Back then, when I was on the verge of utter despair about the cats, who would come to my bed toward morning and wait for the moment when, exhausted and soaked in sweat, I’d be contemplating suicide, they’d appear, not to accuse, but merely to sit and stare at me. In that dreamlike state I’d be unable to avert my eyes from them, and all those dead cats and kittens who were harassing me to death merely by looking at me.
At the time, I received a summons to appear at the local National Committee office as a witness. A neighbor, Mr. Polách, had lodged an official complaint against his neighbor, Mrs. Soldátová, claiming that for the last fifteen years, she had been shooting and killing songbirds and squirrels through the pantry window of her cottage. His main concern, however, was the songbirds, and he said that his son could attest to it as well, but he was counting on me, a writer who happened to live opposite her cottage, to confirm that the volume of dead songbirds could be measured in wagonloads. And that’s how I came to be sitting in the National Committee building one evening while the chairman, Comrade Černý, read out Mr. Polách’s complaint. Because of those thousands of dead songbirds, Mr. Polách had had to seek medical help twice and, as he said in his oral deposition, he was so upset that he’d become sick in the head. At a mere glance, one could see there was something to this: he was constantly sweating, his eyes were bloodshot, side effects of the pills he had to take because, every morning, toward morning, all those songbirds would appear to him, all those titmice and finches, woodpeckers, magpies, tree creepers and buntings, they all came to him and flocked around his bed at daybreak and those twittering birds told Mr. Polách of their fate, holding him accountable for how they would suddenly fall out of the branches of the hazelnut trees and the fruit trees in Mrs. Soldátová’s garden, and all those birds cried so piercingly that Mr. Polách became mentally distraught. He was therefore appealing to the National Committee to put things right. He wanted no more than that, because he knew he could never bring those buckets of dead birds back to life, but he did want Mrs. Soldátová to surrender her two air rifles to him and he would destroy them, and would even pay her compensation for the horrific weapons, if only to be assured that she would never again shoot birds from her window, and that he, Mr. Polách, could breathe easily again and perhaps not have to seek psychiatric help, and the birds would no longer flock to his room toward morning and hold him to account for their suffering.
The chairman of the National Committee then asked me to tell them what I knew. I said that although I had, now and again, come across a dead bird, and had occasionally heard a gun go off, and sometimes I’d even heard a pellet strike a branch or a tree trunk on my property, I had never seen Mrs. Soldátová fire a gun, nor had I ever seen her with a weapon on her shoulder, and that was all I could say. Mr. Polách, the complainant, turned red and his eyes became bloodshot again and he wiped the sweat off his face with a large kerchief, which wasn’t enough, so he brushed away the beads of sweat with the palms of his hands and then dried them on his trousers and his cap. The truth was, he retorted, that since Mrs. Soldátová shot birds from her pantry window, he had not actually seen her do it either, but he was now going to broaden his complaint to include me, because I had several cats, sometimes eight at a time, and those cats, my cats, caught and ate birds, especially when I wasn’t there, and they had exterminated thousands of birds and more, and if that kept on there wouldn’t be a single bird left in Kersko. Even if the number of cats in Bohemia were limited to two per property, it would still spell the end for all songbirds. Likewise, Mrs. Soldátová ought to be punished on moral grounds because if every property owner shot songbirds through their window, it would be the end of those beautiful creatures. Therefore I and my cats were the moral equivalent of Mrs. Soldátová and her two air rifles.
When I heard that, it all started to make sense, and for the first time in a long while I had a wonderful feeling that in fact, by getting rid of my kittens and my cats, I had actually made it impossible for them, like Mrs. Soldátová’s air rifles, to wipe out baby birds in their nests or in the trees, and I silently gave thanks that I’d been called as a witness to that hecatomb of dead songbirds, and that therefore my actions, my murders, meant something, because in fact I was helping to conserve the natural world.
I rose and said that Mr. Polách’s observations were correct. I admitted that cats were the enemy of more than just songbirds, because those same cats also went after pheasants and, when they had kittens or when they were hungry, they would even hunt hares and wild rabbits and yes, even if I had not been summoned, I knew what my duty was, for I too had shot and otherwise liquidated countless cats and kittens, and now I was looking after no more than three grown-up cats, and they were already spoken for, and so I wouldn’t have to ask the neighbors’ permission, which I knew was what the regulations say about breeding cats and dogs on properties and houses in close proximity to others. Now that I had indicted my dead cats, I suddenly felt free of guilt, and I went on to express my regret that there were no longer custodians in the woodlands, the way there used to be in Mr. Hyrosse’s time, and under Prince Hohenlohe, when they would patrol the estates and shoot stray cats and dogs to protect the game animals and songbirds. And my witness statement ended with a thundering prosecutorial oration. Fixing everyone with a withering stare, I threatened to go home and, in the name of those songbirds, liquidate my three remaining tomcats. The chairman of the National Committee thanked me, and thanked Mr. Polách as well, who was now swallowing more pills because my speech had added to his woes, because my speech had increased those baskets full of dead songbirds by more baskets and barrels of beautiful but regrettable corpses of tits and finches, magpies and buntings, and tree creepers and the other birds that would now, more than ever before, swarm in their thousands around his bed toward morning, when he couldn’t sleep, increasing his need to consume pills and visit psychiatric clinics. And because Mrs. Soldátová, against whom Mr. Polách’s accusation and complaint had been leveled, did not appear, the chairman brought the hearing to an end and had the record of the proceedings read out.
Mr. Polách and his son had come to Hradištko by car, so they offered to give me a lift to Kersko. During the three-kilometer drive, and then for another half an hour in the car parked under the street lamp by my lane, I had to listen to what an awful person I was. Mr. Polách wondered how I could possibly be a writer when I denied ever having seen Mrs. Soldátová shooting birds, and that in fact I had got her off the hook and had made matters worse for him because of all those birds my cats had liquidated and were still liquidating in one way or another, all those songbirds, those innocent birds that bring delight to the workers who come to Kersko for recreation, or on their way home from work, or who open their cottage windows on the outskirts of town, or in the city, where the parks are alive with the clamor of birdsong that contributes to the building of socialism, while here he was, having to argue with the National Committee, and start legal action over something so obviously wrong, that every season, flocks and flocks of songbirds were falling victim to air rifles and cats.
When Mr. Polách finished his rant, glistening with sweat in the dim light of the streetlamp above the car, I wished him much success in his future battles to save the songbirds and told him he was a brave man. And then, in that dim, diffuse light, a curly head in the back seat turned to me and practically pressed its mouth to my ear and I drew back and there sat a tall young man, Mr. Polách’s son, and when I turned my head again, he put his mouth against my ear again and whispered: “And what about those poor cows, Mr. Hrabal, those Chagallian cows? We have to fight for the humane treatment of animals destined for the slaughterhouse. Oh, those poor Chagallian cows! In some slaughterhouses, in towns where they have schools of veterinary medicine, whole classes of future veterinarians come to visit, with the cattle standing there, waiting to be executed, and these students, under the guidance of their professor, take the instruments of their future profession and open the chests of those still living cows so the students can see what a living heart looks like, what living lungs, living spleens, living stomachs look like, and the professor points things out and teaches them what the living organs of a cow look like and no one pays the slightest attention to the look in those cows’ eyes. Mr. Hrabal, those eyes! The poets of ancient Greece say they are like the eyes of a goddess. Hera was ox-eyed, she had the most beautiful eyes in the world, Mr. Hrabal. The Greeks and other ancient peoples knew that killing a cow was murder, that’s why they shared the guilt with their gods and sacrificed those beautiful creatures, male and female, to the gods, they shared the shedding of blood and transferred their guilt to their gods as well. Now we kill our animals with impunity in slaughterhouses, but that’s not enough. Before the murder, those future veterinarians poke about in their insides while they’re still alive so they can learn and see what they only learned in theory from their textbooks. Something has to be done about this, Mr. Hrabal, and I am one of the guilty ones, because those innocent cows’ eyes, those eyes of animals heading for slaughter, those miserable Chagallian cows, they accuse not just me, not just you, but all humanity, of murder, so that sometimes, Mr. Hrabal, I have to be careful not to let those images kill me.”
This young man was talking at me, his lips moving against the auricle of my outer ear and once again I saw the eyes of the cats I had beaten to death, their reproachful eyes, eyes that had no idea I would kill them, eyes that knew they loved me. Their kittens had been born in my bed, they trusted me and had boundless faith in me, they were happy only with me and in my house, and I had beaten them to death in a mail bag, like vermin. They brought me songbirds, or baby quail, or pheasant chicks, or little rabbits, but that was something they could not help doing because they were showing off their prowess, giving me a gift of their prey, and if that were so, then I should have had them shot, a game warden or a hunter should have come, someone other than me should have killed them. Thus I was guilty, not because I had beaten them to death but because I had murdered love. That was my sin. I was guilty in my own eyes, and toward morning, when they appeared to me, it was really me accusing myself, because I felt guilty and would go on feeling guilty as long as I remained in the world. As Mr. Polách, who was innocent, still felt tortured by the idea of all those birds shot dead or caught by my cats, birds that in his early morning hours would swirl round his bed, twittering and shrieking. Like that young man who would fear for his life when the silent, reproachful eyes of Chagall’s wretched cattle appeared to him toward morning.
I groaned and stepped out of the car, slamming the door behind me. The car drove off and I walked along, speckled with light from the tall sodium lamp, and I entered the tree-lined lane where the white pickets of my fence glowed brightly. I walked through the darkness and there, running out to meet me, came the three grown-up kittens, and they nudged up against my legs and then ran ahead in great leaps and bounds and then came back again, rubbing up against me and then running off again, only to return once more to show me how much they loved me, just like their mothers, who had loved me and whom I had killed.