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Reincatnation

You might have guessed it by now. Yes, I am a tomcat.

I’m one of several varieties of strays. One of five kittens born near a drain pipe along CM Recto Avenue and Juan Luna. Only two of us survived the habagat, or monsoon weather. One drowned during a flash flood as a newborn. They found my brother’s three-inch-long body, bloated and soiled by soot, down at the estero de reina. The other two were murdered by my mom’s second boyfriend on the rooftop of Puregold.

My only living brother figured in a catfight two years ago. Over a tri-color female housecat, of all the abominations, who lived in a neighborhood populated by stray dogs. One afternoon, he strayed too far from our hellhole in Recto. There lived a hoard of stray dogs between Pavia and Malong, a stone’s throw from Juan Luna. My brother and his pal hardly stood a chance. His friend Nílo, the boy who took my brother in as his housecat, died of rabies. As for my brother—definitely a lot smaller in size than I was and a little too reticent for a cat—he was mangled beyond recognition.

I remain the largest among my siblings and the only one left alive. I don a black and white fur, more black than white. A clutch of midnight black pelt in a circle ‘round my left eye, resembling a pirate’s eyepatch, made me lookdespicable and mean. Where I live, despicable is everything. I have this lone grey dot on my forehead. No, not a star but something which, on closer examination, bore some resemblance to a dead cockroach. Dogs simply refuse to mess with it.

Regardless of my Paquito Diaz demeanor, some say I look rather dashing, even gangster-sexy, at least to the females of my kind.

I’m bigger than most tomcats you’d see wobbling or scurrying across the street. I weigh roughly twenty pounds, fifty-eight centimeters from whiskers to tail. Got a tummy the size of a pound of weed; but for cats, that’s a status symbol. Tells the girls I have connections to the best tables and bins in town.

The whole mustachioed Humphrey Bogart routine was the product of my Maine Coon lineage. I was told that my great, great grandmother, bless her mouser soul, arrived in the Philippines from North America—a pure-blooded Maine Coon—during the early 1900s.

Her ‘master,’—humans like to be thought of as masters, funny thing—belong to a faction of American teachers, the Tomasites. This is probably the reason why my facial hair grew longer than most street cats.

You know what they say about sexy DNA. Call me adorable and exotic. I know, I know. Don’t feel bad. I can live with the cat-calling.

What really distinguishes me from other cool cats are these two things. First, my looks. My advice: don’t let it fool you. I’m not the cute and cuddly kind. Never slept on cushioned sheets or pillows. Never lived in a warm cozy house by the shore or inside a gated community. Never had canned sardines or warm party lasagna for supper. Never had a human family to look after me. Above all, never had to dive into a soapy bath.

Us strays, you know, we lick ourselves spick and span.

Most days, I’m a free spirit, with the exception of moments when I meet a really hot chick. Those days, I’m hooked. But give it only a week or two. They’re the sort who find long-term relationships objectionable. I don’t blame them.

As strays go, I’m your garden-variety nocturne: temperamental, oftentimes wide-eyed, salacious—in fact, scandalous—and altogether a meowy little spoiled furry imp. I’m not sure where I got it. Some aunts say the mother’s side of the pride; the others, my dad’s.

This much is certain: I love engaging in wanton and gratuitous sex. In public. I was told it’s something of a family tradition.

Rooftops are a special treat, like the first-class motels humans go to. There’s something about galvanized iron which makes sex loud and ear-splitting. I heard motel beds were no different. Thin walls help little to muffle the screams. Suffice it that I like it that way. Street corners, well… hmm… on dire occasions probably, but I’d rather leave them to my nemesis—the stray dog. Cheap corner sex is not my thing.

Cats dig our teeth on nearly anything and everything we could get our paws on. Surplus half-eaten burgers. Preferably grilled, not fried. Discarded heads of prawns are a favorite. The occasional snake, or during summers, the pied fantail. It’s a bird that looks exactly like a train robber from old Westerns. Fat rats that hole up in caverns beneath the streets.

Oh! And another favorite, the maliputo. It’s a really meaty fish. I hate Spam. I can tell it’s made up of meat extenders. Cheese: well, nothing moldy or fancy. Everyday cheddar would do. Unwanted chicken dinners, too, albeit I hate microwavedfowls. Potato chips are fine, but not the two-day scraps that fall from the table. I like ‘em fresh from the foil.

On lean days, a half-finished can of cola in the trash bin does the trick. I get high on sugar. Keeps me on my toes. Or paws.

Whatever.

The streets taught me to bejumpy, oversensitive, vulnerable to excessive tantrums. I’m always on guard twenty-four-seven. My eyes take catnaps partly open. I trained the hairs on my back to sense the slightest movements, even changes in air temperature.

I’m particularly sensitive to scents. I once knew the comings and goings of a neighbor by the trail of odious farts he leaves behind.

A petty rattle behind the shadows, a wayward shriek at the back of a corner stall, could send me reeling for a fight. Unsheathed claws and fangs. Yeah, I’m a thug. Your sari-sari store hooligan. Your friendly neighborhood ruffian no one could pick up and cuddle without suffering a scratch. Or a bite, whichever comes first. I’m moody that way.

The second reason is a bit too outer-worldly. At least, if you believe in that stuff. Supernatural, humans call it. Suffice it that I was born with memories of another life. In fact, several lifetimes.

That’s saying a lot for cats who already boast of nine.

These memories are too vivid to discard. It’s enough what these memories tell me: that I was once—brace yourselves—human. The latest being the professor emeritus of a Catholic university and an author of several books on Philosophy and History. This explains my rather bizarre vocabulary and fondness for the smell of paper.

Across past lives, I was at one point a man of the cloth. A Franciscan friar sent to Manila on a crucial mission to evangelize the invading Japanese. An honest-to-goodness virgin, in fact. I was around twenty-seven when Japanese soldiers hung me by the neck for slapping an officer. I have to admit that my evangelization techniques were quite unorthodox. They left me to rot along Taft Avenue next to two thieves.

Another past life, though one I’d rather soon forget, told me I that I was a Leftist divorcee. Apparently my near-to-endless lectures in universities all over the country got in the way of my married life. She left with three quarters of our shared bank account. At the launching of my sixth book on Karl Marx’s Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic, with an extra chapter on Division of Labor in Bourgeois Society, while smoking at the curb, I was gunned down by motorcycle riding assassins. Three shots: one in the chest—center sternum—then my right shoulder blade. The last slug pierced the lower left side of my right eye and exited in five marble-sized shrapnel at the back of my head. Saw the initial police report while on my way to cat oblivion.

No, I have no recollections of being an ancient alien. I only wish.

Apparently, I have a long history of rein-cat-nating. Until finally, the sun-god Amun Ra decided to hole me up in the body of a cat. Or was that Bastet, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess of the moon?

Anyway, they’re all dead. Good for them. These blokes could’ve chosen a lion, leopard, or a majestic panther. They were aware of my fondness for the cheetah. But noooo. They chose a stray cat in the middle of Manila.

What the fuck. I guess it’s too late to file a complaint.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Being a stray cat has its perks. In spite of my fat fluffy paws, one gets to travel great distances. You know, tour the city. Reconnoiter the vast expanse of the known universe. Explore strange new worlds. Survey the empire.

My apologies. The faint memory of former godhood does that to a cat.

It all kicked off one tail end of the cold front, weeks before summer. From the minute I sat down charting my domain, I immediately planned on setting out on a great adventure. I wasn’t getting any younger.

I left my little hellhole in CM Recto and proceeded to España—no, not Spain, but the street perpendicular to where I was born. I have been told that it’s part of the so-called University Belt. I thought perhaps it was the perfect time to search for the roots of my reincarnated self. I’m aware that the oldest Catholic university sits right smack in the middle of España. I can start my journey into the past there.

I chose the beginning of the summer vacation for this planned expedition. Students often get in the way of my cat walks. Besides, a whole chunk of that area is infamous for flooding. I don’t look good in wet fur. So, summer it was.

To prepare for this journey of a lifetime, I polished and sharpened the fangs and claws, just in case. Other street cats prowl the area, and to them, I am but another stranger, another potential victim. Spent four hours licking the fur for that extra gloss and shine. White should be white, and black should be midnight black. No in-betweens. Who knows? I heard that a bevy of catty Juliets in the area were on the hunt for their dashing and dapper Romeos. I am an advocate of feline libido, if you haven’t asked.

Buffed the leg and arm muscles, too, for stamina. From the corner of CM Recto and Juan Luna, I jogged a short distance to the Tutuban Commercial Center. On the way, I chanced upon friends on the hunt for mice and unruly snakes at the Manila branch of Cebuana Lhuillier. To give my limbs that extra workout, I sprinted past the University of the East to Rex Bookstore along Legarda and Recto.

I guess that was my past life getting the better of me. I remember owning a huge stash of books as professor of Philosophy. I wonder what Derrida means. Keeps on popping in my head. At any rate, I spent the night near the shop windows if only to reminisce and smell the paper.

Even before the roosters started to crow, I sprinted through Dalupan Street, easily crossed Loyola, then after passing Padre Noval, I dashed toward España. I noticed a Goldilocks Bakeshop located across the street from the university. I once had a taste of the shop’s dinuguan. It’s pork stew made of pig’s blood, simmered in vinegar.I waited for my breakfast. Instead I got half-eaten piece of leftover Pinoy-style dumplings. Tasty but not impressive. Not to this cat.

The sun was just right above the treetops when I finally reached the grounds of the university. Took me some time to cross the eight-lane España Street. Some of those jeepneys seemed to be running blind at a hundred-twenty kilometers-per-hour. Jeez! It was probably half-past nine or ten, if I remember the use of my former wristwatch, when I crossed the gates.

I slowly traipsed past the Arch of the Centuries, and walked down the old cobblestone berths alone, without anyone in front or behind me. I then leaped to the covered walkway near the parking bay. There I saw a handful of humans doing the oddest thing, you know, staring at that rectangular piece of plastic they call a smartphone. It bothers me even more that they do that while walking.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Shortly after a few more leaps, I reached this huge but rather ancient looking edifice in the middle of the university grounds.

The College of Science.

It looked as though it was dug up from the early day of the Byzantine empire. So, this is where the blue neon cross is located, I heard myself say. After a riveting night with a female at that short stretch of rooftop promontory along CM Recto, I could see this cross shine in blue neon on the horizon. Each time I felt I was the great Constantine.

Rumor had it that very few cats, if at all, lived within the university grounds. I wondered why. The one thing cats share with the wily rabbit is that we breed like them. In the thousands!

Manila was never anything but a haven for stray cats. All this leftover foodstuff coming from a long chain of restaurants are marvelous pickings for every cat with an appetite for good cooking. Easily, I would assume fifty to roughly a hundred strays, give or take a handful of the home variety—those pillow lovers. The university had lots of space, including blind corners. Lush vegetation, too, with trees queuing up like moviegoers at the box-office. A thousand and one dormitories and boutique hotels litter the perimeter. Fast food joints and a stretch of makeshift bistros and cafés along Dapitan were all sights for sore eyes. I would also assume that each building housed a canteen or kitchen.

From where I sat ogling this ancient edifice, I could already smell the barbeque.

I spent the next few minutes beneath the huge rock awning overshadowing the entrance to the building with the hope of seeing others of my kind. Five, ten, fifteen. Nothing. Not a furball in sight. Humans walked past me like I was part of the engravings on the wall. One hurled my way a potato chip.

I was starting to get really bored. To keep my brain from slacking off, I began recalling news and rumors of cat disappearances. This fascination for the macabre was probably the result of a past life, too distant to even be real, where I had wanted to work as an investigative journalist. I have the faintest memory of being shot at the back of the head, by a police officer whose boss went by the name Gen. Fabian Ver.

Anyway, I was told of the crackdown at the BGC area in Pasig years back, but that’s a five-day stroll from here. Somewhere in the south of Manila, in a gated community, the homeowners’ association allegedly launched an offensive against stray cats. I heard rumors of tortures the likes of which would shame the Spanish Inquisition.

This old story about a volcanic eruption up north sent chills up my spine. I was too young back then, eavesdropping on a conversation between adult cats. Rumor had it that after the volcano spewed tons of ash and lahar for hundreds of miles around, which laid waste more than half the farms and produce in the area, the people in villages made do by cooking cats for supper. In soy and garlic, imagine that.

Now imagine surviving a cataclysmic event only to be seized against your will, then later strangled, skinned, chopped, and marinated in soy, vinegar, and pepper—by the very same people who cuddled you weeks before! Some old cat claimed to have witnessed the act of frying the body parts.

I can’t. I just can’t.

No other tale of such bloody proportions made me decide long ago not to be a housecat. Forget that.

There. Is. One. Other. Story.

And from what I could recall of that grim tale, it involved the massacre of hundreds and hundreds of cats each year. It was somewhere in Manila, and they call it the killing fields, the place of forgetting.

Then it occurred to me how much time I had already wasted. I ditched that trip down memory lane, walked past the guard, and proceeded to enter the building. The immediate floor area was gloomy, ominous, with little sunlight seeping through the cracks. I pranced up the huge ancient staircase, careful not to be noticed. In front of me lay the opening of a huge door. Museum, it said. I peeked inside. The reek of ancient dust nearly threw me into a fainting fit.

Right there, on a concrete sprawl too large for me to imagine, and the old grey walls, stood and hung varying specimens of species of animals. From the smallest to the gargantuan kinds. Some seemed to float and hover like prehistoric winged reptilian predators out on the hunt for small mammals. Hmm… small mammals like me. These humans—they treat creatures with the same intimidating appetite for knowledge as those whose appetite included meat.

It was simply nerve-wracking just to sit there. No sooner did I enter than I scuttled out the door, refusing to look back. I raced up another flight of stairs, then another, and another. They seemed endless. The steps just went on and on and on and on. Finally, after reaching the top, I saw sunlight. Without much ado I traipsed out the exit.

Lo and behold! The infamous laboratories. I could tell by that gadget humans call the microscope. It was their eyes into the cellular world. I stiffened at the sight. The whole promontory carved in wood and stone was a wonder caught in deep sepia. Old. No, ancient. It was like breathing the air of some lost dystopian colony that existed way back even before the world began. History and destiny, I assumed, walked here hand in hand. I well-nigh couldn’t breathe.

Casually I strolled into one of the labs. The long rectangular tables, the glass cupboard full of specimens of fowl, pigeon, salamanders, and the oddest of them all—frogs. There were about ten of these slimy creatures impaled on aluminum pokes. This reminded me of the punishment inflicted by the Neo-Assyrian empire on Judean enemies of the state. It was too much even for the likes of me who loves Turkish Sis Kebabs.

Suffice it that what I saw brought back memories of my professorship. At the righthand corner of the room, a plastic replica of a human skeleton stood fronting a blackboard like he hadn’t had supper for years. It was too pale to be made of real bone.

As thirst crept up throat, I decided to look for a puddle of rainwater. I like rainwater for its alkaline content. So, I walked past the professor’s table and crossed the room right next to the side door that led outside. Suddenly, a familiar scent caught my nose. Immediately, I felt my lungs grow metal slugs. Or it felt like it, at least. It was bad. It stank like some chemical compound used for embalming.

That’s it, I caught myself choking on a furball. Formalin!

I followed that malodorous trail of chemical. The odor led me farther outside near two trash bins. To my utter shock andpanic, I saw hundreds of cat carcasses and loose cat bones heaped on one another.

I was stunned. I felt like disintegrating into a million muffled cries for help. The carnage was unbelievable. Their bellies lay open to the elements, the insides of their necks exposed. These weren’t ripped apart, but cut seemingly by a precision blade. Some must’ve suffered excruciating torture, their spines pulled out from their backs. Their mouths were wrenched wide open, caught in that moment of pain. The guts and entrails, looking all ashen andleathery, seemed to have been pulled out one by one, ripped from the cats’ very souls. Bones mixed with the carcass reeked of death, unspeakable agony, and annihilation.

I remember it now. This was the so-called killing fields, the final destination. The French had a name for it. The Oubliette, the place of forgetting.

Not long after my initial shock, I sensed a tingling in my fur. The temperature had dropped considerably, suddenly. I could see myself breathe. Slowly, I took a few steps back.

And then, an apparition: hundreds of ghostly images hovered over the floor right in front of me. All of them cats.

As if seeing all these dead bodies weren’t mindboggling enough, now these feline specters decided to haunt me. Excuse the hieroglyphs, but what the flying fuck kind of day I was having.

I pulled myself together, despite a cringing tail, and meowed, “Wuzzup, dudes?” I simply couldn’t risk staining my reputation as a cool cat even if I was on the verge of a fainting spell.

Not a word from the translucent furry banshees. Their eyes, though, told of the saddest tales. One of the ghosts, the only one wearing a housecat’s pink collar, approached me and reached for my head with her right paw. And just like that, like magic, I knew what I had to do.

I leaned forward and by instinct rubbed my furry cheeks on this cold wraith’s face. As she vanished slowly into thin air together with her all-too-spooky company, I ran down the stairwell, down, down, till I reached the exit of the College of Science, ran past the guard and humans texting along cobblestone walkway, then right through the Arch of the Centuries, then further and farther still until I reached the corner of Juan Luna and CM Recto, my home.

I thereafter climbed Puregold’s rooftop and there sent out an ear-splitting caterwaul: a call to gather as much cats in the immediate vicinity as I could muster.

By nightfall, a gathering of a thousand and one feline friends weighed heavily on the shop’s roof deck.

The plan was simple: save the university by launching a revolution against the hoard of mice and rats, and the occasional wayward snake, which had plagued its old, dilapidated buildings for decades.

First stop: the sewers along the perimeter. Thereafter, the school’s basement pipelines. Lastly, the student canteens.

My instructions: no prisoners.

I didn’t expect the hoard of vermin to surrender peacefully. The battle was fierce. There was too much at stake. Food and resources, for one. It took us roughly two months to get half the fleeing hoard to retreat into adjacent homes along Noval and Dapitan.

The other half was dinner.

Only one casualty on our side, but only because he slipped and fell off the fourth floor while trying to piss near a window. No, he didn’t land on his paws on the cobblestone below.

Months after classes resumed, the students’ clamor to protect the cats on campus was heard by the rector. Little did I know that the petition had been on the rector’s table for months. Then we came along. Teachers and staffers of the university noticed how much of the paper documents remained untouched during the vacation’s duration. No bite marks on computer wires, none of the ruin and havoc wrought by rats eating away at cookies, chips and clothing left in compartments and the locker rooms. Thus, the policy was signed into law: cats on campus will be treated as untouchables.

And no more cats in the laboratories. Experimentation will only be conducted on chickens, and yes, you guessed it, frogs.

As for me—the name’s Leonidas, by the way—the rector took me in as his very own. I now roam all of the university’s 21.5 hectares of prime estate as its feline guardian. Neither a housecat nor a street cat, but definitely, royalty. The blue neon cross stands as my emblem.

As for the rest of my thousand-and-one army of cool mousers, they chose the soot and grime of Juan Luna and CM Recto and the immediate vicinities, save for the three hundred I called upon to join me in my quest.

Yes, I saw the movie. Gerard Butler was awesome.

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