A Hippo Reads Exclusive Reprint, Courtesy of Prairie Schooner

(winner of The Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award)

An Essay and Fable

On the coldest day of the year, in St. Petersburg, Russia, as my daughter Eva, Friend David, and I walked up the stairs from Brodyacha 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 ally cat—tabby, scraggly.

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

You are right—these are bold stripes.

She must be starving, David said, or Eva said, or I said, I don’t remember who. 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. (There’s an even more inclusive musically punned-coffee shop, Tchaikoffski). The kitten climbed David; he had a worsted wool sweater, and she must have liked the warmth. David grinned happily.

What gender is the kitten? Eva asked.

A girl because she likes guys. She likes David.

Not all girls like guys, I don’t, she said. Eva was reaching over and petting the kitten who didn’t seem to understand petting. She 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 models, 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 hip en-passant.

What’s her name? she asked.

We don’t know yet, I said. You have a suggestion?

I will think about it, she said. Now I have to go back to the customers.

Before naming her, 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.

Maybe she’s too weak to eat, I said. Maybe she had a bad relationship with her mom, and so she hates milk. If she were in New York, we could put her in psychotherapy until she could forgive her mother.

She still shivered and sneezed. 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, my coffee-eyed red-cheeked eight-year old, said.

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

Murmansk, because to them Mur is Pur. Mura. David was informed.

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

That’s awkward, she’s not a dog. That might doom her to the life of a dog.

Yes, but we found her at the dog tavern, so why not Sobaka. Sobaka seems to like you, do you want to take her home?

But Daddy, I want a kitten.

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 and wiped them with his sleeve, his eyes were a bit teary. I always had cats as a kid. You sure you don’t want her?

You saw her first and you have a kid. Shakhar would like her.

Let me call my girlfriend, he said. After the call, he said, We need to think about it. For now, why don’t you keep her and if I can take her later I will.

That’s great, Daddy, we’ll take care of her.

We brought her home, and Jeanette 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 wraps on the floor and purred as soon as you looked at her. She would come to my ear and stick her nose in, and the nose was wet and it tickled me. I laughed.

I bought a tetracycline cream for the eyes and rubbed the cream 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 tall for her age and slim. Eva and she raised hell together. For Eva’s birthday, they opened the window on our rented apartment, and shouted, Privet, Sankt Peterburg. Davay tvoj cigaret! They shrieked and giggled and pretended to be smoking. Our apartment looked right out 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.

Eva’s Russian pronunciation was perfect even if her vocabulary wasn’t.

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. In general, I found out that 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 somewhat orange lighter backdrop. . .

I took Sobaka for trips across the town, with Eva to see Sarah, and in the marshutkas (mini buses or vans), she’d stay quiet for ten minutes and then she’d howl.

She peeked out of my bag and generally caught attention of passengers, who seemed to like cats. There were cats everywhere in Russia, many strays. There were stray dogs, and some of them quite beautiful. In Moscow, Eva struck up a friendship in the rush hour, 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, 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 remember a friend of mine, Joyce, had a dog in Berlin, whom she could leave at a subway stop and he’d go home. 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 friendship. Anyway, Russians like dogs but even more cats—that is my impression, very rough, relying on averages, and therefore silly. 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. 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 which we didn’t use in the 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 on Sobaka, who was eager to play with other cats and was 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. The river was completely frozen over, and it had a layer of snow on top of ice. Near the bridge there were cigarette butts, and beer cans, frozen in ice, sticking out, and past 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 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 a litter box in the bathroom. Margarita was impressed. She sniffed and said, Zapaha nyet. It doesn’t stink.

For some reason Sobaka had a long lasting diarrhea. My impression of Russia was that it was a common infliction 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.

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

Eva wanted me to bring Sobaka to the States. Now, almost anything that can be complicated is complicated in Russia. I had to get a passport for the cat, 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 that 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 there were three bridges 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, there were people 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. 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% 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. In the meanwhile, a Dutch violinist was crying because the border guards wouldn’t let her take out the violin, although 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% payment, she was allowed to take it out, and hopefully it wasn’t worth too much. . .

And precisely because of the weeping and crying possibilities, one 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. Still, it seemed strange that there was no office downtown to verify the papers. I had to take Sobaka to the airport twice this way. 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 30 dollars each way.

After getting all these papers it was almost a letdown that I got onto the Pulkovo airplane without anybody asking about the cat or noticing that there was a cat at the ticket counter, and at the security, I asked the cat not to go through the x-rays, and the guards took her out, petted her, put her back in the box. 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, 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, probably I should have paid the fee. Anyhow, I had the most certified cat in the Western Hemisphere now. The cat charmed the stewardesses. I took her to the toilet to pee. I had brought some sand and her box, and she did fine, but on the descent, there was a sudden stinging stink. Sobaka was terrified of the descent. She meowed. Her previous friend, the stewardess, laughed when she smelled it and waved her hand in front of her nose like a fan.

I landed in Chicago, and proudly I 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 and shots? 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. My wife and daughter would come in a couple of days. I couldn’t let Sobaka roam freely because a cat needs about 3 days to establish a sense of home well enough to be able to return to it by whatever magnetic or memory means. 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. Although she was initially most likely an outdoor cat, 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 Dupres 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 fire-fighters to get her off the tree, but she wasn’t sure they could do it, as the tree was on a slippery slope after the rains. After four days, she 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 8 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 my daughter Eva and me she played kitty-pong. She sat in the middle of the table and tried to catch the balls. She’d jump to catch the balls like a goal keeper. 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 traveled 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.

Once she disappeared and Eva and I grieved. Why didn’t I let her in? I had heard her late at night and it was cold outside. Maybe she took 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.

The more time she spent outdoors, the more she liked it, and she ran around, especially after birds. We realized that kitty-pong was a 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-lilly bush, where bright colors attracted humming birds, and to our despair, she caught two humming birds. Would Sobaka turn out to be like that? There were woodpeckers, cardinals, indigo buntings. Woodpeckers could take care of themselves.

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 8% of the people are Ghingis Khan’s descendants. On Bald Eagle Mountain Ridge, if things keep going they 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 his erotic endeavors.

So when Sobaka disappeared for two days again, there was no worry from the hunters. 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, that 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 the rocky terrain was the best way to have a relatively deep hole. I deepened it 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. There was a white film over 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 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.

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. 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 gold fish in a bawl. Margarita, my landlady, had suggested that I just toss her into the yard. That 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. I was sure anyway that we could take best care of her with our fourteen acres of woods in a civilized country. I was unforgivably wrong.

About The Author

Josip Novakovich
Award-Winning Author

Josip Novakovich’s books include a novel, April Fool’s Day (appeared in ten languages); three story collections (Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust, Yolk and Salvation and Other Disasters) and three collections of narrative essays as well as two books of practical criticism, including Fiction Writers Workshop. His work was anthologized in Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize collection and O. Henry Prize Stories. He has received the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Ingram Merrill Award and an American Book Award and currently he is a Canada Council for the Arts fellow in fiction as well as a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize. Novakovich has been a writing fellow of the New York Public Library and has taught at Nebraska Indian College on Santee Sioux Reservation, University of Cincinnati, Penn State and currently Concordia University in Montreal.