Spring. Alina stood on the edge of the shovel, using her weight to drive it in. She pried out a heavy clump of dirt—crystalline, like good fudge—and tossed it to the side. Her fingers tingled with cold. She should’ve worn gloves. “Two feet,” her mother had called after her. “At least two—no, three feet deep.” There was no way she was digging three feet down. She had watched her mom do it in the past, and she could tell—even looking down from her bedroom window—that the holes were never that deep.
This was Alina’s first time burying a cat. “I’m in too much pain,” her mom had told her; an order disguised as a plea. Grief had nothing to do with it—the cats were beloved, but only so far as they made her mother feel like a saviour. Her mom’s conscience was stainless steel, and dead cats—or sick cats, or injured cats—couldn’t leave a mark. They were strays; didn’t they have it coming, eventually? No, it wasn’t about pain. Really, her mom’s dumb soap opera was about to start, and it was one of those frigid April days that made you feel like warmth was never going to come, and she had just wanted to stay inside the house.
It all started with one—a stray had snuck through the ripped screen in the basement window six years ago, when Alina was nine, and jumped onto her mom’s lap while she watched TV. Alina had been startled by her mom’s shriek and ran down the stairs to investigate, finding herself intruding on something uncomfortably intimate. Shame burned her cheeks as she watched her mom laughing and petting the animal. Alina couldn’t remember the last time she had seen her mother happy. Her eyes narrowed at the feline invader who had so easily found a way into her mother’s locked heart.
“It’s filthy,” Alina had said, and then turned and went back up to her room.
Her mom began providing amenities and left the window open so the cat could come and go as it pleased, but the nature of the endeavour had quickly changed; soon she was walking through alleys, shaking bags of treats like a latter-day Pied Piper, leading more home. The best Alina and her dad could do was get them relegated to the basement. Her mom was the only one that ever went down there now.
A group of cats is called a clowder, or a glaring if they’re uncertain of each other; Alina had looked it up. The glaring in their basement yowled and hissed throughout the night, and Alina learned to sleep with her head beneath her pillow. Sometimes there were disquieting thumps in the walls, and she realized that some must die in there. The landlord might find their decomposing bodies years later, if new tenants complained about the smell. Alina’s parents didn’t complain about anything, because the landlord didn’t know about the cats. The pipe beneath the bathroom sink leaked into a pot that needed daily emptying. They had ants. Their oven stopped working years ago; they used it for storage now. A toaster oven sat on the counter and cooked them miniature roasts when her mom felt guilty. Individual batches of frozen fries.
Now, her mom had handed her a lifeless body in a grocery bag; she could see its dark shape through the plastic. It felt heavier than any cat she had ever held. The hole was deep enough now. Alina hooked her numb finger through a looped handle and dropped it in.
Nadia Staikos lives in Toronto with her two children. Her work has previously appeared in Blue Lake Review.