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Memories: Tenten and her Zabutons

She preferred sitting on my chair when I placed one of her zabutons on it for my own use. She was generous, and didn’t mind
Tenten and her zabutons
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1

It was more than 20 years ago when Tenten returned to our house and decided to finally live together with us. Her first possessions back then were the four crimson zabutons (座布団) that she ended up using for two decades until her last moment. 

Later, I prepared the other two deep navy blue zabutons for her after we moved to Kyoto. So, she owned a total of six zabutons in her lifetime. All of them were covered with traditional Japanese ikat fabric, which were specifically woven for kimonos. A characteristic of ikat textiles is an apparent “blurriness” to the design, which was the same as her fur pattern. That is why every zabuton suited her very well. She was a kijitora— a brown tabby. 

Tenten owned a total of six zabutons in her lifetime.

The Kijitora is very familiar to the people of Japan. Once, we could find them everywhere when I was a kid, except at pet shops, either as someone’s or as feral. They were often in between, because they used to be only transient guests among different houses in those days. They sometimes even belonged to several owners without letting the humans know that they have other houses. Nowadays it is not possible due to the strict rules and regulations on “animal welfare.” 

Anyway, Tenten was a typical Japanese cat who had six zabutons where she used to sleep. 

Even after she turned 20 (much longer than the average life expectancy of cats) she was still athletic enough to jump up on my chair. She preferred sitting on my chair when I placed one of her zabutons on it for my own use. She was generous, and didn’t mind that I used her zabuton without her permission. She didn’t ask my permission, either, when she used my chair to sit, or even to sleep. I hear that there are some humans who expect cats to ask their permission to use any kind of futon (buton) of theirs. They are narrow-minded, I guess.  

Whenever she felt like doing so, she came and slept with me on my bed, sharing my futon (布団). She loved the futon (a Japanese style of bedding made up of a mattress or shikibuton (敷布団) and a blanket or kakebuton (掛布団)) and she always curled herself in the middle layers of the folded kakebuton even in the summer season when I was out. 

Tenten slept in her zabutons.

She liked unpolluted and hygienic circumstances, where she could keep herself clean, neat and decent. For example, she was always concerned about the condition of her toilet— if I remembered to clean up or not. If not, she complained. Therefore, the first thing I had to do after waking up in the morning was to clean up her toilet. Keeping her zabutons clean was my duty too. The zabuton easily filled up with her fur, so it was me who removed her fallen hair with an adhesive handy roll. 

I keep her zabutons with me. 

Before she passed away, I removed her hair from the surface of the zabutons. And now, I seek them. Her hairy body was always well-smoothed by herself. That was why she was so soft to touch, that made me relaxed. I often pressed my face into her warm tender body and enjoyed her smell. So now I try to sniff her scent on her zabuton, hoping that her smell still remains.

2

For the last few months, she often failed to jump on my chair. One time, I heard a loud “thunk” at the corner and when I turned around to look, there I found her slumped on the floor after a futile attempt at jumping. She was supine with her body twisted unnaturally: her head strained to the right and the rest of her body contorted to the left. That had never happened before. She used to move very gracefully at her younger age. She was so beautiful, elegant and noble as well. It was obvious that she couldn’t resist her age. Like humans, cats suffer from muscle atrophy of the lower back and hind legs in old age, as her veterinarian advised. 

She preferred sitting on my chair

For the last few weeks, she had difficulty with her bowel movement. She made every effort to reach her litter box as needed. Sometimes she succeeded, oftentimes not. But she tried to avoid unintentionally excreting on any kinds of futon and tatami. One early morning, she asked me to let her out to the balcony. There was no sunlight yet. It was cold, so it was unusual for her as she never sat on the balcony unless there was warmth. She sat on the soil I paved for gardening and waited for her defecation. When she was done, she came back into the room. It took nearly an hour.

For the last few days, even if she failed to reach her toilet because she staggered and slumped to the floor every few steps, at least she somehow managed to move to the floor which was easier for me to clean up. I noticed her endeavor. 

And just the day before, when I woke up, she was not with me in bed but sitting on the floor. She looked at me. Then she started approaching me. Very slowly. More staggering than she was the previous day. There was a tiny puddle beside where she was sitting.

It was obvious that she couldn’t resist her age. Photo by Akane Yamakita.

For the last few hours, she lay down on her favorite zabuton as usual. But she could no longer sit up. She could barely raise her head now, and she was only able to turn it slightly to one side. She looked at me and struggled to say something. I touched her bottom then found it slightly wet. I knew that she hated to get her zabuton dirty. I applied tissue there, and she was relieved and seemed satisfied. She hadn’t taken water for the last 24 hours. So, it was just a drop. But even a drop bothered her. That was her dignity. It was six hours before she’s gone. 

Top and bottom photos were taken in May 2016 and May 2013, respectively, by Akane Yamakita at the House of Tenten. All the rest were taken by the author from 2018 to 2023.

Akane Yamakita is a Japanese photographer who once lived with Tenten at the House of Tenten.

Notes:

Zabuton: A traditional Japanese flat cushion used for sitting.

Futon: A traditional Japanese bedding cushion; now popular as a type of sofa-bed.

Mayumi Yamamoto is a writer and academic based in Kyoto, Japan. Her poems have appeared in Literary Yard, and some opinions in Indian Periodical. She authored several published books in the Japanese language.

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