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The garden of the stubborn cats

Italo Calvino

From Marcovaldo

The city of the cats and the city of the people lie one within the other, but they are not the same city. Only few cats remember the times when there was no difference: the streets and the squares of the people were also streets and squares of the cats, and the lawns, the courtyards, the balconies and the fountains: one could live in a wide and various space. But, already for many generations now, the domestic felines are prisoners of an unlivable city: the streets are uninterruptedly raced by the deadly traffic of the cat-crushing automobiles; in every square meter of ground where a garden or a clear area or the remnants of an old demolition were opened, now tower apartment buildings and shiny new skyscrapers; each sidewalk is crowded by parked automobiles; the courtyards are - one by one - paved and transformed in garages, cinemas, warehouses or offices. And where there used to be a plateau of low roofs, arches, turrets, water tanks, balconies, skylights, tin canopies, now rises the general overelevation of each vain elevation: gone are the intermediate levels between the street ground line and the high above wavy line of attics; a cat from a new brood searches, to no avail, the route of their fathers, the support for an easy jump from the balustrade at the corner of the gutter, towards a free climb on the roofs.

But in this vertical city, in this compressed city where all the voids tend to get filled and every block of cement rubs into other blocks of cement, there opens a kind of countercity, a negative city, made out of empty cuts between walls, of minimum distances ruled by the construction regulations between two buildings, between the back of one building and the back of the next one; it is a city of intervals, skylights, ventilation ducts, no-parking ways, internal squares, staired access ways, like a web of dry canals on a planet of plaster and tar, and it is across this web where, against the walls, still races the ancient cat race.

On certain days, to pass his time, Marcovaldo was following a cat. It was during his work break between noon and three, when, besides Marcovaldo, the entire personnel were going home to have lunch, and he - who was bringing packed lunch - was lying between the counters in the shop, chewing his bite, smoking and walking around, alone and idle, waiting for work to resume. During those hours, a cat who had been peeping out a window was always good company, and a guide for new exploration. He had made friends with a tabby cat, fell-fed, blue bow at his collar, certainly housed by a well-off family. This tabby cat had in common with Marcovaldo the habit of taking a walk right after lunch; naturally, a friendship was born.

Following his tabby friend, Marcovaldo began to see the places as through the round eyes of a kitten, and even if they were the usual corners of his workplace, he saw them in a new light, scenarios for cat stories, with paths only walkable by furry, light paws. Although, seen from the outside, the neighbourhood looked poor in cats, every day, during his walks, Marcovaldo was being introduced to some new muzzle, and it was only taking a meow, a pant, the inclination of the hairs on an arched back for him to guess links, intrigues and rivalries among them. In those moments he believed to have already discovered the secret of the feline society; but then at once he felt himself being observed by pupils that were becoming slits, surveilled by the antennae of the nervous wiskers, and all the cats around him sat impenetrable as sphinxes, the rosy triangle of the nose converging on the black triangle of the lips, and the only thing moving was the tip of their ears, with the active move of a radar. Then they all reached the bottom of a narrow interval between drab, blind walls: and, looking around, Marcovaldo saw that all the cats that have been guiding him until there were gone, all of them, to unknown places, even his tabby friend, leaving him alone. Their kingdom had boundaries, ceremonies and customs that he was not allowed to discover.

As compensation, from the city of cats openings appeared into the city of people; and one day the tabby cat himself guided him towards the discovery of the great Biarritz Restaurant.

One who wanted to see the Biarritz restaurant only needed to bring himself to the height of a cat, meaning one needed to lay on hands and knees. Cat and man in this position walked around some kind of dome, at the base of which there were little rectangular windows. Following the example of the tabby cat, Marcovaldo looked down. They were skylights with the windows tilted, from which the luxurious salon was getting air and light. By the sound of gipsy violins, partridges and golden quails were vaulting in silver trays balanced on the white-gloved fingers of the tuxedo-clad waiters. Or, to be more precise, over the partridges and the pheasants vaulted the trays, and over the trays the white gloves, and in unstable balance on the polished shoes of the waiters the shiny parquet floor, from which dangled potted dwarf palm-trees and tablecloths and glassware and buckets like bells with bottles of champagne as tongues: all turned upside-down because Marcovaldo, for fear of being seen, didn't want to poke his head through the window, and contended himself with looking at the salon mirrored against the oblique glass.

But, more than the little windows of the salon, those over the kitchens interested the cat: looking from the salon one could see from a distance and transfigured the things that in the kitchens appeared - concrete and within paw reach - like a plucked bird or a fresh fish. And it was precisely at the kitchens that the cat wanted to bring Marcovaldo, either as a gesture of disinterested friendship, or maybe because he hoped for the help of the man in one of his incursions. Instead, Marcovaldo didn't want to detach himself from the nice view upon the salon; initially fascinated by the rich ambient, his attention was attracted by something over there. Enough so, that - overcoming the fear of being seen - he continued to peep down.

In the middle of the salon, right under that little window, there was a small glass fishery, a kind of aquarium, where large trouts were swimmimg. One attentive client approached, with a bare, shiny skull, dressed in black and with a black beard. An old waiter in a tuxedo followed him, holding a net as if he was going to catch butterflies. The gentleman dressed in black watched the trouts with a stern, attentive look; then he raised one hand and with a slow, solemn gesture he pointed at one. The waiter immerged the net in the tank, followed the designated trout, caught it and headed for the kitchens, holding in front of him like a spear the net in which the fish was wrestling. The gentleman in black, stern as a judge who ruled in favor of the capital sentence, went to sit and wait for the return of the fried trout.

"If I could find a way to throw a fishing line from up here and make one of these trouts bite", Marcovaldo thought, "I cannot be accused of stealing, but at most of illegal fishing." And, without listening to the meows that were calling him towards the kitchen, he went in search of his fishing tools.

Noone in the crowded salon of Biarritz saw the thin, long thread, armed with hook and bait, dive down into the fish tank. The fish saw the bait, and they plunged on it. In the mix, one trout managed to bite the worm: and quickly started to ascend, ascend, went out of the water, silvery in its move, flew up high, above the set up trays and the antipasti carts, above the blue flame of the ovens lit for the "crépes Suzette", and dissapeared in the sky of the little window.

Marcovaldo had pulled the fishing rod with the move and energy of an experienced fisherman, such that the fish ended up on his back. The trout had just touched ground when the cat jumped. The little life left in the fish was gone between the teeth of the cat. Marcovaldo, who in that moment had abandoned the thread in order to run and catch the fish, saw the trout being taken away from under his nose, complete with bait and all. He was swift in putting his foot over the rod, but the pull was so strong, that the man was only left with the rod, while the cat escaped with the fish from which the thread was dragging. Traitor kitten! The cat was gone.

But he won't escape this time: there was that long thread following him, indicating the way he had taken. Even if he had lost sight of the cat, Marcovaldo followed the end of the thread: here it ran up a wall, passed over a hillock, winded at a gate, was swallowed by a corner... Marcovaldo, advancing in places more and more kitty-like, climbing on canopies, going over barriers, succeeded in catching in sight - even if just for one second before it was gone - that mobile trace indicating the way taken by the thief.

Now the thread unravels on the sidewalk of a street, in the middle of the traffic, and Marcovaldo, running after it, has now almost reached to catch it. He dives at the ground; look, he gets it! He has succeeded in catching the end of the thread before it slipped away between the bars of a gate.

Behind a half-rusted gate and two blocks of walls tucked with climbing plants, there was a little, uncultivated garden, with an abandoned-looking building at the back. A carpet of dry leaves covered the alley, and dry leaves lay all over the place under the branches of two plane trees, even forming little mountains on the flower beds. A layer of leaves was floating in the green water of a bathtub. All around enormous buildings were rising, skyscrapers with millions of windows, like just as many eyes disprovingly pointed at that little square with the two trees, a few roof tiles and many yellow leaves, surviving right in the middle of the overcrowded neighbourhood.

And in this garden, resting on the capitals, sprawled over the dry leaves of the flower beds, climbed on the trunks of the trees and on the gutters, halted on the four paws and with the tail in a question mark, sat for washing their muzzles, there were striped cats, black cats, white cats, spotted cats, tabbies, angoras, persians, family cats and stray cats, perfumed cats and stinky cats. Marcovaldo understood that he finally reached the heart of the kingdom of cats, their secret island. And, excited, he almost forgot all about his fish.

The fish had ended hanged by the thread in the branches of one tree, out of the reach of the jumping cats; it must have fallen from the mouth of its kidnapper in a clumsy move, either to defend it from the others, or to show it off as extraordinary prey. The thread was hitched on, and Marcovaldo, despite all the tugs he gave, didn't succeed in freeing it. In the meantime, an angry fight had started among the cats, to reach this unreachable fish, actually for the right to try and reach it. Every cat wanted to prevent the others from jumping; they launched themselves one against the other, bickered in the air, rolled together, with hisses, cries, pants, atrocious meows, and in the end a general battle unleashed in a cloud of dry, crackling leaves.

After many useless tugs, Marcovaldo felt that the thread was free, but he was reluctant about pulling it: the trout would have fallen right in the middle of the mix of ferocious felines.

It was in that moment when from the heights of the garden walls a strange kind of rain started to fall: bones, heads of fish, tails, and even pieces of lungs and bowels. Quickly, the cats were distracted from the hanged trout and jumped on the new bites. For Marcovaldo, this was the awaited moment to pull the thread and recover his fish. But, before he managed to move, from a shutter of the building, two yellow, old hands came out: one waved a pair of scissors, and the other a pan. The hand with the scissors rose above the trout, and the hand with the pan hanged out underneath. The scissors cut the thread, the trout falls into the pan, hands, scissors and pan withdraw, the shutters close: all within one second. Marcovaldo cannot understand a thing anymore.

- Are you a friend of the cats, too? a voice from behind makes him turn. He was surrounded by little women, some surely very old, wearing hats long out of fashion, others younger, with a spinster look, and all carried in their hands or bags wrapped packets with offers of meat or fish, and some even a dish with milk. - Would you help me throw this packet there at the entrance, for those poor little animals?

All the friends of the cats agreed to that time of day at the garden with the dry leaves, to bring food to their protégés.

- But, tell me, why do all these cats live here? asked Marcovaldo.

- And where do you want them to go? Only this garden is left. In here come the cats even from other neighbourhoods, over a distance of kilometers and kilometers...

- And the birds, too, added another, in these few trees, and content themselves with living in hundreds and hundreds...

- And the frogs, they all live in that bathtub, and at night croak... One can hear them even from the seventh floor of the houses around...

- But whom does this house belong to? asked Marcovaldo. By now, in front of the gate there were not only the women, but also other people: the gas station clerk in front, the boys from an office, the postman, the grocer, some passerby. And all, women and men, didn't wait to be asked twice for an answer: each wanted to say something, as always when the topic is mysterious and controversial.

- She's a marquise, living there, but one never sees her...

- She was offered millions and millions, by the building companies, for this little piece of land, but she won't sell...

- What would you want her to do with the millions, an old woman alone in the world? She prefers to keep her house, even if it goes to pieces, so that she doesn't have to move...

- It's the only surface without buildings in the centre of the city... The price rises every year... She had many offers...

- Not only offers, but also threats, persecution... You know these people.

- And she resists, for years now...

- She's a saint... Where would all these poor animals go, without her?

- Imagine that she cares about those animals, that penny pincher! Have you ever seen her giving them something to eat?

- But what do you want her to give to the cats, if she has nothing for herself? She's the last heir of a fallen family!

- She hates them, the cats! I saw her chasing them with her umbrella!

- Because they stomped over the flowers in her flower beds!

- But what flowers are you talking about? I've always seen this garden only filled with weeds!

Marcovaldo understood that the opinions on the old marquise were profoundly diverse: some have seen her as an angelic creature, some as stingy and selfish.

- And also to the birds: she has never given them a breadcrumb!

- She gives her hospitality: do you think it's little?

- To the mosquitos, you mean. They all come here, to that bathtub. During summer the mosquitos eat us alive, all because of that marquise!

- And the mice? This house is a mice mine. They have their holes under the dry leaves, and they come out at night...

- As far as the mice are concerned, the cats will manage...

- Oh, your cats! If we were to trust them...

- Why? What do you have to say against the cats?

At this point the discussion degenerated into a general brawl.

- The authorities should intervene: seize the house! shouted one of them.

- By what right? protested another.

- In a modern neighbourhood such as ours, so many mice... It should be prohibited...

- But I've really chosen my apartment because it has a view over this piece of green...

- What green! Think of the beautiful skyscraper they could build!

Marcovaldo would also have had something of his own to say, but he couldn't find the appropriate moment. In the end, with his last breath, he exclaimed: - The marquise has stolen my trout!

The unexpected piece of news gave new arguments to the enemies of the old woman, but her defendants took it as a proof of the poverty in which the unfortunate noble lady lived. Both ones and the others agreed on the fact that Marcovaldo needed to go knock on her door and ask for justice.

They didn't figure if the gate was locked or open; anyhow, it opened with a lamenting squeak if one had pushed it. Marcovaldo made his way among the leaves and the cats, went up the stairs of the portico, and knocked hard at the door.

At the same window where the pan came out, the dark shutter was raised and in that corner one could see a round turquoise eye, a wisp of some undefined colour of dyed hair, and a very dry hand. A voice: - Who's that? Who's knocking? said, while a cloud of smell of fried oil came out.

- I would be the guy with the trout, lady marquise, - Marcovaldo explained, - I wouldn't disturb you, but I only want to say that, in case you don't know, the trout was stolen from me by that cat, and I was the one who had caught it, even if it's true that the thread...

- The cats, always the cats! - said the marquise, from behind her curtains, with a sharp, slightly nasal voice. - All my misfortunes come from the cats! Noone knows how bad that is! A prisoner night and day to those little beasts! And all the waste that people throw among these walls, in disrespect!

- But my trout...

- Your trout! What do you think I know about your trout! - and the voice of the marquise became almost a shout, as if to cover the frying of the oil in the pan, coming out of the window together with the smell of fried fish. - What can I understand, with all the raining in my house?

- Yes, but did you, or didn't you take the trout?

- With all the harm happening to me because of the cats! Oh, wouldn't I like to see! I'm not responsible for anything! _I_ should say what I think! With the cats that occupy the house and the garden for years now! My life at the mercy of these beasts! Go find them, the owners of the house, so that they reimburse you! Damages? One ruined life, prisoner in here, without being able to move for one step!

- Excuse me, but who forces you to stay?

From the opening of the shutter now appeared a round turquoise eye, then a mouth with two teeth coming out; for a moment the entire face could be seen, and to Marcovaldo it confusingly looked like the muzzle of a cat.

- They keep me prisoner, the cats! Oh, if I left! How much I'd give for a little apartment all mine, in a modern, clean house! But I cannot come out... They follow me, the lay themselves across my path, they make me trip! - The voice becomes a whisper, as if confiding a secret. - They are afraid I'd sell the place... Won't let me... don't allow it... When the directors come to offer me a contract, you should see them, the cats! They put themselves in the middle, the nails, they even made a notary run away! One day I had the contract here, I was about to sign it, and they swooped through the window, toppled the inkwell, tore all the papers...

Marcovaldo was suddenly reminded about the time, the shop, the foreman. He went away on the tips of his toes on the dry leaves, while the voice continued to come out from the shutter wrapped in that cloud like oil in the pan: - They've even given me a scratch... I still have the sign... Abandoned here at the mercy of these demons...

Winter came. A bloom of white flowers dressed the branches and the capitals and the tails of the cats. Underneath the snow the dry leaves were breaking in a mush. One could see little of the cats around, and even less of the friends of the cats; the packets with bones was only given to the cat who presented himself at home. Noone, for quite some time now, has seen the marquise any more. No smoke came out any more from the chimney of the house.

One snowy day, so many cats had returned in the garden, as if spring had come, and they meowed as during a full moon night. The neighbours understood that something had happened: they went to knock at the door of the marquise. She didn't answer: she was dead.

In spring, in the place of the garden a building company had placed a big construction site. The shovels had gone deep down to place the foundation, the cement crowned the iron skeleton, a very tall crane handed bars to the workers building it. But how could one work? The cats strolled on the scaffolding, made bricks and mortar sacks fall, bickered among the piles of sand. When one tried to raise a wall, one found a cat, fuming ferociously, placed on top. More quiet kittens climbed the backs of the masons looking like they wanted to blend with them, and there was no way to chase them away. And the birds continued to make nests in all the pylons, the sentry box of the crane looked like a bird cage... And there was no way one could get a bucket of water without finding it filled with frogs that croaked and jumped...