Soledad is a good girl, quiet and kind, polite and accommodating. She still doesn’t understand why they’ve moved, gone and left Papa in Los Angeles. She asks about him frequently, making Mama’s eyes glisten, a sight that immediately calls guilt to Soledad’s breast. She doesn’t like to see her mother triste, to hear once again that Papa is muerto, for she doesn’t yet understand the word’s finality and authority.
Soledad also despises living with her grandmother, a woman of remarkable energy and efficiency, qualities that leave her cold and distant, qualities completely opposite of Pilar. In her mind, Soledad cannot believe that Abuela is truly her grandmother, her mother’s mother, for how could such a cranky old woman have produced Mama, soft and sweet, eager to hug and kiss away any problem. Even when the moisture fills Mama’s eyes, she is still smiling, her cheeks rounded and blushing, her lips parted with mirth.
Manuel enters Abuela’s home with a kitten, not newborn but not old and ugly yet. Manuel clasps the black ball of fur against his chest with considerable strength, the animal pawing and snarling for some space, the chance to breath without little-boy hands crushing his lungs. Manuel is forced to let go and allow the mangy cat some freedom. The animal is instantly on all fours, then rolls and scratches at the tiny burs filling with its silky hair. A soft snarl escapes its throat during the scratch, which must hurt. Soledad wants to hold the animal, stroke its fur with her pudgy hands, tenderly pluck the burrs from its coat.
Just as she approaches the cat (which in her mind is now “her kitten”), Abuela looms in the doorway, her scowl filling the air with a heaviness Soledad has only felt since living there. She immediately feels guilt rising from her stomach, knowing the kitten should not be inside, that it is dirty and probably flea-ridden. Soledad does not know what this means, but she knows it is bad, as Abuela frequently refers to small, furry animals (including the mouse they saw last week) as flea-ridden, the word being spat out of her mouth with vigor and disgust.
When Abuela sees the kitten, her eyes fill with flames. Her hate of the animal is magnified now that it is in her presence, infecting her house. She bellows at Manuel, charging toward the cat, who has begun to sprint across the room. Abuela knocks Manuel aside with her flying elbows, not really meaning to hurt him but hoping that he’s frightened enough not to pull any more stunts. She charges past Soledad, her lower lip now trembling, although she isn’t exactly sure why. Her fear seems irrational to her, as nothing has really happened, but she knows what is coming will for sure warrant some tears.
Josephina and Isabella jump from their place on the couch, throwing half-darned socks into the air, when the cat jumps between them and onto the upholstery. They scream when they see Abuela, lumbering toward them with fury written between her brows. They run across the room, notice Soledad and Manuel, then huddle with their siblings, watching the mad chase before them.
The kitten jumps from the couch to the mantle, but not without taking a good swipe at the fabric, sending cheap cotton batting into the air. Later, Soledad will think of this chase as a cartoon, with the wispy cotton puffs temporarily blinding Abuela (a large, fumbling giant) while the cat slickly gets away. However, the stuffing does not blind Abuela, nor does it fly particularly high, leaving the cat with no other options but to succumb to the large hands closing about its neck.
Soledad can feel the tears on her cheeks, their hot saltiness embarrassing yet necessary. Isabella is frozen, not outwardly emotional, but shaking inside. Abuela is not known for leniency. Josefa isn’t upset at all; Manuel shouldn’t have brought the flea-ridden cat inside in the first place. That animal gets what it deserves. Manuel isn’t crying, but feels like he’s losing a good find, something he’ll probably be able to find again.
Abuela has the cat in her grip, so strong that the animal does not claw or bite. “Where did you find this?” she asks Manuel, cocking her head toward the pinned kitten. Manuel silently leads the way out back, not wanting to show Abuela but knowing that he must. Abuela grabs a burlap sack on the way outside, throwing the now limp kitten into it. Soledad and her older sisters follow, not wanting to miss what will happen next but knowing that Abuela wouldn’t let them miss it if they wanted to.
The small group walks in single file, snaking through the weeds and dry grass of Abuela’s back yard. They eventually reach a crudely constructed wood and barbed wire fence, at which Manuel stops, his shoulders stooped in a way only old men should know. He points downward, showing Abuela a cozy nest of grass on the other side in an orchard, the vast property that Manuel has yearnings to explore.
Abuela follows Manuel’s hand with her beady eyes, spotting the nest, full of a new batch of kittens, much younger than the unconscious cat she carries in her bag. No time is wasted in adding these innocents to her bag. Soledad notices some measure of glee in Abuela’s quick actions, the plucking of the small animals from their mother’s home into a bag of darkness. When Abuela is done, she marches back along the path, not beckoning to the children to follow because she knows their curiosity will make them anyway.
When they reach the water pump near the back door, Abuela stops, courteously waiting for the children to reach her. Once gathered, she begins to pump, her fatty arms more than capable of lifting the stiff iron handle up and down, up and down. Soon, the water begins to flow, cool and sparkly in the sunlight. Abuela opens her bag of treasures and puts it under the spigot, filling the bag with cool, clear water. Soledad can see her grandmother half-smiling and thinks, stupidly, that the kittens must be enjoying their drink. How kind of Abuela to quench their thirst!
Then, she notices her sisters, the horror in their open mouths, widened eyes, wrinkled foreheads. She sees Manuel, his tears flowing as freely as the water. She knows then what muerto is, and can only imagine that her Papa is in the bag, scrambling for breath, another chance at life.
When the deed is done, Abuela throws the bag away, wiping her hands on her apron. Soledad realizes that when Abuela does this, it means she’s finished. It means Soledad will never see those kittens again. It means Papa is gone.
This sent chills through me. I know it’s fiction, but some people still treat animals with such cruelty. As one would say in Spanish, ¡que barbaridad!