Connor Wroe Southard
Thin Lips wore the deathly charcoal green uniform of the People’s Army of Korea, and he boasted the vein-blood dark epaulets of an officer. If this were Seoul or Chicago, or a village in Devonshire or Saskatchewan instead of the village of Jongma, Thin Lips would not bring his cat to the feed store—where Kim Rae-Jon sold grain for the few horses still stumbling around the countryside—for a grooming. But this was a funny country with funny rules, and so Kim Rae-Jon would have to groom the cat of Honored Thin Lips.
The cat deposited, Thin Lips did not stay long at the pockmarked counter of Plump Cow Feed Store. Thin Lips marched away, his Sergeant Aid remaining stony at the entrance, and he scrunched his epaulets a little as he examined a pile of grain sacks near the door. A miserable Kim Rae-Jon thought of the low quality of the feed in those sacks; it would do for only the poorest man’s horse.
“Excellent feed you have here. You are doing the right work for the People.” Thin Lips beamed at him, his leather-gloved thumbs dancing together above his interlocked hands. “And for the People’s cats!”
Thin Lips laughed and snorted at his own joke. Sergeant Aid did the same. Kim Rae-Jon laughed so hard that tears began to form in his tired eyes.
When Thin Lips, Sergeant Aid and their regal black Japanese automobile had sped from the shop’s dirt lot with a noisy spraying of gravel, Kim Rae-Jon was left staring at the cat.
It was a beautiful cat. All black, lean but not emaciated and rat-fed like most of Ryanggang Province’s cats. It had fierce green eyes. It needed no executioner’s uniform and no blood-red epaulets to look as though it could kill. It lay stretched with care in its wire cage. The cat showed no fear of the plump, balding man it saw before it.
Inside its cage, Cat stretched its forelimbs, its back legs calm and furled. Kim Rae-Jon clutched the cage by its wire handles and placed it below the counter-top. If he were to have customers that day, he would not have that animal’s eyes trained on them.
In Jongma, a man’s day begins with kimchi and rice if he’s lucky. All three of Kim Rae-Jon’s daughters boasted that their mother made the best kimchi in all of the People’s Republic. Kim Rae-Jon, after filling his belly on the rich, sopping cabbage preserves, would often reflect that perhaps there was some hope after all for such intelligent girls.
This day had begun well—kimchi and steaming rice, his wife’s smiling face, hot tea that was not too weak—and so Kim Rae-Jon thought the arrival of Cat a puzzle. He couldn’t work this into the scheme of a lucky day without some re-arranging of his notion of luck. He would have to trust to his ancestors on this one: Did they know something about cats that he did not? Kim Rae-Jon considered that there was little chance that his ancestors knew more about a man like Thin Lips and his dark epaulets than he did. Officers were lucky men, but they carried bad luck in their narrow pockets. If Kim Rae-Jon thought carefully about this, he might laugh, but all his thoughts of officers soon came to swirls and deafening noises. He suspected that he might soon feel the same way about cats.
Kim Rae-Jon’s home was smaller than his feed store, but much more comfortable. His daughters were old enough to see the benefits of obeying their father, and his wife, Chan-sook, had always been the sweetest woman he knew. If a man must spend this much time around women, these were the sort of women he’d want.
On Cat Morning, Kim Rae-Jon had joked with his oldest daughter, Kun-sun, about her age.
“Madame Kim Kun-sun! I will call you madame now: You are too old to be unmarried!” Kim Rae-Jon smiled, and so did his daughter, though she blushed. She was beautiful.
“With respect, Father, there is no one worth marrying!”
If a young man were worth marrying, he would be carrying a rifle and looking across the border to the south.
“You might be right, but you must know that you are ready.”
Kun-sun blushed once more, and left the table with grace.
The sun was playing along the horizon when Kim Rae-Jon began his daily walk to Plump Cow Feed Store. He saw all the things he expected to see on such a summer morning. Old women seated like crows outside their family homes, stray dogs loping and hunting cats lurking. Jongma was a very dusty village. An outsider not given to kindness might call it shabby. Just like Plump Cow, thought Kim Rae-Jon. Whatever pride he might have in the store, it would always be a dingy warehouse with no room for anything but dried, half-grown oats. What could he do for a proud cat in such a shabby place?
Cat was quiet to begin with, and did not seem so fearsome after a while. When Kim Rae-Jon had composed himself through first moving grain sacks from one end of his wareroom to the other, and then taking several long pulls on his water ladle, Cat seemed much more like a pet. Just a pet. A pet does not even take care of itself, and Kim Rae-Jon believed that he did everything for himself. Except cook.
Still no customers, which was not unusual. Farmers rose before dawn and tended to their own work until at least noon. Plump Cow opened when it did only because the license needed to be kept in order; the local party would not hear of a man sleeping late with no work on his hands. Some days there was work to be done in the mornings, but Kim Rae-Jon could often be seen in the lot before his shop on a warm morning such as this, his wide-brimmed hat cocked to one side. Kim Rae-Jon believed that it would not be especially fruitful to allow the other villagers to see him there in the lot if the smile he sported were too big; he might seem to be laughing at their business. Or he might seem to cast a lecherous eye at the housewives who were most of his company in this quarter of Jongma, women who sang lightly while stroking infants and reddening their hands in wash basins. So, he did not often smile, but he watched with care and did not pass much judgment. Kim Rae-Jon liked to think of himself as the sort of man who would appreciate these people even if he hadn’t lived his whole balding life among them. Jongma fit a man like him as if it were a sturdy pair of cotton trousers. On a morning like this, there was usually little reason to doubt much of anything.
And besides, Kim Rae-Jon had always liked cats. Hunting cats have a nobility all their own. Kim Rae-Jon had never given up on his boyish fascination with these prickly little animals that darted around beneath his feet and upon the roof above his head. What things did they see, these hunters? Surely so much more than dust, women, kimchi, distant hills. Not that Kim Rae-Jon was jealous of the cats; they were drowned on the cheap, and no single cat means much to anyone. But what did the cats care?
Kim Rae-Jon opened the cage, again mounted on his warped counter-top, and stroked the cat’s muzzle.
“Cute. But maybe that is not the only word.”
Twenty years ago, Cat had not even been an idea. Twenty years ago, long before this fierce animal stared at Kim Rae-Jon through polished steel wire, Kim Rae-Jon had been a warrior. He had fought against the Americans and their screaming airplanes, his farmer’s boots frozen to cold stone, his rifle useless without bullets. It might be better to say that Kim Rae-Jon, like most of the men his age in Jongma, had fled against the Americans. A cat can perhaps be more vicious, or at least braver, than a man.
“You may be a warrior in spirit, Cat, but I really was a warrior.”
Cat continued to stare at him without suspicion, but perhaps with amusement.
“If Thin Lips were here, what would he tell me to do, Cat?”
A serious question, because Kim Rae-Jon knew as much about grooming cats as he did about making kimchi.
He did know one thing: if he was ever to let Cat out of its cage, he would have to control it. What would he do if the little black warrior ran away? Kim Rae-Jon would have a difficult time explaining to Thin Lips that his pet had left the world of men and epaulets and kimchi to become a mountain warrior, a noble hunter among marmots and big mountain rats. When Thin Lips looked at the distant mountains, he probably saw a pile of rocks through which roads must be built. There was little chance that he saw anything to wonder about.
Through his open doorway, Kim Rae-Jon saw a small whirl of dust form, whipped into being by the valley’s fierce winds. If it was to be an uncertain day, it might as well be a sharp, windy one.
Kim Rae-Jon valued dignity over fear, and so he considered that it would be an unforgiveable insult to any warrior cat to leave it behind cold, polished steel all day. As much dignity as he could provide within his tiny shop, he would give. Kim Rae-Jon had always thought himself a generous man.
He let Cat roam in the back room, after checking to make sure that the two doors and a few windows were all shut. When the man opened the door of the cage, Cat immediately leapt onto one of the low piles of grain sacks. A fluid flash of soft black.
Ledgers needed to be kept, sweeping had to be done. Kim Rae-Jon worked peacefully through the late morning, singing old folk songs in his rough voice. Whenever he entered the feed room, Cat was always visible, though it wouldn’t have needed to be; there were plenty of hiding places among the grain sacks and crates. It didn’t always turn to look at him. Cat was often watching something that dallied just out of sight, a mouse or an insect or a shadow, and preparing to make a daring pounce. Kim Rae-Jon had found two dead mice by the time his clock struck eleven. Both had clearly found their death in a brutal moment, and Kim Rae-Jon doubted if they had ever known they were being stalked.
A few customers came around noon. Big farmer Moon Dong-Sun was particularly loud, and he wouldn’t leave Kim Rae-Jon alone about the polished cage that still sat on the countertop.
“Do you have a pet, little Kim? Is it a hare?” Moon Dong-Sun was truly an asshole.
“No, Big Moon. A friend left his cat with me.”
“He owns a cat? What does he feed it with? Your oats?”
“It hunts for itself.” Kim Rae-Jon had no idea if this was at all true, but it seemed a charming idea.
“As a cat should. The cats who roam my farm do a lousy enough job of it. So many cats, and still so many rats.”
“Perhaps the rats around there are cleverer than the cats.”
Big Moon snorted and paid for his oats without much fuss.
Around two, Kim Rae-Jon’s stomach tightened once again. Did he not have to at least change Cat’s appearance in some way? Was a groomer not a man charged with transforming the animal as it was put before him? For his money, that was his job. Something about Cat had to change. It would not do to return a serene, untouched animal to a man like Thin Lips.
Kim Rae-Jon entered the back room and neither saw, nor heard, nor smelled the cat. The air of the little ware-room was stiff with the flatness of dry oats. The only sound was the wind carrying dust in from the plains to the east. Grain sacks were the familiar sight.
“Cat!” Kim Rae-Jon hollered in the low tone he used when his face became flushed and he couldn’t hold back his frustration.
Nothing moved, nothing new in sight.
“Cat, we need to talk.” Kim Rae-Jon forced his words to settle down.
“Cat, I think that it would be best for both of us if we had a little talk.”
“Cat,” Kim Rae-Jon now giggled a tiny bit, “I can show you where the fattest bastard mice are. They’re the fattest because they’re the smartest. They’re smart enough that I don’t think you’ll be able to find them without my help. I don’t mean to impugn your honor as a warrior, but I know my own mice. So, let’s talk.”
Kim Rae-Jon laughed, full-throated, at the end of this speech, and turned toward the door once more. He assumed Thin Lips would return around dusk, after military matters had been settled and talk of war had been put to sleep. Kim Rae-Jon knew that he should not be pleased that he could not find Cat now, but he was calm and felt that he could only buck so hard against what was. It would be no use to stalk a black cat in a dingy room if the cat did not want to be found. Kim Rae-Jon knew his cats well enough to know that.
Or perhaps not. Cat was now just to his left, sitting atop a particularly low stack of sacks. Cat looked as proud as ever, and licked its left forepaw, only briefly deigning to look Kim Rae-Jon in the eye.
“All right, Cat. Will you do me the honor?”
Kim Rae-Jon picked up an un-rebellious Cat and brought him into the fore-room. He placed Cat in the cage, but did not bolt the barred door. Locking his own front door—he didn’t think he could do much business while grooming the cat—Kim Rae-Jon returned to the cage and considered Cat.
He couldn’t bathe it, but that probably wouldn’t be necessary. Cats didn’t smell like much, dirty or clean. He could perhaps trim the hair, though to what length the hair should be trimmed, he did not know. It was late summer now, the September sun still warm and the winds staying low, beaten back by the remaining pleasantness of Jongma’s easy days. Soon the village would grow cooler, the weaker horses would start to die off, and there would be less at the breakfast table. Kim Rae-Jon’s wife would again be thinner than usual, and she would tell him not to eat so much—Leave some for the coldest times, Rae-Jon! The Kim family had never before run out of winter food, but the idea that it could happen flavored every spoonful eaten in their tiny house as soon as the days began to grow gradually shorter and darker. How much hair would Cat need to survive such days?
Kim Rae-Jon decided that it would be best to leave that question up to luck and nature. The Cat would have to look different, but perhaps if he trimmed the tip of the hair where it was thickest—around the scruff of the neck and along the ridgeway of the spine—that would give the illusion of grooming. With a dull old pair of shears whose aid he had long enlisted in slashing open grain sacks, Kim Rae-Jon dutifully clipped Cat’s longest hairs just enough to trick the eye into believing that some important change had been made. Throughout the trimming, Cat lay light upon the front countertop. If a cat could cast a coy eye on the work of a man—and Kim Rae-Jon believed this to be not only possible but commonplace—Cat did just that. Kim Rae-Jon had pinned Cat to the countertop with a calloused hand, the warrior’s springy ribcage caught between finger and thumb. But the little force his grip had held was never necessary: Cat was still throughout. Kim Rae-Jon felt optimistic, appraising the work he had done. He was sure that he had clipped the longest hairs just enough and had taken no warmth from the warrior’s coat.
Cat rose, shedding severed hair, and arched his back.
Glancing at the man, Cat settled onto his haunches and began to bathe its soft forepaw. Cat must have been weighing his options, because he continued this act—sandpaper tongue darting—for a few quiet seconds. Kim Rae-Jon was placing his shears back into one crate or another when Cat, making no noise, descended from the counter to the open floor of the shop. In what must have been no time at all, Cat was at the door of the shop, which had tiny glass windows arrayed along its whole length. Stopping as quickly as he had begun, Cat settled a few inches from the lowest pair of panes. Kim Rae-Jon had raised his head above the counter and saw this. The man imagined that Cat could just perhaps see the distant mountains through those windows, if his tiny, fuzzy head were high enough.
Cat took a single stab at the air, his extended claws hooking toward the mountains, and slashed his paw downward fiercely, his shoulder rolling like an oarsman’s. His eyes remained fixed ahead.
Kim Rae-Jon did not want to say anything, nor did he believe that he could force Cat to return to the counter without a fight. He had no desire to leave his blood, drawn out by claws, on the floor of the shop. And so he waited, giving Cat as much time as he might need to look at mountains.
“There is less out there than you might think, Cat.” Kim Rae-Jon smiled as he spoke.
Cat took several long moments before turning back towards the man. Kim Rae-Jon’s words carried little weight just then, when Cat was looking far distant. Kim Rae-Jon wondered if he wasn’t talking only to himself.
When Cat did wander back, he was measured and slow. His hips swayed like a lazy king’s. Leaping back onto the countertop, Cat now turned his eyes toward the grey wall of the shop, where no mountains would ever be seen.
Cat wore a collar, and perhaps Kim-Rae Jon could do something for that, too. It was a simple bit of leather with a tarnished buckle. No tags decorated it, and the collar seemed to serve no other purpose than to prove a point: This cat is owned and looked after, but still he is simple and ruthless. Ruthless, perhaps—Kim Rae-Jon would have to ask the spirits of the mice and rats that had died during that day. But was the warrior simple? With a smile, Kim Rae-Jon thought to himself that no good warrior could be simple, for the fight was never simple.
Kim Rae-Jon knew that he could at least polish the buckle. A soldier like Thin Lips would appreciate a good polishing, and Kim Rae-Jon had a steel-wire brush that he believed would make the old buckle shine like an epaulet. When the collar was lifted from his coiled neck, Cat worked his head first to one side and then the other. To show that he was pleased with his freedom, he began to lick the back of his right forepaw, his papery tongue darting out like a stab. His smoldering green eyes stared at his liberator for a few grateful seconds. At least, Kim Rae-Jon preferred to think that they were grateful.
Reaching beneath the counter and into his old crate of workingman’s odds and ends, Kim Rae-Jon removed a steel-bristled brush and began to work it back and forth over the tiny, simple buckle. The tarnish began to flake like so many dark snowflakes, and the sound—raspy yet full—was one of the most pleasing work sounds that Kim Rae-Jon could imagine. Cat watched only a few strokes of the brush before falling asleep. You may be too trusting to make much of a warrior, Cat, thought Kim Rae-Jon, smiling.
When the collar and its newly shiny buckle had been re-applied, and Kim Rae-Jon absorbed the stare (the glare had softened considerably) of a newly trimmed cat-warrior, it was almost time for the sun to set. The Soviet naval clock that hung on the wall to the counterman’s left told 6:37 in the evening, and the light that entered the shop through the small glass panes of the front door was a dusty amber. It would first have grown cold in the scrubby hills, where Kim Rae-Jon imagined that Thin Lips had been swearing at, lambasting, cajoling, leading some unit of young men about all day. Next, on the brief plain surrounding Jongma, an indifferent coolness would settle along with the dust. There was hardly any wind at night. In the village itself, the bustle of life and the huddled closeness of all the scanty buildings would conspire to hold the heat in a little longer before the night air finally took it all away.
Kim Rae-Jon rarely stayed so late in the shop, but he knew that his wife would not worry. Even if she had not known that she was married to a hard-working man, she didn’t fear much for Kim Rae-Jon. Business, such as it was and such as it could be in a place like this, went well, and he worked hard and did what he could for her daughters. The daughters, all out of young men to marry and growing too old too quickly, worried her much more. Kim Rae-Jon, she believed, would always make out all right. Even though Thin Lips’ lateness was forcing the camaraderie between Kim Rae-Jon and Cat to endure longer than it otherwise might have done, no balance needed to be upset. Things could continue, and no one need worry.
The Cat sat just outside the open door of its cage, lost in a sleep that appeared as confident and unworried as that of the best and hardiest wife. It did not appear to have any will to force Kim Rae-Jon to make good on his word and show him the way to the fattest bastard mice.
And so Kim Rae-Jon passed half an hour in checking, and re-checking his ledger. After another twenty minutes of waiting—the cold was beginning to make itself felt through the many holes in the shabby frame of the shop—Kim Rae-Jon did something that he only rarely thought of doing: he wrote a brief poem in the margins of the ledger.
Cat warrior asleep / Dusty cold shop / Thin Lips might smile.
Thin Lips would never again come to Plump Cow.
At 7:48, when the cold and the dust were equally entrenched, the door to the shop was flung wide and a hard-breathing man stepped inside. It was Sergeant Aid, Thin Lips’ right-hand man.
“Farmer! Where is the cat?”
Sergeant Aid’s words were like iron, and even in candle-light, Kim Rae-Jon could see that the soldier’s eyes were wide and his shoulders tight. He made it to the counter-top in two strides, casting only a quick glance at Cat before beginning to loom over the balding shopkeeper.
“Farmer, is he groomed?”
Kim Rae-Jon was not philosophical on this point. He answered a swift “Yes.”
Cat was standing now, his green eyes flaring not at the agitated soldier, but still at Kim Rae-Jon. The shopkeeper thought for a fleeting moment that he might hazard a fatherly smile, but decided against it.
“He is groomed, friend.”
Sergeant Aid paused, considered Kim Rae-Jon as if weighing the truthfulness of his words. He pressed Cat’s flank, urging it towards the open door of the cage. Cat resisted for one proud second before submitting, and neatly folding himself inside. Kim Rae-Jon smiled as soon as Sergeant Aid had turned his back.
“We thank you, Farmer.”
This time, Sergeant Aid stood closer to Kim Rae-Jon and the candle shed more light on his face. A deep, fresh gash ran along his face from the peak of his left cheekbone to the corner of his upper lip. The wound had clearly been treated, but a few tiny drops of blood continued to bubble to the surface of Sergeant Aid’s tanned, dark face. Sergeant Aid’s eyes told no story.
Sergeant Aid turned and left the shop in less of a flurry than he had entered it, though his shoulders remained tight. Cat lay dark within his cage. His silhouette was still, even as the cage swung in the young man’s careless hands.
Kim Rae-Jon waited a few moments and heard nothing. This time, no tires could be heard disturbing the gravel, though perhaps Sergeant Aid was driving more quietly now. Or perhaps he had simply walked away onto the plain, Cat and cage and army cap and all. Kim Rae-Jon thought that Cat would not make much of a protest to a man who wanted to melt away.
Kim Rae-Jon found his way home through the dark with little trouble. The cold was just a little needling, and he once again hoped that he had not cut the Cat’s coat too short. Of all the things that might poison a warrior’s day, the cold was perhaps the simplest to guard against.