She crouched in the dark near the newspapered window, clutching a pink baby doll and a shotgun, listening for scratches outside. The windows on the first floor were all painted shut, and the doors were locked but sometimes she could hear voices outside, or hooves stamping and it scared her. Once, there’d been a baby crying and she had kicked at the cats at her feet and cried, the barrel of the gun angling off into the darkness, toward the ceiling. The yellowed newspaper testified hopefully to the news of an earlier date, unintelligible and obscuring her view. She couldn’t know what could be out there, doing what to that baby.
Nights were long and haunted, and only dawn brought clarity. She shuffled through her house, a jigsaw of furniture and stacks of newspaper lined with cat hair and urine, to the sink. Eating a damp Enteman’s coffee cake from the box with a spoon, she rinsed out her water glass and surveyed the yard. She decided it was a good time of year to put in beans, cool and clear.
Out in the yard she leaned over her arthritic knees and pulled brambles up by hand, clearing out the middle of the yard. She’d had trellises for the vines, but now they were hidden somewhere out there. Every season the brambles and honeycomb encroached, and like an anchorite clearing her grave, she scraped the ground with her bare hands. “One day the plot will be just big enough for my box,” she thought, “and then I’ll have to stop.” She laughed at her own joke to a nearby cat, who didn’t even smile.
Inside the house on the kitchen cabinets were neat rows of pickled vegetables; string beans and carrots in vinegar, lined with herbs and capsicum, all in Mason jars with puffy lids, neatly labeled and in rows. “Some industrious person lived here once,” she thought as she took down the seed jar. She was out back pushing dry beans into the ground when the church van pulled up.
Parking, the young couple grabbed the grocery bags from the back seat, recognizing the vaguely ammoniac smell of cat ladies and mildew. 406 Market was an unusual sort of cat lady, thought the young man. Most wanted to have you in, drink coffee out of questionably clean cups and tell the same stories over and over. They would do anything to make him stay, start crying or beg him to do just one more favor, would he take out the trash and take their dirty sheets off their bed, and don’t just leave the bed all naked, how are they supposed to sleep? Most visits, 406 was nothing but ratty white hair and a hand reaching out and grabbing his bags, cats running out before she slammed the door.
He left his wife in the van and watched her turn the radio off the football game he’d been following. She’d rather be at home or the library, he knew, but she never complained. He knocked on the door of the old house, out of place in the newer suburb, and tried to wait patiently. The milk was already perspiring and losing its chill. He knocked again and shifted his weight, looking back at his wife, who stared out the window, bored of her book. The bags were full of canned food bank goods and were heavy, so he put them down and followed an overgrown path to the back of the house, hoping she’d be out enjoying the last of the warm days. He was looking for a gate to the chain link fence when he spotted a small pink object on the edge of the property. Kneeling to pick it up, he saw it was a baby doll, incongruous with the old house and near a rift in the fence. Holding the doll, he crawled through the brambles, itchy and half dead and gone to seed.
She pinched the beans in her finger parsimoniously and pushed them into the ground one by one. She tried to make sure they went in, leaning down laboriously, and putting her palm flat over the ground. The beans were the same color as the dried clay and it made it hard to see them. She thought she remembered straight rows, neat rectangles of vines. She was lost in this recollection, fighting for it, when she heard a rustling behind her.
He stood in her yard shamelessly holding the little baby by one arm, down by his side. The look on his face was inscrutable to her as he looked over the yard. Behind her a dead tree leaned perilously onto a power line and trash was strewn about. The yard smelled like a dead animal. He stepped toward her cautiously, putting his hand out to the wild-eyed woman. She did not advance to the figure holding the baby, but knelt down and grabbed some ominous flinty thing from the grass.
Had he not been raised in the country, he might not have recognized it in time, and as he turned and ran she took what aim she could. The sound of the van peeling off echoed in her head and she ran, hobbling back to the house, locking the door behind her. She hid behind the door and waited. All that night as cats and possums feasted at hear doorstep, she huddled motionlessly– listening for the exotic danger that lurks outside in the dark, stealing babies and bringing cloven animals to her windows at night.