—Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“Love makes me sick!”
She had been thinking about that poor cat when she unwittingly closed the iron gate all of a sudden. At the top of it, among metallic circles and swirls that had once been painted, a half-twisted and rusty date was still discernible: 1886. The iron gate had been bought cheaply as scrap a few years ago when a confiscated property had been demolished as part of a modernisation scheme. With this new gate installed, her house seemed classier, as did the garden. Before that, there had been a small wooden door. Whenever a tall person passed through it, he had to bend down.
The iron gate was wider, allowing fresh air to pass through, and the trees seemed aware of it. The orange tree, still hung with bitter oranges, had green leaves. The rose bushes were blooming again. It was a pity that nobody walked along that street, which ended about two gardens down at a high wall. The wind barely stirred the grass growing there among the stones. Everything was quite still, as though every day were a Sunday.
Her name was Aloma because a maternal uncle had picked the name. He was a strange man whom everybody respected. He had aged very quickly, isolated at home, a blanket across his knees. After dinner, he would read Ramon Llull sitting in his armchair, while his friends, who came to see him twice a week, played chess. He never played. He just read:
Aloma met the expectations Evast had of a prospective wife, while those who sought a wife for Evast in accordance with his desires knew that Aloma fitted the bill perfectly.
When the uncle stepped out of the church at the conclusion of the ceremony, he said:
“I’ve let the godparents do what they want—the child has been christened Àngela Rosa Maria; but I will always call her Aloma. It’s a beautiful name and the first thing a girl needs is a beautiful name. If you want to make me happy, call her that.”
The mother liked it and at teatime she asked everyone to be quiet by saying:
“Don’t speak so loudly! Aloma is sleeping!”
The noise of the iron gate startled her: she had slipped out secretly, unbeknownst to the child, and she worried that he might have heard the noise. But the house was still, and after ensuring that the coast was clear, she set off down the street.
It was a good time to get a breath of fresh air. In one garden, someone was lighting a fire and she could hear the crackling of the kindling. Moss covered the top of a very old wall while, in the middle of the street, a water-filled pothole reflected a piece of the sky and a white cloud. A little further on, near the new house, the branches of a weeping willow swayed. It was one of the first spring afternoons; swallows were twittering up in the sky. A wisp of smoke wafted in the air and Aloma almost came to a halt, thinking: “That was my brother’s favourite smell.” Her brother Daniel had killed himself at the age of eighteen. He had left a note for her that read: “Everything is sad and I don’t want to live anymore, Aloma. A big hug.” The handwriting displayed the tall, wide letters of a proud person. After so much time, she still felt distressed at the thought of his suicide. She could still see him lying white as wax, and she still remembered her first thought—that he would never speak to her again in that voice full of tenderness, about the things he liked to do. Then, one day, her eldest brother Joan set fire to all the books and writings that Daniel had left behind. He tore them up before burning them, while outside the window a storm raged—the wind swept the sheet of rain against the glass from time to time. Burning paper turned to ash. Aloma wept that night, all night long. Joan said that Daniel had committed suicide because books had turned his head. Life was frightening. Whenever the house was still, she would often lie curled up in bed and think about her dead brother. But the memories were fading: first, the colour of his eyes, then his smile, then the sound of his voice. The more he disappeared into the past, the more she became aware of the vacuum he had left behind. She missed that energetic youth who had hidden his disappointment as though it were something ugly, and who, like her, went from one extreme to the other: from the lightest happiness to the blackest despair. Had he lived, he would now be twenty-three and they would be inhaling together the smell of burning leaves and of the spring about to gush forth. And everything would be different.
She suddenly remembered the telegram they had received mid-morning. It was from Joan’s brother-in-law, Anna’s brother, who lived in America. He wrote that he would be spending some time with them. For a moment, she felt happiness come over her. Maybe the brother-in-law would brighten up the atmosphere in the house. For the rest of the afternoon, she did not think of it again.
On the windowsill, a black cat was sitting. The other one was white. The first time Aloma saw this white cat she was removing yellowing leaves from a tree with a rake handle; the cat’s white fur had been grubby, like that of an abandoned animal. It had jumped down from the wall, but when she approached, it got scared and jumped back up. However, it soon got used to coming into the garden. It liked to lie motionless in a corner, on a pile of dry leaves. At the slightest sound of an approach, it would open its eyes, which were green with dark pupils, with a black line across the middle. Before long, they noticed its belly beginning to swell. She would walk very slowly, and also meow very softly. Sometimes she stopped as if she did not know where to go, her front paw bent back.
“I don’t want cats inside the house; they carry diseases,” Anna had said when she foresaw that Aloma would get along with it.
Anna warned her son against touching it. He was not allowed to give the cat food, not even a crust of bread. The boy would stare at it from the window. He was fond of the cat. “I love it,” he said sometimes, “because it has such a sad expression.”
Despite this undeclared war, the cat kept coming into the garden. If she saw anyone around, she would run away. When the garden was deserted, she would return to its corner, near the flowers. At one point, she had kittens, but nobody knew where she had hidden them. She visited on a daily basis, dirtier and leaner each time.
“It must sleep in a coal cellar!”
More than a year passed. The cat always had that look of resignation and was always pregnant. One morning they found kittens behind a sheet of tin, by the henhouse.
“Make sure the boy doesn’t learn of this! They could be diseased.”
She was losing the hair on her tail and getting scabs in her ears. All the same, the kittens impatiently waited for her and clung to her tiny, hard-squeezed nipples. They did not see her for quite a while and thought someone must have taken her in. But one day they saw her, half asleep at the top of the wall at the end of the garden. Aloma stood on a bench and approached the animal. She saw that her eyes were bloodshot. The cat gave off a feeble meow and came down the wall as best it could, clinging to the ivy; her paw had broken. When Aloma bent down to see the wound, the cat suddenly backed away, hissing furiously.
“It isn’t dead yet?” Joan stated every morning, as he opened the windows.
She hardly ever moved away from the garden. Her belly kept swelling. She was ill and losing hair, leaving clumps of it everywhere she sat.
The new cat came into the garden one cold and windy afternoon. It was black and white and strutted with a triumphal attitude. It had a wide neck and a glossy coat. It approached the old cat slowly and Aloma, who was watching from the window, saw the female start to move away from the newcomer. She tried to climb the orange tree, but was too weak and suddenly started throwing up a lot. The other cat would not leave her alone. It was a violent persecution but her meows were lost to the louder wind. Soon it became dark and Aloma closed the window. She felt nauseous.
The next day they found the female cat lying in the street, all curled up. The night watchman had killed her by hitting her between the ears with a stick while she was attempting to have kittens.