Soviet Union Ukraine Village of Chervoy 25 January 1933
Since Maria had decided to die her cat would have to fend for itself. She'd already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense. Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers. Domestic animals had disappeared shortly after that. All except for one, this cat, her companion which she'd kept hidden. Why hadn't she killed it? She needed something to live for; something to protect and love-something to survive for. She'd made a promise to continue feeding it up until the day she could no longer feed herself. That day was today. She'd already cut her leather boots into thin strips, boiled them with nettles and beetroot seeds. She'd already dug for earthworms, sucked on bark. This morning in a feverish delirium she'd gnawed the leg of her kitchen stool, chewed and chewed until there were splinters jutting out of her gums. Upon seeing her the cat had run away, hiding under the bed, refusing to show itself even as she'd knelt down, calling its name, trying to coax it out. That had been the moment Maria decided to die, with nothing to eat and nothing to love.
Maria waited until nightfall before opening her front door. She reckoned that by the cover of darkness her cat stood a better chance of reaching the woods unseen. If anyone in the village caught sight of it they'd hunt it. Even this close to her own death, the thought of her cat being killed upset her. She comforted herself with the knowledge that surprise was on its side. In a community where grown men chewed clods of earth in the hope of finding ants or insect eggs, where children picked through horse shit in the hope of finding undigested husks of grain and women fought over the ownership of bones, Maria was sure no one believed that a cat could still be alive.
* * *
Pavel couldn't believe his eyes. It was awkward, thin, with green eyes and black-speckled fur. It was unmistakably a cat. He'd been collecting firewood when he saw the animal dart from Maria Antonovna's house, cross the snow-covered road, and head toward the woods. Holding his breath, he glanced around. No one else had spotted it. There was no one else about; no lights at the windows. Wisps of smoke, the only sign of life, rose from less than half the chimney stacks. It was as though his village had been snuffed out by the heavy snowfall; all signs of life extinguished. Much of the snow lay undisturbed: there were hardly any footprints and not a single path had been dug. Days were as quiet as the nights. No one got up to work. None of his friends played, staying in their houses where they lay with their families huddled in beds, rows of enormous sunken eyes staring up at the ceiling. Adults had begun to look like children, children like adults. Most had given up scavenging for food. In these circumstances the appearance of a cat was nothing short of miraculous-the reemergence of a creature long since considered extinct.
Pavel closed his eyes and tried to remember the last time he'd eaten meat. When he opened his eyes he was salivating. Spit ran down the side of his face in thick streams. He wiped it away with the back of his hand. Excited, he dropped his pile of sticks and ran home. He had to tell his mother, Oksana, the remarkable news.
* * *
Oksana sat wrapped in a wool blanket staring at the floor. She remained perfectly still, conserving energy as she devised ways of keeping her family alive, thoughts which occupied her every waking hour and every fretful dream. She was one of the few who'd not given up. She would never give up. Not as long as she had her sons. But determination itself wasn't enough, she had to be careful: a misjudged endeavor could mean exhaustion, and exhaustion invariably meant death. Some months ago Nikolai Ivanovich, a neighbor and friend, had embarked on a desperate raid upon a State granary. He had not returned. The next morning Nikolai's wife and Oksana had gone looking for him. They'd found his body by the roadside, lying on his back-a skeletal body with an arched, stretched stomach, his belly pregnant with the uncooked grain he'd swallowed in his dying moments. The wife had wept while Oksana removed the remaining grain from his pockets, dividing it between them. On their return to the village Nikolai's wife had told everyone the news. Instead of being pitied she'd been envied, all anyone could think about were the handfuls of grain she possessed. Oksana had thought her an honest fool-she'd put them both in danger.
Her recollections were interrupted by the sound of someone running. No one ran unless there was important news. She stood up, fearful. Pavel burst into the room and breathlessly announced:
-Mother, I saw a cat.
She stepped forward and gripped her son's hands. She had to be sure he wasn't imagining things: hunger could play tricks. But his face showed no sign of delirium. His eyes were sharp, his expression serious. He was only ten years old and already he was a man. Circumstances demanded that he forgo his childhood. His father was almost certainly dead: if not dead then dead to them. He'd set off toward the city of Kiev in the hope of bringing back food. He'd never returned and Pavel understood, without needing to be told or consoled, that his father would never return. Now Oksana depended upon her son as much as he depended upon her. They were partners and Pavel had sworn aloud that he'd succeed where his father had failed: he'd make sure his family stayed alive.
Oksana touched her son's cheek.
-Can you catch it?
He smiled, proud:
-If I had a bone.
The pond was frozen. Oksana rooted through the snow to find a rock. Concerned that the sound would attract attention, she wrapped the rock in her shawl, muffling the noise as she punctured a small hole in the ice. She put the rock down. Bracing herself for the black, freezing water, she reached in, gasping at the cold. With only seconds before her arm would become numb she moved quickly. Her hand touched the bottom and clutched nothing but silt. Where was it? Panicking, she leaned down, submerging all of her arm, searching left and right, losing all feeling in her hand. Her fingers brushed glass. Relieved, she took hold of the bottle and pulled it out. Her skin had turned shades of blue, as though she'd been punched. That didn't concern her-she'd found what she was looking for, a bottle sealed shut with tar. She wiped away the layer of silt on the side and peered at the contents. Inside was a collection of small bones.
Returning to the house, she found that Pavel had stoked the fire. She warmed the seal over the flames, tar dripping onto the embers in sticky globs. While they waited Pavel noticed her bluish skin and rubbed her arm, restoring the circulation, ever attentive to her needs. With the tar melted, she tipped the bottle upside down and shook. Several bones snagged on the rim. She pulled them free, offering them to her son. Pavel studied them carefully, scratching the surface, smelling each one. Having made his selection he was ready to leave. She stopped him:
-Take your brother.
Pavel thought this a mistake. His younger brother was clumsy and slow. And anyway the cat belonged to him. He'd seen it, he'd catch it. It would be his victory. His mother pressed a second bone into his hand:
* * *
Andrei was nearly eight years old and he loved his older brother very much. Rarely going outside, he spent most of his time in the back room where the three of them slept, playing with a pack of cards. The cards had been made by his father from sheets of paper sliced into squares and pasted together, a parting gift before he'd set off for Kiev. Andrei was still waiting for him to come home. No one had told Andrei to expect anything different. Whenever he missed his father, which was often, he'd deal the cards on the floor, playing patience. He was sure if he could just finish the pack then his father would come back. Wasn't that why he'd given him the cards before he left? Of course, Andrei preferred playing with his brother, but Pavel no longer had time for games. He was always busy helping their mother and only ever played at night just before they got into bed.
Pavel entered the room. Andrei smiled, hoping he was ready to play a hand, but his brother crouched down and swept the cards together:
- Put these away. We're going out. Where are your laptys?
Understanding the question as an order, Andrei crawled under the bed to retrieve his laptys, two strips cut from a tractor tire and a pile of rags which, when bound together with string, served as a pair of makeshift boots. Pavel helped tie them tightly, explaining that tonight they had a chance of eating meat as long as Andrei did exactly as he was told.
-Is Father coming back?
-He isn't coming back.
-Is he lost?
-Yes, he's lost.
-Who's bringing us meat?
-We're going to catch it ourselves.
Andrei knew his brother was a skillful hunter. He'd trapped more rats than any other boy in the village. This was the first time Andrei had been invited to accompany him on such an important mission.
Outside in the snow Andrei paid special care not to fall over. He often stumbled and tripped, for the world appeared blurred to him. The only things he could see clearly were objects he held very close to his face. If someone was able to make out a person in the distance-while all Andrei could see was a blur-he put it down to intelligence or experience or some attribute he'd yet to acquire. Tonight he wouldn't fall over and make a fool of himself. He'd make his brother proud. This was more important to him than the prospect of eating meat.
Pavel paused by the edge of the woods, bending down to examine the cat's tracks in the snow. Andrei considered his skill in finding them remarkable. In awe, he crouched down, watching as his brother touched one of the paw prints. Andrei knew nothing about tracking or hunting:
-Is this where the cat walked?
Pavel nodded and looked into the woods:
-The tracks are faint.
Copying his brother, Andrei traced his finger around the paw print, asking:
-What does that mean?
-The cat isn't heavy, which means there'll be less food for us. But if it's hungry then it's more likely to go for the bait.
Andrei tried to absorb this information but his mind drifted:
-Brother, if you were a playing card what card would you be? Would you be an ace or a king, a spade or a heart?
Pavel sighed and Andrei, stung by his disapproval, felt tears beginning to form:
-If I answer do you promise not to talk anymore?
-We won't catch this cat if you talk and scare the cat away.
-I'll be quiet.
-I'd be a knave, a knight, the one with a sword. Now you promised-not a word.
Andrei nodded. Pavel stood up. They entered the woods.
They'd walked for a long time-it felt like many hours although Andrei's sense of time, like his sight, wasn't sharp. With the moonlight and the reflective layer of snow his older brother seemed to have little difficulty following the tracks. The two of them continued deep into the woods, farther than Andrei had ever gone before. He frequently ran in order to keep pace. His legs ached, his stomach ached. He was cold and hungry, and although there was no food at home at least his feet didn't hurt. The string binding the foot rags to the tire strips had come loose and he could feel snow edging under the soles of his feet. He didn't dare ask his brother to stop and retie them. He'd promised-not a word. Soon the snow would melt, the rags would become sodden, and his feet would become numb. To take his mind off the discomfort he snapped a twig from a sapling and chewed the bark, grinding it down into a coarse paste which felt rough on his teeth and tongue. People had told him bark paste sated feelings of hunger. He believed them; it was a useful thing to believe.
Suddenly Pavel gestured for him to remain still. Andrei stopped midstep, his teeth brown with bits of bark. Pavel crouched down. Andrei copied him, searching the forest for whatever his brother had seen. He squinted, trying to bring the trees into focus.
Pavel stared at the cat and the cat seemed to be staring at him with its two small green eyes. What was it thinking? Why wasn't it running away? Hidden in Maria's house, perhaps it hadn't learned to fear humans yet. Pavel drew his knife, cutting the top of his finger and daubing with blood the chicken bone his mother had given him. He did the same with Andrei's bait-a broken rat skull-using his own blood since he didn't trust his brother not to yelp and startle the cat. Without saying a word the brothers parted, heading in opposite directions. Back at the house Pavel had given Andrei detailed instructions so there was no need to talk. Once they were some distance apart, on either side of the cat, they'd place the bones in the snow. Pavel glanced at his brother, to check that he wasn't mucking up.
Doing precisely as he'd been instructed, Andrei took the length of string from his pocket. Pavel had already tied the end into a noose. All Andrei had to do was position the noose around the rat's skull. He did this and then stepped back as far as the string would allow, getting down onto his stomach, crunching and compressing the snow. He lay in wait. Only now, on the ground, did he realize that he could barely see his own bait. It was a blur. Suddenly afraid, he hoped the cat would go toward his brother. Pavel wouldn't make a mistake, he'd catch it and they could go home and eat. Nervous and cold, his hands began to shake. He tried to steady them. He could see something: a black shape moving toward him.
Andrei's breath began to melt the snow in front of his face; cold trickles of water ran toward him and down his clothes. He wanted the cat to go the other way, to his brother's trap, but as the blur got closer there was no denying that the cat had chosen him. Of course, if he caught this cat then Pavel would love him, play cards with him, and never get cross again. The prospect pleased him and his mood changed from dread to anticipation. Yes, he'd be the one to catch this cat. He'd kill it. He'd prove himself. What had his brother said? He'd warned against pulling the snare too early. If the cat was startled all would be lost. For this reason and the fact that he couldn't be sure exactly where the cat was standing Andrei decided to wait, just to be sure. He could almost bring the black fur and four legs into focus. He'd wait a little longer, a little longer ... He heard his brother hiss:
Andrei panicked. He'd heard that tone many times before. It meant he'd done something wrong. He squinted hard and saw that the cat was standing in the middle of his snare. He pulled the string. But too late, the cat had leapt away. The noose missed. Even so, Andrei pulled the lank string toward him, pathetically hoping that somehow there might be a cat on the end of it. An empty noose arrived in his hand and he felt his face go red with shame. Overcome with anger, he was ready to stand up and chase that cat and catch it and strangle it and smash its skull. But he didn't move: he saw that his brother remained flat on the ground. And Andrei, who'd learned to always follow his brother's lead, did exactly the same. He squinted, straining his eyes to discover that the blurred black outline was now moving toward his brother's trap.
The anger at his little brother's incompetence had given way to excitement at the cat's imprudence. The muscles in Pavel's back went tight. No doubt the cat had tasted blood, and hunger was stronger than caution. He watched as the cat stopped midstep, one paw in the air, staring straight at him. He held his breath: his fingers clenched around the string and waited, silently urging the cat on.
Please. Please. Please.
The cat sprang forward, opened its mouth, and grabbed the bone. Timing it perfectly, he tugged the string. The noose caught around the cat's paw, the front leg was snared. Pavel leapt up, yanking the string, tightening the noose. The cat tried to run but the string held fast. He pulled the cat to the ground. Screeching filled the forest, as though a creature far larger was fighting for its life, thrashing in the snow, arching its body, snapping at the string. Pavel was afraid the knot would break. The string was thin, frayed. As he tried to edge closer the cat pulled away, keeping out of reach. He cried out to his brother:
Andrei still hadn't moved, not wishing to make another mistake. But now he was being given instructions. He jumped up, ran forward, immediately tripping and falling facedown. Lifting his nose out of the snow, he could see the cat up ahead hissing and spitting and twisting. If the string broke, the cat would be free and his brother would hate him forever. Pavel shouted, his voice hoarse, frantic:
-Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!
Excerpted from Child 44by Tom Rob Smith Copyright © 2008 by Tom Rob Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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