In my memory, she said to me, “Let me go into the garden with my kitten.”
“There is a chill in the air. Perhaps today is not a good day,” I replied.
“Enough of this prattle. Ye’ know as well as I, the thing inside my head grows daily and eats away my strength. My eyes grow dim and my fingers scarce can hold the pen to write my simple verses. Let me go out in the sun, if it pleasures me.”
No amount of coaxing could dissuade her. She spoke the truth, though I could not face it, much less speak it aloud. The physician had pronounced her impending death not a fortnight ago.
How could I deny the child? Any afternoon the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and cast even a little warmth and sunshine into the garden, it was her bequest to sit outside by the vine-covered wall. I would bundle her in a knitted quilt, pull her cap close upon her black curls and tuck a pillow behind her back. She would scribble her verses with paper and pencil while her kitten played at her feet. His pouncing upon imaginary beasts brought a smile to her pale face and often I heard her laugh at his playful antics.
Two weeks ago, the sun barely peeked from behind the clouds that threatened rain before nightfall and my plea to forgo her afternoon dalliance in the sun fell on defiant ears. She knew her days were numbered and wished only to enjoy the small pleasure she derived from her daily visit to the garden.
I could not deny the child, but thinking on it today, I wish I had prevailed in my argument. Perhaps I might be plying her with cookies and hot chocolate, but instead…I relented on that fateful day. After seeing her bundled warmly and her kitten at her feet, I returned to my sewing, peeking often from behind the curtain, to make sure she wanted nothing.
Her cries brought me rushing to the garden. The child frantically called her kitten’s name and not having the strength to stand, she had fallen to the grass where she lay weeping. I rushed to her and between her sobs, she bade me look for Kitten. She pointed toward the garden wall where he had jumped to the top and disappeared on the other side.
I unlocked the garden gate onto the street. A farmer stood nearby, anxiously twisting his hat. “I beg pardon, miss, ‘tweren’t me fault. The kit leapt from yonder wall directly in me’ ‘orses’ path. Betimes I cud’ stop the beast, he had trod upon the kit. Me’ apologies, miss, I fear the kit is dead.”
Tears stung my eyes and my hands were cold as ice as I gathered the dead kit in my shawl. “‘Twas not to be helped, sir. God speed. I’ll tend the kit.”
Life had dealt most unkindly to my little mistress, leaving her motherless and ill, with little to brighten her sad life save the kit. Now it, too, had been taken from her. In desperation, I considered, should I return through the garden gate with the poor dead thing, where my little charge still lay weeping on the grass, or ask the gardener to hide its mangled body from the child? The latter seemed the better choice and I flew ‘round the house, until I found old Tom, who tended the flowers in the child’s beloved garden.
“Tom, come quickly! I have great need of you!”
“What is t’trouble, miss? Ye’ sound like - What have ‘ye there, miss, the child’s kit?”
“I fear he’s jumped the garden wall and run afoul of horse and wagon. Here, take it and bury it quickly, before she sees him. I must run to her. She knows already and is weeping in the garden.”
I ran to the grieving child, dreading to tell of the kitten’s death. She had found the strength to rise and was lying in her chair with her blanket, her pencil in her hand. Had her face not been as white as a winter snowdrift and her eyes brilliant with recent tears, one might not have guessed her heart was breaking.
“Martha, please take me in now. My hand is weary and my head hurts.”
Her small voice held no trace of the expected sadness. She asked no questions about the kitten and I volunteered nothing. She took to her bed and ate nothing, despite cook’s efforts to tempt her with her favorite pudding.
The days passed thus; she declined to rise from her bed and each day little nourishment passed her lips. Though the weather was fine and I asked daily if she wished to go into the garden, she shook her head and turned her face to the wall. I feared the end must be near and alerted the doctor of her decline.
The doctor’s face was grave as he left her room. He pressed a small bottle of dark liquid into my hand. “This will ease her pain. Give her a spoonful when she cries out. It should last until-” What a small bottle it was.
Cook and old Tom came often to her room, telling poor jokes to make her laugh. Tear-filled eyes made lies of the smiles on their lips.
Two days ago, she seemed a bit more chipper and surprised us all with a better appetite. She asked if she might go into the garden.
“It’s too chilly today,” I said. “You’ll catch your death of cold.”
“No matter. What difference whether I should die of cold or wait until death comes to claim me slowly, for surely before the leaves fall from the trees, I’ll be as cold as my mother in her grave.”
“Don’t speak so. I’ll not hear of it. God rest your blessed mother. She looks down from Heaven and watches over you every day. The color has returned to your cheeks. Even as you speak, your countenance brightens. Surely you are on the mend at last.”
And thus it was that we carried her to the garden and placed her by the garden wall in a bright patch of sunshine where she began to write verses on her tablet.
Within an hour, I returned to check on her and found the tablet lying on the ground beside her chair. I touched her hand and felt the chill of death. I heard the creaking hinges on the garden gate and turned toward it. Though it is always locked and only I possess the key, it stood wide open…
News of her death spread quickly among the household staff. Though stricken by her loss, we are comforted by the words written on her tablet. She wrote thus:
On days past, I heard my mother’s voice, “Come through yon garden gate and bide with me.”
‘No,’ I replied, ‘I want to play with Kitten.’
Kitten heard my mother calling and he climbed beyond the wall…
Today she calls to me again. “Kitten and I are waiting. Come, child, come and bide with us.”
I would like to see my kitten once again…..........
Perhaps beyond the garden wall, she plays amongst the flowers with her kitten and her mother by her side. Who am I to judge? I would not deny the child.