Hilda

Camilla Marrese
 
Hilda
Hilda’s house is a house with white walls. The light from the sunset hits one of them in a bright orange rectangle, in an effect that is a bit like a painting. Hilda’s hair, which is even whiter again than the walls of the house, shines too: it’s six o’clock on a late winter’s evening and she is heading home, carrying two bags of shopping.

Hilda’s house is situated just past the village, right before you come to the woods. It’s ten minutes on foot from the grocery store: a trip which, over the years, has become a kind of ritual for her (she asks herself what hasn’t become a ritual over her seventy years of life, and perhaps ritual is just another way of saying that every day is the same?) Hilda’s thoughts are interrupted by a sudden movement. Not today as well, she thinks. That’s four nights in a row I’ve seen a cat on this path. She is terrified of cats: their movements are too quick, too unpredictable for Hilda, who takes everything slowly. As she has done on the previous days, Hilda stops. The cat, immobile, crouches and watches her. Its pupils are unmoving, like a statue. It rises up onto its hind legs and begins to mew. Hilda turns on her heel and takes a less direct route, longer and more arduous, which definitely isn’t good for legs – but at least there’s no sign of the cat. By the time she arrives home it is completely dark. She has just set down the bags to unlock the door, when behind her she hears a movement in the grass. Casting a furtive and desultory glance over her shoulder, she hurries into the house as quickly as she can, and slams the door forcefully behind her before the animal can slip in with her. Hilda looks at her hands. They’re trembling: it’s barely noticeable, but they’re trembling. She takes up her shopping and proceeds to restock the fridge.

Later, on the sofa, with a book on her lap and a cup of herbal tea in her hand, Hilda wonders whether she might have injured the little creature when she slammed the door. Her sudden reaction had been so instinctive and involuntary, and what’s more Hilda had never been much blessed by way of coordination. The fear of having squashed it, or hit it at least, overcomes her. Might she have killed it even? She might certainly have done it some damage. It is with a sense of unease that she goes to bed that evening. She thinks about the delicacy she lacks, but which Arthur had in spadefuls. He would have liked that strange animal. As she tries to fall asleep, the memory of her husband makes her cling to her pillow a little tighter than usual.

The next morning she breakfasts quickly and when she opens the kitchen door everything is as normal: the bright light, the dusting of frost on the grass and there’s nothing to suggest a crime scene, no blood or animal remains. When Hilda sees the cat again that evening, on the same path, she feels an ounce of relief: she hadn’t quite been able to shake the thought that, even in the absence of any bloody evidence, she might still have injured the creature.
The scene of the previous day repeats itself: having evaded it on the path, Hilda happens upon it again, stationary, near to her house, this time a dozen or so metres from her front door. When, some ten minutes later, she looks out of the window, she can still see it there, curled up asleep in the crisp evening. The unnerving sensation of being followed gives way to a strange new regret when, a little later, she peers through her curtains and finds that she can no longer see it. For days this sequence of events repeats itself. The cat’s distant presence becomes a constant and Hilda - Hilda who would never in a million years have fed an animal for fear that she wouldn’t be able to get rid of it again - wonders whether she should give it a bit of the tuna left over from dinner. It’s probably all the same anyway. She brings out the food in a plastic bag and pauses just outside the front door. She would like to set it out on a little plate, but once she’s out there she only manages to empty it haphazardly onto the lawn before scurrying back inside to watch safely from the window. The cat watches her without moving, then slowly and cautiously, it approaches. Hilda is pleased to see that it moves with more refinement now.
Two months later everything is static, unchanged. Though she has no idea where it goes during the day, Hilda finds it there every evening. The first physical contact might never have happened had it not been for one afternoon when, as she is hanging out the laundry, Hilda suddenly turns to find it next to her. Expecting to be scared out of her wits, Hilda is surprised to find that, aside from the usual tremors in her hands, she feels no particular fear. The cat crouches and watches her. It’s clear that it can tolerate her presence far more than she can its, and the thought of this inferiority annoys her. Hilda bends down. Ever since she can remember Hilda has been afraid of cats, a fear that is as deeply embedded in her as her love of books and art, her indifference to politics, and her hatred of spicy food and sport. Hilda’s mother had been terrified of cats and it was the same for her. She trusted in this fear instinctively, animalistically. She resists now the atavistic urge to flee. The cat rolls onto its back and, for the first time in her life, Hilda can hear the sound of purring. When, after several attempts to approach it, she forces herself to stroke it, she feels its soft fur between her fingers, the bones just beneath it, the vibrations. She gets up and without looking back, walks towards the house.
It takes a while before Hilda will allow the cat into the house, longer still before she’s happy for it to sit on her armchair and, eventually, in her arms (and more than a couple of cups of tea are smashed in the process when Hilda jumps with fright). With the cat crouched on her lap, Hilda finds that she is happy not to be the only living thing able to admire the paintings in the house, to feel the softness of the carpet and the cold of the marble flooring beneath her feet.
Now, when Hilda returns from her walk every day, she knows she will find the cat there. When she’s cooking she wonders which leftovers the cat might like more or less, and when she sits down to read she calls it onto her lap: she holds the book in one hand, and strokes its fur - hurriedly and a little clumsily - with the other. Never in all her seventy years has Hilda known a relationship like this one, founded on mutual independence and born from nothing more than a chance meeting.
One night, just as she’s falling asleep, she says to herself: who knows what else I’ve yet to discover about myself, how many other things I may be missing out on. Suddenly she imagines herself as a pianist, or a primary school teacher, or an explorer of distant lands, and as she’s imagining all this she grasps her pillow a little tighter. She often finds herself saying to the friends who call her sometimes in the evening: “If you’d told me even a year ago things would turn out like this, I’m telling you now, I’d never have believed you.”

Translation by Rosanna Forte

 
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