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Tamara Horikha-Zernia. Kitten11.03.2023
We are continuing the “State of War” project, an online anthology of essays by Ukrainian intellectuals about the war by Meridian Czernowitz. One hundred authors will share their impressions, observations and feelings in one hundred texts. The anthology is being created as part of the project “Deepening the Internal Cultural Dialogue in Ukraine.” Some of these texts will be available on Chytomo.
This time, we are reading an essay by Tamara Horikha-Zernia, author of the novel Daughter.
We have a very small cat. It’s tiny. An abnormally small cat, you might say. If I were more sardonic, I would compare it to my mother’s friend’s cats, who at least managed to grow up.
Our cat’s prospects for growth seemed quite promising when we found it in a puddle, half alive from the cold, looking wet and ragged. “Look,” I said to my husband as soon as we treated the cat with flea shampoo, and these fleas fell all over my hands. “Look at its long legs. It will grow into a huge beast.”
It didn’t. Our cat’s body elongated somehow, but the legs remained short, so it resembled a furry sausage.
So when I heard: “But what a big cat you have! It’s a special breed, isn’t it?” I thought I had misheard something. No wonder, considering how long that day dragged on. How many hours did the start of the invasion absorb? Forty? Seventy?
That morning, I was running down the corridor, filling the bathtub with water, and running to the kitchen to fry pancakes. I didn’t manage to finish any of those tasks. Then I started making the beds and laying out the clothes we would need on our trip… Meanwhile, we all kept bumping into the cat in the corridor.
Then my husband knelt before our son and told him that he would go to war. The kid didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t allow his dad to kiss him because he isn’t into such displays of affection. We hugged in the doorway; my hands shook, so I clutched my jacket. Alright, alright, don’t cry… I wasn’t going to cry. There were no tears, and there still aren’t any; I just didn’t know what to do. Unfinished pancakes were waiting on the table, water was running in the bathtub, and I had no idea what would happen to us next.
When the air raid siren went off, I dressed the children, took the yoga mat, and ushered everyone down to the parking lot. A dozen neighbors gathered there, waiting for something unknown. I spread the mat onto the ground, but I didn’t sit on it because it was uncomfortable to sit between car wheels and someone else’s legs. The kids were bored, my younger son was jumping around, and I was afraid he would get hit by a car, so we hung around for a little while before heading back home. The cat sat at home in silent reproach, having been forgotten.
After lunch, I stood and made the cross sign in front of my house door. We packed our bags and put the cat in the carrier. Then, I sent the kids to catch the elevator. I needed a few seconds alone with the house. I wanted to say something before leaving that would make it wait for us and protect the property. I suddenly realized that we may not return and that my entire material life remained behind that lock. All my purchases, gifts, embroidery, jewelry, diplomas, and books would still be there because I did not take anything as a memento. On the other hand, my memories are always with me, material items or not, and I can recall something whenever I want.
At night, I wanted nothing but to die in the first ditch. The arrow in the fuel tank was stuck in the red zone, and my strength was draining, leaving nothing behind except inhuman, unimaginable fatigue. How many hours had we been on the road? How many military checkpoints had we passed? My God, why were there traffic jams in every village? Why were people looking in our windows every three hundred meters? Couldn’t they see that I’d gotten behind the wheel for the first time in ten years and that my only dream was to fall onto a flat surface? There were no men in the car; the last male presence in my life remained in a text message that read, “Get out of town immediately,” and I hadn’t been able to get in touch with him since.
Several times people along the way treated us to yogurts. Once, they offered us coffee, but I didn’t take anything. The primary physiological functions of my body had turned off, so there was no desire to eat or drink. I was on autopilot, navigating my way through oncoming traffic and military vehicles. The children sometimes started crying, then fell asleep, but the cat was utterly silent. “Daughter,” I called out, “check if the cat is still there. Because it might have run away, and we didn’t notice.”
As if hearing that we were talking about it, the cat suddenly went mad. It started howling, hitting the walls, and biting the carrier like something was on fire. Out of fear and surprise, I jerked the steering wheel and turned into a quiet alley and found a place to park. “Well, that’s it,” I said to the children, “spread out the seats. We’ll sleep in the car.”
Thankfully, we didn’t have to spend the night there. Just as I was stretching my lower back, a nearby gate opened, and a woman came out to us. “Come in,” she nodded, “you can spend the night here. The house owners live in Russia, and I look after the house; we became friends with their grandmother. I think they wouldn’t mind.”
Honestly? I didn’t have to be asked twice. I would have entered this house even if the owners from Russia had appeared in front of us and lay down across the porch. I immediately dragged the children inside to the warmth of the living room, where someone’s hand heated the furnace and unfolded the creaky sofa.
We agreed on everything incredibly quickly with the landlady; she was already cooking porridge in no time, and I threw potatoes onto the pan. I wanted to say how grateful I was, and that it was God who had sent her, and that this was a real salvation for us, but I imagined how I would start to speak, and she would sound off banal words, and then I’d look for money, and she’d refuse again…
“But what a big cat you have! It’s a special breed, isn’t it?”
“I’m saying that your cat is very big. When Grandma Olya saw it in the corridor, she froze. They had a similar one long ago, during that previous war, and we have never met such hefty ones here.”
I looked around. A lamp cast a huge shadow of our tiny cat on the wall. I could have sworn that there was no one else in this room except for me and the landlady, but I thought for a moment and put a third bowl on the table:
“Grandma Olya, come sit with us.”
Read other essays in the series “State of War”
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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