This year has not been a happy one for me, even though all my friends claim it must have been. After all, I live most of the time in Kersko, in the woods, the air is clean and healthy, I’m surrounded by cats, and I can write as I please, while my friends have to remain in Prague, living with their daily humdrum cares and worries.
A cat showed up and, just my luck, she fell in love with me. She was a tabby, but her coat was patchy and ulcerous. I rubbed her with ointment, and though the infection initially healed, it kept coming back. Eventually, the mange did go away, not because of the ointment, but because the cat pulled out her hair and gnawed away the infected spots. Once again, she was covered with bald patches and was not pretty, in fact she was the ugliest cat that we’d ever had. But she was a sweet thing and she knew it, and she never left my side, but gazed lovingly at me and felt honored that I had taken her in. And then she had kittens, in my bed of course, but there were only two of them and it was a relief not to have to resort to that mail bag encrusted with dried blood. One of them took after her mother, who was so ugly we hadn’t even given her a name, and the second kitten took after the Chládeks’ calico tomcat, who came round to visit from time to time.
That second kitten had white socks and a white bib, and the rest of it had a tabby pattern, but in ginger. At the time I had a Renault 5, a little white car with ginger-colored seat covers. We nicknamed it “Autičko,” the Little Car, and that name got transferred to the kitten. That kitten made up for all the cats I’d ever had. I couldn’t get enough of her beautiful eyes, and just as her mother had taught her, Autičko, the little cat, was in love with me, she slept with me , with her mother, and with that other pussy, her sister , who was the most gorgeous kitten we’d ever had in Kersko. It looked like the kitten on those chocolate-bar wrappers, or the photographs of kittens on candy boxes. It was a light-colored tabby with long hair that was patterned like beautiful barn owl feathers. That kitten was taken by Mrs. Daša, who would write us long enthusiastic letters about what a beautiful creature had entered her household and how the kitten could let herself out into the courtyard in Prague, and how she looked forward each week to when Mrs. Daša would bring her to Kersko.
Thanks to the tabby cat and her offspring Autičko I stopped thinking about all my trials with cats, and was even able to put Renda out of my mind. The ugly cat and her kitten made it through the winter, and I was surprised when I drove up to the cottage in the white Renault in twenty-below weather, and each time, Autičko and the old cat would come running out to greet me. Each time I’d heat up the kitchen and it would take some time before I could move away from the stove, while they stayed close to the heated tiles, warming their foreheads before lapping up the warm milk and bolting down the saltwater fish. And so on weekends, and sometimes during the week as well, I would spend two days with those creatures, but whenever they saw us getting ready to leave, they both seemed to wilt and then, as we drove off, they would push their heads through the gaps in the fence and gaze forlornly after us until the car turned out of the lane and onto the main road.
In Prague, I constantly suffered from pangs of conscience for leaving them to the mercies of the cold weather, and toward morning those animals would appear to me, those little heads looking at me through the fence, and when the pangs grew more intense and I couldn’t even write, or go round the pubs, I would board the first available bus to Kersko, wondering anxiously whether the cats were still in this world, or had frozen to death or died of hunger. But each time, those two creatures would emerge from the veranda, where there was a small crawl space underneath it into which I would always put some hay, and there they were, lying by the opening, and sometimes, when I was getting off the bus and the animals hadn’t come running to greet me, I was sweating with horror that it might be the end, that a car might have run them over when they were hungry and had gone out to meet me, gone out looking for me, and so I walked down the lane lined with trees and from afar I saw that opening in the veranda, and just when I was imagining the worst, two pairs of ears would pop up, like distant peaks in the Tatra Mountains, and then two little heads would appear and the cats would run out to meet me, happy to see me, happy I was here, and I was happy too, and I lit a fire in the stove and warmed up the milk and then picked them up one by one and snuggled under their chins and they did the same with me. And that’s how we got through the winter.
Then I discovered that both cats were expecting, that both the older one and Autičko were pregnant and they knew it, and when they were close to their time, they wouldn’t leave my side and my wife was alarmed and kept repeating: “What are we going to do with all those cats? Shouldn’t Dr. Beník come and chloroform the little ones?” I merely laughed and put on a brave face, but beneath the laughter I was horrified. Beneath my face, which was tanned by the spring sun, I felt myself turn pale and ashen, terrified by what awaited me when both cats gave birth.
And then it happened: the old cat came to me and her belly had gone flat and I knew she’d gone to the neighbors’ and climbed into their attic. I knew the kittens would be up there somewhere behind the rafters, because my cats had already produced several litters of young there, and the huge tabby tomcat who weighed five kilos also lived there, a tomcat who terrorized all our cats, and who had once batted Renda off one of the rafters so unexpectedly that he tumbled down and was out of sorts for a whole week. And it was here, behind those rafters in the Soldáts’ attic, that our ugly cat had her young, and she only came home to drink milk and eat her food, after exchanging a little kiss with Autičko. Both cats were so fond of each other that whenever they met, they touched noses, and before they had their kittens they would sleep together, and showed such respect and love for each other that we too were moved by it.
One night, something happened that I had no power to prevent: Autičko gave birth to her kittens at the foot of my bed, five kittens in all, though in stages, first three and then the other two, and I was still half-asleep and upset, while my wife lamented: What are we going to do with all those cats? I carried the kittens into the woodshed and set them down on the mail bag and Autičko immediately rubbed up against me and licked her babies and then gathered them to her with her paw and I stood there in the dark with my hand outstretched to encourage her, and I felt Autičko’s paw drawing my hand toward her and as I stood there I could sense the kittens’ first movements in my fingers and now and then my beautiful cat would lick my hand.
And so the kittens grew and got their first view of the world in the woodshed, and the old ugly cat continued to come in from the Soldáts’ attic to our place to eat, and when the two mother cats met they would give each other kisses and lick each other’s necks, and a month after they’d given birth they had more time to themselves and they’d lie together for hours, washing each other and nuzzling each other under the neck and they loved each other as they had before.
One day I came home to find my wife in tears, but this time she wasn’t complaining about what to do with all those cats. I knew at once what it was and I opened the door and there were four little kittens, quite dusty and furry and my wife said that the neighbor, Mrs. Soldátová, had caught all four of them, but they were so wild she had to put on gloves to do it. She said enough was enough because the kittens were all peeing in the same corner of her attic and it was starting to seep through the ceiling. And just as I was thanking the heavens that there were only four of them, Mrs. Soldátová came round and told us that another kitten was still up there, a pure black kitten that couldn’t be caught, but I was not to worry because the old cat would eventually bring it down herself. And I remembered that beautiful cat, Blackie, and how she had had her litter in the bird feeder, and how the stray tabby had her kittens at the same time, and how I put all the kittens into one basket and the two mothers accepted the common family, that kitty nursery, and took turns feeding the kittens, and the two mothers would snuggle up together in the basket and share the joys of feline motherhood. Spurred by that memory, I took the kittens that had been born under the rafters in the attic at the Soldáts’ and put them with Autičko’s kittens and oddly enough, though I didn’t believe it would happen, the kittens came together as one family and the ugly cat and Autičko took turns feeding them, and went on loving each other and sharing the joys of feline motherhood. By now the kittens were big enough to clamber out of the basket into the hay and through the open door and they were already playing outside under the trees and in the coal when Mrs. Soldátová came running up to tell me the black kitten had fallen out of the attic and she wanted me to come and catch it. So I took the ugly cat and carried it into the Soldáts’ woodshed, which was full of planks standing on end and ladders and logs, and in the ceiling was an opening that led into the attic and there was the black kitten, mewing pitifully. The old cat emitted a kind of encouraging guttural moan, a kind of low mewling, and the kitten climbed down into the dust and I tried to catch it, but it was too wild and terrified and it scurried under a plank and it was only when its mother emitted several sharp tones, like commands, that the kitten crouched down in the dust and closed its eyes and I managed to get my hands on it and press it to me, and the kitten snuggled into me. As I carried it back, I could feel its heart pounding and I made up my mind that this little ball of blackness, this black kitten, would stay with me because I was the first human being it had known, and I felt I had to be with her and had to love her because as I was carrying her, during those few minutes when I felt the kitten snuggle up to me, I knew that this kitten would absolve me from the guilt I felt for all the cats I had killed, that I’d had to kill.
I slipped the black kitten among the others clustered together, and I stood beside the shed and listened while she burrowed her way backward underneath the other nine kittens, then the mother cats came and suckled them all, including the black one, and for three whole days she reveled in the cozy nest and for three whole days she was happy, only because she was lying with the other kittens. The two mothers went on taking turns looking after the kittens, and they went on giving each other little kisses whenever they met. By this time the kittens had grown and had been lapping up milk on their own for some time, and they’d learned to eat meat and boiled saltwater fish, and it all seemed to be turning out well. Five of the kittens were already spoken for by the neighbors, and things were apparently returning to normal.
Then one day those two mother cats got into a fight, and stalked each other around the property, hissing and howling and scratching at each other, their ears laid back, fighting whenever they met. They stopped coming into our kitchen, but one time they ran into each other there and not only fought, but as they chased each other around, they knocked over everything in their way, swept the cups and spices off the shelves and ripped the curtains, while my wife stood outside and wept. What are we going to do with all these cats? she wailed. And I too felt as though I’d been hit between the eyes and I stood there, alarmed at what I’d gotten myself into. My plot of land and the cottage had become a hell, despite what my friends kept telling me, that I was lucky, that I was surrounded by nature, living with my cats, and that I could write to my heart’s content. The fact was I hadn’t been able to write a single line because those cats, who had once loved each other so much, were fighting outside.
One day all the old cat’s kittens disappeared, and Mrs. Soldátová, laughing, came to tell me the joyous news that the mother had carried all five kittens back to her place and they were now under the wreck of an old car, where she was feeding them milk again, and would I please come as soon as possible and take them home. The two mother cats still fought whenever they met, but I took those five kittens from the Soldáts’ and brought them to my woodshed to join Autičko’s kittens, but that night the old cat carried her kittens back under the old car again and the two mothers went on brawling and each of them assumed we would let her and her kittens go on living with us, but the moment one encountered the other in the kitchen they’d go at it again, and they screeched and howled, not at each other now, but at me. Whenever they met me outside, they hissed at me. All of this was my fault, for I should have been more decisive. So I took the mail bag and hefted it in my hand, and I had to pull it open to separate the rough canvas because the insides were stuck together with dried blood, and I shook it threateningly at the cats. And they somehow knew, through some higher constellation of sensory signals, that their lives hung in the balance, and so when I brought the kittens back from the Soldáts’ yet again, the next day the kittens were together with Autičko’s kittens and the old cats had somehow managed to smooth things out between them.
One day, when I had relaxed and regained some of my composure, I strolled out to the woodshed and the kittens were playing by a pile of coal when all at once the two mothers appeared and one of them was carrying a baby rabbit. The tiny creature, paralyzed with terror, was trembling and emitting a high-pitched squeal. The two mother cats just stood there and when the bunny tried to escape, the ugly old cat batted her down, so the tiny creature just sat there, innocent, with those two mothers standing guard over it, looking sternly at it as though it were a murderer standing before a hanging judge in a court of law. And I stood there too, feeling like the little rabbit, since in my life I had often been accused of things I had not done, accused merely because I existed, because I liked to laugh, and people never forgave me for it, just as they never forgave me, condemned me, in fact, for being in constant good health, for being cheerful, for drinking beer and taking life as it comes, like Chaplin, like Harold Lloyd. And that little rabbit squealed and whistled in terror, and it was like the time I saw a black dog with golden eyes tear a doe apart in the corner of my property and the doe cried out in terror, not because blood was gushing from her neck but because the dog, with those bloodthirsty golden eyes, was hideous. The little rabbit shrieked in terror and I didn’t know what to do, except that in that moment I knew one thing, that if I’d had a rifle, I would have shot both those cats with great satisfaction, and I would not have buried them in my kitty cemetery, either, but carried them off to the rubbish heap and tossed them onto it, as in the old days, when a person who had committed suicide would be buried at night, in a remote place, in secret. And so, as I stood there, immobile and miserable over what I was seeing, over what my beloved cats were doing right in front of me, the little rabbit stretched out, uttered a terrible sigh, and then went limp and lifeless. It had died of fright, died from what it had seen, died of terror because it had wanted nothing more of life than to nibble grass and drink dew and instead, the cats had found it guilty of a crime it had not committed.
I turned around and my wife was standing there in tears, repeating her lament: what are we going to do with these cats? It’s nature, I said, but I wasn’t so sure. And so in time, when the mother cats had apparently made up, when they’d divided their offspring and the neighbors had taken some home, when I had wept for every kitten, when I had passed a sleepless night after the kittens had gone, when I had calmed down somewhat because after all, five kittens were left, something happened, something I’d forgotten had happened to Máca, the cat who had suddenly begun hating her offspring and run away from home, again and again, until finally she was gone for good. Both the ugly cat and Autičko, who had hissed at each other and fought each other, were suddenly attacking their kittens, who froze in terror because their mothers had turned against them. And those kittens kept trying over and over again to give their mothers kisses and they went on wanting to sleep with their mothers as before. But now, their beloved mothers fought with them, hissed at them, and my property became a house of horrors and humiliation, of hissing and growling. And in the end, things went even further, because the mother cats’ aggression toward their kittens spilled over to include me as well, and they would approach me only to demonstrate how much they despised me, how much they hated me, and no sooner had they come in and demonstrated their feelings than they moved away again and I would stand there thunderstruck, wondering what connection there was between their hatred for me and their hatred for their offspring.
At that time I had to be very circumspect, for I had done some doubtful things and I felt a kind of ringing in my head, a kind of constant buzzing, like a telegraph wire, and my little brain hurt and I had begun to take great care not to let it drive me crazy, not to hit bottom, not to go out of my mind for the mess I’d made of things. And I fled to Prague where I walked through the streets and went to the pubs, only to hear the same thing over and over again, about how good I had it, living with those cats in Kersko. I could write whatever I wanted, and now I had money and beautiful surroundings, and I could write proper modern prose because I lacked for nothing and it was entirely up to me to make the best of everything I’d set out to do, since I now had the means and the wherewithal to realize all the things I loved to talk about in discussion groups and write about. And when I went back to Kersko, even though the sun was shining, it got dark and I felt like a calf on its way to slaughter. I was greeted only by the kittens, now grown, while Autičko and the ugly old cat continued to hiss at me, and hiss at their offspring and I would go to the river, to the willow tree, and pick out the branch where, following the prophecy of the fortune-teller Mařenka, I would hang myself. The kittens already had the run of the kitchen, and slept in the bed, but the old cat and Autičko only showed up to fight with them and then they’d go outside again, hissing and sitting apart, staring with hostility at the place where I lived. And to my horror, I noticed that during those two months of suffering, both of them had become pregnant again. Their bellies began swelling ominously and my wife, when she saw that, kept lamenting, “What are we going to do now with all these cats?” And being quite at the nadir of my despair, an image of the mailbag appeared to me, the bloody mailbag that was still lying in the woodshed, and when my wife left on her bicycle to do the shopping, I picked up the mailbag as if in a trance, walked out to where the old cat was sitting, and I leaned over and patted her and she responded by butting my hand in agreement and as if in a dream I opened the bag and the old cat crawled into it and I spun the bag shut and then I ran into the woods and, quite beside myself, I swung the bag and its contents with a mighty blow against the trunk of a large pine tree and then once more, and something inside the bag heaved and I heard a great exhalation, an exhalation that sounded to me like an enormous release, but I was taken aback, for what if I were to shake out the contents of the sack and the cat I had once loved were still alive? And I took the axe and brought the blunt end down hard on the place where her head would be and then I felt to see that the head was crushed and that she was therefore dead.
And with a spade I dug a hole in that feline cemetery and dumped the dead cat out and she slipped lifelessly into the grave, and I brought a geranium from the veranda and then covered the body with earth. And I was trembling, and not even the image of how that cat had stood in judgment over the innocent little rabbit and caused it to die of fright could calm me. Nothing could calm me, and I suddenly knew that the crime I had committed was greater than that of Raskolnikov, who beat two old women to death only to test the foolish notion that it is possible to kill and escape punishment. And my thyroid began acting up, my throat became constricted and swollen, because I didn’t have the same moral fiber as the millions of soldiers in those world wars, in short, because I didn’t have what it took to do this.
And yet, just a few days later, I found the nerve to go with that same mailbag to Autičko, the cat who had once been so fond of me, and when I opened it up, she did not crawl into it, but instead ran into the kitchen and sat on a chair, and when I followed her in, she smiled at me for a long time, and began to purr, but by now I was determined and deranged. I opened the bag and something happened that I wasn’t expecting: Autičko crawled into the mail bag on her own, and then what happened to her mother happened to her: I beat her to death against the trunk of a tree and then, to make certain, I crushed her skull with the blunt end of the axe and then, with a spade, I dug a hole next to her mother’s grave and dumped her into it and then, unable to stop myself, and that was my mistake, I looked at the dead cat with her beautiful little head resting between her white forepaws, those little socks, and I threw her a red geranium and when I’d covered her with earth I placed a heavy sandstone boulder on her grave, just as I’d done with her mother and the other cats.