SHE FOUND ME IN THE tundra. It was a dark time for old Pidus, and I do mean that literally, because the day I met her was the day I saw the sun for the first time. Until then, I had been living in a cave in the middle of the woods with Mama and my sisters. When I left the woods and wandered into the village, my eyes blistering from the light, I first saw her, this tall, strange creature I knew was a human being because Mama had warned me about them. So to me, she was forever a part of my first light. And even years later, when I saw them carry away her body, she was still bathed in light, and when they lowered her into the ground, part of that light was extinguished forever. Like a halo, you say? Like she was a saint? No, no, not like that at all. Old Pidus is not a believer. His life has been too hard for that. Tell me, what kind of a God would take away someone’s mother, on two separate occasions?
But I digress.
The morning we met, I heard enough banging and clanging to fill an empire. I followed the sound, whatever it was, because I did not want to be alone. It led me out of the dark woods, into the light, and I saw a woman in a beautiful yellow dress, working in her garden. She had black hair that fell to her waist, heavy brown eyes, and a long white neck. She also had a big, round belly, though the rest of her was thin. She saw me and gasped like she had never seen a kitten before. “Look at you,” she said, reaching out her arms, which were covered in dirt. “Aren’t you the cutest little thing? Where did you come from?”
This was before I developed my talent for peeing in the shoes of my enemies, so all I could do was nibble her fingers, but that did no good. The woman, she was persistent. She picked me up and kissed me on the nose. Then she looked behind me, at my woods.
“Are you lost?” she said. “Do you want to go back home?”
Pidus growled. What home? That was the last thing he wanted to do.
The day before, my entire family was mauled by a fox, and it was all my fault. That day, I woke up with a heavy feeling. I told Mama about it, but she was tired from feeding my spoiled little sisters, and she didn’t listen. Three separate times I pulled her aside and said we should leave the woods, see what else was out there, but she ignored me. Why would we leave our little woods, she argued, if we had all the food and water we wanted right there? Why go out into the unknown when everything we knew was so very good? That night, I wandered into the woods, where I had been warned not to go, and tried to sniff out the threat, but I had no luck. To make things worse, I got lost, and tired, and found comfort under a tree. When I woke up, I knew something terrible had happened. The woods were too quiet. I found my way back to the cave by following a trail of bloody footprints, and these prints did not belong to a creature like myself. They were bigger. I tried to stay calm when I saw clumps of black fur mixed in with the blood. But I entered the cave anyway. I wanted to see. And I had been right: Mama, my sisters, everyone—they were massacred while I slept. There was blood everywhere, scraps of fur mixed with organs, even bones picked clean—let’s just say I don’t like to think about it.
The woman holding me must have been reading my mind because she said, “Why don’t you come in for some food, little one? You must be starving.” She must have known something about wanting to eat because of her belly. She brought me inside her hut, where I smelled something delicious. Rich, creamy, and thick, whatever it was. She told me she was making soup. A pot was boiling on the stove. She stuck in a ladle and held it out for me, and I licked it clean. Then she gave me a bowl of my very own soup, and I slurped it down.
Another creature came in just as I was getting comfortable. She was much older, this one, with gray hair instead of black, blue eyes, and a round face with big cheeks. She must have been the big mother. She took one look at me and said, “There’s no way.”
The younger woman said, “Look, Mama. I’ve made a friend.”
“Where did you get that thing?”
“Isn’t he cute? He wandered out of the woods. Look how he blinks—I don’t think he’s ever seen the light before. The noise from the parade drew him in.”
“Of course it did. Even the animals are patriots, around here,” the woman said, snorting. But then she grew serious again. She said, “Ira, that is a feral bobcat. He’s not a cute little pet, do you understand? When he gets big enough, he’ll rip your head off.”
“Don’t be dramatic. He wouldn’t hurt anyone. Can he stay the night, at least?”
“And what about your asthma? Our asthma. It can’t be good for us, having him around.”
“He can sleep outside.”
“I have to get to work. I don’t have time for your nonsense.” Then she paused, watching the tears fall from her daughter’s eyes. “One night,” the old woman said. “And then he goes.”
Two months passed, and Pidus put some feathers in his cap, so to speak. He wised up. For example, he understood that the young woman, who was called Ira, had a belly that was growing larger because she was with child, and he wondered how big her litter would be. He learned that her mother, who was called Polya, was an archaeologist, a person who dug up very old things. She went on excavations and returned with stories of old vases and once, even half of an arrowhead. He learned that Ira was a painter, but that she had to stop painting until her litter was born because of the fumes. Until then, she could only sketch. Oh, and the parade that brought me to her? That was for May Day, the working man’s holiday. They were from Kiev, it turned out, a far-away city. He also learned that asthma, which plagued both women, was a condition that made it difficult to breathe. However, the old lady smoked cigarettes, which only made it worse, though it calmed her nerves. “My poison,” she would say. “Where is my poison?”
Pidus grew bigger, and so did his appetite. He began to pee whenever he was threatened, and so he was given his name. He and Ira would run to the stream by the woods while her mother was gone, and he would snatch up the fish and bite off their heads. He offered them to Ira, but she did not want them. In the hut, he brought her the rats he killed, and she was grateful, but never hungry. Humans are strange creatures, he was finding out. Some days, Ira would sit at the window, fanning herself to avoid the heat, and tears would fall down her cheeks. Then she would take a photograph out of a wooden box and stroke it. In the picture, a young, shirtless man was standing in front of a river, holding up a fish, rather triumphantly, I would say. He had a scraggly beard, but it could not hide his smile. Ira and her mother never mentioned him, but he must have been a decent man because of his love for fish.
One night, there was a storm, and the women fought. Humans are always yelling at each other in front of old Pidus. “Oh, he’s just a dumb animal,” they must be thinking. “He doesn’t know his armpit from his ear.” But oh, how wrong they are. Old Pidus knows everything. And to boot, he has a very delicate nervous system. He has trouble sleeping, you see, and is plagued by nightmares of his lost family. So when two people think it acceptable to shout in front of Pidus like he’s just an old cheese rind, it makes his heart ache. He stays up all night, hunting for rats, and he doesn’t even kill them right away; he watches them squirm with their tails in his mouth, because he is grateful for the company.
This particular argument went like this.
“Are you crazy? We can’t take him with us.”
“Why not? He’s such a sweetheart. Come on, Mama, he’s practically family.”
“He attacks strangers.”
“He’s a little territorial, it’s true—”
“He peed on the poor mailman!”
“He deserved it, that nosy bastard. Why come in without being invited?”
“What do you plan to do in Kiev—how will you entertain?”
“Who will come over, Mama? I’ll be all alone,” Ira said, and the tears fell again.
“Oh, honey,” her mother said, stroking her hair. “You won’t be all alone. You’ll
“I know. But who will keep me company while I’m painting all day?”
“Soon, the child.”
“I know, I know. It’s just…”
The old woman pursed her lips and headed for the door again. The last thing she said was, “You know he’ll need a passport.”
Pidus was nearly blinded when his passport picture was taken. Until the day she died, Ira kept it in her purse: the green booklet with my picture, my weight, which I would rather not disclose, and then, my full name: Pidus Lyovin. Only then, only when Ira gave me her last name, did I truly feel like I had a family, even if it was only a formality. So we went to this Kiev. They lived in an apartment facing a river called the Dnieper, which had a kitchen, a big living room where they slept, and a balcony. The apartment was covered in Ira’s incredible, terrifying paintings, and Polya’s archaeology books. When we got there, Ira took the photograph of the man out of her purse, framed it, and placed it on the bookshelf because, as she said, “a child should know its father.” Her mother was not pleased.
I slept in bed with Ira. Falling asleep next to her was instantaneous, like lowering yourself into a pool of ink. I had never slept like that before. One night, though, I had a bad dream. I dreamt that Mama and all of my sisters were trying to claw their way into our apartment through the balcony. “So that’s who you call Mother now?” said Mama, her face hideous and snarled. I awoke, cuddling closer to my new mother.
But I did not get to sleep with her for long. Only a few weeks later, the litter was born. There was only one human, a little girl, but no one seemed upset about that. They called her Lara. As soon as she was born, Ira chopped off her hair straight to her chin. The child was spoiled right from the beginning, sucking the milk from her mother’s breasts until they bled. She had a crib, but preferred to sleep next to her mother, so Pidus was relegated to the floor. Now that the child was born, Ira was able to begin her oil painting again, though only on the balcony. She drew real people, but they were often fragmented. A man’s face was a bowl of fruit. An old lady’s smile was a boat on the ocean. A little girl’s hair was made of knives. She never painted anyone I recognized. While Polya was at work, Ira was either painting, sleeping, or going gaga over her dingbat of a daughter. Pidus was neglected like never before.
Babushka Polya, she felt sorry for Pidus, so she began to teach him a few things. We listened to Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov with gusto. We also heard Mozart, but I could tell he was a charlatan and a pansy. Pidus developed very discerning taste. He also listened to the old woman read from Levi-Strauss, Dostoevsky, and Bertrand Russell. Only later did he understand that the old woman, she must have been feeling left out too. She was starting to need Pidus.
As the girl grew up, I saw that she would not be beautiful like her mother. She was chubby, with unruly blonde hair. And the girl cried a lot, but was not smart or interesting enough to make up for it. She and I were at odds from the beginning, but there was one thing we did together. Around her second birthday, she had been flipping through a book about a pony and thought it would be a good idea to ride old Pidus. Pidus was enormous by that time, and came up nearly to her mother’s waist. Lara climbed on him and before he could shake her off, Ira started clapping. “Look!” she said, “I don’t believe it!” I walked around in circles for a while, for Ira’s amusement, and the girl giggled like a little fool.
But old Polya was not impressed. She stood in the doorway, her eyes narrowing. She said, “That’s a cat, not a horse.”
“Oh, Mama, let it be,” said Ira, sighing into her hair. “They’re finally getting along. Shouldn’t that be enough?”
Eventually, Polya accepted Pidus and Lara’s new pastime. We took our act on the road. Lara, who was getting fatter, would ride Pidus along the river, where cars would honk as we passed; once, we even caused an accident because a man forgot his brakes and crashed into a tree when he saw Lara riding old Pidus, saying, “Giddy-up.” When we got bored of the river, we strolled behind the big apartment building, where there were so many rows of nearly-identical playgrounds that we would get lost, walking for hours. There was one kindergarten on the other side of the park, and whenever the three of us passed, the children would crowd around the fence, clutching it with their sticky fingers, and they would scream, “Big kitty! There goes the big kitty with the little girl!” It made old Pidus a bit self-conscious, I must say, though he did love the attention.
But whenever we showed off our variety act to Babushka Polya, she pursed her lips and looked more grim than usual.
“Just be careful,” she said. “You can love someone. Or you can love someone too much.” I did not know which of us she was talking to, or who needed a warning.
But Pidus could not carry the girl forever. To put it kindly, by her fourth birthday, she was as fat as a summer cucumber. Whenever he tried to pick her up, she made him so winded that he was starting to believe he too had the family asthma. And once he was no longer useful as a horse, Ira distanced herself. She was only keeping old Pidus around until something better came along. Better, of course, being a subjective term. It happened like this. You see, the old lady’s asthma had been acting up recently, even though Ira did all of her painting on the balcony. One afternoon, when the four of us strolled through the Lilac Gardens, Polya said she felt dizzy. By the time we got home, she collapsed in bed and clutched her throat. Little Lara sat by her side, like a pet, while her mother called a doctor. Ira muttered, “Maybe I should call Victor too.” I wondered: Who was Victor? But I didn’t have time to worry about that for long. When this man, one Dr. Vainburg, entered the apartment, he hardly paid attention to Babushka Polya. He flew at Pidus instead. He squinted at me, blinking rapidly, like I was an illusion.
“What is this creature? What is this creature?” he kept saying. I winced as he petted me. “He’s not just a bobcat—I swear, he must be a mix between a cat and a bear! A hybrid!”
“He’s just a cat,” said Ira. “My mother, she’s the human you came for.”
But the doctor, he cared for her mother not at all. He kept taking off his glasses and putting them back on, pacing around me in circles. “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it!” he repeated. “I have to call the zoological society—I have to call somebody!”
“You’ll do no such thing, young man,” said Babushka Polya, and finally, he noticed her. But by the time he took out his notebook and checked her pulse, she waved him away. “I’m fine now,” she said. “Please go and don’t come back.”
“I need a telephone!” he cried as he exited, lifting his finger in the air like he had made a great point. I do not think the doctor noticed that he was not paid for his services. His only reward was that I peed in his shoes as he was finally acknowledging his charge. Then Polya said, “Who the hell is Victor?”
“What?” said Ira.
“When I collapsed, you said, I should call Victor! So. Who the hell is Victor?”
“Oh, Mama. He’s just someone I met.”
This conversation was interrupted. Little Lara, who was really not so little anymore, I should add, was crying on the windowsill.
“What is it now?” said her mother.
“I don’t want anything bad to happen to Babushka,” she said, tears pouring down her spoiled little cheeks.
“Well, if you keep up your whining, you might just give her a stroke,” her mother said, but I could tell by the softness in her voice that she too was worried. She put her arm around her daughter, and Baba Polya sat on her other side, and they assured her everything would be just fine. They went in the kitchen to make her a cup of tea, the little brat, and left us alone. The girl, she even hugged me as she wept. For once, I too felt sorry for her. I remembered being a helpless kitten in a musty cave, worrying about what would happen to my Mama and my family.
I wanted to ask, how did they know? How did they know everything would be fine—that they wouldn’t turn into ashes overnight?
This Victor did not get completely lost in the shuffle. Ira reluctantly divulged that she had met this character at the grocery store and that they had been seeing each other for months. Old Pidus should have known. Ira had been more giddy lately, wearing thick make-up and taking more time to wash her hair. But Pidus is naïve. He does not understand how his mother can keep stretching out her life like the skin of a drum to make room for more people. Ira tried to impress Polya with Victor’s credentials. “He has two dogs,” she said. “And a cat.” But this did not soften the old lady’s heart. “That will be just perfect for your asthma,” she said.
“Just like your cigarettes.”
“Why should I live much longer? My daughter is grown, my husband’s long dead, my work is uninteresting…”
She invited him over for dinner anyway. He arrived half an hour early. In my opinion, he did not cut an impressive figure. For one thing, he brought lilacs, which he should have known were not good for the asthma. His eyes were too big, his face too eager. He was rather squat and wore enormous shoes. Victor was a physicist. When he introduced himself, his voice shook. But when he sat down, he was kind to Lara, and held Ira’s hand under the table. I could see that he was smitten with her. And she felt the same. How could old Pidus have missed this all along? It was embarrassing for all of us. They were like two teenagers. I could see Polya was dubious. She was not impressed when Victor listed his achievements. Apparently, he was first in the Math Olympics two years in a row and graduated at the top of his class at the Moscow Institute of Technology. But when he spoke of his pets, Polya softened a little.
At the end of the meal, when he rose to say goodbye, he bent down to pet old Pidus. “You’re a big boy, aren’t you?” he said, and I tried to claw him, the doofus.
He backed away and paused at the bookshelf, staring at the photograph of Lara’s father. “A shame what happened in Afghanistan,” he said. “So many lost, and for what?” Then he brightened again and said, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Polina Mikhailovna. I trust we’ll be seeing more of each other. Oh! My shoes. How warm and cozy they feel, just now…”
“Take care of yourself,” she said, and Ira went down the stairs to escort him.
Later that evening, when Lara was asleep, I heard them arguing.
“Afghanistan? Really?” said Polya.
“What was I supposed to tell him?” Ira hissed.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe the truth, for example?”
“You know I can’t do that.”
Polya looked over to the room where Lara was sleeping. “And you can’t tell your daughter, either. She’ll just spend the rest of her life in ignorance.”
“I’m trying to protect her, Mama.”
“She’ll have to grow up eventually.”
“She hasn’t even gone to school,” Ira said, and began crying again.
For once, the tears did not have their intended effect on Babushka Polya. She walked away, still shaking her head, and muttered, “Afghanistan my left foot. Unbelievable. Now, where is my poison?”
A few months later, Ira invited Pidus to go on a walk. He was honored. Ira was so lovesick for Victor that she barely had time to eat, let alone catch up with Pidus. We walked along the Dneiper. The sun was drifting toward the horizon and we watched the families on the beach pack up their things and amble home. A few brave little boys still swam in the waters and their mothers held out their towels as they approached. Across the river, the Kiev Lavra was a gold spot on the lush horizon. But Pidus felt a chill in the air. He looked up at Ira and saw tears in her eyes. And to think that just moments ago, Pidus thought Ira only wanted to be near him—oh, what a fool he was! He turned away from her, toward the water.
She did not have to say it. No. She did not even have to say it.
“Oh, Pidus,” she said. “Victor and I—we’re getting married.” She crouched down so she was eye-level with Pidus. He was heartbroken. The last thing he wanted was some strange man in his living room. She put a hand on my shoulder, and I shook her away and walked two steps ahead of her. We walked in silence. “Slow down, Pidus, slow down,” she said. “There’s more.” I turned to her. That was when she really broke my heart. She told me that she and Lara would move in with Victor and his dumb animals, on the other side of the city. Pidus would remain with Polya. There was no room out there for him.
She said, “I know it must seem cruel. I just think of how I felt when my husband said he was leaving me for another… I had done nothing wrong. I want you to know that this isn’t like that. You know how much I love you, Pidus. I will always love you. It’s a matter of circumstance.
Though Pidus felt sorry for Ira, it was only a little bit. He did not like thinking of a man who betrayed Ira, when he was the one being betrayed.
He was left with a few questions. If this man had treated her so poorly, then why did she mourn his portrait, and why did she hang it up? Why did she continue wanting someone who was no good to her? Or maybe she no longer wanted it—maybe it was the wanting it that she missed most of all. Pidus lifted his chin so Ira could reach down and scratch him, so her fingers could ease out the tension in his throat, and when she stopped petting him—far too soon in his opinion—he swiped at her so she knew that her work was not done.
Three months later, Victor and Ira were married on the banks of the Dnieper. There was already a strike against this new husband: Pidus was not invited to the ceremony. But the real pain, it came after Ira was gone. Pidus spent many nights on the balcony with Polya, who continued to smoke in spite of her asthma. The old lady was sad after her daughter moved out. She needed Pidus more than ever. Whenever she got sad, she would turn to culture. First, she switched on the classical music station. Additionally, she taught Pidus to read. He was a quick learner, and he would sit next to her, watching the letters flow by as she read Tolstoy, Mayakovsky, and Mandelstam. Though Pasternak he loved most of all, all those snowy scenes.
Ira, Victor, and Lara would come visit nearly every weekend, though Ira complained about the journey. Victor did not have a car, and they had to take a tram and two buses just to get from Pecherskaya to the Abalon, where we lived. Ira and Victor were still smitten with one another and held each other like they would die if they were separated. Lara was happy to see me, a friendly face, so to speak. She began kindergarten that year, and Pidus was disappointed; he always imaged she would attend the school behind his apartment building, with all those eager children clinging to the fence.
She would say, “I hate school. All the other kids are wimps. And the teachers are idiots.” Or, “Victor’s all right, but he loves his dogs too much. They all go walking three times a day. And his cat, Zhutya, you wouldn’t like him, I can tell you that. He’s nothing like you.”
“No cat is as cultured as Pidus,” I would tell her, hoping she’d understand. But I knew I should curb her sense of superiority, so I added, “You’re just adjusting, my dear.”
Another year flew by. It was summer again, the hottest summer Pidus, who turned seven that year, just like the girl, could remember. The girl was unhappy. She was not getting along with the other children at school. She missed her friends on my side of the city. The right side. She spent more and more time with her grandmother. She even picked up the flute that year, or at least Victor had her playing, and she sounded so awful that every time she put the thing in her mouth, I swatted it across the floor. Old Pidus was doing her a favor. Rimsky-Korsakov she was not, and she should know it sooner than later. Just before August, her grandmother gave her a proposition: She was asked to go on another dig in the tundra, and said Lara could come.
Pidus was angry. He growled at Ira, running in circles, and finally, knocking books down from the shelves. “Pidus does not spend his nights alone! Pidus cannot spend his nights alone.”
Yes, Pidus was ashamed of his behavior, it is true. He knew it was not good to throw a tantrum. Here I was, a grown cat, setting a bad example for the girl. But I didn’t know what else to do. You can understand my reservations. The one and only time I spent a night alone, my family was destroyed by a fox. So. I took a moment. I stepped on the balcony and inhaled the fresh, hot air. As the old lady spoke on the telephone, I watched a steamboat chugging down the river.
When I returned, she told me this: Ira would stay with me, but there would be a hitch. Victor, that putz, would be out of the country. He was going to a strange land called America for a job interview. This meant that his three animals would stay in the apartment too. It was too far away for Ira to keep schlepping back and forth, and the dogs needed to be walked. So, Pidus would have to compete with three other creatures, all imbeciles, no doubt, but he would be with Ira again. Maybe even sleep next to her at night. Have her hold him like he was a soft pillow, or a cloud.
I wanted to show that I was satisfied with the decision. I even tried to put the books back on the shelf, but it was harder to put them back on than to knock them off. Such was true for all things, I was learning. Easier it was to make a mess than to clean it up.
Victor’s pets were a sheer embarrassment. They had never even heard of Claude Levi-Strauss. Additionally, they licked themselves in public. The dogs, Grisha and Misha, were foul, spotted, and reeked of slobber and shit. Dogs, I learned, did not even clean themselves. Tell me, who wants a pet who doesn’t clean himself? How Victor could love them so much was beyond me. But Cupid’s arrow is often misdirected. And the cat, Zhutya, was not much better. When I met the dogs, they said, “Woooooof!” and made no further contributions to our discourse. And the cat, he barely said a thing besides, “Meow! It’s so hot in here! Meow!” They did not make for good company.
But I was back with Ira, and she put her arms around my neck and didn’t let go. She even said, “How I’ve missed you, Pidus.” The other animals didn’t like me much after that, and so what? We shared a bed once more, holding each other through the night. During the day, when she wasn’t painting, we resumed our walks. But it was a strange time, the summer of 1990. People were very nervous about the state of the Soviet Union. As the summer blared on, the lines grew longer, the products more scarce. On the worst day of all, I remember, we spent two hours waiting in line to get in to the grocery store, and when we did, all they had was birch juice and pig’s feet. Ira bought a jar of the juice and turned up her nose at the feet.
Our trips outside grew less frequent, because of the state of things. We spent our time painting on the balcony, while the other animals watched from the inside, their wet, unsophisticated schnozzes pressed up against the glass. Only Pidus had balcony privileges. Ira’s paintings were more disturbing than ever. She still drew faces, but they were bloody, sunken in, or yellow. She even drew her own face, but it was sallow and her hair was gray and thin, as if she were an old woman. A spider crawled out of her nose. She drew her mother and daughter, in one portrait, their heads joined together and served on a plate along with some potatoes. At first, I thought she had been crying, that her eyes were red from tears, but it was not so. It was her asthma. By the end of the week, she was in a dire state, but she refused to leave the house until she finished her next painting. I even tried biting her skirt to shoo her out of the apartment. I attempted to recruit the other animals to help.
“Misha and Grisha,” I said. “Please, this woman will die if she stays here, do you not understand me?”
“Woof!” they cried ardently. “Woof, woof!”
“I’m so thirsty! So, so, thirsty!” was Zhutya’s contribution.
There would be no help from these intellectual giants. Old Pidus was alone yet again. Not another reasonable creature existed in the apartment, or even in the world, he was starting to feel. But how could I make this pack of fools and this stubborn, brilliant woman come around to my point of view? I tried knocking the paint off the balcony, but she just locked me indoors.
“I’m almost done, Pidus, really. Just relax.”
At night, she would sleep on the balcony, or try to sleep, but mostly she just stared at the river. It was just like in the tundra, except this time, she was worrying about her new husband. Though this one wasn’t dead, or gone, or whatever he was, he was still in America, interviewing for a job at a research laboratory. If he got the job, the whole family would go with him. He would have to do some convincing first, of course. But if the birch juice and pig’s feet kept up, it wouldn’t be a problem. But I’ve said too much. Because Victor would get the job, but Ira would never see another country.
Because I watched her die and I could do nothing to help. I ran out and clawed at the neighbor’s door, and by the time he followed me in, she was gone. She had stopped breathing before the ambulance pulled up. I thought of poor Polya and Lara, how terrible they would feel when they found out they had killed her, that if they hadn’t left, she wouldn’t have taken on the burden of all of us animals in her condition.
Did I tell you? Did I tell you, though? About the subject of her painting. It was me. It was hard to recognize, at first, because today, Pidus is the size of a refrigerator. But what she drew was a little kitty in the tundra, wandering through the icy grass, his eyes like two hopeful moons. He did not look so different from the little kitty in the dusty old passport. What was to be done with the painting, I wondered, even in the midst of everything, because Pidus is a narcissist, or at least he uses narcissism to escape. What would happen to something so real, like a smelly, half-finished canvas? As she painted, itchy tears streaming down her face, she kept saying, “I’m so sorry, Pidus. I can’t believe I ever left you. What have I done? I’m so sorry.”
They held off the funeral for four days. Victor needed time to return from America, and Polya and Lara left the Urals with some difficulty. The morning of the funeral, they sat in the kitchen, drinking tea. The girl had returned with a tan, I saw, which seemed all wrong considering the circumstances, and the old woman’s gray hair had turned completely white. And Victor, he looked like he hadn’t slept since he heard the news.
“Well, I got the job.”
“We can discuss it later, but I’m not going anywhere without you all. You’re my family. So if I go to America, you’re coming with me. And besides, with the country the way it is, it’s better to get out sooner than later.”
“You’re right, Victor,” said Polya. “We should discuss this later.”
Lara put her hand on my head and said, “Could Pidus come?” I wanted to tell her, You dear, dear, girl. She added, “He already has a passport, doesn’t he?”
“Of course,” Victor muttered. “Ira would have wanted that.”
Though he could barely stand to look at me. Me or the other creatures. He was blaming all of us instead of his stubborn wife, because that was easier. I understood where his pain was coming from, but that didn’t mean I could be in the same room with him without feeling like a criminal. But I was hurting too. There was no time to dwell on America, or any of this, because we had to bury my second mother.
When they lowered Ira into the ground, the light in my eyes was extinguished. I swear to you. Afterward, everything I saw was just a poor replica of itself, grainy and vague and shimmerless. That was the day, I now see, when I became old Pidus. But I did not see it then, too busy was I with focusing on the road ahead. Which was, in that case, a long walk back to our car outside the cemetery. We passed rows of plots that had been tangled with vines, uncared for, and the old, crumbling statues in need of repair. I wondered: Is this what would become of Ira’s grave if we all left for a foreign land?
And then the strangest thing happened. When we were only halfway out, a man in a black suit approached. Instantly, I knew him. He was the man from the photograph. But he no longer had a full head of hair or a beard. Or a fish. Instead, he held a long rope, and behind it trailed a beautiful horse. When he stroked her mane, I understood that here she was, the one he had left Ira for. It came together. Why Ira couldn’t do something as simple as tell her daughter her father was with another woman. Why Polya didn’t like it when the girl treated old Pidus like a horse.
“You,” said Polya, shaking her head. “Here? I don’t believe it.”
I could see, to my relief, that Lara and Victor did not know him.
He said, “I only came to pay my respects.”
Polya, normally a fighter, was too tired to resist. She followed the man under a maple tree, and they stood there for a long time, furiously whispering. The horse was bored, and kicked at the ground.
“We will get the car,” Victor declared. The man looked at his daughter, who was hiding behind Victor like he was the trunk of a tree. He stood with his hands in his pockets. The men were staring each other down, both of them wanting the girl. I understood where this man was coming from, and I do not mean Afghanistan. And I thought—wouldn’t it be easier for old Pidus, if it was just him and Polya, without the burden of the girl, or sad, annoying Victor, or that strange place America, where Pidus was told that the poor kittens ran wild on the streets? But I looked at Lara and Victor and knew I would never be free of them. They were my family, though we were no more related than a man can be related to a horse. Pidus ran at the stranger at a rapid clip. He ran circles around him and growled madly, even frothing at the mouth for effect.
“Who is this beast?” the man said, taking a step back. He was a true coward.
“Calm yourself,” Polya said. “He’s no beast. That happens to be Pidus. Our cat. Ira found him in the tundra.”
“That’s no cat,” he said. “It’s a monster.” He was no better than that foolish Dr. Vainburg, as if he had never seen a cat before. Why did he think Pidus was a beast, of all things? Pidus wished he had his passport so he could hold it up and say, Look! I have a birthday. I have an age and a last name. I’m no different from any of you!
“Well, the girl adores him,” the old woman said. “You should see the two of them together—like peas in a pod…”
As Lara’s father considered this, I bit him on the ankle and peed on his feet. He shook me off as he stared at his stained shoes in sheer horror. “What’s the matter with you people?” And with that, he ran out of the cemetery, his horse trailing behind. He tripped and fell twice, and Polya laughed. She scratched the back of my head and said, “Oh Pidus, you are naughty.”
We left the cemetery in silence. And if old Pidus was confused, then he could only imagine how the poor little girl felt, or how she would feel, as she grew. One mysteriously absent real father, a doting wimp for a stepfather, and a crabby old asthmatic grandmother to boot, and who knew how long she would last? I reached my hand out to pet the girl’s hair, and I even got her to smile, the little fatty. I stopped in front of her, and she knew what to do. The girl climbed on me and grabbed my ears for support, and we left the cemetery just like that, the rest of the family following behind.
My own birth mother, she had not been so generous about letting me climb her. She only let me and my sisters climb on before bedtime, so she could walk us in circles, singing to us until we were ready for sleep, until we would slide off like zombies and drift off near her haunches. But one night, Pidus refused to leave his mother’s back. “Come on, little one,” she had said. “Stop clowning around.” But he would not let go, digging his claws into her fur until she yelped. She did not throw him off, as he expected. Instead, she lowered herself to the ground, and the two of us fell asleep just like that, with Pidus resting his chin on her head. I woke up wanting only to do it again, but the next night, Mama said, “Never again, my dear. You’re too heavy.” That was the problem, I was learning even then, of getting the love you wanted. When you got it, all you wanted was more of it. And more of it. And more of it. And always ever more.
MARIA KUZNETSOVA is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop whose fiction appears in Indiana Review, The Iowa Review, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The Southern Review, and The Threepenny Review. Her first novel, OKSANA, BEHAVE! will be published by Spiegel & Grau/Random House in 2019.