Minka Misangyi lives in San Antonio. She grew up in Michigan and eventually landed in Texas via Indianapolis, Chicago, and Guam. She has a PhD in English, and has taught composition and American literature, edited manuscripts, and managed technical writers. She is now the director for a non-profit. She writes essays, articles, and short stories and is working on her first novel.
"Fifi!" Darlene shrieked. "You're alive!" Tommy and Rebekah froze. They had been poking through cattails, looking for buried treasure. Fifi had disappeared earlier that summer and everyone thought she was dead: gnarled, drowned, and mangled, washed up in some lonely ravine.
Fifi hobbled out from a mound of debris like a zombie staggering out of its crypt. She was damp and smelled of decaying leaves. Patches of hair were missing from the small of her back, and she was caked in mud up to her belly.
When Fifi saw the kids, she froze too. They stared at each other for several minutes.
Fifi meowed and sat gingerly down, breaking the spell.
"Fiiii-fiiiii!" Tommy cried, running to her and scooping her up in his arms. Fifi had always been "Tommy's cat," and he had been the most affected by her disappearance. Fifi meowed again and purred audibly.
The kids danced around her, welcoming home the prodigal cat. They bathed her and tended her wounds, carefully dabbing each cut and scrape with witch hazel and iodine. Rebekah even snuck her best blanket, the green crocheted afghan her grandmother had made her, outside to make Fifi a bed. The stories the kids told of her adventures rivaled Alice's trip through the looking-glass. Fifi reveled in the attention, taking on the air of a queen.
# # #
One early August morning Rebekah wandered into the barn looking for her jump rope. She could have sworn she used it there last, one day when it rained so hard she was forced to find cover in the barn. But this morning was quiet, barely a breeze, and the day was not yet hot enough to raise the incessant hum of the locusts. She was on her hands and knees, pawing through the stacks of hay like a dog looking for its bone, when she heard it.
At first she thought it was a kettle letting off steam. But then she remembered she was in the barn, and there was no stove, and no kettle.
She stopped digging and knelt in stillness. She thought of the day she and Tommy and Darlene raced to the quarry, and the sound that came up from the bottom.
That's what Rebekah heard now: the locomotive breath of someone—or something—gasping for its life. It's the quarry monster, she thought, and it's hiding in the hay! This possibility paralyzed her. She could barely breathe.
"Re-bek-ah!" Her mother's voice sounded distant, as if she were standing in the quarry bottom and calling up. Rebekah's knees were rooted to the floorboards. The awful chugging and gasping grew louder, and her eyes widened as her own breathing grew shallower and quicker.
"Rebekah!" her mother called again, angry now. "Rebekah Anne you get in here this minute!"
Rebekah's eyes followed the locomotive sound, which emanated from the corner of the barn where the haystacks converged. Compelled by fear and curiosity, she edged toward the sound. Crouching down on her haunches, she poked tentatively at the pile of hay where the chugging seemed loudest.
"Bekah!" Her mother's voice frightened her from behind.
Rebekah shrieked and fell backwards.
"Didn't you hear me? I've been calling you for ten minutes! What's gotten into you?" Anne stopped short when she saw her daughter's face. Its color was completely drained, except for the lips, which were blue.
"Well my goodness what's wrong? Are you sick? Are you hurt?" Her anger quickly dissipated. "What is it?" She crouched over her daughter and touched her gently on the arm.
Rebekah opened her mouth, but no sound came out. So she pointed toward the chugging. Anne's eyes followed her daughter's hand. That's when she, too, heard the sound.
"What on earth is it?" Anne was confused as she poked through the hay. It parted with her hand. "Fifi! She's having her kittens! Don't just sit there, go and get some towels!"
Kittens? Rebekah thought. Kittens? She hadn't even known Fifi was pregnant.
Anne clawed through the hay to get to the cat, sweeping aside handfuls at a time. The closer she got to Fifi, the less the hay looked like hay. Rebekah thought vaguely of the night she dropped a jar of spaghetti sauce onto her mother's new woven rug. The smashed pieces left bloody prickles in her fingertips as she tried to clean up the mess before her mother saw.
"Mama," Rebekah found her voice. "What is all that red there?"
"Go on, now. Run!"
Rebekah ran. She lumbered up, tripping over her feet, and made her way to the house as fast as she could, slamming the door into the wall as she entered.
"Darlene! Tommy! Come quick! You'll never guess what!" Rebekah panted, nearly wheezing as she spit out her words. Darlene ran down the stairs and interrogated Rebekah all the way into the kitchen.
Rebekah could barely speak. "It's Fifi!" she panted, "Fifi's having babies! My mom said we should get some towels. Where's the towels? We have to get as many as we can find! Come on! What are you standing there for?"
"Towels?" said Darlene, "But we already gave Fifi a bath . . ."
"No," Rebekah spoke more slowly now, her face growing slightly ashen. "They're not for a bath." She stopped moving and stared down at her feet on the linoleum.
"Well, what then?" Darlene asked.
"The blood," said Rebekah. "They must be for the blood." She watched her toes as she spoke, and her hand moved absentmindedly to her crotch, which she pressed gently.
"Blood?" Darlene was concerned. "Did Fifi get hurt?"
"I don't know. But . . ."
"Hurry, Bekah!" her mother called from the barn.
The girls' eyes locked. A shadow of fear and excitement passed between them. They moved silently toward the bathroom.
"I think this is where mom keeps the towels." Rebekah flung the linen closet door open, grabbed stacks of towels, and piled them into Darlene's extended arms. They emptied the closet and ran to the barn.
The chugging grew louder as they neared the doorway.
"What's that?" Darlene whispered.
Rebekah thought again of the quarry. The thing that lived there was supposed to sound like that, the chuffing and chugging growing louder as it came up out of the nothingness and grabbed its victims. She had heard it tore them to pieces and sucked out their innards, dripping gore and blood from its fangs. It smelled awful. Like rotting meat. She had smelled it, the thing in the bottom of the quarry, that day they raced to the edge.
"Bekah? Darlene? Thank heavens. Hand me those towels." Anne heard their feet pounding toward the door, where they had stopped. Neither girl moved. Their shadows were long with the morning sun, reaching across the barn and swathing Rebekah's mother in darkness.
"What's wrong with you two?" She turned slightly toward them; she was on her knees in front of the chugging. "Would you please give me those towels?"
Rebekah's hands went out slowly, in a sign of offering. Darlene followed, but neither one moved her feet. Anne sprung from her haunches straight up in the air and landed on her feet facing the girls. She was across the barn in three long strides, snatching the towels out of their hands. "Honest to God," she hissed. "Honestly." Within a moment she was kneeling again in front of the hay.
She worked quietly and steadily, Rebekah's mother, kneeling there in the hay. The girls glided slowly toward her, unaware that they were moving, compelled by the sound. Before they knew it, they were behind Anne, knees nearly touching her shoulder blades. They breathed deeply and, almost in unison, raised up slowly on their toes to peer down into the hay.
Fifi laid there, splayed open like a butterfly, panting loudly, eyes wide. A sticky, bloody pool had formed around her hind end. What looked like three jellyfish lay in globs about the edges of the pool. Rebekah sucked in air between her teeth. She couldn't take her eyes off the jelly—until the chugging began again. It was coming from Fifi. Darlene's eyes grew wide and her face grew pale. She stuffed her hand in her pocket, fumbling with the white stones she always carried now. The jelly was coming out of Fifi's bottom!
"Oh, oh, oh," Rebekah moaned, unaware that she was making any sound. Darlene couldn't look at her; she couldn't remove her eyes from Fifi and the jelly.
"It's okay," said Anne. Rebekah didn't know if she was talking to them or the cat. "It's all right. This is your first birth, now isn't it? It looks worse than it is. This is the way they come out. A little messy, but . . ."
Anne looked at the girls as if she wasn't sure they had actually heard her. They continued to stare at Fifi, pallid, speechless, mouths in big Os, panting. They couldn't take their eyes off the jelly, as it oozed its way out slowly. Fifi bent over double and took the jelly between her teeth.
"Oh no, oh no, oh no," Rebekah whined, "Mommy, mommy, mommy."
"It's okay," repeated her mother. "It's her kitten." Fifi firmly pulled the jelly the rest of the way out. She ripped the sac open and began to eat it.
Rebekah screamed. Fifi, startled, looked up and hissed through the gore. Rebekah threw her hands over her mouth.
The jelly disappeared as Fifi licked it away, and in its place was a tiny kitten, looking like the lint balls that got caught in the vacuum.
"See there?" said Rebekah's mother gently. "It's all right, isn't it. Isn't it precious?"
But Rebekah did not see. Her eyes were closed so tightly tears ran out the edges, trickling onto her hands, still woven over her gaping mouth. Her body, deprived of air from the hands stopping up her mouth, finally convulsed in protest. Rebekah stepped backwards, away from the hay and the sticky pooling of life at her feet. Eyes still closed, she turned and ran from the barn, knocking into her mother's gardening tools as she fled.
Rebekah ran. She did not know where her feet would take her, but she trusted them to lead her far away from the horror. As she tripped her way into the peach orchard, Rebekah tried to recall her mother's words from that day the neighbor—the odd, unclean girl from the dilapidated farm way down the road—had sat next to her on the bus; but she could barely summon up her mother's voice, let alone her explanation. It can't be true, Rebekah screamed in her head to dispel the images that collided like fragments in a kaleidoscope. The bloody pulsating masses that came out of Fifi, her legs wide open; her mother, her own mother the same; and even herself—surely such things could not be harbored within her.
Rebekah stopped when she found herself at the foot of a tree in the center of the orchard. Its thick branches stretched out long and inviting; Rebekah crawled in. Later, when Darlene found her, she was sitting on the lowest branch, rocking steadily back and forth.
"Rebekah you wouldn't believe it!" Darlene rushed to tell her of the miracle in the barn. "There were these tiny fur puffs and . . ."
"Old McDonald had a farm, ee i ee i o," Rebekah sang at the top of her lungs. "And on his farm he had a pig." She belted out verses each time Darlene tried to speak, covering her ears with her hands, alternately removing one and then the other to gently press her crotch.
After several fruitless attempts, Darlene left Rebekah alone, rocking in the tree. She sat amid the ripening peaches, hidden in the tree's dense leaves. She waited until dusk to make her way down to the creek, where she walked through the water in her shoes. They were sticky, she had noticed, and she needed them to be clean.