by Elena Kaufman
Iris Katz’s neighbor returned from six months in Florida to hear suspicious sounds coming through her adjoining wall—incessant scratching, barking, yelping—and the stench of something rotten. The women didn’t know each other except to say hello on the front walk. Mrs. Lowther told the men she was kept busy with five grandchildren. Two policemen forced their way into Mrs. Katz’s home but had difficulty getting past the front hall when mewing cats swarmed them. Rottenness blossomed, clinging to their clothes. Officers Jameson and Keele sealed themselves inside the house so that the creatures wouldn’t get out. Jameson called out for the eighty-year-old resident but there was no answer, only a scattering patter on the linoleum floor and distressed cries. The heat in the place was above eighty degrees, and not a single window was open. What they witnessed in the living room made Jameson call an ambulance.
At first, he couldn’t understand what he was looking at: a thousand tiny movements in a tower of jumbled animals. The sofa teemed with babies and newborns, live ones with pink noses and suckling mouths. Cats’ tails swatted rabbits while rabbits nibbled foam in the furniture or hopped frantically in every direction. Mice scattered under the sofa, and one feline surfaced with its jaws clamped on a gray tail flipping wildly. A group of birds, perched on a nearby bookshelf, watched the action below. Jameson thought he saw a ferret slinking by, and he couldn’t tell if the animals splayed out on the floor were even alive. A litter of newborn kittens clumped together by the leg of the couch while their mother stretched out beside them, teats exposed to other creatures that suckled her. There was something else on the sofa, something that confused the men: a large, undulating object. Jameson pushed the couch with his boot and everything alive scampered away.
Then she was revealed. The woman’s eyes were closed and her face was cotton white, except for a sprinkling of age spots on her cheeks. Her nightgown, tangled around her legs, was torn up the side and riddled with tiny holes. Keele gagged when the woman’s white hair ruffled up from a tail which whipped out of her bun. In her bun was a nest of baby mice.
The odor was of urine, excrement, and bleach. They held their jackets over their noses, but it didn’t stop their eyes from watering.
“Oh, Jesus,” Jameson said. He pulled the women’s nightgown away from the twitchy rabbit to see fresh spots of blood dotting her legs. When he shook her by the shoulder, she didn’t respond. Keele backed up and tripped over a cat before running outside to vomit on the lawn.
Jameson stayed put. “Ma’am? It’s the police.” His voice was muffled from under his jacket. The woman didn’t move, so he held his breath and leaned in to put a finger on her long and bony wrist. Under the thin blue veins he felt a slight flutter.
She’s got a pulse, he thought. “Get back in here, Keele,” he yelled. The second officer took his time returning, and when he did he was plugging his nose with thick fingers.
“My God, would you look at that,” Jameson said. The cats were eating the stuffing from the sofa. “They’re starving.”
Keele averted his eyes up to the top of a bookshelf where three yellow and one blue Budgie were preening each other. Then one of the woman’s legs slid off the couch, and the animals returned to swarm her, and Jameson had to shoo them away with his shiny, black boot.
Her eyes remained closed and she was so light that Jameson could have been lifting one of his children. He propped her upper body on the armrest. Up close he could see small, red incisions on her neck.
“She’s lost a lot of blood, probably over a period of time. We’re in the danger zone, Keele. Make the call. Now.”
After the officers checked her in at the hospital, instead of going for their usual drink, they found reasons to part. Jameson didn’t mention the case to his wife. They had three young children and, as soon as he got home, he took the twins on his lap and she went to her yoga class.
In his bachelor’s apartment, Keele sat on the toilet and wept. He couldn’t imagine getting rid of Sherlock, but that night he locked his bedroom door for the first time and his cat whined outside it until four in the morning.
* * *
Mrs. Iris Katz was treated for ten mice bites, fifty-eight rabbit bites, sixty-three scratches, and a serious case of toxoplasmosis. The officers questioned her in hospital in the presence of a psychologist.
“You can’t imagine how many homeless cats there are in this city,” Iris told them. “People go on holidays or move houses and leave them behind.”
Jameson nodded. “Pets are a big responsibility,” he said.
“You’re telling me. Now where are my little babies?” she asked, her blurred eyes searching his.
Keele stood slightly behind Jameson and couldn’t stop looking at Iris’s bandaged neck; then there was her nose, shiny with ointment, and her cheeks paper white.
“I’m sorry,” Keele said, stepping up to get closer, but before he could continue, Jameson cut in. The psychologist typed her notes into a laptop and her tapping annoyed Keele.
“Some will have to be put down because of health problems, and the rest will be treated and put up for adoption,” Jameson said.
“I don’t think so,” Iris said.
“No one would be able to manage all that,” Keele said as he paced the room.
“When Henry was here I managed all right,” she said. “We looked after them together, and when he passed, I had my friends. Now they’re gone too, just disappeared.” She twisted the hospital sheet in her fingers. “I’m all that’s left.”
Jameson flipped through her file. “What happened to your brother?”
Iris untwisted the sheet, adjusted her blankets, and looked at Keele. “Did you take the feeding schedule off my fridge, young man? You didn’t forget?”
“Mrs. Katz, that list was ten years old and it only had the names of five pets on it, but you had over a hundred animals, which would be impossible for anyone to manage.”
“How would you know?”
“I have a cat,” Keele said.
She clapped her hands in front of his face and startled them both. “What’s his name?”
Jameson smiled as Keele leaned in. “Listen, Mrs. Katz, it would have been too much for anyone. That’s all I’m saying. We want to help you, do you understand?”
“And I want my babies back. Do you understand that?” she said and pulled her blankets tighter. “Close the window, I’m cold, can’t you see? I’m cold as ice.”
Officer Keele swiped his hand through his hair and went over to shut the window. The psychologist called to Jameson, and they huddled over her laptop while Keele went back to her bedside and leaned in. “We found bites, ma’am, all over your body. They were infected and you needed medical attention.”
“I was only taking a nap,” she said. “I was resting.”
“Mrs. Katz. You were being eaten alive,” he whispered.
Jameson went over to his partner, clamped a hand on his shoulder, and asked him to get back to the office; he’d take care of the rest of the interview. Keele didn’t look at the woman or acknowledge his partner before leaving the room. When he was gone, Iris turned on her side, turning her back to Jameson.
“It says here in your file that you have a brother.” Jameson tried again. “Do you have any next of kin?”
Iris threw off her blankets; she wore a green hospital gown. “I want to go home now,” she said, dropping one bandaged foot out of the bed.
“That’s not possible. You have to stay here until you recover your strength, just a couple more days or so.” Jameson pulled the blankets back over her and she squeezed her eyes shut and then fell asleep. The officer listened until her wispy breath become regular, watched her mouth drop open, and then pulled the curtains around her hospital bed closed.
* * *
The Katz house was quarantined and Iris’s immediate neighbors evacuated, including a displeased Mrs. Lowther. Their homes were fumigated while Iris’s was gutted. The furniture, infested and multiplying with ticks, mites, and cockroaches, was incinerated. Then Iris Katz became a research subject; her health was tracked to see how an eighty-year-old coped with such a variety of bacteria in her body. Then she had to testify.
In court, Iris explained to the judge: “I walked by Bowsers Pet Shop every day, and since I had mice eating at my dried food, I thought a cat was a good idea. But a cat alone is not a happy critter; they need company like us humans. So I got two.”
The judge nodded. “They certainly liked each other better than you could have imagined.”
“They caught mice together; they were a good team.” Then she had a coughing attack and an assistant poured her a cup of water. “I found strays on the street. All the time. I couldn’t just leave them there, could I?” She looked up into the judge’s eyes. “We have a duty to our living creatures.” Her coughing started up again, so he took an adjournment and Mrs. Katz followed her lawyer out of the courtroom, asking him if he had any pets; he didn’t.
Back on the stand, Iris looked around the room, catching Jameson’s eye, before answering. “I don’t know how they multiplied so quickly. I only had two of each to start.”
Jameson and Keele were in the front row and Jameson leaned over. “Like in Noah’s ark?” he said, but Keele was playing with his cell phone and didn’t acknowledge his partner.
“When did you get your first pet, Mrs. Katz?” the judge asked. Iris twirled a strand of thin white hair around her fingers and looked up at the ceiling.
“Yesterday? Oh no, just a minute. My birthday was last week; I turned seventy-five. The cats were a gift, that’s right.”
“Mrs. Katz?” The Judge said.
“A gift from…?”
“Yes, Your Honor?”
“You swore on the Bible, did you not?”
She nodded and then told the court how she’d been dreaming about her husband when it happened, how he used to tuck her in at night before getting in on his side. He’d smooth her hair back and give her little kisses on her face until she was covered in tiny, wet spots, which air-dried before she fell asleep. Her creatures reminded her of his preening.
“I was drinking my tea, like on any other afternoon, but I felt so tired that I didn’t make it to my bedroom. I love them all, you know…they weren’t a burden.”
Iris was kept in the hospital for two weeks before being transferred to a senior care center. She had no choice. She was considered a danger to herself and made a Ward of the State.
A nurse led her into her new room at the home, which was only five blocks away from her own house.
“There isn’t enough space here for my creatures,” she said, eyeing the single bed in the single room.
“We’ll take good care of you here,” the nurse said.
“And what do you think I’ve been doing with myself for seventy-five years?” Iris scratched at her bandages.
“Eighty, Mrs. Katz. You’re eighty now,” the nurse said, pulling her hands away from Iris’s wounds. “And we don’t allow pets in the facility.”
“Then get me out of here.”
“Iris, it’s going to be okay.”
“Mrs. Katz,” she said, turning away from the nurse. “If you don’t mind.”
The nurse opened the dresser drawer to check that it had been cleaned out from the previous patient. She ran her finger along the windowsill and wrinkled her nose at the trace of dust.
“There are lots of fun activities here, and you’ll make fast friends, Mrs. Katz. We’ll keep you real busy.” She patted her patient on the back and left the room, but Iris was opening the small window overlooking the street and didn’t hear the nurse leave. “My brother died five years ago. He was never married. Todd never met a woman he could love. He helped me take care of my family and had dinner with Henry and me every weekend. If he didn’t eat with us, well, I just don’t know. You see, normally my brother survived on liquids. On alcohol, to be plain and clear.”
* * *
She was only ten when she discovered one of her brother’s secrets: Todd would burn ants with a magnifying glass, cut worms into little segments, and pull the arms off starfish. Iris pretended she didn’t have a brother. Running to her parents never helped; nor did throwing temper tantrums. Instead she became a savior of creatures, stealing them from Todd’s fish tank, which he’d fill with sand and bits of grass after mowing the lawn. He kept a black spider, some garden snakes, and a white mouse. Iris took the mouse from the dirty aquarium, put the wriggling thing into a paper bag, and released it in the forest.
Behind the seniors’ home was a grassy park where she was allowed to go for walks alone. That afternoon, she lay down in the grass and napped. When she awoke her hair was tangled up with purple clovers. She looked in the tall grass for living things and thought of Todd, who had, years after his boyhood experiments, become a biologist.
Iris collected insects and put them in her pocket or held them loosely in her palm to smuggle them into her room.
When she asked the kitchen staff for a container for her “rock collection,” the cook gave her a big, empty jam jar. Now she held a microcosm of life in her hands—from the smallest red ants, to centipedes, grasshoppers, a ladybug, a pink garden worm, and a spider. She named the spider Todd, and the candy-red ladybug with four spots, after herself.
Iris filled the jar with grass, weeds, and flower petals, and poked air holes in the lid. The jar lived under her single bed at the seniors’ home, and at night she couldn’t sleep for the excitement of the minute life underneath her, pulsating with promise.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing