by Raji Singh
When Czar Alexander II puts on a Pussycat Parade, he spares no expense. It is the 1870’s.
My great grandmother Shelva recounts joyful girlhood memories of the grand promenade, midst a sinister rope haired man stalking her. I’m certain she’d have felt caught in the middle of a real life Alfred Hitchcock scenario, if only she’d seen one of Hitch’s movies. That wouldn’t happen for another 50 or 60 years.
* * *
“STRIKE UP THE BAND!”
From our box seat high up I hear the shout, look about, do not see from where it emanates. Papa nudges. “Look there Shelva. Your dear Mama and brutter Ivan would not believe such a sight.”
I hardly do. Appearing over the crest of one of St. Petersburg’s hilliest boulevards – a baton conducting bandleader. He is dressed in a quilted, blood red coat style, klinnik, with the Imperial coat of arms blazoned onto the chest. Following – must be a thousand cats, all shapes, colors, in identical, tiny klinnik attire. The cats march in rows so straight. They step in unison. Their meows miss not a beat.
Cheers of the crowd, 100,000 strong lining the way, reverberate. Nearly all see the pussycats arrive at the same moment. People from all parts of Mother Russia, and many regions of the world, come St. Petersburg, for the First International Cat Boxing Championships. Their multi color parasols rainbow the sidewalks. Gentle scents of sour cream and borscht they purchase from cart vendors waft my way.
Papa’s and my special box seat is draped in lushly flowing, lavender-scented purple silk. We are guests of Blackjack Fiction, originator of what has become the world’s most popular sport, Cat Boxing. He is the parade’s Grand Marshall.
~ ~ editor note: For information on the first and foremost of the cat boxers, 1850’s Cincinnati’s Lil Tom, alias Puss ‘N Gloves, read the book, Tales Of The Fiction House. ‘Two of his three gloved, posing posters are known to exist. Hoped for third: whereabouts a puzzle; is considered the “Holy Grail” of the Cat Boxing collectibles. Estimated value if found, in even fair condition – TWO MILLION DOLLARS.’ ~ ~
The only box higher than ours reeks of frippery. Gold painted depictions of harmless kitties on silver shields claw skyward to appear – impossibly – fierce lions. Frankincense perfumed smoke puffs from their clay-molded nostrils. I am sure even audience a mile up the parade route can smell it. In this fragrance-mist, sits the handsome, young Czarevich so many of the women and girls of Russia find so dreamy.
When future Alexander III stands, cats halt their march and spectators quite. His golden shirt and pants seem to make him glow. He raises a sword, sharp as his temples, glistening as his jet hair, and then slices the air. He announces, in a proud Romanoff tone. “In the name of my father, Czar Alexander II, let the festivities begin. He toasts, “Na Zdorovi!”
I believe he looks right at me.
“Bring on the pusses,” people chant, stamping their feet, shaking wooden bleachers. The parade doesn’t disappoint.
From up over the hill appears the horse drawn carriage of Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky. His serene composition contradicts his tempestuously tousled hair.
Anticipation murmurs through the audience. “Some say he will debut his work in progress, Swan Lake.”
Rumor proves true, almost instantly. Arriving on flat bed carts behind the Maestro are dozens of string musicians. They play vivaciously, while hundreds of dancing cats in tights and tutus ballet down the boulevard. Russia’s Prima Ballerina Catsalutta, a tabby Odette, does a perfect pas de deux with her passionate Persian, Prince Siegfried.
‘Feh! I say. Odette would find more happiness with Blackjack’s, rough and tumble stray, Ragamuffin – any day.’
I feel grand reveries, watching the music inspire furry dance. But, out of nowhere, suddenly the lingering thoughts of the rope haired man flourish. Something touches my shoulder. I jump up. The rope haired man has found me! Fortunately, applause for Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece overshadows my screech.
Papa says, “What is wrong, Shelva. You act as if Cecily Cobra just crawled up your dress looking for a strayed mouse. Ach! Be calm, daughter. People will look.”
One of them is the handsome, young Czarevich. His smile, confounded, says to me, “Is something wrong, Miss? Do you not find our parade intriguing?”
I look away, shy. I sit. Maybe it is only my imagination, but I sense Alexander’s penetrating blue eyes remaining on me.
Again, I feel the touch. I tense; take Papa’s arm and squeeze. I look, expecting to see…
Ahh, it is only Poppy Sol’s warm embrace. ‘Didn’t mean to frighten you, Shelva. Just wanted to share these joyful moments with you. And keep an eye out for the rope haired man for you..’ His rays point to the horizon. ‘Someone else is here for you, too.’
Luny Mum. She smiles in the distance. ‘Wouldn’t miss a parade – day or night – for anything in this world. Just wait til you see all that is yet to come, Shelva my dear. Naturally, Poppy Sol and I can see all from our Grand Stand.’ Luny Mum haloes my head and whispers so Poppy Sol doesn’t hear. ‘I see the way the Czarevich makes eyes at you. Just girl to girl, Shelva. He likes you. So save many a dance for him at the Ball. Be ready. He may take you onto a veranda at the Palace and kiss you. If he does, I’ll look away and give privacy.”
“Oh, Mum.” I touch my face; feel flush from excitement.
Papa looks away from the parade. “What say, Shelva?”
Embarrassed by what I have been imagining – I’ve never danced with a boy, other than brutter Ivan, Uncle Vanya, or Papa, let alone kiss one – I stammer, “um, um.”
I am saved from having to explain what I have been thinking, by – Blackjack Fiction. “Look and see who is next in the procession, Papa.”
Alone in a carriage Blackjack rides. Top hat bumping the ceiling, he continually straightens it with one hand. With the other, he pushes a cane out the window. He prods, gently, Cecily Cobra to do her Lindian Woods dances for the spectators. They love it. The venomous tips of her fangs glisten. Hood flaps gently. Adults shout, “Hurrah!” Children imitate her sway.
No such creature in our country to compare her.
Cecily rides atop the carriage roof, upon Ragamuffin’s cat palanquin Blackjack and I built to look like the Fiction House. Inside, gloved Ragamuffin shadow boxes with his past lives. Captain Polly, spread winged on one of the gables, continually shrieks,
“LONG LIVE THE CZAR! AARK! LONG LIVE ALEXANDER!”
Knowing Captain Polly as I do, I understand this is all contrived – her satiric hysteria. She would as soon bite off his nose while he sleeps; or some other appendage that protruded from under his royal blankets, then flyaway, and dispose them in the Caucuses.
That opposed to those who practice injustice – be it human or beast – is my Captain Polly.
All these creatures employ such grand spectacle, guaranteeing to entice even thousands more of the audience to the cat boxing matches.
* * *
THE PARADE ROLLS ON…
For many hours, new entries veer over the crest of the boulevard and steer along the route – to the crowd’s boisterous cheers.
A sight probably no Russian ever witnessed; Hundreds of Tigermen, Lindia’s ions-old entertainers dressed and bodily painted as the sleek yellow and orange wild cats. They tell stories of comedy and tragedy, via cat-lithe, gently swaying movements that turn to violent clawing twists, rolls, flips, and tumbles. They have a cat upon each shoulder, mysteriously trained to mimic their exacting actions.
How do they do that?
Following is a marching woodwind band leading dozens of kazatsky dancers. Wearing soft leather boots, baggy cotton pants, and loose pullover shirts, they squat, crossing arms across their chests. They kick legs up and above their heads, all the way along the parade route. To finish off, some carry – balanced on flat, rigid hats – wooden platforms. On each a dozen cats dressed exactly as the humans, do their own catzatsky dances.
Look! There is caped Uncle Vanya, in promenade amongst hundreds of cat boxers, slowly toted in lavish palanquins – cat-sels they’ve come to be known. Uncle Vanya has this kooky, unique ability to; somehow – like pliable clay – adjust his face. Today, so the Czar or his Cossack henchmen won’t recognize him, because he has often run afoul of them for pleasure, profit and patriotism, he is a wrinkly, gray-mustached Prussian Count. Healed over scar lines – as if scratched in long ago by an enemy combatant’s fighting falcon – crisscross his cheeks. Not what they seem: They’re only skin folds Uncle can instantly shape into his face. He wears puffy satin pants and silk shirt. Tan leather boots reach his knees. He entwines arms with and escorts the beautiful, blue-gowned seeming woman – William/Willamina.
They peruse the crowd as they wave, smiling. Their disguises are their ruses: to help in protecting me. They’re on lookout for the rope haired man. All my family and friends here look out for me. Papa from beside me, Ragamuffin from his Fiction House, Captain Polly and Cecily from on high, and Poppy and Luny from on higher.
There is yet another, who so very soon, will arrive to protect me.
You – shell – see.
Comes now – the Czar’s royal carriage. Drawing it are a dozen shimmering white horses. Peacock feathers braid their manes. Such Grandness: Built just for the Pussycat Parade, the transport has emerald and ruby color turquoise studding the spokes of the wooden wheels. Shady muscovite windows interrupt the ivory inlay depicting cats at boxing that veneers the carriage’s sides.
‘Feh! The unending wealth of these Romanoff to have all they desire,’ I tell myself. ‘All from the brow sweat of others. Feh!’ As, his High-ass-nesses’ carriage approaches, in honor of Mama, and Uncle Vanya who so despise the inequity he epitomizes, I turn, being oh so sure the handsome, young son-of-a-Czar isn’t looking. (How can I be so infatuated with the son, and so despise the fa?) I discreetly but vehemently spit onto the sidewalk below our elevated box.
“Hey! What the…Chyort voz’mil! What you think you doing up there?” someone curses. Fortunately the angle doesn’t allow my victim to see me. I quickly stare, stone-face at the Czar’s carriage, mentally apologizing.
I hear someone from the bleachers comment. “The Czar: He is not looking at all well today. If his time nears an end, I wonder whom the young Czarevich will choose for his Czarina, to carry on the Royal Romanoff line? All Mother Russia will be asking that question.”
Someone responds, “Just look at the twinkling gleam in the young Czarevich’s eyes, mine drugh. I dare say he has his eyes set on someone, as we speak.”
I glance toward the Royal Box. I think Alexander looks my way. I often wonder – but never can discover the answer – what Mama would say if I brought home a son-of-a-czar. “Phht! You are dead to me, Shelva.” Or, maybe? “Welcome, young Alexander. Our family will make you into one of the regular people.”
Just how sick could the Czar be? I look into the Royal Carriage. The muscovite windows darken it so his face is ashen, almost muddy, and wrinkled leathery. I squint to see better. Poppy Sol sends a smiling ray through the carriage window briefly, and laughs to me. ‘Our friend rides in style today.’
Our friend? The Czar? Hardly.
I understand. I think I do.
Poppy’s light lets only, me, see something just too unbelievable.
You – shell – see. It is Turt, the royal cape cloaking, hiding nearly all of his shell and fin-claws. The muscovite obscures his beak-snout. Did he eat the Czar for Mama and Uncle Vanya’s sake, and is now resting while digesting? This is the first time I am seeing Turt – what an introduction! I would know that gnarled face anywhere, because Blackjack has told me so many stories of this lifelong land-sea pal of his.
I decide. This is all part of the Czar’s touch of humor for his grand parade. Turt is the Czar’s stand in, his shadow, his bizarre double. I wonder. What kind of crane, how many Cossack muscle men did it take to get Turt inside the carriage? Doubtless, Turt’s enjoying the adventure. Blackjack says he never gets enough of adventuring.
~ ~ editor note: There were many assassination attempts on Czar Alexander II – even blowing up a room at the ultra secure Winter Palace in hope it would end the Czar while he was in the room above. Not long after this lavish parade, someone finally succeeded. But how many Czar Doubles killed in the process? I pity the foolish soul who would attempt to kill Turt. Arms, legs, other things very important would be, snapped! Like that! ~ ~
Turt’s carriage moves on and the Czar’s real one, identical, appears over the ridge. “Oh. I understand now,” I say to myself. “There are probably always two exactly alike, for the Czar’s safety. Except – this one has thick, solid, yet clear windows so all may see him and bask in his glory. To me his face is gory. No illusions of any of his handsomeness could change that. I want to look away, but am curious to see his carriage mate. The Czar’s frame blocks him from my view. An eerie premonition shivers me. I should look away. I cannot.
As the carriage moves closer to my box, the passenger abruptly turns. Oh no! I see the white suit, the round, protruding belly. He bends. I see the turbaned rope hair. I don’t think he sees me, or maybe he pretends not to. I tremble and grasp Papa’s arm. Instinctively Papa cradles me to his shoulder. He doesn’t see what I do. He looks elsewhere. The lump of fear knotting my throat halts me from speaking.
It seems the carriage moves in a slow motion. Why does he ride with the Czar? Why does…. why does…. questions, questions, none can I answer, though hard I try. What evils to be performed against me, Mama, Papa, Ivan, Vanya, or my friends? Against all our country? Am I crazy? My thoughts veer, so unclear is this fear!
The Parade is coming to an end. As I pray the rope haired man pays me no attention, the last of the marchers appear over the boulevard’s crest, 200 of the biggest Siamese cats imaginable. I cannot believe what I am seeing. They have hair braided to look like turbans on their heads. They are dressed exactly as the rope haired man. My worst awake time nightmare commences. Seeming at cue, these cats all turn toward me. They stare, cold, hypnotic. Their Siamese screams are deafening. The sound of the crowd’s cheering disappears for me. All I hear are their haunting ‘MEEE-OOOWS!’
The rope haired man abruptly looks from the Czar, to me. His cold, penetrating eyes say, foreboding, sinister. “Tomorrow, Shelva; all will be revealed.”
The Siamese screams echoes him: ‘TO-MEEOOOWER, SHELVA.’
I feel cold, stiff, unmovable, until the parade passes from my view. Than, all of a sudden, I scream, to block out theirs. Then, I collapse into Papa’s arms.
How long I sleep, a minute, hour, a day, I do not know. Is it “Tomorrow”? When I waken, my head throbs unmercifully, as it did the day after I sneaked Uncle Vanya’s vodka. I look up. “Papa.” It is not Papa’s arms I am in, or a place I recognize. I am on a fainting couch in a room grander than any ever I’ve seen. Peter the Great in fresco looks at me from the dome ceiling 30 feet above. Czarevich Alexander holds me tight. “Do not fear, Miss. You are in good hands.”
I sigh; breathe deeply. “Indeed, so,” I say to myself. My headache: Instantly it disappears. Replacing it is a strange happy tingling coursing through my body, that never before have I felt.
NEXT WEEK: The Czarevich’s Tale of the Travelling Fiction House
(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