When I was a young boy, my grandmother had a cat. It was a beautiful fluffy female tabby, sort of grey-ish colour. Being a village cat, she was pretty much left to her own devices most of the time and possessed all the skills of a wild cat, such as mouse hunting and self-defense. But she was also very affectionate and trusting to people. She really enjoyed being stroked and would immediately purr when taken on lap, which I used to do quite a lot when I was at my grandmother’s, which was practically every summer.
Her only affiliation with my grandmother’s house was food scraps she was given from the table. She was not allowed to spend the night in the house, she was often a nuisance in the kitchen at daytime, and only occasionally would she receive the human attention she wanted.
The cat (Kisa was her name, which is sort of generic Russian for “Pussy”) had kittens at least once a year. Not many; usually just two or three, and a lot of time only one would survive. They were beautiful kittens usually, with either smoky or black fluffy fur, depending on who the father was that particular year. We’d normally try to give them away, but sometimes there would be nobody who wanted them, and my grandmother didn’t want another meowing cat around the house. That’s when my uncle would do the job of drowning the kittens in a nearby lake.
When I was 11 or 12, it suddenly occurred to me: why not sell the kittens at the pet market in Minsk? This way, everybody would be happy – my grandmother, who wouldn’t have to deal with any extra cats in the kitchen, the kittens themselves who would be spared an imminent death, my uncle who wouldn’t have to come to the village from his nearby small town, and myself, who would feel proud as a cat savior and earn a few rubles for pocket expenses.
The first kitten I sold was so pretty we actually kept it in our apartment in Minsk for a few days. It had a very fluffy, soft smoky-black fur and dark blue button-like eyes. Although my mother was always against pets in the city, even she liked the kitten and didn’t mind him in the flat on the condition of being washed with a flea shampoo. The flea shampoo was so stinky that the poor kitten, whose fur was full of horrible stench, was suffering and even vomited several times around the apartment. I took it to the pet market the next day.
Storozhovka Pet market in Minsk was only open on Sundays, but it was a remarkable place. At that time, Minsk did not have a zoo, so for those children who did not have grandmothers in a village or who could not have pets at home, it was the only place where they could look at and pet live animals. There were babushkas selling kittens by a dozen; greedy breeders with puppies of huskies and German shepherds, with devoted yet sad bitches standing by as witness to the purity of breed; alcoholics trying to sell stray teenage puppies they found at dumpsters; old men with chickens, ducks and geese, and little yellow chicks, ducklings and gooselings (?); men selling goats for milk and even an occasional sheep. All that meowing, barking, yelping, bleating, quacking and cock-a-doodle-dooing blended into one happy cacophony, and I loved few things better than visiting Storozhovka.
When I brought the kitten and took it out of my coat, almost within a minute there was a young couple next to me. “What a cute kitten!” said the woman. “Can we buy it, can we buy it?”
It was obvious the man liked it, too. “How much?” he asked. I didn’t have time to think of the good price, and I said, “Five rubles”. He almost immediately agreed, handed me the money and the happy woman took the kitten in her hands. As I watched them walk away, clutching the kitten next to their faces, I was astonished at how easy it proved to be and that I could have probably asked a good 20 rubles for such a pretty kitten. I was also a little sad I wouldn’t see the kitten again.
The story of my successful sale of the kitten spread quickly in the village. It was told and re-told by my proud mother and grandmother, and soon I was offered kittens from other feral cats in the village. None were as pretty as Kisa’s kittens, but nevertheless, inspired by the early success, I spent a good few Sundays trafficking and selling kittens.
I would wake up early in the morning to make it to the market at reasonable time. The train stop for Minsk was about 4 kilometers from my grandma’s house. I would put kittens into a sack if it was one or two, or a woven basket if it was more than that. My grandmother was reluctant to lend me the basket which was apparently very important to her, as she was skeptical about my whole kitten enterprise. Nevertheless, I would hang the sack of the basket on the bicycle, ride it to the station and take an hour and a half journey to Minsk. Some kittens were very quiet and slept all the way. Others were very loud and persistent in their desire to find their estranged mother. I would normally have some bread and pig’s fat for them, as they would normally be old enough to eat that, but a lot of time they would try to crawl out of the sack, mew at the other passengers and cause nuisance. To keep them warm, I would put them in the inside pocket of my jacket, and they would crawl out and poke around and try to climb into my sleeves. Most passengers didn’t mind the commotion, though.
Then I would take a tram from the train station in Minsk to the Pet market, and finally, arrive into the usual hustle and bustle. I became pretty savvy with pricing kittens. People liked fluffy ones better than short-haired ones, and as one-toned as possible. Eyes were important – blue were particularly in demand. If you were a short-haired striped kitten with yellow eyes, you had very little chance of being sold for any good money, but usually, I would sell them nonetheless to some kids for a couple of rubles, even if it took me all day of standing at the market and advertising. I even adopted the chant of a woman that I saw at the market every Sunday, who probably made living selling stray cats. “Kotiki, kotiki, barhatnyie zhivotiki!” – “Kittens, kittens, velvet tummies!” It rhymes a little better in Russian. One time I got as much as 25 rubles for a very cute grey fluffy kitten that looked like a tiny living teddy bear. 25 rubles was almost too much money for my mother to allow me to keep, but I kept it nevertheless.
Once I had a kitten with me that was a bit of a deadweight. It was not quite all right after it was born: its head was too big, and its tiny body was too skinny and not very fluffy. Its eyes were narrow, as if they have not quite opened fully. It was also a screamer.
When I brought it to the market, some alcoholic told me, “Son, you know what the right price is for that cat? 50 kopecks.” That’s half a ruble and would not have even covered the train ticket price. Still, I stood there with that kitten, asking probably 4 or 5 rubles for it. Surprisingly, its grotesque physique generated considerable interest among the public. People were stopping, asking me what kind of a cat it was. Just because I was selling the kittens, people treated me as a cat expert, so I told them it was a Chinese woodcat - probably because of its narrow, slanted eyes. I couldn’t believe how many people took it completely seriously. Finally, I was able to pull it off and sell it for way more than I hoped for – definitely more than 50 kopecks. I was happy I didn’t have to dump that kitten off at some house and run away.
Once I did have to do it, though. I had a batch of very boring kittens – they were mousy grey, with stripes and very short fur. I stood at the market till it closed trying to sell them, but to no avail. I couldn’t bring them back to the village, and I certainly couldn’t show up with them at our apartment in Minsk. So I just let them out of the sack in the bushes near somebody’s house. To this day I like to think that they somehow survived.
After that, it became harder and harder to sell kittens, almost as if something changed. The following winter, Kisa, my favourite cat ever, disappeared. She must have died of cold or starvation, as my grandmother was spending lots of time with her relatives in Poland, and nobody of the grown-ups wanted to take her to their houses for the winter. The rest of the villagers got jealous of my earlier successes with selling kittens, and would no longer give me their kittens. And so I never sold kittens again.