We’ve been expecting.
Kittens, at least. We’ve been expecting newborn kittens since we noticed the yearling cat, Leia, toting around a beer belly, though none of us could recall giving her beer.
“Oh my golly!” I squealed. “Are you gonna be a MAMA?”
Leia purred, fanning her black-tufted toes.
My twin sons’ identical foreheads wrinkled.
“But where did she GET the babies?” asked the little, feisty twin.
I faltered. “Ummm….”
“Amazon,” said my firstborn son.
Just then, Leia sprinted across the deck, angled her head into a gap between the railing slats as if to vault across the prairie, and… she got stuck. The keg beneath her ribs would let her go no farther.
Humiliated, she backed out of the gap and slunk down the deck stairs.
I giggled. Our older cat narrowed her eyes in disgust.
It takes three cats roving this country home to keep the mice away, which in turn keeps the rattlesnakes away. Which deprives us of some savory reptilian dinners but prevents me from having to teach 8-year-olds how to hunt rattlesnakes. That’s a skill that even I don’t have, though I’ll tell you otherwise if you ever find me wearing my greasy old hat and listening to “El Paso.”
The oldest cat is a gaunt beast descended from Himalayan snow leopards, standing knee-high and pushing 30 years of age. Her coat’s a sludgy grey, her eyes glow like algae. Her lips are black from disemboweling jackrabbits in mid-air.
My sons named her “Mittens.”
Then there’s Luna, a sleek indoor cat. She’s a princess, a Russian ballerina, a Jane Austen character forever waiting to go to the ball.
But back to Leia. She’s a tiger-striped yearling whose arrival attracted a certain white tomcat.
“Out in the west Texas town of El Paso,” sang I, to the tomcat. “I fell in love with a Mexican girl.”
“Mom, you’re scaring him,” said Firstborn.
“Nuh-uh,” I said. “I’m TEASING him.”
Leia’s prance slowed with pregnancy. This month she swayed into a pendulum waddle.
One spring Thursday Leia trotted to my car after I brought the boys home from school, looked up at me and meowed, earnestly.
Her belly was empty. Her back legs were drenched and bloody. But I could see no kittens, anywhere.
It was my middleborn son who found them, soaking wet and next to a slain robin under the bottom deck stair.
The Husband (who had come home to celebrate) held a towel-lined box out to me while I shinnied under the stairs and, with my hands gloved, transplanted the kittens.
There were five, including one odd grey fellow whom I found separate and cold. The other four were still tied to their purple placenta, which Leia ate later when I wasn’t looking.
“That’s disgusting,” spat Middleborn.
“That’s nature,” I sighed.
“Did you eat MY placenta?”
“No, but I ate a whole box of Nutter Butters.”
Middleborn shook his head. “Not the same, Mom.”
Leia mooned over four of the kittens but completely ignored the grey one. He was icy to the touch.
“He’s dying,” I said. “What do we do?”
“We save it,” said The Husband.
Middleborn fretted. The Husband brought Grey into the house, warmed him by the fire and fed him with an eye-dropper.
Grey faded anyway.
One day later, on a blanket near the fire, Grey went cold for the final time. Middleborn begged me to do something, anything, to revive him. Feed him, massage his little cold body – just DO something.
But the time for doing things was over.
It took Middleborn a long while to admit that Grey was dead. At last, Middleborn zipped his black hoodie up to his nose, trudged outside, grabbed a shovel, lumbered up a prickly hill and dug a grave – kitten-sized.
I carried the tiny bundle up the hill to meet him. My other three sons marched up after me, sniffling in the cold wind.
This was the boys’ first experience with birth:
An invisible fusion severed into five distinct identities, who grew, fed by a plump bloody envelope under a beating heart, then left their dark haven for a world too big for their minds to comprehend.
It was also my sons’ first visual experience of death:
The irreversible parting. All the what-ifs fallen away. And the hard lesson that, however clever or strong or capable you are, you cannot gather that fleeing life essence into your hands and push it back into the shell it just left – because it’s not yours.
Middleborn closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on the shovel handle.
Later that evening, he sat on an overturned bucket and watched Leia feed four fluffy kittens. A sigh poured out of him, made of four parts life, one part death.