Outside there is a pandemic and I am in lockdown in Montevideo, Uruguay, far from my daughter and son also locked down, but in Kanazawa, in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, and I am inside drawing, drawing, drawing, filling sheets of paper, pages drifting to the floor, as if I were the boy in the Japanese fable who also draws and draws and draws but only cats. Cats, cats, cats until his farmer father gives up and sends him to a monastery where the boy draws the monastery cats until the head priest too gives up and tells him to go home. As he leaves, the old priest warns the boy, saying: “Avoid large places at night. Keep to the small.”

I am keeping to the small, tucked inside my rented apartment, inside my body, the very idea of outside frightening to me now—and the boy too is afraid, but of returning to his father, so instead he travels to another temple in the hopes he can ask the priests to stay there, not realizing they have all fled a giant goblin-rat. The boy arrives, and finding the place deserted, begins to draw cats all across the walls.

How long before I am drawing cats? Right now I am practicing persimmons, modeled on Muqi’s famous painting “Six Persimmons” said by Buddhist monks to be the only painting with no screen of thought between the viewer and the object. Perfect for meditation. But now the round persimmons keep shifting under hand, turning into round cat faces, lacking only whiskers. 

Meanwhile in the fable, night falls and the boy, remembering the old priest’s warning, climbs inside a little cabinet before he goes to sleep, but he wakes to the sound of fighting, of horrible rat screams. When morning comes and he climbs out, he discovers the corpse of the goblin-rat as big as two dead cows. As he wonders what could have killed it, he sees the claws and tongues of the cats he drew on the walls are now wet and red with blood.     


But the fable has a happy ending. The boy is hailed as hero and grows up to be a famous artist—who draws only cats.                    

Me, I move on from persimmons, start working on my linear perspective so in this moment when people all around the world are dying, when there might not be a far off future, I can fool myself into thinking two converging lines are a path to a Japan and my children—or even a road to a further, more distant land where everything is fine.

Jesse Lee Kercheval is a poet, writer, and translator, specializing in Uruguayan poetry. Her memoir, Space, was the winner of the Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her recent essays have appeared in Guernica, The Sewanee Review, Entropy, On the Seawall and Blackbird. 

Photo by Kim Adrian