03. 05. 2007. 12:40

The Family Cat (short story)

"We were not bad people, nor was there a child in the family young enough to find any pleasure in torturing animals, it’s just that we didn’t need more than two cats."

  We were not bad people, nor was there a child in the family young enough to find any pleasure in torturing animals, it’s just that we didn’t need more than two cats. In all likelihood one would have been plenty, but we hadn’t given it much thought. We’d kept to two cats out of habit, just as we'd always kept to one dog and always the same number of chickens the fowl plague had left behind.  One of our cats was hardly worth mentioning. There was nothing notable about her, though perhaps she was simply shy and lacking in any strengths or weaknesses that would have called special attention to herself. The family took to calling her Orange. Even with my eyes closed I can't really make her out, remember her only as a rusty smudge. Each morning and night she lapped up her milk, and in between she would disappear for the duration of the day, not even making her presence felt harassing the chickens. When she caught a mouse, she'd drag it into the kitchen alive, and there, right in front of us and the other cat, play with it until it died. Of course, we all know that women are vain, even in the case of cats.
  Our other cat, Moustache, we considered equal to our most intelligent dogs and our most handsome horses, which is no small achievement given that cat adoration is unheard of among peasants. But then Moustache was no ordinary animal. On the outside she was nothing remarkable, but her homely calico body concealed a firm and likeable character. Her attachment to us was poignant. Throughout the winter she wouldn’t budge from the kitchen, where almost everything in the family took place. She napped either on the blanketed bench or on the surface of the stove and used the bare floor only to transfer herself from one spot to the other. In those moments when we all happened to vacate the kitchen, in only ten minutes she'd be meowing bitterly, clawing at the door and leaping up to the doorknob. More than once she even managed to open the door. She came looking for us because she was like a frightened child without us.
  Moustache was a vegetarian in her own way. Aside from mice she didn’t eat the meat of any other animal. When my mother gutted chicken or fish, Moustache remained calmly planted on the bench, idly watching her companion, Orange, who was likely her sister or niece, go mad with the smell of blood. Bread, however, Moustache loved with a passion. During meals she was always beside us, hanging around on the bench and snitching the bread from beside our plates with one of her front paws. When the impulse struck we sliced off a hunk and put it down in front of her on the bench. Sometimes she gnawed off the crusts on bread stored up on a pantry shelf (my mother always baked five loaves at a time, as though there were still ten of us to feed), and we didn't scold her, instead we cut off and gave her the nibbled part. We loved this animal. We never knocked her around with a broomstick, never kicked or smacked her – in fact, when she charmed us our hands brimmed over with caresses, which she received with a rising back, purring, grateful.
  A few times a year she presented us with three or four kittens. It was impossible to give them away since every home in the neighborhood had an ample supply of kittens. We weren't about to strike up a business breeding cats, so, there's no use denying, we did away with her every litter.
  One winter the big event came when my mother was ill and the men were off making moonshine, so there would have been no sense in asking them to do anything for at least the next three days. My mother ordered me to deal with the kittens.
  I thought I’d ask the neighbor kid to come over, but then I thought, "Why should I have to be the one to teach him cruelty?" I gathered the bare, blind little creatures into a basket and poured them out onto the dunghill. It was winter, the temperature close to zero. Taking a deep breath of the sharp air, I went into the stable for a pitchfork. But when I caught sight of the pink, squirming little bits of flesh meowing against the cold, I couldn’t raise the pitchfork. I used to get nauseated even when my hoe cut into mole crickets or when – one of my worst memories – I watched a leech wrestle an earthworm. How their boneless, slimy bodies coiled up all around each other...  "No, I can’t do it!" I punched a hole in the trough ice and rinsed my face. I felt a little better. “They’ll just freeze,” I consoled myself, and warily, so that my line of vision wouldn’t graze them, I turned back to the kitchen.
  One of the kitchen doors opened to the yard, the other to the pantry, and the cat bed was there in a crate. At the foot of the pantry door we had cut a little hole for the cats. Moustache slipped into the hole, until now napping in her usual spot on the bench. Nursing time had come. A few minutes later she came back into the kitchen. She began to search, her steps apprehensive. She went to the end of the bench, wriggled under the stove, scanned the dark underside of the bench, even climbed into the cupboard. After exploring every last corner she looked around, bewildered, sniffed hard at the air and again disappeared into the hole. She was away for a while, obviously searching the attic. She reappeared, meowing. With unceasing, desperate meows, she rechecked and smelled everything. Then she sat down on the bare floor, looked ahead of herself and kept meowing. The crying of a child could not have possibly been more desperate than hers.
   “Shut up!” I shouted uneasily at her.
  She didn’t listen, so I grabbed her by the nape of her neck and flung her into the attic. By the time I got back to the kitchen she was there waiting on the floor, meowing.
  I threw her out into the yard and shut the door behind her.
  There was silence.
  My mother got up for the night milking, and as she finished straining the milk, she said, “Look, Moustache caught a mouse!”
  I looked over from the newspaper. Something in her mouth, the cat rushed silently towards the hole.
  “That’s no mouse,” I despaired, furious with my incompetence.
  I was right.
  “She brought back her kittens,” I told my mother.
  “Dead?”
  “No, no!  They’re nursing.”
  “Well, didn’t you kill them?”
  “I thought they’d freeze to death.”
  “Those things? A human being would freeze faster than they would. You have to crush them.”
  Resigned to what had to be done I grabbed the little basket. All the kittens were nursing, except for one which had already frozen to death. I went to the edge of our land and dumped them out onto the snow. I looked away to the bare treetops, but I could still hear the dull thuds, and my hand felt the change in the weight of the basket. How difficult it is to have cats.
  Moustache brought them back yet again. At this point only two were still alive, but she didn’t leave any of them out in the snow. Perhaps she hoped that the warm milk would bring them back to life. What could I do? I got on a bicycle and took them to the outer reaches of the village.  
  “To make such a fuss over a cat!” my mother scolded.
  For the next two days my life was hell. Moustache wouldn't stop searching for her kittens. She paced restlessly between the attic, the pantry, the kitchen and the yard, sniffing aloud, and not for a moment did the mournful meows die away in her throat. By the end of the second day she had made herself hoarse, only a rattling squeak emerged, and this was even less bearable. She came back from one such futile round into the kitchen to complain to me, and in a sudden murderous impulse, I kicked her. My foot met her head, sent her into a somersault, and for a few seconds she lay dazedly on the floor. In fear and shame I bent down to her, but by then she had come to. She staggered, dizzy, to the bench, gathered herself together and fell asleep.  
  It was then she stopped looking for her kittens. Once or twice she startled awake, launched into a sprint and sniffed around the bed in the pantry, but she no longer knew what she was looking for there. Gradually my hands forgot the feel of the little bodies, and slowly but surely I found I could pet their mother again.
  Moustache couldn't resist the joys of love, and a few months later the signs of motherhood on her were again plainly clear. It was dinnertime on a Sunday night. My mother was straining milk. Orange politely waited beside her empty bowl. But Moustache meowed and restlessly rubbed up against my mother’s boots. “It’s coming, it's coming,” my mother grumbled and poured them their milk. Moustache poked her nose into it and promptly ignored it, resuming her meowing and rubbing.
  “What’s your problem?” my mother at last asked in all earnesty.
  Moustache rushed away to the pantry door, paused beside the hole, glanced back towards my mother and meowed. She crawled into the hole, stuck her head back out and again meowed.
  My mother followed her into the pantry. Moustache stood on the crate meowing. My mother understood. She took down a threadbare velvet coat from a nail in the wall, turned it inside out to the soft inner lining and lined the crate.   
  “Will that suit you?” she asked, affection in her voice.
  The cat lay down on the coat and went quiet.
  “There was only a burlap sack in the crate,” my mother announced.  “It looks like she didn’t want to have her babies there. She found it too rough.”
  A few minutes later we heard the thin meow of the first newborn. 
  The next day Moustache spent the whole morning asleep on the bench.  At noon she didn’t come to the table to snitch pieces of bread – she slept on the bench. All through the afternoon and evening she slept on the bench, not even getting up for her evening milk.
  “There’s something wrong with that cat," my mother decided, “She’s not taking care of her kittens…”
  Then she remembered she'd have to get rid of the kittens. She went into the pantry, and some long minutes later she came out, astonished. 
  “Did you suffocate them?”
  “Suffocate what?”
  “The kittens?”
  “Me?”
  “All three are dead. Come and have a look!”
 We stood bewildered above the three pink carcasses.
  “Maybe the horse kicked her belly and they died inside… But, why, we heard them meowing…”
  “And she'd normally be looking for them. She'd be crying. Remember what a ruckus she made last time?”
  It was baffling.
  I scooped one up in my hand and examined it in the lamplight. Three dull teethmarks were visible on either side of the bare, wrinkled neck. When a cat carries her young, she bites them at the nape of their necks. This bite had arrived at the throat.
  From the bench Moustache looked idly towards her dead kitten.
  It didn't make sense, but at the same time nothing else could have happened:
  “Their mother strangled them.”
  My mother, at first in disbelief, then in admiration shook her head. 
  “Well, I never! What a mind that cat has! Witless beast and still capable of learning. What do you say to that? Why, isn’t it amazing?”
  I didn’t know what to say.

(1961)


Translated by: Rachel Miller

Tags: Erzsébet Galgóczi