prose

The Man for Cats

Short story by GORDAN NUHANOVIĆ, from 'Survival League' (Ooligan Press of Portland State University)
Translated by Julienne Busic

With edgy, evocative prose, Nuhanović weaves darkly optimistic tales where nothing ever works out quite right: English lawns grow daisies instead of grass, and a romantic weekend in the mountains turns into a near-death experience. Caffeinated punks, male pattern baldness, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are all part of the lives the characters observe or reclaim. Through Nuhanović’s natural storytelling voice, we hear the stories of survivors, not only of war, but of life and its spectrum—from the mundane to the insane.



 

 The Man for Cats

 

Translated by Julienne Eden Bušić

 

How did that cat ever manage to finagle its way into this house? Vlatko would cry out loudly from time to time, directing a dark look at the rest of the household, as though searching for any small sign of comprehension on their faces. Zana just shrugged her shoulders: it was a difficult question; several years had passed since they had taken Skemba under their care. The neighborhood had been under construction and cats had roamed around in packs, tailless, cross-eyed, with noses that during the windy February had been carved up by many a ferocious claw. At night, cat eyes would glimmer out from nearby building sites which had been laid waste to by a fleet of bulldozers, and senselessly, as it turned out later. Some of the pitiful creatures simply infiltrated into various households - the first generation to experience petting and regular meals. First the families fed them with leftovers, and then tinned fish and pate – right out of the can; in time they moved on to “Whiskers” and fresh liver. These cats were clearly not hooked on milk.

And then Skemba showed up, the first cat ever in the Vlatka and Zane Silovic family. Vlatko could not recall either when or under what circumstances, but Kico and Hrvojka, who had been very young at the time, had squealed with joy. They were known on occasion to say: look what drug in the cat!

One morning they came across a large litter in the basement: eight or maybe even nine transparent kittens in a cluster. They yowled blindly and helplessly. The children were beside themselves. 

And then came something that Vlatko could never have dreamed possible, just as he finished the house he had tirelessly slaved over for years, brick by brick, from foundation to roof, eleven years of hard labor, skimping, and sacrifice. Just before moving in, he was diagnosed with diabetes. Every week he was forced to go to a clinic for injections and insulin, which was paid for by his health insurance. He was not allowed to let his sugar drop and thus become tense, so Zana placed a chocolate cookie on various surfaces throughout the house.

In the evening, when Kico and Hrvojka would go to sleep, Vlatko and Zana would tackle their problems. Thus far, they had had no difficulty resolving burning issues as they arose; the Bavarian wood siding, a car rental, whether Kico should start school at age six or not, a lawn or landscaping, Limex bicycle, and so it went, issue after issue, the pros, the cons. Vlatko would present the issue, clarify it from several angles, and Zana was the one who would ask follow-up questions. Sometimes they would allow the issues to ferment in their heads for a few days and then would sit back down at the table, share a beer, and come to a reasonable solution.   They enjoyed a clear partnership, in the raising of their children as well as in larger material tasks.

With Skemba’s litter they experienced their first parting of the minds. Zana immediately relied on generally accepted conduct in such cases: distribute the kittens among all the neighbors! She recalled vaguely that her grandmother had done the same thing. At the same moment, a light went on in Vlatko’s head. – that’ll never fly…all the other cats in the neighborhood have had large litters as well! After a certain time period, Zana was forced to admit the imprudence of her proposal. – If we try to feed them, they’ll die out one by one, anyway – she realized after a few days. She was relying on the high mortality rate of kittens – and then we’ll still look good in the children’s eyes – she added. 

But he didn’t like this suggestion, either.

-Honey, you are smart cookie, smart enough to know a little something about kittens- he said, and then rattled on about the endless scenarios possible in connection with the “nine lives” of cats. Actually, several things were turning around in his head. He exhaled, clicked his tongue, tugged on an earlobe. He was distant these days, and Zana attributed this to his reaction to insulin.

-Then let’s keep them all and whatever happens, happens – Zana proposed heartily one evening. This was after the kittens had begun to appear in the yard, under Skemba’s close supervision. The children requested lots of milk for Skemba. Plus “Whiskers” with the fish flavor – Skemba liked that best – as a supplement.

This time Vlatko let out a rude curse in front of Zana. Monthly expenses were constantly increasing to satisfy Skemba’s needs. The last expense had been huge, about as much as a family with two chain smokers would spend. The amount would also increase as the kittens became cats. Zana was disconcerted.

-And this will be sooner than you think, because kittens grow like weeds. – he continued, trying to feed her fears. He mentioned that the amount would increase to include the damage the cats would cause in a given period until they developed stable behavior patterns. 

-They pull on the curtains, chew the carpet, scratch the chairs, tear the wall hangings, and shit all over the place – . As he ran down the list, Zana sank deeper and deeper into melancholy.

-Need I mention what pleasure they take in pissing on the cellar windowsills? – Vlatko threw out, imbued with sudden courage. – That’s ammonia, it eats up everything, sweetheart…

Zana saw red. – Well, then what do you suggest? – she spat out. This was the first time she’d raised her voice since they’d begun their conversations about the kittens.

Vlatko gave her a piercing look: - Have they gone to sleep? – he asked, gesturing upstairs with his head, in the direction of the children’s’ bedrooms.

-Look, honey, - he began, touching her shoulder as though summoning other, tenderer times – I can just stuff them into the trunk and drop them off near some other village…- he hadn’t even finished when Zana, as though suddenly scorched by a blowtorch, pulled her hand away from his. 

-Wait a minute, I won’t take all of them at once, the first time it would be, say, five, four, or maybe just three…Why shouldn’t I take three at first? Just to see how it works out. The children wouldn’t even know they were missing. ..- he said, as though trying to drive a bargain with the loathful looks she was shooting him from across the table.

-It doesn’t have to be all at once – he said with great effort, but Zana had retreated into herself. By the rigid posture she had assumed, it was clear she was wounded, and deeply.

Skemba’s litter made excellent progress. By summer, the kittens had all grown much larger. In this first period, they were all known as Skembies. Kico and Hrvojka hadn’t wanted to give them names until their genders became evident, because they didn’t want to repeat the mistake they’d made with Skemba, thinking she was a tomcat and giving her a full-blooded masculine name. Vlatko found the first cat shit on the dining room cupboard. No wonder – he thought to himself – that people say someone stinks like cat shit. He called Zana so she could see what awaited her in the near future.

-Multiply that with the number of kittens and what you get is a house full of cat shit – he warned her, but his wife just continued silently sweeping the floor. Vlatko realized things were falling into place.

The time came when the household had to watch where they stepped, since the kittens seemed to be constantly appearing out of nowhere, getting tangled in one’s legs, insisting on being petted, and suddenly jumping into one’s lap. Vlatko had no idea cats could make so much noise! And the formerly pregnant Skemba had to be fed extra so that she would have sufficient milk. The children paid close attention that no meals were missed. Once a day, the daughter, Hrvojka, would count the kittens and gauge their weight, holding each in the palm of her hand.

Discussion about the kittens’ fate had somehow begun to wane.

Vlatko was miserable at how fast they grew. Once in a while he would take out his anger on one of the kittens. Pretending to pet it, he would babytalk loudly for all to hear: pwetty widdo koody kiddy – and then carry it off to some hidden corner, far from the household, where he would be able to cuff it a good one undisturbed. He hoped to drive them in this manner out of the house, but what was a slap here and there compared to all the love and affection to be had from the other members of the household? Nothing. Summer passed and the cat family was still a complete unit. The children discovered meanwhile that cats loved innards, hot dogs, and salami. And it all had to be fresh.

Ajo Ljaljic from Bezdan on the Danube appeared at the Silovic’s unannounced. He was going house by house on a black bicycle, offering his services for early spring cultivation projects. He wore a formal style jacket from the 1950s, a mousy color with a plaid pattern, and his pantcuffs were rolled up, probably because of the digging. A collapsible shovel bounced against his hip. His short brimmed hat was tipped down toward his face.   His hourly fee was so low that Vlatko couldn’t refuse. Ajo Ljaljic was a consummate shoveler, his technique perfect, and he didn’t even take off his jacket. By evening, he’d only asked twice for water, and when he finished, Vlatko took him a beer. They sat down on the freshly dug earth, and turned toward the house, from whose windows could be seen a canvas of squirming cats: the subject came up all by itself. 

Vlatko felt sorry for himself, opened up his heart. Besides, the guy in the jacket could have been his father, or at the least an older brother. Then he went back into the house for more beer. It felt good to spend time with someone who was willing to listen to all his troubles. Night had already fallen when the close-mouthed fellow from Bezdan asked him if he wanted to see a trick. 

At first, Vlatko was suspicious, but he finally agreed to take him into the cellar, among the cats. Ajo pulled a regular nylon bag from his pocket, blew into it, shook it, and then spread it open. – Go on, throw one in! – he said. Vlatko hesitated.

-Come on, come on – he urged him, holding open the bag – just one!

Vlatko arbitrarily grabbed the closest kitten. After he threw it in, Ajo shot him a pinched look. 

-First you stretch out the sack, good and tight, as though you want to rip it apart…-

Vlatko had become interested in all this. He was following closely the trick with the squirming cat in the sack.

-Then you tie the ends of the sack together, one over the other!

-Aha…- Vlatko blinked in the half darkness of the cellar, holding his breath. The old guy’s hands, the color of clay, performed the operation in a brusque, intuitive manner, using a series of simple movements. For the final move, Ajo from Bezdan on the Danube paused for a moment so that Vlatko could take hold of the ends.

-You make a bow, and then another – said Mr. Digger Man– and then you pull all at once from both ends.

He did this skillfully, the bag deflated, and after a few moments, the whimpering inside came to an end. 

-In a split second, she’s finished – he explained. Vlatko never saw him again in the neighborhood, but he adopted his “method.” He told Zana and the children the kitten had probably gotten run over by a car.

-You know yourselves how crazy people drive nowadays – he assured them, attempting to prepare them for the next loss. By the end of the month, he’d taken care of almost all the cats. The biggest problem he had was with Skemba herself, who refused to go into the sack, and since he had to act at night when everyone else was in bed, and silently as well, this caused him no end of frustration. When he finally succeeded in luring her into the sack with a pate and had tied the bow the way Ajo had taught him, her sharp claws managed to penetrate the sack, scratching his hand.

Now only one kitten remained, the one he’d presumed was a tomcat. Several months later this proved to be a gross error. The only surviving Skembie showed up with a tummy, just like her mother, and a day or two later gave birth to eight or nine little kittens. Vlatko of course knew what had to be done.

He ordered some nylon sacks from the bus driver, the ones they use on German seaports. Not even the sharpest claws could penetrate these. He vacillated at first on the strangling schedule: first he had wanted to get rid of them all at once. He got a bit carried away and finished off half of them in the first few days. 

The children had become extremely ill-tempered, and Zana had shown suspicion for the first time. One evening, after they had split a beer, she started on a subject Vlatko had been dreading. 

-Only three or four cars go down our street every day, and in just three days, six kittens have disappeared. Is it possible that every car that passed by ran over a kitten? She asked in a voice as poised as she could muster. Vlatko played the fool. I was wondering that same thing myself - he said. He barely survived the interrogatory look she directed at the scratches on his hands. He realized he had to slow down.

Hrvojka and Kico set up guardposts along the road. In shifts. But Vlatko chuckled to himself, knowing school started soon and that the children would have to relent. And so it was. The first week of school, he managed to get rid of one more kitten. He had a strong alibi, as there had been a bulldozer digging up some lot in the neighborhood. 

-And the bodies? Where are the bodies? – the children wailed, in tears. Vlatko explained that he had wanted to spare them the horrible sight. 

And then came another unexpected shock. Before he knew it, there was a third generation of Skembies. Vlatko’s sugar went sky high, so he had to increase his insulin dose. He took refuge in the local bar for the first time in years. Alcohol got the best of him and he found himself telling a neighbor about the sack trick. The neighbor asked him to come over and give him a hand. He had two litters he didn’t know what to do with. Vlatko solved his problem that same night with a single sack. Soon others arrived, requesting the same favor. Some even offered to pay, but it seemed inappropriate to Vlatko to make money from a thing like that.   He considered it simply a neighborly act. He would generally go into someone’s basement with a bag in his pocket and there, surrounded by a chorus of mews, perform in ever quicker fashion the duty he had come to execute. After he had finished, the people would buy him a drink. He never stayed too long, especially since the host’s children always seemed to be looking askance at him. He would have a coffee without sugar, sometimes a diet Coca Cola, and exchange a few words with the neighbor. He never mentioned the cats. Before setting off for home, he would ask to use the restroom so that he could rub some lotion on his hands, to ease the scratches. And then he would hear from somewhere in the house the cry of a child. Sometimes it would even yell out: Strangler! in a hoarse, muffled tone of voice. He was confident the parents would deliver appropriate punishment to children who behaved in such a way.

The fourth - or was it the fifth? - generation of Skembies was meeting its end; this litter was predominantly black and promised large and hearty offspring. But at the end of a new strangulation cycle, Vlatko was confronted with the same dilemma he had tried to resolve at the time of the first litter: which kittens were tomcats? Which ones should be spared?

In the half-dark cellar, he poked around in vain at the kittens’ intimate parts: but he failed to determine the gender.

Then came the night he knew was destined to arrive, sooner or later; the night he lost control. Swaying back and forth, no doubt due to increased blood sugar, he went all the way in a dusty basement, in the darkness and the silence, broken only by the mewling and whining. The bag was filled and emptied several times, but it didn’t pop, which was most important to him at that moment. Vlatko was gasping, bloodied around the ankles, and the mewling grated on his ears. Besides that, his neck was stiff from the intimate organ inspections. But he plugged away to the last kitten in the litter.

At dawn, still feeling the effects of the previous night, he gathered all his fishing poles from the garage. His needles and insulin he had ready in a small pouch. As he drove around aimlessly, he was overwhelmed with the desire to be out in nature. The sun had already come up by the time he got to Bezdan. The Danube was powerful there, wide..The only sound to be heard was the monotonous croaking of frogs. He descended the banks to the shore and got his line in just where he wanted it on the first cast, outside the current. He attached small bells to the tops of the other poles, silenced them with his hands, stuck them into the ground, and sat down on a box. On a piece of stretched line, he attached a fly. The fauna was in bloom, he inhaled deeply, his mood became lighter. A pleasant breeze lulled him to sleep. The Danube flowed quietly toward the sea.

Small beads of sweat had just begun to form on his upper lip when he was awakened from his slumber by the tinkling of the bells. Vlatko moved quickly to the pole, but it wasn’t bent, and the fly was still resting on the line. The sun disappeared for a moment, and then one by one, the frogs boinged into the water. Silence descended. His attention was drawn to a dark figure at the river. As he took a closer look, the figure of a bicyclist slowly emerged from the shadow of the underbrush against the backdrop of the big green body of water. The sun was harsh, beating down from the sky and reflecting off the water. He shielded his eyes with his hand. Some man on a bicycle was pedaling downhill into the water, breaking the surface and going silently downward. Shimmering out from the rear wheel was a thin trail of water which quickly dispersed and disappeared.   When he was at Vlatko’s eye level, he took off his short-brimmed hat. From the muddy banks where he stood, Vlatko recognized Ajo, old Ajo Ljaljic from Bezdan on the Danube. He guided with one hand the horizontal handlebars of the black bicycle and with the other waved to Vlatko in wide circles with his hat. Vlatko discerned the plaid suit, slightly tailored, but wide through the shoulders and around the neck. One of his pantlegs was held up by a clothespin. He kept on waving: at one moment Vlatko raised his hand – as though giving a final greeting to the old man, Ajo, but he quickly reconsidered. Ajo opened his mouth, and Vlatko watched as the mute, toothless jaws gaped open and the hat continued its revolutions. At the same tempo, the bicycle went down, down…below the surface of the water. 

At the point where the Danube made its final twist before flowing on comfortably along the flat contours merging with the setting sun, Ajo had become just a small spot in the middle of the river. Before he completely disappeared, the reflector on his rear fender, the type referred to as a “cat’s eye”, managed to catch a ray of sun which flashed back diabolically just before the river regained its undisturbed unity.

 

Translated by Julienne Busic

 

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