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even when it doesn't taste of fish

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The revelers at the lake had laughed and cheered, on the verge of hysteria, when the clock ticked midnight and the new millennium began. Like they were priests, the boatmen held the boxes that stored all their regrets and pains of the last millennium with a certain solemnity, and they set the cardboard free in the water. No. 5 had watched as they sank and sank, feeling empty and no freer for it. 

He went back to the castle and slept, and when he awoke it was to a world white and quiet, the silence of snow. 

A day later, he touched down in Taiwan after what felt like a lifetime away. The city he used to be familiar with felt foreign, though nothing much, really, had changed. The air he breathed smelt the same, the people he passed neither particularly friendly nor cold, simply disinterested. Yet it felt as though he were seeing the city through a veneer, transparent but impenetrable.

Perhaps that was only to be expected, when he had left as a man with his own story, then came back with other lives and dreams haunting him. 

His house welcomed him home with a thick layer of dust. The letterbox was full of fliers. The clock on the wall continued ticking. 

It was one of his better days: the fever was present but not obstructing his ability to think, and the aches were derived more from the long journey home than from the illness. He washed and wiped and unpacked and washed some more, thinking nothing at all, and by the time the sun set he could no longer ignore the hunger pangs. 

It was entirely absurd, he thought, and more than a little funny, that he was participating in acts of the living when he was so clearly dying. 

It was so funny he remained crouched, rag in hand, unable to laugh. 

The grocery store was still open, though the pickings were few at this time of night. It wasn’t like he had been a particularly picky eater even before his illness, despite his fondness for sushi. And even that, too, he didn’t want to think about, not when it meant thinking about his wife. 

Congee, then. Food for the ill, food for the soul. 

Nights in Taiwan were much unlike those of Normandy. The darkness was disturbed by street lamps, and the homes in his apartment block were lit, his own window a black square disturbing the neat row of lights. Weighed down with a bag of food, he thought he heard a disturbance in the alley next to the apartment. He looked out of reflex, an action removed of interest. 

A cat, he thought. 

But when he blinked, looking more carefully, the figure turned out to be a boy blinking back at him. In one hand he held the lid of a rubbish bin. 

“...hello?” he said. 

The boy blinked again. “Hello,” he said. 

There was silence. The boy did not move. Neither did he. 

“Are you...lost?” he said. 

The boy tilted his head to the side. “I’m hungry,” he said. 

“Okay,” he said slowly. 

Beggars weren’t uncommon. He didn’t think he had been an unkind man, but he hadn’t ever gone out of his way to help them. And now the money he had wouldn’t do anything or go to anyone anyway, after his time ran out. 

“Do you—” he reached for his wallet, paused, then hefted the bag up—“I have some food here, but I have to cook them first.” 

The boy’s eyes lit up. “I know what that is,” he said, sounding pleased and proud. “Owner calls them grocery.”

Right, he thought. “Right,” he said faintly. It might be some BDSM play he had intruded on. “And where is your, uh, owner?” 

The boy’s entire being drooped. “Gone,” he said. “She sent me away.” 

“Oh,” he murmured. Unbidden, there was a surge of sympathy. It was the strongest he had felt yet, since Gu Xianglan’s death. “I’m sorry. What is her name?” The police might have been useless in searching for his wife, but perhaps there could be a happier ending here. 

“My name,” the boy said, “is Cabbage.” 

“Okay, uh, Cabbage,” No. 5 said. “What is her name?” 

“Owner is owner,” he said. There was the sound of a stomach growling. It appeared to have come from the boy. He continued, hopeful, “Food?” 

No. 5 sighed. This was no place to be talking anyway, not with the boy holding a rubbish bin lid. “Food,” he agreed, and he gestured to the boy to follow him. 

The boy followed him at a distance, stopping in his tracks every time No. 5 turned to check he was there. In his home the boy—Cabbage?—looked around curiously. His steps were cautious, and his nose was twitching, like he was sniffing as he looked about. 

Under the living room light he could see the boy more clearly: his eyes were expressive, the clothes he wore overly large. The boy reached out a hand to touch the sofa, tentative like he was feeling the material. He withdrew, stared at it, then reached out to touch it again. 

“Uh. Do you want to take a seat?” No. 5 asked. 

The boy made a sound in the back of his throat, not quite meaning anything. He touched the coffee table next, repeating the same set of motions. 

“Okay then,” No. 5 said. It wasn’t as though this was the strangest thing he had witnessed. 

While he worked in the kitchen Cabbage peered in but did not enter. He stared with unusual intensity at the congee No. 5 ladled out into bowls and did not appear to understand the way a dining chair worked. He sat with both legs pulled onto the seat, his arms around them, chin on his knees. 

“Cabbage has not eaten this before,” he said. 

“What do you eat then?” No. 5 asked. 

“Fish. Fish-flavoured things.” Cabbage thought for a moment and concluded, “Fish.” He poked his tongue out a little as he said so, like he was reminiscing how delicious it was. 

It’s only delicious with wasabi, his wife had said, when she had slathered her sushi with a generous serving of wasabi and dared him to do the same. 

No. 5 swallowed. “I’m sorry there’s no fish,” he said. 

“It is alright,” Cabbage said easily. Unable to figure out the spoon, he lifted the bowl with both hands and took a sip of congee. “But it is hot,” he said with a frown. He stuck his tongue out further. 

It began to dawn on No. 5 what exactly Cabbage was. “Are you,” he said carefully, “a cat?” 

“Owner did call me that,” he agreed. He stared at the congee, like it had personally offended him. 

“How did you—” he started, then stopped. How could he expect a cat to explain how he had become a boy, when he himself couldn’t begin to adequately explain what he had seen and what he had heard, over this year? 

Cabbage took another careful sip of congee. It seemed he didn’t mind at all the sudden silence. “This food you make is delicious.” He ate a larger mouthful then said, pleased, “Even when it doesn’t taste of fish.” 

.

Cabbage stayed. 

First he stayed a night, curled up on the sofa. No. 5, feeling oddly calm, retrieved a blanket and covered him with it. Cabbage sniffed and touched the soft cloth, clenching fistfuls between his fingers and letting go. Then he wrapped himself in it, pleased with the offering. 

Then he stayed another night, and another, and another. 

Then, like an unspoken agreement, he simply never left. 

Cabbage was an easy companion to live with. He watched No. 5 plenty but did not expect him to talk, seeming rather content to sit with him in silence. The arm’s length distance he kept between them decreased in incrementals, until one day when No. 5 sat down to read a book, Cabbage curled against his side and read with him, seeming happy to understand nothing at all. 

Through the winter his fever was always there: some days in the backdrop, some days making him sluggish and weak. Cabbage never minded when he lacked for energy. Those days he curled up against No. 5, his ear over No. 5’s heart. He would say, sadly, “You are sick, too. But warm.” 

Absurdly, it made No. 5 feel better. Like the fever was good for something, if only for warming a cat turned boy. 

As Cabbage grew comfortable in his home, he began to explore, touching everything he could get his hands on. 

There was scarcely anything of value to No. 5. Things from the past—before Gu Xianglan, before Jiang Hong, before his wife, before his illness—were as good as the fliers stuffed into his letterbox. They took up space, but that was all. He let Cabbage flip through books and fold the corners. Even the clothes he wore he didn’t care about. Cabbage particularly liked his scarf, amusing himself with pawing at the cloth and rubbing his cheek against it. The scarf tangled around his arms when he fell asleep in the afternoons, in the patch of sunlight that shone through the windows. 

Everything important to No. 5, he kept in his bag. 

It wasn’t long before Cabbage set his eyes on it. 

After the eighth time No. 5 held it out of his reach, watching the look in Cabbage’s eyes turn from curiosity to fervour to annoyance to a quiet sort of dismay, he sighed and said, “I can let you look. But you must be very gentle with them, is that alright?” 

“Gentle?” Cabbage asked. 

No. 5 thought. He touched Cabbage’s head carefully, stroking his hair in the way he knew Cabbage enjoyed. Cabbage made a sound of happiness. “Gentle, like this.” 

Cabbage nodded. When No. 5 removed his hand Cabbage grabbed it between his own, moving it to his head again. 

When Cabbage was satisfied with the petting, he watched as No. 5 retrieved the items from his bag. There wasn’t much: two handicraft items, a candlestick, a journal. No. 5 picked up the handicraft items first and held them out for Cabbage’s inspection. 

Cabbage said, pleased, “Birds.” Then, he said, “But they are not real.” 

“Yes, they aren’t,” No. 5 agreed. He put one in Cabbage’s hand; holding the other one, he traced the tip of the wing. “I made them out of a rifle, and a woman’s shoe.” 

Cabbage nodded in understanding. “The devil took Owner’s shoes and gave her one more day to live. He did not give her a bird.”

“How awful,” he murmured. 

“Yes,” Cabbage agreed. 

Cabbage stroked one finger down the bird’s back over and over. He looked at the bird and sniffed it. Even his sniffs were gentle. 

“The bird,” he declared, “is happy.” 

No. 5 smiled. “How do you know?” 

“It is flying. Cabbage saw birds in cages, once,” he said. “They sang, but it sounded awful.” 

“Yes, it would,” No. 5 whispered. He bowed his head, thinking of Gu Xianglan and her thrilling, miserable, wretched life. The way she smiled at him before her death, like she was finally flying free. “It would.”

Cabbage put the bird down gently and reached for the candlestick, equally gentle. “This one?” he asked. 

No. 5 drew in a deep breath. His voice was steady as he said, “This belonged to a friend. When she told her story, a candle had to be lit. Every night, if the candle was lit, she told her story.” 

Cabbage did not seem to understand, but he looked earnestly at No. 5 all the same. “Your friend was like Owner?” 

“What?” 

Cabbage put a hand over No. 5’s heart. “Like this. Owner was like this, to Cabbage. Your friend too: was she like this?” 

No. 5 smiled. It ached. “Not quite,” he murmured. 

“But you hurt.” Cabbage put the candlestick away gently and crawled into No. 5’s lap, curling his arms around his neck. “You are hurting, like Cabbage hurt when Owner looked at Cabbage and Cabbage knew Owner was going to send Cabbage away.”

No. 5 buried his face in Cabbage’s neck. 

The clock ticked. Cabbage murmured, “Wet.” He did not move away. 

That night No. 5 held Cabbage against his chest, the scarf twined around Cabbage’s arm and trailing across No. 5’s back. Haltingly, backtracking at points, but as fully as he can remember, he told Cabbage of a man who fell in love with a woman and who was left behind, of fevers, of the search for answers, of love in a foreign land, of a mysterious lake, of a man who left a woman, of a hospital and a woman who told him her story and whose candle remained burning even as she breathed her last. 

Cabbage was silent after he finished. He nuzzled No. 5’s neck then said, “What is love?” 

“...why do you ask?” 

“Cabbage asked Owner before, but Owner could not answer,” he explained. “You said it a few times. Love.” 

No. 5 rolled slowly onto his back, Cabbage now cuddled atop him. His warmth and weight were grounding, like all the sunlight he had absorbed in his naps were seeping into No. 5, a warmth that fought the chills of the fever. He said, “I think perhaps it is wanting them to be happy, and feeling hurt for them when they aren’t, and wanting to take on all the hurts in the world for them. But maybe, maybe there is some selfishness in it too. Maybe it also means feeling sad, when they don’t hurt for you like you hurt for them.”

Cabbage thought for a while and nodded. “Maybe that is it,” he said, and he let out a sound, half a sigh, half a purr. 

Like it was a reward for answering his question, Cabbage then told him of a deal a woman made with a devil, a much simpler, yet much crueler story than his: one item in exchange for one more day to live. It began with things of value, but not necessarily difficult to part with. A pair of branded shoes bought with her first salary, the necklace from her mother. Then it was her phone, which she used to keep connected to the world, her friends, her family. Then it was memories. Then her mother’s love. 

Then it was Cabbage. 

And then Cabbage knew not what happened after. Because he turned up here, hungry, alone, scared. And then No. 5 had no fish but fed him congee, and then he stayed. 

Though it was hard to breathe, hard to speak, even, No. 5 cupped Cabbage’s cheek and said, “She made a poor choice.” 

Cabbage nuzzled into his palm, sweet and trusting. “Did she?” he asked. “But I was willing. You said—love. I wanted her to be happy, without hurts. I loved her, the way cats are able to.” 

“But she loved herself more than she loved you.” 

Cabbage looked at him with eyes both innocent and wise. “You’re dying too,” he whispered. “If your world has a devil, wouldn’t you do the same?” 

No. 5 parted his lips but found he could not answer. 

Would he? He had asked so many doctors in search for a name to this illness. Without a name, how could there be a cure? (Without a name, was he anything or anyone at all?) He had travelled far and wide in search of his wife, in search of answers, and came back only with a cavernous ache in his heart, an emptiness. (Had he really loved her, or had he loved only the shadow of another, the shadow of the woman whose hand he held as she breathed her last?) He thought he had found peace by now; but if he had the chance to live another day, another hour— 

“It’s okay, I understand,” Cabbage said. His nose twitched, the way those of cats do. “Do you know: they say cats don’t care, but all we want is to see you smile. For you to not hurt. And you—you’re so terribly sad. So if I can give you some more time—” 

No. 5 found himself suddenly weeping. He tightened his arms around Cabbage, the precious boy, the strange boy. “No,” he whispered, “I shall never wish you away, even if it gave me another year, even another decade, of life.”

Cabbage was silent, his breaths soft and quiet. “Okay,” he said. “We will live together, then,” he said, like it was, quite simply, a law of the universe. 

.

As the wind turned warm and the flowers bloomed again, No. 5 wrote in his journal. 

Like that night he told his story to a boy who didn’t judge was the lowering of a dam, the words came easy to him. In a trickle the feelings flowed back; it hurt, but it was a good hurt, like the lancing of a boil, necessary for closure. Sometimes Cabbage curled at his side as he wrote, and though he knew not what it meant, he knew the journal came from the bag. So he touched the paper carefully, and the fountain pen, and No. 5’s hand. And he looked at No. 5, pleased, when No. 5 paused and stroked his hair. 

As No. 5 wrote the fever waned and came back and waned again. He began to wonder if this was the end of his borrowed time, if one day the fever would rage on and on, and he would no longer be able to care for Cabbage. 

So he finished his story. He began looking around to see who could take Cabbage in, when he eventually headed to the end. Then he sat to wait, holding Cabbage when the boy demanded it, and more often when he himself wished it. 

And then the year passed. 

And the next, too. 

And though his fever never quite went away, it never raged. No. 5 took on a job, sourcing abandoned items and making them anew, selling the handicrafts to those in search of a story. 

Then, one day, as Cabbage listened to the radio and hummed along to the songs and got up to dance to them—No. 5 took out his easel and cleaned it. 

And he began to paint. 

As he painted and painted and painted—a woman flying free of her cage; another young woman smiling, free of hauntings; Cabbage curled up asleep in a patch of sunlight, hand curled over the handicraft bird and scarf twined around his arms—the ache became less and less cavernous, less consuming, until it was present like an old friend who journeyed beside you but who no longer hurt with his words.  

Perhaps in reward for Cabbage’s love, he was sent to a man who would never send him away. 

Perhaps in exchange for all they have lost, No. 5 was granted life once more. 

Perhaps an answer does not really matter. Cabbage played with the bird in his hands, letting it fly through the air, making chirping sounds as he did so—and No. 5 laughed, once again.