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The silence was making it thicker. Roberto felt like he was in a solid gray soup.
A horn sounded. Twice.
Bit by bit, Roberto realized: the horn was real, but not the fog.
He opened his eyes, and the gray stuff dissolved in the half-light that entered through the window.
The room was in shadows. He turned his head toward the window: from where he was, he could see the gray sky, with darker veins in it like dirty lead.
Why did I wake up so early?
He turned around to see the clock. It wasn’t that early: 10:30. It was the day that was dark.
He got up slowly.
He went to the bathroom, urinated, and then went to the kitchen. Mechanically, he turned the key to light the burner, and when he did so he remembered that there would be no gas; they’d turned it off a week ago.
Anyhow, it didn’t matter; there was nothing to cook.
It had already been a while since he’d seen coffee, and now there wasn’t any yerba mate or tea left, either. The night before, he’d eaten the last thing that remained: two rolls, already a little hard, and half a salami.
And he hadn’t worried about not having anything for today.
He felt strange.
Weirdly calm, given the circumstances.
He found it paradoxical that his desperation, which had driven him to give up on everything, could transform itself into such peace –almost happiness– after he had given up.
He drank a glass of water, then refilled it halfway.
With the glass in his hand he went to the cabinet, slowly opened the glass-case, and carefully took out the little black flask.
It had a white label with blue lettering, above which was emblazoned a red skull and crossbones.
Could it be that pirates used poison?
He smiled at the thought, and was surprised that he had smiled.
They’d told him that ten to fifteen drops would be enough.
Just to be sure, he put fifty.
Rhythmically stirring the glass to mix the liquid, he walked over to the window. He remembered walking that way many times before, with the same countlessly counted steps, to the same window. But then, the liquid swirling in the glass was whisky with ice. Sometimes, cognac.
He stopped when he was almost touching the glass, looked to the right, and took in a slow panoramic glance, as though he wanted to leave this little piece of the outside world, with all its details, impressed on his retinas. At the far right, there was not much to see: just the protruding side of the adjoining building, with its cracked plaster and row of bathroom vents. (That was the building that blocked the sun from reaching his window.) In front of that, there was a bit of sidewalk and then the street, with its wells that were older than the neighborhood itself. Straight ahead was the little house that occupied the front half of the lot. On the far side of it, there were only the tops of the two banana trees that grew along the sidewalk; on the near side, the back patio. The little girl was playing there as usual, with her dolls and teddy bears. He had heard that her name was Agustina; sweet little thing. Her mother appeared and disappeared, also as usual, going into the house and coming out again in a hurry, as if wringing the mop, hanging the towel on the line, or beating the rug were urgent, pressing matters.
Pretty woman. Her daughter looked a lot like her, and would certainly be very pretty too when she got older… that is, if life didn’t paint a bitter sneer on her, which could transform the nicest face into a grotesque mask.
To the left was the tile roof of the house next door, sloping down toward the street.
When it was sunny, he liked the bright red of those tiles, but now, beneath that stormy sky, they seemed dark and dirty. They were crisscrossed with streaks of dark green moss, as if a careless painter had been cleaning his brush there.
There, on the roof, he saw it.
A meter from the edge (give or take), and just five meters from his own window.
Stretched out on its side, left paw under its body, the right one lazily extended and resting on the tile, its head partially turned to focus on him better. It was looking at him with wide open eyes.
It was looking at him.
Yes, it was looking at him!
He knew that tabby.
It was an alley cat. It had neither owner nor home.
It ate what it caught, found, or stole.
Depending on the weather, it took shelter under the plants, in a gas shed, or on a porch. So it was sort of like him: a marginalized creature.
But now it was out of place.
What was that cat doing there on the roof, beneath a leaden sky, when the wind was cold and there was a storm coming, stretched out as calm as if it were sunbathing on a spring afternoon?
And it was looking at him.
It stayed there, quiet, and did not take its eyes off him.
Maybe the animal sensed something, had some chance premonition?
He, too, kept looking back at it.
He didn’t really know why, but the cat’s gaze, or rather its presence there, first disturbed him, then calmed him. Still preoccupied, he kept his gaze fixed on the eyes of the cat; he was strangely satisfied and almost happy that someone or something should be looking at him at that moment. He slowly raised the glass to his lips.
And suddenly it happened.
Up above, in some place he couldn’t see, a gust of wind parted the clouds. A single ray of sun fell, almost sweetly, and came to rest on the tile roof, the little house across the way, and the tops of the banana trees.
It was like an explosion of light and color. The green leaves shone, and so did the little white house and the red tiles. The cat’s eyes shone.
He was half-dazzled, and it seemed to him that he saw the cat quiver with pleasure.
He stayed there, not moving yet profoundly moved, holding the glass two centimeters from his mouth.
The cat had done this!
Alone, cold, maybe hungry, even beneath a threatening sky when the rain could start at any moment, it awaited this little moment of pleasure. Without knowing it, the cat just “knew” that however dark the day might be, the sun is always there.
Roberto, moving only the most necessary muscles of his forearm, turned his wrist, tossing the contents of the glass onto the floor.
The sun is always there, and even in the midst of the worst storm you have to know how to wait and hope for it.
Like the cat.
That damn tabby cat, who was a life lesson.
The air in the room seemed heavy, and he opened the windowpanes. Fresh air blew in. He breathed deeply a couple of times and then got going.
While he dressed, he thought about the steps he would take. There were some people who owed him money. He would hound them until they paid, and with that and a few things he had left to sell, he’d be able to dress a little better, get his life in order and search until he found a job. There were a few things he knew how to do.
And when he had a job he could start looking for Clara again. And then…
He went outside, ready to take on the world.
He wasn’t there to hear the clamoring and the voices that came in the window.
The top of a ladder peeked over the edge of the tile roof. There were voices, and the owner of the loudest appeared framed by the ladder’s rungs, nagging the other to hurry up and replace the broken tiles before the rain started.
The man threw his leg over the edge to climb onto the roof, and it was then that he saw the cat, stretched out in the sun, still in the same position.
He looked at it for a moment, and shouted to the other:
“Che, José. There’s a dead cat up here. Move over, I’m going to throw it down.”
Daniel Claudio Chao, Argentina © 2009
Daniel Claudio Chao, an Argentine living in Ituzaingó, Buenos Aires province, Republic of Argentina, is a doctor at the University of Buenos Aires. He is an insatiable reader, the kind who devours whatever falls into his hands (his mantra: there is no book so bad that it doesn’t give us some new idea). He is an envious admirer of Bradbury, Huxley, Asmiov, Arlt, and Bioy Cesares. After many years of devotion to the medical profession, he decided to experiment with the short story as a form of communication that is perfect both for those who do not have much time to write and those who do not have much time to read.
The author’s comment on the story:
“The Cat” is about subjectivity as a motive for all our actions. The protagonist, desperate because of a situation that seems unresolvable, decides to end his life. At the very instant of going through with it, he sees a cat on the neighbor’s roof. He believes that the cat is watching him, and after a simple change in the light, he believes he can see a certain “intentionality” in the presence and attitude of the animal, something like hope. He takes it as “a life lesson: the sun is always there,” renounces his suicide plan, and revises his perception of reality, deciding to confront it. He never knows that the teacher-cat had merely died on the roof.
Click here to see this story in Spanish
Translation by Christine Neulieb © 2009
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