The Twelve Steps of Don't Say It in So Many Words
By Angela Marino
Early in 1971, when they got married, Thomas and Cindi and Ma moved to Sepulveda where they had bought a piece of land to raise horses. Going to the boonies in the San Fernando Valley was Thomas's idea and it was really him who needed all that room. Thomas always told people he owned three acres of horse land, but their property was only three acres if you counted the eucalyptus tree patch they shared with the government. The Los Angeles River flowed in a bed of cement at the edge of the patch, so they couldn't build anything there, but the patch was a nice place to sit and look at the stars, a place you could go to calm your soul. Cindi got used to it. At this time in their lives, Thomas and Cindi both loved animals and wanted many of them. Thomas had his horses and Cindi had her cats. She called them her babies.
Out in the open, she kept a children's pool for them next to the corral. It was a light blue plastic pool with fishies painted on the side. The pool became their feeding bowl, a place where she could get the little ones to eat enough. Somehow, that didn't become so much of a problem later. Her babies are always them or they now; she doesn't call them by their proper names anymore because she doesn't like remembering everything about them.
"They don't call them Siamese for nothing," Ma told Cindi one clear night when they could see the North Star. "It's because they're so wild that people like them."
This was before Cindi had agreed to go down south to get the wild cats in Mexico. Ma's great aunt had left them the house in Guaymas where they could go whenever they wanted. Thomas didn't like Mexico—he said the mosquitoes could smell his white blood from here—and so he never went. The house was in an old part of town, a part of town Cindi would never want to be caught in without Ma. Thousands of them roamed wild there in the streets next to the gulf, Cindi was told. If you spotted a pretty one you could just follow her home and take ten or twenty of her sisters if you wanted to. Cindi usually got so tired when Ma started talking about her schemes. But tonight her slightly higher pitched voice gave Cindi energy. Ma was a woman who liked to do things on a whim, things that could make your life newly bearable or so like hell you couldn't think straight, depending on how you looked at it.
"You can teach them how to go to the bathroom," Ma said. "That's why I like them. You can teach them to mind their own business. You become the mother when you feed them and they don't want to follow the mother around."
Cindi and Ma sat on the wicker chairs out in the patch, looking out at the red antenna lights on the San Bernardino Mountains, like they had been doing all week after supper.
It was after Cindi and Thomas had one of their conversations, when he would finally stop talking when Cindi burst out in a loud cry, and Cindi let Ma pet her hands like she was a little girl, when she was convinced. It would only take the two of them. They would simply go down the gulf for a presumed family trip and they would get the most beautiful wild things they could find. It would only be a matter of time before they started to multiply. Then they would have a little business to call their own. Cindi needed something to take care of, to take her mind off what she could never give to Thomas, and this was the perfect thing.
Not long after they brought the first planned 20 to Sepulveda, the breeding became more of a way of life than a business for Cindi. They were her babies and nothing more. She liked to watch them crawl around and disappear into the night. They made her feel less alone when Thomas was gone most weekends. Ma was the one with the plans. She had dollar signs in her eyes when she wrote the complex lists of who begat whom, filling out birth certificates for each little baby. But as the winter months approached, it didn't take long for Ma to lose interest, too, with all the things to do for the holidays.
With no buyers, by the next spring there were nearly 200 of them. It wasn't until one morning in March that they realized just how many there were. Ma was the first one to see where the unaccounted babies were born. She walked around on tip toes on the cold cement floor of the two-car garage where they kept the moving boxes, where no one ever ventured because it was so full of things from the past. She intended on looking for some silk string for the sewing machine, but the smell of them got her looking for something else. When she looked up at the two by fours Thomas had put in near the ceiling to store the saddles, there they were. Past a stirrup, swinging ever so slightly, were six, eight, ten, twelve, going on up to maybe 50 pairs of the most deadpan green and brown eyes Ma had ever seen. The first 20 weren't here in the garage, but their scrawny descendants were everywhere, descendants with barely a touch of the Siamese line. Some neighborhood males must have infected the original females with their unclean bloodlines and now Cindi and Ma would have to pay the price for their laziness. When Ma walked to the other side of the garage to find the bodies attached to those eyes, where the wire mesh of the vent had been broken through, she realized where the extra cats had come from. The mothers had gotten into her girls' cribs to birth. They had stained the entire frame with the dull color of their brown placentas. The deep red color of the cherry wood had been obliterated.
Ma counted 400 young ones a week before the summer solstice. They were all different colors and all wild like their parents. You could see their nails from far away, too long because nobody cut them. And their whiskers were huge in the moonlight, framing the hair around their necks, soft and matted like a lion's. The way they moved was what made them the most wild, like they knew they owned the place, warning their prey not to cross their path. At suppertime, Ma and Cindi saw a brown cloud whiz by the kitchen window, from wherever they were lying in the dirt. It was like the land would become alive at night. Like night of the living dead.
Ma said it first. Cindi was standing next to the horses' corral. Her favorite, Jamboree, was smelling her rosewater hair and Ma was a couple feet away under the leaning eucalyptus tree. The colt, the only one who let Cindi go near him, liked to rest his head on her shoulder while she watched the sunset disappear behind the mountains. She just stared at Ma after she laid out the plan. It seemed like Ma was talking to herself when she said those awful words. A death sentence.
"You're right," Cindi said finally, turning her head to face Jamboree instead of her mother. "We have to get rid of them."
Jamboree took his warm neck away from hers and trotted away.
Thomas didn't notice Cindi and Ma whispering to each other more than usual because he never noticed anything that had to do with Ma. Cindi didn't know why they were bothering because there was absolutely no one in the world who would want to listen. But they didn't stop whispering until their rent-a-dumpster was taken away Sunday morning. Sometimes Cindi still whispers to her babies in her sleep.
On the chosen Saturday afternoon, when Thomas had gone north for another business trip, the Santa Ana winds were so fierce they were blowing dirt into the kitchen window. They closed all the windows and their sweat started to drip down their skin like tears, making it hard for them to think as they mixed the poison with tuna fish. The heavy green bowls sat on the kitchen table, bowls they had used to hand out candy on Halloween in years past. Ma knew what she was doing and Cindi just did the things Ma told her to do. Ten pounds per teaspoon, Ma said. They were silent after that.
They didn't wonder why they had a treat that night. The property was their kingdom and the occasional treat was just a part of their way of life. At sunset, when the food was laid down in the little pool, some came with their heads cocked back, not looking at where they were going. Some came biting the necks of the others. Cindi tried to catch the leader's eyes, but she wasn't looking at anything in particular. It was their sense of smell that got them to the swimming pool filled with the pale meat. Their sense of smell was impeccable and if the poison had had a hint of odor, they would have surely caught it. But they ran to their giant bowl, called by something older than themselves. They became primordial, all at once, their whiskers catching the last of the old pink light of the day, their rough paws making a sound like one heavy beast going on its last hunting run.
"It's my fault." I'm the one who brought them here and let them find husbands. If you're going to blame anyone, I'm the one you should blame."
Even as Ma said this to Cindi, she knew who was to blame. And even though they made a vow to keep silent, Cindi knew she couldn't. She slept on the couch in the living room for a month afterwards so she wouldn't tell Thomas in her sleep.
"It'll take some time," Ma said as they shared the last of the tamales for their own supper. And it did. Only a few dropped off stiff right away into the tuna fish they were eating. Those were the little ones. The hair from their young necks to their tails didn't look quite right; it started to change shape like they had been electrocuted. Then they started to lick their front legs furiously like their heads were connected to a puppeteer's string and they couldn't control themselves anymore. But the bigger ones walked around the pool, to get the last of their favorite kill, and licked themselves from head to toe, doing all the normal things they do when they give themselves a bath. These ones succumbed hours later when the yard was pitch-black. Ma and Cindi didn't hear any of the sounds they expected on a day of such massacre. Most walked away into the cover of the eucalyptus to sleep and died by themselves.
When Cindi looked out on her property at sunrise now, a cup of coffee in her hand, the dirt surrounding the corral was flat, and the air too loud with the calls of blue jays.