Animal yōkai are always popular with readers, both abroad and in Japan. I found that with the reaction to my latest book, The Fox’s Wedding! Tonight’s story is not about a fox, though. It’s about a cat!
As many cat owners will tell you, cats seem to live entirely separate lives when humans aren’t watching. Just look at the cat episode of Sandman, or the video game Stray, or even the musical Cats. Supernatural felines seem to exist in every culture and art form across the world. This makes sense considering that cats and humans live in close proximity to one another. Monster cats are no small subject in Japanese folklore. Bakeneko and nekomata are two fairly well-known animal yōkai, and today’s story just happens to feature one.
The Nekomata of Echigo Province
There was a wealthy man living in the province of Echigo. One day there was an extremely gorgeous woman standing outside of his front gate.
“I wish to serve your house,” she said.
When the lady of the house heard this, she said, “What excellent timing. You will be our daughter’s new chamber maid.”
This woman was skilled in many arts, from painting, to flower arranging, and even calligraphy. The man and his wife were both very pleased to have found such a person, and so they treated her very kindly.
One day, the lady of the house walked past the woman’s room and, noticing that a light was lit, peeked inside. The woman removed her own head and placed it on the dresser, applied makeup and tooth black to it, then placed it back on her body and acted like it was totally normal.
The lady of the house was terrified. She summoned the servant woman and made up some excuse to fire her. When she did so, the woman’s countenance changed.
“I thought I made be able to serve here forever, but all of a sudden you fire me… Did you perhaps see something?” she said.
“No, nothing like that. In any case, you are let go. When it is time for my daughter to get married, I will call upon you again,” the lady of the house replied.
“Ah, what a wretched thing to say!”
As soon as she said this, the woman leapt at the lady of the house and bit into her throat. That instant, a servant heard this, drew his sword and slashed at the woman. She collapsed, dead, and the servant sliced her side open. The woman’s once beautiful form transformed in an instant into that of an old cat, with a mouth that split from ear to ear, horns, and two tails. It was the pet cat which had lived in that house for a long time but had gone missing one day. It had transformed into a nekomata.
The lady of the house suffered from her wounds for fifty to sixty days.