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Autumn  19  The obstinate cats’ garden

(Italo Calvino — Autunno  19  Il giardino dei gatti ostinati)

The city of cats and the city of humans live one inside the other, but they are not the same city. Few cats remember the time when there was no difference; streets and squares for humans were also streets and squares for cats, and so were lawns, courtyards, balconies and fountains. People and creatures lived in a broad, diverse space. But for several generations now, domestic felines have been prisoners of an uninhabitable city; the streets stream continuously with the deadly traffic of vehicles built to squash cats; in every square metre of ground where a garden or an area of open ground or the remnants of a former demolition used to feature, condominiums or apartment blocks of social housing or new flamboyant skyscrapers now tower. Every entranceway is crammed with parked cars; one by one, the courtyards have been roofed over with concrete slabs and transformed into garages or cinemas or warehouses or workshops. And where a wavy plateau of low roofs, finials, terraces, water tanks, balconies, skylights and corrugated-iron sheds used to extend, now there is a general elevation of every empty space capable of being elevated; the uneven intermediate spaces between the lower ground of the street and the upper sky of the lofts have disappeared; a cat from a recent litter seeks in vain the itinerary of its ancestors, the foothold for the supple leap from balustrade to ledge to gutter, or the agile scramble on the tiles.

But in this vertical city, this squashed city where all the empty spaces tend to be filled up, and every concrete block to be interconnected with other concrete blocks, a kind of anti-city, a negative city, appears, consisting of vacant slivers between wall and wall, of minimum distances prescribed by building regulations between two constructions, between the backs of two constructions; it’s a city of cavities, light shafts, air vents, driveways, internal lobbies, basement access ways, a sort of network of dry canals on a plain of plasterwork and tarmac; and across this network, grazing the walls, the former population of cats still runs.

Sometimes, to pass the time, Marcovaldo would follow a cat. It was the lunch break between noon and three, when everyone except Marcovaldo went home to eat, and he — who brought his lunch in a bag — set his table between the boxes in the warehouse, chewed his mouthful, smoked half a cigar and went for a wander around, alone and idle, waiting for the restart. During this time, a cat which poked its head out of a window was always a welcome companion, and a guide in new explorations. Marcovaldo had made friends with a tabby, well fed, with a sky-blue ribbon round its neck, obviously accommodated near some well-to-do family. This tabby had, in common with Marcovaldo, the habit of taking a stroll straight after lunch; their friendship grew naturally from that.

Following his tabby friend, Marcovaldo had taken to looking at places through the round eyes of a cat, and even if these were the familiar surroundings of his firm, he saw them in a different light, as settings for feline adventures, access to which was practicable only to light padded paws. Although from the outside the district seemed to host few cats, on every day of his wanderings Marcovaldo made the acquaintance of some new muzzle, and a miaow, a snarl, a stretching of the fur on an arched spine were enough for him to intuit the ties, intrigues and rivalries between them. In those moments he believed that now he’d entered into the secret of feline society; and here he felt himself scrutinised by pupils which became slits, surveyed by antennae of taut whiskers, and all the cats around him sat there as inscrutable as sphinxes, the pink triangle of their noses converging on the black triangle of their lips; the only things that moved were the tips of their ears, with a quivering flick like radar. He reached the end of a narrow air space, between filthy blind walls; and, looking around, Marcovaldo saw that all the cats which had guided him there had disappeared, all together, he didn’t know where, even his tabby friend, leaving him alone. Their realm had territories, ceremonies and customs which he was not permitted to discover.

On the other hand, from the city of cats there opened unsuspected glimpses into the city of humans; and one day the very same tabby led him to the discovery of the grand Ristorante Biarritz.

Anyone who wished to see the Ristorante Biarritz had only to assume the posture of a cat: that is, to stretch out on all fours. Cat and man proceeded in this way around a kind of cupola, at the base of which were several little low rectangular windows. Following the tabby’s example, Marcovaldo looked down. There were skylights whose panes were opened a crack to let air and light into the sumptuous room. To the sound of gypsy violins, partridges and quails were circling on silver salvers balanced on the fingers of white-gloved waiters in tailcoats. Or, to be more precise, above the partridges and pheasants the salvers were circling, as were the white gloves above the salvers, and suspended over the patent-leather shoes of the waiters was the gleaming parquet floor, from which hung dwarf palms in pots and table cloths and glassware and buckets like bells with a bottle of champagne for a clapper; it was all upside down because Marcovaldo, for fear of being seen, didn’t want to poke his head through the little window, and confined himself to looking at the room reflected in reverse in the slanted pane.

But more than the windows which gave onto the restaurant, it was those which gave onto the kitchens which interested the cat; looking into the restaurant one could see, distantly and as if transformed, that which in the kitchens was in evidence — in solid substance and within a paw’s range — as a plucked bird or a fresh fish. And indeed it was to the kitchens that the cat wanted to lead Marcovaldo, whether as a gesture of disinterested friendship or perhaps rather in the hope of the man’s assistance in one of its incursions. But Marcovaldo didn’t want to tear himself away from his vantage point over the room: to begin with, from fascination with the gaiety of the atmosphere, and then because something there had arrested his attention. So much so that, overcoming his fear of being seen, he poked his head further and further down.

In the middle of the restaurant, right under that window, was a little glass fish tank, a kind of aquarium, in which some big trout were swimming. A distinguished customer approached, with a bald shiny skull, dressed in black and with a black beard. An old tail-coated waiter was following him, holding a net, as if he were hunting butterflies. The gentleman in black looked at the trout with a grave, attentive air; then he raised a hand and with a slow, solemn gesture pointed at one of them. The waiter plunged the net into the tank, pursued the designated trout, caught it, and made for the kitchens, holding the net in which the fish was writhing in front of him like a lance. The gentleman in black, as grave as a magistrate who had pronounced a capital sentence, went to sit down to await the return of the trout, fried à la meunière.

‘If I can find a way of throwing a line from up here and get one of those trout to bite,’ thought Marcovaldo, ‘I couldn’t be accused of theft, but at worst of unauthorised fishing.’ And without paying attention to the miaowings calling him towards the kitchen, he went off to get his fishing gear.

No one in the crowded saloon of the Biarritz saw the fine long line, armed with hook and bait, drop down and down into the fish tank. The fish saw the bait, and threw themselves on it. In the mêlée one trout succeeded in biting the worm, and immediately it began to ascend, to ascend, leaving the water, flashing silver, flying high above the laden tables of the trolleys of antipasti, above the blue flame of the burners for crêpes Suzette, and disappeared into the window in the sky.

Marcovaldo flicked the rod with the speed and force of an experienced fisherman, so that the fish finished up behind his back. No sooner had the trout touched the floor than the cat leapt. The fish lost what little life still remained to it between the tabby’s teeth. Marcovaldo, who at that moment had let go the line so as to turn and grab the fish, saw it snatched from under his nose, hook and all. He swiftly put a foot on the rod, but the jerk had been so strong that only the rod remained with the man, while the tabby escaped with the fish, dragging behind it the fishing line. The treachery of a puss cat! It had disappeared.

But on this occasion it didn’t escape him: there was that long line following it and showing the way it had taken. Althought he’d lost sight of the cat, Marcovaldo pursued the end of the line; here it glided over a wall, scaled a balcony, snaked through a gate, was swallowed in a basement… Marcovaldo, advancing into territories ever more feline, crawling on flat roofs, clambering over parapets, managed always to keep his eye on that mobile trail — perhaps a second before it disappeared — which showed him the route taken by the thief.

Now the line wound along the pavement by a street crowded with traffic, and Marcovaldo, running behind, nearly managed to grasp it. He threw himself onto his belly on the ground; there, he had it! He succeeded in grabbing the end of the line before it sneaked through the bars of a gate.

Behind a half-rusted gate and two bits of wall held together by climbing plants was a little uncultivated garden, with a villa, apparently abandoned, at the end. A carpet of dead leaves covered the pathway, and dead leaves lay everywhere under the branches of the two plane trees, actually forming little mountains on the flowerbeds. A layer of leaves was floating on the green water of a pond. All around, huge buildings rose, skyscrapers with thousands of windows, like so many eyes focussed disapprovingly on that little quadrant with two trees, a few tiles and countless yellow leaves, surviving right in the middle of a district clogged with heavy traffic.

And in this garden, settled on the capitals of the posts and on the balustrades, stretched out on the dead leaves covering the flowerbeds, climbing up tree trunks or drainpipes, motionless on four paws and with their tails in the shape of a question mark, sitting down to wash their muzzles, were striped cats, black cats, white cats, spotted cats, tabby cats, angora, Persian, family cats, stray cats, cats fragrant and cats scabby. Marcovaldo realised that he’d finally reached the heart of the cats’ kingdom, their secret island. And, overcome by that feeling, he’d almost forgotten about his fish.

The fish had remained hanging by the line from the branch of a tree, out of range of the cats’ jumps; it must have fallen from the mouth of its pillager in some clumsy movement, perhaps to preserve it from the attacks of the others, perhaps to display it as extraordinary plunder. The line was twisted and Marcovaldo, however much he wrenched it, couldn’t free it. A mad struggle had meanwhile broken out among the cats to reach this unreachable fish, or rather to have the right to attempt to reach it. Each cat wished to prevent the others from jumping; they hurled themselves one against the other, they came to blows in mid-air, they wheeled round clinging to each other, with hisses, howls, snarls, terrible miaowings; in the end a general battle broke out in a whirlwind of crackling dry leaves.

Marcovaldo, after numerous unavailing jerks, now sensed that the line had been freed, but he was careful not to pull it; the trout would have fallen right into the midst of the mêlée of infuriated felines.

It was at that moment that a strange rain began to fall over the garden walls: fish bones, fish heads, tails, even bits of lung and guts. The cats were instantly distracted from the dangling trout, and hurled themselves onto the new booty. This was a good moment for Marcovaldo to pull the line and recover his fish. But before he’d had the presence of mind to move, two withered yellow hands emerged through one of the villa’s shutters; one hand brandished a pair of scissors, the other a frying pan. The hand with the scissors hovered above the trout; the hand with the pan was extended beneath it. The scissors cut the line, the trout fell into the pan, hands, scissors and pan withdrew, the shutter closed: all in the space of a second. Marcovaldo had no idea what was going on.

‘Are you a cat lover too?’ A voice behind him made him turn round. He was surrounded by little ladies, some of them ancient, wearing on their heads hats no longer in fashion, others younger, seemingly spinsters, and all carrying in their hands or in bags scraps of meat or fish in paper wrappers, some of them even with a saucepan of milk. ‘Will you help me throw this package over the gate to those poor beasts?’

These ladies, all cat lovers, met at about this time at the garden of dead leaves to bring food to their charges.

‘But tell me, why are these cats all here?’ inquired Marcovaldo.

‘Where else should they go? This garden is the only place left! Cats from other districts come here too, from kilometres and kilometres away…’

‘And the birds too,’ added another lady. ‘Hundreds and hundreds of them are reduced to living here in these few trees.’

‘And the frogs, they’re all in that pond, and they croak and croak at night… You can hear them even from the seventh floor of the buildings around…’

‘But whose is this villa?’ asked Marcovaldo. By now not only the little ladies but other people too were standing at the gate: the petrol-pump attendant opposite, the lads from a workshop, the postman, the fruit and veg seller, a few passers-by. And no one, women or men, needed a second invitation to reply; everyone wanted to say their piece, as always happens in a discussion involving mystery and controversy.

‘It belongs to a marchesa, she lives there, but we never see her…’

‘The construction firms have offered her millions and millions for this tiny plot of land, but she doesn’t want to sell…’

‘What do you expect her to do with all those millions, an old lady alone in the world? She prefers to hold onto her house, even if it’s falling to bits, rather than be forced to move…’

‘It’s the only land not built on in the city centre… It goes up in value every year… They’ve made her offers…’

‘Offers only? Intimidation too, threats, harassment… You know what developers are like!’

‘And she’s resisted, resisted, for years…’

‘She’s a saint… Without her, where would these poor animals have gone?’

‘Do we really suppose that stingy old woman cares anything for the animals? Have you ever seen her give them anything to eat?’

‘But what do you expect her to give the cats, if she’s got nothing for herself? She’s the last descendant of a ruined family!’

‘She hates the cats! I’ve seen her running after them and hitting them with an umbrella!’

‘Because they trample on her flowerbeds!’

‘What flowers are you talking about? This garden has always been full of weeds when I’ve seen it!’

Marcovaldo realised that there were widely differing opinions about the old marchesa; some saw her as an angelic creature, others as a miser and an egoist.

‘And it’s the same with the little birds: she never gives them a crumb of bread!’

‘She gives them hospitality; don’t you think that’s enough?’

‘Hospitality to the mosquitoes, you mean. They all come from here, from that pond. In summer the mosquitoes eat us alive, and it’s all the fault of that marchesa!’

‘And the mice? This villa is swarming with mice. They’ve got their burrows under the dead leaves, and they come out at night…’

‘So far as the mice are concerned, the cats see to that…’

‘Oh, your cats! If we had to rely on them…’

‘Why? What have you got against cats?’

Here the discussion degenerated into a general brawl.

‘The authorities should intervene; they should compulsorily purchase the villa!’ shouted one.

‘By what right?’ protested another.

‘In an up-to-date district like ours, a dump like this… It should be prohibited…’

‘But I’ve chosen my apartment precisely because it has a view over this bit of green…’

‘Some green! Think about the fine high-rise they could put here!’

Marcovaldo would also have liked to say his piece, but he couldn’t get a word in edgeways. At last, all in one breath, he exclaimed, ‘The marchesa has stolen a trout from me!’

The unexpected news provided the old lady’s enemies with new arguments, but her defenders used it as proof of the destitution into which the unfortunate gentlewoman had fallen. On either side, all were agreed that Marcovaldo should go and knock on her door to request an explanation.

It wasn’t clear whether the gate was locked or open; but it opened with a push and a mournful creak. Marcovaldo made his way through the leaves and the cats, climbed the steps to the front door, and knocked loudly.

At the window (the same from which the frying pan had appeared) the shutter was raised, and in that narrow space could be seen a round, deep-blue eye, a lock of tinted hair of an indefinable colour, and the driest of dry hands. A voice saying, ‘Who’s there? Who’s knocking?’ was accompanied by a cloud smelling of fried oil.

Signora marchesa, I’m the man with the trout,’ Marcovaldo explained. ‘I don’t mean to bother you, it was only to tell you that the trout, in case you didn’t know, that cat stole it from me, it was I who caught it, and in fact the line…’

‘The cats, always the cats!’ said the marchesa, hidden behind the blind, with a sharp and slightly nasal voice. ‘All my misfortunes stem from the cats! No one knows what I have to endure! I’m a prisoner of those vile animals day and night! And with all the filth which people throw over the walls, to insult me!’

‘But my trout…’

‘Your trout! What do you expect me to know about your trout?’ And the marchesa’s voice became almost a scream, as if she wanted to disguise the sound of oil sizzling in the pan which issued from the window along with the savour of fried fish. ‘How can I understand anything with all the stuff which rains down on my house?’

‘Yes, but did you take my trout or not?’

‘With all the damage I suffer because of the cats! Oh, I’d really like to see how you’d manage! I’m not responsible for anything! If I could only begin to tell you what I’ve lost! With the cats which have been invading my house and garden for years! My life is in thrall to these animals! Go and find their owners, to refund your losses! Losses? A life destroyed; I’m a prisoner here; I can’t move a step!’

‘But, excuse me, who is forcing you to stay?’

From the crack in the shutter, sometimes a round, deep-blue eye appeared, sometimes a mouth with two protruding teeth; for a moment the whole face was visible, and Marcovaldo had the confused impression of a cat’s muzzle.

‘It’s the cats, it’s they who are keeping me prisoner! Oh, if only I could leave! What wouldn’t I give for a little apartment all to myself, in a modern, clean block! But I can’t get out… They follow me round, they block my steps, they trip me up…’ The voice became a whisper, as if it were confiding a secret. ‘They’re afraid that the land will be sold… They won’t leave me… they don’t allow… When the developers come to offer me a contract, you should see them, the cats! They get in the way, they put out their claws, they even chased a lawyer away! Once I had the contract here, I was just about to sign it, and they pounced from the window, they knocked over the inkwell, they tore up the papers…’

Marcovaldo suddenly remembered the time, the warehouse, the foreman. He retreated on tiptoe over the dead leaves, while the voice continued to issue between the slats of the shutter, enveloped by a cloud of — so it seemed — oil from a frying pan. ‘They even scratched me… I’ve still got the marks… I’m abandoned here, at the mercy of these devils…’

Winter came. An efflorescence of white flakes adorned the branches, the capitals of the posts and the cats’ tails. In the snow the dead leaves turned to mush. Few cats were to be seen taking a turn there; the cat-loving ladies were even fewer. Packages of fish bones were only offered to a cat who presented itself at a person’s door. For a long while, no one had seen the marchesa. No smoke rose any longer from the villa’s chimney.

On one day of snowfall, many cats returned to the garden as if it were spring, and miaowed as on a moonlit night. The neighbours realised that something had happened; they went and knocked on the marchesa’s door. She didn’t answer; she was dead.

By spring, a construction company had established an impressive building site where the garden had been. The diggers were excavating to a great depth to lay the foundations, concrete was being poured into steel shuttering, an enormously high crane was handing bars to the workers building the scaffolding. But how could they get on with their work? The cats wandered all over the scaffolding planks, knocking over bricks and buckets of mortar, and scuffling in the heaps of sand. When a piece of shuttering was ready to be lifted, there was a cat perched on it, snarling fiercely. Wilier felines climbed onto the masons’ back as if to purr, and there was no way of dislodging them. And the birds continued to make their nests in all the latticework; the crane’s cabin looked like an aviary… And you couldn’t pick up a bucket of water without finding it full of frogs, croaking and jumping…