Zygmunt Frankel

SHORT STORIES


THE CAT
Published in "The European"

He lay on the bunk in his cell, smoking a cigarette. The day had been hot, but now, with the dusk falling, a pleasant breeze had sprung up and was coming in from the courtyard, along the corridor, and into his cell. The old prison was very much like the ones in cowboy movies. The door of his cell, as well as the one at the end of the corridor were steel frames with iron bars less than twenty centimetres apart; too close for even the thinnest man to squeeze through, but ample for a cat. One could see through the bars, talk with the guards and the prisoners in the other cells, and be disturbed by someone snoring at night, and the barred doors made the prison airy.
It was much better than the foreign prisons he had read about, with solid doors, peepholes, and electric bulbs burning the whole night long. Although the local revolution modelled itself on the Russian one to some extent, it did not have the means to imitate Lubyanka. The revolution was also milder in other respects. A political prisoner usually had done something against the regime, be it only grumbling in public. The interrogations were mostly carried out without torture. Although no public or journalists were admitted to the more serious political trials, the prisoner had the right to defend himself, and, in case of a death sentence - these, unfortunately, were rather common and mostly undeserved - the condemned man had the right to appeal to the President, although in most cases it only delayed the execution by a few days.
The prisoner finished his cigarette, put it out in an empty sardine tin which served him as ashtray, sat on his bed, and looked at the door again. The spaces between the bars were fine, even for the largest cat to pass through, and the door at the end of the corridor was the same. In the small rectangular cobbled courtyard where they took their daily walks and where they shot condemned prisoners at dawn, a couple of skinny young trees, hardly more than saplings, grew by the wall on the right, a few of the thin branches reaching the top of the wall; nothing to support a man, but good enough for a cat. It was not the wall where they shot people; that one was opposite it, at right angle to the door. On days following an execution, of which they had heard every word and shot through the barred doors, walking in a circle during their daily exercise, they would look furtively for traces of blood on the cobblestones or bullet marks on the wall, but there weren't any; the courtyard would be thoroughly hosed down as soon as the body was taken away, and the holes in the wall plastered over and whitewashed. The prisoner, himself a likely candidate for an execution, thought calmly that an old mattress or two propped against the wall would spare them the need for constant repairs, but in a backward country one could not expect a revolution to bring instant efficiency.
His decision to change into a cat rather than some other small creature in case an escape became necessary due to a death sentence or a long prison term was reached after considerable reflection. A mouse or a rat would run too great a risk in a town with a lot of cats, and even if it got out of the town safely, the distance to the border - some twenty kilometres - might be too much for it, and the danger still there: wild cats, foxes, coyotes, snakes, hawks by day and owls by night. As a cat, he would only need a couple of days to reach and cross the border and change back into man, and it was just as well. The Indian witch-doctor had warned him that if it took too long, the animal body would start taking over the human mind; he would find it increasingly difficult and finally impossible to change back, and spend the rest of his life as an animal with an animal's mind. When he died, his body would also remain that of an animal, which would not be the case if he died shortly after the metamorphosis.
It would be fastest and easiest to cross the border as a bird, preferably of prey so as to be safe of predators; but, apart from the fact that farmers sometimes shot at birds of prey, he wasn't sure about flying. On both previous occasions, the first under the witch-doctor's guidance and, after his return from the expedition, on his own, he changed into mammals, a monkey and a fox. This time, with so much at stake, he didn't want to introduce new and unknown factors.
A dog would not be able to get over the wall, and might be shot on suspicion of hydrophobia. A cat was best.
Behind the wall with the two trees was a large garden which he knew well. It surrounded the now confiscated villa of his friend the judge who had placed most of his money in a Swiss bank before escaping to Miami when the revolution broke out. The judge had had problems with old regime as well by always trying to be just and fair, but he knew it wouldn't help him with the new one. The judge had tried to talk him into leaving together, keeping a seat for him on the little chartered plane until the last moment, but he decided to stay, see what would happen, and even offer his services to the revolution if it turned out well. It showed signs of doing so for a while and then degenerated into a dictatorship backed by terror, and he had just about decided to follow his friend the judge into exile when he was arrested. They did not have anything against him as an anthropologist but he had also been a friend of the judge and that was enough nowadays. But there were fascinating things to be still discovered in anthropology and primitive magic, and he already knew enough not to let himself be shot in the prime of life.
Something the witch-doctor once told him stirred uneasily in his memory. It was right after his first, successful, change into a monkey and back. He was bubbling with enthusiasm about the possibilities, and the old witch-doctor, his face lined and wise, listened to him quietly and then said:
"Well, not quite. The possibilities are indeed great but not unlimited; no magic can change one's destiny beyond a certain extent. A warrior who is to be killed in battle will not escape his fate by changing into an animal; he will still be killed by an arrow, and the hunter might even turn out to be the same man who was supposed to kill him in battle." But the prisoner dismissed the unease without much difficulty. He was a Westerner, and destiny to him was not all that rigid; one could shape it to a much greater extent than the primitive fatalistic tribes imagined.
There were steps in the corridor and the sergeant, accompanied by a soldier with a rifle, stopped by his door and unlocked it.
"The captain wants to see you in his office," he said.
"Is it the sentence already?" the prisoner thought as he walked between the two soldiers. It was quite possible. His interrogation ended almost two weeks before, and the military courts worked fast.
The captain got up from behind his desk when the prisoner was brought in. There was another man there, a civilian in a sober grey suit, standing, with his hands behind his back, a little to one side of the captain's desk. He looked like an official visitor, probably of a high rank.
The captain took from the desk a document with a large seal and several signatures and began to read it aloud. It was the death sentence. The prisoner has been found guilty of cooperation with the old reactionary regime, of anti-revolutionary propaganda, and of failing to prevent the escape of one of the oppressors of the people (his friend the judge). He had three days in which to submit an appeal to the President of the Republic if he so wished.
He signed a statement that the sentence has been announced to him and that he understood it. He said that yes, he would like to avail himself of the opportunity to appeal to the President, in the hope that the President's generosity and kindness would make him reduce the sentence. By all means, the captain said kindly; he would have paper and pen delivered to his cell that very evening.
Back in his cell, the prisoner began to prepare for the metamorphosis. It was mainly mental. He had to bring himself - this would take two or three days - into the state of absolute belief that at the end of that period he would change into a cat. Very few people could do it, and it was only after he had been with the tribe for some weeks that the witch-doctor began to suspect that this white man who came from a different world to learn their customs might be one of them. The physical part of the preparation was easy - actually easier in prison than outside. It consisted mainly of eating very little, practically fasting towards the end, and of not doing anything to distract the mind from its task. The final part - the silent incantations, the spells, the names of gods - were merely means to finally plunge the mind so deeply into the conviction that the body followed suit.
When the block of writing paper, the fountain pen, a candle, and an extra packet of cigarettes were brought to him with his supper, he thanked the guard and asked whether he could have just plain bread, preferably dry, and weak tea, or even just water, for the next couple of days, explaining that his stomach was upset and that diet was the best thing for it. The guard asked whether he would like to see the doctor. No, he said, it was nothing; he's always had a nervous, sensitive stomach, and today, what with the death sentence, it was quite entitled to act up a little. But the whole thing was a misunderstanding and he was confident that the President, who was a just and wise ruler, would put it right as soon as he has read his appeal.
He finished the appeal the same evening, leaving the couple of corrected drafts in the writing block to show how hard he had worked on it, and gave the final copy, together with the writing block, the pen, and the remainder of the candle to the sergeant, who promised to give the petition to the captain first thing in the morning. He estimated that he now had at least four days at his disposal - two for the letter to reach the president and two more for the rejection to arrive - and four days were more than enough.
He went to bed early and before falling asleep lay there for a long time with his eyes closed imagining himself as a cat: passing through the iron bars, climbing a tree, crossing the garden, travelling through fields and woods, perhaps catching a bird or a mouse if hungry, and drinking from streams. When he finally fell asleep he managed to get a lot of this into his dreams as well. In the morning he was already feeling light-headed, in a sort of trance, already beginning to feel and think like a cat. A couple of times he even stretched and yawned like one. It was a familiar feeling. His second metamorphosis had been easier than the first - the witch-doctor told him that one improved with practice - and he felt that this one was going to be a success too.
On the third night he was ready. He had slept through most of the afternoon and awoke at dusk feeling fresh and strong. The prison was slowly settling for the night. Someone was snoring lightly in one of the cells. The guard on duty was seated behind the table at the end of the corridor, reading a paper and smoking a cigarette. He sat sideways to the corridor, glancing at it only from time to time. Even if he noticed a cat slinking along the corridor towards the courtyard door he might wonder what it was looking for, but it was extremely unlikely that he would fire at it, and if he did, even less likely that he would hit it.
The prisoner undressed except for his underwear and, once under the blanket, removed his vest and underpants as well. The blanket was coarse and not very clean, and it was a little chilly to lie there naked, but he did not want to have to disengage himself from the underwear afterwards.
The prison was silent now, with the snores from a cell at the end of the corridor barely audible.
He pulled the blanket over his head and closed his eyes. In the double darkness, of the cell and the blanket, silent incantations began to flow. To their rhythm, his mind gradually reduced everything to the world of a small, four-legged animal. Time was passing but he didn't know how much. He became dizzy for a while, with strange but well-remembered sensations passing through his body. Then the flow of incantations and trance gradually slowed down, stopped, settled. His skin did not feel the coarseness of the blanket any more. He was also warmer. He moved his limbs cautiously. His claws bit into the blanket and he retracted them.
He crawled slowly towards the edge of the blanket, peered out, and listened. The prison was dark and quiet. The cell now loomed large and tall, and the bed was high above the floor. He could see much better in the dark than he did before. He listened a little longer, then jumped down and hid under the bed. He noticed the colour of his fur: it was grey, with dark stripes, and a light, almost white belly.
The bars of the cell would now let him through without any difficulty. He peered into the corridor. The guard, in profile, was nodding over his paper.
Silently, he passed through the bars of the door, glided along the corridor, passed between bars again, turned right, out of sight, and crouched under the wall. There was a full moon shining onto the deserted courtyard. His sight was very keen. He moved along the wall and climbed the first of the two trees. A branch took him right to the top of the wall. He looked at the garden on the other side of the wall for a while. It was as he remembered it except that it was rather neglected. He wondered whether anyone lived in the villa now - perhaps one of the new officials - or whether it was still unoccupied. He jumped into the garden.
Now the most difficult part was behind him. He moved among some trees, then began to cross a large moonlit stretch of the lawn towards some bushes at the back of the garden where there was a low easily passable slat fence, behind which the countryside was practically beginning.
He did not see the large tall shape of the dog detach itself from the shadow of the villa; noticed it only after it had covered half the distance between them, loping fast and silently, trying to cut him off from the fence. He hissed and took off. The dog chasing him was a large hound, obviously trained not to growl or bark while attending to business. Their paths were converging. He saw that he might have difficulty reaching the fence before the dog caught up with him, but any change of direction might waste precious moments. If the worst came to the worst he could turn around and counterattack, using his teeth, claws, screech, and spittle to confuse the dog and reach the fence.
With a dozen yards still to go, he heard the shuffle of the dog's feet right behind him and felt its breath on his neck. He leaped and, turning around in mid-air, gave the most frightening screech he was capable of, and struck. His claws ripped one side of the dog's face just as the dog hit him with one shoulder, with all its weight and speed behind the impact. The cat rolled over, regaining his footing almost at once, but for one brief moment the scruff of his neck became exposed and he felt the teeth go in. The he was flying through the air being shaken left and right while the teeth were going in deeper. Then, very clearly, he felt his neck snap.

* * *

The captain stood in his office, but facing the desk this time, without his pistol, and between two soldiers. The official who had been present at the reading of the prisoner's sentence sat behind the desk.
"I am sorry to see that the psychiatrist's report pronounces you perfectly sane, captain," he said. "We were very satisfied with your work to date, and saw a good career for you in the service of the revolution. It is all the more sad having to tell you that your situation looks hopeless. If there are two things that the president hates more than anything else it is people taking the law into their own hands and sadism. The prisoner's naked body was found in the garden of your villa. The wounds in the neck were inflicted with some pointed though not particularly sharp tool like a pick or a pitchfork. Your dog can't be blamed for it because the size of the wounds is such that an animal with teeth large enough to inflict them would have to be larger than the victim, and we don't have any lions or tigers around here. The only logical explanation is that you took the prisoner from his cell at night and murdered him in your garden by repeatedly stabbing him in the neck and then breaking it."
"But the guard on duty that night..."
"Is also under arrest. He either participated, or had fallen asleep, or you drugged him or bribed him or talked him into keeping quiet; we shall find out which. In the meantime the president is disgusted with the whole thing and unless you can come up with some really convincing proof of your innocence, I wouldn't like to be in your shoes, captain."

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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