Short Story: Caring
By Gankhu Sumnyan
We heard its cry in the garden of the house behind ours one grey morning. Everyone in the family was excited – it sounded like a baby kitten. Rats had been spotted in our house of late, brazenly running across the drawing room and scuttling between the utensils in the kitchen, which disgusted my mother. We had talked of getting a cat to take care of the problem. What we found though, looking out from the balcony, was a kitten prematurely born. Blind and only just mobile, it lay sprawled on the wet earth, crawling bit by bit.
My cousin analysed that it had been abandoned by its mother. When I said I wanted to take a closer look, my mother warned me against having anything to do with it. I went nevertheless. Walking through the drugged fabric of reluctance and resistance – wanting to help, but afraid of getting involved, doubtful whether I could help at all – and on a path that was a rabble of loose stones clunking and grinding against each other when one stepped on them. When I saw the kitten, I realised why it was crying. Black ants were crawling all over it. As if on a mountain of candy they intended to slowly devour. I removed them from their site of feasting and let the kitten snuggle in my palm. Perspective came to me when I saw it was but the size of my two fingers put together; I was now responsible for the life and death of it.
The kitten was at first to be fed and provided shelter. I took it home. There were curious glances from my siblings when they saw what I was carrying. Embarrassed, I retired to the kitchen balcony and started to search online about kitten food. My mother came out, looking apprehensive. The kitten’s abandonment seemed inherently mysterious and gruesome to her. She reiterated I put the kitten back in the garden, that there was a good chance its mother would come searching for it. When I heard so, my heart was lightened but it still needed urgent care. My mother sighed and went back inside.
After some time, I had found a relatively easy-to-prepare solution. But it came with a warning against using cow milk. Now, what other kind of milk could be found in the town? Thinking around, I remembered a grocery store where I had seen two brown kittens playing. They had looked healthy, running among the cartons and gunny sacks on the floor and darting underneath the beds if one approached them. I decided to approach the store owner there. There was the rain-beaten path again and the man was seated on a bed inside, staring into the grey morning with a cup of tea. He noticed me and turned to look with stern eyes, only relaxing when I told him my problem. ‘Ah, Milkmaid works. Try that. That’s what I fed my kittens too.’ Having no choice but to trust him, I bought a can and walked back to my house. The solution was quickly prepared and an ink dropper brought out. In the garden, the kitten was mewing restlessly inside the rough shelter I had constructed – plastic can cut open on top, then filled with hay and laid over with a mattress of torn, old clothes. It gasped hungrily as I put the ink dropper, filled with milk, near its mouth. When I did so, pale gums showed inside, making me shiver. I might have used excessive force. The kitten urinated after some time and I took that as a sign of health.
But over the slow day, my optimism began to wane. The kitten took in less and less of the solution. Instead of feeding, it wanted to be cradled, clambering onto my palm every time I’d put it down in the can. When forced to lie down, it gave out complaining cries. The cries discomforted me and I would rush back to my house, only to come to the balcony and look into the garden with a beating heart. The day, quiet and still, changed colours through the motion of feeding the kitten every two hours.
Soon it was evening. The mother cat had never once turned up. Darkness bloomed through the air like ink drops in clear water. Khonsa, my town, was a tingle of white, blue, orange lights. I felt it was a lost cause as I put a polythene bag over the can to protect against the night drizzles of April and tore off bits around the edge for ventilation. An extra layer of cloth had also been added for warmth. In the darkness the kitten was sprightly awake, mewing and crawling about in the can. I had thoughts of taking it home but my family’s possible reaction weakened my resolve. Before leaving, I made sure it was well tucked in, and hoped its mother would turn up during the night. To protect against rats, I increased the can’s height by placing it on top of another; a compromise, if only. I learned later that new-born kittens were needed to be kept absolutely warm, and their bowels needed to be moved regularly to prevent constipation. These readings served only to expose the inadequacy of my help – disjointed affections and inadequate love eating through the veneer of caring.
I slept badly during the night and woke up a few times to fearful imaginings of rain falling. But only once could I hear soft drops that seemed to echo through the bedroom and in my ears. I tossed and turned from side to side. In the morning, I went immediately to the garden. The kitten was alive, flapping frantically inside the polythene bag which had fallen over to one side. The bag held tight fortunately. It, I assumed, had tried to climb out of the can in the night. It was also significantly weaker. I prepared the solution quickly, then rubbed the thin body. Standing there, the thought came to me that the old garden was a place too wet. It used to be a place of childhood marvel – large and lush, with guavas, papayas, cabbages, corns, radishes growing in alternate seasons. During my childhood, I had looked at it with longing many times and had wondered how it would be to walk through it. At present, it had been cut in half due to illegal extension of a housing plot below. And rain water from the road above dug a deep canal through it. The flower beds were also inundated with sand. A few sick daisies stood bent, their flowers dull, leaves brown at the edges and yellow along the ridge. Its state was reflective of changes in the town, of militancy and half-baked developments standing in sharp contrast to the lush, planned settlement of old photos. The town seemed to be washed away every summer and reinstated in stationary glory in the winter sun. The roads corroded and then turned to dust. Love for it seemed misplaced when I came home for short visits, only to be revived when far away. My father talked of building a new house in another part of the town, but it had been years since the foundations were laid, without much progress. It was a fragile thing to love and hope, and required deep persistence.
From the garden, I brought the kitten to the overgrown yard of my house. I fed it few more drops of the solution and tried to induce some bowel movement, but to no avail. It only slept, hugging the plastic bag of warm water I had newly put. The sun had come out, shedding slight warmth from behind a thin veil of clouds. Slow breeze shook the grasses of the yard and I imagined them drying. Neighbours from the house below ours might have been curious for they, a young mother and son, came to look at the kitten. The toddler, wide-eyed and fingers wet with saliva as he took them out of his mouth, pointed at the kitten and spoke in a jabbing, thrusting language to which the mother nodded in agreement. But seeing how the kitten would not wake up, the toddler got bored and they left. Next, a woman leading her goats to feed on the grasses came by and seeing the kitten, also started to ask questions. She was followed by two of her young grandchildren. They also looked at the kitten for some time and then played in the long grasses – jumping about, running and making a trail. It was just such a day – an unhealthy morning recovering in spurts of added colour and warmth. If one could find a place, one wanted to lie down and muse upon the flowering sky. There was sunshine, grey clouds and white, churned by the wind. On thin tendrils of broken clouds, sunlight melted like butter– the fleeting impermanence of a summer’s day, a summer moment. Though an intense tragedy, I imagined the kitten peacefully asleep, basking in beauty’s warmth.
The old lady, meanwhile, talked of her ancestral house in Assam, of her grandchildren who had come to Khonsa for their summer vacation and the business of raising goats. I realised I could have asked them for goat’s milk the previous day, but it did not matter now.
An hour and a half later, I was in the kitchen warming the solution when I felt a presence behind me. The day had turned gray and there was no electricity. I had just noticed the subdued, depressed light that came in through the kitchen door when my nerves began to jangle. The kitten’s condition was weighing heavy on my mind, but here I thought it was only my father on his walk about the house. I turned to look and felt a large black feline shadow pass from one side of the door to another.
In the yard, there was a faint smell as I lifted the kitten from its bed. The body had turned cold, the head and legs swung lifeless. I dug a small hole in the dry plot nearby and laid it down. A number of small plants, which I had not noticed before, smelled fantastic as I filled the hole with earth. There was also a pile of cement slab ventilators in one corner. The slab on the top had broken in half and the iron wires from inside jutted out in the form of a cross. For protecting the kitten’s dead body, I laid this slab over the covered hole. It was a symbolic place of burial that no one would probably notice, but the cross stood upright and there was the soothing smell of those leaves, small miracles for which I was thankful.
That was the end. I placed the can in a corner of the plot and threw the milk solution away. Climbing the stairs to my house, I noticed the stillness about me. The town appeared to have fallen asleep, twitching now and then in dreams of an uneasy evening – of strange objects of love appearing, difficult to let go, difficult to be fulfilled.
Picture Credit: Hinwang Liwang
Gankhu Sumnyan teaches English at W. R. Govt. College, Deomali, Arunachal Pradesh. His poetry book, Old Friends’ Friend, was shortlisted for Satish Verma Young Writers’ Award 2015, organised by Muse India. His poems, “I Wish Love Were”, “Unconvincing Rain”, “Beauty-Body”, and “Depth of Sand”, were published in the Indian Literature journal in 2014. Apart from writing, he is stimulated by books, caffeine, and the hills.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.