Old Man and the Cat
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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!”
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?
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!
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.
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
happiness, and maybe
for the true life itself!
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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
it is not far now” - said the boatman. He, for sure
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
cat got up, jumped down to the floor and slipped under the boatman’s feet to the
“Here we are!” - Said the boatman,
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.
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.