The Cats: A Story



WHEN the war was over we all discovered, as if intuitively, that there were no cats left in our ill-treated town. What had become of them? They had vanished from the scene just as, in more peaceful times, they used to slip out of a living room: noiselessly — that is, if the door was open. Now, too, a door must have been open, for nobody had heard them meow. Had people eaten them? Had they starved to death or failed to reproduce themselves? Nobody knew. But everybody longed for them, once it was summer and there was no lack of milk. They were part of the furniture; they added the finishing touch to a cozy home; they were a solace to old folk, an example to young married couples awaiting the arrival of their first child. The milk saucers in the kitchens of many families stood conspicuously empty. The rats and mice grew bolder and bolder so that one almost felt impelled to offer these voracious creatures a seat at the table, which was once again well laden, or to apologize for the appetite of one’s family. A balance had been upset— in the lower regions of domestic economy, it is true — but none the less it was intolerable, For even the gutter and the sewer have their rights.

Articles on the eat problem appeared in the newspapers. Conversations would begin with the statement that someone had seen a cat. In the afternoons, when the men were still at work in offices or factories, the women had nothing to pet or to talk to. But most to be pitied were the old people, who with a black or spotted tomcat in their lap found it easier to face the end. Never had it been so clearly appreciated that heads being rubbed, paws sticking out, and tails curled high were part of the indispensable decor of our lives. If only there had been a rationing of cats! Many a person would willingly have sacrificed his candy coupons.

Gradually details about the disappearance of the cats became known, though for the time being statistics on feline mortality during the last winter of the war were lacking. With tears in their eyes and remorse in their hearts, many people had eaten their pets — melancholy meals by the light of a candle or an oil lamp, with everyone imagining he heard a meow. Other eats had died of hunger. Misled by their fur, their friends had often not noticed till after their death how badly off the poor animals had been, for it is deceptive to go around in a fur coat when one is down and out.

Cats had fled in bewilderment from the houses where they were born and bred—where they had become mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother - in search of the food that no one could give them; they were lost in the snow that then lay on the streets; hunted perhaps; frozen to death, and amazed at what was happening to them. At the time, nobody took any notice of them except for some sentimental girl or short-sighted old gentleman. Now, they were lamented by everyone. The burgomaster turned his attention to them. A new political party, cutting across the traditional party lines, came close to being formed. But after a short period of vacillation which we referred to as “mature consideration,” politics reverted to its usual concerns.

Not all the cats had died out, however. Here and there one still lived, unconscious of the general pity its species had aroused. When they, too, had taken the edge off their hunger — at first with bread and diluted milk, but presently with chitterlings and heads of fish — they emerged from their anonymity and became individuals. They rediscovered the world one radiant summer morning in the sunshine near a window, or some evening on the eaves where the last dampness had been evaporating, while people were once more going for walks and children were playing in the streets. A solitary cat’s head would suddenly be filled with cherished memories. Peace had actually come, and spring and summer had been selected for the purpose. A cat does not have much difficulty in recognizing that life is touching and beautiful. Furthermore, it has more opportunities for changing ils point of view. A cat looks at the world from between trouser legs and women’s stockings, then it looks down from a roof at the treetops, with the street lights burning between them, and the water of the canal glistening far below. A cat outlives all noise in the still of the night, when it is alone with its fellow cats and the fine game of chimneys and fences begins. More than once, coming home late, I have caught the surprised look of a tomcat interrupting his nightly task to watch me putting my key in the lock; and I would compare my sleepiness with his robust, pungent lust for life.


THE tomcats were pretty busy that summer. Females being scarce, they often had to go far afield, crossing a street, a square, or a bridge to pay their visits. They developed an intimate knowledge of a part of the town’s layout. People would sometimes come across their tomcat in some distant street, apparently ashamed of its presence there; occasionally the animal would forget all its intentions in joyful recognition of its master and would go home feigning hunger or a need for companionship. It would lie in a chair throughout the evening, full of magnanimous indolence, but become restless as soon as the family began to get ready for bed.

Anyone with a tabby-cat might at any moment of the day find a band of tomcats sitting in front of his house — a strange mixed company evidently not related by ties of blood; moody, jealous, but at the same time trustful or full of misplaced faith; melancholy and resigned. Tomcats are not at their best in company. At night the house would seem surrounded by cats, with a cordon of tomcats across the street as though some strange sort of maneuver were being held. Traffic was heavy along the eaves. A lot of worldly wisdom was wasted unseen or, at best, glimpsed by a sleepless lodger from an attic window. Was there a special shortage of females, or were the males so faithless?

The news of the cat shortage in our country had traveled abroad, even across the ocean; and with the first parcels of food and clothing there also arrived small shipments of cats. They were unloaded at one of the ports in the south of the country, and were welcomed by a committee beaded by the burgomaster, hat in hand. The cats were housed in oblong baskets partitioned off into little pens. If you lifted the lid, you could see them sitting under a wicker latticework —cats of all shades standing on their hind legs to rub their heads against the warmly responsive fingers of the committee members. One old lady went around with a bag of smoked sprats. There was passionate meow ing beneath the blue sky. The same angelic smile played about everyone’s mouth; and even the stevedores, strong matter-of-fact characters, interrupted their work to gaze affectionately at the animals and the people welcoming them. In the tepid air of morning there floated over the wharf the pungent smell of cat’s urine, which, to the people sniffing it, was a reminder that their freedom had been regained and a promise of renewed domesticity.

That same day the cats lapped their first taste of our country’s milk from white and flowered saucers, while parents and children observed this solemn performance through which a corner of the kitchen was consecrated. Slowly, gingerly, sniffing all over the place, pussy would make its way to the living room followed by the family, which had to adapt its movements to the animal’s fancy. Once more there was the sound of purring in the room, a sound that is talking, laughing, and singing all in one. Cats lay in cherished places, curled up like a horn, rustling in their sleep.

As soon as the foreign cats had got settled, they went reconnoitering the neighborhood. Even while they were still shut up, nocturnal meowing from neighboring roofs had already given them warning that for them the world held no frontiers. One day they would come out and trot shivering over the damp stones of the street. There was always one of their kind who had been waiting for this moment and would open its eyes wide, petrified in an expectation which we take for enmity. Unhampered by language barriers, considerations of decency, or alltoo-human shyness, they would recognize one another as street urchins do, but with the patience of their species that makes summer afternoons endless. The consequences were soon noticeable. Even before summer was over, kittens were born: a new generation which had not known the war or the distant country its parents came from, and which appropriated the world as its inalienable domain.

Meanwhile the unknown donors overseas had been requested not to send any more cats. The shortage threatened to turn into overpopulation; instinct does not need encouragement. The cat committee suspended its activities reluctantly, for an organization bad been created, and it is hard to abandon a task even when it has become pointless.

Presently an old lady, perhaps the dispenser of the sprats, hit upon a charming idea. A monument should be erected in our town in honor of the cats who, albeit unintentionally, had given their lives in the liberation of our country. At first it was considered an idiotic, irreverent suggestion. But when one wants something, one has only to think about it, to want it more and more passionately. There were many who wanted the monument, and were still capable of surrendering to these crazy impulses that can make our lives so much more beautiful.

The committee resumed its work, somewhat hesitant at first because its purpose had been altered, but a fluent fountain pen can rid us of all our hesitations. Circulars were drawn up and money was collected — banknotes from rich eccentrics, but also unsightly prewar coins conscientiously hoarded in old-fashioned purses. Even the children donated their pennies. A small but movmg justification had been added to the machinery of our lives.

The town council approved the erection of the monument in the largest park in town. This decision was preceded by a stormy council mooting, at which even the basic problems of life entered into the discussion.

The following summer, on a Saturday afternoon, the monument was unveiled. The ceremony came a year too late; for in almost every family, kittens were once more being drowned in kitchen pails or simply thrown into the canal. Even rationing was coming to an end. You could drink as much milk as you wanted.

It was raining, and the rain on the jasmine bushes in bloom and the well-kept lawns somehow reminded us, by the very contrast, of the war years. Somebody made a speech, standing under an umbrella—a speech ridiculous to anyone who could not switch off his intellect. It was a remarkable gathering of people who could not otherwise have been brought together outdoors so easily — inveterate stay-at-homes who think about a fire even in summer; meditative pipe-smokers and dreamers; old women as full of worries as though there would never be an end to their lives; lame children; bachelors with water on the brain; cripples too poor to buy an artificial leg; and an occasional blind person with a smile on his face as though his eyesight had been restored. But also a beautiful young woman with luxurious clothes, jewelry, and shoes of fine, expensive leather, shaking her damp curls.

A pious mischief was in the air; a feeling that for a moment one had left the earth, just as at meetings of spiritualists, vegetarians, novices in politics, and magazine editors. I his impression was confirmed by the clothing - cloth caps and leather jackets, a nineteenth-century shawl, a peasant brooch on an urban bosom. There were beards, mustaches, powder and lipstick on withered faces, unwashed hands, and a vague smell of cats that hovered over the scent of the jasmine. The monument was simple — a pedestal with a bronze cat reclining on it.

Whenever I go walking in the park with my children, I never fail to go past it. The monument is already beginning to lose its color to the weather and turn gray. My children look at it with cheerful innocence and wonder, not having learned yet to count back to the war years when the snow refused to melt and when getting from the warm bed to the frozen kitchen was like traveling across the world.

It is good to live in a town where a statue has been erected to the cats. May the rats and mice forgive us.

Translated by James Holmes and Dr. D. M. E. Habbema