Dark and Deep
by Penny Milam
An ear-puncturing, listen-to-me yowl propelled Carolee out of the slat-back rocker and into the kitchen, where she expected to find the cat in a bloody battle with a black snake, at the very least a field mouse. At the start of winter, a black snake was more likely. They’d found their way into the house before, using any of a dozen cracks in the walls or loose bricks in the basement, and Rilla the gray tabby eagerly engaged them in battle as if it were a duel to the death, which for the snake, Carolee supposed, it was. Besides, Rilla had already viciously annihilated generations of field mice, scattering their little bodies like buried treasure throughout the house to be found by Carolee, gray mice with silky fur and long whiskers—pretty like in a Disney movie except with two perfect punctures in their sides.
But in the kitchen instead of carnage, the cat sat on her haunches, eyeballing the outside kitchen door as if all the mice and snakes she could dream of waited for her just on the other side. “Stupid cat,” Carolee sighed.
“Whatcha doin’? You can’t go outdoors.” Rilla yowled again, plaintive and irritated; if she had thumbs she wouldn’t have to involve Carolee at all.
“I ain’t letting you out. You ain’t been outside your entire life, why start now?” Carolee plodded back into the living room, back to the tight circle of heat the pot-bellied woodstove gave off. When they were home, Carolee surrendered the space to the kids, but they were at school, and she had the heat all to herself, scorching her front half like frying bacon while leaving her back exposed to frosty tendrils of air that funneled nonstop through the splintered clapboard walls. There’d been a full moon last night and a glass-clear sky, the morning hoar-frost promising bad weather. She’d sent the kids off to school, but the clouds hung like sopping gray dishcloths over the mountains; snow made them heavy. Once the flurries started, school would cancel. An hour after that, and the kids would be home.
She picked up Junior’s Sunday pants and tore the hem with practiced hands. He was growing too fast; at church she’d seen him standing on the lawn looking like he was ready for the Flood. High-waters, they called them, when the boys’ ankles made a white band between their shoes and their cuffs. There wasn’t much fabric to let down but Carolee tried anyway. She just bought these pants back in the summer and they still needed to last several months. Junior wouldn’t complain either way; she didn’t know if his seven-year-old brain even noticed the raw weather attacking the unprotected strip of his own flesh. But Carolee noticed, and it needled her.
Before she could start a stitch, the end of the black thread tickling the tip of her tongue, the cat took up yelling again. Carolee scowled, her mouth compressed to a thin seam straighter than she could ever sew, but she ignored the complaining from the kitchen. Carolee hoarded the privacy and the heat so that she could graciously give it up when the lumbering yellow bus delivered her kids. She wasn’t about to let the cat take her last minutes of peace.
The old girl was ancient. They’d gotten the kitten for Carolee’s daughter LeAnn when she was three, and named the cat Marilla, after a book character Carolee particularly admired. But the kids took to calling the cat Rilla, easier for small mouths to pronounce. A few weeks after they got her, Rilla took ill, and no one knew what was wrong with her. Jamie, strong, capable head of the household, told Carolee ‘hell, no’ when she suggested taking the cat to the vet. Beyond room and board, he flatly refused to invest any money into a pet’s upkeep. It was a fight getting Jamie to even allow the cat in the house—all his cats had been barn cats, wandering gypsies who came and went as they pleased, lived and died outdoors as God intended, without any debt to the clinic.
But the kitten, no bigger than Carolee’s palm, waned puny and pitiful. Jamie suggested drowning the sickly thing for her own good, and he probably would’ve too, but he’d left on a long haul, giving her two weeks to sort out the mess without adding murder to it.
Though Carolee could find nothing wrong, the cat wouldn’t eat or drink. When Carolee lifted the slight body, narrow ribs jabbed through the black fur. The kids watched the kitten with hollow eyes, tensed like sitting at a deathbed, wanting to love the little thing but afraid to get attached. Finally, Carolee, knowing no other recourse, found an eyedropper and sat down on the floor, Rilla on her lap. She pried the kitten’s mouth open and forced small dribbles of water down her throat. The cat fought like Carolee offered poison, but Carolee wouldn’t quit. She hadn’t promised her babies a pet just to have it die before their eyes. They were still too young for that sharp and scarring reality of life.
She force-fed Rilla for three days, until the cat perked up and drank out of her own bowl. A day later she was playful and affectionate, and the kids were free to pour all their saved-up love onto her. But the cat never trusted Carolee after that, remembering the hard thighs that imprisoned her and the rough fingers that pried her mouth open, even to save her life. She never let Carolee pet her, skittering away when Carolee came near. For thirteen years, Carolee scooped out kitty litter and cat food without a purr or a cuddle for her troubles. Carolee told herself she didn’t care, and she often told Jamie she’d throw a party when the ungrateful cat finally kicked the bucket.
But now, what Carolee didn’t say even in her own head, was that the cat actually was dying. Rilla had taken to hiding for days, an impossible task in a house as tight as theirs. Her litterbox filled with wet plops of rot tinged with red streaks that gagged Carolee when she cleaned it. The cat threw up in shadowed corners, surprises for Carolee to find and clean up. She preferred the effortless tossing of petite mice corpses to the piles of soured stomach acid and rusty phlegm. The cat didn’t empty her food bowl anymore, and she barely drank any water. Her gray fur had lost its sheen, brittle and lusterless as frost scum on a mud puddle, and her yellow eyes hazed vacant and far-off. Carolee feared every day that one of the kids would find the lifeless body somewhere before Carolee could find it first.
The yelling stopped in the kitchen, and Carolee finished hemming Junior’s pants. The wavy heat warped the view through the window, but she could make out dusty flakes of snow beginning to sift across the sky. School would close early for sure. The mountain roads iced over and stayed slick days after the town streets had long been scraped. The yellow bus would appear over the ridge in an hour or two, and her kids would file into the cold house, cluttering the space with their worn shoes and thin wet coats, after years of hand-me-downs only a pretense against the cold. Carolee headed back into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee where Rilla sat like a loaf of bread, her paws tucked underneath her, her eyes narrowed on the door as if it might run.
Carolee poured grounds into the coffee maker. While it hissed and steamed, she tugged on her old boots and her knit hat at the door and then nudged Rilla out of the way with a rough swipe—the cat’s weird intensity unnerved her. “Stupid cat.” She’d seen the mailman drive by an hour ago, and she tramped across the road to the frame holding three dented mailboxes, theirs and their neighbors’, hauling out bills and wishing she’d just left them where they lay. She tossed her wet shoes on the side porch along with her hat, eager to fetch her coffee. But when she entered the kitchen, she saw that Rilla wasn’t at her post.
“Where are you, old girl?” She grumbled to hide her fear as she did a quick search of the place. The cat couldn’t be in Carolee and Jamie’s bedroom; she kept the door closed during the day so the stove heat wouldn’t get wasted in there. Not in the two bedrooms for the kids, Junior’s chaos and the girls’ circus of bright colors and patterns. Carolee only gave each room a superficial look because there was a new sense of emptiness in the house. No other living thing breathed the same air as Carolee right now, not even a field mouse or a black snake. With all her begging at the door, Rilla must’ve escaped unseen when Carolee got the mail.
Hell. Rilla couldn’t survive in the forest. She might win in a fight on her own turf, but there were things bigger than her in the forest, and meaner, too. Carolee grabbed the boots and her hat, letting her irritation burn hotter than her concern. She shrugged into Jamie’s tan Carhartt coat and stepped out onto the porch. The snow dropped faster now, covering the ground in delicate lacework. None lay on the roads yet, but it was coming. Squinting hard, Carolee found paw prints leading from the porch to the side-yard, toward the trees.
“I seen your cat take off.” A stooped woman in a trailing coat and galoshes stood at the shared mailboxes. Mrs. Gouge lived on the acreage beside them, and she and Carolee were waving neighbors. They seldom spoke for long, both too busy for friendship.
“I don’t know what’s got into the crazy thing. Sits and stares at the door and then just takes off like this.”
Mrs. Gouge stuffed her mail in the black recesses of her pockets and swiped snow off her creased forehead. “Is she sick?”
Carolee frowned at the perception. “Maybe.”
Mrs. Gouge nodded sagely. “She dyin’. She done gone off to meet Death.”
Fearing the truth of her words, Carolee denied the claim. “That’s an old wives’ tale.”
“Old wives’ tales’re told for a reason. That cat walked across your yard like it had an appointment to get to, real purpose-like.” Shrugging, Mrs. Gouge turned to pick her way carefully back up the long gravel drive to her farm. “Cats don’t like to bring Death inside. They’ll meet it on their own terms.” She paused and gestured expansively. “I’d rather die out here in God’s great open than shet up inside, too. Cats’re right smart about it.” She gave a backwards wave. “You and those littluns stay warm.”
“You, too.” Carolee watched the old woman hobble towards her house. Mrs. Gouge was right, Rilla was out there somewhere in the woods, late for her appointment because Carolee wouldn’t let her out to meet it. Only about three acres of wood lined their land. The rest was cleared farmland. Corn one year, soybeans the next. Sometimes pumpkins if Jamie took a notion. The kids had free range of the small forest, and snow days were a particular treat. Junior and Sookie liked exploring the woods, freedom from school and their mother at the same time. Carolee should just let them look for the dumb cat when they got home, but there was a razor edge of dread of what they would find. She pictured them coming across their beloved cat, frozen in a drift, or worse yet, in the brutal middle of dying. Better look herself. As the yellow grass rapidly turned white with new snow, she tramped through the yard to the shed and grabbed the shovel of its wall, ignoring the implication she grabbed with it. With a close eye on the vanishing tracks, she headed into the woods.
It was a quiet wood anyway, sheltered in a valley sloped between pastureland and meadow. The snow solemnly muffled the last of the outside noise, and Carolee tiptoed like she’d entered a church. Her steps slowed and gentled; the only sound was the cracking of the crust under her heel and the sharp ping of rime snow against brush. She didn’t know what she’d find, or what she’d do. The shovel was to bury the cat, but what if it wasn’t dead yet? Was she supposed to wait around while the thing suffered in its last minutes? Could she kill it, even out of kindness? Jamie could. For all his bluff, he had a soft heart, and he’d have the strength to end the cat’s suffering if he found it in agony. But Carolee wasn’t like that; she couldn’t cause a small ache to ease a greater pain—she couldn’t even bear the hurt it caused Junior or Sookie to remove a splinter, and she always left it to Jamie. She wished he was here now.
The forest was oddly soothing, even in its crystal cold. Carolee tended the garden, mowed the yard, weeded the vegetables, but she didn’t go outside for pleasure. There was too much to do to go for a hike or a picnic. But now, forced on an unbearable undertaking, she slowed down, relaxing even under the strain of her mission and the confines of the wet snow–the peace she’d sought in her living room shrouded her unpredictably here in a freezing, comforting warmth.
With compass-accuracy and an unerring connection, she found the cat stretched out against a tree root, dug somewhat into the dirt and already wearing a light coating of snow.
“Old girl.” Carolee crouched next to Rilla, sure she was already dead, but the cat opened her eyes. Seeing Rilla’s journey nearly done, Carolee didn’t have to wonder what she’d do or wish for Jamie. She sat down in the snow next to the still form, and she brushed the snow from the frosted fur. “Stupid cat,” she whispered as she rubbed the small head and ran numb, gloveless fingers down Rilla’s spine, feeling no warmth from her body. “Stupid cat.” Rilla closed her eyes to Carolee’s presence, but Carolee felt a small, slight rumble under her palm, the purr she’d been denied for thirteen years.
She sat in the snow, kneading the life gently out of the cat’s stiff body, Rilla’s grasp loosening slightly under each measured caress. Snow settled on Carolee’s shoulders, on her eyelashes and cheeks as she stroked the cat, her eyes far away to give Rilla privacy as she met her appointment with the comforting touch of a hand, but ultimately, alone.
She felt the last breath escape, but Carolee continued to brush the fur with her fingertips, imprisoned in the moment. The snow was a blanket, the trees walls, the ground a soft carpet. It was a good place to die, she decided, near to the earth and on your own terms. She said a silent thanks to Rilla for not bringing Death inside their home. Brushing the snow off her lap, she used the discarded shovel to help her stand and moved to the next tree to dig. The ground near the roots would be frozen tomorrow, but today gave in to the pierce of the shovel point. Carolee dug through the mulch of leaves and bark into the rocky subsoil, and she placed Rilla in the ground, in a forest she had never visited in her lifetime but had felt its pull in death. Carolee covered her solemnly and then packed the spot with fresh snow and dirt, ugly and perverse against the pristine whiteness.
She didn’t mark the grave; she’d never be able to find it again, and she seldom went into the woods anyway. Although as she made her way back home, she wondered why she didn’t. The peace she scrounged for in the house came effortlessly to her here, and she’d felt closer to living even as she’d come so close to death. The woods were lovely, dark and deep. She remembered the line from an old poem she read in high school, and she understood it now, though her woods weren’t dark or deep, but blinding white and shallow. Something else in the poem about promises to keep, and she understood that, too, as she made it back into her yard just when the bus pulled up. She’d not let the cat die as a kitten because she’d promised to take care of it. She’d shared its death in the woods because of that same promise. Tossing the shovel behind the shed, she stood at the kitchen stoop to meet her kids, rambunctious and loud, the unexpected day off full of electric promise.
“Hey, Mama!” yelled Junior excitedly, his black boots kicking up snow as he ran across the yard to her. “Can me and Sookie go play in the woods?” Sookie, thirteen and almost ready to let go of childish romps in the woods, followed sedately behind him with an indulgent grin on her face. Sookie and Junior would spend hours in the woods, then they’d hunker down around the stove until Jamie got home for dinner, warming their red ice-cube toes by the fire and telling her their adventures, not knowing how near Death had come to their house, nor how they played in the stunning snowy wonderland of its domain.
“Sure,” Carolee told them, rubbing the snow off their heads in the same gesture she’d wiped the snow from a cat’s back. “Come on in and I’ll fix y’all some hot chocolate first.” She herded their enthusiasm into the house. Junior had a keen eye, and he’d notice fresh-turned dirt. Give the snow time to hide the grave. Give nature time to soften the loss.
Born and raised in East Tennessee, Penny Milam is a graduate of East Tennessee State University with a degree in English Education, and she has taught in local public and private high schools for many years. Recently, her work has appeared in Still: The Journal.