By Amy Marques
When I was a child, a stray cat wandered into our yard, found a little alcove under a bush shaded beneath one of the fruit trees, and popped out three kittens.
“You can’t touch them yet, girls,” my dad said. He was a veterinary doctor and a university teacher who knew all about animals, so we hung on every wise word.
“Will they die?” My sister had the biggest, greenest eyes you’d ever seen, and when she asked important questions her eyes would go extra wide.
“Their mother might reject them if you touch them.” My dad’s voice took on the professorial air he used with his students. It was the tone of irrefutable facts. “If she smells you on the kittens, she might stop feeding them.”
We nodded in grave understanding.
Every day, before and after school, we’d crouch nearby and watch the babies nurse. They were tiny bundles of black and white, little more than cottony puffs cuddled into their proud mama.
My fingers itched to stroke the tiny kittens. But what if their mom cast them away? Truth is, part of me hoped she would abandon them, and like Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, we could bring the kittens into our house, and they would be ours forever.
The kittens grew bigger, fluffier, stronger, and wigglier. They tussled each other and repeatedly fell off their little perch in the yard and needed help to scramble back up. Just a little help.
“You touched them!” My sister inched a little closer to the furry family and moved her own hand near to the second kitten and its fumbling limbs. “We shouldn’t touch them.”
“Yeah,” I said. My fingers traced the air above the littlest kitten while the mother cat supervised with regal pride. “I’m not touching it.”
That night, we asked Dad if they were big enough to play.
“You can hold them,” Mom said.
“Just be careful,” Dad said. “And wash your hands afterwards. And don’t touch your face. Don’t let them touch your face. Or scratch you.”
“What’s funny?” my sister asked.
“It’s not funny,” Dad said. His professor voice was back, and he gave our mom a stern look.
“Right,” said Mom. She stood and started clearing the table. “The kittens are big enough for you to play with now, girls.” She wasn’t a veterinarian or a teacher, but Dad didn’t contradict her, so she must have been right.
We played with the kittens all day that Sunday. Their tiny claws poked into our clothes, and they hung from our sweaters like cling-on toys. We giggled as we gently extracted them, one limb at a time, only to have them flail and get caught again.
I might have told them about the three little kittens who lost their mittens. I told them lots of things. They were good listeners.
The bigger they got, the more time their mom spent exploring on her own. We didn’t mind. We liked having the kittens to ourselves.
One Monday after school, we raced out to the backyard, but the kittens were gone. We rushed back to the kitchen where our parents were making dinner.
“Where did they go?” we asked. “Didn’t they like it here?”
“Where did they go?” Mom asked as she turned off the water and dried her hands on the dishcloth she had thrown over her shoulder.
“That’s what stray cats do.” Dad didn’t look up from his cutting board. He halved a tomato, then slowly, meticulously, sliced it into thin half-moon slivers. “They wander.”
“The babies wandered?” My sister’s eyes were very wide.
We both looked at Mom. Mom crossed her arms and stared at Dad until he put down the knife.
“I took the babies to the veterinary teaching clinic,” he said.
“Are they sick?” My throat felt tight, and my voice came out with a squeak.
“They will take care of them at the clinic,” he said.
“You took them to the clinic?” Mom’s eyes were as wide and as green as my sister’s.
“When will they come back?” my sister asked.
Dad looked at Mom as if to ask her to help him explain. Mom was usually good at explaining. But this time she just shook her head. My tummy felt funny. Empty.
“They’ll be happy at the clinic,” Dad said. He wasn’t using his professor voice now. He was using the voice he used when he tried to convince us that the cake really was just chocolate and had no banana in it at all. A hand rubbed at my back, but it moved too fast and rough for comfort. I tried to talk, but my eyes burned and the lump in my throat held all the words inside. The kittens weren’t coming back.
Decades later, when my sister and I had children of our own and learned what it was like to have big questioning eyes hanging on our every word, the kittens came up in conversation.
And it hit me. Although he has never admitted it, in his roundabout, indirect, delegating way, my father killed my kittens.