In the morning, when I first open my eyes, is when I really feel like a criminal for the first time. Like the crazy moms who bathe their babies, gently caressing the head, and then holding it under water until all the bubbles are gone.
I get up. Walk to the girls’ room. Shake them awake. Hurry to the kitchen. Defrost four slices of bread. Take the margarine out of the fridge. Spread. Boil. Dunk two tea bags. Walk back to their room. Remove the blankets. Stand them up on their feet, still sleepy. Dress them in matching skirts. Braid their hair. Walk them to the bathroom. Apply toothpaste for them both. Back to the kitchen. Pack two margarine sandwiches for school. They arrive. They crash onto the chairs. We drink tea. We sit silently. I hang their bags on their shoulders. Kiss their cheeks. Send them off to school.
Back to the kitchen. Sit down. Wait. Verify.
Get up. Take the suitcase with wheels. Open the freezer. Take out bagged bread loaves. Set them on the table. Take out more bagged bread loaves. Set them on the table. Back to the freezer. Pull one out. It’s wrapped in newspaper. Put it in the suitcase. Take out another. It’s wrapped in newspaper. Put it in the suitcase. Place rags over them. Fasten tightly. Zip up. Place the bagged bread loaves back in the freezer. Go outside. Go meet Fredrick.
We met accidentally, two weeks ago, in the middle of the street. We hadn’t seen each other in five years. We sat in a coffee shop. He talked about himself. The years have been kind to him. He owns some kind of business. I can’t remember. I wasn’t listening. I was not interested. I broke down half way through. I told it all. I cried. It was he who suggested to bury them in his yard. What could I do. They have been sitting in the freezer like two little Sphinxes for five days, waiting for mother to finally do something, to find the right resting place for them. I had no choice. I agreed.
Inside the elevator I feel like a stewardess smuggling drugs across the ocean for some Colombian drug lord. I knew the elevator would get stuck. I knew everything would be just awful. I knew the cops would suspect the suitcase, approach me and ask me to open it. One cop would peep inside, move aside the rags, look me in the eye and he would not be surprised as he quietly asks me to accompany them to the station.
The elevator did not get stuck. I walked out to the street. The suitcase was of interest to no one. Cops did not jump at me. I walked to the Metro.
A week ago, when I took the cats to the vet, two fat women sat in the waiting room with me, their legs crossed, hands caressing their Siamese cats, cradled in their respective laps. When I placed the carriers on the floor they glanced at me sideways. No, I’m not like you, I thought, I did not buy pedigree cats, officially certified, for five thousand Francs. I took them in when they were kittens, from a family anxious to get rid of them, who threw them out into the street and left them to die. The fat women turned back to their conversation. Finally, it was my turn. I picked up the two carriers and walked in. I placed them on the table. Talked to the vet. He said nothing. He only told his assistant to prepare two sleeping injections. I opened the carrier doors. The weeny things sniffed their way out. I hugged them. I squeezed them. I kissed them. I gave them the best caresses I had to give. The vet stood aside and waited. I moved away. The vet gave them the injections. I watched them getting groggy; spread-legged on the aluminum table, clueless about the situation. Finally they fell asleep. I caressed them. From the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. I passed a soft finger on their cheeks and under their chins, the way they like it. The vet took them to another room to kill them. I sat in the corner like a little girl who has been told to wait for the headmistress to receive punishment. He came back. I was silent. He named the fee. I shivered. I don’t have enough, I said. He didn’t understand. I said: I inquired and was told the price. Right, he said, that’s the cost of the procedure, we charge extra for burial. It’s not a high fee, madam. That’s alright, I added quickly, I’ll take them. He didn’t understand. I insisted: I will take them. I took my last savings out of my pocket and placed them on the table. He said, don’t you have a credit card? No – I said. He said, do you have a place to bury them? Yes – I lied.
I walked outside with two cat corpses inside the carriers. I didn’t look at the two women who were still waiting with their Siamese cats. Shut up, I thought, what right do you have anyway; sitting here with your condescending fur coats, as if I had a choice, as if I would have put them to sleep if I had the money. Just so you know, the church gives charity to people, not to cats.
I returned home. I didn’t know what to do. I wrapped them in newspaper and stuck them as deep as I could in the freezer. I hid them with bagfuls of bread. Closed the door. The girls returned after an hour. I told them they ran away. I told them they found another home to live in, in the countryside, with grass, and trees to climb, and mice to catch, and girls just their age to treat them nice. They screamed the entire afternoon and I cried. They yelled that I was to blame for not looking after them. True, I said. They yelled at me that I can’t know that they are doing well. I said the two girls from the countryside called and said the cats are happy in their new home and they miss you constantly, and they hung up instantly. They screamed at me how can the girls even know our phone number. I said: because of the chip. They shouted that I am a liar. I said I am not. They became silent. Since then their wound is healing while mine keeps bleeding.
On the Metro the cats begin to drip. I am such a fool. How did I not think of that. I imagine their two little bodies drip wetting the newspaper, collecting at the bottom of the suitcase, divulging these drops that I see falling to the floor. After four stops the drops form a small puddle under my seat. Everyone sees yet says nothing. I try to cover the grey water with the suitcase; planning to move it a touch every time, to keep the liquid concealed. I manage it quite well, but the smell cannot be hidden. My stop is next. I get up first. I run outside. Hurrying to switch to the suburban train. I cross the station focused and determined. The suitcase is dragging behind me, drawing a trail of cat juice on the floors.
On the suburban train I walk through car after car. They are all full. Finally I find a seat. I sit. I pray only for this to be a peaceful journey, where no one will sit next to me, the conductor will not show up. I cram the suitcase into the corner, under the table. But the cats keep dripping out of my suitcase like a leaking faucet. People start to identify the source of the smell. A cough sounds behind me. People open windows. A couple gets up and moves to another car. And I sit there frozen. Gravely serious. Gazing at the window as if I’m the only one who doesn’t notice what is happening right under her own seat; an innocent traveler patiently waiting for her stop. It’s all Herzl’s fault.
Every time he took us out to a fancy dinner I knew what to expect. He would talk of a business opportunity not to be missed, a niche untouched by human hand, a starving market, a legal loophole, an opportunity he must seize immediately or someone else will make a bundle from it. And I would nod like an idiot as I listened to the hypnotizing excitement that has deceived so many people before. I ask myself if this is what made me fall in love with him back then. He imported electronic boards from Germany; ceramics from China; illegal workers from Africa; one day he opened a cosmetics shop; a month later he closed it, forcing me to translate documents in his new office, separated by a desk from his secretary, who he hired for obvious reasons. For a while there, his business actually picked up nicely. Our house was filled with goodies. He would take us sailing on luxury boats, even though we weren’t enthusiastic, dragging us to parties with his partners, showing off his beautiful wife, and his girls, who will undoubtedly become hotties in a few years.
Then something would go wrong; the business would start to decline. He would quarrel with the partners, or have a brush with the law. We would have to pack everything and move out of town, sometimes even out of the country. Everything he would acquire when times were good, he would then sell in some alleyway to dealers he had somehow known. The fridge became barren. Debts would pile high. He would become all dejected and lie in bed for days, sobbing horribly and blaming himself loudly for being such an idiot and how could he put us in the same position again, never learning. And we would forgive him, appease him, cheer him up, because he really was miserable, and remorse abused him from within like a rabid virus.
But this time I said no. I am not packing the girls now along with all the things we have hardly finished unpacking from the last time to move to Cambodia. I’m not even interested in hearing what the idea is and how we would live there like royalty, and how good it is for the girls to learn about a new culture and another language, and how rent is ridiculously cheap there, and how rich we would be there, and what are we even doing in Europe when everything here is so expensive. I told him he could go alone, that we plan on staying here. And I couldn’t believe I was really uttering those words.
He flew the next day. Said he will send business class tickets, for the three of us, real soon, with the cats, after he settles in. It’s been a year.
The train stops at the station. I get up. I drag the suitcase. Hurry to the door. Stumble into someone. I don’t look. I leave. Move away hurriedly. The train is on its way. Only then do I stop. Calm down. Breathe in the suburban air. It’s a nice breeze. Surrounded by silence. It’s a five minute walk from Fredrick’s house and now I am certain he will not be there. Certain I will knock on the door and he will not answer. Already imagining myself digging in his yard with my bare hands, scratching the dirt with my nails, purposefully hurting myself. Passersby stop, look, gather. What happened to them. Someone asks. She killed them because she has no money to feed her girls. A woman answers. A person with no money to feed their children should not keep cats. Says the tall man with the sunglasses. A person who kills their cats, just like that, will end up killing their kids too. Says the youth in the jean jacket. It’s all because of her husband that they don’t have money. Says the woman. A person who blames others for their disposition will never get out of the hole. Says the man with sunglasses. But why is she burying them here in the middle of the yard. The youth asks. Because her ex stood her up. It’s his house. He promised to help her. But now he’s gone. Says the girl. Trusting others rather than herself, says the man in sunglasses, so typical. I should have guessed. If I were in his shoes, I too would have stood her up, serves her right.
When I arrived, Fredrick had already finished digging the hole. He waited for me at his front door and walked me to the back yard. I bent down and placed the cats on the bottom. Fredrick used a shovel to cover them with sand. He also prepared two small crosses and wrote their names on them. We stood there hugging by the grave. He assured me that I can come visit them whenever I wanted to. Yes, I said, thank you. But I knew I wouldn’t come.
We turned and walked into the house.
Illustration: Jessie Wilcox Smith
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