Alive or Dead

By Robin Praytor

Vienna, Austria, 1935 

The emaciated cat limped into the open-air market, hugging the stall backs to keep inconspicuous. Abraded paws left blood flecks on patches of ancient cobblestone that broke above the packed dirt. He searched the ground for food scraps, ignoring the occasional rodent. He no longer had the strength to chase them. Between the vermin and birds, there were no scraps left.

Crossing to the opposite side of the narrow street, he kept to the shadows. If he could steal into one of the shops lining the street, he might find a hole to crawl into for shelter. Once the humans left he would emerge to scavenge for food.

His stomach growled and saliva filled his mouth. His nose told him a butcher shop was nearby. He was starving—he might risk a snatch and run. It was dangerous, but he would soon die without food. In the butcher’s doorway he slunk low, making himself as small as possible. The shop was deep and narrow with a glass-fronted case running its length on one side. Customers formed a neat line in front of it, waiting their turns as they perused cuts of meat and sausages arranged enticingly behind the glass. A row of pickle barrels lined the wall behind the customers.

The cat crept unseen around the door frame, trying to insert himself behind the nearest barrel. It was tight against the wall. He grew dizzy from his need for food and frenzied by the smells emanating from the meat case. Starvation overcame fear; he dashed for the opening between the case and the shop window.

A female customer emitted a short scream, “Eeek … a cat! You keep a cat in your shop? That animal is filthy.”

The cat, determined to grab a piece of meat, launched himself at the back of the case. He hit glass. Stunned, but not down, he ran to the far end of the long cabinet intent upon finding an opening. A broom swatted the floor next to him. The butcher pulled the broom back for another strike as his assistant danced manically in the tight space to avoid both broom and cat. The next swat caught the cat in the tail end and knocked him end-to-end. Back on his feet, he abandoned his goal and sprinted from the shop to the sound of applause.

The cat ran back the way he’d come, past the mercantile store, past the haberdashers, rapidly depleting his remaining energy. As he cleared the haberdasher’s open doorway he heard a deep growl. It was followed by the frantic barking of a large dog and the rhythmic clacking of toenails against the wooden walk as the dog tore after him. He had little strength left. He stopped and turned, back arched, teeth barred, fur too matted and sparse to rise.

The dog came at him with a single-minded fierceness. He was only feet away now. The cat braced for the attack. He stood his ground, resigned. With only inches between them, the dog’s head snapped back, stunned disbelief in his eyes. His tongue lolled from his mouth, spittle flying. The human running behind him pulled hard on the leash. As readily as he had conceded his eminent death, the cat accepted his sudden reprieve. Turning, he bounded to the end of the street, around the corner, and into a neighboring stable. With the last of his reserve he scrambled up and over a stall door. He tumbled head over tail into the straw bedding on the other side and burrowed deep before losing consciousness.

He wakened to stamping and snorting. With difficulty, he lifted his head. A bit of straw fell from one eye, allowing the view of a stringy tail and a pony’s rear leg, hoof poised to kick. He emerged from the straw just as the pony’s hoof struck the spot where he had lain. Mercifully, the door to the stall was open—he didn’t have the strength to climb it again. A human stood next to the pony’s head speaking in a calming tone. The cat slunk out of the stall, the human never aware of his presence.

He dragged himself a few yards further along the side street to an open residential gate. There he found a garden. He lay down, resting his head in the damp grass. He could go no further. He lay, chilled, unaware, drifting in and out of time and place.

Gentle hands lifted him from the dampness onto a dry cloth. He was being carried. Unintelligible human murmuring filled him with soothing warmth.

~*~

  “Can I help you, Doctor?”

“Yes, Greta, thank you. In the medicine cabinet there’s cotton swabs and salve, and an eye dropper if you can find it. Bring everything to the kitchen.”

“Yes, sir,” Greta said.

The man tenderly wiped the grime from the cat’s fur and swabbed the mites from his eyes and ears. He put healing salve on the raw pads of his feet. Periodically, he administered a few drops of chicken broth to the animal. At first the liquid dribbled from the cat’s mouth, but on the third try the cat swallowed painfully.

When he had done what he could, he carried the cat to the sitting room and placed him in a padded basket by the fire. He pulled his rocking chair close and picked up his book.

His assistant entered. “I’m leaving now, sir. Do you think he will make it?”

“In the morning he’ll either be alive or dead. Right now, he is both. Good night, Greta.”

“Good night, Dr. Schrodinger.”

~End~

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