Walking The Cat




Tamzin Whelan

 
© Copyright 2018 by Tamzin Whelan


 

Photo of a Korean message in sticks.

I moved to South Korea to teach English in my mid twenties. The people I met and worked with were warm and kind, but I was lonely nonetheless, living by myself at the foot of a mountain on the outskirts of a small city. This encounter in the capital changed my life in Korea and helped me feel at home in the land around me.

The first thing I thought was that I couldn't take her home with me. She was a wretched thing, crawling along the pavement with eyes glued shut from the same sickness that spilled out her nose. A shopkeeper pressed her face into a saucer of milk but she couldn't drink it. He told me that her Mum had been hit by a car and all the other kittens from the litter were dead. He followed with a string of sentences I couldn't understand, roughly picked up the creature and pressed her into my arms.

The kitten mewed for hours as we walked around the streets of Seoul. I'd been based at a centre for a teacher training week and got lost trying to find my way back there. I phoned Korean friends asking for help to find a rescue centre to take her to. The only one we could get through to said they had a put-down policy for animals that weren't collected within five days. After hours of holding her, that wasn't a possibility.

So it was that I ended up on the five hour train ride back to Busan with a very poorly kitten huddled against my chest. Her heart beat was slow and small and I was desperate that she live. The vet didn't have high hopes. I cancelled plans and fed her medicine and food through syringes. After a few she began to eat by herself - at first only from the floor, but then from a bowl. She was strange and loud, but tough, alive and very lovable. I called her Soul.

I lived next door to my landlord’s mother. Like most elderly Korean ladies, she didn’t like cats and I was told not to let Soul out of my ground floor window. So instead I began to take her, for an hour each day, to the mountainside next to my house. We went first to a quiet grassy patch that is home to two Buddhist graves: grassy mounds with a cold, marble table in front of them. Soul is scared of strangers and this was the quietest part of the mountain I could find. I sat where I could overlook the grey and white domino city while she chased grasshoppers or butterflies. From this spot we scrambled up the wooded slope behind us. It was thick with pine trees and off the official hiking path. In Autumnal months it was a red world of dappled sunlight and raining leaves. In colder days even the big rocks were carpeted with white and brown tree debris: Soul sank into it as she galloped past my legs. Our climbing feet stirred up smells of musty earth and wet bark.

For a little while it seemed as though we had these slopes to ourselves. I’d take up a flask of green tea and my guitar and sing a very liberal interpretation of 'Folsom Prison Blues' with no fear of disturbing anyone. But during winter the spot grew more popular. First I noticed an empty birdcage, tied to a tree in the middle of the woods with thin blue rope. Then an ‘off-path’ hiker came meandering down into our territory, much to Soul’s miaow-filled distress. She climbed a tree and couldn't get down it without scrambling over my head and back, claws out for grip. The next week I noticed that some tree debris had been moved to reveal a two-metre rough circle of earth. Something - either a human or another large animal - had moved the surface of the forest floor. A tree-tied hamster cage appeared in the same place a few days later. Again, it was empty.

It was after these appearances, as Soul pranced around the tombs and I strummed guitar, I looked up to see that we were being watched. Another black and white cat was sitting on a rock behind us, still as a lake. She was so similar to Soul I thought for a moment that a mirror had been placed in the woods. By the time we climbed up to the rock, the other cat was staring at us from the undergrowth twenty metres away.

Next, came a whole pig’s head. It was near the circular clearing, positioned snout up, and coming out of an orange plastic bag. Noting the lack of flies, I had a moment of rare gratitude for the cold. I'd read a little about Korean Shamanism when I first arrived in the country and found out that pig heads are often used in good fortune ceremonies. I concluded that shamans had chosen the same hidden yet accessible woodland for their night-time rituals as I had our walks. It was a few days later that I discovered a message written in sticks on the grassy patch near the tombs. I took a photo and showed a Korean friend, Heeran. She couldn’t decipher it as the sticks were a little muddled and parts were missing.

Soul and I carried on regardless. I felt we could handle stick messages, pigs head and empty cages. But when, on our circuit, I heard loud rustling, I stood rock-still and heart pounding until out of a pile of leaves jumped a black and white kitten. Realising their size difference Soul took chase after it, over branches and leaves. Not trusting her intentions, I chased after Soul, cursing the depth of the dead leaves. I reached Soul before she reached the kitten, and took her to a different part of the mountain that day.

After that day we were watched - from a safe distance - by black and white kittens, the pig's head thankfully disappeared, and there weren't any more indecipherable messages. Heeran suggested that I go to a different place to walk the cat. I shrugged and offered a classic Korean ‘maybe’. Thinking about it, I realised that I actually rather liked being part of this motley collection of oddities - all drawn to the same small fragment of an old mountain. 

Tamzin recently completed a research masters in Transnational Writing. As inspiration for a novella she collected stories from Colombian Grandmothers which can be found here: abuelasdecolombia.org




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