When I lived in Russia, my Russian friends used to try to get me to tell them all the things I didn’t like about living in their country. In particular, they seemed for some reason determined to get me to admit that I didn’t like the local city buses which came or didn’t come and were jam-packed solid at all times of the day or night. But when I finally gave in and told them the one thing I liked least about living in Russia, it had nothing to do with the buses. I told them I couldn’t stand all the stray dogs and cats living abandoned on the city streets.
To be sure, my Russian friends immediately admitted that this was indeed awful, but I think they used the Russian world awful “oojasna” more in the sense of annoying rather than the sense in which I meant it, as heart-rending and tragic.
Americans, it was understood, were squeamish about a lot of things, pets being just one of them. When my Russian cat, Pushkin, fell three stories to the ground from my apartment balcony, my friend Nadya could not understand why, if the cat didn’t have any broken bones, I wanted to stay home that evening to monitor him. “It’s not as if you live on the sixth floor,” I remember her saying.
I have traveled in other countries where cats and dogs run wild through the streets, abandoned, neglected: Greece, Spain, the Caribbean islands. All of these countries have up until recently known or still know great hardship. Their inhabitants have had to struggle for their own survival and have not had the time, or the inclination, or the luxury to worry about the dogs and cats that often live short and brutish lives around them.
I know that it is the mark of an affluent society to worry about domestic animals. I know that I am a spoiled product of such a society and that while my husband and I lavished all our love and attention upon one pampered animal, people and animals all over the world were going without, in my own country even, only minutes from where I live.
Yet, we did it anyway. We allowed ourselves to love one small creature more than any other. We lived with him, played with him, talked to him, held him, and looked forward with the greatest of pleasure to find him waiting at the front door whenever we arrived home.
And then one day he was not at this door, and our small, private, happy world collapsed.
Yet though he is gone, he also remains. He lingers in our rooms. His toy balls are where he left them under the table, the pillows that he used to lie on are still covered in his fur. In the mornings, we think we hear his paws upon the stairs. In the evenings, we imagine him warming his belly in front of the fire.
He never went out into the woods which surround our home, but he watched these woods carefully from his various perches: window sills, cat beds, stools. He watched the birds on the feeders and the squirrels rushing over the autumn lawns. He watched the deer, the crows, and the chipmunks. He watched the river shining through the trees.
His coat was silver.
If only you could find your way
From the river of chill flowers,
The forest of nothing to eat,
Back through the ice window
Back through the locked door of air.
–Margaret Atwood, “January,” 2007