My Soviet Cats
I was seven years old when, back in the Soviet Ukraine, Mama picked our cat off the street. Its fur was striped in shades of gray and its small green eyes were scared. It smelled of pigeons and garbage. It whined of hunger. Mama held it by the skin at the back of its neck to look between its hind legs—it was a girl. We brought her home and gave her a name, Puma. Then Mama took a shallow round cake pan from the kitchen cupboard and handed it to me.
“You’ll have to go find some sand,” she said. “For the potty.”
Mama poured milk into a saucer and set it on the floor. The cat licked voraciously, even after the second helping.
Later, while Puma was busy with what would become her beloved pastime—bathing in her own saliva—I went about looking for sand for her new litter container. Kharkiv was no Sahara but any elementary school kid knew to look at an abandoned construction site, of which there were many. Soviet buildings took years to go up because nobody was ever paid enough to want to work quickly.
There was a block-long foundation pit around the corner from our apartment complex. The cement mixing machine stood frozen in time and a mountain of sand towered over the excavated ditch. This was where some kids went instead school—a place where one could smoke, play spin the bottle, or get yelled at by an occasional drunk. I collected as much sand as my bag could carry and proceeded to repeat this openly condoned theft for the next few years with the rest of my cat-owning neighbors. At the time, I had no idea that I was taking what wasn’t rightfully mine. The construction site—like everything else—belonged to the state, which meant that it didn’t belong to anyone, which further meant that it was routinely robbed by all.
Of course caring for a cat didn’t just mean cleaning up after one. The agile creature that found the tallest cupboards to jump from and the darkest corners to hide in was also another mouth to feed. By Soviet standards we weren’t poor, so neither was our cat, but in the intricate craft of procuring food money was only half the challenge. I recall going to the market with Mama and swatting away the flies, the smell of rotten vegetables filling my nostrils. The largest stand was always full of thin, bluish chickens whose lifeless bodies spoke to the misery they’d endured on earth. Scary as these market stands were, Mama and I were lucky to pass them by. We turned several corners and greeted several key people to enter a room where the produce smelled and looked better. We bought chickens with more fat on their bones and tomatoes that were two whole days away from decay. To have the right of purchase for these goods, I knew my parents had to have done favors for the right people. How could adults keep track of the long “I help you, you help me” tally, I wondered? I imagined a gold-bound notebook someplace up the folds of Mama’s brain where she carefully penned the list: headache medication in exchange for the phone number of a tailor; tailored skirt in exchange for a kilo of salami; one kilo of salami for a ticket to the theater. Etcetera. A hundred friends were better than a hundred rubles, as the Russian saying went.
Since the concept of cat food hadn’t yet made it past the iron curtain, an acquaintance who owed us a favor was chosen to establish an adequate supply of Puma’s fish. We bought it raw and kept it, cold and slippery, in the freezer. My job was to cut it up onto Puma’s plate. Which was as dangerous as many other things in my homeland, a place where babies came out of the womb and into the battlefield. Mass vaccinations via jet injectors spread dangerous viruses. Polluted water rotted young teeth. Open-face hot plate heaters left first-degree burns. Radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster seeded the roots of cancer into the soil.
Regularly, I would take the long prep knife by its wooden handle and aim it at the fish that glistened on the cutting board. I was supposed to thaw it, obviously, but that took time no kid wanted to waste. With my unknowing parents away at work, I would always cut it straight out of the freezer, and the cat would chew it up, cocking her head left and right to crush a series of prickly bones or to get at the hardened middle.
One day, when I was around eight years old, the knife slipped. I remember seeing the cutting board soaked in fresh, bright streams of blood. I also remember not feeling anything except the usual coldness of my hands. It took me some time to figure out that I had cut the tip of my index finger all the way to the dip joint. Examining this mutilation with interest, I contemplated my options. A Soviet child of my age was considered self-sufficient, so alarming my parents at work and making a scene would have been inappropriate. By then the pain was beginning to register and Puma was making it known that she was hungry. I rinsed my finger under the faucet and used a handkerchief to bind the loose portion of my flesh back into place. The fish-cutting was completed with more or less one hand and Puma wasn’t thrilled with the results. I spent the afternoon soaking up handkerchief after handkerchief and wondering what Mama’s reaction would be. But she surprised me by not getting angry and, instead, commending me on my quick-thinking. She also re-bandaged my hand with proper gauze and showed me where the medicine cabinet was, for future reference. I never got the stitches which, looking back, were probably needed.
I walked away from this incident with a deep scar and a life-long aversion to the sight of my own blood. But these weren’t my only cat-owning, health-related consequences. Soviet hygiene was pitiful, and even worse so when it came to animal care. Puma was picked up off the street without a genealogy tree or a vaccination schedule. We had no idea who, if anyone, had previously owned her. We did give her a bath—which made her furious—but we didn’t investigate any infection or fungus she might have carried. When I developed an uncomfortable circular rash called ringworm, my parents were not in the least bit alarmed.
“Totally normal,” my parents said. “Don’t expect a street cat to be clean.”
Such ailments scared Soviet adults much less than the possibility of, say, a common cold. Chills were avoided with fervor: God forbid there was ever a window opened or my neck out and about un-scarfed. And if a small sneeze ever did escape my nose an arsenal of medieval-era procedures would be unleashed. The rash, however, was very matter-of-fact. Nevermind that it required a foul-smelling anti-fungal ointment and a bizarre regimen of placing tape over the treated area and ripping it off once the skin was dry.
I continued to be at risk from germs that Puma brought home after her daily walks. Or jumps, I should say. We had an open-door policy, as did most other cat owners, whereby the animals would meow their way out of the windows and then use a combination of protruding stones and gutters to come down to the ground. Puma was never out for more than a couple of hours until she got hungry or bored by the street crowd. At first, I worried. What if she couldn’t find her way back? What if it was too hard to climb back up the gutters? What if she found a better window with a better kid who cut up better-tasting fish into more chewable pieces? After a while we all got comfortable with the arrangement and expected her to come home every night. Often, she’d scratch at the window just when my parents and their friends sat around the living room, drinking. Once inside, she’d gracefully walk through the stagnant cigarette smoke and disappear into the darkened hallway.
“What a little slut,” somebody would always say, and evoke a great deal of laughter.
Just when Puma’s routine became stable and I felt certain that she knew her way back, she didn’t come home. For a short while my parents tried to put up a front:
“She’s up to her cat business,” they’d say. “She’ll be back when she’s hungry enough.”
I did a lot of crying and walked around the neighborhood calling her name. Several days later, the mood in the apartment turned morbid. Mama and Papa avoided looking me in the eye and sighed.
“Perhaps something has happened to her,” they whispered, when they thought I was out of earshot.
Because I didn’t know the real dangers a stray cat could face walking the Soviet streets, I imagined Puma all scratched up after losing a fight for her share of a freshly caught pigeon.
But then came a rainy day when Papa made a sad discovery near the outdoor garbage shed. Her body was on its side, her paws curled in. Her fur sparkled with rain drops and everything about her, even her white whiskers, was frozen stiff.
“We should bury her,” Papa said, squeezing my shoulder, and headed back for the shovel.
He would never be allowed to dig the communal ground in plain view, of course. So he waited until dark to make her grave. Once it was done, we stood reining in our grief until our clothes were soaked and then we dragged our feet away. For weeks I felt as if a hole was carved in my gut that nothing seemed to fill.
You can imagine my surprise and joy when, one day, Puma returned home. Her belly hung low and all grace was gone out of her figure—she was pregnant. Once I’d checked her identifiable spots and was certain that we’d buried a different cat, I ran up two stories to the fourth floor to tell my friend, An’ka.
“Are you crazy banging on the door like that?” she asked, and came out to the landing. She folded her arms over her chest.
“My cat came back,” I said, my excitement bottled up at my throat.
“From the dead?” she asked, her dark brows furrowed.
Of course not , I wanted to laugh, but then I noticed the serious look in her green eyes. An’ka wasn’t stupid in the academic sense of the word. At school she excelled in math and wrote the kinds of essays everyone stood in line to copy. Yet she was the perfect product of a society utterly inbred in its thinking. She was full of ignorant superstition; we all were. Looking back, I see generations of professors, engineers, and doctors so brilliant in their work and still spitting thrice over their left shoulder to ward off trouble, wearing safety pins against the evil eye, and sitting on their luggage prior to travel for reasons that escape me. Aside from the food and language, the belief in the supernatural was the strongest vestige that traveled with the Soviet immigrants into the free world.
Dead or alive, Puma wailed for a day inside my doll pram and then gave birth to a litter of kittens. They were so delicate that they seemed like small waves gathering at her nipples. Mama fully intended to find each of them a home, but that didn’t stop family friends from making all kinds of scary yet culturally-acceptable suggestions:
“Oh, just let the kittens out on the street,” somebody would say, while taking a sip of coffee.
“Simply drown the lot of them,” someone else would argue, blowing out a puff of smoke.
Each time I heard this, I died a little. Luckily, we didn’t need to struggle with adoption for long. It turned out that Puma, herself not a looker, had gotten laid by one attractive street male. Within days the kittens grew colorful, fluffy hair in bright shades of brown. Their faces rounded and their paws widened. Potential owners fell in love quickly and whisked them away to a new life. All but one.
He was thin, like his mother; his body was black and his head was white. His elongated face seemed starved, and there was a dark patch across one of his eyes. We called him Roger, after the pirate. Nobody wanted him because he wasn’t cute, but he didn’t mind staying either. Whenever a possible taker arrived Roger would pace near my feet, rubbing his cheek against my ankle and giving off a sad, weak meow. One day, someone offered to take Puma instead and she went with them without a peep, didn’t even look back. I felt shocked, betrayed. How could she want to leave me? But perhaps she was being the kind of hero mothers often are, giving up everything for the benefit of their child.
Being Roger’s owner was different. He ate more often, stayed out on the street longer, and spent less time licking himself clean. Looking back, he reminds me of some of the guys I know now. But when he was home, he was gentle and loving. He didn’t hide in dark corners like his introvert mother had. Instead, he found sunny spots next to me on the sofa or curled up in my lap while I did my homework. In a very kid way, I considered him a true friend. Maybe it was our closeness that had wrongly taught him that all humans wished him well.
Roger stayed with us until I was eleven. He watched our family struggle as Grandpa passed away of a heart attack and Grandma, who had been crippled for years, stopped making sense. We moved into her apartment since she couldn’t get by on her own. At the time when I began fourth grade, more changes came. Roger and I observed strange people frequent our apartment. I was constantly sent out of the room when my parents were talking and Roger would cuddle in my arms as I stifled curiosity and disappointment. Mama and Papa gave away clothes and furniture. Suitcases and boxes began to line our hallway. Soon enough I was told that we had been given permission to emigrate from the U.S.S.R. Our neighbors promised to take Roger in.
Late one afternoon I heard him at the front door and let Roger in from his daily excursion. It was close to sunset and I hadn’t bothered yet to turn on the lights. He seemed like a shadow against the dark parquet floor. I headed to the kitchen to start getting his food ready, but he didn’t dash past me, sliding, as usual, to fit into the sharp turn. I looked back at him and my mind captured the image that to this day it can’t erase. Roger fought to make his way down the corridor, his legs visibly giving with every labored move. His face drooped toward the ground and behind him I could see the trail he had made with each bloodied paw.
I couldn’t process what had happened to him. Someone had ripped out his claws, I was told. But why? It took hours of phone calls and begging and offers of infinite favors, until late in the evening a vet did arrive. I watched Roger’s heavy breathing while Mama counted off a stack of banknotes. The doctor spent a long while giving Roger shots, applying ointments, and bandaging his mutilated paws.
None of us slept that night, least of all Roger. His body trembled and he shrieked from pain unless I held him, which I did through the morning and for the next several days until he showed the first signs of recovery. All this time I kept thinking of reasons. Had he clawed a punk kid who might have tried to grab his tail? Had he stolen a piece of sausage from under the nose of a drunk? Had he meowed so loudly that he had simply gotten on somebody’s nerves? For months prior to the start of our journey into the free world, all I wanted was to understand. What reason could someone have to put a cat on its backside (that’s how I imagined they did this) and take out its claws, one by one?
But of course, these were silly questions to ask. When the adults around me cared for Roger that night, they weren’t in shock over what had happened to him. What I was only on the verge of discovering by virtue of being this animal’s friend, was to them already a known fact. My homeland was an unreasonable place. It was a polluted region that clogged the freedom in people’s lungs, hardened the valves in their hearts, and slowed the neurons in their brains. It was a culture that produced individuals whose actions were cruel and a vast population which, however reluctantly, condoned such cruelty.
Olga Breydo holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Slice Magazine and Joyland Magazine. She is a part-time lecturer at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts and a staff reader for Epiphany literary journal. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.