On our honeymoon, Martin and I stop in Shanghai to visit my father. One afternoon we go to the market. It is not the tourists’ market, there are no shirts proclaiming joy in machine-inked strokes. The air smells like an oil slick: petroleum, fish, salt, and dead birds. The paths between the stalls are narrow. Our groceries dangle in translucent, superfine bags. Even the plastic is stretched thin here.
Our way out of the market is blocked. Onlookers surround two shouting men. The stall owner is handsome, tanned. A loop of white cloth keeps the sweat from his eyes. His stall is stacked with cages; packed inside are writhing balls of fur: kittens. When I was ten, I punched a girl who said that the Chinese ate cats. But my father told me that it was true. Still, I had not quite believed him.
The stall owner is shouting at an older man. This individual’s shirt is stained; it is the button-down kind with short sleeves that American fast-food servers wear. With my bad Chinese, I try to translate for Martin. The older man had tried to steal a cat. As if stealing was not bad enough, he had tried to snatch one of the white kittens, which were worth more. White cats are lucky. He had reached through the bars to grab the creature by the paw. Now look what he had done, he had injured it. Who would buy it now? The young man holds the cat out to the crowd. It has curled in on itself. It is very still. I push closer, long red sores zipper through the cat’s white fur, and all around the cages flies bide their time.
The paperwork to get the cat into America is a nightmare.
Seven years later, my three-legged cat has cancer. Her ears are shriveled, and bald pink stripes run along her flanks. I pull her close to my chest; her loose skin slides over her bones.
The vet’s office smells of shit and hand soap. He says, “The cat only has a few months to live. It is probably time to consider putting her to sleep.” And he touches the place on my arm where shirt meets skin. I squeeze the cat to reassure her. She hiccups and twists, all three legs convulsing.
“Isn’t there chemo or something?” I remember an article in the New York Times about pet hospitals.
“Ola, it’s not worth it. Your cat is too far-gone,” he replies and touches my arm again. “Other vets might tell you to do it, but it’d be for the fees.”
He starts talking about his own mother, who had cancer. He talks about hospitals, debt, and chicken-stock soup. As he talks, he looks off into the corner of the room, where there is a poster of a not-just-for-Christmas python, its body wrapped into a wreath. I am not paying him to act as his therapist; I am paying him to make my cat better. He has failed.
The vet’s office is not room temperature; it has the headache-inducing chill of airport terminals. Only the cat is warm, pressed against my stomach; she feels almost feverish. My cat is not really three-legged; there is a vestigial fourth leg pulled close to the chest. The leg never had any hair, and in the summer it weeps a soft yellow pus. Lately, her eyes are tear-crusted. The eyes are blue-green like the Tiffany jewelry boxes my mother kept in her room to remember she was loved. She kept the jewelry locked in the bank.
“I would have put my own mother down if I could.” The vet slides his eyes shut for a second.
“My mom had cancer of the spleen, and she recovered,” I reply as I swing out the door with cat in hand.
As I leave, the receptionist shouts, “See you next week, Ms. Liu.”
I lied. My mother sealed herself in the garage and gassed herself. The police impounded the car. Conveniently, my father was a high school chemistry teacher and was quite aware of the fact that bleach and hydrochloric acid create chlorine gas. He stole the acid from his own lab, sealed himself in the bathroom, and gassed himself. But he didn’t seal the room properly. After that he moved back to China to live with his mother, who had never approved of the American bride. He called me at college to explain. The charge for receiving his long-distance call was $17.88. I pinned the bill above my single bed. As I went to sleep I would let my eyes slip upward to the eighty-eight. Each upturned infinity swerved and crossed over itself until my body let me sleep.
I text Martin to ask him to pick up dinner. I don’t feel like cooking.
We live in a gabled Queen Anne house that our landlord split into three apartments. The facade was once painted ham pink, but it flakes to reveal wood that has gone green. I wave at the Vietnamese babysitter through the first-floor window and she nods, baby in arms.
I shoulder my way into the apartment and let the cat out of her cage. The cat was once agile, despite her deformity. She leaped onto window ledges. Raising her long white whiskers, she guarded the sill from pigeons. Now as she walks, she performs a rocking-horse motion, heaving herself across the floor. She seems to be losing momentum.
I remove the sashimi from the fridge. I pour her medicine onto a silver teaspoon and dribble it along the salmon tiger-stripes. I kneel and press the cold fish to her mouth. She eventually swallows, but I know she won’t gain weight.
To quiet the ache in my gut, I make myself some peas in the microwave. As they turn in the irradiated light, I take off my shirt and pants. I have discovered that hot food is best eaten in my underwear. It is something I do alone, with the blinds down, not even really naked, but clothed in the beams, boards, and walls of the apartment.
Once the peas are done, I lie on my back looking up at the cat. I can feel the cool air pressing softly between the knobs of my spine and the cold floorboards lapping at the backs of my feet. The cold helps me appreciate the heat of the peas. But after I am done eating the ache is still there. I wish Martin would get back soon. Martin has told me that in moments like this I should repeat to myself: “I am happy. I am happy. I am happy.” This is a tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy. It is a way to reprogram my mind. I once asked him if he ever did this, and he asked me why would he have to. He was happy already.
I do not have to go to work. As an adjunct professor of folklore, I am paid not very much to show up once a week to grade writing about the loss of the undergraduates’ virginity as seen through the lens of Snow White.
The cat is sitting below the window, looking up. I follow her eyes and see the milky-iced-coffee smog and the feathery granules of sparrows. Our cat has been an apartment cat all her life. Friends complain that their cats leave bloody love notes on their pillows. But our cat has never had the chance to snatch a bird from flight. On three legs, she is slower than even the pebble-gray mice that build nests in the walls.
We never named the cat; I didn’t want to become too attached. That was seven years ago. There are statistics that say seven years is how long it takes a marriage to go rancid. I want to know: why are all these scientists wasting their time on marriages and not on cat cancer? They have never seen an animal wet itself on the verge of a litterbox it is too weak to climb, orange piss soaking into white fur.
The decision comes to me then. If the cat cannot sacrifice teaspoons of blood on our cotton sheets, then I must catch her a bird. I have no idea how to catch a bird. On the Internet, I learn that there are bird nets. When I look down, the cat is still by the window.
My father used to say that he would give me a dollar if I could catch a pigeon in the park. Dutifully I would totter after them, hands outstretched, but always the pigeons would escape. My father kept the dollar on the mantelpiece, but I never earned it. I stole it when I turned fifteen. I used it to do a line at a friend’s party. The coke left me feeling cold and lightheaded, and everything I ate had the tin taste of airplane meals. Later the Prozac Martin had prescribed would have a similar effect, without the initial surge of joy.
I find bird-catching nets online. They have rubber ergonomic handles and can be dismantled for optimal portability. I order two, express delivery.
At 7:13, Martin arrives with eel for me, ramen for himself and more sashimi for the cat. The take-out bags crinkle with a noise like medical robes rustling, and I still haven’t put on a shirt.
There was a time when people who saw us together were shocked. We first kissed when I was twenty-six and he was forty-two. Already his arteries were burst by white wine. At forty-nine, he still loiters in that middle age; his hair is even now red-brown. I am catching up; my skin is creased, a shallow puddle of fat has formed around my belly, and I can feel it growing deeper. Martin does not kiss me. Instead, he asks me how my day is going, and I tell him I have decided to catch a bird.
He asks, “Any particular species?”
I love him for questions like that. And because he has a chicken-pox scar right in the middle of his forehead and so looks like the Buddha my mother brought back from her honeymoon in Hokkaido. He reaches down, his hands playing across the cat’s ears.
“I hadn’t thought about it really. Perhaps a pigeon or a sparrow, a starling, a fledgling . . . I’m not sure the cat could tell the difference.”
“Is it legal to catch birds in the city?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, it might make more sense to drive out of the city. I’ll take you on Saturday.” It upsets his patients if he takes a day off. When he got the flu last summer, a patient with abandonment issues killed herself.
On Saturday, the sky is slashed by airplane trails. I load the nets into the front passenger seat and then go back for the cat; I want her to lick the blood while it is still liquid. I carry the cat by her belly, pressing her to my chest. She hangs limp as laundry in my arms, but she is warm too, like my father’s old shirts after he had been running. They both smell dirty and good, so I bury my face into the cat’s back. She murmurs, but the sound is weak as if she is sighing at my foolishness.
“Cray-Ola, are you getting in or not?” Martin always calls me this, but he won’t tell me which color I am. I carry the cat to the back seat and I don’t do my seat belt up.
The car is a convertible the color of school buses; we bought it fourth-hand even though it eats fuel. We had not meant to get a car like that, but I fell in love with it. Martin is always letting me buy the things I fall in love with. He tells guests our house is the land of broken toys, and sometimes if he has been drinking, he puts an emphasis on the b, pressing his lips together, letting the word “toys” float gently in the air, as if this might just be “the house of broken.” Then he coughs and puts his arm around me, letting his weight fall into his elbow and onto my shoulder, and I stand, straining and smiling under his sudden heft.
When we get to the highway that runs along the river, I tell Martin, “Roll down the roof, I want the cat to feel the wind in her fur.”
He does and the bird nets catch the air, filling up with speed. My hair lifts in the wind. I lift the cat up in both hands, up above my head. I can’t see her face but hope she enjoys it. But then her fur begins to fly off, fast as dandelion fluff; it floats behind us and lands on other people’s windshields. Some of it lands in the road and some of it in the sloop of gray river. I pull the cat into my lap and she is pinker and balder. If only she were a dandelion and we were planting kitten seeds all over the state. But not only has the cat never killed, she’s never known any male but Martin and so there will be no kittens.
To cheer myself up, I shout, “Whoop, whoop, whoop, ally, ally ooopp.” We enter the bridge, pass the signs that tell jumpers that they are not alone, and the suicide helpline handsets that are the same color as my car, and cross over the green water and the skipping boats.
For a while, we hit traffic and the bird nets droop, but soon there is the sign for the National Recreation Area. Just before the turnoff, Martin pulls the car to the side and we move the nets to the floor, covering them with our jackets, just in case.
The guard is a young girl, probably just an intern. We smile and pay; my university card gets me a discount, although the intern mangles Liu. The coins are cold and the faces of the presidents worn down. Martin takes the coins from me, counting, making sure that all are present and correct. We don’t need to count the dimes, but he does it anyway like a teacher tallying his charges. After he finds they are correct, he thanks the intern, making prolonged eye contact. And despite his gut, she reaches up, adjusting the angle of her bangs. I try not to see the pale tan-line that licks up over her collarbone and behind her shoulder. I try not to see Martin see it.
We take the panoramic highway along the coast, and the whole time I look up for birds. By the shore there are gulls, making sharp turns with sharper wingtips. We pull over at a viewing point. I load the cat into her carrying case. She slinks inside without resistance, turning her back on the whole scene.
We run across the highway—bird nets slung over Martin’s shoulders, packets of sunflower seeds in his pockets. His running is pigeon-toed, and I get across the highway first.
Although this is technically part of the woods, the land is scrubby. It is not long before my legs have red cat-scratch lines along their sides. But we keep walking on and on until there are real trees and redwoods. Ferns intertwine, and a thin mist hangs motionless over the ground. The world feels older here; even the mist might have been crouching here since prehistory, since birds had no feathers, only long crooked teeth.
High-up birds call out to one another, naming their world. Martin scatters the seeds in a space polka-dotted by sunlight. We crouch behind a tree, butts dangling just above the ground, my fingers pressed into bark. An orange ladybug clings to my sleeve and I watch it travel. The tiny pinhead is bent forward, certain and dark. I look up. Our tree is wrapped around another, its branches embracing the smaller tree in a lingering leafy garrote. Far above in the green light, birds commute, and none of them stops for the seed. The cat has fallen asleep in her case, tail slung over the tip of her nose, oblivious.
Martin doesn’t look at me. His hair is the same cinnamon-brown as the tree bark. He could have been made here, stitched out of bark and white clouds. I reach out and brush the back of his neck.
I ask, “Do you remember in Grimm’s ‘Cinderella,’ the part where the doves fly down and sort the wheat from the chaff so that her stepmother will let her go to the ball?”
“Do you remember that those birds came back for the wedding and they plucked out the stepsisters’ eyes?”
“Maybe we should have brought ham instead of seeds.”
Martin sighs and I think to myself again, why haven’t you left yet, why haven’t you left yet? I reprimand myself, remembering again what he said about thinking making it so. A slight breeze ripples across my skin. Above the trees, two airplane contrails form an X until the wind tears them apart, first into disparate puffs, and then before long they vanish completely. I look down. An ant crawls by my foot and it is carrying in its pincers a striped seed, one of our sunflower seeds.
I open the cat case, but the cat does not get out. I rub her ears and she opens one eye. I press my lower lip to my teeth and make the squeak that invites her to play with her felted mouse. The mouse is on the table at home. She opens the other eye with slow scorn and lowers her balding chin to the ground. She sniffs. I sniff too, and the smell is of water pooling in cups of bark, of leaf-eating bacteria, birds vomiting to feed their young, a man cheating on his wife in their new car, sweat seeping into the leather seats, tears and jam running together at the corners of a little girl’s mouth. The cat turns her back to me.
Martin reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tube of antibacterial cream and hands it to me. But I hand it back, stretching out my leg, wanting him to be the one to soothe my cuts, and he does.
“I don’t mind if you want to sleep with other women. Studies say after seven years, a man gets bored. That would be okay. I wouldn’t mind. Just use protection.”
Martin doesn’t reply, which makes me angry. He does not believe in indulging what he calls my paranoia. I think I am the one unprofessional choice Martin has ever made. After my mother died, he was my therapist. He didn’t ask me out until after I had been referred to someone else. Then he called me and asked me to the new Woody Allen movie. I wanted to ask why he took the risk, but that would have sounded gauche, and later it seemed too late.
But even all this time later, sometimes I feel he is looking at me with therapist’s eyes. So I push him, to mess up his hair, but he pushes me back and I trip, crushing ferns beneath my back. Once there I don’t struggle, and looking up, I see in the white sky the shape of a falcon. Martin’s eyes are falcon brown. And I wonder if he has already been seeing other women, if in fact he has always seen other women, but now I know better than to ask, or to scream in his face and wait for him to break. He won’t break—he has a personality like padded walls that give and give and never let you through.
I tell him, “I want to go home.”
Martin gets off me. I stand and he points at the grass stain on my butt. We laugh and I walk to the cat box, but the cat isn’t there. My tongue is thick, swollen with my earlier selfishness. I was laughing while, while what? It is not too late. Three-legged cats cannot run. She cannot be far.
“Here kitty-cat, darling, sweetie-pie, dumpling, where are you?” we shout into the shadows.
I wonder if I should have given her a name. I picture the sign: Missing cat, answers to “cat.” I put my fingers sailor-style to my forehead to block out the glare that isn’t there. Martin runs in one direction, I run in the other.
As we run, I think that when she is dead I will bury her here. I have been to visit the pet cemetery. It is bordered by a thin white picket fence. Reading the stones, I learned that there are Christian iguanas and Jewish chinchillas. Other options for pet death involve cremation. My mother kept all three dead spaniels on our old grand piano, but after she died, I scattered the spaniels on the freeway, where their ashes could chase easily after cars and sweet-smelling gasoline. But I think my cat would like to be buried here, amongst the wild things.
Then Martin shouts. He’s got her. He’s holding her baby-doll style in his arms. When I get there, I see that her white fur is stained green and there are burrs in it. She mewls, but I don’t know if it’s relief at being found or if she is telling me to fuck off, that she was always meant to stalk these boundless trees.
“I want to show you where I found her.” He smiles.
So I follow him a few paces and there it is. I bend and lift the chick, bringing it up to my face. It’s barely a bird, just a pinch of feathers and a shudder of heat.
Martin adds, “It’s a nestling. I think it has a broken wing.”
Martin is still carrying the cat in his arms. I hold the bird in one hand and put my other index finger on its throat. I can feel the slightest shudder of breath. The slightest pinch and it would be gone. I lift the wing, feeling the struts of bone. The creature squeaks. I wonder if I could make a matchstick splint. I had heard that birds eat cat food.
Martin places the cat in the leaf mulch, where she sits looking up at her prize. I feel foolish suddenly. But I can see the place by my bed where the light falls on the silver pine floor. I could build a tree of books and pipette honey into the bird’s red throat.
I look up at Martin. “I’m sorry for earlier.”
Martin bends and softly places the cat at my feet. She sits still; only her ears flicker like nervous weather vanes. He cups his larger hands around mine. The white gold of his wedding band reflects the shadow-stippled leaves. His hands are dry. Slowly he presses our hands together as if we were praying. I try to stop but he won’t let me, so I let my hands go limp. I feel the spike of the bird’s beak, the prick of claws: it hurts. There is a smearing feeling. When he lets go, there is blood in my hands; some of it is, perhaps, my own.
I kneel and the cat laps at my hand. The saliva-blood slime warms even the creases of my skin. The cat’s red tongue is butterfly-fast darting between rosettes of blood and guts. As she swallows, the flesh of her neck rises and falls and my own breath catches the rhythm. And when the cat has cleaned my hands, Martin lifts me upwards.
He is talking into my hair when he says, “You have to pick who you’re trying to save.”