I once lived in a flat in the Holešovice district of Prague which had belonged to an old widow. Due either to a lack of resources or will, the flat had stood unchanged for decades. With its odd collection of old cheaply-made furniture, strange muted colors, faded framed prints of the Virgin, and a general lack of modern amenities, it sometimes felt as if I were living in another time.
“Do you hear that?” asked the caretaker when I moved in. I was forced to admit that I hadn’t. “Exactly my point! It’s quiet as a tomb here, and that’s how we like to keep it.”
The main room of the flat was ordinary, but there was a small one-meter-square storage room off to the side of it which, unlike every other room save the bathroom, had a floor of checkered ceramic tiles, discolored and drab by their remote age. It smelled of machines and old rags from a box of old tools and various little cans for squirting oil that remained there; the widow’s late husband had apparently been a handyman. This forgotten, but sunny, chamber opened to the world through a large steel-framed window, which would not have looked out of place in a machine shop. The window swung out on hinges, which readily converted the small room into what I called “my balcony.”
This balcony of mine overlooked a courtyard, around which the backs of an entire city block of buildings huddled, concealing from the street all the usual things that reside in such places: garbage bins, a derelict swing and a rusting seesaw, an unmown patch where the resident dogs were taken daily by their owners, and a gray parking lot. Rows of cars, assorted abandoned furniture, damp concrete slabs in beards of bright green moss, and a few untended trees and shrubs found root here and there. There were many, many dark little corners hidden from the view of anyone casually passing through.
For a few minutes each afternoon as evening fell, I would retire there to my balcony, just to look out on the world for a short time and savor the view of it. On the wall below me, a steel door would abruptly creak open, the plaint of unoiled hinges, and then bang just as suddenly shut. Then I would hear a series of hard little clicks, each a few seconds apart. An old woman, bent with a crippling hunchback, would mince forth as if climbing a slope, and slowly make her way to the end of the courtyard, where there was a small village of garbage bins. A mesh shopping bag always hung from her free hand.
Her hard tipped cane clicked sharply on the asphalt, and each time it did, she moved carefully forward two small steps and then the cane would click again as she regained breath and balance. Click, click, click. Like the swiftest hand of a clock, she would make her way around the courtyard.
From the edges of the courtyard, from among the bushes and clusters of weeds, from behind the bins and from under the cars, as if conjury had materialized them from vapor, cats would begin to appear.
First, I would see one cat, then two, and then four. Gradually, a dozen or more would slink out, a snaggle of cats moving with purpose toward the same spot. Cats that were by and large invisible during the day, many cats, apparently living in the courtyard, crouched in their daytime hiding places, sly and cautious cats, waiting patiently for this moment.
The cats would come gamboling toward a simple shelter that kept the rain off the garbage bins. The old woman and all the cats of the courtyard would convene on that spot, and only then would she open her bag to reveal her purpose. The old woman had taken it upon herself to feed all the homeless cats that were living there as her neighbors.
She sometimes drew out tins of cat food, but often it was dry kibble, or the leftovers from her own simple meals. She would leave these offerings there in the protected space, in a row of disposable margarine containers, for the cats to greedily gobble up.
Each night, there would be as many as twenty cats and kittens, hungrily feeding on the scraps of food left for them. The old woman would bend down a bit more and some of the bolder cats would permit her to scratch them gently around the ears. As the light of the sun dims and the sky turns to blush, they rub sidelong, backs arched, tails high, against the woman’s legs, and then lay down and roll on their backs invitingly.