Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight

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Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight. Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768.
By ROSIE PASQUALINI

1. They ate and grew hungrier for it. Between meals the girls worked to neaten. To make pretty. But they had done it all before. The great armchair they dusted was barer than skin. The dishes they washed were born clean. Each edge was soiled in the holding.

Some days the girls got dressed up. Pretended they were going somewhere. Their dresses were brighter than their faces and twice as beautiful. The fabric felt the way a cloud looked. Unless Edith and Eva leaned the wrong way. Then their breaths faltered like wind growing stale. Then their cheeks tingled with decay. Stand up straight, said the silk, or drop dead. And so they lived on the verge of panic. Sisters of eleven and twelve. Trapped in the sweet nausea before a dream becomes a nightmare.

That evening they lit a candle. They sat at the table with their dolls. Edith pinned down a slew of plastic hair with a bow but the curls popped up one-by-one like grass unfurling after a storm.

“I wish there was enough for a braid,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be nice.”

Eva said nothing. She was watching the candle burn. The wax formed an eyeless socket. Oozing orange. The older girl followed its light out the window where an anonymous glow set the moon on fire. She smiled. The shadows sharpened her teeth.

Edith cleared her throat. “Wouldn’t that be nice.”

“I’m starving,” said Eva.

“We just had dinner.”

“Father told me there’s caramel apples.” She tasted the roof of her mouth. Probed the sores. The tender spots. “I could eat a whole one. Or five.”

“Could not,” said Edith. “And besides, if you ate all those sweets, who would marry you?”

Eva swallowed hard. Her own doll lay abandoned at one corner of the table. Its fingers were poised over the abyss. Arched without a care. Expecting to be saved.

She leaned left. Knocked the toy down. Listened for the thud. Its magnitude was mangled in the carpet and only a tremor remained. A soul-stirring memory of motion.

Then came the yelp.

Human, almost.

She leaned down and resurfaced with a kitten.

For an instant they faced each other. Its vertebrae pressed against her palm. She saw that it was dappled like autumn. It had a white belly. Its tail flickered against her wrist where her veins branched out. She saw its tongue. Saw taste buds receding into smooth pink. One ear reached tall. The other loped sideways. Little puffs of fur rose from the cavernous insides. Pulling in sound. At one point this animal had no fur. She remembered. Its eyes were sealed like buds. She remembered. The first thing it saw was an everything blur and that mind-shattering blast of color lived now in the flesh.

“Um,” said Edith. “That one’s Clayton.”

“I know which is which. Let’s dress him up.”

2. “What are you doing?”/ “Dressing him up.”/ “You’re hurting it.”/ “He likes it. He’s purring.”/ “They do that if they’re scared, too.”/ “No they don’t.”/ “Yes they do.”/ “No they don’t. Here, you try.”/ “I don’t want to hurt it.”/ “Just try.”/ “No.”/ “Just try. See. Isn’t it funny.”/ “A little. It’s a little funny.”/ “It’s very funny, Edith.”/ “Alright. It’s funny.”

3. When Father came home he yelled and pinched the candle out. Eva lit a new one at midnight. She crept from her bed and went downstairs. She killed with velocity the warmth that rose from the valleys of her body. She found the only caramel apple. Under the sweet crust there was a bruise. She took a full bite-- crrrrunch-- and prayed no one had heard. She looked at the furniture. At the armchair which in darkness adopted a predatory air. At the painting arranged delicately over peeling wallpaper. She looked at these things and then at herself.

Blood was running down her leg.

A whimper dribbled from her mouth.

The candle escaped her grasp.

The light, it multiplied.

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