I received the cat from my mother.
She received the cat from her mother.
She received the cat from a street merchant who used to sit by the stone steps around the well in the middle of the town square and sell hand-carved trinkets, and toys that danced when you pulled little levers, and painted brooches, and tiny glass animals. He was old and dirty and the cat would sit in his lap and keep him warm in the winter, and hunt mice for supper in the summer, but this was northern Russia where “summer” just meant “it mostly snows a little bit less.” He smelled like sour cream and cows, my grandmother said, but she would make him laugh when she came into town with her mother to buy gristle and beets and wool and one day he told her to take the cat home with her. On her next trip to town, he was gone, and no one had known where he went, or, at least, they wouldn’t tell her.
The old street merchant said he won the cat from a friend in a game of poker.
The friend said he found the cat in an alley behind a church. There were piles of clothes and oil cloth sacks filled with bits of food and wooden cups and he thought the children of gypsies may have lived there, or orphans, perhaps, and that this was their cat, but he took it from the alley anyway.
The alley never said where it got the cat from.
My grandmother named the cat Koshka, which was not highly original, as it was the Russian word for “cat,” but she was young and her mother told her the cat would probably die soon.
She did not die.
When my grandmother was eight, Koshka, she said, already looked old. Her ugly hair was matted and torn and bare in many places. She was covered in cuts and sores and her skin was patchy yellow and grey. She would leave at night and come back looking even more ragged and sickly and sit by the fire and eat scraps of potato skins and small dollops of sour cream and remnant leftovers of fish-eye soup (which was not, as one might suspect, a clever name for something more appetizing, but was, in fact, soup made out of actual fish eyes). She would bandage the cat and her mother would sometimes scold (“Why must you bring that filthy thing in the house?”) and sometimes dote (“You may be a nurse some day with caring like that, tiny one”) and sometimes worry (“You know, Lenichka, cats cannot live forever”).
One day my grandmother was walking to the stream with a basket of laundry to wash in the cold, flowing water. Koshka was following her at a brisk pace for such an old cat, stalking mice, batting at falling leaves, but never killing or eating anything, for she was full, as she always was, for she was an excellent hunter. But my grandmother, as she approached the stream, tripped and hit her head on one of the rocks and remembers coldness and water and then nothing but black. When she woke up she had been pulled from the rushing stream by something, a small cut on her head, Koshka standing next to her, watching quietly.
She said the cat had saved her.
Her mother said she must be remembering wrong. Koshka was old, and small, and sickly. Surely she would die soon.
But she didn’t die.
Then, when my grandmother was twelve, she was sent into town by her mother. The trail was a couple of miles long and it was cold and snowy, but it was her first trip into town alone and she felt important and adult. She sang a song as she walked to remember her mother’s grocery list: Two needles, three yards of white fabric, two pounds of beets, and a licorice drop for a treat if there’s anything left over.
Koshka trotted along beside her as she always did, batting at leaves and startling scampering creatures. They moved to the side of the road when they heard behind them the tramping of a single horse. The creature and its rider soon overtook them.
“Hello, little girl,” the man said to my grandmother, and she looked up. He wore a fur hat and thick coat and his face was hidden and pale.
“Hello,” she said, and kept walking.
The man on the horse didn’t speed up.
“What are you doing out here on this cold path?” he asked.
“Walking into town,” she responded. She knew she didn’t know this man, and she was wary of him, but she didn’t see that any harm could come from this information as the only place where this road led was into town.
“It’s so cold, little dear. Would you like me to give you a ride?”
“No, thank you,” she said, and smiled politely.
“Come on, little one,” he said, and the diminutive, familiar terms began to irritate my grandmother, who had only known her mother to ever use them with her. “It’s so cold. My horse is warm. Would you like to pet him?”
“No, thank you,” she said again, and began to walk faster.
The horse kept pace.
“Get on up here, little girl,” the man said. His tone was losing its sweetness. My grandmother says she began to be scared, then. She did not like this man. “Get up on my horse. I’m an adult! You are a child! You must do what I say!”
My grandmother didn’t answer, but began sprinting, and wanted to scream but was scared and out of breath and there was no one who could have heard her anyway.
The horse ran faster.
“Come here, little girl!” the man yelled, and my grandmother saw a flash out of the corner of her eye, and Koshka jumped onto the horse’s face and spooked it, and jumped off again, but the horse rose up and the man gripped tight and the horse fell sideways and the man’s head fell hard onto a rock and the horses whinnied and got up and ran away and there was blood on the rock and my grandmother watched the man breathe, and breathe, and breathe, and breathe, and then stop.
She ran straight back and didn’t notice that Koshka wasn’t with her, but was sitting on the chest of the man she’d left in the snow. She cried to her mother who used the last beets to make her borscht with extra sour cream which was a treat fit for kings. Koshka came back an hour later. My grandmother let her lick the bowl.
That night my grandmother followed Koshka out of the house. She blew her candle out, like she was supposed to, but stayed awake, and waited for the little unsightly thing to sneak out of her slightly open window, and she snuck out too, for she had kept a pair of boots on under her bedcovers, and wrapped herself in a jacket, and followed Koshka to the woods.
The moonlight lit the trail with a quiet blue glow and they wandered deeper and deeper into the forest, my grandmother wrapping her coat tighter and tighter around her shivering shoulders. When they had been walking for about an hour, my grandmother frozen, her feet numb and inadequately protected, her face covered in small cuts from the whipping branches of trees, Koshka stopped. She jumped up to the lowest branch of a tree, and climbed three more, and touched a branch. It bent, and a haze appeared in the earth, as if part of it were being slowly erased, as if the ground itself were made of charcoal and it was just beginning to rain. Koshka jumped onto the spot, and disappeared. Before she could stop herself, my grandmother had followed her through.
She landed on her feet in a dark corner of a tavern. It was empty and warm and my grandmother loosened her jacket. The moon was up, and behind her the window was still hazy and quivering slightly. Koshka didn’t notice her, or, if she did, pretended not to, but only walked toward the bar. The front door was locked and boarded, the room neat and clean and weathered and covered in a thin layer of grease and dirt and beer. Koshka jumped onto the bar and sat, waiting, still, quiet, tail swishing slightly. She almost looked regal, there, my grandmother had said. Almost as if you could pretend she was young and beautiful. My grandmother remained hidden in the shadows, barely breathing.
After a few minutes a drunken hand began struggling with the front lock. It took some time but eventually the door opened and the man staggered into the room, collapsed onto a bar stool, pulled himself up, sat down, managed to open his eyes, swayed, slightly, leaned against the bar, stared at Koshka, and muttered, “You.”
“Me,” Koshka replied.
“Whatifn’ I don’ wanna?” the man slurred.
“You don’t have to. I am here at your request.”
“Blyad!” he shouted, and Koshka did not respond to the curse.
“Immonna do it.”
Koshka nodded. The man pulled out a gun, spun the cylinder, and held it to his head.
“Anythink waiting?” he asked the cat.
The cat did not respond.
My grandmother shut her eyes.
The man pulled the trigger.
When she opened her eyes again, Koshka was sitting on the man’s chest as he lay on the floor, the blood pouring out like it had poured out of the rider onto the snow. She was purring, and a white film was coming out of the man, and Koshka purred as the film rose into the air and dissolved like gas, like smoke from a cigarette, and went everywhere, and my grandmother become suddenly afraid that she was breathing in the dead man, and she held her breath for as long as she could, which was not very long.
When the white stuff from the dead man had gone, Koshka left and came back toward the corner of the room. My grandmother became suddenly afraid of what would happen if Koshka saw her and realized that she knew the cat could speak and that she knew what the cat was. Koshka did see her, and hopped up onto a pub table near her, and watched her face, and looked her in the eyes.
“Are you Death?” my grandmother asked.
“Yes,” Death replied.
“Should I call you Death?”
“I prefer Koshka.”
“I came to see why you sometimes get hurt. Because when you leave at night. Sometimes you get hurt.”
“Sometimes they don’t want to come. Sometimes they fight.”
“But they have to come?”
“But he did not have to?”
“Then why did he?”
“Because he wanted to.”
“He went into the air. Something white came out and it went into the air. Where did he go?”
“Because that’s where he came from.”
She nodded, for she understood, in only the way a child can understand. Without another word, Koshka jumped into the hazy window and my grandmother followed him and they were back in the woods and my grandmother was suddenly cold. She wrapped the coat around herself tighter. Koshka hopped onto her shoulder and sat to keep her warm while my grandmother walked back through the woods.
“Death is lonely, you know,” Koshka said as they neared the edge where the field would begin, and my grandmother stopped, for somehow she knew the cat wouldn’t speak once the trees ended. “Death is lonely and therefore I am lonely and I rather like having a family. As long as you take care of me, I will not come for you.”
Koshka hopped off her shoulder and together they walked back. When they got through her window the cat curled at the foot of her bed and my grandmother pulled off her heavy coat and frozen boots and cuddled with Death under the thick, wool blanket.
When my grandmother married, she continued to care for Koshka, and bandaged her when she returned in the mornings, and feed her borscht and fish-eye soup.
When she had a daughter, she continued to care for Koshka, and taught my mother to feed the cat her extra gristle, and to be careful and never pull her hair.
When my mother was thirteen, my grandmother gave Koshka to her, and Koshka protected her, too. My grandmother grew old and died, but was never too sick, and died peacefully in her sleep, with Koshka on her chest, purring into the night.
When I turned thirteen, my mother gave Koshka to me, and I have cared for the cat as if it were my child, and fed it beef and fish and let it lick the pan after I’ve cooked bacon, and it hunts for rats on our farm and has grown a little fatter but has not grown lazy.
Today, my son turns thirteen.
I hear a tiny knock on the bedroom door and I tell him he can come in. I pat the space next to me on the bed and he jumps up and sits and leans against my arm.
“You needed me?”
“Get comfortable, little son,” I say, as Koshka jumps into my lap, as I pat her mangy head and scratch behind her half-chewed ear.
“I am going to tell you a story.”
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