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The Cat's Odyssey

by Oksana Maksymchuk

Our emergency suitcase packed
we consider the cat
watching us from across the room

Red striped tail
sits on top of her toes, like an edge
of a robe lined in rare fur

We imagine she got kidnapped
A controlling brother kept her locked up
in a tower 

She let down her long braid
for our spy to climb up
and undo her spell

Now that we’re planning an escape
from the bombs, we’ve got to decide 
to do with the cat

Do we leave her behind?
Do we schlep her across the border?

Online, I view ads of backpacks
with a clear protruding bubble

of a window—the face of the cat inside
small and surprised

like the face of an astronaut
getting pulled into

the outer space

Over the past few weeks, conversations with my mom are dominated by a single theme: how to get our relatives’ young child out of Kherson. Kherson, a city in the south of Ukraine known for its magnificent tomatoes and watermelons, was under the Russian occupation for over half a year. During this period, my second cousin’s young wife died of stress-induced cardiac arrest, and their four-year-old was left in the care of his mother, my mom’s cousin. As I’m writing this note in late November, the people of Kherson are facing a grueling winter. Since the Russian army retreated three weeks ago to the left bank of the Dnipro River, it has shelled the liberated part of Kherson with artillery three hundred times, killing or injuring more than one hundred civilians and damaging the critical infrastructure in the city. Our relatives have endured without heat, electricity, or running water for nearly a month. Yesterday, they sent us a picture of the child’s birthday celebration, complete with a very persuasive cake, caviar-topped open-faced sandwiches, and balloons in the wood-paneled kitchen of the house they’d built on the outskirts of town, now practically deserted. Please don’t worry about us, we aren’t fleeing, we’re safe.

“The Cat’s Odyssey” captures the moment on the other side of the decision to leave a beloved place that could soon be ravaged by war–but isn’t yet. About a year ago, as the news channels all over the world reported with increasing alarm on the Russian troops gathering along the Ukrainian border, I did my best to ignore them and focused on preparing for the holidays. Should we get a tree or not? Do we buy Ukrainian-made wine, or Italian, or Spanish? What’s the best place to shop for skiing gear? In this context, I was more annoyed than touched by the messages I kept receiving from abroad. One asked: “Are you sure you want to put your child through this?” Another, more sobering dispatch, said: “I really do hope you survive the Russian occupation.” It went on to explain why I might not.

To reassure friends and family, I sent pictures of our idyllic life, often featuring the orange cat we’d recently adopted. Here’s Mango the cat diligently licking at the arrangement of antique ornaments we set up on the living room coffee table. There she is sending kitty kisses to my ten-year-old, glancing at her over his shoulder as he’s practicing the piano. Here she is stretched out, next to a small woolen mouse, her trophy, on the salmon-pink carpet woven in a Syrian city that had been bombed out existence in the recent years–a treasure now that it’s irreplaceable.

What could go wrong in a home with a cat in it, this symbol of tranquil domesticity?

Just before the holidays, Mango joined us for an evening of drollery with friends from Kharkiv, claiming a small wooden stool to sit on while facing the company. “Kisses for everyone!”–so my son summed up her contribution. A year later, these same friends are displaced, as if propelled out of an airlock into the open space, their apartment having lost all of its outward-facing walls. Someone made an artwork featuring a photograph of their semi-demolished building–ghostly outlines of people painted in white inside it. One of the figures in the picture is petting an outline of a cat–its actual animal body now in another place, transported. Carried, one can only hope, not by a blast wave or a shard, but by a pair of hands into another timeline, a space where our worst fears have not yet been realized, and we can focus on trees, and lights, and the falling snow.

Oksana Maksymchuk is a bilingual Ukrainian-American poet, scholar, and literary translator. Her poetry appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, The Cincinnati Review, The Irish Times, The Poetry Review, and other journals. She is the author of poetry collections Xenia and Lovy and a recipient of Bohdan-Ihor Antonych and Smoloskyp prizes, two of Ukraine’s top awards for younger poets. Maksymchuk holds a PhD in philosophy from Northwestern University. Based in Lviv, Ukraine, she currently resides in Poland.