Amy Gustine | from:English

The River Warta

Now that Caroline lived alone for the first time in her life, she began to be irritated by the cleanliness of her house. When she left something somewhere, it stayed there. If she didn’t enter a room for days, it collected nothing but a thin, almost imperceptible layer of dust. Her daughters’ bedrooms grew stiff and gray with disuse. In her own bed, Frederick’s pillow remained plump and smooth, the case free of his coarse, white hair, and Caroline—though she knew it was ridiculous—took this as an affront. It unnerved her that nothing changed in the house unless she changed it.

So when the cat meowed, a ridiculous predatory supplicant outside her window in a golden twilight during Indian summer, Caroline did not broom it away as she would have a year ago. With the Depression on, she’d become used to homeless, hungry visitors. She stood at the window looking down at its twisting, black body, its chartreuse eyes, and whispered, “What’s the matter? Are you lost? This isn’t your house. Go on now, go,” aware that her tone was more inviting than dismissing.

The next day, her youngest girl, Eva—who’d inherited too much of her mother even in her mother’s opinion—came by. “There’s a stray cat around the house. Where’s the broom?”

“Leave it be,” Caroline said. “It’s doing no harm.”

The night before, she’d watched the cat lap at the milk she’d slipped out on a tea saucer, marveling at the strange distance between herself and this woman who stood in front of the window. She who would not tolerate a cat’s filthy tongue on her good tea service, especially now that she could no longer replace what might be broken. But this woman, who was using her dishes, her hands, her eyes, had carried the saucer out and watched with amusement and even pride as the animal satisfied itself.

“Where did it come from?” Eva asked.

“Nowhere,” Caroline said. “I don’t think she has a home.”

Eva was Caroline’s plainest daughter. She lacked Sophie’s spunk— however annoying—and Addie’s supple beauty. Sometimes, studying Eva, at once both diffident and haughty, Caroline felt embarrassed, as if she were looking too long in a mirror, and it made her love her youngest daughter with a humiliating ache.

“Everything comes from somewhere,” Eva said. “What you mean is nobody wants it.”

Caroline, then called Karolina, was born in 1880 in Poznań, Poland, a city on the Warta River. As a girl she liked to stand by the river when a thunderstorm was coming in, watching blue sky skitter to gray in the water’s reflection, the mirrored clouds cut in half by waves. In summer the rain felt good on the insides of her wrists, where she rolled up the sleeves of her dress.

The river seemed a majestic, mysterious transport, always on the way to something else, and as she entered adolescence Caroline began to imagine what she might do if she were a boy. She’d escape for sure, maybe as far as America. At the very least she would have used her time down at the river for something useful, like fishing.

 

But the summer after she turned eighteen, her last summer in Po-land, Caroline could no longer look at the river. It had become like her parents—a lonely, menacing thing with a dark, inscrutable surface. And it took a courage she would not have guessed she had, a will that even scared her a little—reminding her as it did of her parents’ steely, stubborn resolve—to board a boat on that same river, a boat which would join a ship that would take her to America.

The cat did not leave, which, given how Caroline fed him, should have been no surprise. Since Black Tuesday not even an animal could afford to abandon a decent meal for the promise of something better down the block.

On Saturday her new son-in-law, Dobry, came to rake the leaves. After Frederick became too ill to work, he used to hire out such tasks to homeless men who walked the neighborhood looking for odd jobs. He’d send them off with a generous wage, Caroline’s kielbasa sandwiches, and a dozen pickled eggs. Now that he was gone, though, Caroline didn’t feel safe hiring strange men and making them meals. This left her with noth-ing to take care of—unless she counted the cat.

Dobry crouched, sliding his thumb against the tips of his fingers, and made kissing noises to the animal, who trotted up, stopping shy of his reach, and smelled the air appraisingly. Caroline stood at the back door, the screen breaking her face into a thousand tiny diamonds of shadow and light. “I don’t know how to get rid of it. It’s been urinating on my bushes.”

“Looks well fed,” Dobry said, scratching the hard spot between the cat’s ears.

“Well, they are predators,” Caroline said, seeing too late she’d forgot-ten to bring in the plate on which she’d left a smear of butter and ham rind that morning. It gave an odd satisfaction, having something wild, unreachable through logic or language of any kind, decide it needed you.

In Poznań Caroline’s mother owned a white cat named Silk with blue eyes and an unusually long tail she used the way a ballerina does her arms. Silent and indifferent to verbal commands, the cat perfectly suited her mother, who had gone deaf at the age of four from scarlet fever and talked as if she had a marble on her tongue. She never used sign language because Caroline’s grandmother thought it the recourse of the mentally deficient and had swatted her if she ever so much as gestured.

Caroline’s father was a chemist. He’d been born with a deformed left arm, the hand a mere nub of tissue just below what should have been his elbow. He had a dog named Atlas—a black and brown shepherd with triangular ears that stayed upright even while napping—whom he’d trained to open doors. At the chemist shop and around town, if her father was carrying something in his good hand, Atlas would grip the doorknob with his mouth and twist, leaving teeth marks behind in the wooden knobs.

Caroline remembered her mother having all the knobs in their house changed to smooth, metal spheres on which Atlas couldn’t gain any pur-chase. In retaliation her father had taken all the pens and pencils out of the house, forcing her mother to make herself understood with verboten gestures and futile attempts at proper pronunciation.

It was only after Caroline escaped to America and had to consider what she herself could expect from life—just another foreigner with a strange accent whose education and family lineage meant nothing—that she had begun to understand the seed of her parents’ bitterness and re-sentment toward one another. And only now, in the time she’d had to think since Frederick died, had she finally found a single word for it: humiliation.

The next week the weather grew much colder and the cat began to cry at the back door. One night, when Caroline reached outside with the saucer, it darted inside. She couldn’t find the thing until those glowing eyes gave it away, huddled beneath the dining room table. Caroline moved the chairs out and scolded, “You weren’t invited in. What’s the matter with you?” She clapped her hands and the cat ran.

 It took several minutes to herd it toward the door and finally out into the dark.

The next day was colder again. Snow fell for an hour in the morning, then melted in the afternoon sun. The cat sat under the awning on the concrete slab of patio with its paws tucked tight against its body. At the kitchen window, Caroline shook her head. If she had allowed herself to indulge in the fantasy of cats having emotions, she might have said the cat seemed hurt by her treatment the day before. It refused to come onto the porch for its milk, and didn’t meow when she poked her head out. It just looked at her a moment, then sat down, staring across the wet grass to the dark, dirty street beyond the fence.

The rest of the day Caroline tried to forget about the cat, and when she looked out around four o’clock, it was gone.

The last summer Caroline lived in Poland, after she’d finished school, her mother began a list of men—old men, young men, all rich men. She wrote them in her large, calligraphic script right across the printed text on pages torn from her father’s books, then stuck the pages to the walls in Caroline’s room with a paste made from flour and water. If the men were older, the rituals of questions and answers were private, passed among friends who knew friends who knew the man in question. If the men were Caroline’s age, her mother would invite their mothers for tea.

In July, during the hottest part of the summer, her mother didn’t al-low anyone to open a window because of the flies, so when these women came, they sat in the formal parlor with the still air like a warm, moldy cloth across their faces.

The visits were an effort for Caroline’s mother, requiring all her atten-tion and focus. Her words were practiced, nearly identical from tea to tea, lady to lady, and they were few. While the other woman talked, Caroline’s mother had to stare at her mouth to read her lips. Some people seemed to take offense at this, though they knew the reason. Hence there were long awkward silences in which the mothers would turn and smile at Caroline as if she were a picture on the mantel, and that was the face Caroline put on, the one she held for portraits, a mindless smile with fixed, wide eyes. Once in a while a boy’s mother would deign to ask Caroline a question, but she was always careful to answer while looking at her own mother so her lips could be read. As she talked, she studied her mother’s gray eyes, flecked with blackish-blue, the color of bruises before they turn, and tried to figure out if the narrowness was the study of pleasure or disgust.

During the meeting her mother would stroke Silk, who lay stomach down across her lap, paws dangling over her knees. At the end of the meeting, if things didn’t go well—which mostly they did not—her moth-er would snatch the paper she’d written the man’s name on off Caroline’s wall, ball it up and slip it up her sleeve.

After her mother began the husband search, Caroline’s father came into her room and stared at the papers. “My prospects,” Caroline mut-tered. “Mother did it.”

Her father nodded, then peeled one of the pages off the wall and licked its back. “That’s the good flour,” he said with disgust.

Caroline never heard her father talk to her mother about the papers on her wall, the flour, or anything else. He rarely spoke to her at all. Dare Caroline allude to this, he scowled and shook his head. “Why would I do that? How do I know what she thinks I’m saying?”

After the husband search began, her father began to move through the house as soundlessly as her mother, as if he didn’t need to fidget with locks or open doors like the common man, as if his useless arm were like a fin to a fish, letting him slip through the world silently, effortlessly, on his way to somewhere else. And just as quietly, he would open every window in the house to let the flies in. For hours afterward her mother stalked the floor, swatting with a magazine or newspaper, Silk trailing be-hind, pawing at the black corpses. One time Caroline’s mother broke her favorite vase. It was the only sound, that cracking china, all evening long.

 After Caroline had children of her own and their noise filled the house, she realized she had often felt as though she didn’t exist in her parents’ bitter silence and that the invisibility had seduced her. She didn’t want to contradict it. Sometimes her own girls would jump when she came into a room behind them. “Mother,” they’d complain, “why can’t you make noise like a normal person! It’s like having a snake in the house.”

By the end of the week the cat had forgiven her and come back up to the porch for its twice-a-day milk and scrap of food. Caroline’s neigh-bor, Mildred Putramack, must have been watching her feed it all along. She came out on her porch. “Giving something to an animal, huh? Not enough food for us, even.”

Caroline was not unaware of her good fortune—a generous pension from Frederick’s company and a patent on a glassblowing technique he’d invented. The house was paid for and her needs had shrunk as she grew older. Shopping had become more a chore than a pastime. Recently she’d gone downtown to buy a new pair of hose and seen men on the court-house lawn in pup tents, others sitting on stools selling handfuls of pen-cils, bushels of apples, and ears of corn.

Caroline stood up straighter. “There’s been mice around. Seems like a sensible way to get rid of them.”

Mildred huffed. “I’ve not seen any mice around my stoop.”

All night Caroline worried about what Mildred would be saying to the neighbors. She’s giving meat to a cat when people are starving. Letting filthy animals in her house. Going a little batty living there all alone. The thought of people talking about her made Caroline’s skin feel tight, as if someone were pulling a million strings attached to her million pores.

The next morning, she began to clean the house. In the last several weeks she’d let her daily chores lapse. Now, the dirt and bits of leaves on the front walk and the sticky film on the kitchen floor inspired a mild panic. She scrubbed the tiles, shook rugs, dusted tables, swept the sidewalk. Then she remembered the windowsills. The first night she heard the cat, she’d pulled back the drape and noticed an accumulation of dead flies and spider webs. Now, as she tugged open each window, it occurred to her the cat may have been out there hours, even days, be-fore she noticed him because she always kept the drapes shut to guard against sunlight fading her furniture. She thought of her daughter Ad-die, her favorite, who’d confided to Sophie, who later told Caroline, that she didn’t like to bring friends home because Caroline made them nervous. Was she so formidable?

She left the drapes open. What did it matter if her couch faded a shade or two? And who could guarantee she would live long enough to notice?

Caroline was cleaning out the refrigerator—the new electric kind she bought just before Frederick fell ill—when Eva and Sophie arrived. They were arguing as they came in the door. Neither seemed at all surprised to see her cleaning, which relieved her sense of being the wrong person in the right body.

“Mother,” Sophie said, “Mrs. Putramack waylaid us in the backyard. She said you’ve been feeding some cat, a stray.”

“Is she talking about the cat I saw last time? The black one?” The note of displeasure in Eva’s voice made Caroline angry. She also noted the surprise, remembering the plate and saucer Dobry must have seen.

“I don’t know what that old woman wants me to do—firecracker it?” After Frederick died last summer, some kids put a stray cat in a cardboard box on the Fourth of July, then stuck lit firecrackers through holes in the box. Addie, who’d been helping Caroline sort paperwork, saw the boys do it. She chased them off, but too late, and came back in crying, saying she wished her father were here, he’d make those boys sorry. Caroline patted her back and looked out the window at the way orange shadows played against the house next door. For several days after that she’d felt frightened and out of place, as if she’d woken up in a world that looked like hers, but upon closer inspection was more like the props to a play, with hidden gears grinding behind paper-thin doors and windows with-out glass.

Before the girls left, Caroline said, “I thought Dobry was going to finish burning my leaves,” a more imploring tone in her voice than she’d intended.

“He’ll come by Saturday, Mother,” Eva said. “I promise.” Caroline never knew whether to take Eva’s kindness as a sign of love or fear.

Later, Caroline was cleaning upstairs and opened Frederick’s ward-robe. The smell of long-confined cedar filled the air. With the weather getting cold, she knew she ought to take his wool coats and suits to the Salvation Army. She was afraid, though, that one day she would pass a man wearing Frederick’s brown and green checked overcoat and she would—for just a moment—think him still alive, then have to remember that, of course, he was not.

Caroline didn’t want to marry any of the men her mother had chosen. She resented being discussed and measured like a piece of cloth. She wasn’t something this man was going to wear around his skinny neck. But it felt impossible to avoid the marriage. Where would she go? How would she support herself?

One Saturday morning—another warm, wet day, the rag on her face—Caroline’s father called her down to breakfast. He sat across from her mother at the dining room table in his undershirt, his short, shriv-eled appendage in full view. Caroline knew this annoyed her mother, who preferred he keep the embryonic limb out of sight.

Her father’s arm made Caroline think of dried fruit, baked in the sun until all the moisture had leeched out. After she learned of gan-grene, the way it begins at the spot of injury and, if unchecked by am-putation, migrates toward the center of the body, it seemed impossible the desiccation would stop of its own accord. She began to study her father’s shoulder and the right side of his neck for signs of wrinkling or flaking skin.

Caroline slid into her seat. The dining room table was set with the morning dishes, blue forget-me-nots on a yellow plate. Her teacup was full of orange juice because her mother disliked the way a juice glass interrupted the place setting, and her plate held toast and two eggs, poached, because that was the only way civilized people ate eggs. A cut-glass bowl in the center of the table held blackberry jam. Caroline didn’t particularly like it, but she always ate it because her mother thought jam messy and her father considered it indulgent.

Caroline carefully ran her knife along the edge of the bowl, and spread the jam on her toast. It was in returning the nearly clean knife to the bowl that a black spot appeared on the table. Her mother’s eyes didn’t move. Her father’s features remained still. The words, when they came, seemed to float in from behind Caroline, as if meant for someone else, someone in the neighboring house perhaps, and only through fault of the wind had they found her. You’ve ruined the tablecloth. She didn’t even know who said them. The words were too distinct to be her mother’s, the voice too high to be her father’s. Caroline looked up and her parents were sipping their coffee. Then, in her marbled speech, Caroline’s mother said to her father, “See, I told you she is making a bad impression. She’s as clumsy as you with that stump.”

Her father spoke slowly, looking directly at her mother, “Maybe they’re afraid of you.” He invoked an old folk saying. “The deaf cannot be trusted.”

At the Salvation Army Caroline lay the coats and hats, the suits and shoes with laces tied together, on the desk. “I want someone to have these, someone who needs them.”

The man at the desk, a face like a well-worn rock, nodded. “Sure.” Caroline watched him sort each item into different boxes, the suits folded against all good sense on top of work shirts and canvas pants. At home the cat sat facing the door. “What are you doing? Hm? Get away from there, go.” It was the end of October and Caroline thought of Halloween. She’d given out treats when Frederick was well—popcorn balls, cookies, and often, in her neighborhood, pieces of sweet bread or paczki—but after he became ill, she hadn’t felt like it, causing her house to become the target of hooligans who tossed eggs at the front door, or left dog excrement in a bag of fire on the porch.

This year the expectation of harassment did not trouble Caroline as it had before. Nothing felt as it had when Frederick was dying, or right after he’d passed, the day Adelaide sat crying over the damn cat in the box. Now it seemed instead that the person turning the controls on her found the boys’ petulant punishment amusing. They wanted their sweets, and this was her sentence for not providing them. Unlike the cat, who’d done nothing, she had refused them a treat. Fair enough. She would sim-ply put gloves on, throw the paper bag away and scrub the egg off her windows. No harm done.

Dobry bicycled up the walk and around to the back gate about an hour before sunset, the evening cool setting in and Caroline closing the windows and making sure all evidence of feeding the cat had been cleaned up. The animal sat on the concrete walk behind the house where the sun came down hard at sunset, its face turned up to the warmth, the tip of its tail flicking like the tapping fingers of an impa-tient monarch.

Dobry raked the few newly fallen leaves into the burn pile while Caroline stood watching from the window. The cat watched too, unin-timidated by the crackle of the piles or the twing of the metal rake as it sprung against twigs and tangled grass. Dobry was a good-looking, tall man with wide shoulders and curly dark hair. He was better look-ing than Frederick, and sometimes, in the secret part of her heart, she was surprised he had married Eva, a girl as plain as Caroline. Once or twice Dobry had said something that gave Caroline the impression he’d intuited her surprise and resented it.

Of course, he might also resent Caroline because she made no at-tempt to hide her opinion that Dobry was a disappointment for Eva. What she never explained is that it was his love—not his family’s more recent immigration, or that they’d been farmers in the old country— that disappointed her. Dobry’s feelings for Eva, nearly worshipful in their purity and degree, required no change or improvement, and so Eva would remain like Caroline forever because she’d found someone who would allow her to.

Caroline made coffee and went back to the door. The cat was gone and Dobry was burning the piled leaves on the far side of the yard, the hose at the ready in case any flames leapt free. A few minutes later, he knocked on the door. “You’re all set.” She noticed that none of her sons-in-law ever called her anything. She wondered if they would simply call her Busia when the children started to arrive.

“Why don’t you come in and have some coffee?” Caroline said. “I want to ask you something.”

Dobry wiped his feet and sat down at the kitchen table.

Caroline put his cup down with the bowl of sugar and a spoon. “I was thinking I might get the house painted next summer. Would you be will-ing to do that? Or know someone I could hire?”

“I’ll do it. That’s no problem. Save you some money.” “Oh no, I’ll pay you.”

“No.” Dobry shook his head. “You hold on to your money. You never know when you might need it. Rainy day.”

When Dobry stood to go, Caroline asked, “Do many children go to the houses in your block for Halloween?”

“I think there’s more than there used to be. People feel bad for them. It’s the only time of year they get a treat.”

“Does Eva make paczki?”

  “We didn’t get too many children in the apartment. She gave them some coffee cake.”

Dobry walked down the back stairs. It had grown nearly dark while he was inside. There were kids shouting a few yards over, on the other side of a chain-link fence. Boys, Caroline could tell, from their posture: jittery, absentminded, backs to the dark. As Dobry mounted his bike, Caroline caught sight of a box and the black body writhing in the boys’ hands. She ran across the yard to the fence. The struggling creature cried out while the boys shut the box.

“Get out of there!” she yelled. “I see you! Go away! Leave it!” “What’s the matter?” Dobry jogged up.

“Chase those boys away,” she said, pointing. Then hollered, “My son-in-law’s coming down there and that cat had better be untouched! You hear me! I’ll find you boys!”

The boys ran and Dobry loped over and retrieved the box, which had been taped shut. The firecrackers had fallen out, and lay around the box like a child’s drawing of sunrays. Dobry opened the lid and the cat leapt for the bushes. Caroline told Dobry to wait there and went in the house, where she retrieved a can of tuna fish.

They lured the animal out and took him home, where he sprawled beneath the kitchen table, his bright eyes disappearing into the blackness of his vaselike face.

“I didn’t think you much cared for cats,” Dobry said.

“Well, I don’t want to see anything murdered.” Caroline wiped the counters with a sponge and ran it under steaming water.

As Dobry opened the back door to go, the cat scuttled into the dark-ness of the adjacent dining room. “You want me to chase him out?”

“Why not finish up this coffee with me?” Caroline said. “It’ll go to waste otherwise. And I’ve got some cake.”

Back at the table, she asked, “Do you know why I came to America?” Dobry shook his head.

 Caroline smiled. “Of course I never told anyone. I never even told Frederick. Can you believe that? Thirty years of marriage.” She looked down at her cup, then into the dining room. The cat couldn’t be seen in the darkness, but she knew he was there.

When she looked back up, Dobry’s face waited like a blank piece of paper—neutral, open, empty.

Silk had disappeared. Her mother asked if she’d seen the cat.

“No, I haven’t.” Caroline looked under her bed, where the cat some-times slept. Her mother waited a moment, then left.

Caroline could hear her walking through the house, whispering the cat’s name in her slurred speech—“Sik, Sik.”

When her mother was still whispering half an hour later, Caroline went to help. Silk hid when Atlas was home because he’d bitten her once, but when he was at the shop with her father, the cat normally sat with Caroline’s mother. Sometimes, though, in hot weather she would sleep on the brick floor of the porch off the kitchen or under the parlor sofa. Her mother caught Caroline checking the latter on her hands and knees. “I’ve looked,” she said.

“Perhaps she’s in town,” Caroline said, “getting mice.” Silk liked to go to the docks and catch mice, which she’d leave in her food dish. She never ate them. She was too full from the chicken and fish Caroline’s mother gave her.

Caroline suggested other possibilities too. None of them moved her mother to even respond. They sat until dark, skipping the dinner the maid had left in the icebox. Every few minutes her mother would get up and look out the back door. Normally Silk sat on the stoop when she was ready to come back inside.

Caroline’s father arrived home later than usual, assembled his dinner and settled in without a word at the dining room table. Caroline could see him through the glass doors, his sharp frame wavy and dissected through the seeded panels and their wooden mullions, his arm almost whole in the shadows cast by the flickering oil lamps.

After dinner her father headed toward his study. He’d just passed the parlor, where Caroline still sat with her mother, when he stopped and she felt, rather than heard, him and Atlas come back toward them. “My dear,” he said, his face close to a lamp to be sure her mother could read his lips. “I almost forgot. I think there’s something wrong with your cat.”

Caroline’s mother almost didn’t move. It was very close, but she did. Her eyes widened, just a moment, then back to normal. Her father went to his study. Her mother went out to the back porch and there Silk was, wet, limp, a potato sack next to her with a coarse rope fallen loose from her neck.

“Oh no,” Caroline moaned.

Her mother whirled as if she’d heard her, but it must have been a mo-tion caught from the corner of her eye. “Sh!” She picked up the dead cat and took her inside as if she were merely damp from the rain.

The next day and the next and the next was like any other in their house. Caroline’s father and Atlas left for the shop at eight o’clock sharp. It opened at nine and he liked to be sure the money was in the register, the counters freshly dusted, the front window washed. At home Caro-line’s mother did needlework while she read in her room.

Sunday arrived, the maid’s day off. In the morning they went to church, then her father went to his club. That Sunday, after he left, Caro-line could hear her mother in the kitchen, pots being set down, a fire starting. Usually they ate leftovers on Sunday, so Caroline wondered what she was doing, but decided to stay in her room, pretending she couldn’t hear.

When her father came home, her mother had already laid the table for dinner. Neither parent had said a word about her marriage all week. Though she hadn’t liked any of the men her mother had chosen, and moreover disliked the very process of their choosing, it occurred to

 Caroline the alternative to marriage would be staying here, with her parents.

Finished with dinner, her father pushed his chair out from the table. Her mother tilted her head, drawing out her deaf-softened words.

“Before you go…” Her father stopped. The same slight widening of the eyes. Caroline saw in retrospect that he’d already known, just that fast. “I wondered,” her mother continued, “did you enjoy dinner?”

Her father looked at his plate, hardly anything of the meat left. Red meat. Unusual for her mother. Caroline looked at her own plate. Half-eaten. Her mother’s gone completely. Then she knew too. Atlas never went with her father to the club. He wasn’t allowed in.

Caroline ran out the back door, heaving, convulsing, choking on the red chunks of half-digested dog. In the distance, she could hear the slap-slap-slap of the water as the wind moved hard across the river.