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Creative Nonfiction Contest 2013: Submissions are Open!

"Cat Named Sobaka" by Josip Novakovich
Author Josip Novakovich

Creative Nonfiction Contest 2013: Submissions Are Open!

By Alie Kloefkorn

The day has come: submissions are open! Click here to submit. We are posting one last essay to entertain you as you prepare your submission:“Cat Named Sobaka,” by Joseph Novakovich. It appeared in our Spring 2010 issue as well as Best American Essays 2011. It is a cat’s biography, what the author calls an “essay-fable.”

We look forward to reading your submissions!

Cat Named Sobaka

By Josip Novakovich

 

ESSAY AND FABLE

The genre essay-fable (which probably doesn’t exist in the literary halls) is appropriate for this cat’s biography, which contains descriptions of realistic hardships of animal lives and at the same time the fantastic and fabulous, reflecting human follies.

On the coldest day of the year, in St. Petersburg, Russia, as my daughter Eva, friend David, and I walked up the stairs from Brodyachaya Sobaka (an underground tavern, Stray Dog), we beheld a shivery kitten crouching on a cement step along the stone wall. David, a delinquent publisher of Israeli fiction in English translation, picked her up.

She could be sick, I said. You pick her up just like that?

What should we do with her? he asked.

We’ll take her, we can’t let her freeze to death, I said.

She’s cute! said Eva.

Of course, to you all cats are cute. She’s just a standard alley cat—tabby, scraggly.

Look how big her stripes are, she said. They run in circles. She’s like a leopard. Let’s take her home!

We took her to the first café on the way, where you could buy cheap food, Prokofii Café. It seemed a fine pun, Prokofiev, for a coffee place near the theater, Shostakovich Hall, where Eva and I had heard Anna Sofie-Mutter perform Mozart sonatas delicately just the night before. (There’s an even more inclusive musically punned coffee shop, Tchaikoffski). The kitten climbed David; he had on a worsted wool sweater, and she must have liked the warmth. David grinned happily and took off his glasses; his eyes watered a bit, not from allergies but from recollections: I had a kitten just like this one when I was a kid!

What gender is she? Eva asked.

I think your question answers the question, I said. A girl because she likes guys.

Not all girls like guys, I don’t, she said. She was eight years old—and excited to be in Russia with me and my wife for half a year, while I did research for a South Slav diaspora novel, which so far hasn’t materialized—the novel about wandering Slavs, stray southerners in the north, has strayed away from my imagination as Russia’s strange currents took me elsewhere.

Eva, her cheeks flushed and red—from the sheer joy of looking at a kitten and perhaps even more from the first stage of frostbite— was reaching over and petting the kitten, who didn’t seem to understand petting. The kitten shivered and purred and blinked. Her eyes were teary. She sneezed.

She doesn’t seem all that healthy, I reasserted my impression.

The otherwise bored and pained waitresses, who looked like retired strippers, tilting their hips, with half-moons sagging below their eyes, came over, and I thought they would want me to throw the kitten out. That’s what had happened to me and a beige cat at Starbucks in State College—the manager came over and asked me to leave with the cat. People could be allergic, he said, it’s against the rules. Well, I happen to be allergic to silly rules, I said. I get all itchy when I hear of an unnecessary rule. Yes, the rules, in our boastfully free country, but here in Russia, the land of the non-free, the cat was welcome. Nobody sneezed. Or that is, they sneezed all the time, so there was no point in isolating causes. Ochen krasivaya, said one dirty-blond waitress. Milaya. The other waitress stretched over the table and petted the kitten, brushing me with her bony hip en passant.

Before naming the feline, we needed to feed her. We got her a bit of milk and a meat pirog. She sniffed at the milk and sneezed. She chewed a little meat, and could barely swallow, and then trembled as though this was too much for her body. She looked at me pleadingly, her eyes wide open, as though she didn’t understand what food was and needed an explanation.

Maybe she’s too weak to eat, I said.

Maybe she had a bad relationship with her mom, and so she hates milk, David said. If she were in New York, we could put her in psychotherapy until she came to terms with her mother, and then she could drink milk. Lactose intolerance often has psychosomatic etiology.

You sure about that? I said.

Why would I be?

She still shivered and sneezed. Cool particles of water blasted out of her nostrils.

She would have died for sure if we hadn’t picked her up, David said. Should we name her Prokofiev?

Just coffee bean? Eva said, coffee-eyed.

Maybe Masha? I said. What do Russians name their cats?

Murmansk, because to them Mur is Pur. Mura. David was informed, as both of his parents were from Russia and he grew up in the culture.

No, that won’t do. How about Sobaka, I said.

That’s awkward, she’s not a dog.

But we found her at Brodyachaya Sobaka. Brodyachaya is kind of too long, so Sobaka makes sense. Sobaka seems to like you, do you want to take her home?

But Daddy, I want her!

Mom will be mad at us if we bring her home.

Yes, I’d like her, David said. He took off his black-framed glasses again and wiped them with his sleeve.

You are allergic?

I think my eyes are teary from the cold out there.

Or from your American Express bill? I joked. He published the last book using his credit card, the book got stuck at the printer’s, who, knowing that David was in Russia, didn’t bother to ship it out, and so there were no sales to cover the investment, and he’d already been in debt. He was about to quit his publishing experiment.

Well, you can take her and see how it works out, David said, and I’ll check with my girlfriend.

Great, if she wants Sobaka, we can have joint custody.

We brought her home, and Jeanette, my wife, said, She looks sickly. Look at her eyes. She’s so thin, maybe has distemper.

Well, what do you suggest we do?

I don’t think Eva should be touching her. Put her in some kind of animal shelter. Russians must have one.

Yes, it’s called the gas chamber. No, we have to take care of her.

Eva of course couldn’t keep her hands off the kitten. Sobaka ran, jumped, chased candy wrappers on the floor, and purred as soon as you looked at her. She would come to my ear and stick in her nose, and the nose was wet and it tickled me. I laughed.

I bought a tetracycline cream for her eyes and rubbed it in a few times a day, but she still sneezed all the time and couldn’t keep her food down—she either vomited or had diarrhea.

The piano teacher who visited us gave us an address for a vet.

But the kitten’s health gradually improved, and her eyes didn’t water as much, and she sneezed less and less.

 

Eva had a friend, Sarah, who was wild about Sobaka, and she came over for play dates. Sarah was a third-generation Fulbrighter. Her grandfather had been a drama fellow, and now her

mother was. Thanks to the Fulbright Commission I was in Russia as well, and since I spent so much time with my cat, people joked that I got a Fulbright fellowship so I could take care of a few stray cats. Is that what you wrote in your application, that you’d like to pick up a sickly cat, and work on getting her paperwork? my friend Jeff Parker said. In the meantime, they turned down my proposal to write about the samizdat scene.

I think worse proposals than cat love have been funded. No, I wrote a proposal to write about the history of South Slavs hanging out in Russia, you know, like Tito, now Milosevic’s extended family, somehow there’s always a big connection between the South Slavs and Russia. After all, the Tsarist Russia fell apart while trying to protect Serbia’s assassins.

Eva enrolled in a school at Herzen, all in Russian, but the teachers were quite impatient with anyone who couldn’t speak perfect Russian and they often neglected Eva, and instead of teaching her math, they gave her dolls to choreograph.

Sarah was tall for her age and slim. Eva and she raised hell together. For Eva’s birthday, they opened the window of our rented apartment and shouted: Privet, Sankt Peterburg. Davay tvoj cigaret! They shrieked and giggled and pretended to be smoking. Our apartment looked onto the legendary Nevsky Prospekt where revolutions had taken place. Now, a new revolution was in evidence—lots of people in mink coats, Hummers—the new oil money spilling all over ostentatiously, bypassing the majority of still shabbily dressed people. And on national holidays, such as the Army Day, there were huge parades on Nevsky. Drumming woke me up at dawn on Army Day, and when I looked out, a dozen drummers were leading the way of the procession of cadets, soldiers, veterans.

Eva’s Russian pronunciation was perfect even if her vocabulary wasn’t. The girls stood on the window ledge and danced, which was easy to do, as the wall was more than a yard thick. And Sobaka was right there with them, standing on two hind legs and leaning against the window, her eyes wide at the sight of car headlights. From her perspective, they perhaps appeared like monster dogs with evil eyes.

Sobaka grew healthy and shiny although a little too slim. I took her to the vet to get shots, but the vet said that for rabies, the kitten had to be six months old. She gave me a prescription for the worms, and insisted that I get a German one, rather than the Russian pill. Bayer makes the best deworming medicine. I found out that, in general, the Russians seem to admire everything made in Germany. While waiting for the exam, I saw that Sobaka was most likely a breed of sorts, a Bengali cat. She looked like an alley cat, but for the stripes, which whorled around, bold against a somewhat orange, lighter backdrop . . .

I took Sobaka for trips across the town, with Eva to see Sarah at Novocherkaskaya on the other side of the Niva, and in the marshutkas (minibuses or vans) she’d stay quiet for ten minutes and then she’d howl.

She peeked out of my bag and generally caught the attention of the passengers, who seemed to like cats. Cats were everywhere in Russia, many strays. There were stray dogs too, and some of them quite beautiful. In Moscow, Eva struck up a friendship in the rushhour

chaos, after we got kicked out of a hotel because the university offices hadn’t yet returned my visa registration slip, and therefore I couldn’t register to stay in any hotel. Luckily my phone had

just enough time for me to call a friend of mine, the Croatian ambassador, who would put us up for two days. The curly beige dog made eye contact with Eva and followed us. He looked very

reasonable. How could he navigate the subway system? For us it was hard. I remembered a friend of mine, Joyce, who used to leave her dog at a certain u-bahn stop in Berlin on the way to work, and the dog would navigate back to the original stop. He could either

read German or smell the right subway stop. Maybe each subway stop has its own smell. Eva cried when we told her she had to break up the new canine friendship.

Anyway, there were even more stray cats than dogs in Petersburg. I admired the city cats. Each enclosed yard, constituting about a quarter of the city block, with apartment buildings encircling it, or rather, squaring it, contained a whole cat culture, the strays, who lived in a variety of holes, in the garbage dump, and the indoor-outdoor cats (cats who were allowed to go out even though they mostly stayed inside in the comfort of home), and then, the purely indoor cats, who stared out like prisoners, or more accurately, like privileged Americans in a gated community, scared to get out into the rough world.

Sobaka underwent the quick conversion from an outdoor stray to the indoor gated type of cat, and the process of Americanizing began. Actually, I suspected that she had been an indoor type, but because of her eye infection or some other reason, she was thrown out and abandoned near the type of café frequented by foreigners who might pick her up. The apartment had a balcony that we didn’t use in winter, but when the spring came, we opened it up and occasionally let Sobaka out. The balcony was on the second floor, but the yard cats managed to climb and to hiss at Sobaka, who was eager to play with other cats and quite put off by this expression of animosity. Petersburg is traditionally a revolutionary city, and classes are full of hatred for one another here, and cats, which in many ways reflect the human societies, apparently are also highly class conscious and inimical to those of other classes. A calico came over and hissed every morning.

Some strays didn’t do well. On the way to Eva’s school, we saw a dead cat thrown into the river, or rather, onto the ice covering the river. (Eva and I were tempted to walk to the other side on the ice as we had done several times before). The river was completely frozen over, and it had a layer of snow on top of the ice. Near the bridge were cigarette butts and beer cans, frozen in the ice, sticking out, and beyond them, this dead black and white cat. Maybe she froze to death. Maybe she was beaten to death. Maybe a dog killed her. Maybe she was sick. Maybe she died of old age. Does anybody die of old age?

Once in the street I happened to lift my gaze, perhaps because I saw some motion, and there was a cat flying, falling. I stretched out my arms and caught her. A young woman shouted from the window, It’s my cat.

OK, come and get her, I said, and she did as bid. The woman grabbed the cat, said Spasiba, and ran back into the courtyard.

Our landlady was friendly to the idea of a cat. She asked where the cat pooped, and I showed her a litter box in the bathroom. Margarita was impressed. She sniffed and said, Zapaha nyet. It doesn’t stink.

For some reason Sobaka had enduring diarrhea. My impression of Russia is that diarrhea is a common affliction among people and animals alike, with giardia and all sorts of parasites. . . . And sometimes Sobaka missed the spot, or the bathroom would be mistakenly closed, and she liked one corner particularly, over the vents. I was the one washing the corner over and over.

She liked to sleep at my feet, and like most cats, she perceived human feet to be separate individuals; toes were the targets.

On the Nevsky Prospekt, Eva fell in love with another kitten, a white Persian who eyed us calmly, perched on an old woman’s trembling hand. He looked like a little white owl with his big eyes. I first refused to buy the kitten, but Eva cried and said, It’s not just for me but for Sobaka. Sobaka is so lonely.

We’ll get kicked out of the apartment, I said. But that was empty talk—I walked out to get the kitten. He was certified, and had an English name, Eric Star. I wanted to name him Nevsky because of the street where we got him, but this time Eva won, naming him Julian.

Sobaka rolled with Julian and hunted him all over the apartment, but instead of biting him, she would lick him and clean him for hours at a time, as his long hair seemed to need grooming. Julian was so cute and Sobaka, now almost an adult, looked like a shadow next to

him, so that a friend of mine, John, when we went out with Julian to get his papers and shots, renamed Julian ‘‘Chick Magnet,’’ and Sobaka ‘‘No Longer Cute.’’ But she was just as cute—the more you looked at her stripes, the more you’d get mesmerized.

 

Eva wanted me to bring Sobaka and Julian to the States. Since I was taking two trips, first I would take Julian and then Sobaka. I was also carrying a cello, so two cats seemed like total hell. He was easier than she, so small and charming—the whole street livened up at seeing the white cat, and the vet wrote out a forged form that the cat’s mother had got the rabies shot. She made up the date, took out a dose of rabies vaccine, and wrote down the code. She stapled a chip into Julian’s neck, as I was making a stopover in Prague, European Union. And off we went. Many people on the plane wanted to play with Julian, and the black guys who worked for Avis at jfk said, Oh, no, the kitten stays here! How much do you want? Eva would have disowned me if I had sold her pet.

Sobaka remained with my friend John from Montreal, who stayed with me after Jeanette and Eva left. Sobaka was so distraught when she could not find Julian that she meowed for days,

and then to top it off, she peed in John’s suitcase full of clothes, and he couldn’t wash out the urine smell. Now he insisted on calling her No Longer Cute.

Now, almost anything that can be complicated is complicated in Russia. I had to get a passport for Sobaka (as I had for Julian), clearly identifying her, listing her shots, and so on. I went to the vet station, and there waited among a variety of people and their pets. It was incredibly hot in the waiting room, and the Russians didn’t seem to mind, but I had to walk out to breathe and get some cold water. The sight outside, when I crossed the bridge on the

Griboyedova, was fantastic—straight ahead the golden dome of St. Paul’s cathedral, gleaming. The canal zigzagged here, and three bridges were very close. It’s easy to get turned around here, unless you have a clear view of the orienting spires. Now that it was spring, people were walking everywhere. I went back to the hot and steamy vet’s office.

The vet said, What’s your cat’s name?

Sobaka, I said.

That won’t do. You can’t name a cat dog.

But I have.

She must have a less confusing name, officially.

All right, Olga.

That’s a human name.

Nobody will mistake her for a human.

That’s true. Fine.

She wrote Olga Novakovich in Cyrillic. She also gave the cat a variety of shots. She wrote a few certificates and stamped them. Russians believe in stamps and seals. Everything must be documented.

I also had to take a cello out of the country; I had not gotten the papers in on time to take it with Julian. It was imprisoned because we didn’t have the proper papers for it. Friends of ours kept it, and now I had to go to the cultural ministry and have the cello assessed. I paid 10 percent of the declared value for the exit visa for the cello. The photographer took front, back, and sideways shots, and the assessor described the cracks. All the while a Dutch violinist was crying because the border guards wouldn’t let her take out a violin, even though it was hers and her flight was leaving in the afternoon. I don’t know whether she got the papers to leave the country, but I suspect that with a 10 percent payment she was allowed to take it out, and hopefully the instrument wasn’t worth too much . . .

And precisely because of the weeping and crying possibilities, a person could get a pet exit visa validated only one day before departure at the airport. It wouldn’t do to have a pet rejected for a trip and the owner getting on the plane and abandoning the pet and making an unsightly emotional scene. Still, it seemed strange that there was no office downtown to verify the papers. I had to take Sobaka to the airport twice. At least I knew how to take marshutkas so I wouldn’t have to pay too much in cab fares to the airport. It used to be cheap to go to the airport by cab, but now it could cost thirty dollars each way. Actually, more from the airport, where the Mafia controls cab access—so roughly fifty dollars to get downtown from the airport, and twenty-five to get to the airport, as you can wave a gypsy cab in the streets.

After getting all these papers it was almost a letdown when I got onto the Pulkovo airplane without anybody asking about the cat or even noticing that one had been at the ticket counter. At security, I asked that the cat not be sent through the x-ray machine, and the guards took her out, petted her, and put her back in the box on the other side. On the airplane, my neighbors didn’t pay any attention to Sobaka. They were busy planning a biking trip around Normandy. I talked to them a little. One woman was a hotel manager, at the Karamazov Hotel. Russians now traveled with a vengeance, and there was a sort of middle class that suddenly made real money, which made it possible to travel.

In Paris I barely made the connecting flight. Again, nobody paid any attention to my having a cat, and I didn’t have to pay a fee. By the rules, I probably should have paid the fee. Anyhow, I now had the most certified cat in the Western Hemisphere. I took her to the toilet to pee. I had brought some sand and her box, and she did fine until the descent when there was a sudden stinging stink. Sobaka was terrified of the descent. She meowed. Her previous

friend, a red-lipped stewardess, laughed when she smelled it and waved her hand in front of her nose like a fan.

I landed in Chicago and proudly flashed papers—my cat was certified. I declared I had a pet and the officer said, You need to get the papers examined, and he directed me to a vet room but then called me back. It’s just a cat? And you have the papers, she’s had the shots? Oh boy, do I have papers—Russian exit visa, passport, shot certificate, and a few others. OK, just go through, no problem.

I drove her to Pennsylvania, her new home. Nastayescha Amerikanka, future American, that’s what I called her for a while. I had to leave right away to teach a brief course in Minnesota, and I left Sobaka locked in the basement with her old friend Julian. My wife and daughter would come in a couple of days. I couldn’t let Sobaka roam freely because a cat needs about three days to establish a sense of home well enough to be able to return to it by whatever magnetic or memory means they use. So for a while I listened to reports about how Sobaka was doing. I expected she would love the outdoors after a brief adjustment, but she was very cautious at first. The outdoors scared her. Well, she was a cosmopolitan cat, and these were the boonies with all sorts of smells and creatures. When she did go outside, the other cats didn’t welcome her. I thought that with her wild gene—judging by the looks, as a Bengali cat—she would have some real leopard ancestors, which I thought would give her the edge. But other cats, especially Jacqueline (named after du Pré, the cellist), chased her and treed her. Sobaka climbed the tallest tree we have, above the roof of our house, and she didn’t know how to get back to the ground. There was thunder and lightning, which must have terrified her, but still she didn’t dare go down the tree. She stayed there for four days, and Jeanette thought of calling the firefighters to get her down, but she wasn’t sure they could do it, as the tree was on a slippery slope after the rains. After four days, Sobaka came down, a bit thinner than before. Now the other cats growled at her but didn’t necessarily try to chase her off. Sobaka was about eight months old but

seemed younger—somehow she had stopped growing rapidly. Maybe she was older when we found her than we thought.

 

She was a shy cat, less charismatic than she’d been in Russia. She roamed in the woods and tried to catch birds and squirrels. I was sure that eventually her leopard nature would kick in—first she

needed to grow. I looked forward to her becoming a mother, wondering what her kittens would look like when combined with our orange tomcat’s. They would be wonderful. When the first round of mating took place, she was curious. Augustine was mating with Jacqueline. Later she emitted her meows, as if to say, How about me? Don’t you like brunettes as well?

With Eva and me she played kitty-pong. She sat in the middle of the table and tried to catch the balls. She’d jump like a goal keeper to catch them. Frequently she managed to kick them that way, and then she’d jump off the table and chase them. Sometimes she lay along the net and moved by sliding alongside it, helping herself along with her claws in the net. We didn’t mind the net getting wrecked because it was so cute.

 

We let her stay outdoors whenever she wanted to be there. Once she disappeared and Eva and I grieved. Why didn’t I let her in? She was gone for three days already, and Eva and I talked about

how beautiful it was to play kitty-pong with her. We might never get another chance to play with her—if we had known, we would have played more, and we would have petted her more.

I had heard her late at night at the beginning of the winter. Maybe she had taken a trip. I don’t know where she went but she came back.

I am so relieved, Eva said. We combed Sobaka, and she purred. Look how healthy she is—her eyes are so clear, her fur is shiny.

How many lives has she spent? Eva wondered. Let’s see, one in Russia, when she was freezing to death; another, when she was recovering from her distemper; the third, when she came down the tree after being up there for four days; and this was the fourth. She has five more lives.

That’s pretty good, better than us.

Eva was wild about animals. Her complaint once when she found a snake in Nebraska wasn’t that the snake bit her but that it left her and slithered away into the bushes. The bite had startled her so she dropped the snake. If she had her way, we’d turn our house into a zoo. Sobaka was our Russian link, and we were proud that we saved her from tyranny and brought her into democracy, where if the people’s will was to be done, she’d be immediately spayed. No doubt, that wouldn’t be the will of the cat. We thought we would spay her, but first it would be good to get some of her exotic kittens. They would be story kittens, because they would have her background and the chilly Russian roots. And they would be fine roots—from Brodyachaya Sobaka café, a legendary place for anarchists and futurists, where Akhmatova, Mayakovski, and

many other roaming poets gathered. In a way, it was Anna’s cat, our Sobaka, bringing with her the misery and chill of Russia in a beautifully playful and nostalgic manner.

The more time she spent outdoors, the more she liked it, and she ran around, especially after birds. We realized that kitty-pong was good training, unfortunately, for bird hunting. Still, she caught no birds. The weather was turning cold. We used to have a cat in Ohio, also a tabby, who was a clever hunter. She hid in a tiger lily bed, where the bright colors attracted hummingbirds, and to our despair, she caught two of them. Would Sobaka turn out to be like

that? We were visited by woodpeckers, cardinals, indigo buntings. Woodpeckers could take care of themselves—I’ve never seen a cat catch one. I imagine a vigorous peck on the head would hurt. We had two wonderful resident red-headed pileated woodpeckers heralding the death of large trees. For me it was always an ambivalent apparition—the startlingly beautiful bird pecking away merrily, with the pecks echoing against the Bald Eagle Mountain ridge (below which we lived); there was the carefree joy of a healthy worker loving his job, in a bouncy rhythm, yet it meant that the tall maple was sick, full of worms, and it wouldn’t be flaring up in full glory next year but would diminish like an aging opera singer— previously buxom and splendidly garish—growing gray, gaunt, and bent.

The cold brought along the hunting season. We were afraid that our orange tomcat, who roamed far and wide in search of his genetic destiny—the goal was perhaps to have 10 percent of the cats in the fifty-mile radius carry his genetic imprint. Supposedly, in Mongolia eight percent of the people are Genghis Khan’s descendants. On Bald Eagle Mountain Ridge, if things keep going the way they do, in a few years there will be hundreds of Augustine’s

descendants. The hunters have always left Augustine alone. He comes home scratched, with torn ears, from violent love.

So when Sobaka disappeared for two days again, we did not worry about the hunters. The hunting season was over. Jeanette says that she heard meowing one late night but was too sleepy to go downstairs to see which cat it was, and as it was a warm night, their being outdoors should not have been a problem. In the morning, however, she found Sobaka in the woodpile, and around her and near the door, there was blood. Sobaka appeared to have a bullet hole in her side. Probably a hunter shot her.

When I got home, I found a loose tree stump and pulled it out, which in our rocky terrain is the best way to create a relatively deep hole. I deepened and widened it, and we placed the poor creature into it. We buried her with an orange Ping-Pong ball, for she had loved the game so much. A white film covered her eyes, yet the eyes stayed open.

Should we close the eyes? asked Eva.

What do you think?

It makes no difference.

Do you want to examine her wound?

No. I believe Jeanette that it’s a bullet hole.

I am a little queasy from the sadness.

Can I touch her and kiss her?

No, she’s been dead too long. It’s not a good idea.

Eva wept quietly. Her eyes were red.

Do you want to utter a prayer for her? I asked.

I don’t know any.

You do.

Yes, but I think it’s too late for that.

We put her in the soil, where she did not belong. So this is how America has welcomed her.

Who killed her? I have no idea, but to me it seems the community of the brave and the free did it. I remember hearing a wonderful bartender, who does radon mitigation, and has a fine sense of humor and a tender heart, say, Oh, you live down there by Warriors’ Mark? That’s where a buddy of mine and I sometimes go into the woods and shoot stray cats.

Why?

There are too many of them, and it’s a good party.

I know he hasn’t done this in years, but it seems people do kill cats occasionally. You feel bad, go out into the woods and kill a bit, and then you don’t feel so bad. Your frustrations and aggressions are out, and you can continue to be a friendly American and not shoot your co-workers or co-religionists or co-shoppers in a mall. Oh well, maybe you still daydream about doing it, such is the American love of the right to bear arms. If you bear them, how can you avoid imagining your use of them? And if you keep imagining your targets, won’t you always be tempted to shoot them?

Would she have been better off in Russia? Would she have survived?

I did try to find takers in Russia, and the friends who at first said they would take her had a tiny fifth floor apartment—she’d be like a goldfish in a bowl. Margarita, my landlady, had suggested that I just toss her into the yard, especially after she discovered a tear in the curtain. Ona tzyepayet! To be a stray in the center of Petersburg, with several adult, dominant, and skilled cats in the yard, who had already expressed animosity for her, would not have worked either, and she could have ended up frozen on the Canal Griboyedova ice. Fulbrighters Maud and Sarah couldn’t adopt her at the time, but they called recently, saying things were better now, they had a better space in upstate New York, and they would adopt a kitten from Sobaka. They would love to remember Russia through her. We wish we had her and her kittens, we replied. David, when I told him about her, at the Bohemian Beer Garden, ordered a Pecherovka, his eyes teared up, and he swore.

The bare winter landscape of Pennsylvania, with the rocks protruding from the ground, has stopped the feline straying. Many of the rocks here are reddish from iron ore, the substance of blood, which could build blood, the bloody backbone of the planet’s life. Without this kind of stone, there perhaps would be no bloody life on earth. We had found the kitten only two hundred yards away from Spas na Korovi, Spilled Blood Cathedral, where Tsar Alexander the Second was murdered and the great ostentatiously gorgeous place of worship had risen, but here, we couldn’t raise anything on the grave, other than a big red-streaked stone, which I could barely carry once I dug it up from the black freezing ground, the biggest stone I could find. It is now sticking out of the earth above Sobaka’s body like a large sliver of Earth’s broken bone. Sobaka has strayed from one stone to another.

 

Josip Novakovich is the author of and editor of numerous collections of short stories and nonfiction, as well as a novel and two textbooks. He currently is a professor at Concordia University in Montreal.