Polio Cats

by Rita Ashley
(Medford OR USA)

A rare smile crossed Ben’s lips as he remembered leaving Poland with the stolen money from Slavatizki’s hidden stash. One night last year, after a cow had been slaughtered and sold, he had seen Slavatyzki retrieve the box and deposit money earned from the sale. Rather than deliver the newly butchered meat as Slavatizki had ordered him to, he slipped back to learn the location of the secret stash.

The slime covered box shook in his hand as he held his only chance at a future that did not include more beatings; more pogroms. When the rusted tin opened, he found over 5000 zloty and a few dozen kopeks, enough for passage to America and a fresh start at his own life. Ben left Poland for New York without regret.

After only two weeks prowling New York streets, he became restless. For the first time in his sixteen years, he was neither working nor recovering from work. His enslavement on Slavatizki’s farm had taught him this: Be active or suffer brutal blows from the ever-present worn leather horse strap. He needed a plan.

The cure for his idleness presented itself one morning when Ben stopped for a fresh bagel at a small, crowded bakery a block from his room, where hurried dock workers and immigrants rushed to get familiar food before a day filled with the twin concerns of new immigrants—boredom and emergency.

He watched the other patrons until a man in clean trousers and a dirty blue shirt too big for his small frame approached him. He smiled at Ben and asked in German accented Yiddish, “Boychik, money you could use?”

Ben, unable to find his voice, just stared at his interrogator.

“You want to round up cats? They give people the polio and we need to get them out of New York. Too many children are sick from this polio. The city will give you ten cents for every cat you bring to kill.”

Ben liked cats. In Poland, people welcomed cats because they had a voracious appetite for rats, mice and other vermin. His favorite cat, an ordinary grey Tom, sometimes followed Ben into the field as he dug the trenches to plant potatoes. On occasion, the Tom would drop a still warm bird next to Ben as he put on his torn leather boots in the morning. Sometimes he would see the pulse still beating in its tiny throat.

He liked to watch cats hunt. They stalked their prey, seldom chasing, relying instead on getting close enough to surprise their prey. One sunless afternoon on the farm, he had rested on his pitchfork to watch a yellow tabby hold a pose for almost twenty minutes, frozen because the rat he stalked had noticed him. When the rat turned away, the cat flowed towards it, noiseless on muffled paws, and leaped onto the prey for a quick kill. The cat ate with haste and left no remains. Ben had stood fascinated by its effortless, feral efficiency.

He had no particular desire to kill cats and he had no idea why anyone would want to. Still, he paid close attention to understand the man.

“Kinder are dying!’ keened the stranger. “This poliomyelitis cripples babies or they die. They can’t breath and their legs become useless. The cats give them the polio and we want the cats dead.” He did not say that he had lost his one-year-old son, his only child, to the disease only a few months before.

The stranger’s passion made Ben draw back and look away, oblivious to the importance of what the man said. He had no idea what polio was, but the opportunity to do something other than stroll the streets convinced him. “Where do I take them when I get them? How many should I get?”

“Get as many as you can and bring them to the back of the hospital on Seventh Avenue at four tomorrow. You will get paid then. My name is Jacob Abramowitz. Look for me.”

The next day, Ben rose early, slipped into his warmest clothes, secured his wad of bills deep inside his trouser pocket and walked the two blocks from his lodging to the docks. The skies threatened rain, and he drew his heavy wool shirt close and shivered from the damp wind blowing off the water. He spotted a pile of discarded burlap bags in back of one of the buildings, the perfect size for captured cats. He picked up as many sodden bags as he could handle and ignored their stench. He stuffed them into one that was especially large and hoisted the wet stinking bags onto his back.

Ben had built many rabbit traps on the farm, and now he collected wood, a few nails, and a rock to pound with from the refuse dumps near the ships. He found discarded fish heads and entrails for bait in the bins where fishermen cleaned their catch.

On Ben's many excursions around New York, he had noticed an alley where cats congregated in the early afternoon for a pre-prandial snooze. He went there now and set up three hastily constructed enclosures with door flaps that would close and stay closed when the cat pulled on the fish debris. His design had worked well enough in Poland to keep him supplied with fresh rabbits he had cooked and eaten out of sight of the Slavatyzkis. If he could catch rabbits, he could catch cats.

He didn't wait long before a small black cat, greedy for fresh fish, ran into the trap. The door on the trap shut, and Ben earned his first ten cents. He grabbed the cat, stuffed it into one of the burlap bags, and tied the top shut with a strip he tore from another bag.

Ben glowed with the accomplishment, and with excitement at the idea that he would be paid for his work for the first time. His cheeks flushed as he contemplated the coins he would be paid. Within three hours, he had bagged fifteen cats.

The bags stuffed with angry cats made his journey to the hospital slow and painful. The cats struggled to break free. They lunged inside the bags and pulled him off balance. He fell to his knees at one point and one of the cats broke from the bag, hissed and sprinted away. Ben's arm oozed blood from scratches and bites he had endured when he transferred the cats from the trap to the bags, but anticipation of his first wages numbed him to the pain and sting of his wounds.

Ben spotted two boys about ten feet in front of him. Filthy and emaciated, they wore rags and also carried bags of cats.

"Vee geyts?" offered the smaller of the two boys.

Ben judged their age at about fourteen years and assumed they lived on the streets. He fell in step with them, certain they knew the way. They walked ten blocks before they reached the vicinity of the hospital, exhausted from wrestling with the squirming burlap prisons. They found Seventh Avenue, and with renewed energy, they ran to the back of the hospital.

The area was deserted except for a small, barely clothed child who hugged himself as he shivered on the steps. One of Ben's new companions asked the boy in broken English, "Where are the people who pay for cats?"

"There ain't no one who pays for cats. They just tole you that so you would get them yourselfs." The child stood up, pointed at the squirming bags, and laughed.

Ben came at the boy with clenched fists, but the child sprinted away before he could land a blow.

Once Ben grasped what had happened he screamed, he cursed, he yelled, and he fought back tears of anger. The two younger boys watched him ball up his fits and curse God and Abramowitz. "Abramowitz," he yelled, "A broch tsu dayn legn, your life should be a disaster. A chaleyre, a curse on you. You should eat dirt before you die." He wailed, but yelling was not enough.

Cheated out of his first wages, he wanted revenge. The cats would pay. He assaulted the bags of cats with open rage. He kicked at them. He lifted one bag filled with four frightened captives over his head, spun it around and smashed it to the ground. The cats screeched their last cries. Cat blood spurted everywhere.

His two young companions took up the cause. They found large rocks and used them as hammers. They pummeled their bags and shouted obscenities in Yiddish and faulty English as they broke the cats into unrecognizable pools of blood and feline debris. Finally the hospital yard fell silent.

Their rage spent, the three blood soaked boys looked at each other one last time, wandered back into the streets and went their separate ways.

Read more stories by this author: Thief Among Thieves

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