"It will come about gradually," the doctor had said. "You remember, Daniel, what it was like with your mother?"
"We thought it was her accident," he said. "We thought that's what - damaged -- her."
Alzheimer's, Ruth thought, still as marble beside him. Still as if the doctor was speaking to someone else's husband.
Daniel's mother had fallen off a stepladder. Her concussion had been so severe, she suffered migraines for years.
"When she started forgetting things, we just assumed," he said later as Ruth lay beside him. "She did crossword puzzles, sent Christmas cards to families they had been stationed with when my father was in the Army and never forgot a street address."
That first month, he catalogued memories for her as if to prove everyone wrong - the button missing off his flannel jacket when he was ten, the Estee Lauder eau de toilette scent of his first girlfriend's neck, the only line of lyrics skipped over in either of the Blonde on Blonde albums. About his illness and what would be required of her, Ruth never said, I can't do this. Other people said it, said that she had many strengths, but she wasn't cut out to take that kind of care of anyone. It was true, she was not overly patient, but she had been an accomplished child in a family of accomplished children. When she heard she wasn't something, she wanted, more than anything, to be that. Besides, she thought, I haven't had to do this yet. Now that she did, they would see.
Bur first, she had to leave him. She stood in the airport with Daniel whose secretary had to log him into his computer most mornings. His home phone number was taped to the dashboard of his car. He can still get the children home safe, Ruth thought, and keep them that way for a month. She would be back to witness all the ways that her forty-eight year old husband would become her neediest child. The fellowship had been in the works for a year, the money appropriated, the institute expecting her. She and Daniel had come to the decision together. But she knew what her leaving looked like.
The night before she left, Daniel had taken her to dinner. They had gotten silly on two bottles of champagne and had fumbled through awkward sex in the parking garage afterwards.
"Some scholar," he had whispered in her ear. Afterward, when he couldn't find the keys, it shamed her, the kind of desire she had felt for someone already becoming a child.
"When I told him to check his pocket, he didn't know what I meant, had forgotten what that little thing on his pants was called," Ruth had said to her sister, Margaret.
Margaret added: "And you still got on that plane."
But those four weeks had made little difference in Daniel's health. Now, research completed, she had only to write the book. For the next year, she had a job that would allow her to be home.
"I'm going to make borscht," Daniel said, shortly after her arrival. "But I have to get some things." He left her on the couch beside their nine year old, Anna. Ruth wondered if he had gone off on errands like this recently, but he returned with everything he needed. She had not thought it possible. Even in his healthy days, there had always been something he'd forgotten, but then he could not recall the name of the soup he was making. Ruth had had to find the recipe for him. The next morning, she found his razor in his sock drawer. This is how it will be, she thought. A trail of breadcrumbs that I can follow to the complete dissolution of sense.
It was as she stood at the window in their bedroom that she first noticed the cat, a black blur dashing into the shed.
The cat came back often, streaking across the yard. The girls were thrilled.
"Maybe we can catch it," Anna said.
"I think it's wild and that we should leave it alone," Ruth said. The phone rang, startling them.
"I'll be late," Daniel said, as if he were lying about something. In the old days, this was the voice men used when they were having an affair.
"Is everything alright?" she asked. He had told his colleagues what was happening, explained why he had forgotten meetings lately, had misplaced documents, could not recall their names.
"I'm in the parking garage," Daniel said. "In the car."
"Keys?" Ruth said. "Do you have the keys?"
"I have the keys. But I have no idea how to find you."
That weekend, Ruth sat at her desk. She had never written a book, but was finding it easier than she had hoped. The process was as manageable as any of the shorter research papers she'd published. She followed her outline and it led her towards a logical conclusion.
When Anna called from outside, Ruth looked out the window. Anna cupped something in her hands. An animal of some kind? Where was Daniel? Did he know what they were doing? Maybe they were at that point where he couldn't be alone with the girls even for a few hours outside the window where she sat.
Ruth hurried down the stairs hearing: "It's a kitten, Mommy. We found them."
In the gloom of the shed, behind a propped-up wheelbarrow, two more kittens huddled over a bit of fur. A fresh kill left by their mother. A fourth kitten lay by itself screeching. All were black with white bibs and socks and too young to scamper away. Daniel placed one in Isabel's hands, scooped up the others and came out into the light.
In the grass, three crawled, picking up legs as if to free themselves from something sticky. The fourth one turned on its side and continued its piercing cries.
"Maybe we shouldn't touch that one," Ruth suggested. The girls, absorbed in this gift, ignored her. Maybe, Ruth thought, this was something to keep the girls amused so she could work. What harm could it do to have them play with the creatures until the mother cat returned? She was heading back to the house when Daniel said, "We'll try to trap the mother. There are places that sterilize feral cats for free and raise the kittens."
How could he do this? Have these moments of absolute certainty that made all the expertise and solemn pronouncements seem like mistakes?
"Imagine this," she had told her sisters after Daniel's CAT scan revealed a healthy globe. The women had met at a restaurant Ruth loved that overlooked the harbor. "We were disappointed they didn't find a tumor."
"Who's to take care of him?" Margaret had asked, and their other sisters leaned in to hear.
"Who do you think?" she said.
Margaret continued to stare until Ruth pushed her plate away.
Now, Daniel turned to her and said, "Unless you think it would be too much."
"Please, Mommy," Isabel said. "We've never had a pet. You've never allowed us."
Ruth recalled the dinner conversations where a healthy Daniel suggested they get a dog, but it was true, Ruth had always said no. Too much responsibility for a woman who felt she spent too much time addressing the needs of others. Now this thought made her laugh out loud. Her daughters stared at her as if she was the one losing her mind.
"We can keep them for a little while," she said. This plan of Daniel's could keep him busy, too. "But only until the shelter can pick them up."
Their neighbor was used to being asked for their help. How many times, even in less frightening days, had Ruth been relieved that Armando was at home when pipes burst or carpenter ants threatened to gnaw away one wall of their house? She hadn't shared Daniel's diagnosis with anyone outside of family, however. So when Daniel marched across the street in search of a trap for the mother cat, Ruth let him go. Whatever he requested, Armando would provide it. In small ways, they could still be saved.
Armando toted the trap over himself.
"Woodchucks ate all my lettuce one summer. Caught a whole family of them in this," he said.
He used a kitten as bait. Pried from its siblings, it protested plaintively. Daniel watched for a few moments, then wondered aloud what he had done with his polka-dotted tie.
"Don't worry about that," Ruth said, her palms prickling.
Sun blinked off Daniel's glasses. "Right," he said. "Everything is working out fine." He repeated this several times before Ruth reminded him they needed to be quiet.
"This must be the cat who's had kittens up and down the street," Armando said. "The Poulins found her in their garage, but by the time they called the shelter, she had moved them. She's been in the Blounts' tool shed and the Bernauds' hedges."
Ruth considered how little of anyone else's life she knew. How, on snowy days, as Armando plowed people's driveways or delivered Portuguese fish stew door to door, she sat inside hoping the doorbell didn't ring.
"You've had no interest in making friends," her mother commented recently. "And now you're going to need some."
Before Ruth could bristle anew at the critique, the cat slunk past them. Instead of the sound of the trap closing, the mother ran back out, the baby in her mouth. Ruth and Armando sprinted after her, dodging the Blounts' lawn chairs, rock garden. The cat, nimble over the same objects even with the kitten in her mouth, eluded them until they neared a stone wall, Armando several steps behind, calling to Ruth to let this one go.
"You'll never catch her," he said.
Why did people doubt her? A PhD, two children, a book deal later. What did it take, really, to convince people you had everything under control? As she sought some foothold, she heard meowing and looked down to see the kitten worming its way in the grass. A hundred yards away, the mother glanced back before darting off into the woods. Ruth held the kitten against her beating heart. Before they had moved here, she had never seen a fisher cat or a coyote, but now she had seen both, had heard the fisher cat scream, the coyote pack's yips.
"I saved you," she said, sorry that she hadn't also saved its mother. When she turned, intending to hold the prize up, Armando wasn't looking. He was turned towards Daniel who staggered after them, sobbing.
Daniel lay in their bed, his arm over his eyes. "She isn't going away," he said.
"Of course not," Ruth said. "I'm not going anywhere."
"She isn't running away," Daniel said again, without removing his arm.
When she came downstairs, Armando squatted with the girls. He had brought a box lined with an old towel.
"They'll feel safer in this," he said. "You can put it back in the shed with them."
She started to speak, then decided against it.
"You're not keeping them?" Armando smiled, as if he already knew the answer to such a silly question.
"We're going to turn them over to the shelter. We have no intention of turning them loose out there."
Armando said nothing, but Ruth knew what he was thinking: stupid people interfering where they don't belong. Let him think it. Sometimes the most difficult choices were also the most compassionate ones.
The shelter that trapped and neutered feral cats according to Daniel, was closed for two days. Meanwhile, the kittens napped. Were they like human newborns, Ruth wondered, regret twisting in her belly? Hungry often? Awake only to eat?
As she considered what to do next, Isabel looked up from where she kneeled over the box.
"I feel something," she said. "Under my legs."
Ruth felt it, too, a subtle vibration, and then heard the low growl that produced it.
"It's the mother," Anna said. "Underneath us."
The hairs rose on Ruth's arms. Her daughters' faces darkened.
"Will she hurt us?" Isabel asked, rising and stepping onto the threshold where she could no longer feel the tremor. In the box, a kitten stirred and mewed, its siblings uncurling, too, answering their mother.
"She wants her babies," Anna said. Her sister began to cry. "We took her babies."
"Don't be silly," Ruth snapped. "We're saving these kittens from being killed."
But Ruth did consider returning the animals to the shed and letting nature take its course. This mother had every right to threaten them. They had taken something that belonged to her. When Anna stomped her foot, the cat darted back into the yard. By now, the kittens were inconsolable, climbing over one another in an attempt to escape.
Anna lifted one out. "You can't go back out there," she crooned. "It's hard to be separated from your mama, but this is for the best. We just need to figure out what to feed you."
From inside the house, Daniel called: "Kitten formula through an eye dropper."
They found him on the computer, dressed in a dark suit as if he was going to work, the polka-dotted tie knotted perfectly at his neck.
"It also says feral cats are awesome mommies," he told the girls. "They have to be to make it out in the wild."
When Ruth glanced down at the screen, she noticed he was barefoot, that he had sliced part of his big toe which bled onto the wood floor.
While Daniel sat in his suit pants and shirt, his toe bandaged, showing the girls how to hold the kitten under its chin to feed it, Ruth dialed the number of another shelter, a large no-kill place Armando's wife had suggested over the phone. Freida had not sounded surprised to hear from Ruth. In fact, she had the information so readily available, Ruth had an idea that once Armando had gotten home and told her what was going on, they had both known their help would be needed. Ruth resented her own predictability. She vowed not to ask them for another thing.
"Be careful not to press the dropper," Daniel said, his voice soothing. The girls' heads hovered so closely to the kitten's, Ruth marveled that Daniel could see to feed it. "Let the kitty suck just as it would from its mother."
Ruth remembered trying to breastfeed Anna, how surprised she had been at the infant's tenacity. How her nipples grew so tender, she couldn't cover herself with a sheet. Rather than admit how difficult it was, she counted to ten when Anna latched on, closed her eyes against the pain, and told herself it would get easier. A week went by before she admitted this to Daniel who called the midwife.
"You have thrush," he told her, in the same voice he now used with the girls. "It isn't anything you did wrong." Then, he found a holistic practitioner and bought a paste she applied to her nipples and to Anna's mouth. Cured her.
When Ruth had maneuvered through the shelter's voice prompts and was rewarded by a human voice, she turned from the tableau of Daniel and her daughters.
"The mother abandoned them?" the woman asked. She sounded suspicious, not what Ruth had anticipated. Ruth felt justified lying to her. "You think they're how old?"
Ruth she said they had been eating meat when the girls found them.
"They were eating meat but there was no mother around? You waited to make sure?"
"We haven't seen any cat for days," she said.
The woman sighed. "Are you sure they'll let you hold them? Because if feral kittens are too old, they're impossible to tame and we would not, under any circumstances, be equipped to handle them."
"My children are feeding them now," she said, her anger rising. "So I'm sure you'll be equipped to handle the situation." She wanted to scream this into the phone, but getting rid of these animals might not be as easy as she had hoped.
The woman stayed silent for a moment. "We can take them Tuesday," she said. Three days away. "If you have to cancel, please let us know. We're very busy here."
Ruth snorted into the phone. "I'm sure you are."
Margaret told Ruth she was crazy. "Why on earth would you take that on?"
"It's a good lesson for the girls," Ruth said. "And it was the right thing to do."
"There were days, you know, when people put litters into plastic bags with rocks and dropped them into a quarry."
"There were days when Christians were fed to lions as well, and when it was okay to beat your wife. The list of accepted barbarisms is endless."
"All I'm saying is that it isn't the worst thing in the world to let wild kittens be wild. Especially when you have two young children, a book contract, and an ill husband. Honestly, Ruthann, what are you proving?"
After dinner, Daniel grew angry when Ruth reminded him it was time to feed the kittens. He had been scratched earlier, he said. From that fussy little one who never stopped meowing. He had ruined a perfectly good white shirt. The girls stared at him, Isabel tearing up, Anna patting her hand.
"I can help," Ruth said. "Anna will teach me."
"You should help," Daniel snapped. "I'm all alone here and I don't want to be hurt again. There's something terribly wrong with that animal." He tossed a glass into the sink and it shattered.
Ruth sent the girls onto the porch with the rag and the eyedropper. "I'll warm up the formula and be right there," she said, though she had not written a word that day and had hoped to commit a couple hours that night to her work. Her hands shook as she moved him away from the sink. She should hold him. She had learned from his doctor that he might need to be comforted during more fearful moments, but he stunk of sour formula, his own sweat and something else she couldn't name, decay, dead flesh. She put her arm on his shoulder.
"You are not alone," she said, "I will be here."
"You? You left months ago and we had no idea where you'd gone."
"You forgot that I was going to Stockholm. And that I called every day. But that's okay because now, I'm not going anywhere. I can take care of the kittens so they won't hurt you again."
"You don't even like cats," he said, shaking his head and laughing bitterly as he began picking up the glass. "You were running away like a maniac just a few hours ago, but that man caught you."
As Ruth filled the dropper for the last kitten, she spoke to her daughters. "Remember what I told you? That Daddy has a sickness in his brain? Well, that's why he acts that way. You shouldn't cry about it. It's silly to think he would ever hurt you."
Both girls listened but offered nothing. They bathed the other animals with warm washcloths and set them in the litter box. Ruth reached for the final kitten which, instead of its usual whining, was mostly silent. When she lifted it to her face, she gagged. It was the stench she had smelled on Daniel. She set the animal down and drew back.The animal tilted its tiny body to the side. When she examined it, she saw maggots squirming in a wound no bigger than a fingernail clipping. She turned her head away and dry heaved.
"What is it, Mommy?" Anna asked. Isabel shivered.
"I think it's time to bring the kittens back to their mother," Ruth said, immediately feeling how liberating that would be. Why hadn't she thought of this before? "We can't do this. I was wrong to think we could."
Isabel bowed her head, sniffling.
Anna looked wildly from her sister to her mother. "But you said they'd be killed out there. That it is a terrible life for them. You said coyotes would eat them."
This intensified Isabel's grief and brought Daniel out onto the porch.
"Mommy says we have to put them back," Isabel said, desperate. "They have to go back out there." When Anna looped her arm around her sister, Daniel turned on Ruth.
"What is wrong with you?" he said. "First you say we'll rescue them, now you change your mind?"
"You don't want to help anymore, either, Daniel," she said. This was familiar ground: score-keeping with the man she married, someone infinitely capable of defending himself. "You throw a tantrum and walk away. I have enough to take care of without worrying about some sick thing that's going to die no matter what we do."
The girls told them to stop. The kittens clawed at the insides of their box. Daniel squatted beside his daughters and shushed them, one hand on each girl's shoulder. "It's a lot of work, taking care of these kittens," he said. He spoke so quietly, they had to quiet themselves to hear him. "But we are helping creatures who can't help themselves. We took something on and we have to see it through no matter how difficult it gets."
Isabel buried her head in his shoulder. Anna rubbed her hand over a kitten's back.
"We're going to go upstairs to read together and then I'll come down and take care of the sick kitty," Daniel said. Over his shoulder, Isabel stared dully at her mother. Anna nodded her head as if finally someone was speaking sense, then she took her father's hand.
"Yes," Ruth said. "Daddy will fix everything."
"But you said wild cats are the best mommies," Isabel said as they moved inside. "Why would she let her baby get hurt like that?"
"She had to hunt," Daniel said. "She had to keep herself strong so she could feed them. Even a good mommy like that can't always be there to protect her babies."
"Our mom went away," Anna said. No one responded.
Over the telephone, the on-call vet told Ruth the situation was hopeless. "A kitten that young whose flesh is already dead doesn't stand a chance; euthanasia is really the only viable option," the woman said. She sounded wide-awake, compassionate. Ruth had an idea to keep her on the phone longer, this one capable voice. Why not put the animal out of her misery? "You can bring her into Boston tonight," the vet continued. "Angel Memorial is open twenty four hours or you could wait until tomorrow morning, but she'll most likely be gone by then."
Ruth recalled Daniel's earlier agitation. She had left him for four weeks. What could one trip to the animal hospital- a few hours total - be compared with that? But he had become so paranoid about her leaving and it was so quiet upstairs. He must have fallen asleep beside the girls. To wake him would risk him being disoriented or still angry. The kitten was a wild animal, one that surely would have died despite their interference no matter what Daniel told their children. She would not leave merely to hurry along the inevitable.
When she hung up, Ruth considered bathing the wound, giving the kitten some comfort, but she couldn't bear to touch it. She had placed it in a shoebox alone and had willed herself not to think about what the creature might be enduring. Instead, she stripped off the clothes she had worn when she had attempted to feed it and tossed them into the washing machine then retreated upstairs to write. So grateful was she for the concrete nature of her task that the words came effortlessly. She didn't look up until it was almost midnight. Without glancing in the smaller box, Ruth fed the healthy kittens, wiped the milk from their faces and necks, let them crawl through the litter box and put them away for the night.
In the laundry room, she bent to shove the clothes into the dryer, her head near the window screen. The growl was low and the cat so close, perched on the sill, that Ruth could have touched it if the screen had not been in place. She saw nothing but light reflecting off the yellow orbs before the cat leapt away and disappeared, full of useless milk.
Outside, Ruth set the tiny box in the grass, covered the kitten with an old t-shirt of Isabel's. "Come back for her," Ruth said, the relief so surprising, she had trouble walking back to the house.
In the morning, Daniel leaned over Ruth and asked about his polka-dotted tie.
"I haven't seen it," she told him.
The bed sank beneath his weight. When she looked up, she found him sitting with his head in his hands. "Have you even tried to find it?" he asked.
"I was busy with the kittens," she said.
He looked confused.
Ruth tossed off the covers, exposing the lower half of her body where her nightgown had risen. When Daniel looked up, his expression changed. It was not desire Ruth saw in his face, but something more primal. She pulled her robe off the end of the bed and wrapped herself in it, but as she walked by him, he reached out and grabbed her wrist, slid his hand up her thigh. She cried out and pulled away.
The girls knelt over the box. Isabel sucked the ends of her hair, a habit Ruth thought they had cured her of. Anna re-arranged the kittens, searching for the missing one. Which one of them would succumb the way Daniel had, to a disease that had been with him since birth? What had she and Daniel done when they had decided to have children? How could they not have known all that they might subject them to?
"She isn't in there," Ruth said. "I put her outside so her mother could take care of her. She's too ill for us to help her."
"But what if her mother didn't come?" Anna asked, drawing her sister's hair away from her mouth. Ruth expected her to call for her father any minute, but she stared at Ruth, suspicious.
The box was where Ruth left it beside a hydrangea heavy-headed with blossoms. Bees murmured. Flies lit on the undisturbed rag that had been Isabel's shirt. Ruth knew before she drew back the cloth that the mother had not come, or that, if she had, she had also known that there was nothing to be done for something so impaired. The kitten's body was stiff, her mouth open in a grimace of amazingly tiny teeth. At least no other animal had disturbed her as she lay.
"I knew her mother wouldn't come," Anna said, emotionless. Isabel wept into the crook of her arm.
Ruth closed her eyes, breathed in the scent of Armando's newly mulched bushes, his freshly mown grass. "There are some things we can't fix," she said. Her voice, too, was hard, dispassionate. "But we'll give her a funeral, if you like. We'll make it very special."
Daniel had been uncertain which tool to use to dig the hole. When Anna handed him the pointed shovel, he nodded. He trusted her, that was clear from the way he took the handle she offered him, but he studied the tool, ran his hand along the handle before it occurred to him what his task must be. He dug a small hole beneath the uneven shade of the hydrangeas. Anna gripped her sister's hand. Ruth held the box, far enough away so that she couldn't catch the stench. In two days, they would drop the kittens off at the shelter where people would take this burden from them. Her sister would have to admit: Ruth was more capable than she thought.
I did the right thing, Ruth thought as she stood over the grave. I have taught my daughters a lesson in responsibility, in loss. One day no matter that the names of their loved ones would escape them, they will remember the details of this day as vividly as their father recalls his own childhood.
When the hole was complete, a square so true, it hurt Ruth to see it, Daniel looked up at her.
"I did it," he said.
"We should say something nice," Anna said.
"She was the prettiest kitten of all," Isabel said.
Anna said, "She fought very hard to live. She was a brave kitten who would have made a wonderful pet if only we had helped her."
When the girls finished, they looked to their mother who stooped to lower the box beneath the showy blooms. As she did so, she heard a sound so small, it might have been a strangled meow, the far-off call of a bird, or nothing at all. Could the kitten be alive after all? It had already taken so long to die, had already so pricked Ruth's conscience. She envisioned the only life available to this creature, the suffering no one had answers for. Even if it was alive, what would be the point of saying so? The end was unalterable. She stepped into the shadows beside her husband and placed the box in its perfect hole.
"Go ahead," she said to Daniel, who leaned onto his shovel staring into the grave.
He was humming, something Ruth had never heard him do. When he looked up, she motioned to the shovel and he shook his head as if his forgetfulness was funny. What would people think, Ruth thought, if they knew what she heard and what she had done anyway? And how could she have explained it to them without the accompanying judgment: the poor creature was better off buried alive.