The Moscow Cat
This is Natasha, and I am here with a story about a cat. I can’t say that he was all that cute and cuddly, but he was certainly quite a character. He was a Russian cat, and his story is based partly on real life, and partly on traditional folk law. And at the end of the story, I will tell you a little bit about our partners Aha.
Vlad was a black and white cat who lived in the city of Moscow. His apartment was on the ground floor of a large house. There were bars on the window to stop burglars climbing into the flat, but he could squeeze through and come and go as he pleased at least when the weather was fine. In winter, when the windows were closed and the flat was fuggy with central heating, he had to scratch at the door and meow to be let out. He did not like that much, as he preferred to do things his own way.
His owner was a young man who had a good job in the city. He had bought Vlad when he was a little ball of fluff as a present for his girlfriend. The girlfriend had left, but Vlad had stayed. The young man rented the apartment and he did not really mind that Vlad sharpened his claws on the furniture. He was not short of money, and he fed him on the best cuts of steak. Vlad grew up to be handsome and strong. For most of the day, the cat was left on his own in charge of the apartment. That was all right, because he was fully independent. He could open the fridge door himself, pull out an egg with his paw, break it on the floor, and lap it up. He did not need a litter tray because he could sit on the toilet like a human. He was strong all right. He seemed to jump almost effortlessly. In fact, when he leapt onto the kitchen table, he just took off vertically from the floor. He was not the most cuddly or affectionate of creatures, and if he sat on your lap, you had better beware – he might stick his claws into you.
Plenty of stray cats slept in boiler room beneath the apartment block, and at night, they came creeping out of the air vents into the garden. For the most part, they caught mice or they ate rubbish. You can imagine how scraggy and mangy they were. When they saw Vlad patrolling the garden in the moonlight, with his shiny coat, proud tail, and rippling muscles and they were all afraid of him.
“What kind of cat is that?” said one stray.
“He is an Egyptian God”, said a second
“No, he is the Tsar come back to life”, said the third.
And if the cats were afraid of Vlad, the dogs who lived in the house were even more scared. Once a German Shepherd tried to chase Vlad up a tree. But instead of fleeing, Vlad stood his ground and gave the hound such a lashing and scratching with his claws that he was never bothered by any local dog ever again.
After that famous battle, all the stray cats wanted to show Vlad their respect. If they caught an especially fat mouse, they would bring it to their boss-cat as an offering. Vlad was not usually hungry, but he felt he should accept their gifts, because the respect they showed him, was in the right order of things.
You might think of Russia as a cold place, but in the summer months Moscow becomes unbearably hot and humid. Even the air feels dirty and sweaty. Anyone who can, escapes from the city. One year particular year, the young man decided to go with a group of his friends to Thailand. Vlad saw him packing his bags and was not the least bit concerned. He knew he could survive perfectly well on his own. But his owner was not so irresponsible as to leave a cat without somebody to look after him. Although it was a hot day, he put on a long leather coat and gloves to make it harder for Vlad to bite and scratch him. There was quite a commotion, as he chased Vlad around the flat trying to catch him. Eventually he had to call a neighbour, a big practical sort of no-nonsense man, and together they managed to grab Vlad and squeeze him into a cat box. He did not appreciate that at all. Nor did he care for the car journey that followed. It made him feel sick.
The young man drove about forty kilometres out of Moscow with Vlad meowing and screeching blue murder all the way. He drove beyond the tower blocks and the ring road, and into the countryside, which quickly became vast and wild. His grandmother had a little wooden house called a dacha where she lived in summer. Many Russians like to return to their country roots in those hot and sweltering months. These days, some dachas are large fancy houses, with walls and security guards. Hers was just an old fashioned hut, with a traditional stove, and a well for water. It was one of a row of similar dachas that stood on the edge of a thick forest. The young man hated staying there because the mosquitoes were quite ferocious, and left him covered in red bumps that itched for two weeks afterwards. He was glad to give Vlad to his grandmother, whom he called Babushka, drink one cup of black tea, get back in his car and head straight for the airport.
Babushka had owned several cats in her life, but never one as important as Vlad. It did not occur to her that he should be fed on the best steak. She herself lived on sorrel soup, black bread, and milk and cheese from the farm. Why would she feed a cat food fit for a tsar? She gave him porridge and one tinned sardine. When he meowed in disgust at such poor fare, she said:
“Fi ! If you are hungry, go and catch mice.” He glared at her with his green eyes.
“Alright then,” he said, “I will.”
And in one leap, he sprang through the open window, even though it was on the other side of the room from where he had been standing. In all her years, the old lady had not seen a cat who could do that before. She was quite shaken.
“I swear he spoke,” she said to herself, “And then he flew. He must have the devil inside him. But I won’t tell this to anyone, they will say old Annya has been drinking samagon” – which is a kind of homemade vodka.
Vlad prowled proudly through the forest. “I ruled the garden in Moscow,” he said to himself, “And I shall make this place my own too.” And he walked along as if he was the president of Russia himself.
As he was walking, he came across a young fox, a pretty little redheaded vixen, with flashing eyes. She thought to herself, “How interesting! What a handsome creature. I have never seen the likes of him in the forest before.”
She came up to him, bowed her head, and said: “Tell me stranger, who are you?”
“Murr,” said Vlad with a note of importance in his voice, “I have been sent from Moscow by the Government to take charge of this forest and to collect taxes from everyone who lives here.”
“Oh,” said the pretty young fox, clearly impressed, and she bowed again. “I did not know. You are most welcome to our forest, your Excellency. My name is Lisabetta. Would you do me the honour of paying a visit to my humble home?’
“Well, why not?” said Vlad with a certain amount of cheerful charm. He was pleased to have made a conquest.
They went together to Lisabetta’s layer. The cat made himself comfortable and she brought him a tasty dish of rabbit. When he had finished eating, she said to him coyly.
“Tell me, your Excellency, are you married or single?”
“I am still unmarried,” he replied.
“As for me,” said Lisabetta, “I have been waiting for the right man to come along. I could not marry anyone who was less smart than myself, and there has been no one whom I admired in the forest, until I met you this morning.”
“In that case,” said Vlad, “Let us be married.”
It was a wise decision, because Lisabetta was the cleverest fox in the forest. The next week, she went out walking, and happened across the grey wolf, who was one her former boyfriends.
“Lisabetta, my pretty one, where have you been? I have not seen you around any of our old haunts.”
“That’s because I have settled down and become a married lady,” said Lisabetta.
“Oh, who’s the lucky fellow?”
“Vladimir Vladimiravitch,” she said proudly.
“Vladimir Vladimiravitch? I had not heard of him before.”
“Haven’t you?” said Lisabetta, “Well you should have done by now. He is the new governor of this forest, sent by Moscow, and you must pay your taxes to him.”
‘Well I should like to set eyes on this important man,” said the wolf, more curious than ever to see who Lizabetta had landed as a husband.
“It is not possible,” said Lizabetta. “He is busy with official duties. He will be angry if he is disturbed. You must make an appointment. I shall check his diary for his availability and let you know.”
And on she went through the woods. A little later she met another of her old flames, the Brown Bear.
“I see you are as pretty as ever,” said he.
“Don’t go patronising me,” said Lisabetta, “I am now married to Vladimir Vladimiravitch who is the new governor of this forest. Everyone who lives here must pay their taxes to him.”
And so she went on, leaving the Brown Bear quite curious as to who this important Vladimir Vladimiravitch was.
Soon the news was all over the forest. Everyone was indeed curious about the important new arrival who had chosen Lisabetta for his wife. The gray wolf and the brown bear, decided that they must be the first to meet him, for you can never be too friendly with those who are in power.
The wolf stole a goose from the farm, and the bear caught a fish in the stream. They brought their offerings to Lisabetta’s layer.
When they were close, the wolf said “What if Vladimir Vladimirivitch is angry with us for disturbing his important work on behalf of the Government?”"
“Good point,” said the bear. “Let’s hide and see what kind of person he is, this Vladimir Vladimirovitch from Moscow.”
They left their gifts near the entrance to the layer, and hid themselves well. The Gray wolf crept into a hollow in the ground and covered himself with leaves and branches. The bear climbed up onto the branch of a tree.
It was not long before Vlad smelt the food that was waiting for him outside the door.
“I must collect the taxes that the forest people have brought me,” he thought to himself. He slinked out and saw the goose and the fish and started to tuck in.
“Murr these taxes taste good,” he said.
The wolf was more than curious – he just had to set eyes on the Governor and see which dish he preferred – the goose or the fish. First his nose, and then his eyes came out of the leaves. There was a rustle. Vlad heard the sound and thought it was a mouse. He pounced and owe-eee – his claws sunk into the wolf’s muzzle and he bit his ear. The wolf howled with pain and leapt out of his hiding place. Vlad was as surprised as he was, and he sprang straight up into the tree. The bear, who was quite startled by all this sudden action, jumped down, breaking branches on the way. Both he and the wolf ran for their lives.
And from that day on, all the animals of the forest were duly frightened of the cat who was the big boss from Moscow, and they always treated him with great respect and paid their taxes. Vlad and Lisabetta dined on the best food and lived happily and in great comfort.
And when the young man came back from his holiday, babushka told him that his cat had run away.
“Oh Babushka,” he said, “I told you to feed him well.”
“It’s a good thing he left,” said she, “That cat was the devil himself!”
And the young man drove home back to Moscow thinking how superstitious old people are.
So that was the story of the Moscow Cat who became Boss of the forest. Bertie says that the story has more than a little bit of truth in it about a cat that he once owned in Russia. But the part set in the forest is based on a Russian folk story which was include in Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Randsome, the author of Swallows and Amazons.
Bertie’s also asked me to tell you about a new app called Aha Radio. It makes it super easy to listen to our stories in your car. Aha Radio can turn Storynory into a pre-set on your car radio. It also lets you listen to your Facebook and Twitter feeds while you drive, and it can read out local restaurant reviews. It’s a new type of internet radio, so give it a try.
For now, from me, Natasha