Back then, when Blackie had her kittens in the bird feeder, making a touching kind of folk nativity scene, I did not want to be in the world. I’d begun to agree with my wife: all those cats were indeed a problem. She may have been right, but how were we going to sort it out?
It was my fault we had so many cats that our weekends in our cottage in the woods were anything but recreational. Quite the contrary: we were constantly on edge, worrying that if we opened the door, a deluge of cats would come flooding into the hallway and the kitchen, and when those ten new kittens grew up, what then? My wife was in tears, and kept repeating her heartrending plea: What are we going to do with all these cats? I would walk down to the brook and look at the willow tree where Mařenka predicted I would hang myself, and one day I mustered my resolve and took a large basket out of the woodshed and then, after pouring two large saucers of milk for the cats in the kitchen, I took the kittens out of the bird feeder and, in a kind of fever I sent my wife to the neighbors, took two of the five kittens and put them in the basket, then went into the woodshed, removed two of the kittens and put them in the basket along with the first two. Then, as if in a trance, I opened the mail bag, which had a dark, caked stain along the seam, and put the remaining three kittens from the bird feeder inside, along with the three from the woodshed, then I hurried into the woods and battered the contents of that mail bag against a tree, again and again and again.
I stopped to catch my breath, just as I had done one winter when I had ushered an enormous but emaciated stray cat out of this world and into the next. But even as I was beating her to death, just as I had now beaten those six kittens to death, a feeling came over me that I knew would stay with me forever. Even that winter, what I had done felt to me like murder, but since then I’d recovered to the point where it was only toward morning that the cat would appear to me, meowing pitifully for help and when I refused and instead, opened the mail bag, she crawled into it herself, as if to punish me for not picking her up and taking her inside, for not feeding her, for not easing her feeling of abandonment. I beat her to death to help me forget those nights when she would walk around outside my cottage and wail, crying from the depths of her soul for help. And I did help her. I helped her reach the other side, the other side of things and people and animals. I helped her achieve her death.
Now, when I’d taken the lives of six still-blind kittens, I felt crushed, suffocated by what I had felt compelled to do. I was trembling all over but I had to keep going so I bent over and felt those tiny heads and realized to my horror that the kittens were still stirring and so, just like that time in the winter, I took the axe I used to split wood . . .
And then I picked up a spade and in an out-of-the-way place among a stand of birch trees, I dug a deep pit into which I dumped the damp contents of the sack. But then I couldn’t help myself and I ran back to my cottage and picked six geraniums, and when I got back, I threw those flowers into the grave. The kittens were lying there in a terrifying mishmash and I felt a growing sense of alarm. I should not have looked down because those kittens were lying there like images from Nazi mass graves.
I filled in the pit and placed a stone over it and covered it with dried oak leaves to hide any telltale signs. I folded the mail bag and put it back in the woodshed and when I came out of the shed and into the light, I nearly lost my balance and began to feel sick and I ran over and gripped the empty bird feeder and the pickets in the fence and retched and spewed out the contents of my stomach, again and again and again . . .
My eyes were brimming with tears, I was pale, and I opened the door to the hallway and stood there for a long time with my hand on the kitchen door handle before opening it. And the tomcats ran out, along with the two cats that were fond of me, and when I patted them and led them to the basket, the first to crawl into it was Blackie and she accepted those four kittens as her own, and a moment later the second cat ran over and, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, she slipped into the basket as well, and the two of them lay there while the kittens took turns nursing from one and then the other, as though they were siblings from a single mother. I held out my hand to the mothers and they both licked my hand and closed their eyes and were happy that I had touched them, that I had patted those two pairs of kittens, and I felt a great burden lift from my heart.
The mother cats began to share their duties. They took turns in the basket, leaving the other time to go outside and do her business, to run into the clearing beyond the fence to wash herself and recover from caring for the kittens. When she began to miss her babies, she’d come back to the basket, which now stood in the kitchen, and relieve the other cat, though not before they both exchanged little kisses as they traded places. The tomcats, too, would come to look in on the kittens, and when the mothers were away, they’d crawl in with their nieces and nephews and lick them and clean them and keep them warm, and it seemed to me that by taking the lives of those six kittens I had helped others, most of all my wife. I told her I’d taken the kittens to Dr. Beník, who had administered chloroform.
Back then, that month would seem to have been the happiest of times, because the two mother cats tried to outdo each other in demonstrating which of them was fonder of me, which got onto my knee more often and put her paws on my shoulder and looked lovingly into my eyes. One of my friends, who witnessed this display, even brought his camera along to take pictures of me sitting on the bench, the basket on my knee with the four kittens and two mother cats in it, each curled up so that her head nestled between the other’s legs, while I rested my hands in the basket. By this time, the kittens’ eyes had opened and they’d lick me and gently butt me with their heads and rub up against my hand. I looked at my hands in the basket, touching the kittens and like a bolt of lightning I suddenly realized that this was just like those photographs from the ghetto, where an SS officer or an execution squad would have their pictures taken standing over a pit filled with corpses. And then I remembered a moment captured in newspapers from 1911, when the Turks massacred a village, cut off the heads of their enemies, their victims, put them in sacks and took them to the city and then had their picture taken with the severed heads. Likewise American and South Vietnamese soldiers had themselves photographed after they had beheaded their victims, and they’d stuck cigarettes in their lips, just as I had thrown each of the kittens a red geranium.
I sat on the bench while my friend snapped the most charming pictures, and he never knew, nor could he have known, everything that was going through my mind, through my entire body. I already knew that from then on, without ever seeing the bloody mail sack again, or splitting wood with that axe, or even looking at my hands, I would have to live with constant guilt and that, apart from that enormous winter cat, those kittens, those six kittens, would haunt me like a bad conscience whenever I’d lie awake toward morning, unable to sleep. What did it avail me that those cats, Blackie and the one as yet without a name, regaled me with affection? It only intensified my shame and guilt. When they were still far off, they would welcome me with those penetrating looks of adoration. They loved me utterly, and when I’d lean over the basket and offer them my hand, they’d go into a swoon, salivating gently, so great was their affection for me. I was everything to them, the most beautiful thing they had ever seen. They even seemed to be fonder of me than those little transistor batteries of theirs, those four kittens I brought together for them, kittens that both mothers firmly believed to be their own. Further than that they could not think, whereas I thought about everything I had done, everything I did not have to do but did anyway. For more than forty years I have been constantly unsettled by sensory phenomena, and now, in the enclosed kitchen, I found myself unsettled by a strange sound, and when I went looking for the source of my irritation, I discovered a leaf caught in a spider’s web, fluttering against the windowpane. It was in this fragile state of mind that I had foolishly afforded myself the luxury of killing an emaciated cat in the winter woods, and now six kittens. I, who can hear the ticking of a watch wrapped in a scarf, had failed to weigh the consequences of what I had brought upon myself.