High above the ruined city sat the cat, curled up in the dry spot at the corner of the bullet-nibbled and shell-chewed factory. He observed his domain with tawny eyes and slitted pupils through a crumbling hole in the wall, squinting against the feeble warmth of the winter sun.
In the language of cats he was ‘Old-Tom-Ratkiller-Engine-Oil’, but in the language of humans he had once been called ‘Pushkin’, the name Grandpapa Karamazov had given him and that Little Olya used to murmur when she rubbed her face against his, stroked his paws and fed him scraps of meat from the kitchen.
It had been a long time since he had seen either of them. Grandpapa had gone off to war and Little Olya and her mother stopped coming to visit. Pushkin was left behind and, once a farm cat, that had suited him fine. Though when he slept his whiskers twitched, his tail flickered and he remembered warm nights in front of the fire with Olya, purring and kneading at her thigh.
Pushkin was the last cat in Stalingrad. The rest had left, been taken away by their owners or had been eaten by the starving soldiers. Now he was alone. Prince of the broken city. He ranged far and wide from his factory home, scouting for food, hunting for rats and mice – the only prey to be found. Some lingering fondness kept him away from the bodies of the dead – though not the rats who feasted and grew sleek and fat. The best kind of prey for a grumpy old cat.
Pushkin was a big boy. Six kilos of muscle, gristle and scar tissue. He had been a beautiful tabby, white, grey and black, perfect for blending in with the frozen rubble of Stalingrad. Now he was mostly a dirty grey from the concrete dust with matted fur from spilled oil, fur he refused to lick. He crawled with dleas and had a hump on his shoulder, an abcess from a rat bite, but it was healing and he felt none the worse for it. His claws and his teeth were sharp, he was strong and powerful and up here – in the aerie – he could hide from the soldiers and the rats and wait for the night; time to hunt.
His ears flicked back to protect from the noise as the snap-bang of a rifle sounded out from the ruined library across the rubble of the street. A man was running, stumbling over the broken concrete, his hand tucked against his side. Now and again would come the bang of a rifle and a puff of grey-white dust from the ground around the man as he tried to get to the factory, and safety.
Pushkin’s nose twitched, his whiskers swept forward. He could smell blood on the air and it made his stomach yawn in hunger, but it was man-blood. Not for him.
A grenade came sailing over as the bleeding man in the long coat and the furred hat fell, sprawling, onto the floor of the factory. The bang rang the rusting girders of the building like a bell and made Pushkin jump from his warm little nest and scurry to the cratered chasm that opened up to the factory floor below.
The man was laid up against the wall, panting and cursing, words Pushkin remembered Grandpapa using at the radio though he did not recognise the meaning. The man even smelled a little like Grandpapa – cigarette smoke and sweet tea, oil and metal. Pushkin peered curiously over the edge, ears and eyes barely poking over.
The men with the guns were picking their way across the street now, but they stopped, cursing, different words Pushkin couldn’t understand. There was something he did understand though, the stink of the rats who lived in the sewers, the sound of them boiling up from under the rubble in their hundreds and thousands.
The men moved away.
“Lassen Sie ihn den Ratten,” they laughed, backing away with their rifles trained on the factory from their hips.
The man felt the tremor in the floor and stood, carefully, blood soaking his coat and dripping to the floor. He stumbled forward, teeth gritted, shoulder sliding against the rough concrete as he tried to get away, but he couldn’t.
The rats, awakened by the grenade, hungered by the scent of blood, poured like a wave of black and brown, out of the grates, through the gaps in the rubble, from every pipe and hole and crack and converged on the bleeding man from every side. His pistol rang out but whatever it hit vanished into the tide as the rats began swarming up his boots and gaiters, climbing up to find the wound and the soft, exposed flesh.
The man reminded Pushkin of Grandpapa and the rats angered him. The Soviets and the Germans fought for the city, Pushkin and the rats fought for the factory. He had marked it his and they had kept away, but this was an invasion.
With a primal scream of feline outrage, tail straight back like a spear, Pushkin hurled himself through through the ruined ceiling. A lightning bolt of grey he hit the seething mass of rats like a thunderbolt. Teeth and claws slashed and lashed, blood sprayed and fur flew in clouds like drifting snow.
The rat tide slowed, halted, turned against the valiant cat, now scarlet with their blood, standing proud on a pile of their ruined bodies. He didn’t feel their nips and bites. He was a frenzied squall of predatory instinct, protecting the man who smelled like Grandpapa. The man who, now, free of the rats seemed to find the iron in his soul, stamping and shooting, fighting alongside his animal rescuer.
The rats began to retreat, running away from the two or full from devouring their own brethren, dragging their bodies back into the secret darkness of the undercity to feet their young. Man and cat stood side by side, bleeding and exhausted but looking at the cat the man seemed to find his courage and the iron in his spirit.
Pushkin flopped, exhausted, panting. He was covered in gore, aching from dozens of bites. His paws sweated and his tail hung loose and flat, brushing the ground. He could barely yowl a protest as the man picked him up and stuffed him into his greatcoat.
It was warm in here. The man smelled almost right and as he staggered out of the factory Pushkin closed his eyes in dark and warmth, remembering Little Olya rocking him like a baby. As though he were still a kitten he began to pur, a bubble of blood foaming at his bitten nose.
“Kommisar Vetrov!” Yuri’s jaw dropped so far his precious cigarette tumbled into the slush. “We thought you must be dead!”
Vetrov’s blood had clotted the coat to his side, though he could still feel the warm bundle inside it, gently breathing.
“Almost comrade. Fetch a blanket.” Vetrov groaned and slid, clumsily into the trench. Closing his eyes and resting his head back against the frost-rimed wall as he waited, gathering his arms around the bundle in his coat.
Yuri returned, with the blanket and more of the soldiers. Maksim and Nazar. It was a relief to recognise anyone. New soldiers were replacing the dead so quickly of late. Carefully, gingerly, he brought the cat out from his coat and laid it upon the blanket, swaddling it in the warm woolen embrace.
“The men will eat well tonight,” Maksim chuckled, his sub-machinegun hanging from his shoulder by its strap, hungry eyes on the cat that lay panting and unconscious on the blanket.
Without even looking Vetrov drew his Mauser and shot Maksim through the heart. It punched a hole in him like a fist and flung him back into the slush with a wet thump, steam rising from the hole in his chest as the other two men looked at his body, stunned.
Vetrov hauled himself unsteadily to his feet, blood-matted coat hanging open, pistol smoking as he fixed the men with a ferocious glare.
“This cat saved my life, allowing me to return with information on the German positions. He is a hero of the Soviet Union and is to be treated as such. You will rouse the medic to treat his wounds before mine. You will feed him meat and milk from the officers rations. You will guard him with your life because, if he dies, so will you.”
The men mutely nodded.
Vetrov groaned as he knelt in the slush, holstering his pistol and reaching into his jacket. He yanked the medal from his chest and split the ribbon, tying it around the old cat’s neck like a collar, the Order of Nevsky dangling from about his neck like a bell or tag.
“And, little comrade, we will call you Zhukov.”
The men picked up the blanket like a sling and together they went to seek the warmth of the fire and the comfort of a full belly.
This story has been haunting me for months since I had a dream about it. I’m not at full brain strength yet but I had to get it down even if it’s sub par. There really was a cat in the Soviet army in Stalingrad called Mourka, whom I discovered researching for this story. Mourka was a messenger-cat, carrying notes between Soviet positions about German positions. Of all the military personnel in Stalingrad, Mourka was probably one of the better off as there was a kitchen at the HQ and loyalty/motivation was probably ensured with food.
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