A small lie

Issue 2/1987 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Pieni valhe (‘A small lie’). Introduction by Marianne Bargum

The white cat had started to hate her.

Only half a year ago, Marja remembered, it had been playing with the hems of her robe, while she had passed the morning reading and drinking coffee. Right now it was staring relentlessly at her from the bookcase where it was ensconced: out of reach, she thought. Its stare was green and mean. At night it attacked her ankles; it lurked in the crevices of the apartment and when it heard her approaching steps it leapt past her, screaming, and crossed the room to the curtains or the table. The curtains fell, books crashed to the floor, the cat stared with its eyes opened wide, the pupils like narrow slits. She would lock the cat into the other room for the night, hear it mew and feel the door with its paws; she fell asleep only after the cat had calmed down. When she approached it during the day, stroked it and called its name, it looked at her, motionless, as if it had seen and known everything, and then she withdrew her hand, backed off, started behaving as if there wasn’t even a cat in the apartment.

‘What’s happened to it,’ she thought: and she wondered what to do with the cat, as if it were some object, without looking at it or trying to approach it anymore.

When the eviction notice came, she again started thinking about the cat and what to do with it: have it put to sleep, or take it along.

When she was preparing for the move she remembered all the other moves: specially the last one, the one after the divorce. She remembered the books that she had given away or sold, and the records and the clothes that she had thrown away, and then the things that her husband had taken, as if she were handling them now, and not those things that she had bought herself, so beautiful and still so new that you could not see a scratch on them. The knives, the spoons, the forks; the coffee cups, the tea cups; the clear stemware that had not been used a single time; as she was packing them she remembered the cup with the glaze cracked near the rim, grey with dirt, a fine hairline crack, and the dent on the side of the pot, and a feeling of defeat seemed to be oozing from those things, but whether it came from the old ones or from these new ones, that she did not know. But she remembered the day they went to court: how sleet had been coming down, how she had been sitting there watching the big globs of wet snow that stuck to the window and how it had melted and run down as water as soon as it touched the glass, and how new sleet had constantly melted into the water. There had been a map of prisoner transports on the court bulletin board; all the prisons in the country had been there, and the railroads, and the cities, through which the railroads went, all of them on a white background, and otherwise the map had been empty as if nothing else had existed except for prisons and the trains that went to them. She still remembered the route, and the blue vinyl sofa and the hole in it, and the foam rubber filling that could be seen through that hole, and the sleet.

The feeling of disgust had lasted for days. She had cleaned, aired the place, washed clothes, filled the trash container at the back of the house with things that would get carried away in the early morning hours by old men and women, and by children during the day.

One day in the spring, she recalled, two doves had come in through the open window. She had heard their thumps against the windows: as if someone had been kicking a ball inside. The bird droppings had stained the walls, the floors, feathers had flown in the air, and the rustling of wings had filled the air. She had fled to the bathroom, sat on the rim of the tub, through the closed door she had heard the bangs, the pounding on the glass, and everything had felt ruined, impossible to repair, even after the janitor had gotten the birds out and she had cleaned up their stains and gathered up the feathers. A new and beautiful life; a clean life; in those days she began to look for a new apartment where all this would be possible.

She was spending a last few days in the apartment that she had come to one year ago. The windows divided the view into small squares. The afternoon sun, and the lights from the cars at night, were reflected through the crown glass differently each time: as if through water. The reflections were visible on the walls for only a moment, and their appearance brought a sense of sadness over their brevity. She walked around in the apartment without knowing what else she should do. The kitchen floor had a board that was always creaking; the water pipes were gurgling in the wall when someone turned on the faucet in the next-door apartment, the toilet tank was hissing. She noticed all of this, and at the same time she noticed that she had gotten so used to the noises that she had not really heard them for a long time.

The cat spent these last days trying to avoid her, but was still constantly close by. Every now and then she met its omniscient stare.

She had postponed the move until the last moment as if she had expected the eviction notice to be cancelled. She slept poorly, and when she woke up at night she thought about the first nights that she had spent in this house.

She remembered how she had hoped that she would grow to resemble her house after she had moved there. The house stood at the edge of the park and it was different from any other house. Looking through the windows, you could see the colors of the rainbow reflected on their surface: like oil on water. A lace-like wooden trim framed the eaves and the windows. In one end of the house was a tower, it stood empty, its diamond-shaped windows broken: birds flew in and out of them. She had stayed awake listening to the rustling above her, and to the wind in the trees of the park which, in the middle of the city, was like the sound from another world and the birds waking up in the park in the early morning. There had seemed to be a clear line separating her previous life and this new one, and life in this beautiful, century-old house was just the way it should be. She had started thinking about her previous self as a stranger, whose doings seemed somewhat puzzling.

But the new flat was going to be in an apartment house, a two-room apartment, and new; the sounds that would be heard there would be the sounds of neighbors, not of the house, trees and birds. When she tried to imagine the cat in this new house and apartment, she always thought of that very same white porcelain cat that she had seen on some old maid’s window-sill, with a red silk ribbon around its neck.


One night she woke up, and the cat was next to her. The door had remained open, the cat was purring the way it used to purr as a kitten. She stretched out her hand to stroke it, and then withdrew before she had touched it. The cat stretched its paws towards her, was tenderly clawing the blanket. It was the same movement that it used to make when sucking its mother’s milk. Even though her feet were sticking out from under the blanket, the cat did not go after them. It arched its neck toward her cheek, and she lay frightened, stiff, without moving.

As a kitten it had slept under her blanket. She had carried it around on her shoulder, searched for it with a flashlight in the back yard and in the corners of the cellar. It had grown: it had started spending the nights outside. She remembered the first time she had woken up to the screaming of the cats: as if some deranged women had been yelling in the back yard. In the morning there had been blood on the snow. Night after night you could hear the whines of the tomcats, a rising and falling sound, seemingly endless, and after that the thumps of the fighting cats against the walls as they tumbled down the stairs, entangled in each other. There were tufts of hair on the ground, the cat’s ear got torn. Later, when it started to sleep indoors again, she shooed it away from her bed, locked it into the other room. The cat tried to return to its old ways, she prevented it: she was not going to forget. And thinking of this she remembered the sounds of the elevator, the sounds of the newspaper boy’s footsteps on the empty streets, and then finally the first buses of the morning.

‘You should have had it neutered,’ said the women where she worked as they took their coffee break in the small, windowless smoking room of the library, where coffee breaks from all the bygone years appeared as yellowish, foul smelling stains on the walls. They were divorced women, all of them: while they were smoking they talked about other people’s marriages and about their husbands’ new ones, and in all of these there seemed to be all kinds of faults: divorce was only a question of time.

‘I guess you could still have it neutered?’

‘Not anymore ’cause it’s fully grown.’

‘Have it put to sleep,’ someone said. ‘Get a new kitten and have it neutered.’

The cat started licking itself. In the dark you could hear the smacking of its tongue against its coat. Marja withdrew further, against the wall, dozed off and woke up again. For a little while, through her sleep, the purring of the cat had sounded like the buzzing of a fly in her ear, and she had been back in the country, in the house of her mother-in-law, had been sitting at the end of the bench in the big family room with an unopened book in her lap, been looking at the deepening blue line of the forest beyond the empty stretch of road, feeling pressured and sad. She was wide awake now: for a brief moment in her sleep she had understood her mother-in-law, this woman who had aged early, who had been left alone and whose hands were swollen from cold water, bluish red, and whose face seemed molded by years of crying. But no, she thought, remembering words and looks, and then she remembered the flies that had always woken her up there in the early morning, and the irritation she felt in the hot closed-off room, and the morning light.

She pushed the cat further away. Its eyes were half closed, but you could see them gleaming. Its fur was very soft. The purring came from somewhere deep within its throat, the tip of its nose was wet and cool. Its every touch felt all over her skin like the scraping of fingernails against the school blackboard used to feel, or the way paper felt against her fingertips after a long day in the library.

Marja got up. Sitting at her empty desk and looking out into the morning, where the shapes and colours of trees and houses were beginning to emerge, she felt as if she had come close to something dangerous, as if she had barely avoided it. She remembered how, just for a moment, she had understood her mother-in-law, and in the light of that understanding she realized how futile much of what she had done would seem and how life would be out of kilter, each piece slightly out of place, like a chess board that is jolted in the middle of a game so that the pieces move. Outside, in front of her, contours were beginning to emerge. The tangled branches of the bush, the leaves of the birch, each one separately, were rising up as if out of a haze. Slowly, and one at a time, she was remembering things from her life, and when she went to bed after the sun had already come up, the cat no longer bothered her: she had made her decision.

After she had driven her car to the back of the house and turned off the engine and applied the handbrake, Marja continued to sit in the car. Through the front window she saw the grey cement wall, and above it the brick wall that continued up through the branches of the trees, and through the side window she saw asphalt, then black soil, with grass seeds scattered over it and some saplings; some of them would grow into trees, others would die. Next to her was the empty cat basket. She reached inside and tapped her fingernails on its surface. On the way here, and for no apparent reason, she had thought of something that happened many years ago, nothing important at all: still she could not forget it. It had been a question of where she had been; she had said that she had been to the bank when she had actually been to the pharmacy. She smiled. It was an insignificant thing, meaningless. But then she began to remember other similar incidents, just small inaccuracies really: still, something about them had started to bother her.

She withdrew her hand from the basket, closed the lid, put the basket on the back seat: she could use it for shopping, it was good handiwork made by the blind.

She rolled up the window, closed the other front door from the inside, took the keys out of the ignition. Still, she could not get going. In the grey plaster of the wall there was a thin, vertical crack. She stared at it, lit a cigarette, leaned her head against the seat back. Did that crack reach far into the foundations of the house, she wondered, or was it just on the surface of the plaster: and all the time, something was bothering her.

‘Is it fleas or worms or diarrhea, or what’s the trouble,’ she remembered the vet having asked.

‘No, it needs to be put to sleep.’

‘Oh, put to sleep, that’s what it is.’

‘It’s got some sort of character fault,’ she had answered, explained; and she remembered how the vet had been scratching the cat under its chin and how the cat had laid down on the examining table very peacefully.

‘So that’s what this one’s got, some sort of character fault,’ the vet had said, examining the cat while she was telling him of the trouble it was causing, glancing at her from time to time.

‘And then I’m moving into an apartment house.’

‘And it’s hard to find a new home for the cat, isn’t it, who would want a grown-up cat, a kitten is really the best.’

‘That’s right,’ she had answered before she could think. And she remembered how she stood in the doorway and saw how the vet held the cat by the scruff of the neck and gave it an injection and then moved over to his desk to write out the bill.

‘I’ll take care of that, you don’t need to stay and wait,’ the vet had said, and she had paid and walked out carrying the empty basket. On the treatment table lay the white cat, its legs straight, looking at last like that porcelain cat that she always remembered.

And in the car, on the way here, she had recalled some small lie, then some other ones, all of them for no reason.

She looked at the house. The apartment still smelled of paint, everything was new and clean like in a hospital. She had already run into the other inhabitants of the building: old women, who lived in the same kind of two room apartments as she did, and who lived alone. They smiled their thin smiles at her, quickly sizing her up with their precise and cold stares. Now that she was sitting in the car and saw the brick wall, and the asphalt, and the soil with its saplings planted at regular intervals, she knew that she was safe now, in this house and among those women, one of them: that she would like it here, in this house and apartment; that very soon she would call it home.

Translated by Stina Katchadourian

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