The child sat on the cold floor beside the tatty cardboard box, her eyes fixed on the sleek still form stretched out inside. Icy tendrils formed glittering patterns on the inside windowpanes where the moisture had collected as the evening warmth of the room had been sucked into the chill of the dawn.
Many hours had passed since she had heard the yowling at the door. How far had her childhood companion dragged its useless back legs in a last effort to seek the comfort of home and its bed by the fire? Agitation, and then distress had overtaken the child as she picked up the broken body and gently laid it in its favourite spot.
The fire then had still burned brightly and the heat hung heavy in the room. But still the small form shivered and she had hastily removed her cardigan and wrapped it around the trembling bundle. She had stroked the cat’s ears, rubbed its chin and nose - even in its pain, a soft purring had erupted from its throat, appreciation of the affection it had previously taken as its due.
“Come to bed, Kate” said her mother softly. “There’s nothing we can do for poor Tiggy tonight. Tomorrow we’ll take him to the vet.”
“No, let me stay,” she had pleaded. “I don’t want him to get cold and he may want some milk later.”
Turning to the box, her childish voice had cooed, “There’s a good Tiggy-Winkle. You lay still till you feel better and I’ll keep you warm. Tomorrow we’ll get you some nice chopped liver ‘cos
you‘ll be really hungry when you wake up.”
She had settled down beside the box, convinced that sheer willpower would make everything right in the morning. “I’m not going to let anything bad happen. I’m going to make you better.”
Her aimless chatter continued - what they would do together when he was better, recollections of other scrapes he had survived, happy times which would be repeated. Her childish mind was reassured by this one-sided conversation~ fending off the unthinkable vision of a future without him.
Her hand resting on the soft head she curled her body around the box on the hearthrug. The cat blinked slowly and attempted a mewling response. Night crept on and shadows darkened in the corners of the room as the firelight diminished.
The parents admonished the child to go to bed but she stubbornly refused to relinquish her nightwatch role. In dozing, her dreams had been laced with visions of her pet fleeing before a relentless train of thundering wheels. In wakeful moments, she would squeeze her eyes shut to stop the tears seeping out and endlessly repeat, “Please don’t die, please don’t die”.
She had finally been shaken out of a fitful sleep by the trembling of her body in the chill of the dawn and now she searched for the signs of life she so desperately wanted to see in the box.
The cat’s half-open eyes lacked reflection and depth, gave off no spark of light. Its mouth was frozen in an unnatural grin, the little pink tongue peeping out, almost impudently, between the sharp white picket fence of teeth. Rejecting what she feared, the child tucked the cardigan tighter around the body, feeling in that touch the cold stiffness of death but murmuring still, “I’ll keep you warm and we’ll take you to the vet soon”.
Her own body was cold and stiff from the long vigil and this in itself was a comfort. After all, she would soon get warm again -wouldn’t the cat too? Childish logic was her weapon against the unacceptable reality lapping at the edges of her subconscious.
More competently than could have been thought just the day before, she raked the ashes from the cold grate and with a confidence born of inner desperation, laid a new fire, piling sticks upon paper in unconscious mimicry of a funeral pyre. Her fingers clumsy from the cold, she drew out a match and pulling back her sleeve and stretching out her arms, struck it along the box, remembering to direct it away from her as she had been taught.
She quickly applied the flame to the paper in several places, dropping the match as it blackened and curled towards her fingers. The flames licked the wood greedily and the wood itself began to respond, crackling and spitting, blue and yellow sparks exploding into the air as if in mocking celebration of the event.
With a mature assessment of the right moment to encourage and not discourage the flames, she threw small lumps of coal onto the blaze and watched the fire feed and settle into its shifting pattern.
Satisfied with this success, and somewhat self-satisfied with her own ability at this first attempt, she turned once more to the box. If she stared very hard she was sure she could discern the shallow rise and fall which signified breath, and life.
The harsh electric light mellowed as the natural daylight filtered through the misted windows, and shifting shadows seemed to emphasise the illusion of shallow breathing. She rubbed warmth into her hands and fearfully reached out once more to stroke the cat and to reassure herself that the breath still flowed in its shattered body.
With a child’s ability to make-believe and create a reality of its own, she persisted in her belief that life still existed in the grotesque unyielding shell which had once been soft and warm to her touch.
Convinced, as only a child can be, that life - and God - cannot be so cruel, she lifted the creature into her arms, clutching it to her chest in an attempt to infuse it with the warmth and life of her own body.
But her warmth could not relax the stiffness even though she wrapped the cardigan tighter around it. She rocked and crooned as if to a baby, instinctive actions which are never taught but surface unbidden from deep-seated memory.
And thus she was found by the awaking family, comforting a cold corpse, in a cold room, in the fierce cold light of early morning. Quickly assessing the situation, her mother knelt and put her arms around the child, encompassing both cat and child in the hug. “Look, Tiggy’s gone now. We can’t help him anymore. Let me take him”. And gently but positively she lifted the bundle away and stood up. The child relinquished it without resistance, the tears sliding down her cheeks. Her shoulders slumped in acceptance of her own powerlessness to influence events, and her eyes reflected a new maturity.
The child within had died a little death and the developing adult had seized just a little more space in the battle for survival.
© Brenda El-Leithy 2008