Once in a birch grove, I chanced upon a cat. It was autumn — everything golden, the air heavy with the scent of fallen leaves and mouldy dampness, not a soul 'round — just me trudging along in me boots and lambswool cardigan, with a basket in hand for mushrooms. I've always been a mushroom picker, still am, I'm proper fond of mushrooms: porcini, birch boletes, honey fungus, and all sorts, *coughs* even the cheeky little flytraps. They're rather soothing, you know, but not a word to Marfa — she'd boot me out if she knew. You just stroll through the woods, bend over, and suddenly, there's a mushroom, quick as a flash, you whip it out with your knife and pop it in the basket — really simple. Here's the thing, though — it's crucial to leave the mycelium untouched, otherwise next year, you'll come back and find no mushrooms at all, and where would that leave me? Clanging shots with Petrovich? Marfa would boot me out for sure then. I love wandering in the woods, it's calming, like the mushrooms. You stroll along at your own pace, breath in all sorts of scents: earthy birch leaves, damp forest floor, distant wood smoke at times, decomposing plant matter; scratch your beard, listen to the birds, in summer, mainly, 'cause come autumn, they all flit off south, away from all this beauty! Not hearing a cuckoo these days either, not a peep, and as for the flytraps, no need to boil 'em up, you can eat ’em straight away, just don't overdo it. I knew this bloke who did overdo, a poor soul, had the golden touch he did, only good tractor driver in the village back then. You see, in the old days, every village had a witch doctor or a magus of sorts, some wise man or a woman, thus wander would that magus into the woods, gather all the nature's gifts: various mushrooms, rare berries, different kinds of bark, pinecones, bits of healing herbs, linden leaves, even tap some birch sap in spring, then come back to the village, process all that, brew up something, have a swig himself, of course, and then dish it out to folks in just the right amounts, depending on what ailed 'em — be it liver troubles, stomach pains, a sore throat, kidney or heart issues, or even matters of the soul. You see, sometimes the soul aches, especially when you’re an old timer. Then you up and walk among the birches, leaves above and below shimmering like gold, you ponder life, the past, lose yourself in nostalgia, regret a wee bit, always with a smile, mind you, but where would you be without a bit of magic concoction? That’s where 'em flytraps come in, right in that department. Me granddad used to tell me that the magus, you know, the magus would always scoff down those flytraps for his own self, never let another soul touch 'em first, for he took the brunt, as they say — thus was his role and mission, then he'd process that mushroom in his belly, filter all the worst bits through his liver, toddle off to take a leak, and pour the "potion" into bottles, but what now? Magi are scarce as hen's teeth, and it's all down to oneself to take the brunt, but mind you, don't overdo it, or you'll be pushing up daisies, like the tractor chap did. However, will you get it just right, and you'll see life clear as spring stream, the whole picture, past, present, future — all one and the same. Marfushka would say, your chakras will open up — she's daft about all that Eastern malarkey, talks about wanting to be reborn as a bloom, a little aster, and why not, right, no point in her rotting in the ground with me; better to be a flower, I reckon, isn't it? That summer, we had rain aplenty, the air was thick with damp, and come September-October, mushrooms sprouted like nobody's business, everywhere you turned, tripping over 'em, couldn't escape 'em, like from the Germans surrounding Leningrad. I lugged 'round up to two or three baskets a day, I could've carried more, but me legs wouldn't carry me. Marfa pickled eleven jars of honey fungus, seven of chanterelles, eight of porcini, and blimey, I can't even remember all of it, we dried a sackful, sent three parcels to Kolya and Nastya, our son and his wife, oh, and how many we've gobbled up, in stews with spuds, fried 'em up nicely; mushrooms, you see, they're whatever you fancy, like meat but no running 'round, and no brains, though some say another thing, such as I saw a programme on the telly, and they were saying, mushrooms have this underground thinking web, chatting away like on your internet, proper magic, like something from another planet, but folk these days, they aren't bothered, nobody goes mushrooming except me. It's like going to work, I get up in the morning, have a cuppa with me Marfa, nibble on a biscuit, throw on me cardigan, cap on head, boots on feet, basket in hand, and off I toddle, pondering life, reminiscing about the old days, loosing myself in nostalgia, sometimes even humming a tune, chewing on a dried mushroom, rustling leaves with the wind — it does so above in the tree tops, and me, well, helping down below. It's ever so nice, stops the itch in your soul — not much needed for an old pensioner like me. So there I was, traipsing through again, me boots scraping 'gainst the leaves, and lo and behold — there was fur, as sure as eggs is eggs! And straight away I thought, it had to be a bear, or some stray dog — there still are loads of 'em roaming 'round. The militia try to put 'em down, sad but nothing to be done about it. Poor old Petrovich got bitten once, spent half a year on jabs, he did, but he's alright now, limps a bit, but still gets about, though, more often he just sits there, clanging his bottles, what else is there for the poor sod to do? He's not fond of mushrooming, and doesn't seem too fond of me either. So, I got closer to that birch tree, and in its burrs (that's what I call 'em, the bark's knotty parts), there was clumps of fur sticking out every which way, not just any clumps, mind you, but proper tufts, ten, maybe twenty centimetres long, spread out like rays from the sun, all soft and fluffy, definitely not people hair. So I picked up a tuft of fur, and tried to remember all the ginger critters I knew, but me old brain ain't what it used to be, just like me legs, and when they do work, they don't work right, so I could only think of a fox, but the fur wasn't fox-like, too soft and fluffy, and too long, thus methinks, maybe it was some woodland spirit, a leshy, or a flaming red bear, though I doubts that red bears exist. Then I saw tracks, the leaves all crumpled, and a couple of metres away in the mud — a cat's paw print, as big as a tractor tyre, but I knew it for sure — cat's paws. I love cats, I can spot 'em a mile off. Take our cat, Yevsey, Yevseyka, who passed away two years ago, black as pitch he was, a demon from the depths. I found him by the river one night, barely saw him, heard something squealing, turns out it was Yevseyka. He lived with us for a good ten years, till he passed away two years back, missed him, I did. Well, I thought to meself, this is it — a tiger's on the loose, though where in blazes would a tiger come from 'round here. We're not by the Amur nor in India, are we? But then methinks, maybe it was a lynx, but then again, the paws seemed too big for a lynx, a lynx is more like a kitty cat, just a bit bigger, like a doggy, but these were proper huge paw prints. So off I went following the tracks, what else was there to do in such a situation? A gigantic cat in the birch woods, as tall as an elephant, I had to go and see, didn't I? Wandering the woods every day for nothing? Marfa would've said I'm acting like a bairn, I swear, like a wee lad, old geezer like me fancying meself a young'un, but I'm a pensioner, everything's interesting again — loads of it, strolling 'round, reading books, watching the telly now and then, pondering life and "the grandeur", ofttimes getting a bit nostalgic — all as one does. So I poked at the cat paw print again with me stick — I was using a cane by then, you see, it's handier if you get a bit dizzy and there's no birch tree nearby — to make darn sure I wasn't seeing things, and off I went, following one print and then another, every couple of meters, some just pressed leaves, others indentations in the soil, and in some even water had collected. It had rained that night, pelted down hail as big as peas. They were still lying 'round, though most had melted away by then. Walking I was, either through a tunnel or a labyrinth, I'd bet me head on it — it was El Dorado, no less, all aglow with gold, nothing but birches, like rafters, jutting out from the golden floor, propping up a golden ceiling overhead, 'round me leaves zigzagging down as if they've lost their way in the air and can't figure where to land. Suddenly, a cool daft, nay a gale, caught me unawares, and I'm slapped in the face with leaves — take that! I thought to meself, a leafy blizzard, if ever there was one — as long as I've been 'round, I've never seen such a thing. The wind gusted again, pelting me old mug with leaves, I grew tired of squinting, and those golden birch leaves, they found their way down me neck, clung to me beard, and sneaked into me sleeves — a proper tempest of leaves, no doubt about it. Be me lucky, I mused, it doesn't rain, f0r I had left me umbrella at home, hadn’t heard rain forecast on the telly that morning, there was no point in lugging it 'round for nothing. The wind seemed to die down, and I cleared me eyes to see — a cat's tail, right in front of me, maybe twenty or thirty meters off, swishing through the forest, clearly a cat's, what other beast flicks its tail like that, but this tail's huge, like a shaggy boa, reminded me of those Chinese dragons, fiery red, golden, melds right into the autumn splendor 'round me, had it not been for the birches, I might not have spotted it at all, as it stands out good 'gainst 'em, coiling 'round 'em, the sneaky one, a Chinese dragon no less. Alright, I picked up the pace, running almost, me knees creaking like that old wooden horse I carved for our lad, Kolya, he's probably forgotten about it, but it's still standing in our house, where else would it be? Would I have thrown it out? Maybe, but Marfa, she won't let me, says it's a memory, and I don't argue with her, if that wooden horse warms her soul, then it warms mine too. We've become almost one being over these fifty-odd years, I'm not even sure how much of me is Marfa and how much is still meself, but, you know, it's better that way – makes for a richer inner life, otherwise, I'd be like Petrovich, half man, half moonshine, but Marfa, she's a sight better than any moonshine. So, there I was, chasing after this enormous cat, feeling like a proper Apollo, no less, thought I'd become young again — I was so keen to see this beast, when else in life would you get such a chance? Then the cat just stopped, and I nearly jumped out of me skin, dropped me basket, tossed me cane aside, and leaned 'gainst a nearby birch tree, nearly had a heart attack, I did, me heart pounding like a steam engine's piston, wouldn't be surprised if smoke started coming out me ears. There he stood, this ginger bastard, huge, beg pardon for saying, fuckin' huge, I can't describe it any other way, greenish eyes bulging, silent, whiskers twitching, fur standing on end, and me, I calmed down a bit, straightened up, took off me cap, you know, to greet him properly, held it to me heart and gave a little wave, but noticed me hand was all bloody, must've scraped it on the birch bark when I got a fright. I tucked me hand in me pocket, stood there in silence, catching me breath, me throat raspy, heart bouncing like a rabid rabbit, and then, would you believe it, the cat spoke to me in a human voice:
—No mushrooms 'round here, old chap.
—How's that?—said I.
—Just like that, none to be found,—said the cat.
—But there were some for sure. A golden autumn. Mushroom season and all,—said I.
—That may be, but you're a goner, old chap,—said the cat.
Well, I thought, that's it then. What's this about, "a goner"? I scratched me head, pondered a bit, but nothing sprang to mind. I'm no chatterbox, mind you, prefer listening over yapping, like to soak in thoughts, you know, and the cat, silent as a shadow, peered at me with those eyes green and bright as I know no what, as if I'm on stage under the spotlight. So, in a fit of foolishness, I asked:
—Can you meow, then?
—I can,—said the cat.
—Go on then, give us a meow, will you?
The cat gazed at me silently, stretched a long, pondering look, then let out a meow, modest, but precise, very cat-like, and off he trotted into the forest, rubbing 'gainst the birches, hugging 'em with his tail, leaving his fur, rustling the leaves, until he started purring like a tractor, I swear, just like a tractor, so it felt like the whole forest trembled from it, and me? What me? I just shrugged and followed him.