Grandfather lives with eleven cats in a small house with a roof of red ceramic tiles in a piney forest in the Bohemian Highlands of Czechoslovakia.
The names of the cats are painted on the sides of their dishes: Pirate and Irsko, Kůku and her sister Luna, Kázi and Quinn, Honza, Nely, Arra, Zlatka, and Little Čiča,
Every three days, Grandfather puts on his boots and goes into the woods to hunt for mushrooms. His father and his father’s father taught him how to look for them, hiding among the roots of trees or under logs. He looks out of the corners of his eyes and walks on his toes so the mushrooms don’t hear his clumsy human self-thumping, for they would hide.
The eleven cats sit at the windows and wait for him, whispering among themselves in the language of whisker quivers, ear twitches, and tail flicks. They aren’t allowed to go outside because they will eat baby birds.
When Grandfather returns, he places most mushrooms to dry on a plank. Cats meow at his feet. He slices the rest and puts them in a pot of water with salt, caraway seeds, a little butterfat, and an egg he stole from the chicken.
While he cooks, eleven cats rub themselves against Grandfather’s legs, and cry.
“Wait a minute, you damn cats!” He spoons out the mushroom stew into their cat dishes and gives himself a good portion.
That Saturday at 5 AM, Grandfather puts two baskets filled with dried wild mushrooms on his bicycle. He tells the cats “Behave yourselves.” He rides into the nearby town to sell the mushrooms in the marketplace.
Eleven cats sit at the windows and wish him success because they know that if he sells the mushrooms he can buy food for himself, and them.
Because it is a long ride, Grandfather stays for two days with his daughter, who lives in the town with her husband, two children, two dogs, and a goat in the backyard.
In the house in the forest, when the sun is up, the cats go outside through a secret cat door. They go to a shed hidden in the woods. In the shed is a keg of beer. The cats take down little beer mugs from a long, low shelf and fill up their mugs with delicious beer they have brewed themselves from hops grown in a clearing in the forest.
They drink and drink and laugh and tell each other lies about birds and mice they have caught and the sex they have had.
They drink and drink some more for two days and two nights, then go back to the house and run around. Cups and knickknacks fall off the shelves and break. They throw up and pee in the corners. They empty the small refrigerator of salami and chicken cutlets.
Eleven cats fall asleep and snore.
Grandfather comes home at dusk with money from selling the mushrooms.
He can smell rancid beer from a ways away and he knows that once again, those damn cats have been drinking and left the house in a mess!
Grandfather puts the bike away out of the rain, and hangs the baskets on a hook. He goes into the house where he sees eleven drunk cats with their feet in the air; their tails hanging over counters; their mouths open and drooling, leaves in their fur and spiderwebs on their whiskers.
Grandfather slams the door and eleven cats jump to their feet and puff themselves out. Grandfather yells: “JežíšiMarjáJosefe! You damn cats! How many times have I told you to keep your drinking in the shed? You think I don’t know! You are the most disgusting awful mangy cats in the world and I should throw you out into the cold piney forest to be eaten by weasels!”
Grandfather gets a broom and waves it at the cats. He rages and swats the walls and stomps around.
Eleven cats look at Grandfather with their eyes wide and their fur settling down. They smile cat smiles and jump off the counter or chair or table or shelves or bread box or refrigerator and run around jumping and leaping, trying to trip Grandfather.
Grandfather waves the broom and swats Kazi, the big ginger, and Honza, the fluffy tuxedo… but not too hard.
Grandfather gets tired because he has ridden his bike for two hours. He is not young anymore. He uprights a chair and slowly sits down and sighs.
The cats, who have been hiding under the sink, the stove, the sofa, and in the pantry, slither close to the chair and rub themselves against Grandfather’s legs. They meow for dinner.
Grandfather looks down and pets the cats and says, “I don’t know why I keep you around. You are nothing but trouble trouble trouble. This time you broke the little porcelain shepherd girl my daughter gave me. You are very lucky that I hate it. Very very lucky. Damn cats. Now you just wait for dinner!”
Grandfather gets the broom and a dustpan and sweeps up the broken pieces of knickknacks. Then he takes out some delicacies he purchased in the town market. He takes his time, carefully measuring out portions for eleven cats into eleven bowls.
Grandfather’s dinner is sandwiches his daughter made for him. He takes a bottle of beer from the refrigerator that the cats didn’t open (because then they would really be in trouble!).
After dinner he goes and sits on the porch to smoke his pipe and think about where he can go mushroom hunting tomorrow.
After dinner, Grandfather’s cats clean their little faces and lick off the leaves and spiderwebs. Pirate and Irsko, Kůku and her sister Luna, Kázi and Quinn, Honza, Nely, Arra, Zlatka, and Little Čiča pile in a big chair—a large furry orange, black, brown, white, gray, and striped pile—fall asleep and dream of catching birds in the forest.
Marcy Arlin has work in Daily Science Fiction, Diabolical Plots, Perihelion Online Science Fiction Magazine, Kaleidocast podcast, Journal of Experimental Theatre (Romania), and Conspiracies & Cryptids (2023). She is co-editor of Czech Plays: 7 New Works and a member of Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers.
Image Credit: Artwork for the story-poem created by Rhea Ewing—
Rhea Ewing (they/them) is an artist and the author of FINE: a comic about gender. Ewing calls upon personal and political themes of queer identity, finding connections to the natural world, and building safe spaces for all people. The value of art, by their reasoning, is the ability to create connections, question assumptions, and inspire others to do the same. To that end they work in a variety of mediums, including graphic novels, fine art, and illustrated books.