After jump-starting my science fiction writing after a twenty year hiatus with Limited Time for Tomato Soup, I wanted to share an example of the kind of writing I grew up with. This is a short story by my favorite Russian writer Alexander Kuprin, who is well-known for his detailed descriptions of environment and characters as well as his sidelines. Enjoy!
If you want to hear this Nikki, then listen carefully. This is the deal. Please leave the tablecloth alone, dear girl, and stop braiding the tassels.
Her name was Ju-Ju. She wasn’t named in honor of some Chinese mandarin Ju-Ju or after the cigarettes Ju-Ju, but simply because. Seeing her for the first time a three-year old young man opened his eyes wide with surprise, folded his lips into a little tube as if to whistle and said, “Ju-Ju.” Thus, she remained Ju-Ju.
At first she was but a fluffy bundle with two playful eyes and white-pink little nose. The bundle slept on the windowsill in the sun; lapped milk from a saucer, squinting and purring; chased flies on the window with its paw; rolled around on the floor, playing with a scrap of paper, a ball of yarn or its own tail. We couldn’t even remember, when was it that instead of a fluffy black-red-white bundle we discovered a large, slender, proud cat, the first belle of the neighborhood and the object of connoisseurs’ envy.
Nikki, take your index finger out of your mouth. You are a big girl – a bride in eight years. What if this ghastly habit sticks? A splendid prince will come from beyond the sea to ask for your hand, and you’ll suddenly stick your finger in your mouth! The prince will sigh heavily and go away to look for another bride. And all you’ll see of him will be his departing golden carriage with mirror windows and dust from wheels and hooves.
She grew up to be the queen of cats – dark-chestnut in color with fiery spots, white fluffy jabot on her jest, foot-long whiskers, long glossy coat, rear paws in wide pantalets, tail like a lamp brush!
Nikki, put Bobby down. Do you really think that a puppy’s ear is like a handle on a street organ? What if someone twisted your ear like that? Stop it, or I won’t tell you anything.
So… The most wonderful thing about her was her character. Notice, my dear Nikki: we live next to so many animals but we know nothing about them. We are simply not interested. Let’s take, for example all the dogs you and I used to know. Each has its own soul, its own habits, its own character. Same with cats… Same with horses… And birds... Just like with people…
Have you ever seen such a fidgety worrywart as yourself Nikki? Why are you pressing your eyelid with your pinky? You see two lamps? And they slide apart and back together? Never touch your eyes with your hands.
And never believe those who say bad things about animals. People say: a donkey is stupid. When a man is told that he is not very intelligent, stubborn and lazy he is politely called an ass. Remember, that on the contrary a donkey is not only an intelligent animal, but also an obedient, polite and hard-working one. But if it’s overloaded beyond its capacity or expected to be a race horse, it will stop and say, “I cannot do this. Do whatever you want.” And you can beat it all you want – it won’t move. I’d like to know, who is more stupid and stubborn in this case – the donkey or the man? A horse is another matter. It is impatient, nervous and quick-tempered. It will do anything, even if it is beyond its capacity, and die from the effort…
People also say: silly goose. But there isn’t a smarter bird in the world. Goose knows its owners by their footfall. For example, you come home late at night. You walk down the street, open the gate, cross the yard – and the geese are quiet as if they aren’t there. But if a stranger enters – geese raise an alarm, “Ga-ga-ga! Ga-ga-ga! Who is this sneaking around other people’s homes?!”
And they make such… Nikki, stop chewing paper. Spit it out. And they make such wonderful fathers and mothers, if you only knew! They take turns sitting on the eggs – the male and the female. The male is even more diligent than the female. If she takes too much time chatting with neighbors at the water through, as women do, Mister Goose comes out, takes her by the neck with his beak and politely drags her home to the nest, to her maternal duties. Yes, ma-am! And it’s very funny, when the goose family goes for a walk. He – master and protector – walks ahead with his nose up from self-importance and pride. He looks down at the entire back yard. But an inexperienced dog or a silly girl, such as yourself Nikki, should beware if they don’t give way; he will snake his neck close to the ground, hiss like a soda bottle, open his rigid beak, and the next day Nikki walks around with a huge bruise on her left leg below the knee, and the dog keeps shaking its wounded ear.
The goose is followed by the goslings – greenish-yellow, like willow fluff. They bunch up against one another and peep. Their little necks are bare, and they are not very firm on their feet – it’s hard to believe they’ll grow up to be just like their papa. Mama closes the procession. She simply cannot be described – she is all delight and triumph! “Let the entire world see and wonder at my wonderful husband and splendid children. While I am their mother and wife I must say: they are the best in the world.” And she waddles on. And the entire goose procession is just like a good old German family during a weekend walk.
And notice one other thing, Nikki: geese and the little dachshund dogs that look like crocodiles almost never get hit by cars, despite the fact that it’s hard to tell, which one of them looks clumsier.
Or let’s take horses. What do they say about horses? A horse is stupid. All it has is beauty, ability to run fast and memory of places. Otherwise it’s a complete idiot, and a nearsighted, capricious hypochondriac without any attachment to people at that. But people who say this nonsense are the same ones that keep horses in dark stable, who know nothing about the joy of bringing up a foal, who never felt a horse’s gratitude toward those who wash it, brush it, put horseshoes on it, give it food and drink. A person like that has only one thing in mind: mount a horse and make sure it doesn’t kick him, bite him or throw him off. It never occurs to him to freshen the horse’s mouth, use a softer path, give it a drink in time, or cover it with a blanket or a coat. Why would a horse respect him, I am asking you?
You’d better ask any natural horseman about horses, and he’ll always tell you: there isn’t a smarter, kinder, nobler creature than a horse – but only if it’s in the right, kind, understanding hands. The Arabs have the best horses in the world. But there a horse is a family member. They leave their little children with horses as if with babysitters. Rest assured, Nikki, a horse like that would squash a scorpion and kick away a wild beast. And if a dirty-nosed kid crawls away somewhere into the brush, where snakes live, the horse would grab him gently by the shirt collar or by his little pants and drag him back to the tent, “Don’t go where you shouldn’t, silly.”
Horses sometimes die grieving after their master and cry with real tears. Zaporozhye Cossacks had a song about a horse whose master was killed. He lies dead in the field and “his mare walks around him, chases flies away with her tail, peers into his eyes, breathes into his face.” So who is right? …A Sunday rider or a natural one?
Ah, you haven’t forgotten about the cat! Good, I’ll get back to her. Truly, my story has almost disappeared in the preface. There was a tiny town in ancient Greece with enormous gates. One traveler joked about it once: make sure you watch carefully, dear citizens, after your town, or it might slip away through the gates.
Too bad… I could have told you many other things: how clean and intelligent are the slandered pigs, how crows have five ways to fool a dog and take away its bone, how camels… But forget the camels, back to the cat.
Ju-Ju slept in the house wherever she wanted: on the sofas, on the carpets, on the chairs, on the piano atop the sheet music. She was very fond of lying on newspapers, having crawled under the top sheet: there was something attractive about the typographic smell for her feline nose, and besides paper was excellent for staying warm.
When the household woke up, her first business visit was always to me and only after her keen ear had perceived the morning sound of a clear childish voice from the room next to mine. Ju-Ju opened the door with her face and paws, entered, jumped on the bed, poked her pink nose at my hand or cheek and said briefly, “Murrm”.
In her entire life she has never once meowed, but only pronounced that one rather musical sound “murrm”. ...Although, it did have many different intonations, expressing gentleness, worry, demand, refusal, gratitude, vexation or reproach. This short “murrm” always meant “Follow me”. She jumped on the floor and walk to the door never glancing back. She had no doubt in my obedience.
I complied. Having dressed quickly I entered the dark hallway. With the yellow-green chrysolites of her eyes glittering, Ju-Ju waited for me near the door leading to the room of the four-year old young man and his mother. I opened it a bit. There was a barely audible grateful “mrm” and Ju-Ju slipped into the nursery with an S-like movement of her lithe body and a zigzag of the fluffy tail. There the ritual of morning greetings took place. First – an almost formal nod of respect: the jump onto mother’s bed. “Murm! Hello mistress!” Nose to the hand, nose to the cheek, and it’s all there was to it; then – a jump to the floor and a jump over the net of the crib. The meeting was always tender on both sides. “Murrm, murrm! Hello, my little friend! Did you sleep well?” “Ju-jushen’ka! Jushen’ka! Delightful Jushen’ka!” And the voice from another bed, “Kolya, I told you a hundred times not to kiss the cat! Cat is a carrier of microbes…”
Of course, there, behind the net, there was always the most faithful and tender of friendships. But cats and people are cats and people. Didn’t Ju-Ju know that Catherine would always bring cream and porridge with butter? I think she did.
Ju-Ju never begged. (She always gave brief and heartfelt thanks for any service). But she has memorized the arrival of the boy from the butcher shop and his footsteps to the letter. If she was outside, she always waited for beef on the porch, and if inside – she ran to meet beef in the kitchen. She opened the kitchen door herself with unimaginable adroitness. That door had a long copper handle – not a round plastic one like at the nursery. Ju-Ju would run, jump and hang on the handle, hugging it with front paws, pressing her rear paws against the wall. Two-three pushes with the entire flexible body – clack! – the handle gave in and the door opened. It was easy going after that.
Sometimes the boy dawdled too long cutting and weighing. Then the impatient Ju-Ju would hook her claws on the edge of the table and rock to and fro like a circus gymnast, although silently.
The boy was a happy, fun-loving, pink-cheeked fellow. He was passionately fond of all animals and simply in love with Ju-Ju. But Ju-Ju would never let him touch her. One haughty glance – and she jumped to the side. She was proud! She never forgot that her veins carried the blue blood from two dynasties: the great Siberian and the royal Bukharan. The boy was no more than a person to bring her daily serving of meat. She looked upon everything outside her house, her protection and her magnanimity with queenly coldness, while mercifully accepting us.
I enjoyed carrying out her orders. For example, I was working at the greenhouse once, thoughtfully pruning away extra sprouts from cantaloupe plants, which required great consideration. It was hot from summer sun and warm soil. Ju-Ju entered noiselessly. “Mrum!” which meant “Come, I wish to drink.”
I straightened up with difficulty. Ju-Ju was already ahead of me, never looking back. Would I dare to refuse or linger? She lead me from the vegetable patch to the yard, then to the kitchen, then down the hallway to my room. I politely opened all doors in front of her and respectfully let her go first. Having arrived to my room, she jumped lightly onto the sink, which had running water, nimbly found three resting points on the marble edge holding the fourth paw out for balance, and glanced at me sideways, saying, “Mrum. Turn on the water”. I turned on a thin silvery stream. With her neck stretched out elegantly, Ju-Ju quickly lapped at the water with her narrow pink tongue.
Cats drink rarely, but for a long time and in great quantities. Sometimes I closed the faucet slightly for the sake of mischievous experiment. The water barely dribbled. Ju-Ju was displeased. She fidgeted impatiently in her uncomfortable pose and turned her head to me. Two yellow topazes gazed at me with serious reproach, “Murrum! Stop this foolishness!..” and she poked her nose at the faucet. I was ashamed. I apologized and let the water run the right way.
Here is another one: Ju-Ju sat on the floor in front of the settee; there was a newspaper lying next to her. I entered the room and stopped. Ju-Ju peered at me with unmoving unblinking eyes. I stared at her. A minute passed. I could read clearly in Ju-Ju’s gaze, “You know what I want, but are pretending not to. I am not going to ask.” I leaned to pick up the paper and immediately heard a soft jump. She was already on the settee. Her gaze softened. I made a two-sided tent from the paper and covered the cat. Only the fluffy tail remained outside, but it slowly retreated under the paper roof. The sheet crunched two or three times, shifted – and that was that. Ju-Ju slept. I left on tiptoe.
I had many special hours of calm family bliss with Ju-Ju. This was when I wrote at nights: a rather exhausting task that can be filled with quiet comfort, once you get into it. I scribbled and scribbled away with my pen and suddenly stopped, missing some much needed word. How quiet it was! Kerosene barely hissed in the lamp, the noise of the sea hummed in my ears, and the night appeared even quieter because of it. People were asleep, animals were asleep, horses, birds, children, and Kolya’s toys in the next room… Even dogs weren’t barking – they too were asleep. My eyes were strained, my thoughts wavered and disappeared. Where was I: in a thick forest or at the top of a tall tower? Suddenly I was startled by a soft confident push. It was Ju-Ju who jumped from the floor onto the table. I didn’t know when she came in. She fidgeted on the table a little, hesitated while picking a spot and sat down next to me, at my right arm in a fluffy bundle with little humps of shoulder blades and all four paws tucked in and hidden, except for the two barely visible front velvet “gloves”.
I continued to write swiftly and with inspiration. Sometimes I quickly glanced at the cat, sitting next to me at three quarters of a turn, without turning my head. Her huge emerald eye with the razor-thin black crack of the pupil crossing it from top to bottom was focused on the fire. But no matter how minute was the movement of my eyelashes, Ju-Ju managed to notice it and turned her delicate face toward me. The cracks suddenly turned into shiny black circles with thin amber bands around them. “Very well, Ju-Ju, let’s keep writing.”
The pen kept on scribbling. Fine, well-rounded words kept coming on their own accord. Phrases constructed themselves with obedient variety. But my head grew heavier, my back was sore, and fingers on my right hand were beginning to shake: there were moments away from being twisted by the professional cramp and sending the pen flying across the room like a sharp dart. “Shall we?”
Ju-Ju thought so. She had long since invented an amusement: to watch carefully the lines growing on my paper, following the pen with her eyes, and pretend that I am creating little black ugly flies. Then she would suddenly slap the very last fly with her paw. The strike was swift and on target, smudging black blood over the paper. “Let us go bed Ju-Jushka. Let the flies sleep till morrow.” I could already see the vague silhouette of my favorite maple beyond the window. Ju-Ju curled up at my feet on the blanket.
Ju-Ju’s friend and tormentor Kolya had fallen sick once. Oh, how cruel his illness was; I am still scared to think of it. This was when I have truly learned how amazingly enduring a man can be and what enormous, unknown powers he can uncover in moments of love and death.
People, Nikki, have many unwritten truths and prejudices, which they accept without ever bothering to verify. For example, nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of a thousand will tell you, “Cat is a selfish animal. It attaches itself to a place, but not to a person.” They would never believe, never allow themselves to believe what I am about to tell you about Ju-Ju. But I know you will, Nikki!
The cat was not allowed to the patient. This was probably the right thing. She could have knocked something over, spill something, wake up or frighten the patient. And it didn’t take long to teach her to stay away from the nursery. She had soon understood her situation. Instead she settled down like a dog on the bare floor outside, right near the door, with her pink little nose stuck in the crack under the door, and thus spent all of those dark days, departing only for meals and brief walks. She was impossible to chase away. And I felt sorry for her. She was stepped over by people entering and exiting the nursery, she was kicked, she had her tail and little paws stepped on, she was sometimes tossed away in a rush and impatience. She only peeped, gave way and then softly, but persistently returned to her spot. I have never heard or read about such feline behavior. As much as the doctors were used to everything and couldn’t be surprised by anything, but even Doctor Shevchenko said once with a patronizing smile, “Your cat is comical. As if she’s on duty! How curious…” Ah, Nikki, I didn’t find this either comical or curious. I can still feel tender gratitude in my heart toward the now-late Ju-Ju for her animal compassion…
And here was the strange thing. As soon as Kolya took a turn for the better after the last brutal crisis, when he was allowed to eat anything he wanted and even play in bed – the cat understood with some exceptionally delicate instinct, that the eyeless and noseless one has gone away from Kolya’s bed, grinding her teeth in frustration. Ju-Ju left her post. She shamelessly slept on my bed for a long time. But during her fist visit to Kolya she displayed no trepidation. He squeezed and hugged her, showered her with various tender words and even delightedly called her Jushkevich for some reason! She simply twisted away from his still weak arms, said “mrm”, jumped on the floor and left. …Such restraint, not to say: calm greatness of the soul!..
Now, dear Nikki, I’ll tell you something that even you might not believe. Everyone I told this to listened to me with a smile – slightly disbelieving, slightly mischievous and slightly forcefully polite. As for my friends, they said to me honestly, “You writers have such imagination! It’s amazing, really… Since when is a cat interested in talking on the phone?” But she was… Listen, Nikki, how it happened.
Kolya rose from his bed thin, pale, greenish: colorless lips, sunken eyes, little hands barely pink and translucent. But as I told you: human kindness is a great and limitless force. I was able to send Kolya and his mother to recover to a wonderful sanatorium about two hundred miles away. A direct telephone line connected this sanatorium with Petersburg and, with some persistence could even reach our suburban town and even our home phone. Kolya’s mom had it all quickly figured out and soon I heard their dear voices from the receiver with utmost joy and some surprise: first the female voice – slightly tired and business-like, and then – a boyish one, upbeat and happy. Ju-Ju spent much time worried and perplexed after the departure of her big and little friends. She walked around the rooms and poked her nose into corners. She would poke and say expressively, “Mik!” This was the first time during our acquaintance that I heard this word from her. I am not sure what it meant in cat language, but translated into human it clearly sounded something like, “What happened? Where are they? Where did they disappear to?” And she looked at me with wide yellow-green eyes filled with amazement and demanding question.
She once again picked a spot on the floor, in a tight corner between my desk and the futon. In vain I called her to the soft armchair and to the couch – she refused, and when I carried her there, she sat for a minute, and then politely jumped down and returned to her dark, hard and cold corner. It was strange: why did she choose to punish herself so insistently at times of sadness? Was she trying to punish us, people close to her, by her example, because with all our omnipotence we could not or did not wish to remove the cause of her troubles?
Our telephone stood in the tiny hallway on a round table with a backless wicker chair next to it. I can’t remember during which one of my conversation with the sanatorium I found Ju-Ju sitting at my feet; I only know that it was early on. But soon the cat started coming for every phone call and finally moved into the hallway.
People in general understand animals quite slowly and poorly, while animals understand people much quicker and better. I came to understand Ju-Ju very late, only when during one of my tender conversation with Kolya she noiselessly jumped from the floor onto my shoulders, found her balance and reached out with her fluffy little face with pricked ears.
I thought, “The cat has excellent hearing, better than a dog’s in any case, and much better than a human’s.” Very often when we came home from a party, Ju-Ju ran out to meet us beyond the third street intersection, having recognized our footsteps from afar. She knew her own family very well.
Also, we used to know a very fussy little boy Georgie, who was four years old. During his first visit, he tormented the cat greatly: pulled her ears and tail, squished her and ran around the house carrying her across her stomach. She couldn’t stand that, although with her usual politeness she never once showed her claws. However, each time Georgie came to visit us – whether it was two weeks or a month later, or even longer than that – as soon as Ju-Ju heard Georgie’s piercing little voice from the doorway, she ran away with a pitiful cry, jumping out of the first open window in summer or slipping under the couch or the chest of drawers in winter. She undoubtedly had good memory. “What’s so surprising,” I thought, “about her recognizing Kolya’s sweet voice and reaching out to see where her dear little friend was hiding?”
I very much wanted to verify my theory. The same evening I wrote a letter to the sanatorium with a detailed description of the cat’s behavior, asking Kolya to recall and say into the phone all the tender words he used to say to Ju-Jushka while at home the next time we spoke on the phone. And I would put the received to the cat’s ear.
I received an answer soon. Kolya was very touched by Ju-Ju’s remembrance and asked to give her a hug. He was going to call from the sanatorium in two days and on the third day they would pack up and go home.
Sure enough, the next day in the morning the phone operator informed me that I was about to speak with the sanatorium. Ju-Ju was standing next to me on the floor. I put her in my lap – otherwise it would have been hard for me to manage the receiver and the microphone. Kolya’s fresh happy little voice sounded from the wooden receiver. So many new impressions and acquaintances! So many household questions, requests and instructions! I barely managed to make my request, “Dear Kolya, I am about to put the receiver to Ju-Jushka’s ear. Ready! Say your nice words to her.”
“What words? I don’t know any words,” the little voice replied dully.
“Kolya, dearest, Ju-Ju is waiting. Tell her something nice. Quickly.”
“I don’t kno-o-ow. I can’t reme-e-ember. Will you buy me an outside birdhouse, like the ones they hang outside windows here?”
“Kolen’ka, please, my kind golden boy, you promised to talk to Ju-Ju.”
“I don’t know how to talk to cats. I can’t. I forgo-o-ot.”
Something suddenly clicked and clacked in the receiver, and the operator’s sharp voice said, “Stop talking nonsense. Hang up. Other customers are waiting.” There was a light knock and the telephone hiss went away.
So Ju-Ju’s and mine experiment had failed. Too bad… It would have been very interesting to see whether our smart cat would respond to the familiar gentle words with her tender “murrum”. And that is all there is to tell about Ju-Ju. A short while ago she died of old age, and now we have a purring gentleman cat with a velvet tummy. But we’ll talk of him some other time, dear Nikki.