April 15, 2024

The Last Life of a Time-Travelling Cat

A. P. Golub

“So I wait, flitting in and out of Stjepan’s life like the ghost of what wasn’t — like revolution and socialism and the idea that there won’t always be someone trying to take advantage of someone else.”

Stjepan saved me when I was a kitten 56 years ago (his time, of course). My own time has been spent less… linearly. He recognizes me, I think, when I curl at his side on the hospital bed. He doesn’t say anything, but his hand scratches under my chin like he used to do. His hands are frail. Not like they used to be. I am thinner now, and my fur isn’t thick and soft like it once was.

Soon, he will be gone, and I will go, too.

But for now, I want to pretend that I am just a cat, and he is still a young man.

I can still purr, rumbling my old body as loud as any kitten can.

* * *

He found me in the mud on the riverbank. Stuck fast and exhausted, I was done. Then Stjepan picked me up, cradling me in his big, strong hands muttering about how there were better ways to kill a cat than by drowning. I could tell by how he held me close that he wouldn’t try any of them on me.

I wanted to tell him the truth — that it was my own bad luck that saw me in that mud.

Cats don’t have nine lives, but some of us are born with a gift of time travel, the gift of flitting through the years and lingering where we will. Mother said we were only supposed to use the gift when in danger. Of course, being a kitten, I used it to try to steal cream.

And that’s how I wound up on a muddy riverbank in the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia in the darkening 1930s. Of course, cats can time travel, but we can’t talk, so couldn’t correct Stjepan.

He took me home and gave me a bigger bowl of cream then the one that got me into this mess.

So I stayed.

* * *

Stjepan talked to me like I was a human, telling me of change, labor rights, land rights, and strikes. He told me that once we weren’t a country; then we were a country. One day, he said, the people would build a better country: he honestly believed this, even as members of his party were imprisoned or killed.

Even as he hid his own beliefs to keep work, to stay alive.

One day, we wouldn’t even need countries, he said. The people would abandon such constructs. And what is a country but a construct? What is a movement but seeds, planted by others, that will bloom in time? Stjepan booped my nose as he said it.

I suspected he’d had too much to drink that evening.

Still, I liked that he respected me enough to tell me such things even if I didn’t understand any of it. Cats need no country, and our movements are always our own. Humans put such constraints on themselves. Maybe, maybe I did understand it, in that I understood that Stjepan wanted to be more like a cat.

He said he was going to move to the city.

Purring, I laid on his lap. I ignored the pull of time, wanting me to leave. I imagined it felt much like the pull of the promising future felt to Stjepan.

* * *

We didn’t make it to the city.

War came again to our country that wasn’t/was. And Stjepan wanted to fight.

He cried as he said it. He cried because he would be leaving me with his sister, Marija, and because Stjepan’s future would be born in blood. Could anything beautiful be born from blood, he whispered, as he stroked my whiskers. I pressed my head to his hand.

His fingers ran under my chin (scritch—scritch—scritch).

“You’re beautiful,” he said, “and you were pulled from mud.”

* * *

Marija is kind.

She is kind to me, and she is kind to the people who come to her house.

They come at night, exchanging whispers and letters. There is fighting in the hills, but it spills over to these late-night meetings. It spills over to our life, in the way people disappear.

The enemy is the invader/the enemy are those we drank with/the enemy is—

Eventually they come for Marija.

I run.

* * *

I am not proud of this.

When the door slams open and men rush in yelling, I dart right through their stomping feet and out into the cold, lonely night.

Marijia is shouting back. Something crashes. Screaming.

Then silence.

I wish there was gunfire. I wish there was some certain ending.

She is gone, and she will not come back.

* * *

The future Stjepan saw had Marija in it. The future I try to run to has Marija in it.

But as I run through time, that future slips out from under me, like an unstable shelf or book laid half-off the counter. I cannot find the future. I am lost in the dark. At first, I think I am cursed for running. As if a cat could have stopped those men. As if a cat should die making a stand. That’s something Stjepan would do, not me.

Then I think that humanity is cursed, for killing so many infinite futures. This is closer to the truth, but it does not help me, lost in time.

I want to find Stjepan.

But the future twists away from me as more lives are extinguished. Each one was a path, a connection, a possibility gone. I run on through the darkness, unable to find the future I believed in, that Stjepan told me about.

We are always one step behind the future that will be.

* * *

One step behind means abandoned houses and empty camps. It means smoldering fires, put out just in the nick of time. It’s cold and everyone’s suspicious, even of a cat.

It’s the way blood drips off the wall.

There’s a body there — not Stjepan’s.

* * *

After the war I learned that Stjepan got a job in a factory, that he left the party, that he was a mechanic.

But curse or bad luck, I never see him.

There is the scent of oil and a swinging door.

I find a note — half-drafted, to Marija. Stjepan believes she escaped. He thinks she must have eventually made her way to the US. He tells himself that she thinks he is dead, and that’s why she didn’t come back. He knows for a fact that she took me with her.

This is how he protects himself from the reality that his sister is gone. He can’t see me because in his mind I am safe with Marija. Sometimes I think I could push through these futures, walk into the room and demand cream, meowing as loudly as ever. He’d pick me up, scratch my chin, and then his heart would break. I can’t bring myself to do it.

At the end of the letter, he says he hopes I am getting enough cream.

* * *

One step ahead, one step behind.

I do not have it in me to destroy the future Stjepan imagines for Marija and me.

So I wait, flitting in and out of Stjepan’s life like the ghost of what wasn’t — like revolution and socialism and the idea that there won’t always be someone trying to take advantage of someone else. Slowly, I gather my own years, live my own lives. I know there will come a time for Stjepan when his reality and the life he’s imagined for Marija will blur and fade together.

He’ll be waiting for me at the end. I will take him to the future.

* * *

The monitors at Stjepan’s side beep slower than I think they should, not that I’m well-versed in matters of the human heart. But the sound feels wrong. Stjepan isn’t mechanical beeping, fading away, he’s hope and strong hands. A hammer coming down steadily — like the heart should. The scent of iron and grease and the gift of cream.

“Mačkica…” His breath is reedy. He doesn’t finish his sentence.

I curl against his side, rolling into his hand and purring harder. Here is my past, and the future we should have had.

We will leave together soon, in the way dreams flee upon waking.

—in the way things are until they aren’t.


* * *

About the Author

A.P. Golub is a speculative fiction writer residing in central Virginia with their partner, dog, and four cats in varying states of domestication. They’re a graduate of Viable Paradise writers’ workshop. Online, they can be found at apgolub.com or lurking on Twitter and Instagram as @andtatcat.


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