Boots In The City
By Brian Reynolds
Annabetty is rolling out the crust for an apple pie when a knock at the front door makes her jump. Surrounded by the familiar smells of her spices and the touch of her old cast-iron pots and pans, she sometimes forgets where she is, that the family has moved into a new house away from the reservation and into the city. She forgets that things are different here. People rap their knuckles on her door like a long-beaked peinaysheesh digging out a bug from a dying black spruce.
Annabetty lays the rolling pin on the worn breadboard next to the pile of peeled, cored apple-quarters. She hurries across the polished floors through the bright, strange rooms hoping the visitor won't fly off into the autumn sky. People don't knock on doors back in Otter Creek. Knocking is unfriendly there. Here you never know. How-are-you-I-am-fine, she rehearses in English at the door before opening it.
The man on her steps shifts his weight from foot to foot. He frowns. "I live across the street. You have a cat, don't you? We've seen it. God, I'm so sorry. I'm almost sure it's your cat."
"We have a cat," she says.
"I think it's him," he says. Annabetty notes his eyes, the flutter in his voice. "He's lying there on our front lawn." He swivels slightly. "There. A car hit him. God, I hate having to tell you this. My daughter is just sick."
Annabetty wishes she knew the right words to put the stranger at ease, but she doesn't and she's afraid to say anything at all. She has a feeling that the man expects her to throw up her arms and scream like she's seen people do on the television. Instead, she dries her hands on her apron, follows him across the street, and kneels beside Boots, placing her fingers on the cat's neck. The fur is warm, but there's no breathing and no heartbeat. "He's dead," she says as cheerfully as she can. Then she cradles the limp form in her arms, stands and thanks the man for letting her know.
The man puts his arm around his grown-up daughter who coughs and begins to cry again. "We're so sorry," he says as if they were the cause or could have prevented it from happening. Then his mood changes abruptly. "The way kids drive through this neighbourhood is a crime. I'd like to wring their necks. I've already complained to the police a dozen times. But what good does it do? The driver didn't even stop. I ran out, but he was gone. We pay our taxes, then something like this happens."
Annabetty nods and puts her hand on the sobbing daughter's shoulder before she carries Boots back into her house and lays him on the kitchen floor. She washes her hands before picking up the rolling pin to finish her crust.
Annabetty is slicing the quarters into thin white wedges, watching them fall into the pie shell like poplar leaves when Jill, her 12-year-old, comes into the kitchen after school.
"Bad news," says Annabetty.
Her daughter's eyes widen in apprehension and Annabetty knows the picture of her frail grandmother has filled the youngster's mind. Annabetty smiles to reassure her. "No, everyone is fine. Boots got hit by a car, though. He's dead. I left him here so you could say good-bye."
Then she goes back to her pie while Jill munches on a stolen apple slice and crouches at her mother's feet petting the cooling fur of her cat. "I'll miss him."
"We knew this could happen when we brought him to the city. It was a big change for him. More than for us. His bad luck."
"Can we get a kitten then, Mom? Please."
"We'll talk to your dad when he gets home from work." Annabetty knows there'll be a new kitten. Jill has slept with Boots every night since she was two.
"Mom, can I go watch the soccer game at school? I'll be back for supper."
"Be back before supper, Jill. And be careful at every corner. Very careful. The neighbour says they drive reckless here." She makes Jill look her in the eye so she's sure she understands the warning, then watches her daughter touch the dead cat's nose one final time. When Jill is gone and when the pie is in the oven, Annabetty takes the spade from the back porch and digs a deep hole for Boots in the soft, rich earth at the back of the garden.
Late the next morning, the man from across the street knocks on Annabetty's door again.
"Are you okay?" he asks. "Is your daughter okay?" He doesn't wait for a reply. "I know how hard...I'm sorry to bother you at this terrible time, but my daughter is so upset by this. She didn't sleep. She cried off and on all night."
"Is there something?..."
"No. You see, our cat...We had a cat before and the man behind our house poisoned it. We were, all of us, devastated."
"People poison animals in the city?"
"He's in jail now. For poisoning the cat. And he hurt some kid. Molested her. He'll be in jail for some time. The bastard killed our cat."
"A child? How old was the child?" asks Annabetty.
"We had her for fifteen years. He said she dug up his flowers."
"The child was digging?"
"Our cat. The most beautiful Siamese you ever saw. I mean a cat has a right to dig. It's natural, right?"
"How old was the child?"
"I've no idea. I just wanted to know if your daughter was going to be okay. Just to let you know that if there's anything we could do to make things easier..."
"You're daughter didn't sleep? Because of our cat?"
"She must have been thinking about her own cat. I wish she hadn't seen your cat lying there."
"I don't know what to say." Annabetty is thinking about a faceless stranger who once lived a few steps from their new house, a man who could hurt a human child.
"If you ever need something...Anything. To borrow something or whatever. I don't know, just come over and ask. My daughter just wishes...Her cat, you know."
Then the stranger says he's sorry one last time and goes back across the street.
Annabetty tells her daughter and her husband about the neighbour that evening during supper. She tells them about a man that poisoned an animal and hurt a child. Then, no longer hungry, she excuses herself from the table.
Late that night, Annabetty is disturbed by the sound of crying. She puts on her housecoat and slippers and sits her on her daughter's bed and holds her. "The man's in jail, Jill. He can't hurt you," Annabetty whispers as she rocks her daughter. "Things are different here. We'll just be patient." She feels her daughter grow quiet, feels her warmth, her squirming closer, but Annabetty continues to rock her and to whisper her assurances, words meant as much for herself as for Jill. "We must seem just as strange to them, you know."
Brian Reynoldsnow lives in southern Ontario after many years of teaching and doing other strange jobs in the far north. Recently his fiction has appeared in Hiss Quarterly, SmokeLong Quarterly, edifice WRECKED, insolent rudder, Gator Springs Gazette, Melange, Slow Trains, and FRiGG.
Peinaysheesh is the Cree word for "bird."
Photo "Cat's Eye" courtesy of Jinendra Mudhale, Mumbai, India.
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