In the afternoon we go down to the vegetable patch to dig up the cat we buried there. No matter how far down we dig, no trace of the skeleton can be found. How far down do you need to go to find what’s left? How easy it is to forget where exactly things are in the course of time, or else they do not stay where they are put, but keep moving on their way. Last summer the cat lay under the fig tree, panting out its last breath as the ground reached up to draw it down. Burying the cat was our way of helping it on its way.
‘It’ll be decomposed,’ pronounced Dan, who knew about such things. And I imagined it down there somewhere, decomposed, broken into pieces packed tightly in the earth.
We take turns to dig as blisters form on our hands. We give up and squat in the jungle of the cotoneaster instead, collecting snails and throwing them into a tin. We mash them up with berries and picked flowers to make pickles, grinding it all into a disgusting paste with a stick. Just a minute ago they were whole. All the components are still there—the shells and the innards, the berries and flowers—reconfigured now, but with the life ground out of them. How easy it is to do. How fragile and unlucky those snails were.
I crawl out the other side of the bush into the old woman’s yard and climb the steps of her cottage. She is in the living room sitting in a chair while watching television. Her face is colourless and blurred. It’s impossible to imagine what she looked like before when she was young. She gets up from her chair to fetch a glass of water, teetering and shuffling along like a walking toy from a souvenir shop. She pours her medicine powder from a sachet into the glass and gulps it down. This will perk her up. This will put a bit more life back into her. Then she can play a round or two of Donkey with me. I fetch the cards from where I put them last time I was here. Everything has its place in the old woman’s cottage, not that there is much left anymore. Her cottage is nearly as empty as her days. I tell her about the cat we cannot find, and about the pickles that we made. She is lucky to have me, lucky that I come to tell her things and to play Donkey with her some days. I pull faces to make her laugh. She still has some of those left inside her. And then she sings a line or two of a song she once knew, or stumbles upon a memory, and describes it for me so that I can see it in my head too.
‘”All history now,”’ she says, but this is not the history that we learn about at school.
Play gets underway, one hand and then another and another. She always loses and I always win. Time is drawing on until the day is almost over. Outside, it’s getting dark. I’m tired of this game now. We watch television until night comes washing in, stealing away the yard, the dug up vegetable patch, the lemon tree and the cotoneaster. I run home, not that I am scared of what could be there hiding in the dark. It’s just that I want to get through it and home as quickly as I can.
Bath, teatime, television, bed, and then nothing except a page of streetlight on the bedroom wall. The pillow feels cool as my own skin, and draws me on, down into dreams, until I surface once more and it’s morning again, another summer’s day.
The days are long and they are ours. We cycle along the ridge, looking out across the world we will travel one day. We build a fort at the bottom of the yard and then destroy it. We compare scars and squeeze out splinters, then lie on our backs looking up at the sky, feeling the earth turn and time go by.
The next time I go to the cottage the old woman is not in her chair. She’s not in the kitchen either, or at the table where we sometimes play. She calls to me from the bedroom. I gently push the door open, having never seen her in bed before. She’s a small bundle under the blankets, her precious old head on the pillow. I don’t even recognise her anymore. Without her glasses and teeth, she could be any old woman. I guess there will be no Donkey today, and none of that remembering for me to picture in my head. No more singing. She’s used them all up, the last of her laughs and clumsy goodbye hugs now history. Soon her breathing will stop too, I imagine. The quilt and the blankets will no longer move up and down, and that will be that. She’ll be absorbed like the cat when we put her in the ground. And the ground will harden where she is put. And weeds and runners of grass will cover where she was, and then autumn leaves and twigs. And try as we might, digging until we are tired and there are blisters on our hands, until the day fades and winter comes, till we grow tall and thick of limb, and our voices deepen and our memories blur; try as we might, never again will we be able to find her.