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Conversation with the long-haired shamisen cat

by Amy Chavez

When my cat turned 13 recently, I knew it was time for the dreaded “cat discussion.” You know, the one where you tell them about the happy hunting ground in the sky. Since cats usually die before their owners do, it’s tough for me to be the one to suggest that she be optimistic. I told her about cat heaven, where there would be unlimited bonito flake buffets and I told her about the extended family waiting for her, from little runts to lion king ancestors.

I told her that cat heaven is a place of endless feline felicity: large cushions to sleep on and robots who perform scratches behind the ears all day long. There would be tummy ticklers, yarn balls and purring choirs she could join. Surely there would be little spots of sunshine to relax in and flower beds to stretch out in.

On kitty cloud nine, there are no vacuum cleaners, no big loud trucks to run away from, and no road kill. She need not fear being reincarnated into a maneki neko cat, performing a lifetime of servitude. Nor is there Hello Kitty materialism: no being bought and sold as a commodity. No sirree, not in cat heaven.

Instead, I assured her that kitty paradise is all feather pillows, comforters and heated beds. There’s a stroking room open 24/7 and there’s a food tasting room where she can be as finicky as she wants trying out all the latest morsels.

In kitty Shangri-La there are no baths or water hoses. No fleas, flea collars or ear mites. Just endless baskets of clean laundry to sleep in. The afterlife is one continuous purr.

Just when I thought this talk with my cat was going pretty well, she opened here eyes, cocked her head, and said, “But I was hoping to donate my body to science.”

“Um, excuse me?” I said.

“I want to donate my body. I want them to use my skin to make Japanese shamisen instruments,” she said.

“Donating your organs to make tennis rackets is one thing,” I said, “But your skin to make a shaminsen? There must be a reason the fairy tale is about ‘the cat and the fiddle,’ not ‘the cat and the shamisen.’ Besides, you’re a long-haired Persian cat. You’d make a very furry shamisen.”

“It is true that I am a long-haired Persian cat,” she said. “But, you know, appearances are transitory.” She paused, for effect, and then said, “You see, I want to make a contribution to Japanese culture.”

I did see. Frank was a stray cat until she was adopted into our family when she was just a few weeks old. We raised her as our own and she has done very well for herself. She now owns her own upholstered chair that sits next to a large picture window looking out onto the sea.

Every day she sees cats roaming around the port, looking for scraps of fish to eat. They are stray cats, who kill anything they can for food, such as lizards, bugs and mice. Sometimes they get lucky when a fisherman throws them a scrap now and then. My cat knows how close she was to being just like them. But she was lucky. And now she wants to give something back to those who allowed her to thrive.

She has had many opportunities during her elevated lifestyle in front of the picture window. She even had a chance to become a ship’s cat and travel the world. But she declined. “Leave that to the tabbies” she said. “I just want to enjoy my life in the window.”

As happy as she was, however, she couldn’t stop thinking about the suffering of the stray cats outside. She wondered if she could help alleviate their suffering. So she started meditating in her upholstered chair. Soon after, she started going on hunger strikes, refusing her own cat food until I was forced to give it to the cats outside. She refused to be brushed, not wanting to look any better than the strays.

When she left her chair to go outside, sometimes she didn’t come back for days. I knew she was off in search of something, but I wasn’t sure what. When she finally returned, she’d sit peacefully in her chair and meditate.

Still, though, I couldn’t picture her as a shamisen.

“From my window, I can see out upon the beautiful Seto Inland Sea. The tides come in and out twice a day, all day long and have been doing so for thousands of years. These tides carry the secret of the Inland Sea: that for the sea, only the present exists. It cares not about the past nor the future.

Music flows like the tides, transcending time. When you hear the shamisen, the music will appear as a mere rift, a trifling note of beauty drifting in from the sea. At first, you will hear only a faint sound that will invite you to pause and listen a little longer. When you do, the sound will become louder and you will think, “How lovely.” It will be a small moment of muse, of beauty, in the middle of everyday suffering. This is when you will recognize me, the sound of “Om,” that carries the voice of all living creatures.

With that, she closed her eyes and resumed meditating.

I decided it best to do the same.