The Old Man and the Cat

Andrew Demkin 

Vaska lived on the veteran’s hospital ground floor. That hospital was founded by the famous Russian surgeon Pirogov in Saint Petersburg about a hundred and fifty years ago. On the first floor was a plaster statue of the founder painted in bronze. Behind the statue, there were glass doors leading to the auditorium. The walls there were decorated with the original lithographic stones, on which images were engraved for the anatomical atlas, compiled by Pirogov.

However, Vaska was a rare visitor in the student’s auditorium. When he came there, he climbed up the old cast iron staircase from the ground floor and walked around the auditorium.  Actually, there was nothing to do for him here. What in fact might be interesting for a cat in the student auditorium? Yes, Vaska was a cat. Vaska-the-Cat. He was slightly bigger than a regular Russian ginger cat. He was a veteran too. At least the combat scar on the left cat’s ear could make you to think so about him. The hospital ground floor and basement were much more attractive for Vaska. The cat’s virtual living permit granted by the hospital’s chief surgeon allowed him to live downstairs only. Vaska’s duty was to patrol the old basement for mice. In return Vaska-the-Cat was given his daily meal. The entrance to the ground floor was strictly forbidden for Vaska, even at night time. The current chief surgeon accepted Vaska-the–Cat along with the hospital from the previous boss. And even the retired chief could not tell exactly when the cat came to the hospital.

Sometimes Vaska would play with the soldier on duty. The soldier was allowed to gently scratch Vaska between the ears. If the cat’s mood was complacent, he could move on to the cat’s nose.  If the man’s hand was playing the right game, Vaska raised the head and let the soldier to continue with his neck. At times, someone could try to be too familiar with the cat and try to reach under the belly.  Vaska never scratched or bit offenders. He just tore himself away, and then paid a long lingering look and leave. Moreover, he would never come again, and the soldier would have to carry out his night duty at the entrance to the hospital alone. No cat, no purring, no fun.  However, everyone knew that the cat was keeping his privacy well, and treated him with respect as far as it could be in the relationship with a cat.

Victor was a frequent visitor to the hospital. From one to another surgery it became more and more obvious that the end of the man’s road was not very far away. But surgeons and Victor continued to fight for his life. During the last year Victor learned very well how to enjoy every sunrise, or even a successful campaign in a toilet. Just a few years ago, he thought that such simple pleasures were not worth his attention. He was sure before, that the true joy can come only as a result of something truly great, but not from the ordinary days, uneventful days. Those days had not stayed in a memory. They just slipped away.  It was like during school time, when all the days could be imagined as nothing more than pages of the record book – ledgers with assignments of homework and school scores. There was only one true day in a week, which remained outside the six school days.

Summer vacation… It was really an endless time. It seemed that life in the countryside was the only true life, as Sundays from school time. The life where there was fresh morning air and time to enjoy it. The life where there were bird’s songs, the smell of sun warmed wood, leaves fluttering in the wind. It was true life when you could move the gaze from the old chapel to pine trees behind the creek and then to the striped fields - up to the horizon. Then you could lie back and watch, watch, absorb the deep blue summer sky with the endless game of clouds in the wind.

The school time lasted as long as a century. During Victor’s military service time started to fly as fast as an air jet. Only short vacations returned Victor’s life back to the regular speed as his jet landed and stood still at the air field.  But any way it was not the true life. Victor was living in anticipation of time when true life would finally begin.  It was somewhere around for sure – just a step away. After his marriage he was ready to manage that final step, but everyday duties took him away onto a new supersonic flight of life. The next attempt was taken after his son was born. But the daughter arrived next and he had no chance just to take a minute of rest. The same thing was with the career: the new position of the instructor in the military academy promised him a lot. But growing children’s lives intruded into his own and took away the free time.

His memory could bring up just a few snapshots, when he got a touch of something that could be considered as life.   Surprisingly it was just a small episode that he would never treasure as something special. But now long afterwards they brought him great relief. Those memories took him away from the pain of his struggle and presented him with a sensation of sun warmed boulder. He pictured himself sitting on the forest road shoulder, feeling the warmth of the stone, and taste of the wild strawberries, which should be served in a purple flower bell for the ultimate taste. Victor found that there had been many other minor pleasant things he had never paid attention too. Other memories that he had considered great and valuable turned into something cold and indifferent, as someone else's memories taken from a fiction book. Years passed and then things changed.  

Victor was lying in bed in a hospital’s ward. All the landscapes he could enjoy now were the rivers and roads made of scratches and cracks on the whitewashed plaster ceiling. If he could turn his head to the left – Victor saw a small piece of northern sky. With the midnight sun of its white nights it was hard to tell what time of the day it was. Victor tried to travel along the plaster map on the ceiling as long as possible – he hated to drop his eyes down to see how his body looked now. Most of the time, if the piece of the sky in the window was gray on a cloudy haze, Victor would lie with his eyes closed. Looking through the dropped eyelids at the light bulb, Victor followed the motion of small dark dots on a red field. It was his small secret fun game. He had not enough power to watch TV or listen to the radio. And it was not interesting to him anymore.  His thoughts were running far backwards.  Every strange sound, every new movement around caused a strange kind of pain - not one that you feel in your body - but somewhere deep inside the brain.  

Once Victor was awakened at night by a new sound he had never heard before. Actually it was not just a sound, but some kind of deep low-vibration. The old man could feel that vibration with his body– not only with his ears.  Victor found that vibration was quite a pleasant thing and did not hurry to open his eyes to find the source of it. When his consciousness finally emerged from the bits and pieces of a night dream, Victor found that something quite heavy was oppressing his chest. That “something” definitely was the source of warm deep and pleasant vibration ingraining his body. Finally Victor decided to open his eyes.  That hospital ward was never dark at night. In autumn and winter it was lighted from the outside street lights and in spring or summer – with water color paints of white nights. Having opened his eyes, Victor saw two convex shiny eyes right in front of his face.  The eyes were staring at him. While the veil of night dream was falling down to the floor, the light gradually outlined a broad muzzle with mustache and rounded ears. One ear shone through with a sharp triangular wedge - like a tag on the ear of a thoroughbred cow. So, here he was: a big ginger cat with green eyes. Catching Victor’s eyelids movements the cat stopped purring. Its eyes were open wide – seemed to have become black instead of green. But just three or four Victor’s chest movements passed and the cat shut the eyes again. Two slanted eye slits were left and the cat continued his purring job.

Although Victor was quite weak, the cat’s weight applied to the chest did not seem onerous to him. He would rather tell that it was enjoyable. It was a kind of pleasant dreamy moment in his childhood, when his mother was covering him with a heavy weight cotton blanket. The cat was flying up and down like a surfer on the rare and low waves of Victor’s breath. Cat’s heaviness and warmth were new pleasant experience for Victor, who had lived his last month in sensory deprivation. Deep purring vibrations were so strong that very soon all the man’s feelings were totally absorbed by that heavy warm animal. The old man’s eyes closed again and he fell back into a night dream. The old man was sleeping deep and he even did not wake up until morning, which was quite an unusual thing. In the morning Victor felt unusual lightness in his body, almost like many-many years ago.

After a couple of nights the nurse on duty noticed that Vaska-the-cat was spending nights on the bed of one of the patients. For a few days cat’s night journeys remained unknown to Victor’s doctor. But one of the physicians, who glanced into Victor’s ward at night, noticed the cat on the patient’s blanket. The doctor made an attempt to remove the cat, but the ginger creature seemed to be deep rooted to Victor’s body. Moreover, the cat exposed the excellent set of fangs, which probably helped doctor to make the right decision to leave the cat with his new friend. The head of surgery department, who was briefed about the night visitor to his patient, decided not to forbid cat’s visits. It was clear to everybody that the cat's companionship was probably the man’s last joy in his life. 

Victor was wondering why the cat decided to make friends with him. Actually, he had never been fond of cats. As a child he was always dreaming about a dog. But it never was to be. His parents were not ready to take care of both a son and a pet. And when he became a parent himself – he understood why. But cats… Cats always seemed to him soft toys for girls. On the other hand cats were completely inaccessible for communication. All the cats he had known were living independent lives next to but never really connecting to people. 

What was the catch for that cat? What the old man could give him? All he could – just to scratch the cat gently behind the ear or under the jaw. It was clear that such kind of joy the cat could get anywhere from anyone. Companionship? It was hard to describe this relationship as a companionship. The cat remained all the time deep inside its own inaccessible world.  

During nights that were full of pain attacks, the cat would come after the nurse left the old man and started doing a massage with his front paws through the thin blanket. And the pain soon vanished. Maybe, the cat was a remedy. Maybe the intravenous injections of opiates were strong enough to nudge aside the pain, but even in those moments, anybody could see that the distance between the man and the cat disappeared. It seemed that Vaska was never emotionally involved into the situation. The cat was completely emotionless, and even was able to hit the man’s hand if Victor tried to touch him during the massage session. Every time before the man awoke in the morning – the cat vanished from the ward.

But one day everything completely changed. In the morning Victor opened his eyes and for the first time saw his cat in the daylight. The cat was lying on his chest, and showed no attempt to leave his place. When he saw that the old man opened his eyes, the cat craned its head and carefully sniffed Victor’s face.  The man stroked the cat's head. Vaska started purring and licked the man face. Then he got up and formed a cat and moved to the man feet. 

The nurse came and tried to kick the cat out of the ward. Vaska jumped out of the bed and crawled to the far corner under the bed. But as soon as the nurse was gone, the cat got out of his hiding place and climbed back on the man chest. Later the doctor came, looked at the patient, looked at the cat, shook his head and left the room.

Victor dropped a hand on the back of the animal. Palm and fingers plunged into dense, very pleasant to the touch, silky fur. He began quietly, just with one finger to stroke the cat along the back. The cat fairly purred, and then suddenly turned on its side, and, clasped the man’s hand with all four paws. No claws were let. Victor felt just the warm pads of the cat’s paws. After the game with the hand was finished, the cat turned his back to the patient, and began to flip his tail, so that its tip touched the tip of the man’s nose. Suddenly that cat tail game recalled the old hidden memories from the childhood, when Victor’s mother played with him, tickling the tip of the nose, cheeks and ears with something fluffy like a fur brush.

Browsing through these pleasant images in his memory Victor found that he felt himself much better. He closed his eyes and dove deeper into these old scenes of his life. More and more images were rewound in front of his inner sight. Some of them were very bright and clear, others were bleached. Some brought him fresh air, others – caused shame.  Soon Victor felt the corners of his eyes become wet. But just a second later he felt that someone’s rough tongue was licking away his tears. Victor opened his eyes, raised both arms and embraced the cat. It was like in the childhood when you held your favorite soft toy and thought that you would never let it go.

The cat waited about a minute and then freed himself out of the tight embrace, and jumped off the bed onto the floor.
"Well, my friend is gone" - whispered the old man. But in a second he felt his blanket moved a little. He turned his head. The cat stood on his hind legs, holding the edge of the blanket and trying to pull it. Then the cat pushed the paw under the blanket trying to reach the man’s feet with a claw. It did not work. Vaska faced the door and started meowing. 

"Do you want me to stand up?” – asked the man. – “Well, boy, I think I am too weak to do it!” However, the cat went on meowing. He returned to the bedside, then walked towards the door and looked back as if he was checking if the man was following him. Suddenly the old man felt that the weakness in his body began to disappear. He raised one hand in front of him. Then raised it higher – “O, My!” – There was enough power to do it! He tried to raise the other hand. In a second both hands soared over his head, as before, when he was a young man stretching in bed in the morning. Victor pulled up his feet and suddenly realized that he could sit alone in bed. It was so great! The muscles seemed to regain their former strength, of course, not as in his young years. But it seemed to be quite enough to pull the legs off the bed. The old man gently, helping himself with his hands, put one leg down, then did the same with the other. 

Vaska-the-cat immediately approached him and began rubbing against his legs, grabbing them with the hook of his tabby tail. It was evident that he was happy to see the success of his man-the-friend.
“Do you think I can stand up?” – asked Victor. He wasn’t sure that he could.
The cat again went to the door, paying a long look to the old man. Victor lowered his feet gently into his slippers, caught the wooden chair with his left hand to use it as a support and stood up.

“I can stand!”  - He made a small step. – “I can go!”   His heart beat heavily. His thoughts were jumping. What to do first?  It is necessary to dress up ... He took the hospital gown.

 “Now what?
“ – The old man cautiously took a few steps towards the door. He did not sway, and his feet worked quite well. Victor the old man completely forgot to think about the pain.

In a dozen short steps he reached the door and opened it. The cat immediately slipped out. The hospital life was flowing like a river behind the door. A nurse talked to a doctor. Military medical cadets scurried back and forth. Someone drove along in a wheelchair.
"Can you imagine - I can walk! Can you imagine me walking! Hey, Mr. Cat!
" – The old man made a step towards the hospital hallway. The second step was followed by the third, the third by the forth and… in a minute Victor found himself in the middle of the hospital hall. O, My, what a joy! So maybe ... Maybe the restroom can be visited too?

However, he did not travel to the restroom, although he was confident that the campaign would be successful in an old and a natural way. The cat again rubbed against his legs and went forward to the reception hall. At the glass doors the cat looked around, checking whether the man was following him. Victor hesitantly stepped behind it. What if the nurse noticed him walking? But luckily the nurse looked through him with complete indifference, as if he had not been for almost a month a bed-patient with no ability to walk himself. The old man pushed the glass door letting his cat friend out. Vaska-the-cat proudly raised his tail, strode forward and turned towards the stairs leading down to the ground floor.

Now Victor had no doubts that he could easily go down the stairs. However for safety he stuck to a very broad balustrade of the grand staircase. Downstairs, in the entrance hall the cat immediately ran up to the old massive oak entrance door and started scratching it. “Let me out!”

But it was too much! Patients could not leave the hospital without permission. Victor came up to the door and took the cat in his arms. The cat started purring in the air, while the old man lifted him in his outstretched hands. When Vaska settled comfortably in the old man’s arms, Victor was about to turn around and take the cat back to his ward... But… What if he would just get one breath of the fresh street air outside and just touch some new fresh spring leaves on a tree? Victor looked around. Nobody was looking at him. The soldier on duty was looking as something in the display case. Visitors at the reception paid him no attention.  No nurses, no surgeons. So… Why not?

The old man pulled the handle and the old oak door slightly moved. He opened it and went outside. The cat in his hands began intensely to sniffs the spring air. Actually spring has come into its own. The old man nearly missed the opportunity to know that spring already came. Thanks to the cat!

How beautiful are those old oak trees in the old hospital park across the road! Victor looked around, picked up the hem of his robe and crossed the street. Fortunately, the old gate to the park was open. Victor slid through it and dropped the cat on the fresh grass lawn. The cat busily sniffed all the blades of grass in the area, and began gnawing one stalk.

The old man lifted his head. How could he miss that eternal scenery before? The huge mass of fresh leaves under the light spring breeze and high clear blue sky. How little was necessary for the true happiness, and maybe for the true life itself!

The cat and the old man walked along the main park alley. On the left there was a small pond with a fountain. An old bronze monument could be seen deep in the park. There were a lot of people in the park: medical cadets, military medical officers, patients and visitors. It seemed no one was surprised to witness a patient walking in the park with his cat. In fact, if a person can go for a walk with a dog, then why not go for a walk with a cat?

The park and the hospital were a part of the old Military Medical academy, founded in time of Peter the Great – about three hundred years ago. Victor knew about that, but had never been here before.  He knew that behind the park and those old yellow painted buildings should be a big river - the Neva River. He wanted to look at the wide water and headed towards it. The cat was following him like a dog.  They had to pass through another clinic’s atrium before they could reach the river embankment facing the waterfront.  Victor expected to see a stream of cars on the embankment, the bridge, and the modern hotel "Saint Petersburg" on the right, but… But he was surprised to find no bridge, no cars, no hotels or even no old granite embankment itself. There were no people.   The weather also changed. The sky was shrouded with clouds and the wind rose. In front of the clinic there was a long log pier with a small sailboat. At the place where the hotel should be only river waves could be seen now.

“Got lost?” – Somebody was talking to the old man for the first time since his adventure started today. Victor looked around. A little man in a sailboat was smiling at him friendly.  He was dressed in an old fashioned suit and wore no shoes.

“Hey there! Lost your way?” - Asked again the boatman - “Don’t be frightened! Come to me - I will take you across the river. I work here in the hospital for a long time.”

“But why should I go across the river?”  - Asked Victor. – “And you should know – I am not alone. Here is a cat with me!”  The old man decided that it was very important to report about the cat to the boatman. He let the cat jump down from his arms. Vaska first arched his back, stretched, and suddenly jumped into the boat. The boatman caressed the cat.

“Look, man, your cat is here – now your turn!” – said the boatman and gave a hand to Victor.

Yeah, no matter how strange it was, but Victor decided that cat’s intuition could definitely be trusted.  With the boatman’s assistance Victor settled in the boat’s stern. The cat sat down next to him.  The old man covered the cat with his arm – he did not want the cat to fly overboard.

Who would have thought that the Neva River is so wide. The boatman rowed on and on, crossing the river diagonally. Closer to the other side of the river the boat hit the fog. The fog was so thick that the hospital building completely
disappeared from sight.

“Well, it is not far now” - said the boatman.  He, for sure was familiar with these landmarks.  In a couple of minutes the fog lifted and Victor saw sun-drenched river beach not far away from the boat. It's amazing how fast the weather can change on the Neva River. But looking closer, Victor realized that this riverside did not belong to the Neva. It was the riverbank from his childhood, where at the top of a steep hill the house of his grandmother sat. He spent his happiest summer months there…

 The cat got up, jumped down to the floor and slipped under the boatman’s feet to the boat nose.
“Here we are!” - Said the boatman,
although he did not even turn his head toward the land. – “Go on, man! Someone is waiting for you there!”
Victor stood up and put his hand to his forehead, closing his eyes from the bright sunlight. His heart was ready to jump out of his chest. He saw his dear granny, smiling grandfather next to her and many other people. He could not name each of them, but he was definitely sure they were not strangers to him...

It was unusually quiet in front of Victor’s ward in the hospital. The door was wide open. The head surgeon and Victors’ physician stood in front of the bed. Nurses and cadets crowded in the doorway.

The surgeon gently took one Victor’s hand. The hand was still warm.  He carefully lifted a little limp ginger furry body. The doctor put the cat’s muzzle to his ear. It seemed that he wanted to catch a sign of cat’s breath. He waited just a second and turned around without any idea what to do next.  Then he stepped firmly to the vacant bed in the ward.  He put Vaska-the-cat on the blue blanket and covered him with the white towel.