Photo Credit: Sebastien Batardy
“I suppose there is something of meanness in most people,” the grandmother said, her hands, brown speckled canyons of blue and white, tucking the floral duvet gently around the red-haired, snow-faced girl. “My father perhaps had more than his share.”
Her voice was simple, her words secure in their stating, as if she were explaining the multiplication tables to her students or the proper timing for cooking an egg. The German lilt, a musical underscore to all her words even though she had been born in America, seemed even more pronounced on the word meanness; perhaps she noticed it, for she sucked her teeth slightly after she said it, a mauve wax stain drawing a horizon line across her incisors.
The granddaughter did not question where her bedtime story was going, having begun in such a way. On the nightstand the leather book of fairytales, with its gold-lettered title long lost to the fingers of children and grandparents lay dormant, waiting for another evening when the grandfather would be home from walking the dog in time for the red-haired girl’s bedtime. At first the granddaughter had begged to stay up until his return, but when the grandmother had told her she might have the rare treat of milk in the bedroom, she had agreed.
With the absence of the grandfather and the presence of the grandmother, the room was somehow changed. The plain, neat furniture seemed bigger and the walls whiter. Yet the little girl still felt comfort knowing that the monsters were not under the bed or lurking behind the sliding closet doors. The strong presence of the woman seated on the edge of the bed assured of that.
The granddaughter snuggled further into the carved twin daybed that smelled of musty down, her hands crossed on top of the covers, hoping that coupled with her peach satin nightgown adorned in creamy lace she had the appearance of the children she had seen in the grandmother’s cross-stitch pattern book. Little angels tucked into an earthly bed of down and flowers.
“I was about your age, I believe,” the grandmother continued. “We were at the farm for Independence Day, although I did not know what that was until my father’s brother, Uncle Eerie, told me. I just knew I was going to leave the city and my chores. I had never seen any animal but dogs and cats before. And even those I had not seen as babies. Perhaps that is why I was so eager.”
The smell of musty down was soon replaced with warm hay and sweet manure as the granddaughter was herself climbing up the hayloft of Uncle Eerie’s farm, even though she’d never been there, her imagination spinning wildly on the Tilt-A-Whirl of adventure, not knowing where the story would stop. She was the grandmother at seven years old, same hazel eyes, same awkward gait caused by naturally turned out, boney feet, growing up five hundred miles north of the Texas house they now occupied as the story unwound. The eyes, green-tinted with excitement, peeked over the edge of the loft and searched for signs of fur in the sea of beige sticks. But what caught their attention first was the soft sound of mewing. It was not like the yowling of the tom cats from Detroit: this sound was soft drops of velvet pitter-patting in her ears.
She scrambled into the hayloft, knees scraping on the uneven wooden beams. Off to the right the mewing grew louder. Excitement pulsed through her so that it was easy to ignore the ant-march of itchiness twisting up her bare legs.
Back home in Detroit the house was void of animals or anything that made a mess. The mother was a stiff woman of crispness, buttons, and buckets of strong smelling water that left red, raw hands after long hours of dipping white rags. She rarely spoke English, even to her husband, who spoke little German, although he understood enough. But Uncle Eerie’s farm was a wonderland of fur and hay and flowers and strange new foods that came from the trees and the ground—it was as if the world was not sad and poor and hungry.
“There are kittens,” Aunt May had told her that morning. “In the hayloft. Pick one out if you want.”
The hazel eyes instantly sparked green, darting from one parent to the other, waiting for the inevitable refusal. No one said anything. The sound of chewing seemed to engulf the room. Moments before she had great plans to savor the fresh milk; they did not have milk at home because of the cost. But the richness was forgotten at the promise of a kitten and she had shoveled in the biscuits and milk before anyone could say another word. The overly large feet had scrambled across the clean wood floor, slipping and causing a great spill, but no one seemed to notice. She ran to where the kittens waited, warm at their mother’s side, just out of view in the hay.
The first kitten was fat and gray, obviously the head of the litter. He was unafraid of the hazel-eyed stranger, creeping through the hay. Instead he crouched and pounced, his paws barely moving from their starting position. His landing was still unsteady and he tumbled like a rolling ball onto his back. The ruckus of his spill roused the other kittens from their breakfast and they began to stumble through the hay toward their guest, slightly drunk on their morning milk. Oranges, creams, and more grays—six little mewing creatures moved toward the wide-eyed girl. The fingers danced forward to the fur, so soft. Some kittens jumped away, some leaned in. Soon all were rubbing the slim white arms and hands, face and neck. The kittens smelled like warm milk and apples. The tiny paws and tongues and noses—it was too much—and the girl forgot why she had come.
The mama, orange-striped and skinny, lay listlessly watching the scene unfold. If she was concerned for the safety of her babies, she did not show it. When a white hand strayed from the kittens to stroke her head, she purred in appreciation, letting out a tiny thankful meow. The girl inhaled deeply and wondered if this was the smell of happiness. The tickle started at her chin and crept up her face, around the outside of her mouth, culminating in the slightly upturned nose. She sneezed once. The kittens scattered.
The tears that filled her eyes were of unclear origin—the sneeze or the fleeing kittens. Possibly both. She reached blindly for fur, desperate. But all of the kittens were just out of reach. She wanted to crawl forward with groping arms, relentlessly scooping up kittens. A soft sound, like a kiss, floated through the loft as tiny yellow ears, followed by bright green eyes, peeked over the mama’s back. Paws plopped—one, two—on the mama’s back and a tiny yellow kitten emerged.
Love spread like fresh jam on warm bread and she knew she had found her kitten. It was so simple, like yawning in the sun.
“Buttercup,” she whispered. The kitten mewed slightly and then closed its eyes as it pressed its face into a white hand just moments before it was scooped up and pressed into the calico-clothed chest.
“I had never owned anything before,” the grandmother continued, her heart years away with a yellow kitten. “I had never had anything that was just mine. I waited for my parents to tell me that I could not take her. But they never said anything, one way or the other.”
After three days of visiting Buttercup in her kingdom of the hayloft, the day had arrived to take her to her new home in Detroit. The girl wondered how Buttercup would like life as a city cat, if she would be sick on the ride home, if the kitten would sleep on her bed at night.
Aunt May gave her niece a small basket to bring home her new friend, lined with a soft checkered napkin. Buttercup snuggled into the cloth with no protests, sucking slightly on her paw to lull herself to sleep as she and her new owner settled into their spot in the backseat of the Hup, right behind the father. The girl had said the kitten’s name only to herself, but she wanted to stitch it on white linen taken from the bin when the family returned home. Maybe if the piece was small enough maybe no one would notice it was missing. Aunt May and Uncle Eerie kissed their niece on the cheek and told her to enjoy the kitten. The girl’s smile could not be erased as the car pulled away from the farm with Buttercup snuggled in the cotton, sleeping, and her paw still in her mouth.
The ride to Detroit took five hours and the girl did not move for the entire trip. One hour into the trip the first cramp began in her buttocks: first the right and then the left. Fingers of pain spread from her buttocks into her hips, fingernails dragging through the back of her legs and up her spine. Still she kept the basket so motionless, so perfect.
Inside the basket, the kitten slept much of the way, her paws limp one moment, kneading the checked cloth or the air the next. The girl watched each movement with the delight of a new mother over a sleeping infant. Every twitching whisker or soft mew was a kiss on her heart even as she struggled to keep the basket still, the vines of pain wrapping themselves around her arms, causing them to shake before the pain snaked its way up her spine triggering a clench in her jaw. She could actually hear her teeth scraping together as her jaw tightened.
When the father stopped to relieve himself, she stayed in her seat, even though she felt the discomfort of fullness and the basket pressing on her bladder. But she did not want to risk her kitten being carried off or getting lost. On the road once more, the mile markers to Detroit ticked down. The girl wanted to scream, she was so excited to bring her kitten home, but she remained very still. So very still.
A hard right turn indicated that they were nearing their little home on the east side of Detroit. Her muscles started to twitch as she waited for the car to slow. A lifetime of adventures were ready to begin.
The father swung the door of the car open, his giant hand reaching into the backseat as if to grab his daughter. Instead, he grabbed the basket that had not shifted for five long hours. Jerking it from the lap, he let it hang loosely at his side as if it were an afterthought while he strode toward the metal garbage cans lining the street in front of the small house. He lifted the lid, and as simply as tossing out a used tissue, tossed the basket inside. The garbage can lid clanged once, sickening as a snapping bone. He did not look to his wife or daughter as he walked toward the house. The little girl in the backseat looked to the empty hands, tears threatening to strike.
“Bill,” the mother called after him. “Wieder hier.” Come back here.
The father paused.
“Sollten Sie nicht ihr bringen sie alles diese weise, wenn es nicht hält.”
You shouldn’t have let her bring it all this way if it wasn’t for keeps.
He did not answer, only ducked his head as he walked into the house. It wasn’t clear if he didn’t understand her, or he just didn’t care. Both were highly probable.
“Bitten,” the mother called after him. Please. He did respond.
The mother did not look at the girl, empty-lapped in the car, nor did she look at the garbage can. She just picked up her small carpet bag and walked toward the house.
“Kommen, Unna. Es gibt chores zu tun.”
Come, Unna. There are chores to do.
The girl could not move. Everything within her festered with such pain—her aching muscles, her full bladder, her stomach and chest melting into a great boil of sorrow.
“Unna.” The mother was at the door. She did not turn around to look at the girl, but her voice was like a bee sting. “Bitten,” she added, softly, the balm for the swelling wound.
The girl spun slowly on the seat. She stepped out of the car, her eyes burning as if they were being held open under the ocean. For a moment she felt as if she might be sick; the churning hot liquid gushing through her stomach and face, barely contained under her skin, might suddenly spurt forth from her mouth. Then a merciless fear punched into her, threatening to spill all that raged through her—the fear that she might hear the scratch of a claw or small meowing. Her hands pressed against her ears, wishing she could push hard enough to crush the fear from her mind. The terror was such that she did not notice the warm spreading between her legs, soaking her skirt; first hot, then cold as the fabric clung to her skinny thighs. And she ran to the house, leaving the car door open and the garbage can lid closed. Before she could pass through the door, the mother’s hands caught the girl’s shoulders, forcing her hands down and away from her ears. The girl fought back. Her hands jerked back to her head like a snapping bear trap.
“Stop it.” The mother’s hands gripped the girl’s arms again but softened to flesh shackles ringing at the frail wrists. Slowly, both mother and daughter lowered their hands. The daughter tried to look at the mother, but the older woman was occupied in the carpet bag resting at her feet.
“Nimm dies,” she said, producing a large crocheted shawl.
The girl did not move.
“Nimm dies,” she repeated, wrapping the shawl around her daughter’s waist, covering the soaked skirt. “Wascht euch vor dem Vater sieht sie.”
Clean yourself before your father sees you.
“Why?” the girl asked as the mother picked up her bag and walked into the hallway. Somehow she could not find the strength to move past the threshold.
“Warum?” she repeated in German when there was no answer.
The mother stood for a moment with her face away from the daughter. Perhaps she was looking for her husband to ensure he would not hear her answer. Perhaps she was looking for an answer.
“Denn die Welt ist grausam,” she finally whispered to herself before walking out of the hallway, tilting slightly at the weight of the bag in her hand.
Because the world is cruel.
“I have never known why he did that,” the grandmother said. “And we never talked about it again.” She licked her dry, thin lips. “Perhaps some things we are not meant to understand, only to experience.”
The granddaughter did not know what to say. Sadness like she had never known forced itself over her. Something pulled loose and floated away, a piece of preciousness blown away in the windy nighttime sky.
“I have always hoped that kitten escaped.” Her face, hollow cheeks with thin lips grasping at slightly protruding teeth, withered like the fallen crab apples littering the backyard, croned in the beams of lamplight. The granddaughter sensed that even though the woman remained in the room, she was very much alone. The sliding closet doors, suspended from the top of the doorframe, seemed to swing slightly, though there was no breeze for the windows were closed. The room felt cold.
“Good night, mien Liebling.” The kiss pressed from her craggy lips onto the granddaughter’s freckled cheek. Neither felt it. With a twist of the gold key lodged in its base, an opaque white hurricane lamp emitted its soft glow, a sentinel against the night. Even from across the room the granddaughter could make out the individual brushstrokes of the pasque flowers silhouetted by the light, each leaf and petal painted by a now-dead woman who found beauty in her handiwork instead of her marriage and daughter. The little girl was counting the bruise-colored petals when the bedroom door latch clicked into place. She plucked the petals in her mind, pasting them back and tearing them again until her tears and sleep sealed her hazel eyes, now the color of melted city snow dripped into the gutter.
On the other side of the door, in the shadowy hall, the grandmother’s hand remained on the knob, her arms itching, as they often did, the way a scratch itches as it begins to heal.
Amber Kelly-Anderson holds a BFA from New York University and MA from Sul Ross State University. She is an Assistant Professor of English and History at Howard College. Her work has been featured in The Sage, Soul Speak, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2012. Email: akelly_anderson[at]yahoo.com