The Mark I Left
I run my hands gingerly over the white and tan splotches of matted fur on my new Calico kitten. We got her a week or so ago, from a woman getting rid of a whole litter. She promised she had all her shots but she just couldn’t take care of all of them anymore. The kitten was thin, probably sick. But that would change now that she was mine.
She squirms in my arms, escaping. With hesitant steps, she explores her new jungle of four acres of wide open land. She darts around my bare feet, pawing at dandelions, and then lowers to the ground, ready to pounce. As I watch her hunt, I think back to last week when I held her alone in my bedroom. She would not stop crying. She meowed relentlessly, and when I tried to pick her up, claws extended and sharp teeth sunk fast and hard into my sensitive skin. Red lines rose, etching marks on my hands.
I did not think, She was just scared.
I did not think, It’s okay, it was just self-defense.
I did not consider the condition of the home the kitten knew before mine.
Furious, I opened one of my empty dresser drawers, plopped that stupid kitten inside, and slammed it shut it. That’ll show it. I pictured it in the dark, afraid and deeply regretting it had ever thought to leave marks on me. Well, good. The kitten had to learn that I was in charge. If she didn’t behave, I would punish her. That’s just how it works.
I left the kitten there for a few minutes until my rage abated, and remorse quickly washed over me. I didn’t want to hurt her, that was never my intention. But I couldn’t deny how powerful it felt to be in control for once. It was impossible for her to get out of the drawer without me. She needed me.
In a way, we were the same. She was small and helpless, and I was accustomed to that role. The baby of the family, I was always being told what to do, forever a puppet on a stage with an older brother or a parent pulling the strings. My parents had my brother, Ryan, and I to attend to, full-time jobs, and bills to pay. Ryan had dirt bikes to ride, a punching bag in the form of a little sister, and better things to do than be bothered with some “dumb cat.” But forget any of that. This living animal was mine. I alone held the power. I knew that I was the stronger, bigger one.
Her fate was in my hands. For the first time I was the one to restrain, not be restrained, and it felt good. I could see why my brother liked it. The thought sickened me as I stared down at my hands in disbelief. Even at eight years old, I knew that feeling was wrong. My mother would never do this kind of thing. Only bad caretakers would. Fear plummeted to the pit of my stomach. What does this make me?
“Come on, we are going to be late!” my mother calls from inside. I hurry to climb shotgun into our sky blue Plymouth Voyager, leaving the kitten down in the grass. We are already late for a meeting at church, and I can hear the stress in my mother’s voice rising as she rushes down the stairs, carrying so many bags over her shoulders and under her eyes. She held so much of my world together. If that’s what being a mom meant, I don’t believe I could ever do it.
The sound of the ignition interrupts my reverie as our old van springs to life, and my mom flings her purse in the space between our seats. She puts it in reverse, steps hard on the gas, and that’s when I feel it. So fast I don’t even have time to process what the bump meant, then so painfully slowly, leaving me breathless as if my own lungs are the ones being crushed. Tiny ribs collapsing, the weight of an eight passenger van and two human bodies, alive and breathing, as life is sucked from a kitten, not yet one month old.
My mom quickly jams it into park and falls silent with the realization. It’s almost as if the world stops and gasps, watching, waiting. I throw open the passenger door and scream, seeing the tread of the tires imprinted on the patched white fur. The mark I left. I know I am going to be sick. Bones and blood and whiskers and more blood. Blinded by hot tears, I go to hold the limp head in the palm of my hand but stop when I see its pink pearl nose. Just minutes ago it was wet and soft. Now, guts gush through nostrils. They push out, pouring red and already caking over in the hot July sun.
I realize I am still howling. Was this because of me? I know things about accidents, a little about death, some about pain. I know bodies have spines and heads and hearts and bones, and blood. There is so much blood. I wonder if this is God’s way of punishing me. I wonder if God will pluck me from this driveway and shove me in a box and slam it shut. That doesn’t happen, but I feel the guilt just the same. Death doesn’t care what mark it leaves.
Although numb, I force myself into motion. I stand up with skinned knees, spinning around wildly to face my mother, and choke out the words,
I am hysterical, repeating it over and over again, wailing so loud I’m sure the Kilburn’s next door could hear, despite the overgrown fields between us. Everything inside me breaks. My mom is at my side instantly, smoothing my hair and whispering apologies. We don’t say it, but I think we both knew it was my fault. We lived in the middle of nowhere and left our pets outside all the time, but this was different and I knew it.
Why did I leave the kitten so close the driveway? I should have kept her inside. Why didn’t I check to see where she was before getting in the van? How could you be so stupid? Good job, moron, I could already hear my brother saying. I block out his voice in my head. I can’t think of that right now. Forget this church meeting, I don’t care. I insist we hold a funeral for her right then and there. We can at least give her that. My mom obliges, albeit reluctantly, and disappears into the basement, emerging with a cardboard box for a coffin.
“We have to put holes in the top,” I say. I had learned this is necessary for creatures to still breathe. She doesn’t remind me that the kitten is already dead and this is useless, but instead pokes holes through the top of the box. And then my mother, still in her black pumps, follows me to the woods. She carries the kitten’s lifeless body in the curved belly of one of my father’s shovels. I choose a spot next to one of my favorite trees, feeling the heavy box hit against the side of my leg as I walk up the hill. I tell her we should pray, or give a speech like I saw them do at my uncle’s funeral last year. She bows her head to pray, but I hear nothing.
My head is spinning. I am wondering if Jesus will forgive us. For how I kept that kitten trapped in my dresser drawer, for making my mother late for her meeting, for not paying attention to where the kitten was, for everything. I look down at the dandelions I’ve picked to cover the grave, and realize I never even named her. Perhaps I knew, even at that age, that she wouldn’t stay with me for long.
Seventeen years later, when my mind has a better understanding of motherhood, and my hands know how to hold something fragile, I still feel my lungs give out at the question, “When are you having kids?” Distant family members will ask me, trapping me at the dinner table during holidays. It is suffocating. I wonder sometimes if God forgot to poke holes in the top of my box.
When I try to explain to people that I just don’t want children, I give them reasons like finances and freedom. I don’t say how I am afraid of what my own two hands could do, or how you can love something so hard and still not keep anything safe in this world. I do not reveal my choking insecurities and how I feel unfit to care for another. Nobody asks. I know they label me heartless, but it seems easier to ignore that. Because it’s hard to explain how when love and death and fear gripped the axles of a four door van, and guilt flowed freely into the four chambers of my heart like blood out onto hot asphalt, this decision buried itself in my womb many summers ago.
Kara Knickerbocker is an avid runner, traveler, and writer residing in Pittsburgh where she works at Carnegie Mellon University. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in print and online publications, including Scrawl, The Original Magazine, Construction, and The Blue Route. This is her first work of creative nonfiction.