When there’s a knock at the door on a Saturday afternoon, Hanako isn’t expecting a small child on the other side. It is, however, exactly what she finds.
“Does Takahashi Hanako live here?” the little boy asks, full of purpose.
The floor’s hallway looks otherwise empty. She blinks at the wide eyes staring up at her. “Yes, that’s me.”
The beaming smile he gives her is veritably blinding. “Found it!” he screeches like a war cry, and before she can recover from how damn loud that was, the kid is charging into her flat through the gap beside her legs.
“Who are you?” she asks as he takes off his shoes and puts them in the stand dutifully. Before he dashes off further in, she catches him by his little arm. “What are you doing here? Where are your parents?”
In the most matter-of-fact manner, he says, “They’re dead.”
Hanako gapes, grip slackening enough for him to escape. She chases after him into her living room, where he is carefully leaning his bright yellow backpack against the wall. “Who got you here?” she asks.
“I took the train from home.”
He rattles off an address that’s on the other end of Tokyo.
“By yourself?” Hanako asks, half-horrified, and he nods. Hanako shakes her head, but the child in her living room doesn’t disappear. It’s real, then. Hands on her hips, she asks again, “Why are you looking for me?”
He plops down onto the floor beside his bag and rummages around. Then he scrambles to the low table that’s set against the window and settles on one of the cushions. Confused, Hanako shifts the clutter on the table to a side and sits across from him.
The kid puts down a slightly crumpled flyer and pushes it as far across the table to her as his little hand can. Hanako cringes at the familiar garish orange colour and vivid blue print. Why did she ever choose those colours to advertise herself?
“This is you right?” the boy says, nearly bursting with excitement. “It says that you can find and chase away spirits.”
“That’s one of my jobs, yes.” She narrows her eyes at him. “Do you need me to exorcise your house?”
“No!” He shakes his head violently, waving his hands for extra emphasis. “You have to help me find my cat, right now!”
“I don’t do that sort of thing, kid.”
He puts his little hands on the table and leans forward. “You can chase spirits but can’t find them?”
Hanako raises her brows. “You think your cat got taken by a spirit?”
He sighs, giving her a disappointed look. She can’t decide if it’s adorable or annoying. “No. Yuki-chan is the spirit! She’s my maneki neko, and you have to help me get her back.”
The fact that he named the lucky cat ‘good fortune’ is silly, and a little bit cute. Just like the kid himself. “Look, kid, I can’t help you look for a missing cat statue, okay? You can get another lucky cat anywhere-”
“Yuki-chan is a real cat!” he protests, pouting furiously. “I got her home from Gotokuji temple, and she turned into a real cat, and I kept her. You need to help me find her so I can take her back home!”
Hanako sighs, rubbing her face. She couldn’t do this. Weekends were for herself! She was past the need to slave through weekends to earn a living! Gods give her strength.
With a deep breath, Hanako reigns in all her sharp replies. “What’s your name, and how old are you?” she asks the kid.
He sits up straight and rattles off, “My name is Ito Hikaru, I am seven years old, and I love my cat Yuki-chan. And Bunny-chan.” He points at the toy he’d been clutching, now in his lap. “And Granny.”
“Granny!” Hanako jumps back to her feet, triumphant. “Where is your Granny now?”
“At the shop under our house. So will you help me find Yuki-chan?”
It’s only 4 p.m., which easily leaves two hours before sunset. Hanako is already pulling on her coat, grabbing her backpack, and hunting for her keys. “How much can you pay me for the job, then?” she asks to keep him talking.
There’s a rattle from behind her. The kid is waving a piggy bank that’s shaped like a lucky cat. “All my money!” he says.
“It won’t be enough at all!” His face falls, and she immediately amends, “That’s why I’ll take you back home, and your Grandma can help you find Yuki-chan instead.”
He looks down at his little treasure, lip wobbling. “But Granny is always working, and tired. She also can’t talk to spirits, so how can she look at all the maneki neko in the temple and help me find Yuki-chan?”
Hanako pauses for a moment, then goes to him with a sigh. Crouching to meet his eye, she ruffles his hair. “You really miss your cat, don’t you?”
“She’s been my friend since Mama and Papa were gone,” he mumbles slowly, cheeks looking huge like a hamster’s as he pouts.
“I’m sorry, Hikaru-chan. It’s been a difficult day for you, hasn’t it?” She takes his hand in hers and pulls him up to his feet. “We’ll get you back home to Granny, alright?”
“Okay,” he says in a small voice, obediently picking his bag back up and waddling towards the door. “Help me tie my shoes, please.”
Hanako smiles at him despite herself, and follows.
Outside of her official job as a maintenance worker, Hanako has witnessed, even dispelled, horrible hauntings in her time being an expert on the paranormal. She has guided lost spirits to where they need to be. She’s even helped a five-tailed fox with a faultless record of conduct and a prejudiced landlord retain their apartment!
She has heard her parents and their parents speak of haunted objects, but this is her first time being asked to look for an actual inanimate object come to life.
“I came here only to return your grandson,” Hanako tells Hikaru’s grandmother, bowing to decline the job politely. “I’m afraid I can’t do this.” It’s one thing for a kid to ask to look for a possibly inanimate cat, but the adult too!? Is there even a cat to find, or is this a madhouse?
“I’m sorry to take up your time, dear. But you mustn’t ignore a maneki neko’s beckoning.” Granny says, smiling, eyes turning into crescents. “Hikaru-chan found you, of all people. Go help him, child. Nothing happens without a reason.”
Hanako looks between the grandson and grandmother, both wearing twin looks of anticipation. “I can pay for your services,” Granny offers, pulling out some bills. It’s a small amount. Hanako hadn’t expected any more, going by the neat but shabby look of the small shop and the tinier house above it. It’s kept in fairly good repair, but it is old.
Such a life isn’t easy, especially for a child. She knows that well enough from experience. Even the smallest, simplest of things can mean the world.
A bell rings from the shopfront, indicating the arrival of a customer that Granny can’t afford to ignore. She rushes out, but not before telling Hanako to not leave in the meanwhile. Hikaru tugs on her fingers, and points excitedly to a framed picture hanging under the clock.
It’s Granny sitting in a chair, with the boy on her lap, who in turn has his arms full of a fluffy, lazy looking cat. It has a red collar, and the tip of its left ear is missing.
“Yuki-chan!” he tells her triumphantly. So there is a real missing cat after all.
Hanako fiddles with the beads of her bracelet and thinks of her night if she leaves now – a bowl of instant noodles and microwaved frozen vegetables, bingeing old favourites on Netflix and wondering if she could be doing something else instead.
When Granny comes back, Hanako asks, unable to not be sceptical, “You truly believe Yuki-chan is a lucky cat come to life?”
Granny simply laughs. “If houses can be haunted and spirits can become people, can’t a toy be alive?” She presses the cash into her hands. “Why don’t you find out?”
Well. It’s only so long before an investigator of the paranormal can coast by without doing something as ridiculous as this.
Hikaru-chan drags her to Gotokuji Temple, claiming that Yuki-chan will have come back to visit her other home. Hanako can only humour him, unfamiliar with this world of fantasy that was more bedtime story than the grim supernatural she was used to. He leads her through the entryway, the path lined with old maples going orange in the fall, and into the cat shrine.
She tells him in her strictest voice, “Go around, but no touching or picking up maneki neko, okay? Even if you’re sure it’s Yuki-chan. And don’t leave this shrine without me!”
With an enthusiastic nod, he scampers off. His yellow backpack is hard to lose despite the crowd, so Hanako leaves him to it. Row upon row of white ceramic cats line the shrine, their right paw beckoning. Except for the range of sizes, they all look the same. There’s no way the kid can find his cat here. She should brace herself to either placate a disheartened child, or make sure he doesn’t steal a figurine from the shrine-
There’s a sudden heat around her right wrist. The wooden beads of her bracelet, inscribed with a charm to sense spirits within any room she occupies, suddenly burn around her wrist. Rubbing a finger along the stinging skin, Hanako frowns at it; They’ve been warm since they reached the temple, temples and graveyards had a tendency to attract spirits and demons. But what changed now?
The presence of the hundreds of lucky cats in the shrine, waving and inviting good fortune for those that placed them there, is suddenly obvious. Trying not to be too conspicuous, Hanako hovers her palm over a tiny statue just beside her shoulder. The beads heat up again abruptly, and she stifles a yelp.
Were they really spirits that could become statues!?
She stares at the tiny figurine. It almost feels like it’s frowning at her.
Just the thought of being surrounded by so many spirits, malevolent or not… Hanako’s mouth goes a little dry. It must be nearly closing time. Leaving seems like an excellent idea right about now.
A quick scan of the shrine shows no hint of the yellow bag.
“Hikaru-chan?” Hanako calls, panic rising in her chest as she double-checks. Under benches, behind shelves and statues, between the crowds – nothing. She’s lost the child. How could she be so stupid, leaving him like that? What will she tell Granny!?
Breathe, Hanako tells herself, and thinks. Okay. It’s a huge temple, she should contact the security team and have the temple complex searched-
A tiny flash of yellow in a sea of red and white catches her eye. She crouches to look closer. The shelf is full of lucky cats, except… Except for a little statue of a familiar boy with a yellow backpack, hands outstretched, smiling broadly.
Hanako’s heart jumps to her throat as she flinches away. There’s no mistaking it. Her nose tingles with the beginnings of panicked tears as she moves in closer again, unsure. What- what is this? Will picking it–him?–up hurt Hikaru-chan? How is she going to fix something she didn’t even understand!?
Before she finds an answer, the searing ache around her wrist flares again, so sharply that the world around her goes black in a second.
Hanako awakens in pitch-black darkness. She can’t see the surface she’s standing on, or anything around her. No part of herself is visible either, as though she is nothing. As a scream builds in her throat, Hanako clenches her fists and feels her nails dig into her palm. She can feel her teeth biting the inside of her cheek to keep from yelling in fear, and her wrist still tingles with the strange, supernatural heat from before.
A paranormal investigator being scared senseless of the dark is quite ridiculous, Hanako is well aware. But she always has her torchlights while working. And the dark is where dangerous spirits are strongest, why would anyone fight them there at all? Being scared of the dark simply makes her better at keeping enough light to deter any supernatural forces. (Or so she tells herself, when forced to work at night. Or in strange spirit realms devoid of light.)
The memory of what happened crashes down on her with frightening clarity. Hikaru-chan. She forces herself to breathe, ignoring how her mind tells her that the unknown darkness is filling her lungs and stopping the air. This is more important than her fear-
Something warm brushes against her fingers and her legs quake like they’re going to give out any moment now.
“Hikaru-chan!” She holds onto the small hand that slips into her’s for dear life. Does this mean she’s a statue in the shrine too, now? “Thank gods!” She can’t see him at all in the dark. “You’re alright? You’re not hurt?”
“I’ll get us back home, okay? Don’t be scared.”
“Why would I be scared? The maneki neko are so cool! Look, they’re showing us the way!”
What? He marches forward into the darkness, and all she can do is stumble after him. She’s too scared to let go and lose him again. Can he really see more than just the darkness? Well, she didn’t believe him when he said that the statues were spirits, and look where that got them. Maybe it’s time she ignored the grown-up part of her that tries to make sense of anything before believing it.
The moment the thought crosses her mind, the darkness lightens. The jittery fear under her skin eases a little when she can make out the faint outline of a stone path lined with shadowy trees. She pulls together her frayed nerves and asks Hikaru, “Where are they taking us?”
“I asked to meet Yuki-chan,” he says, almost bouncing with excitement. She can faintly see him too, now. “They said that in the temple, we can meet only after everyone’s gone and it’s night. I asked them if I can stay till then, but it would be after closing time, so they helped!”
“Hikaru-chan, shouldn’t you tell me before asking them?” Hanako chides, doing her best not to sound too harsh in her fear. “What if you got hurt?”
Hikaru looks up, still beaming. “Yuki-chan will always look after me! And Takahashi-san,” he adds after a moment, with a look of grave contemplation that only kids can have. “She’ll look after you too, because you’re with me.”
“Did she tell you that?” Hanako asks.
Hikaru looks at his like she’s stupid. Maybe she is, she no longer knows. “No, but she doesn’t need to. I just know.”
“I see,” Hanako says, and lets herself believe it. Believe in this little boy leading her through the darkness to his cat that turns into a statue, in the idea that they might have nothing to fear despite the darkness.
Is it just her, or is the world seeming brighter now? It’s like the night of a waxing moon – the darkness is thick and heavy, but there’s a thin blanket of silvery light gently draped over everything. There is indeed a vaguely feline shape before them, leading the way. She squeezes the small hand in hers, and Hikaru-chan starts swinging them back and forth as he skips along.
Oh, to be a kid again.
The path is both strange and familiar. They walk along stone-paved roads and over a moon bridge, crossing an incense burner and several shrines that Hanako recognises as parts of the Gotokuji temple itself, before finally coming to a stop in what are clearly the cemeteries in the complex. The cat that’s been leading them leaps seamlessly onto a nearby gravestone, joining the rest.
Hikaru gasps with joy, and Hanako feels her jaw drop, because the entire place is filled with cats. Every single surface – the ground, the overhanging branches, the gravestones and the railings around them – is covered with cats, some sitting, some sprawled, some grooming themselves, and some sleekly climbing from one spot to another. They’re mostly white, making the faint light feel brighter as it bounces off their coat and makes them look ethereal. Which… they are.
It’s true, then.
Hanako flounders as Hikaru-chan lets go of her hand and runs forward, introducing himself to the various spirits and petting those that allow it. There’s no way this fits into how she’s understood the world for the last three decades. This is how the people you solve a haunting for feel like when they realise it wasn’t rats in the plumbing, the sane part of her mind tells her.
If houses can be haunted and spirits can become people, can’t a toy be alive?
Granny’s words echo in her head just as Hikaru chan lets out an especially loud and excited shout. “Yuki-chan!”
Sure enough, one of the cats climbs onto Hikaru-chan’s lap with a purr. The tip of its left ear is missing, and it lets Yuki-chan pet it violently, in a way few cats would allow anyone to. Had he really found his cat?
“Hikaru. I’ve been gone only a day. Didn’t I tell you to visit only occasionally?”
Hanako nearly chokes on nothing. “Did-Did the cat just talk to him?” she asks faintly, hoping that saying it out loud to nobody in particular might help make sense of it.
“Indeed she did,” comes another feline voice from beside her foot, and she jumps. (It’s hard to describe what’s feline about it – the rolling, purring manner of speaking? The undertone of haughty pride?)
“You seem surprised,” the cat that has settled right beside her says. It sounds amused. “Aren’t you a spirit hunter?”
“I don’t hunt anything that doesn’t cause harm,” Hanako explains, mostly out of habit. “I’m more of a mediator than a hunter.”
“Well, mediator, isn’t it your job to believe in things that others deem impossible?” another voice asks from right above her head, and Hanako jumps again, finding a cat peering down from a branch above her.
The sound of quiet sniffling distracts her before she can answer. Hikaru-chan is looking down at the spirit cat in his lap with tearful eyes. “You left by yourself forever? You don’t like me anymore?”
Oh boy. Hanako inches forward, unsure of how to reassure the child, but then the cat speaks again. She’s half-relieved she doesn’t have to talk to the kid, but more shaken at the reminder that the statues she saw earlier this evening can talk.
“I became your friend and stayed for a year because you were lonely when you took me home, and missed your Mama and Papa,” Yuki-chan says. “I will always be your cat, Hikaru-chan. But it’s time I returned to my own home.”
Hikaru-chan’s chin wobbles, and fat tears roll down his face. “But I’ll miss you,” he mumbles. Yuki-chan simply rises up to nudge against his chin, purring. If you ask Hanako, the cat’s being as clingy as the boy.
“Well, mediator?” the cat perched above her head asks.
“The world isn’t what I thought it was. That’s… pretty scary, isn’t it?” She looks at the boy who’s still talking to the cat, and laughs a quiet, incredulous laugh. “A little boy understands it better than I do.”
“You know, it’s always the children who find us,” The cat at her feet says. “Because to a child, the whole world is a mystery. Is a statue coming to life any less confusing to them than a subway train, or how babies are born?
“They can love things without fear, even those they do not understand. They’re the ones most willing to believe in the impossible with their whole heart. The ones who see and accept the mysteries of the world most willingly.”
Hanako stares. It’s a little hard to believe she just got sagely wisdom from a lucky cat come to life, but can’t help but think about it. “So I should stop trying to understand?” she asks the cat.
It tilts its head with a decidedly judging air. The one hovering over her replies, “There’s always going to be something that doesn’t make sense. How will anything new ever happen if you fear it?”
“Not knowing can be dangerous, you know,” Hanako answers, thinking of the cold fear that closes around her in the unknowable dark.
“It can also be quite wonderful, I think,” tree-cat says.
She looks over at the boy and his cat. Maybe it’s true. Spirits that can shift between being alive and inanimate don’t fit into the world she knows. But how can she not believe it after all this?
“I am, of course, talking about the strange and delectable fish in the pond I ate yesterday,” the cat on the tree tells the one at her feet. “My stomach feels perfectly fine, for the record.” The cat at her feet simply scoffs and stalks away contemptuously.
Hanako decides that that’s none of her business and checks her watch instead. A blank screen stares back at her. Of course time doesn’t work here, wherever ‘here’ is. She walks over to the kid, even though she feels a little bad about separating them again. “Hikaru-chan, it will be getting late. Time to go back, I’m afraid.”
Yuki-chan purrs again, and tells him, “Go back now. I will stay here, and bring you good fortune. You can come visit some evenings, if you miss me too much.”
With one final goodbye squeeze, the boy lets his cat go and stands up. “Let’s go, Takahashi-san.” As she takes his hand and wonders how the hell they get out of whatever spirit-dimension this is, Yuki-chan looks her directly in the eye.
The next moment, just as it had before, all goes dark.
They wake up on a bench along the pavement, a few feet down the block from the temple’s gate. Hanako wonders if it was all a dream. Then she turns and finds herself face to face with a red faced, sniffling boy. Probably not, then.
Her watch tells her it’s nearing 7 p.m., just after sunset. She stands and holds out a hand to Hikaru-chan. He just looks up sullenly.
She crouches down before him. “Hikaru-chan. Just like you miss Yuki-chan, Yuki-chan must also have missed her home all along, right?”
Hikaru-chan nods slowly. “I know.” He sniffs, and looks at her with extra-wide, teary eyes. “Will Takahashi-san bring me here on the weekends, so I can meet Yuki-chan and not be sad?”
Hanako narrows her eyes. Scheming brat. That shouldn’t be as endearing as it is.
She hesitates a moment, thinking of the dark, unknown path they walked. If she agrees, he will have to walk it every time. Maybe it was time she faced the unknown with a little more faith.
“Alright,” she concedes. “I’ll bring you. Now stop sulking, okay? I’ll walk you back home, come on.” The money that Granny had given her needs to be returned too. After all, she didn’t work on weekends.
They set off, hand in hand, silent at first. Then, “Takahashi-san, have you met Hanako-san from the school bathrooms?”
Who’s telling this kid these gory urban legends!? “No. And I’ll never try calling her, like any sensible person should. Never try calling, okay?”
The advice goes ignored as he curiously asks, “How come you have the same name, then?”
Hanako sighs, wondering if every Saturday evening is going to be like this from now on.
(She doesn’t really mind. It can be something… new.)
Lucky cats have nowadays become a popular motif even outside of Japan, but the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo is considered to be where it all started. This story is inspired by this article about cats in Japan, and its author’s passing comment on the temple’s cat shrine. I have done my best in researching the mythology and the setting, so please excuse any inconsistency and take all cultural representations here with a pinch of salt.
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