Once upon an ending, years ago, oh, so many years ago, there was an old woman who lived with a large, gray cat, in a deep-down basement on a winding, twisting street in that strange and curious place known as Greenwich Village. Her rooms were way beneath a nightclub where people met to have a good time. She lived under The Fat Black PussyCat Cafe on Minetta Alley. The noise from the people above enjoying themselves never bothered her because she was never home at night. She went out selling souvenirs to the people who came to Greenwich Village to look around and stare at the artists who seemed so strange to them. All the men had beards and all the women wore long, black dresses and black stockings. Although the old woman never made much money she somehow managed to survive by selling the things she found in the trash outside all the busy restaurants and nightclubs. And every night she and her big, gray cat would walk the streets of Greenwich Village and sell what they had, to the out-of-towners. When her souvenirs were all sold, she would spend the rest of the night hunting for new souvenirs to sell.
She was as old as she was poor and lived in a dark, dusty room beneath the building, under the sidewalk, on top of the subway. No one even knew she lived there. It was an old sub-basement that had long been abandoned. No one ever saw her during the day. And those that saw her at night never knew where she came from or where she went as the sky turned from night to day. She just faded into the early mist and disappeared with the street sweepings. Below the street, where she lived, she was surrounded by huge stacks of used magazines, newspapers, paper plates and cups, menus, old party hats with bent points and faded sparkles, and hundreds of wrinkled
balloons that once were bursting with someone’s breath. She and her cat were very mysterious.
In years gone by, when she was young, she was a singer and a dancer, but that was before she grew old and mysterious. Her only friend was her cat whose name was Channa, a name more familiar to us as Hannah, which in Hebrew means, "full of grace, mercy and prayer."
Although the old lady was not in the least bit religious her most cherished memory was Chanukah, the Feast of Lights. She always thought about how her mother would made latkes, made of freshly grated potatoes and gently fried to a crisp; how her father always came home with a present for her each of the eight nights of Chanukah. Sometimes a hair ribbon, sometimes a game. He never forgot. But the best part for her was the lighting of the candles and the singing of the prayer for the lighting of the candles.
Oh, the brilliance of the lit candles made her eyes sparkle and her mind race with pleasure. Each night of Chanukah one candle was lit with the singing of praise for the brave men in the ancient temple and the miracle of the burning oil that lasted eight days even when there was hardly enough for more than . . . who knows. By the eighth night, the Menorah in her home was filled with eight dazzling candles, with flames that licked the walls with orange and black shadows and she loved every part of the Chanukah celebration. It was a time of heroes, and candles, and good-smelling food, and gifts, and expressions of love and the joy and safety of being together. But the candles, oh, the candles, that was the most beautiful part of her memory. And it was the only memory to which the old woman clung. All the rest of her life was washed away behind a blurry window that was just too foggy to see through.
Misfortune fell upon the old woman, when she slipped and fell going down the steep basement stairs early one Sunday morning. She slid down the steps, rolling over several times, once on top of Channa, causing the cat to scream out a loud meeow of pain. The two of them limped to the sub-basement and collapsed into bed. It was the night before Chanukah.
After a full day’s sleep, the cat awoke first, shook her head, licked her sore paw and perched on the woman’s pillow, just staring at her. As the day wore on the ailing woman finally opened her eyes and was comforted to see Channa sitting next to her, gently watching over her.
"Oy vey, I can hardly move, Channa. I think I better just lie here until I feel better. If only I could eat something I might feel good enough to light a candle tonight. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. I don’t have a candle. Not one. Not one candle for Chanukah. Don’t just sit there, like a dead chicken. Get me a candle."
She then laughed to herself.
"I must really be crazy. Look how I’m hollering at a cat, sweet pussy that she is. Well, no beautiful holiday this year. Maybe never again. If I could just have one more Chanukah. It would be so beautiful."
She mumbled something else to the cat and waved her arm in the air and then drifted into a deep sleep.
Channa the cat, leapt off the pillow, and quickly darted out of the basement and up the dirty, old stairway leading to the street. She was not used to going out in daylight and hesitated when she saw the fading sun barely lighting the bottom of the sky. The mass of gray fur and muscle moved hush-hush like a fur-covered roller skate without a foot in it. She ran down the gutter of the narrow street like a beast on the prowl. She was hunting but not for anything that she could eat. Finally, after many cat minutes, a long time, she stopped behind one of the restaurants where she spotted a large, white box sitting on top of a trash can. Like a hairy ballerina she jumped on the metal lid and peeked inside the cardboard cave. Whatever was inside seemed to satisfy her. She pushed it to the ground with her paws and dragged it down the street with her large, pointy teeth.
The sun was almost gone when the old woman opened her eyes to see where the noise was coming from. It was from Channa’s throat. She was meowing the most irritating merrrowows she had ever produced. The old woman looked down and saw a tattered and torn white box on the floor next to the cat. Channa arched her back and then stretched her front legs in a long, delicious pull and licked her lips with a soft purr. She kept walking circles around the box with her tail high in the air until the woman sat up.
"What’s this, you trombenyika cat, you? Must you make so much noise? Yes, yes, my darling sweetheart Channa, I love you, but this is the first night of Chanukah and my legs hurt and I don’t even have a candle to light. Can’t you leave me to die in peace? What harm did I ever do to you? All right, so I looked mean at you. But what about you, didn’t you look at me with a farbisseneh punim, you sour-faced pussycat, you? It was an eye for an eye."
The cat said nothing but kept circling around the beat-up white box. It was as if she were saying, "Look inside. Look inside the box."
"What’s this box? Channa, did you drag this in off the street? What’s the matter with you, you meshuggeneh cat."
The old woman felt a sharp pain in her back and winced. She fell back onto her old yellowed pillow. The cat circled around the box eight times, meowing louder than before. The old woman slowly sat up once again and looked at her. As she did, the cat flipped back the lid of the box with her paw.
The woman stretched her neck forward and peered inside the box. Her mouth opened wide with surprise and she was speechless, silent as she tried to understand what she saw. She reached out with her arm in pain and dragged the box along the floor, closer to her just to be sure she wasn’t dreaming or in some strange mystical state of mind that she always thought a person fell into just before they were about to die.
With trembling hands she frantically tore away the sides of the box so she could see its contents without having to move her neck. When the sides were finally down she fell back on her pillow with exhaustion. But, she had a huge smile on her face as she stared up at the ceiling and shook her head from side to side. Inside the box was the remaining half of a yellow cake with white icing covering it like a snowy rooftop. Written in gold icing were the words, "Happy Birthday Bet . . " Bet’s friends and relatives to be sure, ate the rest of the words. But the best part was the candles. There were nine half-burnt candles left on the cake.
"Enough, you sweet catseleh, for the eight days. We’re going to have Chanukah anyway, aren’t we, Channa?"
And the old woman’s pain faded and was replaced with the joy and the supreme pleasure of her lit candles. She was a member of the audience as she sat up in her bed and watched their mighty flickering dance. They burned with a beautiful, brilliant, I-told-you-so light from her childhood dreams and remembrances of other times and other places and other people and the sounds of love and laughter and a family together. And she reached down and lovingly caressed her cat with a gnarled, veiny hand, who jumped onto the bed in her clumsy way, and curled up next to her and sat quietly as they both stared at the orange and black shadows. Channa’s eyes glistened in their glow . "Chanukah, oh, Chanukah, my Channa gave me Chanukah. We’re having a holiday now, aren’t we? You, sweet pussycat, are my very own miracle and a gift from God. I am very grateful."
Mordecai Siegal’s most recent book is “”The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year (Simon and Schuster) His next book will be, “”THE COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the Cat Fanciers’ Association,”” to be published by HarperCollins. His most durable books are “”The Cornell Book of Cats (Villard),”” “”The Davis Book of Dogs (Harper Collins), “”Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt,)”” “”When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown)”” and the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster)”” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers Association.