I didn’t know I would see the cat when I went out for the milk. I didn’t know that the milk box had frozen during the night and there were broken icicles scattered around it like splintered glass. I didn’t know that the cat crouched next to it, shivering on a mound of frozen snow, his head on his forepaws, his eyes glinting green.
But then again, there are a lot of things I don’t know, and, after all, it is a while before I even think of getting the milk. Yawning and leaning against the sink, I make the coffee first, taking my time about it, loving this early morning moment that belongs to me alone. Soon the rest of the household will awake and each of them, in turn, will require something from me, but right now, standing in my kitchen while the coffee bubbles, there is no necessity for me to function beyond the need of my own drowsy senses.
Upstairs my husband and my son and my mother still sleep—my son in the bedroom directly across the hall from us and my mother in the room just off the main bathroom because she is old and gets up several times in the night. Although she is careful to move quietly when she rises, the al most imperceptible click of the bathroom door closing awakens me as though, in the dark, her hand touches my shoulder.
It seems to me that with the passage of time our roles are reversed. We have exchanged places like partners in some fixed dance pattern that allows no deviation from the rules—I, becoming the mother and she, in some fashion, reverting to the helplessness of childhood—and yet, lying in my bed, I become alert with a straining awareness that, oddly enough, makes me feel very young and vulnerable.
Until last night this puzzled me. Last night I heard the squeak of the bed as my husband turned in his sleep. My body rigid and tense, I realized that unconsciously I was listening for the sound of my mother the way I did when my son lay raw and new in his crib and my senses reached out to him across the space and the dark that separated us until I could almost feel the very breath he drew. It is the same for me now although my son is ten and sprawls in any position he chooses. But it is no longer my son who occupies my thoughts. I hear the bathroom door close and the water running and I think of my mother. I see the small, blue veined feet shuffle across the carpet. I see the way her once thick dark hair has thinned across the back of her head with the scalp showing clean and pink through the white and the hair, itself, fine and silky like a baby’s new fuzz. I see her standing there and those thin, fragile hands reaching for the glass and the water running cool down her dry throat.
It is better not to think of such things. I discovered this when she first came to live with us. It is nearly a year now and I have learned that there are some things I can permit myself to think about but there are others that are forbidden, like the way my father used to smile at me and the remembered touch of his fingers and those amazing, beautiful bushy eyebrows of his that stayed dark long after his hair became grey.
His eyebrows! It is particularly forbidden to think of them because why should I remember his eyebrows and not the curve of his jaw and why should I look at my own hands only to see his? I can see his hands with the long, blunt-tipped fingers tightening as he leaned on his cane. I can open the hall closet and there in the back, behind the boots and the broken umbrellas and my son’s baseball bat, is the polished, curved stick my father used for support. It is one of the few things of his I have kept and yet, it was only an appendage of the last years of his life. I can remember when he walked young and strong and sure-footed and, in that case, why did I keep his cane?
Now I pour the coffee and it splashes over the side of the cup. My son finished the last of the milk after dinner last night, and still in my robe, I open the side door. There, lying next to the frozen milk box as if he were waiting for me, is the cat.
We stare at each other for a moment; I, in my blue flannel robe and my blue slippers and the cat sleek in his black fur with the white crescent under his chin. I lift the lid of the milk box and he doesn’t move. He watches me unblinking as I place the milk on the kitchen floor and as I reach out a tentative hand, he starts a low rumble deep in his throat. He stretches and stands. The touch of him is like ice weaving about my bare ankles and I say very sternly, “Go home!”
I go back into the house, quickly closing the glass storm door behind me and he sits on the step, eyes intent, begging.
“Go home.” I say it again, knowing he doesn’t understand, knowing he won’t go away and then, firmly, before I can change my mind, I close the wooden inner door and I can’t see him any longer and he can’t see me.
I stand in my warm kitchen, rubbing my cold fingers. I pour a bit of milk into my coffee and I put the rest away into the refrigerator and then, still unaccountably shivering, I walk into the dining room and I turn up the thermostat. My mother will come down for breakfast soon, and warm as the house is, I want it to be still warmer for her.
I drink my coffee. I cup my hands around the steaming coffee and I think of my mother and I know there is nothing of my mother in me. We are so different—she and I. I am tall and dark like my father and she is so small that the very top of her head reaches only to my chin. Sometimes my son stands very straight next to her, measuring his own sturdy growth by the fragile yardstick of her thin body. I run outdoors in winter with my arms bare while my mother walks slowly through my overheated house clad in a wool dress with a heavy sweater thrown over her shoulders.
“How can you?” I ask her, bewildered. “How can you bear it? It’s too hot.”
She looks at me, her eyes wide and unfaded, her eyes still that incredible blue, and then she says it gently, almost apologetically, and yet with the air of one who has discovered an eternal truth. “When you’re old, you get cold,” she tells me, pulling the sweater tight around her.
I think of the cat sitting on my step, the cat huddling on my step while I close my door against him. I think about a saucer of milk, just one small saucer of milk put next to him and the tongue so pink lapping the milk and my house so warm while he shivers outside.
“No.” I say it out loud, almost startled by the sound of my own voice. If I feed him, he will never go away. I know just how it will be. I can imagine him moving through my house like a miniature black panther, his claws kneading the furniture in bliss. He crouches behind the easy chair, his tail lashing in anticipation while he stalks an invisible enemy. At night, arrogantly, he curls at the foot of my son’s bed, pressing against the curve of my son’s legs and the cat’s green eyes are slitted with sleep and contentment.
The cat is beautiful and his fur has been brushed smooth by loving hands and somewhere, perhaps, a child cries, mourning a lost pet.
“If I don’t feed him, he will go home.”
“Who will go home?”
I turn around. My husband comes into the kitchen, showered, shaved, smiling, ready for the day.
“Do you know you’re beginning to talk to yourself? You’re not going to be like your mother, are you?” he teases, pulling my hair. “I hear her all the time.”
“No,” I say, “I’m not going to be like my mother.”
While I give him his breakfast, I tell him about the cat. He opens the side door and looks out but, to my relief, the cat has left. I can see his paw marks in the snow.
While I talk and move back and forth, I think about my mother and the habit she has of murmuring to herself. Sometimes when I pass the closed door of her room, I can hear the sound of her voice and I pause for a moment, knowing why she speaks aloud.
My mother is lonely. I know she is lonely. She lives in my house and she sits at my table and she sleeps safe under my roof but she is lonely. Each morning I promise myself she will be lonely no longer and each night I know I have betrayed her. I cannot spend my days with her. I cannot sit, my hands folded, while she talks of the old times, the good times, while she tells me over and over again how it was when she was young. I know the words even before she speaks them and the soft voice goes on and on and the telephone rings and the doorbell rings, the bells chiming, the bells calling me. Outside the children play and the women laugh and the cars roll by. Outside my mother’s room is my world and I am still young enough to run bare-armed through the cold and I have my own story to tell. I have my own story to live.
Outside the kitchen window sits the cat. I see him when I pour my husband’s coffee and I almost drop the cup. The cat is pressed against the window pane, his nose against the frozen pane and his eyes follow every move I make.
No, I tell myself. I won’t. I don’t want a cat. I am very firm until my son runs into the kitchen, until my son points to him in astonishment and then, we all troop to the back door and the cat comes at our call, the cat running into our house as if he belongs to us.
He drinks a saucer of milk and he eats half of the can of salmon I was going to have for my lunch and he almost stands on his head while he kisses my feet. My son marches around the kitchen while the cat perches on his shoulder and then, I see my husband off to work and my son off to school. I warn them both that the cat might not be here when they come home again.
“He must belong to someone,” I say, standing in the doorway and holding the cat close to me.
“I’ve never seen him around before.” My son bends down and adjusts his boot. He does this very carefully as if he is thinking of other things. “I know all the cats around here and I’ve never seen him before.” He looks at me then, his eyes for a moment like the cat’s, my son’s eyes intent and pleading.
“I’ll see,” I say weakening and the animal is soft in my arms.
It is just as I imagined it would be. The cat drinks more milk, the pink tongue lapping and then, after he has washed his face, he explores the house. Padding softly from room to room, he sniffs at the furniture. His body shakes with joy. He is very small and very black and when I go up the stairs, he follows me. While I take my shower, he curls at the foot of my bed.
When I hear my mother scream, I feel frozen as if the cry had burst from my own throat. Grabbing my robe, I run down the hall. Her door is open and her room is empty and when I finally find her, she is in the kitchen. She is standing with her back to the stove while the oatmeal bubbles in the pot and the cat leans happily against her feet.
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
“Take him away,” she whispers. Her eyes are terrorstricken. She points to the cat. “Please take him away.”
“But he won’t hurt you.” I scoop him up and his claws knead my robe. “He’s just a kitten. He’s lost and cold and we brought him in this morning.”
“I don’t like cats.”
“That’s not true. We had a cat when I was a little girl,” I remind her.
“I don’t remember.”
“An orange one. Don’t you remember how I cried when he died?”
“No,” she says stubbornly. “You never had a cat. And if you did, it certainly wasn’t one like this.” She looks at him and shakes her head, frowning. “He’s like a snake. Just like a black snake.”
“You’ll get used to him,” I say persuasively. “I think we might keep him. That is, if no one claims him. I thought I’d run an ad in the paper and then-“
“I’ll fall,” she says. There is the smell of oatmeal burning and she turns back to the stove, her shoulders shaking. “I’ll fall,” she says again, and when she turns around, I see the tears in her eyes. “He gets right under my feet. He’s so little I didn’t see him and I almost fell right over him. Do you know what will happen if I fall at my age?”
Don’t say it. I plead with her silently. Please don’t say it.
“It will be the end of me,” she says, her eyes enormous. My throat tightens. I watch her as she pulls her sweater about her and I feel the cat nestle close to me, his head moving against my cheek. So little, I think. Both of them so little and so lost and so cold.
“I’ll call the animal shelter.” I say it quickly before I can change my mind, before I can remember the look in my son’s eyes, before I can become accustomed to the feel of this small thing in my arms.
“It isn’t as if you wanted a cat,” she says, wiping her eyes. “I never heard you say you wanted one.”
“No,” I agree, “I never said I wanted one.”
I lock the cat in my bedroom while I dress and then I call the animal shelter and I tell the soft-voiced woman who answers the phone that I have found a cat. I am very careful to explain the circumstances and why I can’t keep him and the woman tells me not to worry, that they try to find homes for stray cats and she promises to send someone over to the house.
“Before the end of the school day,” I say, thinking of my son, knowing that I must get the cat out of the house before my son returns home again.
Reassured, I give her my name and my address but it seems to me that I no sooner cradle the phone than it rings again.
I recognize her voice immediately. She is so sorry but I am out of her district and since the shelter exists only through donations, they are forced to limit their services to a specific area. She is very polite and very firm and she gives me another number to call.
Now a man answers the telephone and he listens to my explanation and he tells me I have no problem.
“We will pick him up,” he says.
I feel so relieved that I am almost happy. “Of course, you’ll see that he has a good home,” I say rapidly. “He’s adorable. All black but with a little white-“
“We don’t find homes for our animals.” His voice is amused almost condescending. “What do you do with them?”
“We put them to sleep.”
“What do you mean you put them to sleep1”
“We gas them,” he says calmly. “We don’t have the facilities to keep them nor the money either.”
“I can’t kill this animal,” I say, appalled. “I can’t.”
“It’s humane,” he says. “There’s nothing else to do.”
“Who can I call then?” I cry desperately.
But he didn’t know who could help me and neither did our local vet.
“Kittens,” the vet says. “They’re a dime a dozen. They’re impossible to give away.”
“But I can’t keep him and I can’t let him die. What am I going to do?”
“You shouldn’t have fed him. Once you feed them, you have a problem.”
“Don’t tell me what I shouldn’t have done. What can I do?”
I am beginning to feel sick. It’s because I haven’t had breakfast, I tell myself, closing my eyes. It’s only because I’m hungry.
“If you take my advice,” says the vet, “you’ll put him in the car and drive him a couple of miles from your house and then, abandon him.”
“Just take him somewhere and leave him?” I shout, incredulous.
“How do you think he probably got to your house?”
I cradle the phone and I stare into space. I sit there for a long time. I feel listless and very tired. The cat is sleeping now, a ball of black fur against my pink blanket and while he sleeps, he purrs deep in his throat.
If I only had time. I think about time, knowing it is my enemy. If I had a few days, perhaps I could find a home for him but I only have a few hours. If I let him stay for even one night, I would break my son’s heart when I must give him away. If I let him stay for even one night, I would lie awake thinking of my mother, thinking of the cat sitting in the shadow of the stairs, the little black cat melting into the shadow of the steps and my mother falling, falling-
I pick up the cat and I carry him down the stairs. I put him down while I take my coat from the hall closet. My mother is in the kitchen drinking her coffee and she says nothing as I go out the side door although usually when I leave she has a list of errands for me to do. Today she says nothing and I close the door softly behind me. I put the cat on the front seat of the car next to me and I back the car out of the garage.
I drive through the icy streets and the heater is turned on but I feel so cold that the steering wheel seems to freeze my hands even through my warm gloves. I drive through the main streets of our town and I think of letting the cat out of the car at a busy intersection where there are many people and where he might have a chance of finding a home. I picture him crossing the street and a car bearing down on him and I hear the squeal of the brakes and I shiver.
I drive until I am back in the residential areas again, only this is the estate section where the houses are set way back and there are no curbs and no sidewalks and even in winter, the lawns and shrubs seem well-kept as if they didn’t dare to be anything but green and lush. I stop the car.
The cat sits very still, watching me. His manners are impeccable. He sits and sometimes he looks out of the window and he is obviously enjoying himself.
I do what must do very quickly, trying not to think. I get out of the car and I set him down in front of a large white colonial with majestic columns and I hope there is someone inside who would like a small black kitten. I get into the car again and I drive away without looking back.
All the way home I rehearse what I am going to say to my son. I will tell him the truth. I will explain about his grandmother and how it is impossible, under the circumstances, for me to do anything but what I did. I will say, “People are more important than animals.” Then I think of the way he will look at me and I wonder if he will hate my mother. He is so young. He is too young to know about the fears of the old and how can he possibly understand?
Now it is night and my mother has gone to bed and the dinner dishes have been cleared away long ago and my son has finally stopped searching for the cat.
I lied to him. I told him the cat ran away. I had thought of another story but I knew would be discovered if I told him that the people who really owned the cat had come to claim him. He would want to know who they were and could he see the cat again?
All afternoon I had to watch him while he trudged up and down the street, calling, whistling, crying, and all evening
I had to watch him while he grieved but now, finally, he goes to bed.
And so do I.
My husband falls asleep at once. He agrees that there was nothing else could do.
“At least you gave him a chance at life,” he points out reasonably.
And then, the whole matter settled in his mind, my husband closes his eyes and sleeps.
But I lie awake in the dark, listening. I hear the click of the bathroom door and I think of the cat alone in the dark and the cold and I wonder if he will come back to us. I wonder if I will awake in the morning to find him at my doorstep. I have heard stories of cats who have traveled miles to go home but I know, too, that this one will never come back.
I hear the water running and I think of my mother who was so quiet at the dinner table and I get out of bed. She is back in her bed by the time I open her door. She is sitting up with the light on and when she sees me, she holds out her arms to me the way a frightened child does.
“Did I do right?”
I don’t pretend to misunderstand her. I sit at the edge of her bed and I take her in my arms.
“He was so little.” She’s crying now and I stroke her hair. “It’s very cold out, isn’t it? Did I do the right thing?”
“You were afraid,” I say. “You can’t go around being afraid. I won’t let you.”
“But that poor animal-“
“He’ll find a home.” I hold her close, comforting her and the silk of her hair brushes against my cheek. “Don’t you worry about a thing.”
She smiles at me. “As long as you’re not angry with me,” she says.
“No, darling,” I say gently, “I’m not angry with you.”
I kiss her. I go back to my own room and I get into bed. The luminous dial of my clock seems to glow green in the dark and I think of two eyes watching me, pleading with me, and my smooth sheets suddenly feel like thin, hard layers of ice. I stare into the dark and I can see the small paw marks etched in the snow, and lying there, with the bedclothes piled above me, the soft wool blankets protecting me from the cold, I shiver and shiver until I think I will never feel warm again.