Once upon a time, there was a wide mansion, so rich its storehouses were always full and its tatami mats always fresh. Such an estate was filled with corners and nooks. And under its floors and in its walls, ran many mice and rats.
Usually, such mansions would have several cats strolling around, guarding the grounds with watchful eyes and swift paws. But, as the house’s mistress hated felines of all stripes, not even a whisker had ever been tolerated.
One rainy evening, as a maid was closing sliding doors for the night, she heard a faint cry. Puzzled, she put on her wooden sandals and, braving the pouring skies, went into the garden.
The cries went louder. And soon, under a bush, she discovered a tiny grey kitten, soaked to the bones. The poor creature was pitifully meowling and the maid’s heart broke.
– Come here little fellow, I won’t hurt you.
She tucked the drenched kitten into her kimono and ran to the kitchen where she slept. As the little cat purred madly against her skin, she smiled fondly:
– I’ll take care of you, promise!
And, against her mistress known dislike, the maid kept her words. For days, and weeks, and months, she secretly pampered the kitten who soon turned into a graceful cat.
Yet, one day, a shriek pierced the air. Alerted, all servants ran to their mistress’ room, only to find of peculiar scene.
An enormous rat laid dead, blood specks dotting tatami. The mistress was gaping like a fish, her face distorted with rage. And, seated unaware and looking quite proud, the maid’s grey cat licked his paws with application.
The mistress finally found her tongue back. She shrilled:
– What is that thing doing in my home! Kill it! Kill it!
The distressed maid lunged forward between the lady and her beloved cat. She fell to her knees, bowing so low her brow touched the floor:
– Madam, madam please, he’s not an evil beast! I beg you, have mercy!
The lady rose, her heavy silks letting a crisp sound. She let in a snotty voice:
– I take this thing is yours then. Well girl, learn that only I make the rules in this house.
Despite the maid now openly crying at her feet, the rich woman’s heart stayed cold. In a fakely sweet voice she added:
– I am no monster, girl. But those creatures are savage and not made for civil company. You! Do as I say!
And under the maid’s laments, the cat was taken away from her by the scrap of his neck.
Weeks passed but the girl remained inconsolable. She kept thinking of how sweet and kind her poor cat had been. All day she tended to her chores but her mind stayed with the purring friend she missed so dearly.
One night, as she laid wide awake with tears in her eyes, the maid heard animated murmurs echoing in the night. Somewhere in the mansion, people bickered over something.
Puzzled, she rose and, as quiet as a mouse, she inched closer to the kitchen walls and peered between two planks.
Two women stood in the corridor, one young and willowy, the other one old and twisted as an old tree. Shadows seemed to curl at their feet. An angered hiss sent a shiver down the maid’s spine:
– Filthy humans! Let’s eat them and be done with it!
The maid opened wide eyes. Those were monsters, and they were here to kill! With trembling hands, she grabbed a knife and tried to slip out to the garden, unseen. But, she had just let a foot outside, that hundred of glowing eyes alighted all around her.
Perched on every trees and by the well, curled under every bushes or on stepping stones, were cats, of all shapes and colors, some lean and pretty, other horribly marred. And each one of them looked straight at her.
A mocking voice purred darkly from the roof:
– Well, what have we here? Cat got your tongue, human?
The terrified maid fell to her knees, sobbing in sheer terror. Cat monsters were not renowned for their leniency, she was going to die here and there.
Suddenly, a familiar form lunged in front of her. Back rounded and fangs barred, stood the maid’s grey cat:
– Don’t you dare touching her! That girl saved me once, I owe her that much!
Seeing her long lost friend made the maid forgot all her fears. Ignoring how his neck bent at a strange angle, she embraced him. Purring loudly, the cat looked at her with bright eyes:
– I am touched by your devotion miss, but you can’t stay here. That horrible woman and her henchmen have enraged the cat’s syndicate.
Behind her, a sweet elderly voice shook the girl out of her trance. She turned, only to find the young and the old ladies eyeing her with unblinking yellow eyes:
– All us us have been hurt by foul humans. But, we are old now, and we won’t let misdeeds unpunished.
The young lady smiled knowingly, her mouth too full of sharp teeths:
– One of us has spoken for you dear, you’d better be on your way swiftly – before we forget you are not as other humans.
The grey cat purred:
– My soul will find rest thanks to my friends. Now shoo, I’ll make sure you’ll make it safe to the next town.
The sniffling maid didn’t need another warning. She hastily grabbed her meagre possessions. Yet, before she could flee, the old woman caught her sleeve, and winked slyly:
– We always pay our debts.
The girl did not linger any longer: she ran for her life. And had she just passed the mansion gates that caught the scent of smoke. The mansion had been set ablaze.
Then, nasty yowls rose in the night, soon followed by cries of panic… and agony.
Later, as the shaken maid rested at a road inn, her trembling arms tucked around her, she felt a strange bulk weighing down her sleeve. Intrigued, she patted until her fingers grabbed a thin packet, wrapped in fine white paper. Inside, shone a single gold piece.
Repayment courtesy of the cat’s syndicate.
This story shows bakeneko (or “changing cat”). Those monsters are usually old cats with malicious and revengeful spirits, which have gained magical powers as they aged. Bakeneko (and similar monsters named nekomata) are often shown tricking and eating humans – sometimes even their own masters. Yet, other tales also show them as fiercely loyal and ready to avenge their loved ones (the Bakeneko arc of horror serie Ayakashi is an excellent example – you can watch it here).
In old Japan, cats were easily found roaming city streets (a 1602 decree had set them free so they protected silk industry from rodents). Often well loved, their somehow vicious nature when they hunt and their habit to extinguish lamps (cats licked oil which was often made from fish), also gifted them a demonic aura, feeding urban legends like today’s tale.
The cat’s gift of a gold coin is not a random motif. Those oval coins, named koban, have been for a long time associated with cats, especially because popular maneki neko figures hold them in their paws (or on their foreheads if we speak about pokemon Meowth ^^).
On a side note, the japanese saying Neko ni koban (gold coins to cat) is Japan’s equivalent of “Pearls before swine”.