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Imagine a Russian cat. Not just any Russian cat, but a cat from Leningrad.
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Those who claim passing familiarity with Russian literature might imagine a cat straight off the pages of Pushkin or Bulgakov. An eloquent cat, dispensing folk wisdom while chained under an oak tree, or schmoozing the Moscow intelligentsia at parties, probably in a soothing baritone. But those are fictions, lofty lullabies from literary luminaries. In real life, cats don’t recite fairy tales or ride the tram. In real life, cats don't talk.
This one is a typical cat from Leningrad. A mature cat, but not so old as to have one paw in the grave. He's lived his whole life with a prim old lady. You know, the born-and-bred-in-Leningrad sort of woman, one who could recognize tourists and recent transplants at a glance by the way they carry themselves, and smack them with her umbrella for the temerity to ask for directions. Now, this old lady has not one but both feet in the grave. Which is to say, she died.
The cat is at a loss for what to do. On one paw, the old lady deserves a proper sendoff. She deserves a funeral with a small band playing sad music, a priest waving a censer, that sort of thing. On the other paw, the cat realizes how that would play out. As soon as the word of her having kicked the bucket gets out, some thrice-removed relatives from the boondocks will descend upon the old lady's prime real estate—an apartment on Nevskiy Prospekt, no less. And they'll evict the shit out of the aging cat.
Not wanting to become a vagrant, the cat shakes off the indecision, comes up with a plan of action, and begins implementing said plan.
Back in the day, the old lady used to work as a radio announcer. Two of the three rooms of her apartment are packed with reels of magnetic Svema brand 6mm tape: hours upon hours of the archives of her broadcasts. It's midnight in Petropavlovsk … In today's news … We're taking your requests by phone … Broadcasting live across the Soviet Union … The first exercise in this morning's radio calisthenics is… An Aurora reel tape player occupies a place of honor in the living room.
The old lady used to listen to these recordings, at all hours and at high volume because her hearing wasn't so great. She would play the tapes and inflict the old Soviet broadcasts on her long-suffering neighbors. The neighbors became so indoctrinated by these obligatory concerts from the Soviet past that some had trouble falling asleep without them, and banged on pipes on especially quiet nights.
The cat, naturally, was part of the captive audience. He listened enough that he memorized many of the recordings, enough that he could've easily worked as a prompter for any radio announcer.
Given how sophisticated the old lady had been, it stood to reason that her cat wasn't a simpleton fur ball, either. He was a well-bred and intelligent cat, and he, too, would probably whack uncultured tourists and transplants with an umbrella. But the laws of physics trump breeding and intelligence, so he couldn't grasp an umbrella.
Little manicure scissors, on the other paw, those he could handle.
So the cat grabs hold of the scissors, the Svema tapes, and the concentrated vinegar, and gets to work.
The task is gargantuan to say the least. Think about it: the cat has to come up with a plan, sort through the tape reels, and do everything by memory because cat paws can't hold a pen or a pencil. Loading paper into the typewriter and hitting the carriage return after each line is frustrating to humans with opposable thumbs, let alone felines.
The cat's memory is excellent. He can name every dead relative of the old lady's from her photo albums, and recite the price of milk for every year starting in '63, even though he was born much later, in the year 2000. (Were he owned by a lesser human he might've been saddled with a terrible name like Millennium. But he got lucky; the old lady had way too much class to name him something like that.)
The cat starts out by sorting and organizing the many reels. The cat is a bit of a neat freak and feels both exhilarated and guilty to finally be in charge of the apartment. He wants to clean it up and live like a person—but to live like a person would take an inhuman (or infeline) amount of effort because those pesky laws of physics apply equally to cats. And so, the hellish marathon of work begins.
The cat loads tapes into the player one by one. He listens, selects excerpts, cuts the tapes with the manicure scissors and glues them together with vinegar. It would have been a difficult task, even for a human. But the cat perseveres. He is a Leningrad cat through and through, and not a bag of fur and bones from a lesser town. He manages to put together a decent-sounding montage by copying the excerpts together. It takes him just under two days.
The old lady's corpse is beginning to stink.
His next quest is to get the Aurora player and the telephone next to each other. The telephone hangs on the wall in the hallway, next to a dilapidated ballpoint pen on a string. The wall is covered in fading phone numbers with names next to them in all kinds of handwriting, from the flighty young girl script to the shaking scrawl of a grandmother. Numbers that have been long disconnected, and names that over the decades have migrated from phone directories onto tombstones at various local cemeteries.
The telephone isn't some modern plastic piece of junk but a rotary antique that weighs two to three times as much as the cat. So you can imagine the sort of effort it takes him to drag this hulking device all the way to the living room, looping the cable between the porcelain elephants, piles of books about the history of Soviet radio, and knitted doilies the old lady's aunt bought way back in the day, when she was a college student.
Finally, he reaches the player and sets everything up.
He calls a funeral home and leaves a message in the old lady's voice arranging everything. The message is a mix of instructions, threats, and an offer of a bribe—the cat estimates the old lady's savings are enough for a bribe.
Neither the Aurora player nor the cat's understanding of human nature fail him.
At night the undertakers come with a coffin. The front door is open, and the old lady is ready, dressed in her finest clothes. There's an envelope full of cash on the bedside table. The cat is hiding behind a wardrobe and scraping his claws unpleasantly against the parquet.
The undertakers pick up the body and leave. She gets a burial somewhere on the outskirts of town. There's no orchestra playing sad music or priest with a censer, but it's still a decent burial with a nice headstone even if it bears a foreign-sounding stranger's name.
After having some time to think, the undertakers wonder if they should return and rifle through the empty apartment for valuables. But when they come back, the door is locked and the unpleasant scraping of claws against parquet emanates from the inside, followed by the stern sound of the old woman's voice, insinuating something about criminal prosecution. They beat a hasty retreat.
Left to his own devices, the cat cleans the apartment. He organizes the tapes, stacks books onto shelves, and dusts the porcelain elephants. He doesn’t wash the floors though: there are limits to what a cat—even a Leningrad cat—can do.
For several months, the cat lives his best life. He listens to his favorite recordings each evening, eats as much cat food as he wants, and occasionally treats himself to a frozen sausage from the fridge or a saucer of a cognac-and-valerian-root cocktail. He's set for a long while. The old lady was a blockade survivor during the Siege of Leningrad, so every nook in the apartment that isn’t occupied by tapes, books, and porcelain elephants, is packed with canned food, including cat food.
After all that effort, he gets burned by something really fucking stupid.
Over the course of months since the old lady's death, her mailbox gets filled with the sort of trash Remarque used to complain about from the World War I trenches in '17. And while they aren't advertisements for warm trench caps made from stinging-nettle, the flyers and letters inside are equally useless to old lady and cat alike. The mail carrier notices this. She sounds an alarm and summons the neighbors. Together, they keep ringing the doorbell.
The cat doesn't answer, obviously. He's trying to edit something appropriate from the tapes, but can't do it in so short a time. He plays some recording on the Aurora, but all the mail carrier and the neighbors hear in the old lady's muffled voice is a cry for help.
They call the police.
When the policeman arrives, he finds the door ajar. From inside he hears, "Come in, officer," in a cheerful voice.
So the policeman enters, and the neighbors try to follow, but the cat appears at the doorstep and hisses at them until they draw back.
The policeman enters the living room. The cat follows.
While the policeman looks around for the old lady, the cat jumps onto the table and begins operating the Aurora player. He loads various tapes and plays phrases arranged into a hastily prepared confession.
At first, the policeman isn't even listening. He pretty much loses his shit at the performance of the cat, who, over the period of months, has become so adept at controlling the player he could probably earn millions on YouTube.
The cat patiently rewinds the tapes and plays the confession again.
When the confession is done playing for the second time, the policeman coughs nervously, then speaks politely in a husky voice. He asks for a stiff drink and if he may please sit down, because his legs are trembling.
The cat nods toward the cognac, as in, "Go ahead. Make yourself at home." He'd have a drink himself, but he feels that may be too much for the policeman to handle just then.
After the policeman has had a few drinks, he recovers his wits somewhat. With shaking hands he lights a cigarette, and the cat brings him an ashtray.
The cat answers questions by playing recordings and occasionally cutting bits of tapes and arranging them into new ones, which would shock the policeman even more, if that were possible.
Two hours later, the policeman emerges from the apartment.
He tells the neighbors to disperse and chides the mail carrier about the latter's unhealthy interest in old ladies and how, while the postal worker is wasting her time, there are people out there anxiously awaiting their packages.
Ever since then, the policeman personally empties the mail box, once a month.
He visits the cat occasionally, bringing treats and cognac, because the cat is a very attentive listener, who only occasionally interjects with a clever comment in the old lady's voice, better than any psychotherapist. Sometimes the two of them get drunk and sing the old Soviet songs from the balcony.
You must be somewhat disappointed. As an expert on Russian literature and a connoisseur of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, you surely expected more from the Leningrad cat. You figured he'd wander the banks of the Moika River and recite poetry on the Anichkov Bridge—his own poems, but with references to Remarque, Rimbaud, and someone else whose name begins with an "R."
Perhaps you thought the cat might get a job as a conductor on a tram, then hijack the tram and drive it to Archangelsk, where he'd get hired on as a skipper for an expedition to the North Pole. When he eventually returned to Leningrad he'd discover that the city has changed too much for his tastes, and head for the Pulkovo Airport. He'd briefly become lost in the labyrinthine terminals and barely make it onto the flight to Paris by chasing after the plane on the runway and jumping onto the landing gear. He'd discover the plane is headed not for Paris but, let's say, Uryupinsk. He'd hijack the plane and fly it to Australia …
But you must remind yourself that this isn't a fairy tale. It's a true story of a real cat. The cat isn't interested in a life of action and adventure that writers or readers might be tempted to imagine for him. He couldn't possibly give less of a shit about trams, expeditions, Australia, and—most especially—jumping onto the landing gear of a moving plane.
Instead, the cat curls up by the record player each night. He presses the Play button and closes his eyes, listening to the old lady's voice as she cheerfully announces which song had been requested by citizens calling in and is about to play next.