The story was featured in A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Stories
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish. Editor: Mohammad Quayum.
It was a black-and-white kitten. Just another kitten that Mom kept to scare away the mice. Three months old, she was growing fast. Eating and playing and sleeping were all she did. The altar was an old wooden platform, with a lot of nice decorative carvings. Birds and flowers and all, as far as I could remember. It was very simple and modest in comparison with the common altars in Vietnamese houses. Two bronze candle bearers graced the front, highlighting the incense burner in the middle. To the left was a plate to place the offerings, usually the sorts of tropical fruits like mangos, watermelons, oranges, bananas… To the right, a flower vase, usually with white lilies. In the background were photographs of the deceased: grandparents and even grand-grandparents. Some died too long ago to leave a photograph, so their names were written on a frame on the wall. The dates they passed away were written below their names, so Mom knew when to prepare a cúng meal, or an offering to a deceased ancestor. I was the one who cleaned the altar and burned the incense everyday, that was how I came to learn a secret about the kitten. She loved to sleep on the altar. Of course I knew other inhabitants too. A potter wasp built its mud cave at a joint of the wooden platform. Two geckos roamed the wooden ceiling. A spider wove its net across the celing corner. And two sparrows nestled under the tile roof. But the cat of course was most unusual. Most cats I knew prefered beds and roofs.
Of all the photographs, grandmother’s was the biggest. Then came grand-grandmother’s. There were photographs of grandfather and grand-grandfather too, but they were pitifully small, even unrecognizable. Dad organized all these, so only he knew why he did so. Of all the ancestors, I knew only grandmother, the others having passed away before I was born. Grandfather had died very young, of an illness. Grand-grandfather had survived him only to fall victim to one of those raids in the Vietnam war. Of course I heard tales about them.
Grandfather was said to be a good fisherman. He used to catch fish in the village river with his bare hands. No net, no fishing rod, just his two hands groping for fish in the in the holes along the river banks. He loved growing the balsam apples in his garden. He wanted them to hang nicely, in straight rows. Should a balsam apple fail to do so, he would cut it off. There were other things I heard about him, but they were not nice at all. So I should keep them to myself. What if they were not true, you know.
Grand-grandfather died a tragic death. It was towards the end of the Vietnam war. The villagers were evacuated to the town, because the South Vietnam government wanted to deprive the Viet Cong guerillas of their supporters. But grand-grandfather had nothing to do in the hustle-bustle of the town life. He went back to his village home. It was said that he was shot dead from a helicopter while doing some field work. He was thought to be a Viet Cong, or Viet Cong supporter. It came only a couple of years before my birth. I could very well have had a living grandfather.
This kitten who slept on the altar was not the first unusual cat that Mom kept. Years ago, there was a cat that acted like a dog. He would hug everyone’s heels. And when you ate, he would sit looking up at you, the way a dog would wait for some bone. Even his miaow sounded like a bark. Of course he would grow up chasing cats, especially female ones. Then there was a Siamese cat that slept in the shop window. Yes he was easily the most handsome cat in town. Maybe he knew it himself. But even he couldn’t come near to this kitten, as far as mystery was concerned.
Grand-grandmother was a great story-teller. I envied Dad because the stories were really nice, despite Dad’s relation. The one that haunted me was about a kid and his aunt who suffered such a famine they had only one bean left to survive. The aunt kept the bean in the pot and boiled it over and over again, because it was the smell of the bean that kept them alive. One day when the aunt was away, the kid couldn’t help but eat the vital bean. No smell being left to sniff, the aunt died. The young boy was then saved. But he kept regreting his deed. He soon died too and became a bird. It was often seen among bean crops. It was said to often sing like this, “Mùa lúa trỗ đỗ chín, hi-i-i-i-ít cô”, meaning, “The rice are blooming and the beans are ripe, sniff them auntie!” So the farmers called the bird “sniffing aunt”.