by Raji Singh (excerpted from my great grandmother’s treasure trove of writings about her 1870’s girlhood)
Part I: PORTRAIT OF CECILY – a frequent and honored guest at our table one Moscow summer.
We always dress for dinner: Mama, I, our best white dresses, brutter Ivan, in miniature of Papa’s black suit. Cecily curls on a dining room chair beside companion-benefactor, Blackjack Fiction, always nattily attired in his Ameri-kan tailored matching suit, waistcoat, and slacks.
Cecily’s satiny hood is a sparkling abalone hue in the candlelight cast by crystal chandelier. Cecily seems to bow reverently down as she peers at her dish. She politely devours her serving of – well, you don’t want to know what sort of raw creature innards.
They dangle from her fangs, and then, slide slowly down her infinitesimal throat. You can see the crinkly outline of the…
I barely gag out the words, “Cobras will eat that?” (I think this is why Ivan, when he grows up, becomes a scientist: So intrigued by the swallowing reptilian reflex.)
No one sits on the other seat beside Cecily. Finally one evening, Ivan braves near, scooches into it, observing closely, eventually stroking the innards-full throat. “No, don’t do that brutter,” I am about to protest when I see, Cecily likes the touching. She makes an almost cat purring sound. After that, Cecily and Ivan, best of friends: They take many a leisurely walk-crawl together. (You’ll never see a busy city sidewalk clear quickly as during their promenade.)
On another evening, as Cecily belches appreciation after finishing her bill of fare, Papa says. “My goodness, Blackjack. I am glad you arrived with Cece when you did. Our rodent infestation – Ach! Who would believe? In such a nice neighborhood? I am aghast at the current state of…”
“…our rodent dilemma,” Mama says, completing Papa’s thoughts, as usually she must. (Papa’s a brilliant instructor at the University, but sometimes forgets the point he’s trying to make from one sentence to the next.) “The Professor, Ivan, Shelva, and I, we all thank you and Cecily Snake, Mr. Fiction,” She certainly solved our rodent problem in short order.”
PART II: CECILY AND I, mostly Cecily, solve the mystery of the disappearing cats of Moscow.
After a hale and quite sincere speech that, basically, says, “You are welcome, my most gracious hosts”, Blackjack changes subjects slightly, and observes. “I love cats. They’d take care of Moscow’s entire rodent dilemma. But, journeying your fair city, I find none.”
“Truly an oddity,” confirms Papa. “Since the Crimean War’s end – fewer, fewer felines, finally, phht, not even one afoot.” I like how Papa’s goatee bounds upward when he uses his favorite expression, phht.
“Some say,” Mama puzzles. “That the war poor have taken to eating them. I do not believe this. Never have Muscovites been so down as to do something like that. Am I right, Papa?”
“You are, Mama. The way they just, phht, disappear into the ether. You’d think they were more precious than…”
“…than GOLD,” I say, beating Mama to the finish.” Papa smiles.
Entering to clear the table our family’s cook, Vampira, Ivan and I call her behind her back. She’s always lurking like one of those scary ghouls, listening in on conversations. You’d almost think she’s a Cossack spy for the Czar. But you know she’s not, just a busybody, how might some say, a yenta.
Cecily hisses at Vampira when she tries to remove her dish. There’s an animosity ever increasing between the two ladies, fangs drawn one might say. Seems to me Cecily has the upper fang, by the way Vampira tries avoiding her. Seems to me Cecily senses or knows some secret about Vampira. Cecily’s eyes shift to Vampira. She studies her. I wonder; is Cecily trying to piece together some clues Vampira’s innumerable facial ticks might reveal. Are they ‘giveaways’, ‘tells’, only a real snake might recognize in a human snake.
I put my brain to calculating, imagining, speculating, as the grown ups around the table talk of wars, Czars, and Cossacks – things of little interest to an adolescent girl. I’ve just finished reading Chekov’s little known foray into mystery, The Adventure of the Speckled Boa , so my mind becomes that of a snaking sleuth. ‘Hmm?’ I deduce. ‘Look at all those little hairs collecting around Cecily’s tiny nostrils. They’re white and black. That’s a clue. They couldn’t have come from the innards she just ate. If they came from a Muscovite rodent they’d not be that color.
‘Aha.’ I think of something that seems funny, but not important at the various times it happens. Cecily’s taken to quietly slithering up to behind Vampira, and sniffing her housedress. It is always dirtied with similar fine hairs. Blackjack has told us often that cats and cobras have a special affinity for each other: So now, I speculate. ‘Cecily suspects Vampira with having something to do with the missing meow ’ers.’
It is just a theory for me now, mind you. Yet, it is one you will see will pan out to be true.
PART III: THE CAPTURE
For first time in long time, I think of my missing kitty, Alexi. So sad! I cry and cry! Alexi disappeared not long after Vampira arrived.
There is a knock on the front door. Vampira lets in our string bean-tall neighbor, Mr. Bhoratski. Introductions made, Mr. B. offers, “I’d like to hire your Cecily for a few days to solve my rodent woes, Mr. Fiction: as does everyone on the block. I hurried over, selfishly wanting to be first.”
“If it’s all right with her,” Blackjack says. “Cecily and I are not averse to picking up some spare rubles along our journey. And she so does love her grand sport, mouse-ing.” Everyone looks to Cecily. She moves her hood, as in a pleasant nod. Then her eyes focus on the door to the kitchen as if to indicate, ‘But first some unfinished business.’ Vampira’s in the kitchen. Ivan and I follow Cecily in. Cecily corners Vampira near the sink.
“Get ‘vay frum me you cold blooded whure,” Vampira shouts, seizing a skillet, extending it like a shield. Never before or since do I see Cecily so angry. She combination growl-barks like a bear; she lion roar-screeches. Cecily’s innard-foul breath blast furnaces into Vampira’s face. Vampira gags.
Then the loudest ‘clang, clunk, clang, clank’ you can imagine.
With her tail, Cecily knocks away the skillet. It ‘clangs’ off the porcelain sink, ‘clunks’ Vampira’s head (“ouch, ouch”). Finally it ‘clangs’ open the soundproofing door of the garbage chute, breaking it from its hinges. Downward, ‘clanks’ the door and skillet. You can barely hear them land, ‘thud’. But loud as Cecily’s growl-bark – roar-screech, is the echoing chorus of ‘scree, scree, hiss, mee-oow’ echoing up through the now-open metal chute.
PART IV: SWEET FREEDOM
Thumped, but suddenly freed from their dark, smelly hold are dozens of cats. Their claws are like fingernails on a blackboard as they scratch and claw their way up the almost horizontal chute. They leap, blinking, into the bright light of the kitchen. The poor, innocent trash smelly scare-dee cats, they run in wild circles around the kitchen.
‘Vampira’s the cat-napper, cat-stasher’ Ivan and my eyes say to each other. ‘But why?’ No time to speculate because the wild cats knock us down. Vampira’s already downed, from the skillet’s dizzying ‘clunk’. The cats know their captor. They leap on Vampira, biting, scratching, and clawing her. Vampira howls like the vampire she probably truly is. Her scars resemble the red and white stripes of Ameri-kan flag I have only, up to this time seen pictures of.
Vampira knows she’s been revealed for what she is. She begins tossing the cats away so she can rise and make her escape back to her Carpathian Mountain lair. No such luck for Vampira: Cecily flops onto, anchoring her. ‘SSS,’ Cecily opens her mouth wide and keeps her fangs poised inches away from the Carpathian nose crag.
Mama, Papa, Blackjack, Mr. B., rush into the kitchen. Blackjack opens the window so the felines may flee to freedom. “They will become Moscow’s Adam and Eve, and replenish the city with a fine new line,” I hear Blackjack say. (A side note: Later on, they’ll also, in a cat pack, find the garbage collector who was Vampira accomplice, and give him his biting, scratching, and clawing comeuppance.)
Papa and Mr. B rush out to find a policeman to arrest Vampira. Vampira’s limbs pretzel into undoable knots beneath Cecily’s roping imprisonment. Her face and tongue resemble soggy, droopy pancakes. Ignoring Vampira, Mama, whose grown fond of Cecily, sits beside her and pets her head. “Poor Cecily. You’ve gone through such an ordeal. But it’s all over now. Just relax dear, and try not to think of the horrors you’ve seen.”
Blackjack joins in. “Moscow will have a big parade for you Cecily. You are a hero. I would not be a bit surprised if they erect a statue to you in tribute.” Ivan smiles broadly at his nightly walk-crawl mate. Watching Cecily I’d swear she smiles back just as widely at him.
As for me, I’m still leery of Cecily, despite her heroics. After all, she is a poisonous serpent! I edge, backward. I bump into Blackjack. “Meow.”
I know that meow. I turn. Blackjack’s holding… “ALEXI,” I shout.
Blackjack hands her to me. “She stayed here, Shelva. She knows her home. She loves her special Shelva.”
I pet her hundreds, thousands, millions of times. She’s a lot bigger in size from when I saw her last. But she is so skinny, eating only garbage scraps during her captivity. I give her milk.
“Meow.” This next meow I hear is sad, lonely, just the opposite of Alexi’s joyous.
Blackjack picks up the skinny, gray ragamuffin brushing against his ankle. “Come to me my little foundling tovarich. I was once just like you. Looks like I’ve found a nice Russian cat friend for Cecily and myself. Welcome to the House of Fiction ,” he says.
Ahh! A happy end to this mystery of the disappearing Moscow cats. In the weeks that followed, working with police, Cecily sniffed out-sensed out, dozens of such cat prisons as she discovered at my house. Police tell Mama, Papa (quoting them exactly for their words etch my memories all these years later.) “There was a ring. Cat-nappers like your Vampira were selling them for big rubles.” Then, the police would say no more, as if they were afraid: adult men, feh, scare-dee cats.
But word spreads among animal lovers: That the cats were disappearing, for the sake of sinister pleasures of the Czar. This talk ferments and revolution brews, causing jitters amongst the hierarchy. In my imagination, I see thousands of felines roaming the halls of the Great Palace. But, for what purpose?
NEXT WEEK: Cat Boxing at the Palace
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. They are completely different stories. My novel is available at Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.)
©2013 Raji Singh