Spring 2018 Prose

Twig and Dandelion | Susan Augenbraun

It was a small dinner, as wedding celebrations go, a dozen guests in my mother and new stepfather’s house to toast their union. But the kitchen was still chaos, and the cat slipped out the back door into the darkening suburban night.

I tried calling her name into the twilight. But the cat didn’t know me; why should she come to the sound of my voice? I hadn’t lived in this house in years, and she’d become a fixture only after my time. My new stepfather was the cat lover.

The yard was familiar, though: a small grassy square that had once been a kingdom. A crown of leaves, twig and dandelion for scepter and orb.

A pang shot through my chest. That time was only half-remembered, so shrouded in cobwebby memory that most of the time it wasn’t a part of me. But here, the fading light struck at a particular angle, illuminating the hole this place had left in me.

I closed the door behind me, gingerly, and stepped down into the dewy grass. I was still in my party dress, but had kicked my shoes off somewhere. As though I’d known I would come outside. I had never worn shoes then.

I made one more call to the cat, but she was gone. Perhaps captured. Cats were precious beasts of burden to them, I remembered, though they couldn’t tame them any more than we could. Cats were slippery, moving between the two worlds.

Or maybe she’d be eaten by a coyote. That was the simple explanation when cats disappeared.

I wondered what the simple explanation would have been if I’d disappeared any longer or more permanently than I had. If my mother hadn’t been too busy grieving for my father to notice that I’d stepped out the back door and into another world.

I was ten that summer, and still not quite given up on magic. Any older, I thought later, when I thought about it, and it wouldn’t have happened. But I was still young enough, still small-big enough, to fit through the keyhole.

I stayed for three weeks, though while I was there it might have been months. They put me to work in their kitchens—I’d stepped out of one kitchen door and into another—and so I ate the food. That’s a commonly told story, and it turned out to be true.

They were very much like people, actually, if a little strange about the eyes. There were cliques and rivalries, all of which were alternately stoked and extinguished by the leader. I don’t want to say queen, as that isn’t quite right, no Titania trailing courtiers. More like an executive, despite the imperial symbols, though their business was never quite clear. They made a bit of a pet of me, and laughed when I asked who we were cooking for.

Then one day, the call to arms came. A danger crashing toward their territory, uprooting homes and trampling buildings. It was my mother, looking for me after all.

They laughed aside my cries and arrayed themselves to do battle. I was given a spear and reminded that I’d signed a contract.

Had I? I’d eaten the food.

The weapon was a blade of grass, my helmet a cracked-open nutshell. The walnuts in a bowl on my mother’s kitchen table, looking to my child’s eyes like brains, had been so small.

They had a cat, an old orange tom, battle-scarred. He didn’t seem to mind loading up as transportation, but when he looked at me, I recognized him from our neighbors’ house up the street. I knew he knew me, too. He shook his head, dismayed.

I could hear my mother’s shouts. She was calling my name from a great height. The spears were at the ready.

I shouted and ran before the line, asked them to take me instead.

It was in violation of my contract, it turned out. A court-martial of sorts and back to the big-small world, where I would grow old.

I gripped my mother tighter that day than I had when she’d told me my father was dead. Afterward, she seemed able to begin again. Afterward, I more or less forgot the adventure, along with most of the rest of what I had known at the age of ten.

Except that now, on my mother’s second wedding day, I found myself on my knees in the grass, scrambling, the veil lifted. I wondered if they could recognize me, or if they’d take up arms against me. If they were even still there.

I called again, but this time for them instead of the cat. And I heard an answer, a whistling through the air that was unmistakably a voice. Speaking a language I was too old to understand.

The cat came bounding across the yard to me. Leaves and burrs clung to her back. I brushed them aside and found, spilling into my palm, a tiny half-nutshell and a single blade of grass.