What are we going to do with all those cats?” my wife would sigh every time she came home to Kersko for the weekend.
I’d try to reassure her. “It’s true, we’ve somehow ended up with five cats,” I’d say, “but by spring they’ll all be gone. One of them won’t come home and we’ll be out at all hours calling her, but she won’t come. Then the second and the third one will take off, and in the end there’ll only be one left, and even she will wander off somewhere for good.”
But my wife would not be consoled. She’d look at the animals and continue her lament: “What are we going to do with all those cats?” Yet she always looked forward to mornings, when we’d wake up and I’d open the door and five grown cats would come charging into the kitchen and lap up two full bowls of milk. We’d climb back into bed and the cats would come to warm up in the duvet, and we’d lie there with them and they’d go contentedly to sleep. Renda, Segmyler, and Schwarzwald would snuggle up with my wife, and the two cats with white socks and white bibs would be with me. I called the black one Blackie and the black-and-gray tabby Socks. Blackie was my favorite. I never tired of looking at her and she was so fond of me she’d practically swoon whenever I picked her up and held her to my forehead and whispered sweet words in her ear. Somehow I had reached an age when being in love with a beautiful woman was beyond my reach because I was now bald and my face was full of wrinkles, yet the cats loved me the way girls used to love me when I was young. I was everything to my cats, father and lover. But the cat with the white feet and the white bib, Blackie, loved me most of all. Whenever I’d look at her, she’d go all soft and I’d have to pick her up and for a moment I’d feel her go limp from the surge of feeling that flowed from me to her and back again, and I would groan with pleasure.
Those mornings, when the five cats would crawl into bed with us, were moments of family bliss. The cats were our children. Every morning, though, when the kittens had got warm and recovered from the chill of the night, they’d suddenly start wrestling and going after each other. They’d swing on the curtains and scramble around the house, back and forth, and you’d hear the sound of little cat heads thumping against cupboards or chairs. They’d race through the kitchen, yanking our clothes and underwear off the chairs, dragging towels in from the kitchen, then they’d pull out our shoes and slippers and fight over them, then dive under the duvet and wrestle about in the darkness, winding themselves into little balls and knocking everything off the table.
This meshugge Stunde, this crazy hour, would go on for half an hour, and in the end the kittens were panting so heavily their little tongues would be lolling out and they’d finally collapse exhausted on the green carpet, or lie down on a chair and groom each other with long, languorous movements of their tongues, licking each other’s fur under their chins and on the tops of their heads. Then they’d fall asleep again, breathing sweetly.
This ritual, this crazy hour, happened every day. But when the fall rains began, when the weather turned cold and the snow began to fall, when the kittens grew into mature cats and toms, I’d open the door in the morning, then the cats would come in to get warm, they’d come to drink milk, and because it was cold outside they’d snuggle up to the stove, holding their heads to the heat to get warm, until they were steaming hot.
Back then, in wintertime, the cats would grow despondent, fearful of what would happen if I failed to show up. They’d sleep on the balcony or in the hay under the gazebo, and from that vantage point on the second floor they’d keep an eye on the lane through the woods that led in from the main road. When I’d arrive from Prague by bus and trudge in through the snow and reach a certain point in the lane, I could see little cats’ ears poking up on the balcony, or in the open space under the gazebo floor, then I could see their little feet padding down the wooden staircase to meet me, then they’d sidle up against me and, one by one, I’d take them into my arms and nuzzle them under their necks, and they’d press themselves to me, delighted that I hadn’t forgotten them. I’d unlock the door to the hallway, where there was a small bucket of frozen water, then I’d unlock the door to the kitchen and they’d crawl in behind the stove. I’d quickly start a wood fire, and then I’d warm some milk for them, for in that small kitchen the water in the sink would often still be frozen.
But soon the stove and the stovepipe would be red-hot, the cats would lap up their milk and hold their heads close to the stove and they’d warm themselves that way for an hour or so, then they’d relax, lounge about on the chairs, and fall asleep while I cut up fish and chunks of meat and break off pieces of cheese for them. Then I’d start to write. The typewriter would clatter away but there was never enough time to attend to stylistic niceties, I had to write quickly so I could spend time with the cats because, though they lay there with their eyes closed, they’d be watching me through tiny slits, lulled by the clacking of the machine. After an hour of writing I’d pull on my sheepskin coat and go out for a walk in the winter air, leaving the door ajar in case the cats wanted to do their business in the leaves, and at night I’d always put out a washbasin filled with sand in case they needed to go to the toilet while I was sound asleep, because even when I was asleep, the cats would jump down from the chairs and walk toward the door and meow quietly. As a rule I’d hear them, which meant I often got up in the night to let them out and then, when they meowed again, I’d let them back in. When it rained I’d dry their paws with a dishcloth, because when morning came, when the fire had died out, all five cats would jump into bed with me. Each had her own place, as though they’d worked it out beforehand, and Blackie always lay by my head. She alone had the right to sleep by my head, while the rest lay between my legs or up against my back.
Before falling asleep, they all breathed sweetly, purring quietly, curled into a ball, or if it was too hot they’d lie on their backs with their little heads tipped back and sometimes the fur on their bellies would be damp with terror, wondering what would become of them if I failed to show up.
The thing is, I would sometimes go to Kersko by car to tend to the cats, but only in good weather. And when I did take the car and caught myself driving a little too fast, I’d slow down, because if I were to have an accident, what would become of the cats? And I’d only pass tractors and slow-moving trucks and cars, because if I had an accident while passing, what would become of my cats? When the roads were icy or it was snowing or raining, I’d take the bus, because that way I was sure to arrive safely. Yet even when I took the bus and sat in the front row, I’d suddenly wonder: What if the bus crashed? Who would feed the cats? And I’d move to a seat in the middle rows and remain alert so that if something happened I could dive out of harm’s way, because if anything happened to me, who would give milk to my cats?
When it was time to go back to Prague and I started putting on my coat, the cats would become sad and subdued and Blackie, who had a bit of Charlie Chaplin in her, would try to cheer me up by leaping about, turning somersaults and then looking at me as if to ask whether her performance was entertaining enough to make me change my mind and stay. At other times, when the two tomcats were fighting and I’d be getting dressed to leave, they’d stop at once, and each would lie on his own chair in such an obliging way, as if to say: look how well-behaved we’d be if only you’d not go anywhere or, if you did go and let us stay inside, this is how good we’d be. But they belonged outside, and so one by one I’d pick them up and dump them over the threshold, and they’d slip out of my arms like fish and I’d lock the door and feel sad, as sad as my cats, and I’d walk down the path under the spruce trees, then through the gate and onto the tree-lined lane and when I’d look back one last time, I’d always see the same thing, and it would always move me. In every available chink in the fence there would be a cat’s head poking out, five little cats’ heads in all, following my departure and longing for what could not be altered, longing for me to return so we could all be together in the snug little room by the warm stove.
It happened that when I was in Prague, when I was at my wits’ end, when I could write no more and I couldn’t seem to snap out of feeling off-kilter and afraid and alone, I’d jump onto a bus and during the hour-long ride through the snowy countryside, I’d be on edge, wondering if the cats were still alive, and as I stepped off the bus and walked down the lane, I’d feel weak in the knees, and when all five cats ran to meet me, I’d gather them, one by one, into my arms and press them to my forehead, and somehow or other those cats cured me of my hangovers and depressions and I’d press them to me again and they knew what I was feeling and would rub up against me and I’d light a fire in the stove and feed them chunks of meat and bowls of milk.
Of all the cats, Blackie knew precisely what she meant to me. The fact that I loved her the most made her feel special, and I always found such understanding in her eyes that it alarmed me. I was happy I had her, that we shared a secret that bound us together. She would sit on the table and gaze at me and I would lean forward and she’d butt up against me, putting her little head in my hand, and it fit exactly into my palm. But, I was already starting to feel anxious about getting back to Prague for an evening get-together with my readers and I’d have to take those cats, one by one, and turn them out into the cold air, into the damp leaves, into the solitude, and I could see that the cats, too, were already feeling anxious that the dread moment was approaching when we’d have to part, leaving them to worry about whether I’d come back or abandon them to their fate. I was equally worried they’d be run over at the bus stop, or that someone might shoot them, or that they’d be depressed and wouldn’t come out to greet me, and to allay my anxieties I’d seek them out and hold them against my head like a cold compress to relieve a headache, but in the end there I’d be again, striding away down the lane, looking back to see those little cat eyes staring at me through the chinks in the fence, five little heads watching me until I turned toward the bus stop. Once on the bus I’d pull my collar up around my ears and be alone with my thoughts, blaming myself for being capable of abandoning such sweet creatures to the damp evening, the cold night, when one cat would curl up with another, breathing into their paws and their fur, warming each other, dreaming about whether I’d return and hoping it would be soon, because the winter nights in Kersko can be long, interminably long, even for humans.
Sometimes I felt so badly about those cats that I’d find myself wishing that both I and the cats could simply cease to exist. It was only on weekends, when my wife and I were together with the cats, and then twice a week when I’d sleep over in Kersko, that we were all happy. But when Sunday morning came, the animals knew it meant we’d be leaving in the afternoon and they’d already be out of sorts. Every afternoon I was in Kersko, the cats would wait for me to lie down on the couch and pull a blanket over myself, because they knew it was their nap time and one by one, they could lie down beside me under the blanket, right under my chin. But on Sunday, those creatures knew it was pointless to lie on the bed, since it was only a matter of time before we’d leave and their happy time would be over.
At the time, I learned that any hunter who shot a cat in the woods could get thirty crowns for each tail he turned in. Whenever I’d hear a gunshot I’d panic. I’d rush out and call my cats and count them to make sure one of them wasn’t lying dead somewhere while a hunter cut off her tail. I also learned there were people roaming the countryside, catmongers they called them, who would buy cats and kittens, or they’d catch strays and sell them to research institutes in Prague for fifty crowns apiece. The institutes would hook the cats’ brains up to a computer and it would tick away and keep track of impulses in their cerebral cortex.
I’d rather not have known this. The gunshots were bad enough, but I was devastated by the thought that one of my cats might be taken away to Prague and then, a week later, die with a diagnostic device stuck in its brain, because no cat could have survived that kind of scientific experimentation and research. I’d often wake up toward morning, knowing I wouldn’t get back to sleep, and have a vague sensation that would gradually reveal itself as a ticking sound –– a benign visitation, given what was to come –– and I’d get up and pick up my watch, which I’d wrapped in a scarf to muffle the sound of the second hand ticking away, take it into the kitchen and put it in the cupboard behind the coffee cups. But when I’d groped my way back to bed and lain down with my hand against my forehead, staring at the ceiling in the faint light from the street, it wouldn’t be long before I’d hear ticking again, but this time it came, not from any outside source, but from inside my head. It was as though I, too, had a computer hooked up to my brain and it was ticking away, recording the impulses of my cortex and my heartbeat, and this was what the instruments attached to the cat’s head in that research institute would sound like, and it would continue on and on until, mercifully, prematurely, I would go mad or die.
On behalf of my cats, I’d have these thoughts and images of the horrors that could happen, not just to my cats but to all cats that might be bought or caught by the catmongers. I was afraid, too, for the cats and kittens unfortunate enough to be caught by hunters who tossed them into cages with their eagle owls, waiting for the birds to work up an appetite. I’d often imagine myself as a cat or kitten trapped in an owl cage, waiting to be eaten, and when I couldn’t sleep, vivid visions and tactile sensations like that would haunt me.
One winter Sunday, a car pulled up in front of our cottage, some people got out, and when they came inside they explained that their tabby cat had died in a tragic accident, and they’d heard we had five cats, and they’d be happy to take one of our tabbies off our hands. When the woman saw Renda, the tomcat, she said that if she hadn’t seen their own cat get run over by a car, she’d have thought Renda was him. Horrified as I was by all this, I made no effort to stop the woman from taking Renda into her arms and carrying him off, and it all happened so fast I neglected to ask if the woman had a fenced-in yard or if they’d be coming up on weekends, and if they’d love him as much as we did.
Renda drove off, snuggling up against the woman as though it were me, and we were all so stunned that we didn’t leave for Prague that day, so great was the vacuum Renda left behind. He was a beautiful creature, larger than the other cats, who weren’t yet fully grown, but he was never a playful cat, he’d just keep an eye on the others, and they would follow his lead. Now Renda was gone and I came down with a fever and wandered around our property, cursing myself for giving him up so easily, the tomcat who never played, who never fought, who always just extended his paw, like a field marshal wielding a baton, commanding the fighting to stop. This was the cat I had given away, though the woman assured us that they ran a butcher shop and they’d feed him liver and meat and love him as much as the one that was run over by a car.