It’s hard to find historical fiction that accurately captures the worldview and mindset of the people depicted—and exceedingly rare to encounter characters whose lives and thoughts feel expansive, rather than subtractive, in the remote past. Croatian writer Robert Periić’s latest novel, A Cat at the End of the World, transports the reader to ancient Syracuse, and then to a colonial outpost in the Adriatic. The protagonist Kalia, servant to a wealthy family and object of torment by the scion Pigras, is accompanied by a cat named Miu and shown the first glimmer of care by a woman named Menda. In this excerpt, Periić shows how a cat's ungovernability can undo a hierarchy.
“What can you do, he was born to be a master,” said Menda, consoling Kalia when Pigras had been nasty to him. “That’s what the gods wanted,” she would add, so that Kalia would accept it.
And perhaps because he’d accepted it, he found it easier to take, it felt ordinary.
Menda had said all this, however, because she thought Kalia would suffer if she had told him otherwise. Menda was born free, and she was planning to tell Kalia very different things one day about all of it, but she knew for now that this was the best way.
Then Kalia saw that the gods weren’t helping Pigras at all when it came to Miu accepting him as her master, or even as her friend. Kalia had at first felt uncomfortable for Pigras so that he gently scolded Miu and handed her over to Pigras, but she would just wiggle out and go back to Kalia. It wasn’t because he was afraid of Pigras’s ire. He was worried for Miu and there was a confusing fear in him about what it all meant.
He saw that Miu went against everything he’d ever been told: that Pigras was born to be a master. He saw Miu walk all over it. And walk all over it calmly. It now appeared that Pigras wasn’t actually born to be a master at all.
Kalia told as much to Menda and she got angry; she said that Pigras was born to be a master, that the gods had wanted it and that one shouldn’t either question it or think about it. Pigras had, in the meantime—because he’d been told in the other wealthy households that it was the only way with cats— tried to win over Miu and be nice to her. He was trying to please her, stroked her, and took her scratches, which he wouldn’t have done had he not had a great desire to win her over from Kalia and prove something to himself. The fact that Miu sat in Kalia’s lap and licked his ears, while she treated Pigras as if he were a nobody, drove Pigras into a tearful rage. Some might say that she treated Pigras like trash, but this wasn’t true since Miu was a lot more interested in trash than in Pigras.
Pigras had, however, decided to be nice to Miu, so he took all his rage out on Kalia, whom he’d push into the mud, or hit “accidentally,” as if it had been a joke, and Kalia wasn’t allowed to frown because then Pigras would say, “What’s that frown for?” Kalia waited for Miu to stop coming to him and accept Pigras as her master. That would be best, he thought, because he saw that Pigras would rather throw out the animal than let her be Kalia’s cat.
He regarded objects close to him as if they were at a distance, especially an approaching Pigras. Not because Pigras would hit him, but because it had been easier to withstand him before, when he had believed Pigras was born to be a master. He could see now that this wasn’t the case. Whatever Menda said, the truth was plain to see.
Menda watched Kalia, worried—he appeared vacant. Still, when Miu jumped into his lap, a smile would appear on his face.
Things spiraled after that. Pigras was getting worse, and Menda took Kalia into the kitchen, saying she needed help, and closed the door so, she said, the cat wouldn’t come in, having brought him bad luck.
Again, Kalia thought he didn’t understand words properly. Such as good and bad luck. Miu’s presence had brought on many of Pigras’s punches. But he felt different. He used to think that he was worse than Pigras, but Miu gave him a different feeling and that feeling now lived inside him, confused, like good and bad luck.
She would sometimes fall asleep on top of him, as if that sleep signified the joy of trust.
That’s why he asked Menda why she’d said that thing about the donkey. He remembered. Why did she say there was no use from being loved by a donkey, but that she was still glad for it? And why did she tell him about the turtle? Menda waved her hand, as if she was sorry she’d said anything in the first place. No, she never should have told him that useless things could be good. That is how masters could afford to think about luxury, but not slaves.
Pigras only managed to lure Miu to the master’s part of the house by offering her food—and this part of the house was bigger and brighter. But then she would run back into the kitchen and the dark shed where Kalia slept. The fact that Pigras was merely putting up with her so he could retrain her, and best Kalia, she seemed able to sniff out.
Pigras didn’t understand how such an animal might be retrained. He asked around in other houses, but no one knew. There was no way to train them, they said, because if someone bothers her, punishes or hits her, she doesn’t love that person and avoids them, that’s all. You had to be nice to her and wait for her to warm up to you.
Pigras waited, gave her meat and fish, she didn’t refuse, would eat it all up, wait around to see if more was coming, and then she’d leave to find Kalia and lie before his feet, looking around as if lazily checking that the world was still in perfect order.
“This animal has no gratitude at all,” Pigras complained to Menda, who nodded. “What does she think? I think she thinks I am her servant!”
Kalia watched this and saw that Menda almost laughed.
Then he thought perhaps she did like Miu a little bit.
“But how could she think that, young master,” Menda said. “She doesn’t think. It’s a stupid animal.”
“Couldn’t be more stupid if she tried. I didn’t even know there were such stupid animals.”
“Me either,” Pigras said.
“I don’t think you should bother with her anymore.”
Menda thought Pigras might give up, that’s how exhausted he looked.
“But she thinks I’m her servant!” Pigras shouted.
He put his head in his hands. Menda was afraid that he’d hit Kalia again, perhaps even Kalia and Miu both, but it seemed he was spent. He was stronger, but he couldn’t win.
“Young master, are you in pain?” Menda asked him, worried. She waved at Kalia to move to the kitchen.
“I hate that animal,” said Pigras. “I have hated it from the first day.”
“Oh, ignore it, she doesn’t deserve…”
“I can’t, I can’t ignore it,” said Pigras. His breathing was rough, as if he were inhaling rage and exhaling misery.
Menda gave him some water. She stroked his head. Pigras sat down on the ground, relaxed, and fell on his back. He raised his knees and stomped on the ground, hollering with pain. Zenobia turned up quickly.
“What’s the matter with him?” she shouted.
“I don’t know, noble mistress, perhaps he’s been stung by a wasp?”
“It must have been some animal,” Zenobia said. “I know which one too. He cries because of it all the time.”
“Oh, really?” asked Menda.
“He’s in love with it.”
“Is that possible?”
“It’s possible. My child is dying inside, I can see it,” said Zenobia seriously.
Menda wanted to tell Zenobia that he didn’t love the cat. She was quite sure of it. And she saw that the cat knew. She herself pretended not to love Miu, but Miu still went around her feet. She seemed to know that Menda loved her a little bit. She wanted to tell Zenobia that he hated the cat, that he only wanted to own it; she wanted to tell her that the cat knew this. But it was not wise to contradict her at that moment. She watched the wailing Pigras as his body twisted in pain, his mother embracing him. He was stomping his feet and raising up dust, as if he were a bit crazy.
“This is awful,” Zenobia said. “What kind of a curse is this?”
“I will make him a calming herbal tea,” Menda said.
The following day, after Pigras had been rolling around on the floor in pain, Menda had a lot of work in the kitchen because there was a celebration. She also had a head full of thoughts, What will happen to Kalia if Pigras carries on with his madness?
She had spent the whole night thinking how she might tell Zenobia that Pigras was not all right. Even if he is a master— she could say—not everything in his life is going to turn out as he wanted. That’s not how life works. The child had not learned to lose and was not prepared properly. He could turn into one of those madmen who goes crazy because they’re not winning and become pitiful. But no one pities them. It would not be easy to say this to Zenobia. She’d have to say it sideways, so that nothing was clear, and Zenobia would surely fly into a rage anyway. Maybe she could say something to Sabas, perhaps the following day, after the celebration. Because it was for Pigras’s own good. The child won’t learn to be a winner and a leader this way, which is what they have planned.
If Sabas would hear her out, she thought, perhaps this thing with Miu might get resolved too.
She got Kalia out of the way by calling him to peel the vegetables. When Pigras looked inside the kitchen in the late morning, he looked perfectly fine. She said, “I see you’re better, young master. You’re not in pain?”
“No, not at all,” said Pigras, looking jolly.
“You were in a lot of pain yesterday?”
“It was my tooth,” said Pigras.
“The main thing is that it doesn’t hurt today.”
Later on, Miu wasn’t in the yard, and when Kalia started looking for her, Pigras walked after him for a while, as if he was looking for her too. Kalia felt, however, that Pigras wasn’t looking for her, but was mocking his search. He asked, “Do you know where she is?”
Pigras laughed, as if this was what he’d been waiting for. “I tied her up. I was too nice to her.”
“What are you looking at me for? She’s mine.”
Kalia averted his eyes. He looked down at his celebration sandals, which had once belonged to Pigras.
Pigras added, “You’re all mine. From now on, she will be on a leash.”
He walked off victoriously.
Kalia sat down on the densely packed ground outside the kitchen. The sun shone on him, but he was looking straight ahead, as if he were in darkness.
Menda came out. “Come on, don’t be so sad. It’s only an animal.”
“Don’t speak like that, come on, get up!” Menda lifted him up onto his feet and went back to work in the kitchen. She was preparing more food because of the celebration.
Kalia walked around the yard in circles. The fact that there was nothing that was his was not new, but he still felt that everything had been taken from him. It seemed that everything he could see had already been taken from him and that he was far from everything. Farther than ever, as if he were entering a void. He didn’t know what to do with that feeling, so he walked around in circles, in an odd way, like someone who might shut himself up inside these circles. He repeated words in his head and separated them into syllables. It was a sunny day, and occasional sounds of celebration could be heard from the city because the Syracusans were welcoming the victors, liberators of some city whose name Kalia couldn’t remember, and Sabas and Zenobia had gone to town to greet the victors, ceremoniously beautiful and upright. They must have been very happy because Sabas gave Kalia a tiny smile in passing, hardly visible, blurry like some thing out of a dream that you quickly forget, and that’s how Kalia felt, as if he were in a dream where you walk around in circles, and the things around you move even faster.
Soon after, Pigras turned up again. “She scratched me and bit me again, look!” He showed the scratches on his arm. He complained, as if Kalia was supposed to console him and also take responsibility for it. “You will punish her!”
Kalia watched him as if someone who’d been stirred from a dream. Pigras’s words separated into single letters. The image of Miu scratching Pigras and resisting him brought him back to reality.
“We’ll do things differently now,” said Pigras.
He grabbed Kalia by the tunic and dragged him. Kalia felt that Pigras had thought of something bad, but he surrendered to walking. Pigras took him upstairs, to the beautiful part of the house, where Miu squatted in a corner, tense. When she saw Kalia, she meowed in a jerking melody, as if she were posing a question. Pigras told Kalia to wait and went into the next room. Miu’s repeated meow now sounded like a question with a howl at the end. She doesn’t understand why I am not setting her free, realized Kalia, and he stroked her back, which startled her, and then she looked him straight in the eyes as if to see if he was still her friend. Kalia was now entirely present in the moment, his heart pounding in his ears.
Pigras returned with a pair of iron scissors and said, “Cut her claws!”
Kalia looked at him, startled with fear. He looked at the large scissors. Even if he knew how to do it, he’d hurt her with those scissors.
Kalia spread out his arms in wonder, as if in prayer, and stuttered, “I, I…”
I can’t, he wanted to say. Perhaps he had said it silently. “You can’t?” Pigras said.
Kalia was catching his breath and nodding his head limply.
“I can, do you want me to do it?” Pigras asked as if he was playing.
Kalia said nothing, was waiting for something, a miracle. Pigras continued. “But why should I, when I have you?
Why should she hate me? I have been so stupid. I am her master and she needs to love me. She needs to hate you!” Kalia watched him. There was drumming in his ears.
“That’s why I have you,” said Pigras.
Kalia now thought he understood it all. The walking around the courtyard, the void into which he had been sinking, the fact that nothing was his.
“Says who?” Kalia asked, watching the enormous scissors and then Miu on the floor.
“My mother told me,” said Pigras, who was not afraid of Kalia at all and didn’t have to hide anything from him. “We are good. And we don’t have to do bad things. That’s what our servants are for.” It seemed for a moment that he was speaking with Zenobia’s voice. Then he said, “Take the scissors!” He put the iron scissors into Kalia’s limp hands and he now held them in front of Miu.
“These are big scissors,” said Kalia. “These are big scissors, big scissors, big…”
“Stop repeating and cut!” Pigras shouted.
Kalia saw that it was all over, everything Menda had told him was over, it was over with the house; Pigras was saying something else, Kalia couldn’t recognize the words, just his tone; as he moved the scissors from one hand to the other, it seemed that the wind was howling in his ears. And when the scissors stopped in his left hand, he used his right fist to punch Pigras in the nose with all his might, heard the punch, then watched with surprise as Pigras fell because he couldn’t work out when exactly he had decided to hit him. He saw Pigras’s nose bleeding as he, looking up as if blind, tried to crawl away from Kalia. He then turned his palms upward as if to defend himself from the next blow.
Kalia stood there for a moment, then squatted, took Miu, cut the leash, put the scissors into his pocket, pressed Miu to his chest. He looked at Pigras crawling.
The wind blew through the windows, down the stairs. Through the yard.