Shadowboxing

February 4, 2015

I remember a feeling of terror when our cat gave birth on the cold basement floor of my father’s workout room. I was eight years old. When I heard Kitty’s howls and rushed to see what looked like guts spilling out of her, I thought she was dying among the dumbbells and free weights. I was scared and cried out for my mother.

My mother, fresh from the kitchen with a dishtowel thrown over her shoulder, knelt and coaxed the cat knowingly. “This is the miracle of birth,” she said as my siblings and I gathered to watch five new animals emerge, blind and yawning. But the miracle was lost on me.

“She’s eating her babies!” I shouted. Kitty tore at the membrane of the amniotic sac with bared teeth and snapping jaw, the same way she disassembled birds, mice, and chipmunks on our front porch. I had thought of her as a skilled hunter-gatherer when she purred over her kill on our doorstep, picking meat from fragile bone. Now, as I watched her consume the flesh of her flesh, I saw the feral inside the domestic and I was afraid. She didn’t need to hunt; we filled her bowl daily. Kitty killed for sport, and how was I to know she would stop now, with her incisors grazing the backs of her offspring, swallowing the membranes whole? This was a wild hunger, a mad instinct, a code in our nature suddenly revealed to me. Abraham’s binding of Isaac. Saturn devouring his son.

“No,” my mother said. This is maternal sacrifice. Watch her eat on their behalf. Watch her offer her body. Watch her lick them clean.

My mother had given birth to six children and had had two second-trimester miscarriages. Still, I was grossly unprepared for the facts of life. I was the fifth, so I had no memory of my mother’s pregnancies. My parents had fierce religious and protective instincts; they taught us much about Heaven and Earth, nature and wildlife, the kingdom of competitive species that surrounded us in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, but they would never explain the birds and the bees. I had observed Kitty’s slender body transform over two months—her great, swollen abdomen swinging strangely beneath her as she stalked the house—but I had no context for her condition.

Quickly, my brother and sisters and I grew attached to the kittens with their too-big paws, their eyes slowly opening on the world, their fraught and immediate sibling rivalry, a pile of warm bodies clambering for a place at their mother’s belly. We named them, an act of dominion that was doomed from the start. We already had horses, dogs, birds, the occasional hamster, goldfish in glass bowls, and tadpoles or turtles in Tupperware on the porch. We begged our parents to let us keep the cats and wailed when our mother labeled a box FREE KITTENS, packed them away, and drove off to Sugar Camp Elementary, where she announced that five kids could have a new pet with their parents’ permission. By the end of the day, the litter was gone. Kitty wandered the house frantically in search of them.

The next morning, my sister’s classmate, a sweet boy with freckles and Coke-bottle glasses, was crying on the school bus. His mother, who wore matching eyeglasses and spoke in a high-pitched whisper, had allowed him to keep a kitten. But word traveled that when his father came home from work and discovered the new pet, he grabbed the kitten and his hunting rifle, carried them into the woods behind the house, and shot the trembling calico while his wife and three kids cried behind their Coke-bottles. My siblings and I were horrified, and we blamed our mother for giving the kittens away so freely.

“It’s all your fault,” we cried. “How could you?”

Our mother, when she was sad, spent days asleep or lethargically performing housework in her floor-length nightgown, a phantom. Kitty was going through a similar malaise, it seemed. And so, out of boredom or mean fascination, my siblings and I devised a game of hide-and-seek. We would find the cat asleep or bird-watching at the windowsill, and then, from behind a doorway or sofa, we would taunt her with tiny mewling sounds, approximating the cries of the kittens we had all loved so dearly. Kitty would spring to her paws and sprint around the room in a crazed state, rounding one corner after another, no doubt expecting to find little Oreo or Domino. But when she finally reached the source of the cries, she found us standing there instead.

It was a cruel game. She never stopped looking. Even years later, the sound of a kitten’s cry sent her sniffing couch cushions and chasing shadows in empty rooms.

When my mother was feeling well, when she was up, she took painting classes, bagpipe and Gaelic lessons, an Introduction to Clowning course. She collected silk scarves, giant flower lapel pins, and loudly patterned blouses, emerging from her bedroom in oversized shoes and Dad’s button-downs, making us laugh. She spent hours practicing face painting on us, whooping while snapping Polaroids of our exaggerated expressions. The makeup was thick and itchy, and it had a stale, chemical smell, but I was grateful for the attention of her index finger on my skin, expertly crafting candy-apple cheeks, arched eyebrows, double-wide smile.

I minded, though, when she talked about my brother and sister in Heaven. Mom had named them Billy and Maggie, and when she prayed with me at bedtime we prayed for them. Sometimes Mom cried, and I was jealous of her tears. I could talk to Billy and Maggie, she said. They were watching over me. But I didn’t want to talk to them. I didn’t want them watching over me. Even in this house full of animals, in this wilderness, I did not understand the nature of anything—of my father blowing off steam in his workout room, or my mother’s loss, or my own selfish need. I only knew that those babies were ghosts in our house, and my siblings and I were little, constant reminders of the ones who were taken away.