By Patricia Hemingway
ZsaZsa belonged to Luisa, and Luisa belonged to the war. The second World War. Although Luisa had been born in Austria, she spent her girlhood in London during the bombings. Luisa’s inner world, and her nervous system, were overtaken with the devastating memory of returning from an air raid to find a pile of smoldering bricks where home had been. She had never quite been able to free herself from flickers of anxiety. They crept quietly and without warning to the surface of her life as Luisa, always beautifully dressed and driving her Mercedes, kept them at bay.
ZsaZsa, the cat that shared Luisa’s sunny, top floor apartment, was a white cat splashed with black, like an inkpot turned over on fine stationery. She was aloof, never friendly. ZsaZsa could not be trusted. Even though the two lived on the third floor, Luisa had to drape a soft-green mesh around her terrace, disguised among the potted flowers, to keep ZsaZsa from leaping to the concrete below.
I pondered what drove the cat to escape such opulent surroundings, and an owner who loved her so deeply. Did Luisa’s tucked away anxiety permeate the remains of the lunches she faithfully brought home to ZsaZsa, awaiting her share as Luisa put her key in the lock?
One day ZsaZsa disappeared.
Had Luisa left the front door open while she sorted the mail? She wasn’t sure. She typically held it shut with her foot while she leafed quickly through the envelopes with clear windows, searching for the hand-addressed ones with the sender’s name in the upper corner. Letters which, in another time, had arrived on the thinnest pale blue paper. I had seen them bundled in storage boxes in Luisa’s garage. Each was as light as a butterfly, and would have required the use of a letter opener to avoid destroying the contents.
ZsaZsa was gone down three flights of stairs, and had managed to make herself invisible to the small collection of neighbors who called one another by their first names. No one had seen ZsaZsa’s familiar black and white form – not that that would have been likely, as I well knew.
I had fed the cat during Luisa’s trips overseas and never once saw her. I suspected ZsaZsa had a hiding place in Luisa’s closet, stuffed with garment bags and piles of shawls and expensive shoes. (I read the designer names on the ends of the boxes: Etienne Aigner, Schiaparelli, Ferragamo.) Each afternoon, I sat at the elegant dining table and stared out at the patio, awash in flowers. The cat did not desire my company.
We searched the downstairs shrubs and the garage, even though its door had been closed at the time of ZsaZsa’s disappearance. “We” included an aging beauty named Evelyn who had lived across from Luisa for a dozen years. Evelyn was my upstairs neighbor who wore high heels whenever she left the apartment. I heard the click click clicks on my ceiling, and when I opened my door to greet her on the stairs, Evelyn was always attired in a coordinated outfit.
This time, Evelyn wore casual clothing, intending to circle the complex calling out for ZsaZsa. “After all,” she said in her soft voice, “she’s part of the family.”
After a few days it became obvious that ZsaZsa had ventured into the nearby hills of the village-like town, filled with evergreens and those that turned red in Fall. Each day, Luisa walked the steep grade that wound upward for a half mile beyond our parking lot, calling out to ZsaZsa. The cat could be anywhere. And if she did not want to be found, she would not be.
Luisa refused this explanation. Her beloved ZsaZsa had wanted an adventure and needed only to hear the sound of her voice to be induced to return. Two weeks passed, and no ZsaZsa. I felt sorry for Luisa and cursed the ungrateful cat.
One morning Luisa phoned to tell me, in a flurry of Austrian-toned syllables, that she had hired a woman who talked to animals. For a fee the woman had tuned in to ZsaZsa and Luisa’s emotional connection, and would find the cat.
I wisely kept my opinion to myself. This exercise might make Luisa feel better, like participating in a séance where, for a few precious moments, one embraces the presence of a loved one, and pays in cash.
Here is how Luisa related to me her session with Natasha, the psychic:
Natasha aas vound my ZsaZsa! Zhee es in the woods ahnd khannat vind me. My poor dahling is all alone! Natasha aas calmed her down for da moment, and tonight at midnight she vill explain to ZsaZsa dat she must follow the zound of my voice. I must sit on my bed—dat is vhereZsaZsa and I sleep togeder, you know—and keep talking vor an hour. Tomorrow morning, ZsaZsa vill be at the bottom of the stairs.
And that is exactly what happened. Luisa slipped down the stairs at daybreak, scooped up ZsaZsa as if she had been gone for fifteen minutes, and carried her back to the apartment.
I suppose this event could have been explained away, if any one of us had been coarse enough to do so. But there were follow-up episodes that indicated a new ZsaZsa, and no one who knew ZsaZsa could deny her remarkable transformation.
The cat’s demeanor was changed from the day of her return. She leaped into my lap each time I visited Luisa. ZsaZsa now seemed to crave human companionship, and kept up her end of the conversation with a dialogue of sweet meows.
Luisa’s ongoing sessions with the psychic were full of useful information. ZsaZsa told Natasha that the entire apartment—the bed in particular—was full of spirits who recited like a chorus the sounds of shells landing. The spirits clung to one another, and took up all the space in Luisa’s narrow bed.
The cat detested them. The psychic had a talk with these spirits on ZsaZsa’s behalf: ZsaZsa had first dibs on Luisa’s bed, and they must shut up, move to the chair, and make room for her.
Apparently, they acquiesced.
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