Stories for Another Day
A cat once had a litter of kittens, and the prettiest of all was named Zirka. She was as black as night all over except for a single splash of white on her tail, like a star. Perhaps it was for this reason that she was enchanted by the night sky. When other cats were off hunting and fighting and yowling, Zirka would perch on the highest fence post she could find, and gaze at the stars. Before she was even half-grown, she knew all the patterns which the stars made, the wriggling snake, the crow, the jumping dog and the fish caught on the end of a fisherman’s line. She was never lost at night, because one glance at the sky told her exactly where she was.
One night when she was staring at the sky, an extraordinary thing happened. One of the stars fell from the sky. Zirka watched it fall out of its place and drop towards the earth. Quick as a flash, Zirka was after it. She ran towards the place where she thought it must have landed, but there was nothing there but huge, grey buildings, protected by a very high fence.
“It must be behind one of those buildings,” Zirka thought. She climbed up and over the fence in no time. Slipping from shadow to shadow among the blank, square buildings, she came upon a very strange building. It was round but very narrow, with a pointed cap on top, and at the very tip of the pointed cap, there was a red light blinking. A wooden platform was going up and down the side of it, carrying boxes and tools and people from the ground to the top and back again. It was the highest thing Zirka had ever seen.
“If I can sneak onto that lifting platform,” she said to herself, “it will take me to the very top, so close I might even touch the stars.” She slipped in among the boxes, a shadow among shadows, and waited.
A voice hissed at her. “What are you doing here? This rocket is for me!”
Zirka jumped and shrank back. “What do you mean? What is a rocket?”
“You fool,” said the other cat, who was patched black and white, like moonlight on a puddle of ink. “I am Felicette, the first cat to ever travel in space. This is the rocket that I will travel in.”
“Ohhh,” breathed Zirka. “You’re going to the stars? Let me come with you!”
Felicette sniffed. “I have been chosen for my intelligence as well as my beauty,” she said. “A mere stray cat like you can never fly in a rocket.”
Zirka said, “Will you see the crow, and the wriggling snake, and the jumping dog?”
Felicette hissed, “What? Nobody told me there would be snakes and dogs!”
“Can you get out of the rocket and fly among the stars?” Zirka asked wistfully. She had dreamed all her life of flying in the darkness of space.
“Fly?” screeched Felicette. “I can’t fly! I’m not a bat!” She began scratching wildly at the door of her cage, until it sprang open. She leapt out, jumped off the platform and disappeared among the buildings.
The platform suddenly gave a jerk and started to move upwards. Zirka slipped into Felicette’s cage and held on tightly. At the top, a young scientist opened the cage and lifted Zirka out. “Wait!” he said. “You’re not Felicette! How did this happen?”
Zirka purred and rubbed her head against the man’s hand. “Where is Felicette?” he demanded. “She must go on this flight! We must have a cat, or the mission will have to be cancelled.” He lifted Zirka up and she settled comfortably into his arms. It was a pleasant surprise for him. Usually Felicette spat and scratched whenever he handled her.
Way below, under their feet, the rocket began to tremble as its first burners were lit.
The scientist looked at Zirka. “Well, a cat is a cat, I suppose,” he said. He put Zirka into the nose-cone of the rocket and tied straps around her to hold her safe during take-off. Then he shut the door and locked it tight. The platform sank back to the ground.
Zirka waited. There was a huge noise and the rocket was heaved up off the ground. Zirka felt herself being squashed flat, too flat to breathe or move a whisker. It got extremely hot, and her ears suddenly felt as they wanted to explode. Then just when she was sure she was going to die, and she wished that she’d never been such a fool as to get into the rocket, an amazing thing happened. The squashing stopped and she was floating. She felt like a fish in water, as if she didn’t weigh a thing.
Through the window she could see the stars, brighter and closer than she had ever seen them before, glittering in the deep blackness of space.
“This is what it must be like to be a star!” she said. “Heaven!” It was cold, colder than she’d ever been before. Then she slammed into the side of the cage again and the burning heat started up again and it was over. The rocket was plummeting back to earth. Everything inside her head went black.
When she woke up, the scientist was lifted her out of the nose-cone. “You did it!” he said to her, cuddling her into his arms and smoothing her fur. “The first cat in space – you’re a star! Let’s get you back to the lab where I can take a good look at you.” He put her into the cage and loaded the cage into the back of a truck.
Then out of the darkness in the truck came a voice. “Get out!” Felicette hissed. “I’m supposed to be the first cat in space, not you! Get out of here, before I slice you into little pieces!” She scrabbled with the catch on the cage door until she got it open.
Zirka didn’t argue. She slithered out of the cage and out of the back of the truck and ran. She dodged around buildings for what seemed like hours, searching for a way out, until finally she saw the fence in the distance. She ran to the fence, but just as she was about to launch herself at it, a large hand grabbed her.
“So I’ve found you,” said the young scientist. He picked her up and tickled her in her favourite spot under her chin. “You and I are the only ones who know that it wasn’t Felicette who went up in that rocket. What should we do about it?” Zirka rubbed her head against his hand and purred. “That’s what I think too,” said the man. “It’s our secret.”
Zirka never went into space again, but for years and years afterwards, when she had kittens of her own and they had kittens of their own, she would tell them the story of flying among the stars. And every single one of them was as black as night, with a single white star at the tip of their tails.