It was raining the morning I woke up remembering that I was supposed to kill the cats. Well, in fact, I didn’t really have to kill the cats. I just had to hand them over to the person who would hand them over to the person who would kill them. And they weren’t ‘cats’ yet, but kittens that a stray had seen fit to lay down behind our house, near a pile of warped wooden planks and rusting metal boxes and broken garden tools. In fact, I woke up that morning remembering I really had two things to do that day if the rain ever stopped: (1) hand over some unsuspecting kittens and (2) clean up the raging chaos out back.
Because in addition to the rest of the debris, Michael had dumped the dismembered parts of several car engines in the middle of the yard where they leaked oil onto the tall grass. The neighbor-behind-us, who could just about see over the top of our hedge and into our back yard from her kitchen window, had filed a complaint with the town council about the unsightly appearance of our property.
Another neighbor – from across the road – and I talked about the stray mother cat more than one month before. I was out in front of the house checking our mailbox – not because I thought there would be anything in it but just to have something to do. The across-the-road neighbor was coming down her side of the lane, probably on her way back from the butcher or tobacco shop. The mother cat lumbered past in the public space between us.
“She’s burstin’,” the across-the-road neighbor spat out.
“Sure is,” I agreed. “Looking for a place to set down her load.”
“Better not be my wood pile again,” the across-the-road neighbor wagged her head.
“She’s been sniffing around our garden out back,” I said.
“Why doesn’t she do it in her garden,” asked the across-the-road neighbor, tossing her head in the direction of her own next-door neighbor’s place. “She’s the one who keeps feeding that cat.”
“We told her,” I began.
“Nothing good is going come of all of that fancy cat chow,” the across-the-road neighbor added.
She was so wild that cat. We all admired her. Ran loose in the road. Wolfed down her food. Ignored her young. Slinked from caresses and hissed at kindness. Teased with a flick of her tail. It seemed that no sooner had she set a litter down in the across-the-road-neighbor’s woodpile then she was heavy again.
The morning after our conversation I woke up to the sound of someone knocking on our front door. I opened it to find the across-the-road neighbor and her next-door neighbor.
“Keep your eyes peeled,” the across-the-road neighbor shrieked.
“She’s put them somewhere,” the neighbor’s neighbor confirmed. “But we can’t figure out where she’s hidden ’em.”
Just about three weeks later I was raking up some dry grass out back, trying to clean up a little but really just trying to occupy myself and had pretty much forgotten about the cats and the across-the-road neighbor’s injunction to keep my eyes peeled. But then I saw one of them. The cat must have put her kittens down this time beneath a tent of bamboo stakes we used last year to support bean vines.
She must like the feel of wood against her, I thought when I found them. I was scratching the tin rake along the hardscrabble ground when I saw this tiny, diamond-shaped head poke out and blink two blue eyes at me.
I ran off to the neighbor’s neighbor’s house to let her know that I had found the kittens. She called the veterinarian right then and there.
“You will?” she asked into the telephone.
“Will what?” I begged to know.
The neighbor’s neighbor covered the receiver with her free hand and scolded me, her eyes shining. “Sh-h-h-h!” she said. I noticed that she bit her fingernails.
“You won’t?” she continued into the receiver, frowning.
“Won’t what?” I asked.
“Sh-h-h-h!” she hissed again, shooing me away with her nail-bitten hand.
“Thank you very much, doctor,” she said, hanging up. She brought that same hand to her mouth and gnawed for a moment before turning her attention back to me.
“He said he will still put them down.”
“He will?” I asked.
The neighbor’s neighbor nodded.
I know what we both were thinking. Those kittens were almost a month old.
“He said all we have to do is deliver them to him.”
By the time I walked back to our house and around to the back yard, the kitten I had seen was no longer behind the bunch of bamboo stakes. I shifted some heavy planks around and still didn’t see any of them until I was putting the planks back in their original spot and found a little one squashed underneath and already close to death, its eyes practically still dewy from birth. It wasn’t at all like the blue-eyed one I had seen earlier, all fuzzy and perky.
The last litter at the across-the-road neighbor’s house had been easier to deal with because they looked like newborn mice when she and I found them. We picked them up before they even had a chance to open their eyes and tossed them into a shallow hole that the across-the-road neighbor’s husband had dug and then we covered them quickly with the excavated dirt, convincing ourselves that they would die gently in their sleep. The mother cat glanced at us a few times while we were burying her young alive. Her knobby spine stuck up like the points on a picket fence as she arched along the across-the-road neighbor’s stack of firewood. Then she sauntered away.
Oh, how we envied her! Continued her stylish ways. Preggers again at the first sign of heat. Another mess of little ones to be abandoned. By the time I found the latest litter at my house, that cat was already past caring. Light again. Ate several times a day. The neighbor’s neighbor kept her well fed.
Then the neighbor’s neighbor called. There were tears in her voice. “I just can’t do it. I just can’t be a part of it. I know I shouldn’t have been feeding her. But it’s hard. That cat comes up and meows right under my kitchen window!”
“You should have tried to catch her,” I said.
“You should have taken her to the vet and had her fixed.”
I heard the neighbor’s neighbor gasp.
“That’s not natural,” she said.
“Better than this,” I replied.
“I’ve got children of my own,” she retorted.
I could have asked her what that had to do with killing cats, but I didn’t. I knew the comment was intended for me, a childless woman. When I first arrived in the village, the pack of neighbors sniffed at me like I had some kind of strange odor.
That night the neighbor’s neighbor brought over the wicker basket meant to be used as the kittens’ death carriage. She was still crying when she handed me the old-fashioned picnic basket. It had a lid that flipped open on either side thanks to a set of rusting hinges in the middle.
“Just can’t do it,” she repeated. “Got kids of my own.”
I left the basket by the front door. On purpose. I saw it when I went out in the morning after the rain had stopped to get a greeting card at the village’s only general store for a former friend, a down-the-road-a-piece neighbor who now lived in town. She was getting re-married for the second time. I lingered over the proper thing to say. Best wishes for a happy marriage. A long life together. Under the circumstances the message was almost pathetic and the card was going to get to her late anyway, so I just signed my name beneath the bold CONGRATULATIONS! and then went outside again and left it in the village mail drop. I noticed the wicker basket on my way back into the house. It sat on the floor by the front door, silently accusing.
I tried to reason out how to avoid having to deliver those kittens. I figured the key to the whole thing was to leave the wicker basket inside the house by the front door. We had condemned the creaking back door that winter because it no longer closed properly. Michael had taped it shut with duct tape. So, even if I went out back and saw the kittens again, by the time I came back to the front of the house, got the basket, and then walked back around behind the house, there was a good chance that the kittens would have moved into a different cubbyhole or crawled into a different bit of space. I wouldn’t be able to find them again. That was what I was secretly hoping, anyway.
So, I dawdled over a day-old newspaper, which I still hadn’t read – except for my horoscope and it didn’t say anything about killing cats. Then I finished reading a gothic novel I bought when I was at the general store. Then I drank a cup of tea after having had a cup of coffee, which I regretted. The toilet was downstairs; so was the basket. I didn’t want to have to see that basket. The basket with the lid that clamped down – the lid that would clamp down over little kitten heads. I imagined myself walking out to the back and stooping to check for the kittens. I would see that tiny, diamond-shaped face stick out, curious. Curiosity killed the cat. I must be Curiosity.
I thought that if I were lucky, I could look quickly and not see them. Then I could take the dreaded wicker basket back to the neighbor’s neighbor. I could tell her, my conscious clear, that I couldn’t find the kittens.
“They must be gone,” I’d say. “They’re old enough to move on.”
We would both know better, but she’d nod as though it were the truth.
I’d be gone soon, too. Then this killing wouldn’t be my problem anymore. I was going to leave the sagging house behind. The wood on the front door was peeling away like the hull of an old sailboat left to rot in dry dock. There was wood everywhere in the old house. Drying out. Giving life and then crushing it. Before the cat gave us a reason, I hadn’t talked to the neighbor’s neighbor in over a year. She didn’t, under normal circumstances, talk to my across-the-road neighbor, although I did.
On the other side of the neighbor’s neighbor was a crazy man who stole ladies panties off of clotheslines. He liked them big. Bloomers. He’d been arrested once for trespassing into the rich lady’s yard. She lived further down the road, past the house where that friend used to live before she went to town to get married for the third time. The rich lady had a built-in swimming pool. She sunbathed naked by it and the crazy man crept up to her fence once and peered over, staring for a long time. He didn’t realize it wasn’t right. “Simple-minded”, the villagers said. Trespassing on land that was his father’s and his father’s father’s before him. Staring at a woman who lies unclothed in broad daylight. Simple. He keeps cows on the one small spread of land still remaining to him. His are hands brown and cracked from farm work and dirt and sunshine. He smells of dung and when he grins, he drips saliva. You couldn’t imagine being touched by those hands.
The same cat had laid down a litter in the crazy man’s barn once. He drowned them in the trough where the cows drink and then threw them onto the compost pile. He only told us about it after the fact.
“Five of ’em,” he said, spreading apart the stubby fingers of one hand.
The neighbor’s neighbor who feeds the cat never forgave him.
“He’s not only crazy,” she affirmed, “he’s cruel.”
My across-the-road neighbor and I exchanged glances.
I was so naïve when we bought the house in this village thinking that it was a tight-knit community where everyone got along. But the first ones to my door told stories about so-and-so. The second ones to arrive told different stories about so-and-so. And stories about the first storytellers as well. The first night I went to the fountain, I saw them all sitting around talking – about me, I suppose.
“No children yet?” The neighbor-across-the-road often asked me, although we all knew she loved but resented her own. They clung onto her long after a kitten would have learned to go out on its own and hunt. How could I tell her I would have none?
Barren, not in my womb, but in my desire.
I envied the cat in a way the others could not have guessed.
I saw an artistic rendering once. A woman after giving birth. Her legs were spread apart. Her hair flew into pointed spikes of fire. Her mouth was blown open by her scream. A gaping gash ripped her from vagina to chin. The artist had called it “The Birth Tear.” Other women cried out when they saw it and clutched at their crotches, despite themselves. I felt ice in my cunt, the way I do when people talk of rape. I know these things happen to women. They had not happened to me.
The wind kicked up and the rain starting falling again just as I was thinking I should get the gardening gloves, pick up the hated basket. But I couldn’t decide if it was a thing I wanted to have ahead of me all day or something I wanted to have behind me. The neighbor’s neighbor said she would take them to the veterinarian to be put down. So I didn’t even have to do that. I only had to deliver them, like Peter in the courtyard with the cock crowing. I’m sure the doctor, a country veterinarian, had laughed after our panicked call. Bring a shovel down on their heads, he must have been thinking. Throw them into the bin with the husk from the melon. Instead, he had simply agreed to put them down. He had been kind. He was probably glad to have the money. Times were tough.
So there we were, three women, three co-conspirators in a plot to kill three gray and white kittens – the runt was probably already dead. Three women who hardly spoke to each other otherwise, united briefly by this minor tragedy while major ones loomed around us, bigger and more easily ignored. The village was dying a real death – where life ceases – and dying a rural death – where a way of life ceases. In the former case, the old people were dying off and their children and grandchildren were opting for life in the city. There was no one from the new generation to take over running the farms, tending the livestock. In the latter case, a way of life was dying off. The swimming pool lady is part of that – and so, I guess, am I. A second house in a rural village. A place to get away to, a place some people had never been away from. Like the crazy man who stole bloomers. Or the elderly woman up the way who still grinds her own meal to make her own bread. Or the village priest who marvels at the modern-day miracle of a paved road.
The neighbors have long complained, in a sideways fashion, about our house. When we bought it, it was listing on the edge of ruin. Even the most elderly villagers thought that we, a couple from the city, would fix it up and turn it into a country showplace. They thought that, like the swimming pool lady, we would invite our citified friends. Instead, we let the house fall into a further state of abandon. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling. Almost every third or fourth step in the wide, marble staircase chipped or cracked. When one end of a curtain rod came off last winter, I let the curtain slide to the ground and left the rod hanging like a slash mark across the window.
The place has only one sink. It’s in the bathroom. I do everything in it. Clean myself. Do the dishes. When Michael is with me, he urinates into it. Especially after sex. A kind gesture, really. That leaves me the commode to drip into and wipe myself.
Michael laughed when I told him of the village backbiting.
“You knew it was going to be like this”, he said. “What did you expect? A perfect little place where neighbors help neighbors? You shouldn’t believe in such things.”
Anyway, I was leaving. The ceasing of life or the ceasing of a way of life would happen without me. The swimming pool lady invited me over, as a kind of so long, one evening just after I found the kittens. She had also invited some of her city friends. We drank expensive vodka and ate salted cashews. We sat around her built-in swimming pool and admired her potted hibiscus. The swimming pool lady hated life in the village. She told me so that evening between sips of vodka. That was the first time we had ever spoken to each other. I think the villagers hate her too because of her expensive vodka.
On my way home, the mayor’s wife invited me in for prune liquor. I stumbled home, so drunk and confused that I had trouble opening our wrecked front door: caught between two worlds, belonging to neither; speaking to one neighbor, but not to the other.
The next morning, the crazy man gave me a double-yoked egg as a going-away present.
“It’s special,” he said.
I knew what he meant and gave him a coin. I cracked the egg open above a frying pan, half hoping to see the first flush of feathers, a blush of blood. I was disappointed to find only the two yolks staring back at me from where they had seized up in the skillet. That afternoon I saw the kittens again. Circles of life. Killing and living. Some spared, others not.
Michael doesn’t like to be in that house with me when I’m writing. He says writing puts me into a trance. It bothers him that I don’t pay attention when he reads from the local paper.
“Listen to this, he says. “Listen to this!”
But I never do. He comes for weekends and then he leaves.
“I’ll be in the city when you come back,” he always says.
So I’m going back. The only time I write is when Michael is visiting, anyway. I’ve never told him that. The rest of the time I sleep, read, drink coffee, then tea. I think about killing cats.
Andrea Dejean is an American writer and translator who is permanently based in France. Her translation credits include the book, On the Origins and Dynamics of Biodiversity: The Role of Chance by Alain Pavé (Springer 2010). Her creative writing credits include work in The Red Cedar Review, Folio, Potpourri, The MacGuffin, and Colère.