for Gretel (August 26, 2009—March 11, 2016)
The kittens had vanished. I don’t mean they were hiding or had escaped the house. I mean they weren’t in this world. An hour ago, I was working on my laptop at the dining room table. The kittens were playing in the jungle gym of chair legs under the table. I remembered my daughters playing there years ago and me, too, as a child. My drawing of Loob, a bogeyman I’d invented, is still under the tabletop, its chalk lines only partly smeared.
My fingers drooped on the keyboard. If only I could be small again, playing with the kittens, my world happy and unspoiled. For an hour of that, I’d trade a year of my life.
When I finally quit typing, the house was silent. The kittens must have konked out. I pictured them draped over each other like a pile of pelts: their usual nap mode.
I drank a cup of chamomile tea, nibbled shortbread, then looked for them, yelling the magic word, “Treat!” and shaking a bag of Tasty Temptations. No response. I hunted everywhere, even outside, though the doors had been locked.
Where could the kittens be? I’d lived in this 225-year-old farmhouse my whole life and, believe me, knew every hiding spot. I searched again, though not well, panic clouding my eyes. Had I had a memory blip and given the kittens away yesterday, not tomorrow, as planned? Was I going crazy? Nothing like this had ever happened to me before.
A tinkling tune, like a horror movie theme, kept repeating in my mind: G,A,B flat / G,A,B flat,C sharp / G,A,B flat,C sharp,D.
I plunked onto the sofa, squeezed my head with my hands and wept, remembering my first sight of the kittens. An elderly neighbor had called and said, “There are kittens screaming in our tool shed. The mother’s gone. Can you help us?”
I’d run to their house and found three skinny creatures wobbling over mounds of junk in the shed. “Weeoooo! Weeoooo!” they cried. I’d brought them home, having no idea what an ordeal it’d be to bottle feed, bathe and flea comb them, induce their urination and defecation (as their mother would have done at this age), and try not to love them because I had to give them up when they were weaned. I couldn’t afford food, litter and vet bills for one cat, much less three.
The local vet told me, “We’ll take them when they’re nine weeks old and put them in a cage in the waiting room. Sooner or later, they’ll get adopted.”
This cage had appeared in my nightmares, while the kittens slept curled around my head, like a scarf. How could they bear to live in a cage for weeks, maybe months, till they found homes? What if they were bad homes?
Goldy would be adopted first, I was sure. Her angora fur was smoky and white, with gold splashes: beautiful. But she might be too domineering and adventurous for her new owners.
Hansel would go next. He was a white and gray tabby, with big green eyes that studied you intently. An all-around good boy, he patiently endured baths and grooming. What if he had to endure worse?
That left Gretel, my mama’s girl, who still cried for the bottle I didn’t give them any more. She’d be lucky if anyone took her. Her black fur looked as if a passing car had sprayed it with mud. Her “mud” was actually beige and gold—very pretty—but that only showed close up. She had a gremlin face and loved to suckle human necks. What if her new owner slapped her away?
Remembering these fears was like a pinch convincing me I was awake. I had not given the kittens to the vet. No way could I forget that. Something else had happened to them, something worse.
The tune played again in my head, reminding me of funerals, vampires, torture chambers. It hit me: those were piano notes. The kittens had walked on the keys just as I’d gotten lost in my work, and the tune had stayed with me.
I hurried across the living room to the piano. It was a spinet, whose insides I’d already searched for the kittens. Standing, I played the tune.
My fingers froze as I pressed the last note. The wood grain on the piano lid warped in one spot. It wasn’t like that before; I’d dusted this piano since I was a girl and would have noticed.
Gingerly, I touched the wood grain; now the tendons on my hand were distorted. I snatched my hand away. Its skin looked normal again, and the warping was back in the wood. I leaned closer. No, not in the wood, above it. I was looking at the piano lid through a five-inch-long dimple in the air.
It had something to do with the kittens’ disappearance. It had to.
I couldn’t call 911. They’d think I was crazy, and the dimple might not last till the police got here. My daughters were even farther away. I pictured the kittens on a distant planet, crying, “Weeoooo! Weeoooo!” I had to save them.
I touched the dimple, thinking I might disappear, too, but nothing happened. The dimple felt soggy and rubbery and looked like a toothless mouth, its lips folded inward. Had the kittens wormed their way through it? With both hands, I pulled the lips apart. Something showed between them, but I couldn’t tell what it was. I hooked my foot around the piano stool and dragged it to me. Sitting on the stool, I stretched the dimple till it formed an oval, about two feet wide.
Through it, I saw a room filled with golden light, unlike the gloom here. It looked familiar, kind of like this room but not reversed, as in a mirror. Of course! It was my childhood living room. There was the old wallpaper, with its moody farm scenes; the green rocker; the braided rug—everything real and rich in the sunset light, not washed out, as in my aged photos.
And the kittens! Hansel was on the glass-fronted bookcase; Goldy on her back, scratching the underside of the armchair; but no Gretel. Be calm, I told myself. Her fur often camouflaged her; the Invisible Cat, I called her. There she was, blending in with a cushion on the sofa, trying to gnaw its button off.
“Kitties,” I said softly, not knowing who or what else was in the room, out of sight.
Hansel looked at me. His sisters were too busy with their tasks.
“Hansel! Come here.”
He crouched to jump from the bookcase—good boy that he was—but held back. His eyes pleaded, Let me explore more. This is fun!
Should I explore, too? Climb through the opening and run through the house, kissing everything my parents had sold, thrown out or destroyed when they’d divorced? I’d be ecstatic. I leaned through the dimple and paused. This could be dangerous. I’d better get the kittens out first: I was their mother, even if I was about to return to my childhood for a while.
Outside the windows that faced east, something moved. The leafless maples wavered in the wind, but that wasn’t the motion that had caught my eye. Someone in a brown hooded coat moved alongside the porch. Oma! My grandmother—at least, that was her coat. She headed toward the porch steps. Would she enter the house? This golden room?
A story came back to me. When Dad was a teen, he’d had two friends over. Around midnight, they heard a rustling outside a window and glimpsed a hooded figure spying on them. Dad grabbed his hunting knife, and the boys crept from the house. They didn’t find anyone, but a creak came from the shed. His friends hid on either side of the shed, and Dad stood by its door, his knife raised.
The door opened. The hooded figure stepped out. At the last second, Dad recognized Oma’s then-new coat and diverted the knife.
Hu-hu-hu! She’d laughed, as she did whenever she was caught doing something odd.
My stomach caved in. My hands trembled on the lips of the dimple. I didn’t want to see Oma. However much I loved her, she was dead. If that even was Oma inside the coat. This room could be a trap.
“Kittens!” I hissed. “Treats! Come now.”
Hansel bounded from the bookcase, across the rug, and onto the box-shaped television, beneath the dimple. With a yowl, he hurtled through the opening and clambered over my shoulder. I heard him thump onto the floor behind me.
The dimple felt tighter.
Oma started up the porch steps, the hood shadowing her bowed head. Fear iced my heart. I didn’t want her to see the kittens, or they her, though I didn’t know why.
“Treats, girls!” I begged.
Goldy quit gutting the armchair, flipped to her feet and looked at me.
“Goldy, come.” My voice quavered.
She glanced around, as if for something more interesting to do. Oma reached the top step but didn’t go to the front door. She walked on the porch toward the window behind Gretel.
Hansel climbed onto my shoulder, clearly wanting to go back through the dimple. “Stay here!” I said.
Goldy glared at him: He was not going to get treats and attention while she didn’t. She sailed toward me, angora frills flying. As she leapt through the dimple, Hansel retreated. Her fur brushed my cheek, and then I heard them wrestle on the floor. For once, I didn’t mind. Keep fighting! Don’t even think about this other room.
The dimple shrank and tightened. I could hardly keep it open. Oma neared the window.
“Gretel.” I tried to smooth my voice so it wouldn’t spook her. She must not run away and hide. “Come to Mommy. Right now.”
She stopped biting the cushion button and turned her dark, flat-ish face toward me.
“Hurry!” I whispered.
She cocked her head. Come and get me, her pose said, as if this were a game.
I could squeeze through the dimple, grab her and escape—if the dimple stayed open. It shrank to the size of my head. Fear caromed through me.
She curled up on the cushion and purred. Did she want to stay in my childhood world, just as I’d wanted to every day of my adult life, until now? Would she be happier there than in a vet’s cage leading to an unknown future? Oma loved cats. If this were my grandmother, she wouldn’t hurt Gretel.
The hooded figure loomed in the window. I tried to make myself look at it but couldn’t. With all my soul, I didn’t want to know who or what it was. I kept my eyes on Gretel.
The dimple closed another inch. I strained to hold it open and prayed the setting sun would blind the hooded figure to my Invisible Cat. And me. Sweat dampened my forehead.
“Woww!” Gretel said, meaning she wanted to be petted. But if she didn’t come now, I’d never be able to pet her or kiss her orange paw or feel her suckling my neck.
“I’ll keep you, Gretel!” I broke into tears. “Forever.”
Concern for me filled her eyes. She left the sofa in a dark flash, leapt through the dimple and landed with her claws in my sweater. I released the dimple. It snapped shut and was gone.
“Woww!” Gretel said.
With one shaking hand, I petted her; with the other, I closed the piano key cover: no more accidental cat tunes. I carried her to the kitchen; Hansel and Goldy followed us. Tears warmed my cheeks, as I gave them a plate of tuna fish.
While they ate, I called the vet and told him I was keeping all three kittens.
Mia Brech’s first short stories appear in the fall of 2018 in Halfway Down the Stairs, The Literary Nest, Bewildering Stories, and Corner Bar Magazine.
She was an art critic with a bi-weekly column at Fairpress, a Connecticut newspaper, and has a BA in art history from Vassar College. She is currently writing and illustrating a graphic novel.