Cat's Skull

Cat's Skull

Emily C. P. Owens

When she came home the mother heard her daughter in the kitchen, the water in the sink running and the rattle of dishes being put away. She felt the familiarity of the small home she had made for them, old and loved, filled with the things they had gathered and made. Her love for her daughter led her into the kitchen like a guide. She stroked Rachel's long hair, her baby girl, a small woman now.

I found it in the creek, Rachel said. Inside an old black pot, a small animal skull bubbled with a friendly smile. The old tabby tomcat Joplin had gone missing a few weeks ago. Coyotes, which frightened the mother. They followed the creek beds. Rachel looked thinner. The mother turned to the refrigerator, but it only held milk, some cheese, a package of bread, and three oranges. They needed groceries, but Rachel had been home so little lately, the mother had not gone to the store. There were some dry goods in the pantry, the mother began to plan dinner around them. She put on a tea kettle for the time being, on the burner next to that cooking Joplin's friendly grimace.

Rachel had almost moved out of home, had been taking more things with her each time she left. She spent her nights at her artist boyfriend's studio loft, in a seedy part of town. But Rachel promised she was not afraid there, that she was safe. He painted her while she slept, naked in rumpled bed sheets on their single mattress, her long tumbling hair and small mouth. She had grown into such a beauty, her daughter. She would be gone soon, and her life was growing evermore toward its peak, while the mother's quietly faded into twilight.

They sat in the living room full of old books and candles; the empty dusty fireplace was facing them like another dinner guest, an old friend. The mother poured jasmine tea into two of her mother's fine teacups, one of the only nice things her mother had owned. Rachel was moved to complain about her father, who was in the process of buying her a new red BMW for her upcoming birthday. She raised her arms in irritation, her bracelets banging down to her elbows. Thin arms and her chest was bony, almost grossly, her legs smaller than when the mother had seen her last. She wished Rachel would come home more, so she could protect her, keep her safe in their little home. The artist was a good man, but maybe he saw her for the way her oily eyes stare out from canvas, and her petite body, so beautiful hung on a stranger's walls. To placate the mother, Rachel promised to stay the night. She took Joplin's clean white skull from the water and wanted to sew it onto one of her own paintings, a dark red one that hung in the hallway. The hallway always felt damp for some reason, and the mother worried that the painting would have been warped if it stayed there. Rachel undressed and wore the mother's silk dressing robe to work on it, looking smaller still sitting on the floor, bent over the canvas.

The mother opened a bottle of red wine for them, poured it into crystal glasses and they drank as Rachel worked and the mother watched. It dyed their lips a dark red. She left Rachel as she began to sew the skull onto the canvas, looping needle and thread through the eye socket. She did not want to watch poor Joplin's transformation into art, and began to cook dinner. She put away the pot left on the stove, tossed the dirty water out off the back porch. She doesn't think she can use it anymore, but she keeps it in case Rachel should need to boil any more bones.

Rachel did not eat more than two bites of the pasta, but drank all of her wine. They sat out front, the remaining two cats coming and going from the house to the darkness beyond the porch light. The mother worried about coyotes. Rachel talked about the artist, the commission he was working on, the galleries that had approached him. He was rapidly gaining popularity in town, maybe in no small part because of her daughter, her tumbling hair and shrinking body. He brought her a kitten, Rachel said, they named it Baudelaire but she called him Beau. In the living room, Rachel lit all the candles and showed her mother the painting with Joplin sewn on, and asked after her mother. Together they remembered Rachel's childhood and adolescence, her best friend who overdosed on heroin at sixteen, his mother's boozy despair.

Past two in the morning, the mother sat on her daughter's bed as Rachel picked out things to take with her in the morning. Her closets remained bursting with clothes, even after packing two bags, but the bookshelves looked lean. Rachel climbed into bed with the fan on and the windows open, and asked her mother to stay with her. The mother laid down and stroked Rachel's beautiful hair until she could hear from her breath that she was asleep. Then she pulled her daughter's sleeping body to her, her daughter's too-small child body, and held it in her arms and she fell asleep too.