This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2010

Great Canadian Literary Hunt 2010: This Side Up by Lisa McLean

Lisa McLean

We’re posting the winners of the 2010 Great Canadian Literary Hunt all this week. Come back daily for amazing new poetry, fiction, and graphic narrative. And stay tuned for the 2011 contest announcement, coming in January…

Stan found the kitten’s body licked clean and still on the hard dirt floor of his basement. When he crouched to examine it more closely he caught the sour scent of milk from the others. There were three more of them, still blind, nestled on a forgotten flannel shirt in the shadows. He guessed they were mewing although he’d never be able to hear it now.

He recognized the mother from her battle scars. She was a rough one, with two stripes of fur missing from her backside, the skin underneath scarred black. Last winter they’d heard tell of a cat left outside so long with her litter of kittens that her body froze to the wire fence she hid under for shelter. He and Abby had laughed at the stunned creature, thinking someone should’ve put the poor thing out of her misery.

Now, in the cool darkness of his basement he realized that she’d been having babies long enough to know what would happen if she let her kittens be known. He’d drowned many a litter himself off his wharf—had to, for population control.

“Don’t be contrary with me.” He spoke in the loud, soothing tone he was accustomed to using for his own and Abby’s failed hearing. “I don’t want your babies for nothin’.”

To prove he wasn’t after the kittens, he made a show of puttering around the space. He’d come to get a can of paint to spruce up the jiggers for spring, but now he hesitated to make a racket.

He found a ball of twine and pushed it into his pocket. He fingered the old cod net hanging on his saw-horse, and wondered if he might set it later in the month, knowing these days the fines would be dear.

“See ya,” he waved at the cat and her kittens and closed the door as far as the snow would allow.

For dinner he opened a jar of moose meat and stewed it with potatoes. He ate it with a cup of tea and a heel of bread left over from the batch his youngest made after the funeral. When he’d had his fill he pushed his plate away before he noticed a second plate was waiting to be eaten. He got up and flicked every light switch on before taking his fork to that one too. When he couldn’t eat another bite, he shuffled to the workshop with a flashlight, the leftovers and a half-empty can of milk under his arm.

“No reason you got to be alone and hungry down here I s’pose,” he muttered to the eyes that glowed green in the flashlight’s beam.

These days Stan slept with radio talk shows turned up loud so he could hear them even in his dreams. That was the oldest daughter’s suggestion, to drown out the voices in his sleep with a bit of Ask Attica. The show was a call-in advice segment that offered troubled souls assistance with everything from workplace conflict to garden slugs. Stan liked to imagine what he and Abby would say to each other about the kind of people who called into the show. Stan stared at the oversized buttons on the phone beside his bed.

He dreamed that Abby found the kittens and ordered him to drown them. Tonight Abby was relentless, chastising him for feeding good leftovers to a damn cat.

He woke up apologizing to the emptiness beside him. Last week when his daughters were still hanging around, they made his bed every morning as soon as he rose for the bathroom. He wondered if they still sniffed her pillow, as he had.

He wished he knew which memories they were taking away with them. Already Abby’s trinkets had begun to disappear from her dresser, and framed photos from the walls. No doubt they were taking them as token memories for themselves. They left empty spaces and outlines.

He buttoned his shirt—same as yesterday’s—over the cotton undershirt he’d worn to bed, hastily pulled the quilt over the pillows and lumbered downstairs to check on his tenants.

“Somebody’s going to be looking for you fellas to drown you,” Stan said as he arranged a nightshirt—pulled from Abby’s top drawer—around their makeshift bed. He built the walls high to give them added protection from the cold. “It won’t be me this time.”

The she-cat must have belonged to one of those houses out on the point, where they’d been leaving for town one after the other. Some of them took everything of value on their backs in a single trip. The rest, they left to rot—their homes and animals and all.

It never occurred to Stan to pack up the family and leave, even during the harder years when every time he turned around Abby was pregnant with another mouth to feed.

Once he came across his meanest boy, feeding a goodsized lump of salt pork to an old tomcat. Stan was about to give him hell when he saw the string. He watched his boy give it a tug until the cat retched—its ribcage as visible as the boy’s—and a glistening lump of meat landed on ground.

Stan had shrunk away on hearing his son’s impish laugh. He understood there was satisfaction in watching something take a first bite of food—even if a first bite was all there was. Sometimes they were lucky to get that.

Inhumane. That’s the word that same son used for his childhood. They thought he was asleep after Abby’s funeral. It got better after Smallwood, but there was never very much to be had, his oldest said. I’m hungry just thinking about it, another had hissed. They all had a big laugh about it over drinks of rum in his kitchen.

By the end of the week Stan moved the cat family inside and put them up beside the woodstove. He poured canned milk into a saucer for the she-cat to drink and he even gave her the little bed they’d bought for the dog last Christmas. Abby spent too much money on it at the mall in town and put it under the Christmas tree like Santa himself had dropped it off.

It had surprised him how much he and Abby could dote on a creature—for certain they never showed this much love to their children.

The girls had sent the dog as a gift. He was a miniature something-or-other with long fur that got matted unless Abby took the clippers to it, which made him look comical and cold. He wasn’t much good for anything but being babied.

They’d named him Victor after that man from Young and the Restless, and they were certain he’d outlive both of them, he had that much life in him. He trotted along with his head held high, happy to be out with Stan on a run to the store.

It was on one such run along the boardwalk, a box of frozen chicken under his arm, that Stan saw too late the sharp-eyed eagle gliding in to scoop poor Victor up. He watched helplessly as it carried the little dog away in its gnarly talons.

Stan’s hearing was long too weak to hear the dog’s whimpers, but he’d heard Abby’s throaty cry emerge wet and grief-stricken, as her fists hit his chest, furious that he’d done nothing to protect their baby. He wondered idly if that cry was 50 years in the making.

She’d thudded his chest like that only once before—after their first son’s funeral. The child was in a box so small it didn’t make sense for pall-bearers to carry it, so Stan brought it to the cemetery himself. It was no bigger than a box of bait.

They were made to stand outside the cemetery because the minister wouldn’t allow those who were un-baptized to be buried within its gates.

Stan barely held the baby in the first two weeks because he hadn’t known what to do with it. Then it had turned an awful shade of blue one night in its sleep. Stan had dug the grave himself, tears falling on the soil at his feet as close to the fence-line as the Minister would allow.

“I’ll be your man but I’ll never marry you Abby—not if that’s the feller that’s got to do it,” he’d choked.

And that night, while Abby lay wounded in bed and the Minister moved on to a funeral in the next community over, Stan had got drunk. He made his way in on the road and dug up the cemetery fence, moving it five feet to the left so the fresh mound of dirt sat just within its boundaries.

Abby’s death came a few weeks ago, not long after he lost the dog.

Stan went to check the mail at the post office and when he came home he’d found her on the floor in the hallway like she’d lay down to take a nap. He’d sorted through the mail— even read some flyers from front to back—while he waited for them to come in with the stretcher. He didn’t know what else to do. His son came, and then his daughter, and in a few days the whole bloody flock descended like a gaggle of geese shitting all over the place and scrounging up whatever niblets they could muster for themselves.

Abby would have loved having them all together at once, and he was angry that she wasn’t there to enjoy it.

They put Abby’s box in the cool ground of summer, the scent of wild rose bushes so strong that even Stan’s old nose could smell them. The daughters wobbled beside him at the gravesite, the spikes of their high heels sinking them into the soft ground. The sons stood somberly beside the coffin in black suits and white gloves while Stan held his gaze on the unmarked patch of grass beside Abby’s grave—the place right at the edge of the fence.

Stan stared with the same intensity now, at the soft kitten in his hands. Through his thick, calloused fingers he felt the stickiness of its fur, coated with spilled milk.

He carried it to the kitchen sink that was much too large for his small saucer with toast crumbs and a stained tea mug.

He turned the water to a trickle and let it wash over the animal as it clawed at his hand. When it was clean he chuckled at how cold and small and helpless it seemed. How long would she have struggled if he’d put her in a sack with a rock and thrown it off the end of the wharf? How long did the others struggle before her? Twenty seconds, a minute, longer? How long could a creature hold its breath?

He placed the kitten on top of his bed, where he knew it was too high for her to climb down on her own, and did the same thing to the other two, placing them cold and wet on his bedspread where they would dry in the sunlight. The mother, he had shut away in the laundry room.

He lined a cardboard box with a dirty flannel shirt that he knew would have his scent, and took care to jab a screwdriver into it in several places for ventilation.

He put the kittens inside one by one, feeling the pinpricks of their sharp claws on his spotted fingers. When he sealed the lid he could feel the box shifting with their weight. On the front with a big red marker he addressed the box and wrote “FRAGILE—THIS SIDE UP”. He carried it to the post office resolved to spend the extra money for expedited delivery to the radio station. Care of Ask Attica, he had written in parentheses.

It’s the dog he dreams about at night now, not his wife. He wonders what that eagle’s nest is like. He likes to think there’s a thrill on the way up. You’re in the grip of something stronger than yourself, and you watch your world get smaller and smaller. He imagines the nest is soft on the inside—lined with worn-down twigs and padded with feathers. He hopes there’s a brief moment to wonder at its intricate construction.

Back at home he opened the laundry room door to invite the she-cat out. She pushed her ears back and glared at him, and then swayed her scarred backside as she entered the kitchen. She staked claim to the dog’s bed, which he’d moved near the fire’s heat.

She didn’t look for her babies. She didn’t try to hide. She squinted at Stan as he took a seat in the rocking chair beside her.

“Don’t look at me that way Abby,” he said to her evenly. “Perhaps one will make it. Perhaps they all will. That’s all anyone can ask.”

Lisa McLean is a writer and communications professional living in Guelph, Ontario, with her husband and two small children. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Drama from the University of Guelph, and spends much of her vacation time with family in rural Newfoundland.
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