Bent Willows: Ⅱ
Granny Kanipe feeds the cat
By: Eric Griggs
The old woman wondered if she had overslept.
Reaching across the quilt to the spot where Gert had once lain, she smiled and patted the feather pillow. Its blue ticking still held a faint trace of her scent, even after so many years alone — at least she thought it did. Perhaps memory filled in the blanks; yearning had a way of playing tricks on her.
By divvying up chores according to interest and ability, they made a most cooperative pair. To everyone in town they were handy “spinsters”.
In semi-regular letters, her brother would fret. He doubted she could survive long without a husband and never missed an opportunity to remind her of the fleeting nature of youth and beauty. He was right about her looks, but could not have been more mistaken about the need for matrimony.
Very few tasks actually necessitated the brute strength of a man; for these, they found a way to barter. Always shrewd, Hattie’s wiles blossomed and grew over time. She found it amusing that so many other things kept right on growing too — her nose, her ears, and her luxurious locks of silvery hair. Guile stepped in when beauty fled; truth be known, he was a far better provider.
The Kerry cow had been Gert’s most singular pride and joy. She never seemed to mind rising before the sun to milk, so great was her affection for that cow.
Where Gert was a lark, Hattie had been a night-owl. How fondly she remembered the way Gert’s nose would twitch now and then, briefly punctuating her gentle snore. Hattie kept watch over the wee hours, tunneling through her precious books. Exhausted, she would climb into their cozy iron bed.
Though reluctant to bid farewell to the night, Hattie met each morning with incredible stores of freshened resentment. This particular morning, however, she held no such grudge. The dull aching in her arms, for days an obstacle, somehow now abated. She rose with a remarkable lightness for a biddy of ninety-one.
Donning a barn coat and boots, she struck a match to light the kerosene lantern. Hattie slid her seven-shot Colt into her pocket and, grabbing the pail, steadily made her way to the barn.
She inhaled the sweet perfume of the honeysuckle climbing the crooked barn.
“Mornin’ ol’ gal,” the woman croaked, feeling for the nail where she hung her lamp.
The cow shuffled in anticipation, mooing softly and scratching her hide against the wooden walls of the stall.
Hattie grabbed a fat handful of alfalfa and another of corn cobs. She dunked the cobs in the rain barrel and buried them beneath the hay in a trough by the stanchion.
The cow trotted, practically danced, straight to the milking frame the instant she released the catch. A moment later, Hattie had the cow safely secured. Gently speaking and stroking its sides, she worked her way around to the stool.
Content, the old cow chomped away.
“Att’a girl. Good gal, Bess,” Hattie repeated, lowering herself into place.
With a wet sponge and some of her own handmade soap, she gently washed the cow’s teats. Carefully, she dried the udders and, with a piece of weathered twine, she tied together the tail and back leg.
Hattie got awfully tickled the first time she witnessed this clever move.
That day, Gert plopped herself down on the stool. With hands nimble as a stage magician, she neatly secured the animal’s tail.
“What on Earth?” Hattie wondered aloud and moved in for a closer look.
“If’n yeh don’ lash down the fly-swat,” Gert explained, “‘’twill be your own rosy cheeks she’ll clobber.”
This was one of thousands of times the two would rollick together in laughter. In tandem they cackled, tears streaming down their weathered cheeks, all the while gripping their bellies against joyous heaves and guffaws.
Hattie knotted her long hair out of the way, mopping a few stray tears in the process. Bits of residual laughter and a fair portion of grief comprised the salty drops. Most things seemed a little bittersweet these days.
Four and a half decades they faced the world together, united by a sense of hilarity and a shared hatred for many other things too.
Old Bess reminded her of Gert the most . . . well, almost the most.
Their ragged cat was a constant memento. He’d been around for neigh-on twenty years, yet rarely failed to make the early matinée. He was the lone feline spectator to her long-running milkmaid revue.
The pair never could agree on a proper name for him and so, in their lassez-faire fashion, settled on “Cat” for use in joint conversation. Alone, Hattie addressed him as “Aloysius” while Gert cycled through a parade of various honorifics.
Hattie tried in vain to recall the last title Gert had bestowed on “Cat” before dysentery took her on to be with God.
Many things seemed to escape her memory lately. Only one intimately familiar with her lightning-fast intellect would notice any slowdown. Gert would have noticed, but would not have cared. Each one of Hattie’s flaws was a lovable eccentricity as far as she was concerned.
She blew out the lantern flame. After so many years, her muscles moved as much from habit as any conscious thought.
She led Bess to the pasture, patted her soundly on the rump, and left her to graze in the dewy grass.
Dawn broke crimson as it had the day before. Soon the church bells would peal, beckoning the faithful.
Sundays were Hattie’s favorite and she could often be spotted in a back pew. Mainly she went for the singing; the new Fanny Crosby tunes were her special treat. Gert would come too, when the mood struck.
They did not hold with all of the Methodist beliefs, but the church folk made them feel a part of the community just the same. Most were friendly to Gert and Hattie, and never asked impertinent questions.
Hattie closed the gate and turned back to face home.
“Aloysius” sped on ahead, stopping every few feet to meow. He reminded the old woman of his daily wages; fresh milk was a bargain price for an expert rat-catcher.
She felt the gentle breeze blowing in from the south and tipped her head back to undo her hair.
All at once, she felt euphoric.
A cold sweat formed across her brow and she felt short of breath.
She was not frightened, she . . .
Suddenly, there was Gert standing at the back door!
Hattie grinned hard and wide.
“Hire him!” she seemed to shout.
“What? Hire who? I . . . I don’t understand.”
“No silly,” her lover replied, now at her side.
Gert’s hair smoldered the same deep auburn it had decades ago.
“Hyrum, that’s the name I’m partial to. ‘Course now . . . he don’t come round to that ‘un neither . . . haughty old cat.”
“Oh yes, that’s right!” Hattie softly answered. Her cornflower-blue eyes twinkled, suggesting another laughing fit would soon follow.
They joined hands and made their way back home together.
“Cat” settled down on his tawny haunches, lapping up the windfall.
First he drank the puddles of milk that formed atop the rocky soil; later he finished off the remains in the dented pail.
It was late afternoon before Reverend Thomas stopped by. Hearing no answer to his knock, he ventured out back to find the stiffening corpse of Granny Kanipe.
He was struck almost dumb by the singular expression on the old woman’s face: peaceful and strangely happy with no trace of loneliness about her.
None at all.
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