Violet and Alice
Violet spit in my chocolate milk and now she was drinking it.
“I hope you enjoy that,” I said, “because you’re about a minute away from crunch time.” I made the sign for crunch time, which was pounding on the table twice.
She drank another long sip, smacking her lips. I looked around to see if anyone was a witness to my misery and outrage, but our mother had disappeared. It was the time of the day when she went into her room and turned on the fan, the time when she said she just needed to put her feet up. In fact, when I had spied on her, her feet were not up. She was sitting in front of the fan eating a candy bar which she’d gotten from her secret candy place, which was no secret from me. From the next door, ukulele music could be heard. Mr. Pink was teaching himself to play the national anthem.
“I’m drinking it.” Violet tilted the glass slowly toward her mouth.
“Next time we go swimming I’m going to pull you under and you’ll never come back up,” I said.
She blinked at me.
I told her she looked like a frog, but I could tell she didn’t care, because we were twins and knew everything about each other. Violet never cared what anyone said about her.
When she was done we went outside and staked out our corners of the yard. Mine was behind the blue spruce trees. Hers was behind the garage. I could see her through the spruce branches, but she couldn’t see me. She was digging a hole back there. She said that it was going to be a garden and that I would never be allowed to eat anything that grew in it except for the carrots, which I hated.
Behind the blue spruces, I had a triangle—spruces on one side, a wire fence grown over with morning glory vines on another, and the third side screened by tall grass that our neighbor’s lawn mower always missed. I kept some dolls there to play pretend with. They lived in a wooden box that I’d shoved under the lowest spruce branches. Also in the box was a bottle of cream soda which I was saving for a special day, a rusty pair of scissors, a metal box with a snap top that had once held bandaids, a tiny yellowish bird skull, and a softball, given to me by one of the Beecher boys. I’d had a crush on him at one time, and even though I didn’t any more, the ball still had the feel of a holy relic, like the fingerbone of a saint which we’d heard about in religion class. The bone had supposedly done miracles, although they were of the boring kind where someone was cured of a disease. One of us had asked the teacher why those people didn’t just go to the doctor, and was made to visit the principle for a talking to.
“I can see you,” I called to Violet, but she didn’t answer. I peered through the spruce branches. Violet wasn’t there. The spade she’d been using to dig the hole was stuck in the ground. I thought of sneaking over there and stealing it, but I was afraid she’d jump out from where she was hiding and catch me.
Where had she gone? I changed the angle of my spying and looked at the back of the house. It was mute, shut, the blinds down in its windows. Behind the window on the right, my mother would be eating her candy bar, maybe reading one of the books she kept in her closet. Her room was a mystery, always dim, with a sort of gray light. You looked different in her mirror than any other in the house, as if the room behind your mirror self was not quite the same as the one you were in. She had a satin comforter on her bed, dark green on one side, rose pink on the other. In her closet, besides the books, there were fancy dresses that she wore when she went out with our father, and shoes to go with them in stacked boxes, their toes stuffed with tissue paper. Her dresser had a lace scarf on it, and a fancy comb and brush set which she never used. Violet and I liked to go in there sometimes, and when we did we called a truce, since it would have seemed wrong to be our namecalling selves there.
I started to have the feeling that Violet was sneaking around the edges of the yard, that she was planning to surprise attack me in my spruce house. I had told her that our areas were like in church, where you couldn’t sin and nothing bad could happen, and she had agreed. Or at least she hadn’t said that she disagreed. But if she could spit in my chocolate milk, maybe all bets were off.
I wedged myself into the corner made by the fence and the larger spruce tree and waited for her to appear, yelling like a gorilla that we’d seen on the nature show the week before, yelling and hitting her chest with her fists. But as the minutes went on, and she didn’t come, I relaxed. I thought of getting out my dolls and playing pioneers with them, which was a game where I had them make things out of grass and pine needles. I had decided that it might be possible to weave the long blades of grass into a blanket or a shawl. Pioneers were always wearing shawls. I had a store of acorn tops that made very believable dishes, and for the smallest doll, a hat. They should be clearing the fields, I thought, and I wondered if I could steal Violet’s little shovel and make a field where they could grow wheat. Pioneers always wanted to grow wheat or corn, it seemed like, although if I were a pioneer I’d grow something nicer, like strawberries.
There was a rustling on the other side of the fence, and for a minute I thought it was Violet, but then I saw that it was our back neighbor, an old woman. Like Violet, she was digging a hole, but with a grownup sized shovel. I watched her through the morning glory vines. She was grunting, maybe because it was hard, or because she was old. She had on a dress that came down to her ankles, almost like a pioneer, except that she didn’t have a bonnet, and instead of a shawl she was wearing an old sweater that was buttoned wrong. Her white hair was in a braid. She sat down by the hole and looked into it for a while, and I realized that she was crying. Not like Violet and I did, with a lot of noise and thrashing around. She just sat there and her face was wet. Tears were dripping down her cheeks and off her chin.
I didn’t know her name. She was foreign, I’d heard my parents say, from the old country, which was where our grandmother came from, and possibly all old people. They didn’t think she spoke English, neither her nor her husband. Violet had said that she looked like an old witch, but I knew she had only said it to frighten me. Which it hadn’t.
The old woman had a box sitting next to her, a shoebox like the ones in my mother’s closet. She opened it and looked inside. There was something in there, something dark and furry, and at first I thought it was a hat or one of those scarves that were made out of an animal, with its head at one end and feet at the other. But then the box tilted toward me and I saw that it was a cat, who was probably dead. A cat wouldn’t like to be kept in a box if it was alive, I was sure. A cat wouldn’t lie so still.
Something poked me in my back and I turned around. A stick, with a piece of paper stuck on it. On the other end of the stick, I could see Violet grinning at me through the spruce branches. The paper had writing on it: If this was an arrow you’ll be dead, it said. I made several faces at her, and then put my finger to my lips, saying to be quiet. I made our special sign, which was two fingers of one hand making an X with two fingers of the other hand. Then I made another sign with my two fists pressed together, which meant that it was ok to come in.
In a minute, she came around the bigger of the spruces, crawling, parting the long grass as if she were an animal in the jungle. I pointed to the fence and she crawled over to me. We knelt side by side, looking through the morning glory vines. The old woman was still sitting there with the box in her lap. I wondered if she’d take the cat out or if she’d pet it. I wanted her to pet it. I was sure that if I had a cat and it was dead, I’d want to pet it.
“Is that a dead cat?” Violet whispered right into my ear, which was gross and wet, but necessary, we had learned, if you didn’t want someone else to hear. “Is it the cat?”
I nodded and made the sign for stupid, which was making one hand look like a rabbit. She punched me and we fought for a minute, being quiet so that the old woman wouldn’t hear. Although since she was old, maybe she was deaf, like Mr. Pink’s wife next door. We’d got the idea for sign language from them.
We had seen some dead things before. Worms squashed on the sidewalk. The mosquitoes we slapped on our arms. Birds that had fallen from their nest or that had been caught by a cat. Maybe by this cat. Also we’d seen our dead grandmother from across the room at the funeral home the year before.
But the cat seemed different. Maybe because it was furry and looked soft. Maybe because we’d been acquainted with it, in a way. It had sometimes climbed to the top of the wire fence and looked down at us. We used to try and get it to come into our yard and play. We had tried to give it treats, acorns and flowers and bits of our lunch sandwiches, but it had not been interested. I had sometimes spied on it from my spruce house, watching it stalk through the old woman’s yard with its tail pointing straight up. When we were really little, we had called it Kitty, but later on, I had given it a name, Cloudy, although no one knew this, not even Violet. Because it was like a little gray cloud.
I was looking through the vines and thinking about all this, scratching my ankle where something had bitten me, and Violet was jiggling next to me, probably because she had to go to the bathroom. She always waited until the last possible minute because she hated to stop what she was doing.
The old woman had stopped crying. She put the top of the shoe box over the cat, firming it down at the corners, and suddenly I realized what she was going to do with it. Why she had dug the hole. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before, and I was glad Violet didn’t know how dumb I’d been. The cat was in the box and she was going to put the box into the hole. The cat would be going in the hole. I grabbed Violet by a piece of her hair and said it into her ear, that she was going to put the cat in the hole. Cloudy, but I didn’t say the name. Violet made a face that meant what did you think she was going to do, stupid. And she was right, it was stupid. It was like a word problem in arithmetic. An old woman has one cat, which is dead, and one hole which is empty. What is the sum total?
Oh, no, I said to myself. Oh, no no no. A cat wouldn’t like it in a hole. Especially not if it was trapped in a box. Even a dead cat. Someone was talking at the other end of the old woman’s yard. Her husband, the old man. He wasn’t talking in English. He was waving his arms around and she said something back. She sounded mad and so did he. Then she got up, leaving the box by the hole, and went to the back of the house, and then inside it with the old man.
I stared at the box. I had the idea that it might have been a mistake. She was old and probably didn’t see very well. Maybe the cat (Cloudy) had just been really tired, or was sick for a while and was now better. “Maybe if we wished, the cat wouldn’t be dead,” I said.
Violet shook her head. “Don’t be stupid.”
“It’s dead and she’s going to bury it in there, and that’s that.” That’s that was something our mother said when she’d had enough, when she got to the end of her rope. “That’s what happens to dead people. And cats. That’s what happened to grandma.”
“That’s what going to happen to you,” I said. “When you’re dead, I’m going to bury you in a box in the ground.”
“It’s called a coffin if it’s got a dead person in it,” Violet said. She picked up one of my dolls and laid it on the ground and pretended to dig a hole next to it. “Dig dig dig,” she said. “Then they shove it in and cover it up.”
“I hate you,” I said, and just like the old woman, I started to cry.
Violet looked surprised. “Stop it,” she said.
But I didn’t. I cried harder and pushed myself farther into the spruce tree even though its branches were scratching me.
But I couldn’t or I didn’t want to.
“Okay,” Violet said. “Watch me.” She jumped up and started to climb the fence, making the morning glory vines rustle and sway. When she got to the top she sat there balancing, and then jumped down. When she was on the other side, she stuck her face through the vines to look at me. “Are you watching?” she said.
She went over to the hole and looked down into it. Then she opened up the box and took the cat out. Cloudy, who looked limp and sad, like something that has been thrown away. Violet balled up her sweater and stuck it into the box and put the lid on again. Then she picked up the cat and came back to the fence. “I’m going to reach him up,” she said, “and you catch him.”
I stood up and got on my tiptoes, stretching to be taller. Violet on the other side stretched her arms up as high as she could, getting the cat to the board that capped off the fence. “You got it?” she said.
I felt for his fur because I couldn’t see very well, and then my fingers found it and I pulled, but not too hard, and then Violet gave him a little push and Cloudy fell into my arms, just as I’d always wished he would in those days when we tried to talk him down from the fence. We heard the old woman say something from the other end of her yard. Quick as she could, Violet climbed the fence and dropped into the spruce house.
“We still have to bury him,” Violet said, and I said that I knew.
“You can’t tell mom,” she said, and I said I wasn’t stupid.
“Well you are,” Violet said. “But OK. We can bury him in my garden. Unless you want to put him under your trees.”
I said no. It seemed to me that it was like Violet had dug that hole because she saw the cat coming.
She had to dig the hole a little deeper, and while she did that, I watched the old woman through the fence. She put the box in her hole and pushed dirt on top. I felt a little bad because she didn’t know about the sweater. When it was full, she stood on top of it and stamped the dirt down. She saw me looking and shook her finger at me, and then went back into her house. Violet was putting flowers into the hole, pushing them against the muddy sides so that they stuck.
“OK,” Violet said. “Say a prayer now.”
I didn’t know any prayers for cats, so I said the Our Father, because it was one that made God seem nicer, like someone who would give you money for candy. Violet said Amen at the end. “Do you want to look at him first?” she said.
I made the sign for no, because I didn’t want to talk. We shoveled the dirt in with our hands and I picked some more of our mother’s roses to put the petals on top and we were done.
“He lives here now,” Violet said.
I nodded. I knew it was just a hole but in my mind it was like a room with a flower rug and flower wallpaper and Cloudy was lying on a flower couch. I thought I should feel bad for the old woman, except he had been hers all the time he was alive, so what did she have to complain about?
“OK, now get out of my garden,” Violet said.
She pushed me and I pushed her back. I made the rabbit sign for stupid and she yanked on my hair.
Our mother was calling out of the back door. “What are you two doing out there?” She yelled it because Mr. Pink was still playing the national anthem and his wife was singing along.
“Nothing,” we yelled back.
Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) – both by Random House, and a number of flash pieces in places like Helen, The Citron Review, and Tiferet. Currently, she is working on a YA thriller. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.