The Righting Reflex

Max Berwald


Picture a Shanghai high-rise. On the sixteenth floor lives a cat named Turnip. In autumn Turnip goes into heat. When the cries come from Gail, a moody and shorthaired bicolor in Tower C, Turnip has already been searching herself for weeks, trying to gather and name her feelings. Now she hears the cries and creeps to the bathroom. The window is open an inch. The cries continue, sometimes during the day but more often in the dusk. Night after night, Turnip sits at the base of the sink, reflecting on the promise implicit in these calls. Then, one Thursday, the bathroom window is left open. Turnip vaults to the top of the sink and peers into the half-light. She’s nearsighted, but can discern the shape of Tower C. Another cry and she leaps for it. As she falls, her body twists and swings. All feeling is obliterated in the rushing of air.


Turnip takes most of spring recovering. Her chin slapped the pavement, breaking her jaw and shattering her teeth. All four of her legs were broken, assorted tendons snapped and ligaments ruptured. When Lingyu, who has cared for her from kittenhood, brings her carrier into the elevator, Turnip’s mind is still and quiet. She watches herself through the iron bars, reflected in the walls of the elevator. She is aware, dimly, of her owner’s consternation. In autumn, the heat was like a storm in her mind, but since the fall she has felt calm. Now, she feels the heat returning, like a smooth stone deep inside her. As she suns beside the couch, or limps back and forth in the space between the bed and the wall, this stone hums; there is no way to forget that it is there.


Day by day she walks more and more, but Lingyu does not speak to her in the same way. Returning home from work, she strokes Turnip unevenly, as if repulsed by the unfamiliar crags of her body. But Turnip knows this is not the real reason. Lingyu senses, rightly, that her old cat has gone away, and that some new presence now shares her apartment with her. Perhaps this is why, on the first of June, Lingyu forgets, once more, to close the bathroom window. Turnip waits at the base of the sink, unmoving, until again the cries come from the tower. As she gathers herself onto her withered haunches, her nervous system is already tuning itself for flight. Her movements are automatic, strangely practiced. This time the rushing will envelop her completely.

Max Berwald is a Taipei-based writer from San Diego, California. His fiction has appeared on Potluck, Blackbird, Third Point Press and elsewhere. He previously edited the Read section of Loreli China.