Malos was our family cat. She looked like a mini leopard with big green eyes who would spend hours meticulously washing herself. Each spring, Malos would disappear for days to mate. Eventually she would appear on our doorstep, purring and pregnant. My mother would help her give birth by rubbing her tummy. It was a very nice event at our house.
My mother told me, “You’re big enough now to watch this beautiful ritual.”
My brother, mother, and I went up to the roof where my mother had prepared a blanket for the cat. Being on that roof always made me nervous because of what had happened with the kid next door, but I was determined to take part in what was about to happen.
Malos was in pain because she was about to give birth, and my mother was rubbing her belly and showing my brother and me how to calm the cat’s nerves. My mom was wearing a nurse’s outfit. The cat’s howls terrified us, but after half an hour, wet, slimy creatures started coming out of her and making small squeaking sounds. It was beautiful to see the furry balls rolling around with their eyes closed, while my mother picked each up and identified its gender. At last, the final kitten arrived.
She was half the size of the other ones, which were small enough, but this one was ridiculously small. I noticed right away that Malos was ignoring her. My mother noticed this too, and seemed excited about what was about to happen. She explained to us that the small one was the weakest and was going to become food for the others. I didn’t understand what she meant. “In the cat world,” my mother said, “The mother eats the weakest kitten so she has energy to spend on the rest of the kittens.”
I reached out to warm the shivering kitten in my hands, but my mother yelled, “What are you doing, Atash? If the runt has your scent, the mother won’t eat it.”
“Eat it?” I still didn’t understand.
“Yes, I’ve been explaining this to you for the past twenty minutes. It has to happen this way.”
My brother seemed to understand better than I did. He said to me, “It’s because it’s the weakest one. The weakest one. The runt.”
I felt I had to do something fast. My mother went out of the room to wash the blankets Malos had soiled. I snatched the runt before Malos could tell what was happening and ran as fast as I could down the three stories from our roof to the ground floor and then to the street. I rounded the corner and knocked on the door of our neighbor, an old lady who had always been kind to me.
“Ma’am, please,” I panted. “Will you help me? Please, please, will you help me?”
I showed her what I had in my hand. The runt didn’t even cover the full span of my palm.
“She is the runt,” I said, pronouncing the new word I had learned. “My mother is going to feed her to her mother because the weak ones feed the strong ones so the strong ones have energy to live. But I don’t want any of that. Will you take her and make her strong too?”
The old lady had a sad look on her face. “Without her mother, she might not survive,” the old lady said. But she took the runt and wrapped her in a towel and brought her inside.
By the time I got back to our building, my mother had only just reached the ground floor, breathless, thanks to her smoking habit. She knew right away what had happened.
“Where is the runt?” she screamed.
“I lost her,” I lied. “I dropped her and she ran away.”
“Ran away? She couldn’t even walk!”
“She did. And now she’s gone.”
My mother looked at me with contempt. “Six kittens and a mother now might die because of what you’ve done. There is a natural order of things, Atash. You can’t change that.”
But I did.
For months, I watched as the neighbor fed the runt drops of cow’s milk. She will become as big as a cow, I hoped. I also visited Malos on the roof every day and asked her for forgiveness. “I know those are the rules, Malos joon,” I said, “But sometimes we have to change the rules.” Malos heard me and yawned in approval.
The old lady and I became friends. Every day, I would visit her and she welcomed me as I was one of her own grandchildren. She gave me Persian cookies while I tidy the runt’s little nest or if I built her a new house made of cardboard and newspaper and cotton balls. I noticed that the runt was growing a lot more slowly than the other kittens were, but little by little, her voice changed from small squeaks to big feline meows. After six months, the old lady would let the runt play with me in her garden. Soon the runt was roaming the neighborhood as the other cats did.
The runt ran into Malos in our garden one day. Malos’ fur stood on end and she looked as though she’d seen a ghost. But the runt just turned around and went to the other side of the garden. She now was bigger than her mother. “Wow, look at this beautiful new cat who showed up,” my mother and brother said. Their cluelessness made me giggle and just like the runt, I knew I could grow up and become bigger than my mother.
Copyright of Atash Yaghmaian, 2019
I'm a licensed clinical social worker with two decades of experience working in New York City public schools and providing social and emotional support for urban youth, immigrants, and their families. I'm Director of Wellness and founding member of Harvest Collegiate, a progressive public high school in Manhattan, where I also train social workers. In my private practice, I treat adults through a mixture of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and Reiki. In my spare time I write literary nonfiction.