint of orange juice. Then, I took a flashlight, put on a sweater, an anorak, some wool socks I'd bought the week before and those trekking boots you used to loathe. I got in the car and drove as far as I could. Then, I continued by foot. The flashlight was almost useless. The moon was doing a pretty good job that night. I was sitting on the rock in no time. Sometimes I'm tempted to call her my rock. But that wouldn't be fair. The rock belonged to no one other than herself. That night, the landscape was particularly beautiful. Surrounded by darkness, that world seemed a completely different place. Everything was weirder in the most wonderful way you could possibly think of. It was so full of LIFE, in big, capital letters. So, when I saw that cat coming out of the undergrowth I wasn't startled at all.
He was a beautiful animal, about twice as big as your regular domestic cat. He had a distinguished gigantic head and high round ears. His fur was short but incredibly thick, especially on the tail that was constantly moving, drawing hypnotic figures on the night's air. That mysterious fella got close to the rock and climbed her effortlessly until he was less than a foot away from me. Once there, the cat got even closer and started to rub against me and purr. At that moment, a ridiculous thought struck me: I didn't know the cat's name. The animal didn't have a collar with its name on it and there wasn't anyone around to ask them about it. The week before, I had been toying with the idea of learning Japanese. So I decided to call him Mr. Neko. I addressed him in my mind:
Mind if I call you Mr. Neko?
You can call me whatever you want. Any word you use, in my mind it will sound like my true name. You know why?
I shake my head.
Because I know who I am.
I considered the situation. Now I was into climbing mountains on a daily basis and talking to cats in the dark in the middle of nowhere. No doubt, I was losing the little judgment I had left. However, the world had never made as much sense to me as it did right then. Please don't take this the wrong way sugar pie, but it made even more sense than when you were still here.
The cat finished his head rubbing business and now he was resting in my lap, purring like crazy. That furry fella was a weighty son of a bitch but he didn't make me uncomfortable, quite the opposite in fact. I decided to resume the conversation.
I'm not sure if you are aware of this, but when I first came up here, I had the firm purpose of killing myself. My wife passed away recently and I was dying (no pun intended) to be with her again. But when I came up here, everything changed.
No longer want to see your wife?
Of course I want to see her. There's nothing in this world I want more badly than seeing her again. But it'll have to wait a little while. It seems there's still some stuff I have to take care of.
Is that so? Stuff like what?
For the time being: Coming up here every day.
Sounds important. No doubt about it.
'I know', I said, this time out loud.
At the sound of my voice, Mr. Neko turned violently and jumped out of my lap sinking his nails into my thighs. I gave a muffled scream. The cat jumped a second time and off the rock he was. He stood down below for five minutes, glaring at me.
Talking out loud to a cat! Do you want people to think you are crazy? Or even worse, do you want them to think I am?
The angry voice of Mr. Neko echoed in my head, bouncing on and on through empty corridors.
I'm so sorry Mr. Neko. It won't happen again. I promise.
I guess I accept your apology. I know you mean well. However you won't be able to fulfill your promise.
I'm not going to argue with you, but I do need another promise from you: The very day you talk to me out loud again, you will leave this place and you won't come back. Do we have a deal?
How difficult could it be to restrain yourself from talking out loud to a cat? I was sure I could do it. However, from the moment I made that deal I had the ominous feeling of a time bomb ticking. Meanwhile, Mr. Neko had come back to my lap. This time he wasn't purring though. I was the first to talk again.
Do you think I will see her again?
My wife, who else? Do you think I will see her again, perhaps in a world beyond this one?
I wouldn't know what to tell you. You know, I've got seven lives and I haven't even spent the first one. So, I don't see why I should care about the after world.
But cats can see spirits. Am I wrong?
Well, spirits don't live in the after world, my ignorant friend.
Once he said that, Mr. Neko fell asleep and the conversation came to an end. I sank deeper into thoughts about my mental health. Now that I wasn't suicidal anymore, it might be a good idea to start seeing a therapist and resume normal life. But, then again, normal never suited you and me. Right, sweetheart?
Mr. Neko's body swelled and flattened with its rhythmic quiet breathing. Looking at it, I couldn't help but think how much you would have liked that cat. And just like that, I remembered how you used to despise psychologists, psychiatrists, the whole theory of psychoanalysis and pretty much everything that started with 'psy'. So, I abandoned the idea of going to therapy for good. That was my life, at least for the time being.
The sounds of that place were also different by night. It was as if I could hear thousands of living beings hidden in the undergrowth, talking, dancing and making deals older than the world itself in hushing, barely audible voices. Even the wind sang a different song by night. The daylight valley and the nocturnal valley were like two faces of the very same coin. No matter how you look at it, both of them were unique. But if I had to choose I would stay with the nocturnal one.
After a half-hour nap, Mr. Neko woke up startled, abandoned the rock without saying goodbye and disappeared in the undergrowth. I checked my clock. It was past four in the morning. If I wanted to sleep at least a little bit before going to work, it was time to go home. I followed him down the rock and then I started walking in the opposite direction. I was knocked out the moment I reached the bed. I can't recall any dreams from that day.
From then on, I went up there only by night. Once my sick co-workers got better and the shift system returned to normal, I tried as hard as I could to get assigned to the afternoon shift permanently. It was a tough fight, you can be sure of that. But finally, those bastards at Inhuman Resources gave up. In exchange, they took a big chunk out of my salary. I didn't care. Didn't even say a word about it. My expenses were getting smaller by the minute. Once I got out of work I would have a light meal while browsing through old magazines and then, up there I went. When I got back home, I only needed to sleep for two or three hours and I was fresh as a fucking daisy. I know this is hard to believe considering I've been sleeping like a log almost my entire life. But the thing is that it wasn't only my mind that had been changing but my entire body was moving at the same pace. So that mere two or three hours provided me the rest I could never get from my usual eight or nine.
The rest of my remaining free time I focused on teaching myself Japanese. I already knew by heart each of the characters in the hiragana and katakana syllabaries. It was not such a big deal learning them. There are only ninety-two characters, a few diacritical signs and some combinations. Now I was trying to do the same with the two thousand and forty two kanji characters contained in another book. I had a hint that wasn't going to be as easy as learning the kana but I was trying anyway. Besides, the method suggested in the book was a lot of fun. The author taught you how to dismantle each character into several parts, assign a keyword to each part and then come up with a story using the keywords. So to memorize a character you just have to tell yourself a story. The crazier the story, the longer it would stay in your head. I put you and me in most of those stories. How nice it would have been to create them together, you and me. Hell, do I miss you, honey! Do I miss you!
After that first encounter, I didn't see Mr. Neko again in weeks. Each night I went up there with a small package of cookies for him and every time, I returned with the package intact. I didn't touch the cookies. It felt like they didn't belong to me.
Months passed by and my little furry friend was nowhere to be seen. I have almost given up on him when one particularly starry night he reappeared moving his tail matter-of-factly. That day, there had been a malfunctioning at the plant and we had to operate half the process in manual mode. It left me exhausted. Going up there, every step was a struggle. However, once I was sitting on the rock, the exhaustion went away, along with the rest of my everyday worries. I entertained myself by counting the stars in a given fraction of the sky and following the movements of the taller undergrowth leaves. From time to time, I thought about Mr. Neko. Kind of funny when you consider I hadn't thought about him in weeks. I still took the cookies up there every night, but it was just a meaningless automatic gesture. It must have been two o'clock in the morning when there was a perturbation in the night's air. Exactly one minute later, he came out of the undergrowth. In a blink, he was resting in my lap. Some minutes of silence followed. Finally I gave up and started talking.
You've been invisible for quite some time.
You're damn right on that one. I've been invisible.
He got me curious, so I tried to pump him for a little more information.
So, where have you been?
Where have you been yourself?
Are you sure?
You seem to take things for granted on a regular basis. And that's just one of your many flaws.
Someone had a bad day, I presume.
Quite the opposite, my friend. I caught five mice, I played with them and in between mouse and mouse I had sumptuous meals. Besides, on my way here I found a ball of grass; who knows how it got made. So I would say this has been quite some day.
Well, if you say so... By the way, I brought you a present.
I took out the cookies. Mr. Neko's fur got all bristled and even though it wasn't really painful I could feel him clawing through the denim of my pants.
What's the matter? Don't like cookies?
I like them fine. As a matter of fact they are one of my favorite treats. Second only to field mice.
So, what seems to be the problem?
The problem, my silly friend, is that by accepting your gifts I would eventually come to depend on you. And that just can't and won't happen. So, please take that package away and don't ever bring it up here again.
You don't even say thank you?
Nope. I don't have to.
So, I have found myself a cranky cat or I was imagining a cranky cat or who knows what. I chose to ignore his bad manners. That was the second time I saw him and I already regarded him as an essential part of my existence. You do know how quick I grow fond of people. When I first saw you, I fell in love in less than a fucking heartbeat. But don't you worry. I'm not going to replace you for a cat. I still like women. More specifically, I still like you, even though you're not here anymore.
From then on, Mr. Neko didn't fail to show one single night. His bad temper, or whatever that was, persisted for several weeks, though. Insults, name calling, several creative acts of humiliation... A furry thing quite a bit smaller than me was bullying me on a daily basis. Finally, one night, everything changed. Maybe whatever was troubling him had come to an end or maybe I had passed my trial period. I can't be sure. You could never be sure when it came to Mr. Neko's behavior. The thing is that he became the nicest four-legged motherfucker you can possibly imagine. And just like that, our friendship began to flourish. However, I think he wouldn't admit, even under the cruelest forms of torture, to being friends with anyone. He was a cat full of pride that one.
Nights became something completely different now that Mr. Neko had ceased hostilities. The entire world up there seemed to have changed too. The stars were shinier, the undergrowth's dance prettier and the rock was more comfortable than ever. Mr. Neko used to sit on my lap, and on particularly starry nights he sat by my side, very close. We looked at the sky while we talk 'til dawn about all things feline, human and divine. To be completely honest, I got to say that there was divinity in almost everything he said. A wiser person than me could have learnt the deepest secrets of the universe talking to that cat. But you know well I am no wise man. I'm just a brute guided by my (most of the time) unreliable instinct.
A new summer came and after that, a new autumn. By then, my Japanese had improved a lot. I had completed three quarters of the kanji book and completely mastered the basic grammar. I was already capable of writing simple sentences without a sweat. I briefed Mr. Neko on my progress from time to time. But he didn't seem to care much about that. He said he didn't see the use in learning languages. What for? Talking to other humans? Nonsense!
By then, we had established a long tradition of civilized conversation. I almost had to struggle to remember the old grumpy Mr. Neko. For this reason above all, the incident of October 31 took me completely by surprise. On that night, we'd been having a lively, playful conversation. As the words started to fade away, Mr. Neko threw himself in what seemed to be a light nap. I stared at him for a while, stroking his belly. Some time later, he opened his eyes and gazed at me. And then, out of the blue, he attacked the back of my left hand with his four paws. After that, he jumped out of my lap and gazed at me from eight or nine feet away. That attitude didn't last, though. In a matter of seconds, his face resumed the placid expression he had while sleeping. I was completely lost, blinded by pain and surprise.
Why did you have to do that?
Of all the people I've met, you are the first one who got surprised by seeing a cat scratching.
Well, this particular cat has just scratched me. So, forgive me if I'm a little upset. Have you seen my hand? You've fucked it up real good, buddy.
I took a look at the back of my hand. It was running blood from several spots. I managed to somehow clean the wounds with some tissues I had in the backpack. The scratches had begun to itch, as if they were already forming a scar. I bitched a lot not because of the pain but rather because of the situation itself. Mr. Neko kept looking at me casually, like nothing had happened.
Aren't you going to say anything? You know, sorry or something...
I just behave according to my nature. However, you... Well, don't make me start talking about your kind... But let me say something anyway: You are not entitled to an apology.
I decided to let it go. The image of something precious and fragile kept coming to my mind. If I was to continue pushing the discussion forward I would damage it beyond repair. So, even though it wasn't easy, I shut the fuck up. As a matter of fact, I didn't articulate a single word for the rest of the night. I was sitting there for another hour or so, letting my thoughts drift away. All the time, Mr. Neko was perfectly still. When it was time to go back home, I stood up and left in silence.
I was washing my hands the following night when I saw it clearly. The scratches were not distributed randomly. As a matter of fact, they didn't seem like scratches anymore. They were more like brush strokes. And make no mistake, they were forming a kanji. Now that I had realized that, it was impossible not to see it. In any case, I couldn't recognize it nor guess its meaning right away. So, I took a piece of paper and a thick marker and I drew it, stroke by stroke. I folded the piece of paper and put it in the drawer where I kept the Japanese books. It was getting late. I had no time to look deeper into it. So I left the house and went up there. That night, neither me nor Mr. Neko said a single word about the incident.
For ten days I was frantic, looking for the character in every book I had. I even ordered the biggest kanji dictionary published in the English language. All in vain. Meanwhile, the wound mark was vanishing gradually as the days passed. Finally, I lost my patience and asked Mr. Neko about it. The answer didn't take me by surprise.
Aren't you the one studying Japanese? Why do you ask a cat about it? Boy, you never cease to amaze me.
We spent the rest of the night in silence. I have never felt so close to that wonderful and stubborn fur ball. The night seemed to last forever. But, since I'm not entitled to forever yet, eventually the sun began to rise. The moment I saw the first ray of light, I was aware of two things at the same time: I did know what that kanji that wasn't a kanji really meant, and I would not be coming up there anymore. Mr. Neko opened his eyes and looked at me.
It took you less than I expected. The rock will miss you.
What about you? Are you going to miss me at all?
That's for you to decide.
A textbook Mr. Neko answer. I should have expected it. The furry motherfucker! I, for sure, was going to miss him.
Will I see you again?
When you see me again, you'll know.
That was all I needed to hear. No more questions, no more things to say. Time to go.
'You bet.' I say out loud.
Mr. Neko didn't startle nor say a word. He just stood by my side waiting for me to go. A couple of minutes later, I was gone. I didn't say goodbye to the mountain, the rock or Mr. Neko. No goodbyes were necessary.
While I was walking back to the car, I took a good look at my hand. I couldn't see the slightest hint of a scar. At home, I checked the piece of paper where I had drawn the kanji. It was just as spotless as my hand. It didn't strike me as funny at all. At that point I was just playing my part and I was very happy about it. It may sound like a boring kind of life but it sure as hell wasn't boring to me.
I didn't work the following afternoon. Instead, I phoned Inhuman Resources to tell them I was quitting. I got a room in a cheap hotel and come next morning I asked a real state agency to put our dear old home on sale for a preposterously low price. That same day, I had lunch with your sisters and I gave them a slightly edited version of my plans and the reasons behind them. Somehow, I didn't find it necessary to talk about late night conversations with cats. They thought I was crazy anyway but they didn't try to stop me. They just said that they were going to miss me and they offered to help in whatever I might need. This would be a far better world if everyone were a little bit more like you and your sisters, honey.
Before the end of the week, I traveled thousands of miles northbound until I got to the place that now I call home. You know how long I've been dreaming of coming up north. However, I didn't do it to fulfill an old dream. I did it because it needed to be done.
See you soon, sweetheart.