The Blame Game
by Anna Sykora
“Isn’t it beautiful, Laura?” Mum threw open her arms to hug the mossy cottage, window boxes weeping dead geraniums, and my heart sank. “The front yard faces south,” she said. “We can plant tomatoes here.” Shaggy weeds caressed her hip, where a seam of her gown had split below the pocket. The baby, left with our bundles beside the road, began to bawl.
“Maybe Leah needs a diaper change,” I said.
“First let’s have a look at our new home.” Mum pushed open the low door, and I pulled off my sandals—they pinched—and followed her inside. Dust lay fluffy on the floorboards, ashes thick in the stained hearth. Left behind: only a wooden table with two stools.
Mum patted my head. “Don’t worry, now we’re in Woodside our luck will be turning up.”
“I hope so.” I put my sandals down on the table and she snatched them away:
“Never do that, Laura. You want to invite Death into this house?” Her pale blue eyes stared past me, froze.
“What is it?” I gasped, and she pointed at the window; a black cat peered in through the shriveled flowers.
“I hate cats.” She threw one of my sandals at it, smashing a pane.
“Look what you did,” I said quietly. The big cat had vanished. “Now we’ll feel the wind in here in winter.” This didn’t seem to bother my mum.
“Black cats are the worst,” she kept on bitterly, dropping my other sandal on the floor. “They sneak into houses, to stifle babies. Where is that baby anyhow?”
“Still waiting where the wagoner dropped us off.”
Mum rushed outside and fetched my sister, bouncing her till Leah burbled. I slumped down at the rickety table and buried my head in my hands. “I’m so hungry I could eat those gristly weeds,” I muttered after a while.
“We’ve still got a bit of bread and cheese,” she said brightly. “First let’s unpack our lucky statue. May the Good Shepherdess bless and keep us.” Reaching into the knitted bag she wore around her neck, she drew out the smiling maiden and set her in the middle of the table.
“Now we’re at home,” Mum said happily. It didn’t feel like home. I missed our snug house in the dunes, but we couldn’t go back to Seabright village. We owed the shops there money, and Dad had run away. Would I ever see him again?
I helped Mum to sweep and scrub out the cottage, chasing out the mice and the nesting birds. She sewed us new curtains out of old nightgowns. She planned to take in sewing from the villagers to earn our bread, she said.
Threading a needle by the window, I saw a plump woman shuffle down the country lane. Setting down a basket of daisies, she fumbled with the wicker gate across from ours.
“Who’s that old lady, Mum?” I asked.
“That must be Mrs. Dimmity. I’ll just step out and say hello. Maybe she has some mending for us.” The day felt stifling without the wisp of a breeze, and Mum left our door wide open. Leah lay in her cradle, sound asleep with her thumb in her mouth.
Suddenly I felt like a lonely boat that had drifted out to sea. How I missed the faces I knew from Seabright, folks who had been our friends… I picked up the Good Shepherdess, thinking to wipe the dust from her face—and she slipped from my hands like an eel and smashed to pieces on the floor. Leah woke, howling as if I’d poured a kettle of boiling water over her.
“Shush,” I pleaded. “Please.” And I stuck her thumb back into her mouth.
Mum found me weeping over bits of china gathered in my lap. “How did this happen?” she demanded, squinting, her thin face red as fire. Any second she might slap me.
“It was that big, black cat,” I lied. “He jumped on the table and knocked down the Shepherdess. Then he scampered back outside.”
“I told you he’d bring us a curse. I’m going to cut off his tail when I catch him.” Mum sliced the air with the side of her hand like a cleaver, and I felt a pang.
“Maybe he belongs to somebody,” I mumbled. “He looks fat, like somebody feeds him.”
“Roof rabbit.” She grinned, showing her pointed teeth. “He’d be tasty with a bit of garlic from the woods.” The baby choked and coughed, and Mum knelt at the cradle. “Leah, my angel, what’s ailing you?”
“Maybe she’s hungry, like me,” I said.
“Hold your tongue—or I’ll nip it out with scissors.”
I shuddered. Folks in Seabright always said Mum had an evil temper. Maybe that’s why my dad ran away. He joined a boat bound for China, they said.
Mrs. Dimmity always looked scrubbed clean, with a stiff, white kerchief wrapped around her head. She sold herbs to the villagers in Woodside, Mum said: a nice line of work if you know plant-lore. The forest holds many a hidden treasure of leaves and roots.
Mrs. Dimmity brought us some blankets to mend, and let us keep one, to be neighborly. Smooth as silk, it smelled of mint. Mum took it for the baby, and I felt jealous.
The black cat would stroll in and out of our neighbor’s well-tended garden like a prince. Did he belong to Mrs. Dimmity? What a lucky cat.
One day I was sitting on the bench beside our door, pulling the strings out of string beans for dinner, when the cat slid out from under a bush. He gave me a long, green look and chose a seat across from me in the grass. Spreading his paws he tended each one, picking away at his claws with his teeth.
Nestled in her cradle at my knees, Leah began to crow. When she sat up, reaching plump hands to the cat, I shivered, remembering Mum’s hate. Ignoring the baby, after a while he curled up in the grass and shut his eyes. As if he trusted me.
Setting down the tray of beans I reached over and touched his velvety head. He didn’t run away, he made a rumbling noise that made me feel he wanted to be friends. Black as a raven, fat and sleek, he seemed so happy in his skin. How could Mum say he brought us bad luck? How could she want to make him pay?
Suddenly I felt a stab of pain behind my right eye. The blue sky seemed to recede and darken, the sun swelling up, engulfing me. I groped for the garden fence and clutched it, feeling whirled away.
“Whatever is the matter, child?” a woman’s voice quavered from the lane.
“Help me, Mrs. Dimmity.”
She threw open our gate with a thump, and I heard the rustle of her gown. “Laura, what do you see?” she asked in a kindly voice.
“I don’t know,” I whined. “Rays of light, bursting out of a shadow. It’s getting bigger. Will it eat me?”
“Is this your first time, my child?” Gently she stroked my bursting head.
“No. When I was a tot I saw this same black sun. Like a nightmare.”
“I’ve got some herbs for you in my hanky.” Something tickled my nose. It smelled like lavender. “Try this for your pain. Just lick my palm.” The herbs tasted like licorice.
As I chewed them, the dark in my mind began to clear. Slowly the sun in the cloudless sky resumed its normal guise.
“Thank you, Mrs. Dimmity. I feel better. “
She nodded at me, green eyes bright and frank as a baby’s in her well-worn face. As she hobbled away and crossed the lane the black cat followed her like a shadow, and I thought I heard her say:
“Just a moment, dearie, and I’ll give you the treat I brewed.”
“Someone has been digging up my tomatoes,” Mum complained a few days later, spooning up the last of our lentil soup. “I bet it was that nasty black cat.”
“It could have been a mole.” With my teeth I snapped off the yarn from a sock I was darning. “Or a stray dog who wiggled through the fence. Cats are not interested in tomatoes.”
“How would you know? I never let you keep one.” Mum squinted down her nose at me. “Evil spirits get into cats. Now maybe that black one is trying to starve us.”
“I bet those tomatoes dried up and fell over because you forget to water them.”
“That’s ridiculous.” She pushed away her bowl. “I always take good care of my garden. Like I take care of my darling daughters.”
Without a word, not daring to sigh, I bent over my darning. Leah’s face was so dirty you couldn’t believe she’d been wiped with a rag since the day she was born. Mum never liked to take the blame, though. It’s much easier blaming others.
Like it was Dad’s fault he couldn’t find work as a fisherman in Seabright. Like I had blamed Mrs. Dimmity’s cat for smashing Mum’s little statue.
Mum huddled at the table by candlelight, sewing a sack out of burlap remnants.
“What’s that for?” I asked warily.
“You’ll see.” Her long needle flashed like a knife.
Fall came creeping into Woodside on shaggy wolf feet. Some mornings water froze in the well. Fetching in an armload of wood one evening, I spied something moving under the table.
“What’s in that burlap sack?” I cried, heart beating like a drum. Mum just went on picking her teeth with the blunt end of a needle. “It’s alive,” I insisted. “Did you steal a chicken?”
“I wish,” she hissed. “No, I caught that evil cat. Like I said I would.”
“Mum, you had no right—”
“Oh yes I did. When I got home from delivering my sewing, I found him in here at the cradle, pushing his face right into Leah’s! Where she was sleeping like an innocent angel…”
“He didn’t mean to hurt her, Mum. Sometimes he licks the milk off her chin.”
“And how do you know?”
“That’s what he does.”
“You mean you let him in when I’m not home?”
“He comes to the window or the door. Leah likes him, he makes her laugh.”
Mum’s pale eyes flashed like heat lightning. “Laura, you know how I feel about cats! I won’t stand for this disobedience.” Lurching up she slapped me so hard with her open palm she knocked me down. I rolled near the hearth with my load of wood, and when I crawled back on my feet she was already half-way out the door–clutching the sack.
“Wait,” I grabbed her sleeve and it tore above the elbow.
“You little fool,” she yelled in my face. “I’m on my way to the millpond. I mean to break our streak of bad luck, break it once and for all.”
“Mum, we have always had bad luck. The cat has nothing to do with it. And he belongs to Mrs. Dimmity, and she has been so kind to us.”
Now something stabbed like a dagger behind my right eye. Groaning I grabbed my head and sank down. Mum dropped the sack with a curse and plumped down on the bench outside. I wallowed at her feet, fierce pain opening into a fearful vision:
“I see the roof of this cottage blazing like a heap of dead leaves,” I choked out. “I see us driven out of Woodside, everybody pelting us with stones. I see us starving in the woods. Nobody cares what happens to us.”
“Laura, what are you talking about? Have you got a fever?” Grabbing my arms Mum shook me like a terrier shakes a rat. “Don’t you understand I have to get rid of this cat? He put a curse on our family. It started when he smashed our lucky statue.”
“No,” I said firmly. “Mum, I’m the one; I dropped her on the floor. I was just trying to wipe her face.”
“Then why did you lie to me about it?”
“I feared your anger. What a surprise.” I pointed to my burning cheek. “Mum, you should try to control your temper. Dad said you were wild as the wind.”
A single tear overflowed and spilled. She opened her mouth, no words emerged.
Suddenly we heard the thump of our garden gate. “Good afternoon,” cried our cheerful neighbor. “Have either of you seen my lazy old cat?”
“Here he is,” I pointed to the sack, still writhing on the ground. “You’re just on time. My mad mum was about to drown him in the millpond.”
“And why is that?” Raising her chin, Mrs. Dimmity planted her hands on her wide hips.
“She blamed him for some trouble I made myself. But I just told her the truth about it.”
“Lydia, you have a good child here.” The old woman patted my head. “You should listen to her. Laura has wisdom beyond her nine years.”
“Laura has headaches,” Mum said sharply. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She has always been nervous and sickly.”
“My dear, there’s nothing wrong with your daughter. Don’t you understand where her pain is from?”
“Let me guess: she was born to a no-good mother, who can’t handle men or money, or the cooking. Yes, I’m to blame for everything we do not have, and never will!”
“No, no,” soothed the old woman. “Lydia, do not beat on yourself. But your little Laura can see into the future.”
“How do you know?” Mum gasped. “That kind of sight is a witch’s business.”
“Well I share her gift.” Standing up straight Mrs. Dimmity opened wide her slightly slanted, green eyes. “And believe me, the second sight can be a painful burden for a youngster.”
My mum held her tongue. She gawked as our neighbor placed her cool, dry palms upon my head. Without any herbs this time, the pain behind my eye began to ebb. I breathed deeply and slowly, easing the drumbeat of my heart. When the cat meowed I patted him through the bag, and he settled down and purred.
“Now what did you see?” Mrs. Dimmity asked.
“I saw our cottage burning down, the villagers hunting us out of Woodside.”
“Are you saying that is our future?” Mum rasped, scowling at me.
“Yes, it surely was,” our neighbor answered. “If you had harmed a whisker on my cat. Coal is intelligent, a good companion, a useful helper in all my arts.”
“Are you telling me you’re a witch?” Mum spat out the word. “Have I landed here in a nest of witches, fleeing my creditors on the coast?”
Mrs. Dimmity gave a little chuckle, and the corners of her mouth turned up. “All I will say is,” she sang out, “the second sight is a marvelous gift. For if everyone could see what follows from their choices—the pain and grief that flows from a single, unkind word—nobody would do the wrong they do.”
Mum shook her head, as if trying to shake water out of her ears. “Laura, can you forgive me?” she asked then in a wheedling voice.
“I say, forgive her,” the good witch urged. “And I say too that I need an apprentice. Laura, will you work with me and help me? I can help you develop your gift. I can help you control it so it doesn’t frighten you anymore, or cause anybody pain.”
Without another word I nodded yes. I picked up the sack with Coal inside and followed Mrs. Dimmity… And red roses unfurled from the weeds on either side of the garden path. They nodded their lovely heads at us, and I heard a ringing all around, like the welcome a royal princess gets in a town.
Anna Sykora has been an attorney in NYC and teacher of English in Germany, where she resides with her patient husband and three enormous cats. To date she has placed 141 stories and 385 poems in the small press. Motto: eat your rejections like pretzels…