May 27, 1949

When Aunt Mari (as she was called by some of her younger Estonian colleagues) was approaching the maternity ward of Tallinn Hospital No. 1, where she had worked as a senior nurse for almost two years already, a strong wind rose suddenly. This abrupt change in the weather caused Maria Ivanovna (as her few Russian-speaking colleagues more affectionately addressed her) to pause in momentary concern. Just before leaving home, she had hung out the previous evening’s carefully washed laundry on the balcony—“for a breath of fresh air”, as she liked to say. A strong gust could easily blow away one of Vassili’s shirts (or, more embarrassingly, a pair of his underpants), even if only onto the Kukulovs’ balcony downstairs.

It had already happened early in the spring, and in no way did Maria Ivanovna Sidorkina wish for a repeat of the trouble that had ensued; especially after last Sunday’s early morning tribulations, when, startled by a loud pounding on the door, she’d opened it to find two uniformed men standing there. The policemen, as it turned out, had been summoned by Lena Kukulova from their station at the end of the street to this, the scene of the crime.

The relatively young policemen didn’t appear especially determined in manner, but peering from behind them was an irate Kukulova, gesticulating wildly with loud threats of: 

“Lock it up!”

Maria was completely nonplussed.

“Lock what up?” she asked in astonishment.

The taller of the policemen mumbled something indistinct and entered the room hesitantly. In truth, he didn’t do so on his own initiative, but due to the downstairs neighbor’s direct and forceful pressure. The second uniform—shorter and sporting a wiry moustache—followed. 

“Lock it up!” Kukulova insisted.

Maria, who was still baffled by what was going on, repeated:


“The cat!” Kukulova roared, growing increasingly infuriated. 

“The cat,” both officers mechanically echoed. “Where is it?”

“What cat?” Maria asked, instinctively backing towards the kitchen.

Your flea-bitten cat! Murderer!” Kukulova screeched, having turned beet-red in the face. She seized the taller officer by the arm and, in a suddenly meek tone, implored:

“Arrest it.”

She’s about to collapse, warned Maria’s professional inner voice, based on her nursing experience. But her neighbor had apparently gained strength from the physical contact with the policeman. Gritting her teeth, Kukulova approached, waving her fists threateningly.

“I’ll kill it,” she screamed, having lost every ounce of self-control.

Maria started to genuinely fear for her life, backing further and further away.

What cat?! was the sole thought throbbing in her mind. She can’t mean Barsik, can she?

And what any of this had to do with her sister’s cat Barsik, which she was taking care of for a couple of days, Maria still couldn’t figure out. And was it really Barsik?

Maria was so worked up that she turned towards the policemen and informed them that Vassili had gone fishing—although no one had asked anything about him. 

This mention of Vassili irritated Kukulova even more and she broke down into loud sobs, at which the shorter policeman nudged her towards the stool in the middle of Maria Ivanova’s hallway. However, Lena Kukulova had no intention of sitting or of calming down. On the contrary—she straightened up and announced in an utterly tragic voice:

“He’s off fishing while someone here is dying.”

She then turned her back on Maria, planted her hands on her hips, and barked at the officers: “Arrest it! Or else …”

By that time, the neighbors from both adjacent apartments had crowded round the Sidorkins’ open door—from #6 (two rooms shared by three spinster sisters) and #8, the single-room  opposite, (recently occupied by the freckled saleswoman Linda, her three-year-old daughter Õie, and her mother). And later—after the early-morning events were behind her—Maria would for some reason remember the sisters’ identical nightshirts. Perhaps because they were the color of gooseberries; the gooseberries Maria was too impatient to let ripen when she was a child.

The tension in the vicinity of Maria’s apartment door peaked and who knows how the whole thing might have ended, if a loud shout from Kostya Kukulov hadn’t echoed up from downstairs:

“Lenotchka, where are you?”

And then, a miracle occurred! Lena Kukulova sighed in relief, wrapped her arms around the shorter of the two policemen, planted a kiss on his cheek, exclaimed “He’s alive!” and ran off.

Gradually regaining her composure, Maria still couldn’t work out what had put Lena Kukulova in such a state. It hadn’t, of course, been her first encounter with the downstairs neighbor, but she’d never seen Kukulova quite like that before.

Lena Kukulova’s sudden departure didn’t put an end to the story just yet. It didn’t help that all the curious neighbors, who had by then squeezed into the Sidorkins’ cramped hallway, had no intention of leaving the apartment just yet. Even the policemen, having collected themselves and adopted constabulary expressions, impressed as much more determined. Apparently, it occurred to them that even in the whirl of these events, it was their duty to keep a cool head and catch the culprit. Small matter that the victim had unexpectedly left the scene. So, the taller policeman took a couple of steps to occupy the place that had until just now been occupied by the arm-waving Lena Kukulova and demanded in a voice that precluded any arguing:

“Madam, where is your cat? We’re taking it down to the station.”

To which the shorter policeman added:
“Until we clear all this up.”

Now Maria finally realized that Barsik actually was the cat they were after, though what woes an adolescent feline might be able to inflict upon the Kukulovs remained a mystery to her. All that Maria could think of was that, while lounging in bed earlier that Sunday morning, Vassili had left and let Barsik out onto the balcony—“To birdwatch,” as he said. She didn’t think she had seen the cat since. Furthermore, Maria just now realized that in her rush to answer the insistent knocking, she had thrown on Vassili’s pajama jacket, which was tight around the chest and barely covered the underwear she’d hurriedly pulled on. This realization made her blush and reach for the spare lab coat hanging on a peg in the hallway. She didn’t manage to get it, though, because the taller policeman batted her hand away and demanded that she stop all her shenanigans.

“Fetch the cat; you can deal with your own things later,” the shorter policeman chipped in.

Now Maria felt unwell. Luckily, the stool originally intended for Lena Kukulova was still there, so she sank down onto it, dabbing away the beads of sweat on her forehead with a sleeve.

Maria Ivanovna’s momentary weakness brought several seconds of silence that were broken by a childishly frank question from Linda’s daughter:

“Why is Auntie Mari wearing those odd undies?” Even though the question was in Estonian, which some of the neighbors (and apparently the policemen) didn’t speak, this made Maria even worse. All she wanted was to flee her own apartment; to be done with a situation in which she’d been labelled a criminal and made a laughingstock.

Too bad that Maria’s strength had deserted her. For the policemen, it was the reverse. The more time that passed, the more demanding they became. The shorter policeman had now seized the reins. He started forcibly shoving the neighbors outside and told Maria that they’d be waiting for her at the door in five minutes.

“With or without the cat,” he said, adding ominously: “It’s up to you which one of you will be locked up.”

The Sidorkins’ door hadn’t yet fallen shut behind the last and most reluctant older sister to leave when Lena Kukulova shouted victoriously from downstairs:

“Got it!”

And just then, Maria Ivanova saw Kukulova’s outstretched hands clutching a struggling Barsik, followed by the neighbor’s face radiating utter triumph as she hurried up the stairs.

“Got it!” she repeated as she handed the cat to the taller policeman, who handed it over to his shorter colleague. At the same time, Linda’s daughter Õie (whose name all the Russian-speakers in the building had difficulty pronouncing) announced that she wanted a cat, too, to which all three sisters smiled indulgently and replied in unison (a habit developed over a lifetime together) – you’ll get one for your birthday.

Maria, who still hadn’t risen from her stool, stared pleadingly at the policemen. A single thought was going round in her head: what would she tell her sister if they really did take Barsik away? What would happen? And all of their own accord, tears started streaming down her round cheeks…

“It won’t happen again,” she vowed in an instinctively pleading voice, and added just in case: “It won’t happen again.”

To which Lena Kukulova declared that one didn’t have to be killed twice. The shorter policeman, who for some reason had lost his nerve again, asked:

“Who’s been killed?”

“You have!” Kukulova snapped.

This in turn irritated the taller policeman, who advised her to think before she opened her mouth: “Otherwise, you’ll be going with the cat.”

With that, Lena Kukulova’s nerves finally snapped. She began shrieking once again and all the rage that had so far been directed at Maria now swung towards the policemen. The choice of words that Kukulova rained down on them suddenly turned the faces of the spinster sisters bright red. Even Linda, for whom vulgar Russian language was just foreign-language babble, remarked: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” To which the sisters added as one: “And in front of a child!” But the child herself was tickled pink, because the policeman had handed the cat over to her.

Now, the taller policeman raised his voice too. Looking threateningly into Lena Kukulova’s eyes, he said:

“Citizen, enough of this hysteria! What’s all this about the cat, anyway? This woman is sitting here calmly,” he said, pointing to Maria, “while you’re causing a scene.”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s all this’?!” Kukulova roared. “It nearly killed Kostya!”

“A cat can’t kill a person,” Linda noted in a heavy Estonian accent, clarifying: “It’s too small.”