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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 55-68

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The Death of the Cat

Gladys Swan


Is it the back room where it begins, through the little passage that once held the table with the dolls' perpetual tea party, cups and saucers Lauren had since come to identify as Japanese willow ware--connecting to the shedlike part that held two great piles, one of kindling, one of coal for the various stoves and fireplaces in the house? For the winter took its toll, and endless fires in the fireplace and woodstove had to be kept stoked to keep life warm enough to get through. Snow. Falling in great flakes. Sticking to your coat sleeve. Wet wool smell. Snow falling and still falling, piling up to the porch, up to the very eaves, with only the chimneys poking through. Snows of all the years. She couldn't see over the banks after her father had shoveled the walk: they made a tunnel for her to walk through.

Is the beginning there, in that dark place, where the coal came tumbling in through a chute, roaring and streaming into a pile she wasn't allowed to climb on, for most certainly it would dirty her clothes--though she sneaked back sometimes and took odd-shaped pieces from the kindling heap to pound nails into? Oh, the cat's been in the coal pile again. There, where if you went in, you quickly came out and shut the door against the cold and the coal smell and a lingering sense of the unfamiliar; where the snow shovels leaned against the walls in the posture of waiting and the feed stood in bags for the ducks and chickens in the side yard; and where the cat had her kittens. "I'll put a cardboard box for her in the back room. It's too cold outside. She can have her kittens there."

Or does she enter the past by the front door, or even the kitchen door off the side porch, by way of the trellis hanging with wisteria, humming with bees and wasps visiting between the wisteria and the climbing rose at the side of the walk leading back to the garden bordered with zinnias? It is a question Lauren has been puzzling over. Her childhood has been locked away for so many years. Somehow forbidden, as in the fairy tales. You may have all the keys to all the rooms, save this one. This door you must not open. The key trembles in her hand, different from the others. Glowing now. [End Page 55] Light from the fire has fallen on it like blood. Fire roaring through the house like time, charring walls and ceilings, leaving black boards and cinders. Now that there is nothing left, she circles her childhood house. She holds up the key.

To enter by the front door would be easiest, past the porch with its swing and all the places it would go. Philadelphia, Philadelphia and O-hi-o. A white house with square, white pillars. She stands there before the porch. An elegant house even though drafty and cold. Antebellum. So, then, almost a hundred years old. Antebellum, antebellum--the word sang through her childhood and down through the years. Remembered elegance. But how could it have been? Now the town she left fifty years ago sits in the backwaters of no-time, in less than elegant decay--with a modern part trying to pull away like an obstreperous offspring towards the highway sprawl that got her there. Her old neighborhood a slum, no hint of elegance in the houses that remain. Hers is gone--not a trace, razed by a fire, in which a child died. She read this, a little news item in a newspaper published all the way up in Maine, where the family had fled after the fire. Her house is where they lost their child. Go on now, you have the key. For curiosity is the key. Curiosity killed the cat. But the cat died giving birth.

So what is there to reclaim? She could try the various ways...