Перевод Е.П.Валентиновой (главки 1-17)
October 8, warm… When approaching the house spotted Max stirring in the heap of dry leaves, a three-year old cat. When a child he came to serious grief several times, the fractured lower jaw united badly, and now a huge fang sticks out of his mouth rising from that jaw upward. Max ran out to meet me, he is big, shaggy, almost all black, only on his sides there are some reddish-brown tufts. He looks horrible – he is shedding hair. This spring Gray turned sore at him, and chased away from the house. And Max was making the best he could in the vicinity of the Ninth house, the dwelling area of a close-knit bunch of fellows, they are peaceful, but as to allowing a stranger to their bowls… He grew emaciated, his spine jutted out as a ridge of huge peaks, but he was afraid to return home. Gray had declared him an outlaw, and wouldn’t let him near. I gave him up for lost – thought he was dead, but just to put my mind at rest went to the Ninth to check. I couldn’t imagine that a healthy, strong animal may end up stranded within the distance of some hundred yards by the sheer inconceivability of going back home… And suddenly I see him in the grass, three steps away from the locals. I cursed my stupidity, I was so close to leaving a friend in great need. I know them fellows of the Ninth each and all, and they know me, and respect me. They had nothing against him, but only so far as he wouldn’t go for their food! So he would rush in when they had had enough, grab eagerly what was left, if any, and on such he had been surviving for about a month… I started to bring him food, gradually enticing him to go back home, in a week we managed half of the distance. He wouldn’t let me carry him in my arms, he is practically a wild creature. Each time he glimpsed Gray, he sprinted back swift as an arrow, which meant starting our endeavor anew once again.
Gray is insolent and strong, though basically a most excellent cat, except that he took such dislike to Max. I think it is because Max is so huge, and though seemingly an adult behaves like an adolescent. And that fang of his, it is a startling feature to behold, isn’t it? Boys call him “vampire” and chase him away, when I am not about.
2. How We Met
I spotted him on the stairs, he was standing still and looking at me silently. He was about two months old. Kicked out quite recently, not yet wise to the fact that life was against him. That’s why he hadn’t made it to the basement. The basement – it is a world in its own right. There they are born, there they live till their mother can sustain them, unless some tom-cat comes and strangles them. Then they perish – from undernourishment, but mainly it’s the extreme cold that kills them… Max was standing and looking at me, he didn’t know he was as good as dead, and wouldn’t complain. I continued on my way leaving him behind, you can’t save them all. I exert all the strength I have to care for them as it is, and now this new one pops up just like this… But the next day, seeing him at the very same spot, I decided against reasoning – and took him in. Well, that’s that, we’ll try to make the best we can, somehow… For several days he was just sitting about keeping silent. I thought he had lost his voice, due to wailing too hard immediately on having been abandoned. But then he started to squeal, and so loudly, that I understood – he was stunned speechless because he had witnessed horrible things. Was he damped down the garbage chute, and managed to get out of it by some miracle?.. I have seen cats survive it, have saved several myself. But why waste time on guesswork, he came to his senses, was warm, and seemed to be the luckiest cat of my bunch. Each of mine suffered an injury no less than a bone fractured in their time, but he got away without a scratch, nothing to ail him… And he was very clever – I taught him to fetch and carry paper crushed into a ball! Cats rarely do that, normally they would take the paper ball to some far corner, to have some peace and quiet while doing it in.
And then that jaw-fracture mishap befell us. He was about a year old at that time.
3. About That Jaw
He already mastered getting down from the second floor to the ground, via balcony, but didn’t learn yet how to get back up. Normally the first going down is separated from the first going up by a month and a half, with the brightest of them it may be several weeks. They sit and watch others do it, and won’t make a move till they have studied the process thoroughly. Then they go and do everything just right… Well, Max hadn’t yet got over that second phase, I was bringing him in from the street myself – I would call him, and he would come running to me. If he was hungry, he would sit patiently under the windows, looking upwards from time to time, a black and shaggy little thing… And all of a sudden he disappeared. I started the search, checked all the basements – he was nowhere to be found. Basements are shelters for cats, I like going down there. I have had more than enough of people… On the fourth day I was walking around the house, calling him. And, at last — he appears, and, without uttering a sound, comes and presses his body against my leg.
Something about it struck me as very odd, had he lost his voice again? I grabbed him, took him closer to light, and what I see – instead of a mouth he has a crimson pit, a hole, and in its depth, among teeth crashed into powder, among blood and raw flesh there moves, pleading for help, his little pink tongue… At that moment I finally realized – I don’t want to be a human any more!..
Pieces of fractured bone were rubbing against each other causing him horrible pain, he hadn’t had any water for several days, and if he were not to take some, it would be the end! I used a pipette to give him water, water and milk, then started adding some egg, liquid victuals… And look what a cat he grew up to be – a huge tom, with his jaw even harder than it used to be, only that damned fang sticking up is a jarring note. When he gets angry, he doesn’t hiss, he spits, his mouth doesn’t close properly. When he eats, he is ever afraid he won’t be able to do it fast enough, with that mouth of his, so he fights with his neighbors, wheezes in rage. When he is in the mood, he will allow to pet himself, he arches his back, cranes his neck, and his lower fang may be seen in all its glory. Presumably, that’s what put him in a tight spot the second time.
4. The Second Time…
There is a meek and mild old man with a walking stick living about here, I have seen him stalk cats. I believe it was his doing, though I cannot prove a thing. There was a time when I felt sorry for such as him: wretched creatures, their whole life passes in the foulness, in the dark, and driven by their spite they turn upon the weakest. But then I come to see – there are legions of them, legions!.. there are their children, grandchildren!… it’s they who are the masters on this earth!.. With such pressure, it’s amazing there is still a flicker of life about… Well, hardly had Max’s jaw had time to heal properly… It happened in autumn, about the time like it is now, only it was last autumn, he dropped out of my sight for several days once again. Naturally, I was searching for him, and then one morning I saw a black cat sitting in the grass under our windows, huddled over in a weird way, with his face to the ground. Cats do sleep in such a position sometimes when they are sick. I came up to him and recognized him, called him, but he was silent, his breathing was deep and laborious. At last he raised his head: his eyes were clouded, he didn’t see me, he was drooling, actually he was already past drooling, and on his head behind one ear there was blood… I carried him home. He quickly came round, recognized me. In several days he recovered considerably, and left again. Then things sort of got into the rut, he leaves, then comes to under the balcony… I was waiting for him to figure out how to climb up here the ordinary way, or maybe invent some way of his own… But he never did, and he failed to learn a lot of other things too. He is kind, strong and generous, he loves kittens, he would play with them for hours… but he stayed that way, with his development arrested, and that’s that.
5. How I Fought Gray Down, Way Back And Recently
By the beginning of summer I had, with greatest difficulties, brought Max back to our house, but he still was afraid of Gray, and was ever wary when approaching the bowls in our basement. As for Gray, he for some time had been distracted, love affairs and the like, but then once again he started to look his way, to threaten him… I saw that the time was ripe for a showdown, to remind him who is running things about here, and to make a solemn declaration that intimidating Max and the others is not allowed. Never mind whether I am a cat or no cat, I set the rules and they are to be obeyed by all. Nobody dares offend anybody in my presence. This scoundrel fell into the habit of visiting our kitchen at night, to forage in our bowls and to flirt with our girls, and those who dared contradict him he would beat up, drive out, and chase to the very borders. All our tom-cats grew very nervous under the strain, and first and foremost Max, who for some reason fell into the greatest disfavor. Would you call it life, when a body can’t have any peace and quiet at home?!
It wasn’t the first time I had to deal with Gray, I have to take him down a peg more or less regularly. Once he really got the works. It happened long ago, he had grown impossibly impudent and was making raids on all the apartments of the first and second floors, prowling about balconies, intimidating the domestics, and stealing everything he could find. I caught him trespassing on our kitchen many a time, but he slipped away easily, and laughed at me.
When he had sneaked into the kitchen one more time, and started munching audibly, I noiselessly went from the room where I was to the balcony girdling the house, moved along it to our kitchen window, reached for the upper section of the casement window that was kept open for ventilation, and shut it. Gray was locked in. I calmly entered the kitchen to confront him, he at once guessed what was coming, tightened like a coil spring and dashed for the window. I thought he’d break the glass pane or his own head… When he saw that there was no way out, he hid under the kitchen stand and prepared to defend himself.
I wasn’t going to beat him, I got a glass full of cold water, and splashed it into his face. He hissed, waved his paws… and got the second portion, then the third one… I felt that it was enough, that he was humiliated, and would remember it for a long time. I opened the upper section of the casement and stepped away. He didn’t understand it right away, that he was free to go, then with one huge jump he swished through the opened section to the balcony, and disappeared. The lesson he was taught held good for a month, then it started all over again.
It’s amazing, but he conceived no hatred for me. If he spies me in the street, he immediately hurries to meet me, and arches his back, and suggests I scratch him behind his ear… “Gray, do you remember?…” Of course he remembers… but that was at home… In the street we do not fight, but at home I have to show him his proper place from time to time. I am here to rein in the strong, and to help the weakening. As I nowadays support old Vasya, who gets shouldered aside from the bowls in the basement all the time.
But I could not act as I did before – humiliate Gray, because then he was just some scoundrel I was hardly acquainted with, and now I had considerable respect for him, and admired him. But could I allow this assault and battery of our guys to continue?! It would mean the ruin of our home, of our shelter, and where else are we to come to, especially in winter?…
So I decided to fight an honest duel with him, observing the rules of the cat fight.
I brought some food out for them, as I often do when the weather is warm, and there he was, his bully’s face smug, pushing aside the weaker with his hulk. Max shrank back and didn’t even come close. I slapped Gray’s face sudden and strong with the palm of my hand. The slap landed all right, but he proved much faster than me, he understood instantly it was a real fight, no joking, and managed to lash my hand so smartly that blood poured. Believing he had defeated me, he stayed where he was. Then I hit him with the back of my hand, faster and harder than the first time. Intoxicated by his first success, he was off his guard, and failed to respond. Hurled by my slap a yard and a half, he yet regained his balance, lowed his head threateningly, and started for the bowls once again. I looked at Max, he had run off, but was watching the goings-on with great attention. I have to win, have to! It wouldn’t be easy, Gray is twice as fast as I am, he is equally good with both his paws, with all the four of them actually, and as for his claws… Well, let’s face it, I am not much of a cat, thus will have to resort to usual human dirty tricks. Though I must say in my defense that I was not wearing any gloves, and wasn’t going to do anything dishonest like kicking him, or hitting him with a stick. I only made a false thrust with my left hand. He was deceived, and got a right-hander from me to stagger him off his feet. Here my part ended, now Max had to get on to what I had in mind, and consolidate our success. I stepped several yards away to watch that which was going to happen. Gray recovered pretty quick, and moved to the bowls once again, shoving aside another of my friends en route… At last Max understood what he was meant to do – he also rushed to the food, wheezing horribly and spraying spittle all around him, reached with his fore paw with the claws out, and hooked them into Gray’s cheek. Hooked so well that he couldn’t unhook them back out. Gray at first was just greatly surprised, then he panicked, started waving his fore paws about, but Max’s paws were longer, and he had his enemy well fixed, like an angler has a caught fish. At last Gray got himself unhooked and took to his heels.
We saw nothing of him for a week, then he returned, and more or less behaved. Thus the pattern was established: as soon as he starts on his mischievous tricks again, I raise hell and kick him out, and he, knowing how slow I am, falls back to sneaking to our balcony and using his sweet voice to steal our girls from our guys! And it actually continues even now! In spite of the warfare incidents, I don’t fail to feed him, and he doesn’t object, so our relationship, though it might be called complicated, is not hostile. He seems to have got it into his head that practicing rough stuff too freely might be dangerous, but he cannot restrain himself all that well yet.
Leaving out Max, who was the main witness and participant of the fight with Gray, the first to register the change in the power balance was my chief tom-cat Klaus, a cunning fellow and a diplomat. He immediately shifted into ignoring Gray altogether.
Gray took it very hard. After all it was from him, Gray, that Klaus suffered such a nasty bite wound last year that the ear swelled into a huge pillow-like thing, with a body of puss rolling within. Klaus was in torments but wouldn’t let me treat the ear. His claws are things of iron, and I gave up – come what may… The ear finally shrank and turned into a small hard cartilage. But I will speak about Klaus later.
6. The Next Morning. Liuska.
Today it is also dry and warm, and it was near the same heap of dry leaves that Max was waiting for me. The second cat to greet me is Liuska, a smallish gray long-haired girl, a young flirt, a cheat with slanted eyes and the devil-may-care look… She utters reedy screeches in her high piercing voice, shows up on the balcony, and leaps down to join me. “Liusia, you really shouldn’t have…” say I to her, “it is up there that we are heading now, aren’t we, why not just wait…” But at heart I am pleased to receive such a welcome. I brought them up, fed her and her brother Shourik by hand. Shourik, that sweet soul, he is no more, I will tell about him later… And Liuska, when eight months old, flung her cap over the windmill, or whatever may stand for a cap in the cats’ world over that which may stand for a windmill, and good old Klaus was the first to come up with his attentions. The deed was done with such swiftness and dexterity, that our girl – our cat, in fact a kitten, hadn’t time to wink an eye, and I failed to prevent the act of seduction: I left the kitchen for a moment, and when I returned to guard the child against molestations was already useless… Liuska’s tenderness for Klaus who has introduced her to love is ever alive: they often sit side by side, she reaching to touch his fur with her face, he pretending he doesn’t see a thing… That time Liuska miscarried two absolutely naked creatures, one was still stirring and I had to finish it off, and bury both. And she – she was baffled for quite a long time, at a loss as to the whereabouts of her miscarriages, and kept going to that secret place where she had hidden them, and her mother, Alice, would be with her through all that time. They would sit side by side near the box into which they had brought the kittens, listening to something, listening on and on… All was quiet inside the box. They would in turn get into the box through the narrow entrance, smell the rag with the traces of blood… What followed was even scarier. By that time Alice’s kittens, Silva and Samanta the Foundling had grown up some… and desperate Liuska mistook them for her own, and started pestering them – called them in special cooing voice, dragged them to her place, and tried to suckle them. Half-year-old youngsters with lots of teeth struggled, bit her, and ran away. And she would look at them with despair and incomprehension in her eyes: what’s the matter, her children can’t be rejecting her, can they?.. At last Liuska forgot about her kittens, but Alice… she would come to that box for some long time afterwards, would sit there and listen… And me, I was scared, and ashamed for some wrong I had done them.
7. Alice, The Common Love
I respect this cat. I cannot tell how old she is, sometimes I have a feeling she had been about always. She is half blind, one eye is dimmed by a cloudy spot floating about, and the other one is squinting and sad. Grayish, always very clean, though she had never lived with people, that I know for sure, things like that I never miss. Ten or twelve years ago she approached me in the basement. It was perfectly still, it was the kind of stillness that can be found only in basements, and it was dark, but I always hear cats coming. As to perceiving human speech my hearing is not very well, but about cats I hear everything. And I heard nothing, only felt something soft and warm come in touch with my leg… She was already an adult cat, I had glimpsed her couple of times at the Ninth in the company of other merry wives of the basement, and before that she lived even farther off, that much I know. How did she manage to have her fur ever so clean, and her collar ever snow white, and an air of composure and confidence always about?… She gave birth twice a year, in some remote recesses of the basement, inside some cardboard or wooden boxes, she would exert herself to provide for her kittens, she suckled them, brought them leftovers she found near the garbage chute, mice, birds… everything she could find or beg from people. And each time, in the course of all these many years, her kittens died. Not one could survive the winter – food too scanty, and the extreme cold too cruel.
I started to feed Alice in the basement almost daily, but I couldn’t help the kittens – they grew wild so quickly and hid so well I couldn’t find them, only spotted them from time to time in the distance. And then they disappeared… It would have gone on like this forever, if Alice hadn’t conceived a simple solution, and a brilliant one too – to take her kitten there wherefrom the food comes. To my place, that is. I used to live in this house, but then they reduced the central heating to the minimum, due to either the house sliding into the ravine, or it ingrowing into the ground… Most of the tenants moved out, and now my flat is my studio, in summer I stay in my studio for the night, but in winter I cannot stand the cold – I come daily, work there, and in the evening return to my den, which is a very much same kind of place, only heated.
Well, Alice, having spent some time observing how I feed Felix, my primary cat, shadowed him on his way back to my place, and one day made a surprise visit there, in my absence, and left three kittens on my bed. She took faith in me, and brought them over, for me to defend. What could I do, having been a witness to that decade long struggle of hers, doomed to end up in defeat? I let the kittens stay. There were three of them – two red boys and one gray girl. One of the reds, a kitten with a big head and powerful body, ate too much of boiled rice and died, but two other kittens – Liuska and Shourik, grew up at home. But it was impossible to make them keep to the apartment – the second floor, windows open, the ground quite close, and nobody to look after them all day long … Though it is those who had been locked up who perish sooner if they by some chance happen to find themselves on the ground, in the ravine, in the basement… Cat has to be free, so as soon they grew up some and it became warmer outside, I opened the balcony for them. Let them get out, as soon as they feel confident enough to go. Liuska was faster, smarter – she grew up to become an adult cat, and Shourik perished. I loved him more than any other, he was wonderful, a red, long-haired, fluffy, very trustful, even somewhat pompous little cat. He was the second cat after Max to learn to fetch back the paper ball, a skill not intrinsic to cats at all: I would throw a piece of paper crushed into a ball, he would run, catch it, play with it a bit, then carry it back in his teeth and give me – throw it for me once again, do!.. Shourik.
Today Alice is sitting on the outer sill of a first floor apartment window, at the south side of the house. One has to be a cat to appreciate all the good points of this sill on warm days. I will only mention that it is screened from sight by bushes that are not very high, so the sill is sunlit continuously, besides the apartment is vacant, so there is nobody to bother the cat with questions what for she is sitting here. As to jumping down, she still does it with ease, noiselessly, like a ball of wool, but climbing up is painfully difficult for her, climbing up to my balcony, I mean; so she often hides under the stairs in the entrance hall of our block, and waits for me. That’s dangerous, very dangerous. She lost her tail couple of years ago. It got caught in the door – whether by accident, or they did it intentionally, what does it matter! For some reason I have never heard about a child crushed in the doors by accident… So one morning I come out and see – there is a chopped off piece of tail lying about. I recognized it as Alice’s tail at once… I searched for her everywhere, but she dropped out of sight for several days. And then returned, calm and composed as ever, her tail healed amazingly quickly, as if it always was like this. She has about four inches of it left.
Alice peers at me carefully, she doesn’t recognize me at once, I am just a shape in the fog for her. But my voice is familiar, so she jumps down from the sill and hurries to join me. Max gives her a friendly shove with his fat side, and they start running along side by side.
Hardly have we reached the corner, when a desperate wail rends air overhead, coming from my balcony. That’s Khriusha screaming blue murder. Yesterday he was late for dinner – was too busy attending to some affairs of his, so today he stayed for the night at home, not to miss his meal again. He doesn’t have the patience to wait for us a couple of minutes, he swoops down, crash lands with all the four of his paws upon the tarnac pavement, and hurries to join us.
8. Khriusha the Tarzan Cat
He is the smallest of the adult cats – a black tom with a prominent forehead, snub nose, and a stub for a tail. There are two tailless animals among my acquaintances, which is not so very odd though – tail is a vulnerable part of the body. I know nothing about the basement period of Kriusha’s life, I can only guess that the tail might have been bitten off by a dog. He also has some ducts inside his nose damaged – so one of his eyes is always watering, and he himself from time to time snorts, uttering a sound very like a pig grunting, that’s why I named him Khriusha (Piggy). Actually he has a proper name – Tarzan, which he got for his leaps. He would leap amazingly high, and hover in the air, with his paws spread out, his little eyes bulging… But there will be time to talk about his leaps later. He stopped making those grunting noises long ago, but the eye yet continues watering, especially when Khriusha is sick, or in a bad mood. In such moments I wipe the stuff under his eye off, and, so as he won’t lash at me with his claws, I say our secret words – “that’s for our little eyes, for our little eyes” – like when he was a child. Hearing these Khriusha will put up with things being done to him, he will even be happy that he is helped about his washings. Khriusha is the only one who often stays for the night at home in summer and in autumn when the weather is still warm. Others prefer to sleep out in the grass, or in the dry leaves, like Max, who has the kind of hide to save him from any cold. Khriusha also has some case records concerning a leg of his to show — his leg got fractured, and he spent several months at home. That had considerable impact upon his whole life, because it happened to him at the age when he was to be getting used to new things, to free life. And the time to do it in was lost for him. As to how he had his leg fractured, it is a simple story actually.
9. How Khriusha Had His Leg Fractured
I took him in in winter, by spring he got quite well, and everything turned out quite OK with his tail, a funny little fat stub sticking out, and he stopped grunting, and his eye hardly did any watering at all… In April when days were warm, I started to let him out to the balcony. He used to sit inside the hole that all the grown-up cats crawl through to jump down onto the piece of roofing that extends over the garbage chute outlet. Khriusha himself was on the balcony, and his head was peeking out of the hole. I knew he wouldn’t dare jump down, he was too small yet, and with easy heart let him sit there, getting used to the life outside. That day he was also observing goings on down there with great curiosity. The garbage removing vehicle arrived, I didn’t pay any attention to its arrival, because Khruisha had seen this vehicle arrive lots of times from up here. But that day something happened to the engine, it gave a short and violet roar, and the cover of the can clashed loudly. Khriusha was inside the room in no time whatsoever – but he was standing on three of his paws, the fourth one, his right hind leg, he was holding in the air, close to his belly. In the moment when he got frightened that leg happened to be in the slit between two boards, he rushed to run away… The bone healed fast and well, in two-three weeks he was already using that leg while walking, but a cat is not a human — he will have to leap, and run away from strong and fast tom-cats, his leg was to become as good as new… He stayed at home till August.
It was many a time when I, sitting with him in my lap, pondered over the swiftness with which irrevocable things happen, as if life were made of planes and edges, and till you are crawling along some of the planes, everything is OK more or less, but then you reach that edge — one nearly imperceptible motion — and everything changes. A clash – and a crunch, a thump and a scream… And Khriusha became a different cat – he dropped out of his time.
When he appeared in the street again, the same swift, nervous cat he was since childhood, he failed to adapt to the on-the-ground life, he stayed an alien down there. He was being strong, pushy, and mean, he was trying hard – I saw how hard he was trying, how horribly exhausted it left him, as if he, jumping down from the balcony landed onto an alien planet… Not everything was alien there – there were some cats, male and female, showing friendly attitude towards us, whom he understood, and there were others whom he was afraid of, but also understood, there was some interesting food to be found near the garbage chute outlet from time to time… all in all it was a natural kind of life for that bundle of nerve and muscle. But still it was hard for him to be a free cat, but to become an in-doors domestic one he couldn’t either. And I, sitting next to him, thought about myself, that I don’t like being a man, but cannot become a cat, though I am trying to non-stop.
And now Khriusha is running to join us, he has grown fat with the winter coming, he is like a sleek black little piglet wearing a velvet coat, with his stub of a tail sticking up boldly. Terribly anxious about something, he runs up to me, starts explaining things with greatest agitation… It must be mentioned that Khriusha has this peculiarity – he speaks, sometimes delivers speeches actually, especially when he is running along next to me down that walk that leads from the Ninth, and he is bursting with the desire to tell me about all that has happened in the evening, and at night, and this morning… We haven’t seen each other for ages, such lots and lots of events have occurred during this time! There are no words in his texts, but there are many different sounds, some resemble short barks, others loud purring… long periods pronounced with true passion. I tell him “Sure, Khriusha, yes, sure! I understand what you mean!”
10. Khriusha’s Order
It is not winter yet, it is not yet the end, not yet the beginning of the swift descend into the dark and cold… Today Max again was on that heap of dead leaves. I immediately offered him a piece of meat with the deworming pill inside. He is having this cough, these creatures, they pass through lungs before going to the intestine to mature. It’s always either the ear mite, or some viruses with us… I hardly know which way to turn first, my wild-roaming pets catch diseases right and left, and each time I manage the treatment by the skin of its teeth… But the main menace is humans. Next come dogs. Diseases rate only the third. As to humans I am by no means of two minds on their account. I have given them some pondering, consecutively believing them to be this, that, and yet another thing, and eventually getting them out of my system altogether, one may say I have convalesced from them as from an ailment, and don’t want to go into the matter anew. I don’t feel much like talking about dogs either, I do help them, but demand some friendly attitude in return. Nobody forbids cat chasing in reasonable limits, but no biting and no strangulations! Almost all of them understand my rules perfectly well, and those who fail to do so, they get some special talkings-over to make them understand.
Max instantly swallows the meat with the disgustingly bitter pill for the stuffing, and even lickes his mouth with his tongue. At once comes a desperate yell – am I late?! – and Liuska makes her appearance, her eyes glittering with greed, but the moment is over. Though it is of little importance, she would never have been able to take the treat away from Max – it was meat! Anything can Liuska take away from Klaus or Max, except raw meat… Liuska sprinted to join us, not failing to flirt with Max meanwhile, pushing him with her shoulder from time to time. Max doesn’t understand such niceties, he treats Liuska as a comrade, he can hit her with his paw, though with the claws drawn in. They often sit side by side and lick each other.
And now Alice, Klaus, Khriusha, Kostik about whom I haven’t yet said a word so far… the whole crowd of them, are jostling up the stairs, and I, stumbling, cursing my age and my knee joints, lag in the rear striving to keep up with them. This stretch we must cover racing like the wind, lest some of the neighbors come out. At last we make it to our corner of the landing, and here it is, the door. Leading from the hallway to the kitchen is a narrow passage, and while in it we are in the power of our lord and master Khriusha. He generally believes himself to be the master of the entire house, and keeps telling everybody what they ought or ought not to do. But in this passage he holds his triumphs, he is having the best of time! Everybody is rushing on, eager to get to the kitchen where the bowls are, Khriusha alone is holding his seat in the narrowest part of the passage and shows no eagerness to get anywhere – he is busy distributing slaps. He slaps right, he slaps left… Everybody tries to dart by, evading his small, but mighty paws, but fat chance! Khriusha rarely misses. Sometimes Max attempts to rebel, he arises, he is rampant, and waves his front paws chaotically, he is boiling with indignation… But Khriusha delivers his slaps deftly and with accuracy, and Max is pushed from behind by those for whom getting to the kitchen is more important than restoring justice; they kick Max mercilessly, and at last he gives up, carried forward along with the rushing crowd. Having reached the spacious kitchen everybody promptly forgets about Khriusha’s order, and jumps at the food.
And here, in spite of his role of the lord and the master of ceremonies, Khriusha for some reason invariably turns out to be the last one. When it comes to the bowls with food – he is sure to be in the rear, he runs helplessly hither and thither behind the wide backs, and shouts. Not one of the big tom-cats would hurt him, they just quietly and unobtrusively crowd him away from the bowls: you are one of us, but stay away from serious people minding serious business. He is allowed to vent himself in petty skirmishes, and they put up with his slapping in the kitchen, but when it comes to something more serious, he is ignored as if he were something non-existing! His indignation is enormous, he runs to me for support, he looks hurt to the quick, his little snub nose is wrinkled… He sits in my lap, lashing his stub of a tail to the right to the left, growling from his discontent. I pat him, and comfort him – “never mind, Khriusha, you are sure to meet a cat yet that will appreciate you at your true value…” Alice loves him, and pities him, and licks him when Khriusha allows her to do so; when he is badly irritated he is capable of responding with a slap. She would only shake her old head, but never hit back, though she may go with her claws at a stranger tom-cat at times, this old cat has yet that much strength in her. For her Khriusha is a misfit little boy of hers, though as likely as not, he is not her son at all.
Khruisha fell into that order establishing practice of his only of late. Before his indignation about the fuss and bustle on his premises was silent, but now he has taken to action. Since childhood he was having it the hardest in the street, his profile puzzled even those who had seen a thing or two in their lives – small, but not a kitten, with something like a tail, but a very short something… and odd as to his behavior too – is ever running about, shouts, and speaks a peculiar language of his own. It was the time when the chief cat about here was Vasia, a big gray tom with white cheeks. Vasia would charge at Khriusha without warning, in silence, and chase him into some narrow hole. Then he would turn around and go away, with something very much like a sneer on his face. He thought it amusing! And poor Khriusha would flee from Vasia burning the wind, squealing piteously, with his eyes bulging, and trailing behind him would spread, would shine in the sun with pretty rainbows, a sprayed cloud of wetness… Having stayed in his stuffy hole till darkness, he would crawl outside… or wouldn’t, in which case I would locate him by his doleful moans coming from under the balconies of the first floor apartments, in some narrow crevice, among broken glass and odd trash, and commence on the lengthy business of persuading him to come out. It went on like this for many months. And then one day Vasia, having given him one short glance, turned away. He grew bored with it… and, which was more important, he had accepted as a fact that there does exist an odd cat like this, has a right to be, and not some strange cat, but our cat, which means he is to be defended from strangers just like the others of our gang. Vasia might sneer, but he played fair… Khriusha grew up, became both faster and quicker than old Vasia, but even now whenever he spots him, he stops in his tracks, and then gives him a very wide berth. And Vasia does not take any notice of him at all, all his concerns are with his own life; like any strong personality, human or feline, he takes growing old hard, but sometimes I see him cast the same short glance, and fancy that a sneer still lingers on his pork-marked and scarred face.
As to Gray, when he appears, the expression of his villainous mug is that of greatest humility and sweetness. The main thing is to go unnoticed by me. Well, I refrain from noticing him, but try to steer him away to a separate bowl, and give him an extra helping of the soup, anything to prevent him from getting into the midst of the common crowd. The sight of his scarred mug badly jars anybody wise to the outrages he commits down there in the street. It’s much better never to meet him at all down there… But here I am the boss, and I will not allow any fighting.
If the food is tasty, then what follows is some growling and munching, everybody is busy, only Alice, having just pecked at the food, will take her seat aside and watch this crowd of the blacks and the grays. She has practically no voice, but the sounds that she produces with her mouth shut are melodious and various, that’s her way of calling her kittens. And she believes this entire crowd to be her kittens that by some miracle have grown to their adulthood and persisted. And indeed all of them survived by some miracle, and each, if caring to recall and share, could tell rather a sorrowful tale. But they won’t tell, for that there is me, who is not exactly a cat. Safety, food, and warmth – that’s all they want from me. Best of all we fare in way of food, though we fare badly. As to warmth, the situation is worse, there are warm pipes in the basement… more or less warm… at home our radiators are even colder than these pipes, but there is me, an additional heating device… With safety it is even worse than that. Every year we have new losses. They are free fellows, but they pay for their freedom generously. This year it was Shourik… People ask me: “Are these yours?” Incomprehension! They cannot be mine, they are with me. We help each other live. They have a right for that house and the land about it, more so for the basements.
But Klaus and Steve were absent today, and it worries me. I am going to search for them.
It is dark, it is stone everywhere, the floor is earthen, water is dripping from several leaks, come some rustling sounds… Those not acquainted with the basement would need a hand-torch, but I can tell by the sound who is coming, by the shadow, and I am more comfortable and more at ease in the darkness, I know that my own are safe. It is not that with the passage of time I began to see better, but my senses became more acute, and, I think, I became closer to cats than to people. And people would not come here without a reason, the technicians might drop in in the line of duty, but if it is anybody else that I catch here, the intentions are sure to be evil. At best they may leave a pile of excrements that later will be blamed on the cats; much worse if their business is fur. Children — they are interested in what is inside a cat… Therefore I never have a moment’s peace.
I call my own with a long and hissing sound – “s-s-s-s-s…” A shadow, a soft leap, and here comes a long and absolutely black cat, without a trace of any yellowish tint or brown spots. Steve. I check whether there are any signs of lameness, I check for it each time. His right hind leg was once slapped back together from a multitude of tiny fragments, the bone was crushed. It took three of us to hold him till the anesthetics worked, he got narcosis\then it worked, \then\they made the cut… and stopped – there was no bone, only some black and crimson mash with pinkish specks… But a cat cannot do without a leg, so we gathered\scooped\ this pink bone hash up, the fragments, made it stick together with flesh and clots of blood, tied it over with copper wire, and put the stitches in. We\ took him home. And it was the spring-time, and the cat, as soon as he came to his senses, felt like going into the streets\out, to enjoy the company of the ladies. Before\previous to that motorcycle that hit him he had a budding love affair \in his lap\going in full bloom, and he absolutely had to see it through to the conclusion. His leg is in bandages, over the bandages he is wearing a pant with ties knotted under his belly, and he is hopping on his three legs demanding freedom! For several nights I tried to talk him out of it, I kept patting him, I made a bed for him on my blanket… He would stand it for about five minutes, then again make for the door, I after him… I managed to keep it going like this for a week. And then he escaped, and I went to look for him. It is evening, it is raining, it is down-pouring like it happens in April\Evening, rain, an April thunderstorm actually\in truth, there are thunderbolts – and suddenly \I hear\ some awful snarling and yelps. Two tom-cats have grappled in close combat, and are rolling over the ground, the rain is lashing them, their wet-through fur is plastered to the bodies… One of them is Vasia, our chief, a light-gray powerful tom-cat, and the other… the other is black, skeleton thin, but he fights desperately and is a \fair\ match. It is Steve wearing his checkered pant – he is hoarse, he is spitting out water that is pouring over them\the fighters\combatants, his breathing has wheeze to it/?/, but he has no intention of giving up/won’t. Vasia is also somewhat tattered /in the courrese of the fight/received som injuries/was injured. I managed to separate them, took my guy\charge\ home. What is going to happen to this leg/paw of his?.. It took long for that wound to heal, pus… I gave him shots of antibiotics, and the leg got well, it even became in a way stronger than it used to be because in the place of that crushed bone there grew a great bony ball. A very strong leg, though it had lost its former flexibility and dexterity… And Steve was offended, he blamed me for having made him stay indoors, for the painful treatment – and walked on me, went to stay with my neighbors, and then started to drop out of sight, and appear within ../at/on?/ our horizon not oftener than once a week. When spotting me he would turn away and pass me by… For many years he nursed that grudge, wouldn’t recognize me, and I watched him walk and was happy.
Some years passed, and little by little Steve began to forget that offence, and remember all that good that we shared in the course of our relationship. Like when we found him under that cart…
12. How I Met Steve
One night, in May, in the light of the full moon I was searching for Klaus, and spotted a black cat not far from the ravine. I called out, certain that it was my Klaus, but the cat silently started to move off, without hurry but not allowing me to come closer. I followed the cat, wondering why Klaus would choose to tease me like this… And suddenly the cat disappeared, dived under the shed housing the local electricity transformers. Baffled, I turned for home. Next night I spotted that cat again, but this time I managed to discern that it was not Klaus, but some new young animal. He dwelled not in the electricity transformers shed actually, but next to it, under the remnants of a broken truck body, he found a small ledge or a step inside it, which offered a comfortable and safe lodgings for him. It was good only for the warm season, of course. Where this cat came from, I had no idea. I started to bring him food, and he soon got used to me, just call him – and he darts from under the truck, and gallops to meet me… I can see in my mind’s eye young Steve even now, how swiftly he ran, how happy he was to see me. Due to the frequent visits to the electricity transformers shed – he was seeking shelter from the biting cold winds in winter inside it – the pads of his paws were burned. We had them treated… Then came that mishap with his leg.
Alice has eaten, Liuska has eaten, and here they are now, two girls, the best friends, sitting next to each other, both gray with some reddish tint to their coats. Liuska stopped suckling Alice only recently, though this young lady is two years old now! Alice had another litter of kittens, and Liuska was jealous, pushed the babies aside and suckled her mother herself. I chided her, and dragged her away, and she boiled with indignation. She still attempts it from time to time… In the dusk I often mistake them for each other, till I have chance to see the tail: Liuska’s tail is long and fluffy, and Alice’s… well, you know what it is.
Steve tasted the food we had for today, narrowed his eyes scornfully – and made for the door. And just try not to let him out – he will hiss, growl, and not be at rest till he is free to leave. And he never looks back when leaving. But Klaus didn’t show up today. So the search for him is the first item on the agenda for tomorrow, he is my cat-in-chief, he is my counselor.
13. Klaus the White Whisker, the Supercat
Five degrees above zero Centigrade in the morning, the leaves glow, each luminous with light of its own. Once again I am greeted by the trio of the youngsters. The first to appear is Max, naturally. He climbs out of his heap of leaves, stretches himself, shakes some dry leaves off his shaggy coat… Every day I make attempts to comb out the matted fur, he threatens me with his crooked fang, though never bites… The next is Liuska, she is always hungry in the morning, she yells, and shakes her fluffy tail like a regular tom, she pushes Max, and they race each other, who is to be the first running in front of me. And at last here comes Khriusha, again he leaps down from the awning over the garbage chute outlet, crash-lands on the asphalt pavement, runs up to me, and starts on a lengthy explanation regarding how he had been waiting for me, and then Gray barged into the house, and he kicked his ass… He kicked nothing, guess he was hiding somewhere, peeping at the intruder roaming about the kitchen… So the youngsters are all present. And lo and behold, who is there to greet me at home, right at the door but my good old Klaus, or, as I refer to him respectfully, Klaus the White Whisker, the Supercat.
This is a title that is not earned easily. My first supercat, Felix, taught me a lot, for example, to treat trivialities of life with due haughtiness, and be staunch when in a scrape, of the latter we had had more than our share. But there will be time to talk about Felix later.
Klaus is a large dark brown tom-cat. He has round yellow eyes, clear and naïve. The naivety is all faked, actually he is cunning, persistent, and treacherous when offended. Never forgets a thing. Never quarrels over trifles, but if he does tread upon the war path, then beware… He has in his whiskers a single white very long and very thick vibrissa – only one, and it grows to some great length. Without that vibrissa he would never be that cunning and wise, I think. That’s why he has his second name – the White Whisker. He is as tall as Steve, the largest of my cats, but a bit shorter lengthwise. And as bulky as Gray, but a bit shorter as to the height. But it’s not his height, nor his strength, nor swiftness that made him famous. He is renowned for his cleverness, good memory, and caution, complemented with a good deal of courage. His consideration is lengthy, his action instantaneous. That is what kind of a cat he is, Klaus the Supercat.
So he had also come home for the night, he couldn’t but hear and see from the balcony me approaching, as well as Khruisha’s leaps and wails, and Max climbing out of his heap, and Liuska making fuss and giving out piercing squeaks in her little voice… But he stayed where he was, he understood that there was no sense in hustle, I was to come up anyway, why trouble his old bones?.. And his bones, they sure are a thing to mind…
Many years have passed since, but I still remember that day in minute detail. He was about a year old… as old as Shourik… It was the time when I used to come here by a different route, walking along the streets of the city, and thus approached out houses from the side of the ravine – at the spot where there is the little bridge. And I glimpsed somebody black cross the road and disappear in the high grass. His manner was odd, he was running quickly, but with his legs bent, so that he was dragging his belly over the ground… With heavy heart I hastily followed and found Klaus. He was lying on the ground with his head raised, as if having a rest, and he was looking at me, but he didn’t move an inch from the spot. I bent over to pick him up – and felt him go lax in my hands, like a rag. And then he screamed… I took him home, put him on the sofa. It was his spine… He was looking at me and breathing heavily, but there was no fear in his eyes. And I was crying, and we sat like this for a long time, and I couldn’t do a thing. Recently my Felix died, and now, from nowhere, comes a young black cat, as if wishing to replace my old friend. I believed it was my Felix returning to me.
Then he crawled down from the sofa and, with his back arched, hunched, wobbled to the bathroom, to the dark corner, and I was following him unable to decide whether I was to take him in my arms, or to let him be… I started to pick him up, but he growled – I’ll manage on my own… He is like this even now – it’s always “I’ll manage on my own” with him!
We were lucky – he survived, and grew into a large shaggy tom with one ear broken and huge yellow eyes with the dare-devil look in them. And I started to have coming up all around me, them popping up all the time, and staying to hang about, a newcomer after newcomer, starved, exhausted, sick… And Klaus was terribly jealous, he envied those who sat in my lap. And only when there was nobody around, and everything was quiet, he would leap to me, and stare me in the face for a long time, bringing his own face so close that I feel his breath, see all the scars and scratches, and the wrinkled remnant of the left ear… He would lie down and purr so loudly, so piercingly, with a hint of a scream in his purring actually, that I have ringing in my ears.
Well, Klaus… Today he watched me condescendingly when I was unwrapping my miserable bundle of food – some leftovers of fried potatoes, and a little piece of cottage cheese. He didn’t bother to approach the food, though the bunch of the youngsters grabbed and tore at it, jostling for it desperately. Klaus knows how to find food. He is the most knowledgeable garbage digger of all: nobody else can excavate that deep for some delicious piece, for example, for some remnants of smoked sausage, food which, as it turns out, has not at all gone extinct, but just disappeared from my horizon.
Small rustling sound behind my back, and from the bathroom comes out Alice. Across the bath tub a piece of fly-wood is laid, on that piece of fly-wood she has made herself her bed for the night, it is dark and warm there. I promptly rushed to arrange a better bed there for her, put a warm rag over the fly-wood. She showed some interest, jumped back on the fly-wood, sniffed at it… She positively approved the rag, and, neglecting the potatoes, curled on it to gain on her sleep further.
In way of food we have had a special piece of luck today – a neighbor, the only one who is not malicious, brought me some soup with noodles and fatback rind, that looked quite delicious. Cats adore noodles, pasta, and other flour based food-stuffs, especially if they happen to be in the meat broth! The soup had turned just a bit sour, but things like this don’t bother us a bit. So we had a feast. And I remembered that it is my birthday, I am 66 years old. And one more present! – on the bed, on which I am now sitting and typing these notes, Steve is lying asleep. He hasn’t stirred once so far. It is autumn, and the old cats have to sleep long, to get fat enough for the coming winter… I climbed on the bed next to him, he at first moved to give me room, and then moved back to press his body to my side. While asleep he has forgiven me, though while awake he still remembers his sufferings. He slowly, gradually comes back closer to me, sometimes allows me to touch him, purrs when I am patting him… And Gray doesn’t know how to purr. It’s not without reason that I remembered about Gray, he used to live in a home once.
Now Steve is next to me, Alice is in the bathroom, Khriusha has spent some time attempting to outdo the typewriter clattering in my lap, but gave it up as useless, marked with vengeance all the corners of the room in spite of my pleads and threats, and dashed off, to the balcony. As for Kostik… I have one more cat, you see.
14. Kostik – Konstantin
Kostik was dying in the basement from lack of nourishment. It is a weird phenomenon, and a horrible one – right in the midst of lots of grown up fat cats roaming about freely, who stuff themselves full on the garbage heaps, succeed in finding food everywhere, even right under the windows, make trips from our house to the ninth and even further on, getting across the ravine to the city… and the small ones, weak and immature yet, they die simply because they can’t make it to the bowl with the food. Strong cats shoo them away, and they are frightened so badly that they don’t even attempt approaching the bowls any more, and as for hunting for food, they don’t know how to do it yet. Kostik walked and swayed on his feet, he was just the spine with some paws attached to it, he emerged from the darkness, a drop of shadow, any draught from the doors or a window would carry him away, he wasn’t aware of what he was doing any more, only desperate animal instinct made him get up, walk, run away from his enemies… For a couple of months I kept feeding him separately from the others, I would push away all the grown ups, and gradually he recovered. And then he fell ill, it was some strange decease, all the young caught it. The hind legs start to fail them, and cats walk on unsteady feet, like drunkards who have taken a drop too much. Nobody died then, and Kostik survived too, my cares were not wasted. When he got well, he ran away to the ninth, there is an old woman with a hunched back there who feeds everybody who comes, and he was having his meals there till autumn, and then again went across to me. He appeared one day, and I could hardly recognize him – a young handsome with languid eyes. But it was he, all gray but for two long spots on his hind paws, as if he was wearing dark colored slippers. In the ninth the toms are kinder, there are more cats about, the ravine is nearer, and, which is of the utmost importance, the basement is warmer. And it is quieter there too, because the entrance is closed with iron bars, the north entrance, and as for the south entrance, nobody knows about it besides the old women and me, and nobody would go there without reason. And yet Kostik came back to me – the old woman could provide only scanty food, and he had grown up, and needed more nourishment. So he remembered about me, and about me saving him… Here he found some friends for himself.
The first friend he found here was Klaus. They made a very funny pair – a huge, shaggy and fat oldster of a tom-cat, and slim and youthful Kostik, they always walked together. Kostik would always look for Klaus, and Klaus would always look back to check whether Kostia is following him… Who else would dare snatch a piece of meat right from under Klaus’s nose?.. Later their paths parted. Klaus had a lot of love affairs on hand at that time, and Kostik was not interested in girls. But he acquired a new friend, Max. Max wasn’t interested in girls either, he was too young yet, and slightly retarded too. Now they are the best friends, and not just friends, but about that later.
So now Kostik has come and settled next to me too, Steve is to my right, and Kostik to my left… Kostik’s third friend is Liuska, a merry cat, and a clever girl.
15. The Ways Cats Come Up …
Today Liuska left almost at once, she favors Gray at the moment, so off she went to track down the object of her amorous affection. I am glad it’s one of our local toms who is involved, it means she won’t need to go far, because of lately she had been falling for strangers a lot – once it was a shaggy Persian, from the nobility of the kindergarten grounds, another time a bluish guy from the Seventh house, and it is God know how far away… on long legs, with brazen violet eyes… A floozy living fast since the age of eight months, what can be done about it now. At five she had already made herself at home on the balcony, found the hole, and crawled out onto the piece of roofing over the garbage chute outlet, and after several days of observation mastered the common way down. But as to going back up… To return is always the hardest part. And this precocious hussy invented the most breath-taking way to get up – she climbed up the brick wall, getting her claws into the shallow depressions between the bricks, where the cement was worn away with time. Nobody has ever dared to repeat Liuska’s feat – crawling up bare brick wall just like that!.. Novices and amateurs at first have all the luck, I cannot but know it, through my experiences with painting… She didn’t rest on her laurels though, but promptly discovered one more way – yet this time Fate sniggered – practically everybody else before her leaped up exactly this way. The balcony below ours is glazed all over, but along the window sill outside there goes a board, or a cornice, about three inches wide, which is quite enough for a cat. The most difficult part is reaching this balcony, it is about two yards. So the simplest modus is like this: a powerful leap from the ground upwards, which is immediately followed by a sideways half-leap pushing away from the corrugated iron the lower part of the balcony is screened with, and you find yourself on that cornice, from there on everything is simple – a leap onto the roofing over the garbage chute outlet, it is a yard’s distance or about it, and from the roofing to my balcony, through the narrow hole, this stage involves some fine points too, but they wouldn’t be comprehensible to anybody but a cat, all in all it is a trifling matter.
But Alice comes up differently. She cannot make it to the high first floor balcony in one leap, so she found a ledge about half a brick wide, she leaps on it, has some rest, with the second leap hardly makes the cornice, clutching at it desperately with her paws, and climbs onto it. To watch her leaping and fumbling is far beyond what I can bear… It was by this route that two years ago she brought her three kittens to my place, one at a time, and they were not tiny, they were about a month old. What could I do… I accepted the situation, and now here she is, Liuska, full grown, a dare devil of a cat, taken to dissipated life, but she is alive, alive. Yet what about Shourik?… And the third kitten, the giant that fell victim to the boiled rice?.. Some had all the luck, others had none, which is unjust. As for the survival of the fittest, I can’t care less for this kind of survival, I am too long in the tooth to buy it – so long indeed that I can well outdo that fang of our Max.
16. A Few Words on the Subject of Power
When I made acquaintance with Klaus, my chief tom-cat, with Steve, and later with Khriusha, the master cat running things about our house was Vasia, I have already mentioned him. Now he is old, and lives in the Seventh, on the other side of the ravine, and drops in to see me only now and then. He has long ceased to be dreaded, his cheeks are flabby, he has thinned to emaciation, the great head became bumpy, there are deep hollows showing behind his ears… How is your wife doing, Vasia?.. Vasia’s gray cat has left with him. They were always together, bringing up kittens, providing for their safety the best they could, then they would forget them, give birth to new ones… This couple has always relied only on themselves, and on the basements, they stayed away from humans. Vasia used to command cats wisely and sternly, he would give the young some hard time, but later would recognize them and defend from strangers… Then Vasia grew old, and sank into the background, he was coming out of the basement rarer and rarer, and at last moved, accompanied by his gray wife, clean off, to the other side of the ravine, where there is the kindergarten and more food to find. And to enter the office of the chief cat in our neighborhood was a dark-gray tom-cat with different eyes – one was yellow, the other brown. Topa by name. He had lived in our house all his life, but was never recognized by anybody. He used to have long stays at the Ninth, or move to the other side of the ravine for a time, he was doing fine at the bowls areas there, but never laid any claims to a position of authority at our place. And suddenly he found himself to be the strongest cat about: Klaus and Gray were too young yet, Vasia had grown feeble and went away. Steve hated the fuss and bustle the position of authority implies, and loved long journeys to parts strange… To become the chief, you require something more than just strength, you need to believe that this land is yours, that there are various tom-cats and kitty-girls inhabiting it, and they are to be treated according to the cats’ rules. Topa had all his life walked by himself, he knew nothing about those things, and, as soon as Gray had grown up to his full adulthood, cleared off making it to the other side of the ravine, at first he used to pop up from time to time, but later stopped to show. Recently I heard that a body of a big gray cat was found in the basements of the kindergarten. So Topa died, and was promptly forgotten. As for Gray, he took an entirely different policy to pursue. But we will have an occasion to talk about Gray later, and not once.
I am sitting, engrossed in my thoughts, the cats are leaving one by one, the upper section of the window is clattering, the sheet of tin is rattling when each new cat is squeezing through the hole, to jump down… They don’t need me now – won’t need till tomorrow. Whether all of them are to gather tomorrow, that I never can be sure of. There are some periods when, day in day out, no change at all comes, and it seems that it is going to continue like this always. But then one morning life makes a leap. I go calling, I go searching, I make rounds over all the basements, descend to the bottom of the ravine… yet I already feel that chilling certainty inside – it has happened. It happens almost every year. I never saw those who kill. Must be the kids… and some oldsters like my neighbor. It is not so much the malice that is so horrifying, the malice the very air is heavy with, more horrible and profound is the failure to see the value of life, the disrespect to life, one’s own and that of the others… But let us return to our subject-matter.
The cats are leaving, but they know where to return – there is I about.
It is time for me to go though. But leaving your friends behind is not such an easy task.
17. When I Leave…
I first undertake the lengthy business of trying to prevent them from running after me. Some would go as far as the very boundary of our land, hesitate on the edge, following me with their eyes, then turn back. Which is dangerous, because humans and dogs are very mean. Recently I saw a pack of dogs pursue a cat from the Ninth, a gray tom, shaggy like a well-worn felt boot. When I ran up to them, the cat was lying on his side, his pose suggesting helplessness, with his eyes rolled up. He twitched once, and lay still… I chased the dogs away. There was a bitch among them, a black and agile smallish dog from the Eighth, and leading those bandits was a very friendly, red-coated like a little fox, small male dog, it was he who master-minded the assault upon the “felt-boot” cat. Bunched in pack, they, of course were showing off before the bitch, besides, I at once spotted an obvious rogue in their midst, a very weird looking dog, a mix of a fox-terrier and a dachshund, with mean and pale eyes. I have had a chance to see this rogue in action – if he gets his teeth into something, he will never let go… Yet in two days time I, to my greatest amazement, spied in the vicinity of the Ninth that very same “felt-boot” tom-cat, who was quite alive, and actually engaged in wooing a beautiful kitty-girl from the kindergarten, whom I know of long. Could it be his double? But I have never heard about a cat having a double, it would be impossible, they are all so very different. And I never found the body of the “felt-boot” cat, though I searched the battle-field most thoroughly, there weren’t even any traces of blood! That was strange, normally their bodies are left to lie about and decompose, because these cats are nobody’s, they live by themselves, managing the best they can on their own. They survive against odds, only outstanding personalities make it to the old age. Who wouldn’t get jaded by life if never having a safe shelter, never knowing what if anything one is to eat, never sure the basements are not to be flooded, or all the openings and windows to it are not to be nailed shut, or that rats are not to be poisoned with some horrible poison, or they may scatter poisoned baits about, so very appetizing… or boys might come with bows and arrows and guns that hurt you so cruelly, or our good old man might start swinging his stick about, or defective kids will catch you, tie up and burn on slow fire, and cut to pieces… Or some bastard in the city council will declare all cats the source of diseases, and they will come to pound and kill.
I think the cat pretended to be dead so that those jackals let him alone. The “felt-boot” cat “played possum”, he was an expert trickster, but Shourik didn’t know how to do the trick, and the damn dogs caught him and strangled. A day before his death he was sitting next to me, beaming, pompous, fluffy, looking about him with his trustful orange eyes. His mother, Alice, was grooming him, and he was only turning his head this way, that way, so that she could reach anywhere. And then he started to lick her in return, desperately, and licked, and licked, and licked, missing all the time, so that his tiny crimson tongue was glimpsed in the air again and again. And on his other flank his sister Liuska was sitting, licking his fluffy side…
When I leave, I do my best to make them stay at home, otherwise there will be no end of trouble, they will keep running after me, or, like Khriusha, utter heart-rending shouts, following me with their desperate eyes… Now today I was pushing Klaus back in, after he had in spite of everything contrived to slip after me into the common corridor, when Max, taking advantage of the commotion, made a leap right over his head and arrowed downstairs. Steve, who was the first to leave, via balcony, had already managed to get into the house anew, and was sitting in front of a neighbor’s door, pretending I was something non-existent. His hopes at the moment lay with that rich neighbor, who may kick a cat, or treat a cat to a piece of smoked sausage, depending on his mood. I didn’t stop to lecture him, and also pretended that I never saw him in my life. Let him live as he likes, especially since he is not the one to be persuaded anyway. But as to Max, it would never do to leave him loose on the stairs, he is nervous, and slightly off his rocker too… he doesn’t know his way about the house at all, he would roam up and down the stairs till morning, and is very likely to get knocked on the head. His is a thick one, sure, but even such a head may not stand it the third time. So I go hopping down the stairs after him, and call him, and plead with him, hoping he peeks out from under the stairs, but he is in no hurry to respond, he is looking at me from the darkness with the total incomprehension of a very stupid sheep… At last I manage to grab him, and carry him up the stairs. But while I am pushing him in through the slightly opened door, who would leap over us but Liuska, who has absolutely no business to be on the stairs, or desire, as the matter of fact, either – she is doing it for amusement’s sake. But to leave her on the stairs would also be dangerous, so I go at great lengths persuading her to surrender, and she, with her tail proudly up, keeps teasing me, that cheat of a kitty-girl, though finally graciously allows me to catch her. One good thing is that at least Alice doesn’t participate in this outrageous leap-frog activities – she is sitting in the hall of the apartment silently, her eyes are fogged with mist. In the semi-darkness she can discern only vague shapes, and she recognizes me by my voice, by the sound of my steps, and by my smell. She has no intention of playing any tag games, she is tired and feels like having a good sleep in peace and quiet.
So, when I leave, I go about grabbing them and pushing into safe places. And they believe it is a game that I am playing with them, even if the rules are incomprehensible, which is irritating. They are incapable of foreseeing dangers, these happy creatures. And I, a bundle of nerves shaking with fear, foresee dangers all too well and picture in advance, and so what? Does it save me, does it give me any advantage over them? None at all! Quite the contrary! They are actually very forgiving, I with my fears am such a pest. Klaus would never bite me, or claw me, he would just sit in my arms puffing angrily, but would not struggle away – “I will escape anyway, I will…” Khriusha might bite me slightly, or strike with his paw, but not in earnest, just meaning “let me be!” And Steve would only raise his paw threateningly, though he hisses and snarls most horribly, especially on occasions when I advise him against taking position in front of other people’s doors in expectation of some interesting treats that may come to a beggar of a cat. All of them, never mind how satiate a meal I have provided, will go to dig the garbage afterwards. It used to exasperate me, and now I just feel happy that my friends are enjoying themselves.
Once I, when leaving and trying to get rid of Klaus, shoved him into the basement and shut the door after him. When I circled the house to proceed on my way, he was already there, sitting out waiting for me – he had left the basement via a ventilation opening on the other side. To hope he might just drop behind is futile – he would continue plodding along, however scared he might be, with everything around being strange – the fields and the houses, cats he is not acquainted with, menacing dogs… he understands perfectly well I will not be able to save him if he is chased, he will have to rely on himself… And still he keeps going on, following me. And, naturally, he does get into trouble. Later, having driven the dogs away from the tree, I will be persuading him – “all is quiet, it’s OK, get down…” and he for a long, long time won’t believe it, and will continue to observe the environs suspiciously from up the tree … Then he will climb down, and very stylishly too – moving down backwards and without looking, a skill cats rarely master. And then I, miserable and grumbling, will see him back to our homeland, and he will also grumble if I walk too fast.
But today he stayed at home, let him take his time looking about, he is sure to find a crumble or two of food there, and by the time he has done with it, I will have gone far away.
The twelfth day of the month is coming to its end, the mercury of the outside thermometer is lingering about zero. I am impatient for the winter to come – the sooner it starts, the sooner it will be over. And I cannot but fear its coming – it means daily labors of escaping the cold, the darkness, the humans, the dogs, the cars… When I am thinking about it I am not certain any more whether I am a human or a cat. I look at the world the way they look at it. The white wilderness gets hitched up, and engulfs half the world, the dark sky sits heavily upon the earth. The horizon conceals everything that the humans see. But the little basement opening becomes large, near, and welcoming, I sense the flows of warmth coming from down there; the darkness of the basement is not frightening, on the contrary, I feel like getting dissolved in this darkness, of going into it with the cats. Just a small effort, an inner movement, a gesture, or some special word said in low voice – and the world will roll in a different direction… I have grown tired of life that was invented. I want to see the world the way cats see it. So that simple things stay forever interesting to me. So that grass be just grass, earth be earth, and sky be sky. And so that all these signify nothing extra, but just live on and be about. So that I never again reason , but only feel. So that I live for this moment, not for tomorrow, let along the day after tomorrow. So that I become unaware of all that baseness and foulness in which we revel. So that I be unafraid of death, know nothing at all about it till the very moment it touches my shoulder… To put it in a nutshell – I have grown bored with living the life of a human being, I have begun to find it unpleasant, dreary. And, which is much more important – shameful. But that I’ll have to enlarge upon later.